Oscar Hijuelos had invited me to his New York home.
I’d told myself — and told him several times, too — that I would take him up on his offer one day.
I even allowed myself to imagine us, two generations of Cuban-American writers —he the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction — walking the streets of Manhattan, where he lived when he wasn’t teaching at Duke.
He made me promise to bring pastelitos, Cuban pastries, because he said that even in Union City, N.J., no one made Cuban food the way they do in Miami. Even though we had never met in person, he made me feel like we were extended Cuban family.
I should have taken him up on his offer before it was too late.
But who ever imagines that a man of 62 would just fall over dead while playing tennis?
Hijuelos died of a heart attack Saturday in Manhattan after he collapsed on the court, and he never regained consciousness, his wife told the New York Times. His mother, Magdalena, had lived to 94. But he inherited the constitution of his father, Pascual, who had his first heart attack at 46 before dying at 55, when Hijuelos was a teenager.
I read his obituary several times. My brain wouldn’t let it be true.
I thought about how we’d met, when I interviewed him over the phone in 2009 for the Las Comadres & Friends national Latino book club, where one author interviews another. And I wanted to hear his voice again. So I dug the audio file out of my computer.
It had been 20 years since he’d published his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” He had just written a young adult novel called “Dark Dude,” based on his own feelings of displacement in an American world that didn’t know what to make of a fair-skinned, light-eyed kid born of Cuban parents who only ever felt fully American on the outside.
Yet, he never felt Cuban enough, either—particularly after losing his Spanish. He’d contracted an infection during his first visit to Cuba with his mother when he was 4 and spent months convalescing in a New York hospital far from his Manhattan home where he neither spoke Spanish nor heard it spoken.
He remarked in his memoir, “Memories Without Cigarettes,” that it had been Cuban microbios that stole his Cuban-ness.
“I’m different from a lot of Cuban-American writers,” he told me back then, “in the sense that my frame of reference is detached — and I’m not saying this happily — from the Miami or the South Florida or the New Jersey wrap-around community, which I know can be a pain in the neck but can also be very reassuring.”
All of his books meditated on the search for cultural identity. It shone through in his writing and his personality: Musicians Cesar and Nestor Castillo brushed with American fame but never quite fit in as regular men in “Mambo Kings” (which later became a movie by that shortened name); Hector Santino is haunted by his immigrant parents’ stories of “home” in “Our House in the Last World;” Rico Fuentes added cultural identity to his teen angst in “Dark Dude,” an updated version of “Huckleberry Finn.”
His characters were so real, they leaped off the page. Hijuelos met people who claimed to have met the Mambo Kings he invented.
“I wanted to run with the idea of how reality gets mixed up with fiction,” he’d told me.
I, like him, am an American-born son of Cuban parents, raised a county north of the epicenter of Miami, just outside the nexus of Cuban culture. I knew what it meant to teeter between cultures. He was always jealous that I had authentic pastelitos within driving distance.
This interspace, it bound us, even during that first conversation, when we laughed and learned both our fathers were guajiros, Cuban farmers who’d been raised in the same rural province of Oriente.
His father, Pascual, was a blue-collar man in America, a dishwasher at the Biltmore Hotel who read “El Diario” and the “New York Daily News.” His mother never read an English newspaper until he won a Pulitzer, “then she started collecting everything.”
“I never, never really thought I would turn out to be a writer,” he had said. “I had an inner image that I was always fighting with about my parents, who were not very bookish.”
We became pen pals and chatted on the phone. After he read my book, “Take Me With You: A Secret Search For Family In A Forbidden Cuba,” he sent me a note I’ve always held onto.
“I really want to thank you for your beautiful heartfelt book,” he wrote. “What a great family you have, and your portraiture of Havana and beyond I found very moving.”
“Te quiero mucho, hombre,” he told me that first time we spoke. And he always closed his letters urging me to visit him in Manhattan.
He invited me to study under him at Duke — only a pipe dream for a father of three young children. But because we are Cuban — because we are used to visiting this land that remains far away because of politics and family pain — we often make trips in our mind.
Thanks to Oscar’s invitation, I will always be able to visit him.