So, it’s 1977
, I am seventeen and in love like only a seventeen year old can be.
My family had emigrated from Cuba in ’66 and after a stint in Tampa, Florida had settled in Puerto Rico where language was finally not an impediment for my monolingual parents. I am attending a prestigious Jesuit high school under full scholarship – my father is a waiter and my mom a housewife, so my sister and I grew solidly lower middle class but never really felt deprived thanks to my parents sacrifices. As soon as I turned sixteen I got my license and started pestering my father to buy a second car so my mother and I could share it. There was a small used car dealership literally down the street and we had found a beautiful little ’71 Toyota Corolla, white with a dark blue interior; automatic which was disappointing, but my mom could not drive a standard car so that was that. It could be had for the princely sum of $1,600. Me being a ridiculous sixteen-year-old I could not understand why we hadn’t bought the car already. I would pester my dad daily – have I mentioned that I was an annoying teenager? Dad, when are you going to buy the car? Dad someone else is going to buy it? Dad, its perfect Dad, I’ll have my license in two weeks. Finally one day, my father turned to me, not angry, but stressed and sad and said, Jorge Carlos – always both given names – I don’t know if we can swing it.
He couldn’t have shut me up quicker and harder if he had punched my stomach, I swear I almost doubled over with the impact of his words. I am sixty-four and I still remember that moment. It’s the kind of moment you carry with you forever, where childish things give way, if only for a moment, and you can see the world for the complicated and unforgiving place it is, and you realize your petty cruelty and cluelessness. When I lay late at night trying to fall asleep the memory of that moment still haunts me, and my dad has been dead 43 years.
In due time the car is bought. I wash it every week, finishing it off with a toothbrush. I learn how to do simple maintenance on it. I buy little enhancements for it, nothing fancy. I go cruising with my friends in Condado, the tourist drag, down Ashford and up Magdalena for hours, looking at the girls walking by, stopping to get beers at Taco Maker where they were cheap and there was a Frogger machine and we could sit at the plate glass window and watch the cars go by.
I meet a girl in summer classes at my school, summer being the only time that it was coed. She was smart, like quick smart, beautiful and unusual. This being high school, most kids would wear the same things. Boys wore colored Levi jeans and Izod shirts. I wanting to be the sort of man that reads Playboy – if you are old enough and bought playboy you will remember the ads for the magazine in the magazine, showing all those men and their cars, groovy clothes and stereo systems – and always girls in the background admiring him. I would wear low collared Indian print shirts, bell bottomed skintight jeans, Ives Saint Laurent fitted shirts, platform shoes. I was a dandy. She wore stuff I could not define or pigeonhole and nothing any other girl would wear, Dr Scholl sandals, billowy peasant embroidered blouses, an unforgettable pale green sheath maxi dress. It took a while of me convincing myself that she was interested in me for me to finally kiss her at a dance during a bolero. I remember that moment, it was cinematic, like a soundless explosion. The world disappeared and there were only lips and tropical sweat and desire.
We were as inseparable as was possible considering that her mother would not let us be together unsupervised. I would visit her her house daily and we would talk for hours. Then I would drive home and we would spend more hours talking on the phone. I am not sure that I can reconstruct those conversations, but they were intense and Shakespearean. A major part of this was me trying to convince her that we should have sex of course, though neither of us could even fathom the logistics that it would take.
The marathon phone calls also extended to watching movies – each of us in our houses and on the phone throughout the movies. During the commercial breaks we would talk about the movie in excruciating detail. She was as much of a budding cineaste as I was and we would dissect scenes, comment on casting choices and camera movements and it was all so exciting and new.
One particularly rainy, stormy night like we only have in the tropics, the movie was Vanishing Point, a 1971 film that has become a cult classic. Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a car delivery driver that has bet his speed dealer that he can deliver a white Barracuda from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. By the way, google maps says it should take nineteen hours. Cleavon Little plays an omniscient blind DJ named Super Soul that narrates Kowalski’s hero’s journey. It’s worth a watch.
I am really loving the movie and decide that the next commercial break, I will drive to her house and we can finish watching it together. This is 1977 folks, the very first commercial VCR is still at least one year in the future. At the next break I grab the keys and run out to the house. This is a fools errand, it is impossible for me to make it from my house to hers in the 8-10 minutes of commercial breaks, but infected and emboldened by Kowalski’s exploits in the movie I am definitely going to try. I did mention that I was young and stupid right?
I am doing ok and getting close to her house when the inevitable combination of speed and a storm catch up with me. I am coming down a four lane undivided surface road. There is a street at the right with a car stopped at the stop sign. I am no more than 100 yards when a car behind the car I can see decides to run the stop sign and blocks both of my lanes of travel. I can’t swerve unto the oncoming traffic so I step on the brakes hard; I hydroplane and t-bone the other car.
I am not wearing a seatbelt because I am young and stupid.
I pass out on impact.
When I come to I am staring at two startled Haitians in a giant Buick through a windscreen I shattered with my head. The steering wheel is bent, the bottom of the dash is bent. I get out of the car in the rain. I try to speak to the Haitians but they can’t understand my minimal high school French. I need to get to a phone – remember 1977? Cellphones will not be widely available for twenty years. It’s an upscale residential area and I need to call my girlfriend because I am petrified to call my parents and tell them I killed the car. I walk to the nearest house and ring the doorbell, a beautifully coiffed elegant lady answers the door. I can hear a dinner party going on inside, I am not what she was expecting. She turns white as a sheet as I ask her to use the phone. She ushers me into the foyer, hands me the receiver and goes back to her guests. As I finish dialing I look up and see myself in the foyer mirror and understand why I gave her a start. I was wearing a pale blue shirt – linen with snaps instead of buttons, one of my favorites. It is a bloody mess, no longer blue. There are granules of glass from the windshield in my hair and my lip is split from bending the steering wheel. I am not feeling any pain because I am suffering from classic shock. My girlfriend answers and I tell her to come with her mom to get me. Of course, her mom called my parents and minutes later everybody is there. I end up at emergency; I will spare you of the shuddering and squirming that describing my injuries would cause but they are ultimately not serious, just very icky. I seemed to have braced myself hard enough not to fly through the windshield. I am alive because the universe is a capricious place.
Hours later, I am settled into my bed and the adrenaline is crashing and everything hurts, and I mean everything. The initial relief that everybody had to see me alive, especially when you saw the state of the car, has faded and everyone is rightly upset at me. I can hear my parents and my girlfriend's mother talking in the other room. My girlfriend is sitting at the edge of my bed – a first- and I am vibrating with excitement through the pain. Her mother calls her so they can go home. Even with Frankenstein stitches on my swollen lower lip, I insist on a kiss from her before I let her go home.
It didn’t hurt at all.
I wrote this to be read at a Moth slam, but I procrastinated and by the time I wrote it, tickets were not available. I still plan to try to use it at another slam but the theme for this particular valentines day slam was Love Hurts.