I’ve been depressed ( that would be blue) and jittery (that would be yellow) these past few months. I came to the island of Puerto Rico to find a woman I’d lost contact with, whom I still loved. Maria. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, but as Christmas nears I feel like life here, with Maria, is a GO (green). As I look at the Christmas tree in the square in Old San Juan and fix my eyes on the star, I think, “Wow, I’m here.” Deep in my shirt pocket, right by my heart, something sparkles. I have her ring.
I’ve written frequently about how the seasons play differently here in San Juan than they do in New England. Well, I thought you’d like to see for yourself. Can you imagine a greener Christmas? Hey, I’m not complaining, it’s just a bit surreal sometimes. Maria’s back in town though; and hanging out with her is all I want for Christmas. What’s your Christmas like this year? Send a picture, if you want. I’m hoping there’s a silver lining there for you too.
What happens in the rainforest stays in the rainforest — at least what happens between Maria and me. We were able to get over something, something big that would have eaten our hearts out over time. I don’t know if it was her grandmother’s strange healing rituals, or what, but Maria and I made up. Heck, we climbed an emotional mountain, and not without pain. I guess we each cared enough to get through what we had to. I had to get over myself and learn to express myself physically. Maria had to decide to believe that I truly love and respect her.
Anyway, I made it out alive, and on the way out, I met some local guys and spent an evening enjoying their hacienda hospitality. From their porch, El Yunque’s forest didn’t seem ominous at all. Hanging out with guys and swigging cold beer was therapy after two intense weeks in a small cabin with two women. I’m sorry, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do; and sometimes what a man’s got to do is nothing.
I’m glad Maria and I are back together, but I’m also glad to have a little space. I’ll be back in San Juan tomorrow. She’s staying a few more days to help her grandmother put up a tree, or do whatever she does to get ready for Christmas. I think it’s about time I check in with my Mom back in the States. I wonder if she and my sister would consider coming here — if not for Christmas — maybe New Year’s?
Before I’m back to my bachelor apartment, I’m thinking of sharing it with two women? Maybe I’m curious to see how the four women, Mom, Rose, Maria and her grandmother, would get along? (Although, I’m not sure Maria’s grandmother ever leaves her home.) My Mom’s pretty open-minded about alternative medicine and spirituality; she’d probably relate very well to Maria’s grandmother. My sister Rose is generally intolerant of alternative anything, She’s my best friend and I love her, but she’s more conservative than former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Rose will like Maria, but she’ll have some serious questions about what I am getting myself into down here. She’ll size up Maria’s brother pretty quickly when he flirts with her.
On second thought, I would just as soon not play “Meet the Fockers” until after Christmas. Not being in New England is a big enough adjustment for me. No white stuff, no yule logs — nothing that smells or tastes remotely like home — except the sea spray. But I’m alive and well, at least, and as eager as ever to light up Maria’s eyes — whatever it takes.
I must have looked like hell when I came out of the rainforest. Maria did gasp when she opened the door and saw me standing just outside, under the jutting roof. Her grandmother’s home is humble, to say the least. If it had been darker out, I would have cut my forehead on the house’s jagged eave. I had to bow my head to come inside. As I stepped into the small kitchen, the fluorescent light overhead hurt my eyes. I stood there blinking and tried to imagine what Maria saw when she looked at me. I looked down at my mud-smeared legs. My already large feet were super-sized with layers of mud and leaves from the forest floor. I hadn’t stopped to take off my sneakers at any time during the eighteen-hour trek. I must have known I wouldn’t have been able to get them back on my swollen feet if I had. An older woman, striking for her waist-length hair, black with several streaks of silver, brought a chair from the back. She covered it with a cloth and indicated I should sit. She was small, with coal-black eyes like Maria. She could have been eighty years old, or sixty. It was hard to tell. Maria poured me a glass of water from a clay jug. As I gulped it down, Maria looked at me affectionately — like she used to before the night of my birthday, when she left San Juan. I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again, after she left my apartment that night. But she had texted me somehow. Said I could find her here if I wanted to talk. Sent me a map for the rainforest surrounding her grandmother’s house. She was sad and remote again, as she refilled my glass. After she did, she left the room. The older woman introduced herself as Maria’s grandmother, “Tanee.” She said she hoped I would be comfortable staying a couple days. She said that she had something in mind that would help Maria resolve the past. Something that would likewise help me to “envision a happy future.” She said that as things were, there could only be unhappiness for Maria and for me. She said all of this in such lulling tones, I wanted to agree, to completely acquiesce to whatever plan she had for me, and for Maria. Most of all, I wanted to sleep. I must have appeared to be nodding off, because her tone changed abruptly. “You must take everything off,” she said. She pulled a fifty-gallon metal tub out from under the only table. “Put your clothes in here. Then go to the back of the house and find the shower. Pull the string. It will wake you up!” I am generally modest, but I knew I couldn’t stay in wet clothes either. So I pulled everything off except my BVDs. She pointed at them when I sat back down. “Those too.” She held the tub by two handles and stood waiting. I did what she asked, and I swear she checked me out. Instead of following her outside to the shower, I pulled the cloth from under my butt, sat back down, and covered my groin. Where had Maria gone? I began to wonder. In truth, I hardly cared. I just wanted to get dry, clean and warm. I hoped Maria was making me something to eat, actually. I sat and waited, remembering the dark of the rainforest and the feeling of being lost.
I keep telling myself, “Mine is not a normal love story.” I want to hear the violins, I do. But all I hear right now is rain pelting my window. And I know if I have any chance of seeing Maria, I’ve got to get to El Yunque and hike through the park to the other side of the mountain. Fourteen miles. God, I hope the rain stops soon. My life isn’t a movie, it’s a trailer spliced together from bits left on the cutting room floor. I really need some encouragement.
— Will Gray
I don’t often pray, but I did today. Yesterday was without doubt the worst day of my life. The second-to-worst day was Tuesday two weeks ago, when Maria left me. Losing her was tough, seeing her anguish even tougher. But to realize yesterday that I could, without thinking, add to her distress by blogging about her private life? That absolutely laid me out. I got so drunk, I threw my laptop on the floor. I lay flat on my back and felt sick that I was a total jerk. Big Bird circled and cackled above my head. I hoped if I lay still long enough — if I played dead — I would be.
Then I dreamt I was in a narrow glade edged with trees made of people — twisted torsos petrified into tree trunks. Only the peoples’ faces moved. When they did, they expressed mournful misgiving. I must have been picturing the fate I now deserved. Something right out of Dante’s Inferno. When I woke, the sun was filtering into the room. I got stood up halfway, then sat back down on my knees. Then I prayed.
“God, you’ve worked miracles before. I don’t deserve one, but you know I need more help than most people. Please help Maria to forgive me. Help us both to forgive and forget what’s past, so we can look forward to our future together. Please, God.”
I was doing a load of laundry when I got her text. She said she was at her grandmother’s and she wanted to see me. She would write out the directions and email them. She said she would wait there for two days. She didn’t say anything about my recent posts. At least we are texting. However, right now I’d say my chances of getting back with Maria, really back together, are about the same as finding a four-leaf clover in a rainforest.
I WASN”T THINKING. Her secret should have been safe with me. How could I blog about the very thing that shamed her? Unforgivable. And the flip title, “Her Secret is Safe with Me.” Why didn’t I stop and read it twice? Maybe I would have recognized the irony my subconscious mind was suggesting with that title. I’ve been blogging as if I’ve got privacy settings on. Why wouldn’t I have censored what I wrote, like any normal guy? I just didn’t think. I was hurting, feeling lost, and I wanted my few followers to know why. That’s all I was thinking. In other words, I WASN’T THINKING about anyone but myself. Do I admit what I’ve done when I see her? I can’t imagine that she’ll ever trust me now.
My leg cast is off. Physically I’m okay, but my courage is gone. I had hoped to get a job in a bank or as a political aide here in San Juan. I had hoped to be engaged to Maria by now. Instead, I’m sitting alone in a small apartment staring at a big white bird in a cage. Maria’s parting gift.
We didn’t break up exactly. She’s left the city. I imagine she is staying with her grandmother near the rainforest. She left after I criticized her brother Silvio. I’ve been trying to figure this guy out, why he is intent on embarrassing me when all of us are out together.
Maria let slip that he was jealous. I know Silvio has a steady girlfriend, and other women follow him around as well. The guy has money. I had to wonder why he’d be jealous of me. What could Maria have meant?
Then, I started putting a few things together. How Silvio had danced with Maria at the Santurce market. No one from the States would have believed they were brother and sister. How he always told Maria when to be home at night. She’d never spent the night with me. I had assumed Silvio was old-fashioned, protective. Yet he made fun of the way she looked if, she did her hair up or put on make-up. It didn’t add up, until I let myself imagine the worse. They were lovers.
Maria denied it at first. She looked shocked when I asked her if he had ever touched her inappropriately. She became a different woman: frantic, angry. I saw all the light go out of her eyes. She slumped in the corner by my chair and cried. I walked over to try to comfort her. I didn’t know what to say, so I stroked her hair, kneeled and kissed her cheek. She would not look at me. She was angry at me! She got up after awhile and walked out the door. That was two weeks ago. The two of us had a dinner date for my birthday that evening. Yeah.
For two weeks I’ve been telling myself, “Will, you are not equipped emotionally for this. Incest wrecks psychological havoc you can’t hope to understand. You’ve known Maria since college, since 2009, and you never saw this coming!” I haven’t left the apartment much, wanting to avoid Silvio and Maria’s friends. I don’t know anyone I can talk to here, so I am thinking of flying back to New York or Washington, D.C. But I’ve decided not to leave the island before talking to Maria.
“Let’s say we fly, big fella?” I murmur, opening the birdcage. How would you like to visit the rainforest?”
Six weeks on the island have seemed a lifetime. Today is unusually cloudy, so naturally I’m brooding.
I’ll be twenty-four in another two weeks, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to marking another year. Why? I came here in mid-September with such high expectations. I wanted to find Maria (which I did) and a job (which I haven’t). After breaking my leg coming out of cave a few weeks ago, I’ve not been myself. Or I have been, and I just don’t want to admit it.
You see, I’ve been down this road before. Four years ago, I flew here, found Maria, and I wasn’t able to fit into her world; I got discouraged, and I left. She encouraged me to, actually. I’m back after four years of working in New York, ready to make a commitment to her — to us. But I’m struggling, really struggling. I don’t have any sense of how to secure our future.
I’m not sure what it means to secure our future, but at a minimum it means being able to make enough money to provide food, clothing, and shelter when Maria and I have children – and we want to have children very much. Anyway, I decided to share my dark doubts with Maria.
“What if I am unable to push through this time, get a job, and make San Juan home? I can’t imagine going back to the States without you. I think I would rather die.”
“Will, don’t be dramatic.”
She is always direct. But she’s also kind. “You’ve only been here a few weeks, and you have broken a leg.” Then she knelt next to where I sat on a wall by the sea. She took my hand and kissed it. This motherly gesture comforted me a lot. She could as easily have patted my head or stroked my cheek. (Kissing a hand affectionately is possibly a Puerto Rican thing?) She added, “You have more savings than my family has ever seen. I think you are expecting too much.”
I thought about how my savings from four years of working — $100,000-plus change — must have seemed a fortune to her. That humbled me. She smiled again. “This is your vacation, no?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“And your birthday is coming. Much can happen in two weeks. Think about where you want to be, what you want to be doing, on your birthday. Let’s plan just two weeks ahead.”
And, with that, the sun came out from behind the clouds.
I used to dress up as Don Quixote, the madcap knight from Miguel Cervantes’ classic tale. Quixote idealized his mission as a righter of wrongs, yet always wrecked havoc in his wake. Maybe that kind of irony speaks to a lot of us. At college, I had great fun spoofing my sense of self-importance in the world, without getting all that political about it. I had a tin-foil helmet, shield and sword. Ridiculous. Peter Brill, a friend of mine, played along with me as Sancho Panza. He was a comic genius, which is the only reason we got asked to parties and I had a column in the student newspaper. I can’t imagine our satires meaning much to anyone now. They were mostly stand-up routines satirizing our aspiration: the American dream that was beginning to elude us.
I see lots of caricatures of Don Quixote here on the island: hand-crafted items sold in open-air markets, painted plates found in antique shops. I’m at the point now where I don’t want to see another picture of the old knight and have to remember what it felt like to play him. That year at school was a sad one; a story I’ve told in the novel, A Just Man Is Hard to Find. Anyway, I’ve come here to move on. As Halloween nears, I feel the itch to act out some persona, some alter-ego within. I’m from New England, after all: the setting for many a Halloween story and gothic tale. Since I don’t yet know what character to play here — on an island basking in sunlight, with hardly a shadow — I’ve invented one. Tonight, when Maria and I go out to the Santurce market-turned-into-dancehall, I’ll be in a black suit and purple shirt and shiny shoes, with this mask we found for me in Old San Juan. Maybe I’ll play a cabaret master of ceremonies with an accent and shuffling step? A man in the spotlight, reinventing himself.