Trevy Thomas

The Islanders

He watched me from his balcony. I could feel his eyes on me as I got out of the hotel pool and into a lounge chair. Weird, how you can feel someone staring. He looked nearly sixty years old—twice my age—and had a dejected wife behind him. He stood near the railing, hands wide, and leaned over with intent. I was grateful when R returned and took his place beside me.

That night after dinner, we stopped at the pool bar before returning to our room. I sat in a white crochet dress, enjoying my tan and the yearly escape from a job that didn’t suit me. R liked it too, maybe for the same reason. Or maybe because it was the only time I came close to keeping pace with his drinking. I used to say booze didn’t count in the Caribbean.  

The man from the balcony came over and introduced himself to us. The unhappy wife too. The bartender gave me a look I didn’t understand. Maybe it was a warning.

After shaking R’s hand, the balcony man turned to me and said, “I knew you couldn’t be here by yourself.” I was raised to meet impropriety with grace, so I behaved accordingly, smiling as though I couldn’t see past his words. There were plenty of other guests at the bar enjoying the warm night, but the couple kept their focus on us. We drank, talked, laughed, and I relaxed a bit. We left the bar first, but not until they’d encouraged us to accept an invitation for the next day.

“Come on, you’ve got to see the real St. Kitts, not just the tourist spots. We have a Jeep and we just bought a dairy farm here. Let us give you a drive around the place.  We’ll have lunch somewhere.” The warm ocean breeze, tropical music, and rum purring in my veins made me into an island puppet. We agreed.

The next morning, R and I had breakfast on the beach and wondered about all that didn’t make sense with the couple. Why they lived in a hotel. Why they never visited their Canadian homeland where their grown children still lived. Why they appeared to be on the lookout for visitors. It was mysterious enough to be intriguing, and their age buffered them in harmlessness, but we were uneasy.

After breakfast, we all met in the parking lot at their Jeep. I still have a picture of us in the open-air backseat, expressions guarded behind sunglasses. As he drove farther away from the hotel, the view changed from tropical vacation to poor village. Chickens crossed the road. Young children stood in front of shacks frowning as we drove past. Four white people with a car didn’t belong there.

We toured curvy streets while he pointed out sites along the way as though he were mayor of the countryside. His wife stayed mostly quiet. Short curls, dark glasses, and a looseness about her portrayed her defeat. I’d seen the type of middle-aged wife before. They drank heavily. I didn’t want to become one.

Finally, we arrived at the dairy farm, once a British slaveholding site. Ownership had been taken over it by the government of St. Kitts. The plan was to reduce local dependence on canned milk and develop it into a dairy farm. By the time we visited, it had been offered for sale. I now suspect that our host’s claim to have purchased it was a fantasy.

It was a quiet, sleepy place without much actual farming in evidence. We passed one frowning worker who seemed puzzled by our presence. No one treated our host as a mayor, or a boss, or a dairy magnate. We followed him as he elaborated on how expensive it was to get milk on the island, and how his plan with the farm was going to change island life.  

We walked to a small cottage and he mentioned that they were looking for someone to help get the business going. To act as caretakers of the property. The cottage was where that person, or couple, would live. He looked directly at me as he said it and, for a moment, I thought of my unsuitable job at home. Was I ready to exchange my familiar problems for unknown ones?

We returned to the Jeep and I imagined going to the hotel, putting on my swimsuit, and sitting on the beach with R, the vacation we’d planned. But they took us to lunch at a restaurant where they were known and he continued his mayor act. We sat at a picnic table in the sand far from the edge of the sea for a mediocre meal with Caribbean beers. Afterwards, I thought he was driving us back to the hotel.  Instead, he took us to a tiny village bar hut. Inside, the only customer left as soon as we came in.  We were served warm beers without a smile. It felt hostile and I wanted to leave. But R had consumed enough beer to be complacent. He didn’t protest. We pretended to be grateful for the rare tour of the island.

Finally, they returned us to the hotel. That should have been the end of it, but we spent a lot more of the trip with them. There were drinks on their hotel balcony where she was on the verge of passing out, and a pizza dinner, drunkenly obtained on a golf cart from a nearby course. Our encounters were accompanied by bravado from him, a sense of desperation from her, and something illegal about them. I wondered if they weren’t permitted to return to Canada and what they might have done to cause that.  

I also wonder now what kept me hooked.  Was it curiosity? The contrast from my routine life at home? The thin possibility of a whole-life change, moving to the island for a job? Or was it polite civility in response to their façade-like friendship?

One morning, our hotel room phone rang as usual. Our new friends were calling again to invite us on an outing for the day, trying to catch us before we snuck away. But on that morning, R told them we were taking a day to ourselves.

We admitted to each other that we’d had enough. Why had that been so hard?

Before the trip was over, we exchanged contact information with the island couple. While I wasn’t looking forward to returning to work, I was glad to be home, back in my own domain. My relationship with R had become strained and the vacation hadn’t repaired it. I wasn’t sure how much longer we’d be sharing a home, and I didn’t want to face whatever came next.

Ten days passed after our return when the doorbell rang. There on my front porch was the couple from St. Kitts, suitcases in tow, a taxi pulling off. They were prepared for my shock, and I wasn’t able to hide it. I just stood there trying to make sense of the St. Kitts mirage so displaced at my Annapolis door. I stared; they smiled.  “Hello!” He took the lead. She stood behind, uncomfortable as always.

Despite all of their weird behavior, it’s my response to them that embarrasses me now. I don’t recognize the person I was then. So concerned with being hospitable, I frequently went along with the wants of others above my own comfort. As a young girl, my old-world mother taught me to serve everyone else first, especially men, placing their dinner plates in front of them before serving women guests. At her parties, she had me put on my nightgown at bedtime and go around the room kissing all the guests goodnight. I hated it but it seemed to please everyone, and I learned to make that a goal. The lessons of what it meant to prepare for womanhood were clear and frequent: make yourself into a package that someone else would want. Please others first.

The uninvited guests stood at my door deserving to be turned away, and I didn’t do it. Maybe it was the surprise that caught me off guard. Or maybe it was the awkwardness of what was happening inside the house. Perhaps it was simply the sight of their taxi leaving them stranded, but I stepped back, holding the door wide for them to enter.

R wasn’t yet home, so I gave them the tour myself. It didn’t take long. I wondered if, when they saw one twin bed in the guestroom, they might come to their senses and get a hotel room. But rather than insist upon this alternate plan, I hoped circumstances would turn things in my favor. They weren’t put off by the bed, and the unwelcome visit continued.

By the time R got there, drinks were already in the works. It wasn’t unusual for some kind of makeshift party to be underway in our backyard or kitchen. He was surprised at who the guests were, but settled into our adjusted evening without complaint. We took them downtown for dinner, about a mile away from home, and showed them the harbor area. Annapolis is beautiful and showing it off was probably not the best way to hurry them out. But I was still operating behind conflicted feelings.

At home, the wife retreated to the twin bed and R said he had to get up early the next morning, so that left two of us sitting in the kitchen. We had another drink and talked on stools at the counter. He told me he’d done some research and saw there was a major poultry plant about an hour from our house. He wanted my help recruiting the plant to the dairy farm on the island and asked if I’d handle some correspondence for him. I agreed.  

Before I went to bed, he told me he thought R was a fool for leaving me alone with another man.

There were many times I had a sense of something being wrong or inappropriate. As a young girl, I had no real understanding of what made it so. Once, a male friend of the family came to the house for a party and I opened the door wearing a one-piece bathing suit. I had been playing Marco-Polo in the pool my friend, Tracy, and I was anxious to get back to it. But I happened to be walking by the door when he knocked. I knew him and said hello and he gave me a hug, letting his hand travel down the inside of my suit to my bare bottom.  

You don’t have to be an experienced adult to understand creepiness. From then on, Tracy and I ran whenever we saw him at gatherings. Maybe that’s why children are the ones on whom predators pick. They’re more likely to run than confront.

The next day, R and I went to work and left the island couple in our house. Who knows what they did but I don’t think it was sightseeing. Back at home, I used the addresses I’d researched in that pre‑internet era to write letters to the poultry farm. He seemed pleased. I cooked dinner and we ate in the backyard. There was no discussion about an end to the visit, but I’d finally reached my limit.

I devised a plan and called a friend who’d just moved back to town from Baltimore. When he was living away, he’d come back occasionally by bus and stay for a few days in my guest room. Even though he now had an apartment of his own in Annapolis, he agreed to go along with my ruse. I told the island couple that a friend was coming by bus the next day and I had to pick him up. He was staying in the guest room so they would need to vacate. I said there was a nice hotel a few miles away with a reasonable cost and I’d drop them there after the bus stop. They gave me an uncomfortable stare and slight nod. I doubt they believed me, and it made me uncomfortable. But I was not as uncomfortable as I would have been telling the truth or putting up with an indefinite and unwelcome visit.

My friend looked uneasy standing on the corner outside his apartment building at the bus stop. The couple sat in the back of my little Toyota, suitcase in trunk, while my savior climbed into the front passenger seat. Doing it that way felt important, as though providing proof for my story. I knew it was fake, my friend knew it was fake, and probably the couple knew it was fake, but we all pretended otherwise. Maybe it was like the dairy farm job that didn’t really exist. I drove them to the hotel and let them out. We had a quick, awkward goodbye, and I returned my friend to his apartment. I was ashamed of my lie and the extent to which it seemed necessary to maintain a graceful appearance. But I was also glad to be free of them.

When I went to the bank to withdraw some cash, I found that a deposit had been made to my savings account. The teller showed me the receipt to prove it wasn’t a mistake. It had been made during the island couple’s visit. At the time, it seemed like a lot of cash to appear out of nowhere. More than a thousand dollars. Was it payment for writing a letter?  Fee for the twin bed and dinner? Enticement to consider the island job? Had he snooped through my file drawer and found the account?

Two months after they left, R and I split up. He’d asked me many times if it was over between us. Finally, I realized I’d never be the one to decide, so he moved out and I stayed in the house. It was quiet. No one in the guest room. No one in the bedroom. I’d stayed until someone else figured out what I wanted.  

I never heard from the couple again.

© Trevy Thomas

Trevy Thomas’s work has appeared in The Coachella Review, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Forge Journal, Sliver of Stone, Drunk Monkeys, Five on the Fifth, Visitant, the River Tides anthology, and Woodwork magazine. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two dogs.

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