The shuttle bus took them through ramshackle towns, streets filled with locals
out talking and hollering even in the dark night. Different than home where all
you saw after dark were headlights and the shining eyes of furtive creatures
in the thicket.
Robby bought some weed from a kid who boarded and exited the bus before the driver
even noticed. He wanted to smoke it right there on the bus, but Cherish didn’t
think it was a good idea. “Didn’t you see Midnight Express?”
“Sure,” he said, “but this is Jamaica. Not Istanbul or wherever
Cherish threw up her hands and turned her face to the window. Do whatever you
want. “I’m not going to smoke it,” Robby said, “yet.”
The hotel was behind a guarded gate and a ten-foot fence around the property.
To get to the beach, they would need to pass a guard. The security fit in with
what Cherish had read in the Jamaica guidebooks: avoid the locals at all cost.
And do not, ever, let one of them guide you anywhere.
If she were writing a guidebook about the town where she and Robby lived she
also would have said avoid the locals. Locals were always scary. Didn’t
matter if you were on some palm-tree-covered island in the Caribbean or in upstate
New York in the piney woods. Avoid the damn locals.
“It’s fucking racist,” Robby said when he saw the gate. “Like
we’re so precious?” His anger made her weary. He was less than a
year out of rehab and not yet drinking, though, of course, he continued to smoke.
Jamaica had been his idea. He’d fallen in love with it, he said, because
of the Jamaican guys he’d met in the prison where he was a guard. “They’re
so chill,” Robby said.
Cherish would have preferred staying closer to home. Florida, North Carolina,
something like that. But Robby was insistent even though it was spring break
and the place would be crawling with frat boys and girls gone wild. She felt
they were interlopers, trying too hard to seem young. In fact, she was young,
just twenty, though being with Robby made her forget this—his desire for
her to be this fearless other, always casting her reality against what he wished
her to be, made her feel like she was already past her youth.
And then there was the foreignness. As soon as the plane touched down, she missed
her mother. And now the gates. She wasn’t sure if they made her feel safe,
They were greeted by the sound of steel drums in the brightly lit lobby. The
desk clerk told them about the nightly happy hour and would they like him to
put their names down for the special rum party mid-week?
“I’m sober,” Robby said.
The confused clerk turned to Cherish and said, “All the jerk chicken you
can eat. Rum punch and entertainment.”
“Sign me up,” Cherish said.
* * *
Their first three days, Robby would get high after breakfast and then fall asleep
on his beach chair while Cherish fended off women offering to braid her hair.
She wore sunscreen but her pale skin burned so that her feet throbbed. On Tuesday
afternoon, they took some time away from the sun and sat at the beach bar. Cherish
drank a Red Stripe while Robby chewed on a straw and talked to the bartender.
A man with dreadlocks approached Cherish. Unspeaking, he stood beside her and
took a bottle out of a ratty bag, uncapped it, and poured some goo onto his hands.
He swiveled her stool to face him and rubbed his sticky hands onto her red thighs,
which felt immediately cooler. He moved behind her and rubbed the lotion onto
her throbbing shoulders.
He recapped the bottle and handed it to her. “Aloe,” he said.
“Hello?” Cherish said, trying to mimic his accent.
“Aloe,” he said, slowly, “the plant.”
Cherish examined the bottle. It had once held soda and now it contained a grayish
brown foul-smelling mixture. Was it what he said it was? What if it was poison?
She’d let him put it on her skin. She fought the urge to itch where his
hands had been. She wished Robby would notice what was going on. Wished he would
tell this man to leave her alone.
The man stood patiently by, waiting. Then she understood he expected payment. “How
much?” They agreed on five dollars and he left.
Robby and the bartender talked on. If she didn’t have the bottle to hold
onto, she would have questioned whether the man had been there at all. This is
the way things felt in Jamaica: Robby living in one hazy, singular moment and
she in her own. Or maybe this was the way it always felt in their relationship.
She wasn’t sure.
Jamaica was clouding over her. Wrapping her in plant leaves.
* * *
They were driven to the rum party in a hotel shuttle along with three older couples.
It seemed the resort was more a haven for aging Europeans on vacation than it
was a party venue for fucked-up coeds looking to get laid. This was fine with
Cherish, though she suspected Robby was disappointed; he’d only done one
semester at college and felt like he’d missed out on the whole scene.
One of the women asked if they were newlyweds and Robby snorted. “I don’t
believe in marriage,” he said. No one spoke to them for the rest of the
ride. They were living together, the two of them. Against her mother’s
wishes. Cherish didnt know how she felt about marriage. Her mother had made
a series of bad choices with men. She wasn’t sure she wanted to marry Robby.
But she also didn’t want him to not want to marry her.
The party destination was an open-air hall with long, communal tables and a stage
up front. When they took their seats, they were offered rum drinks. Cherish took
Robby’s as well as her own. Before night’s end she was talking to
one of the women who had been on the shuttle bus with them. “I do believe
in marriage,” she assured the woman.
The woman nodded, the beads on her newly braided hair clacking against each other.
The music picked up and Cherish attempted to get the woman to dance with her.
She turned the woman to face away from her and then placed her arms on either
side of the woman’s waist and began humping up and down. The woman tried
to escape but was unable to until Robby grabbed Cherish’s upper arm and
yanked her back down to sitting. Cherish ducked her head beneath the table and
vomited all the jerk chicken and rice she could eat, all the rum
and juice and fruit she could drink.
* * *
The day after the party, they went snorkeling. Neither had ever been. A boat
took them to clear, shallow waters where they and several other vacationers put
on masks, flippers and snorkels. The guide showed them how to fall backwards
off the boat. It felt strange to Cherish, against common sense, to fall backwards.
Back home in the lake she entered the water always facing forward, unable to
see what was beneath.
She was buoyed in the tepid water as she affixed the stuffy mask and jammed the
snorkel into her mouth. As she put her face to the water, she had to remind herself
not to breathe through her nose. Robby was already swimming away. He hadn’t
spoken to her that morning anyway after the final thing he’d said just
before she’d passed out: “You’re disgusting.”
Cherish moved through the water, always wary of sharks, trying to enjoy the brightly
colored fish. After a few minutes her stomach seized and she squeezed the cheeks
of her ass together and made her way in the direction of the boat.
On board, the guide led her down the stairs to a tight stall bathroom. She waited
until she heard him walking up the stairs before she let loose. Shame descended,
a wool blanket within which she wrapped herself over and over.
Every time she thought she might move from the toilet, her stomach pinched inward.
After some time, she heard the others getting back on the boat. She heard Robby.
Heard his laugh and the murmur and sway of conversation.
Things hadn’t always been this way between them. In the beginning, there
had been kindness. He would rub her head until she fell asleep. Leave food for
her on the stove for when she was done with her shift.
She listened as the boat’s engine started up. They made their way toward
shore. Robby did not come to find her.
* * *
On their last day, Robby suggested parasailing. “I don’t know,” Cherish
hesitated. He knew she was scared of heights.
“It’ll be fun,” he said. She knew he was tired of her fears,
worn down by them. He’d thought her an exciting girl when they first met
at his brother’s wedding where she had been a bridesmaid. She’d given
him that impression, drinking shots of vodka, dancing on the table. She’d
led him to believe it about her.
She said she would think about it in the shower, but he left without her, taking
away her need to decide whether she would parasail or not. Whether she would
please him or not.
He left a note on the rumpled bed. It said, “Later. R.”
She felt the straps of their relationship loosening. Felt him pulling away, lifting
up out of the water and flying beneath a brightly rainbowed sail. He would see
the island where she was, but he would be up there above her. Transcendent.
She dressed loosely so that no clothing touched the patches of her skin—the
tender parts near her underarms, behind her knees, in her crotch—which
the sunscreen had not protected and left her exposed and reddened.
For the first time since they’d arrived, Cherish left the gates of the
hotel by herself. She would be fearless. See? She was not afraid. Not of the
locals. Not of anyone.
She would walk into town, do a little sightseeing, a little shopping. Buy her
mother a t-shirt that said, “Ya Mon” or some shell-encrusted thing
that screamed vacation in the Caribbean.
The rich heat of the pavement smothered the soles of her sandals as she walked.
At first, she felt confident walking by herself, scoffing at the worried look
the guard gave her. What was to fear?
Soon, though, she understood, as children and adults stepped in line with her,
asked if she wanted her hair braided, asked for money. A legless man on a skateboard
held up a tin cup. Cherish dug into her fanny pack and sprinkled spare change
into his cup. Her lip sweated and the tight red skin on all of her most tender
places ached. She should have told Robby to wait.
A young man walked up to her as she crossed a low bridge spanning a dirty, tidal
stream. “Come with me, lady,” he said. “I will show you the
“You don’t know where I’m going,” Cherish said, putting
a protective hand on her fanny pack. The guide book had said to never, ever let
a random local
“Does it matter?” he asked, stopping her in her step by placing a
rough-palmed hand on her elbow, facing her. His eyes were serene, hopeful.
Cherish thought of Robby, the boat tugging him upward, his feet the last part
of him to separate from the water as though birthing him into the sky. And here
she was rooted to this place, gummed down.
* * *
Cherish followed the man but she did not ask his name. He didn’t need one
and neither did she. They left the streets and took a path through the trees.
Soon it was dark and quiet, the noon sun far away, blotted out by vegetation.
The path had seen many feet before theirs. In the woods back home she would follow
old logging trails or the thinner paths of deer. Here, the trail blazers had
Beneath a large tree, its branches spread out enough to take in a whole family
at a reunion, there were wood carvings. The carvings were placed in a circle,
the tall grass matted down beneath them so that they would not topple over. They
were of various sizes, some small enough to fit in her hand, others the size
of newborn infants, toddlers. Most were animals and birds: cats, pigs, crows,
but circling the animals were the people: men and women, naked and well-formed,
though childlike in their size. In the middle of the group stood one larger
man carving, his arms raised to the sky, his penis erect. In a way, she marveled
at them. That they might stand here by themselves, unmolested. But they also
frightened her. Any minute they might come to life and crowd around her, licking
and touching her skin, pushing her down in the grass. She would not escape.
“Who made them?” she asked, afraid to touch.
The man shrugged. “The people,” he said. The items were so common
to him, something he saw every day. What in her world could cause such wonder
in him? There was the snow, maybe, and how it ached beneath you when the temperatures
plummeted. The snow and the
ice letting up in spring. How it called and moaned and banged against itself.
He wouldn’t have known that.
Robby had taken her into the woods behind his mother’s house once. It was
winter but the sun bouncing off the snow kept them warm. He brought her up a
small hill. At the top, trees had fallen away and exposed a patch of ground.
He took off his jacket and laid it on the ground and placed her upon it, lying
her back. He unzipped her jeans and pulled them and her underwear down, exposing
The cool air was thrilling on her thighs as he pressed against her. She looked
up above his head into the sky. A contrail lingered against the blue.
The sky in Jamaica was just that blue as she and the man walked on, up the path.
Up, up. She could not turn around now and make her way back by herself. When
she looked back, the path seemed to close up behind them.
She felt resigned with her decision to follow him. Up, always up. Her thighs
ached and sweat formed patches beneath her shirt, sticking it to her skin. She
The man stopped up ahead and was talking to someone. She caught up to him, but
hung just behind his thin shoulder. A group of men and women, locals, beneath
the shade of a tree, eating. There were eight of them that she could see, but
might have been more. She kept counting and losing count. Fear throbbing her
heart into her ears. He might have brought her to them as a sort of offering.
I have no money, she thought to say, and then didnt. Maybe it wasnt money they
were after. Maybe they wanted her as a sacrifice. She scanned the area for a
stone slab, something they would tie her to just before they stuck the knife
in her heart. She gripped the mans upper arm, her hands seeming out of control
of her body. She should not have touched him. She felt his bicep flex beneath
The people spoke under their breath, in whispers, a language she could not understand.
Then some loud voices. One said, “Blood clot.” They all laughed.
The man shook his head at them.
“Come on," he said, and pulled her past the group as they continued to laugh.
“What does it mean?” she asked after they passed through, back to
the safety of the path, green covering over green behind them.
“Nice white person,” he said. It was a lie—the phrase was something
unpleasant directed at her and he had protected her. She wondered what Robby
would have done in the same situation. He would have laughed with the others
at her expense. Joined in. Made of himself a local.
The path kept them moving up. Soon it cleared and they were on a paved road.
Up ahead was a food vendor serving jerk chicken and pork. She bought some for
both of them and some drinks. The food still tasted funny to her but shed gotten
used to it over the days, had even grown to like it. They ate in silence and
The sun had moved and filtered through the leaves, splashing the ground with
pigment. She checked her watch. An hour had passed, though it seemed they had
been traveling for much longer.
“We’re there soon,” he said without turning around. She sensed
from his tone that something special was ahead. They walked on the road now and
she continued to follow behind. It would have felt wrong to walk beside him.
He was so clearly in the lead.
They stopped outside a wrought iron gate. “Here,” he said, “is
Mick Jagger’s house. And over there,” he pointed, “lives Diana
“Oh,” Cherish said. She had wanted sublime. She had wanted transcendence.
He noticed her disappointment and walked on.“Come,” he said.
Up, she followed.
At the top of the hill was a cliff, below a panorama. The ocean, blue, the sky,
blue. Green trees. Boats in motion. Parasailers dangling. And all of them below
her, looking like a postcard she might have just bought in the gift shop. "Do
you like it?" the man asked, wanting so very much for her to like it.
“Yes,” Cherish said, feeling she might cry from fatigue and the dull
sadness that had been nagging at her since the beginning of the trip. No, since
before the beginning of the trip. Since shed allowed herself to be talked into
the trip, to be talked into living together, to be talked into Robby.
“I love it,” she said. The man smiled. She had pleased him.
She couldnt have even really said what it was, her happiness. It was still forming,
gathering under her skin, scratching to get out.
“I just want one minute alone,” she said to the man, as he stood by her shuffling
his feet, looking like it was time to head back.
“Its a long trip down, lady,” he said. He looked wary, as though she
might ditch him.
She had thought that she hated to be alone. Thats what she always told people, “I
dont like to be alone.” But maybe what she said wasnt true.
“Just one minute,” she said. “I promise.” She had taken his hand
in hers as she said this and squeezed it. He nodded and left her then, moved
slightly down the path, just out of sight.
Her eyes locked on to a parasailer swooping through the air. She stretched her
arms out and thought to jump off the cliff, to float down to the sea. She closed
her eyes and felt her body move—sway forward and back—though it stayed in place.
Robby was somewhere below her surrounded by laughing couples, blue ocean, white
There. She was there alone. By herself. It was that moment. Happiness needled
through her skin.
* * *
On the plane ride home from Jamaica, she sat next to Robby and thought of their apartness. How they would not tear apart, but float that way, buoyed. How the day would start out with a great deal of hope—as moving days do—but by noon it would be too fucking hot. Steamy, hazy sun. And the fucking couch wouldn’t fit up the front staircase and so they would take it up the wider, dirtier staircase in the back and when
they did, it wouldn’t fit through the kitchen door. So they would leave
it on the covered porch and there it would stay all fall and winter and spring
and summer until the next winter when Cherish moved out.
Through all the seasons, Cherish would sit on the couch in the evenings. She
would scratch her nails over the corduroy as she smoked and thought about Robby
and how he helped her move even though they’d already broken up. The couch
had been theirs, but now he lived back in his old bedroom in his mother’s
house and Cherish was in an apartment two towns away with roommates. Robby kept
two cats and instead of calling, he would send her letters, mix tapes.
She would send him one letter back and tell him that at Christmas, they had used
a spare tire as a stand for the tree. The lights, she would say, were white and
blinking, like the stars back home where you are, cutting through the trees on
one of those frigid nights when the snow squeaks beneath your feet and you believe