From where I stand, life looks good. This morning, Maria and I are looking out from the hotel balcony, and over the rooftops of La Perla, to the sea. To the left is El Morro. We’ve had some good times and some bad. Feels right to stand here together. Get some perspective. Mostly we are happy, and thankful. Our story continues.
The old woman and I scuttled along the stone-faced perimeter like slinking pole cats. The fortress guarding San Juan Bay is huge, and a regular tourist attraction. Down from the battlements, she brought me to a tunnel entrance. The gate was wide open; and I was pretty sure the tunnel was part of the tour — it was lit up and everything.
“I wait and watch, see nobody comes,” she said. And I think, “Great. She’s playing with me.”
Then I realize, “No, she is probably just crazy.” Paranoia. Glassy eyes. Physical agitation. I should have read the signs. Oh, and odd collectibles –- like the flashlight she had given me. It sparked on and off.
And so I felt despair for having hoped, for my twenty-six years of stalls and starts. I had lost Maria twice before, and now forever again. And very likely she was alone and hurt and desperately needing me to find her. And now I was just following up another dead-end.
I walked into the tunnel with aching shoulders and such weariness, I could have been a derelict soldier walking to the gallows. That was the way I felt. I walked maybe forty feet down the passage. Inside smelled like something moist had gone stale. My throat itched and I regretted not bringing water. I could be down here a while.
But it wasn’t long before I came to the end of the line: A second gate, which was padlocked. On the ground, I saw a stash of stuff — more odd collectibles: Shells, stones, dried flowers, and some holy pictures of Mary, I guess. I touched one of the candle stubs in a flower pot and felt that the wax around one wick was soft. Someone had been here. This was the old woman’s place, I thought and shuddered.
I shined the light through the gate but couldn’t see anything past a turn in the tunnel. By this time, I had really had enough. I’d been combing Old San Juan and surrounding neighborhoods for three days, showing people Maria’s picture. Usually people were kind. But sometimes they were completely indifferent. I might as well have been looking for a stray cat. So I screamed. Three or four times, ’til my throat hurt worse.
I’ve only been driven to do that one other time in my life. “Argghhh!” Why not? No one was around to hear me. After those few heart-pumping, vessel-bursting yells, I turned around and started to walk back. That’s when I heard Maria’s call.
I couldn’t make out what she said, but I knew her voice. It was weak and some distance back within the dark recess of the closed off passage. Of course I had no tools with me, nothing I could use to cut the padlock. So I called to her and banged a bit on the gate with the woman’s old flashlight as I dialed 911. There was no signal, of course. I shined my phone’s flashlight into the murky dark and called to her.
“Maria! Melao, it’s me. I’m here. Walk toward the light.”
I filed a missing person report this morning. This is the third day that Maria has not checked in –- with me, her husband-to-be, her mother, or any of her friends. I told the police detective that she had been following up on a lead she’d received, about a stolen painting. That was according to her boss, Professor Ramos Torres. Let the police interview him.
I’m walking up the hill toward the larger-than-life statue of Cristobal Colon — Christopher Columbus –- and thinking I’d like to discover something –- when an old woman crosses my path. She hobbles alongside me a ways, chattering in Spanish. I nod and keep walking, not wanting to be bothered — and not understanding what she’s saying.
She pulls on my arm, and I pull it away. When I stop to do this, I recognize her. She’s the old homeless woman Maria and I had bought a cake for once. The same dancing eyes and toothless smile. A different dress was all, not so tattered and dirty as before. Today, she doesn’t smell all that bad. Of course, I haven’t showered for two days myself. She says in broken English, “Come with me, Mister now. I show you where.”
She nods and keeps walking, when I ask “What? Where?”
We walk up through Old San Juan toward del Morro. Before we go up the long drive, she stops. “We need light, Mister. Dark inside.” I am not too keen to follow her further. I’d walked all over del Morro yesterday looking for Maria. I didn’t want to look at anything else here. But I am too tired to walk away.
“Here, this has a flashlight,” I show her my cell phone.
“No good,” she says. She rummages through her sack and pulls out an old metal torch, shakes it, and it lights up. She shakes it again and it goes off. “Senor venga!” she says, pulling my arm.
We get into the fort as it’s opening up. (Yes, I pay two admissions.) And I follow the woman down and around back to this tunnel. She says, “Meester, you go in there. You find her.”
“Don’t worry, Will. Maria is a very capable young woman. Wherever she is, I’m confident she can take care of herself.” (The man’s a jerk.)
Yesterday, I tracked down Professor Ramos, Maria’s boss. He said he just returned from a conference in the States and that he spoke to Maria by phone two days ago. (That would have been the morning of the wedding.) I asked him what they had talked about, and he was a bit taken aback. “She did not tell you?” he said.
I’m waiting for the uppercut to the ribs: “She’s left you.” But he says, “She said she found a woman who knew something about the missing painting.”
“Who was the woman?”
She didn’t say.
“Well, Maria’s missing.”
“Por favor?” I couldn’t tell if that was a question or he was just saying, “C’mon.” I’ve found that sincerity is often lost in translation, but he showed his true colors. He decided to patronize me by telling me Maria could look out for herself.
So now I think maybe Maria’s disappearance has something to do with the painting Virgen de Belen. It was stolen from San Jose Church some thirty years ago and has never been found.
For the past year, Maria’s been researching the 1797 siege of San Juan and this painting for the professor. I’ve never trusted him. The more I think about our conversation yesterday, I think Dude Ramos’ nonchalance about Maria’s disappearance tells me either that (1) he truly doesn’t care about her, or (2) he knows where she is.
Now, if Ramos knows where she is and won’t tell me, it is either (1) because Maria told him not to tell me, or (2) he is responsible for her disappearance.
Shit Sherlock. This is serious. I’m either going to have to go to the police and prepare to be frustrated with them not doing their job, or talk to Maria’s brother Silvio. He’s got a drug network and knows people throughout the island. He’s even got guys at the airport. Of course, Silvio and I don’t exactly get along. I can’t remember last time we talked. I didn’t see him at the wedding, come to think of it.
If he’d been there, he’d have said, “I told you, man. Maria knows better than to marry you. She knows you are a fool.” Something like that . . . Yeah. Probably good I didn’t see him. Now I’ll have to put the word out in La Perla, “Silvio and me gotta talk.” Surreal, sure. What are her mother and brothers thinking? She ran off because she really didn’t want to marry me? I’ve got to find her — soon.
I read Maria’s journal back to front last night. Now I’ve no clue –- literally no clue –- why she didn’t show up yesterday. She wrote her last entry the night before last:
Sometimes dreams do really come true. When I met Will, I didn’t know anything about love. When I saw him at Georgetown the first time, he looked like a prince to me. He was handsome and very confident. I was just a poor girl from the island working for a living, but I could tell he liked me. I wanted to catch him for myself, and I was foolish. I gave myself to him, me a virgin — the first night we danced. And then . . . what a painful year it became. Months went by and my life was loco. And then somehow I discovered his blog and I learned what was happening. He had not meant to lose me. Then, slowly, we really fell in love. Tomorrow we marry!
Yesterday, all I could feel was “she stood me up. She doesn’t love me.” Now my head screams: “Something’s wrong. Maria’s in danger.” Of course, I had an awful lot of rum last night. Maybe that’s talking to me? No, Maria wanted to marry me. That’s as clear now as the sun coming up over the ocean. Something must have happened. I’ve got to find her.
I am here with your family and our friends. I came to marry you, and you did not come. You did not even call me to say why . . . why you could not . . . love me.
Maria . . . why? Couldn’t you call? Tell me you weren’t coming?
I am so angry I trusted you. Now I cannot trust my self — to know whether a woman loves me or not. That is a harsh, stinging thing to grasp, no? I thought I’d found a luminous pearl and dove deep for it. I grabbed a jellyfish: A gross hand-full of gelatinous shit.
You left me, brutally stung, in this closet of a city, on a fantasy stage of an island. Nothing here is big enough for me to hold. I’ve been planting seedlings all spring — tenderly too. I have been loving this isle for you Maria, for you. And now you decide to take off?
Did you leave with him, the professor? Is he the one I should confront?
My mother is encouraging me to stay another week, in case you show up and want to talk. What is the chance of that?
Mom will fly home with my sister tomorrow morning. Father Jim has already left for the airport. I’m not the only one you’ve disappointed. And you and I (there’s no we) still have to pay the hotel for the wedding. Still in shock I was when your mother reminded me she wouldn’t be able to help with that. Of course not.
I’m going back to the apartment. The hotel manager here gave me the things you’d left in your room, including your journal. I may read it, but not for a while. I think the best thing would be for me to forget I met you six years ago, followed you to Puerto Rico, and was enough of a fool to think you actually wanted to marry me. —Will Gray
As our wedding days nears, I’m feeling nervous. I’ve worked hard these past months, harder than I’ve ever worked before. I’ve got the bruises and cuts to prove it. Sinking posts, cutting chain-link, all to give the four-hundred or so palm seedlings a chance in this rainforest. Only a couple didn’t make it. Now, I’ve got plenty of time to sit around and wait.
Maybe it’s the sitting around and waiting that’s making me nervous.
Now that I actually have time to drive into San Juan in the evening and meet Maria, she’s busier than ever. She’s got a beautiful spot reserved for the wedding ceremony– a garden terrace within an historic home in Old San Juan. She knows the innkeeper, and some of the staff. The wedding plans are all set, so she’s not busy with those. She’s involved in a big research project for a professor I’m not too crazy about. She had worked for him before I came to the island last Fall; and I guess she took a job with him again because we need the money.
“Won’t it be some time before your trees bear fruit?” she had said, when I asked her why she took the job. She’s also working with her mother who’s head of house-keeping at the Ritz near the airport. I just let the matter drop. What am I going to say? “I don’t like the professor. I don’t trust him alone with you.”
I’d like to say that, but I don’t. She seems so absorbed in the research she’s doing. Her research concerns a very old painting that originally hung in San Jose Church, which is now under federal historic preservation — supposedly. Not much real work going on there I can see. It looks the same it did four years ago, when I first touched down in Puerto Rico.
Its plaster walls and wood beams look like they’ve absorbed many a tear-drop and sigh, and every manner of prayer — from exultation to lamentation over five-hundred years. (That’s a lot of years — more than the number of palm trees I’ve planted.) The church would have been vulnerable every time a hurricane whipped up the sea or a foreign power laid siege to Old San Juan, which was often enough. And in one of its naves had hung a painting of the Lady of Bethlehem, a nursing Mary. Virgen de Belen. The painting is thought to have been carried in procession during the siege of San Juan by the British in 1797 after it was moved to the cathedral down the hill. The people’s faith in the subject of the painting and procession may have delivered a miracle: the startling retreat of sixty some warships.
Anyway, Maria is researching what has been done since 1973 to find the stolen painting, the 16th century original. Only very artful copies by Joseph Campeche are seen today. Maria’s feeling is that San Jose Church, whenever it is restored, will not be the same without the Blessed Mother of Christ smiling from its tallow-colored walls. I agree. As Maria misses the painting, I miss Maria.
Finally, I think I have a business idea that may work for me here on the island. It’s going to require most of the money i’ve got. I’ve been agonizing over my plan for weeks — because of the financial risk: All my grown-up hopes, in one basket of sprouting seed. I’m starting a berry business. Yeah.
I’ve got a nest-egg, the nearly $100,000 I saved slaving in Manhattan and living on peanut butter for four years. I worked hard, I lived lean, because I was determined to have some savings before I came to the island and asked Maria to marry me. Now that we are formally engaged — I gave her my mother’s sapphire ring this Christmas — I have to get real about my future, our livelihood here. She makes maybe $100 a week as a research assistant for a man I don’t trust, and another $300 a month as a maid for an inn with a view of the ocean and all of Old San Juan. So far, I’ve earned maybe fifty bucks tearing off a roof, before breaking my leg the second month I was here. “Nothing worthwhile is easy,” as Dad would say.
When I came back to the island this time, I thought maybe I would go into politics, if not banking, but I guess for that i would really need to be fluent in Spanish. So I have nothing, no one, to fall back upon but myself. Of course, that can be exhilarating. But I do wonder if my plan to partner with the farmers I met by the rainforest last month and grow acai palm trees isn’t a bit crazy? Another impossible dream, courtesy of Quixote, and as futile a quest as my D.C. justice survey a few years back. (Read about that, if you must, in A Just Man Is Hard to Find.)
But I’ve run the numbers, and somehow the plan seems sound. Risky, but sound. Acai berries from a particular palm tree once native to Trinidad and now mostly in the Brazilian rainforest are a hot commodity as a health food. And, I think Puerto Rico should be developing its agri-business, and not be so dependent upon tourism from the States. For one thing, Puerto Rico may be competing for American business tourism with Cuba in a few years. I’d like my home island to think ahead and diversify now. I’ll be floating the idea by the local Chamber of Commerce.
Maria’s not opposed to my plan for our future, although she’s suggested I don’t say much about it to her brother Silvio. “You know he hates you.” I said, “Really?” “Well, maybe not hates,” she responded. “But he’s an awful teaser.” Yeah, I can just hear him now: “Berry Boy. Think you’re going to marry my sister? Berry Boy.”
Whatever. A man has got to do, what a man has got to do.
An optimal food source of antioxidants, acai berries have to be consumed fresh or flash-frozen after picking. I suppose I’ll have a few years to line up pickers, processors and distributors. I won’t even have a harvest for four years. So I won’t know before year four, whether my enterprise is going to be profitable. Even if it seems it will be, growing any crop is risky. So, again, I will be living lean. Maria understands this, bless her. She sees us living with her grandmother Tanee, for a few years at least; but I don’t want to go there quite yet. I’ve bought an old truck to get us back and forth from San Juan to El Yunque. I’ll hold on to my apartment in Santurce at least until we are married. I’ve leased four acres from my rainforest buddies for five years, for a song. This spring — before Maria’s and my wedding in June — I’ll be planting and cultivating 100 trees. After that, I’ll have to keep watch over them, protect the young trees from critters, make sure they are getting enough mulch and mist.
Like Dad says, “Be careful what you wish for.”
I’ve wondered from time to time what Maria’s and my children might look like. What shade of coffee? How tall? Maybe I wonder because I’m just as white as I was when I left the States for this island of enchantment under the sun. My eyes are hazel sometimes, brown other times. In contrast, Maria’s skin is a St. Tropez bronze; her eyes are dark as night. Her hair’s thick and shiny, whereas mine is fifty shades of brown and tends to wisp. Heck, at twenty four, I’m only starting to shave every day. So, now that Maria and I are engaged and planning to have a kid together someday, I wonder about our kids — because some quirky things can happen when genes mix — am I right? I’m asking myself, “What are the odds Maria and I will have an exceptional kid — smart and good-looking?” Such a question is conceited and shallow, I realize. Even so, I want my genes to shine!
Today, I stumbled on an article by blogger Lior Pachter that made me laugh and eased my mind. His interest is computational biology. Anyway, Pachter did some research and found that the perfect human (genetically speaking) is Puerto Rican! Seems I’m literally marrying the perfect woman.
Definitely check this link out. Pachter’s charts and graphs are particularly convincing. He adds:
“Taras Oleksyk from the Department of Biology at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez has written an excellent post-publication peer review of this blog post and Rafael Irizarry from the Harvard School of Public Health has written a similar piece, Genéticamente, no hay tal cosa como la raza puertorriqueña in Spanish. Both are essential reading.”
I did it! I asked Maria to marry me. We had borrowed her brother Silvio’s car to drive up to Arecibo again. Maria likes the restaurant there by the lighthouse and small theme park. I wasn’t sure when the moment would come. It came as she looked out at the water, from the porch where we sat. I’d seen her face go soft and eyes mist before, and I had stopped asking her what was troubling her, for it was always the same thing. She still grieved the baby she had lost four years ago. Our baby. Our son. He was nearly ready to be delivered, when Maria was struck down at the soup kitchen in D.C. where she worked. The blunt trauma to her stomach was too much, and we lost him. I grieved losing him too, but not in the same way. The grief I felt then was probably more guilt than anything — for putting her in the situation, not being by her side, and a whole lot of other feelings I couldn’t possibly sort out. What I feel now when she gets misty-eyed is far clearer: gut-gripping love.
Feeling that, I don’t want to wait any longer. We’ve dated for four months, known each other for five years (with a lot of space in between). Though, I don’t yet have a job here, I am tired of using that as an excuse for not getting engaged. So, before our conch salads and coladas I looked across the table took her resting hand in mine. She turned back toward me, and when I looked down at the table, she did too. I held a sapphire ring I’d bought her in my free hand. I didn’t say a word, and neither did she. Still holding her left hand, I eased the ring onto her fourth finger.
She looked a bit surprised. I worried: “Maybe this isn’t how it’s done on the island? Have I not done something I should have, like asked her father’s permission (he doesn’t seem to be in her life) or knelt down?” But slowly the sun rose in her eyes. Then, her loose jaw firmed and framed a glowing smile. Okay! I guess I did good.
We held hands while we ate, and for the rest of the afternoon, as we walked around Arecibo’s lighthouse. Sometimes you can light up someone’s life. And sometimes her light brings you home.