I got a walking cast day before yesterday, so I am crutch-free. I don’t have health insurance. I keep expecting to get a job and get all that paperwork done.
Maria called Martina Morales, a girl she went to school with who is now a nurse. Maria asked her if she had any used “boots” where she worked. She did, so we went to her clinic, and I got the hard cast cut off and a slightly used walking-cast to wear. Yesterday, I more than made up for two weeks of sitting around. Maria had given me a list of things to get done. She had said, “do what you can,” but I pushed myself to get every last thing done.
I went to Mass. I did the laundry, including sheets and towels. I took the bus to La Perla, where I helped Maria’s uncle paint a house. Sometimes I held the ladder for him. Inside I used a roller to paint two rooms a lime green. With the sixty dollars I earned, I bought groceries on my way home. I cleaned my shower stall with Clorox spray. I put Big Bird on his ring perch and cleaned out his cage. I cooked some ground beef and made tacos. By ten o’clock I lay down to listen to a classical guitar CD by Felix Rodriguez. I don’t know if Maria called or came by later. I was asleep.
Today, I’m sore as hell, but I feel great. If I can keep pushing myself like I did yesterday, I’m pretty sure I can make a life for myself here.
Phones are so smart, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. Yet, somehow Maria and I did, on the way from our delightful lunch near the Arecibo lighthouse to the world’s largest radio telescope in the nearby hills. Nearby, hah! As we drove, over hill and dale, up and down narrow roads –- not seeing a soul except for one guy on a Moped, sometimes passing by roadside houses, some ramshackle, some slightly more pretentious — I kept thinking: “How can the world’s largest anything be up here?”
Then I thought, “Maybe Google Map is playing with us? Maybe the radio waves from the facility are scrambling the phone’s signal?”
At the gate, we were told as much. Not that we had been playing Scramble with the world’s mostly reliable global positioning system, only that we MUST turn off our cell phones for the duration of our visit. Serious radio waves up here! As I drove up and onto the grounds, I paled. It was one thing to drive up hills, another to walk 500 steps from the small parking lot to the telescope viewing area on crutches. I was ready to turn around and GPS-it to San Juan, when Maria said something in Spanish to a park ranger. We got a ride up the hill.
The telescope was simply a very large metal disk, seemingly sitting on the ground, but actually hovering fifteen feet above a natural sink-hole by suspension cables from three nearby towers. Okay, it was somewhat interesting, especially the crane with a cat-walk out to an armature with a huge ball with an eyehole and, at the very end, a large saber-like rod. These were the moving parts, and the instruments for sending, receiving, and making pictures of the waves bouncing off the dish.
I realized from the smiles on everyone’s faces that this facility (in the middle of nowhere) was truly the summit of dreams for more than a few local university science students. The docents and tour guides all spoke English, thank goodness, so I learned quite a lot about the telescope.
The receiving dish originally was made of chicken wire by a couple of engineers from Cornell University and used solely to collect radio waves to better understand the ionosphere –- the not-so-outer space beyond the atmosphere. With the additional parts, it now collects data from way out in space and converts the data into pictures, of asteroids and meteors, for example. Only once was the telescope used to send a message out into deep space by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The tour guide said that we hadn’t gotten a message back in forty-some years, so we could neither deny nor confirm the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Someone said she disagreed, and I thought to myself, “Better we find some intelligence here first.”
Maria gave me a look as if to say, “Who’s on crutches, doesn’t understand the native language, and thinks he’s so smart?”
Maria shared her earliest memory with me today. She was a child of three, and her family was living in La Perla. Her days were spent on the narrow streets, looking for her slightly older brothers. There had been rain at night, and when she ran by the cages of roosters along the road, she fell. She lay still for a while until a woman bent over her — a lady with a kind smile, brown smooth skin, and green-flecked eyes lifted her up. Maria had been looking down at her knee and seen blood leaking from a swollen wound, and that had scared her. She had never seen blood before.
Maria distinctly remembers the woman looking directly into her eyes with fierce love, wiping a slender finger across her hurt knee and then smearing Maria’s blood across her own cheek. She did the same thing again, on her other cheek. Maria remembers staring at the woman’s face and feeling joy. The woman had marked herself with Maria’s blood, smiled, and let her know not to be afraid. She’d forgotten about it until I asked her to share one of her earliest memories.
Is there no other lens for looking at life than one’s self? I have been so absorbed with my own feelings, confusion, and dreams. I can’t imagine Maria sticking around if I continue to go on this way: Blah, blah, blah — beep, boop boop, beep — about myself. Nothing wrong with blogging, just the “live my life with me in real time” writing that I have been peddling. Maybe the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said; but I don’t need to tell all. Maria seems less and less comfortable with it.
And Dad has probably been rolling in his grave, for he always had a good bit of the Pilgrim in him. He was naturally reserved as well as philosophically opposed to personal narratives, on the grounds they lacked objectivity. I seem to have been ignoring his example and following that of another New England son, someone quite influential in his own day: Henry David Thoreau. In his well-known work about his alone time at Walden Pond, he wrote:
“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”
In Thoreau’s day, this confession seemed a refreshing bit of candor. In mine, it only seems redundant. So, I will be shifting gears, changing my tune, focusing on what life presents with a wider lens. I’ll start with a simple question. What can I hope to know about this amazing world Maria and I –- all of us — are living in?
And most important of all, What is love? That question should absorb me for awhile!
Used to be, if I stood in front of a bathroom mirror, it was to see the part of my face I was lathering and shaving. Lately, I’ve noticed I’m checking myself out two or three times a day. Sometimes, I’ll catch my reflection in a storefront window. Today, I’m at the Mall of the Americas — that’s Plaza las Americas — and I’ve been looking into every mirror I pass. This is really odd for me.
I’ve got to figure out what is making me this self-conscious. I’ve got two theories. First, Maria is lovely, so when we are together I’m being judged in some way. Maybe that’s been making me feel more insecure? Or, I’m just a curiosity here on the island. Maybe I look young for twenty-five, and kind of preppy? What can I do? I’m six-feet, with sandy brown hair, I own no socks, I haven’t been eating much and my khakis are loose. I suppose I’m looking in mirrors because I want to reassure myself — I’m still me –- and I’m okay. Maybe I haven’t had a good shower recently. My leg’s in a cast.
My sister Rose had some good advice when I called her this morning: Buy some clothes and get a haircut. “You don’t have to look like you’re trying out for Pirates of the Caribbean.”
I found the first mirror I could, and I took a look. Rose was right, as always. I could be typecast as a marooned British officer with a peg leg, limping around the island in tattered skivvies collecting brush. (Make movie-goers wonder: Is he going to make a fire or is he building some kind of nest?)
Anyway, I had Maria drop me off at the Mall for the day. She’s got her brother Silvio’s car and has to drive to a library in Ponce. I’m sure she will see Professor Ramos while she’s there. She’s reassured me that their relationship is only professional, but I’ve seen them together. I’m not so sure Doc Ramos thinks their relationship is only professional. So, I’m here at the Mall by myself — on crutches, not knowing Spanish — but ready to shop. I think I’ll start with my feet and get some new socks. Penny’s or Brooks Brothers? I know Rose would say, Brooks Brothers. So up and down the escalator I go.
Novel Idea: I think that Will may be feeling what so many women have often felt: They are being judged for how they look. It’s probably good for Will to experience this for himself. He’ll have more sympathy later on when Maria shares her experiences of coming to the States for school and being treated disrespectfully because she was Puerto Rican. She felt stereotyped as a Latino woman. She got attention for her looks, but her intelligence? Maria may wonder, even now, whether Will respects her fully. Prejudice for or against persons takes many guises. It always starts with a false assumption about a person, based on his or her appearance.
WordPress bloggers discuss inequality here: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/unequal-terms/
I Googled Arecibo and checked out where Maria had promised to take me. Arecibo is a coastal town about an hour west of San Juan. It boasts the world’s largest radio telescope. That might be interesting, but not sure I want to stand around a huge metal disk when lightening is popping and sparking. (So far, the hurricane warnings are all for Bermuda.) We’ve postponed that field trip.
Anyway, I think the low-pressure area is right over my apartment. I’ve got to get some fresh air, so I’m going to walk back over to the Performing Arts Center, about four blocks away. I’ve got decent crutches and it’s cooled off some. I want to look at Annex Burgos’ nine musas again, see if their wild eyes hold a secret for me. (If you’ve not met these women yourself, check out my earlier post, Island Muses.)
Okay, I’ve had a wild thought, or maybe an inspiration. After communing a while with the naked ladies of the plaza, la Musas, I figured out what was missing from the installation: greenery, flowers, bugs and birds. I mean, come on, these statues have got to be erupting into life.
I’m no artist, but I get that if you are a muse of the arts, sensual and creative, a representative of island femininity and vibrancy, you can’t just stand there stone cold dumb.
So I’m getting in touch with the artist to ask whether she would allow me to green up her ladies — with living things. I’m thinking ivy-laced skirt trimmings, cobweb veils with live spiders, wasp-nest shoulder pads, and briny seashell necklaces. To some, all this could seem a prank. I won’t do it without the Burgos’ okay, of course. And maybe I’ll need an official license as a performance artist or something. Why? If I’m going to make this island my home I’d better be willing to make a strong personal statement. Why not debut as an avant-garde eco-artist?
Funny what you think of doing, when you have absolutely nothing better to do.
I made Big Bird a nest of branches and sticks today. I had to hobble downstairs and outside to the garden to find what I needed. Half of the green stuff here in San Juan I’ve never seen before — not too many conifers, which I do know. So I had to go online and make sure that every branch and leaf I’d harvested was safe for birds to sharpen their beaks on. I chucked a few of the larger branches over the balcony, and laid the others — not flat but criss-crossed, in the cage. Finally, Big Bird’s Casa Blanca was ready, with a clay water bowl tucked in the right front corner and a silver bell suspended by the bar perch. As if on cue, the adventuring bird came back to me. He roosted on the balcony’s rail — relieved himself, actually — then flapped right into his home. Once all of him was in, I shut the door. He stared at me, as if to say, “Was that necessary? I’m just checking the place out.”
I stood there admiring my handy work — okay, staring Big Bird down — when I hear the key turn in the lock. Maria walked into the apartment, and she didn’t smile. I actually saw her jaw drop, though her hand quickly went to cover her mouth. I guess she may have gasped too. I looked down, and all around my feet were leaves, and sticks — and several small crawling things that must have come out of the branches. In my creative absorption, I had left a burner on too, because I was beginning to smell a salty, pasty odor and remembered I’d left Campbell’s chicken soup on, maybe an hour ago?
Maria didn’t say anything, she just turned and went into the small bathroom off the short hall and closed the door. As much fun as I’d been having, I was eager to switch into Mr. Clean mode, find the garbage bags and dust broom, because I did not want the woman I loved to think — even for a moment — that I would be a problem to live with. No! If Will Gray makes a mess, he cleans it up. Broken leg notwithstanding, I tore around that place. Big Bird was all eye. He heckled. By the time Maria came out of the bathroom, I was leaning on my broom by the window with a Cheshire-Cat grin. I was thinking, maybe it’s sometimes good to make a mess, just so you can tear around and clean up. Maybe not quite as satisfying as making up after a fight, but satisfying nonetheless.
When you are a stranger in strange land, you hear things others don’t. Some sounds absorb you simply because you haven’t heard them before, like coqui frogs behind garden pots and the rhythmic shush of waves breaking. When you’re in a strange land, you are instinctively more alert to your surroundings. You may startle easily, and all you can do then is laugh at yourself and re-catch your breath.
Half of what I hear on the streets of Old San Juan I probably imagine. I hear tongues no longer spoken. I hear the foot-fall, merry-making, and quiet weeping of people who aren’t there: the grateful dead.
People of this enchanted island have had to work diligently, love passionately, and pray feverishly to survive the past five centuries. Tourism helps the territory’s economy, of course. Yet whether tourists come or don’t come, Puerto Rico’s 4 million inhabitants will continue to live, as they have always lived: ears to the ground, eyes on the horizon.
The problem is I’ve got to find a job, any job. The four years I spent in New York, I worked for a major bank doing “customer service.” What I actually did was telemarketing. I tried to interest the uninterested in various financial services. My call list included existing account-holders with large savings accounts ($50,000 to $250,000). My job was to encourage them to let our financial representatives help them earn a better return on their capital.
I learned that people who leave that kind of money languishing in savings accounts usually don’t trust the stock market — enough even to invest in a well-diversified mutual fund. They open savings accounts, usually at multiple banks, to have their cash insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) up to the $250,000 limit per institution. Even short-term investment instruments, such as certificates of deposit, often don’t entice them. More than a few people have said they are “remaining liquid.” No one can convince them to do otherwise.
At least one woman I spoke to had said that, if the bank I represented could help her to buy and secure precious stones, she might be interested in that. She flat out told me she wanted to have something to barter with for food, shelter, and health care when the U.S. economy failed again and the government couldn’t bail out the banks next time.
After awhile, talking to the financially paranoid and risk-averse was depressing; but the work did serve me in one respect. I decided to live on a hundred bucks a week (very hard to do in New York) and save everything else I earned. In four years of living out of a basement in Brooklyn, owning only four dress shirts and two suits and one pair of shoes, I was able to save $103,627.87. Of course, I gave up owning a car, and I ate a lot of canned chili, rice and fruit. I rarely went out, much to my friend Brill’s dismay.
Now I’m back here, and laying low with a broken leg, I wonder what’s changed? That’s what’s scaring the hell out of me. I don’t want to repeat the break up of four years ago.
“What are you afraid about?” Maria asked me last night.
I told her, “I’m scared of not being able to take care of you. I know you want to be a mother.”
“Yes, Will,” she said. Her face went soft, and her eyes grayed. Remembering the unborn child we had lost five years before always made both of us sad . “But we can’t let any more fear get to us, okay?”
“Okay. No fear this time. I’ll find work tomorrow.”
She looks down at my leg and shakes her head. “No, tomorrow I have off. We’ll go to Arecibo.”
“What’s in Arecido?” I asked her.
“You will see,” she said.
She opened the birdcage door, and Big Bird stepped onto her index finger and wrapped his padded talons around it. Then she lifted her finger to her shoulder and he hopped off. Maria walked out to the balcony, and the bird took wing. I guess he’ll be spending his day in the treetops.
There aren’t enough hours in the day to waste even one being afraid.