The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started, as it does almost every day in Puerto Rico, racing patterns of cloud shadows and sun across the runway mimicking the high speed video loops on TV forecasts. He looks out the vast plate glass windows still streaked with rivulets of water even as the puddles on the tarmac steam away in the sun. The airplane at the gate shines blindingly white and silver in the undiluted sunshine, the pale blue of the globe logo on the tail mirrors a swatch of the ocean visible past the runway, and a bit beyond, the beach road. The traffic on the road strobes hypnotically through the tree line at the edge of the airport.
The windows were open and the wind roared loudly through the car, cooling as the sun began to set, raising goose bumps on their beach-damp skin as it dried to a salty chalkiness. He sat in the middle, she at the window, her long dark hair sandy and fluttering in the breeze, her warm side pressed against him in the crowded back seat, looking out the window at the unspooling horizon as the car sped following the coast. Music must have been playing and surely there was raucous conversation, a car full of students reveling in their youth and the freedom of summer; all he can remember however is the warmth of her skin as he casually draped his arm across her bare shoulders. She did not turn to look at him but he could tell that she was smiling.
They had been playing and roughhousing in the water for hours and the slightly illicit feel of her cool sleek body in the water had been exhilarating. She was tall and beautiful in a bikini though there was something odd in her gait, a certain lopsidedness in her walk. Having just met the night before, they had taken to each other almost immediately; he had been charmed by her goofiness and the way she would lose the thread of what she was saying as she veered from subject to subject.
“What are you doing tonight?” – She asked as they arrived back in town and got out of the car.
“I had nothing planned” – He answered.
That night they had kissed for the first time, drunk on vintage champagne she had insisted on buying, the thumping of the sound system at the disco so loud their insides vibrated. They lounged for hours on their purple velvet booth at the edge of the dance floor, in a haze of smoke and desire, kissing through the boleros. By the time the sun lightened the glassed-in interior garden, the unofficial signal for closing time, it was clear that they would be together.
The summer went by languidly as tropical summers do, a whirl of heat and sun, air conditioning cranked too high and cold drinks sweating in the humidity. He was working as an exterminator, hard dirty work, but mindless - the rest of the group, including her, did not need to. They would spend endless days at the beach and he would join them at night and on the weekends, though as the summer wore on more and more it was just the two of them.
“Why are you not wearing the pants I bought you?” – She asked as he got out of the car to open the door for her
“They did not fit me that well” – He lied. She frowned unconvinced.
The pants were just ridiculous, the latest in a long string of outfits she had purchased for him. “This one was on the cover of GQ” – or Vogue Men or some other fashion magazine, she would say handing him one more in a string of overpriced, inappropriate clothes that invariably made him feel disguised rather than dressed.
The Saturday traffic was thick as they slowly eased into it, cars cruising up Ashford Avenue only to turn down Magdalena Street. Freshly washed cars sinuously reflecting the streetlamps, a cacophony of music bouncing off the unbroken wall of hotels hiding the beach.
“See, they have them in the window” – She said as they inched past the studiously spare shop windows, pointing at the mood-lit display at Nono, Where the beautiful people shop as their advertisements proclaimed.
“You would look more modern than with those” – As she pointed at his comfortable, simple pants.
“Ok, ok, I’ll try them again” – He said just to keep the peace. He had gotten used to her relentlessness and there was no need to have another fight right now.
“You could take them with you tomorrow. It’ll still be warm enough.”
“I will.” – He said, knowing he would not. If he felt self-conscious wearing them here, they would be impossible to bear in Boston.
They finally parked on the narrow cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan. The heat and humidity blanketed the old city, the atmosphere thick under heavy low clouds that presaged the start of hurricane season, sweat glistening on bodies and staining the clothing of the crowd. They turned towards the city wall, splitting off from the torrent of people flowing down the main drag, oozing in and out of bars carrying drinks in red plastic cups, spilling off the narrow sidewalks.
It became quiet and residential as they walked towards the harbor. He helped her get up onto the broad wall and they sat high over the dark bay, wavelets breaking below them with cetacean languidness, the sound drifting up, a colonial sentry box cantilevered near them. He felt once more that tug – like a hand on his back quietly tempting him to jump, an irrational distant feeling that always manifested when he was near a precipice. He could hear salsa music shot through with conversational fragments from the open balconies of the houses behind them.
“Did you know that lemmings do not in fact commit mass suicide?” – He broke the silence as they sat staring at the lights of a departing cruise ship.
“No?” – She said, a bit mystified.
“Did you ever see that Disney documentary where they are shown jumping off the cliff? The filmmakers actually pushed them off. ” – He said pouring her another glass of wine before topping up his own - They built a sort of motorized turntable that would spill them off the edge”
“That is so mean” – She said.
They drank silently listening to the tree frogs, a faint scent of molasses from the rum distillery across the bay in the air. The cruise ship slowly receded into the inky blackness of the open ocean.
“I just think that the ending would have been better if they had gotten together don’t you think?” - She said picking up a days old conversation about a French movie they had seen at the local art house.
He sat in stunned silence digesting this – had they seen the same movie?
“He was her stepfather, she was underage, are you serious?”
“I know, but it would have been so romantic, don’t you think?”
He did not reply.
The PA system scratches alive as the gate agent explains that due to a problem with the jetway, they will have to walk to the plane across the tarmac. The couple next to him is in the middle of an argument, trying but failing to keep their voices low. In an expensive stroller their youngest child cries, unattended, their other two children run wild in the terminal. Both the man and the woman look haggard, worn down, their sleek expensive clothes slightly askew. He stares at them transfixed - they are not much older than him but prematurely aged under their tans born of boats and leisure. He picks up his battered backpack and walks towards the forming line, relieved to have an excuse to get away from the still unfolding scene.
The line snakes down through corridors and stairs clearly not intended for the public, airport staff guiding them out onto the tarmac. As he comes onto the runway, the noise of idling jets and the shimmering sun disorients him momentarily.
He squints against the sudden brilliance of the outside, flattened by the full sensorial power of a memory, forcibly drawn back in time as if at the tug of a rope. The aircraft looms before him just like another had years ago. He was no more than six years old, walking towards the most beautiful sight he had seen: a silver and white jet shimmering in the afternoon heat, under a just as intense Havana sun, the pale blue Pan Am logos exotic and mysterious, waiting to deliver him to exile, just as this one will.