Twenty Marleys and Me
I am crying on Lou, the TSA officer. Lou is holding my license, and I’m holding every sob as long as I can. But they come out in wet bursts, snot oozing over my upper lip.
“Anita! Get her some Kleenex, please.”
I sense the restlessness of passengers roped in zigzag formation behind me as the Man Who Checks IDs counsels Weeping Chick With Laptop Out Already with quips meaningless and profound, all in the same tone: Don’t hide that smile! This too shall pass!
Colleague Anita slips me a less sympathetic look before sliding off her stool to locate tissues. Her walk is slow enough to appear intentional. It could be a while.
The “this” which has yet to pass — the reason I’m spilling my grief all over socked feet, Ziplocs of tiny shampoo bottles, and paranoid beeping — is nothing unusual or particularly interesting. Someone broke up with me. It happens. And, to use a cliché whose vividness has become a cruel and persistent description of precisely how I am feeling, I am heartbroken.
I proceed to C4. The destination listed behind the gate’s service desk beams down at me with promises of warmth and precious distance from Lou, Anita, and all this: St. Lucia. I will be attending the wedding of Martin. I have never met Martin.
I am, however, a friend of his sister, Ella, who invited me to the Caribbean ceremony.
It was a pity invitation, and one I had initially declined. I had hours to log watching QVC, a pillow to soak, and cigarettes to smoke. But in an isolated bout of energy, I checked my flyer miles. I had just enough for a free roundtrip. So here I was.
Our stay on the island would be four days. Ella would lodge at Sandals Resort, location of the wedding, with her family. Cheryl — another friend attending the wedding — and I would share a room at a (much) less expensive hotel nearby. She and I would just walk over for the ceremony.
Slumped against the hard plastic seat, clinging to the tissue Anita had shoved at me, I find myself looking forward to the trip. There would be water, and a horizon farther away than I could fathom going.
And I had bought a hot pink bikini for it.
On the plane, I take out my journal to scribble some notes, like “crying on TSA guy,” because despite my misery, I’m also aware it will end at some point, and perhaps then, parts of the experience will be amusing. From my red spiral notebook peeks a photocopy that arrived in the mail from my mother a few days earlier, a lopsided gray replica of February 17 in her daily calendar of prayers.
I pull it out and read, “Pray to know and love Me more.” Could that help? While I believe in God and even in prayer, right now I’m not so trusting of myself to be right about much, including these. But I recite it anyway. It feels like a sort of penance.
I pray to know and love you more.
I order a chardonnay, consider ordering two. I haven’t eaten much, so it’s soon flushing my cheeks. My eyes feel bloodshot, cloudy. So does my chest. The captain turns on the fasten seatbelt sign. There is turbulence. The woman next to me grips our shared armrest.
I check in with myself: How much would I mind if we crashed? A bit. That seems good. I congratulate myself on not being passively suicidal.
When the cart squeaks by again, I pass my empty, plastic cup to the flight attendant and order a bourbon and ginger ale. In my mind, I hear my ex-boyfriend telling me it’s not wise to drink while sad. I am sad, and I’m going to drink the sadness into more sadness. So fuck off, I think back.
I fantasize about him coming back to me. Maybe he was in line at the grocery store and saw that chocolate bar I would always buy him. Maybe it was a song, or a conversation he heard on the subway, or an old couple holding hands. It just hit him: He made a huge mistake.
The plane is dark now. A man two rows up turns on his overhead light. He holds a folded piece of paper with the image of a young girl on it. In the nectarine glow, I can make out the words “In loving memory.” He stares at her for more than thirty-six minutes. I know, because I begin timing it.
Then he turns off his light. I keep watching him because I’m glad to have someone other than myself to pity, and I don’t want that to end.
We’re descending now. I consult my drink.
Why bother? I ask it. Descend, I mean.
You never want to land? It raises its fuzzy brow.
Oh, I do eventually. Just not tonight. How about in a month. Let’s give it thirty days, gliding up here in the dark, the mourning fellow and I, two of several hundred strangers passing the time with Sudoku and Adam Sandler and a handful of personal options for comfort: air off or on, light off or on, eyes off or on. Where the clouds are thick, the magazines slick, and no one can choose not to be with me, because I am not me. I am 32E.
MARLEY NO. 1
St. Lucia is turquoise. The Less Expensive Hotel is full of young men in thin, white shirts with starched collars. They wander, constantly moving but without a clear purpose. When Cheryl and I enter the lobby with our bags, instead of helping us, they scatter.
We check in and receive our room keys, which are actual keys, not cards. The building is one-story, a sprawling series of rooms accessible by mysteriously winding paths. Our room is at the far end of the longest leg. The wheels of my suitcase echo on the meandering tile, the only sound besides Cheryl’s soft step behind me. Are we the only guests?
“BRENDA, I’M LEAVING YOUR ASS!” A thick, red man falls out of a door. He’s wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and is quite sunburned. He nods at us and cuts across the grass to the hotel lobby and bar.
Our room is clean. Fine. Plain. There are towels. A toilet. A bed. I lie down and close my eyes.
I pray to know and love you more.
“Let’s get drinks,” Cheryl suggests. It’s nearly midnight.
We follow the lead of Brenda’s companion and take the shorter route back to the lobby. The bar is a plank of wood resting on concrete blocks across from check-in. Behind it, a man in starched white leans against the wall next to several colorful, foggy liquor bottles. Yelling Fellow Guest is there with a younger, equally pink woman. She wears two braids. Her chest is enormous. Brenda, I presume.
Daughter? Not girlfriend. Daughter.
The four of us sit too close to not talk.
We learn his name is Alistair. They are Scottish. They come here every year for two weeks because it relaxes the fuck out of you. Brenda, apparently, is not his daughter.
Cheryl and I sip an orange beverage Alistair insisted we try — an island favorite — while he and Brenda take down three each. At 12:30, mine is only half empty. Or half full. My eyelids weigh more than Brenda’s boobs.
Cheryl is telling them why we are here. Wedding at Sandals, tomorrow morning.
“How you gonna get over there?” We figured we’d take a cab. Oh no, that’s going to be very expensive — seventy dollars probably. You should just have Marley take you. Do we want Alistair to call him? Alistair fetches a navy Nokia phone from the pocket of his Bermuda shorts. Just after 1 a.m., we say goodnight to Alistair and Brenda.
We will meet Marley on the beach in front of the hotel at 9:30, where he will pick us up in his boat. We will be traveling to Sandals, across the bay, by water.
“Ten dollars each,” Marley faces us, standing in the surf. His small boat buoys behind him. We each hand him a bill, our shoes dangling from our other hands. We take turns being helped into the boat. I find a position that works with my dress and feel silly, like I’m sitting sidesaddle. As Marley revs the motor, I turn back to Cheryl. She has covered her body head to toe in white hand towels from the room and scarves she’s brought along from home, and all that’s visible are her eyes, a little bit of her nose, and her upper lip.
“I’m allergic to the sun,” she explains, resting a second towel on her right shoulder.
As we whiz across the bay, Cheryl fights to keep all seventeen towels and scarves on her skin as I gaze into the horizon like it’s a Magic Eye, waiting for something interesting — or at least unexpected — to appear. A dolphin. A shipwrecked vessel.
It occurs to me that all we know of Marley is that he’s on Alistair’s speed dial. And all we know of Alistair is that he yells at Brenda and doesn’t always use sunscreen. Now we’re on the open ocean, moving in a direction I don’t know from any other direction. I check in — does this frighten me? No.
The motor dies. We drift onto shore. Cheryl climbs out first. Marley hands us our strappy sandals, holding them each with three fingers like this is more proper or courteous. Cheryl gets his number for a return ride.
We wade carefully through the surf and spot, behind the trees and a short wall, our friend. Ella’s gauzy peach dress blows Marilyn Monroe-style toward the ocean. She’s standing next to a woman on fire — huge, shiny, brilliant. The bride reflects the sun, and I shield my eyes.
MARLEY NO. 2
The woman performing the wedding is a Sandals Officiant. She wears a Sandals badge, reads from a Sandals portfolio, and sanctions the union under a wooden sign nailed onto the beachfront gazebo, a sign that reminds us where we are: SANDALS. After the vows, she pronounces by the power invested in her by the government of St. Lucia and by Sandals Resort that the couple is husband and wife.
Another employee, dressed in a pressed green uniform, hits play on an ‘80s-style boom box. Marvin Gaye joins the party. In an anticipated but nevertheless odd sequence, I congratulate the couple on their marriage, and then introduce myself. They don’t seem bothered by this. We’re in St. Lucia, after all, and they just got married. It’s all good.
Twenty minutes after the arrival of champagne in plastic flutes, we’re told we must vacate the wedding site. There is another wedding scheduled for one o’clock. Should Cheryl and I call Marley for a ride back to Alistair and Brenda? The afternoon is open and long, although Sandals doesn’t appreciate non-guests partaking of its extravagant offerings, including its beach.
We appreciate your assistance in departing the premises promptly if you are not a guest of the resort. Thank you!
We decide to pretend. Ella, the only legitimate Sandals vacationer among the three of us, fetches plush beach towels from the Free Towels For Your Use! bin, and we make our way to the far end of the shoreline, where we spread them on the sand and plop down. Cheryl is desperately applying sunblock and eyeing a large umbrella that appears to be abandoned when a green uniform appears from nowhere.
“Are you guests?” he asks.
“Yes,” Ella offers immediately.
“What are your names?”
“Donna,” she answers too quickly.
“Dionne,” Cheryl coos.
“Claire,” I say, my heart racing. Is there a dungeon? Will I be shot with my back against a wiry fence?
“What’s yours?” Cheryl/Dionne asks, a slicker agent than I.
“Marley.” He takes out a cigarette, lights it. He is from Martinique. He is in a band. He has cousins in Queens. He likes Cheryl. Can we use that umbrella? She asks. He gets it, digs a hole, and buries its long stake. The three of them sit in the shade. I pull my stolen towel into the sun, close my eyes, and pretend.
I pretend that I am a carefree woman on vacation bathing in the SANDALS™ sunlight. I pretend that, centimeters under my bright bikini top, my heart is not frantically searching for its essence. I pretend, because today we are all pretending.
THE NON-RETURN OF MARLEY NO. 1
Marley No. 1 is not answering his phone. Cheryl has called twice. Marley No. 2, whom we have begun calling Martinique to distinguish him from Marley No. 1, has a solution. His friend Leon will take us.
Leon is not named Marley but has a similar boat and arrives in similar fashion, requesting fifteen, not ten, dollars apiece. We sail back to Alistair and Brenda at twilight, planning to dine in the hotel restaurant before meeting Martinique and his friends at a bar near the Much Cheaper Hotel. Cheryl is, at least. I am feeling unsure — the sun has dried up my juicy willingness to abandon pragmatism and caution in favor of escape-from-a-sunken-soul. I want to be adventurous, but I want to go to sleep. I want, I want, I want. Did I want too much, too widely? Is that what went wrong?
I pray to know and love you more.
Brenda is skinny-dipping. She is whooping and splashing Alistair, who stands in the water holding a beer, fully outfitted in his swimsuit.
As we drift back to our hotel room covered in sun and sand, a creepy sensation comes over me. Someone is following us. I turn to see a man in the official thin, white shirt making his way down the path we are — the serpentine, nonsensical one that cuts where it shouldn’t. A look at Cheryl tells me she’s also noticed. There is no one else around.
She takes the lead and makes a smart decision, I feel, to venture a side trip, a kind of ear along the profile of our course, to see if he’ll continue following. He does. He follows us around the side and back to the path leading to our room, and follows us nearly to our room, gaining on us as we quicken our speed. We close the door and lock it. Nothing happens.
But what was that? We begin reflecting on the strangeness of our room assignment. Why are we so far from the hotel lobby? There don’t seem to be any other guests at the hotel except Alistair and Brenda.
We decide to request another room. I stand quietly as Cheryl raises her voice at the clerk, who is — also weirdly — resistant to giving us a room closer to the lobby. Finally he concedes. Room Closer to the Lobby has a terrace.
Cheryl heads to the beach for a swim. I lie on my back, slip in my ear buds, and look into the sky, where stars are beginning to appear, just barely. The breeze is nice, and this room feels safer, but. But.
What is the point of me?
MARLEY NOS. 3-19/ST. LUCIAN MEN WHO LOVE CELINE DION
On the northeast side of the island, there’s a bar called The Lime. Local residents and handfuls of intrepid young tourists go there to sing karaoke. Cheryl and I sit at the bar and order what the bartender recommends, which are Sex on the Beaches.
Marley No. 2 arrives with a friend.
“I hope you will like him,” he greets me. Behind him, a giant man in a muscle tee and a skullcap, his lumpy biceps covered in tattoos, smiles at me. His teeth are very white. He introduces himself as Mad Grind.
“Are you kidding?” I ask. He is not. Everyone calls him Mad Grind.
“I can dance,” he explains.
Cheryl moves so that Mad Grind can sit next to me. She and Marley No. 2 lean in close to talk over a warbly rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” I order another Sex on the Beach. And another. My determined drinking is accompanied by seamless shifts between reggae and ‘90s ballads as Mad Grind and I search for common ground. He is 21 and plays drums. I spill my drink. The glass breaks. The bartender is annoyed. Mad Grind assures me it’s no big deal. I order a fourth.
The balmy night leaves a moist film on all of us.
Mad Grind asks if like Celine Dion. I tell him I do. Do I know her? No. No, I do not. She’s Canadian, I tell him, as if this is why. He nods. His name is called, and he hurries to the microphone to sing “Because You Loved Me.” He tilts his chin back, wailing the song into the corded mic and stealing glances at me that I catch. I smile.
I’m exchanging smiles with a man named Mad Grind serenading me with Celine Dion, I think. I will have to write that down later.
And, as he is wont to do the second my life attempts to take shape around a new experience, a fresh piece of life, my ex-boyfriend infiltrates the moment. I decide I hate him. I genuinely hope he is miserable for the rest of his life.
It’s jarring, to recognize such hostility in myself. Am I that cruel?
I sigh. I am not. Almost immediately, a part of me that is kinder, broader, and holier breaks through the sweat and electronic sound. It’s a part that doesn’t hate but seems to know things. Like, that there’s a softness to all this that will become clear in time. That he’s just human, subject to needs and desires he doesn’t understand, and so am I. This part of me forgives him, and myself, and everyone who has ever hurt or been hurt since the beginning of time. We’re just sloppy at living, all of us who are doing it for the first time, and we’re subject to the tiny rages of the shortsighted Mes within. Such as Me Here With Mad Grind Who Is Afraid She Won’t Find Love Again.
When Mad Grind returns and suggests we dance, I accept. He is a blur of black and white, and his hands are warm on my lower back. We’re swaying and he’s laughing, yelling to our friends. The bass trembles up my spine over and over, and over, until it is over. Fingers on my arm, and suddenly I have a mic in my hand. A small screen before me with text and a bouncing ball. Four of us croon.
I don’t want to wait in vain for your love, we sing. I don’t want to wait in vain for your love. Bob Marley.
Soon, the bar is closing. Mad Grind and Marley No. 2 walk us several blocks to our hotel, but the gate is closed and we can’t get in. Do we want to stay with Marley No. 2? I don’t want to stay with Marley No. 2.
Finally, a guard — guy in a thin white shirt — approaches the gate. Mad Grind takes my hand. His is dry and rough. Is he close to tears?
“I wish you didn’t have to go back. I wish you weren’t so far away.” I thank him for a fun night as the gate opens. From the other side, we turn to wave goodbye again. Mad Grind stands behind the bars, holding them.
“I will miss you!” he hollers. You don’t know me, I think.
“What’s your real name!” I yell back.
He smiles. “Marley!”
MARLEY NO. 20
Our last day in St. Lucia passes quietly. Brenda and Alistair have left, so we have the hotel to ourselves. Cheryl and I rent a jet ski and speed around the bay for an hour. I finish a crime novel, send some emails, paint my toenails. We walk to a bank and withdraw cash for the cab to the airport the next morning.
At dusk, Martinique arrives at the beach to say goodbye to Cheryl. I leave them and wade into the water until it laps at my waist. I try to crunch the sand with my toes, but it’s like goo. The sun is setting on the water, sinking into it, like a pop-up card closing around me. A majestic, glowing pop-up sun bidding me adieu.
I thank St. Lucia. It has indeed, as Alistair guaranteed, relaxed some of the fuck out of me.
Then a tiny, spidery silhouette jumps onto my glorious greeting card. I squint to make out a small boat on which there appears to be a man waving his arm. I turn — there’s no one on the beach now but me. I wave at him. The boat grows larger and larger. His arm pivots back and forth without interruption. I laugh and wave back several times. More quickly than seems possible, the boat and man are suddenly before me, feet away, his arm still in the air, a huge smile on his face.
He presents, to me, his hand. I reach mine to him. He kisses it.
“My name is Marley,” he beams, then wishes me a good evening and turns his boat around, heading back into the ocean.
A man just came in from the sea to kiss my hand, I think as he disappears. I start laughing. Aloud, and alone.
Somewhere in the world, a man whose name is unlikely Marley steers into bays to greet women then depart for other prospects, other detours.
It is impossible to predict what this life will churn up.
What’s a name anyway.
NO PRESSURE, NO PROBLEM
It’s the island’s slogan, recited to tourists from the moment they arrive. Our aircraft is packed with t-shirts and satchels memorializing the easy mantra.
The plane cannot take off because there is volcanic ash in the air. Montserrat, which sits between St. Lucia and Puerto Rico, has erupted. We sit on the runway for an hour, waiting for the atmosphere to clear. I eavesdrop on the flight attendants flirting. She appears a solid fifteen years older than him and relishes the attention. He pinches her waist, her leg, tickles her back. Finally, the captain announces it’s safe to depart.
Then the plane is moving fast. The raindrops on the windowpane spread like tiny hands opening wider than they should be able to, and the grayish red buildings lose their color, and we enter doughy cloud. It’s all white, only white. And my heart breaks, but this time the breaking is a different kind. This time, it breaks bread with gratitude, because it can still feel.
We’re in the air again, and there’s so much I don’t understand — the intricate logic behind it all, the adjusting of adjustments upon adjustments. But I can love. And I must hold on to that, because we are still rising higher, higher still — where all there is is white, and we are all anonymous, and what pounds in me is all there is.
Mary Adkins is a writer living in New York. She graduated from Duke University and Yale Law School. Find her at lifeofthelaw.org.
Image via Flickr/madmack