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.”
“One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”
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:
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.