It’s New Year’s Day and I’m on my godfather’s Dusky doing 5000 rpm on the North Sound of Virgin Gorda with a mechanic named Michael Jackson at the helm. He’s shoved the twin Evinrude controls all the way down on the console, and I keep trying to sip my beer, but it spills all over my face until there is nothing but dead wind left inside the bottle. A boomerang-shaped key glides past our starboard, and scattered marinas dot the port side, with their schools of masts rasping the sky and the unrelenting logos of petroleum empires stenciled against the green backdrop of the mountains. The other night, my father mistook the orange Gulf sign at Leverick Bay for a full moon: drunk, wearing his sunglasses, hitting on a young bartender from St. Kitts.
“Look at that moon, Bertha.” He pointed with his entire arm. “It’s as full as I am with lust for you.”
“Who Bertha, mon?” she said. The t cut through the name like a razor. In the islands, they swallow their contractions and say mon instead of man. If Batman lived here, he be Batmon. “I not Bertha, mon. I Martha. And that no moon, mon. That the gas dock.”
This week, I’ve visited every marina in the North Sound—Biras Creek, Saba Rock, Drake’s Anchorage, Leverick Bay, The Bitter End—and learned the name of nearly every bartender therein. Back in my mother’s apartment in Puerto Rico, a stack of college applications lies untouched on my bed, though I suspect she may have already begun to fill them out for me, unwavering as she is. This is a test run: if Michael Jackson says the engines are tip-top, I could be home tomorrow. He’s zigzagging the boat to avoid cracking any of the moorings that peek out like turtle shells throughout the sound. We’re spilling a heavy wake at the anchored motoryachts and the dinghies that loll a few yards behind them as if tied to leashes. The waves look like carpets being unrolled for royalty, and the crew of a bobbing trawler is screaming at us to slow down, but Michael Jackson doesn’t care. He’s got a big paycheck coming if the Evinrudes hold up, and it looks like they will. He starts singing “Billy Jean” and moonwalking in place, but he never lets go of the wheel, and the twin controls pressed down to the console never come up. The oval edge of his belly prods out from under his T-shirt, and the wind rips into his afro, vacuuming the lyrics into the Dusky’s foam trail: The kid is not my son. It is almost noon, and we’re flying past The Bitter End as if we’re deliverymen late for a funeral with a cabin full of flowers.
* * * *
Ten days ago, no one believed me when I announced the boat had sunk. I was coming down the hill from our hotel room and saw a tilted bim-ini top in the slip where we’d docked the night before, but no boat beneath it. The ropes were still tied to the pier, but the pleats had ripped off of the gunwale and lay floating above the Dusky, almost motionless, with the other ends of the rope still lassoed around them. Floating too were the white seat cushions that were always loose because their buttons had rusted, the zip-up bottle holders from Tortola, the empty Medalla cans we threw on the deck during the trip, the free jug of Pusser’s Rum we got when we gassed up at Sopper’s Hole, a quarter-full bottle of Pennzoil, and, surprisingly, even the Igloo, full of salt water and beer. There was a block of ice hovering like a cadaver, melting away, changing shapes. A round life preserver was sunk halfway, tilted at a perfect 90-degree angle, as if half its insides were rotten. The tanks were leaking gasoline, which pooled within the seawater, and it looked like the boat had been bleeding rainbows.
My father and Yasser were sitting at a table next to the bar at the Lighthouse. Yasser was eating breakfast, and my father was drinking a Cuba libre, which meant he’d already drunk two or three screwdrivers and, perhaps, a preceding Cuba libre as well. He’d gotten up before seven that morning and flicked on all the lights in the room and raised the volume on the television as high as it would go, just to get back at me for eating his sandwich. Our first port of call, fifty-seven miles east of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, is always Crown Bay in St. Thomas, where they make my father’s favorite roast beef. Yasser and I always eat ours on the spot, but my father safeguards his. He wraps the cellophaned sandwich in a grocery bag and tucks it in the Igloo and, at night, takes it to the hotel room, and then he puts it back in the Igloo the next morning. This goes on for days, and he never eats the damn thing. Yasser and I had stayed up late the night before, and by the time the bars closed, there was nothing to eat but my father’s sandwich. Yasser didn’t want any, because it had three-day-old mayo and he didn’t trust it, but I tore into it. When my father realized what I was doing, he jumped out of bed and began gnashing his teeth, screaming that his sandwich was sacred. He demanded I give him what was left, which was most of it, and he sat on the edge of the bed and ate the whole thing. The whites of his eyes blared like neon lights in the dark. He was still breathing heavily when I fell asleep. “I will never, ever, ever forgive you,” he said.
“The boat sank,” I said. They both grinned and looked up at me, as if expecting a lame punch line. “The boat sank!” I repeated. “The boat sank! It fucking sank!”
We kneeled on the pier and looked down at the boat, trapped beneath the gaudy film of diluted gas. Even the bimini top had gone under by then, and the empty beer cans had begun to drift.
“I just saw it when I came down the hill, half an hour ago,” Yasser said. “It looked fine. What the hell do I do now, Hector?”
“Well, Senator,” my father said. “You get it out.”
“With a lift bag. Hire someone to do it, then find a mechanic. I’ll be right back.” He hobbled away, and I knew he was going back to the bar, because that’s where he goes whenever he says he’ll be right back. Yasser and I went to the marina office. The dockmaster was a middle-aged British blond with leathery hands and a handheld marine radio latched onto her belt. We told her our twenty-five-foot fish-around cuddy-cabin Dusky with twin 150-horsepower Evinrude outboards had just sunk in slip B17. She didn’t seem impressed.
“But, Lady, how you get it out?” Yasser said. His English is terrible.
“Lift bags,” she said. “Underwater Safaris has them. They slide it under the hull and fill it, and the boat comes up. But that’s the easy part. What you need is a mechanic on the spot, when they lift it, and maybe he’ll be able to salvage your engines.”
“Where you get mechanics?” Yasser said.
“There’s only two outboard mechanics on the island. One’s at Biras, the other’s at Bitter End.”
“What is their name?”
“Bozo and Michael Jackson.”
“Can I use your phone?”
“I’ll call,” she said, flipping through her Rolodex. “I’ll say it’s an emergency. Which one should I call?”
“They don’t like each other.”
Yasser shrugged. “Call which one you want.” He leaned on her desk and pouted his lips. “What you do today for dinner?” he said.
She looked up from the Rolodex and studied his face. “Excuse me?” she said.
“I will like to thank you for your help, sweetheart, with dinner.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
* * * *
The bar at the Lighthouse is shaped like a sailboat, and my father was sitting at the bow. He was the only customer, and he was already drinking a Dewar’s and soda. This is how he does it: a Stoli screwdriver or two when he gets up, then it’s on to Cuba libres until the Coca-Cola gets too sweet, and, finally, scotch for the rest of the day. He can drink an entire bottle, but I’ve never seen him stumble or vomit or make a scene. And he never eats: especially in the islands, because by the time he’s ready for dinner all the restaurants have closed.
He was talking to the bartender, and before I sat down, she reached into a cooler and pulled out a Heineken, opened it, and set it on the bar. My father dragged out the stool next to his and patted it. “Update me,” he said.
“Yasser’s trying to fuck the dockmaster,” I said. “But she’s not into him.”
He smirked. “Well, I’ve been finding out a lot of things.” This meant he’d just bombarded the bartender with a bunch of questions and was getting ready to relay the information. “The Virgin Gorda Carnival starts tonight,” he said, and sipped his drink. “Some reggae bands from Jamaica are playing, but it’s in Spanish Town, so we need to rent a car, because the taxis will kill us. There’s some guy named Speedy who rents Jeeps, and Martha here is getting ahold of him for us.”
I looked at the bartender, who was slicing lemons, and took a sip of the Heineken. “Well, the dive shop here has lift bags, so they’re going to get the boat out, and they’re trying to find a mechanic.”
“The fucking bilge pump,” my father said. “I told him before we left. You heard me. I told him to check it. There’s a little ping-pong ball sensor in there that sets off the pump when the water level gets high. I told him to check it. I bet you anything the ping-pong ball was rotten and it didn’t float. He has no idea what he’s doing, you know.”
My father sold the boat to Yasser when he was getting divorced from my mother. He’d bought it in Florida after winning a big case in ’87, and the day after, he came home, put frying oil in the burner to make some french fries, fell asleep, and burned down our apartment. My mother pleaded with him to return the boat because they needed the money to rebuild, but he didn’t return it, and they never got along after that.
Yasser doesn’t have a feel for the boat, nor does he take care of it the way my father did when it was his. All the fenders are partially deflated, and the ropes don’t match in length or color. He’s afraid to take the boat out unless my father is with him, yet he insists on maneuvering it, though he always smashes it into docks, and he skitters all over the marinas before he’s able to plant it in a slip. My father and I call the boat “Baryshnikov,” since all it does is prance around like a ballet dancer when Yasser’s at the helm. He doesn’t even know how to talk on the VHS, and his sense of direction is nonexistent. Whenever we arrive at an island, he walks up to the first person he sees and says, “Excuse me, where are we?” just to piss my father off, since my father knows the names of all the islands and knows exactly where we are at all times. After the divorce was final, my father tried to buy the boat back from Yasser for what he sold it for, but Yasser wouldn’t sell.
“What did he say to the dockmaster?” my father asked.
“That he wants to buy her dinner, sweetheart.”
“No. But did he complain at all? He knows the marina is liable. We’ll sue when we get back home.” My father always talks about doing things he never gets around to doing. He often threatens to write letters to the San Juan Star, the slender English-language newspaper that nobody reads, in response to things that bother him, but he never does. I’ve heard him say, for example, “I was driving to Old San Juan, and you wouldn’t believe how run-down that huge fountain in front of the Capitolio is, it doesn’t even have water in it,” or, “I hate all these people who build $100,000 homes on government land in Piñones, they’re goddamned rich and they’re squatting,” and he always caps it off with, “I’m going to write a letter to the San Juan Star.” I like to tease him about it.
“I mean,” my father continued, “Yasser’s paying for the marina’s services. They’re supposed to have someone on duty, watching the boats, making sure no one breaks into them, that they don’t sink. Think about it: Baryshnikov sank in the middle of the morning. There should have been someone watching. It’s neglectful.”
“Definitely,” I said. “You should write a letter to the San Juan Star.”
“Fuck off, Tito,” he said. He took a little tube of Orajel out of his shirt pocket, squeezed some onto his finger, and rubbed it inside his mouth. He’d had a toothache since we left. “Hey, did you see those two girls over there, having lunch? They’re your age.”
They were sitting outside, right across one of the arcs that divided the indoor and the outdoor parts of the restaurant, and they had temp Rasta tattoos on their lower backs. They were obviously from the States, and like most white girls do when they come to the islands, they’d gotten sunburns and braids. “If I was your age, I’d be over there buying them a drink right now, before one of these dirty island guys gets to them. Look at their tattoos,” my father said. “They’re looking to get laid.”
“Well, I got Camille at home,” I said, knowing well that my father knew my girlfriend. We’ve been together for six months. She didn’t want me to come on this trip.
“You’re too young to be faithful,” he said. “Here, take the card and go buy them one of those frozen drinks those girls go crazy for.” He handed me my grandfather’s MasterCard. The three of us have the same first and last name. My grandfather is at the Presbyterian Hospital in San Juan—yellow, dying.
“Maybe later,” I said.
“They won’t be here later,” he said. “Come on, don’t be a pussy. As your dad, I order you to go talk to the two little sluts over there.”
“You’re not my dad,” I said. It was a joke we had, which started with a card I’d given him for Father’s Day. It said: Anyone can be a father, but it takes a special one to be a Dad. My father told me he wasn’t a special one. He said that serial rapists, axe murderers, military dictators, all kinds of horrible people could be fathers: it was just a biological accident. Dad had more to do with being there to watch the son grow up. My father’s father had not been a Dad, and neither had mine, so it was something we had in common. We were both, also, only children.
“Fair enough,” he said. He looked at the girls again. “As your lawyer, I advise you to buy two frozen daiquiris for the two little sluts sitting at that table.” A month ago, my father got me off the hook from a DUI because he was old poker buddies with the circuit judge who was on duty that night.
“You’re not my lawyer,” I said. “You’re still disbarred.” This was true: because my father had not tried a case in years, he had stopped paying his Bar Association membership fee, and they had revoked his license. He has been living off my grandfather’s MasterCard and the money my mom paid him when she bought his half of the apartment.
“Either you go over there and buy those girls a drink, or I’ll go over there and buy them a drink and tell them every little thing you don’t want them to know about you,” he said, and started to get up. I knew he would: he never bluffs, and he loves to embarrass me in public. He’s not shy, and he can be the most charming man in the world when he makes an effort. I ripped the MasterCard from his hand and pushed out of my stool.
Picking up girls in the islands is easy: all you have to do is be straightforward and confident and avoid flowering shit up. I walked over to their table with the MasterCard in one hand and my beer in the other, leaned on one of the green plastic chairs, and said, “Hi, girls. I’m Antonio, and I’d like to buy you a round of daiquiris.” I exaggerated my accent but spoke eloquently. They looked at each other and giggled, and I sat down before they said anything because I knew I was in. It’s a simple thing: what girl who is not yet old enough to drink in her own country is going to refuse a free frozen drink on a tropical island?
They were sisters: one of them my age, the other a freshman at Columbia. They were from Maryland, and they were staying on a chartered sailboat with their family. I was Antonio, a parasailing instructor from San Juan who was headed to Yale, early admission, in the fall. It’s a thing we do when we come to the islands: Yasser is always Augusto, my father is always Ramón, and I’m always Antonio. Sometimes, in the mornings, when we set off for the next island, I had seen women waving from piers, or from the decks of cruise ships, or from chartered motoryachts, yelling “Augusto!” or “Ramón!” My father and godfather would grin at each other and say, “Gee, I wonder who she’s calling to?” and we’d speed off into the open sea.
The girls had a strawberry daiquiri each, and we flirted and made plans to meet the next day. They told me the name of their sailboat, a fifty-foot Beneteau, and pointed to where it was moored. There was a plastic seat cushion from Yasser’s boat drifting toward it, and from where we sat, it looked like a dead stingray, belly-up on the water. I told them I’d be around the bar for the next few days, gave them each a peck on the cheek as they left, and returned to my father.
“Give me the card,” he said. “Speedy’s coming through for us.” I handed him the card and he forwarded it to the bartender. My father always finds somebody else to run his errands. “So, what they packing?”
“A fifty-footer, Moorings charter, bareboat.” Bareboat meant they had chartered it without a captain. “The father, apparently, knows how to sail.”
“You pick up their lunch tab?”
“No,” I said.
“You’re not my son,” he said. “You have no class. No wonder you never get laid.” He shook his head. “Where’d they moor?”
“Out there,” I pointed. “It’s called ‘Uhuru.’”
At this, Yasser walked into the Lighthouse, stood behind us, and put a hand on my left shoulder and the other on my father’s right one. “So, Hector, you want to buy the boat now?” he said. “It’s officially for sale.”
My father spun his neck to look at Yasser and chuckled. “Any luck?” he said.
“Well, they’re lifting it up pretty soon, charging a fortune. I left messages for the only two mechanics to come. Bozo and Michael Jackson, can you believe that shit? This place is a circus.”
“No. I meant, any luck with the dockmaster?”
“Ah? No. She has nice lift bags, but she knows my real name,” he said. “I figure we’ll be here for a few days, at least. I called Monica and told her to fly down. She might come tomorrow.” Monica is Yasser’s mistress. She’s over twenty years younger, and she works for American Eagle, so she flies free. My father says she always fucks up our trips, since Yasser cannot be Augusto around her.
“Well, while you’ve been out there doing nothing,” my father said, “we’ve been finding out all sorts of things, and we have great news. The carnival starts tonight, it’s in Spanish Town, and we have a Jeep. And Tito’s got two rich teenage gringas with braided hair and tattoos who will be joining us.”
“You do?” Yasser’s eyes lit up.
“No,” I said, and sipped my beer. “The tattoos are fake. Where’s the phone? I need to call home.”
* * * *
Virgin Gorda is only about a hundred miles upwind from Puerto Rico, but calling long distance is a pain in the ass, because the operators are incomprehensible. It took fifteen minutes to place a collect call to my mother, who was upset instead of sympathetic.
“What do you mean the boat sank?” she said. “What did you do to it?”
“Me? Nothing,” I said. “It sank. It just sank.”
“Well, you’re still coming home in a week, right? That’ll give you four days to fill out your applications. Did you start writing your essay yet?”
“Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time.”
“Have you called your grandfather?” she asked. “He’s not well, Tito. You shouldn’t have left. It’s so irresponsible of you and your father to just take off like that, when your grandfather is so sick. I don’t know how your father could just—”
“Okay,” I interrupted. “Listen, this call is costing you a fortune. We’ll be back in a week, if not before, okay? I’ve got to go help them get the boat out. Bendición.”
She sighed. “Que Dios te bendiga, mijito.”
The applications on my bed are all for Ivy League schools that I won’t get into. Colleges have been bombarding me with mail for the last year, all because I got a high score on the PSAT. If my GPA was over 3.5, I would be a National Merit Scholar, but I’ve coasted along with a middling 2.9. The application for the University of Puerto Rico, where I want to go, is not due until February. Both of my parents, as well as Camille and my college counselor, think I should go to college in the States, so I’ve decided to apply to the impossible ones. Camille really is headed to Yale, early admission. People in school have no idea why I’m with her, or, rather, why she’s with me, because we have nothing in common. While she’s conducting National Honor Society meetings on Friday mornings before school, I’m out in my friend Bondy’s station wagon, getting high and listening to Israel Vibrations. While she’s representing Canada or Finland or Djibouti at Model UN on weekends, I’m sitting on the bench for the basketball team, sweating away a hangover. In school, while she’s raising her hand to recite integrals in her AP Calc class, I’m sitting in the back row of algebra, writing notebook after notebook full of poems to give her, which is something that nobody else knows. I couldn’t believe she refused to accept the charges when I called.
* * * *
The divers from Underwater Safaris lifted the boat in less than an hour. The hardest part was sliding the yellow lift bag under the keel, but once they started emptying scuba tanks into the valve, the boat rose like a bubble. They used an electronic pump to drain the water that remained inside. Yasser and I dried the anchor and battery hatches with a hand pump, and we sprayed WD-40 on everything. My father sat on top of the Igloo on the dock, nursing a scotch in a plastic cup, yelling out instructions and tossing us beers when we asked. Underwater Safaris brought a machine from Spanish Town to siphon the watered-down gas from the tanks. They left the inflated lift bag under the hull of the boat to make sure it didn’t sink again, and Baryshnikov looked as if someone had tried to wrap a yellow ribbon around it but came up short. Then the mechanics showed up, at the same time, and we could hear them arguing as they made their way to slip B17.
“Who the owner of this boat?” one of them demanded, and Yasser stepped forth, extended his hand, and shook both of theirs. They introduced themselves: Bozo, Michael Jackson. They both had bristly beards and were the same height, but Bozo was thin and Michael Jackson wasn’t.
Michael Jackson pointed at Bozo. “What you doing calling this fool, mon?” he said to Yasser. “He don’t know what he do. I the best mechanic here.”
“No way, mon,” Bozo said. “You don’t listen to him, Captain. I seen him burn down a engine. A 200 Mercury, mon. I seen him burn it down over Gun Creek.”
Yasser smiled. “Okay, which is better one of you two?” His English really is terrible.
“I tell you, Captain,” Bozo said. “This man here, he crazy. He think he Michael Jackson, mon, King of Pop. Let me look your engines. You got no time to waste.” He took a step toward the boat.
“I ain’t burn down no engine, mon,” Michael Jackson said. “This fool just jealous cause I hook up with his girl long time ago at Maddogs. He a clown. He ain’t shit.” He poked Bozo in the shoulder.
“You don’t fucking touch me, mon,” Bozo said, and shoved Michael Jackson with both hands. Michael Jackson lost his balance and fell into the water, and his head barely missed the platform of the Hatteras docked on the other side of Baryshnikov. The water splashed up on the pier, and my father got wet, which rarely happens on these trips, since he’s always in the bar.
We all looked at Bozo without saying anything: me, my father, Yasser, and the two divers from Underwater Safaris. “Shit, mon,” Bozo said, picked up his toolbox, and took off running down the dock.
“I fucking kill you,” Michael Jackson said, his head poking out of the water like a buoy. He propelled himself onto the platform of the Hatteras and stood on it. “Come back here, fool.”
Yasser smiled. “Well, Mr. Michael, you got my job. No burn down no engines, okay?”
“I’ll be right back,” my father said.
* * * *
The road in Virgin Gorda is like a roller coaster track. The island, if you look at an aerial map, looks like a dumbbell: one of the ends is the North Sound, the other is Spanish Town, the capital. The thin middle is all hills. Yasser and my father made me drive the Jeep and risk the foreign-country DUI. I’m young, they always say, and while Yasser has his political post to worry about, my father simply cannot drive because of his bad eyesight. Michael Jackson was able to start one of the engines on the spot, after putting in new fuses, but the other needed a part that had to be sent for. My father used the MasterCard to rent the Century Tree Villa, which had a private pool overlooking Leverick Bay, right by the marina. There was a three-night minimum, and we figured that a mechanic who thinks he’s Michael Jackson would take at least that to fix a boat. Plus, my father said, it was carnival weekend, so we might as well spend three days in Virgin Gorda regardless, before going on to Anegada, our next port of call.
We parked in a lot full of cars, across the street from a huge tent that had thousands of people inside it. Inside the tent, there were long parallel tables full of artwork and T-shirts and food and drink vendors, and once we passed all that and came out on the other side, there was a patch of grass with bars and game booths on either side, and a stage on which a reggae band was playing. We went to get a drink at one of the makeshift bars: a tall metal table, behind which were two bartenders, several coolers, and about a dozen bottles on a smaller table. The bartenders kept all the money in their pockets. My father ordered two scotches, for him and me, and Yasser ordered a Finlandia on the rocks, which meant the crowd had energized him. He started talking to a very tall local girl with a gap-toothed smile. My father drifted to the next table, where they were playing some sort of game, and I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist gambling for long. I started walking toward the stage. Everyone had a plastic cup or a glass bottle in their hand, and they were all smoking cigarettes or weed or both. I still couldn’t believe Camille hadn’t accepted the charges when I called. Someone spilled beer on my sandals, and it trickled between my toes. Someone was calling someone else’s name, and it took me a few seconds to realize it was mine.
“Antonio! Antonio!” One of the sailboat sisters, the younger one, ran up and put her arms around me. “What’s going on?” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.” I smiled and ran my fingers through my hair.
“We begged, and our dad actually let us take a cab from the marina.” She said it as if this was some sort of unprecedented event. “Ohmygod, we just had these shots at one of these bars over there. Liquor 43, you ever tried it? It’s like orange NyQuil with a kick. I can get you one, they don’t card.”
“I’m good. I got a drink.” I raised my cup and jiggled it lightly. The ice cubes hit the plastic sides. She looked at it, surprised.
“What is it? Can I try it?”
The older sister came up behind me, whispered something indecipherable in my ear, and then backed up to look at me. “So, you know where we can get some?” she asked.
“What?” I said. The little sister took a sip of my scotch and made a sour face.
“Weed!” the older one said, leaning into me. “Do you know anyone here?”
“Sure,” I said. “How much?” She took a hundred-dollar bill out of her purse, bent it twice, and handed it to me. I gave it back.
“Stay here,” I said.
In the islands, a dime bag costs six bucks, and the stuff is better than in Puerto Rico. I had only smoked it twice, with a bartender from Tortola named Zeus, in the back of a bar where women took their tops off and signed them, then left them tied to the wooden rafters on the ceiling. At the carnival, I just asked the first guy I saw with a joint in his hand.
“That dude over there.” He pointed. “Camouflage hat. He Speedy. He hook you up good.”
Speedy didn’t ask any questions. I gave him $12, and he gave me two bags and some papers. “Thanks for the Jeep, mon,” I said.
“Yeah, the Jeep,” he said, as I walked away. “That kid so fucked up. He call the spliff the Jeep.” The people around him burst out laughing.
The Ivy League sister rolled and sparked the first one, and we passed it around, watching the band play a Bob Marley cover. Both girls only danced from the hips up. The younger sister was in front of me, and I kept glancing at the temp tattoo on her lower back. It looked like two dolphins sixty-nining in yellow, red, and green. After the joint burned to a roach, the Ivy League sister went to find a bathroom, and the younger one began to lean her back against me. I put my arms around her waist. She turned her neck and looked at me with her lips parted, so I went in for a kiss, and she kissed back. She kept leaning into me, and I kept my arms tight around her waist, and our upper bodies danced. “Don’t say nothing to my sister,” she said, pressing against me.
When the older one returned, she hugged us both and complained about having to piss in a Porta Potti full of flies that stunk like shit while some old dudes watched her. I loosened my grip on the little one, because if there ever was a mood-stopper, I’d just heard it. “Now I’m ready for another drink,” the older one said. “What about you guys?”
“Sure,” I said. “What you girls want? I got it.”
“A beer,” the younger one said. “And a shot. That forty-three NyQuil liquor thingie.”
“I’ll come with you,” the Ivy Leaguer said. And to her sister, “We’ll be right back, don’t go anywhere.” She grabbed my hand and pulled.
As we walked to one of the bars, I saw my father, still sitting at the game table, suddenly throw both his hands up in the air as if he’d just lost a bet. There was a small crowd gathered around him, nothing unusual. Yasser was nowhere to be found, not that I was looking. The girl and I stood in line to order drinks.
“I’m having such an awesome time,” she said. “Are you?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Hey, you know what Uhuru means in English?”
“Freedom,” I said. I’d seen Black Uhuru in concert with Bondy. “Why?”
“You wanna make out?” she said, and laughed and made eye contact.
When the younger sister found us, she yanked the older one’s braids so hard that her lower teeth scraped my tongue and cut into my upper lip. “What the fuck are you doing, you bitch?” the Ivy Leaguer yelled. I thought, briefly, about Camille: the way she slides her hair back on her head using only her pinky, ring, and middle fingers. All the locals stopped what they were doing to laugh at the two white girls going at it. The younger one turned around and began to run away. The older one didn’t even look back at me; she just ran after her sister, cursing. I stood still for a second, until they disappeared into the crowd, then turned to face the bartender and ordered two more scotches.
* * * *
I brought my father a refill and stood behind him while he played the game. I could see, as I approached, that he was down. It was a complicated game, and it took me a few minutes to understand what was going on. The player got three ping-pong balls for $10 and had to toss them onto a board with holes in it, and each hole had a set number of points, and you had to get to a hundred. You could buy an extra ball for $5 if you didn’t get to a hundred with the first three. The first toss usually earned you at least fifty points, and so it seemed that reaching a hundred would be a sure thing. But then the points added up very slowly—you got two points, five points, half a point with every toss—so you had to buy extra balls. Finally, after you reached a hundred, you had to play a game of five-card stud. There was a sign behind the booth that said, in big red letters: four of a kind wins $1,000. I’m certain that’s never happened. My father got a pair of queens and won a five-dollar bill, which was a quarter of what he’d spent trying to get to a hundred points. He got up from the table.
“It’s a scam,” he said, as if I hadn’t figured it out myself. “They let you win your first hand, then they take you to the bank.”
“No shit. You should’ve at least kept one of the ping-pong balls for the bilge pump thing. Why the hell did you play? You know those things are scams.”
“No, it should be illegal. There should be some kind of commission regulating these games, you know. I’m an idiot who has money to throw away, but there are other people. They see that sign that says you could win a thousand and they get sucked in by it, and it’s impossible to win.”
“I know,” I said. “You should write a letter to the San Juan Star.”
He chuckled and put his arm around me. We began walking toward another bar, and we saw Yasser in the crowd. He had his arm around the tall gap-toothed girl, and they were talking to an older couple.
“Augusto!” my father called out to him, and he motioned for us to come over.
“Yes, where have you gone?” Yasser said. He turned to speak to the girl and the couple. “This is the best man, of course, Ramón. And this is the wedding planner, Antonio.”
“And this!” Yasser said to us. “This is the beautiful Wanda! We have been getting engaged tonight!”
My father and I looked at each other and grinned. Wanda had an Adam’s apple.
“And these!” Yasser continued, “are Wanda’s much wonderful very great parents! Mr. and Ms. King, like the royalty! The royalty of Virgin Gorda! They keep giving me their daughter’s hand for married. I have told them you are very good friends with Mr. Speedy, Ramón, yes? He is the cousin of Wanda. You will be best man, yes?”
The parents shot us a suspicious look. My father shook both their hands. “Yes, of course. Speedy and I are good friends.” He stopped to look at his watch. “Good friends for a long time. Darn. Will you excuse us? We’ll be right back.”
* * * *
The Bath and Turtle was more comfortable and less crowded than the makeshift bars at the carnival. My father was having another scotch, and I had a mellow buzz, so I’d switched back to beer. It stung every time I sipped it, because the sisters had cut my lip. My father and I had walked right past a closed jewelry store on the way to the bar, and my father stopped by the window to look at the watches, like he always does when we come to the islands.
“Next trip, I’m getting that Submariner with the blue dial,” he said. “I miss that watch.” He used to have one, and he told everyone it was stolen at gunpoint. Once, drunk, in a rare moment of vulnerability, he told me the truth. He was in Boston, arguing a case in the appeals court, and after the case was over, he met a woman in the lobby of the Four Seasons, and he took her to his room. The next morning, when he woke up, the woman was gone, and so was the watch. The door was cracked open, and there was a fresh turd floating in the toilet. He called it the time he traded a Rolex for a piece of shit. When he returned to Puerto Rico, he had to make up a story for my mother.
“Why don’t you just get it on this trip?” I said. “Get it over now.”
“No, not yet.” He looked at his Casio. It was just after 2 am. “When I get the Pateks, I’m giving you one, you know. As soon as you pass the bar exam. I don’t need both of them.” My grandfather has two Patek Philippes, which I have only seen once, in the wall safe of his mansion. I honestly don’t see the point of walking around with something so expensive on your wrist. My grandfather has pancreatic cancer, and they’ve just diagnosed bilary stricture, and it is too late for endoscopic surgery. They put him in the hospital the day before we left.
“I don’t want it,” I said. “You can wear one on each arm if you want. It doesn’t matter to me.” When my father was my age, my grandfather told him if he studied law, he’d set him up with a good job at his firm. After he passed the bar, my grandfather gave him a clerk job and paid him $300 a month. “I’m not going to law school,” I said.
“Well, you don’t know that yet, Tito,” my father said. “You’re almost as smart as me. Maybe someday you’ll even be smarter. If only you got off your ass every once in a while.”
“Hey, it’s the genes, mon.” I said. “Ain’t got much to look forward to, mon.”
“So,” my father began, “you think your grandfather—”
At that moment, three men with black stockings over their heads, wielding Uzis, rushed in and told everyone to shut the fuck up and get the fuck down. One of them stood by the door, one of them jumped over the bar, and the last one opened fire at the ceiling, and everybody in the place got on the ground, except my father, who didn’t move. The one by the door kept yelling to the one behind the bar to hurry up, but he was having problems opening the cash register, so he unplugged it, picked it up, and took off running with it down the beach. The other two followed. It happened in less than a minute. Everyone got up and left without paying.
Because it was such a good night for the bar business on the island, the Bath and Turtle I guess wanted to make up for what they lost, so they stayed open. My father and I stayed in our spots, though we were instantly sober from the rush of adrenaline. I looked at the zinc roof and studied the small arrangement of bullet holes shaped like a seven. My father stared at the top shelf. “You ever had Blue Label?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Every Tuesday, after polo.”
He ordered us both a drink, not a hint of humor.
“Mom said I shouldn’t have come on this trip,” I said. “Well, that we shouldn’t have come.”
“She’s probably right.” He took a sip of Blue Label, but he didn’t react to it. “But I don’t want to be there. You know your grandfather will find a way to fuck with me, even with a tube stuck down his throat.” When my parents got divorced, my father needed a loan to buy my mother’s half of the apartment, and my grandfather, instead of lending him the money, asked him to move into the mansion with him, to return to his childhood bed.
“It’s good,” I said, holding up my glass.
“It’s all he ever drank,” my father said. My grandfather always lived in the mansion he’d inherited from his mother, who had always thought my grandmother—my father’s mother—was unworthy. The only thing my grandmother ever wanted was a house of her own, but my grandfather never gave her one. In the sixties, he’d had a Cuban mistress, and he bought her a condo in Miami. The mistress killed herself in the condo. “Well, here. Let’s drink to him.”
Our glasses met and we drank. “Hey, maybe you’ll become born-again,” I said. “Like Mom.”
“Nothing like three big black men with Uzis to put it all in perspective,” he said.
As we were leaving, a white-haired Englishman walked right up to us. “Excuse me,” he said, very properly, to my father. “We think we have the assailants trapped under a house. Would you be so kind as to come with us? We want to drive them out, and we need you to guard the north lawn of the property, in case they happen to come your way.”
My father looked at me for a second, then back at the Englishman. “Excuse me?” he said. “You’re telling me that there are three men with automatic weapons trapped under a house and that you want me to stand guard, in case they happen to come my way? These men have Uzis, and what do I have?” He pulled the little tube of Orajel out of his shirt pocket. “I have this little tube of Orajel. What should I do when they come at me? Orajel them to death? I don’t think so. I’d rather have another drink.”
The Englishman stormed out. We finished our drinks and went looking for Augusto and his groom-to-be.
* * * *
The crowd at the carnival had dwindled, and instead of a band, loud recorded music poured out of the speakers. Yasser was sitting at one of the makeshift bars, drinking vodka on the rocks, his arm around Wanda’s waist. All of the ice in his drink had melted, and it had slightly overflowed onto the metallic surface.
He got up from the stool when he saw us. “Ramón! Antonio! Have you heard? Terrorists! Terrorists with Uzis have taken Virgin Gorda.” Word of the holdup had apparently gotten out, but neither my father nor I was willing to explain any of it to Yasser, not at that point. “I’m happy you are not shot. Good health for everybody!”
My father leaned discreetly into Yasser. “You’re engaged to a man,” he whispered. “A man dressed as a woman.”
“No?” Yasser said, looking at Wanda. He leaned over and grabbed her crotch. Well, his crotch. Wanda jumped out of his stool and spilled his drink. “Yes,” Yasser said. “Yes, let’s go.”
On our way across the undulating road, Yasser kept asking where we were and what had happened. I was laughing, but still shaking. My father, on the passenger seat, asked how I was doing.
“I sure as hell could eat a sacred roast beef sandwich right now,” I told him.
“You know, you’re still not forgiven for that,” he said.
“Can somebody please tell me what has happened?” Yasser yelled.
* * * *
Soon after we returned to the villa, someone began knocking on the door. My father and I were lying in bed, watching tv. Yasser was in the other room, sprawled on a king-sized bed, which he would share with Monica during the coming week. The knocking began to sound more like punching. My father answered the door, and I heard my other name being called, so I peeked out of the bedroom in my boxers.
“You Antonio?” a white, middle-aged man wanted to know.
“Who the hell are you?” I said, snootily.
The man took a step into the house. He held up a bunch of flowers. He threw them onto the tiles. Some of the petals broke off. He pointed at the wrecked bouquet. “What the fuck is the meaning of this? Who do you think you are?”
“Antonio,” my father said. “I think this man is coming on to you. Should I leave you two alone?”
“You stay out of this,” the man said.
“Is this a joke?” I said, to both of them.
My father put his hands in his pockets. He took a deep breath and looked at the man. Then he looked at me. “Antonio,” he said. “I think I’m going to leave. This man clearly wants a taste of what you gave those two girls. I hope they didn’t wear you out. It looks like he could go all night.” I had not told him anything about what happened with the sisters at the carnival. I had no idea what was going on, but my father’s words pushed the man over the edge. He charged me, arms extended face-high. I jumped over the living room sofa, opened the sliding door, and ran half a lap around the pool in the yard. The man stopped and stood at the opposite end of the pool, knees bent, ready to take off again.
“What the fuck do you want?” I said.
“I’m gonna kick your ass, you little Puerto Rican shit.”
“What for, man? What the fuck did I do to you?”
“What the fuck did you do to my girls?” he said. “That’s the fucking question here.”
My father walked up behind the man. Yasser had gotten up and was standing behind my father. “Look,” my father said. “It was just some innocent, friendly flowers. What’s the big deal? He’s just a kid. You want to know the truth? He didn’t even send them. I did. I sent them for him.”
The man ignored him. “Tell me,” he yelled. “What the fuck did you do?”
“Sir,” Yasser said. “Sir, please, please go. This boy is not good. You give him much too stress for his sick, sick heart.” My father and Yasser had to be at least fifteen years older than him.
“Bullshit.” The man started around the pool, toward me, but my father tripped him up and he fell. I had begun to run in the opposite direction. My father kicked the man hard on the side. Yasser kicked him too.
“That’s my kid,” my father said. “Don’t fuck with my kid. He didn’t touch your girls, you dumb fuck. You hear me. He didn’t fucking touch them. You touch him and I’ll kill you. You understand? Get the fuck out.”
The man got up slowly. He looked at me. “You stay the fuck away from them,” he said. My father and Yasser grabbed him by the arms and walked him to the door. I followed far behind. I went to pick up the flowers and noticed a note buried between the rough stems:
Dear Uhuru Girls:
It was wonderful to meet you both
PS: Century Tree Villa, up the hill
“You’re an asshole,” I told my father, after the man had limped away.
“What?” he said. “It was a nice gesture. Classy. It’s not my fault the guy was a redneck, you know. I’m just trying to help you get laid.”
“Well, fucking don’t. Okay?” I turned back into the room, clutching the note. I lay in bed and read it again. It was beautiful cursive. What got me: the two little sails in the middle of “Kisses,” the three little cups in “Uhuru.” The way that, like a reckless suicide note, it had no final period.
* * * *
Monica came the next day, and Yasser calmed down, and my father and I went drinking around the North Sound. We did not return to the carnival, nor did anyone come looking for us. Eight days passed before we finally got the part Michael Jackson needed to fix the engine. We drove to the airport at least ten times, waiting for the package to come in on a flight from Puerto Rico, but not once did it occur to any of us to buy a ticket and get the hell out of there. The man in the Hatteras next to Baryshnikov told us, one night, that he’d surprised some skinny nigger with a beard fucking around with our gas tanks—that’s how he said it. The gas-siphoning machine had to be brought back from Spanish Town, and Michael Jackson kept saying, between songs, that he was going to kill Bozo. My father bought five ping-pong bilge pump sensor balls, had them gift wrapped at the same place where he’d bought the flowers, and gave them to Yasser as a present. The masked assailants were caught after holding up a bar in St. Maarten, several hundred miles southwest. They were pulling jobs all over the Caribbean. I have sat, drunk, each night, with a new notebook, writing poems for Camille. I want to give her everything when I come home. The first night my father saw me doing this, he asked what I was writing.
“Your eulogy,” I said, and he never asked again.
This week, the days have flowed into the nighttime without us noticing, except for yesterday, when we sat at Biras Creek, drinking champagne, toasting to a new year, watching the hazardous hills bleed the sun until there was no glow echoing off the sound. Though we’ve cruised from bar to bar in water taxis, downing blended malts and overtipping on a card that doesn’t belong to us, the immediacy of disaster has kept us sober. We have not called anyone, and there is no way to reach us: this is an island with two ends that look like giant wings, but what little is between them is tied to the bottom of the ocean.
* * * *
The boat’s keel digs into the water like a blade. Billy Jean is not my lover. Michael Jackson gives me a nod and looks back at the wake the boat is tracking. He asks if I want to bring Baryshnikov in, and I dock it on the first try. My father and Yasser are waiting by the slip, and Michael Jackson throws them the lines.
“Everything good?” Yasser asks.
“No problem, mon,” Michael Jackson says.
“Everything good, Tito?” Yasser looks at me.
“Perfect,” I say.
Yasser has just dropped Monica off at the airport. My father has returned the key to the villa and left Speedy’s Jeep in care of the bartender. I have left both engines on. While Yasser writes Michael Jackson a check, my father and I load the things onto the boat. The Evinrudes purr like resuscitated beasts.
After we’ve unknotted the pleats and pushed off, and after we’ve zigzagged past the moored sailboats in the bay, and after we’ve each opened a beer, Yasser points the bow toward the channel between Prickly Pear and Mosquito Island.
“Anegada, here we come!” he yells over the wind. Anegada is the sharpest edge of the Bermuda Triangle. It is bound by the famous horseshoe reef on all sides, and its highest elevation is only twelve feet above sea level, so you can’t see it until you’re right on top of it.
My father looks at me. His eyes are flooded, as if his eyeballs too have sunk. How could he not love his father?
I put my hand on Yasser’s shoulder. “That’s enough” is all I have to say. He looks at me, then at my father, and he understands and turns the wheel the other way.
Our wake looks like the tail of a cloud: shaking everything up from underneath, unsettling the plane of the surface. The wind, this time, is on our backs, and the waves are pushing the boat down the Sir Francis Drake Channel, trying to hurry us home.