Chapter 16: Flight 17 to San Juan
I couldn’t have been more relieved to go on my first vacation in almost three years. I thought traveling might improve my situation, confusing geographical displacement for emotional progress. At minimum, time away from the office offered a chance to unwind. Either I’d feel better by resting or coming up with some quick-fix scheme. I just never would’ve expected the latter to entail lobster fishing in Puerto Rico.
“Where you headed?” the cabbie grumbled on our way to the airport.
“San Juan.” I said.
I didn’t put much thinking in my destination. Beyond wanting to be near the water, I preferred somewhere mildly exotic where I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. I already underwent the exhausting ordeal every time I left my apartment.
“Oh yeah?” Sal grinned.
“Yeah,” I humored him.
“I’ve been once,” he bit into a sausage. “You’re going to have a hell of a time.”
Our eyes met in his rear-view mirror.
“Your girlfriend okay with you going though? I know my old lady wouldn’t be.”
“It works out great,” I said. “Because I don’t have one.”
“Oh boy…” Sal talked with his mouth full. “You are one lucky son of a gun. I’m telling you, kid. Women down there will do anything to go home with a gringo. And I mean anything.”
From across the river, the skyline didn’t feel nearly as nostalgic as the first time I rode into the city. With unlimited excitement and potential, I never pictured myself living elsewhere. But failing at chasing someone else’s dream made me feel impotent.
“Alright, kid,” the driver stopped curbside. “Take it easy.”
I grabbed my duffle from the trunk.
“And whatever you do,” he rolled down the window. “Don’t drink the water. They say you can, but I knew a guy who was peeing out of his ass for weeks.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I said.
He drove off and I breezed through the terminal. Tuesday mid-morning might be the emptiest I’ve ever seen an airport. After upgrading my seat, I stopped at a Mexican joint near my gate and ordered a margarita.
“Frozen or with ice,” the heavyset bartender, who looked like she hadn’t slept in days, asked gloomily.
“With ice,” I said.
“Good. Because we don’t have frozen.”
“So why’d you give me a choice?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Why do dogs eat their own shit?”
I watched her pour a premade mix in a plastic cup and sipped through my teeth.
“A little early for boozing, isn’t it?” someone wisecracked behind me.
I looked over my shoulder and saw a white-haired fellow named Walter shaking his head. I typically would’ve ignored him, but they’d delayed my flight due engine trouble. I recognized his drawl from college, listening to his equally wrinkly wife.
“It’s twelve pm somewhere right?” I responded.
“That’s one way to look at it,” he huffed, drinking what looked like tomato juice. “Another way to look at it is that you have a drinking problem.”
“Walter!” his wife pinched him. “Don’t start.”
I had the bartender top me off to spite him.
“Sorry for that,” Gayle apologized. “Where are you headed?”
“How lovely,” she beamed.
“Lovely!?” Walter gasped. “Nothing lovely about that place. Big waste of tax money, if you ask me.”
“Can you not?” Gayle pouted. “He’s a nice young man and we’re also in public.”
They started bickering as the bartender brought out my nachos. Their supposed argument deteriorated into an innocuous exchange of name-calling: Little Miss Drama, Mr. Grumpy, Gabby Gayle, Wallowing Walter. They seemed like characters from a Roald Dahl book.
“So…” I cleared my throat. “Where are you folks headed?”
“Home,” Walter nodded sheepishly. “And thank goodness. This city is filled with hooligans and perverts.”
“Let me guess,” I chewed ice. “You’re from Raleigh.”
“How could you tell?” Gayle smiled. “His attitude or have you visited?”
“Well I’ll tell you one thing,” Walter wagged his finger. “Down south, kids have manners, unlike this catastrophe of a city.”
“Oh hush,” Gayle smacked his sagging arm. “We were actually visiting our grandson, Arthur. He’s around your age.”
I felt like Holden Caulfield.
“What does he do?” I feigned interest.
“Well…” she beamed. “Arthur works for a big bank on Wall Street. Advising the world’s biggest companies. Everyone morning, he wears a suit and tie to work. It’s really the whole shebang.
“What’s his last name?” I said. “Or your last name, rather.’
She told me I nearly cracked a rib trying not to laugh. It turns out Arthur was that industry analyst who nearly got fired for forcing interns into eating contests. He idiotically ordered a massive supply of chicken nuggets to the wrong floor.
“He must be really talented,” I said. “Those are really difficult jobs to get.”
“He is,” Gayle smiled proudly. “And we know. He just works so hard.”
“FLIGHT 17 to SAN JUAN will begin boarding shortly,” they announced over the loud speaker.
Walter frowned, adjusting the sleeves on his jacket.
“But enough about Arthur,” Gayle said. “What do you do?”
“Great question,” Walter nodded. “What do you do? Shouldn’t you be at work?”
“Fair point. I’m actually between jobs.
“What line of work you in?” he smirked. “Spirits?”
I laughed unintentionally.
“I’m a journalist,” I said.
“That’s wonderful,” Gayle said enthusiastically.
“A kid who can write,” Walter approved. “What’s your beat?”
“All sorts of things,” I lied. “But mostly horse racing.”
I actually went to the track for the first time a few weeks earlier and couldn’t remember the last time I had that much fun. In addition to cheap drinks and pretty girls, I won nearly every race I played. And all I did was bet on underdogs.
“I knew I liked you,” Walter lifted his pinky. “I’ve tried taking Arthur to the track, but he says it’s not his scene… whatever the heck that means.”
“FLIGHT 17 to SAN JUAN… now boarding,” they called again.
“Well that’s my flight,” I finished my drink.
Surprisingly, he reached out to shake my hand.
“It was good talking to you, son,” he said.
“Likewise,” I looked at Gayle.
“Have so much fun on your trip,” she waved. “And please be safe.”
I nodded and waltzed on board, already feeling tipsy. In no mood to stop, I immediately flagged down a server. After another three or four cocktails, I passed out somewhere over Atlanta.
“¡Señor!” a flight attendant, who didn’t look a day over sixteen, shook me frantically. “¡Señor!”
I groggily opened my eyes.
“Tienes que bajar,” she said.
I was the only person left on board.
“Lo siento,” I apologized, looking for my bag, which she’d already removed from the overhead compartment.
Thanking her, I stumbled onto the tarmac.
“Bienvendios a San Juan,” a scarlet sign hung above baggage claim.
I circled the carousel and met a wave of humidity, ignoring a line of locals pedaling Jet Ski tours. The ocean couldn’t have been more than half a mile away. I hopped in a taxi and imagined going swimming, feeling completely refreshed.
“¿A donde vas?” my driver tipped his hat, flashing a golden tooth.
“Hotel Escondido, por favor,” I replied.
His car reeked of cigars and livestock, so I rolled down the window.
“¿Como?” he said, confused by what I said.
“Hotel Escondido,” I repeated.
“No lo conozco,” he shook his head.
I sighed – I should have known locals would try taking advantage of me.
“Si,” I insisted. “Cerca de downtown… cerca de las discotecas.”
“Ay…” he gave me a thumbs up. “¡Perfecto!”
As he shifted into second gear, I admired the orange sunset as we drove along a one-lane road. Notwithstanding an endless string of vendors selling fruit and sunglasses, I saw kids playing baseball on dirt with broken glass. Most ran around barefoot with milk cartons as gloves.
“Buenas,” a clean-cut kid in his early twenties greeted me at the front desk.
Down an alley off the main street, my hostel felt mildly seedy, but I couldn’t complain, opting for value over luxury.
“Hola,” I slid Ricardo my passport.
A group of men played cards in the kitchen behind him.
“First time in PR?” Ricardo said in perfect English.
I nodded as he copied my information.
“Well, I may be biased,” he smiled without showing teeth. “But you’ve made an excellent choice, Scotty.”
On cue, a pair of Australians gingerly entered the air-conditioned lobby and waived at Ricardo. Each of them six-foot goddesses, I could have sworn Michelangelo sculpted their legs. I might’ve still been drunk, but one of them winked at me before ducking into their first-floor double.
“Will you have any guests?” he asked.
“Potentially,” I replied.
“Very well,” Ricardo nodded. “If you do, please register them with whoever is up front.”
He signaled for me to follow and we climbed three steep flights. The tile, while relatively clean, had cracks and pockets of ants in each corner. Ricardo ignored them, unlocking my room with an oversized key.
“Any plans tonight?” he hung by the door.
I dropped my bag on the twin-sized bed and noted a burlesque parlor across the street.
“Not yet,” I said. “But I’m open to suggestions.”
“Well if you’re interested…” he shrugged. “My cousin bartends at a cantina on the water.”
“Does he give you a commission for every guest you send over?”
“I wish,” Ricardo smiled. “Mostly locals and fresh lobster.”
“I’ll see you there,” I nodded.
“Perfecto,” he bowed. “Enjoy your stay, tío.”
Ricardo exited and I fell onto the mattress. Deciding whether I should knock on the girls’ door sooner rather than later, I accidentally dozed off, dreaming of intimate conversation by the water. I awoke a few hours later to the sound of fireworks. After showering and throwing on a button down, I headed down to the lobby and stood outside their door. With Ricardo no longer at the front desk, I pressed my ear up to the wood and knocked.
After another minute, it was obvious they’d already left, but I wasn’t worried. There’s a decent chance Ricardo told them about his bar, and if not, it’s not like we weren’t coming back to the same place. Plus, it might have added to my appeal to the extent they actually smiled at me.
Pleased with my general trajectory, I meandered towards the marina and picked up some rum for the walk; amazingly, it cost less than water. I admired the myriad of yachts, some upwards of one hundred feet, docked beside a row of restaurants. Most of them seemed unoccupied, while others had several guests on board, twirling and drinking champagne.
“¡Oye!” a rugged fellow waived a moment or so after I stepped into the outstretched cantina.
Dim lamps hung across a dance floor, surrounded by tables of folks clamoring for copas and langosta.
“¡Oye!” Pablo repeated as I searched for a seat near the band.
A group of mustached men played merengue on a small stage facing the beach.
“¿Conoces, Ricardo?” he said enthusiastically from behind the bar.
I nodded and moved through the relatively inebriated crowd.
“Hola,” I approached. “Me llamo Scotty.”
“Mucho gusto,” he shook my hand. “Soy Pablo.”
“Gracias por invitarme,” I thanked him.
He squeezed what looked like a lime into a beer.
“Bienvendios a la isla,” he patted my shoulder, leaving me beside a coconut tree hovering from the sand.
“¿Cuanto vale?” I asked.
I didn’t want to assume he’d given it to me for free.
“No pasa nada,” Pablo winked.
Instead, Pablo swung to the opposite side of the bar, addressing a Moorish-looking woman in a yellow dress, easily the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
“Gracias,” I mumbled, drinking it by the neck.
Pablo whispered in her ear and she laughed; dangling earrings swayed in rhythm. I straddled a stool, eavesdropping on nearby conversations between cervezas. From what I could tell, everybody knew one another, so I kept to myself, enjoying the performance.
An hour or so later, I stood to pee and almost lost my balance, needing to lean on the counter for support. I was so intoxicated I’d completely forgotten about Ricardo’s Australians. As taxis whizzed by, I prepared myself for shuffling to the street, but felt a light tap on my shoulder.
“Hi,” Valencia smiled.
“Hi,” I said.
“Pablo says you know Ricardo?” she stepped forward, fabric splitting down her thigh.
“Mirá” I slurred. “Estoy muy borracho. El más borracho del mundo. Tengo que ir ahora.”
But she grabbed my hand; the room spun except for her cleavage.
“¿Me vas a dejar?” Valencia said sensually.
“I…” I trailed off.
Her smile left me powerless.
“Quedate conmigo,” she whispered.
“I can’t,” I protested.
“Please?” she bit her lip.
I knew I shouldn’t drink anymore, but I had zero inhibitions. She handed me a glass of rum and I threw it back, praying I wouldn’t vomit. We did another one and I blacked out.
The next thing I remember, the three of us were on the sand: Pablo, Valencia and I. They argued about Lord knows what as I feel to a knee. I didn’t understand why were alone in the dark, but it couldn’t have been for anything good.
“Pablo, ¡no lo hagas!” Valencia cried.
“Merece una patada,” Pablo clenched his fist.
“¡Se va a callarse!” she stood between us. “¡Por favor!”
“¡Callate, por Dios!” he pushed her aside.
He charged and I braced myself. To contextualize my state of mind, I knew he was about to hit me, but I couldn’t lift my arms.
“THUMP,” his fist met my jaw.
I face planted and Pablo kicked my ribs. She begged him to stop, as I lied motionless. He emptied my pockets and dragged Valencia back towards the bar. I stared up at the stars and rolled on my side. In what felt like a hallucination, I watched un pescador cast out to sea.