Have you ever moved into a house or apartment and felt the presence of those who lived there before you? Whether or not you believe in ghosts, it’s natural to wonder about the signs left behind, even if it’s only to be baffled by the wallpaper.
In “The Apartment,” by Ana Menéndez, such curiosity blooms into an evocative and emotionally powerful novel. Its chapters could stand alone as short stories, but Menéndez links them by setting all of them in the same place, Apartment 2B in the Helena, a two-story building on Miami Beach. Within that nondescript two-bedroom, one-bath unit in a building that went up in the early 1940s, amid one of the up cycles of Florida’s perpetual booms and busts, she sets some of the most dramatic moments of her characters’ lives.
Menéndez, who was born in Cuba, knows the territory, having lived in Miami on and off throughout her life. Her career has alternated between globe-trotting journalism, most recently as a columnist for the Miami Herald, writing fiction and teaching creative writing. She’s currently an associate professor at Florida International University and has often been on the faculty of the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
“The Apartment” is her fifth book of fiction, and like the first four it looks at the experiences of immigrants, exiles and refugees.
After a brief idyllic prologue set in the precolonial past, where an Indigenous woman gathers turtle eggs on the wild barrier island that will, a few centuries later, be Miami Beach, the book moves to 1942. Sophie Appleton is a young bride from Texas, brimming with enthusiasm for setting up her own household and madly in love with Major Jack Appleton.
The Helena, so new it’s not quite finished, has become officers’ quarters, and Sophie happily spends her time decorating 2B while Jack is training recruits. At first, it all seems like a grand adventure. “Up and down the stairs of the Helena: Everyone a transplant from somewhere else; everyone united in the war effort.”
But the war’s consequences creep closer, first in Jack’s dreams, and then very much in the real world when a German submarine torpedoes an oil tanker right off Miami Beach. Amid the crowd watching it burn, “a giant torch in the water,” an old man tells Sophie, “The war’s come home, sister.”
The next tenant the reader meets is Eugenio Francisco Montes Behar. He moved into 2B in “1952, the year of the coup,” expecting to return to Cuba any minute, his flourishing career as a concert pianist reduced to playing wedding gigs and “Friday and Saturday nights at the swanky Delano Hotel and Cabana Club down the street.”
In 1963 he’s still there, although he has finally decided to buy a home. He’s spent the decade dreaming of two lost loves, the city of Havana and a famous Cuban composer with whom he had a forbidden affair. The news of the composer’s death plunges him into aching, golden memories of both.
The tenant in 1972 is a Vietnam veteran called Sandman. His wife has filed for divorce; her parents are paying for him to live in 2B, far away from their daughter. She mails him boxes of his possessions, piece by piece, as he struggles with alcoholism and PTSD. It doesn’t help that the park near the Helena is the scene of ongoing antiwar demonstrations complete with chanting crowds and sirens that flip Sandman into searing flashbacks. But, in an echo of centuries before, he’ll find provisional redemption in turtle nests.
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In 1982, Isabel, a lovely young artist’s model, strikes a tiny blow for independence when she defies the orders of her older lover, an artist who has ensconced her in 2B, which he uses as a studio, not to go out without him. His warning that Miami Beach isn’t safe is well founded — the neighborhood is in decline, the restaurant she chooses for dinner is on the verge of going out of business, and she has a frightening encounter with a homeless woman.
The tenants who move in two years later find a trace of Isabel in the otherwise drab 2B, where “a single piece of art hangs on the wall — a nude so luminously painted, the desire in the brushstrokes so palpable, that it is almost pornographic.” Margot Benini and her husband, Martin — those are not their real names, and they are not really from Uruguay, and Miami Beach is even more dangerous for them — won’t stay long.
Neither will some other tenants, like Susan, a woman who cannot find a way to tell her young daughter that her beloved father, another military man, is dead, or Derek and Marilyn, a successful young couple riding Miami Beach’s rebound in the 1990s, whose lives are changed in an instant by a violent attack.
In 2002, 2B’s tenants are Ignacio, his wife, Maribel, and his girlfriend, Beatrice. It’s not an open marriage; all three are immigrants, but Maribel is Cuban and so has citizenship, while Ignacio, a Colombian, and Beatrice, a Haitian, do not.
The marriage is a cheerful deal, not uncommon in a city of immigrants, to help Ignacio gain citizenship. Just a business arrangement, but as the time for Maribel and Ignacio to be interviewed by the government approaches, it looks like something more complex.
Eight years later, a 40-year-old journalist named Pilar owns 2B, after the building became condos. But now she’s bitterly packing up to move in with her well-off Cuban American parents after a divorce and the financial crisis left her upside-down on the mortgage, and her newspaper job imploded.
She rents the place to a young Cuban man with the unlikely name Lenin Garcia, whose tenancy is short and sad, but whose life we will learn about in heartbreaking detail in the final chapter, when a woman named Lana — another of those people whose real names and homelands are secret and whose losses seem too great to bear — moves into 2B. Menéndez has slowly, subtly turned “The Apartment” into a ghost story, and both the living and the dead at the Helena will surround Lana in an eerily beautiful dance.
By Ana Menéndez
Counterpoint, 227 pages, $27
Meet the author
Ana Menéndez will be in conversation about “The Apartment” with book reviewer Carmen Alvarez at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 18, at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at tombolobooks.com/events.