Island by Susan Lago

Muriel stepped through the automatic doors into a technicolor afternoon - a shock after the ubiquitous vanilla of the airport interior. She squinted, wishing she had thought to get her sunglasses out of her purse before exiting the plane. Muriel certainly didn't want to open it here surrounded by so many people, rather noisy people at that, all chattering in a foreign language. Perspiration instantly dampened the back of the linen blouse, which had been so crisp when she donned it that morning. She smiled as she thought of the icy roads and prickly sweaters she had left behind. A man banging on a conga drum over by the curb smiled back at her. She glanced away when she saw he had no teeth.

"Piragua! Piraguita! " called a man selling shaved ice out of a cart. A boy in a Catholic school uniform stared at the brightly colored bottles lined up in the cart's window while his mother swayed her hips to the conga's beat. He pointed to blue, then orange, then green. The man packed the ice into a paper cone, then tipped the bottles one at a time over the ice and handed the cone to the boy.

Muriel Schwartz, a divorced woman of a certain age, had two grown children who seldom called. Most of her time was spent on sheer maintenance: tinting and toning, waxing and plucking. Also, she had the Garden Club, Hadassah, and her weekly book group to keep her usefully occupied. So what was this trip then, she wondered now. If only her friend, Margaret Goldenblatt hadn't urged her to try internet dating. "You've got to get out more," Margaret had said over Bloody Marys and egg white omelets at The Club. "For heaven sakes," Muriel had said to Margaret, "my life is fine the way it is. Who needs a man to muck it up?" Margaret looked at her over the tops of her glasses and shook her hennaed head. "Muriel, it's not good for a woman to be alone." This from a woman married over thirty years to her childhood sweetheart. What did she know about starting life over again once the children were grown and doors that had once stood open had permanently shut?
Nevertheless, Muriel accepted the piece of paper Margaret pressed into her hand with the website of the internet dating service. And so here she was looking around for someone name Raul.

"Sefiora Schwartz? At her side appeared a round cigar of a man, the top of his head barely at her shoulder.


"No, Sefiora. Raul, he told me to bring you to the hotel. Si?"

"Oh. Okay. Yes - I mean, si."

The driver drove with a great deal of enthusiasm if not much caution. He had turned up the radio and the air conditioning in equal measure so Mrs. Schwartz shivered along to the Salsa. Low cement houses strung together by clotheslines blew by the window. Out beyond the procession of palms nodding at the sky, Muriel glimpsed a wink of ocean. And then without warning, the car slowed to a crawl. "Trafico," explained the driver.

Muriel nodded and promptly fell asleep.

Check in at the hotel took substantially longer than such things should take, in Muriel's opinion.

You could pick out the American tourists: they were the ones waiting on line. Meanwhile, the island natives meandered in and through the line, desk clerks picking guests seemingly at random to check them m.

The room, though, when the bellhop finally left, was a pleasant surprise. The view of a jewel-toned ocean quite took Muriel's breath away.

The phone rang. "Perd6neme, mi amor. I am sorry to not be meeting you at the airport."


"Si, si. You meet me in the bar. Esta bien?"

"Yes. I mean- si," said Muriel.

Muriel reapplied her face and changed into the dress she had purchased for the occasion. At home, the dress, a cream-colored cotton with tailored lines, had looked smart. Here, surrounded by almost hysterical color, it merely looked safe. Reaffirming herself one last time, Muriel sighed - the face looking back at her from the mirror more closely resembled her mother's than the one she saw in her mind's eye. She hesitated a moment at the door. She, Muriel Schwartz nee Rosencrantz , was about to meet a stranger at a bar. She, who at twenty-one and a virgin, had gone straight from her parents' home to her husband's. Who had taken care of that husband and that home and who had pursued her children's dreams instead of her own. Muriel took a deep breath and stepped into the hall.

Outside by the pool, tourists in bathing suits revealing copious pink flesh, held frosty drinks decorated with bits of fruit and little umbrellas.

"Muriel?" Her name like music in a voice that caressed its vowels and stretched them out on either side of the rolling r.

She turned. "Raul?" Oh my. Here was a man like a tall glass of sweet, dark rum. And he was young. Too young.

He placed his hands on her shoulders and drew her to him, placing a kiss on her lips that lingered too long to be merely friendly. "Ai, you are beautiful," he said. "Eres preciosa."

"Your emails," she said, "your emails said you were a retired gentleman. I assumed you were a bit - older."

"Ahhh," he said. "You will have a drink, yes?" He signaled to the bartender. "I am- as you say- retired. At this time, I am not having a job. You understand, yes?'

Yes. She understood. One of the frosty drinks appeared in her hand. "There's been a mistake," she started to say.

"We go now," said Raul. "They are expecting us. Bring your Pina Colada."

"Where-" She followed him through a group of oil-slicked teenagers in very small bikinis. "Your room number?" the bartender called, hurrying after her.

Muriel scrawled 412 on the check.

"Raul! Guapo!" A woman in tight white pants enveloped him in pillowy arms.

"Titi Lourdes!" he said, lifting her off her feet. "This my aunt," he said, turning to Muriel. "She is beautiful, yes?"

The house, out of which the party overflowed, was painted a riotous pink and through the open door she glimpsed a table laden with pots and plates of food. Around her, men and women danced while laughing children ran through the couples, playing a complicated game of tag.

"Aiiiiieee! Mamacita! Ven aqui!" A bald man with a beer grabbed Muriel around the waist.

"I don't know," she said as the man clasped her to him, shimmying his hips to the music, "how to dance to this." She smiled in what she hoped was in an inoffensive manner and pressed at this chest. The man took this a signal to grasp her hand and twirl her away from him, and then reel her back in like a fish on a line.

"No, no, Tio!" said Raul, extracting himself from his aunt. "Come, m'ija," he said to Muriel. "We go get something to eat."

Raul led her around back of the house. Here a group of men sat around a bridge table playing dominos. Under a tree covered with orange flowers, a cluster of old women silently nodded to themselves, plates of food untouched on their laps. Raul led her to a where pig impaled on a spit hung over a low pit filled with smoldering coals. It had an apple in its mouth.

"This my cousin, Marisol," said Raul, putting his arm around a woman with a mole in the shape of Texas on the side of her nose. Marisol handed Muriel a plate.

Muriel shook her head, pulling her hand out of Raul's. "I don't eat pork," she said. "You try." said Raul, tearing a hunk of pink flesh from the pig's haunch.

"I - I'm kosher."

"Que?" said Marisol. "What is kosher?"

"It's a Jew thing," said a young man standing near the pig's head. He tore off an ear and put it on his plate.

"Que?" said Marisol.

"The Jew," said the man, smiling at Muriel," doesn't eat pig."

The group standing around the pig nodded, although Muriel was sure that not all of them understood English. Suddenly Muriel felt very far from home. Surely these people didn't mean to offend.

Probably they hadn't met many Jewish people, if any.

"I think I'd like to go back to the hotel," said Muriel, but Raul was already half way across the small dirt yard. She hurried after him.

"Here you go, linda," he said, handing her a plastic cup. "What you need is a drink, yes?" "No," said Muriel. "What I need is to - "
The bald man was back. "We dance now!" he said and whirled Muriel around the yard.

"Vaya!" laughed Raul, taking his aunt's hand.

"Ven, Titi!" They moved together in perfect synchronization, feet flying and hips swaying independently of their torsos.

One of the little boys came over and looked up at Muriel. "He want dance with you," called Raul over his aunt's shoulder.

The uncle placed Muriel's hand in the small sweaty - and none too clean - hand of the boy. The boy positioned his other hand at Muriel's waist and steered her back and forth with unsmiling solemnity. Then the grandmother was calling them in the house to eat more food. "Gracias," smiled Muriel. The boy ducked his head and darted away.

In the house, Raul loaded Muriel's plate with arroz con gondules, plantinos, and pollo guisado. No pork, Muriel was grateful to see. He refilled her cup and led her away to eat under one of the trees.

"What are those flowers called?" she asked, looking up. The flowers were red pinwheels dripping long yellow stamens from their hearts.

"This the Flamboyan tree. When I a little boy, my abuelita, she tell me this the tree who denies its flowers to the Virgin."

Muriel took a bite of the rice and beans. "Why does it do that?"

"Because this tree, it gives the flowers when the other trees do not."

"You mean it blossoms all year round?"

"Yes. Blossoms. That is the word." He held up one finger as if to mark the word in his memory. "You like the food?"

She nodded. The chicken was delicious - garlicky and flavored with a fragrant green leaf. She ate until she couldn't eat any more, even when Raul's aunt came over with a plate of something that looked like a com fritter stuffed with meat. Raul took two and his aunt bent and kissed his cheek.

After dinner, Muriel watched as Raul danced with his cousins, girls with long black eyes and a sashay to their walk that no American girl had. Even after the sun sank below the horizon, the air was sultry and scented by the sea.

Back at the hotel, Muriel acknowledged to herself that she was drunk. More drunk than she had been in - well, as long as she could remember actually. She wasn't just drunk on the rum and cokes Raul had kept her supplied with. She was drunk on the sweet air, the music, and on Raul's smile. As she tumbled back on the bed, she glanced at the clock. Three a.m. And she wasn't even tired. She kicked off her sensible flats and felt the bed rock beneath her.

"You are so beautiful." He leaned over her, his breath warm on her face.

Muriel floated in the beautiful lie. When was the last time she felt this way? Certainly not on her last date with that dentist from Weehawken who had the nerve to tell her she was too old for him. And he, a sixty-seven year old, AARP member who bragged about the size of his pension.

Certainly not in the twenty-seven years of her marriage that had fizzled out like a sparkler left on the lawn.

"You are the one who is beautiful," she answered. She ran her hands up his arms. His skin was satin as if buffed smooth by sand and salt water. "But you have to go." She gently pushed at him and sat up.

"But why, Amorcita?" he asked.

"Because you do." She sighed. "If I were twenty years younger ... "

He laughed, his teeth white against his tan. "Such things do not matter-"

She walked over to the door. Suddenly she was tired, feeling every one of her years.

He took her hand and pressed her palm to his lips. "Are you sure you won't change your mind?" She shook her head and opened the door.

He stepped through, then turned. "Muriel?"


"Please to give me money for gas. Could you-"

Muriel retrieved her wallet from the nightstand, extracted some twenties. It was her ex-husband's money anyway. She pressed the bills into his hand. "Adios, Raul," she said, and shut the door behind him.

Muriel stepped out onto the balcony. She breathed in the perfume of ocean and bougainvillea. The sea was a dense blackness below, a sound of waves counting out the beat upon the beach. All at once, the moon came out from behind a cloud and poured a shining path on the sea. A great loneliness rose in her then, an inevitability. She didn't begrudge Raul's attempt to better his life.
She had seen the humbleness of his house - the unraveling wicker furniture, the three small rooms meant to house his entire extended family. But at least they had each other. They danced and laughed, and shared favorite dishes with friends and family. Tomorrow she would fly home, back to the life she filled with meaningless motion. She stayed on the balcony, drinking in the night, until the first rays of light fought the moon for the ocean.


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