5 Days in Puerto Rico: Day 5 – Behind Her Smile

Cagney was incensed.
“You mean to tell me these people can’t tell the difference between me and my boojie behind and these ghetto birds strolling around here in their socks and fuzzy house shoes?”
She was reacting to Enrique’s analysis of events. I hate to categorize people one way or another, but her description was not unfair. Every day we passed young tourist revelers clad in traditional getaway attire – nipple pasties, a loin cloth for modesty and condor wings glued on to eyelids to create a fuller lash look; completely stinking of stale piss and yet to be washed off weed – and no, the locals could not tell the difference between them and our version of Black respectability. We were all contemptible.
She would’ve launched deeper into her tirade had a plane not passed overhead and a gaggle of those same revelers screaming in the corridor. Adj aborted the call, citing the noise. But before hanging up: Yes, we would meet them at their BnB in the morning. No, not a minute past 8:30 am. Yes, we knew it was important to be on time.
Perhaps this explained the frosty reception we were treaty to by both Cagney & Lacey the following day. Or perhaps they’d gotten into some crack. Who’s to say?
When we called the following morning to inform them of our arrival, there was a change in Cagney’s voice: the kind where one regrets having extended an invitation and can’t figure out how to withdraw it. The kind where one has to scrape congeniality against their throat and hope’s that the other party offers to pull out. Not me! I saw pictures Fajardo, and I was going! Her snide remarks about not knowing where we were going to meet the water taxi (how could she, she demanded to know), and feigned ignorance concerning details that one planning a trip ought to know irritated my sister, but had little effect on me.


I was still buzzing from the riveting conversation with Enrique yesterday. He made everything sound so interesting – even down to roadside breakdowns. How many people do you know that have the power to turn the story of a changing a flat tire into spellbinding tale? I know one, at least. But as I said, it was his political mind, his curiosity, the evidence that he was well-read and above all his empathy for us as marginalized people and his vulnerable concern for the future of his state (would they seek autonomy or remain a vassal state?) that beguiled me most. Lacey had mentioned once that she had traveled to Guam, which is why I was eager to share these insights with her once we met up in the morning.

“If they want autonomy den dey need to give de resources back,” Lacey snarled indignantly.
She furrowed her brow, saying, “Puerto Ricans should be grateful. They get to travel back and forth between the US whenever they want.”
“Yeah…but so can Europeans,” I pointed out.
“Well, yes. Of course,” she replied, befuddled by the comparison.
“And so can Canadians,” I added.
I truly did not understand what she was getting at. What resources would Puerto Rico be obliged to return to the mainland? And furthermore, why would Puerto Rico have to give “de resources” back if they were…
“What I mean is, of all the Latin countries like – Mexico and them – Puerto Ricans don’t have a hard time getting into in the country is what I’m saying.”

Oh my God. This imbecile doesn’t realize that Puerto Ricans are US citizens. And she thinks it’s a “Latin country.” Oh…And she’s definitely got some unresolved anti-Hispanic sentiment that she needs to deal with. Why is it fine for Europeans to enjoy the privilege of barrier-free entry into America, but not those with whom we share continental mass and trade relations… You know what? Never mind. All conversation would be kept to pop culture and food from now on.
“Yeah. I hear you,” I conceded.
Sensing my disappointment and perhaps reading diminished regard for her intellect on my face, I believe Lacey sought to settle the score when she asked, snidely:
“Did you hear back from that family whose door you slipped the note under the other night?”
“Ha! Nah girl. They probably think I’m a serial killer.”

You can’t shame the shameless. I own my weirdness with my chest.

At this point, Cagney emerged from the back and instructed Lacey to “get some music going”, which she did at a volume so deafening that it made further conversation impossible. A brilliant (albeit aggravating) move. Finally, it was time to get an Uber and embark on the one-hour drive to Fajardo! It should have been a simple thing but:
– Adj was folded in the third row and Cagney & Lacey would not move their seat up to give her leg room
– They made it a point to exclude her from the conversation but took great liberty to insert themselves into the riveting one I was having with the driver.
– At the ride’s conclusion, I attempted to cashapp Cagney my portion of the fare, but my card was expired. I was frantic, because there is one thing I don’t do and that’s owe kneegrows money. Adj covered it for me, but even that led to coded conversation between the two about people being “good for the money” and other hood colloquialisms when you want to call someone’s credibility into question.

Whatever. The vibe was back, and I was determined to keep it!

Our water taxi driver’s name was Captain David, and he looked after us with such extraordinary care. Our journey was to take us to Icacos Island, where we would enjoy a picnic lunch (we were responsible for packing it), snorkel and immerse ourselves in the splendor of the cay. The ride was exhilarating, and yelped, shouted and descended into fits of giggles every time the boat hit a wave or we were assaulted by a salty spray. When we reached the island, Cagney – a true belle – was miffed that David had not alighted from his boat to lift the 20 lbs ice chest ashore for us. I carried it to the spot that we’d agreed to set up base and then looked around. There were bodies everywhere, of all shapes and colors. A yacht christened Spreadeagled blared 80’s hair music. Everyone was having a great time, synergized by their sense of cohesion. Everyone but our broken quartet, that is.

Adj had a question about the snorkeling gear. Did they not have replaceable mouth pieces? How did we know that they were truly clean?
“Look: this is a do it or you don’t type of situation,” retorted Lacey with the sort of condescension one treats their annoying country cousin who’s come to visit for summer.
“Well, Imma do it,” I said, grabbing a snorkel set. I’d eyed some water that was less populated with people and marched towards it. “Anyone else gonna swim? No? See y’all later!”
The water was too blue and too clear for me to sit with a bunch of chicks who’d paid all that money in Uber and water taxi fare just to look cute on the beach.

My Dear Reader, you must go to Fajardo. If you can skip San Juan altogether and just get to the cays, I recommend this as a course of action. David said that the last time they were out, the saw a manatee. Were there sharks, I wanted to know. Well…this IS the ocean, was the reply. But no great whites or anything like that. He saw a hammerhead a few years back. This did nothing to deter me. I swam, snorkeled and tread water two and a half hours of the three that we were there. The other thirty minutes was spent on the beach eating snacks that Cagney & Lacey had graciously provided and imbibing Ron del Barrilito – an expensive rum that the corner store clerk at Caribe had bamboozled me into buying. Cagney, Adj and I convulsed and curled our lips on the first sip. This was a pirate’s drink. Hotter than the devil’s piss, it was we could all agree. Things seemed a little less tense and acrimonious. We commented on the three beach bunnies taking selfies and sighed about youth. Could you imagine if you had Teyana Taylor’s body on a beach like this?!? Y’all couldn’t sit with me, because I would be insufferable, said I.
Adj took this opportunity to compliment Cagney on the smoothness of her skin (in general) and thighs (in particular). Cagney has beautiful thighs, thick and without a blemish or nary a stretchmark. Adj and I had both complimented her on them a few days before, and here in the white sand of the Caribbean they looked Travel Noire ready. To this compliment she replied:
“You know what, Adj? I’m gonna need for you to love yourself a little bit more and stop downing your body. You are beautiful, and I want you to practice saying that?”
Adj was astonished. “What? I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m just saying I like your legs.”
“And I’m saying you need to stop belittling your own looks,” Cagney pressed.
Perhaps affected by the rum, perhaps amused by the ridiculousness of it all, my contribution was:
“Girl, whatever! You have beautiful legs is all we’re saying. If we had the option to trade our thighs for yours, we would…because they are pretty and that is a fact.
And then I said something about the movie Death Becomes Her and then things got weird again and then I voluntarily excused myself from the group and teetered toward the water. Yes, I would rather risk my life drifting among the waves – tipsy on rum – than sit in that atmosphere.

The rest of the day was uneventful. A jaunt to another island, unremarkable except for the fact that it was being renovated. There was a stingray in the water, so that was exciting. Some men cat-called us and you may see footage of me jumping (clumsily) from the stern of the boat from a toothless boricua who was yelling compliments or obscenities at us. The excursion would soon be over, Captain David would return us to the dock and graciously discard our rubbish for us and then bid us adieu. I hoisted my jean shorts over my wet swim suit – an innocent enough act, I thought – until I heard Cagney’s voice beside me.

“You know Malaka, you really don’t need to wear maternity shorts.”
“Hahaha!! LOL!! Girl, what? I LOVE maternity shorts. I just bought these two weeks ago!”
“Yeah…but you don’t need them. Your waist is snatched.”
“I know I don’t ‘need’ them. I just enjoy wearing them. They’re super comfortable. See? *Demonstrates the comfort of the cloth band* And I never have to worry about my crack showing…”
“Your waist is snatched, Malaka. You have a tiny waist!”
This girl really thinks me and my sister have some sort of body dysmorphia, doesn’t she? “Cagney – Girl, did you really stay behind from the group to tell me that I don’t need to wear maternity shorts?” I laughed lightly – or what I hope was lightly.
“I wear dresses when I want to have space for my stomach. You could try that too.”


Adj was not going to sit in the third row again. Having sacrificed enough for the day and weary from the highschool mean girl treatment, she’d made that clear. Our Uber driver was a portly man – a cop or fire fighter – whose position gave him the liberty and confidence to break every traffic rule in the book. The road was gridlocked for miles, cars halted because there’d been an accident ahead. He drove on the median, took illegal u-turns, forced his way ahead other vehicles and got us back to San Juan in under an hour. Once at the BnB, the frost from the duo was turned up to an arctic blast. We sorted through our belongings, handing back towels and gear to the owners. The tension was back, which I tried to diffuse by making small talk. No one was interested. Nothing else to do but thank Cagney for planning such an excellent day! We were welcome, she said. Adj had already opened the door to head out, impatient. Lacey announced that she’d unlock the gate for us.
“You ladies have a safe trip!” Adj and I trilled in unison.
Cagney acknowledged our departure with one curt instruction: “Bye.”


Back at the Costa Bahia Storage Unit, my sister and I debrief by frantically finishing the $50 bottle of rum I’d purchased. Cagney’s suggestion had been that I sell it to someone else either on the beach or back at the hotel to recoup my losses, but even I have standards about how weird I’m going to get. Can you imagine it? Heyyyy! Wanna buy my half-drunk bottle of rum off me? I can’t take it on the plane…
Nope! Adj finished the remainder for breakfast. I was so proud of what we’d accomplished I sent a picture to my dad.

Just a few more things to do: Send the remainder of the pictures to the group, a final sweep of the moldy room, check out four hours ahead of schedule and head for the airport. We’d done it! We’d survived Puerto Rico. As we made the final long drop down the garishly lit elevator, I checked my phone for messages that I’d missed while I was knocked out. The most recent one was from Cagney.

Girl. It’s too late for those pleasantries. The time for concealing aggravation, bruised feelings and inner turmoil behind our smiles had long passed. What did you say yesterday? BYE.

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