As I write this, it’s been three weeks since my not-so-new-anymore-spouse, my two dogs and I quartered ourselves in the middle of a hallway. Barely a month since the roar that violently entered through our doors and windows—a long, persistent roar that tormented us for hours; a roar that was followed by a profound and desolating silence. A silence that was filled by an AM radio station. An AM radio station that only narrated bad news. Bad news delivered by voices that didn’t know where their aunt, their cousin, their grandson, or their grandma were. People that cried for their hearing-impaired, blind, and disabled family members. Human beings begging those who lived near the ocean, or on the side of a river, or at the foot of the mountain to please report themselves. And then the wrath of the wind was replaced by the cruel whisper of the unknown.
They say that after twenty-one days, anything you do can become a habit, a part of you. I think that’s why we are only now starting to realize that this actually happened to us.
I lived almost four years with my not-so-new-anymore-spouse before marrying him, and in that time I managed to create a fantasy where I didn’t go to the bathroom, making him believe that I’m either a princess or a perfect robot. Now I have to announce the purposes of my visit if I go to the toilet, if I have to flush it. I’ve had to overcome humiliation. I’ve tried to convince myself that I’m on a camping trip, one of those camping trips I never liked before, but this time it’s an indefinite camping between concrete and cement walls—camping without an ocean view, without the salty breeze that refreshes, without the sweetness of a make-believe holiday.
I once traveled for two weeks and I woke up in five different cities. It’s always been simple for me to get used to changes, so when I woke up sweaty, overheated, I thought I was in another new city—but it wasn’t the case. I woke up in my house, in my living room; we had to move the mattress because the heat in our bedroom is hellish since it happened. I woke up in my own country, the island that has always been hard for me to love, and it smelled like bags that have been in the trash cans for eleven days, like toilets that are flushed only after three or four pisses. It smelled like bodies that are bathed with buckets; like our beach cooler that used to have butter, milk, cheese, and ham, and was already out of ice, giving off a smell of profound putrefaction. Nevertheless, we can’t dispose of it, since any liquid now is toilet-flushing fuel.
I once took a screenplay workshop with a professor who told us that he flushed the toilet every time he took a shower. He wasted water without any remorse, approximately three to seven gallons depending on the model, because the sound of the toilet caused a weird sensation of closure and satisfaction for him. I can’t help but wonder if today he throws the buckets of rainwater into the bowl, just to preserve any sense of normalcy after what happened to us.
I believe it is important to say it; I think it is necessary to write it: This happened, and it happened to us. To all of us. This wasn’t something that happened to a faraway country on the other side of the world, it didn’t happen to one of the little islands that hurricanes have used as punching bags for the last decade. This happened to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. It happened to Borinquen, our blessed island. An island that now looks as if it was burned down. It doesn’t look like she was undressed by the winds, it looks like they set her on fire and she was consumed to her very bones.
It feels and it looks like what it actually is: a minefield composed of the irritability and despair of everyone around you, maybe because the generator ran out of diesel, or because they don’t have insulin for their old man or enough diapers for the latest addition to the family who has lived through two Category 5 hurricanes in his first month of life. The whole map is a blank canvas for anxiety. What is left is a space to develop paranoias, to imagine the most catastrophic scenarios when you can’t communicate with someone. And the worst part is that in this specific reality of broken, interrupted, or inexistent communications, every fatalist panorama sounds logical and sadly possible.
To wait in line for eight hours to get gas, to withdraw some cash, to purchase two little bags of ice, now seems natural to us. We’ve lost the notion of normalcy. If you see just forty-five people at the ATM, or just seventy-two cars before you, the line is not that bad. A month ago, if there were three people waiting to withdraw some cash, you would leave.
Now, too, there’s a new ethic for everything. A new way of greeting, of smiling, as if with pity: “Man, how are you doing?”—always followed with, “Under the circumstances . . . ” There’s a new standard of loss. If the answer only includes my house was flooded, the car doesn’t turn on, I lost my terrace and half of my furniture, the correct and acceptable answer is: Thank God, we’re still alive.
I have tried to ride the wave of gratitude, optimism, resilience, empathy, and solidarity. But even though it’s beautiful to think that now our way of life is sharing a loaf of bread or the two bags of ice that someone braved a five-hour line to get, or cooking a pot of rice and canned sausages or a big sancocho stew in the parking lot and sharing it with everyone, and it might seem like we’ve learned to live in community, I just don’t buy it. I’m glad that we have become a country of mindfulness; that suddenly we don’t feel so superior to people in other countries and even fellow Puerto Ricans whose reality has always been this insurmountable mess that we, the more privileged, hope is merely a temporary situation for us. But I am extremely embarrassed to think that a hurricane had to split us through the very center to open our eyes and awaken our humanity. Our capacity to be moved by others’ suffering, to imagine how the other feels; the sensibility of tolerating and not judging the person in front of us because they might be having the worst day of their existence, or on the verge of a nervous breakdown—these are not supposed to miraculously surface because our country has been torn from its roots.
There is no need to justify the tragedy. There is no reason to minimize our losses. We do not have to deny our own misery and the deep grief that we have a right to feel. If you lost your terrace, one that maybe you had to save money for five to ten years just to be able to build, weep. If the car you just bought or finally paid off after sixty payments won’t start because it was flooded, cry away. If you were nine hours on top of a roof waiting to be rescued, disgusted by your own smell, trembling from the cold and a real fear of drowning, drink your own tears. Because there is no small misfortune, and the only way we have to confront our loss is by accepting it. We have to stop, take inventory of what we’ve lost, let ourselves cry it out and then, only then, resume the fight or simply start again.
My name is Edmaris Carazo, and I am sick and tired of not having water coming from the faucets. I’m fed up with sleeping on a mattress in my living room and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I’m drained from not being able to sleep. I am humiliated by having to tell my husband about all the scatological processes of my body and I am terrified of cutting myself or breaking a bone and having to go to a hospital.
I have always hated uncertainty, and not knowing the expiration date of this situation is breaking my nerves into pieces. I have a new job, to which I try to get to on time and well-dressed—a daily struggle, since I can’t do laundry; I can’t iron; I choose and combine my outfits with a flashlight; and everything takes twice the time, because the traffic jams are endless and traffic lights don’t exist anymore. And even though one of my life rules is not to cry at work, I recently read the Facebook status of a great friend who said that he lost his mom, and now he has to find six thousand bucks to bury her. When I read that he was asking people to take sand from their favorite beach to her funeral, and that his mother had planted oaks that would one day blossom, I cried in the office. I cried because we tend to confuse optimism with denial. I cried out of rage.
The “Ay bendito” we’ve been using to tolerate the unbearable has transformed into a “We’re alive.” The “We’re fucked” that we are not saying has been translated to “Others have it worse.” But material things are not always replaceable. Sometimes an object is the only tangible thing you had from your granny, or the symbol of a student loan that you’re still trying to pay off, or the deed that immortalizes 360 mortgage payments or the roof over your children’s heads or what used to be your parents’ house. Being okay and being alive are not the same thing. Pain is not measured only in certified deaths.
I have a hernia in my esophagus that has been under control for years, but the fast food, the canned goods, have taken a painful toll on my body. I was eating well for months, practicing CrossFit, running, doing some yoga, taking folic acid and vitamins because, for the very first time in my life, I was flirting with the idea of trying to become a mom. I know you’re not supposed to take things too personally, yet I can’t help but feel like the universe is so against the concept of my parenthood that it took my island and my life and slit them, just to prevent it from happening.
Last week would have been the celebration of the launch of my book, finally published after more than seven years of pushing it to come to life, one of my biggest dreams turned into dust by the hurricane. The 8th of October was my first wedding anniversary, and deep down I’m a hopeless romantic who would have wanted a fancy dinner, nice wine, something to eat that wouldn’t make my tummy ache, celebrating love without thinking of layoffs, of shortages of food and power, of corpses buried on their families’ patios.
Last week I went to a supermarket because every single article about depression and anxiety recommends trying to recreate a sense of normalcy. After entering, however, I stood there with my tote bags feeling like I was going to be crushed by the herd of people. I realized that I couldn’t buy the vast majority of available groceries because I had no way of refrigerating them. I felt the new and fierce fear of not having enough cash—and what if the credit card system fails, like everything else? We have to ask ourselves daily if we have enough cash, keep careful track of how much we’re spending, a thing that my grandma used to do so easily. We carpool to save on gas because even in a metropolitan area, where the gas-station situation has been stabilized, there is no guarantee it will stay that way.
We have post-traumatic stress. When the wind blows hard, we look at each other with a real and profound fear. The other day people gathered in a plaza and threw an improvised party, because that is what we do—we sing, we drink, and we dance to feel that we are human again; that this, too, shall pass. Someone lit some fireworks, and at the sound people threw themselves down, looked around, remembered María, then ordered another shot of rum.
As I write this, it’s been twenty-one days of repeating that everything is going to be alright; twenty days of counting the water bottles and the cans we have left; nineteen days of learning how to manage a camping stove; eighteen days of inhaling and exhaling, thinking about the refugees before complaining about the heat, aware of my privilege. Seventeen days of playing cards and dominoes. Sixteen days of listening to the only two radio frequencies that work. Fifteen days of sleeping in a puddle of my own sweat. Fourteen days of wondering how the people that I love and haven’t been able to contact are doing. Thirteen days of trying to get some money to my mom’s best friend, the most generous person I’ve ever met, who lost absolutely everything she had to the water. Twelve days of wondering what we will do if one of us loses our jobs. Eleven days of thinking about how to pay the bills without telephone lines or internet. Ten days of worrying about the old people who live in tall buildings; those in an elder home in which the owner decided to leave all the residents by themselves surrounded by shutters and desolation; and my own grandmother, in a better home but still alone in a small room, asking herself in her nearly gone mind what on earth those sounds of war and terror might have been. Nine days of feeling scared to death that a bat might get into my kitchen again, learning how not to be disgusted by flies. Eight days of missing the friends that had no choice but to leave, because they have a newborn or because their mom’s chemo pills are gone. Seven days of watching the days start and end, as if life was something that just happens to you without a choice. Six days of taking heartburn pills as if they were Tic-Tacs. Five days of asking in every place that sells food: What do you have left? Four days of trying to read books with a candle on my lap or a flashlight on my forehead. Three days of celebrating when I’ve gone twenty-four hours without a panic attack. Two days that I let myself cry without judging myself. One day just trying to focus on writing, talking to, and, if possible, touching a loved one.
The other day I found an open coffee shop. I knew it was open because a giant cardboard sign said so: This is the new advertising method. The place was dark. In the past (meaning less than a month ago), dark meant closed, but that reality (among many others) has changed.
A sweaty barista, unshaven and wearing a baseball cap, told me that they only had coffee and milk foam, which seemed ideal to me. I saw a glazed cake, and asked if it was from today; he said that it was, but it was banana bread, and I said that was even better. I sat looking at a table just in front the entrance door and thought about taking a picture of the food, the gorgeous coffee, and giving the place a free advertisement: open business, delicious coffee, homemade banana bread. Then I remembered I had no battery left, because I have no power. I comforted myself by thinking that even if I had battery power, I wouldn’t have had a signal to upload a thing. And for some reason, the thought of my useless phone, combined with the heat of the place and of the whole island, the stickiness of my skin—a perpetual combination of sweat, unrinsed soap, bug repellent, dust, and God knows what else—made me cry.
While I licked the cream cheese frosting straight from my fingers, while I sipped my coffee with a flower drawn in the foam, I cried. I cried like I used to every New Year’s Eve, as I usually cry on my birthdays, as I haven’t cried since life decided to give me a break. Nobody gave me a weird look. I assume it is already normal for tears to spring to people’s eyes when they find something in a store aisle, when drops of water come out of the faucet, when after seven hours of waiting in line they’re allowed to fill their tanks. I cried because I missed feeling pleasure without guilt, missed closing my eyes and remembering that being alive can be delicious—that this shit battered me but didn’t burn my roots, that sweetness does exist, that that damn roar didn’t scare away my music, that I refuse to live quartered in a hallway forever, that oaks blossom even when floods and traffic prevent us from getting to funerals, that very deep down I know that we will rise, but, for now, I still need to mourn the debris.