By Melissa Banigan
The sky was filled with the chiringas families had bought at nearby stalls. They chased each other’s tails in the sky like parrots, and easily out-maneuvered the Puerto Rican, American, and old Spanish flags that flapped phlegmatically over the El Morro in old San Juan. At the base of the fort, the variegated blue waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashed against the rocks in an undulating mantra—ebb, flow…ebb, flow.
Standing atop the highest level of the fort, the wind whipped my hair around my shoulders as I looked over the San Juan Bay and out over the ocean. My boyfriend—no, my recent fiancé—placed his hand on the small of my back. I smiled at him, but in that moment, I knew: I did not want to be married to him.
“That’s so…wild,” I said, pointing down towards the white, foam-covered rocks. This wasn’t what I meant to say, but I didn’t have the language to describe the panic rising in my chest. The rough ocean below beckoned. I leaned gently over the wall of the fort and felt my heart dislodge itself from my chest and dive like a seabird into the roiling foam.
~ ~ ~
In the 1800s, future Prime Minister of Great Britain, William Gladstone, wrote that in the Odyssey, Homer had described a “wine-looking,” rather than blue, ocean. Some years later, a philologist named Lazarus Geiger examined ancient texts in a variety of languages and discovered that although the ancient Egyptians produced rich dyes using the blue woad plant, many ancient cultures didn’t have a word to describe the color blue.
What sort of feelings must she have had (for I’m certain it was a woman) when she looked down into the ocean to find that the water no longer appeared “wine-looking,” but had become an undefined color? Since she was without words to describe what she saw, I imagine was faced with a choice—remain silent and risk going mad, or give up everything she thought she knew in order to try to describe to others what only she could see.
Today we live beneath a blue sky and swim in cerulean seas, so it’s clear that she chose the second option. What, then, were the consequences? Was she tolerated as an eccentric? I doubt it. People are wont to accuse strange women of witchery, so I imagine she was dragged, bloodied and naked, and then burned beneath an ancient wine-colored sky. A consolation, of course, is the hope that the experience of seeing blue finally sparked to life in the imaginations of her fellow villagers as they watched the hottest zaffre flames coldly lick her tongue, lungs, and brains to ash.
~ ~ ~
My fiancé proposed two days before we left New York for Puerto Rico. I knew he was going to ask. We had talked about it during a recent trip to Iceland—the same night I first saw the aurora borealis ripple in the skies above—the first night the world cracked open and I saw everything as a promise. That night when everything—enduring human love included—felt sublimely possible. I’m a lover of the British Romantics, so Coleridge’s poetry rang in my head:
The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro were hurried about!
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.
Iceland contained multitudes. Back in New York, however, without the fire and ice, my love affair felt pallid. Every nerve recoiled as he asked me to marry him.
He had written my mother to ask for her permission. My mother. As though I were a child, or chattel. I felt a strong desire to pull my hand from his. Yet I smiled, and said yes, because it was what we had already decided.
I would be cared for. I would be loved. What woman doesn’t want such things? His face lit up like a million stars and the world felt smaller as I fell into the gluttonous omphalos of a black hole.
Everyone does it, I thought. All women who weren’t witches eat their words. We are all frauds.
~ ~ ~
As a young girl, I summered with my family along the seashore. Every morning, my brother and I braved the chill and plunged into the Atlantic. We used our hands to cut paths through the water like sharks, and our thin spines arched as we surfaced into the briny air and then dove again and again into the waves like dolphins.
Together, we inhaled great gulps of air, and then submerged. We sat cross-legged on the ocean floor and held hands as we opened our eyes and stared at each other through the murky water. We counted the seconds.
One…two…three… We thought we could breathe like mermaids. Four…Five…Forever… We did breathe like mermaids.
Someday, I thought, I’ll swim across this ocean. Time stood still.
~ ~ ~
The first day of our engagement, I wore the ring. It was a sweet, modest affair. I rotated its pearls with my other fingers so that they sat snuggly on the inside of my ring finger, hidden from view. I told myself that this was only so that I wouldn’t bump the pearls against anything and knock them loose from their settings.
The ring, however, had been a placeholder. My fiancé had chosen it, knowing fully that I’d soon replace it with a ring of my choosing. I had argued against this, telling him that I didn’t want to wear any ring—even temporarily—that I hadn’t chosen.
“Will you leave it up to my good taste?” he asked. “Will you trust me?”
I conceded. A relationship, I told myself, involved compromise. He had told me this, time and time again.
By the time we left New York for Puerto Rico, my fiancé’s ring had become an accessory for my bed stand. My teen daughter—the love child of a brief, failed romance—asked why I wasn’t wearing it. I shrugged, saying this or that, and felt cold as I stared down at my unadorned finger.
My new fiancé said nothing about the absence of the ring. I imagine he took my silence to mean that everything was as it should be. I had grown accustomed to my silence being ignored.
~ ~ ~
When I was a child, I wanted to marry, have children, and live in a great house with a veranda on a hill overlooking the ocean. I wanted to be a princess, married to a prince. I swaddled my dolls, sang to them, nursed them when they were ill. I was dressed in beautiful dresses and adored by the men in my family for being delicately-boned and feminine. Princess, sweetheart, honey, these were my names.
My dreams for domesticity were at odds with my deep-rooted need for adventure. I voraciously devoured the pages of Verne, Kipling, and Shelley. I wanted to be a boy, because boys could both travel and also marry. They could leave their mothers, wives, and children behind, find their fortunes, become rogues, have wild love affairs with whomever they wanted, and then return, laden with stories. I wanted to become a flâneur in Paris, journey to the center of the earth like Axel, and submerge into the depths of the ocean like Captain Nemo.
Then, I read Dinesen, and my world burst open.
A woman, I learned, could have everything. She could love, work, and live. She could, like Karen Blixen, have a farm in Africa. She could leave a marriage. She could escape the trappings of her life. She could take a lover, and after the affair ended, she could, and would, endure without him. She could fail—in both small and gloriously epic ways—over and over again. Of course, being a young girl I didn’t yet understand the harmful ways Dinesen’s privileged self-determination and emancipation cozied up to colonialism, but at nine, my romanticizing of what I perceived was her untethered life was enough for me.
I spent hours at the beach staring out over the ocean towards the big ships and foggy horizon. I, too, would go to Africa. My dreams grew round and robust—ripe and ready for picking. Being shipwrecked became my favorite fantasy. Meeting new people, encountering dangerous beasts, and making my way across densely forested islands with a machete. That was the life for me. I was sure of it. I’d move to New York City, to Paris, to Cape Town, to Timbuktu, to the Congo. The world was a big place, and I would see it all.
Despite my newly acquired knowledge that women could inherit the Earth, my fantasies of being lost at sea always ended the same way—I would be saved by a man. Most stories confirmed that this would happen, and it was how my girlfriends and I painstakingly constructed our fantasies when we played together.
I would be like Dinesen, but I would also be like most women I had learned about in fairytales and in the Bible. I would wield a machete, but I’d do it prettily.
Being all the things, and all the women, would, for a long time, be my undoing.
~ ~ ~
My mother divorced my father when I was four, and remarried when I was six. My father was a gambler, a drinker who worked at the greyhound racetrack. He was brazen, handsome, and brimming with stories. He once leaped off a bridge on a dare.
My new stepfather was a Baptist minister. In his youth, he once stole a candy bar from a convenience store, but a healthy conscience made him return it.
I straddled the lobotomized halves of my life and swam the stormy seas between two fatherly continents. I thought about a line from a Kipling poem: Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, entirely ignoring that the full refrain referred to the acceptance of differences.
I aligned myself with all men—I aligned myself with none. As a young adult, I entered and exited relationships. I had a child out of wedlock. I lived with two men, each of them, for a year. None of my love affairs ever rooted. I was left a couple times, but generally I was the one who made a rapid retreat.
~ ~ ~
We are two, complete people, I told my new fiancé, in ownership of our separate selves.
Yet he retained a strange hope that I might change. “I need you,” he told me. “I want you to tell me what to do.” As strong as he was physically, he said that it was a turn on to think of belonging to me.
“I want you to need me, too,” he added. “I want to make your life easier.”
His words felt like chains, yet he repeated them until I felt worn thin.
One night, I told him that I also belonged to him. I knew he wanted to hear it, and I tried the thought on for size.
In that moment, though, a lightning rod channeled the reality that there would be no white picket fence, security, eternal belonging. Terror surrounded me and I saw a flash of truth—I belonged to no man. Worse, I didn’t hold reverence for or even deeply respect this man in ways I knew I would need if I were to fall in love.
The realization that I felt no love for my fiancé was deeply unsettling. I thought about my past love affairs. Most of them, I had to concede, had also been loveless.
I suppose I had known it all along, but when a woman is told her entire life that she’s nothing without a man—when her mother and father and grandparents and friends and everyone tells her that they hope she will find happiness with a husband—when all marriages are performed as sacred rituals—when women don’t make enough money as men and when they’re forced to labor in ways men can’t begin to imagine—when she raises a child in a world that despises single mothers—when she’s emotionally depleted from living under the mantle of societal expectations—then she wants to believe—even when she doesn’t believe—that she needs a man’s affection.
~ ~ ~
Soon after the birth of my child, I wrote an essay about the color blue. I wrote of my love for the ocean, my faithful adoration for the cobalt stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral, and my breathlessness over lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, which was ground into powder and made into ultramarine, the most wondrous and expensive of pigments. I had a great wish to look above the İznik style ceramic tiles towards the blue-painted upper levels interior of Sultan Ahmed’s Mosque in Istanbul, and also wanted to bask beneath Giotto’s vaulted ceiling at the Arena Chapel, which depicted an azurite sky with a heavenly, and eerily crepuscular, glow. Blue had become my color of spiritual growth and wonder.
The eyes of my child’s father are brown and beautiful, I wrote in my essay, but hers are, like mine, two stormy seas. When I looked down into them, I saw not the flesh of my flesh, but the explosions of stars. She was a human cleaved from me—a child already leaving.
Blue, I wrote, was the color of empty nests and becoming. It was the color of what life looks like on the move—the color of the wind stirred up behind beating wings—the color of flight. It was, at all times, a question and a myriad of possibilities.
My essay allowed me entry into one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and it gave me the strength to take my infant daughter and leave behind her emotionally abusive father in the Midwest for a new life in New York City.
As the moving truck drove my boxes of books away from our old home, it dawned on me that words could be many things: weapons, wounds, tools, medicine. Contrary to the old adage, words could absolutely break bones, but they could also strip a person bare and bathe her in love.
Words. My God, I would learn how to wield them, although first they would masticate the person I thought I was and crush all thoughts of the person I hoped to become.
“Your family is provincial,” said my child’s father. “New York City will swallow you whole.”
“At least I’ll be in New York,” I responded before leaving him behind. He grew smaller and smaller, until he flashed green on the gaping Midwest horizon before disappearing forever from view.
The colors of my new school were collegiate blue and white. Despite having punk rock proclivities and an almost allergic reaction to most things aligned with the mainstream, during my first week on campus, I bought myself a scarf and t-shirt in my new school colors, and I donned my baby girl in the same outfit, only in miniature. I imagined myself a sort of modern Pict, my school colors my war paint, my striped scarf my battle cry.
I spent hours on the grassy expanse of my school’s lawn and started into the sky. Never again, I promised myself, would I belong to any person. Never again, I vowed, would I be bound. I was on fire. I would stare down lions. I would not be swallowed by the people and buildings and ideas of New York City or anywhere.
Over the years, I watched my friends marry. Something borrowed, something blue. I saw them bridge the gap between themselves and others. I imagined two cells colliding, and I thought of the babies some of them might make. At every marriage ceremony, I heard a promise:
Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.
Marriage, it seemed, was romance, incarnate. An adventure in joining, welding, cauterizing, and a quest to prevent any wounds a single life might create.
It wasn’t the life for me, at least how it seemed constructed. I relished being a little wounded, a little poor, a little disjointed, if only because it forced me to climb into my own skin and send my body across glorious high wires and also into pits to fight leviathans. I wanted to carry my own full range of magnitudes.
Later, I watched my friends divorce. I saw them scratch sad romantic phantom limbs and try to fill their emptied apartments with new lovers. I watched them get wasted on booze, sex, and sadness, and I listened to how they had become embroiled in legal battles over children, alimony, and child support. Many of them quickly took lovers again. Some of them bought houses, remarried, and had more children. A few of them were happy, but most seemed to end up right back where they started, entangled in a wild mess of waving octopine phantom arms.
Some of my friends became mirror images of their partners. They finished each other’s sentences, knew each other’s habits. But it seemed that they did these things without joy. They had mortgages, and they bought new cars and made sound financial decisions that seemed to secure their futures. They had wanted safety, children, a home. They had plotted what their lives might look like at 40, 60, and 80 years old. Barring illness or catastrophe, they had already written their lives. Privately, many of them told me that they envied my untethered life.
I started to feel thankful for what I had, and also, for all the things I might never have. Some people, I realized, are like stones carved by rushing water, but I preferred to be like the water. I told myself this even when I cried myself to sleep. I held many positions regarding my freedom.
~ ~ ~
I moved with my mother, stepfather, and brother from Rhode Island to Wisconsin when I was eight. Away from the ocean and my extended family, I felt as though I were missing a lung. Like a fish trying to breathe on land.
I spent our first summer at our local public library. One hot day, I pulled a thin volume from the shelf and sank to the dirty linoleum floor to read. The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen. It was a living thing between my thin fingers—the scent of brine wafted from its pages as I carefully flexed its spine.
I read about how a young mermaid princess had fallen in love with a prince, and how she gave her voice and strong tail to a sea witch in exchange for a human soul and legs. She transformed herself into what she thought he wanted her to be.
Of course, things went tragically awry. The prince married someone else—a woman with a voice—and as he danced with his new wife on the prow of his ship, the mermaid, brokenhearted, threw herself into the sea and became nothing more than sea foam.
I was shocked. My eight-year-old self thought: So this is it. Girls give, or they take. We can’t have it all.
Only upon reaching middle age did I realize that like most fairytales, the little mermaid’s story had been written by a man.
I imagine the mermaid could’ve become anything had the story been written by a woman. A witch. An alchemist who created new things from existing elements. The fastest swimmer in the ocean.
~ ~ ~
To reach El Morro, we needed to first hike up the large grassy expanse at the edge of old San Juan. The fort was built in the 1500s on orders of King Charles V of Spain, and its sole purpose was to defend Puerto Rico against attack. Built over the course of 250 years, with a large moat and walls eighteen-feet deep, it is an imposing structure. Today the fort no longer protects the island. No more than a landmark visited by tourists, it is impotent.
Above us, the colorful chiringas still danced. We looked up at the garitas, or sentry boxes, located all around the outer walls of the fort. The garita—the symbol of Puerto Rico—is seen on the license plates of cars, on shot glasses, and splayed across t-shirts that hang in tourist shops around the city.
It seemed strange to me that a sentry box should be the symbol for a commonwealth that had once belonged to the Taínos, the Spanish, and now, the Americans. I asked my fiancé and my daughter if it a lock and key might be a more appropriate symbol for a land that had been taken against the will of its people. My words, drowned out by the wind, didn’t yield a response.
“I’d like to head up there,” I said commandingly, pointing to the uppermost level of the fort.
My fiancé shook his head. “I’d rather head down to check out the lower levels.”
I trailed him with my daughter. We walked through the kitchens where meals were once prepared for soldiers, and down and around spiral staircases. We took photos of the cannons that faced out over the bay.
The wind started to pick up. Under threat of rain, everything felt momentarily right. I thought of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who had written: The sun is new again, all day…the beginning is the end.
I did not have to marry, that much was clear. I was not obligated to say yes. I didn’t owe my fiancé anything, and I wasn’t responsible for how he might react. I would say no, despite not having all of the words to explain why. My life wasn’t written. I would love and be loved on my own terms. I did not need to compromise things that needn’t be compromised.
“I’m going to head up,” I said, pointing towards the highest level of the fort. My fiancé’s eyes caught the sunlight. He would’ve protected and loved me if I had let him. He would’ve honored me and held my hand if I were to fall ill. These were things he had seen as truths, but within his confines, they were not my truths. Should I ever marry, I thought, my love would fly. I’d breathe underwater. Regardless of whether I ever married, I would swim across oceans. I would revel in all things. I would be queen.
~ ~ ~
At the top of El Morro, a large, grey lighthouse stood against the ocean. Rain began to fall over our warm skin. My daughter, her hair blowing over her widened eyes, grabbed my hand. “I’m scared of being blown over the wall, mama,” she said.
I held her close and heard a voice: End it.
Did he know? He stood, as large and stalwart as a garita. The air between us was weightless, without color. One can have everything, truly, just not certain things. It’s important to acknowledge this fact when assessing one’s infinite number of options, especially when something is about to be let go.
“Ready to head back?” my fiancé asked.
I nodded, feeling a pang, but also a thrill. My decision had been made. No, I would say. A thousand times, no.
We climbed back down to the main level of El Morro. The rain fell harder, and the chiringas no longer performed in the sky. Most tourists waited at the huge doors of the fort for the rain to subside, but I urged my fiancé and daughter to walk with me back down the grassy slope towards the city. They humored me, and, soaking wet, we descended.
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano. New York: Norton, 2004.
 Rudyard Kipling, Complete Verse. London: Anchor; Reprint Edition, 1988.
 King James Bible, Matthew 19:6
 Heraclitus, Fragments. Trans. by Brooks Haxton. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Melissa Banigan is the Founder/CEO of Advice Project Media, a nonprofit that offers media, writing, and travel services for youth and women around the world. She is also a freelance journalist who has placed work with The Washington Post, NPR, the BBC, Sierra, and Atlas Obscura, among many others.