The Promised Land
This work is beginning to take form…
Once, when my body was upright and wick with esprit and the terra firma still firm beneath my feet, I saw giant white letters rise, jagged, across the Puerto Rican mountainscape—a simulacrum of jilted Hollywood. The people inhabiting the mountain ridges of Rio Blanco live colorful lives in thick, concrete birdcages with iron gated windows—some on stilts. Wrought with tension, they teeter on ledges, yielding steep drop-offs and one feels Vertigo on a recurrent basis. Continental friends ask, “Does postage require an extra stamp?” and amazon refuses to ship books of poetry to succor my fix. I hear the locals utter directions to the grocery store in broken fits, the nuances of language incomprehensible to my American ear like an unreliable telephone connection back home or a cracked radio signal. I fail to decipher their code for “Do you have any plantains?”
What lofty wind have I let lift me up, carry me south to the Caribbean islands of the ancient Taino Indians; to El Hombre de Puerto Ferro’s resting place between two protruding stone shoulders; to the Casa Cubuy Ecolodge situated in the midst of El Yunque rainforest; to Vieques, the island home of the abandoned not-quite-so-owned wild horses who wander down the narrow road from Esperanza to Isabel II on short, powerful legs? Their shoeless hooves make contact with the cracked, pavement—in serious need of repair—making a steady taca-taca-taca-taca rhythm. I bet they measure time by this familiar sound. Over time my heart slows to match this andura gait, eventually stopping altogether at the center of time. Now I am a Paso Fino bred for neither here nor there.
I was young and lost in a land alien to my body. But I learned how to properly take in a sunset: watch for the Green Flash that emits from the horizon as it swallows the near, the far. And—always in-between, my body—this, the promised land, encompassed—the one place dauntless men of great voyages whispered of by book:chapter:verse to me whilst I slept, their calloused hands resisting temptation.
Another night on the island and the initial enchantment has worn off. The waves crash against Mary, standing so forlorn yards out from the safety of the beach. I am told I should think twice about wandering off near the vacant military compounds. I have been warned. Last year a young Taino boy disregarded the signs “Danger, mines!” (written in English I might add) and was blown away. His mother had cradled his shoe in her arms, wailing. I find myself afraid to take a step in any direction. Tourism is the cheapest of ways to turn people to whoring the land like their own bodies to the highest bidder. Vieques is no exception.
Tonight I bear witness to the cockfight whilst accepting Medallias from men who call me “muy bonita senorita.” The phrase should sound beautiful, but against the smell of fowl blood and the delicate feathers swirling in the air it rolls slurring from their mouths across the arena like an ugly metaphor. They offer cheap pleasure, a promise to fulfill future disillusionments of love. “No, gracias.”
Another pair of roosters is brought into the ring. Each ones leg sports either a red or blue tag of tape. I can see the long spurs that have been attached to their claws, thin and deadly if used with precision. Matches last no longer than twenty minutes. If a cock goes down and doesn’t get back up after sixty seconds or dies the match is over. Draws are rare.
The referee starts the clock and the fight begins. Bets escalate to a full orgasm as one rooster slashes the other’s throat in less than two minutes. The owner of the winning rooster will receive an extra cash bonus for the quickest kill of the night.
To see the vibrant streaks of blood accumulate against the yellow walls of the arena is shamefully stimulating. These cocks have been raised and nurtured by their owners for one sole purpose, profit. They call it the “gentleman’s game.” I turn to the door half-expecting to see a flood of Englishmen clad in 19th century suits stroll in with billiard cues in one hand and glasses of scotch in the other. What role do I play? Do I bet red or blue? Am I silent?
The sight of two creatures fighting against death wakens my mind to suppressed desires and reminds my body of its sentience, hence this urge to engage in corporeal pleasures, to reacquaint myself again with feeling something more, something not quite so final as two cocks engaging one another in chance blows. No pictures to take here.
I will disappear, unnoticed, before hype and excitement, expanding beyond the boundaries of the arena, can become displaced emotions directed towards me rather than at the fowls’ struggle below, before I lose all sense of my body completely to the vastness of space and men’s sweat and swearing and hideous gaze.
The Gigantic makes us feel disembodied.
I have seen the Green Flash, just as Jules Verne wrote; as a child, I too dreamt and read the souls of future men, thought I could capture their essence in my palms.
All my life I have walked latitude by longitude, plotted courses, and loved; as do solitary shipwrecked survivors revere an island haven. Yet always I remain here, in-between, with the compass needle pointing North, West, South, and East, oscillating between negative and positive forces, Good and Evil. At the center blooms the rose, petals silk to the touch as the Ceiba—Tree of Life—roots unfurling through the earth, branches twisting out, grows ever more rhizomatous.
In all my history lessons, I never learned from books how John Harrison solved the problem of longitude with his chronometer nor of the body’s struggle to remain upright on a planet, which by the rules of natural law all living things are governed by Gravity, a subtle pulling downward. And it is as though the older we progress, the more difficult it becomes to resist this magnetism; the seducer offers security and we, the broken many in soi-disant dire prospects, drift through the ether, venturing far off our un-plotted courses. America gained its independence in 1776, but does the individual ever gain independence from the need to belong to land? Indeed, how strange this life becomes us—with irony and regret, the primary vistas of Hindsight.
While in this foreign landscape amidst strangers I paused in the open doorway on a cobbled street in Old San Juan to take a moment and listen to the improvised ditty of a mysterious accordion player. An older man in army attire sat upon the front stoop, hunched far over this unlikely instrument, his cowboy hat blocking his face entirely. As I listened to his lilting song, I watched nearby children exchange words in Spanish and feed the pigeons, squealing each time one of those common-the-world-round birds came to perch on a hand, an arm, a shoulder, a head. Their sounds of laughter commingled with those of cutlery scraping against glass plates and the buzz of adult voices coming from the outdoor dining area at a fine-linen restaurant catering to tourists a few doors away.
I experience pulchritude for the first time, a real poetic moment we feel sometimes and then wander our way home mumbling to ourselves so as to scribble poems down on paper about the transience of all living things using poetic diction and other such clever literary devices. How hard we try to make it meaningful. An insignificant moment to any other viewer becomes the very thing that fills an entire day more than one spent strolling into shops to buy useless items to add to memorabilia collections. Items, which when all is said and done will never make it into the casket with us, but will survive much longer than these fragile shells we call muscle, skin, and bone that house desires, which explode like atom bombs from within and leave us shell-shocked in the mist and rubble of our inner landscapes.
I didn’t want to see the old man’s face. I didn’t want him to end his song, or lift his head for me to see, and shake that rusted tin coffee can at his feet for alms. Instead, I wanted to hurry from his doorstep before he could ruin it.
He finishes his tune and speaks, though it may be my imagination I do not know.
“Be wary of those who say they have no regrets. They are liars, at best delusional, for the most basic component of life can be summed up in one word my dear: mistakes.”
A mysterious accordion player saved me from a truly acute poetic misstep.
I fell out of love twice in one night between turns, released rice paper lanterns across the harbor and it was better than any night spent swapping imaginary words with dead writers or lovers who’ve moved on. Tonight is about forgetting, though it offers no long lasting relief. I’m coming up for air.
Perhaps life is just love’s compromise, a perpetual rack with death, and the body’s atrophy the only consolation for broken Promises and things left undone.
It was a pleasure, bumping into yours for a while.
Since when did I become the Chupacabra, devourer of the male sex? “Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn.” A storm makes its way towards us. I can see it crawling over the mountaintops. I am told we are in need of a cleansing not unlike the Great Flood of Noah’s time, a purging of the weaknesses. In sand and silt and slough, I hope to withstand the storm within his beating heart.
A stray dog has found itself a home on the shores of Aguada’s beaches. He follows me for days, nipping at my ankles, the hem of my skirt, a perfect play toy. He left me the day another tourist wandered by holding a cherry red pop-sicle. Watching him trail after his newfound interest, I find myself filled with the jealousy one feels seeing an ex-lover with someone who has made a name for herself around town, someone I refuse to believe could possibly hold his attention the way I once did; I say this out of some useless sense of pride. The hole in my skirt where his teeth ripped through the fabric is a leftover reminder of his absent presence, that wagging tail and eager doggy-eyed look. Dumb dog. You’ll wander your way back to me eventually when you’re cold and hungry and need a lap on which to rest your weary head.
As a child I always feared adulthood, knew that something deeply precious would be lost in bits and pieces during the body’s slow decay and I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exactly when this paring down would occur; only that it would, that it must, that it does for everyone. For the dancer the threat of this decay is loathsome, indeed, the greatest sorrow the soul can bare. The dancing body, in all its intensity of motion, brings upon itself death expedient, the muscles overwrought with the combined efforts of overuse and age, ligaments torn from bone, cartilage and marrow frittered away. Yet, it fights against the final breath. So I muster all the creative energy I have and feed the perpetual lack erupting from deep within. No child prodigy survives adult-hood. Opal Whitely succumbed to schizophrenia. But then again, don’t we all?
No one tells us that guilt is a powerful force, driving the human body into ditches, a frenzied dance with the muscles grinding over bone, overturning soil, the sod left unsettled. Oh, exquisite machine.
Knee deep in water, I discover the distorted reflection of a fragmented woman, scooping frosted shards of glass found nestled in the sandbar. On hands and knees, my mother vigorously scrubs the tiled floors of her mountain house, a constant battle against dirt and dust and sand. When I envision her, it is always in this hunched position, shoulders rounded in, toes curled under, so determined to keep her floors clean. I bend over, likewise, and sift through the grains of sand and broken bits of shells, leave the sand alone.
Sea glass collecting has become an obsession. My shelves and tables and countertops, every spare surface of my apartment overflows with assorted pieces of all colors, shapes, and sizes, looking like balled up rainbows in their glass dishes, bottles, bowls. I think of myself as a Keeper of Colors, of lost bits of history, tracing their provenance far back beyond my own; an attempt to reconcile broken connections, alleviate the pain of my now lost sense of origin, my very own form of time travel. What’s more is the way these pieces feel in my hand, such pristine crystallized smoothness can’t be faked no matter how ferociously rock tumblers toss out cheap imitations. My next step as a connoisseur would be to join the North American Sea Glass Association. I’ve done the research; such an organization actually exists. But I’ve come to understand that formalities ruin the essence of intangible things worth any real value. For every piece of sea glass found, tells wondrous tales of the ocean currents’ unknown hydraulic scream not even sonar can record.
The sea glass pieces will rise with the Perigean Spring tide in colors of purple, from Chero Cola bottles; citron, from old ink bottles; opaque white, from milk glass; cobalt and cornflower blue, from early Milk of Magnesia bottles and Bromo-Seltzer containers; teal, from 1930s Vaseline containers; turquoise, from tableware and art glass; red, either from Schlitz bottles or nautical lights; aqua, from Ball Mason jars; black, quite old, from 18th century gin, beer, and wine bottles; jade and amber, from early bleach bottles; two-toned amberina, bottles used mostly for spirits; lime and forest green, and ice blue from 19th and 20th century fruit jars; and that special shade of green so easily recognized from Coca-Cola bottles.
But my most cherished relic is a glass piece the shade of pale rose, which originated from a Great Depression era plate. Holding this piece, the most rare of all, so that it may catch the sun’s light, I am reminded of the wonderment I felt once while watching the sunset as a child from the bay window of my bedroom. Before finally ceding in exhaustion to the moon’s rule, the last rays of solar light would permeate through the glass panes, and bounce off my bedroom wall amplifying the salmon pink hue ten fold. The room would glow with a warm light unlike any other. A light I haven’t witnessed since, not even in a Caribbean sunset. I remember that I had imagined this must be what heaven looks like, a rosette glow so brilliant it gathers all living matter into itself in a timeless embrace. The light penetrates through all this chaotic life with bodies undulating against each other. It may finally silence the ocean’s yawning scream.
Distance makes it easier to love.