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.”
Looking down, he said, “Mauricio called. He’s in a hospital in Venezuela. He wants you to go see him.”
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