“Well,” my mother says on the phone, “at least we are all still alive.” By the ‘we’ she means all our immediate and distant relations in Puerto Rico, they are all still alive. Her older sister and husband, my aunt and uncle, were considered missing for a day or two after the hurricane struck. Luckily they went and stayed with a cousin who didn’t bother contacting anybody right away. Missing in our family means the missing didn’t contact anybody during the ordeal or immediately after. And that being the case, I go ‘missing’ for months at a time when I am incommunicado from my family while living in Los Angeles. “You‘ve gone missing,” my mother chides and reminds me, “you have to call your mother more often.”
“They have a planta,” my mother speaks presently, “C____ (my cousin) turns the planta on for an hour or two during the day to cook.” My aunt sings much too loud in church. My uncle is 91 years old and in better shape than me. A ‘planta’ is a light plant small engine gas generator which can be bought at Home Depot for around three grand during any other time other than during the aftermath of a hurricane. The generators are being sold around ten grand or more now if you can find any on the entire island.
“Y____ went and picked up S____, you know she doesn’t like to fly. She went and picked her up in Mayaguez and flew with her to Ohio. Your cousin got married in Japan but they are having a second ceremony in Cleveland on Saturday. But we are not going because your father can’t drive because he‘s blind in one eye. Your father is having his monthly eye injection next week and we can’t make the wedding. They are already married. Your cousin speaks fluent Japanese. The wedding is merely ceremonial.” My mother sounds proud that somebody in our family is fluent speaking Japanese but the substantive takeaway information is that her other sister is no longer in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico but was flown out to Ohio. My father lost his eye to diabetes. I am slowly losing my feet to the same disease. My mother can drive but would never dream of driving them both exclusively to Ohio from Knoxville, not now, not at her age, and maybe not even when younger because of gender roles, she is of a different generation after all, and also I don‘t think my father would let her drive that distance without taking over the steering wheel, even if he is blind in one eye and going blind in the other.
My mother tells me how my younger sister is hosting her parents-in-law at her house in Ft. Lauderdale and how they have already enrolled three grandkids, my sister’s nieces and nephews, in the local elementary school. They don’t want the kids to fall behind by missing any time in school or by losing the school year. In Puerto Rico, all the schools are closed. Electricity is spotty. Food is scarce. People are fighting over potable water. Looting is prevalent. Back to normalcy feels years away. Families are hunkered down behind ornate iron works at night and venture out scared to get supplies during the day. Most have decided to shut everything down and close everything up and move and stay with relatives in mainland USA until the crisis is past and over, those with the privilege, the Puerto Rican privilege of citizenship, to have relations and friends in America only a flight away. “Your cousin E____, his wife has that terrible disease. She is running out of pills. Hard to find her medicine at any pharmacy. We may have to mail them the medicine she needs.” I rack my brain. I think she suffers from some type of muscular dystrophy. I would have no idea what her medicine regimen might be but I myself am dependent on insulin and I shudder at the thought of not having access to my insulin.
I wonder how the junkies of San Juan are faring. A song intrudes into my thoughts: “Do you like drugs? Yeah? Me too, me too, me too, me too. Oh.”
“The ocean surged in Ponce and has reached the plaza. The plaza is under water.” My mother drones on the phone. Any town plaza under water means that daily life in that town has definitely been disrupted. “The statue of Diplo in Naguabo was torn down by the winds.” Diplo, from Naguabo, was a famous comedian in the 50’s. He was like the Jerry Lewis of Puerto Rico with his own variety television show. A myth abounds that Diplo died of a heart attack while having sex with a tranny whore. Diplo is not the famous DJ which the kids love nowadays. No relation between names, Diplo, the DJ from Los Angeles, has no idea that Diplo, the Puerto Rican comic, ever existed or that the statue of Diplo blew away during hurricane Maria three weeks ago. “I used to walk to that plaza every day when I was a young girl.” My mother is now referencing the plaza in Naguabo where the statue of Diplo once stood. All the trees of that plaza have been destroyed meaning that daily life in Naguabo has been destroyed. The plazas of the towns and neighborhoods in Puerto Rico regulate culture and daily life on the island and if the plazas are under water or inaccessible because of blighted parks, broken trees not cleared, or corporeal danger at night then daily life has definitely been disrupted and destroyed. More so than the disintegrated roads and the obliterated highways, the shattered bridges, none of the infrastructure which was devastated has been fixed either.
President Trump, the conversation eventually turns to talk about President Trump’s response to the disaster. The conversation is inevitable. Every Puerto Rican family has to talk about how this administration is handling the disaster, how we are being treated as citizens of the United States, if we are being acknowledged as such or forgotten as such, recognized as working citizens contributing to our country. “El Presidente…” my mother refers to Trump as El Presidente, “…. El Presidente said that we should all be glad that we didn’t have hundreds of deaths like during Katrina. But Katrina only glanced Puerto Rico and didn’t hit the island full force like Maria.” I had to backtrack a bit. I forgot that Katrina also ravaged Puerto Rico before she went and drowned New Orleans. I have no idea how many people died on the island at that time because of hurricane Katrina. I can’t remember and have no recollection. I have to remind my mother, “The President is talking about the thousands who died in Louisiana when the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast. Do you remember the dead floating in the flooded streets of New Orleans? All the people stuck and dying in the Superdome?” She doesn’t know what the Superdome is but she remembers the horrible images of that time. She is quiet for a few seconds. “Yes. More people died during hurricane Katrina than now after Maria, the President is correct about that.” She says this like a person resigned to a faraway meaningless fact which has no bearing to the topic of what is happening in Puerto Rico at the moment. Almost as if she is stating, “many people died in Viet-Nam, the President is correct in saying that more people died in Viet-Nam than during hurricane Maria.” The fact means nothing. The fact has no relation to the reality that one of my cousins just had a baby this past summer and that her life is at risk every time she hazards out to find an open store to try and buy overpriced formula.
As always happens when the topic of Trump rears its ugly cobra head, I get tired and all the joy has been sucked out of the conversation. My mother senses this and attempts to steer the talk back to myself and my life. I don’t tell her that I want to spend the rest of the day sleeping in bed. Instead I tell her that I will wash the car and go to the grocery store and buy some jasmine rice and black beans and coconut milk and ginger and a clove of garlic and a chicken breast and make some yellow curry chicken over rice with juicy garlic beans from a recipe. We bond over food and cooking and dieting and health. And after re-establishing our happy bond and the tenuousness of love and affection, we say our goodbyes. But when I try to relax afterwards, I can see in my mind’s eye Trump chucking paper towels at my fellow Puerto Ricans in need like he is shooting t-shirts in Madison Square Garden during one of his political rallies and every one of my nerve endings burns with a tiny pinprick of resentment and I do not believe I will ever overcome my impacted animus for the man.
I guess I better get off this couch and go wash my car. The car will not wash itself and I do not think the world owes me anything no matter who I am. And if you should think of me as selfish and bereft of empathy then I change my plea to guilty.
Thank you for giving us meaningful, vivid sketches of your family and their circumstances after the storm. You’ve brought the crisis home in a personal way, all the way from Puerto Rico to North Hollywood. Always the brilliant storyteller.