Happy to announce another story of mine received honorary mention for the second year in a row in this fun, international contest. This year we were tasked with creating a new story between the first and last lines of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: "It was a pleasure to burn." and "When we reach the city."
NO WOMAN, NO CRY
It was a pleasure to burn. No, it was orgasmic to lie on that white plastic lounger by the infinity pool, my uncooked, shrimp-white body turning pig-pink, then boiled-lobster red, amidst the acres of lumpy middle-class American flesh baking under the golden Jamaican sun.
As I sipped my bottomless, fruity rum-drink with Bob Marley on repeat in the background, I imagined I was on a new show, the Great North American Bake Off. I wanted to win Champion Baker, so every fifteen minutes I put down my Alicia Tremaine Lesbians in Paradise romance, flipped my body and reapplied Banana Boat 15 oil. I imagined hostess Mary Berry walking between the sprawled, near-naked bodies around me, making polite, British noises about the lovely, even color here, the perfectly round buns there, the delicious-looking spotted dick in the chair next to mine. Surely she’d stop above me and gush, “Goodness, what a lovely bake! No soggy bottom here. And only your first day on the Bake Off!”
That was yesterday. Today, I am in my beige room, shivering under my taupe blanket, my sunburn sucking so much heat from my core, my teeth chattering so hard, I might as well be doing the polar bear challenge on Lake Harriet back home in Minneapolis. Also, it stings like hell, and I have a hangover I wouldn’t even wish on my ex.
Crap. Did I have to think about her? Now I can hear her laughter bouncing off the cold tile floors. Snorting about how my dummkopf always gets me into stupid situations. Great. I came here to escape, and now I’ve conjured Jeannie, the mean genie and her German nickname for me. Hope made it clear in my first therapy session with her that “stupid head” is not a term of endearment in any language. Especially when someone hits you while saying it.
It’s a bummer, because thinking about her has teleported me a million light years away from this tropical, sunny world, back to the dark Ice Planet, right back into our dingy, brown-carpeted apartment in Uptown I moved out of three months ago.
Sunburn and cheap rum hangover be damned, I need to get out of here. I’m ready for a new relationship no matter what Hope says, but I’ll never find my beautiful, wealthy dream-woman if I stay in my room. Besides, I’m owed as much food as I can eat.
The tiny bathroom glass on my bedside table is empty, so I dry-swallow the three Advil next to it. The sun is not my ally today, but an enemy sniper, so I grab my red floppy hat, the one Jeannie says makes me look like a frumpy old lady. I slide my long-sleeved, white, linen-blend shirt on, careful to avoid the landmines of throbbing skin on my shoulders; pull on my loosest, longest shorts—white, splashed with impressionist red roses to match the hat. Looking in the floor-length mirror I position the hat so my hair peeks out. Don’t want to look bald and old. Red and white might not be the best colors for me this morning, but my stomach is growling, so I’m not going to overthink it. I need fat and carbs.
As a last measure, I slather every bit of exposed skin—face, neck, hands and legs—in zinc-based SPF 50. Just for today. My key card and sunglasses lie next to the flat screen and I grab them, taking a last look in the mirror behind the bureau (so many mirrors in this room, probably so couples can watch themselves have sex). Unfortunately, the zinc stuff gives my skin a bluish-purple cast, a little like Dr. Granger’s new heart disease patients who gasp like dying fish as they shuffle to my desk to hand me their intake forms. I am splotchy red, white, and now, purple.
Ha! You look like a spotted dick!
Whatever, Jeannie. It is a pastry, not, as I’ve said a million times, a penis disease.
The elevator opens with a whoosh of coconut-smelling air, its belly heaving with overfed bodies heading to breakfast. Before I squeeze in, I put on my big sunglasses. I vow to wear them all day. They might give me the sultry air of mystery I need to intrigue the billionaire-ess surely lurking in the buffet line.
“Hello, milady.” A smooth-skinned, petite girl at the hostess stand greets me in that soft Jamaican way. She scans the empty space behind me. “Only one?” Her huge, warm eyes are almost sad, sorry for the lone, splotchy, middle-aged woman standing before her.
“Just me.” I pull my lips back to show my teeth, a fake smile because underneath, I am bothered. Surely she’s been trained to not judge the guests, at least not show she’s judging them? Jeannie would berate her, then report her. She’d say I was a wimp for not saying anything.
But the woman’s eyes blinker, her warmth bug-zapped with a brusque, “Right this way.” Did I only imagine her pity? Maybe I feel sorry for myself and projected it onto her. Hah. Wish I could tell Hope about this insight. Maybe then she’d agree I’d been ready to stop coming in.
When we get to my table, the hostess removes the extra setting, and I scan the big dining room, past the fruit bar, the pancake grill, cheeses and sandwich meats (for breakfast?), but I’m not seeing what I want. Maybe they don’t have it for breakfast in Jamaica.
I’m breaking into a cold sweat, part sun-fever, part anxious, part am I being cheated? But there it is! The baconandegg and biscuitandgravy line. The holy grail of breakfast. The antidote to everything wrong you woke up with. Except for bruises you got the night before. I found that out living with Jeannie.
I perch my hat on my chair and ruffle my new pixie, blond-foiled and stick-straight. I’m not sure I look like the picture of Natalie Portman I brought to my hairdresser last week, but she did her best considering I’m nowhere near the movie star’s five foot nothing and eighty pounds soaking wet.
I pile my plate high with scrambled eggs (a little runny), bacon (too dark and crispy), biscuits and gravy (perfect!), and keep an eye out for my wealthy bachelorette. Could be the blonde over to my left at the pancake grill, but I’m having a little trouble seeing detail a hundred percent with my sunglasses on. No one else is wearing theirs, so I break my vow and tip mine up onto my head. I’ve always thought of my eyes as my best feature anyway, so this might be a better plan: the beautiful heiress could be drawn into their azure depths. It happens all the time in Alicia Tremaine books.
Now that I can see better, I glance at the blonde candidate again. Pretty, pleasantly plump (thin for this crowd). But she’s heading to sit with a big-gutted man encased in a Harley wife-beater tee. Darn. Reset. Luckily, I can take in the whole lay of the land from my table.
I settle in and chow down. It thrills me, knowing I could fill an entire bathtub with food if I want, and they still can’t charge me a single penny extra. It’s all included. And it’ll be paid off someday. My sunburn pain is even fading from happiness, though it could just be the Advil kicking in.
A tall, slim woman approaches my table, a staff member judging by her skin color and modest beige uniform. She glows golden, so dazzling and regal I could swoon. As she nears, she smiles. I can’t smile back. My mouth is full of egg. “Hello, milady,” she says, like a queen might say, “You, my loyal subject, are the most fascinating woman in my realm.”
I swallow the slimy egg blob without chewing it. Mistake. I cough, gasp, sip water, cough again and hold up my finger, hoping she won’t leave. But she waits patiently, as if she has all the time in the world. “Are you okay?” She asks this with such tenderness, my eyes sting. She really cares. I can tell. I nod.
Finally, my throat calms. “Sorry about that. Hello.” I smile up at her and lose myself in her eyes. Their amber depths. God, please let there not be egg in my teeth. “No worries. Enjoying your vacation so far?”
What a thoughtful person. Her gold name tag tells me she’s Dolores. “So far so good, Dolores, though I did get a little sunburned my first day. Yesterday. Bet I’m the only visitor that’s ever happened to.” I laugh, rolling my eyes to show I’m in on the joke. This has to win points.
“Well, then, you might be needing a break from the sun and the sand, right?” She purses her glossy lips, arching one well-groomed apostrophe of an eyebrow. Was that, could that have been…a proposition?
I try to swallow my heart back down my throat. “Maaay-beee. What did you have in miiii-nd?” I draw out my words, trying to make them lilt, sound rum-drenched and salty the way hers do.
“Have you been to the excursion desk yet?”
“What? No. Why?”
She slides a brochure from her pocket. “See here?” She taps a photo, a line of people climbing up a low-slope waterfall. “Dunn’s River Falls is be-oo-tee-full and in the shaded jungle. Book today, and I can give you a twenty percent discount. Only eighty US dollars instead of one-hundred.”
Oh. She doesn’t want to have sex with you, dummkopf. I have to admit I’m sort of relieved. But not for the reasons Hope would point out, that I went for the unattainable beauty again because I’m not really ready for another relationship. I just…haven’t had sex for a long time. It could be awkward.
The unattainable, beautiful woman who does not want to have sex with me, is, however, looking at me expectantly. A waterfall excursion? I’m not really the outdoorsy type, but she’s right. I don’t need any more pool or beach time today. And my sexy heiress would for sure go to those falls, being the adventurous sort.
“Can I go today?”
Dolores consults her Apple watch. “I can get you on the noon tour. Meet me in the lobby in fifteen minutes and I’ll set you right up.”
I’m gonna blow. A long ride in the back of a short bus, on leafy, winding roads that needed repaving decades ago, combined with hot diesel fumes and the driver’s fish sandwich stench makes me now question the value of all-you-can-eat. How does tiny Mary Berry eat dessert all day and not feel horrible? Ugh. Don’t go there. Breathe. Focus on the daylight between heads in seats in front of me. We have to be close.
A sign for Dunn’s River Falls. Made it. We pull into a parking lot and the driver says meet the guides back here in ten, so I climb out of the van, taking thirsty gulps of fresh air as I bus-sway to the bathroom. I splash cool water on my face. Still a little nauseous, but the worst has passed. I’m never eating again, though. Definitely not today.
Like everywhere I’ve been in Jamaica, a reggae beat hovers as we follow the guide across a little bridge to the falls. I can’t hear the music well enough above the rushing water to tell if it’s Bob or not, but ten bucks says it is.
The falls aren’t steep, but slope up much, much taller than in the picture, and as we step onto the first set of slimy rocks, I look up the staircase-like boulders with water rushing over them, the people in the line ahead of me slipping, catching each other in the nick of time, and I know I can’t do this. I’m gonna fall, hit my head, break my neck.
I can’t, I can’t do this, I don’t want to, no, no, no, I think I’m saying in my head, but everyone has stopped, the freckled kid behind me staring up at me with big, scared eyes. One of the two guides leading us, a wiry, young dude with short, blond-tipped dreads is gliding back down from the head of the line, his white undershirt clinging to his six-pack, and I squeeze my eyes shut against my panic until he gets to me, grips my forearm in his strong calloused hand, and leads me slowly off the rocks back onto the little bridge.
“I-I’m s-sorry,” I stutter. “I’m af-afraid of heights. And water. And, well, rocks, too.”
“No worries, lady.” He grins, closes his eyes and points into the air, and I look up, but there’s nothing there. Oh. He wants me to listen to the music. I can make it out barely now.
Everything’s gonna be all right, Bob sings from above, everything’s gonna be all right… Over and over.
I start crying, and I know it’s weird, maybe ironic, me wailing to the Wailers, the rasta-looking, young man patting me on the back. I don’t care about the rubberneckers. I feel so, so shitty, all the time, and I don’t want to anymore.
Oh little, little darling, please don’t shed no tears, Bob sings from his cloud, and I start laughing while I’m crying like a crazy person, and Charles, I think he said, starts laughing, too, a head-back-eyes-closed belly laugh, and I love him for it.
Our laughing subsides and we look at the pool below, formed by the waterfall’s endless tears. It never overflows, never grows bigger for some magical reason. It can take it.
“See,” Charles says gently, “every little thing’s gonna’ be all right, you trust in Bob.” Or, did he say God? It doesn’t matter. For the first time in a while, I admit I’m not all right. But it’s okay. I will be with help.
Hope said to call anytime I needed to, but cell service is bad here. I’ll have to wait till we get back to Monte Negro. So I’ll live in the reality of the moment, like she said I should do more. I want to remember this, the magic pool, the snaking line of people holding hands as they climb up the weeping falls, the quiet kindness of the young man beside me. Bob/God crooning truth from his Rasta heaven.
I want to remember everything, so I can tell Hope when we reach the city.