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This Puerto Rican writer depicts the trauma Hurricane Maria left behind

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a woman holds a child in front of destroyed building

Samuel Vásquez rebuilds his house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, while his wife Ysamar Figueroa looks on while carrying their son Saniel at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, Dec. 11, 2017. Villa Hugo is a settlement initially formed by people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. 

Credit:

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

I’m thinking about getting a hurricane tattooed on my left shoulder.  

Unintentionally, all my tattoos are a reminder of something: Something that I want to forget, something that I tend to forget, something that I can’t forget. My tattoo would be white, grey and turquoise. The eye of the hurricane in the center of my shoulder, three-dimensional, so if you look right into it you would feel as if my skin could suck you in. 

It might seem morbid and maybe way too recent to make such a permanent decision. After all, one shouldn’t make crucial decisions while in the midst of temporary emotions. But the terms recent and temporary have become as ambiguous as the very word temporal, which in Spanish also means "storm" or "hurricane."  

Related: Lights are out in Puerto Rico again. But for some, the power's been out since Hurricane Maria. 

People say that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Probationary periods at work are usually three months long. That is not a random amount of time. For ages, companies have understood that around the three-month mark you’ll show your true colors — that 90 days are enough to see if you’re going to make it or break it. I adopted this theory for my own relationships. Infatuation has a three-month expiration date. Odds are, in three months you’ll probably suffer some kind of crisis, get sick, have a nervous breakdown. After dating someone for three months, there is a window of opportunity to run away.  

It’s been seven months since the hurricane. Well, hurricanes, because we sometimes forget the plural version of the noun. And for those who’ve been in the dark since the first one, it does make a difference.  

Related: Puerto Rico hit by island-wide power blackout 

At 28 weeks a fetus’ bones begin to harden, its skin is no longer transparent and wrinkly, its nervous system is sufficiently developed to perform more complex movements every day. Some experts even say that it could have a sense of orientation and that its heart beats faster by the sound of its mother’s voice. The baby can already start opening its eyes, even when it will not be able to see properly until months after birth.  

Our trauma is already a fully formed baby. Our hearts beat faster whenever someone dares to mention the word hurricane. Our eyes can’t help but narrow every time the light bulbs dim once again. Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday; other times it’s like we’ve lived our whole lives afraid to stock our fridges full and panicking over not having enough canned food. 

Related: Four months of food aid in Puerto Rico brought too much salt and sugar, say some recipients 

The memory of the hurricane is a little devil, but not the kind that entices you to be naughty or flirty or to feel more pleasure than you should. It’s more of a melancholic demon — a bully that constantly whispers that darkness is right behind us, blowing cold air on our spines. Maybe it’s because I was raised Catholic, but I don’t have the guts to complain when there’s another blackout. Losing my electricity means that it was already restored once, and that’s why I can tell the difference, because I’ve had it back in the first place. 

So far, every time I’ve inked my dermis, I’ve chosen things that I haven’t been able to erase anyway — sensations that got stuck between my flesh and bones and I haven’t been capable of dissolving. I don’t think it’s a poetic coincidence that literally a tattoo is nothing other than ink that gets stuck between the dermis and the epidermis, right where the skin is incapable of diluting it.  

I didn’t realize I was 30 until my 33rd birthday. The hurricane was a slap of adulthood. A physical concussion that burst my bubble. A memo that enumerated all the ways in which I am ridiculously privileged without ever having categorized myself as such. So, every time there is no warm water in my shower — going against my life motto that states that the tragedies of others should never invalidate your own — I feel grateful for just having water. Whenever there are blackouts, like the one last week and those before it, I don’t get frustrated at traffic lights that ironically no longer have working lights.  

Related: Six months after Maria, Puerto Rico is burdened with challenges 

I have zero sense of direction. They say babies develop it when they crawl, and since I skipped crawling and went straight to walking, I’ve survived thanks to my cell phone’s maps and because my father, no matter how busy he is, always answers my calls with a gentle “Are you lost?”

Yesterday I needed to get to the publishing house to pick up some copies of my new novel, which arrived tardy (like myself) because the hurricane shut down the printing house, the publishing house, the book fair, life itself. As you might expect, when there are blackouts the internet collapses just as the electrical poles do, lines get saturated and I couldn’t even find a signal for my GPS or to make an emergency call to dad. So, I activated the original navigation system, and I drove around Hato Rey begging strangers to please lead me to the publishing house. Time stops yet again, hours become relative, punctuality becomes almost a suggestion.  

To say that I am grateful for the hurricane would require a level of optimism and faith that have never quite fit into this 61.5-inch body. I haven’t become another person. I’m not better. But now, I never drive around with an empty gas tank. I count and recount the cans in my cupboard. I keep harassing my husband to buy a new gas stove. I try to have all my electronic devices fully charged. When we’re out of ice, anxiety kicks in. Not having cash seems like an extremely irresponsible act, one that I still commit, but now recognize it as such. I need to have a plan of how I’m going to find my spouse in case the internet, the phones, cars, gas stations, traffic lights fail. In case the country fails us. Practicing yoga doesn’t seem like a snobbish hobby anymore. It has become a necessity to prevent me from crying — something that I can do without air conditioning, without electricity, water, ice, gas or cash.  

I’ve always cooked enough to feed tribes, even when we are just two lonely souls. This week I barely cooked two cups of rice. The official excuse was that I didn’t want to waste food. The real one is that I keep expecting the power to go out. In Spanish, when we refer to electricity, we call it la luz, the light. And as my gut predicted the power went out, "the light left." And it continues leaving.  

As long as there’s still one human being in the dark, regardless if it’s in the middle of the mountains, in a gated community, in the hood, in a condo, in a beachfront property or inside a hospital, we keep losing both our power and our light. Every single time that I find out that I’m not going to see my best friends’ children grow up, every time someone tells me that they lost their job, every time they close a school, every time that I depend on my niece to answer Facetime, so I can see her little face and her new missing teeth — the light continues to escape us. 

It no longer seems premature to get a hurricane tattoo. Actually, it’s more of a preventive measure. In less than a month and a half, hurricane season — the season that shall not be named — starts yet again. I just might have enough time to carry the hurricane on my shoulder and finally rip it off my damn chest once and for all.  

Edmaris Carazo is a writer living in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Read her original piece in Spanish here 

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