This is a little one I wrote about my first trip back to the DR after a long long absence. There was a page limit so I couldn’t get into the whole madness. Appeared in The New Yorker, June 14, 2004.
That summer! Eleven years ago, and I still remember every bit of it. Me and the girlfriend had decided to spend our vacation in Santo Domingo, a big milestone for me, one of the biggest, really: my first time “home” in nearly twenty years. (Blame it on certain “irregularities” in paperwork, blame it on my threadbare finances, blame it on me.) The trip was to accomplish many things. It would end my exile—what Salman Rushdie has famously called one’s dreams of glorious return; it would plug me back into that island world, which I’d almost forgotten, closing a circle that had opened with my family’s immigration to New Jersey, when I was six years old; and it would improve my Spanish. As in Tom Waits’s song “Step Right Up,” this trip would be and would fix everything.
Maybe if I hadn’t had such high expectations everything would have turned out better. Who knows? What I can say is that the bad luck started early. Two weeks before the departure date, my novia found out that I’d cheated on her a couple of months earlier. Apparently, my ex-sucia had heard about our planned trip from a mutual friend and decided in a fit of vengeance, jealousy, justice, cruelty, transparency (please pick one) to give us an early bon-voyage gift: an “anonymous” letter to my novia that revealed my infidelities in excruciating detail (where do women get these memories?). I won’t describe the lío me and the novia got into over that letter, or the crusade I had to launch to keep her from dumping me and the trip altogether. In brief, I begged and promised and wheedled, and two weeks later we were touching down on the island of Hispaniola. What do I remember? Holding hands awkwardly while everybody else clapped and the fields outside La Capital burned. How did I feel? All I will say is that if you fused the instant when heartbreak occurs to the instant when one falls in love and shot that concoction straight into your brain stem you might have a sense of what it felt like for me to be back “home.”
As for me and the novia, our first week wasn’t too bad. In one of those weird details that you just couldn’t make up, before leaving the States we had volunteered to spend a week in the Dominican Republic helping a group of American dentists who were on a good-will mission. We would be translating for them and handing them elevators and forceps and generally making ourselves useful. Even with the advantage of hindsight, I can’t figure out why I thought this was a good way to kick off a homecoming, but that’s just how we thought back then. We were young. We had ideals.
Our group of five dentists and five assistants treated roughly fourteen hundred kids from some of the poorest barrios in the city of La Romana (which is, ironically, the sugar capital of the D.R.). We weren’t practicing the kind of dentistry that First Worlders with insurance are accustomed to, either; this was no-joke Third World care. No time or materials for fillings. If a tooth had a cavity, it would be numbed and pulled, and that was that. Nothing else we can do, our chief explained. That week, I learned more about bombed-out sixes, elevators, and cowhorns than a layperson should ever have to know. Of our group, only me and the novia could be said to speak any Spanish. We worked triage, calming the kids, translating for everybody, and still we had it easy, compared with the dentists. These guys were animals; they worked so hard you would have thought they were in a competition, but by the thousandth patient even their hands started to fail. On the last day, our chief, an immensely compassionate Chinese-American with the forearms of a major-league shortstop, was confronted with one extraction he just couldn’t finish. He tried everything to coax that kid’s stubborn molar out of its socket, and finally he had to call over another dentist, and together they pulled out a long bloody scimitar of a six. During the ordeal the twelve-year-old patient never complained. ¿Te duele? we asked every couple of minutes, but he would shake his head fiercely, as though the question annoyed him.
Tu eres fuerte, I said, and that might have been the first sentence I had conjugated correctly all week.
No, he said, shaking his beautiful head, no soy.
Of course, we fought, me and the novia—I mean, the needs of the pueblo aside, I had just been bagged fucking some other girl—but it was nothing too outrageous. For one thing, we were too busy wrenching teeth. It wasn’t until the mission was over and the dentists had packed their bags and we had headed out into the rest of the island that our real troubles began.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Travelling the Third World is challenging enough as it is, but try it with a girlfriend who is only just realizing how badly she’s been hurt and a boyfriend who is so worried that he no longer “fits in” at “home” that every little incident and interaction is sifted for rejection, for approval—a boyfriend who is so worried about his busted-up Spanish that he fucks up even more than normal. What I wanted more than anything was to be recognized as the long-lost son I was, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not after nearly twenty years. Nobody believed I was Dominican! You? one cabdriver said incredulously, and then turned and laughed. That’s doubtful. Instead of being welcomed with open arms, I was overcharged for everything and called un americano. I put us on all the wrong buses. If there was money to lose, I lost it; if there was a bus to catch, I made us miss it, and through some twist of bad luck all my relatives were in the States for the summer. The one relative we did manage to locate, a great-aunt, had been feuding with my moms since 1951, when Mami had accidentally broken her only vase, and my arrival signalled a new stage in the age-old conflict: each morning, she blithely served me and the novia sandwiches completely covered in fire ants.
Now that we didn’t have the dentists to hold us back, we basically went off the deep end. We fought about everything: where to eat, what town we should visit, how to pronounce certain words in Spanish. We fought our way across the country: from La Capital to San Cristóbal to Santiago to Puerto Plata and back. It was miserable. If one of us wasn’t storming off down the road with a backpack, the other one was trying to hitch a ride to the airport with strangers. Our craziness culminated one night in a hotel in Puerto Plata when the novia woke up and cried out, There’s someone in the room! If you’ve never heard those words being shouted into your dreams, then yours has been a blessed life. I woke in a terrible fright and there he was—the intruder we’d all been waiting for.
It’s at a crossroads like this that you really learn something about yourself. There was someone in the room with us, and I could have done any number of things. I could have frozen, I could have screamed for help, I could have fled, but instead I did what my military father had beaten into us during his weekend toughening-up exercises: no matter what the situation, always attack. So I attacked. I threw myself with a roar at the intruder.
It wasn’t a person, of course. The intruder was a sea-turtle shell that had been cured and waxed and mounted on the wall. For the sake of national honor, I can say that I acquitted myself well in the battle. I smashed my head clean through the shell, struck the concrete wall, and bounced back to the floor. But instead of staying down I went back at him again, and only then did I realize I was punching décor.
That was the end. A couple of days later, we returned home, defeated, she to New Jersey, me to upstate New York. There was no miracle reconciliation. For a couple of lousy months, the relationship dragged on to its inevitable conclusion, like the heat death of a universe, until finally, having had enough of me, she found herself a new man who she claimed spent more money on her than I did. You’re cheap, she asserted, even though I’d used a travel grant and all my savings to pay for our trip. She broke my heart, that girl did, which was a fair trade, considering that I’d broken hers first. But in the end none of it mattered. Even though a dead turtle had kicked my ass, even though my girlfriend had dumped me and a family member had tried to poison me with fire ants, even though I was not granted a glorious return by my homeland, I wasn’t entirely crushed. Turned out I wasn’t all that easy to crumb; before the year was out, I was back in the D.R., trying again. I kept going back, too. I had committed myself to the lucha, much as I had committed myself to that fight with the damned turtle.
These days, I get around Santo Domingo pretty easily (Los Tres Brazos? La Pintura? Katanga? Capotillo? No sweat), and most people will at least concede that I have some Dominican in me. My Spanish has improved to the point where I can hold forth on any subject—animal, vegetable, mineral—with only one major fuckup per sentence. I’m sure if you’d shown me that future during those last days of my trip with the novia I would have laughed at you. But even in the midst of the rubble there were signs; even on that last day, at the airport, I was still trying to pick my stupid self off the floor. My head was throbbing from the tortugal beat-down, and my nose felt as if it had only recently been reattached. (When I got home, my roommate blurted out, without so much as a hello, Fool, what the hell happened to you?) I was beat, truly beat, and, just in case I hadn’t got the point, there was nothing cold to drink at the airport. But that didn’t stop me from engaging in the debates that were going on all around me regarding the recent election and Santo Domingo’s eternal President Balaguer—blind, deaf, and dumb but still jodiendo el pueblo. A present that the United States gave our country after its last military occupation, in 1965—God bless them all! Just before our flight was called, I was asked by a group of locals what I thought of Balaguer. I went into fulmination mode, and said he was a murderer, an election thief, an apologist of genocide, and, of course, a U.S. stooge of the Hosni Mubarak variety.
See, the newspaper seller announced triumphantly. Even the gringo knows