A LIFE-CHANGING TRIP
Things have been different, at the same time exciting and sad, since the day the package with the airline tickets arrived. From the very moment in which Ma sat Leo, José and me down in front of her in the living room, showed us the airline tickets, and explained to us that we would be leaving for New York City forever, my brother José and I have let our imaginations run wild, trying to imagine what it will be like living in a place filled with buildings and where everyone speaks English!
As if that weren’t exciting enough, there’s that trip in an airplane! The only vehicle we’ve ever been in has been a car, and only a few times at that. As for destinations, the farthest from home we’ve been has been Ponce. We’ve never been to San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, and now, when we finally get to travel there, it’s to leave our island altogether. Still, José and I are so excited…!
But I’ve noticed that Ma and grandma are not as excited about the trip as José and I are. As a matter of fact, lately I often see them huddled together talking quietly, and sometimes they both cry…. From the bits and pieces of conversation that I’ve picked up, I gather that my mother and father wanted Grandmother Paula to accompany us to New York as well, but she has refused. She argues that she has no business in New York, that if she goes, she’ll only be an obstacle for us, and that she’s fine right where she is, in El Coquí, where she knows everyone and everyone knows her. I can’t imagine living away from Grandma Paula, but given that she refuses to travel to New York with us, I’ll have to get used to the idea.
Ma wakes us up at four o’clock in the morning. Then, she bathes José and Leo in the washtub placed temporarily in the kitchen. I bathe myself. After that, we have hot cereal for breakfast, and we go back to our bedroom to dress in the new outfits that Ma has bought for our trip. The starched shirt and the ironed pants that I put on are itchy. In a corner of the living room, by the door, are our three large suitcases, lined up like sentries.
There’s the honking of a car horn outside, a gypsy-cab driver comes for our luggage and places it in the trunk of his vehicle, there’s a tearful goodbye between my mother and my grandmother, and before I know it, we’re driving away from El Coquí, headed for the high mountains that have always acted as a sort of picture frame for my world.
In total darkness, we take the road leading to those mountains, across which will lie San Juan and then the airport. The car driver turns on the radio, and for a little while, we listen to the le-lo-lai tunes of Puerto Rican country music. Then, the driver turns off the music as he maneuvers the hairpin turns of Puerto Rico highway number one, known as la piquiña (“the mountainous one,” in Spanish). Little Leo is asleep on my mother’s lap, she herself is crying softly into a handkerchief, and José and I each stare out a separate side window. Given the earliness of the morning and the height at which we find ourselves, it must be chilly outside, but the inside of the car is warm. I notice that the air in the cabin of the vehicle is filled with the fragrance of Evening in Paris, the perfume that my mother is wearing.
Many years later, while studying in France, one day, as I was going down the stairs of the Paris Métro, a woman wearing that same fragrance passed by me, and suddenly I was a little boy again, inside a darkened car winding its way through the Puerto Rican mountains, headed for an unknown destination. At that moment, standing there on the stairs of the Parisian Métro, with people scurrying around me, I fully understood what the early twentieth century French writer Marcel Proust meant by “involuntary memory” in his novel In Search of Lost Time.
The adult protagonist of that novel dunks a petite Madeleine muffin in his tea, and the flavor immediately transports him back in time to a moment in his childhood when, as a sickly little boy, he did the same thing. As an adult, and as a writer trying to reconstruct the story of his life, that protagonists realizes that one can evoke the past voluntarily, or that the past can come flooding back into one’s memory when one perceives a scent or a taste reminiscent of a significant moment in one’s history. That sudden and very vivid recollection brought on by olfactory or gustatory stimuli is what Proust dubbed “involuntary memory.” And, just as the protagonist of In Search of Lost Time was taken back in time by the taste of his petite Madeleine dunked in tea so, too, was I transported back to my childhood by the scent of Evening in Paris.
I don’t remember reaching San Juan, or anything about the Isla Verde airport, but I do remember walking across the tarmac to a waiting DC-3, four propeller, Pan American World Airways airplane, and ascending a stairway to the interior of the aircraft. I also remember that all the stewardesses were blonde, blue-eyed American women who seemed to be models, and that none really spoke Spanish. The rest is a jumble of fractured images and sensations in my mind.
There are the constant, sudden, dips and rises as the airplane crosses hot and cold currents of air… and the very scary sudden dips as the airplane tosses and turns in the air turbulence it encounters… and along with the sudden dips, the queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach… “Excuse me, Miss, could you please clean this up? My little boy has vomited!… They’re called what? Barf bags? Yes, I understand. When one is finished, one just closes it up and leaves it in the aisle…
¿Key-ai-ress una almo-haba? What in the world is the blonde, magazine-model stewardess offering me? Almojábanas? Those round little fried donuts? God, no! Fried dough is the last thing I want right now. I think I’m going to…. Miss, I didn’t understand you when you were offering pillows. I thought you said almojábanas. It’s too bad you don’t have any more pillows left. I could sure use one now… Hey, José! Did you get one, too? This is some weird snack. Did you ever see bread like this, man?… It doesn’t look anything like the pan sobao we have at home for breakfast! All thin and soft… Oh, my God! Here comes another sudden drop!… Hey, brother, what a terrible stench there is on this plane, what with everybody throwing up and all!… Hey, José! Just look out your window! Now, man! Those are lights down there! Yeah, they are really small. I’ve never seen so many in my life! That must be New York!”
Our arrival at Idlewild Airport, in New York City, is a blur in my memory. I know that my father picked us up, and that we took a taxi cab to his mother’s house. The apartment in which we would live was right upstairs from Grandma Leopolda’s.
I shall never forget the checkered cab that whisked us through strange, brightly-lit streets, the neon lights, the rumble of a train that traveled on tracks above our heads (the elevated), the sign on the side of the cab with the strange word “LOMTO” (later, I learned that it stood for “League of Mutual Taxi Owners”), and the fact that, since I was still dizzy from the plane trip, I threw up all over the back seat of the taxi.
A new chapter in my life was just beginning.