Después de ti, ¿qué?
A short [fiction] story of loss and belonging
Standing above the hole in the ground, I realized I didn’t know what his favorite flower was. His own father was a florist; he must have had one. Orchids maybe, hibiscus, amaryllis? I had picked a white lily because it seemed appropriate enough. I felt like an idiot. An idiot, who at the slightest turn of her head, caught the briefest whispers of gossip between people who knew him far better than I ever did.
“Who is she?”
“I didn’t realize he had another daughter.”
“Oh yes, from his first marriage. They moved away, she never came around much.”
“Oh, now she cares.”
I gave a hardened look around me. I’d like to think I got my cold glare from him, but that was all my mother. I seemed to get the best things from my mother. I threw the flower onto the casket and closed my fist. The thorn had pierced the life line on my palm. I brought it to my mouth and sucked on it, tasting the copper of O negative. I made the sign of the cross to appease the onlookers. “Until next time, Papá.”
I turned away and left, the hem of my black sundress catching the dewdrops in the grass. When I got into the car, I looked at the party in the rearview mirror. I wonder what their best memories of him were. Mine were his eyes, his gold bracelet, the way he hugged my shoulders, his nickname for me when I came to visit. I wondered if those mourning him knew what he did to my mother, how much more his body was filled with rum than with good intentions. I wondered if they paid attention to how the alcohol destroyed his teeth, made him look years older than he was, and how it drove him to make irreparable decisions. He always had the faintest smell of his brother’s woodworking shop that lingered in his skin and clothes, but it was often masked with the fetid scent of his favorite cigarettes. I always found myself holding my breath around him.
My phone began to buzz, breaking my view away from the mirror. I silenced it, putting it next to the leatherbound book laying in the passenger seat. It would all have to wait.
I drove twenty minutes to the nearest beach. I climbed a rocky hill that overlooked a small inlet, parking myself under the branches of a flamboyan tree, crimson blooms draping over my head. Surfers and catamarans dotted the horizon where turquoise met cerulean. Many of the trees lining the shore were still toppled over from Maria’s aftermath, a haphazard tapestry of palm fronds.
There was a hollowness in my stomach. It had been there since I had heard the news. You don’t have to come...if you are unable to, they told me. Truth be told, they never expected me to. Whether it was pity or obligation, I still didn’t know, but it sure as hell wasn’t out of respect. I had immediately purchased a flight out of spite. A soft grunt escaped my throat and I reached for the pill bottle in my bag. I hadn’t taken my meds since I had arrived. It was starting to escape me. My brain had begun to itch again. I should have refilled it before the flight over, but there had been a strange blankness from the time of the phone call to priority boarding access. I put the container down and grabbed the mini liquor bottle that I had purchased when we were forty-four minutes out; a large tin can flying over the Caribbean. Puerto Ricans didn’t drink wine unless the bottle was half full of marinating fruit. Otherwise, it was rum or cerveza or nothing. This barely qualified as a sip by our standards. It hardly fit in the palm of my hand.
My fingertips fiddled with the cap. It would be a nice alternative. Perhaps the rocks on the beach beneath me would be okay, too - the feel of the water flooding into my ears and nose, pulling me back to the start of all things.
I closed my eyes, squeezing the lids until the inverse image painted itself on the backs of them. They remained dry. It was as if my body forgot how to cry for him. Perhaps it never properly learned to begin with. I brought the bottle to my lips, letting the waft of the alcohol fill my nose and mix with the salt air. I could feel the shaking in my bones. I closed the grip on the bottle to calm them. Then I took a deep breath and tossed the bottle into the sea. I wasn’t going to give any of them further ammunition.
I let the wind from the sea kiss my face one more time before getting up. Flamboyan petals that had pooled onto my skirt blew off in a gust, weaving in between nearby palms. The car already felt like an oven when I came back to it and plopped into the driver’s seat. My Abuelita’s house was an hour away. I immediately grabbed my phone to see where the nearest pharmacy was. There was no way I could get through the wake without settling my mind.
The leather notebook stayed in my periphery, glaring at me with its frayed edges and corded closure. It was the only thing he left me and I hadn’t even expected that much. I had never seen it before, and he had never mentioned it. My stepsister thrust it into my hands before the funeral with an annoyed look. “Por la artista,” she sneered. For the artist. It wasn’t my fault she didn’t have the one thing from him that I inherited and was proud of.
I submitted the order for my refill at the pharmacy, getting a thirty minute window for pick-up. The pages rustled ever so slightly from the car’s A/C. I grabbed it, feeling the weight of it in my carpal tunnel-ridden wrist. A soft crack echoed in response.
A couple of funeral attendants who'd undoubtedly had the same need to escape walked past the front of my car, giving an awkward wave goodbye. I returned the gesture, gritting my teeth. A bubble of anger that had once lived in the pit of my stomach began to rise again. Somehow, I was the one who didn’t belong. Somehow, I was the one that missed out. Somehow, I had been the one to leave. There was a fury in my vision now, causing the world to blur. My knuckles gripped the steering wheel. I will not cry over this, I told myself. He will not hurt me again. Instead, I put the car in drive and headed into town.
I steered through the winding roads that lined the outer rims and inward network of mountains, finally finding my exit into the maze of concrete houses and storm-shuttered windows of Corozal. Blue tarps still speckled dozens of roofs. My rental slid down the hill, trying to avoid potholes in the narrow street. I parked outside of the pharmacy and decided to wait. A piragua stand sat across me in the small plaza, and my mouth began to water. I never realized I wouldn’t be able to get true piraguas on the mainland once I moved. I had missed the taste of fruit syrup and shaved ice on my lips; the way the colors splashed on the sidewalk as the Caribbean sun threatened to turn trickles into floods. Did they have more flavors now? I took out my wallet and got out, walking over to the piraguero. He wore an old Pittsburgh Pirates jersey, Roberto Clemente’s name emblazoned proudly on the man’s back. I smiled and looked at the list of options. Ultimately, I chose my favorite–grape–and sat on the edge of the plaza fountain, feeling the water’s mist cool my back and neck.
The bustle of the city was slowly coming to a close, the businesses winding down to their last hours before evening mass. Soon enough, the symphony would begin. Even in dreams, the memory of the sharp sounds of coquí frogs cut through the membrane of sleep. When we left the island, the silence was haunting at first. The small, amphibious beasts were no longer there to lull me. The quiet broke my heart, leaving its pieces in suburban neighborhoods and wild grass fields. Once the sun melted down into the horizon, the song would overwhelm everything else. My mother would always complain whenever she visited; by the grace of her God, my relatives had a loud A/C unit to mask the noise. It wasn’t the same though. I didn’t want mechanics, I wanted life.
My phone beeped, alerting me to my available prescription. I wiped my fingers with a paper-thin napkin and threw it in the trash along with the dampened piragua cup. The pharmacy hadn’t changed in twenty plus years; it still carried candies for twenty-five cents, Jean Book notebooks where I first scribbled my doodles in summers almost forgotten, Nenuco bottles carrying the popular baby perfume that full-grown adults even wore on their pulse points. I bought my prescription and walked out as quickly as I came in.
My Abuela had texted me–it was still weird that she was texting–letting me know that dinner would be ready by the time I came later that evening. I didn’t tell her I wasn’t going to the memorial service. I didn’t know if I’d end up getting her admonishment or her silence for my decision. It was still better than the alternative; I couldn’t be in the home where he had died, but in the end, I couldn’t be in the home where he had chosen to live without me. Instead, I passed the time taking the long way to my Abuela’s house, down and up the campos, seeing cows grazing on the verdant grass. The rivers were still higher than normal, the clear water promising small fish and tales of mermaids. When I finally arrived on Culebra Road, I shifted the car to get up the steep hill and parked outside with trepidation. Her house used to be the color of sunflowers, but after my Abuelo died, she had painted it his favorite color–a rich brownish-red, the color of Moroccan spices. I still remember how often he wore the color; it was his first choice amongst the light blues and crisp whites of other linen shirts. He’d even painted his guiro the same color. I didn’t have many memories of him, but I still remember how the metal comb brushed up against the notched wooden instrument whenever we played salsa at parties.
I hadn’t even made it to the front door before it opened. My grandmother met me halfway up the walk and encircled me in a warm embrace. It had been almost ten years since I had seen her in the flesh; she still smelled like pears and coffee. When she sat me down at the table, she already had a bowl of my favorite sopa waiting. The noodles and broth made my stomach grumble in response. I could never make it as good as her. Even in the dead of summer, it filled my belly and heart more than any other winter food could. When I had downed half the soup in a span of five minutes, she finally asked me what I had dreaded all day.
“How did it go?”
I cracked my neck and made absent-minded laps in the soup with my spoon. I reached down into my bag and plopped the leather notebook onto the table with a thud. I grimaced when the movement of the purse rattled the pills lying in wait. She didn’t know. She couldn’t know. “About as well as you can imagine. That is all I got and it even surprised me.”
Abuela took it by the spine, her sun-kissed skin almost matching the brown sugar of the leather. I looked at my own, which had lightened at least two shades from constantly being under fluorescence. She put on her glasses with the other hand and fiddled with the cords that tied the covers together. The pages were thick and grainy, the color and texture of old parchment. It was perfect for sketching, really. A long, charcoal pencil was nestled in the crook of its spine. Abuela moved her hand over the paper, the graceful movement reminiscent of orchestrating a symphony. “Bella,” she whispered. There was no doubt it was beautiful. The fact that the majority of the lightened marks on the leather were from his hand made me hesitant to continue touching it. It was an item I should have revered, but instead, it held this looming expectation–a reminder I was his blood and bones and I could achieve what he couldn’t.
“You can have it,” I told her.
She looked up at me then, a soft crinkle in the corner of her eyes appearing in roaming thought. “Pero, porque?”
“I don’t know why. I just...I don’t know what to do with it. I–” I paused to take in a breath, to stir the remainder of the soup with my spoon. “I don’t understand it.” When she didn’t answer, I put the spoon down and instead grabbed a buttery roll from the center of the table and ripped a piece off. The sweet bread melted in my mouth, giving me a brief sense of comfort. “Not one call, not one message these past ten years…this excuse of him not knowing English enough or me not knowing Spanish enough anymore. I wasn’t around enough for him to try. I just don’t think I was enough for him, Abuela.”
“Amor,” Abuela started, but instead of speaking, she got up from her seat. She came around and hugged me from behind.
“I get it. I’m not here as much as I can be. I still call this home, but others would criticize that I’m never around as much to justify it.” Others. Him and those all-too-familiar funeral attendants who shot me glances in the form of rusted daggers. “I wasn’t enough for him or this place. I’m not enough for the mainland either.” I thought of all the times when my value was only measured by the way I rolled my Rs and the box I checked. “I’m in the middle, and I hate it.”
A sob threatened its way past bile and muscle, finding the air in my throat and escaping with its wretchedness. The rub of my Abuela’s hand on my back encouraged its betrayal; it had been fighting my resolve all day and in the end it won, too loud in the open space. The sound didn’t belong amongst the peace of the coquís song, now in full force outside. “Mija,” she started, before she turned back around and sat on the edge of her seat. “There was never a time when I didn’t consider this home for you. There was never a moment of doubt in my mind that this island flows through your veins. You are its child, as much as you are this family’s.”
“He didn’t think so.”
“He didn’t know beyond what this place told him was allowable. He loved you, in his own way.”
I scoffed, angrily wiping away the tears that were messing up my make-up. The residue of ‘Natural 201’ came off on the back of my hand. I used to be the color of ‘Honey’ or ‘Soft Caramel’. I didn’t know what was worse–being likened to rich food or being assigned an arbitrary number that meant nothing. I was somewhere in the middle, a nude shifting amongst a spectrum with no sense of permanence. “It never felt like it.” He made me ashamed for leaving, as if doing so cut the snip of thread that tied our commonality together. “I just don’t understand why...”
I didn’t have to state the rest. She knew. She knew because she had experienced it as well; she had slowly started to create a line of women who, through tears and blood and questioning, could ultimately live without the dependence of men. It was constantly balancing on a wire of worth. Abuela only nodded. “I have a question for you.” I looked at her expectantly, my hands fidgeting and wanting to clutch the pills staring up at me from my purse. “What do you think of when you hear of the island?”
My immediate thought went back to earlier in the day, the taste of shaved ice in my mouth and the smell of the sea circulating around me. I remembered then the feel of my toes against the cold, wet rock of the nearby caves, of the sound of bat’s wings fluttering in the dark, the sound of Spanish commercials on TV. I remembered the summers I spent on the veranda, drawing the likeness of banana trees and neighborhood cats. I thought of the bad moments, too–the horsefly bites, the chicken pox fever, the days when I thought I would be picked up but he never showed. I remembered being way too young to drink coffee, but loved the taste of it when I dipped soda crackers amongst the froth. The salt and the sweetness, all enveloped in familiar embraces and non-stop cheek kisses. It never went away; the feeling at the pit of my stomach and the desire in my brain to never forget. “I think of home.”
She nodded, the soft smile in the corner of her lips all too knowing. “It doesn’t matter where you are, mija. You can leave this place for fifty years and it could still call to you. It’s not a place you live in, it’s a place that lives in you.” When another sob burst out, she gripped my hands together in hers. “Do not question your worth, m’ija. It was him who was not worthy of you, but you are worthy of being here.”
She meant the island, but the weight of it struck down into the bottomless depths of my unknown waters; it rattled like the pill bottle, it squelched like wet sand, it trickled like rum into an aluminium cup, it hummed the song of the coquís until it drowned out every other want. My arms wrapped around Abuela then, the shaking of my body now in tune with hers. We sat there for a long time, genuine love and belonging entangled in memories and promises, the frogs outside singing loudly--
We’ve missed you. Welcome back.
(C) Coral Rivera