A week earlier, my landlord tried to temper my enthusiasm as I gushed happily over the seaside neighborhood.
“The food is amazing at Amanda’s Café. I visited the Spanish forts and Murano’s— you know the place that sells cut glass from that little island off the coast of Venice. Oh my God, their stuff is beautiful, completely authentic.”
The landlord looked at me strangely. “You really should come back here at night.”
The following evening I returned, wandering the streets in ecstatic oblivion. Salsa music soared on the air. I was bewitched by blue cobblestones and wedding cake houses in tropical pastels. El Morro and Fort San Cristobal, stone fortresses flanking the sea, would soon be part of my neighborhood.
“I need to talk to your parents before we can sign the lease,” the landlord stated firmly. I was twenty-seven, but looked much younger. I didn’t have any friends or a job in Puerto Rico. I didn’t speak Spanish. I had six thousand dollars and a manic giddiness. He thought I was a runaway, and I was, though I didn’t know it. I was to join a prototypical class of expatriates. Nights wasted in dirty half-lit bars, drowning in local swill and expanding on the consequences of a misspent youth.
I discovered El Batey shortly after moving into the Old City. It was smoke saturated and dingy with graffiti stained walls from tourists come and gone. The jukebox was so old it looked like a prop from a B-rated science fiction movie and featured an odd collection of music including The Beatles, Edith Piaf, and Frank Sinatra. I drank with other English speaking ex-pats and each night we drowned in the stench of sour beer with an air of festive desperation. Outside, los tecatos (drug addicts) wandered the streets. Children of the damned lost in place and time; we belonged to nothing.
Tinny piano drifted through the swollen darkness, and the jukebox scratched out my favorite song, Charles Aznavour’s La Bohème:
For it seems that our schemes were impossible dreams
that could never have lasted
for when we woke at last the big parade had passed
and spring had gone its way
la bohème, la bohème
“They say you are a lesbian and a murderer,” the bartender informed me. My sudden presence in the Old City had ignited a firestorm of gossip and speculation. Stateside black women did not move to Puerto Rico with no friends, no job, and unable to speak Spanish. I was the star in a new show, “America’s Most Wanted Goes on Vacation.” Murderer I could understand, it was the lesbian part that baffled me.
I got fired after two days of waiting tables at Café Berlin. Getting mouthy with the manager and the fact that I’d obviously lied about my waitressing experience were my undoing. It was predictable fallout from a life propelled by reckless shortsightedness. I had been in town two months and still barely spoke Spanish. My pitiful savings were bleeding out of my bank account, one cold Medalla at a time, into the till at El Batey. My soul became dappled with little flecks of ice, and I was sinking into a quiet carnival of madness.
El Batey had just closed and I was comfortably intoxicated, swaying through the shadows, fractured light, and damp heat on Calle Norzagary. The deserted street overlooked the ocean with massive stone forts on either end. La Casa de los Peluches stood abandoned — a ruined yellow building with several floors. Hundreds of dirty stuffed animals hung in place of busted out windows: filthy wall-eyed dolls, bunny rabbits in dirty dresses, and Mickey Mouses with savaged ears and creepy grins. Its origins were a mystery. It just appeared one day like me, strange and out of place.
Damaris emerged from the alley next to La Casa de los Peluches. Her gait was quick and strange, like her hips and knees were made from thick jelly. Drunkenness numbed me to her angry sores and unkempt rags.
“¡Mira Mami! Vente aqui.” Damaris turned, weird-waddling back toward me. “¿Sabes donde conseguir un poco de marihuana?”
“You want motos?” I nodded, surprised to hear her respond in English. “Cinco dólares and something for me.” She looked up and down the street nervously, scratching her left arm with swollen, bruised hands. I handed her a five.
“I’ll give you yours when you get back with mine.” Damaris disappeared into the alley. She took longer than I expected, and I was just starting to get pissed off when she walked out of the darkness, this time without the bizarre gait. She sat down, looked around furtively, and handed me a little plastic bag which I tucked into my bra. I gave her three dollars. She thanked me, smiling lazily with heavy lids. She had clearly just shot up. The sea crashed beneath us, and I pulled a Medalla out of my purse, cracked it, and drank. This was technically illegal but rarely enforced.
“Where you come from?”
“Michigan,” I replied, slurring slightly.
“Why you come to Puerto Rico?”
“Because it was cheaper than the Virgin Islands.” I belched, and we burst out laughing. “You want a beer?”
“I don’t drink; it’s not good for you.”
“You’ve got be kidding me!” I looked at her incredulously, and we laughed again.
“You got a cigarette?” Our giggles melted into the flow of the ocean, I lit two cigarettes and handed one to Damaris. Inhaling deeply, we watched moonlight roll over the obsidian sea, while strangled dolls dangled from the building behind us.
“What you run from?” She said
“Nothing,” I opened my last beer.
“They say you kill somebody.”
“I know,” I said dryly. “I didn’t kill anybody.”
“Why you come to Puerto Rico?”
“My boyfriend threw me out after he caught me in bed with his friend. I had nowhere to go, and Michigan winters suck.” A slow, thickening quiet fell over us.
“Damaris, what you run from?”
“Very many things.”
“Very many things like what?”
“I’m sick,” her eyes closed gently, chin drifting slowly down towards her chest as she slid into pain-free, opioid darkness. The lump in her neck pulsed gently with her breathing. I studied the dark purple streaks running up her skinny arms. My stomach burned, and I wanted to go home, back to Michigan.
“I gotta go,” I stood abruptly and staggered sideways.
“Wait,” she barely opened her eyes, one hand waving lazily in the air.
“They say you like girls, is that true?
“Depends on what kind of mood I’m in.”
I had a terrible nightmare shaded in soot and gray. Damaris and several stick figure junkies wrapped in necrotic, oozing skin gathered in a room with walls the color of depression and anguish. They were sick, very sick. I stood on the opposite side of the room watching the lump on her throat pulse and grow until she vomited. It was as if a hose had been turned on. Gallons of grainy, brown liquid covered the floor so fast that I couldn’t move before it swept on to my shoes.
I woke up at four a.m. to spider-web-thin strands of moonlight trickling through the shutters. Half-light fused with the shadows, creating oblong shapes, indecipherable and unholy. I was still drunk and frightened, in the twilight between waking and dreaming.
Finally, I landed a job at an English-language newspaper, editing articles and writing catchy headlines. This meant eight hours immersed in stories ranging from mildly depressing to pathologically sinister. I worked from three until eleven and went straight to El Batey every night.
I saw Damaris regularly after the bar closed. She always asked if I wanted something to smoke and I always said no; the pot was raunchy, throat-burning crap that gave me a headache. What she really wanted was money. If I had it, I gave her a little.
Occasionally, I saw Damaris before she had gotten high. She radiated the shame of a forgotten prisoner. Beneath the sickness and dirty clothes I could see she had been pretty. Her face was small, delicate, framed with tight, curly tresses — reminiscent of a Greek statue.
I was insanely drunk and staggering contentedly down Calle Luna when I saw a hunched, grayish mass on the curb. It was Damaris, and she looked so bad I sobered up almost instantly. Her eyes were covered in a rheumy film, and hot-looking red streaks ran up both arms.
“¿Tienes dinero?” She scratched her arms slowly.
“I spent it all,” I said apologetically. “Are you hungry?”
She nodded. I gave her some strawberries, cheese, a few cigarettes, and a clean, blue shirt from my mother. Doom hung in the air like the strangled dolls on the corner of Calle Norzagaray.
I found Damaris on my way to work the next afternoon. She was writhing slowly on the dirty sidewalk several blocks from my house. A concerned passerby crouched over her with a paper cup full of water. She clearly needed to go to the hospital.
This was the era before cell phones, so I ran into Las Cosas Bellas, a tacky gift shop catering to day visitors from the cruise ships. I rushed in the door, pushing past a woman waiting to buy an ugly trinket at the counter. “There’s a woman dying in front of your store. I need to use the phone to call an ambulance.” I led her to the door and watched her face flush when I pointed to Damaris.
“I can’t let you use the phone to call an ambulance for her. My husband would be furious, he hates those people.”
“What the hell?” Molten tears of rage and confusion burned the corners of my eyes. “She’s going to die if we don’t get some help!”
“I know it’s wrong. I know. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I stalked out of the store, managing, in horrible Spanish, to string together something close to, “Guilty people shouldn’t cast stones.” I left her gutless, red-faced, and wringing her hands.
I gave up on the phone and flagged down a police cruiser which turned out to be a disturbing mistake. The Good Samaritan who had been trying to revive Damaris faded away as soon as the police arrived. She popped up from the sidewalk drunkenly, arms flailing, trying to look coherent. I realized she was terrified of the officers.
The cops fired something at her I was far too upset to understand. She answered them.
“She’s just hungry.”
I felt like I had been slapped. They kept insisting she was just hungry while slowly moving towards their car. The nightmare had become a public spectacle. People were staring. Pedestrians paused to gawk; drivers leaned on their horns because the cops were blocking San Francisco Street.
I followed the police shrieking, “Ambulancia! Llama una ambulancia!” In a show of bravado, I wrote down their badge and car numbers, promising them additional trouble from me. As the female officer inched toward her car, I snared her with my eyes, knifing her with a hateful glare. She looked guiltily at the ground, got in the patrol car, and drove away.
Trauma does peculiar things to the brain. The world faded into black and white, grainy and dreamlike. The air felt thick, sooty, and ashen. Everything moved in slow motion. All the color had run out of the world into the sewer of indifference and human cruelty. I was frightened to the bone.
Damaris had slumped back down on to the sidewalk, and as I turned to look at her for the last time, the blue of her shirt emerged from a black and white world. It was the blouse I had given her the night before.
I started to run, slowly at first and then faster and faster.
I composed myself enough to get a cab, but broke down in the back and was hysterical by the time I reached work. I ran through the office, into the bathroom, slammed open a stall door and threw up in the toilet. Evangelina, one of the journalists, was right behind me.
“My God, what happened?”
I had started to hyperventilate but calmed myself enough to explain. I collapsed into another round of sobs when I got to the part about the cops.
“No one would help me.”
“That’s really terrible. I’ll see what I can do.” Evangelina called Las Cosas Bellas, offering them the choice between feigned altruism and public embarrassment.
The streets were deserted, and a few regulars hunched ghost-like in El Batey’s grey, fractured light. I was drinking straight vodka just outside the front door. The bartender let me do it. Everyone knew what had happened, and I was radiating dangerous levels of grief and emotional instability.
“The ambulance came, and they took her to the hospital.” Gabriel stared at me with crimson-ringed eyes. An ex-pat with a ferocious heroin habit, he was condemned to his Caribbean Alcatraz and would never return home.
“The police wouldn’t do anything.” I was crying softly between burning sips from the plastic cup.
“They hate drug addicts,” Gabriel muttered. “They’d kill us all if they could get away with it. At least now she’ll get to die on a bed.”
Nothing made sense. I slipped into a liquor-soaked void, and the words “miss you again” surfaced from the abyss. Charles Aznavour’s voice swelled through El Batey’s barred windows, a dove gliding over shredded dreams. Miss again … Michigan. I wanted to go home … Miss again.