On the way home from their second trip together to Havana, Conforti finally asked the question Levinson had been dreading. “I’ve been thinking about trying to bring Rosa home,” he said about twenty minutes after the plane was airborne. “Am I crazy?”
“You’ve been crazy as long as I’ve known you.”
“But about Rosa –”
“What do I know?”
“Me?” asked Levinson with a guilty smile.
“Think it can work?”
“Getting her out of Cuba?”
“I can probably give you fifty reasons why not.”
“So you think I should drop it?”
“And have regrets forever?” Levinson exclaimed, despite his many reservations. “Hell no!”
It was thanks to Conforti’s work on Southern California’s hippest listener-sponsored radio station that he first visited Cuba as part of a cultural exchange. Infatuated with the music, the culture, and especially the warmth of the people, the otherwise largely reclusive disc jockey and concert promoter soon made a return trip, and then another.
But it was only when he fell for a stunning art student that the frequency of his visits increased dramatically. Some of the junkets were legal, thanks to cultural visas he was at times able to obtain through the station, while others were gray area, due to the rather dubious purchase of what’s known as a religious license, which meant that he was ostensibly a spiritual soul doing outreach with Cuban parishes. Then there were voyages that were totally illicit, with arrivals on flights from places like Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic – though never Cancun, where airport officials were reported to sell names to the American authorities.
The degree of difficulty in convincing Levinson, whose passions included not just music, but also baseball, boxing, and black culture, to come along on one of Conforti’s subsequent voyages was virtually nonexistent.
What Levinson found in Cuba, above and beyond the great sounds that were ubiquitous, plus a never-before-seen joy in the sports that he loved, was a Joey Conforti unlike the one he had long considered a friend. Instead of the laconic and sometimes sullen guy who had progressively retreated from society, his buddy seemed astonishingly open and exuberant to the point of being aglow – especially when in the company of Rosa, who was clearly an elixir for him.
The two men often went their separate ways while on the island. Levinson explored not just the sports and the music scene, but also the galleries, the mojitos, and, thanks to a pal of Conforti’s named Manuel, the underground santeria culture. Conforti, meanwhile, spent considerable time with Rosa’s family and friends. Still, their dinners together, plus their wanderings to flea markets, recording studios, and strange parts of town, were enough for them to talk repeatedly about a return trip. Six months later, they were on the road again.
It was right from the beginning of that second stay, that Levinson sensed that what had begun as a fling for Conforti, who had taken two more flights to Cuba in the interim, had become far more serious. That’s when Levinson started making mental notes about the obstacles that would arise should his friend’s long-distance romance ever show signs of somehow becoming more than on-again-off-again.
Obviously language was an issue, since Conforti was unwilling, or perhaps even unable, to learn anything beyond restaurant-level Spanish. But that gap was slowly being eroded thanks to Rosa’s ever-improving English. More striking by far were the cultural differences. Cubans, Levinson recognized, had a powerful support system based equal parts, it seemed to him, on family, friends, and neighbors. Though clearly lacking the conveniences and technologies that he, like most Americans, had long taken for granted – everything from cars, flat screen TVs and computers to iPhones, dishwashers, and even toasters – the people of Havana had a kind of community that not merely filled Levinson with longing, but more importantly made him wonder how someone like Rosa might function without its sustenance.
But above all was the question of age. While no one in Havana seemed to bat an eye at the sight of Conforti, who was nearing forty-five, with a beauty not yet twenty, it seemed all too clear to Levinson that such would hardly be the case in the youth culture of Southern California.
But all of that remained conjecture until the moment Conforti broached the subject of making his relationship with Rosa permanent.
It was thanks to a mutual love of music that Levinson and Conforti initially met. Eager to help a friend who was having financial troubles, Levinson, who was about to direct a low-budget thriller about a small town terrorized by a serial killer, rewrote the script to create the part of a minister at a black church.
Having heard that the role was written for soul legend Solomon Burke, Conforti, who knew the film’s publicist, asked for permission to come to the shoot. Since Levinson was a fan of the DJ’s Saturday night Blues show, approval was instantly granted.
The connection between Levinson and Conforti was instantaneous, with the two of them almost immediately devising a playful kind of shorthand based on song titles from yesteryear. Something sad, for instance, became a Ray Charles moment, as in the Genius’ countrified hit “Cryin’ Time.” An opportunity became a Howard Tate, thanks to a song later covered (but not as well in their estimation) by Janis Joplin, “Get It While You Can.” Having to wait for something became a Dusty Springfield, as in “Wishing And Hoping.” And grief that Levinson received from a certain someone became an Ernie K-Doe, referring to the New Orleans classic hit “Mother-In-Law.”
Though they were on totally different schedules – Levinson usually rising before dawn, while Conforti was virtually nocturnal – they often met for a 1pm meal which served as lunch for one and breakfast for the other. At first the get-togethers alternated between Levinson’s neighborhood and Conforti’s. But after their time together in Havana, they switched to neutral turf: a Cuban restaurant in Culver City which, in keeping with their game of song titles, they dubbed “Havana Moon”, after the Chuck Berry song.
Other than the annual Blues Festival he produced each summer, for which he planned meticulously – and on which Levinson had been able to help over the years thanks to friendships with Ray Charles, Billy Preston, Mable John, and, of course, Solomon Burke – Conforti led a life based, as he proudly put it, on “procrastination and sloth.”
Those traits, however, took a flier once he made the decision to do the impossible: get Rosa out of Cuba.
Forced to keep normal business hours, as well as to dress and behave like a responsible citizen, Conforti embarked on a quest that meant dealing with a pair of nearly impregnable bureaucracies – one American, the other Cuban.
Domestically, the objective was to get his hands on what’s known as a “fiancee visa”, without which Rosa’s only chance of entering the States would be on a raft navigating the shark-infested waters between Havana and Florida. Yet because the U.S. has no formal ties with Cuba, the chances of procuring such a document seemed, at least initially, slim, slimmer, slimmest.
While fighting that uphill battle, Conforti, whose bank account was rapidly dwindling, also had to make repeated last minute trips to Havana, where his quest to get Rosa off the island was rendered even more Sisyphean due to irregular office hours, repeated power failures, and myriad lame excuses – plus lengthy lines at every government building.
Worst of all, each flight increased his chances exponentially of being busted for trips that were forthrightly taboo.
Though Levinson received occasional updates about his friend’s trials and tribulations, they were exclusively by phone, rather than face-to-face. As a result, it came as a pleasant surprise, after a far longer period of silence than usual, when he received a call inviting him to lunch.
Since he was invariably the first to arrive at the restaurant, Levinson was shocked to step inside El Rincon Criollo and find not merely Conforti, who was sporting a grin from ear to ear, but also Rosa, who instantly leaped to greet him with a hug and kisses.
The celebratory mood lasted not merely through the meal, but on into the weeks ahead, during which Levinson got together with the lovers several times.
Seeing Rosa experience a world that was not merely new, but also, compared to her own, filled with incredible abundance was exciting for both men.
But a troubling note was sounded while the three of them were at an exhibit of Latin American Art when Conforti, while Rosa was in the ladies room, mentioned that he was thinking of dropping his radio show.
“Unhappy at the station?” Levinson asked.
“I feel bad leaving Rosa alone.”
Despite himself, Levinson frowned.
“What?” asked Conforti.
“Nothing, my ass. Tell me.”
“Don’t you know the joke?”
“I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”
“Rosa and I will be okay.”
“Whatever you say,” Levinson responded.
Even though Conforti did give up his radio show, the figurative honeymoon, from what Levinson could both gather and observe, showed little sign of waning while Rosa was still getting her bearings.
But as days turned to weeks, then months, Levinson began to sense tension in the relationship. So he was not in the least surprised to learn that Rosa, ostensibly to contribute some additional cash, had taken a job as a waitress in a joint serving breakfast and lunch.
Nor was he shocked, a few weeks later, when Conforti mentioned over the phone that Rosa had started taking evening classes at a local community college.
“Let’s you and I have lunch tomorrow,” Levinson said.
“I..I don’t know.”
“Why the hesitation?”
“What if Rosa needs me for something?”
“Is that likely?” Levinson asked. “Or something you’re hoping for?”
At the Cuban place the next day, Levinson studied Conforti for several moments, then shook his head. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’ve either got epilepsy or a case of Bobby Hendricks.”
“That Itchy Twitchy Feeling?”
“You haven’t stopped fidgeting, tapping your fingers, or checking the time.”
“I guess I worry about her,” Conforti conceded.
“That something might happen?”
“Or that she might develop a life of her own?”
Levinson watched his friend wince.
“I kind of feel like I’m losing control,” Conforti acknowledged.
“You’re not her father or her keeper.”
“What the hell’s that mean?”
“The more you chauffeur her, tell what and what not to do, and try to keep her caged, the more she’ll want to break free.”
“Like you’re a genius when it comes to relationships?”
“Far from it.”
Conforti squirmed for a moment, then sighed. “So what’s your point?”
“You’ve lived a life, but she hasn’t. She’s probably trying to figure out not just who she is, but who the hell she wants to be.”
Conforti took a moment to reflect. “She’s not the only one,” he then admitted sadly.
Jumping in rapid succession into a baseball instructional video in which his primary responsibility, above and beyond directing, was coping with an uncontrollable star who had been denied admission to the Hall of Fame because of gambling; then a quick family trip to the East Coast; plus back-to-back commercials for a Louisiana-based record company that marketed what it called Ghetto Gold, Levinson was unable to keep abreast of the ongoing saga of Conforti and Rosa. Despite his intentions, whenever he finally got a moment to call, it was invariably far too early in the morning or much too late at night.
When ultimately he did make contact, what he learned was decidedly not good. As he predicted, Rosa had taken to spending more and more time with people her age – youngsters, Conforti acknowledged, with whom he wasn’t comfortable, and who were far from enamored of him.
Resentment inevitably led to bickering, which grew to the point where Rosa moved out.
Exceedingly private by nature, Conforti responded by becoming a virtual hermit, dropping his last bit of contact with the everyday world by even giving up his job as the promoter of the annual Blues festival.
Though increasingly busy, Levinson nonetheless did his best to call regularly. But his requests for get-togethers were spurned again and again with excuses that became increasingly far-fetched and lame.
Through his work in film and TV, Levinson had grown suspicious of scripts in which a key event arrives seemingly out of nowhere. To him, that spelled bad drama – something he despised on-screen, and had trouble believing or accepting in real life.
Yet it was precisely that kind of deus ex machina incident that jolted Conforti out of his hermit-like existence. Stricken early one morning with intense abdominal pain, the erstwhile DJ went to the doctor, who promptly dispatched him for X-rays and other tests. Startled by the discovery that his belly had a tumor the size of a grapefruit, Conforti fought off the urge to jump from a bridge and instead called Levinson.
“How much faith do you have in your doctor?” Levinson asked, once he was brought up to speed.
“For little things, enough.”
“Enough doesn’t make it. How about the hospital he’s attached to?”
“Then we’re going to a friend of mine.”
“Think it’s worth it?”
“It’s only your life,” Levinson stated. “But will you trust me to do something else as well?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Because then you probably won’t go,” Levinson said.
“Do I know you?” Conforti asked with disbelief as Levinson drove him into an almost entirely Chinese part of the San Gabriel Valley.
“I know this seems weird.”
“Weird, nothing. I feel like this is going to be a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, with some guy shouting, ‘I Put a Spell on You.'”
“Close,” Levinson acknowledged, as he pulled into a parking lot adjacent to a funky office building.
“W-what do you mean, close?”
“Trust me, okay?”
“Like the producer who told the starlet, The check is in your mouth, and I won’t cum in your mail?” Conforti asked warily.
Moments later, having climbed up some rickety stairs, the two men approached a door that read: Master Wong, Qi Gong.
“I’m ready for the punch line,” Conforti announced, more dubious than ever.
“You’ll thank me.”
Conforti didn’t bother to respond as he followed Levinson into an office where very little English was spoken.
After filling out some paperwork, then putting in arrows on a sketch of a human body to show where the problem was, Conforti squirmed, until a young Chinese woman came and took him by the hand.
“Aren’t you coming?” Conforti asked Levinson.
“I’ll wait here.”
Uncharacteristically nervous, Conforti was led into a treatment room, where he was joined several moments later by a Chinese man of indeterminate age who was dressed in a robe adorned with dragons.
Without bothering to speak, Master Wong glanced quickly at the paperwork Conforti had filled out, then motioned for his patient to stretch out on the examining table.
Using his hands to feel what Conforti assumed were energy fields, or his aura, or something equally outre, the Master performed some maneuvers in which he seemingly swept away negativity, or cooties, or some such thing. Then he made a show of putting a finger to his lips, which Conforti took as a warning not to utter a peep.
Almost instantly Conforti began to understand why, as Master Wong began to pummel him with incredible force around both the abdomen and the lower back.
Twenty minutes had gone by when Levinson watched his friend stagger into the waiting room.
“Why didn’t you tell me Mike Tyson had come out of retirement?” Conforti muttered.
“Don’t be such a wuss,” was Levinson’s response.
The following day it was into Beverly Hills, that the two friends drove. First came a session with Levinson’s internist friend Harry Segal, then a three-way lunch.
“I’m going to book the appointment with the surgeon,” Segal announced. “That way you’ll get in sooner. And I’ll make sure to monitor everything once it’s hospital time.”
“Out of curiosity,” Conforti said, “couldn’t the surgery be done at any hospital?”
“Done, yes,” Segal said. “But done right?”
“It’s a guaranteed Ike and Tina,” Levinson assured Conforti two weeks later, on the eve of his friend’s admission into the hospital.
“How can you say ‘I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine’ with such conviction?” Conforti asked.
“Simple. Gentiles like you have surgery.”
“We go under the knife,” Levinson replied with a smile. “Look, you’ve got Harry on your side, plus a surgeon he says is the best and a hospital with a great reputation. What else could you ask for?”
“A twenty-year-old Thai or Korean girl?” Conforti asked with as much of a smile as he could muster.
In the aftermath of the surgery, Conforti couldn’t wait to see Levinson. “From now on, it’s all Otis Redding toward you,” he stated.
“The surgery was supposed to take no less than four hours start to finish.”
“Less than an hour, beginning to end!”
“Fantastic! Any idea how or why?”
“Absolutely. When they opened me up to saw off the tumor –”
“Thanks to your Chinese guy, the damn thing fell off. All that they had to do was grab it, then stitch me back up.”
“Did you tell ’em why it happened?”
“Would they have believed me?” Conforti asked.
Levinson did not bother to respond.
As scripted in Hollywood, Conforti, with a new lease on life, would have launched himself into some exciting pursuit or endeavor, and in the process found true love. But since reality is neither as predictable nor as upbeat as what’s portrayed on screen, he instead checked out to a greater degree than ever before.
Selling his condo, the ex-DJ moved to the desert, where he created an almost monastic existence for himself, eating healthy, exercising, and avoiding city life.
Not surprisingly, with their Cuban lunches ancient history, phone conversations between Conforti and Levinson went from frequent to once in a while, then from once in a while to intermittent, with weeks or even months going by between chats.
So it was with more than a bit of alarm that Levinson received a seemingly out of the blue call from his friend, far too early on a Wednesday morning.
“What’s wrong?” Levinson asked upon hearing Conforti’s tone of voice.
“I just got news about Rosa.”
“Jesus! Did they catch it in time?”
“Not from what I heard. Stage 4.”
“That can’t be!”
“Exactly what I said,” Conforti replied, sadly.
Though Levinson made a point of checking in with greater frequency, each call carried with it an ever-increasing sense of dread.
Until, that is, the suspense was ended by a call from Conforti late one Saturday night.
“She didn’t make it,” Levinson heard him announce with difficulty.
“Shit! And how are you?”
“But you’ve got to know, it’s not your fault.”
“Still, nothing. If anyone’s to blame, it’s me.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“For telling you to try it.”
“We both know I would have done it anyway.”
“You had to try.”
“Yeah, but –”
“Know what we should do? Go to Cuba one of these days, not just for old times’ sake, but also to see her family.”
“Makes sense to me.”
“Deal?” Levinson asked.
Though the talk buoyed their spirits, neither of them had any conviction that such a trip would ever take place.
Indeed though they still talked occasionally, the two of them never again managed to get together. Not even for so much as what they used to call a “Havana Moon”.