First published on The Morning News on April 27, 2011. Read the original here.
Lenni and I take turns changing in the shelter of the bus stop outside the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, in San Juan. It’s August, we’ve been friends for two decades, but this is the first time Lenni and I have traveled together.
After only an hour in Puerto Rico, my jeans are stuck to me. I peel them away like the moist layer of skin over a cut, and replace them with terrycloth shorts.
A woman in the tourism office gave us a map and a bus schedule. To get to the publicos, the gypsy cabs, we must take the B40 bus to Rio Piedras, the river of stones. From there, a publico will take us to Fajardo, where there is a ferry to Vieques, a small island east of Puerto Rico.
Three B40 buses go by as we change clothes. Lenni doesn’t know any Spanish, so I scoot out to each bus and say “Ree-o Pee-ay-draz?” No, the drivers shake their heads. One makes a gesture that implies he is turning around, and that on the way back he’ll pick us up. He never returns.
My phone rings while we wait—Simon. I turn it off and put it back in my bag.
Other people come to the bus stop. Their buses arrive. They leave. After 30 minutes, yet another B40 bus pulls up. I go out to meet it, but someone beats me to it.
“¿Vas al Rio Piedras?”
The driver continues with a long string of Spanish. I get lost somewhere in the conditional tense. I wait until he pulls away, then grab my backpack and discreetly motion to Lenni. We follow the guy who spoke to the driver. He walks about 50 feet, then stops in the middle of the sidewalk. Afraid that I have misinterpreted the exchange, I tap him on the shoulder.
“Excuse me? Por favor? Are you going to Rio Piedras?”
For the next hour and a half, Luis is our guardian angel. He tells us the B40 buses that go to Rio Piedras pick up passengers from an unmarked bit of sidewalk. The other B40 buses, at the kiosk with the sign that says “B40,” go… elsewhere. That was the bus driver’s mysterious gesture. Not “I’ll be back” but “go over there.”
Luis is from New York, like us, but owns some land near Ponce where he is building a house. During the bus ride, he talks about depression, suicide attempts, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and his dead wife. He talks quickly and loudly, the way lonely people do.
Luis wants to be helpful. He rides past his stop to ours, leads us to the publicos, haggles for us. He visits Vieques a few times a year. I give him my cell phone number so he can stay with us. He never calls, so I don’t have to decide whether to answer. This is the difference between devotion and obligation: waiting for someone to call, or hoping they never will. With Simon, even obligation has begun to fade.
* * *
Vieques is a small island. For 60 years, it was a bombing ground for the US Navy. Now it is beautiful and poverty-stricken, with wild horses, orchids, geckos, and fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, many of whom only live there part-time. High rates of cancer and diabetes. There’s mercury in the water, and therefore in the fish. It is 52 square miles in area, more than half of which is wildlife preserve. It is illegal to enter the preserve, except for a few beaches at the edge.
It happened like this: An old friend, John, had a place in Vieques, and Lenni and I wanted to leave Brooklyn. John is a filmmaker, an old friend. He needed house sitters, and we needed somewhere cheap to go. From now until October, we would be artists-in-residence in his Caribbean hideaway. This was the off-season, the season of no tourists and closed restaurants, the season of hurricanes and insects and empty beaches with 74-degree water. Perfect.
The house is a casita, a two-story cement block without electricity or drinkable water. It has a porch with two hammocks, an outdoor shower, and a cistern on the roof to collect rain. Additional water is delivered by a truck. The house is a 30-minute walk from Isabel Segunda, the larger of the two towns on Vieques. Both Lenni and I grew up watching Gilligan’s Island; we have castaway dreams.
Lenni and I are both writers who never write. Vieques will change that, we decide. There will be nothing else to do.
Something you should know: Two years prior to this point, like Billy Pilgrim, I came unstuck. Not in time, but in place. I was a social worker pulling children out of cracks that got wider every day. Then I quit. Three weeks later, I was on a plane to Berlin. Then Dublin. Berlin again. Brooklyn. Ohio. The Catskills. I went from moving once a year to moving many times a year, from having a lease to living out of a suitcase.
I am a house sitter, a couch surfer, a ne’er-do-well.
On our first date, I got Simon lost in Manhattan. We met in the modern way: online. Since we’re gay, we met on a sex site. We chatted, and found more than just our libidos in common. We decided to go on a real date.
We had coffee. Simon wanted to watch the sun set over the West Side highway. Conversation was easy. He was cute and funny, with long hair and radical politics, all of which excited me. He was a geography major in college, and loved cartography and gardening. We both wore fingerless gloves and coats that were not warm enough for winter. I asked him why he moved to the city, and he said, “To fall in love.”
I moved to the city because it is the center of the universe, the sun I orbited while growing up in the suburbs. But I no longer wanted to live in the sun; the heat was too much for me. It sounded ridiculous when I said it, but Simon liked it anyway.
We walked west until we hit the highway. The sunset was beautiful, the pollution hammered by the light into molten copper, orange and gold and green. Then Simon suggested dinner: the West Village, somewhere cute. But he’d only lived in the city for six weeks. It was my job to get us there.
We wandered for an hour, looking for the right spot, the perfect restaurant, the destination that would give this night meaning. The place we could look back to and say, There, that’s where we had our first date, remember? Instead we gave up and grabbed food from a Korean deli. We ate with our fingers on a cold metal stoop. I invited Simon to a play on Friday.
“I have review tickets; we’ll get in for free.”
He said yes, but I wasn’t sure he was interested. We did not kiss goodnight.
When it became clear that this was not a one-time thing, I told my friends about Simon. I said we met through mutual acquaintances. Simon was uncomfortable that we met online. That wasn’t part of his plan, he said.
Simon and I could have been married. Our lives integrated seamlessly. We liked the same things: the same music, places, and concepts. I wanted to learn how to make maps. He wanted to be in love. I needed to be needed. He needed.
I planned on leaving the city. Soon, if possible. Simon wanted to stay. We talked about my moving, but never in regards to us. Our relationship and my desire to leave existed on different maps.
A study once reported that the physical signs of having an emotion may stimulate the emotion itself. Smile and be happy. Pretend to be in love, and wake up in 50 years to realize you love the man next to you. These things should be easy. With no particular impediment, my heart should follow the path of least resistance: flow downwards, fall a thousand feet, and form a deep pool.
Cliff is every war movie’s square-jawed, 1950’s leading man. He is the white man of the White Man’s Burden, Indiana Jones, a globe-trotter who cleans up forgotten weapons. He comes to Lenni and me like a savior. Cliff tells us the truth about the wildlife preserve.
A storm had blown up out of nowhere while we were at Garcia, our favorite beach. The water, tranquil a moment before, startled like a wild animal and began to buck and thrash. It rains at least twice a day in Vieques. Usually we are prepared, but this time we were caught, running to make it home before the sky split open. Cliff rolled his pickup to a stop 50 yards ahead of us on the beach road and yelled, “Looks like it’s gonna pour any second. I’m not supposed to give anyone a ride, but you’re gonna get wet if I don’t.”
The broad open vowels of the Midwest stream from his mouth. Cliff’s pronunciation of “pour” borders on two syllables. Po-war.
His truck is one of a dozen on the island that scream “government.” White, unmarked, oversized, and they’re not held together with baling wire or duct tape. They don’t have bumper stickers that read La paz es más que el cese al bombardeo(“Peace is more than the end of bombing”).
The back seat of Cliff’s truck is filled with what look like oversized metal detectors. Cliff breaks them down, places them gently in yellow tackle boxes, and stows them in the bed of the truck. Lenni is curious.
“What are those?”
“Metal detectors. I’m with the cleanup team.”
Cliff jerks his head back in the direction of the preserve and we know what he means. We’ve seen the signs, though it is not marked on the map. Every road into the preserve is blocked with concrete barriers and warnings that say “Do Not Enter—Live Ammunition.” We explain how to get to John’s house, then go quiet. Lenni and I are not used to talking anymore. After three weeks alone, we’ve lost some of our capacity for it. Most of our conversations revolve around who gets to use the shower first, or whether this particular gecko is the same one we saw yesterday.
Cliff tells us about his job, how he moves from site to site to keep from getting bored.
“So it only takes a few years to clean this kinda thing up?” Lenni asks.
Cliff laughs. It’s exactly the guffaw you hope he’d have.
“Nah. This place is fucked. Twenty, 25 years—we’ll still be cleaning up the crap that’s above ground. The water, the soil, the air? Maybe another hundred.”
The cleanup crew has created a map, gridded the island into 100 x 100-foot squares, and in teams of two they pick through the underbrush for misfired bullets, unexploded bombs, live rounds, anything that could blow the legs off a careless child. Once that’s done, they’ll bring in bigger machines, go deeper, search for what’s buried.
This time Cliff has brought his family along. He has a wife (“second wife,” Cliff clarifies) and two young children. He’ll be here for at least two years. From the way he says it, two years sounds like forever.
Lenni asks about his family, saying, “We’ve seen the school kids in their uniforms. They look so cute. Are your kids in school?”
“What, you mean the maternity ward? Ten-year-olds get pregnant in there. I wouldn’t enroll my kids in that shithole, no matter how bad they were. This whole place. One big shithole.”
Lenni stops asking questions. Later, she tells me that for a moment she dreamed of being Cliff’s childrens’ babysitter. She’d learn from Cliff and use it as research for a story, and enjoy their air conditioning. They’d have air conditioning, she maintains. The kind you leave on all day, even when you aren’t home.
I gave Simon flowers. Ridiculous candy-colored things, dyed blue and sold cheap in every corner bodega. They were meant to last a few days and die, unreal and beautiful. They were my favorite part of living in the city. Three-dollar orchids, the essence of New York: intersection of exotic and common, cheap and gorgeous.
“Thank you,” Simon said, and ducked his head to stare at the floor. He dug out a vase from his roommate’s closet and set it up beside his bed.
Like the flowers themselves, giving them was a gesture meant to be enjoyed and forgotten, a thoughtless thought, a careless kindness. Simon kept them for weeks. He was meticulous. He changed the water, added sugar and aspirin, moved them to the sunlight for the right number of hours every day. They lost some of their luster, but they lived. The dye faded to a bluish-grey, but the leaves remained as green as apples.
I pestered Simon. Every time I came over I wanted the flowers gone, but they were always there.
“How do you do that?”
“It’s easy,” Simon told me. “You just pay attention.”
Panic sets in. Free time engulfs us, empty and destructive. Lenni and I arrange the house to our pleasure, then re-arrange it, then again. All our things are stacked and put away. We flip through the small library of books and talk about ones we’ve been meaning to read. We find the local NPR affiliate—WVGN, the Voice of The Virgin Islands. We go to the café in Isabel Segunda, and discover that in the off-season they close at 1:00 p.m. It is our only source of regular electricity. We try the three beaches within walking distance. One is more than an hour away—a deadly walk in the heat, but the path is beautiful.
There is nothing to do but write. So we do nothing for great stretches of time. We lie on the hammocks zealously. We find shapes in the clouds. For a week, we have a Yahtzee tournament. Lenni wins.
One day we have simultaneous panic attacks on the beach. We wander in opposite directions, both trying to get away from ourselves. The beach is empty. The sky is empty. Our days are empty. There is too much emptiness. How can we fill it?
We both give up. We’re not writers, we’re dreamers.
As Lenni and I prepared to leave New York for Vieques, Simon and I fought. Our emotions were ductile; we stretched to see how far we could go before we snapped. We called this love. He didn’t want me to go to Vieques, but he understood.
“It just means I love you more than you love me,” Simon said.
“I love you,” I said, “but I need to do this for myself. If I want to become a writer, I have to leave. It isn’t about you.”
What Simon meant was that he never did anything without thinking about me. That I could make a decision about my life that wasn’t about him meant I did not love him enough.
This is both true and unfair.
We have visitors in September, Lexi and April, and the island is new again. With them, everything is more. We cook more, we go to the beach more, we talk more. No longer the long bleak days of freedom, when the enormity of having nothing to do weighed down on us. Now writing is put in its place: three hours in the morning, a few more in the evening. Salvation; we are writers again.
In a simultaneous homage to Kafka and Kahlo, we name the kitchen Gregorlandia. Lexi and I are the cockroach killers. We wash the dishes at night while the Gregors cling to the walls and run up our legs. One of us holds the flashlight and crushes them, the other cleans. We both scream.
One morning Lexi calls my name, excited, “Hugh, look!”
There’s a dead cockroach levitating up the wall. All afternoon, we watch a group of ants carefully move the corpse to the window. When they get there, the roach body is too big to push through the slats. It falls to the ground. We laugh, but the ants don’t give up. The ants set up an abattoir below the window ledge, dismantling the cockroach piece by piece. Little ant butchers pass prime cuts of roach to six-legged housewives. Wings and pieces of carapace levitate back to the window, and then out.
“You guys didn’t tell us you had maid service,” April says.
Lexi looks at me. “You’re going to write about this, aren’t you?”
* * *
April and Lexi find a map. April and Lexi are only here for a short while, and want to do everything. They are more purposeful, and therefore need a map.
They go to the tourist office, which is only open on Mondays. The map they are given is not of Vieques. It is of the stores on Vieques. It reads, “THIS MAP IS NOT FOR NAVIGATIONAL PURPOSES.”
“What else is a fucking map for?” April asks. But this is exactly what maps are: two-dimensional shared delusions. To use a map, you must submit to its view of the world. Problems arise when a cartographer and a traveler believe in different things, like Simon and I.
Vieques, on this map, is a perfect travel destination. Blank spaces are littered with ads for hotels, massage therapists, and restaurants; in reality, they’re blank. There is no mention of bombs or tarantulas. All roads are direct. The map bears little relation to the island we are on, but we decide to follow it anyway.
We want to go to Punto Diablo, the southernmost tip of the Bermuda Triangle. On the map, there’s a road straight from town, along the coast through the wildlife preserve. We spend four hours looking for it, on trails that peter out into mud pits, roads more pothole than asphalt, and old airplane runways that end abruptly in concrete barriers and jungle underbrush.
We never find Punto Diablo and this strikes us as hilarious. We laugh all day about getting lost on the way to the Bermuda Triangle. We dress up and go to Isabel Segunda that night, like in a bad music video: four white kids walking through a sherbet-colored town, reggaeton blaring from everywhere. We play pool with local guys in a tavern, and Lexi and Lenni get drunk on sangria.
On the hammocks that night, Lexi tells me about love, true love. She says she always knows. From the beginning it’s there, like a birthmark.
“So you believe in love at first sight?” I ask.
“I don’t love them. I know if I could love them.”
Me? I know nothing.
I cheated on Simon. Once, then a half-dozen times in rapid succession, all with the same guy. I could give a dozen reasons why, but they would all be untrue, or half-true. One-dozenth true.
I did it because Simon found me disgusting.
I did it because I didn’t love him enough.
I did it because I loved him too much, and wanted to ruin it. Because I was bored. Because this other guy was available. Because I was a slut. Because I was afraid.
I never told him.
Not even when he begged me, when he suspected. Part of me lied because I didn’t want to hurt him, but that was the facile part—the lying part. I lied because I didn’t want to admit what I did. I didn’t want to be the sort of person who cheated. But I was cheating all along. I never gave him anything that was meant to last.
Besides, I was leaving for Vieques. That was a good thing about my life, I was always leaving.
Lenni gets sick. We blame the food, the water, everything. We research parasites with names we can’t pronounce. Schistosomiasis. Giardia. I tease her about tapeworms and Montezuma’s Revenge.
After nine days, we go to the emergency room, a room built like an airplane hangar. We stand in line. It’s the wrong line. They direct us to another window, and when my Spanish fails us, we’re directed to a third line. The dozen ceiling fans are so high up they barely shift the air at human level, and the dim, randomly placed lighting gives the room the pall of a brownout. Hospitals should be bright and bustling, but this room is filled with lethargy and lassitude. A man takes Lenni’s insurance card and clucks, “Sorry, don’t accept that.” Lenni’s been shitting water six times a day. She pays out of pocket.
He gives us a code that we punch into a machine—the code issues you a ticket that tells you your place in line. The floor is littered with these tickets, and we pick through them for a lower number. We wait. An hour later, a nurse calls Lenni’s number. Lenni leaves, and returns a few minutes later.
Lenni says, “She sneezed on me.”
“The nurse?” I say.
“No, her daughter. Her pregnant, 12-year-old daughter. In her school uniform.”
Lenni shivers, and I put my arm around her, checking first for pregnant 12-year-old snot.
When a doctor finally comes after another hour the building is closing. Most of the lights are off. He doesn’t speak English and I don’t know the word for diarrhea in Spanish.
“Ella necesita usar el baño mas de seis veces en un dia.” I stumble through an explanation of what’s happening. The doctor checks his watch and turns off his computer. He looks at Lenni’s tongue, and at his watch again.
He says she’s fine. Diarrhea’s a way of life in Vieques. If it lasts more than 30 days or she shits more than 20 times a day, we should come back.
Our plan is to leave in two days for the main island. Three days after that, we’ll board a plane to New York. We consider visiting the ER in San Juan when we get there, but Lenni decides to wait until we’re home in the States. We go to sleep feeling relieved: She isn’t dying. We’ll be home soon.
That night, Lenni shits blood.
We fly to San Juan and spend our first day in the waiting room of a hospital. The doctors and nurses speak English, and are concerned that Lenni has had diarrhea for nearly two weeks. They take her blood, but it’s a Friday night, and they won’t have results until Monday. We’ll be gone by then. What’s the point?
Lenni holes up in our hostel room, curled around her stomach, blinds drawn. She lives on bagels and Gatorade for three days. When we’d made our reservation weeks ago, we’d decided we didn’t mind sharing a bathroom down the hallway.
“At least I’ll get some exercise, right?” Lennis says. She tries to smile.
On Fire Island, with friends. Simon and I were fighting again.
“You slept with how many people before me?”
I begged off, made vague generalizations, but Simon wanted a number. He wanted to quantify how awful I was, then he told me, in explicit detail.
“You’re disgusting. I’m actually nauseated right now. I can’t believe you. I don’t even know you. How could you do that?”
Later, he made a backhanded peace offering: “I guess if I was really depressed or self-hating, I’d do that too. Thank God you’re not like that anymore.”
Actually, I didn’t hate myself until I met him. For Simon, I pretended to be earthbound while knowing I was just waiting for an updraft. I made him make do with love-crumbs, and he was desperate enough to take them. For that, I hated us both.
Simon never trusted me again. He saw me as a new person, but this was there all along, waiting.
Simon believed you are something, or you are something else. He wanted there to be distinct versions of me, like a snake that sheds its skin whole, not a tree that carries each iteration of itself inside.
In the weeks to come, doctors in New York will chart Lenni’s intestines. They will find nothing again and again. They will bring in bigger machines, go deeper. They will analyze her diet in Vieques, where we went, what we did; anything to find a clue. Lenni will lose 40 lbs. She will get fevers, cramps, chills. Like an infant, she won’t sleep through the night, and will wake to use the bathroom over and over.
Eventually, it will turn out to be something she brought with her to Viegques, Crohn’s disease. A genetic disorder that makes routine digestion nearly impossible. We did nothing wrong. It was there all along.
But I will wonder if we triggered it, if we went where we shouldn’t have and brought to bear pressure her body couldn’t take. Environmental stress is always a factor when things fall apart. How much of one, we will never know.
Between Past and Present
Simon visits near the end of our stay on the island. Lenni isn’t sick yet, or maybe she is and we just can’t tell. Anyway, we don’t notice. We spend every day doing something: the beach, the rain forest, the bioluminescent bay, hiking, swimming, snorkeling. Anything that is not talking. Like my interactions in Spanish, Simon’s and my conversations are short, direct, and in the present tense. They are filled with ellipses and gaps, things I don’t have words for.
“Do you want…?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
We wander the island for days, looking for just the right spot, the perfect moment, the destination that will give us meaning, the place we can look back to. This time we find it.
Orchid Beach is empty, the water clear and the sand white. It is checkerboarded with blooming vines of purple and green. It is a magazine shoot waiting to happen. We play all day, hoping for magic. We tussle in the water, lie side-by-side on a blanket, act out every romantic movie moment we can think of.
Nothing comes. It isn’t where we are, it’s who we are. There is no spot that will make this better.
We walk home in silence.
We finally talk the night before Simon leaves. We talk quickly, loudly. We both cry. Lenni pretends to be asleep.
All I can tell him is that people in love don’t fight like this. We depend on the idea of progress: We want this relationship, because later it will be something better. In the future, we will be something better. But there is no destination. Just a series of here-and-nows.
In the middle of the conversation there is a moment when we both stop crying. It’s already over, though we are still talking. An opportunity opens up to go deeper—to grid our entire lives into squares and dig below the surface explosives.
Simon says, “I’ve spent my whole life looking for things to be addicted to.”
“I never look for anything,” I tell him. “I have a new dream every 10 minutes. I move so much I never have to think about where I’m going.”
Silence detonates. We are not trained for this. We stop talking and go to bed. In the morning, Simon leaves.
Lenni will get better, then sick again, then better. She will apply to graduate school. Even while her hair falls out and she lives at home with her parents she will be dedicated.
Simon will find a new boyfriend. I will see them once and think, That could have been me.
I woke up at dawn next to Simon. He kissed me goodbye.
He worked in a garden and had to leave the apartment at 6:00 a.m. Sometimes I got up with him and went to the gym. Mostly I went back to sleep and dreamed short, warm dreams of us. I told myself I’d get on a schedule. I’d adapt to New York. I’d use Simon as my rhythm, my conscience. We’d get up in the morning and both go to work, him in the garden, me on the computer.
But usually I just fell back asleep and dreamed.
The function of a map is to strip away information until only the relevant details are left. To be easily digestible. But who decides which information is most important? A map is not a journey. It is a story we tell to make a journey comprehensible. We do not go from here to there. We are always here.