Mad Scientess Jane Expat
Some of you may have noticed that I never finished writing about the trip to San Juan over New Year. The second half of the trip was much less touristy than the first half and aside from the trip to El Yunque, didn't produce nearly as many pretty pictures. It also involved a series of meetings with Marco's estranged father. I decided that, rather than doing a daily travelogue, it would be better to write about that experience only, since it's burned into my mind more powerfully than any other aspect of the trip. So here it is. It's long and it involves a lot of bad behavior on my part. If you're feeling judgmental, now would be a good time to step off. Thanks.
The first meeting
In the morning, we went shopping, which wasn't very exciting, although I did empty off my memory cards at a camera shop since all of them were full. We ate lunch and then went to meet Marco's dad.
He kept us waiting for an hour, during which we searched the freezing cold law library at the university for him. Finally we gave up and sat on the steps to read. I wasn't convinced he was going to show up at all. Eventually, he did. He had the mannerisms of a man older than he was – little tics of the face, a tendency to drop crumbs all around him when he ate, moving rather slowly and with a slight tremble. I looked at him and didn't see what Marco would look like in thirty years. When I see my mother, I can picture how I'll be similar at her age. I know I'll hold my head the same way and have the same large startled eyes. I already do. But Marco hadn't seen his father in twelve years and it showed.
It felt strange, sitting in a coffee shop and listening to him orate in his New York-accented English. It seemed as if he felt the need to prove himself to his son. Considering the way he's spent the intervening time since their last meeting and the way Marco has, that makes sense. The whole encounter had an awkward formality, like a job interview. I half-expected Marco's father to whip out a CV and present it to us. He didn't ask much about me. Marco offered up most of the information. That didn't surprise me, as I'm accustomed to being identified by his Puerto Rican family members as "that nice girlfriend he still hasn't married yet." They don't care what I do for a living or where I come from or even that I don't speak much Spanish. They just care that I have child-birthin' hips.
This wasn't the attitude I expected from his father. I think he possesses a different outlook, being better educated and having spent more time away from the island than his relatives. But I didn't have much of a chance to find out what it was. I'm the only one of Marco's girlfriends he's ever met, so perhaps it's not strange that he didn't know how to treat me. He didn't even seem to know how to treat Marco. Maybe that's why he approached him like a business contact. He insisted on addressing Marco in English even when Marco spoke Spanish, although later in the conversation, oddly enough, he felt the need to urge me to learn Spanish.
I tried my best not to prejudge him. It wasn't easy. From what I'd been told by Marco and his mother, and his failure to respond to previous attempts to reach him, I'd formed a distinctly unfavorable impression. However, once the meeting was over, Marco seemed pleased to have reconciled with him. They discussed vague plans for a second meeting. I wasn't sure how advisable it would be for me to attend that one, but we agreed to talk about it later.
When we got back to Condado at a little after four, Marco fell asleep immediately and napped for over an hour. In the evening, we picked up his Tio Luis and went to his Auntie Aida's house for a big supper. She happily stuffed us with pork product and starch, and for dessert, tembleque, a coconut-milk gelatin dessert. Her house was an amazing, blazing cacophony of Christmas lights and angel decorations. After the earlier events of the day, I was happy to sink into a food coma, stare at the model train-set and feel unreal.
The second meeting
We went to Marco's godmother's house in the afternoon to chat with her and eat chicharrones (fried pork bits) before supper and dominoes. Marco's Tio Luis was there, of course, and his 89-year-old great aunt, who comports herself like a benevolent queen mother and upon whom everyone dotes. We were getting thoroughly schooled by the older generation in dominoes when Tio Luis' phone rang. It was Marco's father. He wanted to plan another lunch meeting the following day. However, he didn't want to go to Marco's godmother's house. He wanted Marco to drive to the badly lit parking lot of a petrol station about three blocks away. Marco waffled a bit about whether or not I should go with him and finally decided he wanted my company.
His father met us at a traffic intersection and directed us to the parking lot. In Spanish. Marco got out of the car to talk to him. In Spanish. Although the windows were rolled down and they stood right behind the car, I couldn't pick up any of what they were saying. (I should also like to note that his father didn't address me at all, not even in greeting.) After a couple of minutes, Marco leaned into the car and said, "We're just going to walk a little ways down the road and talk some more."
Now, putting aside the fact that I didn't fancy being left alone in an unlocked car in a shady parking lot full of cruisers in an unfamiliar neighborhood in a country where I don't speak the language, I saw absolutely no reason why they should need to move away when I couldn't understand a damn thing they'd said anyhow. Loading my voice with as much dubious sarcasm as I could, I said, "Why?"
Marco started to equivocate when his father said, in English, "You know what, here is just fine." He switched to Spanish again. They conversed for a minute or two more. Marco got back in the car. His father disappeared into the night. We drove back to the house.
Already seething inwardly, I asked him what happened. It transpired that they had arranged a place to meet for lunch the following day, our last full day in San Juan. (I should also like to note that his father still had not told us where he lived or given us any other contact information, like a telephone number.) It transpired, too, that he had asked Marco for money, which was presumably why he hadn't wanted me to overhear their conversation. Marco didn't have the amount he'd asked for although he gave him what he had. (I actually had the cash on me to make up the difference, although I don't know whether I would have offered it up if I had known what was going on.)
At this point I went from upset and suspicious to infuriated. I declared that I would not attend the lunch meeting and that I felt it was unsafe for Marco to go as well. Marco countered that he was fully aware that his father's behavior was, and had always been, peculiar, that he wanted to talk to him in spite of the elements of his father's character that he mistrusted and that he would not be giving him any more money. I calmed down and said that although I would prefer not to, for fear of poisoning the proceedings with my judgment, I would go to the lunch if Marco asked.
I felt torn. Part of me wanted Marco to ask me to go. Another part of me clung firmly to the belief that it wasn't wrong for me to have felt frightened by and suspicious of his father. Beyond that, my confidence was shaken. I'd unconsciously assumed a belief that, no matter what the circumstances, Marco would always endeavor to protect me from physical harm at least. (I don't think this is inherently sexist, as I think he makes the same assumption about me.) It felt, not as though he'd failed, but as though he would have left me, a person who had tried to provide him with years of love and support, exposed for the sake of his unreliable father. I wasn't, at this point, remembering that his father had been supportive and loving during Marco's early childhood. At the time I was far too angry and confused to parse any of this or to talk myself out of the resentment it engendered.
The third meeting
We spent an uncomfortable tense morning, pretending that everything was fine by doing some last-minute shopping in San Juan before returning the car to the rental agency. We walked back to home base, where I started to wash all the sheets and towels we'd used so that our generous hosts would return to a clean home.
Marco left to meet his father just after noon. I threw myself whole-heartedly into housework and tried to convince myself that everything was fine, that I was OK with my decision to stay and with Marco's to go. Except, obviously, I totally wasn't. Sitting at home with only my mounting sense of having made a huge mistake for hours was a very bad idea. At around 3 PM, I received a short text from Marco. He said everything was fine. His father had brought his girlfriend along, bought the lunch, paid back the borrowed cash and apologized repeatedly for being rude to me the previous evening.
Although this should have alleviated my fear, anger and suspicion, it made me more enraged instead. When Marco came home, bouncing and happy from his first completely positive encounter with his father in twelve years, I had exactly the wrong reaction. I was sullen. It only took a few minute for the stoic neutral façade I had constructed to crumble and for my furious self to emerge and spoil the aftermath with unclear and hurtful shoutings of my conflicted feelings.
I've no doubt that I behaved quite badly. I don't believe that my feelings were unjustified, but I do believe that expressing them in that way at that point in time was absolutely the wrong thing to do. I wish I'd had the decency, grace and self-control to put a lid on my outburst so that Marco could have enjoyed that rare and valuable moment without hindrance. His memory of it will always be tainted by me and my selfish anger. There's nothing I can do about it now except to apologize, to learn and to evolve. I made a terrible mistake and I'm sorry for it.