Short Story: Prejudices. Another Monday with Jaime Martinez Tolentino, the author of The Island Across the River. Enjoy this exciting story, Yareah friends!
As for the terrible impression that I felt in the solarium of the Hospital for Special Surgery that summer of 1959, just looking at the island from across the river, I had to admit that the Arts and Crafts Instructor’s opinion had been correct. Welfare Island, in its different incarnations, had, indeed, throughout its long and unfortunate history, housed, much of New York City’s “unwanted population”: its criminals, its vagrants and its petty thieves; its insane and its victims of epidemics; its indigent and poor, and its chronically ill.
I didn’t really get a chance to reflect on the sadness and grief of Welfare Island because, on the very same day that I returned the book, I met Suzanne. Oddly enough, I met her in the solarium from where I had so frequently spied Welfare Island’s sorrowful landscape.
Suzanne was my age, but she was blonde and blue-eyed. She was in a wheelchair, as I was, but she had been operated for scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. Her hospital stay had been, and would be, longer than mine and, of course, she was a long way from her own ward, the juvenile female ward, where they had their own solarium, also facing the East River. She later confided in me that she had come over to the boys’ side “hoping to meet someone.”
And so, for the next two weeks, Suzanne and I had our summer romance. An innocent affair, considering that we were both in wheelchairs and in casts; I in my thigh-to-left foot outfit complete with a high heel; she in a neck-to-thigh cast wrapped around her chest, torso and back. Still, we held hands, we gazed into each other’s eyes longingly, we kissed passionately, and there was some amount of groping.
For the rest of that summer, I didn’t stare out at Welfare Island again.
It was the summer of 1960, and it was warm on New York City’s West 64th Street. All the windows were open in our second floor apartment. There was the usual din outside, as music blared from every apartment and every vehicle, in motion or not. The neighborhood children had opened the fire hydrants, and they were bathing in the street, under the jet of water meant for fire department use only.
“Jaimito, don’t forget that tomorrow you’re going to be admitted to the hospital. Have you packed clean pajamas, underclothes and socks?” Mami went about her chores in the kitchen after gently reminding of the following day’s appointment.
“Yes ma; I haven’t forgot. But this is the last summer I’m going to spend in the hospital! I’m going to be a senior in September, and I have things to do if I want to go to college.”
“Sí, that’s fine with me.”
“Besides,” I added; “the two previous operations haven’t helped me all that much!”
“What did you expect, son? There’s only so much that the doctors can do!”
She was right, of course. I had agreed to my first two surgeries partly out of spite, and partly out of depression. I had been suffering the pain of having been rejected for admission into the High School for Music and Art. I hadn’t totally got over it yet, but hope was beginning to return in the form of a new challenge. College!
I’ve been admitted, once again, to the Hospital for Special Surgery for what I’ve decided will be the last time. The surgeons plan to perform an experimental procedure on my left leg, just below the knee. Hopefully, it will provide me with greater stability when walking.
I’m seventeen now, too old for the pediatric floor. So, I’ve been assigned one floor up, to the men’s side of an adult ward. My roommate is an older gentleman from Germany named Karl whose English is heavily accented. In spite of the differences in ages, we’ve become good friends.
“So, Haimé, vat arre you goin’ to study in kolleche?”
I thought before answering. I wasn’t going to tell Karl about my musical experience, or my being rejected from the High School of Music and Art. The whole thing was too painful, and I didn’t want to provoke anyone’s pity.
“I’m going to study medicine, Karl! I want to help others who have suffered like we have.”
“Dat’s great, Haimé!” he replied.
I tried to sound upbeat, though my heart wasn’t in it. The rejection to the High School of Music and Art had seriously shaken my confidence. I did want to help others, but somehow I had serious doubts about becoming a physician. To begin with, I wasn’t terribly good at math or chemistry, which I had taken just the past semester at Charles Evans Hughes H. S. Actually, I was terrible at both subjects. Where I excelled was in languages and in writing, but I had never even considered making either one of those my life’s work.
Then, out in the hallway, there was one of those cryptic loudspeaker messages that one hears in hospitals all the time. Something to the effect of “Dr. Smith! Dr. Smith! Please call 4612! Dr. Smith!”
Karl smiled, and then he added:
“Van dey that’ll be your name they’ll ve calling! Dr. Martínez! Dr. Martínez!”
I smiled and thanked him. I wasn’t as sure as he was that his prediction would ever come true.
Still, the only reading matter I had brought with me to the hospital had been a book of Spanish-language poetry. It was an old, 1954 edition of El mar y tú, y otros poemas (The Sea and You, and Other Poems), by the Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. It was published posthumously.
After I had my operation, the process of recuperation began. Karl had been discharged from the hospital by then. I missed the optimistic old man.
On a Sunday, when my parents came to visit, they had a surprise for me: José Madera, a Puerto Rican co-worker and a good friend of my father’s, was accompanying them.
We engaged in small talk for a while, until José noticed the book of poetry on my side table. He picked it up and he thumbed through it, casually. Then, he laid it back down and he told me an anecdote.
“A friend of mine, an old guy I knew who lived in El Barrio, once told me that from the mid-forties to 1953, he often saw Julia riding the subway.”
I was excited to hear that.
“Wow! He really met the great poet?”
“Well,” continued José. “He didn’t really meet her. She wasn’t in any condition to meet or chat with anybody…” My father’s friend cut himself off abruptly, as if he had already said too much.
I was puzzled, and so, I asked:
“What do you mean, José?”
He continued, but very cautiously.
“You see, in 1939 Julia had met a Dominican man with whom she fell in love. So, she left her beloved Puerto Rico and went to live with her paramour in Cuba. The only problem was that he was still married to another woman.”
“Yes,” I interjected. I’ve read that much in the few pages of my book that I’ve read so far.”
José Madera continued his story.
“Then, in 1942, they broke up for good. Julia was devastated. She felt that she couldn’t return to Puerto Rico in disgrace and defeated. After all, she had suffered there, too, from the racial prejudice of being a mulatto, from the social prejudice caused by her poverty, and from being so bold as to imagine that a single, free-thinking woman could become a famous poet. So, from Cuba, she went directly to New York City. To the island of Manhattan. She would never see her other island —her beloved Puerto Rico— again.”
“Those were hard times in our country, compadre,” said my father. He and my mother exchanged a knowing look. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what terrible experiences of the sort they, too, had had. Especially, my racially-mixed mother.
There ensued a prolonged silence. Then, I inquired:
“So, José, and where was Julia going in the subway, anyway?”
José looked down before answering.
I was totally baffled by his reply. I’m sure I arched my eyebrows downward as a sign of perplexity.
“You see, Jaimito, she experienced the same prejudice in New York as she had in Puerto Rico. Plus two new ones: she was Puerto Rican in a city where there were very few of us, at the time… and she didn’t speak English.”
Keep on reading Next Monday…