Women’s Fiction | Magical Realism
Sun and wind lick my skin. The tide rolls beneath my feet as the breeze spins around me. I grip the floor of the boat with my toes, bending my knees, bracing my body as the wave heaves, pitching the boat slightly, up and down, up and down, like a carousel. I move slowly up the port side holding onto the rail as I make my way towards the top and the seat behind the wheel next to the handsy captain. His lengthy bended legs make for high knees. Long fingers wrap around the silver wheel and he slides to the side offering it to me. I grab at it eagerly. A wide smile swallows my face as the burn spreads thru me. I own the ocean and the waves are now my high.
He points at a computer display on the dash and tells me to keep the boat pointed in a westerly direction then disappears down into the galley for a time. He reappears and uninvited, he slides in behind me on the long captain’s bench. I feel my face go vacant and my mind go numb. His long arms and legs spread around me, like a spider. Gripping the wheel until my knuckles turn white, I stiffen and move unconsciously forward to the edge of the seat, hoping to avoid touching any part of his sticky hot skin. He starts massaging my shoulders. I do not move. I am, at least, thankful to not be pressed between his sweaty, thorny thighs.
His hands are soft and talented and he molds my muscles into a pliable-like sponge. I relax and plot my moves knowing there’s nowhere for me to go while he continues working the tension out of my shoulders. I force myself to relent. He leans around my body, lips pursed, attempting to kiss me. I remain calm and move slightly away while my eyes cling to the horizon.
“I don’t kiss.”
He laughs. “You don’t kiss? That’s ridiculous. Why not?”
“I don’t kiss. Unless I’m in love.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he parrots and disappears again back into his hole.
Summer. 2014. I needed a vacation. Somewhere with sun, water, sand, and serenity. I started this quest by looking for jobs on cruise ships, the complete antithesis of peace; alas, a woman has no money, a woman gets little choice. They only wanted young beautiful women and men and I was a poor, moderately attractive, middle-aged white woman, college dropout and artist; what could I possibly offer them. I could not muster enthusiasm regardless. The thought of being stuck on a cruise ship with all those people made me physically wince and wish for an early death. I then looked for private yacht charters that needed help and found a site that posted positions from all over the world. I scanned the ads and sent messages to the few that didn’t make my skin crawl with caution. The few replied. Of those replies, one appeared somewhat reputable and interesting. We exchanged messages that brought back memories of the many horrors of online dating; something I’d purposely long forgotten and wanted no part of again. He was amicable enough, but kept reiterating that he lived a healthy lifestyle by swimming ten miles a day, eating healthy and very little. He then asked for photos and my weight. I rolled my eyes and released a long surrendered sigh: of course.
He eventually telephoned.
“It’s Captain Dan.”
“You know, like Captain Ron, the movie…except I’m Captain Dan?”
Several long seconds of silence passed while I contemplated hanging up on him.
“Hello?” A pause: “Hello?”
After I decided to respond to one of his many hellos, we talked casually about this trip and his needs. A divorced anesthesiologist and health and fitness nut that lives in Florida, he captains his boat to small private Caribbean charters and said repeatedly that he really didn’t need anyone, but likes to offer this experience to those who’ve never been. He then began to list the women before me that he had gifted with this wonderful opportunity; professional women such as marine biologists and vice presidents of banks and such.
“I could use some help on a few charters and you can still be useful as a photographer. You can help me clean,” he said. “And who knows, if we work well together perhaps there’ll be future trips. Depending, of course.”
My patience lessened and my eyes rolled. Did I really need a vacay this badly? I told him that perhaps he should choose someone else to gift with his presence and this great opportunity. His laugh was awkward and stilted unsure if I was joking. My impassive tone confused him. Uncertain on how to respond, he did with a long whiny ‘no, but’, then listed all the reasons why this trip would be good for me. I chuckled low agreeing with an ‘oh yes, such an opportunity for someone like me’.
He bought my airfare and the trip was planned.
My mother, concerned, understood my urgency and independence; my need to dance along the edge; to escape that which made me empty. She wished me godspeed. However, the other gaggle of female relatives were aghast. My choices endlessly inflamed their overly prudent judgments of me and my lifestyle. This trip was downright shocking. They questioned my wisdom all to aware that I frequently took trips traveling overseas and around the country by myself. I shrugged off their unease. I knew the risks and could protect myself if needed. I maintained no misconceptions of what I could be walking into. I had a vivid imagination and years of experience with the opposite sex taught me plenty.
“And besides,” I said with a sedate tone and expression, “I’m the daughter of a thief and the granddaughter of a murderer; he should be afraid of me. They all should be afraid of me,” I crooned parroting my best Ursula.
They laughed politely in that fake white woman bourgeois chuckle, hesitating ever so slightly when I gave them a weighty glare. Their laughter went silent. They stared at me openly spooked. I let them stew in that for a beat then smiled and cackled coldly allowing the chill to remain in my eyes: “Kidding,” I said winking at them. “Besides, if I’m gonna die, I’d rather do it in the warm blue waters of the Caribbean. Wouldn’t you?”
When I told my pal Meera about my families’ concerns, she rolled her eyes and laughed. Meera—a British-Indian expat that I connected with in the local library’s science fiction isle when we went for the same Nora Jemisin book—pointed out that as an American white woman, I had many privileges that people of color and non-Americans didn’t have: “You have only to flash that American passport and white skin to get the help you need. More so if you cry. The media loves a white woman’s tears.” This led to a brief quiet contemplation with a nod of understanding and agreement. “Remember: accessibility is a privilege and not available to everyone,” she informed me; something I knew already, but had to be reminded of apparently, embarrassingly so.
A long uninterrupted silence followed while I sat with my ignorance and revisited the wisdom Meera just gifted me with, until we moved on to another topic. I thought about it again when I had to renew my North Carolina driver’s license; a feat not easily accomplished at a forty dollar fee and that I needed a home utility in my name. This was a problem since the home I was currently residing wasn’t my own and I had no other; and as a U.S. citizen without ‘a real I.D.’, I couldn’t fly commercial. Fortunately, I had recent correspondence from my old cable company that was accepted with little debate. So, yes, accessibility is a privilege and not available to everyone.
I arrived at the airport in St. Thomas and realized immediately that Captain Dan’s directions were bad.
I texted him.
Your directions r bad. Need 2 exit left out of airport not right?
No go right.
R u sure cuz it looks like a dead end?
I’m around corner. Go right.
I sighed and exited to the right coming to the end of the island and just as I thought: there was no skiff and no Captain Dan.
I called him: “Your directions are bad.”
He blamed my poor sense of directions and told me how many times he’s given these same directions so they can’t possibly be bad; I’m the one that’s wrong. He said this more than once; yet, there I stood staring at the end of the island and no Captain Dan and no skiff. I listened to him continue to bloviate over the phone while I eyed a few men that openly stared at me along with a crude remark or two about my body. I turned my back and moved away towards the airport keeping a cautious eye over my shoulder on them as I did. I interrupted Captain Dan and told him I’d be there shortly ending the call. Making my way back to the airport, I turned left, down a road and to the beach where his catamaran floated in the bay. He sat in the small skiff smiling, waiting impatiently for me: “I told you my directions were right,” he said.
Tall—six foot three or four—blond, slender but sturdy, tan, he had a bit more wrinkles around the eyes, presumably because of his continued sun exposure or the smiles. Yes, he smiles; in reams. It’s one of those fake fun smiles, not threatening nor lewd, but tedious and illusory. He looked like the typical attractive white Florida frat boy in his early fifties that floated by all his life on mediocrity and privilege. His peppy personality and nonstop smile, I knew, would eventually grate on me, like my too tight sandals rubbing my feet raw presently. Friendly and charming, he oozed confidence and posture, like fumes.
My lips curved upwards and I tilted my head in response scanning his long hands, legs and gangly body. He preened under my gaze returning mine; his eyes roamed over my body like dirty rank hands.
“I thought you said you lost the five pounds?” He asked.
I faked a small cringe-worthy half grin and looked for an oar in the skiff remembering the scene from The Talented Mr. Ripley—the book, not the movie. I wondered how much force it would take to render him unconscious and how many blows it would then take for him to be dead. I stood silently in the intensity of that daydream feeling it wash over me like a red wave. I looked around and realized there were far too many people on the beach—especially children—and I wouldn’t want to spoil their day by turning the sand and sea red with his blood. I planted that same grin on my face and got into the boat without comment.
Moored in Lindbergh Bay next to the airport landing strip, his boat, a large catamaran, was more space than most people—myself included—had to live. With the galley up and four cabins below—not including the three bathrooms—he placed me in a cabin on the starboard side of his master suite. He insisted, however, that the best place to sleep was under the stars on the safety net at the bow of the boat between the hulls.
The tour was quick. He showed me to my room where I dropped off my bag. The place was passively clean. The stench of booze and sweat hung in the air, like the morning after an all-night kegger. The toilets, with their complicated multi-pumps and twists, were the most confounding instruments on the entire boat.
We rowed to the shore and walked to the bus stop standing waiting with a few locals. Mid-June and late afternoon, the heat and humidity blanketed the island like hot soup and I felt like a soggy crouton. We stopped at the bodega where we purchased supplies enough for a week and I got more lessons on eating healthy. The conditions inside froze the sweat on my skin and numbed the ends of my fingers and toes. My sandals—hand-me-downs from a relative and far too small—rubbed patches of my feet raw and made them ache with pain. After sprinting to three connections through three different airports—what must of have been the cheapest airfare in history—I was tired and ready to put on a bikini, relax, and for alcohol to be delivered to me while floating in a tube on the ocean.
We caught a taxi back and Dan asked if Chuck, the driver, could give us a tour around the city before returning.
Drinking laws are far more liberal in the islands—no open container laws—and Chuck started Happy Hour early. Dan and I figured this out ten minutes into our tour when, while driving, Chuck shoved a brown-bagged forty-ouncer into our faces while expertly navigating the wheel with the other hand asking if we wanted a drink. Shortly after, he stopped at a small bodega, leaving the car running, to get more beer because, as he gleefully put it, “I don’t wanna run out while driving.”
I looked at Dan: “Well, this should be interesting,” I deadpanned amused while Dan tittered awkwardly.
The shade of brew was faint; not a strong beer at all; probably weak and cheap. He’d only just begun to drink and mentioned that he was going home after dropping us off so I doubted we or others were in any real danger. No more than usual. Having been in the islands several times before, the taxi drivers I had were fun and fearless and fucked with everyone like every taxi driver ever. Chuck was no different. He swerved in and out of traffic coming to an unexpected halt several times to avoid hitting the occasional person or animal rolling at a leisurely fuck-you-type pace across the road; he took the sharp island curves dangerously skirting the edges laughing while turning around to tell us amusingly far-fetched stories, like the time he went over the hill and dodged a house only to come out onto the road below arriving fifteen minutes early to his destination—color me skeptical; he purposely hit potholes so he could realign his car, he said; and he waved and yelled out the window to every other person he passed and had a witty anecdote on each that made us laugh.
Dan and I slid back and forth across the backseat like a bag of dirty laundry. He was wide-eyed and wary and I could feel his butt cheeks gripping the seat like a vice. I enjoyed the ride occasionally letting out a happy sigh and chuckle at his anxiety. “Unclench,” I told him and laughed. His only response was a quick nod and that fake smile.
“Are you two married?” Chuck asked.
“No,” simultaneously and without hesitation.
“Is she your woman?” Chuck asked smiling into the rearview mirror.
I arched an offended brow and before I could say anything, the dip in the road launched us into the car’s ceiling temporarily knocking the cheeky comment I had out of me leaving it in the dent on the roof of the car.
“Nothing like a headboard, huh?” Dan asked with a tight smile while rubbing his head.
I turned towards the window focusing on the Charlotte Amalie scenery, closing off the talk and giving myself over to the island and its experience. Not long after, we rolled up to three goddesses in long dresses immortalized in bronze carrying various accoutrements: flaming torches, lanterns… and a knife.
I liked them already.
Chuck slowed to a crawl then stopped. “These are our three rebel queens,” he said. The tranquility of his voice bespoke of an earnest reverence missing prior and a call to attention I didn’t expect. I looked at his face as he gazed out the window at them. “Mary, Agnes, and Mathilda were leaders of the 1878 rebellion Fireburn. Thirty years after emancipation, slave-like conditions continued so they rebelled. Over two weeks, they burned half the city and destroyed over a thousand acres. Hundreds were killed.”
I felt the fire, thick and hot with rage, as it burned through their veins. I tasted the poverty of hope as they swallowed the ash of their spoils. I smelled the naked iron of their blood as it soaked freely into the earth. I saw the flashing of light reflected in their eyes from a dying torch.
“There is no freedom without violence,” I mumbled looking back over the women with awe.
“Who said that?” Dan asked.
I intuited his skepticism and the subtle scorn of his question. “Every marginalized person ever,” I replied meeting Chuck’s eyes in the rearview before looking back at the fountain as we slowly drove away.
After the tour, Chuck dropped us off at the beach. They bartered incoherently over money while I walked towards the skiff. When they were finished, I turned and smiled waving goodbye.
“Bon voyage,” he returned happily, his open hand becoming a raised fist.
On the boat, we changed into our suits and Dan made us icy coconut-banana coladas. He talked while we sat in tubes on the ocean and the sun kissed the water sending the island and sea into an array of vivid colors. I reminded myself to be congenial, especially when the topic of conversation turned to health food and exercise for the umpteenth time. When I started to make a comment or an observation, he interrupted me—“Well, actually…”. I didn’t have nor did I want to extend the emotional energy for the outrage to scold him and the subsequent ad nauseum lectures I’d receive in return. I was tired. The last several years had drained me.
Instead: “Well, at least your healthy diet includes fruit in your alcohol,” I told him while sucking the last of my drink through a straw loudly and obnoxiously.
The stillness was broken occasionally by the booming big jets that landed and took off on the strip next to the Bay; so close we could smell the jet fumes and see the people through the cabin windows. The last flight of the day landed at dusk. Afterward, all was peaceful.
On the stern of the boat, in the open, under the cover of darkness, I bathed, lathered and sprayed my body with tepid fresh water while Dan occupied himself elsewhere, supposedly. After I finished, I leaned back on the steps, naked, arms splayed, staring at the stars as the wind caressed my wet body. Naked women are meant to feel vulnerable; I refused to do so. Goosebumps came then went. Liberated with a heady feeling of empowerment, I sat on the steps that way for a long uneven beat before pulling shorts and a tank that read ‘Fuck Colonialism’ over my still damp skin.
Dan gave me a clean comfy sleeping bag after a silent not-so-subtle unapproving glance over my shirt. I slept on one side of the safety net, he slept on the other. The stars were bright white against the black sky in cloudy clusters of ivory. Dan pointed out the satellites that skipped across the exosphere. The gentle rocking of the boat made falling asleep easy. I slept soundly till the misty fog of dawn nudged me awake.
We ate breakfast: oatmeal and fresh papaya then headed out to sea. He used the motor until we got far enough out then lifted the sails. Everything was automatic. There was nothing manual besides pushing some buttons. I made a mental note of it all, but still wished I knew how to sail.
I lied in our messages. I told him I sailed before. I never sailed. I was on the ocean briefly once in a motorboat, but hadn’t been since. It summoned me, the ocean. The rocking of the boat over the waves, the endless expanse of water, the peace and solitude, the brisk wind and the slap of sails—I craved it like air, like a drug. This was love, an infatuation, and like nothing I’d ever felt before. I’d heard of hermits removed from society in the wilds of woods contemplating the philosophical conundrums of life and nature; what of the ones sailing the ocean? I wanted to read their stories. I wanted to be one.
Which brings me to the present and the uninvited groping of my body. The massage is nice. He mentioned that he was a certified masseuse over the phone. Placing his hands on my body though, no matter how good it felt, sparked a deep-seated rage; one born long ago and built with the fire stoked by hegemony and arrogance by others like him. I recall a line from one of my favorite sci-fi characters: never without permission.
Dan gives me another questioning look and that contrived smile before going to the stern of the boat where he sets up a fishing rod. I continue driving. The wind gusts heavier and the boat dips deeper into the waves, ascending and descending in a ruminative ritual that sets my mind at ease. The sun still beats strong bouncing off the water like silver flares.
A few minutes later, he reappears next to me: “Sunscreen?”
I side-eye him, nodding hesitantly, keeping my eyes on the horizon: “Okay.”
He slides in behind me again and starts to rub the coconut smelling lotion into my skin softly in a circular motion from my neck down my back, like he’s waxing a car only gentler and more methodical. Dark thoughts tickle my even darker humor: It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.
I chuckle low, under my breath.
He moves to the side: “Why the sneaky smile?”
I look directly at him, not answering, giving him my darkest grin and say nothing.
I turn my attention back towards the skyline purposely forgetting about him. He slithers away again, this time for an hour and I’m thankful for the reprieve from that tedious smile and exhausting temperament. I’m listening to the wind and water, my mind blank, when he returns. He’s wearing a rice paddy hat and a grim look.
“Scoot,” he says pushing me out of the way roughly with his body, jerking the wheel out of my hands, pulling it forcibly left: “Keep it here till you’re pointing east and hold.”
The sail slackens then stiffens with the wind as we turn. The waves pitch us high and low and Captain Dan grabs his fishing pole and starts reeling and walking towards the bow. The boat continues to rock dramatically and I imagine him flying into the air and sea in a climactic arc, flailing and flopping like a fish. Alas, he remains, knees bent, balance semi-flawless, fighting the creature—perhaps a kaiju from the dark depths making its way slowly towards us—at the other end of his pole for its freedom. I wonder: maybe Dan didn’t catch it, maybe it caught us? I envision it large and snake-like emerging, towering over him and chomping down on his slender form severing him at the waist. His torso-less body stands for the barest of waves till the surge and pull fells his toned limbs, pitching them to the white glossy floor of the boat. Blood seeps and baths the deck while the twitch and quiver of toes and limbs bemoan its tiptop loss. The smell of iron, hot like breath, hangs in the air eventually snatched away by the wind as I look on with a small satisfied smirk.
Dan moves back towards the stern as the disappointing looking kaiju flops into the boat at his feet. It’s a… fish with big whiskers and slimy scales and skin and much smaller than my imagination painted it. He yells at me over the roar of the wind and waves to turn the boat westerly again. I do and the ocean calms. He untangles the fish from the line and throws it back into the sea. Returning to the seat next to me, I smell the salt on his skin mingled with the coconut sunscreen and the faint smell of fish.
“That was fun,” I say grinning widely.
Our first stop is Culebrita where we anchor in the bay and fifteen minutes later, row to the shore for a hike to the lighthouse. I have a black long-sleeved rashguard and shorts over my bikini and a black baseball cap with my shoulder-length hair in pigtails. The heat is high and the breeze flat as we climb the mountain inland. He complains that I’m too slow. “I thought you were athletic?” He asks with a sardonic smile.
Panting, I give him a long dead leer and wonder if this is what Cheryl Strayed would’ve felt like if she’d been accompanied by a man on the Pacific Coast Trail. “Why don’t you go ahead and I’ll catch up,” I tell him in between breaths and hard glares.
He laughs derisively at me shaking his head and continues onward. I finally arrive at the lighthouse and spend a minute in the cool shadow of the ruins catching my breath and contemplating his death. Overheated, heart pounding, I stopped sweating some time back. The only thing Dan can do is continue mocking my inability to run up a mountain. I ignore him walking through the rubble, up the crumbling steps of the lighthouse. Large chunks of rock have given way to time and neglect. The iron ladder to the top is rusted but strong enough for weight and I follow Dan deep into the cobalt blue sky and the harsh high winds.
There are no large walkways and observation decks with safety glass around the top, but barely space for the both of us to perch and slide on our butts. With our feet dangling over the edge, a 20 to 30-meter drop to the rocks below, I lean over and stare down as the wind pushes me forward. I feel the tingles of height in my knees and hear the howl of wind in my ears. I pull out my phone and take the requisite photos as Dan, finally silent behind me, admires the view. His silence doesn’t last long. I stare at him while he talks: a bobblehead of blahs. Fortunately, the wind blunts his voice and I hear nothing but the Earth and her movements giving myself over to it; my favorite kind of mute button—the white noise of nature—for all men or overly talkative, energetic smiley people.
He starts back down. I tell him to give me ten more minutes. He grumbles and disappears down the ladder. I stay and stare at the turquoise blue sea and bay now dotted with more boats and the lush green island crawling with specks of peoples until his head pops out a side window below me and, smiling impatiently, he asks: “Are you coming?”
The foot traffic on the path has picked up considerably—six or seven people whereas before there were only two—and I find myself dragging behind again purposely. He falls back and tells me we’re going to explore the other side of the small island where the hot springs are.
The idea of dipping my overheated body into hot springs makes me nauseous. The blisters on my feet sting with salt and sweat and all I wanna do is sit in the shade and read while the ocean breeze cools my flushed body.
The walk across is rocky and slippery till we arrive at an ascending grassy knoll. We pass the springs and I dismiss it not the least bit interested. I’d hiked the most difficult parts of the Appalachian Trail many times, but not in ninety-eight plus degree heat with my feet covered in blisters while the feels of a heat stroke linger. I keep drinking water, but it doesn’t seem to help. I slow down again purposely not wanting to be the recipient of Dan’s derisive one-liners about the inadequacy of my athleticism. Regardless, I’m an introvert and prefer a solitary leisurely pace of exploration and not constantly confronting the jabber-happy mutating mouthy male that I found regularly in my presence.
Arriving at the top of the lush green slope and corner of the world, I sit perched cross-legged on the very edge of the cliffs that descend into rocks and ocean below; another large drop. The ocean beats the bluff and sprays explode violently in the air beneath me.
“Are you sitting? Again?” He demands laughing at me. “You are so out of shape.”
I glance up at him as he stands over me. Then, peering back out over the edge, I wonder what his body would look like falling and shattering off the stones below like a porcelain doll. How his blood would darken the rocks and water and the gray matter of his brain would roll into the sea like small wet sponges disappearing into the foamy bursts. I look back up at him and smile. One little push and trip…
“There’s that smile. You know, smiling makes you look friendlier and more attractive and a lot more approachable.” He turns and departs. I wait ten minutes and head back to the beach and the skiff.
I spend the rest of the day replenishing my fluids and electrolytes with grape sports drinks, eating a lite lunch of avocado egg salad wraps, and reading and napping in the shadows of the bow of the boat. At one point, Dan brings out his guitar and plays passable country music next to me. I hold back an irritated sigh attempting to focus on my book and the words. Upon realizing that he will not receive my fawning admiration of his amateur musical skills, he disappears back into the boat. I put my book aside and fall into a deep magnificent nap that lasts till dinner. By this time, the many boats that arrived during the day have departed leaving only three remaining, including us.
Nearby, a sailboat full of young people—not by much—rock late into the night to overly loud classic, heavy metal and eighties rock. I don’t mind. I like it. Across the small bay, the music floats towards us, not intrusively, but nostalgically, soothingly. I fall asleep to Monkey Business by Skid Row and dreams of sitting behind the wheel, sailing the ocean, solitary and content. To me it’s just monkey business.
The next day, during the drive to another island, he asks me about my story and I tell him: “I put a guy through college and medical school; divorced him cuz I wasn’t in love with him anymore and I grew to realize he was the basic kinda dick; got nothing out of it except a whole lot of debt and the realization that marriage wasn’t for me; dropped out of college cuz I could no longer afford it or the future loans that accompanied it; took an unending line of dead-end unappealing administrative jobs where I was routinely sexually harassed by corporate cons in suits and a few scientists too; multiple layoffs and terminations through the dot com, telecom, real estate busts and 9/11; decided to go for my dream of owning a small business and was unsuccessful because our system purposely and frequently fails women artists like myself; filed for bankruptcy; was evicted; gave away ninety percent of my belongings to two Nigerian engineering students who had more optimism and patriotism for this country as immigrants than I ever had as a natural born citizen.; moved back home to mom and gramma and the remainder of my bigoted family; Gramma then had a stroke and I stuck around to help mom take care of her cuz no one else in our family would; after two years, she died on home hospice; and after all that, I seriously needed a vacay. Bad choices or circumstances or a lot of both?” I shrug. “I’ve since spent another year there. I can’t find a job and I can’t leave. I’ve discovered that ageism comes early for women.” I pause taking a breath. “On the plus side, I am writing and reading more.”
He sits reticent, steering the boat, occasionally glancing at me, his eyebrows and forehead in various states of bewilderment. His continued silence relaxes me. It’s a comfortable silence, for me; he, however, seems flustered and fidgety, like sharing my story has made him increasingly uncomfortable. My sad narrative—not nearly as sad as lots of others; a narrative that starts at twenty and doesn’t even consist of my Dickensian-like childhood—has punctured his privileged bubble and I’ve finally rendered him mute.
This pleases me.
Had he heard my childhood tales of woe, he, most likely, would’ve suffered a crushing catatonic connection with reality.
A woman can hope. A hope that is short lived because, as usual, that silence doesn’t last long: “Sounds like you should’ve stayed married,” he says and with it that smile. Always that smile.
We park off Vieques in a dead-end part of the island where we row to the shore and hike through the thin thicket looking for coconuts. When we come across caution signs posted by the United States government and Navy, Dan tells me a cold abridged history of the island and the decades of U.S. expropriation and subsequent military exercises. This explains the destruction: the sweeping swaths of uprooted dead trees merged with overgrown and vegetative new growth, the pockmarked terrain beaten with bombs, dark tangled bushes with deep shadows, and huge mounds of dirt of which he informs me are termite dens; the atrocities not yet finished as the poisons leach into the ocean, the land, and the beings both on and surrounding it.
This was a battleground; a battleground between nature and—as bell hooks would say—the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy; a violence against the environment and the Viequenses and the sad evidence lay all around me.
“What of the people? Are they okay? What are their stories? And the consequences…of all this?” I ask waving a hand around me.
Dismissive, he shrugs: “They’re still around,” and he wanders off.
My lip twists and I rein in my rage. “We’re not just gonna take coconuts and leave, are we? Shouldn’t we go into town and spend money?” I stand there waiting for a reply: nada. He’s sauntered off out of range, supposedly.
Try as I might, I struggle to put a human face on him, but I can’t seem to locate it amongst the posture of all that white male. Is that my failing or his? I can’t decide. Do I even care? When he showed me a photo of his twenty-some year old daughter—the white blonde hair, excessively tanned, and heavily made-up from her black laden mascara-tipped eyelashes to her round fish-pouting lips—he remarked about how her new boyfriend was just like him and he didn’t know whether to be concerned or proud. I tried even then to find form amongst the facade. I decided I didn’t care and silently wished his daughter the intelligence and grace to know the difference and the freedom and courage to alter her circumstances. Yet, here I am revisiting those same questions and returning with the same answers: I don’t really care.
Leisurely swims, snorkeling, reading, and silence summarize the day. While snorkeling through the blue, I observe the bleached reefs and the leftover dead ordnance covered in diseased coral parked at the bottom of the sea and the creatures adapting to the blight around them. There’s no people or boats around. All is quiet. We float alone with only the aberrant sea creatures.
Dinner is gumbo, white wine and country music while the sun sets in a brilliant display of reds, blues and yellows and cordial philosophical discussions about beliefs, sex…and god.
“I’m an atheist,” I tell him, refilling my glass with water instead of wine, looking out over the ocean. “To be specific, a secular-humanist atheist. You know, the co-exist kind? And which god? There are many. All those American gods are nothing if not fascinating.”
His crinkled forehead and long silent incredulous look hangs in the air between us and I wonder if he’s ever read a book not assigned or paid someone else to read.
“He probably doesn’t believe in you either. How can you look at this and think there’s no creator?” He asks pantomiming to that around us.
I breathe an unsurprising sigh at this tiresome blunt tool and decide to yank on his chain some more to see which way he topples. “He doesn’t, does he? What a fickle bitch he is.”
He looks confused: “Huh?”
I unconsciously laugh and roll with it: “How can you look at all this and think there is? The magic is the science behind it.”
“Where do…where do you get your morals from?” His mouth and eyes are cavernous with astonishment at this point.
“Does religion hold the monopoly on morality?” I pause canting my head in supposed thought. “Isn’t compassion the basis for morality?”
He sputters. I’ve confounded him. What a shock.
“I’ve never met any female like you.”
I look out over the water and sigh more so from the view than his sudden realization: “Yes, that’s obvious. Labeling me female kinda gives it away.”
“You’ve heard this before?” He asks as though this should concern me as if I’m at fault; that I have some kind of defect he is preparing to diagnose and confront me with.
“I guess you don’t believe in free will either?” His lip curls and it’s as though he believes he stumbled onto some magical path that will lead me forward to his truth instead of my obviously deluded one.
He snorts as if he’s sealed his point and I’m reminded of a pot-bellied pig. I’ve superimposed his face onto it as it snorts continuously around the boat before I recall that he’s waiting on my reply.
“The complexities of circumstance, of biology, of socio-economics, of class, of anything political, the laws of physics, of choice, far outweigh that of whether or not we have the agency to make our own path.”
“You chose to come here?” His incredulity is as tedious as his fake smiles.
“Would you really like to go over the choices that put me here?” I ask this sardonically disguising my annoyance into a bland baritone. “You know, whenever someone goes on and on vehemently about free will and how we make our own choices and blah fucking blah, it’s consistently a white man spewing it. My choice would be to have my own boat and not need you or anyone like you having to pay my way or invite me here.”
“What do you mean anyone like me?”
“Do you invite women here, get them out in the middle of the ocean, and what, Captain Dan?” I say his moniker flippantly. “I mean really, how many women feel obligated to give you whatever you want while stuck out here? Do you think you’re entitled to their bodies because you gave them this glorious opportunity?”
He says nothing.
“As I thought.”
He starts to reply, I stop him. “Do you want platitudes or honesty?”
“Do you believe in anything?”
I mimic deep thought not surprised by his change in subject: “Yes.” I don’t bother telling him what.
He throws me a wide flirty smile. “They say this part of the island is haunted.”
More deflection. “Fascinating.”
“How come you don’t have a man?” He jabs and the barbs fail to hit, falling flat at my feet and my continued laughter.
“How come you don’t have one? I suspect, like me, you don’t need a man or any person to validate your worth?” Before he automatically asserts his masculinity and heterosexuality, I note the pale line on his ring finger and purposely glance at it. “Or perhaps you do?” I take a drink from my glass moving on: “Maybe I don’t like men? Or maybe I like both men and women and don’t wish to be anchored to only one? Or maybe I’m asexual?”
“I’m not sure we’d work well together. For future trips. Nothing personal.” He says this smiling, reverting back to his mellow mask, continuing to try and exercise what, if any, kind of power he thinks he has over me.
“No, we wouldn’t.”
He changes the subject: “Dessert?”
After dinner, I bathe then research the island and its history on my phone, which has me flustered and all kinds of vexed. I feign fatigue and escape into my sleeping bag not long after imagining the horrors of yet another American sin.
I poke him awake around one. He rouses immediately wide-eyed and ready. “What?”
“There’s someone in the woods on the shore. I hear them calling out. They need help.”
“What? You’re kidding me, right?”
“No. It sounds like a child.”
His body tenses and he slowly and carefully rises: “Stay here.”
I scoff: “No. I’m going. Give me a weapon.”
“I don’t have weapons here.”
My eyebrows go high: “A republican that doesn’t own weapons?” I ask unconvinced.
“How did you know I was a republican?”
I stare at him: “Are you serious?”
He pulls on his sandals giving me a short look: “Yes?”
“You’d better give back your republican man card,” I mock while looking around for something I can use as a weapon. I find a long-handled flashlight heavy enough to bludgeon a boar and wonder at the oddity of such an instrument on a boat. “This is supposed to be one of those times where you pull out a gun and gleefully rub my face in those second amendment rights you think people like me want to discard so casually. I’m really disappointed.” And truly, I am. “All us libruls depend on people like you, dude. You’re supposed to run towards danger, not away from it, especially to save a child. Have the courage of a woman, man.” I scoff shaking my head in disgust.
He frowns at me saying nothing.
The sound comes again from the shore. A long whiny cry. It’s disturbing. The high pitched noise against the stillness of the night sends a creepy crawl down my spine and I give an unconscious shudder. We stop and listen, both looking towards the island.
“Let’s go,” I say.
He hesitates: “Maybe it’s an animal?”
“Maybe, but wouldn’t you want to be sure?” I start towards the skiff without waiting for his answer and he follows.
The cry happens twice more as we roll to the shore directly towards it. The moon, high, peeks through the sparsely crooked trees casting twisted shadows along the ground. There are very few sounds besides intermittent insect calls and the rolling sighs of the ocean.
It happens after five minutes of walking. The rumble, the earth moving beneath our feet, the slight blurring of moonglow into a shade of red, turning shadows into blood and the burning of whispers around the edges. The edges of what, I couldn’t say. Whispers from who, I dunno. The whistle of wind and something sinister flying overhead and I see the bright red cracks spreading, like a web, around us, closing in. Are they cracks in the universe? Or are they entries from somewhere else?
Dan and I look at each other. He closes his eyes and shakes his head as if attempting to clear a mind clouded by sleep. His eyes reopen and I can see the fear and uncertainty on his face and it lights a spark deep inside me. I walk towards the nearest crack.
“Wait!” He yells. His hand reaches towards me.
I look back over my shoulder and give him a dark grin. I punch through the crack and the world shatters around me sending remnants of the island falling to my feet into blackness. A woman emerges from the inky void. She stops and stares. Wrinkled and wise with age, her unsmiling face and root brown eyes find mine as she comes to stand before me.
“Hola.” Her voice, raw from the past, is low and gentle.
“Hola,” I say. “Dónde estoy?”
Neither here nor there but everywhere. Her mind penetrates mine.
She touches my face gently with her finger and a rush of energy and a charge of awareness goes through me. I give her a small nod of understanding. The battlefield.
Yes, yes. War rages. What have you brought us? She asks nodding to Dan cowering in the darkness behind me.
A pawn, General. It’s not what you deserve. I’m sorry it couldn’t be more.
She looks Dan over and shrugs. Single acts of redemption and reparation rarely are. Collectively they thrive. Systemically they soar. Another pause and shrug. He’s just another white man. What am I supposed to do with him? I don’t want him. You white girls throw us your trash and ask us to clean up after you. No, ain’t happening. You’re no better than the U.S. Navy dropping their bombs then leaving your waste behind.
I say nothing. I listen.
She rolls her eyes and walks to Dan. Holding out her hand, he takes it hesitantly then shudders in pain. His veins turn a bright neon blue; hers flood scarlet. As I watch closely, a hum surrounds them. She releases Dan’s hand and it falls limply to his side. His face vacant with shock. She walks back to me.
I don’t want him. There’s little there.
I didn’t think there was and didn’t think she would, but here I am offering. What to do? I lower my eyes hanging my head in remorse. No. I’m sorry. So very sorry. I carry the shame of my country and bear the burden of its sins. I hope this gift begins to heal you, your people and lands that we destroyed. I’m sorry.
The General laughs sarcastically. You bear no burden, white girl, and stop making this about you.
I realize my ignorance and failure of words and forge ahead. What can I do for you?
She rolls her eyes. Teach me, teach me, she mocks. We work together or we fall separately and we know who falls the farthest and hardest between us, don’t we?
Yes, we do. I’ll try and do my best, I reply.
Do or do not, there is no try.
I frown in confusion… and admiration. Are you quoting Yoda?
She tilts her head and gives me a long stare. She takes my hand in hers. Her grip gentle, her skin soft and papery. I feel another rush and the surge staggers me. I plant my feet for balance. Our veins glow bright red and the light soars through my body.
We look over to a still stunned Dan. What do I do with him?
Give him to the island. The bugs are hungry.
I chuckle. Yes, General. Thank you. Until next time.
Whatever. Go away. A grin tugs at my lips as she turns and disappears into the black as the island returns like a slow-moving living painting around us.
Dan spats and sputters his way out of shock. Confusion and a dullness lurk in his eyes and face that wasn’t as prominent prior. “What…”
And before he can finish, I strike him across the temple with the heavy flashlight and kick him into the enormous den of termites behind him. The bugs cover him immediately. Thanks to the new conditions, courtesy of the United States government, they’ve mutated and have taken a liking to certain types of white meat. His body is consumed quickly. His screams shrill, but easily overtaken with the chi-chi-chi from the bugs as they grow louder and louder devouring the meat from his body. They start on his bones next.
I turn and go back to the shore and skiff, back to the boat. As I roll up to it, the dull tired sexist name written across the bow that I never gave time and rage to disappears and a new name scrawls in large loops and perfect penmanship: Una Bruja Blanca. The colors turn and the boat alters. I walk through the cabin. All existence of him has been wiped. Except his voice. His voice remains. I hear it echo through the cabin. It pulls at me. I put my hands on my hips and release a long salty sigh. I resist the pull as long as I can, but the murky haze of morning tugs at me. His hand on my arm, Dan materializes in front of me.
“Sleepwalking is dangerous on a boat.” He looks me over. “You okay?”
I shake off his arm and the confusion and look around noting the return of the previously tired world. “White guilt, white feminism, female rage, misandry… murder,” I mutter under my breath as the conflicting emotions befuddle and irk me. Am I more aggravated with myself or him? Or the fact that it wasn’t real? Was it?
His eyebrows go high: “What?”
“You talk in your sleep.”
“What did I say?”
“You laughed. Maniacally. It was kind of… creepy.”
Overcast, the sky sits stagnate. I relax on deck listening to music while Dan does his ten-mile swim. After oatmeal and pineapple, we start towards Puerto Rico. The sky clears along the way as we dodge ocean fishing nets tied to plastic jugs that bobb in the ocean like trash. After the lesson—that feels more like a lecture—in how those nets can do many thousands of dollars worth of damage to a boat like his, we say very little. Noticeably more silent today than in the last few, he seems rather reserved and more coy than previously.
We arrive at Palmas del Mar. Dan parks in his designated slip close to the front. I volunteer to help him clean; he declines. I sprawl across the top behind the wheel listening to an eighties playlist on Spotify that has me singing and dancing unconcerned with everything else. An attendant, Carlos, comes by to help Dan refuel gas and refill fresh water. On introduction, Carlos’ smile is wide and amiable, his eyes small and his head rather large for his small body. I return his smile, say hello and go back to my music replacing my earbuds watching as they walk off gossiping and laughing like little boys, occasionally looking back over their shoulder at me.
Shortly after lunch, I grab my Kindle and go for a walk while Dan continues to clean. The heat of June festers, leaving boats moored and their rich owners off to cooler temps; the rest of the marina devoid of life. The empty three-story clubhouse sits abandoned and unfinished. The area surrounding the oddly shaped pool and jacuzzi unoccupied; lounge chairs arranged neatly around, new and unused. I choose one and slide it across the pavement into the shade. The grating noise rebounds off the building behind me and towards the rumble of the ocean in front of me stopping the sound like a wall. I turn on my Kindle and slide back into my book, which holds my attention for several hours before I start drifting. I linger in and out of sleep in a long lazy nap deep into the afternoon. I wake as Dan walks through the gate and makes his way to the jacuzzi.
“I have alcohol. Come on,” he says taking off his shirt, slipping into the hot tub after turning it on.
I walk over and drop in cautiously opposite him after removing my outer clothes. The temperature has cooled as the clouds cover the sun. He hands me a beer. On an empty stomach, the alcohol slides through my system far too easily leaving me with a slight buzz.
“What’s with the rash?” I watch him scratch his arm, his chest, his neck.
“I dunno. I started itching this morning.”
“Must be all that unhealthy hedonistic living you subject that body too.”
“Why don’t you retire and do this full time?” I ask him.
He shrugs. “If I got charters all the time, I would.” He doesn’t meet my eyes and I have a feeling there’s more to it that he doesn’t wanna talk about. “Come here and look at this.” He motions me toward him.
I drop my guard and wade into infested waters without thinking. He puts his drink down and pushes his hands under the water towards me. I automatically tense.
“What’re you doing?”
“Here. I want you to feel something.” He pulls up my leg slightly and pushes me towards a pulsating jet.
I spit out my beer. “Are you serious?” I ask moving opposite him incredulous at his gall.
Smiling and laughing, he shrugs looking out towards the ocean. “I thought it would lighten you up.” He takes another drink. “You know, you don’t seem very nice, friendly.”
I give a small laugh flashing on the many times I’d been told this by men I questioned or whose egos I’d bruised when I didn’t worship them on their self-made pedestals. “Really? What makes you say that? Because I wouldn’t let you kiss me or have your way with me? Or that I don’t respond positively to all of your kind comments?” I pause and wait for his answer. He says nothing. “For your information, I love casual sex and masturbate quite regularly. I wasn’t in the mood especially after the uninvited groping of my body. That was a huge turnoff. That really didn’t do it for me.” I hesitate only briefly before saying how I really feel. “To be quite honest, I’m not really attracted to you.”
His lips thin, his smile takes on a more noxious curl. Nothing scary. Nothing I couldn’t handle. I’ve wounded him, again. He’ll retaliate, like they all do. “Carlos said you didn’t smile much and you weren’t very friendly.”
I laugh outright. So much for retaliation. “Really?” I feign hurt sticking out my lower lip.
His smile is the unfriendly kind: the tight teeth-baring bitterness of a bruised ego curled in the toxicity of most things male.
We pass the rest of time in the jacuzzi in silence.
That night, we walk over to the small market place to get some fresh seafood. Dinner is mahi mahi on a spinach rice pilaf, a glass of white wine and desert is coconut ice cream with a pineapple topping. Conversation is casual; nothing serious and nothing personal; cordial, but distant.
In the middle of the night, he touches my shoulder pulling me from hypnagogia. I feel fat cool drops on my face.
“It’s raining. Time to go inside.”
He helps me up pushing me towards my cabin. I stumble forward and fall onto the bed back in between the realm of sleep and wake. I roll to my side and he moves in behind me as I try and make myself alert. His warm body lays up against mine. His hand slides up my side and rests on my hip. Numb, clouded in sleep, I ignore him hoping he’ll go away. Drifting back into sleep, I feel him rise and leave.
The next day, he locks up his boat, rents a car and we drive into San Juan. The city is hot and crowded and I’m not in the mood. On another day with other company, yes, but not today. My feet ache. Blisters pop and sting. I feel them ooze, rubbed raw with every sweaty move. I’m hungry and grumpy and ready to leave. He tries to placate me; it only makes me more cross; he more nervous. We head to the airport. He will fly back to Florida; I, to Charlotte. I stand in line for pizza; he tells me he’s bought me a sub dangling it in front of me.
“A sub is healthier. Less fattening,” he says sliding his eyes down my body.
The woman standing in line in front of me glares at him over her shoulder.
“Then you eat it,” I snap. “If I wanna get fat eating fucking pizza, I’ll get fat eating fucking pizza.”
He laughs. He actually laughs. “I can’t eat two subs. Come on, it’ll save you money.”
I sigh and take the sub forgetting the pizza, putting my last five dollars away. We eat and watch the World Cup—France and the US tie at one all—waiting for our flight saying very little to each other, but enthusiastically cheering along with the large crowd.
When we board, I say a silent prayer of thanks to all us lovely fat goddesses that my seat is separated from his. He’s in the exit aisle to accommodate his long legs; I’m a couple rows back.
I watch impassively as he flirts with the flight attendant. She smiles and talks politely, almost nervously, uncomfortably. She glances back at me repeatedly. It’s then I realize that she saw us board together and thinks we’re a couple. Ten minutes into the flight, she taps on my shoulder: “You can come sit beside your boyfriend if you’d like.”
My attempt in giving her a warm friendly smile falls flat: “He’s not my boyfriend,” I say, but she’s already walking up the aisle motioning me to follow.
I sigh; a long tired one. I don’t wanna yell through the cabin at her as people are already staring. I get up and follow. Before I sit down, I start to tell her again that he’s not my boyfriend, but she’s gone. I climb into the seat next to him. He smiles at me: “Can’t get rid of me, can ya?”
Expressionless, I stare at him. I imagine him being sucked out the exit door as I—strapped in my seat and safe—stare at his body as he twists and tumbles in the wind; his high-pitched squeal making me laugh; his body splats into the Earth like a big fat loogy.
“Where does that smile live?” He asks.
“In a world without men.”
Our plane lands late in Miami. My connection gate is on the opposite side of the airport. We run. My feet throb.
“I’m gonna miss my flight,” I say breathlessly, aggravated as hell.
We arrive at the gate. The flight has only now begun to board.
“This is where we part,” he says reaching to hug me.
I put a hand on his chest stopping him, stepping backward: “Thank you. Goodbye.”
He ignores me and pulls me into a hug: “At least take this,” he says pushing money into my pocket. “And you’ve convinced me to put a gun on the boat. Thanks.”
I stand staring after him at the gate, speechless, as he turns and walks away.
I board my flight back home, back to my tedious unadorned life and never hear from him again.
© 2018 Pamela Gay Mullins