“Here’s to you,” Josh began and raised his Kalik at a corner table in the small wrought-iron courtyard of a bar in Lucaya, “and here’s to me. Best of friends, we’ll ever be. But if you choose to disagree, fuck you, here’s to me!”
He swallowed half of his beer in one gulp. The artist and I looked at each other and burst into laughter, as heads turned from the other tables.
“Oh, you like that one, do you?” Josh said. “Cheers: to the queen.” And he drank the rest of his beer. “To the queen, God save her!” I cackled, and took a gulp. “Tathaquinn,” the artist mumbled and spilled beer on the table. Upbeat calypso music played—boom! Chkboom CHK! Boom! Chkboom CHK! Boom! ChkboomCHK!
After we had drained the dregs of our fifth—sixth?—beer, and it was still light outside—Josh turned to us and said, “Well, you two, outside of this shit-hole tourist bar, there’s a whole island waiting to be explored.”
After a month of hard work in the dusty boatyard of Bradford marine, deprived of all stimulation and entertainment, we were desperate to go anywhere else on the island but back to the boat.
“Let’s go find my friend Tony Macaroni! He runs a bar and restaurant on Taino Beach with the best conch salad you’ve ever had. And he’s got the best grass on the island.”
“Yes!” we blurted at the mention of food and fun.
“Then it’s settled,” he said, and we bounded out into the Lucayan dusk, in search of intoxicating adventure—as we had so many times before in the raw American night of cities and bars back on yonder homeland shores.
* * * * *
We had to take a water taxi to get to Taino Beach, so we walked to the harbor. There were mega yachts docked there, along with dive boats, glass bottomed boats, charter fishing boats. At the mouth of the harbor was a big hotel-looking building with UNEXSO written on the side, which apparently stood for Underwater Explorers Society, and turned out to be a scuba resort. Giant color photographs of sharks and sea turtles lined the alcoves.
Waiting for the water taxi, Josh burst into a drunken diatribe about how I had to protect Artist. “Up here, it’s pretty safe,” he said, as he referred to these islands. “But the further south you go, the more dangerous it gets. Down in the Leeward Islands, it’s not like America, man. It’s a different story. The native guys, they see a beautiful white woman like her, and they want her. And they’ll go through you to get her. You’ve got to protect her, man. Protect what you’ve got. Because she needs you. She needs you to protect her.”
The artist and I looked at each other. We were both good egalitarians who believed a woman was capable of everything a man was, but Josh didn’t think that applied here. I drunkenly nodded along to Josh’s semi-racist diatribe. There seemed to be a lot of fear hidden in there, fear of … what, exactly? There was an element of that in Nassau, too—protect the white women. What the action of Othello revolves around. An element of that mentality was present in the way we saw the cruise ship people interact with the Bahamians—the arm clutching, the subtle half-step of couples, the way they brushed off the abrasive selling-style of the natives, as if to interact with them would be to open a door to something more sinister. Was this why we were warned by the one-legged man to stay on our side of the hill? Do Americans have this deep-rooted fear that outside of the protective bubble of their country, people suddenly become bloodthirsty, uncontrollable animals?
We eventually did go over the hill in Nassau, to the hospital to get treatment for Artist when she had a UTI. It was all normal. I’ve been far more scared in areas of Detroit or Philadelphia than I was in Nassau. Nobody even looked at us twice.
Several hours into the hospital visit, we had been waiting in the confusion of the waiting room to see the doctor to get diagnosed. This hospital was unlike hospitals I had been to in America; everyone was crammed together in one smallish waiting room, limited by resources. People were standing in hallways and sitting on the floor. We found the last chairs available next to an old Bahamian woman, barefoot and in a skirt. Artist was almost at her wit’s end from the pain and the heat—and the overwhelming crowd of people weren’t helping her social anxiety at all. The frustration of the long wait and hunger, too, mounted. I went to the cafeteria and returned with a plate of fried plantains, rice and some kind of curried chicken, two plates for seven dollars. She began to cry. I tried to comfort her, but nothing I could do worked.
“It’s alright, babe,” I said, on the verge of crying myself because, more than anything else, I hate to see the woman I love suffer. Suddenly, like a choir of angels, every mother in the crowded room of black flesh saw the poor, lost white girl crying in a hard plastic chair and began to make a racket. They called and demanded she go next to see the doctor. The old black woman in a shabby ankle-length dress sat beside us began to stroke Artist’s hair and make little soothing noises, saying, “Its’ going to be OK; oh, you don’t belong here, baby, sweetheart.”
The artist leaned over on her shoulder, her body shuddering from sobs. One large woman in particular snapped at a nurse and pointed at Artist, and spoke very quickly and rapidly in the Bahamian patois I could never fully understand. But the gist was the nurse needed to go take care of that poor crying girl and move her number up on the list to get her to a doctor—else she’d have a riot on her hands. The nurse came over to us and everybody quieted; we were whisked away to the quiet cloister of a clean waiting room—progress, at last—where a handsome, young black doctor came in and took his time with us. He listened to Artist’s symptoms with more attentiveness than any rushed American doctor I’d ever seen. He wrote us a prescription and we were on our way. The whole experience cost us less than $30.
I remember being humbled and grateful for these people, whose hearts were big enough to be moved by a crying stranger —enough to demand she be taken care of, to put their own needs behind those of a person whom they had never met. That’s how I’ll always remember the Bahamian people: as compassionate, caring people. They speak a different language, which I never fully learned, but every human knows the language of love.
Artist thinks it may have been because we appeared to them not as rich tourists here to conquer and purchase, to exploit already strained people to be nice to us and force them to show us what remained of their native land, over fished and resources depleted and blasted away. They knew we were simple, poor travelers, with no pretentions, no assumptions about being better than them because we were from America. We were students in the gilded halls of life, and approached each person with an open mind and open heart—a smile we learned from Saint.
May I never forget this.
* * * * *
The water taxi arrived. We paid our admission, boarded and departed. A Bahamian captain whisked us away down the canals. We passed houses and palm trees, other boats. A sunken pirate ship in a hidden corner. The full moon rose out of the calm sea, and the last colors of the sun faded into the western sky. We entered the black void of the night.
John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.