Personal Essay: A Night in San Juan by Christine Stoddard

A Night in San Juan by Christine Stoddard

castillo-san-felipe-del-morro-9

Image by gemsounds (2013)

When I think of San Juan, Puerto Rico, I think of the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery nestled by the bay. Lost in reflection, I gazed out at the white tombstones and statuary huddled by the seawall.

My childhood best friend won a three-day vacation to San Juan in a sweepstakes, but couldn’t go because she was starting medical school. When she offered the prize to me, I immediately accepted. I turned in my final assignments for my summer classes and hopped on a bus from Richmond to New York. Once in Manhattan, my parents picked me up at the station and whisked me off to JFK. My parents were happy to do me the favor on their way to Connecticut.

I don’t remember the drive from Manhattan to Queens. What I do remember was sitting in my parents’ car for a few quiet moments after I had already said good-bye. My mother stopped me with “Wait.” Her look of utter trepidation made me wonder if she could bring herself to talk.

“What’s the matter?” I finally asked.
“Don’t get into any taxis by yourself,” she said.
I scoffed at her over-protectiveness, but regretted it when she added, “My mother was raped by a taxi driver.”
My annoyance dissipated. I was 22 and had never heard this before.

“When I was 14, my mother took a taxi alone and the driver pulled over to the side of the road and raped her,” she went on. “He dumped her in the ditch and left her for dead. When she regained her strength, she walked the rest of the way home. I was in the kitchen when I saw her clothes all torn up. She had terror in her eyes. I knew something horrible had happened.”

My mother shook as she told the story. All these years later, she still felt so much rage and sadness.

My mother rarely talks about growing up in El Salvador when the country was on the cusp of a bloody civil war that began when she was in her teens. She left for good when she was in her mid-twenties and moved to Miami to marry my father, an American journalist who had covered many Latin American conflicts.

By this point, the cars behind us were honking. I didn’t have much time to react other than to say I was sorry and I promised to be careful. I leaned forward to squeeze my mother’s quivering hand and then hopped out to catch my flight.

I was in a dreamlike state until I arrived in San Juan. Hyper-vigilant, I boarded a city bus at the airport to get to my hotel. I observed everyone on the bus and kept track of their movements, only looking outside to note my surroundings.

When I got to the hotel, I learned there was no room service, so I asked the clerk where to eat. He admitted the area was sort of a dead zone, but there was a Burger King a few blocks away. The area was not well lit and it was lonely at that hour. I was too hungry to consider options further afloat and set off into the night.

I think every woman has a natural fear of walking someone alone at night. Even if we’re strong, even if we’re fast, even if we’ve taken self-defense classes. What hope is there for us if we’ve been overpowered? My mother’s story had doubled my normal level of fear. I must’ve jumped two feet when a driver catcalled me and hyperventilated the rest of the way to Burger King. I placed my order, gulped down my sandwich, and then raced back to the hotel. Once I locked myself in my room, I felt all of my muscles relax and fell asleep from pure exhaustion.

Over the next couple days, I drifted from historical site to site, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness. Usually, I enjoyed traveling alone because it allowed me to see exactly what I wanted at my own pace. Yet thinking of my grandmother’s rape meant I could only see myself as a target. It didn’t help matters that when I got on a tram and ended up chatting with a Mexican couple.

“¿Sola?” the wife repeated after I explained that, no, I wasn’t on holiday with my parents or boyfriend.

“Sí,” I said shyly, realizing what little confidence I now had in my original decision to come to San Juan by myself.

When I got off at my stop, the couple warned me once more to be careful.

I walked through the Castillo San Felipe del Morro completely preoccupied. I had taken most every precaution: dressing plainly, speaking Spanish, even avoiding alcohol altogether. No matter what I did, just by virtue of being a woman, I was an easy mark. Hour by hour, I became paralyzed with fear.

By the end of my first day in Puerto Rico, I almost couldn’t think. I forgot that the sun set earlier there than it did back home, so I found myself stranded after dark. I had walked the two miles from my hotel to Old San Juan in the light of day with no problem. But at night, that walk was quite a different experience. There wasn’t a bus that went between my hotel and Old San Juan, so I could either walk back or take a cab. I chose to walk.

The walk to the hotel was one of the most terrifying of my life because I had worked myself up into such a frenzy. Every man I passed was a potential predator. I entertained every sordid possibility until I just couldn’t take it anymore. I ended up shitting myself—literally. Humiliated, I tried my best to control my movements so my shit wouldn’t spread during the last leg of my journey.

Too embarrassed to take the elevator, I took the stairs to my room. I immediately threw myself into the bathroom. I peeled off my underwear, plopped the shit in the toilet, flushed it, and buried my underwear in the garbage can. I topped it off with a plush layer of toilet paper. Then I took a long, hot shower.

As I scrubbed myself clean, I thought about what it meant to be a woman in an unjust world. We must fear for our lives, yet we can’t let that fear consume us. We must learn to tame that fear and fight for a culture that doesn’t make fear a given part of womanhood.

I did not chastise myself for making the trip. The truth was despite people’s warnings, nothing horrible happened to me. The worst thing that occurred was something I did to myself: think myself in circles until I lost control. I saw San Juan, one of the most beautiful cities in the United States, and I did it alone. I proved to myself that, despite my female body, I could move through this world alone.

*****

Christine Stoddard is a Salvadoran-Scottish-American writer and artist who lives in Brooklyn. In addition to being the founding editor of Quail Bell Magazine, she is the author of Hispanic & Latino Heritage in Virginia (The History Press), Ova (Dancing Girl Press, 2017), and two miniature books from the Poems-For-All series. Her work has appeared in anthologies by Candlewick Press, Civil Coping Mechanisms, ELJ Publications, and other publishers.
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