I Learned How to Jump in Puerto Rico
The fall of 2012 is, today, only a vague blur of cerulean beaches, tropical drinks, and heady baselines streaming infectiously from the open windows of passing VW Beatles. I honestly don’t remember more than snippets. My father remembers even less.
Merely a week prior to our long awaited trip to the sparking island of Puerto Rico, my father had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.
“Stay home,” said the doctor. “Get some rest, and some blood work, and some vehemently painful bone marrow testing.”
“Uh-uh,” said my father.
And with that, we were off.
The fog of untreated cancer didn’t stop my Dad from taking care of business. The airport, thanks to him, was a streamlined process from check-in to boarding. He was groggy and slept fitfully on the plane, as he possessed long festering fears of flying out of the continental forty-eight. My mother and younger sister watched cooking shows, while I stared out the window. I was sixteen.
Certain things float to the surface of my ebbing memory about Puerto Rico. The colors, firstly, are incomparable. I’d been to the Keys and various other islands in my well-traveled youth, but the rich port blew my mind. We passed housing developments in engine reds, grasshopper greens, and egg yolk yellows... The earthy rust of old clunker cars, the metallic shine of BMWs and Enterprise Rent-a-Cars… The bronze glow of a dewy-lipped local as she passes on the sidewalk, in a sweaty t-shirt and four inch stilettos… And who could forget all the sexed up bikini-on-the-beach ads for everything, from Sprint to Viagra?
Our hotel, nestled on the North-East edge of the island, was an architectural haven of indoor water fountains, walls made entirely of glass that were lifted in the daytime to let in a sticky sweet breeze, and white granite floors. There was also a casino, which I was not allowed in, an infinity pool, and after hours a night club took over the lobby, complete with DJ, colored lights, and tight sequined dresses.
The show stopper, though, was Perla. Jaw dropping overall, the hotel’s resident restaurant is literally an enormous oyster shell, suspended over the Caribbean Sea. We visited many times; my father enjoyed colada after colada, after colada, while my sister was taught by a member of the staff to fold her dinner napkin into an elegant shell.
One night, my Dad and I ventured out for some local food to eat. It was close to midnight, and the air was thick and polluted by the exhaust of nocturnal island traffic. It was probably the best day he’d had on the trip, which had been spent dozing off mostly. I remember watching him walk under the golden street lamps, looking tired, and old, and wary. In this moment, for the first time since his diagnosis, I feared for my father’s life.
We ended up at a nearby joint, small with a tile floor and about twelve tables. The place was deader than a Texas salad bar, and reminded me of my favorite hole-in-the-wall, shady-looking, you-could-reasonably-get-shot-there, restaurant back home.
I test drove my Spanish with the friendly bar tender, who realized at once that I was no more fluent than your average Dora the Explorer fan, but still I ordered a myriad of dishes. While I don’t remember much more than that, I can still taste that Tres Leches cake, which was creamy, spongy, cold, and delicious.
Over the coming days, my father reached an all-time low. My mother and sister stayed with him, as he slept restlessly through the sunlit hours, and I, unable to watch him dying, roamed the grounds. I ate pineapple with my fingers at the open air bar, observed stunning middle aged women gossip about Justin Timberlake on the beach deck (he also stayed there that week… so everyone said.), and made friends with a charmingly bubbly concierge named Francisco.
It was Francisco who helped me make reservations to the famed Culebra.
Culebra is a small island 17 miles off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, which boasts spectacular flour dusted beaches and warm waters clearer than the stuff that comes out of your sink. Also, it is only reachable by a little puddle jumper they call a motor boat. I believe my father referred to this vehicle as a shit hopper.
He does not like boats.
It was a half hour journey at open sea, and there were about twenty passengers. The ride was somewhat akin to driving a jeep, doors removed, wind in the hair, over a stretch of sand dunes. The jostling was a challenge, particularly when a mammoth tray of tropical fruits was presented, but exhilarating for me. My father, however, turned a delicate shade of green.
Upon arrival, the boat was anchored about fifty yards from the shore line. I simply cannot describe the sight outside that cabin. Stepping onto the deck was like walking onto an alien planet. The water was a shade of aquamarine that didn’t exist in my mind until that moment, and it sparked like diamonds in the blinding sunlight overhead. Behind us, where the sea extended, looked vast and endless despite the fact that I knew we had just walked on solid land in that direction, not an hour prior. We could have been in the center of the Atlantic, surrounded by hundreds of inescapable miles of water in my mind. I remember this feeling of panic well.
At that time, I harbored a life-long fear of the ocean that prevented me from venturing into waters deeper than my knees, hips if the water was calm as a cup of chamomile. So you can imagine my alarm when all the people around me began to pull on life jackets.
“Well,” I reasoned. “Maybe it’s just a liability thing. Maybe once everyone is in their safety gear, we’ll pull closer to the island.”
We did not. Instead, these people, my mother and sister among them, began to waddle in their puffy jackets and duck flippers, over to the edge of the boat.
And then they jumped. Overboard.
Only my father and I remained, watching the collective awe as everyone waded in the Caribbean waves, clearly ecstatic about the fantasy they were living.
I faced a raging internal war (stay on the boat and regret it forever, or y'know, drown) and with some encouragement from my Dad, I shakily weighed my own life. Thinking of him, and his struggle, I teetered toward the shithopper’s edge.
Forgoing the life jacket had been a good idea – even the skinniest, sickliest meth addict would have been buoyant in that salty water. I ditched the snorkel gear (which was shared by every passenger who came before me), and the stupid flippers (which I was sure to trip over), took a breath, and jumped. It is one of the clearest, most memorable moments of my entire life.
The water was silk, and the sunshine felt like the arms of someone I loved. A minute or two of terror at the sheer depth below me (at least thirty feet) passed, and then I found myself on my back, tummy exposed, drifting lazily in the water. It kind of shocks me, these some odd years later, how easily I relaxed into it.
When I got to shore, the beach and the wildlife were as breath taking as promised, but unfortunately I don’t actually remember them. On the tired trek back, I hear we made a few dolphin friends.
These are the memories I take away from a fear-laden journey south. None of us knew if we would be looking back at this trip as just-another-trip, or as The Last Trip. We had no idea if there was an Ending, approaching fast. This panicked need to capture precious time with my father, along with confronting that ever elusive idea of mortality, made Puerto Rico a transformative place for me.
Today, my father has been in remission for four years. He remembers little more than the pina coladas at Perla, when asked about ‘that vacation we took to the Caribbean’. However, in those four years, I found myself closer to him than ever before, and facing life a lot like I did on that little boat.
That said, I have one recommendation for you, dear reader. When life leads you to an unexpected edge, I urge you to think of Puerto Rico, relinquish your fears, and jump.