Carmen Neale has been writing since she was a child in her native Colombia. She says writing is
as necessary for her happiness as eating or breathing. She prefers to write fiction but has also
written several memoir pieces based on her early life in Colombia. She writes both for children
and adults. Most of her writing is in English, although she also writes in Spanish. She is currently
writing a fantasy novel about a witch. She also writes a bimonthly column in a local bilingual
magazine. A retired lawyer and former Spanish teacher, Carmen lives with her husband in New
Enjoy Carmen’s charming story of growing up in Colombia.
Love Songs in the Night
I had just fallen asleep and was half-awakened by the tuning of guitars outside our front door. I smiled against my pillow while my heart filled with hope. “He remembered me!” I told myself. It had been exactly two weeks since we started dating. I waited to see what tune would be the first he played. And the seconds became minutes of impatience. When the young, male voices intoned a melody I did not expect, I began to doubt that the serenade was for me. But the sound of the serenade filled the night with music.
I grew up in a small city hidden in the Andes Mountains in Colombia. In the late 1960s, when I was a teenager, one of the ways for young men to express their love was through serenades. A teenage boy very much infatuated with a girl would hope to win her heart by gathering his one or two friends who played the guitar well and the one or two who had a good singing voice, treat them to a drink or give them a few pesos, and convince them to go with him to serenade his love. It was a display of male camaraderie perfectly accepted in this part of the world. It was perhaps something we inherited from the Spaniards.
When our father left for the United States, my mother, my six siblings and I moved into my mother’s family home. It was a large old house in a nice neighborhood. It had several bedrooms, a couple of indoor, Spanish style patios, and one very large backyard with a variety of fruit trees. We shared the house with two of my mother’s sisters, aunt Ines and aunt Hilma, and a few of our cousins who lived with us while attending private schools in our city.
As a teenager, I didn’t need to have many outside friends because my cousins, my teenage sisters and I had great fun together all the time. When we started dating and receiving serenades, it became quite complicated to know, simply by the sound of the songs, who was being serenaded.
A serenade? For whom? Sometimes we could figure it out by the song selection. Most serenades opened the same way. “Despierta, dulce amor de mi vida… Wake up, sweet love of my life, wake up, if you are asleep. Listen to my voice singing under your window….” Boring!
Usually by the second song we could guess for whom the serenade was intended. The musicians would play four or five songs and leave. Seldom would the girl come out and greet them. Other times an angry parent would come out and chase them away. I knew that adults sometimes had formal serenades with professional musicians. In our case, we would not dream of going outside to see our boyfriends in the middle of the night. We considered ourselves lucky that our very conservative adults did not complain about our quite frequent serenades.
One night I heard the first strums of a guitar as I was just falling asleep. After the first few moments, I jumped out of bed and turned on the light to wake my cousin up. Cristina and I shared our bedroom and our love secrets.
“Pancha!” I whispered, using her nickname. “Pancha, listen!” She usually went to sleep before me and by now she was sound asleep. Turning on the light didn’t move her.
“Pancha! It’s a serenade! Wake up!” I shook her. She jumped out of bed as if a scorpion had stung her. I laughed. “Let’s go! Maybe Carlos is giving you an early birthday present.”
“No,” she said, rubbing her face to wake up. “It’s not him. He went out of town with his father. He won’t come back until Friday.” It was Wednesday. “Let’s wake your sisters up! Most likely it’s for Teresa. She is the one who always gets serenaded. And she doesn’t care for any of them.” She laughed, and we went out of our room and into my sisters’ bedroom. Teresa was asleep, as usual. She loved to sleep. Martha was already up and brushing her hair — as if anyone would see her at that hour.
“Teresita!” I whispered into her ear in a singsong. “Someone is playing your song outside,” I said.
She half opened her eyes and said “Good! I hope he does it quickly so I can go back to sleep.” She put her pillow over her head.
“Okay,” said my cousin. “She’s not interested. Let’s go to the living room and look through the windows. We have to find out who’s doing the serenade.” She started to leave the room.
“Wait, Pancha,” I said. Then I turned to Martha, gesturing toward our sleeping sister. “Wake her up!”
Martha smiled, moved slowly to Teresa’s bed, and said in her ear, “Fire! Your dolls are on fire!”
At this, Teresa jumped out of bed, still groggy, and said, “Where? Where?”
I put my arm around her and said, “Nobody is burning your dolls. But I think one of your admirers is hoping you hear one of the songs he is dedicating to you. Come on! Let’s see who it is.” I guided her towards the leaving room. We tiptoed in the hallway because we didn’t want to wake up our aunts or our mother. We could never predict their reaction. They were not fair judges of our young suitors.
Martha opened the wooden double door to the living room gingerly. We entered in the dark. I closed it behind me. I was holding up the rear. The four of us split into twos, climbing onto the two spacious windowsills of the front windows. Then, quietly, we opened the shutters, pressed our faces to the glass panels, and looked out into the garden.
Unlike previous enamored musicians, these guys in front of us were shy. They had entered the garden in front of the house but had stayed just inside the gate. Normally the singers got close to the entrance door so they could be seen. Their location presented a problem for us. Some trees shaded their faces making the streetlights insufficient for us to identify our troubadours.
“I know who that is,” whispered Teresa. “It’s that stupid little kid who sent me flowers with the maid last Saturday. Look! He’s the one playing the maracas. He’s wearing the same shirt he had when I first met him at Rita’s party.”
We remained quiet, still trying to recognize the face we saw in the shadows next to the singer. “I came to look for you. I can’t stand another day without seeing you….”
“No! Hold it! Hold it a second!” Martha whispered. “That’s not him! Do you know why I know?” We all shook our heads in the dark. “I’ve never seen him in this group. This is Ricardo’s group. These are some of his friends. That means this serenade is for me.”
“Yes, yes,” said Pancha. “I can see the face of the guitar player. That one seems to be Ricardo’s friend.”
“The one with the big head,” added Martha.
We all had to stifle a burst of laughter.
“You are sooo bad, Martha!” said Pancha.
I wanted to say that I thought it was my serenade, although I didn’t know if he, my beloved Luis, would dare deliver me a serenade. My parents had forbidden me to see him for reasons I didn’t understand. I had been born into a family full of snobs. That was the real reason. This was a sore point in my youth.
Even though I was the oldest, the only acceptable boys in my house were my sister Teresa’s rejects. She attracted the guys from the best families in town. They didn’t have eyes for me. Every guy who saw her fell in love with her, instantly. I didn’t see the big deal of her beauty. She had long, dark hair, big olive-green eyes, thick lips and, I must admit, a pretty smile. But she never smiled in front of guys. She looked at them and blushed. They loooved that! Idiots!
I thought I recognized the singer’s voice. He looked like Alfonso, one of Luis’ friends. But I kept this knowledge to myself. Sometimes my sisters and my cousin said they liked Luis, but other times they took the grownups’ side, and said that I could find someone from a better family.
“I am anxious to have you in my arms, murmuring sweets words of love….”
“You know what?” I said instead. “The one playing the guitar looks a lot like Pepe, the guy who phoned Pancha a few weeks ago, just to say hello. I think he likes you, Pancha! And he is cute! Watch out, Carlos!”
Pancha, who was the one sharing my windowsill, gave me a hard slap on my arm. I almost fell from my seat on the windowsill. As I recovered, I turned my face towards the entrance to the living room, and this time I did fall – but from shock. My mother, my two aunts and Gloria, our youngest maid, were inside the same room we were, quiet, arms crossed, just taking in everything we said. We had been so attentive listening to the musicians and dreaming of the possible guys responsible for the corny serenade that we hadn’t noticed their presence. The fourth and final song was ending anyway, and now the adults turned on the living room lights. We could be in trouble.
“Good night my sweet love. I will dream of you….”
We were totally exposed. Caught “in flagrante,” as Sister Saint George used to say. We looked at our judges, unable to speak.
“Well?” My mother said. “Whose is it?”
We all looked at one another, and Martha, who was still up by the window, simply said, “They just left.” She smiled. “They left something on one of the rose bushes. Let’s go see!” She jumped down and went to face the adults. Martha was always the fresh one, the one who dared say things we didn’t.
“So, you don’t know who brought the serenade?” Aunt Hilma said.
“No. We don’t know,” I said and looked at my accomplices, who in turned shrugged their shoulders.
“Fine,” Aunt Inés said. She led us all, including the adults, to the front door and out into the garden. Gloria and I were last, and I stopped her with my hand. She looked at me, and I shook my index finger at her. “You woke them up,” I said. I assumed my mother and aunts wouldn’t have heard the musicians if Gloria had not alerted them.
“I didn’t. I swear!” Gloria whispered back at me.
Meanwhile I turned to see my mother, my aunt, my siblings, and my cousin laughing. I had missed the joke.
“What? What happened? Who was it?” I asked impatiently.
“Look,” said Martha handing me a card.
“Aurora Quartet,” said the card. “Fine and refined musicians. We sing of love to your loved one. Mauricio, Tony, Chino and Esteban.” It also gave their contact information.”
“And the best part of this whole event is that they did not trample the flower beds,” said my aunt Inés who was always making sure the flowers were cared for.
We went to bed laughing. We didn’t know any of those guys!
Copyright © 2021 by Carmen Neale