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The island’s humid air seeped straight through the oxygen vents of Eastern Flight 202 and into the nostrils of Linda Marino. Eleven thousand feet and descending, she was minutes from Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. A baby boy dressed in a fitted white-and-blue sailor suit was crying in the row in front of her, while the boy’s mother sang lullabies in Spanish. The old man sitting next to Linda grabbed an handkerchief from the breast of his tan suit so he could wipe the sweat from his eyeglasses. Linda took the final sip of her vodka tonic, letting the ice cubs crack onto her teeth, while she peeked out the airplane’s window and saw the first sandy outlines of the island. She had refused to stop drinking, that was her own decision, and her body quivered for another cigarette.
The plane’s view slowly scanned past the island’s northern shore, directly over the sleepy fishing town of Dorado, with its newer resorts and man-made golf courses. The flight path then headed slightly south and crossed over Levittown’s uniform rooftops and street grids, a planned community of American suburbia just miles from Puerto Rico’s colonial streets. It flew over Cataño, home of the Bacardi Rum distillery, before heading into the sprawl of San Juan, with its disconnected roads, hotels, casinos, lagoons, and condominiums. Into the projects and shacks of Santurce, then Carolina—the birthplace of Clemente—before approaching the airport’s main runway.
As the front wheels screeched onto the asphalt, the airplane’s Puerto Rican passengers erupted into applause, shouts, and blessings to the Lord. At that moment, any sociologist could have easily separated the Puerto Ricans from the Americans on the plane. Puerto Ricans party and shout alleluias when a plan lands. Americans just close their eyes and stay silent. The first time Linda saw this spectacle just weeks before on her first trip to the island, she had laughed at its absurdity. This time, she was expecting it and thought it endearing.
Linda grabbed her purse from under her seat and waited for the file of passengers in front of her to exit the plane. The little baby sailor had suddenly dozed off, while the elderly man next to her kept wiping his forehead with this handkerchief. Linda look behind her towards the rear of the plane. She saw older New York men dressed in Hawaiian shirts and straw hats, their bushy grey chest hairs creeping out from their collars. She saw American wives in short summer dresses, holding their winter coats and scarves in their hands. She saw two nuns and thought of Sally Field and her new TV show, where she flew around a canned studio set of Puerto Rico in her pink habit and cornette. Behind the nuns stood a mother with her six children. The mother had the face of sadness covered all over her body, while her children shoved each other and shouted curses in Spanglish. Linda turned back to the front and made her way towards to the plane’s exit. The island’s humid scent had taken over the plane like a winter blanket on a frigid January morning in Manhattan. This scent, although more familiar to Linda this time, still made her shiver. Once she walked down the stairs and onto the runway, she was already lighting up a Vigrinia Slims and wanting another drink.
She walked into the terminal, noticing the armed policemen at the entrance, which displayed a enormous framed photograph of Governor Roberto Sánchez Villela, the successor to the great Muñoz Marín. Villela, a member of the island’s dominant Commonwealth party, was suffering politically from a scandal, where he had divorced his wife in 1967 and married one of his close assistants. The island’s voters, who still were Catholic, conservative, and believed in the sacred sacrament of matrimony, were dismayed with Villela, and the current scandal was damaging his reelection bid and opening the opportunity for Luis Ferré and the pro-statehood party to win the governor’s office in 1969.
To Linda, Villela’s photograph was just that of another politician, but when she saw it, she stopped walking and thought of her father Giovanni Marino. Politics kicked Linda out of her family’s Bronx apartment. Giovanni was now a politician like Villela and having just been elected to the US House of Representatives as the first Italian American congressman in New York City, the last thing he needed were tabloid stories in the Daily News about his unmarried pregnant daughter and a Puerto Rican love child.
Giovanni rarely screamed in his life, but on the day Linda was banished from his home, his shouts of puttana and whore could be heard throughout the hallways of the apartment building. His neighbors all came out into the hallway, only to see Linda sobbing and running towards the elevator. She didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to her mother, Betty, who was still doing the grocery shopping at the local A&P.
After leaving her apartment, Linda headed out to the end of the Grand Concourse and hailed a cab, who drove her to Eva’s apartment in the South Bronx. There, Linda told Eva everything. Eva listened, then urged Linda to just pause and give her father time.
“Fuck him,” Linda said.
Linda stayed at Eva’s for two nights, comforted by Mrs. Santiago’s fried steak and onions. After refusing to head back home to her apartment, Linda called her mother Betty, who had already told Giovanni to leave his own apartment and go find a place to rent in Washington. She had no desire to share a bed with a man who just denounced his own daughter in front of all their friends and neighbors.
“We’re a family, Giovanni,” Betty said to her husband. “Family’s more important than politics.”
“No, it’s not, Betty. This is only the beginning. I have big dreams for this family,” Giovanni said. “Once she realizes that, she will do the right thing and come back to us. I will help her if she does the right thing. We can make this go away.”
“Go away? What do you mean, go away?” Betty asked.
“You know what I mean,” Giovanni said. “I’ll just head to Washington earlier. I’ll call you soon.”
When Linda and Betty talked over the phone, Linda had already contacted Francisco Antonio to tell him the news about her pregnancy. He was back at engineering school in Mayagüez, on the west side of the island. As Linda told him about what Giovanni had done, he seethed. How dare he think he was just some Puerto Rican punk, like some greasy gang member Giovanni used to arrest? Francisco Antonio was the son of Don Octavio Benítez, one of the island’s most revered businessmen. Francisco’s pride made the decision for him before he could even absorb what Linda was telling him.
“Come down to Puerto Rico. We’ll get married,” Francisco Antonio said.
“What?” Linda said.
“Have the baby down here. Marry me. I’ll get you a plane ticket for tomorrow,” Francisco Antion said, the phone line crackling with determination.
Linda stayed silent as she heard Francisco Antonio’s breath on the phone. He was right, Francisco Antonio was not like any Puerto Rican she had met. The day after their first night at the Caribe Hilton, he stayed with her all day and took her in his Spider to the island’s central mountains. She had never seen a place so green and so lush, and Francisco Antonio knew she had fallen in love with the island. It could be worse, she thought, she could be doing this all by herself.
“Ok. Ok. I’ll go,” she said.
Then Linda told Betty about her decision to live with Francisco Antonio in Puerto Rico.
“I’ll miss ya, Linda, but always know that I love ya,” Betty told her, as she packed Linda’s luggage and had it sent via a taxi to Eva’s apartment.
Within two days of that call with Betty, Linda had already pulled her pink Samsonite from the conveyor belt of the Eastern Airlines baggage claim. She walked past the tourists searching for the hotel bus shuttles that would transport them to their packaged paradises and past the families dragging cardboard boxes filled with clothes from Alexander’s department store. She walked past men in their guayabera shirts selling gum, cigarettes, and lottery tickets, and women reading soap opera magazines. She arrived at the terminal’s main entrance and saw crowds of people calling for each other, horns honking, families hugging, and cars triple-parked while two police officers ate melted cheese turnovers and read about the latest winter baseball scores.
Amid this scene, Linda saw him. Francisco Antonio was standing on the curb of the terminal, his shoulder leaning against a chipped cement column with a crack the size of an apple. He smiled and walked towards her. He grabbed her suitcase, put it down on the sidewalk and kissed her.
“It will be ok, my Linda,” he said. “It will all be ok.”
Linda nodded. She took his hand as he held the suitcase with his other hand. They walked towards the Spider, while the people still shouted Spanish names and the horns still honked. Yet for Linda and Francisco Antonio, they heard none of that, just the sound of their feet walking together in harmony.