Creative Non-fiction

Island Connection in New Jersey

I rode the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, navigated the concrete river flowing with traffic—cars and trucks and motorcycles and cars and SUVs—four abreast, headed north.

I had just left the beach at Sandy Hook, the landscape of dirty tan sand, gray-ish mucky oceanwater, and reeds and dune grass and abandoned gunpowder batteries pointing rusted, long unused canons toward New York City, a faint construction visible across the ocean. I spent the night alone, camped in a tent, fell asleep looking up at the stars through the skeeter screen, felt insignificant in my small body in the big big world. And I was okay with that then. One of those moments where I was OK being all alone.

But that was all behind me.

I looked in the rearview mirror, a small rectangle mirror that cast a visual of the periphery GSP, the singular images of trees and cement walls and exit signs blurring together, individual images that didn’t move, and yet moved, a spinning reel, a view animating itself. The concrete river flowing with traffic—cars and trucks and motorcycles and cars and SUVs—four abreast, headed north.

I was anything but isolated. I was surrounded, but I was alone. And in this physical isolation, I felt like no sound I could make would rise above the hissing and popping and zoom zoom zooming of other cars. I felt insignificant in my small body in the big big world, and I wasn’t OK with that.

So I made LOUD in my truck. The volume of the music turnt way up.

I sang with iLe, a Puerto Rican singer, her album “ILevatable” CRANKED in the cab of my cruising F150.

Ile, she understood me and my pain, my need for connection, deliverance. I felt her pain, her needs, her love, her connection, her deliverance through song. Heavy shit, carried out on her breath and voice. And as I sang, and let these things go, I felt lighter.

I sang with my ghoulish lack of tone. I mimicked the sounds but I was no match. Ile sang, her beautifully orchestrated highs and lows and syrupy sour-sweet tones.

Then a sign came up on the horizon: toll booth ahead.

The flow of traffic ebbed. I slid into this part of the asphalt river. The toll booth island plaza ports filled and emptied with cars and trucks and motorcycles and trucks one behind each other (one ahead of each other) one behind each other.

The EZ Pass lanes had the rhythm that barely broke. But I navigated toward the slowest lane of all, the lane where the rhythm was very stop and go. I didn’t have the EZ Pass tag with me. I would have to pay cash. I had placed a crisp ten-dollar bill on the visor in my truck for this reason. My beach retreats were dreamy little dreams, full of quiet, and solitude, and the entry back to day-to-day was always a little rough. Little tricks like this helped to ease me back in, when I felt the crushing weight of insignificance on speed on the GSP.

So I waited my turn, and as I rolled up, rolled my window down, I held out the tenner for the attendant to take. It was automatic. I staid looking straight ahead. My heart was beating. I wanted to be back in my dreamy-singy-flow. But I eventually realized the dood wasn’t extending his arm with the change, so only then, I turned to look. He was mouthing something. I put the window down further, put the music lower, and said, “What?” I heard some words trailing off. I heard words switch from Spanish to English. I heard them lower in volume, get lost in the sounds of the road-river flow, then get loud:

“Is your family OK?” and I thought, Da phuck he’s talking about?

Then he asked: “Where are you from? La Isla?“

As I started to reply that no, I’m gringa, he cut me off, said: “Because you are listening to her.”

Then it hit me. I looked at his face, really looked, saw how it was puffy and the bags under his eyes were pronounced. I saw tears in the corners of his eyes. I remembered that Hurricane Maria had just hit La Isla, had knocked out power and water and had churned up sewage in the streets, leaving many, many people in Puerto Rico at a standstill: no water, food, utilities, communications. I realized that hearing this singer from his home might have been his message in a bottle in the anonymous sea.

He said: “Mine, mine are OK. I got to contact them. But others I don’t know.“

It got quiet. In the midst of the traffic gurgle, it got quiet. Beach quiet. I took a peek in the rearview and saw the cars adding up behind me. My moments of feeling insignificance wave-crashed-boom-banged against my opportunity to in-body significance (for this one man, who, lonely maybe, solitary definitely, on his island of zoom zoom zooming cars and trucks and cars and SUVs and someone actually stopped to say something). But I didn’t know what to say, I couldn’t say anything, except, ”Que Dios le bendiga [God bless you].“

He looked at me, put his hands up, and waved them down twice, saying with a raspy voice: ”Amén amén.“ He finally handed me my change.

October 2017