On the drive to the eye doctor, I swerved my little red Suzuki around potholes and manholes buried so deep with layers and years of road repairs that one good hit could likely burst the old girl’s ball joints in half.
Few of the other drivers seemed to mind. They swerved in kind, or slowed down if the road narrowed too much to pass comfortably. No one waved, no one swore, no one honked. Driving is an art here in Puerto Rico. And we’re all in it together.
We sat in the doctor’s office, Kevin on the chair in front of the microscope laser machine. I behind in the chair for the care-giver. Of course there is a second chair. Of course when I asked if I should come in or stay in the waiting room, every single doctor and receptionist gave me the same look. Raised eyebrows, surprised affirmation, a welcoming gesture. “Pasa!” they’d say. (Come on in!) Few here come alone.
A handsome doctor perched behind the machine, handsomer even as he broke the news with grave eyes. Eyes that revealed he was sad about the findings. That he cared for this new gringo patient enough to allow empathy, to feel emotion.
This was after the initial intake, in another room with a young woman in square rimmed glasses, straight black hair loose past her shoulders. She looked tired, she sat a little slouched, but there was no grouchiness. And no hurry. She took breaks between questions, between tests, to tell us her favorite kind of Puerto Rican coffee. She stopped her checklist midstream as we broke in with new information or questions. Engaging happily, not just doctor-patient obligation.
I thought about the other patients waiting outside the door. Do they have to wait longer because these doctors take time to connect. Is this why there’s island time, because there’s humanity? Because you take the time to care for each other first, work second? So un-American! How do we get anything done?!
Back in the doctor’s office, two more assistants stood at the door, joking as Kevin joked, nurturing as he needed. All of them men. Tender, kind, patient men. The jokester, the serious one, and the doctor the handsomest, nodding to me when he noticed I had a question, answering thoroughly. Busy but not rushing.
Eight hundred, thirty five shots with the laser. We stood around Kevin in a protective ring, as the handsome doctor sealed the rim of his retina, saving his “good eye” before surgery on the other next week. The assistants handed him water and propped his feet to ease the nausea and shock of adrenaline, the color drained from his skin. They hovered aware and alert, the right reaction for the right moment. And then, when it had passed, they joked again, dosing each other with laughter. As we stood to leave, they all hugged him in turn.
“You are a good man,” said the doctor. “Here we take care of you as if you were family, as if you were our father.”
Out in another waiting room, Kevin asked if I noticed a wedding ring. Ring-spotting is actually an interesting new habit I’ve picked up in my mid thirties, something I never thought I’d do. I admitted that I had looked…and no. We grinned mischievously.
“But maybe he takes it off because he has to cut peoples’ eyes open,” I reasoned.
“Or maybe it’s because all my eye stuff has a bigger purpose after all,” he mused in his dreamy Pisces way.
Rafania called us into her office, introducing herself as the nurse on duty and reminding Kevin that she had talked to him on the phone. She was a stout black woman, with a flirtatious, challenging smile, more Caribbean than Latin in composure. Her English accent carried a hint of down-island.
But we learned that she had only been born in the Dominican Republic. That she had grown up here in Puerto Rico. We learned that her name came from her father, who was Rafael Antonio, combined and feminized to be Rafania. We learned all this, of course, because the medical explanations that should have taken thirty minutes lasted an hour and a half.
An hour and a half of getting to know each other, of thorough directions on prescriptions and appointments, broken by slow, patient banter. Kevin took every chance to flatter her, and she raised her eyebrows in pleased rebuttal.
We asked if the same doctor we saw would be doing the surgery next week and she nodded affirmative.
“Oh good,” said Kevin. “Me gusto!…Me gusto?” he asked, checking his Spanish.
“Me gustó,” said Rafania, “With an accent.”
“Could you say, ‘lo quiero’,” I tested, shocking her.
“No! That’s too strong,” she said. I smirked at Kevin.
She carried on writing the prescription for after the surgery. For the blood draw and the chest X-ray we’d have to do before. She called the doctor we’d go see for an EKG read. I noticed as she spoke in Spanish into her iPhone that she was catching up, asking about the secretary’s husband and family. They hadn’t spoken in a while. She hung up and turned to us.
“OK, I got you an appointment for Monday. I just spoke to the wife of the doctor.”
“Of the doctor who’s doing the surgery?” I piped in.
“No, the doctor you will see on Monday.” She turned back to writing the appointment and I shot Kevin a quick smirk. He burped up an uncontrollable laugh and covered his mouth to hide his smile, his body trembling with chuckles. I looked down at my knees, to avoid eye contact and a giggle fit, but smiled to myself. This was fun with Kevin. With everyone. Puerto Rico is just…fun.
Finally we were done. Rafania had written the appointments slowly and neatly, then talked me through the directions even more slowly. My hungry, kinesthetic brain struggled to absorb her verbal instructions. I stared through her and blinked and nodded. Then, with papers and prescriptions folded in their envelop and stored in the top pocket of Kevin’s backpack, we stood to leave. He thanked Rafania, gushing over how kind everyone had been, such a pleasant experience. She pulled him into her big-bodied hug.
“This is Puerto Rico,” she said. “We take care of each other.”
“I want to be Puerto Rican!” I whined, as she pulled me in next.
“You are,” she said, my heart swelling against hers. “You both already are.”
And now I am driving again in Rincon. I am trying to remember to do the left turns correctly. To stop just a little early, hold up traffic, and wave out the other guy turning left. He’ll wave back at me, then lean over his windshield to see if the other lane is clear. Sometimes he’ll just nose out anyways. Sometimes I don’t let others go, nosing out like that. Sometimes I’m in a rush, or it’s just too many, or maybe their car is too big, too new, not ‘island’ enough.
I’m making split second judgments. There are a lot of Americans in this town. I’m one of them, but I still feel more inclined to help a local. I’m fearing the American take over, even as I’m part of it.
A shiny white SUV wants to pull out into my lane, from the timeshares on the beach. There’s no one coming the other way. I hesitate, they can wait. Then I change my mind and slow down, stick my arm out the window and wave them on. They smile, wave back and zoom out.
I speed up again, thinking, ‘Now, there’s one American couple who just benefited from some island-style courtesy. There are two more people who feel grateful, not frustrated. Who feel seen, not abandoned, who feel connected, not competitive. Who might go on to wave someone else out, to spread more courtesy.’
We who come here for the weather, and fall in love with the culture, will maybe be the ones to help preserve it. But we cannot fall in love without tasting it. So to push them aside, these Americans coming as I have to fill up this place, will only keep them separate, keep them on the other side. And if there are two sides, there will be conflict.
So, welcome them as you would your family, as honorary Puerto Ricans. Share it without giving it away. Let the strength of this culture hold them, transform them, so they don’t need to transform it out of isolation, or discomfort, or loneliness.
We’re all in it together…right?