It’s June, and Suzanne needs to go swimming. Every evening she sits on the benches under the highway under the bridges and stares the waves buffeting the barricades. She brings no books, no cigarettes. She folds her hands on top of her jeans and adjusts her posture when she senses it’s off. It’s been years since the fish market has been in business, but she catches dead fish scents from 2002 soaked into the brick. She hears featherbrained fish flap against the rocks below.
When the sun decides to call it a day, she takes the long way home, taking an additional two blocks to turn left to make another left. At the intersection, she passes a streetlamp plastered with taped up teddy bears, melted candles, and water stained photos of a handsome boy, about fourteen, smiling without revealing his braces and holding a baseball bat.
Suzanne walks into her apartment and smells cigar. She walks into the dining room and kisses Tim on the top of his bald head. She smears the lipstick off and grabs some of his scotch. “Hey honey,” Tim says as he takes his ash tray to the sink. “I put aside dinner for you.”
“How was work, hon?” she says.
“Same shit, different toilet.”
“Does that make sense?”
“You get what I’m saying.” Tim finishes his glass and starts to pour another. “Wanna watch the game with me?”
Tim laughs. “Not the good ones. The fat one’s pitching for them tonight.”
“Nah, I’ll just go to the room and read.” Suzanne grabs her reading glasses off the dining table. “Enjoy, hon.”
At three in the morning, Tim wakes up dripping sweat. He zombie stumbles through the bedroom, though the bathroom door and pukes in the general direction of the toilet. He finds the light and his splattered mess. He lights the candle in the bathroom of one of the saints he doesn’t recall and leaves it on top of the tank. He walks back to the bedroom to check on Suzanne. “Fuck.”
Tim jogs down the river parkway in a Mets cap, tank top and sweatpants. He looks down at his stomach jiggling during every stride and laughs. To his surprise, he finds several couples jogging by the river. Each nods in his direction.
A mile later, or sixteen minutes, he reaches the baseball fields adjacent the river. If a kid can clear two hundred fifty feet, he has a homer in the water. Tim sees Suzanne in the dugout bench of field three, silhouetted by the yellow halo project lights behind. He walks over to her and holds her.
“You smell terrible,” she says.
Tim chuckles. “I know. Let’s go back home, hon.” She obliges. Suzanne and Tim walk next to the river. Tim’s arm drapes over Suzanne. “I swear I heard him here. He was here. I could’ve sworn.”
“I’ve heard him too, Suzanne.”
“No, but heard him. Like God was telling me.”
Suzanne wakes up to an empty bed at 11AM. She makes the bed and prepares her hair dye. Tina Fey has chestnut brown hair on the cover. While waiting for the mix to settle, she heads downstairs to check if the washers are free.
She finds Gina sitting by the washers with pink curlers in her hair. “Suzanne, honey!” Gina says as she makes flip flop pitter patter towards her. She gives Suzanne a bisou.
“How you been holding up, dear?”
“I’m good, mija. Holding up is about right.”
Gina holds her head up and nods at Suzanne. She cracks a smile and shows the gaps between teeth. “Have you been getting my messages?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Suzanne says as she shifts her eyes towards the machines. “But you know how it goes. Still a lot on my mind. Nothing personal.”
“You know the church never stopped praying for you and Tim,” Gina says as she hobbles towards her dryer.
“I know,” Suzanne says. “And I thank you. You know how it is, though. We need a little time before we get all acclimated to people and church again.”
“For sure, for sure. But don’t take this the wrong way,” she starts as she folds her laundry on top of the dryer. “But you need to be accountable for how you speak with God. Now, I know there’s a time and place for the time alone and even time for selfishness, even God has that in the Bible, but at some point the devil’s gonna creep up. You give him a foothold, and he’ll work his way in. Don’t give him that foothold.”
“I’m not having this talk. I’m sorry. Don’t start.”
“Don’t start. I’m not getting into this with you. You ain’t even got your hair or clothes together but you wanna talk about getting right with God. Not today. Goodbye.”
“I was watching a TED talk on my way home. You gotta try this meditation technique,” Tim says as he takes out two Twinkees from the cupboard. “Close your eyes.” She obliges. She hears Tim ruffle the Twinkees out of the wrappers.
“I want you to see an ocean. A vast, flat, dark ocean. You know it’s purple and black even though it’s usually blue. The only light is the horizon. You see an ocean? Great. Now,” he takes a bite from his Twinkee. “Now, you know how the Vikings had funerals? They put their dead on a boat. They say their blessings, their parting remarks, and the start to fill the boat with their belongings or things that related to them.”
Suzanne snorts and sheds some tears. “No, honey, it’s not over. Follow me through this, Suzanne.” He wipes her tears and holds her hands. “I want you to stack everything in the day, anything that’s weighing heavy. Anything that is living rent free in the apartment of your mind. Stack it on the boat. Acknowledge what is there. A shortness of breath. My liquor breath. Time. My beer belly. Your gray hairs. My gray hairs. Mike. His report cards. His catching equipment. Report cards. His girlfriend whose name you always forget. Time. Now, I want you to set that boat on fire. Watch it dance around the belongings. Watch it hug the people you put on the boat. Now, I want you to shove it as hard as you can, send it out with the currents. Watch it sail towards the horizon and sink, silently. How do you feel now? Better? Did it help?”
“That didn’t help at all.”
“Well, I’m trying here.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“What would help?”
“Look, I don’t know. All I know is that I want to swim.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Suzanne put her hands in front of Tim’s mouth. “Look. When I was a kid, my family would go to Coney Island. The tradition was that when you see the first wave, you jump backwards into it. It’s like a new beginning. It warts off evil spirits. It gives you good luck. And I think we need some of that.”
“Is that a Puerto Rican thing?” Tim says as he crosses his arms.
“Yes. My dad kept shouting over the waves ‘it’s nothing like back home.’ You always see it in the ads, people jumping backwards into the waves.”
“What ads are you talking about?”
“Tim, I love you, but you’re dressed like an asshole right now.” Tim takes off his sunglasses and wipes them on his Eddie Bauer shirt.
“C’mon babe, I’m in vacation mode. I got my cigars, my hat,” he says as he dusts the top of his fedora and puts it back on. “I’m gonna get my drink on. I’m all set!” He balls up his fists like an excited baby. When Tim smiles, it’s like the rest of his face never received the notice.
“But they’re gonna think that you took your kids’ nanny for a vacation in Puerto Rico. Or you met some local vieja and brought her to your resort?”
“Vieja? But you’re not old.”
“Who taught you vieja?”
“I know some Spanish, Suzanne.”
The plane lands on a cloudy San Juan day, giving Tim the impression of Communism. Suzanne sits on the aisle to stretch out her left leg, recovering from knee replacement surgery two years before. She bends over Tim’s chest to look out the window. Even for Suzanne, San Juan lives in daylight. Anything else is sacrilege, a bad omen. Tim’s fingers tingle from the altitude and the rum.
“Where are your parents from?” Tim asks.
“Actually, they came from Poncé.”
“Poncé. Poncé. Poncé. What’s to know about Poncé?”
“Actually,” Suzanne says as she perks up her posture. “It used to be a slave port town.”
“Oh! So you are part black?” Tim’s eyes widen.
By the last baggage claim, Suzanne spots her cousin, Sandy. She’s darker than most on the floor. She’s been dealt her steady flow of casual island racism from the blanquitos or even the negros, who like to call it out for the hell of it. Literally pot calling kettle black. She smiles with all her big teeth and her deep brown eyes. Her smile spites the island. She runs up to Suzanne and embraces her. She motions with her hand around Suzanne for Tim to join in on the embrace.
“How was the flight, Blanca?”
“Suzy, why do they call you Blanca?” Tim asks. “I thought you were part black.”
Sandy speeds up the road by the hill overlooking San Juan. “I live an hour out, Tim,” Sandy shouts over the car.
“I remember,” Tim shouts back. “I was here when Suzanne was pregnant with Mike.”
Tim looks out at San Juan and pokes his head out the window. The air smells the way he wants mangos to taste.
Fifteen years ago, Tim resembled an Afghan hound poking his head with long hair out the window. Suzanne took Polaroids of him in his white cargo shorts and oversized tank top. For the next week they called him langosta, because he burned redder than a lobster.
Suzanne took the opportunity to poke Tim’s raw skin when he didn’t look, and watched the color rush back in its place. “It stings,” Tim said like an ultimatum. When he turned to get a spiteful drink, she smacked him on the back of the neck.
Suzanne checks the weather while Tim looks out on sullen San Juan. “Is it gonna rain all week, Sandy?”
Sandy flies the car over a bump. Tim grabs the “oh shit handlebars” as he loves to call them. “Yeah, there’s a tropical storm coming!” Sandy raises her fist into the air. “We needed the rain.”
“How long is it gonna rain for?” Suzanne asks.
“A couple days probably, why?”
“Well, why the fuck you think we’re here? To see you?”
Sandy laughs. “See? God didn’t like your attitude. A couple of days to cleanse. Be good for you.”
“But Sandy,” Tim interjects. “She wanted to jump backwards in the wave, for luck or something.”
“People still do that?”
The Jeep pulls up to a series of semi boarded houses along a road mixed with weeds. One house blasts Raeggeton. A group of shirtless kids play stickball until the Jeep clears them from the road. Tino grills steaks from the front yard with a beer in his hand. He waves at the Jeep.
“Hey, you guys hungry?” Tino shouts.
“Hell yeah,” Tim says and jumps out.
“Honey, you wanna get the bags out first?”
“What’s the rush? They’ll get down after a steak and a beer.” Tim runs over and hugs Tino. “My man! Que paso, chico?”
“Mira, this fucking guy wants to hang with the boriquas,” Tino says. “This fedora-wearing motherfucker. Grab a beer.”
“Gracias, papi,” Tim says as he walks to the cooler. “Suzy, tu quieres?”
Suzanne looks at Sandy. “This motherfucker acting like Tito Puente right now.”
“Tino, why you cooking steaks?” Tim asks.
“The power might go out,” Sandy says. “So, might as well just cook what was gonna go bad in the next few days. If the power stays out, the whole block will cook like crazy. Also, Tino’s a fat ass, aren’t you, babe?”
“You know it!” Tino says as he grabs his flabby belly. It jiggles more than anyone anticipated. “You still don’t like beans, Tim?”
“No me gusta,” Tim says as he bites into a steak with his hands.
A drizzle falls on the street. The parents call their children back in before the storm hits. A few straggle. A few of the men, high on hubris and drunk off beer walk to the street to confront Neptune, God, the Atlantic, whoever they deem on that day responsible for the drizzle and the coming storm. Their wives come up and will them inside with the promise of more food and drink. One neighbor stumbles out with some wood, nails and a hammer.
“What the fuck do you think that’s gonna do to your hut?” Sandy yells across the street.
“God can’t say I didn’t try,” he yells back. He hammers three boards over the front window and calls it a day.
“Do you like to gamble?” Tino asks Tim.
“Does the Pope shit in the woods?”
“I don’t know what that means, Tim.”
“Hell yes, it means.” The window panel smacks against the house.
“When this dies down, hopefully tomorrow, you wanna get your trip money back?”
“Claro que si!” Everyone stops and turns at Tim. He forces out a chuckle. The window panel smacks against the house again. The wind sounds wicked enough for the children in the neighborhood to light a candle or to pray like their mothers asked. Tim looks at their dusty desktop computer in the corner of the dining room. “Does that have Internet?”
“What do you think this is, the Dominican Republic?” Sandy says while walking to the fridge. “As long as there’s power, there should be Internet.”
“Good. I wanna check on my fantasy team.” Tim sits at the desktop. His body forms a C-letter shape as he types one key at a time.
Sandy comes back from the kitchen and pours Suzanne more rum. “So, can I ask you?”
“How are you guys adjusting?” Tim straightens his posture.
“It ain’t adjusting,” Suzanne says as she swirls her glass. “It’s dealing. Dealing with the bullshit. Dealing with the shitty hand God gave us.”
“You have every right to be mad at God.”
“I didn’t ask his permission, like he sure as hell didn’t ask for mine.” Tim curls his back and continues typing. “And don’t start with the whole ‘God has a plan’ bullshit,” Suzanne continues.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t God, Blanca, you know that.”
“So what’s God accountable for, Sandy?” Suzanne stares at the dribble left at the bottom of her glass. “Can I?” She starts towards the kitchen and pours herself another glass.
“We only give God credit for the good shit,” she says as she sits back at the dinner table. She feels the wicker texture and giggles. “Wicker makes me feel at home. I don’t know why. I’ve never owned it. Maybe I watched too many 80s movies, because everyone had the fucking wicker furniture. No sé. No idea. But when is God accountable for the shitty things? The starving everywhere. Everywhere, not just fucking Africa like dumb Americans think.”
Tim turns back at Suzanne. “Hon…”
“Honey, you don’t go to church, so don’t entertain this. Check on the fat pitcher.” Tim turns around.
“Can I go back and ask you what happened? You don’t have to answer.”
“It won’t change anything. Sure.” She gets up from her seat and walks to the window. The panel smacks against the plastered wood, and she walks back to the dining table.
‘Mike won his Pony League championship. His team didn’t win it. He did. He went four for four. Two triples, a double, and a fucking home run. He hit the fucking ball into the East River. The rival coach took the pitcher out and had to hug the pitcher, cause he was crying. He made the opposing pitcher cry. Everything he threw just, bah! Bah! Gone. Into the gaps. Out of the park. That kid will never pitch again. The worst part was that Mike always smiled. Always. Grounding out to the pitcher, smiling. Colliding with another player, ear to ear. This boy had no idea what sadness was. He wasn’t stupid. He just hated the idea of being sad I guess. I felt bad we gave him braces. We made him self conscious. He still smiled, but he had a Grinch or cheshire cat thing going on.’
‘The final score was five to two. They gave him the game ball. They lifted him up. I’ve never seem him that happy. You know when you see someone in their zone, in their element? That was Mikey. They let him down and he ran over and hugged us, fucking tears of joy streaming down his face. He clutched us. We have the photo somewhere. I don’t know where it is, but it’s somewhere. We couldn’t hang it. Tim is kissing Mikey’s head. He ran over to his girlfriend, what the fuck is her name? Tim?’
“Marcy, Suzanne.” Tim interjects without turning from the computer.
“Marcy. Marcy. Keep forgetting that. Kisses Marcy square on the lips. It seemed perfect. I’ve never seen him kiss a girl, but it looked so flawless. I saw him with her or with other women in the future, and it felt great. I made a whole man.”
“Was that the same day?” Tino asks.
“Yep. He asked to go to a party with his team. They say he was drunk, but I don’t know if I believe it. Not that it makes a difference, I don’t know why the hell they told us that. He was celebrating, why does it matter? Some fucking monster bought a gun and wasn’t even man enough to shoot the man he wanted. A stray. Hit him a block away from home. Hit him right by the heart. He died within minutes. Someone found him dead. But no one found that fucker who shot my baby. That fucking sub-human who couldn’t even shoot his target and hit my baby. He doesn’t even know it I bet. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Suzanne buries her face in her hands.
“No, no, mija,” Sandy reassures. She motions for Tino to come over from the kitchen. Tim walks over to the kitchen and pours himself a large glass of rum. “Does anyone want to know about the deadliest hurricanes ever?” he says as he wipes his eyes.
“It’s funny,” Suzanne says and lifts her head from her hands. “Hurricanes are labeled under an act of God.” She laughs. “So, do you collect your money from him? Or do you go to the church and recollect your offerings?”
“So, by far the deadliest one recorded was way before our time, in 1780,” Tim says. He looks at Suzanne and Sandy for some eye contact. Their eyes don’t meet his. “It’s estimated that…” he scans the Wikipedia page. “Twenty-seven thousand! Holy shit!” He fixes his posture.
“Can we not, Tim?” Suzanne says.
The lights cut out in the house.
“I guess it’s time for bed, gang.” Tim shuffles over and feels around the room for Suzanne and her shoulder.
Suzanne reaches over for Tim’s side of the bed and finds a banana. She throws it off the bed and turns over. She pats dry her face with a sheet and sees the ceiling fan wobbling.
Sandy shuffles towards the kitchen in her pink moo moo and brews coffee. She bows her head and gives a hand towards Suzanne.
“The men went gambling, huh?” Suzanne asks as she strategizes her rise off the air mattress. She shimmies over to the right side of the bed and places her right leg on the floor like dipping a toe into new waters. She rocks to get momentum off the bed.
“You need help there?” Sandy asks and walks over. Suzanne puts her hand up.
“Ja, ja. I got this.” She rocks several more times and swings her left leg.
“With the storm and the drinking, my robot knee feels like jell-o.” She presses both hands into the air mattress. As she lifts herself off the ground, the mattress gives way and slides out from under her. Sandy runs over and catches her between Suzanne’s armpits.
“Look at you carrying my heavy ass,” Suzanne says and laughs.
“I picked up Tino’s fat ass all these years. This is my vacation.” She offers a mug with a coqí frog.
“You wanna go to the beach and read a book?” Suzanne asks before sipping coffee.
“Holy shit. I haven’t done that in years.” She smiles wide enough for the laugh lines to fill. “You have any books with you?”
“Wepa!” Tim yells as he rolls dice along the craps table. “Vaya, vaya! Coño!” The dealer smiles and takes Tim’s chips sprawled over the table.
“Maybe we should stick to slots, Tim” Tino says as he motions at the server for another beer. The casino reeks with tobacco leaf. The carpet tells a sad story about being vacuumed hourly but never shampooed. It gave off the impression you would imagine your chain smoking aunt’s lungs to look like. For some reason, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours plays from start to finish, now playing “Dreams.” The viejos in the slots look as leather as their seats. The server walks over to Tino with the pint.
“I’m feeling lucky, Tino! Gotta say ‘wepa!’ when I say it, though! It’s like when my kid said ‘Kobe!’ before throwing something away.”
“You feel lucky,” Tino says as he pays the server for his beer. “But are you actually lucky?”
Tim pats his pockets to find a cigar. “If I say no, then I’m a loser.” Tino takes out his lighter and tosses it to Tim.
“No, man, you’re just unlucky. It’s fine. Switch it up. Change your luck.”
He walks over to the nearest slot and puts ten dollars in. He pulls the lever and mashes the buttons like a cashier at the end of their shift. A hip hop air horn interrupts “Don’t Stop” playing over the casino speakers. The gamblers at the tables stop and turn at Tim and applaud. A Puerto Rican George Hamilton smacks Tim on the back. “Wepa!”
“Doscientos cincuenta dólares! Two hundred and fifty dollars!” a man shouts over the intercom. Two servers take out pouches of confetti and toss it over Tim’s head.
“Tino, I feel like a winner now.”
Suzanne sits by the beach with her posture straight. She lets the sunlight warm her back and brighten her page. Sandy floats with her eyes closed deep beyond the waves hitting the shore. At the end of every page, Suzanne pops her head up to make sure Sandy remains in sight. She listens to the seagulls fly overhead and the water have its way with the beach. Occasionally a couple walks by hand in hand.
Sandy swims towards shore and lets a hearty wave carry her the rest of the way. She crashes into the sand and flounders her way back up to Suzanne.
“What are you waiting for, Suzanne?”
“Tim. He needs to do it with me. I’m fine reading until then.”
“You don’t even want to swim?” Sandy asks as she wrings out her hair.
“I’ll read until he comes here.”
Sandy waves her towel and drops it next to Suzanne. She undoes her top and lies face down. Suzanne does the same, and they both fall asleep as the tide recedes.
Tim places a cold bottle of beer on Suzanne’s neck. She bolts up, fumbles her book on the ground and smiles at Tim. “You fucker.”
“I bought us drinks for the night!”
Tino catches up with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. “High roller here won two hundred fifty dollars.” He hands the bottle to his wife and she takes a sip.
“You ready?” Tim asks. He offers his hand to Suzanne. She takes it and they walk towards the water. Tim takes off his polo and throws it to the side. He grabs his beer bely and laughs.
“Stop doing that, Tim.”
“You love it.”
Tim runs towards the water and dives into the first wave he encounters.
“What?” Tim says as a wave smacks him into the ground.
“My leg, hon. I can’t go out too deep.”
“Suzanne, this isn’t that deep!” He points to his knee to show the water level. “I’m standing.” Another wave topples him.
“I can’t handle those waves.”
“Well, hold my hand then!” He grabs her hand and escorts her to knee level water. She buries her feet into the sand and bends her knees to brace herself.
“Don’t be so tense, honey,” Tim says. “You’ll sink.”
“Don’t say that!” A wave barrels in at eye level. Tim hops and his head bobs over the wave. Suzanne gives it a go, but her buried feet don’t get her off the ground and smack her down against the ground. “Shit,” Tim says. Sandy and Tino watch from the shore.
Suzanne coughs and yells for Tim as the waves slap her arms from under her. Tim grabs his head and swims between Suzanne and the wave. “Honey, just get up! It’s not that deep!”
“I’m drowning!” Suzanne yells.
“You’re talking, so you can’t be drowning. Just look at me and get up.” Another wave comes as Tim lifts Suzanne from her arms. Her legs give way and smack against the sand.
“For the love of God, Suzanne, just get up.”
“I can’t. My knee.”
Tim bends lower to Suzanne’s waist and carries her over his shoulder. “Alright!” Tim shouts. “I’m gonna walk towards the next wave, and we’re gonna jump backwards into it. Okay? You ready?”
“One!” Tim turns and falls backwards into another barreling wave. He swims under and sees Suzanne kicking the ground and flailing hands. He picks her back up and carries her to shore.
“What kind of Puerto Rican woman can’t swim. I’ve seen you swim before, hon.”
“I don’t swim anymore. I sink.”
They make it back to Sandy and Tino. “Fuck me,” Tim says. They all laugh. Sandy falls onto the ground. Tino follows. Suzanne crosses her arms.
“Tim!” Sandy shouts from the ground with tears streaming down her face. “I thought you were trying to kill her. Get yourself another island babe that could actually swim.” Tim bends over laughing. He wheezes out of breath. Suzanne covers her mouth and laughs. “I hate you guys.” She wraps her arms around Tim and they fall on the sand. She kisses him on the back of the neck. “Thank you,” she says.