“That Island” - One of Two Second Place Winners of the CWA Flash Fiction Contest

By Amina Gautier

My husband is also from that island, she tells the new neighbor, meaning Puerto Rico, but after the other woman has said it, she doesn’t dare repeat it, not now that she knows how wrong she’s pronounced it all these years. Porta Rico she’s always said. Her husband had never corrected her. Which part, her new neighbor asks, rattling off names— San Juan? Bayamón? Rio Piedras? Caguas? Ponce?— but she has no idea.

Her new neighbor sets two kitchen chairs in front of the living room window and invites her to sit. The new neighbor isn’t new at all, only new to her; she’s the one who’s recently moved in. She’s always lived in Brooklyn, but never before in housing projects, so while her neighbor sets out a green tin of soda crackers and boils water for coffee, she peers through the window’s metal bars right out onto the street, to the cracked sidewalk, the dinged cars, and out across Pitkin Avenue to the row of stores—the bodega, the Chinese restaurant, the barbershop, the dollar store, and the video rental place—all teeming with people. Her own living room window looks out onto a stone courtyard where she hopes her baby granddaughter can one day play. “You don’t look old enough to be an abuela,” her neighbor says, and she’s not— only forty-six— but age isn’t always measured in years.

Calling it that island makes it sound as if she holds a grudge against the place, blaming a land mass in the middle of the ocean rather than the man himself for the problem that was their marriage. The truth is that she knows next to nothing about that island, except that it’s where he’s from, where he runs away to when he abandons her and their three children, and where he marries the new woman even though he’s not yet divorced. She knows that island is a place where things disappear— husbands, love, and marriage. All that ever returns are her three children, who she dutifully hands over every June, trying not to complain, but to smile and be grateful that he still wants to see them even though he only ever sends airfare for the two boys and she has to play numbers and beg her mother and sisters for help to send the girl too.

But this is all so long ago. Her children are adults now; they’ve made peace with it all. She thought she had too, but just hearing her new neighbor introduce herself and say that she and her family are from Puerto Rico disturbs that long ago hard-earned peace, reminding her how that marriage of hers had been doomed from the start. For how could she love a man she never really knew, and how could she have ever known him when she couldn’t even correctly pronounce the place from which he’d come?