Strange Encounters


by Nancy Méndez-Booth

  Winter 2015 Fiction, Memoir & Poetry Anthology  |  Contents  |  Authors  |


I held my ticket like a jackpot claim. One dollar and thirty-five cents for a one-way adult fare, issued by the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation. It was valid for six hours. My Uncle Martín said it would take less than 45 minutes to go from Sagrado Corazón station in San Juan to Bayamón. He assured me I had plenty of time. The mall was right across from the Bayamón train station, and El Salon de Bellas was near the main entrance.

I didn’t want to be late. I woke up before my alarm this morning, like the beauty experts at El Salon were awaiting only me. Life was a drama, their Web site had said, and the three-hour Div-ahh spa package would transform me into the beautiful star. The jewel color of my chip-free manicure would highlight my every grand gesture. I would make sure the polish was dry before I ran my fingers through my deeply conditioned and blown-out hair. In the meantime, I looked like shit while I waited on the train platform in San Juan. Martín stood with me, but he was going to work. We both watched the electronic sign: Monday, April 1. 8:47 a.m. 82 degrees.

I should have been home in New Jersey. I should have been on my sixth week of maternity leave. My baby boy should have been born alive. A baby shouldn’t die in his mother’s body after nine months of gestation, and more than five years of anticipation. I had done all the right things. I had consulted the best pregnancy guides, but I had never read the page about stillbirth. I had been prepared for a live baby.

Everyone had acted like they knew what I should do. My ob/gyn had instructed me to take the three-month maternity leave my company gave. I needed the time and care, even if I didn’t have a newborn. He had referred me to Dr. Berger. Bereavement counseling was one of her specialties. She had said it would take time to recover, but she hadn’t known me before Liam died. She couldn’t know if I was getting back to my old self. Twice a week, I wanted her to find the real me in the swirls of words that didn’t make sense.

She had said I should get away for a while. Jack had agreed. It took fewer drinks for him to remind me every night that taking care of me was too much. He said I pushed him beyond human limits. I made no sense to him. There was no room for him in my grief. I was afraid we were lost to each other forever.

My family had said I should come to Puerto Rico and let them take care of me. Martín and Rosa didn’t recognize me at Luis Muñoz Marín Airport. She had felt my face and hair like she was blind. That night she tucked me into bed in the spare bedroom.

“Mi amor, we’ll take care of you.”

Poor aunt Rosa. She meant well, but what could she do? Only monsters gave birth to dead babies and drove their grieving husbands to drink. I wasn’t feeling better and was looking even worse. People avoided looking at me or making eye contact when they found out my story. Not Rosa. She told me I was beautiful, even though my bloated, lumpen body and swollen eyes didn’t look like the Elena anyone remembered.

Rosa had faith in El Salon’s team of aestheticians when she booked my appointment. I had faith in them too. The women smiled at me from the ad posted in the Sagrado Corazón station. They promised to reveal the beauty in every woman. I would reassure them that I was realistic, and my old issue of InStyle with Halle Berry on the cover was only for inspiration. The aestheticians were professionals, not miracle workers.

I anticipated Enya would play softly in the salon’s reception lounge. There would be a selection of herbal teas and antioxidant-rich snacks to defend against damage-causing free radicals. Each member of my dedicated team of beauty professionals would greet me, and describe the wonders she had in store for me. I would decline the “before” photos, even though they were included in the price of the Div-ahh package. I hoped they would understand.

The body treatment specialist would take the cardigan that hid my post-partum belly and deflated breasts. She could put it in the trash bin, or donate it to a local shelter. I never wanted to wear it again. The hair artist would remove the scarf that covered my kinkies. I would sit in a swivel chair, maybe as plush as a throne with a massage option. I would spin my back toward the mirror. I didn’t want to see the artist’s face when she contemplated my strands like dead things in her expert hands. I would submit for as long as necessary until the moment when I would be spun around toward the mirror. I had faith in them all. Somewhere underneath everything that I was afraid to look at, there might be a new woman. My fear might go away. At the end of the three hours, the team would applaud my transformation. They might cry, but I wouldn’t because the expertly applied make-up would run. 


I stood close to Martín at Sagrado Corazón station. I didn’t want to be in the way like the tourists I pushed past on my commutes into New York City. There were less than a dozen commuters scattered along the open-air platform, level with the tops of the palm trees, above the clogged roadways. Martín wore his work identification on a lanyard around his neck, just like the other commuters. It had his photo, name, and the department he'd swipe into at Centro Medico.

I felt like I was playing hooky. I didn’t have a lap top bag like Martín. My canvas tote carried what I'd need for my day: my cell phone, water bottle, a snack bag of trail mix Rosa gave me when she tried to slip cash into my bag. I had memorial cards from Liam's funeral mass. There were always cards in my pockets or bags, like receipts of forgotten purchases and transactions. No one knew what to say when I handed them out. My days would have been easier if I could have worn one of the cards on a lanyard around my neck. An ID card like that would let me pass through my black-cloud world wordlessly and undisturbed.

The warning bell rang, and the electronic sign flashed “El tren se aproxima.” The morning commuters folded their newspapers into their bags as the white cars glided into the station. The engine whirred and hummed like the flying saucers in the old B-movies I had watched as a child on Sunday afternoons. A calm, automated female voice announced the present and upcoming stations, and cautioned to please stand clear of the closing doors.  

The car was gleaming from underuse. The few passengers had enough room for each to occupy an entire row, and put their bags next to themselves. I didn’t have to stand with my nose pressed into a stranger’s dandruff-flaked shoulder. Martín sat next to me and announced points of interest in the landscape outside the train window: office buildings, a new Applebee’s, construction sites for new gated developments with names like Jardines Reales. He was loud, and I sat there like the retard-niece taken out of the group home by her uncle for a day trip. See Elena, there’s a parking lot. Can you say ‘car’? Can you point out a blue car? I interrupted Martín in a low voice, hoping he would take my cue.

“Will you make it to work on time?”

“Old-timers like me just need to show up. You and me, we can sit here and relax. There’s plenty of time before I get to Centro Medico.”

I sighed. I was grateful to Martín and Rosa for hosting me in Puerto Rico, but they made me as crazy as I felt at home in New Jersey. My neighbor had said to me after Liam’s funeral mass, “There are no words for losing a child.” There were obviously no words in Spanish because no one in my family had said a thing about Liam since I’d arrived in Puerto Rico. Some of them avoided me, like they were scared I’d talk about dead babies. Those who talked to me were afraid of saying the wrong thing. Martín told me all about how it would take another $2 billion and 16 more years to extend the rail system beyond its present terminus, a ghost station at the end of an unfinished line. I was sick of Martín’s audio tour. I kept my face toward the window and saw my reflection. The scarf over my hair made me look like the alleluia types who spent weekends pushing Jesus pamphlets and raising their voices to the Lord.

Martín tapped the window.

“See all that construction out there? It’s my tax dollars at work.”

He chuckled, then tapped my shoulder for attention.

“We can enjoy it all traveling business class, right here, in my semi-private car. Yep, this is progress on the island.”

He continued to chuckle.

“You’ve got a good deal, the whole day to yourself while we go to work. Not a bad life, huh?”

Maybe everything had been a dream: my pregnancy, the birth, Liam’s funeral, and I didn’t realize I had woken up. Or maybe I had been able to wish everything away, and no one had a memory of Liam except me. Maybe it was Martín who was crazy. Perhaps the man smiling next to me wasn’t Martín Martínez like the photo ID on the lanyard said, but was actually a space alien, and I couldn’t let on that his ignorance of human emotion blew his cover because the train car was really a flying saucer, and I might be taken far, far away. My thoughts were crazy, but Martín’s comment just made no sense.

The train stopped at Plaza Colon station, and one man shuffled onto our car. He reached for a pole and took a wide stance, though the train was still stationary. He looked around the car like a grade-schooler separated from his field-trip group. His bowl cut was combed straight onto his forehead. His polo shirt was tucked into his pleated shorts, and his torso drooped over the waistband in middle-aged surrender. I wondered if the man’s fanny pack held a juice box or fun money for candy. He smiled when he saw Martín and shuffled in our direction. Martín felt inside his bag and pants pockets, and jingled the coins collected in his hand.

“Ah, here comes my friend.”

“You know him?”

“No. He’s just on the train every day.”

Martín didn’t take the card the man offered from the fanny pack, but gave him the change. Martín and the man both smiled like Martín had given the guy a large bill for doing something grander than just stand there like an overgrown idiot child. The man put the coins into his pouch, angled his body toward me, and held out a card.

“No thank you.”

I avoided eye contact, but the man kept his hand outstretched. Martín spoke to me loudly.

“He’s deaf. He needs to see your lips.”

 I raised my head. Before I could repeat myself, the man placed the card on my lap and turned away quickly, like he had tagged me in some silent game, and I was “it.” He shuffled toward the other end of the car. I took the card from my lap. It was an index card, the kind I remembered from Catholic grammar and high schools. The typed words felt like Braille along the card’s back.

“Hello! I hope you are having a pleasant day. I am deaf and mute. God bless you.”

A smiley face was added in pencil.

 “I don’t bother with the card anymore. I just give him the change.”

I wasn’t going to give him anything. The deaf-mute, man-child returned, and stood in front of me. I looked down. His white knee socks and Velcro sandals reminded me of when I was a child. My classmates had teased me because my mother had refused to let me go sockless with open shoes. She had believed it was unhygienic. The toes of man-child’s socks contrasted with my exposed toes, browned and dried like hulls. I held out the card, but his arms remained at his sides. I took his left hand, placed the card in it, and crumpled his fingers closed in my fist. I looked up at his surprised face, and stretched my mouth into the unmistakable shape of no. He looked at Martín, who shrugged and showed his empty palms. I wanted to stamp and shoo man-child away. He returned the card to his fanny pack as if it was a small bird, and transferred to another car.

Martín raised his eyebrows at me.

“You don’t give?”

“I don’t give money or prayers. He’s out of luck.”

“He’s deaf and mute, and I think maybe he’s a little slow or something.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve all got our story.”

I turned my face toward the window.

“I feel bad for the guy. Some spare change is no big deal, Elena.”

I continued to look out the window. The word “no” is the same in English and Spanish. Man-child understood it. I wondered if the space creature posing as my uncle Martín Martínez would understand to shut up if I told him “No more stupid talk.”

“He never bothers anyone. At least riding the train gives him something to do. It’s like state-sponsored day care.”

He looked around the clean, climate-controlled car.

“He’s got it pretty good, too.”

Martín tapped my knee and chuckled. I didn’t respond or turn toward him. He sighed and remained silent until the train approached Centro Medico station.

“This is my stop, Elena. Will you be okay?”

I made sure I smiled when I assured him I would be fine.

“Well, that’s good. Que buena vida, off to the salon.”

He looked at me and pressed my hand when he kissed my forehead.

“Maybe we won’t recognize you when you get home later. You’ll be a new woman.”

The few remaining passengers exited the car with Martín at Centro Medico station. I continued to smile at Martín when he stood on the platform and watched the train pull away and continue south. I had the empty car to myself for the trip to Bayamón, and to wonder about la buena vida.  


The train stopped for five minutes at Las Lomas station. The automated voice repeated at regular intervals that the train would move shortly and Torrimar was the next stop. A maintenance worker in an orange safety vest poked her head into my car and glanced around before continuing her patrol. The air conditioning escaped through the opened doors, and thick humidity coated my skin like a languorous lick.

What a waste.

The train car became too hot for my cardigan. There was no good reason to feel self-conscious. All the productive Puerto Ricans had exited the car to get to work. I wanted to wish myself to El Salon, just close my eyes and find myself in the serenity of the spa. The beauty team could restore me. They were professionals. They would know how to soften the deepening crease between my eyebrows. I was ready to be amazed by the small changes they’d make that would reveal a different me, maybe by parting my hair on the right side instead of the left.

Two elderly women boarded my car, and sat across and down the other end from me. Their heavy bottoms spread and touched each other when they sat. They held their purses on their laps, and talked about the one-day sale at JC Penney. I considered switching cars, but I was there first. I closed my eyes, and concentrated on willing them into silence. They continued talking, and I pictured the mall packed and filled with hordes of retirees in search of midday discounts.

I opened my eyes to glare at them. What I saw was man-child board my car. He started when he saw my face. The doors shut, and the train made a gentle curve out of the station to continue south. Man-child and I eyed each other as he repeated his earlier routine: he braced himself and took a wide stance. He took one more look at me before he shuffled toward the two elderly women. They accepted the cards like gifts, with grateful smiles. My jaw clenched with each deliberate, slow slide of his sandals toward me. I placed my tote on my lap, but man-child looked right at me, placed a card on the empty seat next to me, smiley-face side up, and returned toward the women. I heard the jingle of the coins they gave him.

“Poor thing.”

They spoke in lowered voices, even though the cards said he was deaf. Man-child adjusted his fanny pack, and returned toward me. My nails dug into the handle of my tote, and I watched the tips of my knuckles pale. He took the card from the seat next to me, and held it so suddenly and closely to my face that my eyes crossed. I refocused my gaze on his forearm. The hair was coarse and dark, but the skin fair, as if he rode the train all day, out of the sun and in the face of passengers. I remained rigid when he shook the card, but batted it away when he tapped my right hand with it. The card fell onto the floor between our feet, and man-child bent onto one knee. He held the edge of the seat as he folded over his belly and pouch to pick up the card. The sight of a man’s head with a child’s haircut descending almost onto my lap sickened me.

I stepped on the card with my right foot. Man-child tugged at it, but I didn’t yield. He looked up at me, opened his mouth, and made a non-word noise. I looked right at him, and responded with a wide-mouthed, silent no. He pointed at the card. I ground my toes with bug-crushing intensity and repeated no. I leaned closer so he could see my lips as they formed my response slowly in Spanish.

“I don’t want your card.”

He knelt before me, pointed again at his card, and opened and closed his mouth, repeating that non-word noise and looking confused. I wondered how well he could read lips. I wondered if he would cry. He was a grown man, and needed something better to do all day than hand out cards with penciled smiley faces and grub for change. He was old enough to know that no one cared he was a deaf-mute, or that he wished everyone a great day and believed that God blessed everyone.

I reached into my bag for one of the laminated memorial cards, and pushed it into his free hand. He looked at both sides, then again at the illustration of la Madonnina on the front side. He looked at my face, my uncovered hair, and repeated his noise. There was no change of inflection to indicate if it was a question or a statement, just a consistent “Dnuh,” like a soft thud. I leaned so close I smelled stale milk on his breath. I continued in Spanish, and formed my mouth into wide circles for the O sounds.

“Take it. I don’t need your card. No one does. That’s my card. You carry that one with you.”

He continued to look at me, held the seat edge for balance, and opened and closed his mouth like he was popping his ears.


I wanted to know if he made a different noise when he cried. I kicked his knee, but only the same thud came out of his mouth, like an unsuccessful leap toward a word. Man-child tucked my card into his pouch, and reached for the one still under my toes. He wanted his card. I wanted him to talk. There had to be a word inside him, something different than that nonsense. He’d never get anywhere in life making only that thud noise. He had to ask for that card if he wanted it.

I placed my toes on his fingers and pressed down. His eyes widened, and he tried to pull his fingers away from under my foot. He looked at me, and I pressed harder. He didn’t try to hit me or fight me. He just held on to the edge of the seat for balance and leverage as he tried to pull his fingers from under my toes. His eyes grew smaller as his mouth opened wider, but no sound came out, not even “Dnuh.” He inhaled deeply, and squeezed his eyes shut more tightly. He looked like he should have wailed loudly enough for someone to call 911 and get me arrested, but there was no sound. The older women at the other end of the car continued to chat, unaware. I wondered if man-child heard his cries in his own head.

I pressed on his fingers like a pedal, and watched his face turn redder and his mouth open wider. Hurting him was the first good thing I had felt since I lost Liam. There was no one to stop me. I told him he needed to tell me to stop, that he needed to say please, but his eyes were closed. I leaned forward to get his attention, so close that my heels lifted off the ground. My toes pinned his fingers so hard that his eyes popped open, and a cry did come out. It rose high like a question.


That was not the sound I had wanted. It ruptured us both, and the sudden scream pierced the silence. I jolted against the seat back, and my foot released man-child’s hand. The crying began wordless and angry, and it took me a few moments to realize it was me. My voice pitched, cracked, and didn’t sound like my own, but man-child couldn’t hear me. He didn’t know what I sounded like before or at that moment. I cried for him to stop, to be quiet. Man-child just held his hand to his chest like a small pet. He panted, and the tears and snot that collected on his lips sprayed toward me. I cried and repeated that no one wanted his card. Man-child needed to know he was no more special than anyone else, but I gulped and gasped so hard between words that watching my lips could not help him understand. I wanted to understand what exempted him from life. I reached down for his card, tore it in two, and pushed the halves into his empty hands. The two older women did not move, but I heard one speak.

“Maybe there’s something wrong with her.”

I told them to mind their own business. They were as slow as man-child if they thought I was the one with the problem. There was something wrong with all of them because they had nothing better to do than ride an empty train to nowhere in the middle of a weekday morning. But my words would have been as wasted on them as much as they were on the deaf-mute.

He remained on one knee, and looked so sadly at the card halves in his hands. Man-child paid no attention to the fingers I had crushed just seconds before. The sight of him and the disapproving clucks of the women reminded me how pathetic we all were. The automated voice announced Torrimar station as the train pulled in, stopped, and the doors opened. It was two stops before the mall, but I exited the car, and stumbled onto the platform as if the train was in motion.   


9:42 a.m. Monday, April 1. 87 degrees. Torrimar station. Next southbound train: 26 minutes. 9:42 a.m. Monday, April 1…

I stand alone on the platform and watch the messages on the electronic sign. The trains run every 40 minutes during off-peak hours, so it’s just me and the ticket vending machines until the next train to Bayamón arrives.

I can’t believe the facialist and hair artist are fully booked on a Monday morning. How many ugly women are there in Puerto Rico that El Salon de Bellas can’t accommodate me if I arrive late? I’ll return to Rosa and Martín’s place looking worse than I did when I left. Man-child can’t rat me out if he sees Martín, but with my luck, there’s security camera footage of me stepping on man-child’s hand. Rosa and Martín will be watching it on “Noticias a las Seis” along with everyone else on the island.

Rosa’s credit card will still get charged for the Div-ahh spa package that was supposed to transform me. All that money wasted. The round-trip ticket for my Puerto Rico getaway cost almost $600, but the dollar-thirty-five for the train ticket is the best money either of us has spent. I have the next 26 minutes to myself in peace.

The empty station is reflected in the mirrored windows of the office building across from the train tracks. An empty platform in New York City gives me the creeps, but here it looks surreal, everything so sleek and modern, with palm trees at the edge of the parking lot, and hills just beyond that look almost black. I can almost see myself in the mirrored windows, small and alone. Martín would say it’s a sweet deal to have all this time to myself while others work behind those windows. He would say this is la buena vida, and I wonder if he’s right.


end of story

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