I arrived in Vieques on January 19. A dear, old friend from the Bay Area, met me in San Juan, buying a ticket to ride on the same flight. He knew that I would get lost, and I would have. Before I came, he alerted me to a few peculiarities about his living situation. He was offering me to stay in his two bedroom, two bath apartment on the island, allowing me to just have a space to write. At first, I was designated the couch space in the living room. His roommate had his bedroom, Ian had his, and I would have the couch. That was before the appearance of the Dolphin.
Ian and I have actually very few things in common, but one significant one is that we believe in community. As another friend of mine, Kevin Simmonds, would say, we have tribes to whom we belong and which we build. Mine is generally an overlapping group of writers and artists. I belong to them, and they to me. Ian’s tribe? I don’t know how to describe them as a cohesive whole other than artisans of one form or another, artisans with a bit of wild, rebelliousness about them.
There is the other writer, the roommate I have never met, but whose stories sound like a blend of Kerouac and Hemingway with a dash of ocean spray. Then, the artist, traveler, and free spirit, who is loyal, romantic, and beautiful. There is the ex-military, Marine-mouthed, jack-of-all-trades with a heart that bleeds and eyes that well up in the most touching stories. And Ian, the software engineer, who attracts, cares for, engages with them all in this incredible exchange. And those are just the people that live in the house on a regular or somewhat regular basis.
There’s also the cantankerous, old adventurer who sailed the seas, lived in huts when he first came to Vieques, eating only what he caught from the sea. He’s the guy that when others were going to Canada or school to escape the Vietnam war, he came to the Caribbean and only so recently ever left. He now runs a taxi service. There are all the servers, too, that Ian knows. Each with their own stories of coming to the island to start a business while slowing down their lives. There’s a draw in how the stories repeat over and over again. So much so that I found myself wondering what it would be like to just pitch all of my responsibilities and connections over the rail of a ship and simply sail away.
Today, I want to focus on the Dolphin. He does everything. You need something carried or someone to teach the tourists how to swim? You need an extra leader on a Bio Bay tour or an extra set of eyes while snorkeling? You need an extra set of hands while fishing? Just about anything you need done, the Dolphin can do, or he has friends who can do it. He’s lived on Vieques for over a decade and lived all throughout the islands and around the world with the Marines. He knows everyone, and they know him. They try to take care of him, too, I think, because he has such a big heart. In the end, whatever he has, he shares.
The last few days, the Dolphin has made breakfast each day. He cuts me fresh flowers and places them at different spots throughout the house. When Ian and I have gone out, he stays in to keep an eye on the house. And he tells stories from the heart.
Tonight’s story was one in which he, at 22 (over 30 years ago), played Santa Claus in Okinawa at an orphanage for children aged 3 to 8. These were children who had never really played; rather they had grown up in cribs. Some of them were disabled. No one told him that he would be going to a place with children in such need. He recounted seeing a child, his body as large as his head (he kept saying), with the use of only one arm, and the wonder in that child’s eyes as he said, “Santa”. The Dolphin cried again, trying to keep tears from streaming down his face, now over 50 years old. He talked about how he tried not to cry, how when he did, it was his beard that hid it, how when he left, he refused to talk to anyone. All he said was to give his fee to the school. In his all-velvet outfit, his leather boots, his white fake beard, he rode a bus from the orphanage, surrounded by others and yet alone.
Yes, I can go into this whole bit about cultural imperialism, the imposition of a white Santa Claus/savior on orphans made so, by I would suppose, war … but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to focus on a middle-aged man, who makes a few dollars every day and shares it with those he meets. The other day, when I was about to go out with Ian, he actually tried to give me a few dollars, “Just in case”, channeling any paternal figure I have ever had, because every woman should have “Just in case” money. I’m going to talk about a man who used to sleep on the pier until some kids beat him up badly, just for being homeless. I’m going to talk about Ian, seeing a good man in trouble, who gave The Dolphin a place to stay, and how, at first, he would only sleep on the porch and not on the couch. It took a while to get him there, because he had such respect for the gift of a roof and a home. I’m going to write about the man who makes me breakfast, who listens to what I can and can’t eat and makes things according to my needs when even my parents have trouble with that. Again, he cuts me flowers.
My Philadelphia childhood made me paranoid. I don’t trust many people. It takes me a while. I may be pleasant, but I keep most but my closest friends at a safe distance. All of The Dolphin’s ease and kindness is new. I’m not saying I trust it, but I want to. I want to believe that there are such people in the world, who have tossed aside the barriers and can just give. I want to believe that how The Dolphin presents himself is really how he is. I haven’t seen any other evidence to the contrary. I want to believe it, because someday I might want to be that way, too.