I read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in Cancun, on a beach under a sun that laughs at you for previously thinking you could tan. The book made sense there. Junot Diaz calls the places that speckle the Caribbean sea surreal, for their heat and their water and the true myths of their histories, and Cancun definitely fits the bill. It’s Disney surreal, not the dirt-floors-and-guns absurdity of countries under dictatorships, but still - you question the reality of the whole place. The sun that pulls sweat out of your pores and dulls your brain. The water that’s brighter blue than a blue raspberry Slurpee. The sand and the high-rise hotels that are blinding white; the fact that someone thought to line a thin strip of barrier shore with those high-rises in the first place; the fact that in high season every room in every one of them is occupied by people who are escaping their own reality, wherever in the world that may be.
Maybe most surreal was the documentation of that escape. Everywhere we looked: phones out to capture arms reaching to the sky, hats at a jaunty angle, abs tightened. Props, I guess, to the numerous women I saw attempting the complicated mermaid-selfie maneuver: lounge in foamy surf in small string bikini, take selfie without drowning phone or self.
So on this beach, drifting in and out of sleep, I was reading Oscar Wao, a story that’s basically about how real life can feel like a fable and dreams can infiltrate reality. The sentences of sneakily poetic slang, Dominican and American, went down like cool water because that’s how my brain feels, right now, a total mezcla. It’s running back towards sure-footed English but feeling like it’s picked up a few words in Spanish it doesn’t want to let go.
I fell asleep on a page where Junior, our main guide through all this quilombo, is talking about his drives around Paterson and Camden and Perth Amboy. Place names and their peculiar gravity. These are the cities on the highway signs on my way home from the Newark airport. Like Oscar Wao’s Dominican grandmother La Inca is stringing their names together, incanting me home.
Somewhere else, Yunior talks about “a particularly Jersey malaise - the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres,” but I woke up sunburnt on a surreal beach to the feeling that this time the longing is for places that are real, that are already there.