Suzanne Roberts | Longreads | Month 2019 | 18 minutes (4,525 words)
“I crossed the ocean and then the island for you,” Sancho said when he found me at the bar in Rincon, his white teeth shining like the keys of a piano. His small blue backpack was slung over his shoulder. He pushed back his long dread-locks and kissed me. “And it wasn’t easy,” he continued. “I had to take the ferry and then the wah-wah, and finally hitch a ride to Rincon. So here I am.”
“Here you are,” I said and smiled. We stood on the deck of the small noisy bar. The band had just taken a break, and my friend Tracy was inside talking to the guitarist.
“You called me, and I knew I had to come,” he added.
“How did you know I’d be at the Tamboo bar?” I asked.
“I knew,” he said and smiled. “This is the place to be.”
“And I’m always in the place to be,” I joked.
“You are,” he said with a seriousness that made me laugh harder.
I felt giddy at the idea of a man crossing an ocean and then an island for me, even as small as Puerto Rico was. We walked from the deck and into the sand, and under the palms watched the waves roll, crash, foam, and retreat onto the beach. I carried my sandals. The night filled with the sounds of crickets and coquis, the tiny singing frogs, and the smells of salt and the sweet decay of seaweed. Each wave shined blue-green, the crashing causing the bioluminescence, the same flash we’d seen while kayaking in the bay a few days earlier in the “Bio Bay” of Vieques.A blue-green glow zippered across the sand with each wave, the foam a patchwork of neon.
That’s when Sancho kissed me, and his broad mouth and soft lips took me by surprise, even though I’d been waiting two days, or maybe my lifetime, for a kiss to happen like that, on the edge of an island, between two palms, under a sky canvassed with stars. My toes splayed out onto the sand, the ground below me, shifting.
Tracy and I were at the end of our two-week tour of Puerto Rico, a mostly rambling unplanned-out trip over holiday break from teaching, where we traipsed across the island, then out to Culebra and Vieques, the smaller Spanish Virgin Islands, ending our trip with two days in Rincon. We had no plans, no reservations, no real expectations — no real thoughts of the future except that we’d be husbandless and free.
I felt giddy at the idea of a man crossing an ocean and then an island for me, even as small as Puerto Rico was.
Except I was still living with my ex-husband, so technically, I was not husbandless, nor free. But I had become good at lying to myself on these points.
Two days earlier, Sancho had been our tour guide on a kayaking tour of that Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques. With our towering long-haired island-man extraordinaire, we kayaked through the mangroves of the Mosquito Bay and then jumped into the black waters, where our bodies lit up. Tracy and I twirled, sparks flying off our bodies, and when we lifted our arms from the water, tiny stars of light rolled off. Although I knew there was a scientific explanation — that millions of one-celled microorganisms were responsible for the blue flashes of light as a way to scare of predators, it seemed like fairy dust — nothing short of magic.
Later in a bar called Bananas, Sancho bought me a drink, or maybe he knew the bartender and got it for free, and said, “Why don’t you girls come on my snorkeling tour tomorrow to Red, Blue, and Garcia Beaches? I’ll give you a good deal.”
“I think we’re leaving for Rincon tomorrow,” I said, trying to ignore that he called us girls and not women, even though we were in our 30s.
“How about you come for free? On me?” he asked.
“That’s awfully nice of you,” I said. “Really. But we’re leaving tomorrow. Tracy wants to try surfing. Or at least boogie boarding. The waves are supposed to be good in Rincon.”
“The surf’s big for you girls this time of year.”
“How do you know?” I asked, probably cocking my head. The ocean outside rolled onto the shore behind me.
“I know.” He said, smiling. “Listen, I want to spend the night with you.”
“So you are asking me to have a one-night stand with you?” I laughed and took a sip of my drink.
“No, I want to spend two nights with you.” He smiled and put his arm around me. The bioluminescent bay made me feel like I had been swimming through a fairy tale, a magical place where a stranger asking me to sleep with him turned him into an island prince.
“I don’t know about that,” I said. A princess should always be coy; my beauty queen mother had taught be how to be demure. In her economy, being wanted by a man determined self-worth. I was old enough to know better, but I couldn’t escape my upbringing.
At some point in the evening, Sancho wandered away, and Tracy and I decided it was time to head back to our hostel. I liked flirting with Sancho, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend two nights with him. Or even one. But like usual, being pursued was intoxicating. The problem was that I didn’t stop to ask myself if I wanted him. I knew only that I wanted to be wanted.
Sancho spotted us the next morning, having breakfast at the picnic tables outside of a restaurant called The Tiki House, and came over to sit down with us. “You coming on my kayak tour today?” he asked. For the first time, I noticed how big his hands were, easily twice the size of mine, and I’m not exactly petite.
“No, we have to leave. I told you that last night.” I took a sip from my mango smoothie.
“You disappeared from the bar. Where did you go?” Sancho shaded his eyes from the sun.
“We didn’t disappear,” I said. “You disappeared, and we left. It was late.”
“But I told you, I want to spend two nights with you.”
Tracy shot me a look. I shrugged my shoulders. We communicated whole sentences in this way, as girlfriends do. I told Sancho, “Then you’ll have to come to Rincon.” I knew that Rincon was across an ocean and then an island — difficult for someone like Sancho, a tour guide without a car, to navigate. Tracy and I had decided to rent a car from the ferry dock, and even so, it would take all day to get there.
“Take my number,” he said. “Call me and tell me where you are.”
When we arrived at the dock on the mainland, I left a message for Sancho from a payphone, telling him we were headed to Rincon. I didn’t think he would really show up.
Sancho had been right about the waves in Rincon being too big for us to surf — so we settled for a turbulent swim in the white water, fighting the ocean’s strong undertow until it shoved us under, our limbs akimbo in the white surf. The woman who had checked us into our studio apartment told us that a band was playing later that night at the Tamboo bar, so we stopped there for a drink. When we arrived, the band was on break, and the guitarist, an American ex-pat named Patrick, headed straight over to Tracy. He flirted with Tracy and bought us both drinks. I told Tracy I thought he had weird eyes, but she said, “He’s fine, Suzanne. Stop worrying.” I had inherited my mother’s propensity to worry, to be afraid, though I did everything I could to counter it, which sometimes included recklessness.
Because I was famous among my friends for worrying about the wrong things, I nodded at Tracy and tried not think about Patrick’s ice-blue eyes. I told myself I didn’t need to worry. I told myself that worrying is living in the future. Guilt is a way of living in the past. I reminded myself to live in the present.
And that’s when Sancho, his little backpack slung over a shoulder, walked into the Tamboo Bar. “There you are. I finally found you,” he said as if he had been following the rainbow and had finally reached the pot of gold.
Tracy and I both hugged him and introduced him to Patrick, who then bought us all another round of drinks, though I suspect as a member of the band, he was getting them for free.
The band started up again and the rest of the evening, except for that first kiss on the beach, is a blurry memory, like it happened underwater, or on a film reel that keeps catching.
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I had invited Sancho back to the studio apartment Tracy and I had rented. Tracy sent Patrick on his way when he told Tracy, “I think we should have sex, don’t you?” She didn’t think so, so he left. Meanwhile, Sancho and I dragged the futon mattress onto the balcony, while Tracy slept on one of the double beds inside.
I don’t remember the sex as much as I remember how it made me feel. For the moment, drunk on tropical drinks and an island man, I lived in the present tense of my life. Or at least that’s how it seemed. In my memory, the sex is the blue flash of the ocean and the call of the crickets and the coqui. It was the way the palm fronds rustled in the moonlight, the static of the sea. It was the fine shadow of a banana spider as it trellised up a stucco wall. It was also a deeper escape into place, as well as an attempt at fearlessness — an attempt to be bold without apology.
Afterward, I listened for the call of the coqui on the pleats of wind. A coqui is the common name for several species of small frogs endemic to Puerto Rico. They are characterized by the direct development from egg to small frog; the tadpole stage happens inside the egg, so when the egg hatches, little frogs crawl out. They emerge fully formed, hidden during their evolution, their becoming. Critical habitat has been designated, as the coqui are in danger of extinction. The mating call sounds like koh-kee, hence their name. Only males call during courtship: the first part of the call establishes territory; the second syllable is meant to attract a mate. The females will travel long distances to answer.
We heard the call of the coqui nightly in Puerto Rico. We looked for them, but we never saw one. I thought of the coqui as a metaphor, and it seemed to give meaning to what I had just done — lustful wanderings rather than wanderlust.
At dawn, with Sancho’s long limbs draped over me, I felt hungover and worse, stifled and ashamed. I untangled myself, got up, pulled on my pajamas, went into our studio apartment, walked past my bed, and crawled into Tracy’s with her.
“Hi,” she said. “Did you have fun?”
“I’m sore,” I said. “And I have a headache.”
Tracy laughed, “Ay Chica.”
Sancho came in, went to the sink, splashed water on his face, and examined himself in the mirror. I watched as he pulled out vials of lotions from his backpack, and started smearing the various creams on different parts of his face.
“What’s that stuff?” I asked.
“These are my face emollients,” he said. “The sea water is hard on the skin.” He smiled his big, toothy smile. “How do you think I stay so good looking?”
Sancho stated exactly what he’d wanted: two nights with me. At least he had been upfront.
“Is he for real?” Tracy asked, and we all laughed.
Sancho turned from the mirror and smiled at us, and we all laughed again. Then Sancho peered back into the mirror and said, “Shit. I don’t believe this.”
“What?” Tracy asked.
“I think I have a pimple,” he said touching his chin. Tracy and I were still laughing but Sancho was serious now, inspecting his blemish.
Patrick arrived at our open door, shouting, “Hello! Who wants to go to the beach?”
We changed and piled into Patrick’s car. On the way, we stopped at the market to get some snacks for the beach.
“Can you buy mine?” Sancho asked. “I don’t have any money.”
“What do you mean you don’t have any money? You came here without money?” I asked. I am not sure if I was surprised or just pretending to be.
“I spent it all trying to get here. I came all the way here for you.”
I bought our beach snacks, plus two ice cream bars for Sancho. I watched as Sancho stuck out his long tongue, scooping up a little bit of ice cream with each lick. I had wanted him to be part of my experience, like the moonlight, the call of the coqui. But it was now clearer than ever that I didn’t want to keep him. As it turned out, doing the using felt just as bad as being the one who was used. Certainly, Sancho hadn’t followed me across the island so he could have a meaningful relationship. He stated exactly what he’d wanted: two nights with me. At least he had been upfront.
But I was starting to see that I was using Sancho for some sort of island experience, and something about that made me feel even worse. If I had used him for sex, we would be even. But I was using him to get to some part of myself that I wasn’t sure how to access without seeing myself through a man’s desire — the same as it always was.
I felt as if I had been turned inside out, and I tried to blame it on the hangover. I knew I wasn’t special or sexy or interesting. Let’s face it: any young woman can have sex with nearly any young man of her choosing. I wish someone had told me this then. No matter how I tried to frame it, I was a conquest: the loose American woman, even if we didn’t differ in our intentions that much, except for in one important way: Sancho wanted to spend two nights with me, but I only wanted him for one.
Once we got the Corcega Beach, Sancho and Patrick went swimming. Tracy and I sat on our towels. She turned to me and said, “You’re acting so weird.”
“I don’t know. Just weird. What’s going on?” A seagull landed next to us.
“It was fine last night,” I said. I mean I was caught up in the moment. And the sex was good, actually. I mean from what I remember. But now, I just want to get away from him.” I looked out at the ocean where Patrick and Sancho were bobbing around in the giant waves.
“Next day regrets?” Tracy asked.
“You’re just hung over,” she said, and rolled over onto her stomach.
“No, it’s more than that. I don’t want to be with him.” I brushed the sand from my thighs.
“Then tell him to leave,” Tracy said.
“He has no money.”
“Not your problem,” Tracy said. The gull took off, circled above, the light catching on its wings.
“It feels like my problem.”
A little boy with a box of beads hanging from his neck asked us if we wanted him to make us earrings. Tracy waved him away, and then said to me, “It’s not like you invited him here.”
“But I sort of did. And I don’t want to sleep with him again.”
“So don’t,” she said. Tracy said she would sleep on the balcony and give us the apartment. That way I could make Sancho sleep on the other bed. Looking back, I wish I had just told him to leave. But I was used to putting men’s feelings above my own. So even though I was determined not to give him what he wanted, I would still let him stay in our apartment.
“I’m sorry,” I told Tracy. I knew I was putting her out. I could not stop apologizing.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s just all part of the adventure. And I want to sleep on the balcony anyway, sleep to the sound of the waves,” she said. “Maybe you should go for a walk? You’ll feel better.”
I looked out at the water. Sancho and Patrick were still splashing around, trying to body surf but it was clear that the waves were too big. “Okay. A walk,” I said. “Are you okay here alone?”
“I’m fine. And don’t beat yourself up too much. You’re on vacation,” she said.
I got up and walked down the long stretch of beach until I could no longer see Sancho, Patrick, and Tracy. What I really wanted was to walk away from myself. I couldn’t understand why I did the things I did. I wanted to get away from Sancho but felt like wanting to made me an awful person — the kind who would rather have a one-night stand than a two-night stand. I could see that my mother’s system was flawed, because desire so often leads to shame, especially if you let things “go too far.” According to this logic, the best way to make amends is to feel guilt and shame — and if you feel bad enough, you might have a chance at redemption and regaining your status as a “good woman” through your atonement. If I had had sex with Sancho because I thought I was in love but later he dumped me, well then, I got to be the poor woman with good intentions. No one blames a woman like that. Or at least I wouldn’t have. I tried to let go of this — the values my mother had grown up with in the 1950s — but I couldn’t, at least not entirely.
I wanted to claim my own desire but I didn’t know how. I could be that woman if I downed enough tropical drinks, but the morning after, I didn’t dare believe that acting on my own desire might have been okay. Because if I had been the kind of woman who wanted to have a one-night stand with a handsome stranger, without it meaning something, in my mother’s eyes, I would be a slut. How I hated that word. How I still hate that word and the damage it continues to do to girls and women.
I walked back along the shore and decided I could forgive myself if I made this promise: I would not have sex with Sancho again. Not because it was wrong but because I didn’t want to. And that would have to be enough. A pelican dove into the ocean, came back to the surface and gulped down a fish. The boy with a box of beads asked me if I would like a necklace. I answered him in Spanish: “No thank you, not today.”
If I had been the kind of woman who wanted to have a one-night stand with a handsome stranger, without it meaning something, in my mother’s eyes, I would be a slut.
I knew it would take a lot less explaining to just go along with the sex, telling myself I had already been with him, so what’s one more night? But this time I knew I couldn’t. This was no longer about Sancho. This was about me. Although now it seems pretty straightforward — what I wanted for my body was more important to me than what he wanted. Yet that would mean I had to tell him I didn’t want him, and at the time, that seemed too difficult to explain.
I started searching for an excuse, a convenient lie.
We left the beach and drove to a small outdoor bar on the beach. The bartender asked us how we were doing. Sancho put his arm around me, and said, “I’m doing great, especially after last night. What a night. Wow.” He smiled his big toothy grin at the bartender and squeezed my shoulder.
There it was, my excuse: I pulled away from him and whispered, “How dare you.”
“What’s the matter, Sweetheart?” He looked genuinely surprised. “What’s wrong? It was just a joke.”
“Well, it wasn’t a funny one. I’m embarrassed.” I made more of a fuss over the comment than was called for, hoping I could hang my rejection of him on that boastful remark, making it easier than explaining my real feelings.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” he said.
“Well you did.”
Sancho had wanted to spend two nights with me. And he would — one on his terms; the other on mine. It doesn’t seem like much, but at least it was something: a way to start breaking free from my pattern of fucking followed by self-flagellation. A way to stop depending on men to feel interesting.
Patrick bought Sancho’s drinks, and they smoked cigars. By then, Sancho and Patrick acted like old friends. Patrick still hoped Tracy would change her mind, so he approached her from every angle possible. Patrick didn’t realize what a bad wingman Sancho made. And Tracy didn’t need Patrick to complete her island experience, so she said no without apology.
“I thought you said you had friends to stay with here?” I asked Sancho.
“Where are they?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll see them later.”
Sancho stood at the edge of my bed and said, “But I want to make love to you.”
“I said no.” I turned to face the other wall. In my memory, it was a light blue.
“But I don’t understand. What did I do?” Sancho asked.
“You made that comment at the bar, bragging about your conquest.” The palm fronds rustled against the window, their shadows flowed like hair across the white sheet. I pretended I was asleep and thought about how if Sancho tried to force me, I could call for Tracy, who was sleeping on the balcony, but I wasn’t sure she would have been much help against a man nearly seven feet tall. Also, I could hear my mother’s voice, blaming me for getting myself into this situation to begin with. Sometimes it’s easier to say yes than to say no. But I would say no. And I had been lucky that Sancho wasn’t the type of man who would force me, but he did plead.
“Please?” he begged. He stood there at the side of the bed in the blue shadows of the small hours.
“Sancho, no.” I said, trying to sound half-asleep.
“Can I sleep in the same bed with you?” He hovered over me.
“No,” I said without turning to him.
“Please? I don’t understand.”
“I can’t explain it. You hurt my feelings.” I said this and put the sheet over my head. It was true and it wasn’t true: I knew I had been the one to hurt my own feelings first, and this was the only way to redeem myself.
Sancho went back to the other bed, but every couple hours, I would catch him trying to sneak into bed with me. I kept telling him, “No means no. I’m not going to change my mind. Go away.”
I waited for the pink break of day and listened for the call of the coqui, the crickets, the ocean. And there it was: No meant no. My needs were more important than his. Something had broken free inside of me. I could feel it.
In the morning, we drove Sancho back to San Juan, so he could catch the “wah-wah,” as he called the small bus, to the ferry station. I had to give him $10 for the bus and ferry fare. “Are you sure the bus is only $5?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said, “they charge tourists more.”
“Is that how everything here works?” Tracy asked. We had paid $25, and that was after an argument. The driver had wanted to charge us $50.
“Yeah. I mean I charge different rates for my tours depending on where people are staying. You were at the Tradewinds; it’s a cheap place, so that would be one rate. But the people at the spendy hotels, I charge them at least double. Why not? They can afford it. And they pay it.”
At the bus terminal Sancho asked, “Are you still mad at me?”
“Not mad,” I said. A taxi blared its horn.
“Good,” he said. “I hope I can see you again. Can I have your address?”
“Why don’t you write yours here, in my journal?” I handed him my small notebook and a pen. When he finished, I noticed he wrote a different name. “Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to the name.
It was a way to start breaking free from my pattern of fucking followed by self-flagellation. A way to stop depending on men to feel interesting.
“That’s me. That’s my name,” he said and pointed to himself. “Sancho’s just a nickname.”
“I didn’t even know your name?”
“Sancho’s enough,” he said. He walked away, then turned to wave. The small blue backpack slung over his shoulder.
I got back into the car and turned to Tracy and said, “I didn’t even know his name.”
“Not surprised,” Tracy said, looking into the rearview mirror and pulling out into traffic.
“I had a one-night stand with someone whose name I didn’t know.”
Tracy asked, “So what? What difference does it make? Why do you care?”
She was right. What difference did it make? I could revise the version of the story I told myself to make myself feel even worse — now I wasn’t just a woman who’d had a one-night stand with a stranger, but I also never knew his name. But I was too tired for that. And didn’t I know his name now? I looked out the car window. The American and Puerto Rican flags flew together, each on its own silver pole. We drove for a while, past a Texaco and a McDonalds, and I said. “You know. We never did see a coqui.”
Tracy nodded, as if she had never expected to see the frog we heard nightly. She tended to accept the world the way it was. I said, “They say that when a coqui is removed from Puerto Rico, it will never sing again.”
“Who’s they?” Tracy asked.
“I don’t know. I probably read it in the guidebook. But I like the metaphor.”
“You know, Suzanne,” Tracy said, “something isn’t always something else.”
I would never see Sancho again, though that’s probably obvious enough. But later I would google his name — the nickname he went by — and find a Trip Advisor Review, saying he was a great guide, that he had a fantastic sense of humor. The reviewer said that had told his guests he was actually 150 years old, that the bioluminescent bay was responsible for his youthful appearance.
I thought of him there, standing in front of the mirror in the morning light. And I smiled because all these years later, this image made me love them all — the man at the mirror and the two young women curled up together in the bed. And there it was — not the transgression or moral failing or the morning-after anxiety. Just what it was — the final calls of the nocturnal coqui, three young people laughing in a cheap rented room, and the early morning light tumbling onto shore.
* * *
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four collections of poetry. She serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate and teaches in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College
Editor: Sari Botton