“We’re in no rush,” I said.
We weren’t, but the cab driver still warped his minivan into the traffic jam with uncomfortably tight weft. I braced the car seat containing my nine month old daughter like somehow my meager arm strength could prevent what the seatbelt could not.
Ivy smiled up at me and giggled. Shiny blue eyes a mirror of mine, but years before beer and stress and time diminished their luster. Hearing her mom, she fidgeted against her restraints, letting out another giggle. Out the dusty van windows, we passed rows of dilapidated, graffiti-marred buildings, interlaced with familiar fast food restaurants.
San Juan is the Harvey Dent of cities: one side of its face authentically charming, packed with Caribbean lore, the other a bloated, scarred facsimile of the worst of American capitalism. A Starbucks – literally a copy/paste of any other you’d find stateside – wedges itself between two vibrant local bars. Massive sea-slug cruise ships, fat with fat people and leaving trails of slimy wake for miles, pull up to a fort whose stones predate the Declaration of Independence by a couple centuries.
Puerto Rico: mourn the loss of culture, but appreciate that your cellphone still works without roaming.
Still sticky with recycled airplane air, we decide we need to eat.
“Is it spicy?” I ask the concierge of traditional Puerto Rican food.
“Oh no, not at all,” she says, smiling, thinking that’s what I wanted to hear. Typical tourist, I didn’t research the food and just assumed island nation meant spicy food, for some reason.
Disappointment crept onto my face. “Well, it can be! We have hot sauce here,” she adds, still smiling, trying to make me feel at home. She circles a few spots on an over-designed map, parting only with, “try the mufungo!”
The stroller clops across weathered cobble; the rhythmic rumble enough to lull a baby to sleep. A subtle blue reflects off each, as if the stones were infused with elemental Cobalt. They’re original, it seems, but at the same time almost too idyllic. That sort of worn-to-appear-cool that’s normally crafted by corporate committee, not foot traffic and summer rain.
It’s relatively quiet, now, with no big ships in port. Besides the 2.5 members of the Gray family, there’s nary a tourist. Most of the locals scoot about their business: cleaning sidewalks, emptying trash, greeting us cheerfully, in a very practiced manner. In a tourist economy, welcomeness is worth its weight in Spanish gold.
A heavy accent interrupts our wandering.
A tallish man steps in front of baby and stroller, producing a menu without prompting.
“We close tomorrow for two months. Last chance to eat here! Best prices. Go ahead and look at the other places, we are cheapest.”
He’s not a very good salesman, but he didn’t need to be, as this was the very spot the concierge had suggested. As we’re reviewing the menu, his coworker asks us about the grammar on the closing sign.
“You have good English, yes?”
My wife nods.
“Is this sign correct? He points at a professional-looking, but still clearly homemade sign that reads, Mojitos is close until October.
“It’s not bad. It should probably say, ‘is closed until October’” my wife says.
“See, I told you!” Says the younger man to the original interrupter.
“Well, people will understand it, and that’s what matters,” I say.
The tall man laughs in agreement, and puts his arm on my shoulder, guiding me into the restaurant. It’s not much to look at: there’s a relatively modern bar hugging the left wall, but the low ceilings and Formica covered tables don’t exactly scream the luxury the prices on the menu suggested. He seats us at the very back of the narrow building, with plenty of space to set up our stroller.
“Try the mufungo,” he says, again, before disappearing into the back.
Ivy, consumed with other types of growing, grows impatient, with both hunger and fatigue creeping up on her tiny constitution. Tiffany dances and hops a favorite stuffed bunny around the table. Ivy near loses her shit with laughter.
She’s good, for now.
Our waitress, before even saying hello, sees Ivy, and squeals, “bonita!” She crouches down to see her closer, then turns to us, “she’s so beautiful! God bless her.”
Being heavily Catholic, it’s not shocking that Puerto Ricans invoke the lord a lot. The trend of the trip was people stopping to tell us our baby was beautiful and blessed. Didn’t matter where we were: hotel, grocery store, rain forest. Family shines paramount among the virtues of this island, apparently.
She stands up again, greeting us. Tiff orders a Piña colada – a favorite back home, but one that must be even better in a place where coconuts grow wild on trees in the streets. I stay in character and order a beer, but at least one brewed on the island. Magna, to be specific, which might as well be Puerto Rican Budweiser. In that humidity and heat, it tasted divine.
The sun continues to drop like a quarter into a parking meter, fast-balling rays through the windows at the front of the restaurant. They catch Tiff’s hair and embrace, all red and fiery. I look at her closely, but not enough to stare. She’s incredible. Already having shrugged off most of the fatigue of pregnancy and new motherhood, she wears her new self like a radiant cloak. This is the first trip we’ve done together in a long time, the first to the tropics, and the first we’ve ever done with Ivy.
In that moment she looks equally strong and free, an illuminated goddess shining so bright I feel undeserving. She sits Ivy on her lap, stroking her few wispy hairs, and I’m overwhelmed by my own fortune.
“Sorry for the wait; the food will be right out,” our waitress says, as she slips by the table with a tray of drink.
“We’re in no rush,” I said.