On the Occasional Importance of a Ceiling Fan
Travel Stories: Emily Stone knew well the kind of moment she was experiencing in Puerto Rico: the guy, the Cuba libres, the accelerated intimacy. It was perfectly safe, she told herself, as long as she knew when to get out.
05.06.08 | 3:52 PM ET
After 2003, when the United States Navy stopped using this island off Puerto Rico’s southeastern shore as a bombing range, Vieques quickly became the next “It” island—luring travelers with its newly demilitarized white sand beaches, roaming wild horses and rustic charm.
—New York Times, October 2007
Cyril worked at the scuba shop just up the road from where the ferry docks in Isabel Segunda, one of the two towns on the island of Vieques, deceptively large at about the same size (and roughly the same shape) as Manhattan. The jet set can make the trip from New York in a weekend, but it had taken me days on a combination of planes, ferries and privately-operated vans called públicos. And Cyril was not who I expected to meet.
“I’m not going to leave here for the next five days,” I’d told Zore, the manager of the Sea Gate Guesthouse, as she led me to my room that afternoon. I needed a breeze, a beach, a view, silence. The Sea Gate was the cheapest hotel I could find, and it wasn’t cheap. I’d arranged for the smallest room, just painted and still giving off fumes, and I only succeeded in knocking $5 off the nightly rate. I’d be alright, I thought, as long as I had my small luxuries—plush towels, a sexy ceiling fan.
The place was dilapidated. Cement walkways had once been painted dreary white, then institutional green, then a makeshift terra-cotta, and now the ground was crumbling in a way that exposed all three colors. What had once been a basketball court had become overgrown, rusty and overrun by feral animals. What was the point of the paint-job they’d given my room? It couldn’t cover up the tacky threadbare linens, the ancient Venetian blinds fit for a nursing home in Florida, the bunker-like architecture. Blow the place up! I thought. Build a courtyard, let the sun in, paint the walls pink.
The beach was someplace else. The empty roads surrounding the property were forbidding. The noise of the local chickens was so obscene that it reminded me of a mockumentary I once watched about a community terrorized by a neighbor breeding roosters against regulation. As soon as Zore’s tour was over, I stumbled down the road looking for a new place to stay.
“Where can I find a público that will take me to Esperanza?” I asked the first gringos I found, a young guy and an older woman sitting on either side of the counter in a shop, drinking beer.
“Yeah ... that can be kind of tricky,” the guy told me. He explained that drivers pick people up when the ferry comes in and drop them off when the ferry goes out. The rest of the time, they don’t work.
He introduced himself as Cyril. While his skin seemed permanently tanned, his hair was so blond and his eyes were so clear that he looked like he might disappear into himself. He wore flip-flops, board shorts and a shirt that seemed like an optional part of the outfit. The woman, maybe 20 years older and dressed in a similar style, was Cyril’s mom. Cyril was born in St. John, where his mom had worked as a bartender. Then they moved to Colorado, where Cyril bought and sold a couple of pieces of property before turning 27 and returning to the Virgin Islands. Last year, he bought a sailboat and sailed with his girl to Vieques. After his girl left him, his mom showed up. She’d been here for six months already and she was buying a house. Yesterday, she’d bought a car.
Cyril’s mom offered me a ride. She did that by way of telling Cyril that he could borrow her car to take me to Esperanza for a drink. Esperanza, the other town on Vieques, is where the gringos drink beer and eat burgers on the beach. I’d planned to stay away, but that was before I saw the Sea Gate.
“What time do you get off work?” I asked Cyril.
It was already four o’clock, and my guess was the wait for a público would be more than an hour. It was a date.
Cyril’s mom drove a solid car, an old Jeep that was wide open but nevertheless infested with mosquitoes (she suspected they were hatching out of somewhere near the glove compartment). “You should show her the Bravo Beach Hotel,” she said to Cyril.
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m looking for a place to stay. Let’s go on a tour before the sun goes down.”
We took a couple of turns on high-up roads with a view of the sea and parked outside the BBH, proudly the first boutique hotel on the island. After you, Cyril motioned. We found the manager, who slapped Cyril on the back and pointed out two pools, an outdoor daybed big enough for two (or three) underneath a sun umbrella, a restaurant, a sushi bar and a chef carrying a can of coconut milk. I was about to throw caution to the trade winds and take a room there at any price, but then a breeze picked up that smelled like a bad day at the beach—gasoline and old fish.
The manager ushered us to the bar. “I’d like to buy this couple a drink,” he announced.
“I’ll have a Cuba libre,” I said, “with dark rum—and have you got some kind of pretzels back there?”
The anthropology student working behind the bar didn’t have anything but the booze. I’d been traveling all day and hadn’t eaten.
“What if we get a to-go cup and continue our tour?” Cyril asked. He had some snacks at home, he said, and he wanted to change his shirt.
Home was an estate that some Californians were building as an exclusive corporate retreat. Cyril might as well have been from California instead of St. John or Colorado. He talked more like a surfer than a sailor or a rancher: Dude ... Yeah ... Yeah, dude ...
Cyril was stoked to be the manager of the property. But, at the moment, the property was coral floors and bare walls and no plumbing. He offered me the spare bed in the room next to his in lieu of finding another hotel room. I’ve put myself in many a compromising situation—some good, some bad—in exchange for a nice place to stay on my travels. If there had been running water, I might have accepted.
The only water was in the swimming pool, carved into the cliff below the balcony that held us up. Cyril flicked on the pool lights. Then he opened his fridge: white bread, ham, cheese, White Castle burgers, pretzels with nacho cheese dip made by Keebler. We held onto our drinks and watched the sunset, the pool beckoning us to come down the spiral staircase, take off our clothes and dive in.
I knew this moment—the Cuba libres, the accelerated intimacy. On my first solo trip—to Guatemala at age 23—this moment had been intimidating. It marked my introduction to a new kind of travel, a new kind of sex.
“What do you want to do now?” Cyril asked.
This kind of thing was safe, I’d taught myself, as long as you knew how and when to get out.
“Let’s go to Esperanza,” I said.
On the malecón, the boardwalk that everyone referred to by the Spanish name, we met a sailor named Jack and a drummer named Carlos. Jack lived on Cyril’s boat, a green hull with black masts like a pirate ship, which was visible from where we stood. Cyril told me he gave Jack free rent because Jack had done him a favor. A guy from St. Kitts named Creation who carved coconuts on the beach told me the next day that it was because Jack had kept Cyril’s boat from sinking. Cyril called Carlos “Uncle Carlos” and I started calling him “Tío Carlos,” slipping in and out of the Spanish I could remember from Guatemala. Puerto Rico has an easy bilingualism that never let me embarrass myself.
“Let’s go have a drink at my favorite bar,” said Carlos. His favorite bar was an island grocery store where you could fill plastic cups with ice, buy a $5 bottle of rum and a $1 can of Coke, and make a round of Cuba libres. “Do you like rum?” he asked, “I’ll buy this for you.”
The four of us—Carlos, Jack, Cyril and I—sat outside with our drinks and played dominos. I don’t know how to play dominos. It’s about strategy, the boys told me. There are seven tiles to each number. I’m a card player, and I’m sure I could have figured out the odds if I’d set my mind to it, but I didn’t want to set my mind to it. Instead, I looked steely-eyed at my opponents (really, one was my partner, but I kept forgetting which) and laid out my tiles in an entirely random fashion.
“Yeah,” said the boys, “she knows what she’s doing.” We played and talked and drank. The boys joked and philosophized about life and sex and sailing. “You know what I mean?” they turned to me occasionally and asked. “Yeah,” I said, “I know what you mean.”
That’s how I travel. I trade on my wits and my wit. I’d spent years of my life like this, exchanging quips that meant something entirely other than what their language suggested. “Do you know what I mean?” men would ask. And I would always answer, “Yeah, I know what you mean.” The realization came kind of late that if I truly understood nothing that they said, they must not have understood anything I said either, must not have known anything about me.
From the grocery store, we continued on to a beachfront bar called Duffy’s.
“Do you serve food here?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure we do.”
I squinted at the blackboard menu. “How are the fish tacos?” I asked. “Where does the fish come from?”
“Boston,” said the barmaid with a laugh. “It’s halibut. It’s good.”
Another man came to join me and the domino players. He stood tall and proud, talking fast. He’d robbed a bank in some Midwestern city, he said. The police had found him, but they knew that if they put him in jail, they’d have to pay to fix up his leg. The wound was patched with skin from his ass, he announced, and bone from his hip. He rolled up his pants to show it to us, and I looked in the other direction.
Tío Carlos glanced at me. He shook his head.
“Okay,” I said.
He shook his head again. “Do you know what I mean?” Carlos asked.
I didn’t know. Did he mean stay away from this guy? Or did he mean this guy is full of shit?
Either way, I’d lost interest.
Across the bar, I saw a man sitting by himself. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, sandy from the beach with several buttons undone on a shirt that he might have otherwise worn to the office, he was confident, content and reading an issue of the New Yorker. I was transfixed.
Cyril was getting back into the Jeep. He had to go to Al’s Bar in Isabel Segunda. I’d had too many Cuba libres. I asked if he would give me a ride home to the Sea Gate on the way. It was fun, looking for the hotel in the middle of nowhere in the dark.
“How the hell am I going to get back to Esperanza tomorrow morning?” I asked.
“I could drive you,” Cyril said. “But I’d have to spend the night at your place.”
I conjured up all the bluff I had. “I’m just not that kind of girl,” I told him.
I think he said he respected me for not being that kind of girl. He didn’t know what I meant.
What I meant was, I’m the kind of girl who will follow you around the world, I’m the kind of girl who will straddle you in the driver’s seat of this car, I’m the kind of girl who grabs passion by the throat and pulls it between her legs. But that’s when I feel like being in love, and I don’t feel like being in love now. I just want a beach and a breeze and a view.
In the morning, I waited quietly for dawn, whose breaking had no effect on the cacophony coming from the chicken coop. I slipped out of the Sea Gate Guesthouse like a lover who neither wants to stay for coffee nor wishes to explain why he doesn’t want to stay. I left a note that read: “Sorry, gone to Esperanza, all the best.” (In an incredible act of foresight, I’d paid for only one night, in cash.)
I walked to the dock, waited a long time for a público, and finally found a nice man who offered to drop me at the malecón on his way to work. I took a room at the inn above Duffy’s, which was more expensive than the Sea Gate but cheaper than the Bravo Beach Hotel. The walls were painted pink—and green. A ceiling fan pulsed overhead and sun-yellow curtains opened onto a balcony where I could sit and look out onto solid blue ocean, solid blue sky, reading the latest issue of the New Yorker.
Editors’ note: A few names and minor details have been changed.