“Good afternoon. Could you kindly let Maritza know that Val is here to see her?” Val observed the woman at the counter look her over with big almond-shaped eyes drawn tightly in suspicion. Perhaps her polite demeanor was throwing the receptionist off her game.
“Yeah. Wait here.” The receptionist walked through a beaded curtain to the back. “Yo, Maritza, some lady is here to see you. Val or whatever her tight-ass name is.” Val could hear laughter in the back. Her mother’s cackle was hard not to hear; it was usually the loudest, the most obnoxious.
“Val? I don’t know no Val. I know I shit out a daughter named Valentina. Her big-ass head split my chocha in two.” The customers laughed with her mom.
Val steadied herself as best as she could. Her mother was a force of nature. No matter how hard she prepared, it was never enough. She took a breath and brushed off her blazer, making sure it looked neat.
“Oh, look who it is. So what, you some doctor now?” Maritza sucked her teeth and looked Val up and down. She adjusted her tits in the tight top, using her hand to scoop up each breast.
“Hey, Ma. Missed you at graduation.” Val instantly regretted her comment. She wanted to start this off without fighting, but instinct, the animalistic need to preserve herself, took over. “How are you?” Val tried again. Ma was too busy looking in the mirror to make sure her breasts looked good.
“Better than you. What brings you to Newark? You feel like slumming it today instead of being with your white mom?” Maritza fluffed her curly hair.
“Maggie was at graduation and she brought her whole family to celebrate. She made the effort to be there for me.” Damn it, this isn’t how she wanted to do this. Maggie was her second mom, had been there for Val since she was in sixth grade. Her mentor was everything to her. Val knew she wouldn’t be here if it wasn't for Maggie.
“Yeah, your whole family was there, huh? You planned your little party without including the people who are your actual blood. What an ungrateful piece of shit you turned out to be.” Maritza looked genuinely pissed. The vein in her forehead was protruding and pulsing. It made Val feel like she was ten again. Getting screamed at for whatever pissed her mom off in the moment. A wave of sadness hit Val suddenly. Pito, that son of a bitch had ruined their lives but Ma always chose her husband over anyone else.
“What do you want? You must need something coming down here all suited up, looking like some landlord.” Maritza pulled Val from drowning in the past.
“Have you seen the news?” Val asked, hoping.
“Yeah, we get Telemundo. I’m surprised you been watchin’. Since when do you give a shit about Puerto Rico?”
“Pa called me. He says he’s in bad shape and asked me to help him.” Val felt the weight of her conscience. His call, the sound of his voice all came back to her. She was lying to her ma; he had begged her to come.
“Damn, he must be in real bad shape. They say people lost everything, still no power, people dying in the heat. It’s fucked up.” Maritza pursed her lips and shook her head.
“I’m not sure what to do. I’ve never been down there, I don’t know anyone…”
“What do you mean, you don’t know what to do. You kiddin me? Your dad ain’t never asked you for shit.” Maritza looked disgusted. It reminded Val of when she told Ma she was moving in with Maggie and her family for a better opportunity. Ma never understood. Maggie offered to take care of her and made sure she went to good schools. Ma never gave a shit about grades or her future but had that same look when Val broke the news to her.
“Hold on, I barely know my dad. He took off and never worried a day in his life for me. Now I have to drop everything and go see him? I have a life, I’m starting a new job and have work responsibilities you can’t even understand.”
“Understand? You never think that I can understand anything. Why don’t you explain it to me. I mean you only get one father and one mother in your life. Well, I guess you get two. Maybe if it was Maggie’s husband calling you, you wouldn’t even be thinking twice. Since it’s your father, who's poor and ain’t got shit, then I guess you gotta see what’s in it for you before you get your ass out there. Am I right?”
“No. Where do you get the right to judge me? You couldn’t care less about me or to be there for me when I’ve needed you. Pito always comes first. I guess I learned this from you.”
“Oh, here we go. Let’s blame Pito for abandoning your own mother for some white lady. What did your mom Maggie tell you to do, huh?” Maritza began talking in a white lady voice, “Val, you’re white, you don’t need to go to Puerto Rico.”
“Stop it! Leave Maggie out of this.” Val could feel the tension in her shoulders radiating down her limbs. She looked for a seat, unable to bear the storm much longer. “Does he have anyone else out there I could call? I can’t do it.” Val sat in a metal chair. The reception area was sparse. It was painted in bright colors with posters of nail polish and long nails advertising gel manicures. Val knew her ma was proud of the salon she built ten years ago. “There has to be someone.”
“Your grandma died when you finished high school. He’s got no one so…” She let the statement hang in the air between them.
“No cousins, aunts? That’s crazy. What happened to his family?” Val felt lost. Her new job at NYU would wait for her, but she didn’t want to go. Her father had only called her a few times ever, and occasionally had sent money to her ma when she was little, but that was it. Pretending they were close in his hour of need wasn’t something Val felt compelled to do. What Maggie had told her was that she could make a choice without feeling guilty, so why when her ma looked at her like that did she feel a pit in her stomach? The aching feeling confused and overwhelmed her.
“Look, I always told you that your father is your father. He may have made a whole lot of mistakes in his life, but he’s still your father.”
“What? After the way he left you, you would go?” The thought shocked Val. “You have the kids, you can’t go, can you?” Maybe her ma would finally do something for her. If she went, that would solve so much for her. The tension in her body seemed to lift.
“Na. I have got the kids, and a business to run. He called you, not me.” Maritz quickly dashed any hope Val had.
Anger swarmed through her body. It was just like her ma to get her hopes up and toy with her emotions. “I have a fellowship at NYU, an opportunity of a lifetime here. I can’t give that up for a man who has barely ever called me. He wouldn’t do it for me.”
“How do you know what he would or wouldn’t do for you? Your dad is a good man. Just because things didn’t work out between us doesn’t mean he didn’t care about you. For someone who’s supposed to be so smart, you really are a dumbass.”
“Oh, that’s rich. I can always count on you to put me down. You can’t stand that I’m not working here at your nail salon and dare to want something more for my life.” Val felt her cheeks flush with more anger than she could hold off. Not showing up to graduation and abandoning her was something Ma did the moment she moved out. Why did she even bother with these people? She and Ma lived in different worlds.
“Always the victim, right, Valentina? Poor Valentina, look at the kind of mother she has. Poor Valentina, her father needs her and she’s too scared to go see him. I should have named you something else. I thought you were gonna be so different.”
“You're not the only one who’s disappointed.” Val scanned her eyes over her ma, wanting to say so much, but holding back.
“Hey, Doctor Valentina Romero, why don’t you walk your fat-ass out of my salon. Go get your nails done somewhere else. Take your bullshit problems to your white mom and leave me the fuck alone.” Ma’s eyes grew small as they peered into her soul and ripped it out.
“Fine, Ma, if this is how it’s got to be, then I’m done. Done with you and with Dad. You guys never did shit for me. You love Pito, your new kids, and your life without me. It’s taken me years to accept it, but this moment is a turning point for me. I’m gonna focus on me. My life, my career. I’m done with all of you!” Val wanted to scream and scream until her voice was raw. She hated Ma. Hated her more than ever.
“Yeah, I heard. Professor of Latino studies or some shit. What a fucking joke, you teaching kids about being Latino.” The revelation shocked Val. How did Ma know? “You wanna be Latino, then start by going to see your father.” Ma dismissed her with a hand wave, flaunting her long, red, fake nails. Maritza walked through the curtain separating them from the reception area.
Val gathered herself off the chair and left as the receptionist came back out and gave her a look. She walked out onto the sidewalk on Orange Avenue. She hated everything about Newark, everything about Ma and her shitty family. All the sofrito in the world couldn’t begin to smell as badly as she felt coming here. It was time to get out of here and never look back. Time to put this whole Puerto Rico thing behind her. With each step towards her car, she imagined letting go a little more.
Alone, back at the one-bedroom apartment she rented, Val started working on organizing her syllabus for the upcoming spring semester. The light from the laptop illuminated the bedroom. She had so much to focus on and organize before the start of the year. This was her only time to get it done. Her ginger cat purred next to her feet. That reminded her of the litter box needing cleaning. It was just after midnight when the phone vibrated on the desk, jolting her: San Juan and a phone number she recognized from the last call from her father earlier in the week. Her heart sank as she tried to gather the words and the best way to break the news.
“Valentina, are you coming tomorrow?” The tone of his voice was gentle. Like he was coaxing her with candy.
“Pa, I can’t…”
“I need you, nena. I really need you by my side. I have so much to tell you before I die. Por favor, mi nina.” His words were softer and each one affected Val in a way she hadn’t prepared for. They weren’t like her mother’s demanding and demeaning. She felt herself slouch in her chair, weakening. “Mamita, I just want to see your face before I leave this world.”
Val felt her throat tighten with emotion. The thought of him dying scared her.
“Close your eyes,” Pa instructed and Val obeyed, holding back tears. “I must tell you about our family.”
Val kept her eyes closed and an image of her father formed in her mind. He was lying in a bed with a cell phone clutched to his ear. He looked skinny and weak. Around him was debris and darkness. “Pa, what happened?”
“The hurricane, mi nina. You see me?”
“It’s so dark.”
“No power, no water, mosquitos everywhere. I hurt my legs, I’ve been lying here for days. Please come.”
Val opened her eyes. “Yes, Pa. I’m booking my flight now.”
“You come to the mountain, you’ll find me. Just follow your instincts. I love…”
“Pa?” The call disconnected, leaving Val feeling desperate. She tried to call the number back but it didn’t go through. She turned back to her computer and quickly looked for a flight, hoping to leave in the morning. She scoured different sites but there were few flights going into San Juan. Power had only started to be restored. A five o’clock fight out of Newark was the best she could find. It would give her time to see her Ma before she left. A strong urge to talk to her mom that she was going suddenly became urgent. There was a lot she wanted to tell her. The words between them were never easy. She sent her a text saying she would come by the salon tomorrow morning.
She packed a duffle bag for three days, hoping she would be back sooner. Once her pa was secure at a hospital, she could leave. He would be fine and life would return to normal. She turned on CNN to see if there were any updates on the recovery efforts. Trump, the president, said they were doing everything possible, FEMA was on the ground, the National Guard too. Things were going to be okay, she assured herself. The disturbing images were a sharp contradiction to the positive thoughts she was trying to hold onto in her mind; it felt like she was looking at a Third World country. She switched to Telemundo where the news anchors were ranting about Trump and his lack of effort to help the people. They spoke so quickly, Val had a hard time keeping up. Her Spanish needed some practice. She kept it on hoping to absorb more of the language in time for the trip.
The next morning she arrived back in the Ironbound section of Newark. Ma’s salon opened at 9 on Saturday’s for the weekend crowd urgently needing a pedicure. Her mother’s name over the entrance in neon colors reminded Val how small she felt in this place the day before and always. She readied herself for another storm, telling herself over and over again as she pulled open the door that she was good enough, she didn’t need Ma, she could handle it. The same receptionist gave her a smirk and waved for Val to come over behind the desk. She pulled back the curtain and let Val inside.
It had been years since Val had stepped foot inside the spa. Her Ma had really suped up the place. All the pedicure stations looked new, the wall of nail polish was even bigger than she remembered, and there were new manicurists who looked quite presentable and professional. It reminded Val of one of those swanky salons uptown.
“Looks like there’s a doctor in the house,” Maritza’s mocking voice announced. The staff stopped working and stared at Val walking towards her Ma. “You got an appointment, Valentina?”
“Oh snap! It’s on again!” One of the ladies called out. Val ignored her. She wasn’t here to fight.
A hand clasped hers suddenly and Val noticed her little sister, Clara.
“Hi, Ti-ti. It’s been a long time.” Clara looked all grown up, she was taller than Val now.
“Hi, Clarita. Wow, how old are you now?”
“Sixteen, Ti-ti.” She smiled, revealing her braces and colorful rubber bands.
“You look beautiful, look at all this long hair.” Clara’s hair reached down her back past her butt. It was dark with curls. An image popped into her mind of little Clara on her mom’s hip while she shouted into the phone at Pito, “Come on, when you gonna pick up these fuckin kids so I can work!” It came to Val as clear as if it was happening again. Poor Clara, she was spending her childhood in this nail salon, listening to the women gossip and her Ma fight with Pito.
“Yeah, you see Clara ain’t got to leave her family to get ahead. She’s going to Spain in November with her AP class. Getting herself into a good college and doing really great in school. Right, mamita?” Maritza winked at Clara proudly. “Learning to run a business since she was five, working hard.”
“Preach, girl!” The same busybody called out again from a corner of the room.
“Ma, can I talk to you, alone?”
“Yeah, sit down. Let me look at those nails.” Maritza used her nail file to point to the chair in front of her. Val rushed over hoping for some privacy. “Gimme your left hand,” Ma ordered and looked disapprovingly at Val’s nails. “Damn, this is a mess. Clara gimme a cuticle cutter from the sterilizer.”
Ma grasping her hand felt strange to Val. They locked eyes for a moment acknowledging that it had been a long time since they touched. Ma was never a touchy, feely type. Maritza took a deep breath and gave Val a long look.
“Soak them cuticles in here.” She placed Val’s hand in a bowl of warm water. “Why don’t you take care of yourself? I mean you can’t keep your nose in a book all day.”
Val smiled. “Ma, you’ve been saying that to me since I was a kid. I’m just not girly. I don’t care about hair and nails.”
“You're getting old, gonna get cobwebs in your cho-kon-cha soon.” The ladies around them giggled. Val scanned the room annoyed.
“I’m leaving for Puerto Rico today. I talked to Pa last night. He’s not well. He can’t walk, he’s hurt. I just came to let you know.” Val pulled her hand out of the warm water. Maritza grabbed it before she could pull away.
“You got time for a manicure then. Can’t go to PR with shitty nails, I won’t have it.” Ma went to work on her left hand and put the right one to soak. “You know, after you left yesterday, with all that shit you were saying, it made me understand that you really don’t know your family.” Val tried to pull her hand away but her mother smacked her with the nail file. “Your dad left because his mother was sick. Your abuela was all alone in Puerto Rico and in a bad way. Your dad was a good son. He took care of his ma till she passed. He loved you, always did. He sent money and would call you, you don’t remember? One time, he came to visit and brought you pasteles, toys, and dresses. But nah, you don’t remember shit.
“I only saw him once and talked on the phone a few times. He never came back. Excuse me if I needed to think about dropping everything to go see him.” Maritza was carefully cutting around Val’s nail bed and holding her hand firmly, ignoring the last comment.
“So your grandma left behind some land that needed to be taken care of. She only had your dad and he had to stay there to take care of his responsibilities. He went through a lot out there. I met Pito and it was over. He understood, ya know.”
Val shook her head; yeah she knew. Her whole life changed too. She spent her childhood taking care of the half siblings who came later and trying to wrap her mind around the drinking, drugs, and fighting that happened every weekend.
“A lot of shit went down for your dad out there,” her mother said. “ I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it.” Maritza finished shaping Val’s nails and started putting on a red nail color.
“No, Ma! I hate red.”
Maritza laughed. “You gotta represent Boricua.” The other ladies smiled and gave Val a thumbs up. “Yo, Cha-chi, put on some salsa!” The music blasted from the speakers and the customers got hyped up with the song playing.
“Oh, yeah, old school. El Gran Combo.” Ma moved around in her chair, grooving to the music. “Get used to that sound, Valentina. It’s all your father would play.”
Val smiled listening to the man sing about Puerto Rican food. Two women stood up to dance and Clara took over the register. Business was booming for Ma from what Val could tell. Women were coming in and waiting for their turn. She sat quietly watching the hustle and bustle. Clara came over and touched Val’s hair curiously.
“You straighten it every day? Seems like a lot of work.”
“No, Japanese hair straightener. It stays like this for weeks.” Val looked at Clara’s curls, wondering if hers would ever look that beautiful if she stopped processing it.
“You better get your ass to a salon when you get down there. Ain’t no Japanese gonna compete with the humidity in PR,” Ma interrupted. “Put your hand in here.” She placed a nail dryer on the desk and a UV light flashed on. “Now these nails will last two weeks, at least. I put an extra coat on just in case.”
Val looked down at her hands and saw Ma had added a Puerto Rican flag on her index fingers. She tried not to roll her eyes. Clara giggled behind her.
“Thanks, Ma. I’ll check in when I get back.” Clara leaned over and gave Val a hug. Ma came over and gave Val an unexpected hug.
Val wrapped her arms around Maritza, smelling the faint scent of her shampoo and feeling the softness of her skin. “Bendicion, Ma,” she whispered softly.
“Dios te bendiga, Valentina.”
Val hugged her again, fighting back tears. It had been years since her ma had offered her a blessing.
The woman next to her on the plane moved around in her seat distracting Val from her thoughts. The lady seemed nervous or anxious.
“Are you okay?” Val asked.
“Yes, it’s just gonna be terrible. I’m so scared of how bad the island is. I hope the pilot has some information for us before we land.”
“It will be fine, tourists are already going back. The plane is full.” Val tried to sound reassuring. Inside, the butterflies in her stomach had multiplied. She surveyed a map over and over again, but really had no idea of where her pa could be. She prayed the phone number he called from would work and she could locate him. He was near San Juan, that much she knew. She reassured herself once she got settled everything would be okay. Val closed her eyes and tried to rest. A picture of her father formed in her mind again. She could see him asleep in the same spot he was in last night. This time she looked around the room and out of a small window, surveying everything. She could see mountains everywhere, a dirt road, and a sign, but she couldn’t make out the words.
Val opened her eyes. This had to be a projection from her subconscious mind trying to help her cope with the stress of the situation. It happened last night too, seeing pa in her mind. Google pulled up the word “remote viewing” and “psychic abilities,” and there were articles about it but not anything Val believed in. She would prove it to herself soon enough. Val closed her eyes and this time let herself drift off to sleep.
“This is the captain. We are close to landing and I wanted to advise you that most of the island is still without power. It’s still pretty chaotic and hope you all stay safe out there. There is limited cell service so if you need to make any phone calls, the best spot is from the airport. Once you leave this location, most of the cell towers, if not all of the cell towers, are still down. San Juan is probably your best bet safety-wise. The National Guard is present and you can find water and supplies with the Red Cross. Most hotels are still down, but if you are lucky enough to secure a room, I imagine they will have what you need. On behalf of myself, and the rest of the crew, we want to thank you for flying United. Please keep your seat belts buckled until the seat belt sign turns off.”
Val opened her eyes. She used the time to draw a sketch from the dream she just had. Mountains and some letters, nothing that looked familiar to her, and the letters did spell out a word she knew. She kept sketching till they landed and all of the people got out.
It was hot, muggy, and the smell of body odor was all around. Val removed her jacket and tied it around her waist, regretting her decision to wear jeans. She quickly rolled up the sleeves of her blouse as she walked out into the terminal. She could see lines of people waiting to board flights, people crying, some sleeping on the floor with their children, and airline staff trying to deal with the countless frustrations of an airport running on generators. Val began feeling her stomach turn, and with jittery hands she quickly powered on the phone and took it off airplane mode. The thought of getting stuck in Puerto Rico with no return flight scared her. People were yelling at airport staff; it looked like some had been waiting for days to leave. Val tried her father’s number, praying he would pick up. The phone rang a few times and then there was just a beeping sound. She checked her text messages but there was nothing since she boarded. Only one bar of cellular, and no Wi-Fi. Val felt the pangs in her stomach worsen. She looked around and followed the signs for taxis, hoping to get to the hotel quickly before dark. Frantically she looked around again but there were only military vehicles unloading supplies.
“Oye, nena, oye!” a man’s voice called out to her.
The last thing she needed was to be cat-called at a time like this. She ignored the man and kept looking around for a cab, running her hand through her hair and starting to bite the polish off her fingernails.
“Oye! You lost? Are you a volunteer?” The man’s accent sounded familiar. Like the guys from the Bronx, a mix of Spanish and English. “Mira, chica, hablas espanol?”
“I need a cab, I’m not a volunteer.” Val swung around towards him to let him know she wasn’t interested.
A man with a black goatee and dark straight hair pulled back into a small bun looked surprised. His dark eyes had a look of disbelief. “Hey, you look lost. All volunteers are supposed to be at terminal B. Which organization are you with?” He was slim and taller than Val. His navy-blue tee shirt said “Policia.”
“I need some help. I’m trying to find my father and get to my hotel. I need a cab.” She felt herself start to calm down. He looked like someone who knew what he was doing in all this mess.
“Okay, what hotel? I just have to help these people over here. Puedes esperar?” He spoke in both languages, switching between them effortlessly. Speaking to other people walking by, military, and volunteers. He commanded the entire space.
“Yeah, I’m at the Marriott,” Val called out as he directed more people. She waited, hoping he would be quick. He looked down at his wrist checking the time and shaking his head.
“Mira, that hotel is closed. They aren’t gonna let you in this late. You’re better off staying here and trying in the morning. No lights, it’s dark now. No cabs.” Other police officers approached him and he started talking to them.
Val shook her head nervously. She couldn’t stay here. “No, look I’m a doctor. I have to get to that hotel tonight.”
“Doctors and nurses are with the Red Cross in the tents. You’ll have to walk.” He looked up at her quickly and kept talking to the other officers.
Shit! Val’s mind sputtered, trying to quickly explain. “I’m a professor from NYU, not a medical doctor. Look, I just gotta get to my hotel.”
The man rolled his eyes. “Look, if you're not essential staff, find yourself a seat somewhere before they're taken. Check with me in the morning.” He waved for a group of volunteers in red shirts to come over and ignored Val as she kept trying to explain her situation.
Unwilling to accept defeat, she grabbed her bag and kept looking for a cab or another person who could help her. This guy wasn’t the be-all or end-all for Puerto Rico. Val approached strangers pleading for some help to find a cab.
“Oye, nena, it’s dangerous. Please go have a seat.” The officer was right behind her and Val spun around feeling angry.
“It’s Doctor Romero, don’t call me nena!” She was eye to eye with him. She could smell his Right Guard deodorant.
“Perdona. Doctora vaya sientese.” He pointed to a row of uncomfortable chairs. He picked up her bag that she was dragging on the floor. He seemed to soften as he led Val over to sit down.
“Thank you. I’m sorry about yelling. I’m just…” Val stumbled on where to even begin.
“Esta bien. It’s okay.” He gave her a thumbs up and a goofy grin. “Tomorrow morning, I can get you a cab. Do you know what an apagon is?”
“No, what’s that?” It sounded serious; Val’s brow furrowed concentrating on what he was saying.
He scowled. “It’s a superpower outage. Everything is in total darkness.” He stood up and crossed his arms. He looked down on Val in her seat with a serious expression. “There’s a mandatory curfew, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.”
Val swallowed, feeling her jaw clench tightly. Gazing up at the officer made her think of the word “eye candy.” She looked away quickly, embarrassed at his cocky smirk and expression of “Yeah baby, take a good look.”
“So get comfortable in this chair, Doctora. Don’t look at my butt when I walk away. I’ll be able to feel you staring at me.” He looked her in the eyes and grinned, turned and walked off.
She tried her father’s number again. The spot she was standing in, by the large windows, had better reception. No answer. She grabbed her bag and walked to get in line to use the bathroom. The smell around her was giving her a headache. Her stomach grumbled and everything seemed to be going wrong. Her plan of attack at first light was to get the hell out of this airport and find some help to get her father off the mountain and into a hospital. She needed to talk to someone in charge from the Red Cross. Val held her breath as she went into the stall and unbuttoned her jeans quickly. The heat and humidity just made everything worse. She got done and went to wash her hands. One look in the mirror startled her. Her hair was a mess. Frizz with straight and curly pieces were fighting for space on her head. She searched for a hair tie at the bottom of her bag. She wet the top and pulled it back as tightly as she could into a bun.
“Excuse me, could you tell me where I can find someone in charge?” She stopped the first person she saw with a red volunteer tee shirt.
“Serving dinner, you should be able to find someone.” The lady pointed to a long hallway.
“Thanks.” Val scurried down the hall, keeping a quick pace. People were sitting on the floor or in chairs, eating. The volunteers were handing out sandwiches and water. Val got in line and kept asking for a person in charge.
The lady who handed her a water bottle and sandwich told her to ask for Alex then pointed to a group of men standing in a corner of the room. Val approached them barging in on their conversation. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the eye-candy officer again in the middle of the huddle.
“Si, Doctora. What do you want?”
“ My father, I need to get him to a hospital as soon as possible.”
“Write his name and location on the list and we will get to him when we can.” He handed her a clipboard with pages of names.
She flipped through to the third page. “No, this isn’t acceptable. He needs help right away.” She looked him in the eye, trying to will him to understand her distress.
“Every name on this list needs help right away. We’re working with a third of what was promised. We have resorted to carrying people on our backs to get them to help. We're doing all we can.” His face looked somber.
Val knew people were dying and would continue to die.
“It’s not enough,” Val whispered. His face changed and flushed red.
“Don’t you think we know that! You just got here! We’ve been doing this for days with no sleep. Bearing the brunt of this storm, day in and day out.” Another officer clutched his shoulder and pulled him back, whispering in his ear to calm down.
“Let it go, Alex.” He took the clipboard from her and handed it to another officer.
Val was out of the circle and cast aside. Feeling terrible, she tried to reach out to Alex to apologize. An officer handed her a pencil and pushed the clipboard back towards her. She scribbled Juan Jose Macandal and the cell phone number. On the side she wrote, I’m sorry officer Alex, my comment was careless. I apologize and signed her name.
She walked away with her sandwich and went back to her seat by the taxi exits to try and sleep, grateful to find the seat was still available.
“Hey. Wake up.” Alex stood over her, pulling his wet hair back into a small man bun.
Val tried to stretch in the chair. All her muscles felt tight and pain radiated in her back as she moved. “What time is it?” She could smell the scent of Zest soap. Lucky bastard was able to get in a shower somehow.
“5 a.m. Go freshen up and then come see me,” Alex ordered. The look on his face was stern, urging Val to comply. “I’ll be down this hall.” He pointed to an area past the taxi station.
Val stood up and grabbed her bag. “You're gonna help me get my father?”
“I’ll do what I can.” He walked away.
Val quickly got herself together and changed into some fresh clothes and came rushing back to meet Alex.
“The number you wrote down doesn’t work. I’ve tried it a few times. You didn’t list an address.” He flipped through the paperwork and stared at her. Val quickly fumbled through her bag.
“I hope this makes sense to you.” She showed him the picture she drew on the plane, praying it could be something, though she didn’t believe in remote viewing and wanted to tell him she never drew pictures like this. Alex took the notebook and stared at it for a few seconds.
“This is near Manati, about a fifty-minute drive, but now it will take longer. Roads have been washed away, downed power lines, it’s dangerous.” Alex handed the notebook back to her.
“Really? You know where this is? It’s an actual place?” Val felt excited and scared at the same time.
“Look, you need to know where you’re going. We can’t guess, or fool around here. Every minute counts. Are you sure he’s there?” Alex’s tone was stern and all business.
“Yes, he’s there. I’m sure of it.” She grabbed her bag, ready for action.
“Okay. Let’s go quickly.” Alex searched the table for a set of keys. He led the way out of the airport, pausing to give quick orders to his men as they walked away together. “I have to get back here as soon as possible. I’m the captain and have to be back here to keep things running smoothly.”
“Thank you for helping me.” Val gave him a grateful smile. She understood it was a big deal for him to leave his post to help her.
San Juan looked like a ghost town in ruins. Stores were empty, abandoned homes with open doors, streets full of debris, and the few people around looked shell-shocked. The traffic lights were out and traffic followed a haphazard pattern. Alex continued reporting over the CB radio advising his department along the drive of any concerns. They drove towards the Expreso Jose De Diego; the toll booths were abandoned frames, and cars drove through without stopping. Val had been told San Juan was similar to Miami in culture and appearance, but now as she looked out her window, there was no way it even shared a resemblance. Many streets were still flooded and the smell of feces permeated the air.
“So what do you teach at NYU, Doctora?” Alex asked politely, seemingly numb to the horrors around them.
“Mostly on revolutions in Latino America. It’s exciting stuff.” Val smiled thinking about her syllabus for January, wondering if she would bore the kids to death.
“This is your first time visiting la isla?” Alex reached down and turned on the air conditioning in the car. The cold air against her hand felt luxurious. “It used to be bonita.” His eyes surveyed along the expressway with longing.
“Yeah, I’m sorry it took me so long to get out here. I imagine when things get back to normal it will be more beautiful than ever.” Val tried to instill Alex with a drop of hope. His eyes cast down on the road. They were going farther out of the city and still had a ways to go.
“So they say. Somethings you can’t unsee no matter how pretty they try to make it later.” He turned to look at her with his dark eyes filled with sadness.
Val said, “These mountains are amazing. They seem to never end.” The expressway transformed into a smaller highway. They were on backroads with tight turns. Alex informed her about the towns they were passing, imparting background and history on the ones he was familiar with. Val asked a lot of questions, hoping to keep them both distracted from the devastation around them.
The road came to an abrupt stop. Fallen trees and powerlines blocked the way forward. Alex parked the car and they both got out to assess their options. The trees were too big to move and another way around would take too long, Alex told her. Without a chainsaw, the road was impassable. He looked at his watch nervously.
“I can walk from here. Don’t worry.” Val placed her bag over her shoulder and let it hang across her body. “My pa has a house, I’ll be fine. You need to get back, they are waiting for you.” She urged Alex back into his car. He was busy checking her phone for a signal.
“I can’t leave you out here alone. What if he’s not there?” Alex looked worried. “There’s been a lot of looting and bad stuff happening.”
“I’ll be fine, I’m from Jersey City. I can handle it.” Val checked her bag for a water bottle and bug spray. The mosquitos were already eating her up. She killed one on her arm. The sweat was attracting them. “You said it’s a few miles ahead. I’ll stay on the road and follow it up the mountain.”
“You added my number to your contacts? I’ll come back in a few hours to check on you. I won’t be away long.” Alex looked around the desolate surroundings, with not a soul in sight. He popped the trunk of his car and fumbled around. He handed her another water bottle and some chips. “If you run out of water, crack open a coconut.” He handed her a long Swiss Army pocketknife. “Keep this close.”
“Thank you, thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I’m truly grateful.” She gave his hand a squeeze and smiled. His hair had escaped the bun and fell loose around his face. She thought the black hair against his olive skin looked beautiful and in some way exotic. It was neither straight nor curly, yet perfect. He smiled back, knowing Val was checking him out again.
“I’ll be back soon, just stay safe, por favor.”
Several hours of walking made Val’s quads burn in resistance to the steep incline. She fashioned a walking stick from a long branch discarded on the ground and gripped it tightly as she climbed up the mountain and sometimes to clear a trail. Her water bottle grew empty as she continued towards her father’s house, up and up the muddy path. Pools of water collected mosquitos, and rotting fruit littered the ground making the air smell putrid. At the top of the mountain Val finally stopped to catch her breath. The sweat gliding off her face collected on her saturated clothes. Her body felt heavy. Down the path she could see what was left of her father’s house; it was the only one in the area with no other houses nearby. The plantation looked just as she pictured it in her drawing on the plane. Denuded trees lined the pathway, some with roots exposed from the force of the hurricane. The cataclysmic ruin of crops and vegetation made her feel hopeless. Quenepa, pineapples, bananas, and other fruit were scattered around haphazardly with flies everywhere. The muddy walkway leading up to a wooden fence with missing planks framed the small house.
She could see a window and knew it was her Pa’s bedroom. Exhaustion and elation hit her at once. She surveyed his home; it was decimated. The recovery would take months. But at least he made it. Pa was hurt but he would be okay. They could think about the repairs together later.
“Pa! I’m here.” Val raced into the concrete structure. Her heart was pounding in her chest. So many years without seeing her father and so many emotions bubbling to the surface. She was already crying thinking about the last time she saw him. Most of the roof had been destroyed and there were palm leaves everywhere. The home was full of drying mud and other debris. Her pa lay still on a small twin-sized bed. She approached the bed and grabbed his hand. “I’m gonna get you some help.” His hand felt cold and clammy, he squeezed her hand. She blew warm air on his fingers trying to heat them.
“We have to move you, Pa, the hospital is nearby.”
“Valentina. Sit. There is no time to move me. My mother is here already.” His voice sounded soft; he gazed at her and tears streamed down his face.
“No, Pa. I’ve got to get you some help.” Val placed her hands under his shoulders hoping to sit him up. He winced in pain, stopping her from proceeding.
“Mi mama will take me home, Valentina, don’t worry for me. I need you to cremate me and bury me with my mother. Promise me that you’ll bury me with her,” he pleaded and grabbed her hand. The look in his eyes helped Val understand the importance of his request. The profound loss of Pa dying hit hard, making her chest feel hollow.
“Pa, I don’t want to lose you. I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner. I wasted time, I wish we had more time.” Val kissed his hand. “Why didn’t you want me? Why did you wait so long?”
“I wanted you to have a normal life. I didn’t want you to bear the responsibility until it was time. My mom did the same for me.” He stroked her hair and gazed into her eyes.
“I’m responsible, Pa, what do you mean?” Val wondered if this was delirium. She touched his forehead and it felt cool. She removed the blanket covering him and saw his legs. They were grey and the color seemed to be spreading up his body.
“The responsibility of our family line. Don’t be scared, we will be closer than ever. Love can overcome death, and I love you so much.” He touched her cheek and wiped away her tears. “My mother is buried outside of the Catholic cemetery. The family curse. It scares them and they will give you trouble. I left you my book. It will guide you.” He took a short, labored breath. The grey color continued spreading up to his bare chest.
Val hugged him. “Pa don’t go.” She didn’t understand everything he was saying. It sounded like he was hallucinating.
“You see her, Mami, she is beautiful. She’s gonna be the best one, the strongest one.” Pa seemed to look through Val.
Val shivered as if a cold draft was passing through her body. “Pa, don’t go. Stay, I need more time. I’m not ready to lose you.” Looking at him she could see so many of her own features. His cheekbones were well defined and his eyes though tired were a bright jade color reflecting a deep knowledge. Helpless, she wished there was something she could do. But she was so small against death. Accepting her powerlessness, she held his hand and cried.
“Play me a song. I would love to hear music as I go.” He stared at her. The bright jade color suddenly becoming a dull green.
“Okay, Pa.” She scrambled in her pocket and pulled out her phone. She pressed on her salsa playlist and tropical sounds began to flow. Her father smiled as the grey color moved up his chest. The song started with the sound of rhythm sticks tapping and the man singing about Puerto Rican food. The Gran Combo sang about salsa, chivo and vino, pescado con jugo de limon, and lechon. Pa closed his eyes, smiling. “Don’t go, Pa,” Val pleaded one more time. She gently rubbed his black hair noticing the grey color move up past his heart. He took another labored breath and opened his eyes wide.
“It’s soon. I love you, Valentina.” They locked eyes. The color now just a tint of green. “I’m leaving,” he whispered. The music continued to play.
Valentina watched the grey move past his throat and up his jaw. His soul was slowly leaving his body, exiting out from his head and looming over them. The music stopped. She could see twinkles of light all around the room. Pa was everywhere now. The lights went up to the ceiling and floated around. Val stood up mesmerized. She reached up her hand to try to touch the lights and cried. Other lights swarmed around and they flew out of the window together and into the night sky. Val rested against the open window for a while searching for the lights. She looked at the body of her Pa on the bed. It resembled a shell, hollow in appearance. With his soul gone, Pa didn’t even look like himself anymore. She covered the body with the blanket and gently stroked the hair.
Alex would be back soon, he had promised. Moving Pa down the mountain would take time. She looked around what was left of the house. Anything concrete had withstood the brunt of hurricane Maria, leaving most of the home intact. The dwelling reminded Val of her one bedroom back in Jersey City. Just the basics. But if her pa was anything like her he would have a writing desk. She didn’t need to search long. His desk sat up against a window like her own back home. She looked through the drawers and found a leatherbound journal. It was full of writing and dates; luckily her father kept meticulous notes in English. Each entry began with Dearest Valentina. She hugged the journal to her chest and placed it in her bag.
Little knickknacks on his desk gave her more information about her father. He collected rocks with white petroglyphs on them. Val recognized them from her studies about the indigenous people from Puerto Rico, Tainos. Her mind quickly scrolled through her memories and the knowledge about this symbol came to her.
Val didn’t know how much time had passed as she sat in the corner of the room. Darkness consumed her pa in the bed and the bright light from a flashlight woke her from the daze she was in. The rock from her father’s desk still pressed against her chest.
“Doctora, it’s me, Alex.” He gently moved her arms away from her chest and placed the stone back on the desk. “Easy, nice and easy. I’m going to help you up. I have some people with me. We’re going to take your father to the funeral home. It looks like he died a while ago.”
“No, he just died. He just left through the window.” Val looked up at Alex. He had a sad expression on his face.
“I’m going to take you out of here. It’s not good for you to stay here alone. Give me your hand and follow me out.” He illuminated the walk with his flashlight. “That’s it, nena, hold on to me.” They walked out among the debris towards headlights about one hundred yards out. There were three other men waiting by the car as they approached. One had a shovel in his hand.
“No, my father wanted to be cremated. He wanted me to put him with his mom.” Val’s voice felt faint and she wondered if they heard her. The men started arguing with Alex, not wanting to go into the house. “Alex, what’s wrong?”
“They won’t go in. They say your dad was some kind of Santero. I’ll have to go back for the body.” Alex walked her to the car and opened the front passenger door. “Wait here. They will help me once he’s away from the house.”
She looked over at the men staring at her suspiciously. They stayed away from the car too like she had some kind of contagious illness.
“It’s okay. I can bring him out. The morgues are full. There’s no place to store the body. The nearest crematorium opens in the morning and it depends on how many kilos of gasoline they can get to run the generator. It may be a few days.”
Val knew it meant her father would be left to decompose. Everything felt wrong, the condition of the island, the way people had been just left to survive, it didn’t feel like America at all and more like a nightmare. There was nothing she could do.
“I’ll be right back. Stay in the car, the men are afraid,” Alex warned.
The statement brought Val back to the present. “Afraid of my pa?” The tears returned and she cried into Alex’s shoulder. He hugged her for a few seconds and then gently closed the car door. He sprinted back to the house with the flashlight. Moments later he stepped out dragging her Pa behind him using the sheets from the bed.
“Ayudame!” Alex called out to the men. The men stood still, frozen. “Apurate, Ayudame!” Alex called again, this time in the stern voice he used when he directed the people at the airport. The men started to move, one speaking rapidly in Spanish.
Val watched the other two men cross themselves like they were approaching the altar at church. Alex had to physically place their hands on the sheet, he kept reassuring them that her pa was dead and that he wouldn’t do anything to them. Val struggled to understand their resistance to helping Alex. The trunk opened and her pa was loaded into the back. The car moved as they tried to fit him inside.
They drove for what felt like a long time. Val was in and out of sleep, waking up to the nightmare of her father in the trunk of a car. Too emotionally exhausted to keep replaying the situation in her mind, she kept falling asleep instead. When they arrived, Alex opened the car door and helped her out. He walked her inside a concrete house, which was more intact than many of the others she had seen. He guided her to a room and sat her down on the bed. Alex grabbed a bottle of water and poured some onto a towel. He gently wiped Val’s face. He had placed her bag next to the bed.
“In the morning, you can clean up and change. There’s a bowl near the sink. No running water but there’s a bucket with some clean water.” He felt around the bed. “Here, lie down on this pillow.”
Val clutched the soft pillow and melted into it. The comfort made her cry. Alex consoled her whispering in her ear. He talked about God, her father, and promised to help her. He placed a flashlight by her hand and kissed her forehead before he left the room. Val gripped the pillow trying to ground herself in some way, thinking about Alex’s words and praying.