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.”
“Hello?” I queried.
“Sammy,” said my mother, “we wouldn’t know how to contact Mauricio.”
“What about his dad?” I asked.
“What about his dad?” I asked.
“His father died in prison not long ago,” she said, half sighing.
My heart sank. “Died?”
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.]