The Day I Died, and the Lessons Learned

Do people remember the day they die. I know I remember mine. And it changed me.

Over thirty years ago, I woke up in a semi-conscious stupor to someone checking if I was still alive by hitting my leg with what I assumed to be a bat. I’m assuming because I wasn’t all there and though I could feel the pain I was numbed- feeling like I was floating inside of a vandalized car, with a massive headache and my leg dangling from one of the car’s windows.

I decided to play dead- something not unfamiliar to me.

“He is dead” (“está muerto”) the one hitting my leg yelled.  I could hear people repeating it. They scattered. Everything ended as fast as it had. Silence followed.

I decided to play dead for a few moments knowing that I wasn’t dead. But I was definitely not ok, and there was no need to get killed again.

It is odd because they thinking I was dead almost made me giggle. I thought- “how easy this is, come on ?” “How can they believe I’m dead?” Little did I know.

I tried to move, and it was difficult. I had glass from the broken car window stuck in both my legs. My whole body hurt, and the damn headache kept getting worse. I knew I had to move. What kept me moving was that I didn’t know what had happened to my friends and I feared they were in worse shape than me.

I had two friends (brothers) who were like brothers to me. We had gone out and instead of using their mom’s car we were riding, for the first time, in their grandfather’s much nicer car. A Karate Kid moment. And off we went to be teenagers and have fun. Our on and off friend Rudy was with us and because it was such a large Oldsmobile, we gave a ride to two more acquaintances.

Fun didn’t last much. It didn’t have a chance to even begin if I’m being honest.

We went to one of our favorite spots- el Tamboo in Rincon, Puerto Rico.

We parked close to the beach. High spirits everyone. Some girls were supposed to come and meet us.

But something seemed off. Way off.

I shrugged it off. And with our  friend Rudy- I went (as usual) to buy drinks for all of us with the confidence of a kid who grew up working in the streets  and knew how to order drinks and never be denied or carded.

As we are coming back with the drinks, a group that to this day I remember as “twenty or something like that” blocked our path to the beach. Rudy was immediately slapped across the face. This is Puerto Rico- that wasn’t a simple slap. It was such a brutal and violent slap he dropped the drinks he was carrying and almost fell to the ground.

Just to be clear, Rudy was a very bellicose youth that could take a punch and fight back. His first reaction was to retaliate. But I dropped the drinks I was carrying and held him. I even apologized to them while telling Rudy to shut the fuck up. Mala de nosotros- nos vamos. “our bad.” There were too many of them.

I had assessed what was happening. The place had seemed odd to me when we get there because something was going on. A “gang’ had showed up and a lot of people left after they beat up some kids. That was the usual formula for gangs in Puerto Rico to mark some territory and see if any girl was impressed by it (and reason number one why I quit high school).

It was hard to push Rudy all the way to the car. Like an idiot he was thinking of his pride. The people who hit him decided to “escort” us to the car. So, once I was in hearing distance I yelled to my friends to start the car. I started running with Rudy. I thought we were in the clear. I actually made it inside the car. Rudy didn’t. As he was getting inside, they pulled him out and started beating him- all of them beating him.

My friend Alberto looked at me and asked what to do. I said, “let me out and open the trunk”.

He did and came out with me. From the trunk I grabbed a macana (a police baton- the long one) that his grandparent always carried since he had been a union member and had faced  his share of strike breakers (and police).

They weren’t paying any attention to us. They were like sharks in a feeding frenzy beating the hell out of Rudy. Hell, they never thought we would be so dumb as to get out of the car. But we did.

I started striking people with the macana left and right- always aiming for the head. Sound horrible. But they were killing my friend. I don’t know how it happened, but I broke the circle of people beating Rudy and helped him get to his feet while fending people off. We started running and made it to the bushes still fighting them off. I could hear people groaning “dale al cabrón de la mancana.” They meant me.

Rudy and I were almost clear when I saw that my friend Alberto was trying to fight off several of them with just his fists. So, I asked Rudy to dive into the bushes and hide. I ran back to help Alberto. And at that time, I didn’t know what had happened to his brother and the other two people with us. I fought alongside him for what it seemed like an eternity but was probably seconds, like all fights. We got lucky again and we started running and putting distance between them and us.

Or so I thought. Or maybe I went back. I really don’t know. What happens next is reconstructed from eyewitnesses and my own flashbacks and nightmares- which I had for years.

Remember those polaroid instant cameras with their blinding flashes? Let’s say that I went back to the fight or I was cornered- I really don’t know. But after hearing again- “dale al cabrón de la macana” I saw the two flashes and all of a sudden I was disarmed, held by my arms and legs while a guy much older than me ( I was 16) grabbing me by the hair and pummeling my face kept  asking  “where are your balls now cock sucker?” (tienes cojones ahora mambicho?) and feeling like I was living my last seconds I said my last words- “me cago en tu madre cabrón”  and I spat at him. A waste of last words if you ask me. Apparently, in response to that, they beat me with all they got and since I was still standing and defiant (though I don’t remember a thing at all) they decided to throw me through the car’s window.  And that’s when they left me for dead.

The two flashes? I was hit with an aluminum bat twice in the head. A hell of a flash it makes. And that is how I ended up disarmed and held by my arms and legs against the car.

And apparently, I was unconscious for a bit until I woke up and played dead- because, after all, I’m not that stupid.

After making sure they left I moved to the front seat. I tripped on one of the guys we had given a ride who had been hiding all the time in the back seat floor, and another one who made himself into an invisible human ball in front of passenger’s front seat. I could not believe it. They had not helped us. I was so furious that I yelled at them and punched them while I tried to get the car going. As I drove down the beach, my three friends started to show up- all beat up. Alberto was the last one and asked me to let him drive. Truth be told I had never driven before, and I guess I only did it for a few hundred meters. It was a pretty small battlefield.

I sat in the back to get some rest and apparently, I started to talk incoherently and that is when they started to talk among themselves and I passed out.

From them I know that Alberto – who was training and actually completed paramedic training in Ponce- took a bunch of shirts and stop my bleeding. My head was wide open. He tried to take me to an emergency room in Aguada. They closed the door and didn’t let us in. Everyone covered in my blood carrying my limp body and the car with all windows broken- they didn’t let us in and to this day I don’t know why but they didn’t let us in. So, a 30 minutes’ drive to Mayagüez had to do. I’m sure he cut it down to 20 minutes.

Instead of the medical center he drove us to San Antonio Hospital which meant he had to drive by the place we usually hang out in Mayagüez- our home city. Everyone knew us there. So, a lot of people followed the car to the ER two blocks up the street.

While they stabilized me in the ER and Alberto gave his report to the doctors- his brother called my house. The call was so urgent that two of my brothers showed in the ER when they were bringing me out and into an ambulance to take me to the medical center for they couldn’t fix me there.  Carli, Alberto’s brother later told me that my siblings looked as pale as ghosts, just like I did with all the blood loss. To this day I’m sorry I put them through that.

And that was it. They patched me up. I regained consciousness while they worked in my head and had to hold me down. Two big open head wounds. Skull intact somehow. Lost my long hair. A real tragedy. And eventually I was out. My friend Rudy insisted on pushing my wheelchair- I guess there was some gratitude and a bit of guilt involved- though he didn’t provoke anything.

When I woke up next, the headache was gone but my jaw and teeth were killing me. It wasn’t because of the beating. Apparently, through the whole ordeal I clenched my jaw and grinded my teeth so hard I hurt my jaw.

That happened on a Saturday night and though unbeknown to my mother I was already a school deserter – I “went to school on Monday”. I needed to be out of the house. To my surprise, everyone knew about the incident and everyone wanted to smoke a cigarette with me or shake my hand and ask me questions for which I had no answers. It was way too much- way too much. I know they meant well- but all the attention and the questions felt like torture. Plus, I was traumatized even though I tried to not to show it. How not to? The act of violence to which we were both subjected and part of it, was completely random. We didn’t know them, and they didn’t know us. There was no issue between us- just a random act of pure violence. Worse yet, I could not remember much of it. Not even a single face.

And then it happened. One of those moments that change your life forever. The word spread out so much that some guys from el caserío (the projects)  who knew me from school and the streets, came to one of my hanging spots (college part of town) to pick me up. They wanted to get revenge. Four of them in a car with a couple shotguns and a gun and an extra shotgun for me. They wanted to go to Rincón and just drive around until we found them- and then, what? Kill them? I was scared shitless to be honest. They knew. I made up the excuse that I couldn’t remember a single face (which was true) so there was no use. They chastised me for being a coward and letting them get away with it. I insisted I couldn’t remember a single face. So, they let me in peace.

I don’t think I had ever been so disturbed in my life. I was tempted to take revenge-briefly. But to what end? I was already safe. So even if they had meant to kill me- what could I possibly accomplish by trying to kill them or beating them up- even if I could identify any of them- which I couldn’t? What could I possibly gain from that?

And that is what I learned from that. Or at least, I have tried to leave my second life never harming anyone and ready to lend a hand; always forgiving trespasses ; always avoiding fights until there is no room to escape, until you run out of options. I don’t turn the other cheek, don’t get me wrong. I believe there can’t be no peace without justice. But I don’t start things and my first instinct is to defuse or walk away. And I certainly don’t take revenge or wish harm to those who wrong me or wish me harm. That is what I learned from that.

A few years later, while playing basketball with my siblings, a guy approached me looking like he had seemed a ghost. I was the ghost. “I was there when they killed you.” Yo vi cuando te mataron, he said. I could see how painful hearing that was for my brother Alejandro. So, I skipped the game and sat with this guy who filled in the blanks I still had from that night. Blanks that none of my friends could explain because they were also in the middle of it, in the middle of that violent chaos. That is how I came to “remember” much of what happened that night, and to remember the day I died.  

Years after that, while completing Army Basic Training, a fellow trainee panicked during a night infiltration course with live fire above us. I held and calmed him down and we crawled together out of the firing zone completing the exercise. One of the drill sergeants told me in jest that he thought I would be the one to panic under fire because I always clenched my jaw when things got tough. He never knew that is my face when I’m focused on doing whatever I must do to survive and protect my own, and that after that chaotic night in Rincón, very few things unsettle me anymore.

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