The flight from Miami rolled to a stop far from the cluster of low buildings that made up Princess Juliana International Airport. Concrete cooked in the sun, tin roofs gave off waves of heat, and the skin of the prop jet crackled as the chill of altitude evaporated. Suzan unbuckled her belt, felt other passengers stretch, push, stand, eager to get off. Arthur pretended to be reading but she could see his eyes flick, watching for the first sign of forward movement.
After a while, two men in white shirts and black ties trundled a set of push-up stairs into place.
Suzan almost fell at the cabin door. She blamed her shoes, the heel of a sandal catching in the cuff of white synthetic pants that were insufferably sealed to her body by the sun, but it was more the slam of hot, sweet-acrid air, part rose water and part scorch. Ironing day. Her mother ironing her father’s white pharmacy smocks. She smelled hot steel, Niagara starch, sprinkled water flashed into steam, cotton hot almost to burning between metal and pad.
“Christ,” Arthur said, almost in her ear, prompting her to keep moving down the clanging stairs. “Prickly heat on a frigging stick.”
In the open-air terminal, a thin stagger of tourists moved from one hot place to another. A bored clerk leaned on the brochures at a booth, “Welcome to the Friendly Island, Sint Maarten-Saint Martin.”Arthur carried the large duffel that constituted their joint luggage, the rest still sedately occupying the closets of the conference hotel in Miami. He hoisted it on his shoulder and led the way out the other side of the terminal into a courtyard.
Taxis nosed along the curb. One peeled off the end and out, whirling up a dust devil that spun for a second and then collapsed. It made her think of Frontier Town. Corrugated roofs. Spiky foliage, dusty leaves. The sun-blinded street. A pack of menacing gunslingers walking with exaggerated slowness, lean and hard, kicking up small clouds with their sharp-pointed black boots, as the citizens in plaid shorts and halter tops are ordered to take cover by the sheriff. The bad guys fan out, into the saloon, behind barns. Flat cracks of gunfire. One of the bad guys emerges on the roof—shrill screams of warning from the kids—and the handsome sheriff turns and shoots from the hip and the man in black falls, rolls off a shed roof and splays into a large watering trough.
Arthur has changed money at the American Express and decided on a cab. She saw him motion, come on, come on, but she remained wooled-up in the past. What an odd thing to remember, Frontier Town, like the ironing. The last time she looked in the big trunk, her mother still had the red straw souvenir hat that had sagged on a hook in her closet until it ripped clear through.
The driver was black, his skin black, his sunglasses, the car against which he leaned. “Yes, yes, very close.” He laughed as he said that, but still seemed a bit intimidating. Layers of black in the tropical heat. Arthur gave him the name of the hotel and he opened the doors, stowed their bag, started the meter. The Pontiac was dark and cool inside, tint on the windows and a blast from the air conditioning vents.
“You are honeymooning, then?”
Suzan looked away. Arthur said, “No, just a vacation.”
“Soon it will be honeymooning,” he assured, smiling at Suzan in the rearview mirror. “Saint-Martin does that for Americans, even for the Russians who are quite cold.”
They swung out of the airport but immediately pulled over when a tiny white car swerved past, honking, a skinny arm waving wildly from the passenger window. The car went to the berm and the taxi pulled alongside and stopped, half off the roadway. The driver leaned across to speak to a young woman and a teenage boy. Suzan was expecting French, because of the way he pronounced Saint Martin, so it took a moment for the rhythm of the language to become apparent. Spanish, but mixed.
The young woman was round-faced and wore some kind of uniform. Another exchange or two and the girl jolted away in the tiny car.
“She is my younger sister,” he explained, pulling back into traffic with only the briefest glance then looking back at them over the seat. He beamed, delighted at his good fortune to have shared his sister with them. “She has a job with an American hotel. She does the accounts.”
“You speak good English,” Arthur said, just as he might speak to a foreign student. “Puerto Rico?”
“No.” The driver took his arm from the back of the seat and focused on the road.
“But you are not Martinesque.”
“We are Dominican, but long here in Saint-Martin. I have a brother in Houston and I have made a visit with him in America.”
The rest of the ride was silent, but at least it was extremely short. The hotel was close to the airport, on the ocean side of a narrow belt of sand that separated the Caribbean from a lagoon.
At the hotel, Arthur shuffled through the money in his wallet, greenbacks and colored bills. “Do you take dollars?”
The driver tilted his head down and looked over his sunglasses. His eyes were jaundiced; Suzan thought of malaria. “The florin is the Dutch medium of exchange, you know. The dollar is not worth so much here.”
The next day they would learn, as they sorted through florins and francs at a lunchtime cafe, that it was best to keep your dollars. Everyone here accepted them.
Arthur (it was always Arthur, never Art) had her rent the car.
Not on my card, he said, as she filled out the forms. Signing and x-ing and initialing hard through triplicate copies. She’d never rented a car before. She got all the insurance coverage without asking, because Arthur would probably say it was foolish, but this was another country and the last thing they needed was trouble. Suzan accepted the keys from the rental agent. Arthur lifted the keys from her fingers as they walked out the door.
The Toyota hatchback was small but not as small as many of the cars here. Arthur seemed to enjoy the stick shift, gunning the engine and sprinting through traffic toward Phillipsburg. That was short-lived, as they hit a traffic jam just past the airport. Drivers were out of their cars, chatting, one with his lunch spread out on the hood. “What the hell,” he muttered. No police lights or sirens—klaxons here, she thought, two discrete notes, not the wail. She paged through the tourist brochures and, finding a map, located Simpson Bay and on this road, a drawbridge.
“We can’t get around?”
“All the way around the other side of the lagoon.” She showed him, the circle of land around the Great Salt Pond. Arthur got red, redder, the sun cooking them in the car without air conditioning, the delay cooking him worse. She hadn’t realized he was so impatient, having seen him mostly in front of classrooms.
At some signal, working its way back through the line, people got back in their cars and nudged forward.
In Philipsburg, they hiccupped through heavy traffic, down Front Street, up Back Street (dusty and potholed), then Nisbeth and Cannegiter, all there was of the city center. They parked on one of the comically short cross streets, dead-ending each way at a view of yachts and hotels and villas stacking up like Legos beside the turquoise water.
Arthur was full of nervous energy, walking fast despite the hammering sun and the gritty wind that whipped their hair and stung their eyes. She was jangled, too, though not for the same reason. She couldn’t shake the fear that someone would see them, someone who would know them, a dean or a vacationing secretary. A baseless paranoia, like her fears of elevators and oral surgery. Two days ago she’d never heard of Philipsburg or this oddly divided island, though she knew of the Antilles greater and lesser, and colonial history, and had read Graham Greene at least. Arthur seemed not to notice that she trotted to keep up with his long strides. Even if someone from Carolina was here, they’d never take them for anything but colleagues or casual friends.
The streets amped up her mood, and Arthur’s, too, it seemed. The over-bright sun, gaudy beach wear in the shop windows, jewelry stores where the heavy gold and loose diamonds seemed fake, they were so lavish, though the glossy brochures in the hotel touted them with ads even more lavish. Between the buildings, the Caribbean was all shades of blue, the palm trees swayed, but here in the shopping district the face of paradise was a hideous grinning caricature, an Old Black Joe shilling guavaberry liquor.
Everyone was on the make. Butter-yellow lottery signs hung on every block. Idle men sat on benches or leaned against poles, watching, their eyes lidded against the light. A pack of tourists who had disgorged from a cruise ship kept together on the sidewalk, eyeing the natives while trying to appear nonchalant. Arthur sneered at their fanny packs, “fat white men from Minneapolis and skinny white women from Euclid,” he called them, “with barely enough time to buy duty-free hooch before they have to be back to the dock.” Suzan watched them move away, like a shoal of fish. Bait fish, in a boil on the pond as bass cruised below. They were afraid; just because they couldn’t see danger in the streets of shops didn’t mean they couldn’t sense its presence.
At the near, raw, cough of a motor scooter, she pulled her purse closer to her side.
A display of straw hats caught Arthur’s eye and they went into a dim shop. The windows had been painted above the display platforms, blue tempera making an oceanic backdrop for beachwear. The clerk picked out panamas and they modeled them for each other—Arthur settling on a rakish style with a narrow, slanted brim. Suzan took the second one she tried on, wide-brimmed and round at the crown, with small shells knit into a band.
“Would there be anything more for the lady?” asked the clerk, but looking at Arthur. “Perhaps a cover-up for the beach?”
Suzan considered a rack of lightweight terrycloth robes.
“Miss.” The girl held up something in deep green, silent water green, printed with blue mermaids whose tails were curved like anchors.
“What is that?” She felt the thickness of folded cloth.
The clerk shook it out. “Pareo,” she said, offering the rectangle across her round arm. When Suzan took it, the cloth unfolded to her feet, a waterfall. She draped it over her shoulders like a shawl.
The clerk made soothing noises as she came behind Suzan, lifting the cloth away. “So, so, so.” She brought the ends up under her arms, wrapped them over her breasts and tied them behind her neck. “Also, like this,” and she loosed the knot and dropped the cloth to Suzan’s hips, made it a sarong by tucking and folding, her hands expert. Suzan saw herself in a sliver of mirror, her face a pale oval shadowed by the café-au-lait face of the clerk, saw Arthur standing behind them both. His mouth was closed but pressed forward as though he might be preparing to kiss, or assessing worth or cost.
Arthur paid for the hats, but Suzan wouldn’t let him buy the pareo for her.
In the room, she wrapped the pareo over her bikini. She noticed that the mermaid’s eyes were closed, twin arcs tracing the same curve as the bows of their lips and the whale-flukes of their tails. Suzan brought the ends forward and crossed them firmly over her breasts, tied them behind her neck. The clerk’s hands had been warm and dry on her nape, holding the knot just long enough for her to see the effect.
The green cloth swayed as she walked. It pulled tight across her hips, which were too wide for fashion (the doctor, when she was 15, saying she had hips built to have babies) but Suzan also knew the power in her body. The green cloth swayed and she glanced at the mirror over the vanity only to catch a reflection from the inevitable mirror positioned across from the bed, and in it Arthur watching her. And what girl doesn’t hold that smile inside, knowing, even the fat girl whose one graceful movement makes a man pause, even the homely girl whose well-turned legs call a whistle? What girl doesn’t feel the warmth all the way through when she’s 20 and has that power?
“Ready for the beach?” Arthur cut off CNN and tossed the remote on the nightstand.
“Sure.” She dropped the bottle of Coppertone into her tote, beside the towel and a paperback she’d leave at the airport. He perched that narrow-brimmed hat on his head, and with his graying goatee and hazel eyes the whole effect was what Daddy would have called “a sharpie.” Someone with an angle, though the addition of bright red swim trunks and a thick volume of Poe commentaries warred with any conceivable stereotype.
Suzan turned from the elevator toward the parking lot but Arthur caught at her hand, missed, and grabbed the strap of her tote. “No, we’re walking.”
“I thought we were going to the beach?”
“Yeah.” That harsh accent, undimmed by years in South Carolina. “And we’re walking.”
Suzan shrugged and followed. Sand was everywhere here, she supposed, so why not? She lifted her hat from where it hung from a cord around her neck, and set it square to keep the sun off her face.
They crossed pavement and rubble and round stones to get to the beach. Women and men already amber from days or weeks in the sun lay still on their towels, as though movement might ripple their even tans. They found a spot of their own and spread out.
Suzan heard a gathering roar—thunder? The few white clouds didn’t look like they had it in them. She rotated, looking for the storm, finding instead a Concorde heading toward the beach from Princess Juliana Airport. Instinctively, she ducked, the needle-nosed jet looking like it was only feet away and feet overhead, the spindly landing gear too small for the delta wings but massive enough to crush the brown bodies arrayed on the sand. Engines howled, slung like missiles under the wings. She sat down flat on her can as a curtain of sand rose to meet the jet. Arthur pulled a towel over her head just in time—sand blasted her bare arms and belly. The driven air pushed her against the beach and the engine sound pulsed in her head, then the jet was past, the pressure eased and the sand settled. She lifted a corner of the towel and saw the tricolor on the tail as the Concorde banked and headed east. “Oh my God.”
“That’s what this beach is known for.” Arthur was holding his hat on his head and following the outbound flight. “You’re sunbathing at the end of the runway.”
“And we want to be here?”
“Where’s your spirit, my dear? You can’t do this back in Mayberry.”
Suzan brushed her palm across her belly and little pills rolled up, compounded of suntan lotion and dust. She didn’t see any more jets headed their way, though the shimmering heat could obscure something in the distance. Maybe the supersonic jet was the one great aviation event of the day, the rest of the time just the occasional 737 from the States and turboprops like the one that brought them from Miami.
“I can’t believe I just saw the Concorde. I can’t believe I just saw it three feet over my head.”
Arthur looked pleased. He stretched out, shifting his hips until he was settled, hat on his stomach and beard pointed at the sun.
Suzan realized she was still sitting with her legs straight out, like a doll on a dresser. She tucked her feet back and untied the pareo and got her hat set. The whole trip it seemed like she’d been trying to recover her balance.
She folded the pareo into a pillow and lay on her stomach. If she opened one eye she could see the out-of-focus shape of a mermaid, a blue island in a green sea. Inside out. Upside down. On the hop to St. Maarten she had fallen asleep, despite the pounding of the engines. She woke when the plane banked sharply. Below her window the sea looked like sky and in a momentary panic she gripped Arthur’s knee. “I didn’t know you were afraid to fly,” he murmured. She took away her hand. She wasn’t afraid, it was just the apparent inversion of sea and sky, but he wouldn’t believe that.
They had driven to the Miami conference. It was a great opportunity, he assured her, to do a poster session on Hawthorne and boost her credentials. He was a keynote speaker—”Lovecraft and Chappell: Inverse Mythos”—and she was properly impressed by his photo and bio in the conference publication. Of course, it was also a great opportunity to expand beyond their Friday afternoons at the university. He was her thesis adviser, as the 19th-Century Americanist in the department, and they conferenced in his book-buried office after the other faculty members had locked up. She with her legs thrust through the arm loops of his desk chair, he with his face nuzzling in her opened blouse, and the proper voices of the BBC covering whatever was not stifled. Sex, she was discovering, had changed its accent from north Georgia to Oxbridge.
They had had dinner last night with a group of professors and grad students who gathered after Arthur’s presentation. He sat across the table from her and spent the evening in a low-intensity argument with a VPI faculty member. Afterward, they went decorously to their individual rooms, but he was at her door immediately. In his battered leather case he had a bottle of cognac and two tickets for the first flight to the islands—St. Maarten by chance of schedules and seats. The conference? No one would miss them, since their presentations were over. Matilde? His wife was studying land reform in Zimbabwe. Suzan detected serious spadework behind that remarkably accommodating schedule.
So it was no wonder she woke startled this morning, groggy from brandy and sex, bruised by the hard seat of the small plane. Napping and waking again, the next time ready for the azure that might be sky but was sea. Instead, jots of sand were drawn in the blue, rising from or dissolving into the sea, flanked by hilly green islands with clouds snagged on their peaks. They landed not long after and she’d tried to figure out, had that been Guadeloupe? Virgin Islands?
Another plane was taking off. She faced it, a turboprop painted with a splashy Caribbean logo, until its shadow passed and the wind lifted her green banner after.
Arthur tapped his forefinger twice on his cards and the dealer flipped a seven of spades atop the red ten and three.
“I’m good,” he said. A dozen points of neon reflected off his glasses, sliding and disappearing and flashing back into place as he nodded. One player had earlier stopped at seventeen; another man broke and left the blackjack table without looking back. The final player tried to ride an ace, deuce, five, and seven but was rewarded with a king.
The house showed nineteen. Arthur pumped his fist and grinned, pulling his chips into a slithering heap. She watched him stack the chips, then as the dealer slid the cards into play move one pile forward on the green felt. There was a slight hesitation in his movement, then a flourish.
“Touch me,” he said to her, barely turning as he did, “for luck.” Suzan put her hand on his shoulder. From where she stood, too much scalp was visible through his curling red hair. She knew he would be appalled to learn that.
Suzan tasted her rum punch. Too sweet, floral, but Arthur was putting them down with regularity and the liquor had added wildness to his swagger. Drunk or sober, he carried himself with physical confidence as well as intellectual, something that eluded her. There was no reason for her voice to ebb when she debated an issue in seminar, no reason to qualify her arguments. She felt that when she turned rabbity, Arthur despised her, but her opinions went from solid to sand when pressed. Where’s your spirit? Arthur had asked her that more than once. You’re as smart as any of them and better prepared. Always that nasal intonation, the legacy of Pennsylvania, undergrad work at IUP (which he’d as soon disguise), and Penn State.
The house won. Arthur’s shoulder bunched under her palm as he pushed a few chips forward and took another drink. His ears were red and she knew that two flushed spots were standing on his cheekbones. Her father’s entire face would flush and he would sweat, but Arthur reddened on nose, ears and cheekbones—he looked like a skier or (in an evil private analogy) like a Christmas elf. Her father had similar florid manners when he was into the gin, and could be kept jolly, but not without work. He would quickly become morose if ignored. She had been the designated appeaser from early childhood, while her mother retreated to the kitchen, and Suzan knew how to use a word or a smile, or a hand on the shoulder. She wasn’t interested in drinking or gambling, but could anchor Arthur with a touch while her attention wandered over the casino. All that avidity. People’s eyes gleamed, ears seemed to cock forward. The ruddy lights of the machines colored their faces and hands, a touch able to turn any base thing to gold.
Her feet hurt and she watched the waitresses sway through the crowds in heels and fishnet hose and high-cut body suits. How could they stand it, hour after hour, night after night? She imagined the lines impressed into their hips and breasts and ankles when they peeled off the uniform in some small room. The sweat and ache. She wanted to sit down and let her own tired feet swell in peace.
Then Arthur reached back and put his hand on hers, and she came back to him. He always remembered she was there, a glance, if nothing more. The books, especially the books. He would take a book from his shelves—jammed and stacked, but with an order he knew well—and would open that text to her, explain the author’s intent, the social issues, where it fit within the canon. The next day, or week, he would have bought a copy for her, usually at the used bookstore, and he would re-read as she read, pacing her, like a hand spread lightly against her back to provide reassurance. She had that image, a father with his hand across a child’s back as she tried out a new bicycle. Her father, once, on an asphalt path through winter-seared grass in the park down from their Augusta house.
So she stood, hand on his shoulder. She saw a pen jot on the cuff of his conference white shirt.
It was much later when, her feet aching past ignoring, she moved to the chair next to his. The cards were falling his way and he didn’t seem to notice.
He’d won and lost and won, coming out somewhat to the bad.
Suzan slid out of her dress, dropped off her sandals, wiggled her toes and considered whether those red places would become blisters by morning. She felt herself abraded by sun and wind and the frenzy for money.
Arthur pulled off his shirt and stood in front of her. He put his hands on her breasts but she felt sleepy, not aroused. “Maybe morning?” she whispered.
“Ummmm.” He kneaded her breasts, leaned in. His eyes were hot, he shimmered with heat, her skin crackled at his nearness. She slipped away after a brief kiss. “Let me go to the bathroom.”
He kept pushing; she lay back on the bed. His face was close again, still with the flush of the casino. Then he was suddenly gone, sliding down her toward the floor, taking the waistband of her pantyhose in his teeth.
She giggled. It was a scene out of a porn flick.
He pulled. Nylon cut into her thigh. “Ouch!”
“We’re not making love tonight. We’re fucking.”
He dived in again, his teeth nipped her skin and she cried out. He ripped the hose end to end, shaking his head like a dog.
The wooing in his office, the whispered words out of books, the marginalia of their romance, abraded away. Down to the raw.
He started on her lace panties but she lifted herself and got them free before he could rip them as well. Arthur unbuckled his belt and dropped his pants, his erection full and she opened herself but he retreated. He put the heel of his palm against her and circled, hard, bringing her to close to orgasm.
“I’m going to come.”
“Not ’til I say so.” That gangster voice.
She lifted toward his retreating hand, thrust toward him, and he laughed, moving back on his knees. His belt jingled around his ankles. She felt her pulses slowing, ebbing.
Arthur dropped onto her, bearing down, thrusting, and then his arms were under her and he lifted her toward him. He mouthed her breast, her nipple. He bit down.
Suzan shrieked, the pain, the jolt in her sex.
“Something to remember me by.”
He shifted, took the other nipple in his teeth and bit again, hard. She shrieked again, and felt his deepest thrust and the groan as he fell down upon her, exhausted.
“Where to? Marigot?”
The map was unfolded across the bed. The French side of the island appeared more pastoral, even the names soothed—Rambaud, La Savanne, Colombier— and she wanted to go there, somewhere, but not to Marigot. Not after Phillipsburg. The outline of the island undulated on a lapis-shaded sea, approximate. Roads clustered in the south and west. The north and east had great blank spaces. Friar’s Bay, Happy Bay, Petit Plage, Anse Marcel. She followed the coastline in and out. Ilet Pinel.
“Let’s go.” Arthur was holding a hotel towel and his tout’s hat. She grabbed her beach bag and caught the door closing behind him.
They drove up the east side of the island, past salt ponds and ragged villages, through the Upper Prince’s Quarter. They turned right, toward the ocean, and not long after the sign for Dawn Beach crossed the demarcation line into French territory. There was a stone marker but no gate or guard, and on each side, the rough hillsides were spiky with cactus and dry grasses. Bushes beside the road she thought might be guavaberry. Goats—those she expected, but not brown cows, as out of place as Sheboygan tourists in the casinos.
Signs for Coralita, Baie d’Embouchure, Le Galion. She rolled the words on her tongue and remembered Monsieur Dumel. Or-Lay-OWN, he pronounced for the eighth grade French class. Not Or-LEENS. It’s a beautiful word. Or-Lay-OWN. All the girls loved him, his wavy black hair and blue eyes, the way he demonstrated the vowel sounds. Ah, euh, ee, oh, ou. Ou, ou, ou.
Arthur had turned. She tried to catch the sign but it was too late. He allowed her one of those smiles. The road wound down, past villas, hotels. Her heart sank. She wanted quiet after Malo Beach and the jitteryness of Phillipsburg. An empty beach with scattered black stones, birds. Instead there were stores and restaurants, pretty in pastels and book-ended by palm trees.
“Nicer than the Dutch side, eh?” She nodded.
They walked down. It was still early and the beach was empty except for young black men were raking seaweed into dark windrows. Others were putting out lines of chairs and umbrellas. At the edge of the water she turned from the sun flaring on the ocean to see the hills rising with mango-colored buildings, umbrellas opening along the curving beach to either side like strands of morning glories, purple and blue and pink and white, striped and entire. This time she gave Arthur back that smile.
He went to a hut and paid for chairs (white and pink) and they spread out their towels. She dug in her bag to find the suntan lotion, wished she had remembered to grab her hat off the dresser on the way out.
Arthur took off his flowered shirt and hung it on the back of the rented chair. Then he untied his swim trunks and dropped them, showing his narrow backside to the sun as he picked them up and hung them neatly.
“Orient Beach,” he said, to her silence. “Didn’t you read?”
Baie Orientale. The nude beach. She looked at his stomach, the little round pot that would become a paunch.
“It’s clothing-optional on the French side.”
She was holding her pareo and realized how superfluous it was.
He put his hands on her shoulders. “Come on,” he said, more gently than usual. He looked at her very solemnly as he untied her top. As it fell down she instinctively caught it with her arms. “Are you OK with this?” Still gently, but his eyes glittered.
“Yes. Yes.” She lifted her arms and let the top slide down, then reached behind and unhooked the back and dropped it in her bag. Her nipples hardened and recalled his teeth. She kept her shoulders back as she began to walk toward the water.
“Not the rest?” She paused, could hear the way he was standing, and when she turned he was exactly like that, chin up so that his beard seemed to challenge, feet apart, hands almost clenched, his penis slightly engorged in its nest of dark hair going gray. “If you wanna be a lit major you might want to loosen up. I thought last night might have helped.”
He didn’t wait for a response but headed down the beach, parallel to the water. There was a slight roll to his walk, those Dalton boys strolling into the mock-up of a town, shoulders squared and hips thrust forward. And she was standing with one hand on her bikini bottom, and she was just standing there.