Can friendship exist in the contemporary world? If so, how? If not, when did friendship die or did it ever live? And what was or is it made of? Is it similar or different from friendship in the past? How? Why? And what about Jewish friends? And/or Latin American or Latino friends? And how can you love a friend you can’t stand? And how can you stand a friend you love? And how do you navigate your friendship when at least one of you has a wife (a Puerto Rican one at that) and the other is either a lonely man desperately seeking the love of women, or, as the wife would have it, a serial predator always seeking to exploit as many women as he can? And what does all this have to do with the creation and transformation of Latino Chicago? These and other questions are those explored in Marc Zimmerman’s new book LACASA Chicago’s fourth volume of literary creation, Martín and Marvin: A Chicago Jewish Mexican, His Friend and their Latin worlds. El BeiSMan publishes some excerpts from the part 1 of he novel: "The Life and Loves of Martín".
Soon after Marvin first met Martín, he soon realized that he had found some one who might well become his closest friend in the city and perhaps in his life. They had much in common, both being Jewish, divorced and over-weight, and in varying degrees intellectuals who could discuss a wide range of things political and artistic. However it became more and more obvious to Marvin that one of Martín’s most winning and at times infuriating qualities was his apparent success with women.
Martín was having a regular, long-term affair with one woman while he was dating another. Then too, Marvin learned there were past and potentially future lovers who called or visited his friend during the course of a week. He was always meeting new women, always arranging dates and even trips with them, and Marvin even noted that Martín never had to pay for them—that they paid their own way and didn’t seem to mind. Which of course gave him more money to invest in seeking and courting other women.
But what was Martín’s secret? He was extremely fat, dressed shabbily and had a strikingly large head and reddish face; and though he felt and claimed he was as Mexican as could be, he was Jewish Mexican and looked like a stereotyped long-nosed member of the tribe meant more for buying and selling than for romance and erotic delights. What then were the keys to his apparent success with women? Why was he so apparently happy, living from encounter to encounter and orgasm to orgasm, while he, Marvin, sat alone in his apartment too lonely and miserable to write an article let alone a story, only venturing out of his cave to seek Dulcinea, going despairingly to social events, parties, and low life bars where he would sit for hours waiting for something to happen which hardly ever did, and then returning home lonely, frustrated, and despondent. But even when his efforts failed and Martín had to return home alone, he seemed not to mind. “Life is a struggle for heterosexual men,” he said. “Only the gays can come close to guaranteeing their luck on a given night out.”
Marvin decided he had to do what he had once done once before with a certain degree of success—study the ways of a successful lady’s man and try to learn from him; engage him in conversations that would lead him to say the things he should say, observe and then practice the man’s strategies and tactics as they might apply to his own frustrating pursuit of happiness.
Of course, Martín had his qualities and it was easy enough to see them. He was after all a physician, and one whose limited income could be explained by the fact that he dedicated his practice to the poor. In his bathroom, Marvin noted, Martín had placed a telltale sign, “Trust me, I’m a doctor”—and what could that be but a rather humorous and ironic invitation to a friendly bed? Surely, lonely, vulnerable women felt more secure and relaxed with a doctor. But beyond that, Martín was a man of culture, who read Latin American fiction constantly, and who in fact wrote stories—who had many fine pictures in his apartment and who in fact drew, painted and collaged images of his own. This was especially attractive, Marvin surmised, because Martín was above all a doctor engaged with the real world. So too was it attractive in our day and age that a doctor should also be so refined.
As if to make matters still easier for Marvin, Martín seemed willing to tell him as many secrets as he could himself understand and articulate. “My way with women,” he said, “is based on the assumption that all women want to make love and have lovers as much as men. Sex drive is one thing,” he added, “but the truth is, most women are terrified of being alone; and sooner or later, they will bed with a man rather than spend another night by themselves. The real secret,” he said, “is patience and sympathy. More than anything, I offer them friendship, a shoulder to cry on, some one to discuss their past disappointments—the betrayals of their husbands and lovers, the crises they confront as they grow older and fear they’re losing their looks, to say nothing of their growing aches and pains. I am always ready to seduce them, but in fact I simply create the conditions for them to seduce me.”
“When I meet a new woman, what do I say? ‘I’ve met a wonderful woman, a very interesting person, charming, lovely, sincere’—whatever words seem most appropriate. I never overtly consider them as sex objects, I never go on and on about their bodies, and I rarely go after them sexually until they have already decided that no matter how fat, ugly and cheap I might seem, they will indeed bed with me.
“Why is it that they travel with me? Why is it that they pay to be with me? That they pay for their own movies and their own trips to Cairo? Of course, they want to travel but don’t want to go alone. Of course they think I’m cheap and curse me a thousand times when their credit cards come due. But you should see how they respond when, after not paying for anything, I indicate that I’ll indeed pay for one thing or another—or do what I hardly ever do: buy them a gift. Paying their own way maintains their illusion of freedom—that they’re not obligated, that they’re with a friend and not one of those animals who always have sex on their minds, that they are free to say no. And in fact they always say no, but sooner or later most of them say yes.”
Of course, Martín often did give the women in his life something—a little drawing or collage, a little trinket from a trip he’d taken, probably with some one else. “But one thing you don’t seem to understand, Marvin, you have to be able to dance. I’m no wonderful dancer, I don’t have any fancy moves, but I always smile when I dance and I’m always there to dance with. And women have to dance, they need to exercise their bodies in rhythm or they turn bitter and angry. Men who can’t dance wilt on the tree of life. Women must dance, and in the long run, they reward their partners.”
“Then too,” Martín said, “the only way to pursue women is to have a woman. The chase doesn’t work if you’re sexually frustrated, lonely and lost. Nothing makes it easier to court a woman than another one in the bag. Then you can go about your business with calm and without all that sexual tension. And by the way in most cases at least it doesn’t really hurt if they know you have another friend. It makes you seem less dangerous, less a burden, a threat or future problem. Sometimes you can talk to them about your problems with your other girlfriend, and they often jump to the girlfriend’s defense, put themselves in her place and get indignant about your machismo, your insensitivity. They even tell me how to set things right; but really once they’ve put themselves in her place; they’ve virtually put themselves in my bed.
And of course a little wine didn’t hurt in all this. “A little bit of dancing, a bottle of wine and ‘my gosh, I don’t know what happened. I must have had too much to drink. Now you know this changes nothing.’ And so it goes, as they fall into the net only to get out when I want them to.” And in fact it seemed true that the greatest difficulty Martín faced was not getting in but getting out of a relation once he was in. It was very difficult, he sweated much, he despaired. Once caught, these fish didn’t want to be thrown back into the water—it was all too cold and lonely, Marvin judged from his own life experience. Instead they finally accepted a provisional distancing, they would see him less often. They wouldn’t travel with him. But often he saw them and yes sometimes he caught them backsliding. Once a member of his harem, they wished to remain available even after they’d found new and perhaps more attractive and nicer lovers. Eventually they would see what a bastard he was, curse him out, and swear never to be with him again, only later to appear at one of his parties, and then, it sometimes turned out, drink too much and stay over night after all. And then what could Martín do? He didn’t want to insult them? They were after all his friends. And so many who seemed to have moved on, reappeared once again and lingered, at least for a time.
Marvin concluded too that Martín had to be a wonderful lover, so the women were so eager to repeat their indiscretions once they’d crossed the line. Whatever the truth was, Martín always denied this. “Don’t think I’m so fantastic in bed. I’m old, I’m out of shape, and I’m not so big where it counts, but I do have my techniques. I know women need to be tongued and mouthed. Your mouth is a key weapon. You have to be a real lesbian for full success. You have to love the clitoris, you have to go after it, nurse it—suck, tongue and milk it! But in the midst of it all, they’ll die to return the favor, they want to stuff your penis in their mouths draw it down their throats till they almost choke, and then they want it in their vaginas. They want to feel your desire but they want you to erupt with their eruption. You have to think of art or politics or unpleasant medical procedures. And only think of their bodies out of the smallest corner of your brain, only think of them until the final rhythms move toward climax and then you have to be truly there. And you have to fully, truly love all this, and believe me not all men do—at least they don’t let on they do. But I do, and in gratitude my affection grows—and so does theirs.”
“Above all,” Martín insisted, “it’s important to maintain a sense of optimism, that no matter how terrible things may be in life, a trip or an erotic adventure is in the offing, that life is worth living, and you’re a pathway to life. A woman wants to smile at the future, wants to have at least the illusion that all is not over for her. It doesn’t matter if she’s a grandmother, she wants the possibility of love and passion.”
Of course, as he grew older into his seventies, Martín seemed to have fewer partners and perhaps less success. He thanked a god he didn’t believe in for the invention of Viagra and Cialis. But he still became depressed by his loss of libido, and above all the death which as a doctor he could almost measure in its coming. All this stirred him on to continued adventures, even as they slowed him down. But were these adventures imaginary or real, or some strange combination of the two? Alone or not, he obsessively travelled each year with the idea of finishing off his bucket list before dying. “Make the list big so you’re sure to live a long life,” Marvin suggested. But Martín knew that while his imagination went far, his feet had their limitations. The trips became harder and less frequent, as he struggled to keep pace with the other tourists, as he walked toward and through one venue or another.
And it was true that as his feet tired, he was less enthusiastic about long trips, or even cruises of one length or another; and he tended to settle on San Miguel de Allende as the ideal place that a retiring Jewish-Mexican doctor with artistic and literary interests such as he should consider. Marvin warned him of being an old man alone on the streets of San Miguel, only mixing with other stray bachelor or widower Jews with artistic pretensions, trying to paint but waiting to die alone, with only a poor woman only sleeping with him for the money it brought in for her kids, and without a rabbi in sight. But Martín insisted he would not be lonely. His big problem, he claimed, was how he would deal with the latest women (marvelous women, he insisted) who were fully part of his life—a Mexican waitress named Elvira and the wonderful actress, Susan Sarandon. Such was the wonderful craziness of what turned out to be his friend’s last years.
The lovely Mercedes had trouble with Martín’s brother and his film buddies in Mexico, embarrassing and exasperating Martín by her inability to form a critical judgment or find ways to make their Mexican times as rich as possible. Not winning the friendship or respect of Martín’s cosmopolitan Mexican relatives embittered Mercedes but made her cling all the more to her Chicago working class roots, as opposed to the rootless cosmopolitanism of the film and art people (most of them fellow Mexican Jews) who inhabited his Mexican world.
Increasingly Martín turned against her. She was pretty but as boring a traveling companion as Melva. “I can’t long stand Jewish American women like my ex and so many more, so full of themselves, so narcissistically wrapped up in their own petty lives. But at least they read and argue, whereas these Latina women are total victims of their sexist upbringing. They daren’t read or have a decent thought. Only Lena has qualities I can admire, but she ruins it all with her hysteria. More and more, I see Mercedes as a Chicana/Latina version of Melva—prettier, more vivacious, but without a real opinion or intellectual interest in life. My brother was amazed at how vapid she was—so much a victim of the cultural deracination provided to working class Mexicans in this city and, as far as I can see, the whole damned country.
So increasingly, Martín tried to abandon Mercedes and seek the company of other women—a long series of women he knew only as bedmates, and then one very special one, América. América was the most cultured and charming Mexican woman in Chicago. Her Sephardic Argentine father had provided her a fine education in Mexico. She had gone to the best schools studied dance, and dreamed of being a dancer. Beautiful and intelligent, with cascading black hair, lovely hips and sense of style that made men swoon, she dated one gifted intellectual after another, finally marrying Mario Weiner, then an up-and-coming Mexican historian and soon to become one of the best historians of his generation. Of course that took a lot of work, and América grew restless. She wanted to dance, so she didn’t finish her graduate work in Political Science, and divorced Weiner to dance with others, entering the diplomatic corps, and finding a key niche for herself as the Cultural Attaché of the Consulate in Chicago. From that post, she worked with all kinds of community groups and artists to bring important cultural figures to the city. One night, she accompanied Carlos Fuentes or Carlos Monsivaís or Plácido Domingo or Octavio Paz or Ofelia Medina, or … Jacobo Klein. Inevitably she became a friend of Martín and of Marvin, who worked with her on bringing Mexican figures to his university. Mercedes complained more and more about Martín’s many evenings with América, but he simply argued that it had to do with his role on the city’s Mexican event committee. She suspected otherwise, for what man would not be drawn to the glamorous and stunning cultural attaché? And of course she was right.
Came the time when Mario Weiner was visiting Chicago, and América escorted her ex-husband to a series of events culminating with a dinner at Marvin’s house. On the night in question, Marvin and his wife invited América, her ex and Martín to have dinner at their home. Martín said he’d a prior date with Mercedes and asked if he might bring her along. Marvin reluctantly concurred, though he anticipated some possible friction and problems. Sure enough, the evening took a turn for the worse when Amelia’s brother Nathaniel, realizing that Weiner was some kind of expert on the issue at hand, asked him to explain to him, a Puerto Rican seeking a better understanding, what was Mexico, who were the Mexicans and what made the country and people click. Nothing seemed easier for an expert to answer—and of course Weiner got caught up in his subject and spoke brilliantly for hours, while the rest of those present listened in rapt attention but also drank drink after drink. It was hard to sense when it happened, but at a certain moment in all of this when Mercedes began to breathe heavily and quite obviously; she seemed more than a little disturbed, perhaps angered and certainly drunk, ready to speak out against what she seemed to sense as an insult to her and her sense of identity.
And so it was, after a series of sighs and no’s that she broke the ice herself, saying, “You Mexican intellectuals think you know everything when you’re just a bunch of elitist come-mierdas—shit-eaters—who know nothing. Because I know, I know what it is to come here and go through all we go through here and take all the insults and then find out that Mexicans treat us worse the Anglos. And the fact is, yo si soy mexicana, yo si se que es ser mexicana de verdad.”
América tried to calm her down, and play out her role as attaché, but Mercedes would have none of it. “You don’t have to talk down to me, Madame Cultural whatever it is you are. I know who I am and I know who you are too. You can fool Marvin and Martín but you can’t fool me. I wasn’t even invited here, and I only came to see you in action and now I know that you, your ex and maybe your future ex too, are all of hijos de puta—sons of bitches—feeling so high and mighty when you’re nobody!” This said, she took another drink and as Martín moved to calm her, she shouted him off. “Don’t patronize me, Martín. I know you when you’re trying to get rid of a woman. I’ve seen you do it before and I knew my day was coming soon. But I never thought you’d do it this way. But why not? You’re a bastard, all you fancy Mexicans are bastards—especially the ones with those foreign last names, so why not just tell me to go home.” At this point América and her ex expressed their need to leave, and made their excuses expressing their apologies if they had said something to offend and as smoothly as possible moving to the door and down the stairs.
Meantime Martín sought to calm down Mercedes, who was now crying and screaming at him. Amelia, Nathaniel and Marvin didn’t know what to do, but offer their friends a glass of water, a cup of coffee, but Martín waived them off. I’ll take her home, he said, “It’s been a long day.” And with great efforts, he got her to leave also, apologizing as they made their way down the stairs. Marvin and Amelia picked up the empty glasses and plates, and retired to the kitchen with Nathaniel. “Well,” Nathaniel said, “I guess I learned a lot about the Mexicans tonight.”
For some time, Martín told Marvin he was seeing the waitress-part owner of a small Mexican restaurant where he had been taking lunch some days a week just around the corner from his office. Elvira, he said, was a delightful woman, charming, lovely, full of energy, much younger than Martín, with two small children who began to see him as the father or grandfather of their dreams. “Should I marry her?” he asked, “should I become the father of these children?” Marvin could hardly take him seriously. This was pure fantasy, he thought. And yet the relation seemed to continue, although the questions ceased for a while, as another, more pressing matter came to the fore.
“Marvin,” he called to say. “What’s the problem?” Marvin asked.” “Well, it’s not a problem, but Susan Sarandon is coming Chicago, and she’s called asking me to show her around the city.” “But Martín, what are you talking about?” “Yes,” he said. “My brother got to know her on location in Puerto Vallarta; she said she was coming to Chicago, and he gave her my number to look me up if she wanted a tour of the city.” “Well that sounds fine, Martín, sounds like you’ll have a great day. “Yes,” he said, “but I’m afraid.” “Why, Martín,” because she’s so beautiful, I’m afraid I might fall in love.” “Well don’t do that Martín, she’s been with Tim Robbins for years, and I don’t think she’s quite ready to give that up for an aging and overweight Mexican Jewish doctor from Chicago. “Yes, yes, I know,” he continued, “but I’m nervous and I can’t even figure out where to take her, and if she expects me to pay for everything or…” “Don’t worry, Martín, take her around downtown, the Hancock building, the opera. Take her on Lake Shore Drive all the way to Hyde Park and all the way back to Evanston. Take her to the Barrio Mexicano. Take her to meet Oprah. Ask her what kind of food she’d like, and you choose the spot. Pick up the tab for this too—don’t be too cheap. You know what to do.” “All right,” he said, “but I know all that. I was just thinking she might like something more romantic…” “No, Martín, you don’t want any of that, you’re trying to show her around, not seduce her. Try to be nice and friendly. I know that’s hard for you, but try just to do that without any Don Juan-ish nonsense.”
The next day he called up all excited. “What a wonderful woman, what a sensibility, what charm. How easy to get along with, what pleasure to be with her. They had gone all over, they’d shared drinks and jokes, they’d visited the Mexican museum, they’d eaten in a fine restaurant. And now, he said, they were to meet again and go to a show, and then dinner. Now they would grow more intimate, as the friendship blossomed. “Wonderful, Martín,” Marvin told him. “But don’t fall in love—at the first signs of that, back off, make excuses, break all dates.” “Too late,” he said, “I’m swept away.” “And what about her?” She keeps hinting he said, but she’s not owned up to anything yet. “Look out for Tim Robbins,” Marvin warned, not believing that Susan Sarandon was possibly in love with Martín, nor that Martín really believed it either.
The next day, he called again, this time a bit coy. “Are you sure she’s living with Tim Robbins?” he began. “Yes,” Marvin answered, “they’ve had an understanding for some time.” “Serious, heavy?” he asked, seeking some ultimate confirmation. “So it would seem. I’d be careful what I said and where I went.” “She’s leaving,” he said, “But she’s coming back several times to do a film.” And she says she wants us to be together when she’s here. “My gosh, Martín,” Marvin said. “That’s too bad she’s leaving, Martín, since you get along so well, but maybe it’s best that she’s going so you can get your life back into focus, finish a story, read a book, visit with Elvira…” “Yes,” Martín concurred, “but I’m thinking of her next visit day and night, and I don’t even want to see Elvira.” Martín go and see Elvira,” Marvin responded, “think of the children.” Martín groaned in exasperation.
Marvin heard nothing from Martín for some days. When he called to make a film or swimming date, Martín didn’t return his call. Perhaps, he doesn’t want to hear anything negative about his love-dream, Marvin thought, going about his research and married life. It was some days later when Martín called again to say that the relation with Elvira was in crisis. She wanted his commitment to marry and adopt the children, but he considered himself too old. He was getting ready to leave for San Miguel de Allende, but she convinced him to visit with her parents in Sinaloa and then take her to San Miguel. This presented a real problem because it seems he already had a girlfriend in San Miguel and how could he hide Elvira from her in such a small town?” Of course he could make it up with the girlfriend when Elvira had to go back to Sinaloa to pick up the kids in time to get them back to school. But as much as he loved San Miguel, he wanted to curtail a long stay in that city because Susan might be coming back to Chicago where they were to resume their friendship. Marvin didn’t know what advice to give Martín and even avoided his calls a few days. When he finally did talk to him, it became clear that Martín was committed to maintaining and deepening his relations with all three women.
This maniacal merry-go-round seemed to persist year after year, as Martín began to narrow down his trips to New Delhi, Rwanda and such to maintain his little circuits between Chicago and San Miguel and other points south in Mexico. Over the month after month that followed, he became increasingly cryptic about these relations. It is true he would leak out the word that Susan was coming, and that Elvira was visiting with him at his house or in San Miguel. But matters became extremely strained, complex, and discontinuous.
Finally one day, when Marvin questioned him about Susan Sarandon, Martín shushed him. “Please don’t call her that—her name is Kathy. When she comes to town she wears a bandana that half covers her face.” “Oh Susana,” Marvin sang. “I’m serious,” Martín objected. “She doesn’t want to be seen, doesn’t want any word to get back to Tim Robbins.” Marvin said he quite understood, and tried always to refer to the famous actress as Kathy, but even then Martín wasn’t satisfied. “No,” he said, the actress is Susan Sarandon; the woman who visits me is Kathy—the woman with the bandana.”
At a certain point, early in the new century, Marvin moved from the city to Houston, leaving Martín was angry and hurt, cold and distant. Marvin always invited him to visit, but he always had an excuse—Elvira this and Susan that—he could never seem to come. And Martín never thought to invite Marvin to San Miguel. Marvin would call him several times a week for fairly lengthy conversations. He would travel frequently to Chicago, and they had some fine moments, drinking a morning coffee in Martín’s kitchen before he left for work, meeting for a movie or a swim as in the old days. But Martín would often seem to purposely leave the city when Marvin came to town. He always had something to do, some place to go. He was always off to his lady friend in San Miguel, or staying with Elvira near his office on the Southside or going out with Kathy who was really Susan. Finally, Marvin had it. “Martín,” why don’t you admit it? I’ve never seen Elvira and I’ve never seen Kathy. I don’t think they’re real. Probably the girl friend in San Miguel is real, because you probably pay her for cleaning your apartment and other services,” he said insultingly. “But Kathy and Elvira don’t exist.” Martín laughed softly. “They’re real all right,” he said”—certainly more real than a so-called friend who abandons his so-called friend just to make money in Houston.” “So that’s it!” Marvin explained, “you made up these women just to annoy me and you keep them alive now just to pay me back for having abandoned you to your old age in Chicago.” ”That’s crazy,” Martín insisted, “I want them and so I have them. I took the time to earn them. I’m not like you. I don’t spend months working over a paper that I know is a fraud in the first place, denying myself all the pleasures life can offer. I don’t even spend time with stories written out of my imagination because I’d rather live my life than write it. So I spend my time with real adventures. And the women in my life are real.” “And who are they?” Marvin retorted. “Elvira, Susan, Kathy—” “Mercedes, Elvira, América, Lena—all those you can imagine and name.” And with that, Martín hung up, leaving Marvin in the lurch all the days of his Chicago today.
Marvin came to Chicago for Christmas that year, but hardly saw his friend, who was very grumpy and down. Marvin’s son and family came to visit, and Marvin told him the stories of Elvira and … Kathy. “He’s lying to you, Marvin, ” said his son, who always called him by his first name. “He’s a lonely old man who’s angry first because you got married and second because you’ve moved. He’s hardly chasing women any more, but he’s giving you the big stories because he wishes he wasn’t so alone and without his friend, who’s found love and companionship while he’s stewing in his cultured loneliness. As if he had been listening, Martín called, “Look Marvin, I know you don’t even believe Kathy exists,” Martín said. “Well, you’ve certainly given me doubts,” Marvin answered, and my son has his doubts too. “Then listen,” Martín said, “Kathy and I are going to the movies in Schaumburg, so why don’t you and your son go to the show so you can see Kathy and see that I’ve been telling you the truth all along.” “But why are you going so far away?” Marvin asked with skepticism. “Because Kathy doesn’t want to be seen. She keeps the bandana close to her head. But why don’t you come to see us—please, whatever you do, don’t say hello, just take a look and we can talk later.” “Martín this is crazy, I wouldn’t even see her enough to be sure it’s her.” “You will, you will,” Martín assured him. “Just be sure you get there before the 7 o’ clock show.” Marvin agreed to be there, and hung up. He certainly intended to go—to have done with all the pretense and chicanery. By 6 p.m. it was time to leave, but it had started to snow. “David,” he asked, “do you really want to go so we can see if Martín’s really dating Susan Sarandon?” ”I’m not sure,” his son said. “I think he’s doing this to confirm his great hoax, and I don’t think we should go racing out in the cold to cooperate with him.” “You’re right,” Marvin said, “Fuck him.”
Marc Zimmerman. Emeritus, Latino and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, director Global CASA/LACASA Chicago Books. Commentator and contributor to El BeiSMan.