The Island: A Memoir

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She has another dream. In this one, she can see the tarmac from the small eyes of a plane and it feels mundane, no different from the dozens of flights that have preceded it. But when the plane takes off, she finds herself suddenly outside the cabin, clinging to a rope that is twisted through a metal loop on the wing. She is curling her body to brace against the buffeting of violent air, and the moon above is maddeningly neutral. This is a dream that makes her grit her teeth in sleep, so that when she awakens in the muggy darkness he is looking at her with concern, saying in Spanish, “What? What is it, love?”

She doesn’t know how to shape her answer with words – she feels like a frustrated sculptor – so she peels back sweaty sheets and stands by the window. Below is the interminable rhythm of the Santiago street, if subdued because of the hour, and when the seventh or eighth taxi passes by and the fourth caressing couple strolls past, and the tenth customer departs from the chimi stand with a steaming sandwich in hand, she realizes the pattern has calmed her.

He senses after the third taxi that she isn’t going to answer then, and he falls back asleep, so she lingers, standing, and thinks about the afternoon. At 3pm, they climbed the towering monument to Dominican independence from the Haitians, from the Spaniards. It was hot, so hot that they couldn’t help but grimace laughingly at the short flight of stairs to the tower’s entrance, and they leaned, sweating, on each other until they reached the shaded foyer.

The woman at the ticket counter told them twenty pesos for Dominicans, sixty for international visitors. She let him decide her identity today. He handed over forty pesos, and she felt a gringa morena thrill of incognito belonging. They walked to the next staircase, which cut up through the multi-storied tower, a blessedly cool chamber of gray steps. His hand stretched out behind him and she reached for it, knowing that whenever she hesitated his fingers would move like live question marks in the air. They climbed carefully, trying to sense the other’s miniscule adjustments of balance around the spiraling stair: his other hand dancing with the banister, her foot feeling for the security of its next step.

When they reached the top, they wandered out to the balcony where all of Santiago lay before them under a blanket of heat. The city was placed in a shallow bowl of mountains, beyond which there was only atmospheric shimmer. He put ten pesos into the chipped binocular stand and showed her where the baseball stadium was and where the city’s largest mall hid behind yellow apartment buildings. They switched places, and she stuck out her tongue in front of the binoculars, making him jump back in surprise. They giggled along with a father and son who had witnessed the incident. When they had walked all around the balcony, stealing kisses in every shaded corner where no other visitors were in sight, they slipped back into the tower to descend the gray stairs.

Back outside, the heat made everything feel like fighting: catching public transportation, walking a few dusty blocks, looking before they crossed the street. But at his apartment, the stress slid off, and they were left with only each other. They were figures carved by unknown fingers, the same limestone streaks lighting them through with bright zigzags, centers of gravity decreasing the radius between them. Sometimes when she faces him, it feels like clinging onto the wing of a plane at an impossible velocity.

***

She keeps her passport hidden under a stack of tampons beside her shoes, banking on a male robber, should it ever occur. The last time she was in this country, her friends in the community where she’d done medical work yelled, “Don’t forget to come back and visit us! Don’t forget that you can come here, but we can’t go over there. It’s harder for us.”

It’s harder for us. He has Haitian parents and a Dominican identification card. It’s harder. He’s sitting on his bed, brow furrowed over the official birth certificate he finally got his hands on, calculating the cost of a Dominican passport application. She hates to see him like this. When her friend had told her, “they’re applying the new constitution retroactively, you know; they’re revoking the citizenship of people with Haitian parentage now – at least, that’s what they say,” she’d sat up in bed, gripped with a paralysis that she imagined he might one day experience. She’d remembered what he told her when, their noses touching on her pillow, she’d asked him what he feared the most.

“Wanting to do something and not being able to.”

It’s harder for us.

***

January 12, 2010 was when Haiti fell down. Just before the earthquake, she had spent the weekend at his place up north: a little house in a sugarcane village where he did miscellaneous social work and tried to keep the peace between Dominicans and Haitian migrants. With popping Kreyòl and smooth Spanish weaving in and out of his coconut teeth, she couldn’t imagine anyone better for the job.

January 11 was when the lights went out. “Se fue la luz,” they said in unison when, at 9pm, the village gently flickered into total darkness. It seemed then that time had stopped. They were suspended in a place inaccessible to anyone else, like two children who find a creek off a back road and swear they’re the first ones to dip their toes in it. They discovered each other again and again in the darkness; they lit candles with which to find their faces. He expended precious flashlight battery to aim the thin beam at the ceiling, slowly widening it as he told her, “this is how the world will end. That gray patch is Europe – it’ll go first; next the Americas, China, Africa –” He made the world explode in slow motion again and again. “2012 is coming. The Mayans say that’s when it will happen.” They reached for each other again.

January 13 was when he called her, voice cracking, saying, “we don’t know where my cousin and two of my siblings are.” She felt something within her fleeing across the border to piles of rubble; the rest of her stood paralyzed by her bedroom window in Santo Domingo. “I’m sorry, amor, I – is there anything I can do?” Later, she held him for hours while his tears poured out for the dozens of orphans he’d befriended at a refugee camp in Lèogâne, Haiti. That was beneath her bedroom window, from which sunlight stroked them both and time was again suspended.

January 14 was when the wind began. For days, while Haiti was pornographically plastered across every news outlet, the island’s air was whipping frenetically. She wanted to sit on her apartment terrace and look at the stars, imagining that his eyes were tracing the same constellations, but the wind was too fierce. It got into her nose and ears and she felt like it would puncture her lungs, molecules of air slicing through tiny alveoli and emptying her out. She had to close all the windows and doors and wait for it to pass.

***

She has had another dream. When it is over and she becomes aware of it, she cannot pick out the beginning, and even the end is fuzzy. She yawns and stares at the dark ceiling, trying to put the pieces together.

In the dream, she was in a place she knew, but it looked different in her sleep-mind. She was with him, but he looked different, too, except for his smile like a sound. They were going somewhere, but she couldn’t remember where, just that they walked and walked, the sun rose and set countless times, and each time the earth around them was bathed once more in light the land had changed. They went from jungle to desert to grasslands. Once they saw the sea from a mountain peak, and they rushed down the rocks to meet the beach below. When they got there, two boats sat bobbing in the tide, but each one had only a single seat.

Alarm turned into great sadness as they realized that they would have to embark alone, and that their proximity for the rest of the journey would be determined only by the whims of the sea. They wished for a thousand things then – a map, so they could plan to meet on an island somewhere beyond the water, flares for communication should they lose sight of each other, walkie-talkies to share warnings of tempestuous weather ahead, or some way to cup the memory of the other’s hand in their own for when they felt lonely and lost.

Knowing that the sun did not cease its journey as they tarried on the sand, they finally stepped into the boats, settling into the solitary seats and casting off from the land. Somewhere at the beginning of this drift she woke up, and in the dark silence she could still feel the boat’s rocking in her body. She peeled back the sweaty sheets and stood by the window. A gust of wind yanked the curtain and beyond the sleepy rooftops of her Santo Domingo neighborhood laid the sea, wild and alive.

January 12, 2014 marks four years since the massive earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. The country’s relationship with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, has been fraught with tension throughout Hispaniola’s colonial and post-colonial history, but political borders have never effectively stopped the flow of people and love. Recently, a new ruling (Sentencia TC/0168/13) by a Dominican high court will strip over 200,000 children and grand-children of Haitian migrants to the Dominican Republic of citizenship. This ruling represents a massive human rights concern in the context of continued racism and discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian ancestry.

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Irène Mathieu is a writer and medical student at Vanderbilt University. Before medical school she studied International Relations at the College of William and Mary and completed a Fulbright Fellowship in the Dominican Republic. Irène’s poetry, prose, and photography can be found in a diverse array of publications, including The Caribbean Writer, The Meadowland Review, Sole Literary Journal, Protest Poems, the Lindenwood Review, Muzzle Magazine, Magnapoets, Damselfly Press, Hinchas de Poesia, OVS Magazine, qarrtsiluni, Tabula Rasa, Extract(s), So to Speak, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Journal of General Internal Medicine, and more. Her poetry chapbook entitled the galaxy of origins is forthcoming in 2014 from Dancing Girl Press. She plans to become a community-engaged primary care physician and researcher who listens to and tells stories around the world. You can read her blog and follow her on Twitter.