I hurry down the sloping street towards dealers who stand like raptors, eyes glowing in the half light of nightfall. The wall behind them is covered in gang graffiti; gold crowns edged in black, tags in neon oval letters – Carlos, Heriberto, Ivan. We are sweat-drenched in this crowded heat, this darkness thick with smells of ocean and sewage.
La Perla is a cramped slum sloping towards the Atlantic. Pastel-colored houses cluster in a faded rainbow connected by a labyrinth of blind alleys, dead end sidewalks, and narrow stairways. Streetlights shine on fractured concrete, smashed bottles, and empty baggies. There are a dozen or so bichotes. Each one holds a plastic box with compartments for heroin, coke, and weed. Needles, rum, pipes, and cigarettes are steps away. Perri and I call it one-stop shopping.
Most of the men are new to the punto and unfamiliar to me. A young bichote, maybe sixteen, breaks from the crowd dangling a baggie full of white powder. The underarms of his polo are drenched to his elbows, and he stares at me through pinpoints haunted by dirty green.
“¿Mira negra, quieres punto rojo?” He points to the red sticker on the bag, shaking it for emphasis.
“No jefe,” I sound friendly, but not too friendly.
“Droga?” He moves closer and points to tiny foil packages.
I shake my head and start to step around him
“Rafael,” the bichote motions to a skinny Dominican with snake tattoos circling his foreman.
“My friend got different perico, Timberland or CK.”
“Ay, girl wait a minute?” He smiles and stares at my legs with hungry admiration. “Where you party tonight?”
A skirt is a generous designation for a scandalous tissue of fabric that barely covers my upper thighs. I am pleased by the effect.
“Chacho leave her alone.” Chupi waves his hand to dismiss the bichotes. “Flaca don’t party like that no more.” He saunters towards me licking full, pink lips. His eyes are a hazy shade of blue I’ve never seen outside of Puerto Rico and contrast with his honey skin. He’s dressed in baggy khakis and an oversized orange tank top that matches his tennis shoes.
“Ay, flaca, cómo estás?” Chupi stands so close I can feel his breath on my cheek.
“Bien y tú?” He smells delicious, and I am tingling in a halo of bergamot and heat.
“I’m good.” Chupi runs his fingertips across the nape of my neck and traces a circle down to the shoulder. “You lookin’ muy sexy tonight. I like your skirt. You gonna come see me later?”
“Papi, you know I don’t party like that no more.” We both laugh. Our on again off again dance has been going on for the last several months. Lately, a lot more on than off. He lives across from my favorite bar, el Coquito. The choice between staggering into his bed at closing time or stumbling to my apartment in the Old City was an easy one.
“Oh, okay. So that’s how it is tonight?” He pauses, then kisses my cheek.
“Well, Flaca, if you change your mind, you know where I’m at.”
El Coquito is a crusty neighborhood haunt with cracked red pleather stools and grimy windows that open out to the sea. It attracts the drunk, the addicted, and the unlucky.
“What’s up bitch? You’re late!” Perri slurs her words and smiles, patting the seat next to her at the counter. The whites of her eyes are a dusty yellow and an inch of concealer can’t hide the grey blotches above her cheeks. At least she is wearing clean clothes.
We have money and settle in for an evening of “professional” drinking, drinking like it’s our job. We weave on bathroom trips, laugh too loud at jokes, and forge liquid ties with the other drunks. I am guzzling my fourth Cuba libre when gunfire starts and the streets go black. The sound startles me off my bar stool.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“Raid,” says Perri nonchalantly. She sucks hard on the wet end of a Newport. “They shot out the streetlights. Spotters on Norzagaray called it in.”
She exhales, and a long ash drops onto the counter. “Mija, it’s a bitch to chase people in the dark. Nobody gonna stray off the main road now. The cops aren’t trying to die.”
El Coquito’s front doors are propped open with a clear view to the street and Chupi’s house. The bichotes scatter like frightened rats, running in every direction. Unmarked black trucks speed in behind them, vomiting out cops in flak jackets and helmets. Six men with guns drawn form a semicircle at the entrance to Chupi’s. Another bashes at the door with a piece of red metal, and it gives way with groaning cracks and splinters. A confusion of screams and panicked barking follows, then a gunshot, then silence. Sobs alternating with obscenities echo through the streets. Chupi is cursing the cops for killing his dog.
El Coquito’s patrons are stone-eyed, focused on nothing and trying too hard to act uninterested while the jukebox blasts salsa into the night. I can taste the fear.
“Perri, what should we do?”
“Stay here and hope no one besides the dog gets shot tonight.” Perri says this with an indifference so complete, I can barely reconcile the words.
“Well fuck that, I’m here to drink not die.” I stand, cram my hands into my purse, rummaging for bills to close my tab. “Perri, I’m out. There is no way – ”
“Sit the fuck down!” She grabs my arm and slams me back on the bar stool. “You’re going to sit here, drink your rum, and act like you know nothing.” Her voice is a hiss in a whisper. She claws me with her jagged, dirty nails. “Don’t make a scene. Everyone in here has open warrants or drugs on them. ”
“Ow, bitch!” I jerk my arm from her grip as she lets go and stumble, grabbing the bar to steady myself. My fingers curl into a fist of their own volition. I unclench my hand and glare at her, rubbing the reddened crescents on my bicep.
“Mija, don’t fuck around. All three exits are blocked, nobody gets in or out ‘til this shit is done. This raid is complete bullshit, totally illegal.”
“How do you know?”
“Cause the last one was real, and all those bichotes are still locked up.” Perri’s breath is humid with rum against my ear. “Sit down.”
With little hope of ever controlling the flow of drugs onto the island, the cops had long abandoned any pretense of concern for law and order. Busts happened in two stages. The first raid was illegal. They planted drugs on people, violating every conceivable civil right to get an arrest knowing that most of it wouldn’t stick. Next time, they would come with legitimate warrants, and in addition to getting their asses kicked and their houses ripped apart, the bichotes would do real time.
The cops drag five young men from Chupi’s house, their expressions range from terror to defiance. They shove each one face down on to the concrete. Chupi, bare-chested and handcuffed is pushed forward in stagger steps from the house. His back is badly scraped, blood runs from the side of his head, and he is screaming about his dead dog. We make eye contact before the cops force him into the back of a black van. Disavowal – it’s the law of the street, and I stare at my drink racked with guilt. The final arrest is a woman writhing like a scalded cat as she is hauled from the house by two officers. She is crazy high; barefoot and kicking her legs, she refuses to follow their orders. A cop mashes her face on to the asphalt so hard that the force splits her chin open. She howls and is grabbed by the hair and told to shut up. Another officer comes out with several quart size baggies filled with white powder.
A tall, thick-necked cop is watching Perri and I. He zones in on us, eyes squished into his simian face. After readjusting his rifle so it points at the ground, he enters El Coquito. The dozen or so patrons, Perri, and I hold our collective breath as he strides past us in slow motion towards the jukebox. He bends down, and with his head turned to the crowd, yanks the chord from the wall. Silence explodes into the room. I grab my cigarettes. While I fumble with cellophane, I feel him walking towards me.
“Ella no habla español.” Perri shoots warning looks. “Ella es una gringa.” She pauses unconvincingly. “Turista.”
“Gringa, gringa negra.” His laugh is a sandblaster on metal. He doesn’t believe us. “De dónde eres turista?”
I avoid the trap, force my face into a question mark, and turn to Perri for translation. After eight years, I don’t even dream in English. I speak a bastard son’s version of street Spanish heavy on slang without accent. No tourist alive or dead has ever spoken that kind of Spanish.
“Where you from?” Perri translates. A blue vein in her forehead throbs in time with her terror.
“I’m from Michigan.”
The cop shouts, “Don’t bullshit me!”
I am shocked by the abrupt switch to English.
“Why you get up? Where you running to?” Muddy clouds crowd his eyes.
Fear carves my tongue from my skull, and my mouth flaps – a wordless bird unable to take flight.
“Not talking, eh? Stand up.” I push myself slowly away from the bar. As I am rising, a giant hand locks over the spot where Perri clawed me. I yelp and try to pull away.
“Ella es una turista,” Perri shrieks.
“¡Calláte Perri!” He sneers at her, and I watch her face gray as recognition morphs into horror.
“Por favor, Policía Puente,” she gasps. “¡Parrase por favor!”
But he doesn’t stop, and I am bony terror dragged shattering in a bag of flesh. I am half-walking, half-dragged to a shadowed patch of street several yards from where the other arrests are happening. He presses me against the wall, holding my hands behind my back so tight it feels like my arms will pop out of their sockets. He pinches between my legs, and I can smell his sweat as he rubs my breasts.
“¿Qué estás haciendo?” The flat, disapproving voice causes Puente to leap away from me. He stutters, mumbling something about searching me because I was acting suspicious.
I crane my neck over my shoulder to see Puente’s superior looking at me with disgust. “No estamos aquí por eso.”
Puente shoves me forward towards the bar. Choking back tears and vomit, I run into El Coquito. Perri orders a shot for me. I down two more in rapid succession and ask for another. The patrons are stealing glances, but the politics of humiliation and radiant shame prevent them from staring. Rum streaks through me, heats my veins. I drink in greedy gulps, and finally I am numb which is the closest I ever get to happiness. Eugenio, the bartender, pushes our money back at us across the bar.
“You drink free tonight.”
We lock eyes, and I nod. “Gracias.”
My hands tremble as I suck cigarette smoke into my burning throat, and watch the cops leave La Perla like a receding storm.
My first couple of years on the island were a late night hurricane of drugs, clubs, fast cars, and faster men. I became a creature, unrecognizable to myself. A woman who lived in dresses tight as a straightjackets and mopped up nosebleeds in bar bathrooms, a haggard riot of a woman staggering towards destruction. One morning, a face etched in grey glared back at me in the mirror. Her nostrils were chapped, last night’s leftovers smeared in mascara and morning breath. That single, revelatory moment of self-loathing changed everything. I quit bartending at La Concha and left life on the Condado tourist strip for a dialed down version of my madness.
I took a shit job at one of Old San Juan’s tacky trinket shops. I spent a year selling ugly t-shirts and bright green, breakable frogs to sunburned Midwesterners. Just as the pointlessness of life was about to break me again, the bartender at El Batey, an ex-pat pub, got me a copy editing gig at the San Juan Sun, the island’s English language newspaper. That’s where I met Dominique, a Moroccan journalist with a tantalizing, ambiguous past. She worked the police beat and moved effortlessly in the twilight between underworld and law enforcement.
“I’m telling you, mija, the raid is a big one.” Dominique pulled me aside as we left the Sun. “Whatever you do tonight stay out of La Perla.”
“How big?” I was still horribly rattled by my run-in with Puente.
“It’s called Operation Conquistador. DEA is the lead on some shit that involves police from twenty-five countries. It started ten days ago in Venezuela.”
“How do you know?”
“It will end in about a week,” she said, ignoring my question. “They already hit Panama, Ecuador, and Colombia.”
“I’ve got to tell Perri.”
“¡Bruta! The ghettos in Caracas are on fire. They have arrested hundreds, seized boats, planes, enough fucking drugs to keep everyone on this island high for a year. You need to watch your ass. Perri is a waste of time.”
Perri didn’t have a phone, and not warning her wasn’t an option. She had rescued me when I was wracked with molten fever and alone. I had been in San Juan a little over three months and was so sick with dengue I could barely make it across my studio to feed Peppina, the stray kitten I had adopted. When the fever wouldn’t break, she borrowed a friend’s car and drove me trembling and delirious to Centro Medico where doctors announced that I was days away from death. Over the following month, Perri took care of me, portioning out her food stamps to fill my fridge. I didn’t care that people talked about me because my best friend was junkie. She had saved my life, and I loved her.
Perri came from stateside like me. She had started her tour of the national stripper circuit as a fourteen-year-old runaway in Chicago. I saw a picture of her once from that time. She was achingly beautiful, warm brown face like honey in the sun, black curls melting down her back. Perri was standing next to a bar with a huge smile, arms raised, one hand in a peace sign and a shot in the other. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen. She landed in Puerto Rico at nineteen under circumstances which were never quite clear, chased off the mainland by phantoms of the past, like the rest of us expats.
I met her at La Concha. The money was incredible, and we lived the Caribbean high life together before the cocaine got out of control. I quit. Perri didn’t. In sixteen short months, she had moved from a chic apartment in Hato Rey to a hovel with combative plumbing and cracked windows in the guts of La Perla. The descent was epic, an astonishing death spiral that cost Perri her looks, jobs, lovers, teeth, reputation, and self-respect.
Dominique’s warning haunts me as I hurry into La Perla, into the hot mingle of sewage and salt air trying not to think about Chupi. He’s gone; doing the tail on a weapons charge. I had no idea he was on parole. Images of guns, bleeding dogs, and that fucking prick Puente torment me as I approach the graffiti-streaked wall. Los bichotes from the dirty raid are back at the punto. No one offers me coke. I shudder and avert my eyes. Every last luckless bastard in the punto would be in a jail cell, hospital bed, or dead by morning. Once they were gone, the island would hemorrhage with the blood of survivors jockeying for top distribution spots. The winners would be murdered or arrested in the next round of raids. It would never stop.
I bang hard on the rusty screen door, while a couple of dirty puppies heckle me from the neighboring porch. The blinds are drawn with windows sealed shut in defiance of the stifling heat.
“It’s me, hurry up.” The sounds of metal scraping through metal as the deadbolt slides free followed by the clinking, unlinking of three sets of chains, before a final twist on the knob.
“Damn, Perri, why you locked up so tight?”
Perri sticks her head out and jerks it from side to side in a wild paranoid survey of the street before yanking me in the apartment. Her eyes are large and bright with flabby bags underneath. A film of oily perspiration coats her face, and her lips work feverishly over her few remaining teeth.
“Oh my God Perri it’s too hot for the baby in here!” I shove open the window nearest to eighteen-month-old Claribel’s crib. She lies pale and listless while I pluck a sippy cup from a sink piled with putrid dishes. There is no dish washing liquid so I make due with a tortured blob of soap from the bathroom. I am washing the cup when I notice long sheets of wrapping paper with a pink and gold fleur-de-lis pattern on the table. “What is all that for?”
“Heroin foils! For what?”
“I’m cutting it down for one of the bichotes?”
“Perri, are you fucking crazy?” I am not morally outraged. I am terrified, terrified of the Puentes of the world and last chance prison sentences. Everyone here has a hustle, street gambling, packaging drugs on the never-ending narcotics assembly line, turning tricks, or spotting cops for dealers. Survival and virtue swear an uneasy peace in la Perla.
“We’re broke.” Perri gives Claribel a furtive glance as her little pink fist rises up to take the cup from me.
“Where is Luz? You gotta get this shit out of here now! They’re going to raid.”
“Keep your voice down!” Perri runs to a window, and pulls slats from the blinds apart and runs back to me. “I don’t know. She’s been gone a couple days.”
Claribel’s mother, Luz, is a career prostitute with a wicked heroin habit who disappears for days at a time. She is just as likely to return with a wad of cash as with a black eye and one shoe.
“What raid?” Perri tugs aside the dirty curtain on the window nearest for a quick look outside.
“It’s international. The Moroccan chick who works the police beat told me. That’s why I came down here. Get rid of that shit, and bring Claribel to my house now.”
“I have to finish cutting the foils so I can get cash for diapers and formula.” Her round face is sweaty and blue veins in her forehead pulse ominously. “I gotta tell-”
I grab her shoulders and shake her hard. “You gotta stop jamming that shit up your nose for five minutes and snap out of it. This is the blow back on that fake raid.”
“Okay, okay.” She twists from my grasp, and wipes her forehead with the edge of her dirty t-shirt. “Can you take Claribel?”
“Perri,” I close the distance between us, and lay my hands on her shoulders. “I am scared to fucking death of these island cops. I can’t stay down here one more minute.” My voice catches as I move towards the door. “I can’t.”
“What if Luz comes back?”
“Fuck Luz, she can’t come. She’s a thief, and I’m not going to watch my shit all night.”
“Okay, okay.” Perri is a jittery mix of coked up and spaced out, nodding her head spastically and wringing her hands. “Okay.”
“Don’t tell anybody anything!” I am halfway out the door and look her hard in the eyes one last time. “I’ll run to Pharmacia Luma and get diapers and formula. Grab the baby, and go up to the Old City. It’s six-thirty now. Meet me in twenty minutes on the benches in front of the callejón. Leave now, Perri. Don’t fuck this up.”
I flee La Perla through the side entrance, running past a cracked basketball court with rusted rims and shredded nets. Puente, gunshots, and dead animals dog my heels. Blood pounds in my ears, and with a black wind blowing at my back, I know I have made a terrible mistake.
Dusk is when day commits suicide, and a hammered orange sun drowns itself in the black waves behind El Morro. I stare at La Casa de Los Peluches from the benches in front of the nameless bar in the callejón so I can pivot my gaze between the main road leading into La Perla and the side exit near the basketball court. La Casa is a dingy, towering ruin of a building. Its grungy, piss-yellow paint job frames cracked glass and knocked out windows. Hundreds of filthy stuffed animals with stretched necks dangle from the walls for four stories. The surrealist gallows is an ugly cousin next to carefully tended Spanish-style villas with festive colors.
It is 7:45 and there is no sign of Perri and Claribel. I am in pitched battle with surges of panic so intense that no amount of liquor can dilute them. The diapers and formula are in a plastic bag next to me on a bench.
“Hola, Flaca,” says El Viejo.
“Hola.” Perri introduced me to El Viejo years ago, and he started everyone calling me Flaca. I can never remember his name so I call him El Viejo.
“Have you seen Perri?”
He shakes his head. “Not for many days.”
“She’s late to meet me.”
Silence rests between us, and the thinning crowd evaporates as darkness descends on Old San Juan. The callejón opens onto a courtyard lit by strings of colored Christmas lights that mix with the streetlight’s incandescent haze. The glow plays an eerie game off the stuffed toys on La Casa de los Peluches, and hundreds of dead eyes scrutinize my misery. I am alone on an outer planet with the handles of a white plastic bag wadded in my hand.
El Viejo wags his crooked finger. “The killing is going to start again.” He is a slight man with sparse gray hair. His stained guayabera is too large and exaggerates the thinness of his arms. Tonight, he is beyond drunk and sways like a reed in the breeze on the bench beside me, sucking on his beer and smacking his lips with satisfaction around three or four teeth. He leans in with conspiratorial closeness.
“The killing start with the son of one friend, his name was Heriberto. Then, Rosario, her son die too with the drug wars.” In thickly accented English, El Viejo delivers a rambling obituary of those who died in La Perla this summer, why they were killed, and who they left behind. Last night’s shooting left Marisol a single mother and a widow at seventeen. The raids have fueled waves of violence so savage that even those of us live on the blade’s edge of Puerto Rico’s underworld are shocked to exhaustion.
Someone slides coins into the jukebox. Piano, conga, and trombones slice through the dense heat. Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon’s gritty paean to San Juan street life, “Calle Luna Calle Sol” comes on. I had always liked the fact that my little apartment was on a street so infamous it had been immortalized in song, but I had never really listened to the words. Tonight I hear the music for what it is, an anthem of poverty, violence, and despair. My cell phone says 9:30.
“They going to kill again. Nothin’ nobody can do to stop it, nothin’. El Viejo snaps his neck around, searing me with bloodshot eyes. “Flaca, you go to home.”
“I’m waiting for Perri and Claribel.”
“Not to Luna Street, back stateside where you come from.” He nods his head, agreeing with himself.
“Why?” I say failing to control the defensive edge to my question.
“Because Puerto Rico not good for you anymore. This bad place for you. Too much trouble coming.”
“I’ll think about it,” I say in a tone that suggests I will not think about it. He’s right, and we both know it. What Puente did to me in the raid is all over the Old City. Some say I promised to snitch, and that’s why he let me go. Others say I was lucky not to have been beaten or killed for trying to leave in the middle of a bust. Still others understood that it was just another day in the life of an outlaw whose road dogs are hustlers, street rats, and addicts. It is 9:35, and for me, Puerto Rico is a trip hurtling towards hard ground.
Several more minutes pass by in silence before the column of black trucks and cars roll down Calle Norzagary. A volley of gunshots and lights in La Perla go black. Then the screaming starts. I drop my head on to the table and everything runs clear. Perri wasn’t cutting foils for cash, it was to trade out for coke. Any intention to save herself or Claribel is a bloated corpse floating in her addiction. What the fuck do I do? Inside my head I hear Perri saying, “You’re going to sit here, drink your rum, and act like you know nothing.”
“San Juan gonna break your heart, Flaca,” says El Viejo’s. “Go back home, to your people.”
“What home? What people?” I yell and jerk my hand which is tangled in the white plastic handles. The movement sends diapers and formula spilling across concrete. A passerby kneels to help me. I mumble my thanks and return to the bench next to El Viejo.
I stay on the benches long after El Viejo has left. Sit in front of the callejón watching the clouds roll over the endless sea and El Morro. More screams. More gunshots. A few minutes later two ambulances with their sirens blasting fly down Norzagary into La Perla. At 12:30 in the morning the last van leaves, prisoners obscured by tinted windows. I dash down the steps near the basketball court through and bang on Perri’s door.
I bang a few more times before trying the handle. It is open. I flick on the light, and a dozen cockroaches skitter across the floor. Her cheap furniture has been tossed about the room. Every cupboard door is pulled open. Drawers are dumped upside down, contents strewn on the dirty kitchen floor. I am suffocated by the simultaneous urge to scream, vomit, and pass out.
“San Juan gonna break your heart.”
The same scene is repeated in the cramped bedroom – cockroaches and destruction. I run out into the street like an uncaged animal and almost crash into El Viejo.
“Perri’s gone.” My voice crackles with hysteria. “The place is a mess. Do you know what happened?”
“Perri go to jail. One of the bichotes use her house to keep the droga. The police find it, and take them all away.”
“How much did they find?”
“Kilos? Did you say fucking kilos?”
“The neighbor say that to me.”
“What about Claribel?”
“Nobody can find Luz so the police take Claribel away.”
“I don’t know … to the orphanage maybe.”
The guilt I have been trying to stave off knocks me to my knees.
“This place like poison for you.” He places his hand on my shoulder. “Nothin’ but heartbreak on this island. Flaca, you go home now.”
I nod my head, and for a moment I stay on my knees in a ditch of familiar darkness. El Viejo wanders off, but I can’t bring myself to leave. I wind my way down stone steps leading to a tortured cut of coastline littered with trash and rocks. The sea beckons me in undulating swathes of black and gray. I step towards the water and fling the diapers and formula into the ocean with such force that something tears in my shoulder. The sound of the surf drowns my sobs. All of my people are dead or in jail.
Claribel. I recall her damp face and distant mahogany eyes as she lifts her fist to grab the sippy cup from me. Luz has six children by five different men, and after ransacking La Perla for information, I finally get the right last name for Claribel and call child welfare. I lie
and say I am family. The caseworker questions me, and it becomes clear that I am lying.
“Lo siento, it is against the law to give out any information about any child unless you have a signed release or are a family member.”
I beg until, irritated by my pleading, she hangs up on me. I call back, and the phone goes straight to voicemail. I dial and leave increasingly desperate messages until impotence and fury collide. By some miracle the cell phone doesn’t shatter when I slam it to the ground.
I go to see Perri at the Río Piedras Women’s Prison before I leave the island, but her visits have been suspended indefinitely for fighting. Perri is facing twenty-five years to life for possession of six kilos of heroin with intent to distribute. I promise myself I’ll write, but I know I won’t. Street love is real love but it’s woven with thin thread. People vanish, and their absence makes me wonder if they were real or figments from a darkly lit dream.
Memories of the last eight years unpack themselves against my will in the Luis Muñoz Marín Airport. I flash back to my arrival as a young woman clothed in a chrysalis of optimism and imagination. In eight years, I have aged in ways that no one should grow old. I am a caged bird with broken wings. I have two suitcases and a backpack. I abandoned most of my belongings and gave Peppina to El Viejo. I didn’t say goodbye or quit my job. I vanished, half human without breath or substance.
I approach the ticket counter and the red-lipped smile of a thin woman. I hand her my ticket to Michigan. Dread uncoils in my chest as she starts to type on her computer.
“Wait.” Her smile sags into annoyance as she eyes the growing line of passengers behind me.
“Do I need a visa to go to Curacao?”
“Do you have an American passport?”
“Yes, and I’d like to buy a ticket.”
“No you don’t need a visa. When would you like to book your flight for?”
“Now, now,” I stammer. “Later on today. I want to change my destination from Michigan to … Curaçao. Is there a flight tonight?”
She gives me an odd look and starts typing on her keyboard. “Round trip?”
One tear leaks from the ocean, and she looks up in time to see me wipe it away. “One way please.”
Something softens in her eyes, and she says, “You need a round trip ticket to enter the island.”
“What about the Dominican Republic?”
“You just need a tourist card.”
I am in the airport lounge with a ticket to the Dominican Republic in hand and three hours to kill. I order Cuba libres, chain smoke, and stare at neon signs advertising Medalla and Heineken. I assess the other patrons as too frightened or too alcoholic to make it through the plane trip without a drink. I am both and down the liquor until memories surface like bodies bobbing in the waves off La Perla.
I am blood deep into the last eight years, remembering Condado club life, being in Chupi’s bed naked and boiling in yellow sunlight, drunken throngs partying on Calle San Sebastian. I am roaming the blue cobblestones of the Old City with Perri, in Plaza de Armas drinking the best damn coffee in the Caribbean. The airport clock ticks, and I decorate my little apartment on Calle Luna in between drowning mouthfuls of Bacardi and coke, then rescue tiny Peppina, furless and riddled with fleas. Claribel sweltering in her crib.
The shame of Claribel rouses me like a sleepwalker. I check my watch and stagger alone through the crowds, families, businessmen, and honeymooning couples towards my gate. I press into line with the other passengers, and after the crush and jostle of seat selection, mash my backpack into the overhead compartment, and immediately fall asleep.
Perri is on her knees, fingers interlaced on the back of her head while Officer Puente stands over her. El Viejo is standing next to me. He whispers the last line from “Calle Luna Calle Sol,” “Tell them La Perla left you bare.” The sentence ends with a gunshot, and Perri falls face forward on to the ground.
I wake in a sweaty fog, and my stomach lurches as the plane shifts into descent. I jerk my head from side to side, surveying the cabin like startled prey. Trapped in the nightmare’s afterglow, my fingers are half-curled into fist. The young woman across the aisle is staring at me in alarm and wants to know if I am okay. She is blond with pale, poreless skin. I insist that I am okay, and she stares at me with disbelief before turning back to her bridal magazine.
We are minutes from Boca Chica, and the change in pressure as we slope downward becomes a knife in my ears. I writhe in my seat, and just when the stabbing sensation has crescendoed to the point that I am ready to jam a sharpened pencil in my head, we touch ground in Las Americas International Airport. I blink into the sunlight and palm trees as the plane jerks forward, brakes howling.
Yma Johnson is a first generation Sierra Leonean immigrant who began her writing career in 1996 as a journalist in Puerto Rico. She has written articles on topics ranging from the criminalization of the mentally ill to Japanese swordsmanship. She is a master’s candidate in creative writing at Eastern Michigan University where she taught rhetoric and composition. She also taught poetry at a women’s prison. Yma won 1st place in the 2012 Current Magazine Fiction and Poetry Contest as well as an honorable mention from 2014 Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in the St. Petersburg Review, and she has a short story forthcoming in the Encyclopedia Project, an anthology of experimental literature. Yma currently works as grants director for a nonprofit agency dedicated to protecting the environment.