Not counting backpacks and carry-ons, I have brought just over 300 pounds of luggage to Tobago: Six suitcases, each one packed a pound or two over the weight limit. I’m traveling on my own with the children, and my eight-year-old daughter—the older of the two—helps with the lighter cart. We wait on the slow line for each passenger’s every bag to be x-rayed. The customs officer strolling the queue stops beside us.
“No daddy?” he asks.
I think to give him one of the many reasons a woman might be traveling without a daddy, but luckily, remember where I am. Instead, I give him the most dazzling smile I can manage after eight hours in transit, and call up my best Trinidadian accent. “No, not till next week.”
“What, girl,” he says, “the man send you Tobago alone?”
A range of unspoken replies can be interpreted from my contorted smile; he can choose whichever he wants to hear.
“And what you have in your suitcases?”
“Food, mostly,” I tell him. “Pasta and rice, frozen chicken breast, ground beef, ground turkey, some steaks, almond butter, peanut butter, butter, Nutella, crepes and croissants. Fifteen cans of tuna because, well,” I realize what I’m about to say and say it anyway, “the tuna here is kind of nasty.”
“Yes,” he agrees, “tin tuna here not nice at all.” I realize he has pulled out his best American accent. The children are too tired to interrupt, but they listen. He drops his voice. “I can get you a nice bonito, you know. Where you staying?” I do not adjust the brightness of my smile to signal I think him either fresh or kind. A few seconds later he unfastens the velvet rope. “Come, nice girl and small man,” he says to my children. “Tomorrow you can swim in the sea.”
Outside, my daughter inhales the moist tropical night. “A bonito is a fish?” she asks. “Why does he want to buy you a fish?”
Too much nuance for a tired little girl, but I don’t smile when I lie to my children. “He’s just being friendly,” I tell her.
My large nuclear family, desperately poor when I was growing up (but thankfully not recognizably so to us children), never took vacation. In some ways, by bringing my own children to the Caribbean, I am trying to give them part of my childhood: long lazy summers which we called the August holidays—playing outdoors, cousins, going to the beach and into the bush. But, they are also getting extras I never had as a child: air travel, a villa, a pool, and perhaps most significant, return to a different life when summer ends.
I also bring them to experience what I think of as unregulated blackness. Our trips to Tobago have become the antidote to America, where the unspooling narrative of black and white conflict is seemingly without end. For six weeks they will not be minorities. Of course, unregulated racial existence does not equal an uncomplicated society.
On our first full day, unwilling to leave the water, we come back late from the sea. As we head inside, the neighbor’s car pulls up. She pronounces her name, Diane, Dee-ann. She owns the villa next door. “Anything you need while you’re here,” she tells me, “feel free to ask.”
I thank her, make a little small talk, and we drag ourselves inside. Too exhausted to season and cook the red snapper from the fish market, I convert some suitcase rations into pesto pizza. Ten minutes into the meal my son begins itching his hairline. I know the sign and am alarmed long before the hives bubble up on his forehead. Soon his eyes are almost swollen shut and thin red welts radiate between his lash line and his curls. I give him a teaspoon more than the recommended dose of Benadryl, but clearly he needs medical attention. The villa phone is dead. I grab my son, tell my daughter come. I bang on Diane’s door. After a minute, her firm voice asks, Who? I explain with as much patience as I can manage. My son is in deep distress and even though I am trying to project calm, his sister senses my stress.
“Is Mase going to die?” she asks.
“Not at all,” I tell them and myself.
The door opens, Diane takes us in with a look and autodials the phone already in her hand. “Dr. Madoo? It’s Diane. Hold on.” She passes me the phone. “Tell him.”
I explain my son’s known allergies, his reactions past, and the seeming severity of this attack.
“Now,” this Dr. Madoo says. “Go to the emergency room, now.”
I’m already backing out. My son is beginning to claw at his neck. I am not sure if he’s itchy or if his airways are closing.
“You know how to get there?”
I think I do, but the road I name is incorrect. Diane shuffles into her shoes. “Follow me in your car,” she says.
For the past two years I have rented the cheapest car on offer, in part because I am broke but also as part of the authenticity of my trip. I am not a Yankee tourist zipping around in a fancy four-by-four. I curse authenticity as I buckle both children under the one working seatbelt. After a hundred feet Diane signals and stops. She comes out, reaches through my open window, and switches on my headlights. We speed
through the dark night, high beams illuminating sleeping cows and listed coconut trees. In the backseat my daughter whispers to her brother. I glance back and see her holding his hand. His other hand, thankfully, is still scratching his face. He’s not clawing at his throat. He’s breathing.
Under the bright ER lights I see the swelling has gone down. Relieved, I answer absurd questions about my relationship to my much lighter skinned son, our different last names, his religion, and whether he can accept a blood transfusion in an emergency. Diane asks the practical question: “How long before he’s seen?” When the receptionist answers with uncertainty, she says, “Yes, but this child was almost dying fifteen minutes ago. He needs to be seen.”
A second receptionist rolls his chair over. “What is your relationship to the child?” he asks Diane. “Where the daddy?”
There’s something arrested about grown men asking for the daddy. We all startle when Diane slaps the counter. “What business is that of yours? How is that relevant to when this child will be seen?” She points to his computer. “Roll back, Mister.”
Her shouting draws a nurse who tells me to bring my son into triage.
“You want me to wait?” Diane asks. I think we have it from here. He’s still trying to peel his face from his skull, but the swelling has stopped and he is taking normal breaths.
Diane gives me her number. “Any trouble, you call me. Knock when you get back to the villa.”
I squeeze a lesson out of this trauma. Everyone we’ve interacted with tonight is black: the security guards, the rude receptionist, the nurses, the man in the waiting room with elephantiasis, the doctors, the patients who tsk at my lenient parenting when my son dissolves into a complete meltdown. I wanted the children to see black lives being fully lived. Here, practically on our first night, we rub shoulders with a whole spectrum of one Caribbean society.
The radio stations in Tobago play a mix of classic calypso from my youth and the contemporary soca the young people prefer. I want to be an old lady and complain about the incessant bass, but this music is my blood, the more outrageous the better. I often stop cooking or reading to dance. My children shake their heads, but the rhythm is irresistible, and they dance too. I’ve taught them how to wine—to gyrate their waists and get down low. They’d hold their own in any carnival fete. The deejay taunts his audience to shake it. This is music to make you move, he says over the bass. Music to make you dance. Niggeritis is not an excuse. I said niggeritis is not… I hurl myself at the radio and jab at the power button. I look wildly to see if the kids have understood his words. I know there is some hypocrisy in my rush to shield the children from an ugly word—some cherry picking of this “unregulated” cultural experience. My siblings and I teased each other with this colloquialism when we were being lazy. This word is, in fact, an inside joke. There will be no backlash against the deejay (imagine the uproar on American radio), only laughter as the people dance on.
As a child, if on a Saturday morning I got up early enough—the time we called fore-day-morning—my mother might take me on her weekly trip to Penal Market. I remember the taxi ride in the still-dark dawn, then keeping close to my mother as she haggled for a lagniappe. My children are old enough on this visit to see how it’s done, how you never pay the first price, but the sellers don’t seem game. Apparently no one else bargains. Produce prices are still unmarked, but I am the only person walking through the market challenging how much they call for their goods.
I take the children to butchers end. I don’t want meat but I want them to see. “What is that?” my daughter asks. She knows, but she wants me to verbally confirm the horror before her: severed heads, set in lurid death grimaces, lined on a shelf.
“Pigs’ heads,” I tell her lightly.
How they stare. Meat doesn’t come packaged in plastic from the supermarket on Washington Avenue. She leads away her brother. I don’t force them to stay. A look is enough to know.
At arguably the market’s best stall, the proprietor recognizes us from previous years and welcomes me back with a perfectly ripened, purple-skinned avocado. He comments on how the children have grown, ensuring this summer too, I will buy the bulk of my vegetables from him. My son collects fallen produce in his pockets. “He likes to shop,” I tell the proprietor with a shrug. I’ll pay for the vegetables if he asks, but I’m not going to explain my child.
“Oh ho,” the vendor tears a fresh plastic bag off the roll. Even though the stand is crowded with shoppers he takes the time to make my son a starter pack—two tomatoes, an okra, a sweet pepper, and a potato. “For you, small man.”
“Thanks.” My son examines the bag, and hands it back. “I’m allergic to tomatoes and peppers,” he says with a frankness I haven’t mastered at forty.
“Ah.” The vendor replaces the allergens with an onion and a lime. I want to pay him double for this gesture. In Tobago, like in Trinidad and throughout much of the Caribbean, it is still too easy to tease a boy who likes to polish his nails, dress up in fancy clothes, and do the shopping. In their progressive Brooklyn public school, the kids have classmates who identify as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth. I cannot imagine the external, and hence the internal, torment such a child would face on the island. For once, I am glad the language of commerce trumps cultural taboos. We leave the market eager to come back next week.
Back at the villa I ask Miss Alva, the housekeeper, why no one else bargained. Because, she says, Tobagonians know they’re already getting the best price. “We never haggle,” she adds with a dash of salt, “only cheap people who come from Trinidad.”
I grin, ignoring her sass, glad she hasn’t identified me as American.
I stop to buy a pineapple from the man on the main road. He sorts through the emerald and gold fruit heaped on his pickup. While my children hang out the car window, he and I make small talk about pineapple chow—chunks of sweet pine seasoned with his own blend of hot pepper, garlic, bandania, and other secret spices—and how glad
I am his crop comes from Trinidad and not Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic. He charges me $36TT for the pineapple, a ridiculous sum. Unfortunately, I only have $25TT and as confirmation of the inflated price, he says, “No problem.”
“The last thing in the world I want to do,” he takes the money with a wink and a smile, “is keep a woman from putting something sweet in she mouth.”
I know my expected response is to banter, to come back with my own fresh line, but I can’t. For a split second I think I should drop some lyrics on him about respect, but who am I kidding? He means no disrespect and would be taken aback if I responded as if I’d been insulted. Instead, my bottom lip falls away from my teeth in a kind of grimace. I take the pineapple and go back to my children.
I’m missing all the cues: haggling when I shouldn’t and not bantering when the time is right. I am out of my element.
My car is full of nieces: Beautiful, slim, dark girls with almond eyes, some of whom look more like me than my own daughter. We are returning from Store Bay, the bacchanal beach. The girls have had a fine time with their permissive auntie from America. These teenage cousins, who pamper my daughter like a pet, mesmerize her. We’re caught in traffic and as we slowly drive past Penny Savers Supermarket, we hear the crazy itinerant preacher who comes out daily with Bible, microphone, and amplifier. He is obsessed with female genitalia. More specifically, with girls and women who dress scandalously, their lady parts exposed to tempt Tom, Dick (especially Dick, he says), and Harry. Women on the way to hell. “Remember Sodom and Gomorrah, Tobago, remember.” I would roll up the windows but of course my car’s air conditioning is broken. The traffic crawls. I worry about what my daughter is hearing. My oldest niece, sitting up front next to me, claps her hands and nods in agreement. “Preach it, man,” she says.
“What, Louke? You agree with him?”
“To a point, Auntie Gracy. Some of these young girls out here overdoing it.” The nieces in the back concur.
“Ladies should dress like ladies,” Debra says.
“Proper,” Miriam adds.
Cherne, the sweetest of the bunch, smiles. But Kafi, the plumpest and prettiest of the lot, says, “Not me. No man can tell me what to wear. You mad, Louke.”
Louke digs in. “Women need to respect themselves if they want respect. You can’t go outside in short pants and then get upset when men look.”
I glance at my daughter in the rear view. She sits up high on Cherne’s knees listening to every word. “You can get upset,” I tell Louke. “In fact, you should get upset. You should be able to wear what you want and not get harassed, no?”
By now we can no longer hear the preacher man, but Louke shakes her head. “Auntie,” she says, “you living in America for too long. You don’t know these fellas down here.”
The ubiquitous fist bump, the international symbol for brotherhood, is known as a bounce here on the islands. “Gimmih ah bounce,” the boys say, impenetrable dialect if you are not in the know. I taught the phrase to my son because inevitably, some older man will signal for a bounce, a modern male initiation rite. Sure enough, in Scarborough, after an unsmiling youth-man takes my $5TT for a parking space, he raises a fist to my son who lifts his chin and wordlessly lands the silently requested bounce. My pride swells and drains. My son knows how to give a bounce, but my daughter stands hopeful, waiting for someone to raise a fist to her. She can give a bounce too, had helped train her brother for the moment. She waits in vain for her turn with the youth-man. Men don’t bounce girls. Girls are Nice Girl and boys Small Man. Nice girls grow up to become Slim or Thick Thing, Reds or Darkie, or maybe a wife-girl or a Miss Lady. Small man becomes Big Man and gets to name all the girls.
Toward the end of our stay, Diane’s raised voice draws me outside. I hear her engaged in a loud argument with a brawny man sporting a ridiculous haircut—what we called a muff when I was growing up, kind of an upside down kinky mullet. I step out to watch Diane’s back. She lives on the island full time but she is a single woman and a man, much taller than she, is yelling at her. After a minute I cross to her yard. The man, a contractor, performed some electrical work on her front light and is upset—furious, really—because Diane has asked him to explain what was done.
I try to defuse tempers. “Why don’t you tell her what you did?”
He answers me without seeing me. “Like she can understand.”
Diane is an engineer. FEMA flies her first class to the US to consult during disasters.
“Why this lady can’t pay me my money?”
Diane turns to me. Her anger transforms to weariness. “You see what I have to deal with, Gracy? Every day of my life.”
They argue, neither listening to the other. I tell Diane to pay him. The light works. I run to my villa for pencil and paper to start a receipt. Diane fills in the details. The man, satisfied he will be paid, stands next to her. He says, in a becalmed tone, “A woman like you.” It is a complete statement. “I bet you was a nice girl, but your mouth too hot. That is why you can’t get a man. You’re sexy, but that mouth.”
“What?” I say.
Diane keeps writing: the sum of three thousand dollars, cash. “You have no idea, Gracy. Every day of my life I have to put up with these, these…” She searches for the right word.
“You need to stop,” I say to the man. But he doesn’t, and I doubt he has registered my presence throughout the altercation. I am invisible to him: black, female, foreign, slight.
Diane counts thirty crisp, blue one hundred dollar bills. Big Man takes his money. He doesn’t thank her. He struts down the path, barrel chest and ridiculous pompadour thrust forward, a real life bantam cock.
She and I stand together in the coming darkness. The setting sun has blackened and silvered the turquoise water. Color is now above: Orange, purple, pink.
A blue-crowned motmot with iridescent green wings watches from its perch on the power line. The beauty is a consolation prize. “Sometimes,” Diane says to me, “I feel like getting on plane and leaving this place.”
Six weeks have gone by and I have had enough. The plan is to come again next summer but I need to reassess what I hope to get out of these visits, especially as my children get older. Except, I don’t know how to moderate my expectations. I want to temporarily escape America’s pace and pressure for the carefree Caribbean of my childhood, but maybe that utopia only exists in my imagination. I left the island at sixteen, but were my older sisters more mature bodies subjected to constant unwelcome scrutiny? I am not willing to remove myself from the folk, to stay in a catered resort, take day trips to the sites; in fact, I adamantly call our vacation our relocation. Maybe the answer is to have less expectation. Perhaps next year we will come for the August holidays and not charge a six-week visit with curing the remainder of the year’s shortcomings.