The Punishing Sun by Liza Béar
I’m in flight, I’m delirious, I’ve shed my urban chrysalis. Far below, on a vanishing horizon, the city retreats like a smudge, a fading bruise on the skin of the earth, the last trace of a disease. I look down on stately columns of cottony clouds, alabaster and ivory. Luminous in the sun, they make of me, they’d make of anyone an angel. I’m dancing on the head of a pin as the plane assumes its spiralling descent.
An island in the Caribbean. Horizontal swipes of ultramarine, turquoise, and white, the palette of the tropics. White sand soft as flour runs between my fingers, wet firmly packed toffee colored sand crunches under the soles of my feet. I’m singing a dirge. I wade into the cooling tide, I float out to sea, my pallid North American limbs, weightless, without substance, dangle below me in water translucent as glass. Arms a straight line, I look up at the clouds, hoisted against the silky blue like a mammoth fleece. Never have they seemed so downy, so sumptuous and enticing. For now, these are my friends.
Adrift and cruciform, I watch the drama of the swiftly changing skies unfold, the acceleration of a storm.
Facing me on the beach across the jade green water is Coconut International, a simple unpretentious establishment run by a Jamaican woman and her family. I take an immediate liking to them, Angie, womanly and in charge, her husband the supportive man, their agile barefoot sons, the drowsy guard dog. The accoutrements are modest. Everything is made of wooden planks, corrugated iron, painted white. Plumbing is external. Cabins are cheap, it’s the hurricane season.
Some months ago, I found myself on a banquette at the Paris Bar, waiting for two people, one at six, the other at seven. The place is rapidly filling up; courteous and discreet, the maitre d’ finds me a seat facing the double swing doors which are in constant motion. I watch the impeccably attired waiters, arms aloft, navigate the crowded inlet around the bar, spin loaded trays on outstretched palms, pirouetting from table to table with balletic precision.
The Paris Bar is not in Texas or in France, it’s on Kantstrasse, in the newly merged Berlin of the immediate postdestruction-of-the-wall period, in a soon-to-be-reunited Germany. At one time Kant himself may have stopped there to mull over Pure Reason with a Cotes-du-Rhone, but I’ll never know. Like everyone else, I am there for the big film event of the year. Everyone here has made a film, is in a film, or wants a film, and wants everyone else to see their film, be in their film, want their film. The blitzkrieg of production segues into the beguines and minuets of pursuit in a courtly figure of eight.
The air is fraught with tension, anticipation, promise and hyperbole, pitches and introductions, renewed acquaintances and forgotten faces, exhalations and sidestream smoke from innumerable cigarettes, the raised eyebrows of disapproval, the sidelong glances of evasion, and the straightahead warmth of sympathy and appreciation. Yes, eyelines meet in Berlin. I feel its past which I do not share elided by the present. Berlin, with its starched white table linen, spotless streets and well-honed architecture, its absence of limousines or derelicts, its clean sharp morning air, the quickening of early spring. Magic that not even the pall of smoke from a thousand cigarettes can dispel.
It’s eight o’clock. Berliners are eating dinner. Rick’s eating dinner. I’m eating soup. Two perfumed women are at the next table. Dinner’s serious business, New York, its private tragedies and public hell, a point on the map. I rejoice in its absence like a child on a sleepover. The wall’s crumbling, the soup’s served in clever small tureens that keep it hot. I admire the mounds of salad. The anchovy and the red peppers radiate from the center like the tentacles of a starfish. The deficit is more on my side, but I’m hungry, I pinch some from Rick’s plate. Like a buddha, he looks on with great tolerance.
—“We’ve never spent so much time together,” he says, marvelling at the fact.
My nerves are taut, I turn my head away. For years, we’ve traded language copiously. Yet, distanced and displaced, we’ve been near as planets are, orbiting at fixed distances within a galaxy. There’s a precise moment when a present emotion cancels out all prior events. A fault cracks, and the past becomes this chunk of land that’s slipped into the ocean. I brace myself for change.
The clouds amass, form and reform. Choreography on a grand scale. The sky is a satiny, almost kingfisher blue. Ashore they prepare for the onslaught, tables and chairs are brought in, huddled together. It’s a tussle between cumulus and nimbus. Rolls of menacing thunderclouds advance at breakneck speed, obliterate the snowy cumulus. Soon, a dense canopy of gunmetal grey stretches to the horizon.
Gusting across the bay with a deafening roar, as if driven by giant rotary blades, the wind rips, tears up, convulses the sheets of cloud into furious squalls. With military precision, sharp arrows of blinding rain mount a rapid attack on the ocean’s ruffled surface. The ocean is a field of wet flowers, the long steely stems spurt petals of water as they strike.
Isabella, a New York fashion designer, has suffered a body blow; she abandons city life, boards the next plane to the Caribbean, hoping to work in isolation. She trades the glare of publicity for the glare of an alien culture that thrives on the likes of her for their survival. The thin eggshell of privacy cracks into a thousand fragments.
Things come to a head when she takes a trip to the mountains. Now she’s abandoned, miles from the nearest station.
I am not Isabella. I am not transposing my life into fiction.
“Why did you leave him stranded,” I ask Jake, curious.
The two of them, Rick and Jake, have a long-standing feud which flares up periodically like an old injury on a damp day.
“Rick was being Rick,” Jake replies laconically. Jake is moody, tight curls, deepset dark grey eyes, with the long waist of the inveterate rider, the perpetual cowboy. Jake changes the world with the shifting of an eye. Direct and adversarial, Rick is more pendulum-shaped, neat at the extremities, skates on thin ice with definite aplomb.
I’m shorter than either of them and not kidding.
Rick’s hands on the keyboard. His smooth, sleek, padded, well-kept hands, the hands of a bon vivant. I show him how to mix the flute with the jazz guitar. We’re standing side by side, dangerously close, close enough to start one thing and to end another. The stakes are high. He doesn’t inch away. My knees are gelatinous, my body in suspension, my brain a crazed switchboard of constantly rerouted signals. The circuitry’s so overloaded I’m not transmitting. I remain as stationary as a static camera. He stands his ground, unfathomable, resolute and recalcitrant, absorbed in the delicate, contained, slightly disdainful movement of his fingers over the white and the black notes.
He’s at home on the casio, improvising rifts, designing accompaniments, changing the instrumentation. Chords, harmonies, exotic rhythms.
“I’m good at this, right,” he smiles. He’s subdued, unusually calm. “I learned it all from Duke.” He drains the bottle of red wine.
“I’d better go, I’m about to pass out.”
Swaying dancers clad in the pink blue mauve of sugared almonds singsong a welcome in the airport lobby at Montego Bay. The land of Boonoonoonoos, having a good time. I gulp the fruit punch that is offered, the alcohol works fast. Driving on the left is one of the Empire’s last gasps. School uniforms are another. Bumping and bouncing along the coastal highway, everything is remarkable, the scudding mopeds, Hondas, lumbering lorries crammed with Coca Cola crates. Place names flash by leaving traces like the trail of a comet, Bamboo Shout, Root Bamboo, The Little Fish Shop, Chicken Lavish. The senses are regaled. Sensuality’s so hyped it’s as oppressive as the heavy cloud coverage, drenching humidity. At the boundary of self and non-self, surfaces liquefy, no lightness of being here. A Charles Bronson movie’s unspooling at the local cinema, Death Wish Number Four.
The road narrows, the bus empties at Rick’s Cafe. Rick’s Cafe is not the Paris Bar and there’s no Rick. It’s not in Casablanca or Berlin but at the West End of Negril, perched on a rocky cliff. Divers plunge to the staccato applause of their fans; the crystalline water shudders and froths at the impact. Under the brilliant polish of the sky, why so much dreariness? The buzz here is not from conversation but from the insects. Bland-faced couples, verbally depleted, sip on their straws and crush their half-smoked filter tips. Small pockets of staleness waft in my direction.
I flee this joyless crowd and grab the first jalope with an official license plate. The driver’s thin and helpful, I sense the hunger behind his darting eyes, I feel him assessing me for my net worth. I’m almost sorry to disappoint him. What good’s an impoverished visitor. The front door handle’s broken, I’m at his mercy. We negotiate a fare … I tell him what I want, the rest is up to him. He quits the coast road for a sandy driveway, he leads me to a friend. The sign is plastic but nothing else. A bare-legged, full-breasted woman in gathered skirt and blouse greets us. My future habitat replicates the one I just abandoned; spartan quarters with a bed, a broken mirror, a table and a chair; a naked light bulb, and is perfectly suited to my means. I drape my clothes over loops of string, sweep the sand from the floor with a whiskered broom. A chameleon watches me from the window sill.
“Rick’s such a baby,” Moishe announces one day unexpectedly.
My eyes widen. Rick, violently alive, a mobile face, a scathing glance, a mouth that’s quick to curl into a sneer or a laugh, a red hot iron that scorches all who dare draw near. I adjust my image of Rick to conform to his, its hard lines soften. Savvy and unctuous, Moishe is a local movie mogul minus the cigar. One day he’ll have a house in Malibu. He’s on his sixth film. He’s also a two-family man. Moishe continues. “He accuses me of being a bourgeois. He’ll call me two nights in a row, wanting to go out to dinner. He has no concept of family responsibility.”
—“Moishe, let’s go out, have some fun.”
—“I have to work tonight.”
—“Moishe, all work and no play makes Moishe a dull boy.”
—“Yup, pays the bills, though.”
—“Come on, let’s go to a movie, have dinner.”
—“But Rick, we did that yesterday.”
—“I know, Moishe, but today’s a new day.”
Waves of passion subside on shores of tenderness, but longing has no destination. Sometimes the moral high ground seems awfully desolate. Better to use a little cunning.
I take my cue from Moishe and invite Rick to dinner. The invitation’s long overdue, he’s excited, excitement yields to prudence. His response is immediate and pragmatic. He asks what’s there to eat, exacts an inventory over the phone. It gets his seal of approval, now he’s here, in a pale linen suit and leather shoes, mellow. Time undulates gently like a breeze rippling through a field of long grass.
—“You’re excited,” he notes, on target as usual. “It’s the opening.”
The morning routine soon kicks in. Bird calls awaken me with their trumpet voluntary, breakfast is easy: juicy mangos, baby bananas. The water’s still cool at 9. I commute from the water to the sand. If you’re lucky the giant speaker at the Sweet Sipps bar next door is not yet detonating frenetic bursts of Reggae music. The ragged, overmodulated beat sends out giant shock waves that would be shattering the peace, except that peace, like car radios in New York City, is long gone, is not there to be anythinged. The exaggerated, distorted sound all but drowns out the expiring wavelets on the beach.
At 10:30 The Daily Gleaner arrives at the big hotel next door. At 11, the ice cream man, armed with a bucket of deliciousness, startles us with his bicycle bell.
I show Rick the press release. He balks at the third paragraph.
“You should take that out,” he says. “That’s a very heavy sentence.”
Sidewalks the color of dirty laundry, spattered with blackened chewing gum. Small colored plastic vials in the cracks between paving stones. Air filled with exhaust, with the hum, drip drips of air conditioners. In the street, men with reddened eyes bear the cross of Reaganomics, the ravages of years of negligence and neglect. I nod in greeting, but today my sympathy is more remote. I’m wrestling with my own demons. There’s nothing to relieve the faded, jaded dirt, the decay, the disrepair. Up above me, a chute of orange garbage pails draws a slash across the institutional drabness like a Vlaminck brushstroke.
I’m no stranger to the block. Here’s where the city’s savage beauty turns acrid, brutish, hostile. Now it’s our open air salon, a sort of piazza del poppolo.
At the corner of a building a man is urinating. From his car, a patrolling cop eyes the exposed member gleefully:
—“Yo, you better put that away or else you’re gonna lose it.”
Today, we’ve missed each other all day long, today he’s leaving. He’s always leaving. He calls my house, I go to his. I whip off the hefty metal chain with a noisy clang, doublelock my bike to the scaffolding. I’m gonna lose it if I have to wait one minute longer.
My long wool sweater is vermilion red, it betrays nothing. My flared cotton skirt betrays nothing, my black stockings and my shoes betray nothing. My narrow braids and freshly washed face betray nothing. My eyes behind the darkened lenses, the corners of my mouth, nothing.
My heart is not pounding inside my chest, see, my ribcage is a safe … I keep my feelings under lock and key. No one asked me to. I run a covert operation. It’s all strictly business. Message machine, documents, checks, xerox, fax. The means proliferate, the soul yearns for a more human form of currency. Berlin, the Paris Bar. If I call, better not, interrogative is the favored mode of speech, followed by advisory. I call anyway. I take the advice. I can use it.
There’ll be no recognition. He’ll deny it, it’ll be too late.
Across the street, two habitues engage in New York rituals of appropriation. Isn’t all property theft? The cops are out of sight. It’s still broad daylight. In full view of passers-by, using a stout black pipe as leverage, they wreck the kryptonite, pry a hapless bike from its moorings. I’m considering some kind of intervention when Rick hails me from the corner of the block. I hear my name shouted into the street, I turn my head. The sound is a wild rose in the rank and burglarous air.
“I’m sorry,” he says as he approaches, slightly contrite. On the day of his departure he looks at ease, fit, trim from miles of cycling every day. I sense his well-being, I eye his closely-shaven face—closely. The eyes are smiling, one eyebrow’s raised, it’ll be okay.
“I’m afraid,” I say out loud to Rick. I tell him why. I’m afraid of exposure.
“Don’t be. You’ll be all right. It’s like taking a big shit.”
For once, finally, we stop talking. He cedes to a physical impulse, his arms encircle me. My heart pumps faster into my bloodstream but I’m not confused, my head is clear. I want so much to respond in like coin. I know what this is. I also know what it’s not. It’s the embrace of solidarity, two ball players in the field. We press each other hard. His body is strong, firm, dense, muscular, energizing.
The backdrop of the men’s shelter, the stacked garbage disappear, the men seated at tables behind the fence, the grungy buildings, tired soiled sidewalks, go out of focus. I hold still, I don’t quaver. I keep my hands from straying, going where they want to go, continuing their motion. Our abbreviated transfer of energy is deployed in full view of the loony street, the eyes of window panes.
Time’s up. We release each other into the balmy glow of early evening. I’m on my own. Where I’m going he’s already been, the emotional chiaroscuro of where I am he won’t follow.
Negril, 4:30 AM. The sea sucks at the sand. Barbed adjectives invade my sleep, writhing and seething like recombinant subatomic particles, a hornet’s nest of droning epithets that sting repeatedly. I’m through the pearly gates, here are no lutes or lyres, only the tortured cries of the afflicted in the throes of damp perdition. The word is not God, the word is a searing Satanic ember.
Sprawled across the dusty moonlit yard, the dog barks incessantly, with urgency. His barking arcs into a big crescendo, it’s a canine concerto. He fails to awaken the guard. The tree outside the window rustles and shakes, there’s a loud crack. My rented Canadian mountain bike is chained to the tree. I jump into wakefulness, clothes, and out the door. Too late. The severed branch is on the ground, the thief’s absconded with the vehicle.
At dawn, the still dormant guard wakes from a sound ganja sleep and makes his rounds. He solemnly inspects the mutilated tree. The severed branch is evidence of his lapsed vigilance, he has to get rid of it. He throws the branch onto the trash heap behind the fence. I retrieve it. A 300 dollar chasm has opened up, I have to achieve closure. He explains in a rapid dialect that a white man chopped down the tree, ran down the path with the bike, still chained, on his shoulder. The assembled company greets his tale with skepticism, counter hypotheses. The guard’s version is repeated endlessly, now even burglars have equal rights, Angie mutters scornfully.
The Jamaican coffee is smooth, not a trace of bitterness, served with sweetmilk. I’m halfway through my second cup when a truckload of security police spills out into the yard. Suddenly, the premises are run over with uniformed men combing the bushes.
By the end of the day, the security company has capitulated; they’ll replace the bicycle. The lone watchman is replaced by a cozy twosome. It’s a cruel world. His undoing is my salvation.
Rival sentiments invade me like enemy battalions. Fear, affection, sympathy, respect, admiration, anger, form a combustible mix. I’m wired with an explosive charge, the fuse is short.
I’m at Rick’s place. There’s hardly room to swing a cat. His desk spans the two windows onto the street. I pace from one to the other like an agitated dervish.
—What’s going on, why don’t you sit down.
He points to a chair with a canvas seat and arms. A director’s chair’s not all it’s made out to be, but I take it anyway. I’m buoyant and sanguine, I’ll harness this surge of feeling like hydroelectric power, it’ll move mountains.
Rick hasn’t shaved, his face and chin are sporting a belligerent stubble, it doesn’t bode well. I inspect it with my macro lens. It’s a barbed wire fence, it’s sending unmistakable “keep out” signals. My expression crumbles, my face bends out of shape. This was supposed to be fun. My good spirits are dispersed like dandelion seeds in a puff of wind, my eyes smart.
“You look flustered,” Rick observes with deadly accuracy from his vantage point.
He’s clearly not going to bail me out. After all, this is his turf. I make a strenuous effort to defeat gravity, choke back the treacherous flow. I won’t backslide into gender, into sensory meltdown. I hear him stifling my unspoken arguments, rebuttal of my buts with his, but but but but, a ram with horns.
Fear makes you reckless. I pitch wildly, I make an offer. Actually, it’s a complicated scam that would kill two birds with one stone. Right away I land in a defensive briar patch.
—I don’t know why you have to trivialize what I’m saying.
—It’s an abstraction. You’re not talking about anything real.
—Especially since I’m not going to be around.
The icy incontrovertible facts of place and time and airline schedules. He’s disturbed.
—My experience with Nora was really bad, I never want that to happen again.
—That was with Nora.
—I don’t want to work with any of my friends. And especially not with you.
He’s in a scabrous mood, I don’t press him to elaborate.
—Now you’re being mean.
—And you’re being ridiculous.
My intuitions are still running strong, I take another tack.
—It’s not like I don’t have work of my own.
—I know you do.
—I could have used some help, when things were in full swing.
—Things aren’t in full swing, but even if they were, that’s not the point, I want more and more to do things myself, my own way.
—How come you get to help other people then?
—Giving advice is something else.
Rick’s shooting another movie. His first call on set is in a few hours, he’s in no mood for inner turbulence, the complexities of human emotion. Frustration stiffens into rage. I throw a dart at his forehead. It bounces off.
He’s smoking a cigarette butt picked up out of the trash and eating some sliced, weepy-looking honeydew melon. All of a sudden he grimaces and spits forcefully into the cardboard tray. The gesture has a characteristic, exaggerated vehemence.
A smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. I laugh, I forget my aggravation. I remember why I liked him in the first place.
—Jesus, did you bite into a cockroach?
—Of course I didn’t bite into a cockroach, how could you think that, it’s the cigarette.
A coconut palm, roots exposed, shoots straight out of the sand at a sharp angle. Next to the palm, an almond tree. At the foot of the trees, a long picnic table with benches. Yellow and green coconut gourds dangle precariously above my head. At intervals, discarded almonds hit my notebook with a thud.
I stare out over the placid water, ducking the almonds. High-profile rastamen crisscross the beach in pursuit of clients. Braid your hair, braid your hair. I’m besieged by a stream of vendors plying their wares, black coral beads, sky-diving trips, freshly squeezed oranges, opalescent sea shells, freshly caught lobster. Their sales pitches are prefaced by excruciating questions … No I’m not American not German either no, don’t want to try your ganja what if you’re an agent not in the mood for mushrooms, no, no, NO!
Merciless, the sun incinerates the back of my neck and shoulders. I anoint my skin with aloe vera and head for the striated shade of the restaurant porch with its small white wooden tables and hard chairs. The floor is concrete over seashell, painted a terra cotta red that stains your feet.
Three rows of bottles glint behind the bar. I dangle my legs from one of the square-topped bar stools and order a banana daiquiri. I want it all, I’ll have it all, I run the projector inside my head. Words arrive on the page like long-invited welcome guests, I seat them at their places, I serve them well. Bees lodge in the honeycomb, a flock of migrant birds lands on the shore.
Oh, but wait a moment. Against the skyline is an unaccustomed silhouette. Take my last ten J, I can’t resist. I will vault into the saddle and ride that horse along the beach, into the sunset.
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