I got ahead of myself. That’s why I didn’t call Luis, the New York Times journalist, even though I said I would as soon as I bought my return ticket. It’s just that once I bought it, after thinking things over, I didn’t want to anymore. And it’s not that I hadn’t wanted to collaborate or that I didn’t like his idea of developing a story about Puerto Ricans returning to the island from the United States, in the middle of the mass exodus after the lashings of hurricanes Irma and Maria. In fact, it seemed just and necessary that someone should cover that inverse migration, that those stories should be told—the whys. Still, in my own heart, I didn’t want the departure from New York and the return to Puerto Rico, this leap into the void deepened by anxiety, the fissure in my relationship, the return to my family home at 33 years old, without a car, without work, and without money, to be news in The New York Times. I didn’t want to be fodder for Likes and Shares.
According to our phone conversations, the journalist’s plan was to document my last days in the city, in photographs and video. He said he wanted to gather visuals while I packed my bags, while I walked the streets and rode the subways for the last time; he even spoke of the possibility of coming on the plane with me, something about witnessing the flight, the landing and the rest of what would happen on the other side. Luis is Puerto Rican. I said yes without thinking, but later I imagined him trailing my embraces in the airport, riding with me up to Cayey, meeting my family, interviewing them. That’s what began to affect my feeling about the situation—not wanting to listen to myself, not wanting to see myself or see what I was doing. Plus some kind of pride. So I dropped out.
I returned to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, February 6, 2018, at 6:56 pm, three months, three weeks, and four days after I left for New York in the wake of the hurricanes. I returned with the same clothes in the same two suitcases, weighing less than when I left, with 39 cents in my bank account.
Andrés picked me up at the airport. I had only told him and my mother. The flight had been delayed more than they thought it would be because it crossed paths in the air with the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket from Space X. The plane hugged the inside of the east coast, from New York to Florida, before turning towards the Caribbean. Near Cape Canaveral, the captain gave the announcement that the rocket would appear in the windows on the left side of the plane. So the passengers from the other side moved to mine and together we saw it poke out between the clouds only to disappear into the deeper blue of the sky. Me flying into the void. The rocket too.
I apologized to Andrés for the wait. I loaded the luggage in his car and he gave me a kiss. Next: the windows rolled down, gusts of heat, and our smiles. He didn’t even say welcome. That first stretch of highway was his hand over mine and plans to go the next day to snorkel in Rincón, the westernmost point of Puerto Rico. He was on vacation with a rented car and would return to New York five days later, to the room he shared with me and that I had just left. So his hand over mine, and the plans we made together, were a kind of promise that we wouldn’t miss the chance to enjoy these last days together.
From the airport we went straight to El Hamburger in Puerta de Tierra, a little restaurant of wood and zinc, standing for more than forty years at the entrance of the capital’s old shell. Inexplicably, it survived the hurricanes. From there, we moved to La Esquina Watusi, to drink rum with passionfruit and lime. Between drinks, already smiling and with eyes wide open, I realized I was back inside the graffitied Santurcean night, vaguely illuminated and ruined from within. In the distance, the Puerta de la Bahía condominiums with their rows of glowing lights. In one corner of the bar, a TV streaming a ball game between Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic. Eddie Palmieri in the background. Close by, two cats licking themselves as if nothing else mattered.
On the road to Cayey, my mother’s town in the center-east of the Island, our hands kept looking for each other. With the rum in me, I told him about my last days in New York, shut up alone in his space. His room is a little corner of the world in an attic of a shared four-story house, at the back of East Elmhurst, Queens. It’s a simple room: one closet, a bed angled out from two walls, a sash window that opens out onto the slope of 29th Avenue down to Flushing Bay, and another window, over the heater, with a view over Gilmore Street. Christmas lights over that window and over the bed. Over the dresser by the door, a cactus sculpture in neon.
I didn’t leave the room in those final days because I needed the money I had left to pay the luggage fees on the way back. And I was trapped by anxiety. I confessed that my demons got the best of me, that I told myself that I’d failed and one day I spent the whole afternoon lying on his bed crying. I cried for myself, for the two of us in advance, for having found myself without money in one the most expensive cities in the world. I was trying to do something, to fulfill adult ambitions, but mostly I was taking refuge in a relationship and scrounging for money after the absolute détente of the hurricane. Monica, a friend I’d worked with months before in Puerto Rico, was the only one I felt able to tell. She’d left the Island to live in California. I wrote her on WhatsApp:
And where does this failure come from? What do you attribute it to? she asked, a social worker til the end.
I don’t know, it just didn’t work out. I tried, but I couldn’t manage.
And why do you think the failure is yours?
Because it’s not anyone else’s.
Andrés had left Puerto Rico for New York a year-and-a-half before, at the beginning of 2016. At the time he was working as the manager of The Children’s Place. He got the company to transfer him, so he arrived with work and a friend’s room where he could stay while he looked for his own spot. When he broke the news to me at the time, I told him I couldn’t be selfish. His car had been totaled after an accident and he was counting on others to get around. I lived far away. Public transportation in Puerto Rico is a fantasy, and in the mountains, forget it. His part-time work was barely enough to stay afloat, to cover debts, gasoline, a roof over his head. I understood. I wasn’t going to be the one to say “don’t go.” Before the hurricanes, lots of people were leaving. On the islands, leaving comes to seem like the natural thing to do.
After that, we spent long weeks talking on the phone til dawn, him telling me about how things were going, the city, the people, missing each other, til the calls became less frequent. So I decided to create a little distance and let him go. To be honest, one day I saw myself waiting for him when I knew he was just beginning to find an anchor in the new city, and I preferred leaving our thing where it was. But he insisted on maintaining communication. That’s how I came to visit him in the fall of the same year. That’s when I discovered the affection was still intact, and we began planning again. I returned to the Island with the idea of moving in with him the next summer, and I did. I went to New York in July of 2017, having quit a job where I’d worked for six years. I wanted to give myself a chance outside of Puerto Rico, to see how things would go with the two of us together.
That time I stayed a month and a half in his space, but I couldn’t make plans for longer because there was a family vacation in the middle of it, so I had to return to Puerto Rico. In fact, I returned for that vacation on September 4th: a seven-day cruise through the Caribbean. The plan was to return to New York. But my arrival on the Island coincided with the first hurricane. Two days later, Irma flattened the islands we were supposed to visit. They postponed the cruise for two weeks later, waiting for the sea to calm down and to reprogram the port route. But by the end of those two weeks Hurricane Maria appeared and devastated everything. They canceled the trip. They used the cruise ship for humanitarian voyages and to supply cargo. At that point there was no other choice but to stay in the country to help my family and endure the chaos.
On October 12th, 2017, at 2:54 in the afternoon, I returned on a humanitarian flight to New York. I returned to Andrés with two suitcases, Nuestra Señora de la Caridad, a photo of my mother, a photo of my grandparents, the diploma from my master’s degree, a diary, and six books. The American Red Cross greeted me at JFK. They gave me a little bag of toiletries, including a mirror. They took my information and gave me various pamphlets with telephone numbers for emergency assistance.
The departure flight cost $103, the JetBlue assistant told me while she was checking my bags. The luggage flies free under the circumstances. Save your money, she said—you’ll need it.
I looked her in the eyes. Her half smile. The airport, taken over by the U.S. military. All around, desperate people trying to get out. The endless line at security. The plane filled to capacity. I saved that $72 through my whole time in the city, like Bernardo Vega in his memoirs. In the end, with this same $72, I paid the luggage fees for my return to Puerto Rico.
I had chosen a widow seat. So I got settled and tried to forget the rest. It’s important not to think. I learned that from Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. But it was impossible. Minutes later, the plane taking off. Then the sound of the turbines, the engine, the cries of a newborn and everything that awaited me. The last weeks after Maria’s assault had been too much, right in front of my eyes; trying to sleep, trying to accommodate myself to the new reality, trying to ensure that nobody at home stopped eating in the interim. Even just the previous day had been a lot. My mother crying, leaning on the doorframe and watching me pack my suitcases. Two cups of wine poured out for a bitter toast. That long and painful scene. She was already worn out and empty from the death of her mother three months earlier. So my departure intensified that loss. Her only son leaving her in the middle of all that. Her only son leaving for another country to live with a man.
I returned to all that again and again inside the plane. Below, the ravaged mangroves of Piñones. The riven palms. From there the whole panorama of foliage like blown straw, the lack of green. The orange sand delineating the new coastline. The beaches of many blues where I grew up. And later a dense downpour that erased the last image of the Island with clouds. We were in the thick of them for a while. Just white and grey through the windows. Soon, turbulence. Minutes later the immensity of the Atlantic. Patches of clouds below, incredibly white. As soon as I grew calm, I turned to see the woman next to me. She was crying quietly. Maybe 60 years old. The man in seat D11 was also crying. I remember it clearly because I wrote a poem on that flight, including them.
On the long ride to Cayey, Andrés listened closely without letting my hand go. We went at the perfect speed for me to narrate everything in detail. Sometimes the car seemed to float over the highway. We took the exit to town, the winding road between the mountains, from the Buena Vista barrio til Toíta, and finally parked in front of my mother’s house. It was midnight. I unloaded the suitcases. Immediately, I remember, we both looked up. The February sky open to the stars. The constellations almost like a map. The grandeur of the night around us. That was when I realized that the stars were the night’s only light. In the distance, a couple of houses lit by generators, but the mountains swallowed up in the darkness.
Almost five months after the hurricane, my family, my neighbors, and hundreds of communities across the country continued without electricity. My house asleep. The coquís, the crickets, and the owls in the silence. I breathed deeply, understanding what I was returning to, and said goodbye to Andrés. A long hug and kiss in front of the gate.