Juan and Irene

Because this was my second time getting caught in a natural disaster while on the company’s dime, I could sense how skeptical my boss was about my needing two or three extra days on the warm island. I swore to him that all flights had been cancelled; there was simply nothing to be done. He thought I was sunning myself on the shoreline, where the white sands met the turquoise waters. I was not. Hurricane Irene had hit Puerto Rico hard. The cobbled streets of Old San Juan were rivers, the gray skies weeped, and every article of clothing I had brought with me was damp. I do not like being damp.

The Gallery Inn was old, its stone walls some three feet thick at certain points. The owners, two expat artists, had crowded the rooms with hand-woven carpets, sculptures, paintings, knick-knacks. In the wake of Irene, what had felt cozy and intimate just a day earlier now felt dim, claustrophobic. It smelled musty. Still, as the gracious owners pointed out, if you had to be trapped indoors during a hurricane, this was the place to be. Aside from the practical benefit of the building’s sturdy structure, the hotel was equipped with a well-stocked kitchen, a renowned in-house chef, and a generous liquor cabinet that was run on the honor system. After a defeating day of dodging rain and battling customer service reps at the airline, I succumbed to the beguiling, delicious, almost conspiratorial charm of marking your share of alcohol in a tiny lined notebook. The front desk would tally up your charges upon checkout, the host explained to me with a wink.

The Inn encouraged its guests to participate in the daily cocktail hour, and on that night, not a single guest had declined. There was nowhere else to go, and we were mad with storm fatigue, thirsty for distraction.

The dining room was sunk into the basement. Heaps of sconces glowed golden from the walls. Mismatched tablecloths precisely draped over massive wooden tables. A short menu. More alcohol. New friends. I remember making the  acquaintance of a woman who ordered a whole red snapper for her meal. We split the eyeballs, one taut, pearly orb each. Laughter. Lingering.

Our hosts then invited everyone up to the library for a nightcap. Many guests retired to their rooms at this point, floating back to the ornately carved doors of their respective rooms, over-sized iron keys sliding and scraping over the locks. About a dozen of us did land in the library, drinks refreshed. We draped ourselves over the worn sofas and ottomans that had long since given up. I can’t recall any specific conversations, just a low, lazy murmuring as we watched the palm trees lash against the window panes.

Suddenly realizing there was something of meaning being uttered, I turned an ear to our hosts, who were acknowledging the talents of two guests. The pair were musicians who had traveled to San Juan to perform a concert at the university. The concert had been cancelled, of course, in the hurricane. Our hosts implored the musicians to provide us a little night music. They demurred, and then graciously moved toward the piano in the corner (the presence of which I had only just noticed). In a wink, they had selected some sheet music from within the rickety piano bench, and sat erect, side by side, hands posed over the keys. A brief exchange of words, and they were off, teasing Mozart out of the yellowing pages with confidence and restraint.

I was breathless. Probably grinning like a fool. Months earlier, when I had made the reservation at the Inn, I had gazed at the online photo gallery and got a bit of stirring in my belly. In those images, I saw a promise of something timeless, indulgent, hedonistic. Here it was. Me, pleasantly warm and buzzed on red wine, nestled in the corner of a dark leather sofa, while music and glittering conversation floated in the air around me.

The pianists played just a few songs, and I retired to my room shortly after they wrapped. I couldn’t imagine anything topping that experience, and I wanted to sink into the sheets so that I could lock it in my dreams that night, and for always.

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