Sunday, October 26, 2014

Oceani (Part V of V) by Remy Dou

Oceani - Part V of V

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”  
–C.S. Lewis

“One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”
–G.K. Chesterton

            Sometimes heartbreaks feel like watching someone pass away. An overwhelming sense of never seeing this person again traps you like a fog. You long more strongly for what you can no longer experience: shared laughter, grandiose conversations over coffee, intimate moments in bed, staring into one another’s eyes, adoring the lovable facial imperfections that you’ve memorized like a map. At first you pretend the whole thing is a bad joke, that soon someone will jump out from behind a wall and tell you it was all a prank, that love persists. When that doesn’t happen anger consumes you like a fire until you break and find yourself pleading with God, bargaining for an opportunity to retrieve whom you lost. Then, depression rolls over you like a boulder.
I woke up from that depression at Pasa en el Sol, under the cover of the Jardín and the company of my new family. Having preoccupied myself with the Jardín and the lives of my friends, Milly and Pito, I slowly came to realize I had grown happy. The scars healed and the inflamed wounds subsided. Then I sensed love sprout, like the first leaves of a coffee plant, after years of battling my anger and sadness. Renault’s pain drew me in and I felt like a gardener all over again. Only this time, I pruned with my words, my time, and my affections. I listened and I pruned, and in the most clichéd of ways, our love bloomed. The man I detested grew on me.
 And yet, I lay that night on my bed, holding a pillow to my chest, thinking of seeing Mauricio again. Renault’s words echoed in the chambers of my thoughts: “Mauricio called. He’s in a hospital in Venezuela. He wants you to go see him.” The mixture of emotions that ran through me irritated my senses. Like a Newton’s cradle, I vacillated between a state of euphoria at the idea of seeing Mauricio again and sickening guilt every time Ranault’s face interrupted my imagination.
Only for a moment did I consider not seeing Mauricio. The little part of me that still remembered the anger and pain he caused coiled up, striking my conscience, poisoning me with the suggestion that he did not deserve my efforts after all these years. Yet, I couldn’t fool myself for long. One minute I bordered on deciding not to fly over to Venzuela and the next minute I daydreamed about walking into Mauricio’s hospital room and noticing for the first time what he looked like as a grown man. That’s when I knew I would go see him, but I grew anxious of Renault’s impending reaction.

“How are you doing?” said Renault, leaning against the doorframe of my bedroom as he had done dozens of times the year he returned from Belgium. I could tell he had more on his mind than simply wondering how I felt.
“I’m alright.” I thought about saying more, but I quickly grew tired of calculating my words.
“So, are you going to go?”
His words came out laden with fear and jealousy. At least he got straight to the point.
“I have to,” I said, knowing what I meant, but also knowing Renault wouldn’t.
“Okay, I’ll go with you,” he said tersely.
“No, you’re not going with me.” I wanted to explain why, but I did not have the emotional strength. I had only just learned Mauricio still existed somewhere out in the world.
“You made that decision without talking to me?” said Renault.
I knew the source of his fear. The irony did not escape me. His Belgian girlfriend ended their engagement because of the return of her former love. Now, after working so hard to overturn the hurt, Renault faced the same possibility. Honestly, I could not know how I would react to seeing Mauricio, especially not at that moment.
“I have a lot on my mind, Renault. I care about you; I just need some time to think and put my thoughts together.”
He stared at me from the doorway. His brow twitched as he wondered what to say until finally he turned around and walked away, leaving a curtain of silence between us.

The silence pervaded the entire house. Soon, everyone knew of Mauricio’s phone call and his request to see me. Milly did not know what to say. Manon looked at me like I was a house of cards teetering on the brink of collapse. Pito conveniently extended his European business trip. Everyone went through the motions, sticking to the routines they had grown accustomed to. They rode on the worn grooves of life like a horse and buggy on a muddy path.
Sometimes I wrestled with my thoughts, but other times I still felt the freedom I discovered at Pasa en el Sol. Rather than a dream deferred, I felt mature, as if the plumpness of youth had evaporated to leave behind the concentrated essence of who I was—that which would preserve much longer. My conscience strengthened its resolve to see the man I once loved. I no longer believed in fairytales like I used to, but I cared about Mauricio nonetheless. Whether or not the possibility of a romantic reunion even existed, he lay on a hospital bed and deserved the company of those that care for him. Unfortunately, as my departure approached, Renault became nearly unbearable.

The day before my trip he stopped me halfway up the staircase that led to my bedroom.
“Sammy,” said Renault.
“What do you want?” I replied drily.
He hesitated, scrunching his forehead as if searching for the right words. “I’ve been thinking,” he began, “and I want to let you know that it’s okay. You can go see Mauricio. You have my permission. And if it’s meant to be between us, then I know you’ll come back to me.”
“I don’t need your permission, Renault,” I said. “Honestly, I’ve struggled with this decision. I don’t want to hurt you; believe me. But don’t come here pretending you’re making some great sacrifice for me. You’re still very much thinking about yourself.”
“And you’re not?” he fired back. “I honestly thought you and I were starting something.”
“We were! I just wasn’t expecting to be in this situation and I need to deal with this before I can think about anything else. There’s no way I can live a normal life if I decide not to go.”
“Who’s being the selfish one, now?” he spat.
I glared at Renault and then turned around, quickly reaching the top of the stairs.
“Wait,” he said, calling out to me. “I’m sorry. You know how I feel right now, Sammy. It doesn’t take a genius to see I’m scared of losing you.”
“My feelings for you may have changed this past year and maybe they have for Mauricio, too, but this feels like someone I loved died and came back from the dead. I have to see him, Renault, and I have to do it alone.”
Renault nodded. After a few moments, he walked up, embraced me, and wished me a goodnight. Defeated, he returned downstairs. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to pity him or if he simply decided to stop fighting—maybe both.

I stood trembling before the entrance to Hospital Dr. José María Vargas in Venezuela, fighting anxiety and fatigue. I tried to sleep on the flight there, but I couldn’t. Other than the fact that I had been on a plane just once before, I kept rehearsing in my head what the reunion would be like. I was glad to have travelled alone. I would not have done well with distractions, and now I felt I knew how I would react to seeing Mauricio, but my nerves still jittered.
The taxi cab driver placed my bag on the floor beside me and drove away. The time to see him had come.  A young nurse held the door open for me as I approached the building. I nodded and said thank you. She smiled and looked down at my luggage. I could not imagine what she must have thought of me, having arrived there directly from the airport without stopping to change or put away my bags. At the moment, I didn’t care to think of it.
I walked directly to the information booth and asked for directions to the long-term care ward. The receptionist pointed me upstairs. I took the elevator and watched the needle inch its way up to the fourth floor. My hands shook so I tightened my grip on the bag. Air came into my lungs in shallow packets that left me slightly dizzy. Placing a cold clammy hand on my chest, I closed my eyes in an attempt to relax. In just a few moments I would see the boy that took my breath away that day in the cave when I was just thirteen.
The heels of my shoes clicked on the square tiles of the hospital floor. I looked around hoping for some guidance. Part of me expected to find a sign inscribed with his first name hanging above a doorway. Instead, closed doors greeted me from a hallway stretching out to the right and another to my left. Before me sat another young receptionist eyeing me from behind a desk and eyeing the bag I dragged along.
“May I help you with something?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said in a faint whisper.
She smiled, waiting for me to talk.
“I’m looking for a patient that’s staying here,” I said, giving her Mauricio’s full name.
The receptionist picked up a clipboard and leafed through its bounded documents.
“I don’t see anyone here by that name,” she said. “Hmm, no—no new patients here by that name.”
“Oh no, he’s not a new patient,” I said glad to have understood why she couldn’t find his name.
“Okay, hang on—let me check.”
She picked up another clipboard. Her fingers dexterously flipped through its pages, running down their length as she scanned each one. Something caught her attention for a few seconds. Rather than looking up, she stood and went to another office room. I could hear her speaking to someone else. Their muffled voices traveled over, filling my gut with a sinking feeling. I heard feet shuffling and the sound of a cabinet drawer opening and closing. The receptionist returned holding an envelope in her hand.
“Do you have identification?” she asked. Her voice had dropped an octave.
“Of course,” I said, the feeling in my stomach growing into a storm. “Is Mauricio okay?”
She took my passport.
“Mauricio left you this,” she said, handing me the envelope after reading my name.
“Is he gone?” I asked.
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this…”

Thirty minutes elapsed before I stopped sobbing, some of which took place on the floor in front of the receptionist’s desk. Doctors and nurses dashed over when they heard my cries reverberating through the hallways. They lifted me, placing me on a nearby chair. When they noticed my tears would not subside, they decided to carry me to an empty room where they sat me on a couch. I let the tears and moans pour out of me. In a strange way I felt relief from all external worries. I didn’t care about who was there or where I was. All I wanted to do was cry. All I wanted to do was think about how much I loved Mauricio. All I wanted to do was think about the fact that he was dead and I would never see him again.  Nothing else mattered.
The nurses and doctors spoke to one another, deciding what they might do to comfort me. I heard snippets of their conversation, which gave me the impression that Mauricio’s body remained somewhere in the hospital. More than all the words of condolence, tissues, or glasses of water they offered, that piece of information seemed to penetrate the force field of grief surrounding me. I looked up, my silence grabbing their attention, and asked if I could see him. The looks on their faces suggested I may not be allowed, but my puffy, red, desperate eyes convinced them to make an exception.
His body lay on a metal table in the middle of a brightly lit room in the hospital’s basement. A white sheet covered him from feet to chest, leaving his peace-filled face exposed to the cold air. Rich dark hair fell loosely down the sides of his head, partially covering his ears. Stubble surrounded his colorless lips, darkening his chin. His nose had not changed at all, nor had the high cheekbones that gave him the look of a chiseled man. A faint shadow of creases remained on his forehead; they told the story of a person who had spent a lot of time either thinking or worrying. Though his eyes remained closed, I knew what color lay behind those eyelids. I remembered the gentleness through which he always looked at me.  
I cried again, yet this cry felt different than the first; it felt familiar. The tears fell, but not as hot. They reminded me of tears I had shed many times, long ago. Although the face before me did not appear exactly like what I had imagined, I had seen it before. I had seen it every night I cried myself to sleep at Pasa en el Sol. I saw it in the Jardín when I wanted to escape from the world. I saw it in my secret garden when I wondered whether or not I would ever hold him again. Although I cried that moment over Mauricio’s death, I had mourned him for years before.

Somehow I made the trip to the hotel room. I wanted to open the envelope before then, but I feared falling apart in the middle of that strange city. I still had a hard time believing Mauricio was gone and part of it was a sense that nothing had changed. Dropping on the bed, I let more tears fall and pulled out the handwritten note—Mauricio’s last message to me:

‘Precious Sammy,

I’m terrible at writing letters, and maybe the fact that I only sent you one during the years that we’ve been apart confirms that. But really, I think I didn’t write to you when I first left Cuba because I kept hoping to be reunited with you. Somehow, writing a letter made the distance between us more real. I didn’t want to think of it. Then I heard that my father wasn’t doing well and I knew his life was in danger.  I had to see him one more time, but that meant returning to Cuba and risk being in the same predicament.
I sent you the letters you gave me because they were the things I treasured most on this earth. Like I had written you, if I was imprisoned I wanted those letters to stay safe where I might find them again one day. So, I sent them and as you already know, I went to see my father. What you don’t know is that I was imprisoned. I felt I might never see you again after that. Part of me thought you might come looking for me, but after not hearing from you, I told myself to let you live, holding you only in memory. You deserve happiness. When I was released from prison a year ago I did not want to barge back into your life. But I now feel like that was a mistake. The doctors say I don’t have much time before this disease takes me.
            Oceans have separated us for so long, but I hope I get to see you soon. I still remember what we had and what started long ago in that magical cave. I can’t imagine life has been easy for you. Honestly, I hope you’ve moved on and become happy, but I want to see you. I regret the silence between us. I want you to know that I have not stopped loving you.



I don’t remember when I stopped crying, but by the time I did, night had fallen. I closed my eyes and woke the next morning as the sun peeked over the horizon.  I planned to stay three nights in Venezuela, and I did, barely leaving the room. I finally packed my things and put away Mauricio’s letter, its frayed edges threatening to disintegrate. The time had come to move on.
I slept better on the return flight than I did any other night at the hotel. When I awoke my body felt rested. The plane landed and I hailed a cab, making myself comfortable in the back seat. A three-hour trip still sat between me and Pasa en el Sol. The thought of seeing Milly brightened my countenance. Thinking of her made me think of Ines and Porky and Eduardo, and, of course, Mauricio. I smiled, remembering my fourteenth birthday and the time he kissed Ines. I missed my friends and I missed those times, and I also missed my parents. Fortunately, they had finally received visas to visit Panama.
My life had not turned out the way I expected. Every unforeseen turn I fought with all my strength. Yet, when not consumed by fear or sadness, I could finally say the future did not seem so harsh. I wished with all of my heart that Mauricio was still alive, but I also know what would have happened between us if he were. I sensed this years before my trip to Venezuela. After Mauricio’s call, part of me still wondered whether or not I would return to him. Thinking back to the hospital visit, the answer came to me while trembling, standing before the looming building: though I could still love him, I would not have returned to him. I had already mourned us; I had mourned and buried us in the Jardín.
Perhaps Pasa en el Sol holds new life for me. If that's the case, it would have to wait or sprout wings. Over the past ten years, I turned the estate into one of the country’s most lucrative cocoa and banana plantations. I deserved to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Oceans kept me from those I loved, but they will no longer form walls to keep me away. I will travel over them or cross through them, but I will explore what had been hidden from me. I will visit old friends and laugh with them once again, perhaps even make new ones in the process. I want to see the rest of the world, too, and no longer be the scared little girl focused on just one thing. Renault may want to join me, and I might let him, if he chooses to come. He may wonder whether I would have stayed with Mauricio had he lived; that will be his battle—not mine. Seeing Mauricio confirmed in my heart that our love, though beautiful, existed in the past, and I have finally decided to leave the cave.  

The End. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

400,000 Hours of Practice

This past June I had the satisfaction of holding in my hand a book my friends and I poured many hours into. Imagine taking some of the coolest things you know about a particular field and putting them into a volume that you can share with the world. That's what it felt like to finally have my copy. "Einstein Fellows: Best Practices in STEM Education" began as an idea in the mind of Tim Spuck and some of his colleagues. Tim and the rest of the authors in the book, at one point or another, served as Einstein Fellows--a shortened title for participants in a federal program for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers recognized for their excellence. Einstein Fellows work for a year or two at one of various federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, NASA, and on Capitol Hill, representing the voice of STEM teachers everywhere. 

A group of these K-12 teacher leaders had the great idea of putting into print some of the educator practices that helped them and their students achieve success. From conception to reality, this dream took over three years to manifest. Each author selected a topic of expertise to share with other STEM teachers--everything from the benefits and sources of research experiences for teachers to a historical overview of the STEM education "movement." Having both served at the National Science Foundation in the Advancing Informal STEM Learning program, my colleague, Terrie Rust, and I co-authored a chapter on the potential benefits of informal learning experiences, such as citizen science projects, virtual field trips, and industry visits. 

While working in Washington, D.C. I delved into the world of "gamification." As the book's editors, Tim Spuck and Leigh Jenkins agreed this timely topic would add value to the volume. The more I now listen to STEM education conversations, the more I appreciate having made the decision to write about it. Gamification seems to be a term on many people's minds. The concept involves converting classrooms into a gaming environment. Rather than simply asking kids to play educational video games in class, the course structure itself becomes a game. Students don't receive grades; they level up. They don't take exams; they defeat bosses. Students explore their education as characters in a game with a variety of directions to take, partnerships to form, and challenges to overcome all for the sake of beating the game. I interviewed and wrote about a teacher that fully gamified one of her classrooms and described the endeavors of an entire school that chose to do the same (for more info visit While the idea existed before I came along, I hope to have captured its essence and communicated its precepts in language that STEM educators would relate to. I also shared some of my classroom experiences as a gamifier.

You can watch the speakers of the panel on Innovation in STEM Education at the Woodrow Wilson Center here:
Recently, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars chose to showcase the authors of this book on a talking panel where they shared some of their ideas about the state, challenges, and successes of STEM education. Kent Hughes, the center's former Director of the Program on America and the Global Economy and an avid supporter of effective reform in K-12 STEM education, invited these to share their story. A variety of guests listened to the panel, including public servants and leaders in STEM education from a variety of federal agencies, as well as universities from across the country. Other Einstein Fellows also sat in attendance, sharing their thoughts, as well. Cumulatively, the K-12 STEM teaching experiences represented on the panel added up to over 400,000 hours of practice. In the "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell argues that to become an expert one needs at least ten thousand hours of practice in a particular task or skill set. The excellent teachers featured in "Einstein Fellows: Best Practices in STEM Education" surpass that forty times over, and captured some of that expertise in their respective chapters. This is definitely a volume worth reading particularly for STEM educators and those that educate pre-service teachers...Then again, I might be a bit biased. 

For those interested, you can find the book at

*Note: "Einstein Fellows: Best Practices in STEM Education" is not affiliated with the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator program nor any of the federal agencies in which the authors served.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Oceani (Part IV of V) by Remy Dou

Oceani – Part IV of V

            “Alright, I give up,” yelled Pito, walking through the Jardín, bending down every now and then to peer under the branches of the cocoa trees.
            Hiding from him I could hear nothing except for the faint snapping of twigs, the hurried scatter of lizards, and the soft breeze whispering past us.
            “You can come ou—” said Pito as I gently assaulted him mid-sentence. 
            The rustling leaves absorbed our childish laughter.
“I told you no one could find me here,” I said.
            “I know,” said Pito, trying to hide a smile, “I just wanted an excuse to look for you.”
            “What a charmer!” I said, grinning. “You keep practicing on me like that and you’ll have Milly’s heart in no time.”
            “Now, if only I can find a way to have the both of you,” quipped Pito.
            Sucio!” I yelled, still smiling, shoving him away.
            I couldn’t help but to feel happy. Flirting with Pito beneath the canopy of my favorite trees suddenly reminded me of the abandoned cave at the Cuban National Zoo. Rather than overcoming me with melancholy, the thought satiated my concern.  I could one day be happy, I felt, as I locked steps with him toward the main house.
            I understood the differences between the cave and the tree-canopy. The man-made cave blocked out the light, trapping my focus on the only individual that had stood there with me—Mauricio. The only way out existed through him. The Jardín, though swallowing me whole, offered my feet a million directions, permitting the light of the sun or the stars to coyly guide me. More strikingly, the cave held the one man that would always have my heart, while Pito simply existed as a friend.
            “Renault’s supposed to arrive tomorrow,” said Pito as we passed the last banana tree in the grove.
            “You still haven’t told anyone?” I asked.
            “No—he told me not to.”
            “I guess things didn’t turn out so well with the Belgian girl.”
            “I guess not,” said Pito. “But maybe they had gotten engaged too quickly.”
            The words sounded foreign coming from the man who had met me on a Monday and married me the following Tuesday. Back then I wanted nothing to do with him. In fact, for the past seven years I wanted nothing to do with anyone. While the thought of moving on terrified me, I now entertained the idea of meeting other people. Without knowing, Pito helped me get there.

            The following day I tackled a variety of minor chores in an attempt to belay my anticipation of Renault’s arrival. Curiosity had gotten the best of me. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to hear about the mysterious Belgian girl that so quickly snatched his heart. Yet, something unsettled me. I felt deep down in my heart a more sinister reason fed my suspense. Work helped me ignore that feeling.
With my room tended, the garden in array, and Milly busy working in the kitchen, I could do nothing else other than follow my thoughts. I kept looking out of windows toward the main road hoping to catch the rising dust that preceded the arrival of visitors. With no one and nothing to distract me, I made up my mind to understand my eagerness. Laying in bed the answer slowly appeared.
The real reason I wanted to see Renault was to take pleasure in the heartbreak on his face. For his filth and lasciviousness—the way he treated the women he courted—he deserved nothing less than having someone return the favor. A sense of guilt settled over me. Rejoicing in someone else’s misfortune never brought me real satisfaction, but this time I thought it might.
            For three days I hoped to catch sight of Renault. He did not appear at any of the family gatherings. When curiosity assaulted me, I let my feet carry me over to his bedroom chamber. The locked double doors barred my entry. Putting my ear to the stained wood, I strained to hear the sound of feet shuffling or a man sleeping—nothing. No one seemed to have gone into or come out of that room. Milly asked some of the servants, but none new anymore than I did about Renault’t whereabouts.
            That night, I fled to the Jardín. Manon did not like me outside after dark, especially without Pito or Milly around, so I snuck out my window. The humid Panamanian night clung to me like wet paper. I was glad to have been wearing a thin nightgown. I sauntered over to my favorite nook—a hidden flower garden I had secretly planted. There, lying on a bench, I thought of life in this town, my parents, Ines, and, of course, Mauricio.
            A rustle and the appearance of a dark figure caused me to jump. I nearly fell over, but managed to stand, wrapping my arms around my thinly veiled body.
            “Samantha?” said a familiar voice. The sound of my full name immediately took me back to the Malecon, near Morro Castle, where Mauricio first asked me to be his girlfriend.
            “Mauricio?” I said.
            “You still haven’t gotten over him, huh? That doesn’t give me much hope.”
            “Renault?” I said, finally recognizing the man in front of me.
            “Yes—I didn’t mean to scare you.”
            “What are you doing here? I haven't seen you in the house. I wasn’t even sure you returned.”
            “Pito has been a good cousin,” he said.
            “Why don’t you just tell the family you’re home?” I asked.        
            “Ah, don’t worry about it. I don’t really want to face anyone right now. Just pretend you didn’t see me. I wasn’t expecting to run into you.”           
            Even by the half-light of the stars, I noticed the sadness clothing his expression.
            “What happened?” I asked suddenly a little more aware of my clothing. I moved back toward the bench and sat, trying to keep my body unexposed.
            “You wouldn’t understand,” he said, sitting on the other end.
            His dejected tone felt foreign, like seeing a new color for the first time.           
            “You mean I wouldn’t understand what it’s like to have a broken heart?” I said, putting on the most sarcastic demeanor I could muster.
            He looked up. I thought he would smile, but his face remained impassive.
            “Maybe you’ll understand. I don’t know,” he said.
            “Well, you don’t have to tell me anything,” I said, remembering the disgust I usually felt for him.
            I stood and walked away fast, hoping the darkness covered my backside.
            “Sammy?” he called out.
            I stopped just outside of the flower garden, a large bush blocking our view of one another.
            His voice traveled like a fog past the colorless petals of the elderberry flowers. “Do you ever think Mauricio left you for another woman and forgot all about you?” he said.
            He asked the question I avoided thinking about—the question that fueled the depression I had only begun to feel free from. He pierced the very part of me I had set all my walls around.
            “I don’t know,” I said hesitantly, considering how honest I wanted to be. “Sometimes I feel like he did—only sometimes, though.”
            Renault did not respond.
            “Is that what happened to you?” I asked curiously.
            “I don’t really want to talk about it, Sammy,” he said.
            Everything told me to turn around and walk away, but I didn’t. Even though I felt he deserved every bit of pain he felt, the way his question reminded me of my sadness rooted me to the ground.
            I walked over, back to where he could see me, and answered his question a little more honestly. “Even if he did, Renault, I wouldn’t stop loving him. I loved him first.”
            Renault looked up, letting me see the ethereal glow of the tears streaming down his face.
            “Her ex-boyfriend came back just a month before our plans to come here. He said he wanted to fix things with her. She couldn’t say no. She told me the same exact thing: she loved him first.”
            Renault’s words sank into me like a stone dagger. I wanted to console him, but every phrase that came to mind sounded childish. Seeing him so hurt made me feel powerful, but I detested the power. I wished he hadn’t come back. I felt uncomfortable.
            In a feeble attempt at consolation, I walked over and patted Renault’s shoulder. He did not move. I turned around and headed back to my bedroom, walking faster the further away I got from him.

            After a few days Renault came out of hiding. Pito had whispered the news to everyone in the household, warning them to treat Renault as if he had never gone anywhere. Renault even began attending meals. Everyone did the best they could to not make an ordeal out of his presence. Yet, the elephant in the room pounced loudly in all of our minds.
            Eventually, the household got used to Renault again. He spoke freely and smiled on occasion, but the edge of his liveliness had faded. We all noticed.
            “I hate your Jardín,” he said to me one afternoon as he stopped by my bedroom door. “It scares me sometimes. I feel like someone is always watching me.”
            Typically I would have ignored him, but we hadn’t really spoken since the night he surprised me.
            “Why are you trying to hide?” I asked.
            “Isn’t that what you do whenever you’re out there thinking about your guy?” he said.
            “No, I go there to be seen for who I really am. I don’t have to put on a mask for anyone when I’m there.”
            “But nobody’s actually watching you,” he said.
            “So then what are you afraid of?” I said.
            He didn’t reply, but I thought I had seen the shimmer of a smirk before he walked away.
            Pito, Milly, and I went on our usual outings. We would invite Renault, but he never wanted to leave the estate. In fact, no one really saw much of him outside of the family meals. I stopped going to the Jardín at night, thinking he may need the solitude more than I did. My only interactions with him occurred throughout the day.
 Renault stopped by my door a couple of times a week—always with a question. He asked a lot about how I felt toward Mauricio. He wondered how I had overcome my feelings. I didn't enjoy visiting that side of my heart, after having struggled so much to cover it. Despite his emotional pain, I felt Renault was being selfish. He wanted my insight for help with overcoming his heartache, but he did not seem to consider the pangs I felt, having to recount emotions I preferred to forget.
Pito also stopped at my door on occasion. It seemed I suddenly became the most popular person in the house. He grew curious about my conversations with Renault. Apparently, the two of them spoke about me quite a bit. I sensed a tug of war occurring, as if they vied for my attention, not directly in my presence, but indirectly between them. I could only deduce this from the way Pito behaved when he asked about Renault. Jealousy peeked through the windows of his eyes. If only he knew I only liked him as a friend, and only then had I begun to see Renault as a little more than a rat. I could not have imagined the day these feeling would change.

No one would have reacted more strongly to my relationship with Renault than the me I had been three years prior—the day he returned from Belgium. I would have shouted, screamed obscenities, and punched myself in the face for being so stupid. I could only respond by saying that the Renault I hated died in Belgium the same way the Sammy I knew died in Cuba as her father drove her to the courthouse to marry Pito. Love and heartache turned us into different people.
Our friendship progressed slowly. Renault made more frequent stops at my door, confiding more and more with me. He recounted the adventures he had with his first love, their escapades in Paris, their rendezvouses in London, and their physically passionate romance. Then he told me of the day her former lover returned, how she cried on his shoulder, telling Renault she felt torn between the two. He cried into her blonde hair, begging her to give him a chance to make her happy, reminding her that unlike her lover, he had never turned his back on her. Finally, he discovered her one night walking into her lover’s apartment. He sat just outside of their door, listening to their romp until they fell asleep. He, too, finally fell asleep at the door. In the morning, the girl’s lover took him for a drunken vagrant and dragged him onto the street. Renault did not fight back. He felt he somehow deserved the mistreatment. Had he been a better man, she would not have left him.
Renault's emotions recovered, but in doing so transformed him into a different person only superficially similar to his old self. I tolerated this new person and soon grew to respect him. Through helping him recuperate I learned a lot about myself. I learned to face my emotions rather than pretend they didn’t exist, especially when they came to Mauricio and the relationship we had almost ten years prior. I was now a woman. Renault and I respected each other. Unlike the passion romance we each experienced previously, our relationship grew slowly, like a garden. 
Pito, on the other hand, grew distant. He and Milly had a fall out and I took Milly’s side. He seemed to hold that against me, but I knew the true source of his resentment. Pito soon became the entrepreneur Manon had once wanted Renault to be, flying to diverse parts of the globe, only returning on special occasions. Renault stayed close to home where he took on the affairs of the estate, allowing his grandfather to enjoy more leisure time. Pasa en el Sol ripened under the Panamanian sun.

I hid beneath the shade of a cocoa tree, thinking of nothing, only listening to the sounds of the Jardín. The remains of the leaves and twigs I fiddled with clung to the long green skirt resting over my legs. My hair smelled like the Magnolias I weaved into a tiara. Dirt hid beneath my fingernails, which I observed critically.
The sound of soft steps alerted me to his arrival, though I had not expected him to find me. Renault lifted the branch hiding me from view.
“I found you,” he said, smiling.
“You’re getting too good at that,” I said.
“Well, you made it kind of easy. All I had to do was follow the smell of dirt and flowers.”
“Are you trying to say I need a bath?” I said playfully.
 He knelt down beside me, holding onto the trunk for balance.
“Should I make it more plain?” he said.
I nudged him with just enough pressure to knock him over. I laughed.
“Very funny,” he said sarcastically, but I knew he was playing with me.
He watched me for a few seconds, his features growing more serious.
“Are you okay?” I said. “It was a joke.”
“I know,” he said, half-smiling.
“What is it?” I asked.
I watched him wrestle with his thoughts, as if struggling to find the right words.
“Someone called the estate earlier. They left an urgent message for you,” he said.
“My mom and dad? Are they okay?” I said, sitting up straighter. The crown of magnolias fell to the ground beside me.
Renault stared into my eyes. I expected the worst.
            Looking down, he said, “Mauricio called. He’s in a hospital in Venezuela. He wants you to go see him.”

                                                      * * *

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Oceani (Part III) by Remy Dou

Oceani - Part III
(With a note to the reader)

            The rubbery peel of the green banana fought hard against my prying fingernails. I bit into its skin with my canine, tasting bitter hints of the unripe fruit. Ignoring the dry, sour taste in my mouth, I ripped the green peel, which came off in stringy strips, exposing the white, hard flesh. I kept peeling, trying not to think, trying to ignore that I now lived a thousand miles away from family and a million miles from the man I loved, trying not to drown in a sea of purposelessness.
            Of all the places in Pasa en el Sol, the Jardín appealed to me the most. It was more than the fact that Renault avoided it like a plague for fear of tarnishing his shoes or a bug biting his porcelain skin—I loved the garden because there I could disappear. Sammy did not exist there, and neither did Pito—my now ex-husband—my parents, Renault, nor Panama. In fact, there was just one person who could find me in the garden no matter how far I explored the dense thicket of banana trees or how well I hid beneath the cocoa plants.
              Despite the acres of bark I put behind me, the arrows of anxiety, pain, and confusion followed. Sometimes they missed and I could while away the afternoon watching the sun crawl over the sky through gaps in the canopy. But sometimes they pierced me, and each arrowhead came inscribed with the same name. I didn’t even want to repeat it in my head. 
Months had passed since I received the box containing all the letters I wrote him before he left for Spain. I cried for three days thinking the gesture symbolized his decision to turn his back on us and everything we had when we lived in Havana. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Pito’s grandfather, Manon, was so worried that he handed me a small stack of balboas and asked the driver to take me and Milly, one of the younger maidservants, into the city for a day of shopping.
Either as a side effect of buying new platform shoes or from finally opening up to someone, my sadness subsided a notch or two. Milly felt I shouldn’t presume I knew what Mauricio meant to say when he sent me the box. She reminded me that without the letter that had accompanied it, there was no way I could guess his intent. I needed to contact Mauricio somehow. If he discovered how to get a package to me, then I should be able to do the same.

As soon as I woke the morning after opening up to Milly, I dashed to the dining room to speak with Pito’s grandfather.
“Manon, I want to call my parents,” I asked.
He looked up from the newspaper in his hands, which he slowly put down on the table in front of him.
“Of course—I will make sure you get to speak with them this week,” he replied.
“If you would forgive my insistence, I would like to speak with them today,” I said.
“Well, you know they don’t have a phone at home, Sammy. We would need to arrange for your parents to make a trip to the post office. Is everything okay? Is there anything you would be willing to tell me or should I give Milly the day off so she can spend time with you?”
The folded crinkles on his suit mirrored the lines of concern etched on his forehead.
“Well, you can give Milly the day off if you’d like. I’m sure she’d enjoy that, but I’m okay. I just want to talk to my parents. It’s been a long time since we last spoke.”
“Of course, Sammy,” he said, sounding a little relieved, “I’ll tell Pito to make the arrangements today and let you know when your parents will be available to receive the call.”
My face lit up and I turned to leave when a wave of nausea washed over me. Renault had come into the dining room and heard part of our conversation.
“That’s okay Abuelo, I’ll take care of it,” said Renault, fixing his eyes on me.
“Perfect, then!” said Manon who still remained clueless about my disgust for his grandson.
I walked out of the dining room stabbing Renault with my eyes. His look of feigned surprise irritated me even more. He followed after me and I nearly exploded when we reached the foyer. My voice came out in a hoarse whisper as I strained to keep anyone in the house from hearing our discussion.
“You don’t need to do that,” I said. “Your grandfather said Pito could help me.”
“Oh, but mi pancito dulce, what wouldn’t I give to spend a few extra moments with you?” said Renault, his voice dribbling like a creek spiked with arsenic.
I made a noise like a growl. “Just get me my parents, Renault. I need to speak to them right now.”
“What’s the hurry, Corazón? Why don’t we go into the city and watch a play. There’s always a private balcony reserved for me. We’ll have plenty of time for phone calls afterward.”
“If you don’t get my parents on the phone right now,” I said, dropping my voice, “I am going to scream and tell your grandfather how you’ve been trying to get me to sleep with you from the moment I arrived. And trust me, if I have to say that you’ve tried forcing yourself on me, I will.”
“He wouldn’t believe you over his favorite grandson,” he replied nonchalantly.
“Try me,” I said, my eyes daring him to do so. 
Ire raised the hair on my skin like electricity. Renault gauged the seriousness of my composure. With an insouciant scoff he said, “Ah, you’re still just a little girl. I’ll tell Milly to find you when your parents are on the phone. Just don’t go hiding in the Jardín.”
He walked away without another glance. I ran to find Milly. I needed her to distract Renault while I spoke to my parents. Nothing about him induced my trust and the last thing I wanted was for him to know my desire to contact Mauricio.
“Milly,” I yipped, when I found her in the kitchen covered in flour with a ball of dough in her hands.
“Yes, Señorita,” she said.
“You have to do me a big favor, please.”
“Of course, anything. Are you okay?” she said, noticing my anxious gestures.
“Yes, but Renault is contacting my parents right now. I have to speak with them in private and I’m afraid, knowing Renault, he’s not going to leave the room. Can you distract him, Milly?”
“Is that all?” said Milly with a smile. “That boy will follow anything with long hair and an ass.”
“Thank you, Milly!” I said and ran to my room, eagerly awaiting my parents’ call.
Within the hour Milly knocked on my door.
“They’re on the phone,” she said smiling. I noticed she had untied her ponytail and washed the flour off her face. She looked very pretty.
            We walked to the parlor where Renault stood holding the phone. An ugly grin festered on his face. He behaved as if he had done me some tremendous favor.
            Snatching the phone from his hand, I pressed my ear to the receiver, “Hello?”
            “Mijita,” said my mother, “todo esta bien?  You have your father and I worried.”
            Feeling Renault’s inquisitive eyes all over me, I turned away, but the phone cord held me within hearing distance. I glanced hastily at Milly whom I could see making her way over.
            “I’m okay, Mom. How are you? How’s Dad?” I asked.
            “We’re all good—just a little worried. We weren’t expecting your call,” she said.
            “I know. I wanted to ask you something,” I said.
I turned, expecting to find Renault nearby, but Milly had interceded quickly. They seemed distracted in conversation on the other side of the room.
            “What is it?” asked my mother.
            “Please don’t be upset with me,” I said.
            “Of course not, Mijita, but tell me what it is. You have me worried.”
            “Promise you won’t be upset.”
            “Yes, I promise. Now, what is it?”
            “I need Mauricio’s address. He sent me a box full of all the letters I had written him before he left, but the letter he wrote, accompanying the box, was lost. I need to know what he meant to say.”
            No response.
            “Hello?” I queried.
           “Sammy,” said my mother, “we wouldn’t know how to contact Mauricio.”
           “What about his dad?” I asked.
            “His father died in prison not long ago,” she said, half sighing.
            My heart sank. “Died?”
            “Yes, Sammy.”
            After some silence my mother spoke again, “I know you weren’t expecting to hear that. I didn’t plan on telling you.”
            “Has Mauricio tried contacting you or anyone?” I asked.
            “I would have told you, Sammy. No one knows where he is and it’s probably better that way.”
            I had no words. Mauricio’s father was young and healthy. His death could only have been an accident—or worse. I wondered how this news affected Mauricio.
            “This might not be the best time, Sammy, but I brought someone who wants to say hello,” said my mother.
            “Who?” I asked. I heard the sound of the phone exchanging hands.
            “Ines!” I shouted.
            “I miss you so much,” said Ines.
            “I miss you, too,” I said, tears welling in my eyes.
            “Things here are crazy and getting worse. I wish I were with you,” said Ines.
            “Me too. I’m so alone,” I said.
            “I can’t imagine. Is everything really okay?” asked Ines.
            I explained to Ines what I told my mother about Mauricio’s package, sharing a few more details. She confirmed what my mother had said about his father and about no one knowing Mauricio’s whereabouts. We spoke for another twenty minutes as she summarized what she and the rest of the gang had been up to. Porky had lost a lot of weight and had become a town stud. Simon and her had broken up for the fifth time, but it seemed this was the last of their attempts. She spent most of her days taking care of her grandmother, trying to multiply the little food they had.
            After I hung up, I felt more depressed than ever. Milly and Renault were nowhere to be seen. I hoped she had found a way to keep his grimy hands off her. I left the parlor and locked myself in my room. My hope for contacting Mauricio disappeared and in its place grew a leaden mourning for his deceased father and for my unrequited love. Had it not been for the news I heard two weeks later, I may have never awakened from the darkness that consumed me.

            “I won’t be back for a year, maybe two,” said Renault placing his bags in the trunk of the family car.
It seemed everyone at the estate had come to wish him safe travels. Once again, he bragged about going to England on business to establish himself as an entrepreneur. He had recounted his plans many times since the moment Manon asked him to meet with buyers in London. I came out to the driveway just to watch the back of his car fade into the distance.
“You must be really happy right now,” said Milly who could see in my face what I was thinking.
“You have no idea,” I said.
“What are you going to do now that he’s gone? You won’t have to spend so much time hiding in your room or in the Jardín,” she said.
“Who knows? I think I might actually want to spend more time there now.”
Although it began as a once a week thing, I did exactly that over the next two years. I spent time with the gardeners, watching and learning from them. I read farmers’ almanacs and books on agriculture. I walked every inch of tended land on Manon’s estate. The Jardín had become my pet project. Slowly, imperceptibly, my depression began to lift.
Manon encouraged my stewardship of the garden, seeing me busy and happy, believing I had finally left behind my childhood heartache. What he didn’t know—what no one knew—was that I loved the Jardín because there Mauricio could find me no matter how well I hid. He came like an arrow, traveling on a thought. He pierced me like the rays of the sun piercing the canopy. My memories nurtured my love for him, and though it grew less passionate, it burned like embers that only needed stirring to relight.

Renault finally returned but only stayed for a month. He announced that he had gotten engaged to a Belgian girl whom he had met while traveling across Europe. At first, Manon reproached him, as did the rest of the household. No one knew this woman. Yet, listening to Renault speak of her quickly dissipated everyone’s concerns. He promised to bring her to the estate before marrying so that everyone could get to know her.
I had never seen Renault behave the way he did that month. Not once did he look in my direction except to offer me a courteous ‘hello.’ I ceased to exist in his life. As if granting me a great ironic gesture, my ego hurt when he left to England a second time. A woman's heart can be so complex, I thought to myself as I brushed away the ridiculous disappointment of not having a chance to cast off Renault’s slimy advances.
            When I finally learned Renault would return from his second trip, nearly a year and half had passed. In that time, I expanded the borders of the Jardín, planting a grove of coffee shrubs and experimenting with a few strains of soy. I spent almost everyday in the Jardín or going out with Milly. She and I had grown close. Pito often came with us at Manon’s insistence, but it turned out we enjoyed his company. He had a way of making us laugh so much our faces hurt. Although the Panamanians still seemed strange to me, I had begun to fall in love with the land, and Pito, who was half Panamanian, made it easier for me to appreciate their culture. I even began imagining a permanent life here with my parents close by.
            When Pito told Milly and me about Renault’s return, I felt eager for more news. Part of me wanted to meet the woman that seemed to have transformed him from a sleaze ball to a gentleman. I asked Pito if he knew if she was coming, but he didn’t. Apparently, Renault had not said much over the phone except to ask that his arrival be kept a secret. Milly and I smiled at each other and at Pito knowingly, since we rarely kept any secrets from one another. The three of us spent that night on my bed, laying side by side, talking about the future, pretending none of us feared fulfilling our more mundane potential.

 * * * 

[Note to my reader:

            When I first completed the outline for Oceani, I intended to write it as a four part series. Considering what will occur during the next important parts of Sammy’s life, judgment tells me the story needs a little more room to breathe. Like her Jardín, this tale needs to expand in order to develop organically. All that to say Oceani will be a five-part story (and no more—promise). And thank you for reading along! As always, all your feedback helps a lot.]