A Personal Essay


Ray Villareal

Truth is weirder than any fiction I have seen.—Hunter S. Thompson

Years ago, my wife Sylvia and I took a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico. While we were there, we had a bizarre experience at a restaurant called La Copacabana.

After we checked into our hotel, we read through a directory of the city’s restaurants and clubs, anxious to take in the nightlife the island had to offer. Our eyes were drawn to an advertisement with colorful photos, and a caption that read: LA COPACABANA. THE FINEST SPANISH RESTAURANT IN PUERTO RICO. FEATURING REKNOWNED FLAMENCO DANCER, PASTORA MOLINA.

We decided that La Copacabana would be a terrific place to spend the evening. Not only did the dishes in the photos look delicious, we would be treated to a performance by a famous flamenco dancer. I called the number listed and made a reservation.

When we arrived, we were awed by the beauty of the restaurant’s exterior. The architecture was of a Spanish Colonial design, with white stucco walls, arched parapets, and a red tile roof. Potted hibiscus flowers lined the terra cotta steps, and two towering mango trees stood, sentry-like, at the entrance. A large poster of Pastora Molina wearing a red flamenco dress was prominently displayed in a glass case by the right side of the door.

With great anticipation, we entered the restaurant.

“Buenas noches, and welcome to La Copacabana,” the maître d’ greeted us. “Do you have a reservation?”

“Yes, it’s under the name of Ray Villareal,” I told him.

The maître d’ scanned his reservation list. “Villareal,” he muttered, creasing his brow. “Hmm.”

“I called about four hours ago,” I said, worried that there may have been a mix-up, and we wouldn’t be able to get a table. “My name should be there.”

A barrel-chested man, dressed in a black tuxedo that was much too tight on him walked up to us. “Is there a problem?” he asked.

The maître d’ shrugged. “They say they made a reservation, but I don’t see their name on the list.”

“What is your name?” the big man asked me.

I told him.

“Villareal,” he said slowly. Then, as if a cartoon light bulb had lit above his head, he snapped his fingers. “Yes, I remember. I am the one who took your reservation. Please follow me.”

He escorted us to an enormous dining room decorated with gold chandeliers, rosewood furniture, and floor-to-ceiling paintings of historic Puerto Rico. At the far end of the room stood the stage where the flamenco dancer would be performing.

Something else caught our attention—we were the only customers in the entire restaurant!

The big man seemed not to notice our stunned looks. Grinning like a ’possum at a fish fry, he pulled Sylvia’s chair away from the table and bowed graciously as she sat down. I took my seat. Then he handed us a pair of menus and invited us to enjoy our evening.

After he left, Sylvia asked me, “Where is everyone?”

It was a quarter past eight o’clock on a Saturday night. I had expected the place be packed. But there we were, sitting at a table in the middle of a cavernous room. Alone. And what was all the fuss over the reservation? As Alice in Wonderland once said, “Curiouser and curiouser.” The ad did mention that the show started at nine. Maybe that’s when everyone comes in, I thought.

A bus girl brought us a complimentary basket of tostones (sliced, fried, plantain bananas) and served us water in crystal goblets. A waitress then took our food order. Sylvia and I asked for the paella since it was featured on the menu as the “specialty of the house.”

Still no other customers.

I glanced toward the restaurant entrance. The maître d’ was positioned by the door like a statue, ready to receive new guests. The big man, with his hands clasped behind his back, and his ample belly challenging the buttons on his tuxedo jacket, was surveying the dining room. Our eyes met briefly. He flashed a public relations grin as if to say, “Isn’t business great?”

Soon our food was brought out. Our meal was surprisingly tasty. I had been concerned that the reason we were the only customers in the place was because the locals knew something about the food that we didn’t.

At nine o’clock, the room dimmed. Multi-colored lights illuminated the stage, and recorded flamenco music wafted from two ceiling speakers. I looked for the waitress so she could clear our table before the show started, but I couldn’t find her.

Seconds later, Pastora Molina glided onto the stage. With a pair of castanets clicking madly in her palms, she threw back her head and stomped her heels on the hardwood floor, whirling like a top with the ends of her dress spinning wildly.

“Wait a minute,” Sylvia said, gawking at the dancer, then at me. “Isn’t that our waitress?”

I looked closely at Pastora’s face. Sure enough, she was.

Behind us, we heard shouting, whistling, and clapping. I turned around. The big man, the maître d’, the bus girl, the chef, and the dishwasher were cheering Pastora on.

“¡Olé! ¡Viva, Pastora! ¡Olé! ¡Olé!”

This was getting weirder by the minute. I almost expected Ashton Kutcher to pop out of a corner and announce that we’d been “Punk’d.”

After the sixth or seventh dance, the music ended. Pastora Molina, drenched in perspiration, smiled and bowed as the restaurant staff applauded ecstatically. Sylvia and I, feeling terribly awkward, joined in the ovation. Pastora bowed once more, then exited the stage.

Good, I thought, breathing a silent sigh of relief. I hoped we could get our bill so we could pay and escape this Saturday Night Live skit.

No such luck.

Pastora, having changed costumes, reappeared onstage to start the second half of the show.

The music blared.

Pastora stomped.

The restaurant workers cheered.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the show came to an end. Pastora took a bow, then another, and another.

“¡Viva! ¡Viva! ¡Olé! ¡Olé!” her coworkers shouted.

The house lights came back on, and our waitress/renowned flamenco dancer walked over to our table.

“How did you like the show?” she asked, panting like a thirsty dog and dripping sweat on the tablecloth as she removed our dishes.

“Wonderful! Fantastic! Awesome!” we gushed, feeling obligated to compensate for all the people who weren’t there to watch her performance. I suppose I must have felt the same way about the service because I left her an unusually large tip.

I asked Pastora if she knew of any gift shops in the area where we could buy souvenirs.

“There is a nice little store next to our restaurant,” she said. “I understand they have great bargains.”

We thanked her and made our way to the lobby, where the employees had lined up to shake our hands: the chef, the dishwasher, the bus girl, the maître d’, and at the tail end, the big man.

Relieved to be out of there, we made our way to the gift shop.

Imagine our shock when we entered the store, only to discover standing behind the counter…Pastora Molina! Her forehead and cheeks were still glistening with perspiration.

“Good evening,” she said cheerily. “May I help you find something? We have wonderful souvenirs at very low prices.”

Without acknowledging that she had been our waitress and performer, Pastora guided us around the shop, showing us trinket after trinket. We settled on a large conch, a velvet painting of San Juan, and a coconut dish with HECHO EN PUERTO RICO printed on it.

We left the store bewildered. Perplexed. Confused. For a second, I almost believed that in our haste to make it to the restaurant on time, we had missed Rod Serling standing on a street corner, taking a drag from his cigarette, and saying, “That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop, The Twilight Zone.”

In spite of our surrealistic adventure, we weren’t ready to return to our hotel, so we crossed the street and headed to the lagoon. As we strolled along the banks of the water, we talked and laughed about what had occurred: the undue concern over our reservation; the empty restaurant; the waitress who turned out to be renowned flamenco dancer, Pastora Molina, who was also the gift shop clerk.

We had passed the halfway point of the lagoon and were making our way back toward the restaurant, when, to our dismay, we could no longer see La Copacabana. The place had vanished!

Our fears, however, were unfounded. As we edged nearer, we realized that the restaurant hadn’t disappeared. The bright neon lights had been turned off. Although La Copacabana was supposed to stay open until two, it had closed for the evening.

In the years since our visit to Puerto Rico, Sylvia and I have found ourselves in situations that trigger our memories of that night. And using our sixth sense, the one couples who have been married a long time possess, the one that enables us to read each other’s minds with a mere glance, we’ll turn to one another and say in unison: “La Copacabana.”

Those two words explain it all.