written by: Christine Redman-Waldeyer
This is my first plane ride ever. I’m eighteen and sitting next to me is my 26-year-old state trooper boyfriend. He’s holding my hand in anticipation of my joy. He’s in love with me and I’m in love with love. I pick through the magazine holder in front of me and leaf through a Skymall. There are all kinds of items that magically make your life better and I dream of owning the traveler’s dress that does not wrinkle, or the binoculars that allow you to see even at night. I am enjoying the free pretzels and drinks. The flight attendant does not ask my age sitting next to Lautaro who looks young but doesn’t look seventeen as my father had once thought. He laughs when I grip the arm rests, bounce, and then smile when we hit air pockets. “This is fun,” I say beaming, thinking in just a few hours we will be landing in San Juan that Friday the 13th, 1989 in the wee hours of the night.
Lautaro’s mother is from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico; his dad is from Coruña, Spain. Lautaro has promised he would someday take me to Spain too—it’s important he says that I meet his grandmothers who are both still alive. When we do land it is night and Lautaro’s parents who split their time between Mayaguez, Coruña, and Elizabeth New Jersey are waiting for us at the airport. I’m in jeans and quickly shed my sweater already forgetting the January icy conditions at home. I immediately notice that both his parents are as light-skinned as me, as is Lautaro’s brother Rudy, in direct contrast to Lautaro’s dark skin and black hair. Lautaro’s father is almost my size at 5 foot one. His reach for my suitcase is at eye level. “Como fueron tus viajes?” says Lautaro’s father to me. I quickly look to Lautaro and Lautaro says, “He’s asking how your travels were.” Lautaro doesn’t wait for me to respond and says to his father, “Vuelo con turbulencias.” I look at Lautaro again and he says, “I told him it was a bit bumpy.” His mom is looking at me smiling, “Joven pero muy bonita.” “Mom says you’re young but very pretty,” Lautaro adds. They begin to move quickly towards the gate maneuvering through the crowds. “Vamonos, vamonos,” and we follow. The humidity swallows me once outside and I feel my hair curling up; my bangs shrink up about an inch and no smoothing of my hair seems to keep them down. In the distance, I hear the shrill of what I will later learn is the Coqui frog. I’m heady and tired and we pile into the small, blue Toyota for the two-and half-hour drive to Boquerón, a town over from where Lautaro’s parents have rented us a cabana on the beach.
I am happy not to stay in the same house as his family. I am crippling shy and have little to add to the conversation with Lautaro’s brother Rudy, a UPS driver and his fiancé Cathy, who just obtained her Master’s degree, who are in their late twenties and view me as I think insignificant or temporary. I didn’t like his brother. Our start was not a good one, and we really hadn’t had a conversation since I first met him in October just three months ago. After we started dating that August Lautaro drove the hour from Elizabeth at the close of summer to see me but after a few months he decided I should brave coming to see him. If it was an issue of putting gas in my car, he cleared that issue by handing me a twenty the last time he drove down to take me to dinner. “I want you to drive up and see where I live, meet my friends,” he said with a little sense of ownership of me. It was a feeling I wasn’t used to. Here was someone who wanted to take care of me, wanted to include me in their very adult life.
When I first met Lautaro, he had approached me at the beach. I don’t remember what he said or how it led to a date. I was sitting on the beach with my friend Sharia who whiter than white would hide under a heap of towels and fall asleep. Darker skinned, I sprayed on tanning oil and basked in the sun. It was at the end of August when I noticed Lautaro had kept looking my direction. Lautaro pitched in money towards a two-week rental at the Jersey Shore that at any given time could have twenty state troopers occupying the one-story bungalow with only three bedrooms, a kitchen, and TV area.
I took the precarious ride in my little 1974 green Volkswagen Bug. It was the farthest I had ever driven as I was only used to driving my girlfriends to school or the beach. Somehow, I arrived at the corner house in Elizabeth in one piece despite my complete dread of the 18-wheelers on the NJ turnpike. It was night and the brick two-story home I noticed had a stoplight on the corner of their property. Lautaro occupied the first floor of the house which had its own kitchen and bathroom, while his brother lived on the second floor which also had its own full kitchen and bathroom. I was shown his house and met their big black Lab, Mookie named after William Hayward “Mookie” Wilson. Lautaro who was a baseball fanatic said he was the Met remembered for hitting the ground ball that rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs in the bottom of the 10th inning of game six of the 1986 World Series. Lautaro said Rudy was at a bar in Harrison, the town their parents raised them in. “I want you to meet my hometown friends and Rudy,” Lautaro said. “But I’m just eighteen,” acknowledging the fact that I was very aware of the age difference between us. Lautaro pulled out his badge, flashing gold. “No worries,” he smiled. There was a certain feel of power being with not just someone older but someone who had authority.
I was first greeted by another state trooper friend who Lautaro went to high school with, Mike, who leaned against a dark-paneled wood wall in the smoke-filled Greenroom. He said he was the Irishman of the group and gave me a big hug introducing me to his fiancé. “This is Debbie, the love of my life,” he said winking at her. “We even had sex on our first date and we’re still together,” he joked. They both laughed. Lautaro’s hand was on my lower back and he pushed me towards his other friends whom I smiled at and gave quick nods to. Rudy was at the bar and was the last to look over. He looked me up and down. “Que, estas cuidando ninos?” And then turned his back to us. “Don’t worry about him,” Lautaro said. When I asked Mike what he said, Mike laughed heartily and said, “He asked if Lautaro was babysitting.” I frowned. “Don’t worry about Rudy; he’s the tough one out of the brothers. It means nothing,” said Mike.
Rudy and Cathy who landed two days before us on the island were staying in a cabana near us. Lautaro knocked on their door at our arrival but only a very grumpy appearance by Rudy notified us it was too late for hellos. Despite my excitement of being in a new place I was able to turn in and sleep hard. In the morning, I awake to the sound of island music. It is magical and reaches in through the cranked open window above our bed as the sun does. There is a little brownish-green lizard on the peeling white cement wall next to our bed. Lautaro is half asleep and I’m jumping out of my skin—having arrived in the dark, waking up to the sound of waves, the music, the smell of eggs on the grill is like unwrapping a Christmas present. It reminded me of the time I had the chicken pox over Easter and was stuck in bed for over a week and once released, saw spring had arrived, the budding daffodils, the budding trees in their pinks and whites. This is spring out of a darkness.
Lautaro smiles and pulls me close to him, kisses me and says “Alright, alright just a minute; let me wake up.” I now get a chance to take in our surroundings which I wasn’t able to do the night before. The cabana offers little to look at; it is white, and the bathroom is something you might encounter at a semi-clean campground. There is a sink, small stove, and a mini-refrigerator next to an area that appears to be a living area with a sunk in tannish white couch. A small wooden table and two chairs are near the door. There is only the one bed which we made with olive green sheets Lautaro brought from home. The windows do not have a view to the ocean or sand; they are like basement windows with cranks to just let the air in. Without air, there is only a plug-in fan that kept us somewhat cool the night before.
I don’t bother to get dressed and instead throw on my bathing suit at Lautaro’s bidding. He is already in his suit and sports a tight sleeveless t-shirt which shows off his muscles. “Alright, close your eyes,” and he puts his hand over my eyes and guides me to the door. Once outside I’m greeted with white sand and aqua green water; we have a hammock that is linked from one post to another and a small black grill cemented into the sand nearby. We haven’t eaten breakfast and he takes my hand asking me to throw on a cover up. We walk the length of the beach towards a corner restaurant with stools that wrap around its two side corners, an open-air heaven. All I need is coffee, but I order a pastry anyway. Lautaro orders steak and eggs. “Protein for muscles,” Lautaro says as he flexes a beefy arm. “We will eat dinner later with my parents. Today I will show you around Boquerón.” After breakfast we walk the length of a dock with napping pelicans, dive in and out of souvenir shops packed with shells and knick knacks, while stray dogs tag along at our feet. I fall in love with each and every dog cooing and awing at them like they are babies. In just a few hours, I feel as though I could be on a Lewis and Clark expedition.
My mother would never fly. She had a great fear of flying. As a kid I didn’t understand how anxiety and OCD could imprison a whole family. My more daring grandfather planned cross country vacations to California and waited on flying to Japan with my grandmother once my mother was out of the house and married. My father as well had to focus on places we could easily drive to such as Vermont or Lancaster and later when he lost his job at the bank had the added bonus of making them camping vacations as well. I wasn’t alarmed by the conditions of the government cabanas at Boquerón which when I grew older and longed for again found horrific reviews on. My father was perhaps more excited than I was about my opportunity to travel while my mother fretted and worried for my safety making me promise I would call as soon as I had the opportunity to find a phone. I often wondered how my father wasn’t more alarmed by the fact I was dating someone eight years my senior just after graduation of high school. I believe it was Lautaro’s good job as a state trooper. He respected that and respected the way Lautaro spoke of his family. “The Spanish are all about family,” my father touted. “You’ll see, their cousins, their grandparents all one household.” And my father was right. When I met Lautaro’s abuelita later that day, my father’s words came back to me. At La Finca, which is what Lautaro’s family called his grandmother’s farm, I met numerous first cousins and their children. I fell in love with a crusty old orange cat that lived in a barn just outside the henhouse who peered over the wooden rafters and in particular with Lautaro’s 2nd cousin, three-year old Jessica. At night I played tag with all six boys and gave Jessica piggyback rides and carried her around. Lautaro continued translating for his mother when she smiled at my play with the children. She said, “you will make a good mother someday,” nodding back to his mother. I was elated. I could see myself a mother of these children and was ready even at eighteen to think about a future where I ran back and forth between countries and played house for real—cooking, bathing, teaching, and loving my los niños.
One night Lautaro taught me how to make a little harness with the tall grass, rope a little lizard like the one I saw on the wall of our bedroom in the cabana. “They’ll lose their tail if you try to grab it from there,” he said. In the day, I collected hermit crabs, put them in a bucket and watched them try to climb the smooth walls to get out, while Cathy read a book on the beach getting a tan. I headed to the less touristy area of the beach, searched trees and grass covered sand for the crabs. I didn’t have to look hard; there were colonies of the bug-eyed overt creatures. I continually held them in my hand to feel the tickle of their feet inch up my arm as they clung on. I couldn’t sit still and walked Boquerón’s beach endlessly back and forth. For lunch, Lautaro would take me to the lunch stands for Alcapurrias, Empanadillas, or Papa Rellenas and order me “una Coca-Cola Light.”
At the dock, where the sailboats were anchored off-shore, I made friends with a pelican I named George, fed him reserved leftovers. George was not shy with people. I sat on the dock near the small rowboat anchored by a well-worn rope in which he sat and with some curiosity inched his way little by little in my direction. Every morning and evening I passed him on my walks and slowed down to say hi each time. Lautaro never complained at my need to pet stray kittens or study the nature around me. I became enamored with the song of the Coqui frogs and Lautaro took me to a local jewelry store and bought me a gold pendant of a Coqui frog with a diamond for an eye to hang on the gold necklace he bought me that Christmas.
During our visit with Lautaro’s family as I didn’t have a timeline since I decided to take a break from college after one semester as I needed the break to think about what I really wanted to do with my life—I turned as brown as Lautaro and my hair curled up unruly visiting roots I didn’t at the time know I had. It was almost an honor when an elderly couple touring the island stopped us at an overlook and asked my permission to take a photograph of an island girl against the backdrop of Puerto Rican landscape. Before I could open my mouth to protest, Lautaro put his finger to his lips and told me to lean against the rock wall and smile. He moved away as they took my picture. “It’s like you are one of us, meant to live here,” he gleamed as they walked away. I blushed. It did feel like home and I wasn’t ready to go back to New Jersey.
Before we left, Lautaro’s parents were insistent that I see the dinoflagellates on the island of Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico. Mosquito Bay’s dinoflagellates give off their bioluminescent light from dusk until dawn. I sat in the boat with Jessica on my lap as I watched the guide glide his hand though the water, turn it into a wave of light. It was something out of a fairy tale. It was Tinker Bell’s fairy dust to Peter’s flying. I too reached down, dug my hands into the water, pushed it until it glowed. We drove there after dinner one evening and upon arriving, Lautaro’s mother ran up to a ticket booth while we waited in a square and I browsed the stands of shells and trinkets. Gladys, Jessica’s mother came with us. She carried her youngest on her hip while her boys ran around her. Jessica had become my baby possum and hung to my back as her mom was preoccupied. I left there with a conch shell turned lamp. It was something that I kept by my bedside for years after.
Lautaro’s parents also insisted that I see the Fort in San Juan and El Yunque National Forest, a tropical rainforest in northeastern Puerto Rico. They marveled when I was overjoyed to spot a parrot, a snake. It was hard to leave Puerto Rico; my life had become one with nature. I walked, ate fish and conch nightly, learned how to cook plantains from Lautaro’s grandmother communicating to me only through gestures and by imitation. Year after year, we went back, and yes, I finally went to Coruña but nothing could compare to Boquerón. It is where I found myself.
At the end of that first trip, Lautaro took me to the Mayaguez mall where I shopped and bought a life size doll for Jessica. I wanted her to remember me and I think in some way it would help me remember her. I’m glad I did because as the children grew and we revisited they had forgotten their English. We had become strangers by the time she was five and six. My own grandmother gave me the two small dolls that sat on a small child size chair that my grandfather made with a beautiful inlay star. “You’ve outgrown these,” she said, “send them to that beautiful Jessica you talk so much about.” I thanked her but never sent those dolls. “Did she receive them? Did she love them?” “Oh, yes, her mother said she loved them,” I lied. I kept them for my own Jessica, which I did have twelve years later.
Lautaro and I split five years after we met. The relationship despite that first year of bliss and wonder began its up and downs as I grew into my adult self. I wasn’t as naive anymore. I learned quickly that Lautaro’s state trooper schedule allowed him to easily lie about hours. I wasn’t the only woman in his life. When I started to stay at Lautaro’s house regularly and felt it became my home, I’d pick up the phone if it rang. Girls asked for Lautaro and I asked questions of Lautaro. Who is Linda? Who is Carmen? Who is Mary Ann?
During those years, I became a little more familiar with Spanish, enough that I knew when we sat at dinner with his parents when they visited Christmases that they had asked over and over again—When are you marrying? Lautaro would smile and say, “soon enough; we will wait until Christine finishes college.” I was on a six-year plan and while a college degree eventually came, marriage to Lautaro did not. At twenty-three, Lautaro said he finally had the money to fly me to Spain. I flew alone. He went and stayed an entire month. I would join him two weeks into his trip. At the gate on my arrival, I greeted him in tears. Before I left for the airport, he had asked me to drop by his house to pick up some items he left behind. The answering machine blinking dared me to push it. There was another girl’s voice I hadn’t heard before.
When confronted, he made up his usual line of excuses. Usually, it had something to do with some girl he almost ticketed and had let go who wanted to say thanks by offering to take him to lunch or dinner. Since I was already in Spain, I swallowed my pride and hung on to the lie. But it was at the end of the trip when I knew it had to be over. After eating shellfish at a roadside restaurant near the 12th century Shell Church of A Toxa, I came down with a severe case of food poisoning. Lautaro aggravated with my illness and the little time we had left had decided to visit an old “girl” friend that lived two hours away without me. While I stayed alone feverish with a bucket near me in his grandmother’s house for three days obsessing about what she looked like, I planned our break-up. It would be after we drove back to his house from the airport. I would say my goodbyes and regrets and leave the five years of being Spanish behind me.
I never had a chance to tell Lautaro that I found out at the age of thirty after my abuelita died at the age of 92, that I too had Iberian roots. In my grandmother’s attic hid my grandfather’s true identity. His roots were tied to a Rodriquez, a great, great, great, maybe another great grandmother from Southern Spain. My father beamed, “Now I understand why my father knew Spanish. Now I understand why you couldn’t leave Lautaro.” It wasn’t just his parents who asked when we would marry. At one point, Lautaro gave me a huge one carat diamond that he stole back after a fight and supposedly lost. My parents too wanted to know what was going on. My father was right. It wasn’t a love for Lautaro that kept me there. It was a love for the culture, the food, the way of life that called out to me. I was there because he was Spain, because I needed roots.
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