Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Old Italian Man at Playa Guyacanes

April 1, 2006

I was lying on one of those white plastic, worn-out, rent-for-the-day beach chairs with my face absorbed in a book. My plan was to get some reading done while enjoying the beautiful Caribbean scenery and the relaxing sound of the ocean’s comings and goings. I arrived at the beach equipped with my one-piece bathing suit and basketball shorts, extra protection from preying men, because I did not want to be bothered today. I had learned my lesson months ago in Sosua when a group of European men mistook my token-ness at the resort for my being a Dominican prostitute, even in my conservative two-piece suit.

Next to me, and my dilapidated chair, were a group of old men, some greasy-haired, others bald, spitting Italian words and gestures all over the place. Their sprinkled-with-white-hair chests and pregnant guts complemented their tight bikinis. Apparently, they did not get the memo: old men should not try to strut their not-so-hot stuff in Speedos. I attempted to concentrate on my reading, but I was distracted by their loudness and their sense of power and entitlement. Instead of struggling to focus on my book, I turned toward my friends to join into their conversation but was interrupted by one of the bald Italians before I could say a word.

“Americana?” He questioned. It was as though he had been waiting for me to put my book down to get my attention, to intercept my words. “No,” I replied. I never say I’m Americana anyway. “I’m from Antigua,” I continued, giving him the benefit of the doubt although, in the back of my head, I knew that he and his friends had to be sex vultures scavenging Dominican women. “I have never been there. I should go there.” he replied, looking as though he was taking a mental note to look into it for future sexual investments and expecting an invitation to there from me. Then, he told me, in his part Spanish, part Italian, that he was in the Dominican Republic for six months, a vacation from the cold, something he always does evidently.

As much as I did not want to talk to this old grimy Italian, I was curious; I wanted to put a face to these prostitute-searching men. He persisted with small talk, and after learning that I also lived in the Dominican Republic, mumbled, “Maybe, you could call me, or I could call you sometime, and we could get together.” I pretended that I did not hear what he said and sought refuge in my book, which suddenly looked more interesting than it did before. I locked my eyes on to the black letters of the white pages while he remained staring at me, his aged eyes’ burning me worse than the Dominican sun.

Several times, he attempted to get my attention, but I ignored him, immersed into my fake-reading. In the awkwardness of the moment, he conveniently noticed a friend and walked to him, away from me. “Thank goodness,” I thought to myself, and I finally joined my friend’s discussion. In his absence, two teenage Dominican girls, after being called over, joined the Elderly-Men-Who-Think-They-Are-God’s-Gift-To-Women Social Club. I watched these girls, who had nothing in common with these men, try to engage in meaningless conversation with them. They sat among these baked foreigners, putting on a show for them, entertaining them as though they were kings.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, in my pitying these girls, a hand brushed over my head. It was his hands, his dirty, disgusting, women-objectifying hands. All I could think was that this stranger old-enough-to-be-my-great-grandfather had touched me, had run his hands over my head, probably getting some kick out of feeling my what-is-for-him exotic hair. Shocked by his boldness, his utter disrespect for my space, I was unable to speak; I was unable to react.

After my initial trauma, I gave him a Dena-from-the-Bronx look. I felt so annoyed, so assaulted, so dehumanized by the way he petted my head as though I were some animal. Nothing about me said, “Touch me,” but he must be used to getting his way around here. I got up from my on-loan chair and hopped onto another crappy beach chair away from him, something I should have done sooner, and at the same time, something that I should not have had to do. I plopped my book open, looked out toward the horizon, and listened to the ocean’s music drown under Italian cadence.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Sick Baby

March 23, 2006

“I would like to go upstairs with you today,” I said to the psychologist, the words blurting out of my mouth uncontrollably. She motioned for me to come, and I followed her without really knowing what I was getting myself into. We walked through a long, narrow corridor where pregnant women scurried around like ants and pass a make-shift waiting room at the hospital’s entrance where patients’ loved ones sat idly in the Dominican heat.

The first time I visited the adolescent post-partum room on the third floor I wanted to cry. It was too much for me—to be in a room full of disadvantaged teen moms that I could not help and to be in a place that reminded me so much of Dana’s suffering. This time like the last time, the Virgin Altagracia in the framed picture on the wall stared at the new teen mothers endearingly. Her serene face contrasted the nervous and clueless expressions of the girls she watched over.

Metal-framed beds were lined up next to each other on each side of the room, where nothing separated one patient from the other. Each mother was exposed; her business was everyone else’s. In the corner of the room, I saw a family that I had met previously. I had developed a relationship with the mother and her pregnant daughter during their hospital visits downstairs. As soon as the girl’s mother, Luz Maria, noticed me, she ran to me and gave me a hug. “I came looking for you twice to give you a gift,” she said. I told her that a gift was not necessary, but she wanted to express her gratitude to me, her gratitude for my making them feel as though they mattered. I was touched.

I walked with her to the last bed in the room where her seventeen-year old daughter struggled to sit up, her breast out in the open in an effort to squeeze milk into a bottle for her baby. I wondered why she did not simply breast-feed; then, I looked onto her bed to realize that every other mother in the room shared their beds with their new borns except for her. “Where’s your baby?” I asked. “He’s in intensive care,” Dulce, the teenager’s aunt, answered. “He has respiratory problems,” Dulce continued. I listened to her explain everything to me because that was all I could do. I tried to change the topic. “When did you give birth?” “On March 21,” Maria, the new mom, said. I assured her that her baby would be intelligent because he’s an Aries, like me, even though I do not even believe in that astrological sign crap. Somehow, I wanted to give her hope that her baby would make it, and then when he did make it, he’d be some genius.

Unsuccessful attempts at extracting milk from her breast led the family to decide that Maria should visit her baby, Francisco, to breastfeed him. Four of us took the trek downstairs to the intensive care unit where babies in plastic boxes fought for their lives. When we reached Francisco, the nurses were giving him an injection in his left hand. The needle protruded out from his delicate, virgin skin. Maria stepped away, not being able to see her son like that, weak and fragile. I understood how she felt completely. I know how hard it is to see a loved one fighting for life.

Maria begged me to ask the nurse what ailed her baby. She felt powerless, so I did her that favor. “What’s wrong with this baby?” I inquired. The nurse explained that Francisco was doing poorly, that he had severe respiratory problems, and that he would have to stay in the hospital until he improves. I looked behind me to see if Maria was still in the room, but she had vanished, not wanting to look as though she had sent me on what should have been a mother’s mission.

I exited the room to find Maria sitting down with her mother and aunt. “What’s wrong with him?” They pleaded, almost attacking me with their curiosity. Suddenly, I felt like the doctor that has to approach a waiting family to tell them the bad news, that some relative had just passed away. I had seen this exact scene so many times in movies or on television shows, and now that I was presented with the real-life script, I could not even speak. I explained to them that Francisco was still doing poorly but that with time he would improve. I kept it simple, not going into details, using the Spanish-is-not-my-native-language excuse. I was not prepared for this.

I saw Maria’s face become overcome with pain. She tried hard to fight it, to pretend that everything was fine, but when we returned back upstairs, Maria’s tears started to pour down onto the dirty hospital floor, leaving clean spots where they had fallen. “I was born ill too,” I added to her mother and aunt’s cheer-uppers. I explained to her that my twin sister and I stayed in the hospital two weeks after being born and that now we were both healthy. I had no choice but to lie. I neglected to get into Dana’s tumultuous medical history. I was desperate. I just wanted to help.

Maria stopped crying when we reached her too-old-to-still-be-in-use hospital bed. Her mother and aunt had convinced her that she had to be strong for her baby and that she had to take all of this as a learning experience. Despite their crisis, they were making arrangements for me to come to their house to share themselves, their lives, their everything with me. I watched them as they showered Maria, and me, with strength, wisdom, and love and wondered why they would ever feel the need to thank me for making them feel as though they mattered when it is because of them, I matter.