My father drove the rented Ford the wrong way down a one-way road. It didn’t matter: we seemed to be the only people driving that day anyway. We drove a long time up and down these bumpy little streets looking for that damn playita where my father had swam and fished as a kid. It was day four of our ten-day vacation in Puerto Rico, and I was tired of trying to relive my father’s tropical youth. Either my father had lied about his childhood, or Salinas has changed a lot in the past thirty years. My first thought as my father showed me around the tiny neighborhood was where are the mango trees? I loved mangos, probably because my entire life my father had been talking up a whole youth of picking mangos off of trees. But we got here and there was nada. I teased my father about it but stopped because I could tell it made him feel bad.
“Where the hell was it?” My father squinted his eyes down each little side road looking for some sign of the coast.
I was fine with the idea of never finding it. The air conditioning and my new Puerto Rican rap-reggae CD were bumping, and I was happy to escape the many distant relatives who felt it necessary to point out how gordita and blanca I was. Nena, they called me, giving up on trying to pronounce my real name correctly. We passed the same porch of women, hair wrapped tightly around their heads with long metal pins, about ten times.
“Ask them,” I told my dad.
“They don’t know,” he replied. “They never been off that porch.”
A very dark jibaro on an old bicycle rode past us. My dad honked the horn.
I rolled my eyes. “Him?” \
The ancient man made a wide U-turn and approached my window. He was short and leathery and missing teeth. I didn’t say anything.
“Excuse me,” my father said in his rusty and belabored Spanish. “Do you know how we get to the little beach?”
My father’s Spanish is bad, and mine is even worse. I had learned it just two years before, during a term abroad in Mexico, but I always felt too embarrassed to bring it out. My father hadn’t even heard me speak it until that first night in Puerto Rico. That is, until my abuelo made my coke and rums with extra Bacardi and it was on. I was speaking it so freely, it was like broken Spanish was my native tongue. My father was shocked—I had gone and become Latina behind his back.
“Sigame,” the old man said and began riding his bike.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I said. My father and I looked at each other and laughed. Painfully slow, we followed the jibaro a couple of blocks until he pointed at a gated parking lot, nodded and began to ride away. My father called him to the car again and offered him a dollar. “No, no,” he said and pushed my father’s hand away.“Por favor, senor,” my father insisted, “comprate un refresco.”
My father parked the car in front of an abandoned church and removed his fishing gear from the trunk. It was hot, and I almost complained, but then I remembered that it was December back at home, so I kept my mouth shut. We approached the gate into the parking lot, but couldn’t open it. Locked. I turned to get back into the car, but my father found a small opening we could squeeze through. Lucky us. We walked through the closed parking lot, past the little restaurant it belonged to, and there it was.
It was like something out of a movie. No, it was better: a beach with beautiful trees, a long dock, a cool breeze. There were no people. Tall, pretty white birds pranced elegantly along the shore. My father looked at me to see my expression. I pretended to be unaffected. My father carried his pole and pail to the end of the dock.
I slipped my feet out of my sandals and stepped on the sand, cool and soft. I rolled my capris up to my knees and tested the water with my big toe. Warm. Holding onto one of the many gray branches of a shady intertwining tree, I took small steps into the water until my feet were totally submerged. The water was so clear that I could still see the chipped polish on my toenails. There were no waves, just the calm lull of the salt water that quickened when a speedboat or jet ski flew by in the distance. One of the lower branches looked like a bench and I tried sitting on it. As my feet dangled above the water and the water began to subside, a few little silver fish and gray crabs swam to me.
“Daddy!” I called. “There’s fish!”
“What?” he called from the end of the dock.
“Fish!” I yelled.
“What did you think I was doin’ over here?”
I reached into the water and tried to grab a fish. They were too fast: I came up with a handful of sand instead. Looking at it up closely, I was amazed to find that the sand was nothing like the rough, yellow stuff of the beaches in Queens. The grains were of many different colors: mostly cream and black, but there was also some green and blue and purple—smooth, tiny pieces of sea glass. I hopped off the branch and walked out of the water. On the shore, I pulled off my pants, suddenly feeling completely comfortable in my black bathing suit. My father and I were the only people around. I tiptoed back into the water steadily. At some distance from me, there was a tiny shaded island, and I thought I might try to swim to it.
Halfway between the island and the shore, I got tired, and the water was at my neck, and my dad was so far away. I realized that I had no idea what was on that island, crabs that pinch or quicksand maybe. I lifted up my feet, flattened my back and let my body float in the water. It was nice enough right where I was. I closed my eyes against the Caribbean sun and did not have to imagine being somewhere else because where I was felt like more than enough. The temperature was perfect. The slight movement of the water ran through my hair, and I thought I might fall asleep.
There was no noise, no commotion in the water, just suddenly the overwhelming sensation of another presence. Someone was watching me. I opened my eyes to see a dark figure in the excrutiating brightness. I jolted and came to my feet. It took a second for my eyes to adjust and make out a young man around my age standing next to me in the water, smiling.
“¿Como te llamas?” he asked me.
He was shirtless – toned, but slender. His hair, though short, had outgrown its last haircut and was beginning to curl. Still startled, it took me a moment to switch from the English I had been dreaming in. “Huh?”
“What is your name?” he repeated in Spanish, but this time I understood.
“Brook.” The name came out of my mouth rough and unnatural.
“Brook? What kind of name is that?” His Spanish flowed from one word to the next; I struggled to get used to his accent, searching his big brown eyes for help.
“I am American.”
“You lie. Tourists don’t come here.”
“My grandmother lives here.”
“Then you are boriqua?”
“My father is.”
“So you are boriqua.”
“Half, but I am not from here.”
For a moment, we waded in the water, looking at each other perplexedly.
He came closer to me, uncomfortably close. I wanted to look away. He held my chin in his large wet hand, and scanned my eyes for a long time. It seemed as if I were staring into my own eyes.
“No, not half. Completely. You are from here.”
There was a power in the water between us that shook me from where I stood.
Later, my father and I drove back to Abuela’s house in silence, down roads and past houses I knew by now. I felt closer to my father than ever before and would have liked to talk to him, with all the discomfort of our relationship having faded away. But I couldn’t speak. A great realization was dawning on me: we are more than who we are, we are more than where we are, we are more than the time we have lived. I would go home in a few days, but I knew that I would never leave here, and something here would never leave me.
When we walked into the kitchen, there was a mountain of mangos on the table, mostly yellow, some orange and a few green.
“The neighbors have been bringing them all day,” Abuela explained. “They heard the nena wanted mangos from off a tree.”