If I Could Memorize Those Mountains by Paulina Calistru

I recovered consciousness two days after my abuela died. I “came to” in a speeding Luis Muñoz Marín bound car somewhere between Mayagüez and Ponce. My eyes settled on an orange green-blotted  vista; indeterminate and soft enough to accommodate a reluctantly awakened awareness. Three inert blinks sketched a peak – backlit by the dawn – that pushed through and commanded attention like only sublime objects do. Sublime, primordial mounds with precedent. Staring hard at the unmoving swells, out of habit, I began the process of committing them to memory. “Now, if anyone asks me,” I thought, “I can tell them exactly what the mountain range on this side of the island looks like. That way they will never doubt I’m from here.” 

 As a child, I used to try to envision an alternate life where I was born here, on the island, amongst the mountains. Where I have an extended family who knows me and grandparents whose love feels whole and easy. With a culture free of external entanglements. Complete in its singularity. I’m practiced at bridging the gaps in my origin knowledge via emotional hijacking. Using the land as an anchor, I would conjure false memories to set the foundation for my alternate universe – like a string holding cans together. Each to be filled with their individual, separate sound forged of the same fake original damp air and campo soil. 

In reality, I was existing within the borrowed anecdotes of my mother. Attuning my being-in-the world to the wonder held by a crinkled, lanky child of fifty years ago, gazing upon the hills of green that decorated her beautiful island home. “My enchanting Island Home.” Trying now, in that speeding car, I quietly dance our fingers along the cool windowpane, trying to grasp the full range in one instant and force an epiphany out of an entire lifetime of unlived observation. But, to my dismay, I cannot tell a story that is not mine. Nor access a magic I did not create. Could not create and, I felt, not meant for me.

There is an irony that comes with being of a life not entirely yours and leaning towards a culture without ever having known the pillars that cultivated it. Looking over to the driver’s side, I wondered if my Mom ever wished for a child that shared her experience. That could empathize, inhabit, and feel the lessons she tries to impart. Or the moments she wants to share. I wonder if my father is ever saddened by his daughter that struggles to visualize herself as a decedent of his home. That does not understand his native tongue. I hope he knows that is not because I do not want to, but because they might not. Opening the window, I let the salsa spill out from the speakers to empty the car of heavy air and cleanse myself with the back traveling wind.

Abuela passed five years after Abuelo. Deteriorating, seemingly voluntary, to a degree, so she could join him wherever she believed he paused. She exited decorated in silver. Crowned with a crop of dyed black hair, always firm. Always immovable. Donned in a white dress that confirmed the circle of life. She died alone. In pain and waiting for the morning’s 8am flight that would produce all of her children.   

When the phone rang, I was back home in Manhattan, a bottle of wine deep. I answered the phone, spinning, with loud, post-laugh breath. My weeps were for lost time and ironic timing. Mourning the only grandparent whose familiarity spanned beyond eyes and touches. After her ascension, my mother sped along water that sparkled against the sun and stared straight ahead. She stole occasional glances at the ocean but did not linger, because life does not stop and you can’t do both. She made the car climb onto roads not meant for machines, to peek at the heart and souls of a home left behind. And to look at vacant houses in which she would live when she returned. Eventually. We both regarded the imposing white structures with concealed relief. Sensing that we could create the gift of time with a vague brick and mortar reason-to-return and postpone the inevitable determination of our independent connections to this home of our home[s].

In the car, I tried  to remind myself that my being split three different ways did not render me homeless. That I may lay authentic claim to these swells just from them being etched into me. Because the practice of culture does not necessitate a particular backdrop. Yet, the phrase “I am Puerto Rican” as a declaration of identity, rather than a description of origin, still feels forced. Reciting Mariposa’s “Ode to the Diasporican” still fills me with secondhand embarrassment, when reading once drew tears. With revised vision, I see that the mountains have lost their green and note that when magic evaporates it leaves air-warping mist.

Before making our final departure for San Juan, we took one last lap around Mami’s urbanización and cruised by the enclave’s only park. A now retired, fenced in expanse of growth, settled between blocks of sun-bleached pink and yellow houses. Where the mosquitoes loom low, burdened by moisture, and from which kids used to emerge itchy and worn. As a burnt child, I would venture there only in blue twilight, while the humidity of the day rested, fixating on the stink of sweat under my arms. A rest from the din of barely recognizable words, long stretches of silence and rerouted frustration. I remember my attention always diverting to the basketball court, where groups of local kids would laugh and shove and drip over an overinflated basketball. I pictured joining them and seamlessly weaving my way into their group and lives. Splitting a pineapple pie at Arturo’s (5 ways) or buying chocolate con queso at the plaza with our spare change (1 for each). An adventure for one of my cups. I never looked directly at them, however. On special nights, my sister and I would come together and race to the velvet park. Whizzing down the block of my mother’s house. Running to escape gossiping adults and to make our own wind. Freed by the feeling of our bare feet slapping the cracked concrete and punctuated by the rhythmic yap of our neighbor’s dogs as we sped by them. Once going. Once coming back. 

In that same park, I confessed to my mother that I did not like Abuela. That I hated her. Spat out of misunderstanding and confusion. That summer I refused to kiss her goodbye. Abuela cried (for me? For her? Us?) and waved feverishly as we turned the corner. I did not wave back. And felt proud.

I am currently walking though the world with no deep sense of form- a temporary defeat that comes from years of perceiving myself through the eyes of others. The parents of my parents are gone – ties to homes of my homes severed and, like with anything else left untethered for too long, they will soon float away. I wonder where my children will be from and what passing down a blended heritage looks like. Where I’ll be years from now. One, the other, or a to-be-determined third. Or if any of the originals will be retained in the next generation, knowing the cultural dilution begins with me. Becoming more and more watered down until we turn into something else. 

Yet, I still dream with palm trees and morning cigarette smoke. Still get drunk and put on Juan Luis Guerra, swaying down the block with fantasies of sowing roots in Santurce and growing into a tree with mono-colored red leaves. Or writing mediocre prose in a tattered leather notebook, unremarkable as the smoke that climbs the hills of Brasov, calling my father to yelp an authentic hello that matches my last name. In times of fog or lucidity, I grasp the importance of my returns. Their significance and laughable inevitability. 

My one-way ticket to San Juan leaves in a couple of months. A learner’s permit has just arrived in the mail so my driving lessons can begin next week. I’ve arranged it so that by the time we touch down I know how to drive and can make it the three hours west to Abuela’s permanent den. To gift her flowers. And ask her how the past year has been. If she has heard my whispers all the way in New York. After that, I may drive to Mayagüez, sit at the foot of the plaza, by the theater, and watch the college students mingle while warding off jealousy. I might then drive on La Cien and pull into the mall. Go to the jewelry stand, get lost in silver rings and glittery sandals. Go to the pretzel stand and ask for a cafe con leche, un azúcar moreno por favor, with a dollar bill and an unsure smile. From there I’ll surely take the car up to Aguadilla and carefully pull into the hidden house of my godmother, shielded by lazy leaves, so I can steal star fruit and avocado from her fertile yard. 

I apprehend ending my trip with a book on that bench across from the sprinklers up from El Morro. The one at the end of the steps that start only a few paces north from the store that sells those old UPR booklets. The store across from the ceilinged structure that houses two bars where the mustached man sells his handmade leather satchels under the mosaicked arch. No way will they doubt I’m from here.

Until then, I will continue to lurk in the shadows of full identity and learn as much as I can about lives which could have been mine. Steal rhythms and histories under the guise of self-expression or exploration. Appropriate vistas to use as a filler for cultural deficit and pretend to understand, to claim to understand, that of which I am incapable, as you can never know that which you have not experienced. For which you do not have a basis. Until then, when people ask where are you from, I will rattle off my points of origin. I then will point them eastbound, from Mayaguez, and tell them that (if they were wondering) the most beautiful mountains on the island are on its right side, twenty minutes before passing the P O N C E sign. Answering a question they did not ask. And probably never would have thought to.  

Paulina Calistru (she/her) is a first-generation New Yorker currently figuring things out. You can usually find her writing at a cafe downtown, riding her bike, reading on the subway or staring out the window.

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