You lived in that area. An area tucked away from the world, yet simultaneously at the centre of it all. A paradox embedded deep in the foot of the mountains, covered by lush trees hiding the decaying zinc roofs and village of disassembled shacks. At first sign of this aesthetic chaos, I would tap my foot on the gas. My face shifted to the east to the rising sun, and to the west to watch it fade behind the harbour on my home. The community was a world I omitted from my orbit.
Every workday I drove by as quickly as legally possible, following my father’s advice: avoid that area. Maybe if I had slowed down I would have seen you, but we were never meant to meet that way; meeting that way would reveal too much of ourselves and where we came from. Though you were just a tap and zip code away our worlds ran parallel until they were perpendicular.
At Scottie’s the music blasted and the bass was hypnotic. Bodies bounced to the rhythm of the beat, and the bartender eyed me quizzically as I dodged various flirtatious men. I’m not their type of woman. I’m not the type of woman for most people. I check my phone and the data finally syncs. I was waiting for responses from friends I was supposed to meet there. No one was coming. My eyes blinked repeatedly trying to unsee. In vain, I sent the polite pleasantries, the: are you coming, are you okay? The icons flashed that the messages were received, read, but no reply. I take a screenshot with timestamp to remind myself why I don’t do this. I sat lopsided on the small stool, twirling a drink in my hand, trying to force a smile. I could feel the makeup cracking, the fault lines showing on my sweating skin.
We were never supposed to meet, but when falling sparks and gunpowder filled the air you ran in my direction thinking the fireworks were gunshots., and in my drunken daze I didn’t see you coming, just the burst of colours fading behind me. And then you soaked me with your rum and coke. The contents flowed all over my white dress. And it had been years since I had worn a dress. You grabbed me by the hands and tried to clean me like a child. In front of a crowd of people, you were tender even then. I noticed that first, and then your eyes. Cat eyes that melted into butter-like skin. Makeup that didn’t show lines or creases.
“Sorry my girl,” your voice was sharp and smooth with a lilt around the edges. My girl. Yet we were strangers.
“Is alright,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. I realised I was still holding your hand, and later I couldn’t recall letting you go, only watching you disappear into the crowd.
The day faded away and I walked over to the bobo dread selling herb and decided I needed a spliff to make up for feeling so alone. It was a holiday, I needed something. I leaned back against the wall, and tilted my head against the crumbling paint, asking myself, why did I wear a dress?
I glanced across the tiny street and there you were again. Pink dress, pink hair, brown skin. You had a flair of confidence — that even from a distance felt cinematic. I watched you steal the glances of various men who walked past you, as you spoke to another man. He was older but wore the vestiges of his youth in his attire. I watched in a haze as the conversation soured, your voice rushing to a crescendo, your hands manic with movement. You were yelling something that I can’t remember now, except for the million curse words flying a minute. You yelled some more, stomped your heels into the ground as if to split the road into two. And then the silence came, and we both watched as he got in his car and drove away.
Your skin was toasted with rage as you walked by me. I flicked the last of the herb back into the soil and asked, “Everything alright?”
You stopped, a bit stunned, the tension in your face lessening. “No, the old john crow face man won’t leave me alone.” You paused and continued, “My girl, beg you a ride?”
I don’t know what convinced you I had a car, but your guess was right. We drove down the boulevard leaving behind the noise of the city. Your perfume filled the air as you adjusted your makeup in the mirror.
“Thanks my girl, the crosses man just won’t leave me alone. Dem man round here nuh easy at all.” I nodded in agreement, I had managed to get rid of most of the men in my life. Except for my boss.
“Keep going straight, and make a left at the breadfruit tree,” you said.
My heart sank as I bent the corner. You wanted me to make a left toward the area my father had always warned me about, the area I usually sped away from, the area we were now approaching. My heart beat faster at the realisation.
“Come again,” I asked.
You looked at me as if to read my mind, and said with a carefree smile and a shrug, “My girl, relax I live there. Everybody down there know me from a long time. Nuh worry yourself, place a fix and all.” Your smile was faint and my frown was firm.
“My girl, you want me to walk?”
“No, is alright. I just know the area have some problems,” I said, clearing my throat. We were both lying about the dangers ahead. “You live here for that long time?” I asked. The silence told me to ask no further questions, so the radio’s volume went up and I turned left where the asphalt turned to dirt.
I parked next to the gate, where the ‘driveway’ was, just a small, gravel path that led to your doorstep. From the lights, I could see that the house was tiny, like a little cottage in a children’s story. You gestured to me to wait, and then came running outside with a small purse.
“Gas money, everything gone up like kite,” you said with a chuckle.
I told you to keep the money, but you wouldn’t listen until I was practically pleading with you not to pay me. I saw your face switch to a frown in the dim light and watched your disappointment with a bit of guilt. Then a smile grew across your face. “You like mango?” you asked, and we both smiled.
I stepped inside, the aroma of the air filling my flared nostrils; it was a combination of mangoes, something floral like perfume, and a dash of myrrh. I walked through the house under the warm orange glow and watched as you threw your heels off your feet, and our heights equalised. You unclipped parts of your pink wig and reached for the zipper at the back of your dress.
“Can help?” you asked, and I reached to help you unzip. Tingles run through my body as I touch your skin.
“You like soursop tea or passion fruit?”
“Mostly just the fruits,” I said, and you laughed in return.
“I have a few of those, too.”
We finally unzipped the rest of your dress and the Pepto Bismol colour wig went flying across the room. You are not tidy and neither am I. At some point, I finally sat down on a chair and watched as your natural hair, with long curly locks, hung freely in the room. I glanced around at your small house and noticed a man in a grainy picture across the room. He was a soldier but not in our country’s army and clearly not from our country. You saw me staring.
“My father, he’s Korean, North Korean actually,” you said.
The resemblance was there: the square jaw, small frame, and eyes that gleamed perseverance. I hadn’t asked but I got the feeling you get asked this question frequently. Strangers interrogating your identity from your phenotype. You had to cut the presumption and be specific, a North Korean on this island is a rarity. Perhaps he was the first. A defector in a marketed paradise, who found love then lost it.
“How did he end up here?”
“I don’t really know. I never met him. My mom says he was working in a shop when they met, they had sex and he was with her for a time, then he left for the States. He wasn’t planning on being around for long and not even a family was going to slow him down. The man was on a mission.”
“Suh it go,” you said, shrugging your shoulders. You said it in a way that sounded rehearsed, or perhaps life had forced you to rehearse, because you had to answer for his absence. My eyes drifted to the other family photo. It’s you surrounded by two little boys and a girl. I pointed to them and noted to myself how young you were to be a mother of three. You looked at them, smiling as you poured over the cup of tea.
“Yes, those are my kids. Trey, Taj, and Kimmy, my little wash-belly. The older one is with his father and the two little ones with my mom.”
I nodded as you walked towards me with a tiny tray with a teacup and a saucer filled with cut mangoes, passionfruit, and soursop.
“The best midnight snack,” you said with a smile. “What about you, do you have any kids?”
“No, but I take care of all the stray cats in my community,” I said and we laughed.
You nodded again, “Yeah my kids, they are my life.” Your words left no doubt. I sat there with the tea cooling in my lap as the night-time deepened. I didn’t want to leave.
Weeks passed and I had grown to accept that our chance encounter was a one and done, and that I would never see you again. But one Friday I looked over at the entrance of Scottie’s — the doorway decorated with flowers and the bar’s name in neon lights for patrons to pose for selfies that advertised the establishment free of charge — and there you were. I had almost missed you in the long line. There you were in the gold tank top, the black shorts, and the platinum blonde hair that made you stand out in a crowd. I sat there unsure how to react from a distance — whether to wave or to smile. It felt daunting approaching the unapproachable. I slouched in my chair and tried to make myself smaller to blend in with the bar’s background.
Minutes went by and the crowd grew larger, you seemed to bring an audience with you, and the owner pulled you aside. I watch from a distance as you slip away into the back office. I take another sip of rum and coke, while around me the plumes of smoke flow freely. I scroll through the apps and find your face tagged on Scottie’s social media page. Your handle was @gyalontherun, and my fingers glided across photos, tapping deep into the past. Photos neatly curated like a museum exhibit. The digital world never saw you the way I did that night and my mind clung to the memories that didn’t have pixels to document them. My fingers glided across the screen and did the forbidden tap. My heart paused and I counted the seconds I had left to undo the notification. Was I looking or was I prying? Knowing you would know when the second had passed and it was too late to undo. I sat back in the chair and asked the bartender for another drink.
“Another rum drink?” a voice asked. I felt the warmth of arms around me and turned around to find what I could only describe as a million-dollar smile. It was you.
“It was free.”
“Thanks for the like, but not the follow. Suh you stay?” you teased.
I smiled and your hands touched my knee. We made our way through the back exit, I started to roll a spliff and then took a long drag. Your eyes never left mine as you took it gently from my fingers inhaling and blowing the smoke my way like a gentle mist.
“Thanks for coming,” you said.
“I was hoping to see you.”
You inhaled another drag of the herb and the next time our lips met in a swirl of smoke. Your fingers raked through the coils in my hair and we could taste each other’s lipstick. In those moments time stopped until the songs transitioned one after the other and you grabbed me by the arm; it was your favourite song playing. I glanced at your eyes, your pupils dilated. We went to the dance floor together. I smiled and took your hand. The song was one I skipped if it was playing, and now I couldn’t get enough. The heat from the moving bodies consumed me and I felt swept-up, dazed and lightheaded, the rum bubbling in my stomach.
The song changed but you weren’t ready to stop and you got low and started to wine your body in front of me. I smiled, enjoying the moment — feeling ecstatic even — the excitement of the bass, the movement and sway of the sound, our bodies touching. The DJ started to make an announcement and you left to cross the street. There was that man again. Hovering over you, always near, never far. I noticed the two of you talking, him practically pleading. I watched until my feet became tired and I found the rum glass and the corner I needed.
Time and memory became mosaic and I swayed out of the bar, my body feeling the motion of the fluid in my stomach hurling out on the sidewalk. The lights blurred and I saw you running towards me with concern. You tried to steady me and I nearly caused you to tumble down with me.
The early morning sun rose and there we were in your backyard, the hen wandering and plucking the earth. The basin was in front of us and we washed off the putrid fluids from the night before. I sat wearing your tee. You wore an oversized shirt and you told me to use a different soap to get the stains out. My fingers begin to wrinkle from the cool water but the warming sun and lavender soap made the morning ambrosial. You hung the clothes on the line. I noticed you had school uniforms that needed to be washed. I offered to help and we spent a good portion of the early morning washing the kids’ school uniforms and talking about the incoming school year. Then you ask, “So how a girl like you end up drinking so much at Scotties?”
“Careful, I don’t trust dem people, especially the man over deh. Dutty people,” your words and emphasis made it sound personal and I recalled the man from the night before, how he touched your shoulders and how you ran towards me when I began to slowly tumble to the concrete. I instinctively tried to cover the scrapes from my fall, but you rubbed my leg and the pain dissipated.
I held up an orange wig. “Next one this?” I asked and we both started to laugh. You showed me your rainbow collection and we tried them on and took photos. The last one we tried on was a red bob.
“We could be sisters,” you said. I laughed. We looked nothing alike, but perhaps in hindsight, our smile showed a congeniality that made us similar. Your son Taj came out wearing an American team jersey and a pair of old shorts.
“Mommy, daddy wants to talk to you,” he said, handing you a phone.
Your smile faded. Your daughter was peeking through the back window as you took the phone and went to the side and talked to him in private.
“Hi Taj, nice to meet you,” I said.
“You’re mommy’s friend?”
“Mommy doesn’t have much friend. Daddy says women can’t keep friend.”
My eyebrows shifted together. “That’s not true,” I said.
“Daddy say suh.”
My jaw disconnected at his words as he shrugged his shoulders and ignored me. I closed my eyes and tried to reset myself as you walked towards me, your face drooping with sadness and sudden fear.
“Him father just give the most talking, can’t bother with him,” you said with a cool bitterness.
“I can tell, that one following the leader.” You looked at me vexed by my words. We sat and watched as the two younger ones played with the water from the hose pretending it was a waterfall, and they were swimming, or maybe it was an ordinary way to take a bath. Pretend the world was something else.
The windows were down and the sea breeze filtered through the air. We all laughed as your blue wig tilted in the wind, eventually making its way out the window and into the face of a street vendor. We roared with laughter again at the sight of him chasing behind the vehicle until he disappeared altogether and we reached the sandy brown shores. The kids ran out with plastic shovels and buckets.
My eyes widened at the disappearing sand that had been scraped away by a forklift to make more sandbags. The receding beach had been driven further back than the last time I’d been there; so many metres of beachfront have disappeared since I was a girl.
Kimmy, pouting, asked me, “What happened to the beach?”
“Sea a full up,” I replied bluntly.
“How come?” she asked, “How come it full up? Who pour water in?”
I tried to think of a clever, educational way to answer her — maybe she had learned about global warming in school or maybe she just had to learn it through reality. The disappearing beach was all we had left until it was gone. The exhaust was still running from the car and the fumes rose overhead from the factory across the harbour. We could change the world around us and add metrics for success but the evidence would always show.
“People full it up.”
“Why?” she asked, “Like how them full it up with the trash and dutty things dem?”
“Yes, just like that,” I replied. I closed my eyes and remembered how perceptive children were, that lying to them was delaying the truth. I recalled the years with my parents, and how their motto was tell the truth but not your business. When I told them the truth was that I could only love a woman I basically never heard from them again. Only sporadic calls and messages: hello, how are you? Happy birthday, have you gotten right with the lord yet? And most importantly please don’t tell anybody, they would ask. Years later I still wrestle with the idea of truth or comfort.
I walked behind you and tried to get your best angles. You told me to check the lighting and eventually the likes. We posed together for a photo, and you leaned in for a smile, the flash burning my eyes.
“We look like a couple,” you said with a laugh as you took the phone to get a better look. “Send it to me,” you said.
I sent it but you didn’t post it. I wondered if you stored the picture in your favourites like I did. An image to cherish the small moments, the simple snapshots. I took a few more photos and did a little digital editing. I looked up as I sent you the others and you had the same pout as Kimmy. I looked around and everyone seemed underwhelmed and unhappy.
“Let’s go to another beach,” I said.
Everyone’s faces lit up and we packed everything — the plastics, and the cotton — to go to another beach, another one that was still holding on. I looked in the rear-view mirror to check and Kimmy was chewing on a piece of sweetie while the wrapper floated out of the window.
We drove back to the house, the car smelling like the ocean, salt and sand. It felt like summer then. I helped take the kids inside, and we went back out. You sat down, lit a joint, and inhaled the smoke.
“It nuh easy,” you say.
“How come you don’t have any kids or you don’t want any?”
I shrug my shoulders.
“You must don’t want any because gal like you could walk and get breed.”
I took the joint and sat there in silence taking a deep inhale and exhale.
You leaned over, eyes glossy and dilated, and you began to smile. “Man friend or a woman friend,” you asked.
I laughed and before I knew it you leaned in and kissed me. You took the joint from my fingers, took a puff, blew the smoke in my eyes and began taking off your shirt and bra. You leaned in for another kiss. I could feel your heartbeat, but soon I could feel my own as you started to unzip my jeans. It felt as if I was in a dream. A whole other world just for ourselves.
You leaned back and smiled. I tried to glance away like a shy teen, but you rubbed my feet and laughed again.
“It’s okay Tracy.” you said as you leaned in again and our faces met as lovers.
Our routine started to find a rhythm. With all the comings and goings, my car was always the perfect excuse. At daylight, I was the friend with the car. At night after the children went to bed, we walked outdoors and listened to crickets, and lay on one of the decaying old cars and tried to tell the stars from the satellites. Our bodies leaned into one another, our legs touched, and you would come in for a kiss that felt like a dream. We were in an area where men ruled with knives and guns and yet we snuggled together as if the area was our dream-like jungle.
One night, your phone vibrated and blue light interrupted the night-time darkness. You reached over and instinctively turned away to send a text. I watched your body grow tense with a sudden urgency. And then you lay back down and breathed a sigh of relief as if to catch your breath. I asked you something that had been running through my mind for a while now.
“Who was the man from Scottie’s?”
Your body twinged at the question and you tried to force a smile. “Who him? Delroy is my friend,” you said reassuringly.
I tried to imagine your friendship with Delroy and how a much older man and you could be intimate companions. I paused at the word intimate and let go of your hand.
It was Friday again and I was at Scottie’s but you weren’t there. The rum started to sting my tongue like the tip of a scorpion’s tail. Everything in life seemed to be getting bitter. The sun was dying behind the clouds and it would be another day of not hearing from you. I searched the dance floor as if I were looking for a duppy that could dance. I stepped outside and asked the Bobo Dread if he’d heard from you, seen you, anything. I checked my messages, viewing the growing logs of unanswered calls.
I took a deep draw of my spliff and thought, Jah know, something nuh right. I went straight to the car and started the engine. Whenever I am upset and driving, I always speed. It had rained earlier in the day. I whizzed by on the boulevard, flooding the pavement as I sat in my thoughts. I replayed our last encounter and how Delroy’s name had soured the night. I realised I was closer than I would’ve liked to be to your area, but I had to pass it to get home. I contemplated showing up unannounced. Would that be too desperate, too needy, too borderline mad? The silence ate me alive because it left me wondering what did I say or do? I was becoming mad in more ways than one. The breadfruit tree’s canopy grew closer, I took a deep breath. I knew I couldn’t pass it.
The minute I turned into the street I realised there was a power cut. Shadows roamed the street waving blue tinted cell phones to see into the thick darkness. The doors were locked. I felt insecure and hesitant to go any further, but my fear rolled with the car that was going further past your house towards the dead-end. I tapped out a message on my screen, but you never responded. I arrived at the gate and parked to the side. I stepped out and felt eyes watching me from a distance. I knocked on the door and yelled your name. Not even a candle was flickering in your house and it was then I realised that you may not even be home. I knocked again. An inner voice persuaded me to check the backyard. I walked towards the back and found you sitting in the moonlight. The orange hue of your cigarette was like a lighthouse that led me to you.
“C, it’s me,” I said, as I tried to climb over the chain-linked fence.
I inched closer and took out my phone, the flashlight revealing your puffy eyes with dried tears.
“C, what happened?”
You outed the cigarette on a nearby stone and began,
“Him father took him, said the area too bad, too much warring going on,” you said, sounding defeated.
I sat down beside you and looked to the clear sky, the helicopters hovering in the distance and the sounds of gunshots nearby.
“What happened to Trey and Kimmy?”
“My mother have them,”
“Candace, we can make something work. You can stay with me and we can go to the police and get back Taj.” I said squeezing your hand, but you looked away.
I found part of a broken candle, the wick shrinking with a small flame when I turned around and saw the marks on your back. You put a jacket over yourself as if you weren’t in a tropical climate without a fan.
“Him do it?
You looked away but your gaze told me enough.
“Candace, this is abuse, we have to go to the police.”
“Him know bout we, Taj tell me seh him don’t want two mothers. Him come and war bout that and then gunshots start fire. And them left”
You started to cry and I held my breath processing what to say and what to do.
“What him need fi know ‘bout is to know to mind him business. You and him nuh together anymore,”
The confidence that came from my chest settled in the depths of my stomach. We stood in the darkness as the candle’s wax began to melt away leaving us with minutes left before total darkness.
“C, talk to me nuh,” I begged as I reached for your hand but your body swayed away from my embrace.
“We can’t let these people judge we suh, look pon the world, war and violence, and what we have, nuh love,” my voice shakes at the last syllable, love.
You stared at me until the phone began to vibrate on the cement blocks used as a corner table. The rough cement was scraping away at the plastic as the incoming call flashed from the device. You reach for the phone your eyes alert to the screen and I watch you glancing at me as if to survey my movements.
“You need to leave,” you said. Your voice just above a whisper.
“Candace,” I began.
The dogs’ barks grew louder from a distance, and your phone vibrated to a crescendo. You put it in your pocket and walked to the window peeking out at the entrance. The metal latch from the gate clamped and we could hear the screeching as someone pushed it open.
“You have to leave, it nuh safe,”
“So we leave together, a nuh so love go?”
You looked at me, your eyes widening at what I had said. I wanted to lean in for a kiss, but the bang on the door swallowed the remainder of the moment. The banging grew louder and you finally opened the door. I stood in the corner from where I could see people roaming the street, their silhouettes visible on nearby treetrunks. It took a moment to realise that they were roaming the dead-end street, phones in hand, illuminating what they wanted to see, and it was us.
Suddenly your words were like a jolt to reality. I smelt the stench of chalice in the air and saw him standing in the walkway. It was the same man I had seen earlier when we first met. His face looked just like Taj’s, only older with a few creases and fine lines.
He called out to you in a baritone voice, “Babes’”.
I could hear the tension in your breathing, so I rested my hand on your shoulder and walked in front of the gate. His eyes widened at the sight of me.
“Babes,” he said so reassuringly. “Babes, who deh gal deh?” he asked as if I weren’t there beside you.
The neighbours in the distance approached cautiously, their phones pointing towards us.
“Babes, so you a bun mi fah woman now? Gal from Scottie’s you a bring round yah” he asked, his eyes glaring at me.
“You deaf, answer me” he yelled, his voice cutting through the night air. The silence reverberated an answer he couldn’t fathom.
You could hear the murmur of the crowd. Everybody love mix-up, and everybody love it even more when they’re the one to get it on camera. I think about my dad and how he would feel knowing I was in the area and with a woman. How having gone to an all-girls school the reactions would be we did know long time. I held your hands and kissed you fervently on the forehead and then on the lips. The first was for the audience, the second was to let them know I wasn’t afraid.
The phones were raised higher with lights flashing and recording. The seconds grew and I watched as he reached for his back pocket. I slammed the door, my father’s words about that area coming back to haunt me, saying that it was wild there, the bush was like a jungle, and people acted on instinct. Only my instinct differed.
We live just outside town. The house is bigger. My father feigns forgetfulness of his words. He plays with the children as if they are his grandchildren. My mother watches over us, prays for us, no matter what she thinks or says. I reflect on the change in heart; perhaps it was the man with a gun and the moments of silence where the imagination imagines the unthinkable. One day when raking the leaves from the breadfruit tree my father looked at me and asked.
“Suh, tell me something, now, how come you end up in that area?” he asked.
I try to think of a reply but instead I smile and look at Candace in the distance.
“Make sure unu nuh go back,” says my father.
Fantastic. Absolutely first rate.