No Similarities Between the Two of Us

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 San Juan, Puerto Rico: I pushed the down arrow to call the elevator in the Condominio Sol y Mar, a twelve-floor building in the Condado section of San Juan. The top two floors, both called penthouses, had only one apartment per floor. Floors ten through four contained two apartments each, whereas floors two and three contained three apartments. The first floor of the thirty-year-old building consisted of retail: a drug store, a small health food store and cafe, and a shoe shine stand in addition to the building’s administration office suite. My apartment was on the third floor, and I believed that I was currently the sole resident of this floor, as I had lived in my apartment for seven months and had yet to see or hear inhabitants in either of the other two apartments. That morning, at about 8:30, I stepped into an elevator car crowded with businessmen attired in island business casual. In the mornings, our condo’s only elevator car typically reeked of coffee and Old Spice. The elevator was descending with its usual tropical recalcitrance, and I was grateful that I had only three floors to travel. I taught English at a private school in the Condado section of San Juan and regularly dressed in island private school teacher attire that consisted of jeans, a denim skirt, or shorts (on Saturdays), a gauzy embroidered shirt, and Birkenstocks. Luckily I was able to walk the mile or so from my condo to St. John’s School (when it rained I called a taxi), because the Ford Pinto that I’d paid $500 to have barged to San Juan from Miami had been stolen within weeks of its arrival. I had never actually driven to and from work even when I’d owned a car and it had been parked in the basement garage of my building due to the dearth of parking within a mile of the school.  Teachers walked, took busses, or hailed cabs whereas most children arrived in chauffeur-driven limos. Two bodyguards accompanied one little boy, the son of the mayor of San Juan. For reasons indiscernible to myself, I’d named the Siamese cat that I’d adopted in San Juan, Juan Carlos after the city’s mayor. My dog was back in Houston, residing with either my mother or sister depending upon which of them had the patience to put up with the Golden Retriever who had seen me through my entire college and first two years of teaching. I called my cat J.C. to obscure the origins of his name as I had a vague feeling that naming a chocolate Siamese cat after the island’s mayor might be offensive to some. J.C. preferred American cuisine, so my mother sent a monthly case of that specific variety of Purina cat food, which happened to be unobtainable on the island. How J.C., a local cat who had lived in a Puerto Rican home for the first six weeks of his life had developed this idiosyncratic appetite was, to me, just another of the mysteries that made up life in the Caribbean culture. As the elevator door closed in front of me, I could hear J.C.’s outraged wails at being left behind in the now-empty apartment. My cat’s cries were indistinguishable from the sounds made by an anguished human infant. Porfirio, the building maintenance man, had told me that some of the Puerto Rican businessmen worried that I was leaving an unattended baby behind every morning when I went for my morning walk. I carried a large canvas Lands’ End bag that had my initials on it. The bag that I had lugged to and from classes for all of my college years was overflowing with junior and senior literature and grammar textbooks–teacher’s editions, novels, short story collections, and notebooks. Assorted writing utensils, with at least one of them likely to have been broken and leaking fluid, lay jumbled around in the bottom of the bag. As always, I carried several notebooks. One notebook comprised my lesson plans; another smaller spiral contained my daily and hourly to-do lists, my shopping list, and my daily weight and food intake totals. The third notebook housed my novel in progress. I was beginning my third year of teaching. I’d failed as yet to find a publisher for any of my novels or stories, other than the inconsequential publications that I’d had in the school newspaper and literary magazine, but continued to anticipate that my personal literary success was imminent. Meanwhile, teaching four classes a day at St. John’s School in the Condado section of Puerto Rico enabled me to pay my bills, although, truthfully, I was having a hard time coming up with the postage needed to keep my stories and book proposals circulating throughout the literary world. This was largely due to the fact that the husband that I’d arrived on the island with had left me, resulting in a circumstance where, for the first time in my entire life, there was no one other than me depositing money into my checking account. Fortunately, although my soon to be ex-husband had moved out of our rented condominium, his New York based company had prepaid the rent on the condo for the entirety of the three year lease, so while I might lose electric power on any given day due to frequent power failures, the electric service, known locally as la luz, came with the apartment and my lights generally functioned. I was gratified to know that the already paid up apartment lease had two years, five months to run. The telephone line had departed with my ex-husband; however, there was a pay phone in the drug store on the first floor of my building and I used it with regularity. Every Sunday afternoon at four, my time, I sat in the drug store and waited for a call from my mother, sister, niece, and grandmother. We’d established this arrangement so that they could be reassured that, for yet another week, I hadn’t yet vanished into the vicissitudes of the Bermuda Triangle. Technically Puerto Rico wasn’t within the infamous Triangle, and only formed its southern most boundary. My family wasn’t enamored of Puerto Rico. As my grandmother had said on the one time she had visited me since I’d left Texas six years earlier, “Sure the bougainvilleas grow right nice down here, but these people behave in ways that we don’t hold with back home.” No one from back home could understand why a telephone line couldn’t be installed into a building. My attempt to explain that the condo had capacity for only twenty-five phone lines and that I was on a list for one of the lines when it became available was not comprehendible to them. As I hadn’t yet gotten around to informing them that my husband had decamped, they concluded our weekly telephone calls, which typically lasted about twenty or thirty minutes, with words along the lines of: “Tell David we expect him to get you a telephone installed in that apartment. Advertising executive that he is, he should do it this next week. And you call us the minute you get your new phone and give us the number. Don’t wait for weekend rates, call home the minute you get a phone.” Right, I said, or maybe I only thought that word. By moving from Florida to Puerto Rico, I’d gone from one extreme to the other in more than one way. The kids that I now taught were very unlike the students at my previous school. None of the students at St. John’s were poor, although there were some that struggled with literacy. My first two years of teaching had been spent at an inner city school in Orlando, Florida where the majority of the students had been below average academically. The children who attended St John’s, in comparison to my former students at Howard Junior High School, were older and, if they had learning disabilities, had been extensively tutored before I ever met them; therefore to a person, they could read. However, like my former students, these boys and girls didn’t appear to be particularly motivated by any of the curriculum that I presented. In all honesty, the fact that these students were unexcited about the American and British literature that I enthused about didn’t matter to me. My teaching philosophy at that point in my career was that as long as I ensured that my junior and senior English students could read college level text with reasonable comprehension and that they knew how to write their college essays and pass the upcoming SAT tests (reading comp and vocabulary sections only, math was not my domain), my job was done. None of them intended to major in English anyway. And it wasn’t as if I was being paid as much as the mayor paid his child’s bodyguards; there was also the fact that, at that time in my writing career, I was working on a novel about life in a small private school in the tropics. If things had been going swimmingly for me, there wouldn’t have been much of a story to tell, now would there? I rationalized. When the elevator ground to a halt on the second floor, a male voice droned, hijo de to which comment a second male voice responded, la blanca.  I squared my shoulders, arranged my mouth into a closed lip smile, and resolved to make eye contact with the gringa who lived on two. Since I didn’t know her name, I also thought of her as Blanca. The word blanca means white in Spanish, and she was a white woman who was probably from the East Coast, perhaps New York, New Jersey, or Florida, I surmised. She loved to sunbathe and likely had done so for many years; consequently the visible parts of her body were as leathered and darkened as the skin of many of the recidivist street people that I encountered on my daily walks through the Condado section of San Juan. Blanca and I shared few commonalities, but the traits that we both possessed were significant in the eyes of the other residents of our building. Our commonalities boiled down to three: The two of us were (1) unattached (2) females (3) from the states. The Puerto Ricans held little esteem for either one of us. I believed that they assumed Blanca to have been a kept woman. As for me, I was characterized as one of those ‘free love hippies’ from America who had begun to infiltrate the Caribbean. I have no idea who paid Blanca’s rent, but in my case, I talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk. In other words, I wasn’t much of a hippie, although back then I tried to act and dress like one because I felt as if that guise was most likely to gain me admission into the ranks of published authors. The elevator door opened on the second floor to reveal Blanca, who also carried a tote bag (hers was a straw beach bag). The air around Blanca was always permeated with scent, and I had long ago surmised that she squirted a perfume path to walk through every time she left her apartment. I had taken a deep breath and was going to hold it all the way down to the first floor if possible when Blanca stepped over the elevator threshold, thrust her beach bag and thermos bottle into my un-outstretched hands and dashed from the elevator car before the door could creak and groan its way shut. “Hold the elevator, do you mind? I forgot something!” she called out to those of us waiting in the elevator car. Helplessly, I looked after her. Standing at her doorway in full view of us, Blanca was struggling with her keys.  With a loud sigh the businessman closest to the control panel pushed the hold button.  Perhaps five minutes, maybe only three minutes later, Blanca returned to the elevator clutching a spiral notebook in her gold and diamond-encrusted hands. She beamed an indiscriminate bright red smile that revealed lipstick smears on her teeth. “I live by the list,” she said, reclaiming her possessions from my hands. Despite the Chanel No. 5 and the oily smell of the sunscreen that she’d already applied, I noticed, in all honesty not for the first time, an alcohol-related aroma to the breath that she expelled. Catching my eye (was she reading my mind?), she smiled and said, “Nothing better than the New York Times and a thermos of bloody marys out by the pool. I’d go down to the beach, but there’s too much wind. Last Sunday’s paper would be in Old San Juan before I knew it.” With my left hand free again, I reached into my canvas bag to surreptitiously finger each of my own spiral notebooks. Reassured that I had the smallest spiral with my own to-do list with me, I took a step away from Blanca, exhaled to the count of seven, and leaned against the side wall of the elevator. Deliberately I straightened my shoulders and sucked in my abs as I tried to press the small of my back flat against the wall. I had started taking a yoga class with the physical education teacher at St. John’s and carried her admonitions to stand upright and breathe with me much of the time now. I felt the beginnings of a headache, one that I knew would disappear the minute that I stepped out of our building and into the sun, salt, and sand of the beach world that I now lived in. Blanca turned her head to speak to the gentleman who had held the elevator for her, providing me with an up close look at the back of her head. She was older than I was, likely at least double my age. As I was twenty-five that year, Blanca would have been about fifty. Her hair had been bleached and permed and looked as stiff and spiky and unnatural as Rod Stewart’s does today. Not that I don’t love Rod Stewart’s music, because I do. But I don’t love his hair. Blanca’s hair was cut in exactly the same way that I have my own hair cut today. Her half-inch black and gray roots were particularly evident along a white line down the middle of the back of her scalp where she’d neglected to run a comb or brush.  I felt as much irritation at the sight of that line along her scalp as I would have felt toward a roach scurrying around the corner of a baseboard in my apartment or classroom. The perfume that she wore was a familiar scent, one that I sometimes used. Chanel No. 5. wasn’t a favorite of mine; however, I had owned a rather large bottle of the expensive substance, it having been a gift from a colleague of my soon to be former husband’s. The other persons riding in the elevator got off on one, but Blanca and I continued down to the basement garage. Leaving the elevator, she turned to the left, toward the door that led out to the pool area. I turned to the right, planning to exit out a side door that led to a beach path that I could follow almost all the way to the school where I taught. When I got to my exit, before I pushed the door open, I turned back to look across the basement toward Blanca. She had turned around and appeared to be gazing in my direction, although, since her sunglasses were affixed to her face, I couldn’t see her eyes or determine the focus of her gaze. “Have a good day,” I said, stopping myself from calling out the name that I knew her by, Blanca. Almost simultaneously, her words echoing mine, she repeated, “Have a good day, yourself.” I wanted to gaze into her eyes. I wanted to say to her, we’re nothing alike, really we’re not. Instead, I waved slightly and walked out the door. Why was Blanca so disturbing a person to me? Why did it bother me that she read the New York Times? Did I consider her to be a very superficial person only because of the way she looked? I’ve not been back to Puerto Rico since I left the island two years, five months after that day. I have no idea if Condominio Sol y Mar even stands today. If it does, the building would now be sixty years of age. which is beyond ancient for a modern building in the tropics. The businessmen, if they are still alive, are sure to be retired, but they too could still be living in their apartments. And as for Blanca, let’s just say that she was fifty years old back when I knew her. That would make her eighty years old now. If she’s alive, my impression is that, of us all, she is likely to have changed the least. I see her as still getting herself all lipsticked and sunscreened up, half combing her hair, fixing her morning libations and filling her thermos bottle, grabbing her newspaper and heading for the pool. I wonder if the mainland Sunday papers still don’t arrive until after midnight on Monday night. I wonder what happened to J.C. who escaped out one of my opened windows one night about a month before I left to come back to Houston to enroll in graduate school. I wonder who moved into my condo after I left, and if anyone at all lives in either of the condos on either side of the one that I lived in. Even though Blanca and I were really very unsimilar people, I wish that I’d gotten her real name and telephone number. Because if I had, I think that, at the least, I’d call her up and ask, “How’s it going? What can you tell me about life on the third floor of the Condominio Sol y Mar?”

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