All four of the women went everywhere together, aging women with their tropical wardrobes and big purses. Margaret didn’t question it. They weren’t alone in this regard. There were as many pale, slightly overweight tourists as there were brown-skinned natives.
After a day to recuperate from the tiring journey, the women began a kind of routine, each morning the beach where gentle Caribbean waves lapped onto the white sand. At lunch, the seaside cafe, open to the warm air with tables set close to the edge, awaited with chafing dishes of rice, steamed vegetables, grilled seafood, and lamb barbeque. Waves lapped more noisily here, hitting the rock and concrete sea wall. They ordered iced tea in the morning and Piton beer in the afternoon.
Their cabin, its half-walled exterior open to the outside, clung on a hillside dense with flowering trees and thick undergrowth. A chorus of bird song, frogs, and insect sound vibrated the humid air. Green anoles, accustomed to the traffic, waited eagerly at the periphery to weigh these guests in their clever stare or sample their toes with little reptile mouths.
To the south, the twin Piton peaks jutted their eroded points into the sky with bits of jungle clinging to the vertical slopes. They say some climb those slopes, those here for adventure, the young. The women hired guides for their adventures, taken by car to lavish botanical gardens, abandoned sugar plantations, the remaining volcanic caldera where pits of yellow or pink mud bubbled and sent up sulphurous fumes.
Two young men ran the small boat around the point and along the cliffs toward the village of Soufriere. Other young men, bared chests glistening in the sun, waited at the dock to pull the boat alongside and secure the moorings so the women could clamor over the gunnels and then stroll gracefully along the seaside gardens to comment on the thickets of red blossoms, the architecture of big square houses with upstairs verandas that encircled the houses, their railings and roof edges ornamented with fleur-de-lis and painted the same pastel hue as the rest of the structure—green, aqua, coral.
Along the narrow streets, vendors squatted by small burners with their pans of sizzling wares—bits of meat, fried bread stuffed with spicy filling, batter-dipped plantain. Groups of two, three, or more attended each vendor station, daughters, grandmothers, young children all waiting for the American dollar. One man offered coconut shells he had carved with scenes of the land, surely a clever exploitation of the resource. But then, unlike the food, to what use?
Later, Margaret wondered if carved shells had been a front for his real business. At the time, wandering in this gaggle of female friends, she hadn’t known that women often traveled to these tropical islands for sex. He had been a handsome man, perhaps mid-30s, his black hair tightly fixed in dreadlocks that coursed past his wide shoulders. His ironed shirt stood open down the front to reveal his muscular chest. Advertising.
Looking back, she thinks now she noted a twinkle in his eye—would they catch the joke, the offer, the underbelly of tourism where a quick tumble or a week-long arrangement might lighten the burden of their years and pad his savings for the rainy season? The women did not. One of Margaret’s friends suggested she ask him for ganga, since she was considered the most risqué among them. Not that any of her friends would have shared, even if he had supplied it. She envisioned St. Lucian jails and declined.
How would it have been to walk away with a man like that, maybe a true Rasta man, to stand in a small darkened room he kept for such purpose, to wait trembling while his hands unbuttoned her shirt? Would his patois of French and Carib translate into decipherable words of encouragement and sensuality? How well would he tend to her fear, her despair at the slump of her belly, the sag of her breasts? Could she suspend disbelief and, just for a time, fly off in a state of mind where his desire felt real and her passion found voice and together they gained a moment of true pleasure?
Margaret has a photo album, a journal she wrote while there, and bits of shell and flotsam which she keeps in a box in her closet. It sits with other albums, each of the children in their growing up years, the early years of her marriage, scrapbooks of family trips to St. Louis, Colorado, the Florida Gulf, California with the Grand Canyon and other sights thrown in along the way. She doesn’t remember who she was then, those years ago on a Caribbean isle. Oh, she can recount the Castries marketplace and its handwoven grass mats, the stacks of colorful textiles, the patient women. She can picture the waiters in their white shirts, bowing and nodding. But she looks at the photos and remembers the experiences like watching a movie, an observer on the couch. What she felt then, how she saw the world, becomes an exercise in imagination, a fiction that might be true.
Who can count the missed opportunities of a lifetime? For surely they are far more numerous than the actual path taken. The Rasta man might have captured her lonely heart. He might have been forceful and clear-headed for both their sakes, stealing her away to a rough cabin deep in primal jungle where she would sleep in his bed and wake to his smile every morning. She doesn’t think on this. She and her friends were there for the adventure of tropical seas, exotic food, the sights and sounds of a foreign island. No one ever expected anything more.