She was Caribe-born and raised, and so the compelling surge and ebb of that vast sea should have been a part of her. And the music – that compulsive reggae rhythm – should have been hers as well. But no. She preferred to keep her distance from the aggressive, flowing movements of both the sea and the music.
Perhaps she was a mainland girl at heart, her father said. Despite her being a native Caribe, neither the pounding surf nor the reggae sound was in her blood or in her bones. She was a changeling, her father said. A mainland girl at heart. Not a Caribe.
But she didn’t believe that.
She observed life from a distance, her father said. She didn’t really live it.
And since she always tried to be honest – especially with herself – she acknowledged that perhaps he spoke the truth.
Until the summer that the golden-haired boy came to the island. Then life seemed to move in closer. To encroach.
In some awe, he had called the island a paradise.
His words made no sense to her. This wasn’t a paradise. Providencia was an island, nothing more, and nothing less. She’d been born here, and no one was truly born into paradise. Because paradise, Father Jaime said, had to be earned.
The truth was, she didn’t believe that, either. Didn’t believe in paradise, that is. Or in heaven, or in hell, or in any of the other places that the new religion had invented and tried to impose.
She had been born on this island, Providencia, for no other reason than her father and her mother lived here, and since they were her parents and the origin of her life, this place was her roots, her home. She’d been born here, she would die here, and that was that.
A practical little thing, the golden-haired boy had said. She heard condescension in his voice and in his words. No imagination, he said. But no yearning for reality, either. A strange combination, because where did that leave her? In some kind of limbo, he said.
She hadn’t understood that. Not the word itself, and not the concept. She wasn’t in limbo. She was on Providencia where she belonged. To her, the world was no bigger than this, because why would it need to be anything more? What else did she want? What else did she need?
What else did she dream? the golden-haired boy asked. What did she want to do? Where did she want to go?
She moved her head in the negative, not speaking.
More insistent now, he kept pushing. How would she know when she had arrived, if she didn’t know where she was headed when she started out? He suggested – with an underlying disdain, she thought – that she should have goals, so that she would know where she was going, and make plans and devise strategies for how to get there.
Again, she was baffled. This mainlander had said that Providencia was paradise. If he thought that – even if she didn’t believe it – but if he thought that, then what was there to dream about, or to dream for, or – well, who knew? She was perplexed by him, and yet she was fascinated. Without knowing why, she wanted to be with him, to spend time with this mystifying young man.
The truth was, she didn’t call him the golden-haired boy. To his face, she didn’t call him anything. When she considered him in her mind, she called him Rubio. Blond. And he seemed to want to be with her, as well. But he wanted to be with her in the warm, undulating waters, in the merciless midday sun. With other people, with the loud music, with the sticky-sweet piña coladas.
Going with him, being with him in that environment, was like traveling to a foreign country. She was both intrigued and afraid. But in truth, she at last admitted to herself, in truth she was lost.
A few weeks slid by, and for her they passed in a heartbeat.
And then one day, as it did every day, the catamaran came bounding and splashing in from the big island of the archipelago San Andrés, loaded with the usual gaggle of young people looking for a party. And for some reason, Rubio didn’t seek her out anymore. Just like that. Any interest he might have had in her had vanished.
She was satisfied with that, and took herself off, climbing the steep stone steps that wound up the hill to the mirador, the lookout. And she was relieved. Never had she fit into that strange sand and sun and restive water scene where Rubio seemed to feel so at ease. So she was pleased to be back in her own world, her own environs. And Téo, her dearest friend since childhood, came to join her there. His name was Téofilo, but she had always called him Téo. As if the preceding weeks had never passed, as if they had been as content together as always, he never said a word about Rubio or the time she had spent with the mainlander.
But she found that she had a curious sensation of being unsettled, of being adrift. This feeling was somewhere deep within her, in a place that she couldn’t identify. She could recognize neither the place nor the feeling. A wistfulness, a yearning, had invaded her quiet domain. An emptiness that she hadn’t previously experienced. It wasn’t urgent or pressing, but it gave her a vague awareness of discontent, as if there were now a barren space within her, a void that she’d never before noticed.
It made no sense, because she was the same person that she had always been.
Providence, the tourists called the island. She wondered if that was the word the foreigners used for Providencia. Surely it was. It must be. But why then didn’t they recognize it for what it was? Providence. To find something because you had been directed there. Not by luck, not by some kind of serendipitous discovery. But to come upon a location or even a state of mind by virtue of having been pointed in that fortuitous direction.
They also called it “The Seven Colors of the Sea” which she thought was odd. Anyone who had counted the colors of the mar Caribe would know that there were more than seven. Immeasurably more. She and Téo had tried to count them. Seven times seven, and then seven times again, on into infinity. Her father said that this seven colors of the sea nonsense didn’t mean anything. It was just a pretty advertising slogan for the tourists. She supposed that he must be right. He usually wasn’t, so she might as well give him credit when she could.
She had never before given a thought to the tourists. They were there, and then they were gone. After they were gone, they no longer existed, not in her universe, at least. They were like a dream, where the memory of any meaning vanished when one came awake. Perhaps there remained a wisp or two of a certain loud laugh that held no mirth, or the speculative gaze of a particularly brash youth. But this tourist, this golden-haired boy, hadn’t left a wispy, trailing remembrance behind him.
Because he hadn’t gone away.
He was still here on Providencia, but he might as well have been on the other side of the world.
She was quite sure that it didn’t matter, because the reality was, she preferred the mirador to the beach. The chaos of the tourists and their loud voices weren’t even a murmur up on the forested hill. They were negligible, nonexistent, even. But she knew that Rubio was there, down below, as surely as she knew that the small town continued to be real and enduring even when obscured by fog.
The reggae she knew from the insulated distance of the mirador was a quiet whisper of rhythm that imitated the pattern of her beating heart. Not a loud racket that reverberated above the crashing surf. The restless pounding of the waves was but background music here on the hill, and there was no taste of the salty spray as the waves chewed incessantly at the rocks, determined to cut a few centuries off the hundred-million years it would take to finally grind them down to satiny white sand.
On this particular day, the harsh sun at noon turned the beach-level sea to steel. She had never seen her beloved waters so stark and unforgiving. Rather than the soft, wind-touched waves, there was only hard, tempered metal. She wondered if this was the way the rest of the world looked. Or was. The world outside of Providencia.
Perhaps the cold grey of the sea was a warning. Perhaps she should heed this unfamiliar raw chill from the waters that had always been her friend.
Why had she agreed to go to the beach party? Because Rubio would be there. Rubio hadn’t invited her, to be sure. Not personally. And not indirectly, either. He hadn’t invited her at all.
Téo had invited her. She liked Téo all right, had liked him since they were children growing up together. He was fun and funny, and an adept conversationalist as long as the topic didn’t get too deep. Téo didn’t like deep topics; he liked joking and teasing and laughing. There were worse things to be, than not to take oneself or even life too seriously.
She liked Téo because he was kind. Never a sharp word for anyone, never a fierce quick anger, never joining in the disparaging laughter when someone else made a humorous but cruel comment about a person he or she considered to be beneath the rest of them.
Téo wasn’t aggressive about his kindness. If he were, then maybe it wouldn’t be kindness. He didn’t contradict or defend or challenge. Rather he just didn’t agree, and thus didn’t join in the lemming-like behavior.
She admired this kindness in Téo, admired it very much indeed. Because of it, she might have been satisfied being only with him, except for her confusion about the golden-haired boy.
But Rubio wasn’t kind. No, Rubio was a member of the superior, self-satisfied crowd. He would sneer as he made loud, callous comments, his laughter harsh and ugly.
And Rubio hadn’t invited her to the beach party. Téo had invited her.
She had known that Rubio would be there, and so she said yes to Téo. She harbored a cutting sense of shame that in doing so, she wasn’t being kind. No, she wasn’t being kind, not at all.
Very nearly she changed her mind. Although she tried to convince herself that she hadn’t lied to Téo, not really, she knew within her heart that she had indeed lied. Téo’s dark eyes had shone when she said yes, and she had deepened the lie by smiling back at him.
But she had said yes to Téo so she could be at the same place, and at the same time, as Rubio.
She didn’t worry over what to wear, as she had only one option. It was a modest one-piece bathing suit that flattered her slender figure. She didn’t consider how to wear her hair, because it was long and loose, and she would leave it that way unless the evening became too warm, in which case she would tie it back with a cord. She didn’t spend a great deal of time studying her face in the mirror. She already knew what she looked like.
So did Rubio.
The party was in full swing when she and Téo arrived at the beach. Music blared from a pair of oversized speakers. Her first impression was not the whisper of the gentle waves as they ran up onto the white sand and then receded with a quiet swoosh back into the sea. Nor was it the calling and crying of the grey-white seabirds as they wheeled against the cerulean sky, soaring even higher than her mirador. Rather it was the loud reggae music, with its idiosyncratic rhythm, the cadence no doubt sounding somewhat irregular to the uninitiated.
Rubio spotted her immediately. To her surprised pleasure, he came straight up to her as if they hadn’t been apart for several days. Taking her hand, he led her away without even a word or a glance for Téo. She felt the sharp pain of rejection on Téo’s behalf, but that didn’t give her pause. Not then, not at that moment, at least. She and Rubio swam and danced and sang for what seemed like hours, until the sea was as black as the moonless sky. Still, she was glad when the party began to break up. And it was then that Rubio turned away from her, turned his back on her, and went to join one of the tourist women whose hair was as golden as his own.
Téo walked with her to the small thatched cottage that was her home, and for the first time in their life-long friendship, there was silence between them.
The next morning, the sky was overcast. The sea was tinted a light green near the shore as it stretched itself over the white sand. But further out, the water abandoned any subtle nuances and metamorphosed into a dull, discontented grey. Even so, it had more substance than did the nearly-colorless sky above it.
There had been a time when she would walk down to the seashore to skim her bare feet across the silky sand. This brought her closer to the turquoise luster of the sea. But she would go only in the early morning when there was no other living soul about, when the light was at its softest, and the sea was calm. She was a calm-sea sort of person, and if the mar Caribe became angry, she would retreat from that brusque, strong emotion and go back to the mirador, to be apart from the wind-whipped fury of the white-capped waves.
When the morning was clear, as most mornings were, the sun turned the edges of the ripples to silver. It seemed to her the waves were always moving away, always receding. Rubio had said that her life, her way of living, was the same. Always moving away from her, never towards her, and thus never arriving. She wondered if that were true, and she wondered what it would mean if it were.
At the party, the reggae beat had pulsated in her ears, and then on into her head. And it was still echoing there the next morning. She couldn’t blame the piña coladas, because she hadn’t drunk any. She was well-bathed, but still the salt seemed to cling to her. She had scrubbed every inch of skin and hair, but there remained a sort of grit behind her ears and between her toes.
What was it that drew people to the beach? What pulled them in, like an irresistible addiction? What did they love about the surf and sand and sun and wind? The swimming, the snorkeling, the scuba diving? The beach volleyball games or tossing around a plastic disc? The shouting and laughing, the calling to one another, their voices so loud. And the incessant reggae palpitation, pounding her head into a throbbing ache.
She asked herself the same question that she had asked before. Why had she agreed to go to that party? She still didn’t know the answer. She knew that she cherished the varying shades of color in the mar Caribe, but only from the mirador at the crest of the hill. How many times had she tried to identify those colors, she and Téo? Turquoise, certainly, and azure. Cobalt and indigo and cerulean. A limitless number of blues. The greens – jade and emerald and aquamarine, their brilliance rivaling the beauty of the shiny dark leaves of the mangrove trees. And then the amber and tan and brown that would darken into ginger, cinnamon and chocolate. She had smiled over the whimsy of it – the green of the precious stones, the brown of the sweet and spicy flavors. And always, with a pristine white frosting. White sand and white foam.
But it was the blue that spoke to her. Especially the turquoise. The water was such an intense shade of turquoise that it seemed if she dipped her finger into it, it would come out dripping with that exquisite color, like paint. But it didn’t. Her finger came out wet and salty, having shed its magic radiance when it was separated from the sea.
She and Téo had determined a long time ago that despite the tourism slogan, the sea didn’t have seven colors after all. Rather its colors were infinite. And the colors were different every time she looked. The colors depended on the capricious moods of the wind, the sky, and of the sea itself.
And this morning, her head throbbing with surf and reggae, she had to admit to the possibility that the colors of the sea, those boundless colors, also depended upon her own mood.
But that her mood should be defined by the golden-haired boy? How extraordinary that such a thing could have happened.
At midday, the catamaran came as usual, bumping up to the dock and splattering salt water across the greying wood. It disgorged its passengers as it had done countless times before.
And then as she watched, the golden-haired boy ducked onto the boat. Rubio had come with the tourists, and he left with the tourists, as she had always known he would. That impenetrable barrier between them had never been breached, and it never would be.
Rubio was gone.
It could be that this leaving was a part of his plan. She remembered when he had chided her for having no plans, no goals. It brought to mind her father’s comment about Téo, that Téo wasn’t going to go far. And she had thought, why should he? Where would he go if he went far? She hadn’t taken her father’s point, and she couldn’t take the golden-haired boy’s point either. Why should she go anywhere, and why should Téo? Perhaps her father had been right, after all. Téo wouldn’t go far. Not far from her, in any case.
That evening she returned to the sea, to the shoreline where she could watch the gentle restlessness of the sea. She understood that restlessness as she never had before, because now it was her sister.
The water was clear over the white sand. Then the brilliant streaks of light faded to ivory when the sun slipped behind a cloud as it descended in a prelude to ending the day. The layers of green and blue that remained were not well-defined, as the constantly-evolving light and wind and waves made it impossible for the eye to capture their essence before they changed yet again.
It was easier to measure the distance to the horizon from the mirador because from the level of the beach, the horizon became distorted. It looked close, as the water confined the space and made the horizon seem nearer than it really was. Was that because of a difference in perspective? Did perspective define what the sea was, or what it appeared to be? Like the differences in perspective between herself and Rubio. The perspectives that had created a barrier between them rather than an understanding. The truth had somehow become distorted.
Before Rubio, she had believed truth to be absolute. The essence of truth was immutable. Something was true, or it wasn’t true.
But she had been wrong. Now she had learned that truth was not absolute. Truth was not truth. Rather, truth depended upon perspective. Her truth. Rubio’s truth.
The same distortion that made truth ambiguous rather than an absolute had also warped her thoughts and her feelings. Especially her feelings. Until now, she had experienced this island as a whole, as a complete unit with perfect symmetry. But now it seemed that the parts were separate. The shoreline she understood with her heart. The mirador she understood with her soul.
And surely her soul was more permanent than her heart. Father Jaime would have acknowledged that, and although she didn’t believe him in other things, she knew this to be true. And she knew that while the heart held pain, the soul held permanence. The soul held belonging.
So she determined that she would go into the water, and she would become one with the sea. But first, she had to choose which color she wanted to be. The color that she would acquire, or rather, the color that would acquire her. It was an easy decision. Turquoise, of course. Because turquoise held both blue and green, and so turquoise was the very epitome of the sea’s beauty. Among the vast shades of colors, and tints of colors, and hues of colors, turquoise was the kilometer zero of the mar Caribe. The place where the sea began, the place from which everything else flowed.
And so, she walked into the sea. She was in no hurry, but neither was she hesitant.
As the horizon drew nearer, or more accurately, as she drew nearer to the horizon, it transmuted itself into a darker brown, a darker blue, a darker green, and then into an indefinable band of darkness. The thin line separating the sea and the sky seemed to be at the same time all colors and no colors, a void that spoke the emptiness of purest black.
And this thin black line was impenetrable. As impenetrable as the barrier had been between her and the golden-haired boy.
The pale, nondescript sky above was painted in muted tones that had no color. The sky was a mirage. The sky wasn’t there at all. There was only a haze that tried without success to dull the sheen of the fallen stars glinting across the smooth surface of the water at the areas of its greatest depth. This mist relegated the sky to a drab overhead, nothing more than an insignificant backdrop.
Her eyes fixed on the empty black line that separated water and sky, she walked on into the sea. Deeper, deeper.
Then, with a gentle sigh at having at last arrived, she walked straight into the arms of her sister.
And so it was, when Téo lifted her up from the depths, that the turquoise she had so craved to become slid from her body in great wet sheets, and the form that came forth was not that of a sea creature. Rather it was that of a girl. The same girl she’d always been.
A girl who slowly, slowly opened her eyes. And in that moment, caught her first glimpse of paradise.