Since Hurricane Irma skirted its way just north of Puerto Rico on September 6th, I’ve been on a great tour of the East Coast. After working in New York City in early September, the plan was to go home to Rincon. Back to those four concrete walls on the northwest corner of the island that I have come to call home with my fiancé, our two dogs, our recently rescued kitten, and a backyard full of rogue roosters who we’ve politely asked to relocate on more than one occasion, and who have not-so-politely declined time after time. The home where the heat can feel oppressive, the sun forces everything and everyone to grow, and at night the mosquitos and the coquis come out together with a vengeance, reminding us that sweet and sour always come hand in hand.
The plan was to go home, but then came Irma – the rehearsal – followed by Maria – the real deal – and our home, like millions of others on the island, was destroyed from the unrestrained power that Mother Nature unleashed during her big show.
I was one of the lucky ones who heard from my family early on.
I was one of the lucky ones who heard from my family early on. It was Thursday night. Last I had heard from them was Tuesday afternoon when they were scrambling around the house making sure the windows were boarded tightly, that everything outside was brought inside, that the dogs were walked, the tub filled with water, the electronics charged. They assured me that they had too much food and water. And that they wouldn’t all get so drunk that they’d sleep through the thickest part of Maria and not hear a window crashing or the water rising.
When my mom called at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 21st from the top of a hill near our home in Dorado, Puerto Rico, I was outside drinking wine with a group of friends who deserve a medal for keeping me distracted and off social media for over 48 hours. Our call was cut off after 45 seconds, and an ambulance on Houston made the exchange more frantic than necessary, but there she was, on the other side of the line, talking quickly and excitedly. Everyone’s okay. Everyone’s okay. Everyone’s okay.
With the San Juan airport radar broken, an influx of relief planes, and the governor asking residents not to return as resources to keep people safe and healthy were already scarce, that plan to fly home was scrapped entirely. Nothing concrete was put in its place.
The air was thin and salty in a way I didn’t recognize after a hot and humid summer in Puerto Rico that didn’t allow you to think, or sometimes breathe.
So I did the only thing that seemed to make sense at the time: resumed my East Coast tour. From New York City I made it out to Long Island to spend a weekend with a college friend in the precious solace that the off-season Hamptons can offer. We laid by her pool in the mid-September sun, and wrapped each other in quilt blankets as we watched it set on an empty Sagaponack beach, a bottle of rosé, a fresh baguette, and a picnic basket of cheeses laid out around us. The air was thin and salty in a way I didn’t recognize after a hot and humid summer in Puerto Rico that didn’t allow you to think, or sometimes breathe. The sunset here was delicate and humble, unlike the intense hues emitted by the tropical sunsets back home – dramatic, passionate, and unapologetic, as if she weren’t going to do the whole thing over again tomorrow night. I imagined putting the two sunsets side by side. I imagined my sunset devouring this one.
From there, I flew to Burlington, Vermont where I was met with an even deeper level of solace. A solace where you hear mother nature’s quietest whispers, even if you aren’t listening that hard. Even if the thoughts in your head are doing their very best to speak louder than the brook running through the backyard, the birds deep in conversation, the creatures in the night who fill up the dark, silent void with their high-pitched sounds. In Vermont, as in Puerto Rico, Mother Nature wins.
I combed through orchards with my sister-in-law and baby niece, hiked through rocky cliffs overlooking miles of rich green forest, and had the very best warm apple crumble with a mound of homemade ice cream melting on top. We cooked colorful meals, we read and re-read the same children’s books, we held onto goblets of wine with a level of tenacity one reserves for the things they are certain someone is going to take away from them. And as I curled up in their living room watching the morning fog slither its way across this deeply nurtured landscape, listening to the different nooks and crannies of the house stretch and wake up with the rest of us, I tried to remember those quiet mornings with two humans and two dogs tangled in a full sized bed. The way we had buried ourselves under the sheet, our bodies unfamiliar with a temperature so forgiving so early in the morning. The frogs in the pond next door started to croak and bellow to one another, a sound coming from deep within and reverberating around the still morning branches, and I wondered if anyone had ever asked them to relocate. I imagined they’d be much more receptive than our pompous flock of roosters.
Large, hearty breakfasts at diners instead of jamon y queso sandwiches at the panaderias.
I drove to Maine with my fiancé’s family for a wedding and weekend of admiring the first glimpses of yellows, oranges, and the occasional deep reds. Warm cider instead of light, watery beers. Large, hearty breakfasts at diners instead of jamon y queso sandwiches at the panaderias. We assumed a lifestyle that revolved around inside, fires, and layers – my path following a string of quiet that went from Vermont and passed through Maine on its way north. In Puerto Rico, you spill onto the street. Your music, your smells, your animals, your emotions – they don’t stay contained within the walls of your house, no matter how thick that contractor may have laid the concrete. In Maine, you give a tug at the very top of the zipper to make sure it’s snug.
I bounced around Boston with a friend. Around D.C. with another one.
I softly moved my body in and out of these welcoming cities, warm dinner tables, and crisply made beds, careful not to put enough weight down to cause a loose floorboard to creak. I held onto the idea that maybe the less that I gave to these experiences – the less I felt, smelled, and tasted – and the more of myself I could hold onto, the easier it would be when the time came to pick up the pieces scattered around this rocky, dewey, frosty coast, and head back home.
And the time did come.
The days passed without talking to loved ones were lined across our foreheads.
On October 8th, I boarded a plane headed for Puerto Rico, filled with people carrying the weight of the past month in their oversized suitcases and glossed-over stares. The days passed without talking to loved ones were lined across our foreheads. The hours spent on the phone trying to find flights to and from the island were stacked on top of our shoulders, on top of our backpacks, on top of our aching backs from sleeping in bed after bed after bed that wasn’t ours. The social media posts, photos, and articles we’d obsessively scrolled through were trapped in our chest along with our breath and any remotely meaningful thing that was left to say.
We did our best to be polite and kind to one another, without exchanging too many words or holding eye contact for too long. Of course I wanted to know the story of the family with four girls under the age of ten, their hair in side-parted French braids with matching pink flower clips. I wondered if they were returning to one of the houses in the densely populated Levittown that was underwater for days, or up in the mountains in Utuado where relief efforts had not yet been able to access due to fallen trees and power lines. I wanted to know the story of the man who limped to the front of the boarding line when extra time was called, his dry, heavy skin telling stories of disasters and disappointments dating back before I was born. I wondered what family would pick him up at the airport filled with thousands of people trying to find anything from a flight out to a non-leaking roof to sleep under. I wondered what the place he called home would look like now.
But the cocktail of anxiety, exhaustion, and even a little excitement to finally make it home to my family buzzing underneath my skin made me incapable of taking in anymore stories. So I kept my gaze down and exchanges brief.
Many people will say that the Puerto Rico our plane touched down on is a different Puerto Rico. The “Isla Verde” you used to see from above is replaced with a dry, brittle desert. The streets are lined with boarded up businesses, pieces of broken fast food signs, and snaking lines of people waiting for drinkable water, gasoline, or cash. When you drive into a neighborhood, carefully weaving in between tree trunks too heavy to move and puddles too deep to cross, you find heaps of people’s belongings where their homes used to be. A mattress, crib, television, and pile of clothing consciously organized by its owners between a concrete floor and the hot Puerto Rican sun as if to say: Don’t move, we’ll be back soon.
I could hear the water in the living room dripping from our broken roof into a bucket that we would use to flush the toilets that day.
The roosters woke me up at 3:50 a.m. the first morning back in my bed. The air was still, laying heavy on top of my body in a way that made my breath crawl slowly on its way in and out of my lungs. I could hear the water in the living room dripping from our broken roof into a bucket that we would use to flush the toilets that day. Each ding mixed with the medley of breath and light snoring coming from the bodies in the room: my fiancé, our two dogs, our recently rescued kitten, and the newly found pup, who, like the rest of us, wasn’t sure where he belonged anymore. The sweet smell of entangled sweat emanated from our sheets.
The white, black, and red-spotted rooster was perched outside my window in his favorite spot on top of the fence, screaming at a voracity that either I hadn’t heard before or had forgotten existed. Although the robust lining of bushes and towering trees he used to hide between were gone, leaving him more exposed and vulnerable than ever before, he was screaming to let us know that he wasn’t going anywhere.
Because while many people will tell you that the Puerto Rico we are living in today is a different Puerto Rico – they will also tell you that patience, hard work, and a fierce determination to grow in the most unfavorable of conditions is written in the DNA of Puerto Rico’s history and Puerto Rico’s people. It’s even in the DNA of our roosters.
Illustration by Charlotte Ager.