While nowhere near Carson City, Puerto Rico figures into my novel, US, NOW AND THEN briefly but significantly. Claire’s Peace Corps training was to take place there in 1972 and was where she learned she was pregnant. Nearly a decade later she and her mother, Sylvia vacationed there one Christmas. Claire had been working as a guide for a European tour company for much of her twenties. While she loved to travel and the life her job afforded her, she still longed for more. Just what, she wasn’t sure.
This scene was truncated in the final edit. Here’s an earlier and longer version.
Dave. Christmas of 1980. Claire and her mother had been sitting in a San Juan, Puerto Rico hotel bar. Its arched doorways, ceiling fans and potted palms reminded her of Rick’s Café Américain in “Casablanca.” The dark, bow-tied waiter brought their drinks. Sylvia, a daiquiri and Claire, a tall Cuba Libre. Both were still a little buzzed from the Bacardi factory tour and tasting earlier that afternoon. Claire raised her glass.
“Salud!” Her mother returned the gesture.
The sun had gone down, the bar nearly empty. As often as she sat in hotel bars and lobbies in foreign countries, she never stopped scanning the room for familiar faces. Did that come from growing up in a small town? Or perhaps it was an occupational hazard, born of nearly a decade of watching out for her charges on tours, making sure they were being taken care of and weren’t lonely.
Lonely was something Claire had grown accustomed to, although she was rarely alone. What she was missing at thirty was an attachment to one person. Yes, there were occasional romantic trysts in exotic locales, but no one special. No one worth the effort she knew a relationship required. No one like. . . Never mind. Besides, she was mature enough to accept that her own choices had led to this life.
“So, what’s on the itinerary for tomorrow?” her mother asked.
“I’ve rented a car. I thought we’d drive up to the Arecibo Observatory to see that huge radio-telescope that listens for space sounds.”
Her mother nodded. “The educational portion of our trip.”
“And a drive through the hills and over to the coast. A little town or two. Lunch somewhere along the way.”
She was taking another sip of her drink when she heard, “Claire? Claire Jordan?!” from across the bar. “My goodness!” A large lively woman about her mother’s age waved her arm and rushed toward her. A jangle of gold bracelets glittered on the woman’s wrist.
“Hello, Shirley.” Claire stood to shake hands with the woman.
“What a surprise to see you here! This must be your mother. How do you do? I’m Shirley Landau.” She reached out her hand.
“Sylvia Jordan.” Her mother turned to her then added, “Are you alone? Why don’t you join us?” Can politeness be a character flaw?
Shirley sat, looked back over her shoulder toward the entrance and shrugged. “I’m supposed to meet my son here.” She continued, hardly taking a breath, “Your wonderful daughter led our tour of the Greek Isles last spring. So knowledgeable. So helpful. You must be very proud.”
With one raised finger, Claire signaled the waiter, dampening her feelings by ordering another drink. She was on her own goddam vacation. Not working. Now she’d have to mind her manners and her mouth. Shit. Fuck. Damn. Now she’d probably have to meet Shirley’s son, too. She let the mothers carry the conversation while she glanced around the room for an escape route.
Shirley asked, “So Claire, you’re not here working, are you? If you travel all the time, is there any such thing as a vacation?”
Her mother answered for her. “Claire and I try to take a trip together every year. This time she offered a tropical Christmas trip to get me out of the cold at home.”
“Tell me about it. Chicago winters are truly awful. I hate them. Where do you live? Out west somewhere, right?”
“Carson City. Near Lake Tahoe.” That’s right Mom. Short answers. “Our winters aren’t as bad as Chicago’s, but bad enough.”
“And just girls?” Shirley asked.
“Just girls.” You’re doing fine Mom. Let’s not share everything. Claire swirled the ice in her drink.
“And here’s Dave now.” Shirley waved, jiggling the bare skin on her large tan upper arm. Claire looked up to see a tall, blonde, and sunburned fortyish man in a navy-blue polo shirt and khakis. Around his neck two pairs of glasses hung on straps. He strode across the room and bent to kiss his mother’s cheek, holding his glasses in check. He apologized for being late.
“I see you’ve made some friends already.”
Shirley made introductions, explaining their connection, the coincidence. Dave sat. The waiter reappeared without being beckoned.
“What are we drinking, hmmm? Rum? That Cuba Libre looks good. I could use a little caffeine with the booze tonight. A bit sleep deprived, I’m afraid.”
“Dave’s such a good son.” Shirley positively beamed. “He flew in from work early this morning. And I’ve kept him busy all day. Listening to all my stories, taking me shopping.”
“Happy to do it, Mom. May I get you ladies a refill?”
“Why not?” Her mother spoke up before Claire could object, then turned her discerning gaze to Dave, sizing him up. “What do you do, Dave? Something in Chicago?”
“I work out of New York City.”
Shirley laughed. “Way out of New York. He works for UNICEF. Travels everywhere helping fund schools and hospitals and, well everything. What’s your title?”
“Undersecretary for Development.”
Claire had only been half-listening until the last bit. “What exactly does that mean?”
“At my level, it’s mostly needs assessment, administrative stuff. Deciding which projects are most needed. I spent a lot of time in Africa last year.”
“I was supposed to go to Kenya with the Peace Corps. Years ago.”
“Changed my mind.” Claire shrugged. “I’m still interested in the work though.”
“It does get under your skin. Literally.” He scratched an imaginary itch on his wrist.
Claire smiled. At least he’s pleasant.
“So, ladies. Where would you like to have dinner? There’s a great place in Old San Juan the concierge told me about. A seafood dinner and live music? How does that sound?”
Sylvia gave a fatigued sigh. “I thought maybe we’d eat at the hotel tonight. I’m pretty tired after walking all over the fort today. And the Bacardi tour. I’d hoped to turn in early.” Her mother hadn’t mentioned being tired earlier. What was she trying to pull?
“Me too,” Shirley chimed in. “Why don’t you kids go do the town and let the old folks stay in tonight?”
“Looks like a conspiracy,” Dave gave his mother a suspicious look then stood and looked at Claire. “Shall we?”
“I’m not sure we have a choice.”
That night, she couldn’t ask enough questions about Dave’s work. He detailed each step over dinner and more rum. Unable to sleep that night, her mind was suddenly too animated with possibilities and more questions, which Dave answered the next day. Within six months he’d found her an entry-level job as a relief worker for a small organization that set up health clinics for women and babies. Not to mention a sometime boyfriend who valued his independence as much as she valued hers.
Certainly, meeting Dave had changed Claire’s life, but not in the usual way that a man does. Probably better, she admitted.
When my husband and I traveled to Puerto Rico in the 1990s, I expected to eat lots of fresh tropical fruit and seafood as I had in Hawaii. What I found instead were codfish fritters called “bacalaitos” and fried plantains, called “tostones.” These foods demonstrate the rich history and culture of Puerto Rico that include not only the influence of indigenous Taíno Indians but also of early Spanish settlers and enslaved Africans, who brought with them their own food preferences.