Monday, February 9, 2009


(This is the second chapter of my memoir, as romantic as the first one was grim.)

The parents of one of my roommates at Yale had a house in Jamaica. For a wedding present he gave Louise and me three weeks there. We were married on June 27, 1970, Louise having graduated from Mary Baldwin College in three years so that we could hurry the great day. She was twenty years old, I twenty-two. The only foreign country I had been to was Canada—I think—that is, I think I had gone about twenty feet into it on a slippery woven-rope gangway beneath the roar of Niagara Falls. Jamaica would be Louise’s first time outside the United States. We rented a car at Montego Bay and crept through the throngs of the city and thence sped into a world all new to us, of jungle, sugarcane fields, pastel shanties, skinny chickens, skinnier dogs, people walking everywhere, who gave very friendly but incomprehensible directions.

When we passed through the gate of the Tryall Club, as that colony of rich foreigners was known, we were in another new world, twenty-two hundred impeccably groomed acres, with platoons of laborers trimming, gardening, scissoring on hands and knees, a guard in fatigues with a heavy rifle over his shoulder, and then the houses, low and gleaming, and beyond them the dazzle of the sea. The staff gathered to greet us at the door: Iris, the short, fat cook, and boss of the place, smiling widely; the tall, reserved housemaid, Hilda; the even shyer second maid, whose name I’ve forgotten; Susan, the laundress, shyest of all; and Duke, the gardener, who fairly glowed with good cheer and entirely lacked the almost military formality of his colleagues.

Duke carried our bags in, and Hilda unpacked our stuff, gently folding each garment and laying it in a drawer, also putting aside for Susan those items which she deemed to be in need of pressing. As we looked on in mute fascination, Iris stuck her head in and commanded, “Gwaan take a swim. It too hot.” (We would soon learn that “too” meant “very” in Jamaican patois.) The staff dissolved out of the room, Hilda closing the door so quietly that all we heard was the soft click of the latchbolt. Louise had a new bikini. Soon we were swirling in the pool, its water perhaps one degree shy of body temperature, as congenial as a womb. Duke approached across the lawn with a bottle in one hand and a machete in the other. Putting down the bottle, kicking off his sandals, and hooking the great knife to his belt, he proceeded to shinny up a coconut palm with practiced ease. Thwack! and down came a fat green coconut, and then another, and another. Duke scrambled down, hacked off one end of the green outer shells, and then with a single stroke opened the hard and hairy inner nut, keeping upmost the hole thus created, so that the precious coconut water would not spill. Into each he poured a generous portion of Jamaican rum. From his pocket he produced three paper straws, and, grinning, the three of us sipped. Rum in the sun—instant booze wooze.

“You want another?”

Clearly he did, but we, dehydrated and travel-weary, were already pie-eyed. Iris was giving Duke her glare of official censure from the porch as she delivered a tray to the glass-topped table, arranged a bowl of hibiscus flowers just so, set two places with linen (starched) and silver (heavy, sterling) and china (thin, enameled and gilded), and said, “Come, children,” not quite laughing at our gee-whiz innocence.

We sat down to the most beautiful plate of food I had ever beheld, a seventeenth-century Dutch still life come to life but tropically transformed: little ruddy pineapples, their interiors scooped out, cubed, and heaped back into their shells; a fan of sliced papaya, for each bright-orange crescent a tiny pale-green lime cut in half; a spray of three-inch-long bananas; orange sections each trimmed of its membrane and cut away from its skin almost but not quite to the base; clusters of guavas; wedges of sweetsop; and best of all, two yellow-pink mangoes whose flesh had been removed in such a way that the shell formed a little barrel with a jack-o’-lantern-like lid—Iris had cut the flesh away from the seed, cut it in cubes and then, evidently having cubed more than these two mangoes, re-filled the skins to the top. We had eaten oranges, pineapples, and bananas before, though none so luscious as these, and the rest of the fruit was entirely new to us.

We were so happy!

Duke taught us to snorkel over the reefs: We stayed on the surface while he dove, sometimes fifteen feet down, through the clear, clear water, wearing a mask and snorkel but no fins and brandishing a terrifying spear gun. The corals, fishes, tubeworms, sea anemones, the whole symphony of the reef was yet another unprecedented composition of sheer beauty. Occasionally Duke would take aim and nail a nice fat fish, which he would stuff into a net bag, which as it filled trailed a dark smoke of blood behind him. Louise wondered if this would draw sharks. If it had, I reasoned, surely they would home in on the fish in the bag, not us. But weren’t we, she asked, bigger, easier prey? No shark came, though the silver barracudas that followed us just below the surface, with their staring eyes and fiendish teeth, were sufficiently scary, despite the assurances we had read that they were quite harmless. Sometimes Duke would pry a lobster by hand out of its hole, and there would be lime-scented lobster salad for lunch.

As Iris discovered how great was our enthusiasm for her cooking, she went to ever-greater lengths to justify it. A fisherman, dressed in virtual rags, would appear with a fish two feet long, weighing probably ten pounds, and Iris would negotiate a price, never cheap, and turn to us for the money. She would roast Mr. Fish—I have no idea what species these creatures may have been—with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers both sweet and hot, and oh! I realized I had never till that moment tasted how good fish could be. The abundant leftovers would make a lovely salad for lunch the next day, and feed the staff as well. The fisherman came one day with a crab I recall as having long, angrily thrashing legs and a spiky black carapace—another perfect salad, just mayonnaise, lime juice, sweet onion, and crab.

We would go with Iris to Mr. Reed’s store just down the road, where she would prod and disapprove nearly everything and shake her chubby forefinger in Mr. Reed’s face, denouncing his prices. The fruit and vegetables she finally, grudgingly settled for were sensationally good. Then we would go with Iris to the big central market in Montego, a jostling, laughing, singing, tout-shout-echoing arena of sweet-natured madness through which Iris made her way like a great ship parting the ocean. Iris had her favored “higglers,” and to them she went without a glance at the inferior stands she drew us sternly past. The farm ladies wore headscarves that could have been West African; some of the little boys running errands were barefoot; grizzled old men puffed on pipes and did nothing. The intensity of color, the density of life, rivaled those of the reef. Even the eggs were all colors. The meat, jaggedly butchered and hanging on hooks, was the color of blood; the butchers languidly brushed the flies away, or didn’t. Chickens here had feet and heads, pink, beady-eyed, sinewy, meant for the pot, not the frying pan. Cho-chos—chayotes—were among Iris’s favorite vegetables, and we too learned to love their pale green, delicate flesh. Louise doled out the cash, quite a lot of it, it seemed to us, but we knew that if we questioned no matter how politely any of Iris’s purchasing decisions, she would fix us with a suddenly cold eye and demand, “You tink me not know? Children, be quiet.”

We tried a few fancy restaurants and nearly crawled out of our skins in impatience. “It will soon come,” a waiter would say before disappearing for half an hour. The food was for the most part unconsciously parodic—a clumsy take on French, a fussification of Jamaican. Expensive, too.

Iris had the ugliest dog I had (or have) ever seen, name of Timmy, a fat, listless, rheumy-eyed door-blocker with a thin off-white pelage flecked here and there with little random spots. He yawned, and farted, and could barely rouse himself to a dutiful bark at the fisherman. Imagine, therefore, our shock when Iris approached us one day at lunch with tears in her eyes, knotting her hands, to announce that Timmy had killed a neighboring farmer’s goat, and, yes, we had to pay him for it. It seemed to me that Iris should be the liable party, but we really had no idea how poor she might be and in any case we were the beneficiaries of so much kindness and generosity—from my roommate and his family, and from the staff—that surely we must oblige. I do not believe that compensation for the dead goat entailed a transfer of ownership and a subsequent currying, though it was certainly possible that Iris would not disturb guests with such news. I believe she had at some point offered us goat—nice young goat from the market, not Timmy’s doubtless elderly victim—and we had drawn the line there. More fools we.

I had heard that the quality of Jamaican marijuana was beyond beyond. But the fellows around the market in town who whispered furtively, “smoke, smoke,” or just “ganja, mon,” frightened me, most particularly because I could make out less than a quarter of anything else they might say. Would it be the pretext for a robbery, maybe also a beating? And the goods, oregano? I had been living in New York, on West Seventy-second Street, for nine months, and in 1970 transactions of that nature, on upper Broadway, were not rare. Finally, one day at the pool, I worked up the nerve to ask Duke if he knew where some of this famous ganja could be obtained. In his grin I think I could see every one of his teeth, and in his laugh I heard, “Naa worry, mon.” It arrived the next day, tightly bound in a twist of brown paper, maybe a quarter of an ounce, five dollars Jamaican.

Ho boy. It was almost all bud, golden-green, hardly a seed, and so resinous it stained the fingers. After we’d taken a couple of puffs judiciously downwind from the house and all other settlement, the only place that seemed safe to go was the pool. This had the effect of mitigating the loss of sense of up versus down that had been among the first signs of the delirium churning through our brains. In water, gravity was defeated, one bobbed up and stayed up, half in the world, technically present, and half in the amniotic past of all mammals. We splashed and paddled and floated and laughed and laughed and laughed. It was broad daylight, mid-afternoon, and by dinner we were still so stoned that we ate at least twice as much as was our custom. Did Iris give us her mistrustful eye? Who knows? We couldn’t look at her.

Oh, love!

Whenever we ventured out, we were instantly sweating. On our return we would find clothes ready to change into, folded just so and still warm from the sun and Susan’s iron. Or we might just lie cooling naked in our privacy as the sweet-scented late-afternoon breeze breathed through the jalousie windows; perhaps too sunburned to touch each other, too hot with love not to. The room in memory white, white, the sea-dazzle softened into air white from within, air softened into caress by the slow white ceiling fan. Through the slats flame trees, hibiscus, orchids, epiphytes, banana birds, banana trees, a darkening sea-horizon beneath a billowing thunderhead. Slow reading, slow walking in the velvet dark, a butterfly slowly closing and opening its wings, slow to wake, slow to sleep. Each taste—buttered toast, poached egg, coffee of the Blue Mountains, banana, fried plantain, coconut chips, tomato, avocado, limeade, cool soup, cool lobster, cool wine, the salt on each other’s lips—each taste a slow blossoming, consciousness becoming memory, the remembering effortless, unconscious, none of this ever to be forgotten, none of this ever to be lost. Each taste, each kiss a certainty.

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