Seventeen years on this earth; eight hours in the air. Do you need to go to the wc, ma’am? The lady clutches her big shiny purse and glares indignantly at you. As for you, you need to go. You stand up and stretch, without letting go of the back of the seat. You set off. Walking when you’re inside of an airplane that’s in flight does not feel as strange as you know it is. You’ve heard how in the whores’ shacks in the Mondongo district, the floorboards are so weak they tremble under the force of bodies pushing against each other – that’s what people say; you’ve never tested the waters yourself. You make your way towards the rear of the plane, steadying yourself with the seat backs. You grasp at the door handle and suddenly find yourself facing a dazzling array – a mirror, a little metal sink, liquid soap, a box of kleenex. Before you’re done peeing a shuddering tremor catches you off guard. Frightened, you reach out to steady yourself against the walls. The airplane bounces back and forth. The stewardess is banging on the door, shouting something to you in English; you say I’m coming. Before you go out you wipe up the splashes on the seat, so they won’t say Puerto Ricans are filthy pigs. You stumble back down the aisle, you collapse in #10C, you fasten your seatbelt. The airplane has gone into a nose-dive, and the lady sitting next to you is throwing up. She’s holding onto you. She reeks of onions and tears. Now you’re throwing up, everybody’s throwing up. The airplane is a marsh of vomit, but it does not crash. The pilot is able to get it back on course and regain altitude. The rest of the flight is given over to calming down, making jokes, singing, getting drunk. The plane lands amid cheers and prayer.
You disembark feeling lighter. You wet your face with water from a drinking fountain, part your hair with the comb that you carry in your pants pocket. You retrieve your cardboard suitcase with its rusty stays and clasps – a sorry-looking little thing. There are more people walking on the imitation wood floor of the airport’s main hall than you would see in patron saints’ festivities in San Antonio de Aguadilla. You collide with bodies in collision with other bodies, men with black hats and little braids, men with thick moustaches and turbans, black women with hats and gloves, blond women with gloves and hats. You’re amazed to see that each person in this multitude can find his or her appointed way without getting mixed up and going the wrong way. You’re paralyzed, staring into the abyss of possibility. Follow this guy, follow her over there, you’ll change your life. If you had followed that Chinese girl with the pearl-colored gloves, this story would be a different story. But a shout brings you back to this chaotic locale, to this floor that feet of every color have crossed over, never altering the destiny that bore them to this world. The one who is yelling is Tavio, your nice uncle who visited your hometown a while back and said you should come stay with us in New York. Today he’s wearing his Sunday hat, the one with a pheasant’s feather in its band, that’s what he said, it’s a pheasant’s feather, as fine a thing as the gold tooth that mars his smile. Socorro and Teresita are talking, both at once, they’re repeating themselves. They’re telling you the cousins wanted to come along and meet you too, but life is complicated here, there’s work, obligations, you know how it is.
Outside you find a land of gray skies; it reeks of oil and smoke. You wait with the women, while Tavio goes to get the car. It’s a long ways to the Bronx. Your uncle fires up the Chevy with its cracked leather seats; the car shakes at every stoplight, more violently than the airplane did, as if the road were a landing strip. You can’t think of the correct image to describe Uncle Tavio’s driving until a few days later, thinking back to your town’s cinema, to the westerns they showed and the screaming kids who would yell “hi-yah!” at every punch. You drive like a cowboy, Uncle, you tell him on your second automobile trip, to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. It’s the Sunday following the Friday of your arrival.
Tavio parks on a street called Fox. Hom-swit-hom, he announces. Your relatives live in a Siamese apartment; it’s like the oriental twins who were born stuck together, part of a three-story double house. Each floor is divided into two apartments, six in all. The Maldonados, that’s what it says on the label of the mailbox by the staircase up to the second level. We live in a railroad, says Tavio as he forces the key a bit and gives the door an affectionate little kick, a railroad with a baiwindoh, just like the rich people; he shows you where to put your suitcase, in the room adjoining the narrow, high-ceilinged hallway. It has a square glass window that looks out on the street below, and curtains like a ghost’s sheets. You’re left wondering how is this like a train. You’ve only been on a train once; there’s no way to travel by train in Puerto Rico. The Aguadilla-San Juan train made its last circuit years ago.
This night, you get no sleep. You miss the animal noises, the shrill voices of the frogs, the cries not drowned out even by the roar of airplanes taking off from the air force base, the B-52’s laden with bombs, departing right on time to keep watch over the world.
In Aguadilla, even the rocks sing. The Bronx is mute.
In the morning, on your way to the bathroom, you meet Socorro in the kitchen. She asks you what do you want for breakfast, you’re lucky it’s my day off, Tavio and Teresita already left. We get up early here. Whatever you have, you tell her, your head in your hands looking down at the floor, your voice hoarse. She tells you whatever is a fried egg, holds up the spatula, a fried egg, sonniseidop? she asks, sonniseidop, you reply. The apartment smells of olive oil and fried eggs; that’s how it will always smell, with a couple of variations: bacon and onions, oil and garlic, onions and pork chops, lard and rice.
Years later, you come back to Fox Street. You get off the elevated train at the Simpson stop, and walk a few blocks past vacant lots, houses with gardens preserved from years past, buildings tattooed with graffiti. The double house is just the same; it looks to you as if the windows have not been cleaned in the past half century. They’ll ask you in, they’ll offer you coffee, you’ll wonder how you and Tavio and Socorro and Teresita all fit inside this little apartment. You found the current tenant standing on the porch, the imposing bearing of a tough guy keeping watch over nothing, and with him another guy, arms crossed. Perhaps it was the silly euphoria of your words that disarmed them as you told them the purpose of your visit, told them how years back – so far back, they were not even a gleam in their parents’ eyes – you lived here (now it’s “there”), in this same double house whose stoop is now graced with their presence, when you were going to school at Morris High School. One of the men went to Morris too, he tells you, though he didn’t finish his junior year. You learn his name is Ricky and that he has relatives in San Antonio de Aguadilla, where you grew up. You tell him you lived in the apartment on the left, on the second floor. Wow! That’s just where I live. Want to come up? he asks, and since you have some time before the ceremony, you say sure. Ricky forces the key a bit and gives the door a dry little kick. The floor shakes, it’s not linoleum any longer, it’s covered with carpet scraps of various colors. You get the impression that it’s about to collapse on the first floor tenants. You remember how curious you found this apartment, how you loved its novelties: the silver-painted radiator in the corner, the partition walls of cardboard and plaster, the odor of naphthalene pellets. (Later, you will be impressed at the bricks of the buildings, will imagine the hands that knew how to lay them perfectly in criss-cross rows; you’ll find moving aspects of the city that nobody else notices – the steam coming out of subway gratings, the sharp smell of street food, the black nannies walking blond children, the turmoil of noises.)
(Excerpt fom Mr. Green, a short novel published by Random House Mondadori, Mexico in 2013.)
Marta Aponte-Alsina is a Puerto Rican writer, the author of seven novels and two short story collections. Her novel Sexto Sueño was awarded the National Prize by the Pen Club in 2008. Numerous scholarly essays have been published about her work. This year she was honored by the University of Puerto Rico as the recipient of the Nilita Vientós Chair for outstanding work as a narrator and critic.
Jeremy Osner translates short stories and poetry. He blogs about literature, language and translation at http://www.readin.com.