Excerpt from Chapter Two of —

The Flaws That Bind

© 2014 Rebecca Leo

Jamaica, 1968

II

         Boarding the Air Jamaica flight in Miami, I feel as if I have already arrived on the island. Surrounded by melodious accents, I can’t take my eyes off the flight attendants. Unlike American cabin crews, each wears a different colored mini-dress–lime, magenta, turquoise, tangerine–all accentuated with silk scarves painted in tropical flower motifs. Their flawless makeup convinces me the airline must recruit at Miss Jamaica pageants.
All the passengers–who, David tells me, are probably mostly homeward bound, since tourists don’t go down during the heat of August–are drinking Red Stripe beer or rum and ginger. Unlike domestic flights where travelers isolate themselves behind magazines, laughter ricochets around the cabin. Making our way down the aisle amidst drinking and lively chatter feels like mingling at a cocktail party.
When we get to our row, David indicates I should take the window seat. “Maybe you’ll get a look at Cuba,” he says, “and I want you to see Kingston on our approach.”
          Passengers behind us create a commotion as they struggle to stash bundles under seats and in overhead compartments. Seeing them buckle gigantic stuffed animals into a vacant seat, I nudge David. “Wonder if they bought an extra ticket for those.”
          He glances over and calls out, “Looks like you’re bringing Miami’s zoo to Jamaica!”
          “Oh, just a few things we picked up for the pickney,” says the tall, curvaceous blonde with a smile. “Gotta cheer them up after we’ve been away all weekend.” She wears a scanty white halter dress with a hemline that extends nearly to mid-thigh, revealing fulsome expanses of satiny copper-tone skin. Her equally tall, bronze-tanned companion has on a stylish bush jacket and white twill slacks. Both glitter with gold jewelry.
          “So you came all the way to Miami to shop?” David asks.
“We always do,” the man answers. “Everything’s cheaper so it more than makes up for the cost of flying.”
“But what about the hotel?”
“We’re lucky. You know, relatives here.”
David just nods; then he asks if I’d like another drink and orders refills for our neighbors, too. Twisting in his seat, he keeps chatting, exchanging names of schools, relatives, parishes of origin, and possible mutual acquaintances. Before long they manage to discover common ground–David’s parents know hers. What’s more, David’s brother Philip was in the same class at boarding school with her brother.
The conversation reminds me of Iowa where people have similar obsessions with bloodlines, property, and religious affinities.  I can think of nothing to contribute beyond an inane question about their children, and no one asks me anything. Then I remember David’s earlier comment about Jamaicans liking the money Americans spend, and it hits me how insignificant I am to them. Suddenly my cutoff jeans, cotton pullover, and sandals feel more crude than hip. To hide my embarrassment, I open the airline’s complimentary magazine and pretend to read.
When David finally turns back to me he reaches over to squeeze my hand. “How’re you doin’, Hon?” His peck on my cheek feels patronizing, like an attempt to make up for the attention he’s been lavishing on the blonde.
“It’s good to get to know people,” he whispers. “Very important in Jamaica to have the right contacts.  You’ll see.”
It’s dusk when the captain announces our approach to Palisadoes International Airport. Stretching across me, David points out Kingston, the Red Hills where his parents live, and a long narrow peninsula we will drive along to reach the city.
In the chaotic terminal, relatives, eager to greet arriving loved ones, invade the baggage claim and customs area, along with taxi drivers hawking fares. Skittish as a cat in a strange house, I cling to David as he makes way for us through the maze while keeping up non-stop banter with officials, porters, and fellow travelers.  A calypso band vies to be heard above the cacophony of people carrying bouquets, banners, and balloons. Welcomers, like travelers, are dressed up, perhaps in their finest. How wrong I was to assume island dress would be casual!
By the time we get past customs, David has managed, through a shouting exchange with taxi men, to bargain for an acceptable fare to Red Hills. As we bounce along over potholes riddling the road into the city, I note the absence of fare meter, shock absorbers and air-conditioning. Sweat starts trickling down my neck and I ask David if we can open the window.
“Only a little,” he says. “This road hasn’t been paved yet, so we don’t want to let in dust.” Seeking a compromise between breeze and dirt, we roll the windows up and down, but even with them up, I keep coughing.
In a different dialect from the one he used on the plane, David pumps the driver for information on politics and changes since his last trip home and explains pieces of the conversation to me. The Prime Minister, though still popular, is under fire from the opposition for not delivering fast enough on campaign promises. In the few years since independence, foreign money has poured in to build roads, factories, banks, shopping centers, hotels, schools, and housing. It generates jobs for people who support the ruling party but not everyone is sharing the benefits.
“See those new houses!” David points. “Not there last time I was home. Pre-fabs, but they look good.” The development is painted in bright rainbow colors. To the driver he says, “Dat’s great!  Houses for da people dem ta live ina.”
After passing through what David identifies as “the heart of Kingston,” we begin a steep ascent on a curvy road which goes in, out and around hairpin turns up a serrated hillside. Finally we can open the windows and breathe clean air that feels at least ten degrees cooler than at the airport.
“This is it, Red Hills,” he says. “Mum and Dad won’t believe their eyes when they see us. And I wonder if my kids will know me. It’s been almost six months.
Willie’s only two. You think he’ll remember me?”
“Your parents aren’t expecting us?”
“No.”
So that’s why no one greeted us at the airport. “Are you sure this is all right, arriving unannounced? What if nobody’s home?”
“Don’t worry. There’s always somebody around, and they have plenty of room.”
“I hate to impose…”
“Believe me, they wouldn’t have it any other way. You have a lot to learn about Jamaican hospitality. Just relax. Everything will be okay. I should warn you though, about my brother. His house is next door. We don’t get on. He’s always been jealous of me, so don’t be upset if he seems strange. That’s just the way things are.”
“Oh.”
“My parents think he’s perfect. But that has nothing to do with us. I’m here to see my kids.”  He leans forward and commands the driver, “Here we be.  Turn dere on de right before de big poinciana dat.”

 

III

          We enter a driveway shrouded in vines and halt in front of a rambling house. “Wait here while I go see who’s home,” David says.
Dogs bark. Outside lights go on. Faces appear at barred windows. A door opens and a tall handsome man in his thirties walks onto the verandah. “David?”
“Yes. Can you make these dogs stop barking and let me pass?”
“Okay now, quiet down, boys,” Philip orders the dogs.  “Quiet!” When the barking stops, he says in a British-sounding accent, “What brings you here?”
          “I’m home. And I’ve brought a friend.”
          “Oh. I’ll call Mumsy.” Philip turns, goes inside.
          When David’s mother appears, they embrace briefly and speak in low tones. Soon they are joined by a tall, slightly stooped man resembling Philip but larger in the midsection and with receding hair.
          David returns to the car and asks the driver to help him unload. I get out and wait while they deposit our bags on the steps and David pays the man. Then leading me to the verandah, he says, “Mumsy, Dad, I want you to meet Jac,” and extends his arm toward them. “My parents, Precious and Jimmy.”
          We shake hands, exchange greetings. I’m impressed by how cordial they are considering David’s failure to notify them. I’m also surprised at how well they’re dressed in freshly pressed, casual clothes, as though they were expecting guests. Not the soiled housedress and dirty overalls my folks would have on this time of the evening. David bears a marked resemblance to his petite mother with her cappuccino complexion and curly black hair.
          Precious, radiating a pleasing scent of lavender, says to David, “We weren’t expecting you so soon, but now you’re here, so come on in and see the children. I suppose they’ll remember you.”
          Doors open, and in the distance a small girl with cascading blonde curls stands hugging a doorpost. David steps forward into the light. The child hesitates, then dashes toward him, arms outstretched, shrieking, “Daddy! Daddy!” He drops to his knees and hugs her as they bubble over with laughter and prattle. Then he stands, clasps her small body and raises her toward the ceiling as she screams, “Daddy! Don’t drop me, Daddy!” It looks and sounds like a much-rehearsed and much-loved routine.
          Finally relenting, he puts her down saying, “Let’s find Willie.”  Hand-in-hand, they disappear.
          Precious leads me to the verandah on the other side of the house where Jimmy sits in a recliner. “We’ve finished dinner,” she says, “but there’s plenty left. Will you have some?”
          “Oh, thanks, but don’t go to any trouble. They served food on the plane.”
          “Well, Jimmy has a gin and tonic after dinner. Can I get you one too?”
          “Sounds good. Thank you.”
          She leaves, and I move to the railing of the verandah jutting over a cliff. Below lights of the Kingston metropolis twinkle across a wide plain and teeter unevenly up surrounding foothills. Dark mountains to the left are sprinkled with faint lights spread randomly along their slopes. The moonless ebony sky is emblazoned with more stars than I’ve ever seen.  Fronds of towering palms brush pillars supporting the roof. A breeze teases my skin, sending shivers across my back and along my arms. The air is so pungent with fragrances I can almost taste it.
          “Excuse me,” a man’s voice breaks the spell. I turn and see Philip approaching, hand outstretched. “Philip Wellington here.  Delighted to meet you.”
          “Hi. I’m Jacqueline. Uh, you can call me Jac.” We shake hands and then I open my arms, indicating the panorama. “This view! It’s absolutely fabulous. What a place to live!”
          “Yes, we’re fortunate to have this spot on the ridge.” With only a glance at the scene, he continues, “I hope you’ll enjoy your stay.”            Nodding in a sort of half bow, he adds, “Now, if you will excuse me, do have a good night,” and exits.
          I turn toward Jimmy who gestures to a wicker rocker. “Have a seat.”
          “Thanks. Your home is beautiful. Everything’s so different; I’ve never been in the tropics before. I don’t know what any of these plants are, except for coconuts. And even those, I’m not sure about. Is that one?” I point to a tall gracefully swaying tree.
          “No. That’s a royal palm. Just ornamental. Doesn’t bear nuts.”
          Prompted by my questions about the sights, smells and sounds bombarding my senses, Jimmy patiently explains, “The humming you hear is tree frogs. They get even louder after a fresh rain.” He identifies nearby plants–jasmine, oleander, frangipani, elephant’s ear–and mentions others that I’ll have to wait for daylight to see.  A four-legged creature scampers across the floor, pausing to cock its head and stare at me. I stiffen, and Jimmy chuckles. “Just a lizard. In the States they call it a chameleon. Quite harmless. Useful actually. They eat flies and mosquitoes.”
          “That’s nice to know.” I watch warily lest it will scurry toward my leg.
          Asking how long I have known David, where I’m from, and what my father does, he seems impressed by my parents’ property, apparently enormous by Jamaican standards. My schoolteacher credentials appear to earn modest respect, yet I detect a note of skepticism about anyone associated with his younger son.  As we talk I am aware of subdued conferences going on in other rooms. Eventually David reappears and reports, “Mumsy has a room downstairs made up for us. Let’s move our stuff down so you can get settled for the night.”
The room has a table, chair, twin beds with mosquito netting, and boxes stacked in a corner. David shows me the bathroom.
          “Make yourself comfortable and get some rest. I’ll say goodnight to the children and spend some time with Mumsy and Dad.” His kiss is more sound than fury. Exhausted, I fall right to sleep and don’t notice when he returns.

 

IV

          When we get up in the morning, the others have eaten, so we breakfast alone in the dining room. David carries everything in from the kitchen where a cook is evidently preparing it. The first course is fruit which resembles a half of muskmelon but it has a deep tangerine color and apple-thin skin. “Papaya. Ever have it?” David asks. I shake my head. “Let me fix it for you.” I watch as he sprinkles coarse brown sugar and squeezes a wedge of lime on it; then he adds a few slices of banana. “There you go,” he says. “Just scoop it up with your spoon.”
I taste a small wedge cautiously. In texture it resembles a peach, but the delicate, juicy flesh virtually melts in my mouth, almost like sherbet. “Ummm, this is delicious!” I eagerly refill my spoon. The fruit, gone all too soon, is followed by poached eggs, lightly-toasted bread that David calls “hard-dough” spread with marmalade, and Blue Mountain coffee even better than he served in Montreal.  I eat leisurely, enjoying every morsel while my eyes feast on the voluptuous scarlet flowers overflowing a basket on the table.  “These must be–let me guess–tropical roses?”
David laughs and shakes his head. “Hibiscus. They grow everywhere.”
          “Why aren’t they in water?”
          “Don’t need it. The blossoms last a day, whether they stay on the bush, are picked and put in water, or just left dry. Makes no difference.”
          “Incredible.”
          “They come in lots of colors, even black. When we go out to the garden I’ll show you some hybrid varieties, but right now we’ve got to make plans. Come.” He gets up and beckons me toward the verandah. “We have to find another place to stay.” Mug in hand, he proceeds to pace, oblivious to the incredible view competing for my attention. “Dad got all uptight last night about us being here. I want to spend time with my kids, but it looks like that has to wait while we look for a flat.” His voice grows strident, and his eyes glare nervously like a racehorse about to charge from the starting gate.
          “Since Dad has to go into town today, he has generously offered us a ride down. Guess we better go and see what we can find.”
          “Okay,” I say blandly, trying to hide my shock at the reality rearing its head all around: the polite but cold reception of the night before; the animosity between David and his brother; the tension as his mother bustled about trying to maintain decorum; his father’s suspicious questioning. Now this. David must feel so embarrassed.

          I squint at the scene revealed by the dazzling sunlight: on the left, green mountains dotted with blistering white houses; below, a sprawling city with one small cluster of tall buildings; to the right, cobalt sea stretching to the horizon; before me a jungle of flowers, trees, fruits and vines leaping and cartwheeling down the precipice.