Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Eternal Merriment

It had been, by the time I left the hospital, almost a month since I had fallen; I was, in theory, well on the way to recovery. Now, it was only a matter of going home, going to bed, and emerging two months later.

OK—that plan lasted about five days….

The first problem was that Christmas was upon us, and Taí, Raf’s sister as well as mine by adoption, was on her way. She is, and always has been, a blessing on the house, but what kind of house was she walking to? I decided: I would clean the bathroom and the back bedroom. I could do nothing more.

Taí is acutely sensitive to moods, and she told me, some days later: “you’re acutely depressed.”

Was I? I didn’t think so. I was acutely tired of what seemed about to be a chronic condition. Because the pain, while greatly reduced, was still there, still nagging—as insistent as a bad mother-in-law.

And now, every movement was an invitation to catastrophe. While I had been marooned in bed, nothing much could happen to me. But now, I was interpreting “bed rest” to mean, “try to avoid lifting the piano.” And so I was up, moving about, going to the store, and then seeking refuge back in bed. So any false move could be disaster; worse, I had to train myself to be a viejito, or old man.

Getting up from a chair meant first looking at my feet, looking at the floor that I planned to traverse, identifying objects that could trip me up, figuring out which tables, chairs, or walls I could grasp to steady myself, if need be. All that done, I could push myself up with both hands on the green resin chair arms, reach for the balcony door, steady myself, and then prepare to walk through the living room. Careful—the rug starts there. Caution, the cat is moving toward me. Watch out—am I faint? If so, hold on to….

Nor was that all. Since I was spending a good deal of time in bed, I tended to be dizzy when I got up. So each time I sat up in bed, I told myself, “postural hypotension.” A holdover from my nursing days, it simply meant that I had to take a few moments, make sure I wasn’t dizzy, and make sure I knew what I would grab if I were.

The danger was the unexpected: the cat that didn’t announce himself but was simply there, between my legs, as I was turning to put the yogurt back into the refrigerator. And speaking of the refrigerator, it had a special terror for me, since the cats had learned—unbelievably—to open the refrigerator door. Raf had responded to this by putting two large cat litter containers filled with water against the refrigerator door. When well, it was a nuisance to open the door, since the water containers would be pushed out to the middle of the kitchen. But now, I was distinctly edgy about opening the refrigerator door, especially since the sound tended to attract our four cats, who would then come into the kitchen. Was there food about? Something that might, perhaps, fall? So now there would be two water containers, four cats, assorted food-frenzy sounds, and my own two unsteady feet. Oh, and I would likely be holding a cup of scalding coffee.

Thus, there were dangers everywhere. And I might, somehow, learn to control myself, but could I control other people? Street corners became booby traps, since in Old San Juan, the sidewalks are narrow, just wide enough, in some cases, for one person. So if I turned the corner, and encountered someone charging along—as once I had charged—looking over his shoulder or down at his cell phone? It was his “oops;” it was my disaster.

Still, there were compensations: the order to rest in bed for two months was a nice excuse to avoid what I had learned to dread: the forced joyfulness of the holiday season. Nor is it just a season, in Puerto Rico, but rather something like a near-eternity. Christmas bombards you from even before Halloween, just as in the states; Puerto Rico, however, extends it almost into February. And thus, for three months it is three things: traffic, party, and pretending to be happy.

Which I wasn’t, of course—why should I be? I had broken my back and might face paralysis, and now, you want me to stand about clapping my hands and shuffling my feet and singing, Feliz Navidad? And speaking of which—did anyone on the island have a reason to be happy?

Because—no news here!—the island was not doing well. The news had been incessantly bad months, now, and people were beginning to complain: they were getting tired of hearing about the “financial crisis.”

“Crisis? What crisis? Do you see anybody in crisis here,” snapped Lady to a reporter from Forbes Magazine. He had thought to stop into the café on poetry night, and had expected to see glum, despondent people, heads hanging down, unable to greet or chat with one another. Instead, it was the usual crowd.

“Hah! He came to see a funeral, and discovered that there wasn’t even a corpse!”

We had been living, as we are still living, in the tense and unnerving weeks before the crisis really hit: true, we had defaulted on one loan repayment, but not much else had happened. No fiscal control board had been created, no jobs had been slashed, no government spending curtailed or contracts cancelled. It felt, in short, that life was going on just as usual, that the crisis was made up by the politicians. And who would have to solve it? The politicians, of course.

In short, Greece was way ahead of us, and would we see the runs on banks, even the closing on banks, or the limiting of withdrawals? Would the streets be thronged with protesting government workers, their jobs now gone at the demand of the European Union? Would the rapacious vulture funds, which had lent us money like loan sharks, force us to close even more schools, sell our parks, cut the government in half? Hah! Let them try!

And there was, it has to be said, a sense of injured pride: the world, which had paid so little attention to us, was finally now noticing us, and what was it seeing? We were all reading the national press, and getting tired of seeing the same photos: the picture of the balcony of the blue building in Old San Juan, with its Puerto Rican flag and the “For Sale” sign on it. Or there was the photo of the deserted urban mall in Rio Piedras: Calle de Diego now empty, with boarded up storefronts. But did anyone see our beautiful beaches, our lush forests, our vibrant culture? No—it was all the same negative rant about the 72 billion dollars that we owed….

And so we were tired of what hadn’t even begun, and were we going to let the politicians ruin our Christmas? Of course not, so the traffic got worse and worse, the people jammed into the old city, to walk the streets and to join—or just listen and watch—the bomba y plena.

The culmination, or for me the nadir, came in the middle of January, when the old city hosts the San Sebastian Festival. Or is it, rather, the beer companies that inflict the San Sebastian Festival? For all of the wonderful arts and crafts that you can see in the daytime, it is the raucous sounds of the salsa and the zuzuvuelas and the incessant shouting, singing, music blaring of the night that one remembers.

In fact, we had in previous years taken my brother’s advice from his experience of living in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. And that was? Head for the hills, and so we went on forced vacations to—usually—the Virgin Islands. There, we would stay at a hotel, scrounge for food at the supermarket, and—best of all—soak a year’s tension away in the Jacuzzi.

What would we do this year? Could I travel, I who had been ordered to rest for two months? Somehow, the thought of getting to the airport, standing in lines, shuffling through security, being cattled into an airplane seemed worse than enduring the festival. We would bunker down, we felt, and survive.

We very nearly did….