The following is from Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning, a novel chronicling three generations of a family, set on the Virgin Islands from 1916 until 1970. Yanique is from Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands. Her collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony was published in 2010. She is a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award winner and was named by the National Book Awards as one of 2011’s “5 Under 35.”
The crowd met at the waterfront. Boats had been hired to row them over to Water Island. Anette held onto Franky as the little fishing boat docked up. It was only a short ride, ten minutes, five minutes, maybe. Annette could swim, but it was the boat she didn’t like. Franky, who was a Coast Guards man and so trained to deal with both boats and frightened people, held Anette around the waist even as the boatman took her hand. Franky could feel Anette’s quick breathing.
The Americans had built their movie set on the island in the harbor. Everyone who lived downtown, which was almost everyone on the main island, saw the movie equipment being rowed over to the little island. It had taken two whole days. Water Island rose out of the harbor like the back of a large underwater creature. The Gull Reef Club was on the shoulder of that rock.
There were hotels on the main island, which would have been more appropriate. There was the Grand Hotel with the austere Danish architecture. There was the Hilton, which boasted a waterfall filled with the fattest shrimp in the world. But the movie people wanted solitude along with a beach and a hotel owner who would let them have their way. The Grand Hotel was owned by locals, who the film people felt might ask too many questions. The Hilton was owned by the Hiltons and those sorts knew too much already and didn’t need to ask questions at all.
Anette Bradshaw, who would always be a Bradshaw no matter what other name followed, wore a dress of red dupioni with a pattern of yellow flowers. it was the fabric that Jacob McKenzie had bought her. It was cloth that was supposed to take the place of an engagement ring. She hadn’t touched the fabric for the months and months Jacob had disappeared.
But Anette didn’t want the red fabric to hang in the closet and haunt her, so she’d decided she would wear it to the filming. Or perhaps Anette knew the fabric would always be about that Jacob McKenzie, who would always be a McKenzie because his mother had made it so. And so she wore the dress, like a siren, to call out to him. She wore it like any magic.
Eeona, with her still-fabulous hair bursting out, had declared to her younger sister that the dress of red dupioni was too risque for the filming. “Stop harassing me,” said Anette. “I look like a star.” She ran her palms down the bright red fabric.
“You look like a tart. You are the mother of two daughters.” The older sister leaned forward and hissed, “What are you signaling to society?” Eeona knew about Franky, but on that she made no comment at all.
But it was a dress for American movies. Anette had also planned to wear her nice black heels, but Franky thought they didn’t go with he dress. With his green eyes and green Cadillac, he knew about matching. He took her to La Zapateria, the Puerto Rican store with the latest fashions, and bought her a pair of white patent-leather shoes with a thin silver strap and a tiny silver buckle. On her feet they shimmered like fish scales. Franky knew what he, in his dress blues, and Anette, in her bright red and white, would look like. They would look like a real American couple.
Their old boatman introduced himself as Mr. Hippolyte Lammartine, or Mr. Lyte , if you like. He offered Anette a taste from his rum bottle to calm her. “Miss Bradshaw,” he called her. Anette smiled through her unease, though she didn’t remember him. She took a little sip and felt the sweet heat. “I knew your father,” he said.
“Thank you,” Anette said, because she hadn’t known Owen Arthur Bradshaw at all. She looked down at the water and then forward at Water Island. She could swim to land if the stupid pirogue sank. Franky’s arm was around her like a lifesaving tube. Hippolyte Lammartine let the bottle be passed around to everyone as he began to row.
The Frenchy men, who would be classified racially as white but identified themselves ethnically as Caribbean, were the most suspicious of the white movie people from America. As he rowed, Hippolyte asked the question he had been soaking to ask since he’d been offered this boat job for the night. “Why all you think they ain want to make the movie at the Grand Hotel?” Passing the bottle from mouth to mouth, everyone nodded that it was a good question. Hippolyte, receiving the bottle and holding it tight between his knees, kept prodding. “Is a secret they have to hide, you don’t think?”
Franky, who was a natural leader and wearing his uniform besides, was the first to offer. “Is because they want a hotel what have a beach. And this the only one have a beach, yes. Name of the beach is Honeymoon.”
And since none of the others had ever even been to Water Island , much less the Gull Reef Club, they all nodded at this answer. Yes, a hotel on a sweetly named beach. That was a nice idea. Though it was also a strange idea. Didn’t them Continentals consider the biting of the sandflies? Or didn’t they consider how the hotel would manage its plumbing so close to sea level? Or didn’t they consider that a hotel would block other people from getting to the beach? But Franky had only considered the name of the beach, Honeymoon. And now that he had said the name out loud, he also allowed himself to think the thought: Might this evening not be the real beginning of him and Anette? Like a honeymoon.
Hippolyte spoke up now with what he’d figured. That the movie people wanted sticks of fire as decoration. The Hilton wouldn’t allow this and it would be too dangerous downtown where the Grand Hotel presided. Franky didn’t think the fire on the beach was a good idea at all. There would be trees around for the flames to catch. Everyone else in the boat was thinking that maybe the flames would keep the sandflies from biting everything with blood. Otherwise they would have to really dance up to keep the bugs from leaving itchy welts that wouldn’t look good on camera. “That ain no worry,” said Mr. Lyte. “Only them Americans going get bite. Sandflies like fresh blood.”
The set was indeed out at the beach. There were a few tables in the center and they were decorated with glasses oddly half full and others more oddly turned over, which were draining onto black tablecloths. But the St. Thomas men in their white guayaberas looked smart beside their ladies in blue and yellow. But Anette was in bright red dupioni and Franky was in his seaman’s dress blues. They stood apart.
Markie and the Pick-up Men were given matching shirts and short pants with a design of waves and surfboards. They protested the shorts, stating in vexed sputters that a real West Indian scratch band would never wear short pants to play a party. It would be shameful – they weren’t little boys, they weren’t working around the blasted house, they weren’t going for a damn swim. The director ranted back: “It’s a movie! You’re getting paid to be authentic.”
“I thought we was getting paid to be a scratch band.”
The director seemed as though he was fed up with them all before any film had even begun to roll, but then the leading lady, yellow-haired with impossibly lean hips held tightly in a wrap skirt, noted that the musicians had all come in matching black slacks anyway. The director calmed and nodded. Markie and his men were allowed their long slacks. It didn’t matter much anyway; not much camera time would be spent on the musicians. They wouldn’t even be singing. The movie people had a record. The Pick-up Men would be phantom playing. Hadn’t they read the contract? They were just for background. They were just for authenticity.
So it go. Markie never really recovered from being sent away from his microphone. Before, he used to do a little skedaddle dance up front and get the crowd really ready. That evening he was sent to play the cowbell over on the side, and he remained there ever after. The band never sounded the same again.
The record that played was the popular song “Rum and Coca-Cola.” Only it wasn’t sung by Lord Invader, as everyone knew, but by some white sisters named Andrews who were doing a horrendous job. The Pick-up Men held their fingers above their instruments and made ghost music, their bodies stiff like corpses, their faces stricken. The song was played over and over again. None of the Virgin Islanders had heard this version. We queried the director. But the American moviemaker said he’d never heard of the original version sung by any invader.
“But it’s women singing and they have the Pick-up Men up there,” a young esquire tried to point out gently. Everyone had thought this, but no one had said a word. “Hush, Attorney Fondred,” we called. “Is no big deal.” This was an opportunity for the island. We all, the band and the dancers, tried to look happy.
We smiled into the camera and smoothly forced our way into its vision. The nice shoes were more than just too nice for dancing, they were almost impossible for dancing in sand. We avoided too much grinding and bum jerking because that would cause a tumble; besides, there was a minister among us.
But it was a free lime and it was on a beach and that is all we ever need to enjoy ourselves. Husbands held wives closer and then farther as if they were courting, wives clutched husbands’ shoulders as if this was juicy infidelity. Those going steady showed off their slippery foot action, sometimes with only fingertips touching.
Anette thought on that obnoxious couple who owned the Gull Reef Club and had mistaken her for a possible chambermaid. Were they here now? Could they see her so well dressed? She looked for them but didn’t recognize them among any of the whites milling around. Perhaps they’d already sold the place and left. Seems like the Americans were always buying and selling, coming and leaving. Now Anette wanted to throw her head back and give a good wind-up, but she controlled herself, remembering that she was representing her island and, just as important, she was showing everyone how okay she was. Everyone was, after all, watching. There had been so much talk.
Them poor Bradshaw sisters. You ain hear how the fother dead and leave? just look at how the fomily follen since! The elder daughter used to be so pretty but then she disappear and return a old maid. And that Anette one-a divorced gone and had a second child with piano-playing-war-hero Jacob McKentie so she say. He gone and left she and the child. Gone a whole year almost. Now look how she jump on the first green-eye man that come along! Them Bradshaw women. Is a curse they have. But they fother and mother orphan them. So what you expect?
Anette knew and heard, and there on the sand in her new white shoes and red dress, she kept the smile wide and camera-loved on her face. She felt the feeling she sometimes felt. That someone important was arriving for her. Maybe Jacob McKenzie. Coming to claim her in this dress made of the fabric he had bought her. But Franky, knowing more than he ever let on, twirled Anette and held her tight. For all to see. Maybe Franky would be the man to banish Jacob McKenzie from her head. They looked special, they did. And even the others stepped closer to them, to get a bit of their spirit.
But during the break, the chef of the Gull Reef Club charged out with her arms spread wide and hugged Anette. “Can it be? Yes, my Lord. Baby Nettie,” she exclaimed loudly. Others stared because few of this group had been this friendly with the Bradshaw sisters, not since their parents left them paupers and certainly not since all the talk. “You don’t remember me?” asked the chef, as if she really couldn’t believe it. “Is me. Sheila Ladyinga. I used to work for your mother over by Villa by the Sea. I wiped your backside when you was a baby. You all used to call me Miss Lady.”
Anette stepped back. Was this the person who she’d felt coming? Not her man Jacob after all. Mrs. Ladyinga searched Anette’s face until it became clear that Anette did not remember her. Then it became clear that Anette didn’t want to remember her, not right then.
Mrs. Ladyinga started to say more, to further explain who she was and ask the cordial questions, but then the movie people put on another record. This was a recording of drums, not steel drums or conga drums, but African drums. The Pick-up Men were told they were no longer needed. The dancers were called to form a half circle and to clap vigorously in time while a limbo stick was set up and then set on fire. “You, sitting,” the director called out to Anette and Franky. “Are you in or out?”
Anette stood up without saying anything polite to the lady chef. I am with Franky, she said to herself. I am here with Franky. I am here and I am with Franky. This is not Jacob. I am with Franky.
“Well, little Anette,” said Mrs. Ladyinga sourly. “I’ve got to get back to the kitchen. A lot to feed tonight. Not like when it was just you and your sister.” She wiped her clean hands along the clean front of her chef’s coat. “But if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t even be born. Believe it. So now let me give you one bit of warning.” Anette could not follow what this woman was saying. She didn’t even try to smile , but instead leaned back, making her distance. This woman was not Jacob. Not Jacob at all. How could Anette care about this woman coming and giving her anything? But the chef continued anyway, now a bit more quickly and quietly, as though they were conspiring. “I’m not certain that this here movie is your kind of movie.” Then she left Anette Bradshaw, just as she’d left her before.
Franky and Anette joined the group in the clapping and the dancing in the circle. Anette knew she had something to prove to these people and, really, mostly to herself. So she danced and clapped and smiled and laughed and in general seemed to be having fun, fun, fun. More fun than anyone. Jacob had not come. Jacob would not come.
Instead, the American leading lady, whose wrap skirt was too fitted for limbo, walked into the center of the circle. The lady chef came out to watch the performance. Now Anette tried to catch the chef’s eyes, tried to give a smile she knew she’d been rude earlier. But Sheila Ladyinga looked everywhere but at Anette. So Anette looked at the American woman and made a small wish that the American would catch a fire. She didn’t have a bitter feeling toward this woman, per se, it was just that she had a bitter feeling. The woman was only there to receive it.
The limbo stick was placed lower and lower, and as the leading lady contorted more and more, the crowd of sixty, not twenty, roared in sup port. Franky shout-whispered, “Is a dancer she must be.” Anette nodded and tried to keep her mind on the moment.
Then the stick was lowered, low-low. Jesus, Lord! It could be done. Those who walked on broken glass with their hands could limbo this low with fire in their face, but could this tourist do it? The camera waited while the leading lady breathed and breathed. “I’m only gonna do this once, so don’t mess it up,” she called to the air in a voice that sounded hoarse and older than she looked. The clapping stopped. Everyone waited. She hiked up her skirt and the flames reached out to her thighs. She bent her knees low, pressed the inside of her ankles to the ground, splayed her hands out in welcome, and tilted her torso back-back-back. Her knees first, then her palms.
Then there was the lady’s exposed hips and crotch. The flames licked up. Minister Milford’s eyes widened and averted. Then the lady’s torso with her large breasts and then finally her head. It was her hair that caught aflame. All the stiffness of it simply unable to resist the leap of the fire. There was full-on screeching. And then there was the lady chef letting out a huge kyak-kyak laugh. Minister Milford rushed forward to save his sins, covering the actress furiously with his suit jacket and slapping down the fire.
Anette began to cry. She had done this. Anette had been wishing ill on the woman and Anette knew better than to wish ill on anyone. This was not going to help her get to where she belonged. Not going to help her get gotten by Jacob. She held Franky’s arm and turned her face into his body. “Is only a wig,” Franky whispered to her like a savior. “Look, see.”
And Anette looked to see the leading lady freeing herself from under the minister’s jacket, and emerging with black hair plastered down on her head and a charred yellow wig in the sand.
The lady stomped on the wig with her bare feet, but without the expected anxiety. Her face was calm and steady, and she kept stomping. “Cut!” someone called. “Don’t you dare cut!” from someone else. And the actress kept stomping, her sandy feet pulping the curly wig into pieces that flew the hair and the sand about, until the leading man, who was wearing too-tight swim trunks, finally stormed through the crowd and grabbed hold of her in a hugging, containing motion. The actress told him calmly to let her go, and then she walked out to the water.
Left in the sand, the wig looked like murdered baby birds.
“That’s a wrap,” the director said into his megaphone. And the dancers, who were doctors and lawyers and pastors and educators and one Coast Guardsman, walked off Honeymoon Beach, back to the dock, and boarded the little boats. Across the water, where words so easily carry, everyone could hear everyone else creating the story of the lady doing the limbo.
Mr. Lyte was not their boatman this time. Anette thought of the lady chef now and felt badly. She was distracted enough to forget her fear of the little boat, though Franky kept his arm around her. Anette didn’t remember any Miss Lady, but how could she? She didn’t remember her own mother. She thought of Jacob, but then kept pushing that thought out to sea.
Once they docked back on St. Thomas, Franky could easily have walked Anette home, but instead they slipped into his car and Franky let the roof down. Anette moved close to him on the front seat and rested her hand on his thigh- something she had never done to him before. “You a star, yes,” he said. And with her dyed black hair blowing around her face and the moon big above and his fast Cadillac swimming them around the corners, Anette believed him. Franky is a good man, she thought to herself. If she still thought of Jacob then she must be a fool. Tonight, she would finally kiss Franky. He deserved that at least.
But sensing his time, Franky didn’t wait even a second. He pulled the car over, walked to the passenger side, opened the door, and got down on one knee. It was just a month into their chaste courtship. Anette put her hand to her chest as if she had been shot. Franky took the hand, isolated the finger, and pushed on an engagement ring with diamonds peaking like a volcano.
“Oh, Franky. Thank you. Thank you,” Anette said, because she couldn’t say yes, but she knew she shouldn’t say no.
From LAND OF LOVE AND DROWNING. Used with permission of Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2014 Tiphanie Yanique.