The Tide

“You never know unless you try,” he spoke, ripping away her attention from the massive metal contraption on the water before them.

             She saw how he comfortably stood beside her, unobtrusive yet making himself fully present to her attentions.

             “What do you mean?” She answered the stranger, unwilling to slip out of apprehension. It was how she had managed to buy the boarding pass for the transcontinental ship, about to take passengers into a new life across the Atlantic.

             She was now among the throng of people currently waiting to board. Her boarding pass was gripped tight within her stiff fingers.

             The man who spoke brought his gaze to hers. She noticed his eyes, large, round and the color of coffee beans. “Traveling on a boat. It’s worth the try, but it’s your first time, though, isn’t it? You look about to bolt before the crew gets ready to receive everyone aboard,” he was at ease, dressed in tawny brown trousers. A matching coat hung from his fingers over his shoulder in an effort to beat the Caribbean sun. But he knew the cold would surely seep into the ship’s voyage north later in the night and did not bother to put it away in his suitcase.

             She gave only a tight mouth in response and pulled her eyes away from him.

             “I figured,” he continued. “You’re struggling though, aren’t you? You haven’t stopped staring at the ship for nearly ten minutes with your pass in hand.”

             “I am not about to bolt, and I have not been staring. I am only admiring it,” came her answer. Her mouth twisted a bit. “I’d never seen one up close,” she confessed.

             “Well, madam, aside from that idiot who tried to swipe one of your suitcases away till you hit him with your satchel, very impressively, I might add, you haven’t taken your eyes off the ship. And your poor, suffocated boarding pass is the final proof,” he gave a small nod up to point his sharp nose at the wrinkled evidence. Her grip immediately loosened but instead pinched the boarding pass between thumb and index.

             “It’s impossible not to stare—admire, I mean,” she spoke again, her gaze furiously focused on the ship. The masts stood out to give height where the deck spread out back like a silver fish floating above water. Dozens of people walked and stood around the bay, milling out of the Puerta de San Juan, one of San Juan’s oldest entrances around its thick stone walls, and getting ready to board with their big blocky suitcases of clothes, furniture tied up on planks with ropes, and cages with pets and livestock. Since first seeing the bay out of Puerta de San Juan, she had always wondered from afar how one ship could carry so much. Up close, she understood how.

             “Not to mention we’re boarding a new petroleum boat; we’ll be sailing on machinery that has barely been around for more than a year,” she finished.

             “Fair point. It’s impressive even for me.”

             A glare took over her eyes. ‘Oh great, another pretentious Spaniard,’ she thought as her eyebrow rose till it nearly reached her wide-brimmed straw hat. She was beginning to wonder about his accent, how funny it sounded even for the typical Spanish ‘z’ where a decir became a dezir, and every other sentence ended with a ‘joder’. It bristled her islander pride.

             “Then I’m going to assume you’ve tried it many times before, hm?” She asked.

             “Oh yes, I must’ve gotten from Scotland to Puerto Rico here somehow, no?” Her mouth visibly gaped till she made it shut up. “But it doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to witness novelties in technology. Much less a ship I haven’t been on before,” he brought his eyes to hers again, his relaxed brow softening his gaze. “And you’re lucky enough to witness two whole new experiences at once. That’s amazing.”

             “I…,” she began, her eyes fighting a battle upon his unrelenting attention. Of course her general antipathy towards anything remotely Spanish would come to bite her in the proverbial ass one day and she now needed to avoid any further reason to bring about bad fufú luck on her first ever voyage. “I should count myself lucky. Of course I should,” but her eyes bounced away in defeat to the white cotton shirt beaming on his shoulder with the sunlight. “I worked hard for this opportunity, too. With every sweat off my brow. I’m lucky to be here and travel far, and be away from home, and be somewhere completely new… And now I’m holding a thousand worries seeing the ship up close like this and wondering if this really qualifies as luck,” her voice faltered near the end. She felt it best not to speak of the terrifying ride on the wagon down the goat-made road from her home in the mountains of Naranjito, the uncomfortable shared carriage that took her across towns in the budding metropolis of Bayamón and Guaynabo, and the outsider sentiment of being a guest in her aunt’s home in the old colonial city of San Juan till she left on her voyage. The view of the port from the balcony seemed a blatant deceit now.

             She kept all of this to herself as well as her growing fear in traveling into the essentially unknown country of Spain. Being a part of a Spanish colony could not possibly prepare you for the reality of the motherland, as much as it tried to make your island mimic it. Their attitude still stood out against the common Puerto Rican. And somehow, she meant to start a new life across the ocean with all this in mind.

             “It may be surprising to you, but it’s the proper reaction for this type of journey,” he spoke, but could not pull back her stricken expression to land on his instead. “Though, mind you, journeys like these are difficult enough with someone to share them with, let alone on your own.”

             With that, her head turned back to his with silent hackles in her shrunken pupils. He pointedly noticed her eyes to be a warmer brown than his own, but he too kept that to himself.

             “Whether or not I am alone is beyond your business, sir. Or did you not receive manners back in Scotland?” Her tone showed nothing but claws and knives.

             He rose one arm in peace. He wanted to rush away from having her be anything but at ease around him. His mother had taught him better and would belt him otherwise from across the British Isles. “I apologize, madam,” then offered that same hand to her. “My name is Beathan, Beathan McDonald.”

             A beat of silence passed between them before she decidedly took his hand and shook it, her fingers giving approval to his forgiveness. “Luisa Vázquez-Berrios.”

             Beathan could not help the corner of his mouth from quirking into a smile. “A pleasure, Miss Vázquez,” and gently let go of her hand. “And on whether or not you are traveling alone, it is not my business to know. I myself had the small luck of leaving South Ayrshire with my brothers the first time I left home. But since they were shit to me, I decided to stay on board the ship and sailed onto the next port without them,” he chuckled. “Obviously, I was found out and left on an Irish coast but figured it best to pick up work and continue my own journey from there. But it’s always easier said than done to be so alone for the first time, either at sea, land, or in a new country all together. It’s no joke to be overwhelmed by your own responsibilities in taking care of yourself.”

             Luisa heaved relief and, eyes grown open, gesticulated in the very local fashion before Beathan. “That’s precisely what I think!” But the amused rise of his brows made her rein in her hands self-consciously against her dark blue patterned skirt. “My cousin Valeria speaks of it as if it’s a whole, childish adventure, but she doesn’t have to carry the burden of looking out for herself. My aunt makes sure to give her more than enough helping hands when traveling while here I am, with my own well-earned boarding pass, my saved money, only two suitcases to own, and nothing but my smarts to look out for me. I carry all my worries; Valeria has someone else handle them.”

             Beathan nodded. “You’re right on that respect. You carry more than just your luggage on a journey: you carry yourself. It’s daunting. And there’s only so much space on a passenger ship or a cabin on a train to hold people in, even if you’re traveling together,” her expression gave him reign to continue. “I’ve had to share rooms with men of all types and had my money stolen twice, leaving me to steal the occasional bread and cheese at our stop while I saved enough money working anywhere I could just to buy food. Mind you, this was back when I was young and freshly on my own; now I’m older and generally wiser but still work any job that comes my way to take care of myself,” he grinned. “But you always need your wits about you when you’re alone. You face more in your lonesome head than talking with kin.”

             On whether or not the choice of words was correct, Beathan noticed the marked swell of Luisa’s breathing beneath her buttoned up white blouse, the frill on either side of the buttons down her chest bristling a bit as her lungs became shaky. He looked up to see her eyes worryingly wide. ‘Oh no,’ he thought.

             Luisa was not unfamiliar with the growing pressure in her lungs. It would come over sometimes when she thought about her actions beyond the realm of possibility. But it would crush her chest and swallow her heart in an incessant grief over doing anything wrong. Valeria would blame her thinking habits. Her parents would claim she held too many responsibilities. She would rather just not feel on the verge of choking as she rocked herself in bed back home whenever that tide of nerves would come over her.

             “… Right,” she mumbled. Her eyes hurt.

             “That’s not to say it’s the only thing you will be doing during a voyage,” Beathan tried to break that tied, leaning a little into her line of vision. “The experience can be fun for a lot of folks. It’s only good to keep yourself in check when … ah, sorry, madam.”

             “For what?” But her voice became a tinge higher and breathy, struggling once again to land her eyes upon his.

             “For being anything but helpful in bracing yourself for your journey. I’m used to keeping my wits about me, you see. And forget that people who haven’t traveled around the same as me can be intimidated.”

             “I’m not intimidated.”

             “Then scared.”

             “I’m… I’m not scared,” she looked away, forcing a steely look to nowhere as her body tensed. A few dark tendrils of hair had shaken off but she could not move to tuck them away again. “I’m more afraid of having wasted my money and my family’s help to get me to Spain,” her fingers curled into fists with the crumpled boarding pass. “I’m scared of failing them, of failing myself and end up destitute on a random street in Cadiz because I wasn’t smart or careful with myself or my money or my choices or that I couldn’t get a proper job because I didn’t try hard enough…,” her breath hitched, and her eyes showed white around the irises.

             Beathan braced himself and pressed his brows together.

“Oh God, why did I do this?” Luisa pushed her head against her palms, her boarding pass now dangling off her fingers. The tied was cresting over her.

Her chest heaved dangerously and Beathan cursed himself with the force of the few languages he had learned in his years of work and travel. He felt that ‘conard’ was an appropriate word to describe himself at that moment as he carefully approached Luisa in an attempt to take away the sudden distress he had poured upon her.

             “Miss Vázquez don’t—Luisa, listen, please,” his hands wavered to the sides of her hands, feeling only the warmth of her presence against his palms. He remembered his own fear on that first stolen ride, alone on that ship to Ireland. His terror had been so intense he wished it upon no one. “I didn’t mean to speak about that this way. I meant to share my own advice and…,” Luisa tore down her hands but could not meet his eyes; they were trembling and red. “I’m a true idiot, aren’t I?”

             “… I leave that to your discretion, Beathan,” her voice croaked somewhat but her expression remained frozen.

             He gave a small sigh and dropped his hands. “Forgive me. Traveling alone is unnerving, yes, but it should never keep you from trying, I promise you. It is worth all your fears and sacrifices simply to venture out to somewhere new,” he hoped his voice conveyed his kind intentions. “You said so yourself: you’re carrying it all on your own, but you’re also experiencing life on your own terms, making your own choices, and I would dare think that appeals to yourself, miss, more than it would ever do for me,” Beathan still sought out her eyes, begging in silence for her attention to be back to full force and to let himself freely fall under the same scrutiny as before. “You’re doing the amazing act of traveling to a new life, somewhere where you decide how and when you do things and, I promise you with my soul, you’ll be all the braver and greater than before. You’ve come this far, the ship is right there,” he showed a hand behind himself, to the hulking metal fish still imposing upon Luisa.

He cleared his throat a moment. “And, if you wish, you may not be so alone on your travels with an outspoken idiot like myself.”

             The last brought her eyes to his, still wide, but in a welcoming surprise. Her chest had begun to lessen its terrible breathing much to their mutual relief.

The boarding pass slipped to the ground, the wind about to take it away till Beathan kneeled quickly and grabbed it. He offered it back in honest welcome to the voyage, Luisa breathing in all the air she could hold in her lungs as she stared at the offering in his hand.

The small piece of paper quite literally determined her next step, next decision, next course in a life already heavy but not ungrateful. Her parents, frightened as they were, gave her their blessing. She was smart, they told her, braver than they ever could be and, wanting a better life for their daughter, knew it was a sound choice. Valeria could very well shut her spoiled mouth with her unrighteous privilege.

Luisa’s exhale was long when her fingers gripped onto her boarding pass and Beathan’s paler skin. A small tear wet her cheek and quickly she made away with it with his offered handkerchief.

“I’ll take you up on the offer of traveling with an outspoken idiot, Mr. McDonald,” and risked a tender grin at him.

Culled from by Patricia Infanzón Rodríguez

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *