When I was nine years old and convinced that I would someday be an astronaut, I lived on the twenty-first floor of a condominium placed snug against Luquillo Beach in Puerto Rico. It was a one-bedroom apartment and there were three of us, but all of the couches pulled out and became beds and so I slept in the living room in front of the TV and developed what was in retrospect a probably unhealthy relationship with MTV. (Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” which was a hit at the time, and New Order’s “True Faith,” which wasn’t but still seemed to get played quite a bit—these two invariably bring me back into that room, with all the thoughts and sensations of being small and helpless but eager and defiant. A bunch of salsa and merengue hits will do the trick as well—Sergio Vargas’s “Si Algun Dia La Vez,” Willie Colon’s “El Gran Varon,” pretty much any of Wilfrido Vargas’s soundalike absurdities, whether they were hits that year or not—but since I don’t live in a Puerto Rican community anymore, I only hear those songs when I deliberately play them on my iPod, so I’m clearly already in the mood for nostalgia. Madonna and New Order are more likely to blindside me at the supermarket.)
We actually lived in Puerto Rico for just over a year, most of which we spent about a mile away from the beach, in a small house in a neighborhood on a hilltop on the other side of the highway. From the top of my street I could see the Atlantic as a blue horizon and smell the salt air, though I suspect you can do that anywhere in Puerto Rico. It’s a small island, after all.
But for the last two months that we lived there were stayed in the apartment on the beach, and those memories are more vivid. Perhaps because I was nine, and my experiences were cementing into memories that I would carry with me for the rest of my life, instead of the gelatinous impressions that are pretty much all that is left of my earlier years. In many ways I suppose my life as Me began in that apartment.
Good memories: the balcony faced the sea. We’d leave the sliding doors open to allow in the breeze, and whether I sat in the living room or out on the balcony it still felt like I was sitting outside. There was nothing between the building and the beach except a small strip of patio; I remember the back door in the lobby leading straight out onto the sand. At night—and during the rare parts of the day when my family was quiet—you could hear the ocean washing against the shore as if you were in a giant seashell.
I once had a bouncy ball bounce over the railing and disappear. I ran down to the beach and looked for it, but it could have gone anywhere, up to and including alternate dimensions of time and space. My family asked me what I was doing, but for some reason I was unwilling to explain. It wasn’t a particularly treasured bouncy ball. I just wanted to find it again.
My teacher at school wanted me to belong to one of her after school clubs, but it meant me missing the bus. She asked my mom if she could drive me home instead, and somehow this was okay. I rode in the front seat without a seat belt. We talked the entire way home, though I can’t remember a single conversation. She drove a Toyota Camry and it smelled like coffee. She wouldn’t turn off the car, just pull up somewhere near my building and let me get out. Somehow this was okay, too. I must have made some kind of impression on her that she was willing to chauffeur me around; I can’t even remember which club it was she wanted me to join.
A teenage cousin made me a fishing pole out of a Pepsi can and a stick. He made himself one, too, and we went fishing in a creek near my building. I didn’t catch anything, but he caught two fish that we fried up and ate back at the apartment, even though when he gutted them some weird parasite came running out of the fish’s stomach and scurried down the drain.
Not-so-good memories: Not far from our building there was a line of crude shacks where fisherman sold the day’s catch, alive, dead, or cooked, depending on your preference. (I’m told that in subsequent years the Board of Health demanded that the shacks be replaced with proper sanitary structures, but back then these things were barely-standing, with hand-painted signs and live animals dangling in sacks above the counter.) We bought a bag of crabs and had a neighbor cook them for us. I didn’t let on that it bothered me, but I did quietly excuse myself when the crabs started screaming.
Once a kid on the bus grabbed my lollipop and threw it out the window. An older kid in the back caught it in midair and gave it back, and on the way home I ate my lollipop and cried at the same time while half the kids mocked me and the other half stood ready to defend me. I don’t think I was the smallest kid on the bus but I was probably the easiest to pick on.
The fingers on one of my hands were swollen for most of that year in Puerto Rico, because a cousin of mine dropped a cinder block on my hand. It wasn’t his fault, we were trying to redecorate my grandmother’s garden and, well, that wasn’t such a good activity for small children, as it turns out. Cinder blocks are heavy, and he was either six or seven years old. The block tore the skin and fingernail clean off my middle finger. I don’t remember any of the adults being especially upset. They wrapped it up and told me stories about relatives who had lost limbs doing weird things. Amazingly, they had quite a few examples to share.
Memories, neither good nor bad: The day before we left a cousin trapped me in the kitchen and asked me if I felt sad about leaving. I said no, because I honestly wasn’t. Her face, mean-looking at the best of times, turned vicious and she insisted that I would be devastated without her. Then she stormed off. We didn’t see each other again for twelve years.
A big storm passed over our city. We ate in the living room and watched through the sliding glass doors as the sheets of rain streaked across the sea. It wasn’t hurricane season but my cousins—there were always relatives in our house, at least in my memory—said it was anyway, and the adults told us and each other hurricane stories. The previous summer my cousin—the mean-looking one—and I had played in the street during a tropical storm. We were both small enough that we could almost swim in the rain-swollen gutters. I’m pretty sure we tried, anyway. I very quickly conflated their hurricane stories with my own tropical storm playdate.
I spoke to my mother this weekend, and as it always does the conversation turned to Puerto Rico. I haven’t been back since I left nearly thirty years ago. My parents keep in touch with their siblings, though, and my mom always tries to tell me about them. I listen, and can mostly keep track of the names and goings-on of these increasingly distant relatives. This time I listen, though. It appears that they’re all giving up. Buying the next available seats on flights heading to the States, no caring about the day or even really the destination. Some are staying behind to sell their houses or pursue their insurance claims, but right now, at least, none intend to stay.
In my lifetime immigration has become a hot-button issue. As Americans our point of view assumes that people from around the world are eager to come to us. Some see it as nefarious and others as a blessing, but the underlying belief in America-as-magnet is unquestioned.
Puerto Ricans aren’t, of course, immigrants. We are Americans, and are simply relocating from one part of America to another, just as people from New Orleans moved to Houston after Katrina.
But I understand that for my family, moving from Puerto Rico to the mainland isn’t that simple. It is immigrating. It’s a permanent change, and not one that they had wanted to make. It was something that people did a hundred years ago, or that they did today from remote war-ravaged countries.
And now it also happens at home.
And I have to wonder, will it stop there? The Europeans who came to America in centuries past didn’t stop in New York or Boston; they kept going, into parts of the world that appeared as little more than blank spaces on a map.
When we can’t take care of this group of Americans—or the next group, if there is a next group—what happens when Americans start looking for a fresh start? Am I looking for a fresh start?
I don’t think much about Puerto Rico—my mean-looking cousin was almost absolutely wrong. We used to go every summer, but after that year we stopped. My world has grown a lot since then, and memories of the apartment on the beach are mostly, though not entirely, consigned to that fuzzy bin of early childhood memories. For all I know the apartment itself has been consigned to a rubbish heap after the storm. And the seafood shacks, building codes and all, are probably gone. My grandma’s finger-destroying garden, all the other places a nine-year-old would scamper, chasing and being chased by other floppy puppychildren. What is left, and where do we go now?