A one-line text from a friend’s phone last night: “I assume you know C. passed away?”
I did not know. Her son tried to call me but my phone is long extinct. Another loss to mourn, this one the woman a virginal 20-year-old newspaper copy boy erroneously believed the love of his life. Over time I did what writers do: wrote about it. (And changed her name.)
Please, Mr., please, don’t play B-17
It was our song, it was her song, but it’s over
Please, Mr., please, if you know what I mean
I don’t ever wanna hear that song again
— Welch and Rostill,Please, Mr., Please
The soon-to-be famous sixties ended for me in Nassau. The first big winter Northeaster of 1970 roared down out of the North Atlantic, ricocheting off the Gulf Stream that blocked it from the mainland, and chilled “the eternal isles of June.” My wife was off the island. I was going to lunch with Glenda.
“God, this old thing is big,” I said, as we climbed into her enormous black ’58 Ford.
“Oh, it is not,” Glenda said. “You’re just getting used to these little windup toys the Brits drive here.”
She keyed the rough idling eight-cylinder to life, dropped the stick shift in gear. We rumbled out of the company parking lot. The salt air of the trade winds must have eaten through the muffler to give it that throaty roar. When we cleared the overhanging canopy of causarina trees, the big sea wind caught us and rattled the windows in their rusting channels.
“Christ, I hate the cold weather,” she said.
“You always did. But it’s only about forty degrees.”
“Forty degrees in Nassau! The tourists probably want their money back this week.”
“I always loved the cold weather. But here cold weather seems irrelevant.”
We rolled down the block to the stop sign and took a left toward Bay Street downtown. The Ford’s wide nose came around like an aircraft carrier nosing into the wind to launch planes. Riding as a passenger in a giant American Ford on the English side of these narrow Nassau streets made me nervous.
Nassau was more suitable for Morris Minis with sewing machine engines and the steering wheel on the wrong side. But it cost less to import my Barracuda than to buy, even with the piratical import duty. Without a British car I still could enjoy penny candy from glass jars in Bay Street stores with wooden floors and slow big-bladed ceiling fans. Smell raw conch from fishing boats tied at Government Wharf, and winter-damp straw on the waterfront where the straw dollies wove colorful palm baskets for tourists. Strong rum just about everywhere. Downtown on the simplest errand, the smells reminded me I was an actual expatriate, even if only a short plane ride from the U.S.
My friend Hollis slyly had not mentioned he already hired Glenda until I was committed to come to work. I had lost track of her after our painful breakup, back when I had been quite sure she was the love of my life.
Now she was a divorced mom living the expatriate life, whose looks attracted a variety of men. Soon as she knew Chloe was off the island she suggested lunch. I could not ignore the memory that was how she commenced seduction of a virginal copy boy eight years ago. But I agreed anyway.“I’ll never know why you had this beast shipped over here,” I said.
“Because it’s mine and it runs good,” she said. “Same reason you shipped the Barracuda.” She had a history with the Barracuda. “How much import duty they get you for?”
“Three hundred Bahamian.”
“More like island piracy. They can get away with it.”
The old office clichés of away-from-home Americans fell into well-oiled grooves. I began to relax a little. This wasn’t going to be a problem after all. It was just lunch. First lunch alone together since we parted. For keeps I thought.
It didn’t work this way in the movies. Especially not movies about expatriates who led glamorous and exciting lives outside any conventions, maybe starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. This was just lunch in downtown Nassau in the tourist season while Chloe was home on the mainland. Maybe Nassau was too close to Florida to be that glamorous. I was taking a lot of notes and thought if I ever wrote about living in Nassau I would name the book Nearly Abroad. Hollis said I had a way with titles. So far the title was all I had.
If I wanted to be a real expatriate I should have tried to get back to Paris where I never got to spend enough time in the Army. Or Israel, home of the woman who made me a man in Paris, but whom I never had the courage to seek again. But Nassau is what I had.
The thought that the bonnet of Glenda’s Ford resembled an aircraft carrier probably occurred because the Navy job Hollis rescued me from was at a home base for carrier-aircraft squadrons. Hood, I corrected myself; bonnet was too cutesy-British to say about a ’58 Ford V-8, even if it was accepted Bahamian usage. I was scheduled to take the lighthouse tender down to Crooked Island the day after tomorrow to do an interview with the longest-serving lighthouse keeper in the islands. Took Chloe to the airport yesterday. Last night slept alone for only the second time since we were married. The empty bed brought back a sharpness like the hunger of bachelor days in an empty apartment.
I had lived too long with how it ended with Glenda not to be nervous about even lunch. The pain after she left was part of me, sad story of a broken heart safely in the past. Until suddenly she was in my present again every day, her desk not fifteen feet from mine. As soon as she knew my wife was off the island, she made her first overture. I dodged instinctively. Then was afraid she wouldn’t ask again. As if I forgot everything I knew about her: she never took no for an answer. When she asked again I hadn’t hesitated. It was just lunch after all.
The Northeaster had rolled over New Providence Island last night. It rattled jalousies dangerously and made unheated flats miserable, especially if you were sleeping alone. The wind was cold and full of strong salty odors. You could almost hear sounds picked up a thousand miles away if you listened hard. A Northeaster had a different wildness than tropical storms, a threat of real cold on its winds. It made me homesick for cold weather in a way Glenda never understood.
She knew a private place to park around the corner from Bay Street. A major perk for lunch downtown in the tourist season. We walked two blocks to the imitation British pub, jammed with pale old white tourists in bright clashing colors and svelte Bahamian secretaries who ranged in skin tone from French roast to cafe au lait. We found a table. I looked the crowd over.
There weren’t a lot of white expatriate girls in the steno pools anymore, with the black-power party having seized control from the Bay Street Boys on the strength of promised jobs for the native-born. Expatriate work permits had been squeezed to a trickle. Many were amazed even a writer could get one under the present regime. But our publication’s native owner loved American newsmen. Even married an American woman with a Columbia J-School degree. That’s why he hired Hollis and why Hollis’ recommendation prompted him to call in a favor for one more American employee.
Chloe had not been amused at my sharing an office with Glenda. Didn’t really believe I had her out of my system after she patched my broken heart back together. But a tax-free salary, escape from boring civil-service, a chance to write feature stories, maybe write fiction again, was too good to pass up.
All of the Americans in the pub had the unmistakable look of tourists. Not all were old; that had just been the first impression. Some were young and beautiful, some had the stamp of idle money. Young or old, they looked windblown and a little dazed, taking refuge from the weather. So much for eternal isles of June…
Glenda found us a quiet corner like she did back when we were a going concern. Where surrounding conversation took on a seductive purr and you could hear sweet Muzak tunes clearly. I had forgotten we shared simple joy in piped music of which everyone else made fun.
I glanced at one of the young tourist women who bore the stamp of serious money. Lean and dark and Semitic, awakening bittersweet Paris nostalgia. She wore a form-fitting white jump suit with a golden zip that could bare her from collarbones to crotch with one healthy yank. The big golden ring of the zipper glowed between the double swell of olive-skinned breasts.
“She does have a gorgeous shape,” Glenda said.
“The woman in the white jump suit. That zipper is just begging to be pulled, isn’t it?”
“And he’s no uglier than I am either. I don’t understand it.” She laughed intimately, in the old way. It pulled me back from Paris without even trying. “It doesn’t really matter,” I said. “I’m a bystander these days. Maybe I always was.” There, that was good enough for at least a television soap opera.
“Aren’t we all,” she said. I admired the deft way she handled it into the even blander form of everyday office yak.
When the Bahamian waitress finally got all of her compatriots served, and all the tourists including latecomers, she finally turned to us. The serving class had built-in radar for expatriates. We learned to crack jokes (“You can tell a tourist from an expatriate easily — the tourist looks happy”) and wait them out. It was a badge of pride not to be mistaken for a tourist. We gave our orders. Our voices moved easily into routine expatriate jokes after the waitress left. As a very young man ages ago my words had followed one another cautiously into careful sentences as I tried very hard to impress her.
Our very first lunch together in another country was at her instigation. I never would have mustered the nerve. After that, lunch together became a ritual, words circling each other with the cramped sensuality of that T.S. Eliot poem about lives measured in coffee spoons. When I was drafted she gave me an engraved coffee spoon to remember her by. God, I was so very young toward women. Never dreamed I was being seduced. She was the one married. I was a virgin quite sure she was the love of my life. Hadn’t even kissed her.
When I finally got around to that part, after I was no longer a virgin, I was secretly stunned how deftly she divested herself of a lime-green frock and came into my arms, burning like she had a fever. In the same Barracuda parked under my Oakes Field bedsitter — I resolutely put that vivid image away. Tried to keep my face unchanged by it. We talked about nothing in particular.
“Well,” I said into a pause after the waitress finally got around to bringing the food. “Have I changed all that much? I don’t feel changed.”
“Oh, yes. You’ve changed.” She spoke as carefully as we did long ago.
“You’re more assured. More at ease. Quite the expatriate man-about-town.”
“Is that good?”
“It’s…different.” She paused. “I’ve changed, too.”
“I’ve cried up all my tears.”
What the hell was this now? “Have you?”
“Long ago. Now when I cry it’s just dry sobs. They hurt.”
Oh no you haven’t changed. I was looking at two young Bahamian secretaries flirting with a young black athlete in a Carnaby Street suit. Life looked simple over there.
“I don’t feel changed.” I wasn’t going to ask her why her tear ducts had run dry. Not a chance. That wasn’t even television-rerun material.
“You are, though,” she said. “You’re so much easier-going. Not so uptight.” Amazing how she could charge such banal words with meaning. The message was if I just hadn’t been so uptight in the old days…I blinked. I felt curiously light-headed. Her face floated in the gloom of the pub, clear and flushed. Her expression was half-open to me, suggesting — what?
I couldn’t meet her gaze directly but saw her clearly enough. Too clearly: a thin ghost of a twenty-year-old’s nervousness awakened just beneath the surface of my skin, trembling with all my callow vulnerability to her moods. I was suddenly parched. I gulped some of my pint of draft John Courage. We ate for a while in relative silence.
“Of all the places in the world,” I said finally, “that I used to think of us having lunch, the Red Lion in Nassau wasn’t even in the running. I didn’t even know where Nassau was. I thought it was up where Bermuda is.”
“Life is full of surprises,” she said. “Light me a cigarette, will you?”
I tapped two Canadian Rothmans out of the box and seated them side by side in my mouth, like a double-barreled shotgun to hold her at bay. Our eyes touched and slid away. I was lighting them with my old Zippo with the German mark welded on the side when the song stroked out of the Muzak, soft and mellow. I took her cigarette out of my mouth and handed it to her. She smiled, listening to the song, and said nothing.
First the tide rushes in
Plants a kiss on the shore
Then rolls out to sea and the sea is very still once more…
I can tell, I can feel
You are love, you are real
Really mine in the rain, in the dark, in the sun…
That’s awful I was thinking. That’s not fair. It was probably inevitable that particular song would be on the tape. Muzak kept on with a song long after everyone was sick of hearing it. I heard it plenty of times since we parted without this reaction.
I should say they’re playing our song. If I had any guts at all I would say it. I could see her like yesterday, combing all that long black hair out in the sunlight, singing it to me with the radio. It’s ours, all right. Her hair then was black and lustrous as a Labrador’s coat thanks to beauty-parlor magic. It still was.
She drew the smoke down deep. When she went to take the cigarette out of her mouth, she fumbled momentarily. I felt a tremor in my own hands. The song went on and on. The other noise in the place seemed to fade away. We smoked the cigarettes completely down without speaking as if waiting for the thing that came up between us to ease. Just for once in my life I would have liked to know what she was thinking. Just once. Just for the sake of knowing, because I hate not knowing things.
“I wish…” she said.
“I wish we had time for coffee…”
She never made a move to leave first. She never had. A simple but effective tactic. I looked at my wristwatch. “We do have to start back.”
“I guess we can brew a fresh pot at the office,” she said.
“I’ll get the check, if you’ll make the coffee.”
“My treat next time. Your wife wouldn’t like you spending too much money on other women.”
There was nothing to say to that. The wind seemed colder when we came out onto the street. I was so lost in the past I almost put my arm around her. Remembered in time that when we were together she liked walking free beside me. Unlike Chloe, who liked my arm around her and was tall enough to walk in lockstep. It was too blustery to talk on the walk back to the car. Isolated within the running wind I could not escape the notion that phantom loves past and present, and perhaps yet to be, walked with me down the windy pavement.
When she cranked up the Ford, the roar of its rusty muffler shattered uneasy ruminations. She ripped the big car backward into the street and bullied her way into a gap in the traffic. I was suddenly too busy for further melancholy, looking everywhere at once. Bracing for collision, trying not to act tense. She always drove like this, even in America on the correct side of the road. She drove like a Frenchman possessed, one in command of a runaway aircraft carrier.
We were only ten minutes late getting back. People at the office said we set a new record for lunch downtown in the middle of the winter tourist season.