By: JP Miller
Jack leaned carefully back in the white plastic chair, testing its strength. The dried, sun-bleached seat was thin and chipped, springy and withered. It cracked and moaned with his weight. He kicked off his sandals, leaned backwards, bowed the chair legs inward, and rested his tall frame with his feet on the underside aluminum pole. He adjusted the flimsy umbrella for some shade but the dried out Sunbrella fabric had minute holes and slight tears that let the sun through anyway so that the table and his clothes were dotted by the light like gunshots. The day was sunny and hot—perfect, like most days in the islands. His clothes stuck to his body in just a few minutes.
In front of him on the café table and under the umbrella was a pint of Courage ale. The frost on the chilled pint mug faded fast in the heat. Jack looked at the ale’s pale, yellow color and milky head and took a deep draught, the first of the day. The first beer always comforted him but he couldn’t place the feeling; perhaps simply a familiar routine. He wore a stylishly, short-sleeved, white t-shirt which was frayed at the collar and old, faded khakis shorts, ragged at the bottom and pockets. His hair, after months of purposeful neglect, was long and bleached light brown by the sun and streaked with blond wisps around his eyes and neck. Although the heat was just bearable, he wore his hair down covering most of his face. He revealed all of one green eye and most of the other. He relaxed and welcomed the intermittent breeze that lifted the umbrella slightly. When the rare breeze blew by, ruining his hair, Jack had the habit of combing it back with his fingers and shaking it loose.
He quickly scanned the bar crowd for locals he knew as friends. There were few tourists here despite it being tourist season. And the locals had not descended on the watering hole yet. The tourists that do come and lounge in the sun at this local bar or hide under a shade are usually interesting. He felt at home here. He tested his Courage ale—a British import that was the island’s staple beer. He swallowed the chilled pint in one long, smooth movement. He smacked the glass down on the table and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. A waiter brought him another pint without his asking. Jack stared across the café, past the jetty, and toward the different hues of Christiansted Bay. The palms waved at him and the seabirds yelled at him. He watched the sailboats tack across the bay in their colorful, languid procession. The bay water anchorage was a pale green cataract worn smooth by the lee shore. Beyond the bay, the water gave up the occasional whitecap over the disturbed and heavy looking sea. Paradise.
Most of the locals–indigenous, European or African, tolerated Jack as one of their own. Some had even heard of him before he landed on the island or so they said. Before arriving on this island he had taught literature at a US southern university and published a minor novel which garnered critical success but failed to sell more than a few thousand copies. Considering a career in writing, Jack relinquished his tenure track professorship. This imagined literary career began mostly on the advice of a colleague who Jack realized, much too late, had coveted his position at the university. Yet on the island, he was considered a man of letters. There were many such pretenders, published and unpublished alike, who set to haunting the watering holes of these dots of sand.
Jack frequented local haunts like “The Pig’s Ear” and “Hamilton Mews” where he sat and gambled or traded lies with the eccentric population. The poor men and women of the island, along with the depraved, the artsy, the characters, and the petty thieves, came to these places to drink. Pirates, all of them. The drinks were basic, strong, and cheap. The ambiances of these places were akin to fistfights, gambling, and the usual indifference to a new face.
Just before Jack could order his next ale, Tia emerged from the bar, and with both hands, brought her red-orange colored rum punch to the table. She sat across from Jack, arranged herself in her perfect white sarong, which multiplied her tan, and looked around the café for anyone that might be an acquaintance. Not likely in this local establishment.
Her beauty was not subtle. It was severe and overwhelming to many men. It was like she had willed her beauty and nourished it as one would a career. Her hair was as dark as the sun would allow and pulled back into a bun. Her eyes were pools of light brown with flecks of gold. She had a white hibiscus flower in her hair above her left ear. This was common to tourists who aped the local women. But, Tia, because of her Cuban roots, was able to pull it off. Her appearance was breathtaking at times and so unlike the island girls. The indigenous girls grew into womanhood simply, naturally, and effortlessly. The girls of African descent, with their smooth buttery, mulatto skin, were tall and lanky, with long exquisite beaded hair. Tia, however, was a queen among peasants … and overdressed. Jack watched her satisfied face. No one she knew was present. She took a slim sip of her rum and only then looked over her Ray bans just under the brim of her white straw hat. She bore a hole in Jack with her smoky eyes. He motioned for the waiter, noticed her attention, but ignored her obvious challenge. Tia was a congressman’s daughter–beautiful, smart, and blessed with money. She had been on the island for more than a year. It was rumored that she broke too many hearts in the states and was here to escape the rumors. This was impossible. There was nowhere to hide from her past on St. Croix. The rumors followed her despite the distance.
Tia, used to a modicum of influence and wealth, was too high-brow to sit and drink with the locals. That was fine with him. He liked his alone time, away from the crowds at the beaches. Tia did not hide her relationship with him, but she preferred the party crowd—seasonal transplants that came to escape the Long Island chill or Martha’s Vineyard’s winter loneliness. The whole situation had never bothered him much until recently. It had become habit for Tia to pay his way. But, everything considered, despite the whispering, there are worse ways to live a life. He had given up on writing after arriving on the island. The process had become an exercise in self-examination instead of the simple joy of telling a story.
Tia spoke first, as was her custom. She rarely looked at whom she spoke. Jack looked at her and marveled. Her beautiful mouth spoke such harsh words.
“I suppose you are already drunk?”
Jack took his ale from the young waiter named Claude and handed him some balled and wrinkled bills from his thin pocket. Jack knew Claude well. Often, when all work and social duties were finished, they drank and gambled until day break at HamiltonMews. Tia was usually away at parties on the other side of the island. Claude looked into Jack’s green eyes and wished him luck with a crooked smile.
“Actually I’m sober. Although during the time you took getting here I could have been…”
Tia took a long exaggerated draw of the sea air, sipped her drink, and sat back, staring toward the bay. She dropped her Ray Bans momentarily, turned and glanced sideways at him. He lifted his long hair and brushed it back if only to see her eyes. They’re eyes met briefly but Tia raised her hands, palms outward in a mock show in acceptance of the pitiful, local bar, and Jack’s irritating habits.
“Why do you like this place over all the beautiful bars that are on this island? Why not have a change of scenery?” She said this giving away her slight Cuban accent and imperfect English grammar that Jack had once enjoyed so much. Jack was well aware that she hated this local bar. That is the reason he chose the place. Many times he had escaped to this place after a fight with Tia. This had become more and more frequent.
Tia continued to stare at the flat calm of the bay while she spoke. The sailboats passed before her eyes but she never saw them. Her mind’s eye never registered the simple consideration of their colorful movement. They passed unnoticed. She looked beyond the bay, beyond Jack. Her gaze to seaward simply gave her a pause. He knew she was considering a maneuver—a way to endure, to win by attrition. She looked as if she was crying. Jack was taken in momentarily. But, he knew this was a tactic. He ignored her tears.
“I like this place…it’s away from the tourists and I can see a good portion of the ocean past the bay. The beer is cold and the sun is warm. What more could one want?”
Tia glanced about to take in the ragged café and made a sound of disgust. “Phsst.” She spat it out.
The palm thatched roof over the bar and the interminable faded and torn umbrellas was not her style at all. The round white metal table was dented and missing paint.
“No. That’s not it. You know I absolutely despise this place. All the … mulatto …I mean locals are here and the steel drums give me headaches … really ….please spare me the authenticity.” She squirmed in her hard and uneven seat.
Tia shifted her sarong pulling up to cover her teasing cleavage. She looked around at the filling café and looked back at the bay. She took a long pull on her rum and left it half empty. Jack automatically signaled for a replacement.
“At least the drinks are good and strong. Tolerable,” she acquiesced.
She jerked off her wide brimmed hat and stuffed it in her bag. Then Jack noticed the faint lines around her eyes that came from too much sun and too much rum. Her tan was bone deep from her natural coloring and the years in the island sun. Her Latino roots were obvious although she avoided that subject. The white sarong made her cinnamon colored tan all that more sumptuous, indigenous looking. Yet, Tia was from the D.C. area–Georgetown to be exact. Tia came from new money. She had the dot com wealth which came from her ex-husband in New York. She had left him after six years of mutual infidelity. She found a good lawyer and got nearly half his money, which was significant. In a rare moment of simple honesty, she had told Jack, that in the end, they were both just glad to end the thing.
Jack noticed the attention she gathered from men and women. She could be funny and fun when she wanted and she was always beautifully coiffed. Jack first noticed her when he attempted to get into the exclusive resort where she was staying. They threw him out after one drink but he had gotten her attention. And finally he engaged her in a conversation at one of the township bars for tourists. He couldn’t say what they talked about but they were sleeping together a week later. She moved out of the resort and they both moved to the Strand hotel in Christiansted. Jack went to parties where he knew no one. The laughs were good and eventually he was accepted as some kind of novelty—an expatriate writer who had potential. Jack accepted this role and played the rogue. But, given the weariness of his part and the incessant questions about his next novel, the party could not last forever. A year later they were tiring of each other. Jack thought of how their relationship had deteriorated and was determined not to face it today if possible. Later, he thought.
“Ok darling … why don’t we go to the Egret for lunch and then back to our rooms for the evening?” Jack saw the disgust wrinkle her nose and she hid it behind the rum punch.
“What? The Egret … then to bed for all that time?”
At one time, not very long ago, they had spent many long afternoons in the white, net covered bed. The slatted windows open to catch the breeze–the balcony overwhelmed with bottles and glasses. The wicker chairs covered with their clothes. Now going back to the hotel had become a chore for her and she had resisted his advances for the last two weeks.
“No. I have a mind to get good and drunk just like you.”
Tia used to drink herself silly at those high end parties. Now she rarely drank more than two while out. She had noticed the wrinkles around her eyes one morning after a long night of Cuba Libres and quickly halted the excessive drinking. That was not an easy feat on this island.
Tia leaned back in the white plastic chair showing her discomfort with this dirty place and Jack’s suggestion. She kept quiet and held her hands over her ears briefly, to make a point about the ringing of the steel drums and the calypso music.
Jack pulled a gold coin from his pocket and played with it while Tia watched. He bounced it off the table and tossed it in the air.
“Ok darling. Let’s do up the clubs and get smashed like we used to do.”
Tia still resisted. Jack was testing her resolve.
“Oh. I don’t know. They are so dull this time of year.”
Jack had time for two more ales before she spoke again. He was feeling his courage now. Was it enough to blur this episode?
The steel drums pinged out the music and called to the passing tourists. The deepening crowd started to reply with an undertone of laughter and arguments. Some locals danced and pawed at each other. Jack watched the dancers and envied them.
“How would you like to dance, darling?”
Automatically Tia tried to get up for a dance but the rum and the realization of Jack’s subtle games put her back in her seat. She looked repulsed at the prospect of dancing with him.
“I don’t think I can now. I’m feeling … well you should have asked me earlier.”
Jack knew she was putting on a show for him. He motioned for two more drinks and they just sat and stared out to the bay. Jack smoked. This was a habit that had become infuriating to Tia. She waved her hands, moved her chair, and held her nose.
“I don’t believe you love me anymore … there.”
Tia said this as a matter of fact and didn’t expect Jack to challenge her statement. She was correct. Jack still stared at the bay, smoked and tipped his ale.
Tia kept her eyes pointed toward the water. She was obviously frustrated with him and angry as hell. Jack was feeling the drinks and started to challenge her remarks.
“No darling. I believe you have tired of us. I can tell you are ready to quit this place and me as well. You’re ready to move on–new places and new men to conquer. Isn’t that so?” Tia looked at him for a few seconds, held the gaze, and then turned her face back to the water.
Jack continued. “I wonder what he will look like.”
Tia looked at him, mouth open, and bristled at this statement.
“I mean he will be rich of course. But how will he look I wonder. Surely more handsome than I am.”
“It’s not that. Why can’t we be like we used to be? It’s all slow and dull now.”
Jack laughed softly. He removed the coin from his pocket and began to play with it—rolling it between his fingers, tossing it in the air and rolling it around the uneven table top. He examined the coin. On one side was a Jolly Roger and on the other side, the name of the casino where he had gotten the worthless slot piece.
Uncharacteristically, Tia remarked at the scene playing out in the bay.
“Oh. Look at the baby dolphins following their mother across the bay. They are so gentle and smooth looking. I never noticed them before. I wonder how long the mothers remain with their babies. Is it until they are mature enough to fend for themselves?”
Tia wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold, looked quickly downward. She gently rubbed her waist back and forth while following the dolphins till they disappeared from sight.
Jack was drunk but he noticed Tia’s momentary humanity. He sat still confused at this development, puzzled, and looked for something in Tia’s face that would explain. Failing, he shook his head, and raked his hair back. He kept playing with the coin. He sighed loudly as if bored and tossed the cheap coin fiercely against the round café table. The coin bounced high as it arched forward and he watched it land in Tia’s Rum punch with an audible “Ker plunk”. The red colored punch splashed outward and shot perfectly onto Tia’s pure white sarong. The stain dribbled down her sarong to her belly. It resembled a perfectly placed dot of sun leaking from her navel. She watched, momentarily muted, with pure surprise. Her mouth moved and her eyes narrowed into slits staring at Jack in surprise and then back at the stain. She wiped at the stain with a cloth napkin gently which seemed to rock her waistline. Jack waited for the words to flow.
“You ass. You’ve ruined my perfectly wrapped sarong. What the hell is wrong with you?”
She surveyed the crowd looking for confederates. But this was not her kind of place.
Jack was confused by her behavior but certainly not moved by the event. He quickly grabbed her rum punch. Then he downed her drink and took the coin into his mouth. He spat it out into his hand. The gold coating was fading and the coin seemed smooth and worn.
Tia stared at him. But he spoke before she could.
“Well, I owe you a drink. Anyway, are you sick? What’s wrong with the stomach?”
Tia watched as he rubbed the coin as if it were magic. She spoke firmly and resolutely as she wiped the stain into her sarong.
“Well, it’s nothing. Just a mistake is all.”
Jack slumped backward in his chair and started to get up. He ordered a rum punch and ale.
“Well. We might as well get plastered then.” Jack had tired of the constant sparring and found that he knew certain things were forever lost. He was relieved and somewhat sad.
Tia sat up straight and looked Jack in the eye and spoke dully. He was ready for what she was going to say. He already knew this was going to happen. But she surprised him.
“Actually, you have to take me to the Chalks plane. I’m going to St. Thomas and from there I’m going to New York.” It sounded as if she had rehearsed this. Jack played hurt but was relieved in a melancholy way.
“Just like that?”
He rubbed the coin furiously and thought of throwing it into the bay. But he held onto it for no reason except it was tangible, smooth to the touch, comforting.
“Yes. Just like that.”
Jack swallowed his ale and then reached for her rum punch. She blocked him at first with her hand which was covered with jewelry. Then she pushed the drink toward him. He only sipped.
Jack moved his plastic chair across the sand. Then, with some effort, he tried to get out of his chair with some decorum. But he slid sideways and only missed hitting the ground by grabbing an extra chair beside him. He realized that he was good and drunk now–just like he wanted. Tia was acting embarrassed and stood with her arms crossed. Tia reached into her bag and paid the tab with perfect flat new bills. She put them on the table under the glass of rum punch.
Tia laughed at him pulling himself erect and reaching for the drink in the process. He picked it up and the bills flew off toward the harbor. He watched them escape. This was the first time he had ever heard her laugh at him. It stung. She grabbed her purse and smiled–a sign that she was right all along. She was finished, resolute.
Tia reached into her bag again and took out an envelope and placed it under his empty pint glass. It was thick and sealed. Jack took a look and thought maybe it was a letter. Tia backed away from the ridiculous scene of Jack brushing some sand off his hands and engaged him one last time. It looked as if she was crying without a sound. Her brown eyes were as full as the Caribbean Sea. Maybe this was a real emotion. Jack just stood and wavered.
“I’m getting a cab. You can’t drive and I want to end it here anyway. You can’t even walk properly. You can’t even write a proper book. You should have written one about us. You are incapable of love.”
Tia turned swiftly around and stepped heavily away from him standing there with his hands in his pockets. Jack realized that she was telling the truth.
Tia walked steadily, but not quite quickly, away from him. He got no farewell-only the sound of shoes swishing in the sand.
He didn’t try to stop her. He said nothing to her. Then he looked at the envelope on the table. He picked it up, ripped open the top and saw bills of different denominations that thickly packed the envelope. He expected a letter but wasn’t displeased with the contents at all.
Jack stuffed the envelope in his front pocket and walked carefully over to the sea wall looking over the bay. He glanced at the clear green water of the beaches and looked further out at the multi-colors of the bay. Then his eyes stared farther out past the flat calm of the bay and the light blue patches. He stared at that deep blue water past the bay and wiped his eyes, expecting a tear. But, he couldn’t produce one. He just stared at the sea and thought about writing again. He had an idea for a book. It had been a long time.