The Boat From Vieques
It had rained the night before and the smell of wet pavement came with the morning sun. December in the Caribbean felt like summer in New England. Thoughts of Rhode Island beaches, outdoor meals, and baseball on the radio seemed both out of place and in-season at the same time.
The pair of Swedes I’d met at breakfast were tall and blonde and wide in the shoulders. One of them spoke as though someone had died.
“Yep,” he said with a deep exhale, as he set down a cup of mango juice on the glass tabletop. “We’ve been in Puerto Rico for two weeks, but today we fly back to Stockholm. It was a good trip, but I guess it’s time to get back to the real world.”
His tone reminded me of a mother speaking to her children on a snow day, when late afternoon becomes a school night.
“Well,” I said with a smile. “Then fuck Stockholm.” And we all laughed.
When breakfast was over the three of us walked toward the dock and waited in line to buy tickets.
On the boat back to mainland Puerto Rico, I stood on the top deck and stared at the chopping ocean and the fading island of Vieques.
A man in his 20s leaned on the rail beside me, but something made him look like a boy. His head was thin and his narrow body was surrounded by baggy clothes.
His arms were fully extended and they rested on the railing while his head sagged between them. He looked like a man fighting seasickness or a father leaning on the outfield fence after his son struck out to end the game.
The glare off the ocean accompanied his scowl as he whispered to himself and shook his head. I could only see these things when the boat rocked and his neck rose above his arms.
His shirt was partially unbuttoned, revealing his bony chest, and he smelled like my grandfather used to after a summer day in the farm.
Beyond him, the tiny island of Vieques had lost its detail and become a thin line of green in the afternoon haze. In the other direction, the mountains of eastern Puerto Rico were growing by the moment and absorbing the hot winter sun.
Then he lifted his head and spoke in a voice so low I could barely hear it over the motor.
“I don’t know, man.”
For a moment I didn’t respond, but then I realized we were the only two passengers on that side of the deck.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
Without repositioning his body, he spoke again. “I’ve never felt worse. The bottom has dropped out, and I don’t know what to do next.”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. I think I’ll fly to Saint Thomas this weekend, but I don’t know what I’ll do when I get there. I just spent a month on Vieques working in a kitchen. It sucked. They treat workers like shit out here, man.”
A sheen of sweat had formed on his arms and forehead, and a group of freckles made his face look pasty in the harsh sunlight.
“Things will change when you get to Saint Thomas,” I said.
He laughed. “I don’t see why that would be the case. Everything I do right now turns to shit. I haven’t slept well in weeks, the drinking water out here sucks, same with the food. I’m just tired of everything, man.”
“When was the last time you felt good?”
“Pshh…it’s been years, man.” Then he paused and I watched him think.
“It’s been years since things were breaking my way.” Now his elbows leaned on the railing and both hands clasped his forehead.
“There was a time when I had money and I had girls, but then it all stopped.”
He paused for a while, and I spoke. “Hey, dude. We all go through tough times, but look at the two of us right now. The sun is shining, and we’re on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean. Let’s enjoy it while we’re here.”
“See,” he said. “I don’t look at it that way. I believe everything we do has consequences. I believe in the soul and I believe in eternity.”
I responded right away.
“We control our lives, no one else. Why can’t you take control and turn things around?”
Now there was passion in my tone, and I began to feel attached to the conversation.
“You don’t get it!” he said, facing me for the first time.
“I have nothing! My family is a bunch of addicts living back in the States. Part of the reason I’m out here is to get away from them. I have no friends, no girl, no money, and I own nothing!”
As he finished shouting, he straightened his body and pointed toward a plastic bag beside his feet. Inside I could see a dirty windbreaker and a jar of peanut butter.
Pity now joined the passion that had been building inside me.
“Ok,” I said. “Well, what do you like to do?”
He reached down into the plastic bag and pulled out a small book with a soft brown cover.
“I like to write,” he said, holding up the book in his left hand. “These are my poems. I created all the artwork that goes with it, and the book is bound with bamboo. I made it by hand. This is my last copy.”
“What’s it about?”
He laughed again. “That’s the thing,” he said. “It’s about believing in yourself. It’s about anything being possible. It’s about dreams coming true.”
“I’d like to read it,” I told him.
“Pshh…go ahead, man,” and he flipped the book toward me.
By now the boat had reached the port at Fajardo and people were shuffling toward the exits.
“Hey,” I said, looking up from the book cover. “What’s your name?”
“Hey, Nate. I’m Colin. I met a couple of Swedish guys this morning in Vieques. Do you want to ride with us back to San Juan?”
“Why not,” he said, staring at the deck of the boat.
Out on the street, the taxi driver told us it would cost $80 to reach the capital.
The Swedes agreed to kick in $20 each, but Nate said he could only spare ten. I told him I’d pick up the difference.
As the four of us climbed into the SUV, I opened Nate’s book and began to read.
The poems were printed in thick black cursive. This is an excerpt from the first one:
There was rust in the fields where the children played, but they remained and they played the way children do. There was something they knew would take them away and it stayed with the children until they each cut a way.
Then I looked up at Nate. He was sitting across from me in the back seat of the SUV. His crew cut was tight around the top of his freckled forehead, and the collar of his red and brown shirt moved in the air that rushed through the cracked window. He was staring at the green mountains as they moved slowly toward the east.
When we arrived in San Juan, the Swedes kicked in their $20 each, Nate handed me a $10 bill, and I paid the rest of the tab out of my pocket.
We were right in the middle of the town square in Old San Juan, and I asked Nate where he was sleeping that night.
“I think I’ll just rent a hammock,” he said. “They have ’em for $5, and you can hang ’em up on the beach.”
Noticing a hotel on the street corner, I said, “I’m going to check the price of a room. Either way, I’ll meet you back here in a minute.”
As I turned to grab my bag out of the SUV and head toward the hotel, I heard Nate speak to the cab driver.
“Hey, man. You know where I can pick up some weed around here?”
As I walked away, I watched the driver reach into his pocket and pull out a small bag. Then Nate handed him a $20 bill.
After speaking with the hotel receptionist, I turned around and the two Swedes from earlier were standing right there, staring at me with wide eyes.
The one who’d done most of the talking that morning grabbed me by the arm and spoke eagerly.
“Hey, we were on the beach last night in Vieques and there was a big fight. There must have been 20 guys in on it.” His blonde hair had fallen below his eyebrows, and he took a quick look around the hotel lobby as his voice became a whisper.
“I’m pretty sure that kid Nate was right in the middle of it. I saw him crack one of the guys in the head with brass knuckles. I’m almost positive it was him.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Then I walked back through the hotel doors and toward the town square.
As I crossed the street, I saw two cop cars parked where the driver had dropped us off.
Nate was in handcuffs, facedown on the curb, screaming at the officers who surrounded him.