I knew Vega Baja like the hairs on my feet. I used to work part-time en Tortuguero BBQ before landing in Florencia with the mongers. I walked and walked. It would be days until I reached Memoria, but I knew someone dear that still lived in Vega Baja, so I figured it fine to stop and visit my old friend.
Doña Julia lived in a nursing home, one of those medical places that care for the sick and aging. It had two floors and a wheelchair ramp that led to the second-floor entrance. A verandah wrapped around the entire house. The house was painted an orange peel color and the roof and windows were white. The house was located on la número dos so it wasn’t hard to find and during my lunch breaks working at Tortuguero BBQ, I’d bring some ensalada de pulpo to Doña Julia and I liked to joke with her that someday they would remember her like her namesake, the great Julia de Burgos, and she liked that a lot because I knew she felt abandoned. Which is why I needed to see her. But this time I only brought her my company, no pulpo.
The house was quiet and so was the road. Weeks had passed since she hit our island, but nothing had changed. I thought I’d see the streets busy with congestion or lines trying to enter the Amigo grocer, but it all sat in silence and it made me feel uneasy. Those who remained searched desperately for resources. Immediately after she hit, this was clear as sunlight. But now it seemed like a desert, like nothing had ever existed. I thought about more lines for my poetry, things I picked along the way and wrote in my notebooks.
Brown as the ferns may be, I see the green color returning at
The heat from the sun is hotter when green disappears, and
I bathe in sweat.
I also came across life again; caimans trotting the streets, pigeons hanging on electric wires, mosquitoes, caculos. Even saw a mongoose rifling along the side of the road. The sound of songbirds returned too. Somewhat at least. Their songs were different, which added to my anxiety.
I missed the ocean since leaving Florencia, so I took a short detour on my way to Vega Baja. Yesterday I trekked along Playa Cerro Gordo. I wanted to see the coast again because even the river back in Florencia didn’t open the way the ocean does. I stumbled through the sand with my notebook in hand and watched as the brown waves hit the beach and swept my toes. I came up with these observations.
- The currents drift in different patterns since she hit.
- I see no blue or green reflected in the ocean’s horizon.
- It all looks like a muddy river that lifted sand and sediment.
- More garbage than usual. Plastic of sorts and refrigerators rusted on the wet sand.
- Glass Bacardí bottles washed up, some with rum still in them.
- If I squint and look into that horizon, I see these large metal barges floating.
- I predict they carry something we could’ve used weeks ago but now what does it matter.
- There is less beach sand and the brown guck is angrier as it eats away at the land.
- I miss the foaming spit of the water before she came because now it’s all thick and still.
Today, standing in front of Doña Julia’s nursing home, I wondered if she remembered the way the tide enters and recedes, in all its comings and goings. She longed for all that was, I know I did too. I knock on the front door a few times waiting for someone to answer and let me in, but no one came. I looked through the sun-stained windows but couldn’t make anything through the cloudiness. Then a young woman dressed in floral scrubs came around the verandah. Young and pretty, skin coconut and hair a dark brown.
“I’m trying to see someone. Is it possible to go in?” I said to her.
“Come to the back. Let’s use the back door,” she responded, and I walked with her around the verandah.
At the back of the house there was a double screen door and she opened and held it for me as I walked inside. There were hospital beds in disorganized rows. But what frightened me the most was how quiet everything was. I didn’t hear the sound of a generator. I worried about the heat and the elderly.
“Who you here for?” the nurse asked.
“Doña Julia? She’s right over there,” she said, pointing toward the far end of the room.
“And the power? Do you have a generator for the machines?”
“We don’t turn it on often. We can’t. There’s not enough diesel to fuel it. The Puma down the street closed about a week ago. Said they stopped receiving trucks,” she said and turned back to a spreadsheet or crossword puzzle or something. “Así es la cosa.”
I walked over to Doña Julia’s bed. The room seemed divided in two. The front of the house near the entrance was curtained off and these large crates stacked atop each other formed a makeshift wall. I saw through the thin curtain silhouettes of unutilized dialysis machines.
I dragged an empty chair and tucked it near Doña Julia. I rubbed her hands delicately and smiled.
“¿Quién es?” she said, waking from a dream, and she squinted trying to make out who I was. “Cheo?”
“Cheo, ay Dios mío. Cheo,” she said, raising her hands and placing them on my shoulders. I leaned in and gave her a soft kiss on the cheek.
“Dios te bendiga. I was passing through and wanted to see how you were.”
“Ay, Cheo. I’m okay, gracias a Dios. We are here working through—”
“Do you have water and food, Julia?”
“Ay, mijo, we have what we need for now, gracias,” she said and smiled and her eyes spoke of sadness. They didn’t want to tell me how she really felt, and I wasn’t going to press her.
We spent some time talking about the night María passed, and Julia said she remembered howling and a shaking like an airplane engine had fallen from the sky. She told me about her friends, whom she hadn’t seen since that night. She pointed to the front entrance of the house and I knew what she meant. It’s funny, how she spoke relaxed my anxiety. Not because of what she was saying, but how she viewed it all as another passing event. Her eyes smiled at me and she pet my hand, all tender. My eyes watered a little bit every time she pressed her fingers into my palms.
“Do you have water, mijo? Do you have food?” she asked. It saddened me to see her trying to take care of me again like she used to do when I was much younger. Doña Julia saved me from myself when I was young and stupid. She taught high school most of her life. Was my music teacher down at escuela Palos Matos.
“I have enough, Julia. Not enough to shit proper. But I have enough,” I said laughing, and she closed her eyes serious mocking.
“Bueno, mijo, I haven’t shit proper in more than a decade. So, you tell me.”
We laughed together and held each other, her eyes lighting up the world.
We stayed there talking about her history, about her deceased husband, and I could tell she found happiness in recollection. We talked until she started fidgeting as if forgetting where she was in time. She tried getting up from the bed.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she said to me, and I saw a determination in how she spoke. “Let’s go to la Laguna Tortuguero. I haven’t seen it in so long. I want to see it again, all overgrown. I want to smell the salt in the air.”
“We need to be careful about the caimans then,” I responded holding her in place.
“Yes, they swim there and are always looking for food.”
“Ay, virgen. No. Forget it. Let’s stay here.”
The nurse gave me a thankful look from across the room. After a few hours passed sharing with Julia, I left. I kept walking and could only write about her. I sketched her image into poetry and tried capturing her in my pages. I might never see her again but at least she was there, written in her beauty. It weakened me to think that lines weren’t enough, that my skills were terrible, and I wouldn’t capture her as she always was to me. But I tried what I could and in that moment, it was enough.
Tonight, Doña Julia is sleeping to the sounds of monsters.
In her last days she remembers his name,
which is a lot like mine. Cheo Gabriel, a husband for thirty
his name, Cheo, is mine.
Except he has left her and is a rose and a beast.
Tonight, Doña Julia sang to me under her large white quilt,
stained yellow from her day’s sweating.
She could barely lift the quilt over her mouth,
as she shook her head and repeated, “No, no.”
But her eyes smiled back at me.
I nudged her to sing one more time, if only just to me,
one more for my long walk down these streets.
I wanted to hear her voice timber notes
and stir the silence of the night awake
for the days grew softer even as nature returned to life.
Julia performed en Bellas Artes in Caguas,
late in her years, and once in Santurce, an achievement
she shied away from, yet I reminded her how impossible
and beautiful that all was. And she nodded her head
She still remembers the scent from the wooden stage, how it
a perfume citrus and aged. How the wooden stage echoed
under the soles of her shoes. The red chairs in the theater,
some half-empty, comfortable, silent, but stationed and
like her audience. Julia remembers the resonance in objects,
and her voice shakes a room. She sings and sings
that voice struck with years of laughter and anger and tears.
I still hear her. I cry as Julia carries me. I cry because I
To walk alone and catch the echoes of deserted trees,
drifting, drifting, home.
Those are her lines. I thought about so many things and meant to go back and strike out more excess. I imagined this should be better. It all should. Maybe what I was concerned most about was this thing with the naming. I liked Doña Julia because she carried the name of our great poet, Julia de Burgos.
I remember I read for fun some of that bastard Walcott and his Star-Apple Kingdom. In his epic “The Schooner Flight” he said names are really what history contains, the power history contains. But what always stuck with me in that poem was how he explained the colonial scar, and us colonial and colonized know the pain of language. Language knows the pain of history. He said it through the voice of Shabine. A voice so much like mine, like ours. Doña Julia was like Maria Concepcion in “The Schooner Flight” waiting idly as I ventured out into a terrifying expanse. What then would become of me? What then would become of my poetry?
Walcott tells of nation and empire. It’s more like he sings it through Shabine as he travels from the edges of Trinidad and Barbados. But then, what do we do with this fucking island? This, my land? What do I do? Is my island a nation taken and given like the final play in a losing game of dominoes? The end in tranque? I’m not sure what Memoria is really. I’m afraid. Afraid that Ura only sees a past and that he too is mimicry.
There were clouds overhead as I returned to my walk. Perhaps they are fat and ready with rain which hasn’t fallen since huracán María long deserted us. I imagine it would be convenient for it to rain now because my emotions match. There is a loneliness on the island, and I felt it before. Before all this. When the mongers and me saw less and less people wanting to fish out in the sea. The loneliness is probably felt by everyone. And the clouds hovered low enough for me to touch them, but I didn’t want to. I just wanted to walk and maybe cry a little.
I continued my journey west looking for that place Bayfish believed in. As I drifted farther away from Doña Julia and Vega Baja, I felt her closer to me in the poetry. I guess that’s what it’s for, to carry and keep no matter how distant we drift out to sea.
“Cheo” by Xavier Navarro Aquino, from VELORIO, (HarperVia, January 4). Copyright © 2022 by Xavier Navarro Aquino.
Xavier Navarro Aquino was born and raised in Puerto Rico. His fiction has appeared in Tin House magazine, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and Guernica. His poetry has appeared in The Caribbean Writer and is anthologized in Thicker Than Water: New Writing from The Caribbean by Peekash Press. He has been awarded scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. He holds an M.A. in English Caribbean Studies from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was an ACLS Emerging Voices Fellow at Dartmouth College and is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame.