End of the Tunnel
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.”