Islands give you a feeling of limitless possibilities, maybe because they are themselves so clearly bounded. They let you believe you're in a precisely defined world where you can control events, make things happen, and essentially, do whatever you please. I've traveled the Caribbean for decades; every island has its own flavour, its lessons to teach. Don't know how long that will last, though. With satellite dishes, cell phones, and relentless buildng everywhere, the entire archipelago is going to end up as Las Vegas South.
I first met Cat at a bus stop in Portsmouth on Dominica, one of the few scattered outposts in the Caribbean that still qualify as idyllic. I was taking a month off from my life, escaping for a while from loved ones. Portsmouth is the other town on the island, sitting on the northern tip at the opposite end from the capital Roseau. Until you've spent a sleepy Sunday in Portsmouth, you don't know what a sleepy Sunday is. I wandered along the beach, observed the mini-regatta on Prince Rupert's Bay, families picnicking, and shoals of children shrieking and splashing. I stopped at the Purple Turtle, an oft-reinvented oasis around at least since the 50s. Hurricanes obliterated the original grass shack, but the current structure still overlooks the beach and serves Kubuli beer. A loud American voice behind me trumpeted the necessity of installing a jet-ready air strip. I shuddered.
The sun was low, the sky filling with streaks of purple, gold and hot pink when I walked the mile or so back through town to the bus depot. Sunday schedules are mostly fantasy, and I relaxed in conversation with an elderly lady who had a medical horror tale to tell. As I listened to her indictment, a young woman joined us, asking if this was where the bus to PBH stopped. We said it was, if there were any more buses to be had, but at that moment a rattling mini-van veered directly toward us, scooped us up and headed at breakneck speed out of town.
"I'm Cat," said the girl, leaning toward us exuberantly. "Catherine Roberts, but I never use Catherine. Are you staying at Portsmouth Beach?"
In appearance she harked back to earlier classic versions of young womanhood, not attenuated or lanky, but Rubenesque. That's what you noticed first: she was a very clear type, blonde and powerfully built, lush and athletic at once, but not in any currently modish style. Actually, there was more than a hint of the Valkyrie; she could have stepped in and played Brunhilde with little added but the helmet. A pair of rimless, rectangular glasses gave her a prim look, detracting from the effect of vivid, ice-blue eyes. She wore the uniform of youth on holiday, loose capri-length carpenter pants topped with a couple layers of bra and tank top, the straps overlapping one another in a stylishly calculated slovenliness, and carried a green cloth sack, which she said contained virtually all her baggage for her planned month's stay.
She got off when I did and and walked with me toward Le Torchon, the outdoor terrace restaurant on the sand below Portsmouth Beach Hotel. She showed none of the reticence or awkwardness of many young adults talking to older people, but chatted away as if I were just another member of the same species. She was 23 and had just graduated from McGill -- perhaps it was the Canadian guilelessness that made her so open. I asked her why she chose Dominica -- it's not an island most people call to mind easily.
"I'm here visiting my friend, Nadia. She's a first-year med student at Ross, and she said why didn't I come down for a month or so. She's got a place nearby, so I figured I could stay free and only pay for air fare. I have a job starting in June, and I wanted to kick back, do some snorkeling, you know. But the thing is, Nadia's boyfriend Sean is down here living with her. He sort of wraps his life around hers, so it's hard not to feel you're in the way."
"Is he a student too?"
"Oh, no. If only. He's working at being a musician, I guess. That's what he says, but he comes from a rough background, the worst section of Toronto, and he's never been out of an urban setting. He's afraid of the water and doesn't like the people much."
The med school remark grabbed my attention. Aside from paving some roads, the biggest change on Dominica since the 70s has been Ross University Medical School, one of a number med schools salting the Caribbean to receive the overflow of students who can't get into schools in the US or Canada. I'd rented a room in a motel-like setup near the school, most of whose rooms served as accommodations for the students. A month's stay was exceedingly reasonable, and you were only a 30-second stroll from the beach. The rooms were clean and of reasonable size, especially for a New Yorker, with plenty of closet and drawer space, a refrigerator and stove, and a good wireless system -- with students who live through IM, a sine qua non. Portsmouth Beach had been built as an hotel, but the uncertainties of tourism and economics in the 21st century made students a more reliable source of revenue.
"You're staying in the dorms?" I asked.
"Oh, no, they've got an apartment."
Apparently, renting a place was even cheaper than a dorm. It also explained the rash of low-rise, white stucco buildings I saw going up along the road and the hills climbing up winding lanes from the road across from the beach. The students pretty much covered the landscape, a solid of income for the island, a useful alternative if Dominica were to avoid massive development, keep its lush rain forests and title of top nature island.
"The trouble is," Cat went on, "They've only got a studio, with one bed. If you put your hand out, you can touch the wall on both sides. And there's no room on the floor, so we've all got to sleep in the same bed if we're there at once. It's kind of awkward."
"And then there's the puppy."
"They've got a puppy?"
"Yes, but he's only sort of trained, so you have to be careful, and Sean doesn't like to go out and leave him. I've been here for five days, and we only went out once, to reggae night at Big Papa's. Then Sean got pissed off because Nadia was talking to one of the students in her microbiology class. Sean was dancing himself, but he goes off the rails if she even says hello to anybody.
"I thought we'd be hanging out and seeing the island while I was here, but he's so possessive, he doesn't want her going anywhere without him. And he never wants to go more than a few steps from where they live. Boyfriends!"
Cat said this with such loathing, I was on the verge of revising my opinion of her orientation, but she continued, "There are so many hot guys here. I don't know what Nadia was thinking. And now they're fighting all the time."
"It does seem odd to bring a brown bag lunch to an all-you-can-eat buffet," I said.
So, you've been here before, " she asked, as we swallowed rum punch and watched the final curtain on the sunset..
"Yes, I started coming about 30 years ago, but Dominica's not really much different from what it was. Ross and the mini-buses, so you can get around pretty easily. Have you been over to the Carib reservation?"
To my surprise, she was actually intrigued with the idea of the last remaining base of indigenous peoples, as well as tragic tales of the end of the Arawaks. The idea of an eight-hour hike up to Boiling Lake struck her as a marvelous way to pass the day.
"We should hang out," she said. "Let me know when you're going into Roseau. And I think I'm going to get out of that apartment. Shady has a cabin over by Coconut Beach, and he says I can stay in it. He just takes care of the boats during the day, then goes to his house in Portsmouth for the night,"
Shady, or Kayakman as we called him, kept a small fleet of boats down at the other end of Picard Beach. Coconut Beach Hotel had been rather upscale as resorts on Dominica went, but financing problems had closed it down a year ago, and it was looking melancholy. Kayakman looked after the boating concession for a relative and took people out to snorkel, scuba or kayak. He spent a lot of time patrolling the beach trying to sell anyone who looked like a visitor on going out on the water. The first couple of days after I arrived I had to expend time convincing him that I had didn't want to snorkel, go boating, or even spend any private time in his company.
"Are you sure staying there's a good idea?" I asked Cat.
"Oh, he seems like a nice guy -- I don't think he'll try to take advantage, do you?"
"Well, you know, female tourists are pretty much considered fair game in the islands...or anywhere"
"But he must be 40 after all! Anyway, I can't take it with Nadia and Sean any more."
Over the course of the next few days, Cat and I hung out, making excursions into town and to other parts of the island. She alternated spending her nights in the apartment with the warring couple and down in Kayakman's cabin on the beach. To his credit, he made no head-on frontal assaults, but then again, Cat could probably have put him out of commission with one hand. The greatest drawback of staying in the cabin was that it had no electricity or sanitary facilities.
I was finding a lot of resonances that recalled my own early days of solo travel in her progress through Dominica. She was hunting for adventure and novelty in distant places, as girls and women do. For even the boldest of us, it is easier to kick over the traces, take chances and try whatever comes up, away from home, and the farther the better. The most reserved and ladylike will do in foreign parts what she may not dare at home. However, although I've done my share of sleeping in airports and rinsing off in the seas, I don't believe I'd ever been in quarters where the woods were my only resort for evacuation. When we were going out at night, I suggested she use my shower, since I at least had a supply of hot water.
We celebrated a birthday with Bob and Mindy, visitors from Minnesota, a 60-ish brother and sister traveling together, as they explained, because her husband would not travel and his wife had just left him. They ingested immense quantities of bourbon and complained bitterly about the music that filled the nights. Why the didn't understand that incessant music is a fact of life in the Caribbean remained a mystery. Cat told me she thought Bob was on the prowl for another wife asap, but could see he wasn't having any luck here.
Meanwhile, Nadia and Sean had broken up and reconciled four or five times. According to Cat, they were going to counseling at the school psych center. I had always rather thought that if you weren't married, and sometimes if you were, you just bailed on a sour relationship, but times appear to have changed. Cat's hopes were high that Sean would leave for home, but dashed again when he appeared at the Torchon's bar in his regulation hip hop gear, presumably the incarnation of the next Eminem.
Reggae night at Big Papa's was a regular stop; it's the biggest club in Portsmouth and one where tourists, students and Dominicans mingle fairly freely, unlike smaller spots lining the street, with darkened interiors and six-foot speakers set on each side of the doors. It required a certain amount of bravado for a stranger to walk into one of those. Big Papa's s filled during the day with hearty, fleshy, white-haired sailors, people who had moored their crafts in Prince Rupert's Bay and descended on the bar to tank up. At night the crowd was less given to embonpoint, and more varied. A big, cavernous, mostly open-air venue, Big Papa's has a stage at the north end on the sand. In the space directly in front are the hard core fans, serious Rastas, and ganja fanciers. They stand a few feet from the stage swaying to the music, hands wrapped around some very fat spliffs. A lone woman in baggy jeans and big, overhanging shirt dances throughout the entire performance, oblivious to everything except the music.You can sit on an overturned boat, or drag up a lounge chair if remaining erect is too much of an effort.
Next is a covered space where prowling cavaliers check out the talent and make their moves. The entrance to the street is there, dark and suspect, lit with small neon bulbs. Last is the bar with its concrete dance floor, where students and the rest of the light-hued huddle early in the evening, before midnight, until the rum and grass have doen their work and everyone gets down. Cat and I walk around shoulder to shoulder, or sometimes back to back, like the heroes in westerns covering each other against marauders or assassins. You always stand facing out with gun in hand. And the guys descend here, sometimes singly, others in pairs or more. Age appears to be no protection. Shady has told Cat that there is an imbalance male-over female in the population, so they're all avid. I have no idea if it's true.
While I'm getting a drink, Shady cuts Cat off from the herd and they dance. The Wild Rovers on stage are in from Antigua, and clearly caught up in the dreamy cloud of their own performance and its smoky fuel -- numbers go on indefinitely. Special star turn for the evening by Banky Banks direct from Anguilla, plainly of the generation of Toots & the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff, so music pretty hard core. This left Cat in Shady's clutches for quite a while, as I fended off the advances of a guy who had at least something of an original approach. He took to the beach and executed an impressive series of handsprings, flips and other acrobatics in between inviting me to take to the dance floor, followed by a trip to his private beach.
Cat came back at last, fuming.
"I told him I'd rather dance by myself! I've just had it. The dancing is just the one thing, grabbing you and grinding and grinding, boring. I expected better dancing down here."
"I think you just had bad luck with Shady. He's got other things on his mind."
"Yes, I guess. You did tell me that."
We ducked out the side entrance before he could return. The next day was St. Patrick's, and I excused myself from any excursions on the plea that I had work to do. It never occurred to me the day would have any significance on Dominica, but I had reckoned without Ross students. It turned out they all had major exams in the morning, and as I sat on the dock with my sketch pad, they arrived in platoons, turning the beach into a weekend in the Hamptons. They celebrated their release with oceans of beer, shots, and rum punches, in and out of the water, so well supplied that many had small inflatable floating trays to hold the beverages safe from being lost at sea, however intoxicated the owner.
I gave up any idea of productivity and joined the fun. Along with students, some of the faculty were kicking back, and as the day went on revelations of the bureaucratic nightmares and favoritism became increasingly lurid.When darkness fell the musical roar from Big Papa's across the water competed with that generated on Picard not only from players but from singing students. Bob and Mindy made a rabid dash down from their luxurious cabin to rave against the noise. That they were leaving on the morrow seemed to make no difference, but I felt relieved for them.
"They filmed Pirates of the Caribbean here," said Bob furiously. "You'd think they'd have some rules about noise."
"Uh, I don't think so,"
Next morning Cat didn't appear on the beach until 11, her vitality level plainly low. That may have been owing to being accompanied by Nadia and Sean. Nadia went into the water, while Cat sat down to chat with me, and Sean went out to the end of the dock, where he sat in what appeared to be a fit of Byronic gloom.
"You should have been at Big Papa's last night!" said Cat, the very thought seeming to infuse her with vigor.
"I didn't have to be. Things were lively enough over here, and God knows, I could hear every note from over there."
"Yeah, but I met these two totally hot Italian guys! I went over with Nadia and Sean -- they're still debating. Yesterday he said he was going back home, but he wanted her to make his plane reservations -- I mean he's never done anything for himself. Anyway, now she wants him to stay, and I don't want to get in between any more.
"So I couldn't stand hanging with them, and I started talking to these two super goodlooking dudes at another table, Giancarlo and Paolo -- does that sound right?"
"Sounds wonderful. And?"
"Well, they were buying drinks and telling me all about their job. They work for Starlight, this cruise line that goes around from Martinique to Guadeloupe to Dominica and back. They're based in Martinique, and they were doing their first round trip in a year to pick up supplies. They only had the one night here. And could they dance! I took turns dancing with both of them -- oh, and Shady spent all night at the bar glaring. Then they asked if I wanted to go back with them to take a look at Martinique."
"So, what are you doing here?"
"Mm. I should have gone, shouldn't I?"
"Duh. Let's see, pooping puppy and no toilet here, two gorgeous Italians there? Yeah. And Martinique's the best -- food, music. You probably could have had both of them. Latin guys with a blonde -- you're just what they're looking for. "
"You're right. You sound like my friend Yvonne at home. She's older, like 27, and she is just wild. Try anything. But, you know, the truth is, I'm not really very experienced. I mean, I didn't actually have sex until I was 21, you know? And then it was pretty much just to get it done. And I haven't been in a serious relationship"
"Well, some people are late bloomers. You can always make up for lost time. Anyway, that's what traveling to places like this is for. When I started, my goal was basically somebody new on every island."
"That's what Yvonne says when she travels."
And then Cat disappeared for the next two days. I was busy sketching, getting polarity therapy and repelling the advances of the acrobat from Big Papa's who showed up unannounced on Picard Beach one afternoon. The third day as I was having lunch at Torchon, she came strolling along the beach toward me, pulling up to say hello. She leaned on the railing in an aura of triumph and introduced the young man with her.
"This is Jim," she said. "He's from Portsmouth."
Portsmouth or Sandusky, Jim was a nice package, about Cat's height, but of slimmer build, narrow-hips spreading up to broad shoulders, a boyishly pretty face with dark brown, liquid eyes, all in that deep shade of raw umber that takes glints of the sun and turns them copper. Nice manners too, solid handshake and quiet greeting. He had the same look of contentment as Cat -- a beneficiary of the big woman-little man, Sophia Loren-Carlo Ponti dynamic. A few minutes idle chat, and they continued, fingers interlaced, along the beach toward Portsmouth.
When I went back to the beach that afternoon, Shady asked me, morosely, if I'd seen Cat.
"She just went by."
"Yeah. She made a friend," he remarked.
I was on the dock the next morning, still half-asleep in the early sun, when I heard Cat's voice.
"Well, I guess you can say I told you so."
"I don't think I'll feel I have to. What's up?"
"You saw me with Jim yesterday? Well, it's been a wonderful ride. I've got a story to tell. The other night I was at Big Papa's, trying to hide from Kayakman, and I ran into Clay. He's one of the local guys, but he has a girlfriend who's at the medical school. Anyway, we were talking when Jim came by. Their families are next door neighbors in Portsmouth. So we started dancing, and he was so different -- none of that heavy stuff, trying to grind on you all night. And we really hit it off.
"He's an Olympic runner -- won a prize there and he's training for the next one."
"Um, really? In Beijing."
"I guess, but I'm not sure. Anyway, he pulled a thigh muscle, and they don't have much money for their athletes here, so he's trying to rehab on his own. It was so great that he's athletic -- you know I play rugby.So we danced all night and talked -- we have the same sense of humor -- he even likes fart jokes."
"What more could any girl ask?"
"Yeah. And he wasn't pushy either. Just when it was getting to be about 2 o'clock, he asked if I wanted to come home with him. So we went to Clay's house -- oh, and you know what, Clay was there with some other girl, not his girlfriend. And he told Jim he'd been planning to cheat on the girlfriend with me except that Jim stepped in! Can you believe that?"
"Easily. You know, in most places, monogamy isn't even an issue with the men. The idea is to nail as many women as you can, ideally, every one you come across. It's what you do."
"But Jim seemed so nice."
"He may be nice. It just doesn't have anything to do with the way he acts with women."
"Mmm. Well, he wasn't gross or disgusting -- it all just went completely naturally. And what a body! All muscle and an ass like I've never seen before. And for me, if you've spent the night together, if it's going to be a one-time thing, the morning is when you make it clear. You know, that was fun ...But he made us breakfast, and we hung out in the house till afternoon. Then he took me to a hot spring between here and town. It was in this grove in the woods -- it was like a natural spa. It was so romantic.Then last night there was a dance in the street in Portsmouth. It was the dj's birthday at Big Papa's, and everything spilled outside. We were all dancing, the guys competing with each other styling. And we went back to Clay's house. So I kind of got to thinking this could turn into smething -- maybe he could visit Canada.
"He had said a few things, though, about an ex-girlfriend..."
"Well, I'm not so sure how much of an ex she is. This morning he said they'd actually been talking by phone. She was a student at Ross, but she moved back to the States. Anyway, she's coming here for four days -- she gets in tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? Yikes? That puts a crimp in things."
"Well, yeah. But why did he wait so long? I really got upset, crying and everything. I asked him 'Why didn't you tell me?' And he said, 'I'm stupid.' Can you understand that? Why didn't he just tell me right away?"
"Yeah, I can understand it. If he'd told you from the begiinning he had a girlfriend ex- or other coming to visit, you might not have continued to have sex with him."
"Oh, you think that's it?"
"Seems likely to me."
By this time we had gone into the water to work off some of the irritation, and Nadia had joined us.
"Come on," she said. "What do you think? He wanted to keep things going as long as he could. You really need to wise up about guys."
"I'm not the only one," Cat snapped.
Before a brawl could start we were interrupted by Jim himself appearing beside us, swimming along from Coconut. He and Cat disappeared down the beach again. From behind his rear displayed two perfectly toned hemispheres; you could see her dilemma.
She came round to my room early that night to say they'd had a talk, and he wanted to be friends, but she didn't see how that was supposed to work. He'd said he'd call Friday, the day after the ex left. Cat spent the next few days in a flurry of activity, hiking, going to Scotts Head at the other end of the island to dive, playing soccer with the local team every afternoon, in a valiant attempt to calm her spirits and, I suppose, mellow the rancor. We also had information sessions about how to handle slippery men and the intricacies of learning to come under different circumstances.
I was flying out Friday morning. We'd had dinner and gone to Big Papa's the night before, and I was curious as to how things would turn out. About two weeks after I got back to New York, I got a call. Cat was back in Canada preparing to drive to her job in Alberta, making a family trip of it. And what of Jim?
"Oh, you know, he called me on Friday, and we went back out to the hot spring. It was really nice -- he brought scented candles and we watched the sun go down. One thing led to another, and we ended up at Clay's house. I told him that his attitude didn't see like just friendly. He said, 'No, I really like you.' And, like I told you, I haven't had much experience, so I hadn't really tried it before, but I got on top. Jesus, it took forever to get off, but he went into orbit. He said, 'Nobody ever did that for me before.' So now he's trying to find a job in the BVI. Some of his family moved there, and can help him. And he can continue his Olympic training. So I'm thinking, when my job finishes in September, maybe I'll look for a job in the BVI too. Why not? They probably can use an environmental biologist there too. I've been working out seriously every day, and I found this firming lotion for the problem areas. I mean who cares where I work -- this might be something really good."
That did take me back to the days when anything seemed possible, when the hot number you shared sultry nights with was a likely prospect for a life's companion. Now, I'm a little skeptical about the move being a good idea, to say nothing of the reality of the Olympic claims, but, as Cat says, why not? At 23 it's all still there ready for the taking. And I am looking forward to hearing how all this plays out.