he noticed his hands before anything else. Cappuccino colored and cappuccino smooth. Not a line, not even across his knuckles, which he cracked one by one when his hands were empty.
His hands were almost never empty. She was halfway into her first piña colada when he walked in. They had put him to work immediately, cleaning coconuts and draining the juice, slicing limes and gouging out every last drop.
She was defrosting slowly, from the outside in. An interminable winter had sent any New Yorker with a couple hundred extra dollars to the first island they could think of. She had thought of Puerto Rico, of San Juan old and new. She’d never been and the flight was cheap. She’d made her way from the airport to a beachside bar and motel with a bag full of books, a bikini, and a jacket. But she still couldn’t shake the cold. There was a breeze. Weather report aside, Puerto Rico was isolated and unprotected from the elements, alone in the middle of the ocean.
She was alone too, in a way that excited her — at least for the time being. She was far away from every imaginable obligation and suddenly felt overcome with the unfamiliar feeling of freedom.
She ordered a second drink, aged rum from a bottle she didn’t recognize. This time it was he did the pouring and the stirring. He’d finished his chores and beamed. He was finally in charge.
He slid the glass toward her and poured a tiny shot for himself. They tipped their chins toward one another and raised their cups high. Condensation streamed down both of their forearms and left streaks in the fine dusting of sand neither of them realized was there. He asked her where she was from, and the light in his eyes when she told him gave away his youth. She regaled him with tales of Times Square and jazz. He poured more drinks. She removed her jacket. The wind had riled up off the sea but after so many months of wool and radiators, her naked back in the breeze felt like heaven. She was glad to shiver if this was the reason.
They didn’t ask each other their ages. Instead they talked about school, and where they’d been, and what they both planned to do. An urgent goal of his was to smoke a cigarette when he finished his shift. She promised him company.
She felt the sides of her eyes crinkle, but couldn’t help but smile. There was no one around to remind her what was right or responsible, and what was not.
She left the door to her terrace open when she went upstairs. There, she showered and lay back in bed. She could hear the sounds of laughter and ice clinking. Waves crashed on the sand, or maybe that was the wind rustling the palm leaves. It sounded like rain.
He knocked first, and then spoke her name. He had swiped two Camel Lights from reception. She’d promised, after all. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder and tried lighting them against the unrelenting wind. He stood over her to shelter the flame. Under a mostly full Caribbean moon they were no longer a boy and a woman, but two somewhat nervous people about to do something they’d both been taught all their lives not to do, or else. She laughed and ran her fingers through his tight little curls. That’s how it began.
She stayed for a few more days, always dining at the bar. But after that they only shared cigarettes.
They kept in touch at first. He told her about traversing the island to get motorcycle parts. Maybe he’d quit school to get a real estate license. She sent him photos of snow in March (March!). Funny about the real estate, she said. She was thinking of buying a place.
They gradually fell away from one another in the most natural of ways. There’s a first time for everything. And you can only have it once.