“The girls will meet us at El Jibarito for lunch. Then we’ll figure out what to do next.”
My sister was standing on the balcony overlooking the lagoon. In 24 hours we’d been in Puerto Rico, the balcony had become the place that she retreated to when she felt angry, despondent or disappointed. She spent a lot of time on/near the balcony.
“Who are ‘the girls’?”
“Cagney and Lacey*. Ida invited them on this trip as well.”
I had assumed that my sister was the only one Ida had shafted. I would later discover that the group of invitees had been much larger, but Ida’s reputation led to the majority of the group refusing to make concrete plans. Wise women.
“Should we go downstairs and get some breakfast before we head off for lunch?” I wasn’t hungry yet, but a small snack wouldn’t hurt.
“There is no breakfast at the Costa Bahia Hotel,” she replied flatly.
“What? Not even continental?”
“I said: There is no breakfast at the Costa Bahia Hotel!”
“Dude. What the fuck?!?!”
We decided to get an Uber early, if nothing just to get away from the mildew and mold. Our driver was a soft spoken man who spoke in halting English, for which he apologized. We begged him not to. His English, after all, was far superior to our Spanish. El Jibarito is located in Old San Juan, a historic part of the city that reminded me of Savannah. He pointed out some of the sights we might take interest in: the fort, the architecture of the colonial era buildings, other places to eat. I tried – and failed – to keep note of all of them. Above us, rain clouds were threatening.
“Is that rain?” asked my sister.
“Nah. It can’t be. The weather did not call for rain today.”
*Spoiler: It was ,in fact, rain.
Our diver said nothing. If he understood our concerns, he did not let on. He let us off in front of the restaurant and bid us good-bye. As soon as we stepped under the awning, the skies broke open. We giggled and found shelter under the balconies of nearby buildings while restaurant patrons laughed at our demise from inside. My sister and I used to play in the rain. It’s one of my favorite memories from our youth. A tropical torrential soak did not bother me in the least.
About 10 minutes after our arrival a table opened up. Simultaneously, Cagney and Lacey materialized in the darkened doorway: Cagney smiling congenially and Lacey greeting us with a resting bitch face of monumental proportions. I had to take a work call, so I missed the exchange of pleasantries and introductions. I would still be on that call today, had my battery not died…something I expressed relief for to the group.
“Hi! I’m Malaka. I didn’t mean to be rude, but I had to take that.”
“Girl – It’s alright. I understand! I’m Cagney.”
“Lacey,” said Lacey, her expression as dour as week old tapioca pudding.
Our waitress – a butterscotch colored woman of about 48 sporting a dark, curly ponytail – hovered impatiently. Jibarito had been recommended to us because though it was in Old San Juan, it was not as “touristy” as some of the other spots nearby. Cagney, eager to try out her 5th grade Spanish, asked for an item on the menu.
“Is that how you say it?” her inquiry tinged with saccharin.
“No!” snapped the waitress, her response drenched in bile.
Eventually we muddled through the order. My sister and I ordered sweet plantains as a side. When we asked about the hard, green slivers of plantain that showed up instead, the waitress (let’s all her Screams) screamed that they were, “Sweet! Is sweeeettt!” She made a move to grab Adj’s plate, which she wisely intercepted. We don’t send food back to the kitchen with angry waitstaff.
A couple next to our table was canoodling and making eyes at one another. The man must’ve told Screams that he’d had no cutlery, because she took two steps back from their table, reached next to my plate and gave him MY cutlery set. Rather than protest, I went downstairs and asked the bartender if he would kindly give me a fork and knife.
Lunch went much more smoothly after that with neither we making any requests of Screams nor she coming to see if we had any needs. When she felt an appropriate time had passed, she came and snatched away our appetizer trays, wordless and aggressive. I kept a tight grip on my snapper plate in case she conjured any notions of depriving me of my meal. Because I was the last to begin eating, I was only midway through my plate when Adj and The Girls began the next phase of the dining out experience: The Debrief and Cackle session, a level that is only unlocked between strangers when good chemistry had been established. Screams halted the session before it could begin as she materialized with a thick orange terrycloth dishtowel and began to scrub the table WHILE WE SEATED AND WHILE I WAS STILL EATING. Lacey glared at her, that Resting Bitch Face contorting into an active Gatling gun that shot ice and disdain, crippling all in its path. But she was no match for Screams, whose nonverbal communication was more injurious than any broken English/fluent Spanish ever could be, so we asked:
“Can we have the bill, please?”
…which she deftly produced, offering us mints at the till, smiling – lopsidedly – for the first time since she set eyes on us, and watching the screen for what type of tip we would leave for her abysmal service.
The rain began to fall in passing buckets the moment we left the restaurant. Cagney was in good spirits about it, and soon we were joking about how the weather matched the people in San Juan: mercurial and disrespectful. What would we do next? Well, we might check out some of the suggestions the driver had recommended, I suggested. I also follow Davida who runs the blog Wonders of Wanders. She was kind enough to share this post with me about one of her trips to PR, chock-full of suggestions. How about a walking tour of Old San Juan, since we were already here? So we set off.
It’s hard not to be seduced by the beauty and charm of (Old) San Juan, and I dare the bitterest cynic to try. While we snapped pictures in front of stately doorways and buildings painted in pure colors, we suffered a steady trickle of indignities along the way: hostile stares from vendors; shouts from the man at the Information Office that it was closed (he gestured with an umpire’s you’re out! to underscore his point; conversations that were indulged reluctantly and ended abruptly. It felt like the whole city was against us. (And it was, but more on that later.) We’d had enough of Old San Juan, so we decided to leave its confines and go, “Anywhere but here,” per Lacey.
Our quartet found a peer and walked along it, which we found soothing. The skies opened again, forcing us under one of several makeshift shelters. A woman walked past three of the same, stood in front of us, and began to shout into her phone as though we were not standing there – invisible.
“Hello,” said Cagney, willing the woman to acknowledge that she’d invaded our space. When she tossed her head in curt reply, we moved along further down the peer.
Moments later we were nearly run over by a 20-something man on a scooter, his hijab-wearing passenger in the back. “Douche bag,” I muttered.
A few minutes later, a man of nearly 60 flagged us down, told us how he’d moved back to Puerto Rico from the Bronx and was just a few months shy of retirement.
“Congratulations,” I said.
“You ladies want to buy some weed?” he grinned.
No. No we did not. He explained that he HAD to ask, because he was meeting some people coming in from Richmond and we might be them.
“A lot of people don’t know where to score weed when they come down here,” he said simply. I guess we just looked like that type of customer.
It was like this all day: a holiday lasagna of pleasantness layered with the poo of the tourism gods. We walked along aimlessly until we reached the Paseo de los Presidentes (Walk of of the Presidents), admired the sculpture and came to the conclusion that we ought to hit the beach. We were on an island, after all.
The public beach was GLORIOUS. There was a cove where the waves lapped gently at our feet. We chatted and marveled at the madness of the day, relieved that we’d found some sanity…only to have our reprieve interrupted yet again.
“Coconuts! Coconuts! You ladies want to buy some coconuts?”
“I’m coming in the water.”
“Sir, your pants will get wet!”
“I don’t care! I’m gonna sell these coconuts today. I’m gonna be big. Why don’t you take a picture with the coconuts?”
“We have coconuts in our country. Here. How about $1 to get you going with your sales?”
“Are you gonna take the coconuts? It’s 3 for $5.”
“No, sir. We would not like to buy coconuts today.”
*Coconut Man begins praying, his toothless plea facing the heavens. Telling God (and us) that he doesn’t even want the $1, because he’s out here try to WORK. He’s gonna be big. He would like a BIG WOMAN as well* (He eyes the four of us. We each recoil.)
Enough of this. Now driven from the beach, Adj and I suggest that we go back to The Storage Unit (the name we’ve given our mold hotel) and look for food. We discover La Terraza which is located on the 4th Floor. The prices are fair, the food is GREAT and the service is phenomenal. There was only one problem:
“This will be our last night in business,” said our waitress, Nicole, a congenial young woman of 21.
Why, we wanted to know. Had their restaurant been affected by COVID?
“No. We get a lot of people who come in, work for 2 weeks and then quit to collect unemployment. It’s happening all over the island,” Nicole explained. “The owners just got tired of it and decided to close up shop.”
Nicole’s hospitality felt like a warm embrace. We showered her with compliments. She showered us with attention. Our table was raucous, joyous and radiating happiness. That’s what must’ve attracted Charles to our table, the department manager from Louisiana who was vacationing with his partner, sister and her husband.
“Mmmhmmm, hunny. I told my sister she betta fuck her husband really good while she’s here. She needs to put her back into it!”
(Why??? Would??? You?? Say??? This?? To??? Strangers???)
“Are you on Bumble? We can get you some dick while you’re here.”
(This can’t be real.)
“What do you mean the hotel is a dump? We’re staying in the 10th floor…penthouse. Oh, you have black mold? Well…you know you can get that out with some bleach and a scrub brush. They have a Walmart here. I travel to a lot of third world countries, so I guess I’m just used to that.)
(Why would I go on vacation, spend $190/night and have to deep clean my own hotel room? And Puerto Rico is NOT a third world nation…)
“Look…I make it my business to know all the most important people wherever I stay. I know the chef, the housekeeping manager and the lady who runs the front desk. Y’all done eating? C’mon. We gonna get your room situation straightened out.”
And so after we’d paid our bill and wished Nicole luck, we followed Charles down to the 2nd floor where we met her. Monica.
Monica. Motherf-ing Monica.