We leave before dawn, and watch the world grow light from above. A thin red line between the black of earth and the blue of heavens: dawn happens like this. And the moon, a waning crescent, a celestial hangnail bright and silvery against the softening sky.
By New York, the sun is a ball of the brightest red, and then the world turns gold and then finally blue with day and we lift off again to cross the continent southwards, and then across the ocean, the world from above taking my breath away.
When we land the air is thick with humidity and fragrance. Our pants stick to our legs and my hair blows into my face as we wait for our driver to show up to take us the hour drive to where we are staying in Ocho Rios.
“I’ve just had a nice Red Stripe, mon” our taxi driver says, after we’ve loaded our luggage in and are off on the highway. “They’re refresh’n, mon. Have you had one yet?” He glances back in the rearview where we’re fiddling with seat belts that have no place to buckle.
“Not yet,” we laugh.
“That’s how I start my day, mon. I smoke a splif and have a Red Stripe. That holds me through the day, ya know?”
So here we are, under the equatorial sun, driving on the left side of the road with a laid back cabbie who might be both high and buzzed. Somehow he drives as straight as everyone else is driving. Everyone swerves. They “overtake” drivers up ahead by encroaching until they’re near enough to kiss bumpers and then just sort of sidle to the right, oncoming cars be dammed. At least though, they honk a warning. In fact, they honk for everything.
After a while our driver begins telling us about the way he’s using his hand to signal if there are cops where he’s just been, or if it’s an all clear to other drivers. His hand floats out the open window into the warm, sweet air making upward and downward waving gestures. There is a code. There are lots of codes. Their patois is a code. A pidgin of English evolved by slaves to evade plantation owners. H get’s dropped from words recklessly and added to others with precipitousness. Ocean becomes “hocean” and hotel, “otel.”
The island is teaming with code, with secrets, with myths, with ways of being that emphasize things that are entirely different from whatever it is we’re hell bent on here, in northern New England (with our rational predilections and our perpetual industriousness and productivity.)
The stories he tells are about about the owners of various huge houses who are cursed, about the delicacy of Conch “that is a man food, and too strong for the lady,” and about the ganga and where the best of it grows. What matters is “living a good life, mon, ya know?” Happiness derives from simple pleasures: fresh-picked sweetsaps, papayas, breadfruit roasted over the fire, saltfish, jerk pork, ganga, music.
At the edges, hunger shows itself. There are shacks everywhere, belonging to squatters who “capture the land” and sell fruit, or fish or conch or carwashes from roadside stands rigged out of whatever they can find. There is both an ease and a desperation here, on the North side of the island where the economy depends on the tourist hustle of cruise ships coming to port, and people like us arrive at the small wind-blown airport amongst a thousand bougainvilleas.
When we arrive at our hotel, we slip into another world entirely. A gem from the 1950s, a throwback to the jet-set life. It’s a gorgeous, sprawling blue-walled affair that was once a coconut plantation on the sea. Marylyn Monroe came here; T.S. Eliot; Ian Flemming; Winston Churchill. Our room overlooks the beach, with an open verandah that we slip over sidesaddle onto the sugar sand, and, upon returning, step into a steel bowl of water to rinse sand from our feet.
It feels like a dream. I’ve never been on a vacation like this. Nothing close. We never took a honeymoon trip, and this, we decided would be ours. Except when the day came for our flight, which was also our anniversary, T and I were pacing cafes in NYC, waiting for referrals to go through so his insurance would cover his surgery. and feeling very much like the HMO was playing a game of roulette with his life. Trip insurance is worth it sometimes, and this time it’s why we’re here. Standing a little awe-struck on the verandah, watching gentle blue waves break beyond the palms that make gorgeous feathery silhouettes on the sand.
We spend the week relearning things. What it means to go slowly. What it means to go even slower than that. What it is like to make love whenever we want to, without children underfoot. What it feels like to watch a sunset from beginning to end, while lying on a raft in the warm ocean. What reading feels like: the slow kind, in books with paper pages and pens to mark the good lines. To dog-ear pages and sip mojitos made with the best Jamaican rum and the sweetest Jamaican sugar. And above all else, relearning what we feel like, just the two of us, together.
It felt like falling in love for the first time: that crazy high of giddiness, that perpetual desire to be close. Yet better, with the easy laughter and easy quiet of knowing each other for 14 years. We went some places: up the Blue Mountains to see coffee farmers; into the farmers and crafts markets to hagle over prices; and into a shanty town/cafe that served the best fish, where everyone was high and hawking wears and dancing even though it was only mid afternoon. But mostly we swam and read and swam and made love and lay in hammocks and watched the stars.
It’s strange, the way the past two weeks happened, back to back: the former, one of the worst I can remember and the latter, one of the best. Returning feels headlong. Reality arrives and we’re still moving at a different velocity entirely. Let-down isn’t quite the word, but it has stunned us both nearly to tears to realize that the mundaneness of life still makes us act like idiots and assholes, even after all that bliss. We still argue over stupid things like dinner, and how to encourage/enforce Bean’s cello practice, or how to get out of the house as a family on time.
Still, the wonder from that trip is indelibly bright.