On Wood and Ways to Die in the Islands
I’ll begin with portrait that has never existed. Seven people who span decades and hemispheres. Dennis, a bespectacled janitor who hid his true nature. Jay, a curly headed skater whose generous smile will break the hearts of his loved ones. Veronica, an ageless, black-skinned botanist with a well-kept secret. Donnie, a blue-eyed woodworker who squanders his talent. Jimmy, a chubby blonde boy in dirty shoes. Arthur, a Nevisian boatman with a booming voice and a knack for communicating. And me. A wide-eyed woman who wants to save us all from disappearing.
If I had one year to live, I’d probably spend the first half building a treehouse in the jungle and “getting right with god”. The second half I’d spend helping people in the best way that I could: as a spirit medium. Because there’s no greater gift than the gift of peace. And what greater peace is there than knowing that love transcends dimension, and that we live beyond our bodies, beyond our lifetime?
I think of mediumship as part personal hobby, part remedial skill. I’m still shy about it, because how can I be sure I’m not making it all up? And yet, over the years I’ve channeled a band of brujas, a friend’s father, another friend’s grandmother. They speak quietly, and quickly, and I worry that I’ll hear them wrong or my thoughts will get in the way and and distort the message. Which is probably why I’ve never tried to channel my own ancestors.
“Dad, what was your dad’s name?”
“Arthur Ivan Westerman.”
Where’s the name ‘Westerman’ from?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well… why did they name you Llewellyn?”
“I don’t know. It’s Welsh.”
“Were there Welsh people on Nevis?”
“I don’t know.”
“When did Arthur die?”
“I don’t remember.”
I know very little about my grandfather Arthur Westerman. In the only photo I’ve seen, he is tall and handsome and serious, with a delicate mouth, killer cheekbones and light, silky looking hair. He’s wearing a suit, sitting in a fancy chair like a gentleman of leisure. But he was never that. He was a sailor. A fisherman. And a street performer, it turns out. This is news to me.
“He was a performer?”
“He performed in the street?”
“Yeah. At Christmastime, for Sagua,” says my dad, like I shouldn’t be surprised.
“Don’t ask me how to spell it. We didn’t spell shit, we only spoke it.”
Yet another reminder that much of my history is unwritten. Soon after realizing I was a storyteller, I began to see that the most important stories I would tell would involve deciphering the mystery of my ancestry. I’d be unwrapping centuries in Russia, and then tracing an escape from Anti-Jewish pogroms to New York City beginning in 1901. I’d be sifting through a sweeping history of imperialism, slavery, colonialism, religion and commerce throughout Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. And I’d be going in blind.
Because there is no ancient family photo album. No safety deposit box. No bible with a family tree on the inside cover. I would have to let go of this fifth grade fantasy of sitting down with a grandparent for thirty minutes to fill in the blanks for my class report. No, this is detective work. Knocking on doors. Questioning strangers. Visiting cemeteries and historical societies. Pouring over archives. Hoarding hints and clues, and acting with urgency, because time is of the essence. Because the people with the clues are disappearing.
Up until recently, my father has given me some names and anecdotes — the same ones, every time I ask. The names of Arthur’s siblings: Rebecca, Amelia, Jim, Walter, John and Victor, who killed a man on the shipping docks and fled town. Mistress Woodley, an aunt who baked pastries, and whom apparently I resemble every time I put on an apron. And Great Uncle Nathan, who left island and died some years later, never having written home. The family data dries up there; my father claims his memory is shit.
But my observations tell me otherwise. He memorizes the names and hometowns of his favorite waitresses and boat passengers going back decades, to the point where I get annoyed at at him for it. He recites The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner from memory. And having recently recovered from a minor surgery, he recounted the names of all his nurses and doctors. Somewhere in the crags of his memory is a rich store of information. He’s holding out on me.
Then late one fall night after his surgery, I get a call from him. St. Croix is four hours ahead of LA and the crickets have already gone to bed in his timezone. His voice is deep from slumber. It seems as if he has just awakened from a dream where he has been given specific instructions to pass on an important message to me.
“There was a man I called uncle,” he begins, with a bit of incredulity in his voice, as if he’s only now realizing just how odd it all sounds. “Uncle Pinkin. Not too tall. Wore glasses, and overalls. He was a carpenter. Made his coffin years before he died. Kept it under his bed. I think he might have been Jewish.” There is a crack in the dam. The past is opening up to me. The world is opening up.
“Hang on dad, hang on. Let me get a pen.”
“Uncle Pinkin. Pinkin Scarborough.”
“What makes you think he was Jewish? Is the name Jewish?”
“I don’t know. There’s a Jewish cemetery in Nevis, you know.”
“Is he buried there?”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
Over the next two hours, he recites a succession of first and last names, occupations, spouses, relations, places of birth and deaths, who enlisted in the military, who emigrated to Jamaica, Cuba, New York, etc. The info keeps coming like ticker tape and I just scribble for dear life with no time to be mad or wowed or amused, stopping him here and there to clarify a detail or get a proper spelling.
I get a couple phone calls like this. Whenever I see his number come up, I grab headphones and pen and paper or my laptop before even picking up. Then I answer the call and settle onto the couch, tuning in to the deep timbre of his voice, the linguistic patterns and contexts of alternating Queen’s English and patois.
The opacity of our family history comes away in layers. One call, he has a mental placeholder for a name he can’t remember. A night or two later, he produces the name. During one particular download I just had to get up and start whiteboarding that shit like I was in a psychological thriller. When we hung up, I looked up at the notes in awe, this web of details assuring me that I am a part of other, older worlds. Promising that I will reconstruct our fragmented legacy.
Eventually, my father goes back to calling me for less deliberate reasons — casual hellos from the boat while chartering visitors on weekends afternoons, or from the noisy bar he goes to after sailing. And if family history comes up, I glance up at my whiteboard and finish his sentences with an announcement of marriage, death, the name of relative. Even over the phone I can sense his satisfaction.
One member of my detective team is my maternal grandmother Isabelle. She is a 90-year-old woman from the Bronx. She has done some sleuthing on her family, who came from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. So she’s in good practice when I bring her this first wave of information from my father. Using the names and approximate ages and places of birth, she finds some of my Nevisian family members in Ellis Island and the U.S. Census records.
I text my step-mom these scanned images so she can show them to my father. I want him to see these people he knew, whom he thought had disappeared forever. Here are their names, ages, occupations and New York addresses. Death and birth certificates, even a photo. And it’s public. Surely, this shows my father that our work matters. That any foggy details are worth trying to remember. That pieced this together, no matter how broken it is.
Around the time that my father has started speaking more about his father, I feel compelled to try channeling Arthur. I lay in bed with my journal and pen. I should probably sit up. Light a candle. Do a ritual or something to set the mood, but I don’t want to make too big a deal. In case nothing happens, in case I get it wrong. I just start writing.
Dear Arthur, are you there?
I am here, my dear.
I miss you, Grandad.
I am with you, my dear.
I would love to hear from you.
I would love to speak with you.
What would you like me to know?
What would you like to know?
About you, your life, your world.
As I write I hear a deep voice in my head — deeper than my father’s. But the exchange comes too easily and it reads too simply. I decide I must be making it up… except that there’s this accent. It’s not Crucian. It sounds… less contemporary. Closer to the fork in the road where Queen’s English and Nevisian went their separate ways. It rounds in the mouth. ‘Dear’ sounds like ‘dierr’, ‘eye’ sounds like ‘oi’ and ‘you’ sounds closer to ‘yoh’. An I making this up?
Who knew you woulda come to me like dis?
I wish it could have been in person.
If I coulda seen you wit me own eye…
Den I nevah woulda had to die.
What do you mean?
I coulda pass de spark on to you.
Spark of what?
The pride. To nevah hide.
I’ve done a lot of hiding. I’ve struggled with visibility as a woman of color, a non-binary person, a trauma survivor and a performer and a creative. And two generations before me was Arthur — an Afro-Caribbean man born in a British colony at the start of the 1900's, who went to New York in his twenties where he worked as a truck driver before moving back to his home island. In what ways was or wasn’t he able to choose to be visible, or invisible? What boldness might I have inherited by meeting such a powerful predecessor? What confidence might I have simply by looking into Arthur’s eyes? And have I lost my chance, or is there still a way to receive the transmission?
I sit back and look over this channeling, this exchange, trying to figure out if it’s real or if I made it up in my head. I sense a shape, a feel to our dialogue. I feel that Arthur sees me as his own. I sense warmth, and love. I cry like a child, missing the grandfather I never knew.
My father jokes that he reads the obituary every morning to make sure he’s not in it. George Burns said that, but now it’s my dad’s joke too; after suffering a heart attack while sailing, he got word while in the hospital that newspapers on his native island of Nevis had reported him as dead. He took it lightly, and has earned the nickname Lazarus. In my song Anchors Aweigh, the third verse says:
Arrested was the heart of my dear old dad.
He sat up in bed, said I’m not dead yet.
And you can tell that it all of the worried ears.
I’m sticking it out for a star-studded grip of years.
I traveled from LA to St. Croix to shoot a music video for this song. My father makes a cameo, on his boat. The song is a mantra, my prayer for my father’s life. Because I don’t want him to die, ever, and it’s a fear I entertain daily. For a while I was sure it was his gruesome, noble destiny to get eaten by a shark while leading snorkeling trips. I feared this was inevitable, the way it was inevitable that Timothy Treadwell who studied and lived with bears was killed and eaten by one.
Then I feared he would be killed by a tsunami. Or swallowed by the Bermuda triangle, its southern corner inching east from its position at neighboring Puerto Rico in order to include St. Croix. I also imagined how easily he could die by getting struck by lightning while sailing. But then, just yesterday he told me the story of getting struck by lightning on his boat and he didn’t feel a thing, so I’ve put that scenario to rest.
Nobody in St. Croix has been killed by a shark, but there are occasional tsunami warnings, when sirens blare from quaint, 1950’s style public megaphones that you can only hear if you’re downtown. It would be the first tsunami to hit St. Croix since 1865. But the island is bordered by the deepest water in the world — two underwater ridges that could split open and swallow my father at any time.
The second night of channeling Arthur, I hastily light a candle. My small, impatient gesture of ritual.
How are you tonight, grandad?
Me good, man, me good.
Rainbow Wood. It rain fah days.
What’s it good for?
Clothespins Hangers. Stays.
Where did you see Rainbow Wood?
In the cemetery by de table, and de dry creek.
This could be my imagination filling in the blanks based on what I know of small town, island life at the turn of the century. Knowing that, back then, any commodities you could get on a 35-square-mile island either came by boat or were made locally. I’ve got to verify this information.
“Dad, do you remember what hangers were made of when your were a boy?”
“Plastic, I think.”
“Really?” I say. “In the 50’s?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I never hung anything.”
I envy his childhood — one where you never hung anything, and never spelled anything.
“Well, Arthur said they were made of rainbow wood. Oh yeah — by the way, I’ve been channeling Arthur.”
“You’ve been channeling Arthur,” he repeats in an even, nonchalant tone.
I know this tone. It means ‘I hear you, I’m amused, and I’m withholding judgement until I have more information.’ It’s the same response he has had in the past to all my bluntly delivered important life news:
“I’m still a virgin,” while he’s driving me to the airport one summer.
“I’m moving to St. Croix,” after not visiting him for ten years.
“We’re getting married in Connecticut,” while I know he hates flying.
My father has never heard of Rainbow wood. I do some research. It’s a nickname for Eucalyptus deglupta, also known as the rainbow eucalyptus, Mindanao gum, or rainbow gum. Not native to Nevis. He can’t recall ever seeing a Eucalpytus tree on Nevis.
One of the most prized trees on St. Croix is Lignum vitae, or Guayacan. It’s the world’s densest wood. So dense and rich in oils that naturally seal it from the saltiest ocean water that was used in ship parts before cast iron pieces were a thing. Thus the nickname ironwood.
Lignum Vitae is one of Brian Bishop’s favorite topics. He comes from a large family of white Crucians, with one sister and ten brothers. He’ll talk for hours about anything related to the island - flora and fauna, history, and fun trivia. He was an underwater ship welder before becoming a goldsmith in the 70’s. I love the idea of this transition as he emerged from cloudy, shipyard water to the dry, dusty serenity of an artisan workshop.
When I lived on St. Croix, I worked at Brian’s gold shop in Christiansted. In his shop cases, we displayed the gold alongside natural and found local items. Seed pods, broken antique china, giant leaves, a hibiscus picked fresh outside every morning. In one case was a very heavy, dark cylinder made of Lignum Vitae. It was an old ship part that had been found in Christiansted harbor during a dredging. Probably underwater for decades, but it was as smooth and rich as anything that had sat in a temperature controlled case in a museum.
Five miles East of Christiansted Harbor is Teague Bay, and the St. Croix Yacht Club. Dennis was the yacht club custodian for 30 years, until ten days before his death — the details of which are very sad. He was from Dominica and was part Carib Indian. A small man with a Chaplin mustache and Malcom X glasses. Every single time I saw him he was in a trucker hat and head to toe uniform that perfectly matched his skin — the red-brown color of coconut husk. It was as if someone handed him the uniform on the first day of the job in 1972 and he wore it until the end- long after uniforms weren’t required — and became one with it.
He and my father were the only two brown men, other than the occasional bartender, to be found at the Yacht Club on a daily basis. My father tells me, “He used to fish off the beach. Loved to fish off the beach. But a lot of people who knew Dennis never knew he was a sailor.”
I don’t remember ever seeing Dennis near a boat.
“How did you find out?” I ask.
“Some people had a little boat and we had a little sail in it up above [north of] the yacht club. Me say, ‘Dennis, come man.’ I put him at the helm. And me see Dennis at the helm and me ask, ‘Yeh sail?’ He say, ‘Yeah man, I used to make me canoe.’” My father has effortlessly gone from a Crucian accent to Dennis’s higher register and lilting Dominican accent.
“In Dominica, they dug canoes from solid tree trunk. They put fire in it to expand the center. And they used to sail dem tings out in the ocean. The damn tings were narrow. They were very narrow. And when they used to catch tuna, big tuna — over a hundred pounds — and they couldn’t lift dem in de boat, they would swamp de canoe ‘em, swim the tuna in de boat, and bail it out.” I can hear the admiration in his voice. I imagine Dennis’s small frame squeezed into the hull beside the giant, gasping a fish.
“They used to smuggle rum and cigarettes from Guadeloupe to Dominica,” he continues. “They would leave in the night. But there’s a lot people who knew Dennis, who never knew that about him.”
What he means isn’t that Dennis had a well kept secret about trafficking contraband. He’s talking about the skill and strength required to maneuver those boats on the open sea, in the dark, between islands, and carrying fish as big as him. “To sail dem friggin tings you have to be a very good sailor.”
He switches subjects. “You know what he used to call you?”
“Yes,” I answer, dutifully. “Sucooloong.”
He repeats it, slowly, affirming. “Su-coo-loong.”
“What does it mean?”
I don’t know. Maybe it’s one a dem Carib words. And your mother was Tall Tree.
When Dennis didn’t show up to work one Saturday, he knew some rhythm of life had been disturbed, the way he knows when a wind in the morning will affect a sail in the afternoon. When Dennis didn’t show up on Monday, our friend Moose stopped by and knocked on Dennis door and got no answer. He and my father urged the Yacht Club to report Dennis as missing and send someone to enter the house. The Yacht Club made an inquiry with the police and was told that they’d need a search warrant.
On Tuesday, Moose broke in and found Dennis face down on the floor. He had suffered a stroke, but was still alive and had been lying there for who knows how many days, dying slowly, like a fish out of water. Uncle Glu thinks he was trying to reach the phone. He had no family on island. He passed away days later in the hospital, having never regained consciousness. I learned all this while in California, and I wept.
Not because he meant so much to me — we weren’t close, and we never said much to each other aside from pleasantries. I wept that he didn’t mean more to more people. I hate that nobody with the big boats knew what a good sailor he was, and that he lay alone on his floor for days before anyone found him. If more people knew and cared about him, he could still be alive right now. This is the tragedy of having no witnesses. It means death. Without someone to remember you, you can’t live on.
That’s why I collect scraps of stories from my family, from the island, and beyond. I’m trying to save everyone, and myself.
I often think I’ll die a dramatic, horrible death. By some giant machinery, or falling from a great height. I used to think it was my jumpy, neurotic Jewish side, but now I wonder if it’s from tales of the islands. The stories I hear of people I knew, or knew of, are impressively tragic. Death by hurricane while on a boat moored in a harbor. Dragged out to sea during a flood. Beheading by machete. Set on fire. Knifed on the wharf. Caught in the throat by a ricochet bullet. Disappeared while fishing, boat never found.
Every so often I hear another one from my father, or my mother who keeps in touch with people from her life down there. She also updates me on the deaths of people I grew up with at Community Bible Church in Orange County. But she always tells me after they’re long gone. So the wakes, memorials and funerals, flowers, condolences happen without me, while I sit in a glass building in Hollywood, working on ad pitches and social media strategy.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I finally ask her after Jimmy, who I used to babysit when he was a chubby kid, died of a drug overdose. My job already feels empty and meaningless. It feels worse knowing I could have been with her and Jimmy’s family for a day.
“I figured you wouldn’t want to come. She thinks I’m more traumatized by church than I actually am. But my memories of this church aren’t bad. What I remember most is playing the grand piano and sitting in the creaky oak pews. And when kids I babysat or hung out with or had a crush on die, I want to know.
Because I want to be the kind of person who shows up at the funeral in appropriate dress and pays my respects and says a kind word if it’s fitting. Like I did for Jay Walker, tall, curly-headed older brother to my childhood friend Bethany. His mother and sister were so touched that I was there. I didn’t know it would mean much to them. I want to be that one additional attendee who somehow comforts the family a bit more, simply because I knew the deceased and thought it worthwhile to show up. I want to be that for people like Jay. And for Dennis, who with his own hands has could carve a boat out of a tree trunk.
I don’t really understand the glory of Lignum Vitae. It takes forever to grow. The smooth, twisting branches stay small for many years - only a few inches in diameter - yet are nearly impossible to bend, break or even chop with a machete. The trees are not particularly beautiful, they have no edible fruit, and I don't even think you can make tea with the silvery green-grey leaves. But though I secretly don’t get it, I’ve adopted my father’s reverence for the trees. In place of wedding rings, my husband Francis and I wear two matching machete pendants. The miniature, blades are copper. Two gold pins bind blade to its tiny Lignum vitae handle, which was masterfully fashioned on a wood lathe. They were designed by goldsmith Brian Bishop and made by his son, to whom he has passed on the trade.
There was one memorial I was able to attend on St. Croix. Brian’s brother Donnie Bishop. Donnie had been a woodworker of tremendous talent who drank himself to death. He was a charming man who flirted inappropriately with me whenever he stopped in at the gold shop. He had three sweet, intelligent daughters who came down one summer and impressed me by spending their entire vacation reading.
He passed away before I came down one winter. The family had a short service and potluck at one of the covered picnic areas down by the lagoon. Francis and I stood in the back during the service, then said hello and were urged to fill plates and eat. We flipped through books of photos. I couldn’t believe how handsome Donnie had been. Like, movie star handsome, with golden curls, a killer smile and oceanic blue eyes. I had only known the watery-eyed, red faced, pot bellied version of him. And the only woodwork I ever saw of his were these hack job teak pedestals he had made, which we bought for our gallery space on St. Croix. They were heavy, uneven and treacherous with protruding screws. Nevertheless they were very useful, so we used them for every show to display work. We never stopped marveling at how such a talented woodworker had made something so awful.
I still can’t find any mention of Eucalyptus on Nevis. Veronica Gordon would have known. Veronica knew all flora on island - the latin, local name, and uses and benefits of bark, roots, stems, leaves, flower and fruit. When I first met her she was a cheery artisan at local festivals with a story for every piece that she carved and crafted. Instruments, jewelry and decor handily fashioned from wood, pods and seeds. I still have a few prized items she made. One worn coconut shell spoon (its mate got trashed by a someone at my office), a few calabash bowls and plumrose wood claves. The claves, which have a brilliant resonance, are silky smooth and charred to a dark brown. After she carved and sanded them, she smoked them, she had explained, to seal them from bugs.
My sister Nikki and I once took an island bush tour with Veronica. She introduced us to Baobab, the mystical African tree that can live up to 1500 years and whose limbs look like those of humans. Veronica knew the quantity and location of all baobabs on island. Brought here via seeds hidden in the hair of African abductees, she postulated. On our tour she cracked open a giant velvety green baobab pod to reveal a web of seeds buried in a tasty, tangy peach colored powder. It has like a million super beneficial properties and is perfect for smoothies. The pods hang from the tree attached by long, thick vine-like stems, which is where the nickname Dead Rat tree came from. Some say the spirits of deceased Africans live in the trees.
When a baobab dies - this is the word Veronica used - it disappears within 2 years, collapsing into itself. This is because they’re 76% water - more than the human body. She showed us where one had stood not long ago. All we could see was a depressed circle in the grass. From up to 82 feet high, with a trunk diameter of up to 45 feet, this tree disappeare without a trace, as if it got a call from the motherland - or the mothership - and made an exit by collapsing in a slow motion puddle of tears.
Being a bushwoman is tradition in Veronica’s family. The knowledge is passed down orally alternating gender with each generation. She learned from her father, and passed it on to her son. She wouldn’t allow people to record her during interviews, so as to keep the knowledge in its intended oral form. But I remember asking if i could record her on my phone once when she was giving a demo at the botanical garden, and she welcomed me to do so. Maybe she liked me, or trusted me.
When my sister was sick during her pregnancy, I called Veronica, who prescribed herbs and even met Nikki at the supermarket to give her the herbs with instructions. When my father had his heart attack, I called and asked how he might remove plaque from his arteries. (A clove of garlic in a gallon of water everyday). Veronica looked decades younger than her 50-something years. Not a line in her skin. She once mentioned having arthritis, for which she’d slap a piece of stinging nettle on her wrist to relieve the pain. Bee stings worked just as well she said. She had a remedy for everything.
Hers was another funeral I missed. She died of lung cancer. It was a shock to everyone. Apparently, she had been a closet chain smoker. I imagined it was her way of coping with some trauma from her past. I remember her telling me that when she lived in New York, she slept on a bed she made out of stacks of newspaper in her apartment. To me, this was a sign of some odd survivor’s behavior. Although, it could have been some instinctual urge to sleep closer to nature - wood pulp of newspapers being the best she could do in the city.
She behaved so strangely the last time I saw her. I was visiting St. Croix one early summer. It was a hot day. I saw her at Frederiksted pier, selling her wares to the cruise ship crowd. She usually wore traditional Caribbean and African garb for fairs and festivals, but this time she looked more like a witch doctor. She wore a mesmerizingly intricate patterned dress and pants, and colorful mask that covered her whole face. It had slits for eyes and no mouth. She even wore gloves - not an inch of her skin was showing. From her whole costume hung countless strings dotted with tiny triangles of paper that swung and rustled every time she made a move. It reminded me of a wood spirit a character finds peeking at them from behind a tree in an anime movie. Something that isn't evil, but doesn't feel good, either.
Though she was friendly as she spoke, she’d occasionally utter an ominous phrase in a light-hearted voice - I can’t remember any of them now. And n addition to her customary dried calabash bowls that bore carvings of hearts, the shape of St. Croix and adages like “Positive is how I live” there were now pieces warning shoppers of unhealed wounds and scars. When I stopped later to say goodbye, there was an older tourist woman taking a video of her as she peeked out from behind a palm tree, flipping the woman off with white-gloved hands. I was more upset by the tourist than by Veronica’s behavior. This woman knew nothing about Veronica, her wisdom, her kindness, her legacy. But I guess even those of us who knew Veronica didn’t know enough.
After more searching, I find one mention of eucalyptus on Nevis. In a travel blog, a guy describes his hiking guide scraping gum from the trunk of a Eucalyptus. They hold it to their noses and deeply inhale its astringent, menthol aroma. Their guide explains that it brings mental alertness.
Here’s the thing. If I can find single a Eucalyptus tree on Nevis then I’m willing to believe that Arthur really came through. And if Arthur came through, then Arthur lives. That means my wish is granted: my father will never die. None of us will die.
Six months after this channeling, after my trip to Mexico and Peru, I find myself on St. Croix with more of a sense of urgency than ever to understand my family ancestry and legacy. Who the fuck are my people? What have we created? What is our legacy? I come upstairs one day at Karen’s and my uncle is sitting on the couch. I hug him and we sit holding hands. He eludes a sweetness. In the past he has not always let this show. When alcoholism, various injuryies or wemn problems made him cranky. He says he’s leaving on Thursday. I realize I must speak with him as soon as possible.
We pick him up the following morning at his house in Mt. Washington. A papaya tree laden with giant green fruit leans up against the white stairs leading up to his front door. We go to Cafe Christine’s in Christiansted. In a once well-kept and landscaped courtyard, now piled with debris from the hurricane on one end. Our waitress is a pretty, plain-spoken white girl with a short bob. She talks us through the menu. She brings us tall glass bottles of hibiscus tea and talks us through the menu. Francis and I order chicken salad. Glu orders nothing — since he’s leaving town, he’s eating up what’s in his fridge. He had ham for breakfast and is stuffed.
The conversation begins with jaw drapping information. Glu was closer to Arthur than my father was. He lived with him and grew up with him. He was there when Arthur died. He recounts the whole story in detail and it unfolds as if from the scene of a crime — what Arthur did the evening before, his complaints of feeling nt well, where he was when the heart attack hit, and, heartbreakingly, my father’s disacciative first response. Which is not to say that ARthur and my dad were on bad terms after Arthur’s passing. Because, as it turns out, I’m not the only one whom Arthur has communicated with since passing.
Over the next two hours of conversation at Cafe Christine’s, I eat my chicken salad, sip my hibiscus tea, scribble notes and volley between elation and tears. For each question I ask Glu, he responds with a stream of information. Names, dates, details that either compliment or challenge my father's stories. What was a detailed but foggy picture of this part of my family’s life on Nevis becomes more clear, more detailed, and a slightly different shape than what I’ve pieced together from my father. And he delivers it all with a Zenlike serenity, as if it’s the holy spirit pouring through him. I’m in awe. NOt only has he had more sailing adventures thatn I knew, I add on top of that that he has also traveled the world later in life with his third wife, Oyoko. Whereas on paper or at a glance some might see my father as the more successful one, Glu sees all of his children regularly and xyz
It seems perhaps
Arthur and Dorris were never together, even though she had two sons by him four years apart. The
But there are facts and stories that, when I mention to my dad, he contradicts and clarifies. And I am cauties in mentioned their stories to each other. I dont’ wannt to pit them against each other - they’ve already gone through many spells of not talking. I don’t care what one thinks about the other - I want both stories in their pure form.
And the eucalpytus. Someone who had trouble after he dug one up. Glu can’t seem to remember who or the details. He says he’ll think on it. Fhe goes to the states and has a seizure.
Nathan has been sticking in my mind. Tall. turns out he was here. In teh year 1910.
Plan ruth, nathan, arthur, viver’s trouble with dorris.
Viver gambling story.
Viver sees them all - ruth, nathan, aruthur, even dorris.
I channel nathan. Prickles on my skin.
Last summer my rallying cry was Spiritual Summer. I don’t remeber much of a spiritual nature happening at all. Francis and I went to Costa Rica for two weeks with some friends. We hid our arguments from them and focused on enjoying the environment. I met over the phone with my life coach and worked out a list of everything I wanted to be, do and have in this lifetime. It has stood the test of time, but nothing particularly spiritual about that summer. I was working through blocks, inner conflicts, etc. and focused on staying present.
The following year I claimed it was going to be a Slutty Summer. I fucked a demure French Vietnamese tattoo artist who reminded me of my late boyfriend, and an enthusiastic Swedish startup guy who was in town on his way to Burning Man. Because of our “no trysts in the apartment” rule, I convinced myself that I was willing to break into the vacant studio apartment downstairs that was used as storage. But then the Swede suggested a hotel and that was a better idea. At the cuban-themed bar where we met, he was sweet and cuddly and I let his scruff brush gently against my cheek while he whispered in my ear about how he would dedicate himself to my sexual pleasure. At the tiki-themed hotel I kept my gold shoes on while he fucked me - three times - and fell asleep after each time. I would wake him again each time, hoping to get an orgasm out of it, and it didn’t happen. Later I realized I was resenting him for this, not for not keeping in touch.
This summer truly was the slutty summer though. In a wierd way. Francis left town for work. I had the aprtmet and my time to myself. I met up with the Scottish guy, then Ron Boyd. Both were disappointing. With Ron I cried and he made it all about himself. I coresponded with some Doms. And then on my last night I brought our neighbor Doug into my world. Both of us said we were glad I was leaving so as not to have to fite off temptation to get too involved. I definitely wanted to explore more with him. But a week in Mexico City had wiped him from my memory.
Three bad things happened in my life this week. Although they were out of my control, it has really broken me down and has me feeling like a failure and a loser. I’ve also decided there’s no such thing as bad anymore.
So what - have i come out of it? Will i be ok?
I’ve decided there’s no such thing as bad
A week ago, I arrived in Mexico City. I dove into /strolled into a culture that embraces death, that has a dark history/where opulence lives side by side with bare/dirt poor/poerty/ good and bad/ alternate realities/poetic, beautiful and hardship and struggle / an culture, good and bad will shift and be a little different than where i came from. I made friends, lovers and maybe even an enemy.
It was the second leg of of an epic spring/summer journey that kicked off with a visit to my Grandmother in the humdrum town of Palm Bay, Florida. Florida was perfectly boring. My sister, who had come with me, was busy with work and much less tolerant of our Grandma’s ways. While she sayed busy and stressed with work and childhood triggers, I pretended to work (“Light workload lately,” I told Grandma), and wasted the week lying around in air conditioning, browsing Tinder and listening to Grandma’s talking stream of consciousness and catching my sister’s eye rolls. Outside of Grandma’s condo I laid on the beach, perused sleepy thrift stores and ate disappointing meal after disappointing meal. By the end of the week, Florida rain, sun and sand had cleared my LA life from my consciousness and I was ready to leave the U.S.
The past few weeks in LA had been strange ones for me. My husband Francis had left for a four-month production in Atlanta. My freelance work had ended and I had done little to find more. So I was dealing with an usual absence of structure that led to some frenzy, some anxiety and naturally some mischief. Alongside cleaning up the apartment and preparing to leave and writing, I was constantly on my phone browsing Tinder and texting with doms. The erotic conversations were giving me headaches.
*But I had thrown myself into it like a boot camp or training. Exhausting me but learning. Like backpacking. The sacrifice for hte thrill of discovery and experience. It was demanding.
And on top of it all Francis had driven my car to Atlanta, so I was flying down the streets in an ‘87 Bronco that had me feeling like I was a sexpot sailing a pirate ship.
I arrived in Mexico with my translator app queued up, ready to speak as best I could and sound like the gringo who knows more Spanish than would would expect. I came with a good attitude, but this is where the three bad things happened.
But you know now that I’m thinking of it, in Florida I had decided that there’s no such thing as “bad” anymore. I declare it at the top of a page in my journal, after I drop my husband off at the airport and drive to a stranger’s house and spent three hours in his bedroom.
Actually, first I drive to my grandmother’s house, where my sister and I are staying. I pull up, check my phone messages and get a phone call from Mat, with one ‘t’. I had matched with Mat a few days prior on Tinder. He’s a single father of three. He lives fifteen minutes away. He’s home watching The Office. His kids are asleep. He’s exactly what I happen to be looking for on this particular night.
He was born and raised in Palm Bay. He has a slight twang and a bunch of sub par tattoos. Simple, but no idiot. And he’s a bad boy. Spent 6 months in prison. Has been fucking since he was 14. Women gravitate toward him. He doesn’t need a dating app, actually. His ex put him on there. But all he has to do to get laid is go out to a bar and they just seem to know. He loves eating pussy. We don’t fuck, because he has no condoms. He had a vasectomy, he explains, and he’s clean. That doesn’t matter to me. I had considred running upstairs to get condoms when I was parked out front of Grandma’s, but there was something too perfect about having an alibi of a long drive to the airport. I assumed he would have them. We still have fun. But all the head bobbing kills my neck the next morning. It’s an intense pain shooting up both sides of my neck that lasts through my first week in Mexico.
When I check my phone, there are three missed calls from my sister.
“I’m okay,” I text her.
“I was twenty minutes away from calling the police,” she replies.
At home, my husband and I have a rule. You always shower and wash your hair after you meet someone. Nobody else’s scent are allowed in our bed, our sacred space. But when I get back to grandma’s, I remember that the shower in my bathroom is off limits, due to a leak that needs to be repiared. I wash my hands, mouth, crotch and ass in the sink and apply body balm.
A lover in Mexico
When it's on, it's like being at a mac store. It's as if mac designed a homespace for an active lifestyle wanderlust tech dude. White walls. Ambient lights and music. Minimalist decor,a few tokens of spiritual pursuits - a few buddhas. A projector instead of a tv screen. And when you're in it with him it's like living in disneyland. but the first time i slept in and woke after had gone it was like falling asleep under a mshroom and waking up in disneyland after it had closed. it was dim, light proof curtains were drawn, no signs of life. Buddha statues tared at me. His pefectly need space looked so unlived in tat I was hesitant tto use anything or make a mess. I felt as if i was imposing on the sterile life of a droid.
The ghing abouut having lovers while being in love with my husband is that at first I love that they're not him. They smell different, sound different, fuck differeing. They communicate diffrently, have differnet obsessions and knowledge bases. And then I begin to hate them for not being Francis. Because they're never as generous, never as acapable lf listening. The self-centeredness that any single guy naturally has begins to show as the novelty of me wears off and they begin to habitually/reflexively/default toward their own thoughts, concerns and stories. They ask fewer and fewer questions, and get replaced with statements of itnent, declarations of pleasure at upcoming plans beyond our time together. Less and less inquiry. i can tell Arhtur no longer espects any suprrise whatsoever from me. And He's still affectionate, but he holds my hand firmly.
As for my side, I begin to notice a slight bloat to his face, his thinning hariline, the fact that his beard is badly in need of a trim. I notice his chest hair stuble, his less than perfect skin.
My mother has been writing a memoir. She sent me the chapter about my father. It starts, "I made it a point to learn everything about him and he knew so little about me." Maybe the curse of being curious and wanting to know all about them is later it gives you reason to resent them and walk away.
I meet two progressive yet obnocioux men in Tepoztlan. Deva and Alberto. All up in my uterous. Meanwhile Francis is missing me and I just want to answer to nobody. I've gone from feeding/thriving off being desired to running on E.
There's an eerie charm to tepoztlan - Twin Peaks. It's quiet, nobody seems willing to exchange even a simple hello in the street. Which makes it seem as if everybody has a secret. People seem slow and tired as if in a trance -- as was I, trudging through the rock streets and then through iron gate to my bed. Frog medicine in 20 minutes I felt it all -- an irrational fear of death. I broke into a sweat. My eyesight went. I stared at a point on the mountain as instructed.
Best part of tepoztlan was the hike to tepozco - an enchanting path frlanked with food and sourvneiers, and then just stone steps through green, green, green. Anotehr was wandering into the venue in town and fannign myslf while catching the ye of the percussionist and show host from Moros y Christianos. Icaros and Gorman. Alfredos slow way. Decor -- a table inaldi with wasps nexts, beans, cathoclic iconography, iron pieces relics of old farming set into the ceiling, pin lanterns, stained glass, every ocener plants in owater, offerings and altars. I gave my first earth offering here.
Pumpkins - they turn back into the guy I was semi-interested in
Let me discover you. The thrill of being discovered you want to spell it all out for someohone who gives the slghtest hint of listening (aka politeness). This morning, stayed in bed hours after I wanted to. How much am I absorbing? Afraid to get up, to move to set off dominoes to change the chemistry. I X. How much more could I have focused in on my own inner world or was this my colonized mind? A wild woman offering her wrists for rope or shackeles. Shiftin ghte X. The pocahnotis. Th avatar who falls for the gringo.
On flight from Panama to Lima. Judging from the looks I was getting in the airport, I may be a Ten in Panama. I didn't sleep well last ight. I was cold and worried about waking ARthur, who said he slept just fine. I get apologetic texts from James in response to my "exercize in authenticity" (see whatsapp) and felt a bit of care there, even if paired with negative emotions or shame about "making a fuss." Last night I was pissed at Arthur clicking aroudn on his stupid website as I wrote his copy and earlier, I tried to cancel the plan ticket I had erroneously bought at a cafe a couple hours before. I was ready to be done iwth Aruthru. The cuteness had worn off. I could see all his pores. And then as I re-packed my bags this morning I saw that he had slipped a water color painting of a heart - beautiful and abstract in pale green and pink -- into a side pocket of my largest suitcase. My frist response was to leave it be and "discover" it later when I'm in Peru. I packed that pocket and zipped it back up carefully while my heart melted a little -- while he might be reserved or annoyingly accomplished or intimidatingly neat or irritatingly organized, he was sweet and kind and considerate. I couldn't fault him for holding me at arm's length - he hadn't done that. He was open, giving and generous, even if it included him reading me his diary and showing me all his medicore abstract paintings and asking me to guess atinterpreting thieir meaning. He was the little brother - maybe even the baby of the family. So yes there was a twinge of "how self-referential of him to give me a panting which I already knew he was proud of" Whereas the drawing I had given him was of him, and had been done in the moment, in bed, after sex, left-handed, and when i finished it he had decleared "I like this. I look happy." So in a way both pieces that had been exchanged were depictions of him. Oh, mother. Will i always be the bojectifier, the one making muses of men? Learning everything about them while they know so little about me? (He hadn't even bothered to Instagram stalked me, and was totally surprised when my answer to the question "Do you think you'll ever get married" was "I am married." (That was only after I posed the question to him first.)
I appreciate that things with arthur had a satisfying energy befre i left. For example, id didn't leave a mushy note. I sent a text thanking him for being so wonderful and being part of this special trip "see text". We kissed and hugged and he said "What a great encounter." which was a great way to put it. But it was during the full moon x days before my trip to tepoztlan that i had left the drawing for him - tearing it out of my journal and leaving it on his bed one morning - entitling it Heureauz May 2018. It was that day that I took a car back to my favorite hosue in Coyoacan, tears streaming down my face behind my sunglasses, not knowing quite whi I cried, until the passing road hyptonitzed me into a calm and it allowed it to surface: evidence of childhood trauma, Usual Suspects style [realization montage trope name] montage of dots connecting. Sitting at X cafe near X park and him asking em what my earliest memoires are, saying "I have no memories of my first three years of life." Despite consisten home life. In martial arts all his life, enjoying trainign to fite, the need for control of his environment and appearcne, impeccable closets, etc. Which could be taken as materialsm to the non-discerning eye. Severe OCD as a boy. Only one significant relationship that he took 2 years to get over. Never spoke to me about sex, past partners, or bodily functions, never pissed with the door open, "hid" his shitting. And the stuff I took on that seemed odd: dont' show weakness or unhappiness, impress, need to make my mark, shame in being sickn= or weak or feeling negative emotions.
All that to say, I wept, I grieved as I realized the sadness I felt when I thought of him or looked at his photos wasn't because i would miss him or felt attached to hi or was falling in love with him. no i wans't sad at all. HE was sad. When i looked at his photos-- at his eyes in any photo, whether he was hiking a mountain or enjoying a blustery day in london or had just won a jiujitsu match, i saw saness. I could read it on him in him, and it broke my heart. i was feeling his saness, his story, all that he had not yet known he was missing, all that he has yet to grieve. I was mourning it all at once, ahead of time -t hings he may never grieve. Talk about being an empathy.
And why? just because i'm empathic? no. because, as with elio in CMBYN, as with all that i saw and loved and wept over in elio, it was becasue elio was me. all that i saw and grieved and was moved by in arthur was in me. the warrior spirit. bright light. early trauma. high functioning. compulsive storytelling - that is, fastidious journaling, desire to preserve. and oh, how i wept for this young man, for myself on top of it all, heresembled shane in unexpected ways, as his beard filledout and his cheeks looked more cherubic, his knows was falt across the top whether from mexocing or hereitary i don't know and his eyes were asiatic with a minimal lid fold. why in a white french guy i don't know. but his brother and him looked similar so... stick straight hair wsn't liek shane but the effect was done, plus his body was a deep bronze and his nipples were eark, deep brown sugar pink. hair on his forearms and fingers. Shane had that kcikboxer physique. and the full bottomo lip and shapely, sensual upper lip that was easily pursed and hidden. all that to say, there was such drama an tears in days prior that the goodbye felt clean, easy, and sweet.
Resisting, Intimacy, Performance
We are back on St. Croix for a couple more weeks together. Sex has been problematic for me. My body wants good time, easy, don’t think sex. Francis wants mind expanding, spiritual connection sex. I have trouble makign eye contact with him. As if I’m keeping a secret from him. He knows about my two lovers in Mexico. He knows that Arthur and I occasionaly message each other. He knows about the crushes I had on facillitators in Peru. Leo, the French boy with the body of an adolescent lion. Big bones, not fully grown into himself. I have a dream that I spend the night with Leo.
I’m not ready for spiritual sex. I’m used to being the healer, the connected one, the wow factor withthese lovers who i’m opening up their world. I’m not using to being the healed. I’m used to being the more powerful one — or at least, more in my power.
At first I feel bad, I feel ashamed. As if I’m keeping a secret from him. But I have no secrets. And to make sure, I start naming the things I usually keept to myself. At first, the obvious. Because he can sense it. We’re cuddling and stroking each other and he puts his forhead to mine. I feel limp inside. Aroused, but only willing to go for an orgasm, and ashamed of that. Just want that pick me up. That boost. “What’s going on” he says, in the most gentle, intuitive way. “What’s up? What’s going on in your head?” He asks me a few times throughout the night. I just sigh, say I’m stoned, or my mind is scattered. The truth is that I can’t find my roove.
Being with him after hookups in LA and lovers in mexico and then abstinence in peru, i don't feel ready for sex -- with him. I can imagine fucking someone casually. but we're not casual. We're ten, almost eleven years in and we are very connected. i'm used to being the light with others. with francis, i also must receive his light and i just dn't feel very capable of opening up.
when we start making out or things heat up my mind immediately imagines scenarios to turn me on - a carousel of memories and fantasies. The thrill of tender, respectful sex with a lover not my husband. The panting of Arthur, the intensity of James. Or I see us as two Bead and Breakfast guests, almost strangers, rendevouzing in a small beachside town. Or he is Italian and the striped sheets have become a beach cabana where we lean against the backrests of two chaise longues, partially sitting up, watching each other masturbate. Yes they're all hot but sex with them is no Better than with Francis. These scenarios are to create space between he and I. and in the space i create with a fabricated unfamiliarty or an othering of francis, from there in that space created i get turned on. which i like to think means that i have a natural healthy sex drive, i do get turned on, and just need a little space to do it. And I think the reason is Peru.
I’m still integrating. That my spiritual bandwidth is being taken up by multi dimensional healing, ancestral clearing, and whatever else happened to transfomr me in Mexico and Peru. I have no way to prove this. But I know that at night, when I look out at the trees, the hallucinations start to surge. I know that I respond to simuli diffrently now. I can fall into my old analytical critical linear thinking, but it has less of a hodl on my and instead everything feels like a dream state. Nothing really matters, stakes are never that high, there are no real threats. So my body is like, fun sex? Easy sex? Mindless sex? Sure go ahead. Mind expanding soul meging sex? NO we don’t have bandwidth for that right now. But it’s up next on the docket, we promise. All I know is, my system doesn’t want to open up that way just yet.
I notice something and confess it to Francis. That is, gravitate to a performative type of sex. That is an imagined audience is so often part of sex for me. Again some kind of unfamiliarity. The audience can come in many forms. It can be just imagining Francis is someone I don’t know. That creates a built in audience because we are unfamiliar with each other. Or that someone else is watching. Or simply, that there is a lense, or a window frame framing just our genitalia. The fantasy doesn’t even go so far as to imagine a person, or a face or even an eye. Just the glass of a lense or a window. And when I’m actually with another person, or people, the performance is everything. And it calms me down. I become do aware of my energy, what i’m putting out, what i’m taking in, that i feel as if i’m in a living paitning. Or the movie of someone else’s life. I’m grounded, i’m embodied (unless i’m really nervous), i slow down, i’m sultry, i’m self posessed. I’m an expereince of a lifetime.
I judge all this as a flaw in myself. I tell francis. he hears me without judgement. which gets me thinking that maybe it's not a flaw. anyhow, i'd like to understand more about why i'm like this. as he points out, naming it is the first step. and yeah, i've never named this before.
something else i name is the patterns in notice when i’m here on island. The lustiness of the tropics. The longing for flashiness and glamour of entertainment. The fervent dreaming of greatness. Who does this belong to? Maybe it’s not mine. Maybe
This is a place of firsts for me. The first time I drank. Before I got drunk on spiced rum at Jeannel Jackson’s house and made out with Willie Sammartano against his will, I sipped off my dad’s Cruzan Rum at Cheeseburger’s in Paradise and then played footsie with Ben Bishop under the table — I wasn’t attracted to him but he was the only person my age around. Then I got up, walked out into the gravel lot, threw up, and came back to the table feeling much better. My dad had no idea that those few sips had gotten me so intoxicated.
One night in the hills of St. John at the Guy Benjamin schoolyard. The night air seems to be exactly the temperature of my body. I’m it. While the other children hide, I’m counting to 20, cupping the sides of my face, facing the trunk of a tree. But it turns out they’re not hiding. They’re all boys, and the lead boy is ever so slowly lifting up the side of my culottes while they all peek.
My first time having sex is on St. Croix — in this studio apartment where we are staying, actually. On the futon we are sleeping on, actually.
This is a place of firsts. 1979. First breath. First light. First hurricane. First time in the ocean. 1980. First words. First steps. First teeth. Skipping ahead, 1992. First time drunk (rum). 1999. First time showing my breasts to anyone. 2003. First time getting high. First time having sex.
Janet and Lew
The story that most people will hear is that my mother and father were never married, and that my mother moved back to California with me when I was 3 years old. In my baby book there are photos of us living together when I am They lived together for the X months of my life. There's a picture of the three of us together at my christening - my father in a suit, my mother dressed perfectly for the occasion in a white cotton and crocheted dress with bell sleeves. Her long dark hair parted in the middle, looking like she stepped off the cover of some folk album.
If we're talking a paper trail, somewhere long composed in a dump are receipts for her ticket on the seaplane to St. Thomas, where she went when she left my father for the first time, and looked for work and tried to settle on her own before sending for me.
The story she will eventually tell me is that she left because she couldn't stand his cheating ways anymore. And that in trying to change her mind, my father proposed. And that she said no, and that she knows she was the only one he proposed to. I’m like my mother in that way — I must be the center of their heart, and it can’t be any other way.
I think a lot of people wanted to see my mother and father stay together. They were that power couple. And me, the adorable daughter. And nevermind that Lew had already had three daughters by two Nevisian women. This was something that just touched them to the core. Meant to be.
At some point in my 30's when I am asking more and more questions and it is clear that this isn't a phase that this is my life's work and that I'm dedicated to telling this story, and maybe because I'm pushing, asking why. But why then? Why not before? She will tell me that a girl -- a very young girl, came to her and confided about being involved with my father. I don't know how to word it. He raped her? Molested her? I don't know what happened. I get the sense that it was non-consensual. Maybe it started consensually? I don't want to make excuses for him. And I want to know the whole story.
My mom and I are texting about books, one of our favorite topics. I send her a photo of Tiphanie Yanique's The Land of Love and Drowning and say I couldn't put it down. In may she had sent me the same book and said "Ugh it turned me off too much incest... Had to put it down / Even though it's probably true a lot of that happens in the Caribbean"
[She mentiones that she gave it to another friend - "Uncle" Ken. He has been a family friend for years. He used to be married to Kathy and they have two girls together. My mother has stayed in touch with him and it bothers me. It seems he wants to date her. She lets him buy things for our family, for my sister's family. My sister Nikki and Omari and her three kids are allr enting his apartment in Long Beach and getting flown down so Omari can research opening a restaurant with his funding. I remember there being murmurs of him involved with a student of his when he taught at UC Santa Cruz. I ask her why she gave him that book - given that possibility and she says that as far as she knows that was not why he got let go.]
REading that part of the book was very hard for me as well. I read it with a twisted face probably, and was relieved to learn that, even though she was young, at least she wasnt his biological daughter. My mother mentions another book she was supposed to read for class that she couldn't because pedophilia was a theme in it. The irony is that she stayed in an abusive relationship with a man for ten years and this man molested me. And perhaps a greater irony is that she left my father for this reason and ran into this man's arms not a year later.
I've been asking the tough questions. I don't know why but I feel as if my life depends on it. To ask my uncle about when Arthur died. To ask the sad questions, the uncomfortable questions, the things nobody will ever ask anyone in my family. This is what I'm meant to do here. I'm a scorpio in the 8th house, which deals with what was once sacred and is now taboo - sex, death, power, a mysterious sector - birth, death, transformation, mysteries. I feel compelled to know - to reveal what has been unrevealed - to air it out so we know so it's in our conscious and not just our subconscious. So we don't repeat it. So we know. And maybe people tell me the stories i’m seeking out because it's a relief to say it, or because I don't give up, or because I don't judge.
I decide to try via text - not entirely appropriate but hey it's 2018. I say:
I know you mentioned you left my dad when you found out about his involvement with a really young girl and she came to you. What happened exactly?
Why do you need to know?
I don't need to know, I just want to know. I'm here researching and really trying to learn everything I can -- for myself, not to necessarily put it all in a book. I understand that it is a really unfortunate piece of our family history -- the three of us.
I didn't even remember telling it to you. It was more than one.
I definitely don't want it in a book.
None of us wold want our lives/mistakes up on a screen, certainly not myself
Would rather tell you in person than type it out
I know I understand that -- some things aren't for story telling. But it's important for me to know. There has been a pattern of denial and looking the other way in our family and I want to break that.
What follows is one of our typical hour+ conversations. The matter we had been texting about took up about 4% of the conversation. The other 96% was us cataloguing every book we are reading at the moment, everyone i’ve seen who remembers my mom and her recounting the intimate and intricate stories of these people. Locals and statesiders alike — whom they fell in love with, how it ended, whom the married, where they fled to.
As far as my father’s dalliances with the two young girls, well in both situations it was consensual, and isolated. It turns out they came to my mother not for help, but to inform her and to apologize, because they were family friends and they felt bad. It seems they could neither resist friendship with my mother or sex with my father.
So I’m relieved to have my belief confirmed — my father is not the raping type. In fact, the greatest insight I gain from our talk is about the true nature of my father’s sexuality. It would seem that he has been astonishingly injudicious when it came to sex, but in a passive way. “Anyone that he was around, he would end up having sex with,” my mother says. Some were really unattractive, much older than him. Anybody. I found out about this one older woman in particular and I was shocked.”
Well, seeing as how there no shortage of young and beautiful women crushing on and pursuing my father, it seems that he basically said yes to anyone who approached him. The conclusion I draw is that my father was a sex addict. And also that he was always looking for love and belonging. And that he was willing to belong, even if momentarily, to anyone who wanted him.
I’m not only like my mother, expecting to be at the center of their heart, but also I’m like my father. I want to be wanted. That makes me want back. It seems a weird chicken/egg/narcicist thing, but being seen and appreciated and desired is big part of what draws me to a person. After Shane died, I was in a writing fellowship. There was this angelically beautiful redhead in my class. There was so much chemistry I could hardly look at him. Eventually we connected and he took me to his apartment with it’s piano and books and basically made it clear that he was putty in my hands. At the same time, a longtime friend and musician and I began kissing after our recording sessions. My writing partner who was also in the fellowship asked, “Who will you choose?” I shrugged, the answer obvious. “Whoever loves me the most.
Domesticating and Decaying in Narnia
I’m now on the same hunk of land as Francis. When we kiss it’s like SCUBA diving. He’s my mouthpiece and I can breathe underwater.
Waiting at a stoplight I watch a student in uniform waiting out the rain under a porch. Hair slicked into a puff at the top of her head. Bright sneakers. A breeze ruffles her plaid school skirt.
We take note of any mangled roof we see. Doing the math, counting the months people’s houses and businesses have been sitting like this.
Buying groceries on island is more like a hunt than a shopping trip. The grocery store is a last resort. Everything is imported, costs more than we’re used to paying, and not fresh. It’s really hard to buy produce brought in from California. We go to three farm stands. The first one, run by family friends, yeilds papaya, sweet potatoes, peppers, ginger, turmeric and a delightful surprise — two bags of their famous salad mix. The second farmstand, halfway across island, is closed for the week. I learn this when I call from outside the locked gate. I can see fresh vegetables in their display baskets, so there is hope if we return. The third place is cash only and the nearest bank ATM is four miles away.
Nearby, we pull up to Annaly Farms just as a copper-skinned young man with a center part and a long pony tail tromps off to his break in knee-high rubber boots. His handsome face is nicked with scars, as if he is a veteran of countless swiss army knife fights.
Inside the concrete building, two lethargic young men wearing quilted coats move in and out of the giant freezer, checking on what is actually available from the laminated menus affixed to the wall behind the register. The large girl at the register remains engrossed in her iPhone as they talk.They’re out of this, out of that. I look down at the freezers separating us from the young men — they’re bare of anything but the same yellow and red boxes of “Chicken parts for frying” as you buy at Costco. Just as the gaunt, sleepy-eyed young man with wavy shoulder-length Muskeeteer hair is about to carve into a hunk of Senepol cow for us, the copper-skinned man returns and steps in. He insists we have more cuts and ducks into the big freezer room. He returns with another hunk of Senepol and declares it a more popular cut. He walks into the refrigerated meat cutting room, where we were already peering through the sliding plexicglass window at the previous hunk of meet. Cold, blood-scented air wafts out at our faces from the window. The white tiled walls and chipped terracotta floor are spattered with blood. I’m can’t stop looking at a grimy, soiled wooden clipboard hanging on a nail near our heads.
Copper man comes perfectly into frame in the plexi window. His large, round brown eyes remind me of a cow’s. His light moustache, like the delicate hairs on his nicked and scarred arms, are light brown with blonde tips. He’s missing a front tooth.
After handing us a plastic bag with two steaks in it, he converses easily about the difference between the natural and organic chicken options, turning aside to low-key scold the two younger men about restocking the freezer. “I know we have more than that in the back,” he says. He explains that he also sells natural chicken as a side business, but that his business hasn’t recovered since the hurricane. But, he offers, I do still have natural eggs. You can always call ahead if you want to pick some up here. It’s the best customer service we’ll get on island for our entire time here, guaranteed. Next time I’ll ask him his name.
Here are things I notice here.
Dad has slowed down
The trash can used to slide out.
Being here for a week, straight from a spiritual retreat in Peru, going from one tropical place where I’m overcome with the dampness, humidity, feralness and inevitable eeriness of a place teeming with life, wild, to another similar atmosphere, I didn’t have my usual overwhelmed at the mildew, at the decay, at the ruins, the tragedy. Insteady, I’m at home and enjoying that it’s actually a bit dryer, and I’m seeing exactly what I expect — all the things the jungle in Peru reminded me that I would see. Only surprise is the scrappy brownness of the hills because of a three-month droubt. And yet we brought the rain, which I knew we would.
The beaded bracelet on my wrist reminds me of a native american jeweler I once met at a farmer’s market in LA. He was an avid rain dancer and we were in a particularly bad dry spell when I met him. A day or two later it rained. So arriving and learning about the droubt, I knew we would bring the rain, and I summonded rain dance energies without the movement. Just the frequency of it.
Ever since we left six years ago, we’ve been daydreaming about being back on St. Croix on more tolerable terms — having an income, a car that doesn’t leak, and reasonable costs of living. Now we’re here and we’re facing the reality. Desperately seeking out local farmers and resorting to eating frozen fruit from Costco and produce shipped in from California, ironically enough. Eighteen-dollar bags of organic locally roasted coffee. Odd hours of businesses — open three days a week, only after 1pm, etc. Going to the library to get work done, only to find it’s closed for maintenance. A girl at the counter ignores us as I peer through the window, skeptically trying to identify what damage the building sustained.
Impossibly long wait times for service in restaurants. Pot-holed roads, etc. We’re back in it. And whereas before we left fed up and wanting it to be better, no longer able to tolerate the incompetencies that affect all residents, and while away we romanticized the place as the cure to all our gripes about LA life, now we have a more mature, reflective, questioning stance that’s not so sure of things. Not so sure we want to leave island, not so sure we want to stay forever. We know this much: we love St. Croix. We care about the island. We want the rest of world to get to know the community, and we want to bring the rest of the world to the community in some capacity. And looking at the house we’ve been dreaming of buying and making our home, that we’ve been secretly planning to buy, showing up and poking around [see large journal] we see that it’s damaged and would be a lot of work to restore. And I don’t think we’re motivated by idealism or romanticism in our willingness to take it on. It’s more a service to the community and the island to preserve these historical structures that are falling into ruin. Feels like a pull, a duty, a destiny. Like X buying an old villa in tuscany that’s almost more trouble than it’s worth. What is that relationship? It’s destiny, fate, it’s just a quiet willingness to let that be our life.
OUr old shelves are still there. One building has lost oit’s roof. Remnants of Belems house, grow room. Ziggy’s house has major cracks. And we’re asking ourselves, ‘Do we want to live here forever?’ Not necessarily. Do we have to have that home for our own? Not necessarily but we’re willing to inquire with the landowners. We’re willing to make an offer. And we’re letting go. I”m letting to of my father being 100% energetic and feeling good. Maybe he does make a bit of a mess when he drinks a glass of water. Maybe it’s ok that he take sa long time to get up from sitting, or that his hands tremble a bit. Maybe he is tired and wnats to stop chartering. That’s no necessarily the end of hte world, either. The other day he said, “I probably won’t live to 100.” ahe might be wronge, he might be right and is that the worst thing in the world?
Can I accept him as he is? If I can just preservea nd record him, honor his life, and get hi a lifetime achievement award of some kind and do some work to document, I”m willing to let him leave this earth. Beyond that, everytime I have into his eyes wit’s with the full presence and gratitude. And when i’ve done that, i don’t need anything else from him. What more can I ask? It’s the same as when I let go of Shane. I was able to look into his yees and tell him i loved him aknd know that he knew it, and know that he loved me and that there was nothing else to say. Other than thank you. You’ve changed my life for the bettr, and thank you. You’ve changed who I am in some way, and thank you, you’ve altered my course in some way, and thank you, you’ve shifted my wind in some way, and thank you i see the world differently now and thank you i’m richer because of you and thank you.
When Barry passed away…
Are you ever coming back?
I’m down here for a week, a month, two months, no amount of time seems long enough when I know I have to go back. People begin to write, call text me asking if I’m gone forever. Twice while on vacation at two separate jobs people at work thought I simply wasn’t coming back. That I had abandoned my life in Los Angeles. Who does that? Me? Is it something I’m exuding? Or is it an obvious spell that takes over, a veil they notice that makes me look hazy from behind it. Do they think i’m going to leave my life and stay forever because this is where i most belong? I say most because do i belong anywhere? If anywhere, yes this is where i belong. In the wierdness, the in between ness, the fantasy and the decadence of an island inundated with bygone eras. Hints and clues like easter eggs nestled in teh grass, in the hills, in the sand. Abandoned buildings of grandeur and humble ones too. 16th Century Cane industry equipment, giant resting, rusted dinosaurs in the fields. This island is me. A microcosm where things are ambiguous and puzzling, but also distinct and impressive in some ways with the natural beauty and the tisted ways things merge and grow together.
The truth is, the longer i am here, the more beautiful i feel. Natural, powerful and animal-like.
And the harder it is to imagine leaving. It’s a Narnia, where time doesn’t work the same way. Days slip by. I live lifetimes and when i return to the real world it’s just as it was before but i have grown inleaps and bounds and had adventures and i am ageless.
Some people look exactly the same, even younger. And some seem to age at an accelerated pace, like the buildings and roofs and boats. In fact, decay and deterioration are so much a part of the day to day here that it gave me culture shock the first time I came back to visit after moving back to california. I had been living in sure, an imperfect messy city with some downright ugly architecture and
I get a unique case of culture shock in my first two weeks of returning to St. Croix. Last time, coming straight from Southern California, it was the deterioration, mildew, peeling paint, rotted wood, shabbiness, weathering of structures. I despaired, I was grossed out. The bugs, the pervasiveness of creatures in the house - how could i be free of them?
This time, I was jarred/wowed/impressed by how weathered white people look. Bronzed, leathery, cracked, wrinkled with impressive scars and thick, meaty fingers missing some tips, feet tough and tan.
Six weeks in I don't see them as so different from myself. I've acquired a resilience. Cuts, scratches, hairy legs, gouges, bruises, sunburn, peeling, rashes, stings, scabs... I spend way more time using and being in my body and way less time tending to it. I don't bother with body moisturizer or washing or combing my hair because I'm in the water half the time and the other half it's humid, or who knows when I might dive in again. It's definitely a chore.
My firm position on not locking my hair wavers. Locks happen quickly here, and while my hair may gather ash from Montserrat or sand from the sahara, it won't gather brake dust from LA freeways. It would lock good and fast here. Maybe I wouldn't mind, it would eliminate the hassle of washing and combing.
I can hardly recognize my own skin and I can't be bothered. Which tells me something I'd like to believe about myself.I'm only vain when I'm bored. Shut in. When the sun and sea and wind and gress speak to me, I find it more important to be with them. I'm more interested in that than any makeup, IG post or tv show. Even my frog medicine scars, which I was tending to so closely while in Mexico, are healing more slowly, since I no longer apply lavender and neem twice a day.
Homr and Argus
In the center of the circular hall, the young man stood to the left of the pianist, tall and slightly bent back at the hips. He played the violin loosely and comfortably, without a touch of stiffness. In his simple concentration, he didn’t glance at guests or gaze at the ornamental arrangements of colored glass balls and pine boughs on the walls, but kept his eyes on the ground. The pianist, whose own shabby appearance arguably lost him potential private playing engagements, had suggested the boy keep his eyes down so as not to put off guests.
Argus had first seen Homr play three years ago at the entrance to Rosemist Park. He had noticed that the boy’s eyes wandered until they found a comfortable place in their sockets and fixed themselves there, one brow arched in concentration. Argus anticipated that this habit would be off putting to an audience. They wouldn’t have a clue that the boy was almost blind.
At the first intermission, the two left their instruments and retreated to the edge of the room. Homr accepted a glass of punch and Argus a claret.
“How many people would you say are here?” asked Homr.
“Two hundred or so.”
“I guessed more.
They stood, sipping, both averting their eyes from guests.
“That voice I keep hearing…”
“I thought so. Mr. Swish…?”
“Swishmitzen. The inventor.”
“That’s it. He’s pleased?”
“What’s that rattling?” They watched Swish happily hover from conversation to conversation, like a big clumsy moth. He carried a cup at his side, which had a few ice cubes in it, and at times he would rattle this enthusiastically, like someone playing a lucky game of parchessi.
“Yes, he seems very pleased. He’ll want to meet you.”
Homr was an orphan who lived at a boys’ home, and Argus had done nothing to help him find his way in the adult world, other than to seek to develop the boy’s only means of income. At first, he would come to Rosemist to listen and suggest improvements. As the boy’s playing improved, Argus would wait for passersby, then plunk a few coins into his cup and loudly pronounce, “Very good.”
Thank you, sir,” the boy would say with a dip of his head, and he would begin his next song with a flourish of energy, which caused those strolling to pause for a listen. Argus couldn’t tell and didn’t assume whether this was the boy’s innocent gratitude or he had caught on to the pianist’s timing with his praise.
When the Homr could get through a piece without errors, the pianist would then critique his tempos, thwacking a palm with a rolled up newspaper to lead him, but always trailing off if park visitors strolled by. When the tempos improved, he made suggestions as to brightness and volume. The young violinist received all criticism openly and gratefully.
Finally, Argus began puzzling out with the best sequence of songs to hold listeners’ interest. He then booked their first engagement and invited Homr, to rehearse with piano at his small flat a few blocks away.
Homr enjoyed the second half of the performance, because he had relaxed. He liked to imagine where listeners’ minds wandered to. It helped him to hear a rustling or a cough, something he could ascribe to an individual. He didn’t expect them to be focused on the music. In fact, he assumed their thoughts wandered, as it did his, to personal concerns. A man’s cough might mean he was remembering a favor he must reluctantly beg of someone. It could be something happy, too. Homr doubted if Argus’s thoughts dwelled anywhere but the music; his thoughts seemed to rest so comfortably there. If, after gazing out over the park or out a window, Argus began to say something, Homr was always surprised that it was about precisely what they were practicing and not some other random thought, which would have seemed more natural at the moment.
After the performance, the two packed their notes and again moved to the side of the room, knowing that any good performer promptly gets out of the limelight when a performance is done.
“The crab smells good,” said Homr.
“Some kind of salad there, and asparagus and toasts. We’ll see what we can take with us.
“Coming this way.”
Homer lifted his eyes as he heard the voice, half-smiling in pretend recognition.
“Good night, the two of you! You did a blessed job.”
“Glad it pleases,” said Argus. “This is Homr.”
“Young man,” said Swish, “your presence was perfect for this occasion, as I knew it would be the moment I heard you in the park so many months ago.”
“Thank you, sir,” he said, and turn to Argus as Swish gave his attention to a woman tugging at his sleeve.
“He was at the park?”
“Yes. He approached me afterwards about the party.”
Swish moved away a short distance, and Homr heard the happy rattle of his cup of ice. He felt too warm. “So, you didn’t answer an advertisement in the paper for party music?”
“I did not. But he did place an ad.”
“For you, actually.” Argus finished a second claret and set the glass on an alcove in the wall. A waiter breezed by and plucked it up.
Homr stood still, smelling the whiff of tobacco that followed the waiter. Argus regarded him with cautiousness. “He knew about you for some time, because, you see, your violin once belonged to him.”
“But I’ve had it for ten years.”
“Ten years ago he donated it to the charity. Turns out he attached something to it, inside.”
“Attached something?” Homr’s fingers scooted anxiously along the edge of the sound holes of his violin.
Argus bent to watch, scrutinizing the violin. “I myself have looked for it, but couldn’t find anything. He claims it’s still there.”
“You never told me. Is the violin still mine, or is he taking it back?”
“It’s for you, Homr.” Swish’s voice emerged from the conversational din and settled like an umbrella. Homr felt a pressure at his ears, as if everything but the host’s voice was squeezed out. He regarded the tall, oval-skulled man curiously, instinctively drawn to the happiness he exuded. “What is it?”
“A bookmark.” Homr waited for more. Swish set down his cup of melting ice. The same waiter breezed by and picked it up. “Have you ever swum?”
Homr hesitated, wondering if incredibly good fortune might weigh upon his answer. He saw that Argus had gone for the crab salad, and felt momentarily desperate and irrationally inadequate. “Well, in the park fountain, sir.”
“That pigeon’s bath? Brave of you. With my new invention, it won’t matter if you can swim.
“Oh?” Homr breathed a sigh of relief. For what, he didn’t know.
“That’s right. My underwater safe makes swimming a snap. Come right away, and bring the violin.” Swish strode towards the nearest of three arches that led out of the room. He did not look back.
Homr looked once more at Argus, who was trying to pick up broiled asparagus with small clawed tongs. He backed up a few steps, turned and followed Swish.
* * *
I don’t know how the violin capsized. It was just before the moon set that the waves had gotten bigger and bigger until my bow was of no help in steering or paddling. Finally, I crawled over and tied Argus to the neck, gripped his hand in mine and gave us up to mercies of the midnight blue rolls and tilts.
Now the pink of sunrise qued up in the east, but not softly. The light was garish and reflected metallically on the water as I struggled to turn the violin back over. If I couldn’t get completely inside, I could at least flop over the top and paddle with the shrinking swells toward the nearest shore. In the hazy distance were several islands. But whenever I got a good grip, a wave would send the violin spinning out of control like a canoe I had once seen in a comic. Argus, still secured with the rope, bobbed at half speed, fanning out in a little arc around me. Meanwhile, the shadow of a huge shark glided repeatedly beneath us, wiggling ominously. What kept me from panicking was that it was only a shadow, and not an actual shark. I’m not sure how it was done, but it was clever. I drew a quick and vague connection to Plato’s Republic, but I couldn’t concentrate long enough to ponder it. I’d have to ask Swish about it, if I ever saw him again.
Finally, I righted the boat and began sorting out the things I had saved from the Swish. I draped my white concert shirt over Argus’s shoulders. The sun began to warm me. The 18k gold bangles, and rings, cool to the touch and flecked with drops of water, I slipped onto the fingers and wrists of Argus. I lay down and ate my orange. While I browned in the heat, Argus sat there stiffly with everything drying on him. He was a little leathery but not rotting—preserved by the salt, I guessed. The early sunlight matured into heat…
When Swish had mentioned an underwater safe, I could only imagine it was something he had invented for a magician to use on stage. What he actually led me to was a huge steel vault. Before he opened the door, he stopped at a series of shelves the door swung open, there was a wall of water, behaving just like a wall. He pushed me in just as it began to cave over us.
Pretty tile work, hibiscus bushes. That’s the first thing I noticed of a sun-dappled little village as I sloshed to shore. Pink and green paper streamers wove around trunks of coconut trees. I could smell an artificial sweetness coming from many of the windows and porches. Like bottles of flavouring for coffee. I never understood how someone could have a taste for that.
A few people came close when they saw me, and a café owner wrapped a fluffy yellow towel around me. I could feel more eyes watching, from behind siesta shutters. I must have looked a mess. I had lost my comb.
What would happen to Argus? I asked. He was a good friend, and I didn’t want him locked up in some cold morgue. Could we just let him stretch out on one of the beach chairs? The hostess of a small eatery said that was fine. She wore a long pale blue dress and looked very nice in it. She introduced herself.
She served me fried octopus in a basket lined with wax paper. The basket slid nicely across the white tile counter. There were no stools so I stood and ate. Her gift of food entitled her to ask me a few curious questions, which I answered as best I could while I spread out my surviving treasures, piece by sentimental piece.
Where had I come from? What was I doing with a mummy? I explained that Argus was only deceased but a few days, I was sure. Although, I was finding it difficult to gauge time again I noticed. On the boat, I had an acute sense of every hour and when it passed, not that I had a way to check. It was just something I could feel in my chest. Was I boring her?
Not at all, she said. Even now, she said, someone was borrowing a printing press in the next town over to issue a special edition of the paper featuring my story. Would I please mention to the reporter that I had my recovery meal at Fancy’s Place? I was welcome to sleep in the hammock out back.
She waited for me to respond to all of this. I suddenly felt very thirsty. How much salt had she put on the fried octopus? Enough to serve eight, I think.
I said I needed to learn how far off course I had gone, and then I would patch together my trip as best I could. This had to happen soon, especially because of my now stiff friend. We both watched him, unmoving in the shade. For a moment I felt very much at fault and I wanted to go shed a few tears near him.
As if she had just remembered, she said there was talk of a parade. I had to stay at least for that, she said. No, my clothes were a mess. I was in no shape to be presented to anyone, I said with enough scorn to conceal my excitement. I would have to find the barber, right after my nap. I wondered if he would cut Argus’s hair too. I had always heard that people’s hair grows after they pass on.
Over the course of the evening I learned that everyone in the town was diabetic, which explained the sickly sweet smells. Newer residents were still weaning themselves from sweets entirely, using artificial flavorings. One community guideline states no type of sweets should be consumed, said the café owner. He had long sad eyebrows, which got sadder as he told me this, then arced high. But with tomorrow’s festivities requiring picnic treats, they were permitted to make sweets. He had been so anticipating making a chocolate cake.
So then, I wasn’t the original reason for tomorrow’s parade and festivities. No he said, but assured me I was a welcome addition. It felt, he said, as if I had been a part of it along.