Chapter 18: Moonlight
Working in a restaurant, if only for a night, was surprisingly engaging – especially with a bunch of lively Puerto Ricans cheering me on. I strangely developed an immediate intimacy with our lobsters, storing them one-by-one in a massive salt-water tank. I strapped bands around their claws and watched them sink to the bottom. They lied motionless, intertwining their antennas for a sense of unity. Ricardo and Pablo entered the kitchen; we only had a few hours before customers arrived.
“You’re a natural,” Ricardo beamed, slipping on a tie for his shift at Hotel Escondido.
“Si,” Pablo begrudgingly admitted. “You didn’t do a terrible job.”
I liked picking it up quickly, considering I’d never even fished before.
“Anything else I can do to help?” I offered.
They grinned at one another.
“Anything?” they responded.
“Sure,” I shrugged, knowing I’d volunteered for something unpleasant.
“Vale,” Pablo winked. “Come here, gringo.”
He led me to the bathroom, leaving on his motorcycle to pick up supplies. With Ricardo gone as well, I scrubbed the residue lingering from the night before and lit a candle to mask the smell. Finishing the toilets, I mopped the main area and learned to work the speakers. Island music had an upbeat flavor of reggae and dance. I wiped the stools, counters and beer taps by the time Pablo returned.
“¡Mirá el gringo!” Pablo cheered, carrying several cases of liquor. “Not bad.”
“No worries,” I responded. “I didn’t mind.”
“In that case…” he nodded to his bike. “Ayudáme, tío.”
I helped hum lug boxes inside and stock both bars. Ironically, there wasn’t a single American brand besides Jim Beam. Pablo headed back into the kitchen as I brought the JB bottles to the front.
“Oye,” he poked his head out. “Do you cook?”
I nodded, despite not knowing how to do much beyond throwing meat on a grill.
“Bueno,” he said. “You’re going to cook tonight.”
Pablo signaled me to follow and I found him boiling water in a gigantic pot. He scooped a lobster out of the tank and placed it on the wooden surface. It rested peacefully instead of attempting to escape.
“Le encanta a dormir,” Pablo explained. “He loves sleeping.”
From what looked like a saltshaker, Pablo dashed a few specs near the lobster’s antennas, which promptly sent it into a deep slumber.
“Is he dead?” I asked.
“No,” Pablo reduced the stove heat. “He is sleeping. Pero, he will feel nothing.”
Pablo patted the shell and said a prayer.
“Sin sufrir,” he said. “Sin pain.”
He dropped the lobster in water and it floated to the bottom.
“Trenta minutos para los grandes,” Pablo handed me a wooden spoon. “And twenty minutes for the little ones.”
Pablo made a paste-like coating of butter, rum and herbs while I stirred slowly. He nodded to a container of garlic, which I sprinkled on top. As its shell reddened, signaling it finished boiling, Pablo showed me where to drizzle the sauce.
“Perfecto,” Pablo stepped towards the main room. “Lo vas a hacer con todos.”
“All of them?” I said.
I didn’t remember seeing a single person eating the other night, so I thought he might’ve been joking.
“Claro, gringo,” he winked. “Todos.”
Pablo motioned to a few other pots and left to tend the bar. I couldn’t tell whether he was serious, but as folks trickled in, I realized there was zero chance we wouldn’t sell out – apparently I’d arrived after everyone had eaten the other night. I cooked lobsters four at a time, flailing them like propellers. I lost count somewhere around one hundred. Alongside Pablo’s cousins, I also helped with burgers and sides until nothing remained.
“¡Oye, mira el cocinero!” Pablo roared as I emerged from the kitchen. “¡Dile gracias al GRINGO!”
The crowded applauded and I couldn’t help smiling. I obviously disliked that name, but I appreciated their praise. Pablo emphatically waived me over to the bar, signaling for me to push forward.
“Muy buen trabajo,” he shook my hand. “¿Que quieres?
“I’m okay,” I refused. “I’m not thirsty.”
“No me digas,” Pablo handed me a beer. “¡Tomá! We need to celebrate!”
I accepted, but tossed the bottle aside the moment he looked away. Not that I expected my relationship with alcohol to magically improve overnight, but I’d already started feeling marginally less melancholic. I saw Valencia dancing intimately with another guy. I shouldn’t have felt jealous, but hated her twirling under someone else’s arm. I shuffled towards the exit, hoping to at least catch a decent night’s sleep.
“Scotty!” Ricardo stepped in my way, already tipsy.
I reciprocated his hug out of amusement.
“Can I just apologize,” he slurred. “…For my cousin and everything that happened.”
“Apologize?” I said. “I’m the one who needs to apologize.”
“You’re fine, Scotty,” he patted my shoulder. “You’re fine. And I don’t care what Pablo or anybody says. You’re not a gringo. You’re one of us.”
He nodded to a table near the dance floor; I counted eight dudes total, all of them around my age.
“Come with!” he cried, “Meet some of our people.”
In a sea of bodies, Valencia and I made eye contact as she spun under her partner’s arm.
“Sounds good,” I said nonchalantly.
We worked our way over to his friends, who smiled as we joined them.
“Amigos,” Ricardo introduced me. “Se llama Scotty y habla muy bien.”
“Mucho gusto,” I said.
“Mucho gusto,” they responded. “Bienvenidos.”
“¿Golpeó con Pablo, no?” one of them asked Ricardo, referring to our physical altercation.
“Si,” I interjected. “Ricardo and I had our issues, but it’s all good now.”
“¿Entonces, como te gusta, Puerto Rico?” he continued.
The guy sitting across from me had a gap between his two front teeth.
“Better than America,” I said.
“¿En serio?” he cried. “I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true,” I smiled. “Las puertoriqueñas son muy hermosas.”
I checked to see if Valencia noticed, but she remained enthralled with her guy, who looked like an understudy from the movie Zorro.
“Entonces, Scotty” the lanky fellow next to Ricardo added. ¿Prefieres puertoriqueñas mas que americanas?”
“Como no,” I agreed. “How is that even a question?”
“Oye Ricardo,” the fat one howled. “El gringo me cae muy bien, te digo.”
They ordered another round of rum, which I pretended to drink. I checked the dance floor, but Valencia seemed to have disappeared. I excused myself after a few more boisterous comments.
“You have to come with us in the boat tomorrow,” Ricardo insisted.
“¿Langostas?” I asked.
“¡Claro, amigo!” he said excitedly. “More than you can ever imagine.”
“Sounds great,” I stood. “I’ll see you mañana.”
I stepped towards the street, but felt a familiar tug on my arm.
“¿A donde vas?” Valencia teased. “Are you ignoring me, now?”
Jesus Christ, she was beautiful – and not even because of her appearance. I felt like she understood what I liked without needing any explanation. Or at a minimum, could tolerate the less positive aspects of my personality.
“It sounds like I owe you an apology for the other night,” I said.
“For what?” she smirked.
“For making an idiot of myself,” I shrugged. “But also for embarrassing you.”
“Well you know how you can make it up to me,” Valencia nodded to the dance floor. “Vamos a bailar.”
“I should warn you. I’m not very good.”
“That’s fine. It wouldn’t be much of an apology if you were.”
I kept up better than expected as we inched closer to one another. Valencia’s dress blew upward and I brushed against her thighs. After what felt like twenty songs, the band paused for intermission.
“Now what? I said, noting everyone rushing to the bar.
She nodded to the beach.
“¿Quieres caminar?” she smiled.
I smiled and we stepped onto the sand. I held her hand the moment we’d gone far enough that no one could see. I tried kissing her, but Valencia pressed her finger against my lips.
“¿Otra vez?” she smiled. “You never stop do you?”
“Come on…” I responded. “One kiss. Two seconds tops.”
“You need to control yourself,” Valencia said matter-of-factly. “It’s better if we wait.”
We strolled along a dock, passing a series of boats. Not that I knew how, but I thought about hot-wiring one and taking Valencia down the shore. We sat on the edge and she put her head on my shoulder.
“Can I ask you something?” she said in Spanish.
“Have you ever loved someone?”
I look up at the stars, thinking about Lina.
“That’s quite something to ask,” I laughed. “But, I don’t know.”
“¿No sabes?” Valencia replied. “How do you not know? Either you do or you don’t.”
I remember meaning the words when I said them, but it seemed like a different person speaking. As I reflect on all the experiences I’ve had leading up to this point, I feel like I’ve been watching a comedy about my life. The main caveat being I’m the only person in the audience and can’t appreciate the humor.
“I mean, I don’t know,” I said. “What is love anyway? It’s a feeling and you have it for a while and then it’s gone.”
“Que terrible. How could you ever think such a thing?”
I kicked the water – I’d never opened up like that to anybody, not to Lina or Mel or even my mom.
“Bueno…” I sighed, speaking slowly. “I guess I just feel like you can either be content and full of regret or miserable and try to be extraordinary. And if I had to choose one, I’d rather be miserable. Not because I don’t want to be happy. I really do. It’s just the only way I think I ever can be happy is doing something that’s worth talking about.”
Valencia didn’t say anything, so I assumed she didn’t understand. I shouldn’t have come back to the cantina or gone down to Puerto Rico in the first place. More than anything, I wanted to wake up and be five years younger. I don’t know what I would’ve done, but I could’ve chosen anything other than this. I wanted to jump in the ocean and swim until I couldn’t see land.
“Scotty,” Valencia whispered.
“There’s something I need to tell you.”
“Is everything okay?”
Moonlight shone on her face.
“Don’t feel like you need to say it back.”
“Say what back?”
“Te quiero,” she said. “Te quiero un montón.”