Monica J. Casper
Tangled Up In Blue
Tall, swaying palms circle the sparkling pool like fringed sentries. The sky is an endless turquoise canvas, delicately brushed with pink and white clouds. Gentle waves tease the shore, lapping at the beach, retreating back to the sea like a fickle lover.
San Juan, Puerto Rico. A neo-colonial paradise for bent-hearted fools.
My body, tan as a walnut, is draped languidly across a deck chair. I'm baking under this hot Caribbean sun.
Bob Dylan is crooning into my ears through the Walkman. She was married when I met her, soon to be divorced.
I helped her out of a jam I guess, but I used a little too much force...
Thanks to a travel agent friend, I am housed in a sprawling, luxurious casino. Fancy digs for an unemployed
graduate student. The resort's bountiful pools defy the drought ravaging this scorched island. Interviews are done and my research trip has now become a disquieting opportunity for self-reflection.
Sipping my second bracing cocktail of the day, I imagine what kind of future awaits me now that my marriage is over. I am a walking statistic on the precipice of a new life, and it's both terrifying and exhilarating.
Two weeks earlier, I left my husband. And by left, I mean in the emotional sense, for we still cohabit but probably not for long. Now, with the cool blue sea at my feet and sinuous palms undulating overhead, I consider the facts.
Simon is a kindly man, my best friend with whom I can talk about most anything. He knows me better than anyone. Yet I find this intimacy both comforting, like warm buttered toast, and repellant, like false teeth in a jar. I am confused and wonder if all married women feel this way or only those like me who emerged from fractured families with shaky psychic scaffolding.
After struggling as undergraduates and marrying shockingly early, just after college, we are finally
on our feet with enough money and credit to enjoy a decent standard of living. We have things now, like
a Cuisinart and a fancy espresso machine and Calphalon cookware. Simon is a wildly creative cook,
a quality that doesn't translate into the bedroom. But I adore our apartment in San Francisco and dining
on homemade ravioli, and our cats, Bootsie and Pookie. This was a life I had not predicted growing up
in the blue-collar Midwest, and I feel guilty that I'm not more content.
Simon supports and loves me even when I am difficult, which is a lot of the time. I'm frankly a mess, unsure of how to be a married woman or even a proper grown-up. Our life together is pleasant and peaceful and tediously unbearable. If marriage were a color, ours would be taupe.
So we are on the rocks, with a looming separation into two households with detached hearts. I am numbly unhappy, strangely restless for something I cannot define. Simon is frustrated and sad. True to a progressive Northern California ethos of the early 1990s, our "solution" to marital dissolution is to date other people-but only while away from home. Outside a radius of, say, 200 miles from the door of our Cole Valley flat. The dubious logic behind this plan is that anybody local will threaten our marriage, already disintegrating like ancient silk.
Simon is back home, with his pasta machine and the cats, one fat and one thin. And I am in Puerto Rico, roasting myself like a slab of meat and swilling gin and tonic. Lulled into a warm, hazy glow by the alcohol and late afternoon heat, I give up trying to predict my uncertain conjugal future. My life in San Francisco is another world, and I am no closer to sorting myself out.
I decide to stop obsessing and start acting like a tourist.
I close my eyes, tilt my face toward the heavens, and crank up the volume on my Sony.
She turned around to look at me, but then I was walking away. I heard her say over my shoulder, we'll meet
again someday, on the avenue, tangled up in blue...
The next day, I wait for the bus to Old San Juan with two African American women from Tennessee. Middle-aged, boisterous, and fashionably clad in heaps of chunky gold jewelry, Jessie and Sondra figure me correctly as an orphan traveler and adopt me as their pet for the day.
The scheduled bus fails to arrive. Laughing, we retrieve Sondra's rented Taurus and journey toward the historic district. Meandering along the picturesque coast of San Juan Bay, we pass the splendid Cementerio del Viejo San Juan. Its bleached tombstones, crosses, and mausoleums shimmer brilliant white in the sunlight, an acre of bone against the cobalt sea.
Our first stop is the San Felipe del Morro Fortress, rising above the city in ancient stone. An invincible castle safeguarding the harbor, El Morro is ringed with small, circular towers called garitas and its lighthouse faces the Atlantic. Built in the sixteenth century, El Morro is fortified with 18-foot thick walls that helped to protect Spanish San Juan from marauders. Our spirits are high as we tramp around the grounds, creeping through tunnels and forging the spongy moat. The ingenious structural details inspire awe and I imagine myself high in a tower in days of yore, a sailor's wife beseeching the treacherous, dark sea to return my lover.
From El Morro we travel into the heart of Old San Juan. Its elegant architecture and historic details spur romantic fantasies, a lovely contrast to downtown San Juan where 1960s steel and concrete trump preservation and beauty. Here, narrow streets wind up hills, past quaint buildings dappled in fuchsia, saffron, aqua, and lime. Homes decorated with crisp white shutters and intricately trellised balconies beckon to weary travelers. Iron balustrades and baskets of colorful flowers grace shops.
One exuberant edifice, designed to look like a ship, anchors a street corner. The "prow"
is painted a serene pale blue and faces the intersection. I half expect it to float away.
Maybe it will take me, too—I'd like to sail a great distance from the shoals of marital failure.
We park in front of the Hard Rock Café, an unwelcome reminder of the modern world. Jessie and Sondra are in town to shop, and shop they do. Leather handbags, more gold jewelry, rings and necklaces and bracelets, gifts for loved ones back in Memphis, a chic pair of shoes, and then another pair, and then a brocade jacket. These married women are way out of my consumption league. Credit cards fly and bags pile up in the Ford's trunk like dead bodies.
I return to the hotel with just a few postcards and a cold beverage, worried such paucity may define my unmarried future. Sondra and Jessie require two hotel carts to unload their shiny trinkets and bejeweled treasures. We make plans for dinner the following evening. Back in my hotel room, dog-tired and grateful for the day's distractions, I sleep.
I awaken as the sun's beaming quills are marking the lilac horizon. Contemplative and hungry, I ignore my relationship qualms and the queasiness they inspire. After breakfast, I plant myself on a deck chair next to a large saltwater pool. It is tangy and buoyant. When I dive in to cool myself, I bounce up like an inflatable seal. I dry in the sun, and a fine chalky residue lingers on my skin.
Today I am not a wife. I am simply a girl playing in the sun. I feel a sense of freedom and abandon I have not felt in many years, since I was a small child. Duty and commitment are slowly being eroded by a desire for adventure.
It is still morning, so I avoid Tanqueray and sip only sparkling ice water with tart lime. I soak up the sunshine and let my jumbled mind drift and slow. I doze and dream of mermaids and sexy cowboys in low-slung jeans. Much later, I succumb to the allure of a cocktail. My rum drink with pineapple cubes and an
umbrella floating in it tastes like tropical freedom, fresh and delicious.
I am occupied by bliss, exotic and longed-for.
Much later, the sun begins its ritual descent, and I regretfully abandon my aquatic haven. Meandering through the hotel, I impulsively veer toward the beauty salon. If I am not a wife, I want to feel sexy and attractive. I tell the stylist in rusty Spanish how I want my hair cut, and she must understand because she does a fine job. I emerge with a sleek, saucy bob, the essence of swing.
Excited about dinner with the Memphis pair, I race upstairs to my room. I shower quickly, because of the
drought, but also I am ravenous. Half an hour later, I am ready to party, a blonde, burnished Zelda Fitzgerald in a
spaghetti-strap black and white dress swirling languidly at my ankles. I wear heels begging to be kicked up.
The neon casino bustles and glimmers with a human pulse, sweaty and excitable. I catch flashes of silver
and gold and my eyes are drawn to the flushed, hopeful faces of gamblers. I might play a little blackjack after dinner.
I'm five minutes late to the Mediterranean-style café. No sign of Sondra and Jessie. I wait in the lobby for five minutes. I phone Sondra's room, leave a message. Ten minutes more, and now my stomach is rumbling like Nebraska thunder. Finally, I sit down, alone. Either my new friends will show or they won't, but I need to eat.
The menu is extensive. I select Caesar salad, seafood pasta, and a glass of Chianti. The wine arrives and I sip with pleasure, spying on my fellow diners. I make up stories about strangers in public places, a longstanding habit and a fun bar game.
The couple across from me, a Chinese man and his voluptuous, flame-haired mistress, are enjoying a long weekend of illicit sex. Or maybe they are not lovers, but partners in a start-up Internet venture.
The table of laughing, forty-something women are in a book group from Cincinnati, on tour to one of their favorite literary sites.
The single, bearded guy in the corner is a lonely widower, away from home for the first time since his wife plummeted to her death in an ice-climbing accident.
As I weave these fantasies, waves crash ferociously on the beach below and palm trees spar in the gusting wind. I linger over my second glass of wine and admit the truth. My friends have stood me up.
I feel sorry for myself now, regretting my snappy outfit and styled hair. Pathetic. I am morosely gazing into my Chianti when the waiter wheels over a dessert cart. I scrutinize the luscious treats, fruity and chocolaty, creamy and sugary. Though no longer hungry, I choose a triangle of florescent green pie. The waiter walks away, trailing the cart. I keenly feel my solitude.
"Good choice, the key lime," a loud voice bellows from across the room.
My head swivels toward the source. I have been so busy pickling my sorrows I have not noticed the restaurant clearing out. Most of the tables are emptied. Three handsome, young men at a four-top in the corner have me under surveillance.
"I'm so glad you approve." My voice sounds prim, as if it wants me to ignore them.
I turn my attention back to my Chianti and the celestial display beyond the window when another voice chimes in. "Come and join us?"
I hesitate for a split second, weighing my profound craving for adventure against the lunacy of befriending these possible serial killers. They're all good-looking. But they might have knives. Or wives. Or herpes. Or tiny dicks.
Oh, what the hell. I'll probably be divorced soon anyway, like the woman in the Dylan song. I should play and flirt and break some rules. I want to feel my skin flush with passion and my limbs unwind and just maybe these handsome men can help.
Wine glass in hand, I rise from my table, cross to theirs, and take the only available seat. I am anxious and excited, edgy with emotional chiaroscuro.
We talk. The men are sailors in the Royal Navy, charming and inebriated Brits on shore leave. Beautiful. Entranced by their accents and smiles, I feel a visceral working-class kinship. They buy another round of drinks, further endearing them to me.
The lanky, baby-faced towhead reminds me of my younger brother. He says, "I'm Graham, this is Brick, and the other bloke is Taffy."
Taffy is Graham's polar opposite, short, dark and stocky, with a shaved head and surprisingly dainty hands. He looks like a gnome.
Brick is a specimen to behold and knows it. He is gorgeous, all russet hair, coffee eyes that twinkle, wide shoulders, and a devilish smile.
"I'm Monica," I say and shake hands with each of them in turn. "Where are you boys from? And, if you don't mind my asking, what kind of name is Taffy?"
Brick laughingly replies, "We're from across the pond. I'm from Norfolk, it's a city in eastern England."
The gnome laughs, too. "I'm the odd man out, grew up in a village on the western coast of Wales. And Taffy is kind of a nickname for Dafydd, or David as you Yanks would say."
Graham smiles. "I'm an Englishman, just like me mate Brick. From a speck in the road near Bristol. I'll wager you never heard of that neither."
I reply, "Well, I've heard of Norfolk, but really I have no idea where Bristol is. And I've not been to Wales. But London I know, and I do love a good ploughman's lunch."
Brick asks, "Where are you from and what are you doing in Puerto Rico?"
"Chicago originally, but now I live in San Francisco." I toy with the idea of lying. I could tell them I'm a private detective on a case or a food critic or an heiress, my yacht anchored offshore. But I'm pretty certain they won't believe me.
So I tell the truth. "I'm a graduate student in sociology. I'm here doing research."
"What are you researching? Casinos, or beaches?" Taffy's tone is teasing.
I laugh. "That's funny, but no. I interviewed an obstetrician and his colleague who helped develop a procedure in the 1960s, for treating fetuses in the womb."
Brick, eyebrow raised charmingly, remarks, "That sounds interesting. How much work do you have to do?"
"I think I'm done. I wanted to visit Cayo Santiago, the Rhesus monkey island, but I couldn't get there. So now I'm just playing." I smile and blink my eyelashes in exaggerated fashion, like a silent film star.
Taffy and Graham laugh. Brick gives me a long, smoldering look that rouses the dormant butterflies in my stomach.
Abruptly, Graham asks, "How old are you?"
I am taken aback. "Isn't that a no-no question to ask a woman?"
Chuckling, Graham says, "Sorry, just curious. I can tell you how old we are. I'm 23, Taffy is 25, and Brick is the old man at 29."
Brick, definitely not an old man, continues to gaze intensely at me. I can tell he's interested and it turns me on. Abruptly, he says, "You're very pretty and I think you're in your mid-twenties."
I am embarrassed and flattered. "Close enough," I respond. "Next topic, please."
We chat for over an hour. Wine glasses are filled, desserts delivered and devoured. I am inching past sober and there is a definite sexual charge in the air, electric and urgent.
Graham and Taffy are like verbal puppies during our conversation, tripping over each other's sentences to amuse me. At one point, they label me Trouble and Strife. Only later do they explain what it means in a rather rambling discourse on Cockney rhyming slang. I am disgruntled to learn I've been re-dubbed a wife.
Brick just sits back all evening and lets his eyes do the talking. He seems entirely too sure of himself. I grow heady with the male attention and endlessly flowing wine. We finish another bottle and the boys raucously sing British drinking songs. I tell racy American jokes and my companions laugh in all the right places.
The waiters remove candles from the other tables, loudly. We recognize our cue and leave.
Taffy tells me, "Hey, we're gambling tonight. Interested?"
Happy to be escorted into the casino by a group of brawny men instead of roaming in by myself, I reply, "Absolutely! Let's go lose some cash."
We file into the casino with Taffy in the lead, Brick at my side lightly holding my arm, and Graham trailing behind. I feel like an elegant celebrity with her own bodyguards.
Our first stop is the slot machines.
Immediately a buxom waitress takes our order for free drinks. Just what we need: more alcohol. She leaves with our request for four Coronas. Caution is suddenly corkscrewing frenziedly in the wind. In a dangerous moment I visualize what it might be like to kiss handsome Brick.
Taffy and I take turns pulling the slot handles. Graham stands closely behind me and Brick is just to my left. Occasionally his muscular thigh brushes against mine and I feel the heat radiating from his solid body, warming my flesh. We win nothing gambling the slots. But I am aroused by an intoxicating blend of alcohol and vital, lusty man fragrance. I am reckless and want to bury every one of my scruples in deep, wet sand.
Nonplussed by my body's insistence on responding to Brick, a mysterious stranger who could be wanted by Scotland Yard, I drag seemingly harmless Taffy, the gnome, over to the roulette wheel. I have no idea how to play the game, and in my drunken state I clumsily start tossing my chips, and some of Taffy's, onto the table.
Miraculously, I win thirty dollars. But within minutes my giddy behavior annoys the croupier. Frowning, he invites us to leave.
We join Brick and Graham, who have secured a table in the piano bar. While we imbibe more alcohol, Graham loses a bet with his friends. This means he has to sing to me. He chickens out of serenading me privately and instead commandeers the piano. He belts out a Peter Cetera song in a clear, lovely voice. A grown-up choirboy, he stuns us all. The bar's patrons fall silent while he sings, and when he finishes and takes his seat we all applaud enthusiastically.
I snap a picture of the British trio then with the last shot in my Kodak disposable. They lean in toward one another, grinning broadly. Taffy is on the right, making a funny face and raising his beer in a toast. Graham is in the middle with his hand over his mouth, as if he's trying to hold in laughter. Brick is on the left with his hand in the air, smiling directly at me. They look so young and happy and free. (I sometimes take this picture out of the big cardboard box that holds my memories and gaze at it, trying to remember what it felt like to be so carefree.)
I place the camera on the table and declare, "I'm ready to dance! Let me run downstairs and see if the disco is open."
Taffy asks, "Are you sure you don't need an escort?"
"I'll be fine," I reply as I stumble off to the staircase.
Graham looks worried. "Okay, we'll see you in a few minutes."
The ballroom is located on the ground floor, across from a large bank of windows that face the beach. The disco is closed and nobody else is in the corridor. I am suddenly very tired. I collapse into a chair, close my eyes, and listen to the waves booming outside. I rest for fifteen minutes, maybe more. When I open my eyes, I feel much better. Less tired, more sober, alive.
I stand and turn toward the staircase. And there is Brick at the end of the long hallway. I stop, surprised and delighted and scared in a haunted house kind of way. He saunters down the hallway toward me until he is mere inches from my body. I want to joke that he was worried about me. But before I can, he takes my hands and whispers "Shhh" into my ear.
Hands on my shoulders, he firmly pushes me up against the wall and kisses my neck, beginning in the tender hollow above my collarbone. The strap of my dress slips down and his velvety lips graze my shoulder, trail up my neck, nibble my skin. Desire surges through me like liquid metal as his mouth touches mine. I kiss him back and cling to him tightly.
He pulls away and breathes, "I've been wanting to do that all night." His voice is ragged.
I am dazed and cannot speak. I smile stupidly and readjust my dress. I am definitely not a wife, at least not a well-behaved one.
He laughs softly. "Should we go find the guys?"
I nod, still winded and mute. We walk hand in hand down the corridor and up the stairs. Graham and Taffy are waiting at the top, wearing knowing smiles and carrying drinks. Do they think I'm a jezebel, or merely frustrated? I know I'm not the first wife in the world to stray, nor will I be the last.
"Uh, the disco is closed," I announce, finding my voice at last in a blatant effort at normalcy.
Taffy replies, "Guess what? We can dance, but it has to be outside."
Graham practically yelps, "Come on, let's go! I'm definitely not ready to head back to the ship yet."
Our ears lead us out the door to a pop band with a loud, upbeat tempo. They are gyrating on a wooden stage in front of a concrete dance floor beside one of the pools. The tables are nearly full, but we find one near the back.
I dance first with Graham, who tells me a funny joke and makes me laugh. I do a kind of crazy waltz with Taffy, who waxes nostalgic about his ex-wife and admits to me how much he still misses her. And I dance with Brick, who says nothing at all but whose fingers map my curves and warm my flesh. Our bodies fit together perfectly, and I am graceful and fluid in his arms. He spins me around and holds me close and not once do we step on each other's feet.
And then we are all back at the table, panting and laughing.
Taffy and Graham crack a few jokes, then rise and announce they're leaving. It's as if an invisible signal, like whale sonar, has passed between Brick and his friends along a secret channel made up of testosterone and Y-chromosomes. The signal is audible to them but is obviously blocked by my unsuspecting double X.
Taffy embraces me and says, "You're great. Have fun tonight!"
Graham hugs me like a big, gawky kid. "It's been really fun hanging out with you. Take care."
They swagger away. Before they are out of sight, Taffy sends one final, bawdy wink in my direction. I wave goodbye, a bit sadly, knowing I will never see them again.
Now Brick and I are alone. He is rosy-cheeked from dancing, his eyes bright. He looks delicious-salty, sexual, vigorous. I want to lean over and lick his musky skin.
Alcohol and the evening's enchantments have worked their magic. I am bold, a scarlet woman, an unabashed floozy, no longer just an espresso-brewing wife. I lean into Brick and murmur, "I'd like to take you to my room and make love to you. But I need to know something."
"What?" His voice is uneven. I am gratified to see his confidence drop a notch or two. He is transparently nervous, and it makes me feel powerful.
"Do you have any condoms?" I may be wanton, but I am not stupid.
Brick reaches into his pocket, removes his wallet, and fishes out a square of cellophane. The package crinkles and I smile.
I quip, "A sailor after my own heart!"
Hand in hand, our hips bumping, we propel our hungry bodies toward my hotel room. My heart thumps frantically in my chest and I can barely move my jellied limbs. The seawall of my skin surely cannot contain this flooding desire.
We enter my hotel room and Brick slams the door. I nudge him onto the bed, tie his hands together with a silky violet scarf. I straddle his hips and kiss him like a madwoman. His shirt comes off first and I lick his chest, tasting the ocean. His skin is warm and smells of citrus and spice. I shimmy down, pull his jeans off, trace my tongue along his outrageously muscular thighs. I slide my dress down as he removes his briefs. He touches me through my lacy panties and licks my bare breasts. I roll the condom onto him and then he is yanking my panties down and we are rocking into each other, slowly, so slowly at first, and then harder, more urgently. He stiffens and moans and I shiver, too, in cascading pleasure, wave after wave.
Eyes closed, chest pounding, I try to still my body and slow my breath.
Then I hear, "Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant!"
And I can't help it, I giggle like a schoolgirl in church. No lover has ever described sex with me as brilliant. I laugh loudly and I can't stop. I am near hysteria, caught in that post-coital zone between tears and laughter.
"Brilliant?" I echo in a ridiculous Eliza Doolittle accent, kicking my bare legs into the air and rolling on the bed.
Brick chuckles. "Well you are. Brilliant I mean. You're a gorgeous woman."
We make love again later, unhurriedly this time, in a chair on the patio with the lights of downtown San Juan twinkling in the distance. I forget, for a few hours, that I am an unhappily married woman.
After, we retreat to the messy bed and talk through the night. I learn the rebellious punk origins of Brick's tattooed knuckles, "love" inscribed across his right hand and "hate" across the left, just like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter.
Brick confides, "I'll probably regret the ink someday when I'm old and fat."
I caress his hard abdomen and reply, "You'll never be fat."
He drifts off and I watch him sleep. I could love this man, maybe, once upon a time. We will live in a cottage on a green hill in Cornwall. I will hang our laundry to dry in the brisk wind off the ocean. The ravine below our house will be alive with foxes, badgers, and hedgehogs. Kestrels and owls will dart to and fro. We will make babies, a multitude of hazel-eyed children. And I will loll on the grass sipping tea and waiting for my man to return from sea, like Ahab's wife.
But of course, this will not happen. I am not a wife. Not Simon's, anymore, and certainly not Brick's. I am reckless and free and have just had deliciously immoral sex with a stranger.
Sunlight dapples the bed. Brick stirs and looks at his watch for the first time since kissing me outside the ballroom.
"Bloody hell!" he cries. Then he hops up like a fireman on watch and throws his clothes on in a minute flat.
"In a hurry?" I purr lazily, stretching like a cat.
"Um, yes, actually. My ship leaves in half an hour."
"Oh!" I yell, leaping to my feet. "We better boogie, huh?"
I toss on a white, terrycloth robe embroidered with the hotel name while Brick gathers his things.
Downstairs we sprint through the deserted lobby. Thankfully there is a taxi on queue and Brick hails it. As it is circling up the driveway, he pulls a dollar out of his wallet.
"This is for you, " he tells me sweetly.
Suddenly feeling a tad whorish, I am on the verge of sputtering an indignant expletive about where he can put the dollar bill when he rips it in half and hands me one portion.
He looks into my eyes and says, "This night has been amazing. It's the most wonderful experience I've ever had. I'll always carry my half of this dollar to remember you by, and I hope you do the same."
Then he kisses me fervently like he'll never see me again, caresses my tousled hair, bounds into the taxi, and signals the driver to leave. It's all very Technicolor cheesy, but damn if it isn't just a little bit romantic.
I watch until the cab turns a corner and disappears from sight. Then I totter dejectedly back to my room, half of a wrinkled dollar bill in my hand, and collapse on rumpled sheets ripe with the scent of pheromones and red wine and crushed tangerines.
I sleep for six hours straight, until bright afternoon sunlight blazes through my window. I rise and step into my bikini, then stroll to the pool and dive into the aqua coolness. I swim like a fish until my head clears and my aching body is refreshed. Ray-Bans in place, I order chilled juice, stretch out on a chaise lounge, and gaze into the pool's ultramarine ripples.
Later, when I return home to San Francisco, to Simon's misery and our excruciating divorce, I will conjure the memory of Brick's body pressed deeply into mine. I will recall again and again the wild scent of him and the sound of the waves. But even more than this, I will remember precisely the exquisite abandon of broken rules and the exuberant panic of a fresh identity, no longer a wife but not yet a solitary creature.
*Some names in this memoir have been changed.