Chapter 19: Is This It?
I didn’t react to Valencia and she interpreted my non-response as feeling the same. A realistic person would’ve interjected at that very moment, explaining the unlikelihood of giving up a lucrative career in New York to work as a bartender in the Caribbean, but I wanted to believe I found an escape. So I caught lobsters in the morning, boiled them at night and spent time with Valencia in between. We even looked at places in her barrio, so I wouldn’t have to keep living in a hotel. And with only two days left on my vacation, I dreaded calling you about my decision to stay in San Juan.
“Have you ever heard la estoría del escorpión y el Señor Sapo?” Ricardo asked from the bow of his family’s boat.
Pablo lounged in the captain’s seat while I sat up front with Ricardo. At thirty feet long, Un Día de Estos was one of the larger fishing vessels in the marina. It had red stripes and a canoe painted on the right side. Unfortunately, having one of the most recognizable boats in the water didn’t help much with overcast. Inherently shy creatures, lobsters only left their habitat with sunlight.
But in response to Ricardo’s question, I shook my head, biting into a coconut I climbed for early that morning.
“It’s an old island tale,” he explained. “My uncle likes it since el escorpión and la langosta share a common ancestor.”
While I hadn’t met him yet, Pablo and Valencia’s dad was a practitioner of Santería, a ritual based religion not dissimilar from voodoo.
Pablo pulled a cap over his face.
“Había un hurucán.” Ricardo started. “The biggest storm the island has even seen. Just like the Great Flood with Noah, all the animals had planned to evacuate. Birds flew, livestock traveled with farmers and fish migrated down the coast. Everyone could find safety except el escorpión.”
“Oye…” Pablo complained. “No estamos en Hollywood.”
“But just before the storm hit…” Ricardo rolled his eyes. “El escorpión saw Señor sapo, who was about to swim for safety, leaving el escorpión doomed.
For effect, he used a high-pitched voice for Señor Sapo.
‘Oye, Señor Sapo,’ el escorpión crawled over to the shore.
‘What do you want?’ Señor Sapo said suspiciously.
Frightened, Señor Sapo hopped in the water.
‘¿Señor Sapo, why did you do that?” el escorpión said slyly. ‘We are friends.’
‘No we aren’t!’ el sapo proclaimed. “You stung my friend and now he is gone!”
El escorpión shrugged, acknowledging what he’d done to Señor Sapo’s friend.
“I won’t lie,” el escorpión admitted. “I did it.”
“Entonces, you are my enemy!” Señor Sapo began swimming away.
But el escorpión desperately pointed his tail at the ominous sky.
‘I’m done without you, Señor Sapo.’ el escorpión explained. ‘Can you take me to the other side?’
Señor Sapo flared his throat in disbelief – el escorpión wanted a ride to safety.
‘Are you crazy?’ Señor Sapo protested. ‘You’ll do the same thing to me that you did to my friend!’
El escorpión laughed at Señor Sapo’s fear that he would sting him.
‘Tú eres loco, Señor Sapo,” el escorpión smirked. ‘If I did that, we’ll both be goners.’
Señor Sapo considered el escorpión’s logic, agreeing he couldn’t sting him without killing himself in the process.
“Vale,” Señor Sapo reluctantly agreed. “Entonces, nos vamos.”
So el escorpión climbed on his back and they swam along. Halfway to safety, Señor Sapo thought to himself: Mira esa, el escorpión has kept his word. But shortly thereafter, el escorpión struck his tail into Señor Sapo’s olive spine.
‘¡Idiota!’ Señor Sapo cried. ‘¡Estamos muertos!’
‘I know,” el escorpión laughed. “Pero, what did you expect? It’s my nature.”
As much as I like to hear myself talk, I don’t speak when I have nothing to say. I didn’t know what Ricardo meant by his story, but I wouldn’t ask because I thought he could sense my internal conflict with staying. Clouds dispersed and Pablo nodded at his cousin.
“Ready?” Pablo motioned to the sun.
“Ready,” Ricardo said.
Richard hopped in the water and our eyes met. I couldn’t blame Pablo for wanting to confront me about his sister, but I preferred postponing our conversation until after I caught a few crates of lobsters. So I dove in before he could say anything.
I actually developed my own fishing strategy, despite having zero experience. Unlike Pablo and Ricardo, who scared lobsters into moving by splashing, I waded over rock formations looking for rows of shells. After enough time, I’d find a family of seven or eight, carefully extending my net and lifting them onto our boat.
For the first time, I caught more than Pablo.
“Nice job, Scotty,” Ricardo congratulated me on the ride back to the marina. “You sure you’ve never done this before?”
“Beginner’s luck,” I shrugged.
We parked in our spot towards the back of the marina. As Ricardo lugged the first crate to the cantina, I hung back to help Pablo with the others. He hopped on the dock and crossed his arms.
“Do you love her?” he asked in Spanish.
“Yes,” I said without hesitating.
“Good,” Pablo nodded. “You should come meet the family.”
“Sounds good,” I responded. “Me parece buena idea.”
“Me alegro,” he patted my shoulder. “See you in church, hermano.”
We carried our lobsters inside and I rode my scooter to Valencia’s café. I generally spent all afternoon with her, but I had to leave early to find her family a present. Passing a series of bodegas and florists, I found an antique shop located beside a monastery overflowing with cats.
“Hola,” I entered, nodding at la dueña. “Buenas tardes.”
Reading behind the counter, Eloisa didn’t look up when I entered.
“Hola, mi tesoro,” she said. “¿Como tu andas?”
I smiled – tesoro meant treasure. Eloisa was probably over one hundred years old, but she still had a youthful demeanor. Based on her familiarity with me, it felt like we’d met before.
“Muy bien,” I said. “¿Como te va?”
“I’m not dead,” Eloisa joked. “So everything is great.”
She winced, rocking onto her feat.
“So you want to buy a gift, no?” Eloisa said. “For your girlfriend.”
“Si,” I said, dumbfounded. “How did you know?”
“Because we are in a gift store,” she grinned. “And I can smell her perfume.”
Eloisa poured two cups of coffee.
“¿Quieres un cafecito?” she said rhetorically.
“Claro,” I said.
I’d never tasted such potent espresso.
“It’s so strong.” I coughed.
“Claro, mi tesoro,” she held my hand. “Es café de la isla.”
I followed as Eloisa shuffled around her shop – full of candles, trinkets and spiritual artifacts.
“How long have you known her?” she asked, perusing a row of dream catchers.
“A little over a week.”
“¡Una semana!” she exclaimed. “¡Entonces, eres como un Don Juan!”
“Not a chance.”
“Oye, hombre…” Eloisa glared above her thin glasses. “Soy viejita, pero no soy estupida.”
She shuffled to another corner of the store.
“It’s for her family,” I clarified. “They invited me to church.”
“Si, yo se,” she replied casually. “Here.”
Eloisa handed me a bamboo rain stick, which apparently protected against evil spirits and ill-intentioned strangers. I couldn’t help appreciating the irony as she wrapped my gift. I thanked her and headed home early, so I wouldn’t fall asleep during services.
“Scotty!” Valencia called as I waited on the church steps.
All eight of them headed towards me – Valencia, Ricardo, three younger siblings, her parents and Pablo, who rolled their father, who was confined to a wheelchair.
Valencia’s mom, an equally stunning woman with curlier hair, rushed forward to hug me.
“Hola, Scotty,” Gloria kissed my cheek. “So nice to meet you.”
She winked at her daughter.
“Que divino,” Gloria smiled. “Thank you for joining us, hijo.”
Hijo means son. Ricardo and the siblings greeted me individually. I extended my hand to Pablo and his father, presenting the rain stick with the other.
“I just wanted to say thank you for having me,” I said. “For your family.”
He inspected the gift, admiring the seashell pattern.
“Un palo de lluvia,” Pedro, who had white hair, said slowly. “This is good luck.”
“I heard,” I said. “I thought it might be nice having at home.”
“Yes, we can add it to the collection,” he replied in near perfect English. “Luck is hard to come by these days.”
“It wasn’t before?” I joked.
“There is no before,” Pedro softly. “There is only right now.”
I hung back as Pablo pushed him up the ramp. Stained glass reflected against the sun, rising over the water. We joined the rest of the family in a back pew and I sat on the end.
“Levåntanse,” the priest instructed us to stand.
He spoke too quickly for me to understand, so I people watched and looked around the church. I recognized a statue of Saint Lazarus because he was the only person in the Bible resurrected besides Jesus. I didn’t join Valencia’s family for communion, but they still invited me over for lunch.
“Mi vida,” Pedro complimented his wife’s spread – pork, plantains and black beans. “Es incredible.”
Valencia held my hand under the table as they said Grace.
“Entonces, Scotty,” Pedro cleared his throat. “You’re going to stay in Puerto Rico, huh?”
“Yes, sir,” I responded. “And thank you again for having me.”
“No need to thank us,” he said. “You’re going to be family someday.”
As we ate, I wondered how eight people lived in a home with two bedrooms. They probably expected us to have a boatload of kids. Valencia stared at me and I forced myself to smile.
“Scotty,” Pedro nodded after we finished eating. “Ven conmigo, hijo.”
Valencia helped her mother clear the table and everyone else piled onto the couch, watching a Sunday telenovela.
Meanwhile, Pedro led me into a shack decorated with ornaments and scripture. Unsure how much longer I could keep up this charade, I’ve never put blind faith in the universe because it’s never led me anywhere. If God ever spoke to me, he’d say: Scotty… what were you thinking? I placed my rain stick against shingled wood and wondered if I could catch the last flight back to New York. Opening his eyes, Pedro handed me a tiny fisherman.
“It’s you,” he said. “El pescador.”
“Me?” I thought he was joking. “How am I a fisherman?”
“You must think I’m some crazy old man, huh?”
“Sort of…” I shrugged.
“Let me ask you something Scotty,” his grey eyes sparkled. “Why do you think of all the places you’ve ever been… you like the water best?”
I shrugged, but he was right.
“And why do you think you’re a natural in the boat?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just got lucky.”
“Luck?” he smiled. “You don’t seem like someone who believes in luck.”
“So what is this?” I snapped. “I’m completely lost in my life. I have no idea what I’m doing. And I don’t believe for a second it’s going to get any better. Is that what you want to hear?”
Pedro reached for my gift.
“Why do you think Eloisa gave you this?” he ignored my tantrum.
“How did you know I got it from her?” I said, simultaneously not surprised yet in disbelief.
He grinned – apparently, many folks on the island considered Eloisa a healer and as a leader of Santeria, Pedro visited her regularly.
“El pescador has a unique destiny,” he explained. “He’ll catch nothing for days, months, years even. So he drinks salt water to ease his hunger, but it only makes him sick. Too weak to paddle, he curses God: why me? Why was I so unlucky? Resigned to death, he musters enough strength to cast one last line. Closing his eyes, el pescador finally feels a pull on the other end and can’t believe his eyes: he caught a minnow.”
I tried giving him back the figurine, but he refused.
“Keep it,” Pedro said. “I like my rain stick.”
“Okay…” I shrugged. “So what now?”
“Go fish,” he smiled. “Just do it anywhere but here.”
I said bye to Valencia and rode down to the beach. Attempting to ignore her tears, I watched boats trickle into the marina. I jumped out of the water and rode to the airport around sunset, ditching my scooter outside departures. I could’ve stuck it out until next year, but I would’ve spent the entire time thinking about this conversation. And it’s not like I haven’t already decided to quit.
So, is this it, Gwyn? I appreciate that might seem like an unfair or unanswerable question, but in replaying the past twenty-five years, I don’t see how this or anything else would’ve turned out differently. And before I walk out of your office, I just need to know… is this it?