Avenida del Norte
Carmen Enid Acevedo Betancourt
Translate by Jessica Powell
"And with that, the government, the heat, taxes, road conditions, one topic after another, five meters, a
sententious phrase or a restrained curse."
J. Cortázar, "The Southern Thruway"*
“I hope it won’t last more than two weeks.”
“I hope it won’t even be three days.”
(A man and woman overheard post-hurricane Maria)
That morning, eight days after the storm had pummeled the country and the destruction was patently obvious, Maria Isabel got up at four in the morning to go to the only gas station near her house that she trusted in order to fill the tank of her decrepit jalopy, the oldest truck among any of her group of friends but the only one that worked on streets flooded or clogged with trees and zinc roofs. With the tank full and her soul empty, she would travel the familiar routes of the tragedy, make sure that her family was okay, touch base with friends and lend a hand in any way she could to those from the island’s interior who had been trapped in the mud and the aftermath of natural deforestation. She had spent the past few days vacillating between dread and boredom, fear and grief, helplessness and 106-degree heat.
The cold towel that she used at night to cool her chest and neck seemed to weep when she moved it to the stainless steel sink to wring it of sweat and tears. She had set the powerful lantern that had already become a prosthetic appendage to her right hand on the stove in order to shed some light on the process of cleaning that small -- sometimes yellow, today, light brown-- piece of towel. The recently remodeled kitchen looked a mess. It had lost its former impeccability. “This is a hurricane house. It’s the best I can do,” she would say to anyone who showed up looking for alcohol, food or gossip.
The truth is that Maria Isabel’s kitchen had never been such a disaster, given her aspirations as a chef. After September 19th, that kitchen, that house were no longer the same. Appearances scarcely seemed to matter. The only thing that mattered was the obvious. The country was immersed in the worst crisis of the past 35 years. A category 4 or 5 hurricane, depending on whom you talked to, had battered the country from the north to the west, from one corner of the island, right up the middle, and all the way to the other corner. From east to west, from north to south.
Two of the five refugees that Maria Isabel had in her home decided to go get gas as well. Each of them in separate cars. Ignoring the curfew that the current governor had put into law, stipulating that folks could only go out between five in the morning and seven at night. Denizens of the night were having a field day while citizens like Maria Isabel were supposed to go to bed early, stop trying to do anything in the face of the emergency. Just how in jail they turn the lights out in the cells; each to his own home, his own mortgage, sleeping dreamlessly, only breaking the silence with the occasional fart. Others tried out the bohemian lifestyle, drinking rum at one of the bars that cropped up in front yard and on sidewalks. The new bars belonged to everyone, the front sidewalks, the disheveled park, the dark little square.
Life in this country changed forever on September 20th. Neighbors came out to meet one another. Social connections were discovered. “I met the neighbors from six doors down, four blocks over…we had never exchanged a word in 22 years.” All at once, from body to body, face to face, there was contact, hands on shoulders, affectionate gazes exchanged.
The convoy of citizens left the Placita Roosevelt area in the direction of Roosevelt Avenue, and from there, headed to the Puma gas station on its northern end in San Juan. Before the hurricane, it was an area filled with restaurants, furniture stores, shops selling knick-knacks, and some run-down buildings, icons of the economic recession our Caribbean nation is suffering.
They thought there wouldn’t be more than three cars waiting at that hour. Maria Isabel and her followers expected to be fourth, fifth and sixth in line. They had things to do, people to support, friends to hug. Everyone else would need to stay home and obey the curfew, respect the authority of those who told them that all they needed to do was to wait for services to be reestablished, go off to their jobs, go back to their normal lives and wait for 2020 to decide if the current leaders deserved to be reelected. The citizens’ evaluation of the government’s actions would take place on a designated date. The handling of the current emergency would be a determining factor when it came time to elect candidates in 2020.
When the driver of the jalopy approached Roosevelt Avenue and Hostos, her jaw dropped. The line for the gas station began two steps from the entrance and went all the way to the end of Avenida del Norte. She circled around, following the line of cars in the opposite direction, noticing that it went along the Golden Mile, passing by the Appeals Court where all the wrongful death suits for those who died in State Hospitals would end up; by the old Citibank building; by the corner with the fat Botellos where the UBS Financial Services building stands, where government bonds were issued, where vultures pecked away at the island’s Retirement System, leaving it insolvent; by the Banco Popular, the same one that kept the money from government salaries after the Government Development Bank disappeared, to end up at last in front of the hulking Coliseum of Puerto Rico, better known as the Choliseo, which also racked up tremendous debt and was built without proper planning by undocumented Mexican laborers who were exploited by the contractor du jour. All this occurred under Rosselló in the ‘90s, during the tenure of the current incumbent’s father. As if the inheritance of power were written in rebar and concrete, water and flood, deforestation and the felling of trees in every direction. As if the storm warning had arrived like that on the damned Doppler.
“We’re almost all the way back to the State Elections Commission. Shit!” came a text from Sonia, as she pulled up behind her friend in the gas station line. Behind their trio of cars was the State Elections Commission building, much battered by Maria, where former State Department Secretary and former Senator with the New Progressive Party, Norma Burgos’s, entire family currently worked. Maria Isabel, a planner by profession, and her refugees, two of them professors under contract at the University of Puerto Rico, were unemployed when the storm devastated the country. Just thinking of the specter of Norma Burgos, her well-paid sons, nieces and nephews, made her stomach turn.
Their engines turned off, Maria Isabel got out of her car to let her friends know that she was going to talk to anyone she could find at 4:25 in the morning to tell her what the deal was with the gas station where the security detail for the Unites States Jurisdiction in Puerto Rico, with their offices in a building on Chardón Avenue, fill up their tanks. There would be plenty of gas there. That was the same building, in which judges swear to defend the United States Constitution, where officials with Ricardo Roselló’s government announced that the emergency would be a matter for “collaboration with U.S. forces.” Where the emergency was officially federalized. The invasion of 1898 for a second time around, almost two hundred years later. The second time in which it would be the military that parceled out ham and Export Soda Crackers. The first time was after Hurricane San Ciriaco in 1899, one year after the invasion.
Just in front of the jalopy was a produce truck. “Plantains from over here, avocados from over there,” was handwritten on the back window like the trade mark for a way to make a living from day to day, made impossible now because: “there’s no gas, there’s no diesel…I can’t get to the market square to buy goods. This is total chaos.”
“And is there gas over there?”
“Yes, of course…that’s where the Americans fill up. There’s always gas there. There’s even diesel.”
“I left the house thinking there wouldn’t be anyone out here. No one gets up early around here, you know…around here not many of us work at four in the morning…But, damn, was I wrong. This line is so incredibly long.”
Maria Isabel decided to talk to a few more people before taking the news back to Sonia and Pascual. At the end of her conversation with the produce vendor, she cast a glance at her jalopy and at her friends, and discovered that they were no longer the last ones in line. The line now extended past the State Elections Commission and threatened to make the turn where it would find itself in front of the Federal Courthouse. The need for fuel was forcing citizens to take another look at these institutions in that chaotic moment. The country’s history was on display, at the expense of those observing it, of those reflecting upon it.
The lords of the line got out of their cars. They took out beach chairs, dining chairs, little coolers filled with precious liquids in those “colorful cups” from which they pretended to drink coffee or soda. “Anytime is the right time for a Heineken.” And what about the Dry Law? “Ha! Let the police come and arrest me.” The Dry Law, imposed in concert with the curfew, had to be defied with all the bravado of a beer ad. There are no boundaries, as if everyone’s circumstances were being aired out through that emergency, no one knowing how to move or live after: “I had everything and I lost it all in a couple of hours.”
As she was walking, Maria Isabel took an inventory of the reasons why, at that early-morning hour, a man and a woman, cradling a sleeping child, could be seen walking around an improvised living room, complete with armchairs, or why there was a couple sitting side by side in beach chairs as if on a seashore but with no sand, dressed in shorts and neon-colored Hawaiian shirts decorated with palm trees. Unlike at other crowded events in the country, there was no boombox connected by Bluetooth to the rhythms of reggaeton or salsa gorda. Some people sat in their cars with their headphones in, staring at their phones. Kids watched movies on DVD in back seats and others, pale and chubby, looked out of the windows, frightened, cookie crumbs stuck to their lips.
“Excuse me,” Maria Isabel said to a driver waiting in a second line going down the left-hand side of the road. “What’s this line for?
“It’s for federal employees,” said the woman, in dark glasses and military fatigues, lowering her window three-quarters of the way down.
The “federal” line was also for doctors and employees in the health care profession with proper identification. The Puerto Rican police, the military and security agencies had been put in charge of maintaining order at the gas stations. Their function as agents of state security had been transferred to these places, to ensure that the lines remained orderly, and that hysteria, unrest and exhaustion didn’t turn into violence. Burglars took advantage of the fact that all the whistles and nightsticks were at the gasoline lines in order to loot buildings at their leisure. Drug dealers redoubled their efforts to enter the country to distribute their products, and the vultures disguised as contractors in the governing party’s pocket sharpened their pencils. There is no surveillance for them.
“I’ve been here since two in the morning,” said a forty-something man sitting on the hood of his white pick-up truck. “I have to go to Morovis today to see about my grandmother. I’m worried sick that her house is gone and I need to find out what’s happened to her. She didn’t want to come live with me here so she stayed there with her 77-year old boyfriend. She’s 86, but she seems not a day over 60. What she says goes.”
That man, with a tattoo on his left arm of the sacred heart of Jesus and another on his right shoulder that said “forgive me, mother,” seemed straight out of an Almodóvar film to Maria Isabel. All that was left was for him to tell her that, before the hurricane, his grandmother smoked marijuana or snorted coke and had constant passionate sex with her boyfriend, only letting up long enough to answer her grandson’s phone calls from San Juan.
“If your grandmother has a boyfriend at 86, I’m sure she’s still alive even if her house is gone. When someone of her age puts her heart and soul into another person, not even a hurricane can topple her. You’ll be the one to bury her one day,” said Maria Isabel, gripping the sacred heart of Jesus on the man’s shoulder with her hand, as though by touching him, she could send good vibes all the way to the old woman in Morovis. As if by touching that image of contrition on that tattooed and repentant grandson, he would know that he would find his grandmother alive and kicking amid the ruins of her bedroom, her heart and soul well intact.
As Maria Isabel walked among the passersby in search of answers, the life that she had led for the past two years passed through her mind’s eye like a movie. She had lived from day to day, travelling when she could, and she had fixed up her house as if she were planning to put it on the market. Quite the opposite of the octogenarian from Morovis, it had been quite a while since she’d felt a lover’s caress, and that hurricane hadn’t done away with her yearning for some good sex. And even so, she told herself: “I can wait. If this country comes out of this, when it comes out of this, it will never be the same again. And neither will I.”
The fear came back to her as she walked between the cars, remembering the lashing winds of that September 20th. As though each car were a replica of that day, a return to the hours of anguish and heartache. She was still walking, drying her sweat, her hair piled on top of her head with a plastic clip, when the door of a Porsche opened suddenly, almost smashing into her right shin. Trying to avoid being hit, Maria Isabel stumbled, scraping the toes of her right foot on the asphalt.
“Fuck!” she shouted, then noticed that the foot emerging delicately from the sports car was swathed in a red stiletto. Her gaze travelled upward past powerful calves and, above blunt, wide knees, to a pair of thighs that appeared to live trapped on machine number 8 at the gym on that very same Avenida del Norte.
“Pardon my French, darling,” she said, her eyes continuing upward until they came to the woman’s breasts. A face like the Duchess of Alba and the body of Malena, the Italian actress who Maria Isabel had sighed over during a Sunday matinee.
“Good morning, honey. What’s shaking?” the woman asked in a voice like Carlos Colón’s when he’s answering reporters’ questions after a fight.
“Nothing but this endless line, sweetie, and it’s not for food stamps at Parada 18, either. But look at you here in front of Citi Bank at 4:45 in the morning. Tell me, what time did you get up to put yourself together like that? How do you look so gorgeous?!”
“God only knows how, darling! I’ve been here since 1:00am. And no, just in case you’re thinking it…I haven’t been out hustling. My husband bought me this car, and he does, in fact, work in this bank as a finance officer. And I’m telling you because he doesn’t care anymore if the whole world knows that his wife is trans.”
“You didn’t have to confess a thing to me. No need. I’m just talking to you like this because that’s how I am. I’m helpless in the face of beauty, a shapely pair of legs and a perfect set of tits. I know that they aren’t yours, that a very good surgeon sculpted them for you. Oh my God, such drama here in the gas line. I’m even coming face to face with my own chauvinism and confessing it out loud.”
They both burst out laughing and hugged each other as though they were old friends. They chatted for a bit longer, then reverted to their original roles. Maria Isabel, the walker and, Virgin Pura, the driver of a white 2017 “Buster,” waiting for the much-anticipated gasoline. The precious liquid that would loose her imagination, perpetuate her identity as a chic woman, help to raise her self-esteem just a bit and enable her to go back to the routine she had before the hurricane.
“If I had known that living in the tropics would turn out to be such a bummer, I would have asked Ricky to take me to Switzerland,” said Virgin Pura. More laughter between the new friends. They even exchanged cell phone numbers.
Maria Isabel was so taken with that woman’s body that she had to turn her head to try to fix Virgin Pura’s face in her memory. Shoulder-length curls. Prada sunglasses hiding her eyes. She blew her a kiss, and received in return a wink and a kiss launched in her direction. “I’m in love with a trans. Damn, what a life we lead here in the Caribbean! It repeats again and again as if the sea and the palm trees contained the thousand and one diversities of this decadent country.”
The cars began to move just as Maria Isabel reached the corner where the south entrance to the Urban Train led underground. It was 5:00 in the morning. Maria Isabel stopped in the middle of the street and watched the “government” line moving slowly forward. She could make out the carport covering the gas station and noted that it was now lit up. The neon sign said $0.73 and the letter P indicated the supplier of the gasoline.
She turned around to head back to her friends. She glimpsed the trans woman again, fighting with someone over the phone. “No, damn it, I’m not coming up there to fuck you in your office. I’m not leaving this line, Ricky. I’ve got a nail appointment with the Dominican today and I have to get to her house and I also want to take some sweets over to your old lady and my mother. I need this gas.” She hung up, lowered the window and confided in Maria Isabel: “Horny fucking bastard.”
A little further on a woman shouted at her pudgy son: “There aren’t any more cookies! Next they’ll start telling me at your school that you have childhood obesity and that it’s all my fault. You’ve already eaten ten boxes of cookies. Not to mention the two liters of milk we brought in the cooler.” The boy’s cheeks looked like billiard balls. As his mother shouted, he stared at Maria Isabel, his lower lip trembling in prelude to a sob. Maria Isabel thought of the ads from the ‘80s of the children from Biafra, their swollen bellies full of parasites. This little boy had a big belly too, but from fat, an excess of sugar in his body from overeating. Ad campaigns had changed. The images were no longer the same.
She saw the produce vendor asleep, the woman still on her cell phone, and Sonia and Pascual sitting on the hood of her jalopy, which they’d had to move because the line had started moving.
“Everything okay?” asked Pascual, noting the blood on Maria Isabel’s left flip-flip. “What happened to you?”
“Oh, this stunning redhead almost smashed my shin with the door of her Porshe, and when I jumped to avoid it, I scraped my toe on the road. I saw stars, I called out for my mother and I cursed God, yet again.” And it wasn’t just her big toe. When she lifted up her feet, she saw blood on her heels, on the bottoms of her feet. The soles of her shoes had worn through. She had bled all along the way on the hot asphalt.
“Hmmm, it doesn’t hurt…I just wanted to know, to understand, and now it’s all left its mark on my skin. That’s what this road is like. And we’re just at the beginning.”
Suddenly the blood made her feel alive, as if something hot were running through her veins. In a country where people did not stop being who they were, not even when a hurricane destroyed the coasts and the cities, that thick, red line brought her back to her origins.
That line aligned in order to thow into Maria Isabel’s face that everyone is the same after the storm, after everything is destroyed. Shit always exits the body, and sometimes it touches your face, your legs, your arms. The wooden houses with zinc roofs in Utuado. The concrete houses with central air conditioning in Ocean Park. What comes out of both of them is shit.
The green color and the stench of the bags filled with shit make your skin crawl. They make you retch. Some people are covered in mud, others in shit, but no matter what, they’re all forced to wait in line for gasoline, so they can go off and monitor more shit. Into our cars, then. The line awaits.
*From All the Fires the Fire and Other Stories. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine)
This is a part of a series of 24 chronicles that will be published weekly in English and Spanish, as a part of www.24weeks.us.