The girl in the leopard bikini walking along the beach, past the sunbathing tourists, is swinging her hips. As she walks, her bare feet kick up tiny puffs of white sand. Her legs are strong, and brown like mine. Her braids – real braids that have been done at some fancy foreign boutique perhaps, rather than by one of the local girls here – hang down her back, cascading down like a waterfall at midnight, swishing from side to side against her bottom as she walks toward the calling waves. She knows the greasy sunburned white men, eyes hidden behind their smoky sunglasses and thick novels tented atop their huge red bellies that surge over their swim trunks, are watching her. So she sticks out her small chest, like a fashion model walking down a catwalk, her hips swinging in time: swish, swish, swish.
The girl in the leopard bikini is slim and fine-featured and alone on vacation here, at the resort. I do not know her name; she has never spoken to me. She perhaps thinks of my station as being too lowly. Or maybe it is because I am a woman. But I can tell that she is not that much older than me. How can she afford a vacation here by herself? I have seen her a few times at night, talking and laughing with those same lobster-red men with the flabby paunches. I like to watch her from a little distance on the nights that I serve drinks beside Ernesto the Cuban at in the tikki bar. She has been here at the resort for almost two weeks now. Longer even than Peter and Denise who’ve been here eight days. Under an ink black sky with shooting stars falling like rain, she will lean forward to listen to one of the men, who says something in her ear over the din of the calypso house band. A breeze ruffles by and I imagine the reflection of the votive candles’ flames flickering in her eyes. She pushes back a few loose braids that have freed themselves from her upsweep behind her ear and I see the stud in her ear. It is a real diamond, I know, because of how it glints in the light.
She laughs and her voice is a thin cry. The girl could be me.
But she is not. She is just another rich American – a black one at that – who can take expensive island holidays by herself. At night, her braids tied atop her head, she wears different beaded dinner dresses and smells of expensive cologne. Watching her sip her Absolut and cranberry juice, I imagine a glamorous life that I pretend is my own: fancy designer clothes and shoes, maybe a car, and breezy summer vacations.
“Ah, my Brown Sugar.” Peter’s voice cuts into my thoughts like a blade striking wood, startling me so that I jump guiltily. Peter and his little blonde wife are a couple from Texas, in the faraway land of cowboys and John Wayne. Today, today I am on housekeeping duty, which is why I am in their room. I spin around sharply to see Peter standing in the doorway beside my cart, hugging Denise, who is a good foot-and-a-half shorter, and who appears to be growing out of his side like an appendage, or a tumour.
“Mr. Peter, Miss Denise,” I say, stepping hurriedly away from the window and dragging at the bed sheets. “I’m sorry. I’m not done yet. I only just got started.” It is a lie, because I've been in the room for more than twenty minutes already but, because of my daydreaming, it is still untidy, with clothes, half-opened suitcases and glossy magazines strewn all over the floor and across chairs. “I'll be out of y’ way soon.”
I can hear the wheels of my custodial cart squeaking and the sound of the door closing and I feel a fist close around my heart. Suddenly Denise is lying on the bed, the sand that was clinging to her body in her tiny bikini shivering onto the half-removed white cotton sheets. “Poor Sugar,” she says, a smile in her voice. She has wrinkles in the corners of her eyes when she smiles. “Imagine. Working on your birthday. You know a girl’s twenty-first is extra-special.”
Denise is pretty, like the white women I’ve seen in the movies. The ones I’ve seen here at the resort aren’t. They mostly have flabby guts, stretch marks and bad teeth. Even without make-up, though, I can stare at Denise for hours and feel hypnotised. With her shapely girlish figure, I can hardly believe she’s a grandmother; she has told me that they have a daughter who’s just had a child of her own. I am surprised she remembers that I told her when my birthday was. No one else has. She pats a space on the bed, her green eyes sparkling like emerald chips telling me that I should sit.
There is a click and the air conditioner groans to life. The room is spacious: one of the larger beachfront ones with bay windows and ceramic tiled floors that the richer tourists prefer. It is identically furnished like the other rooms along this stretch, with rattan chairs, a mahogany chest-of-drawers and a TV. In the centre of the room is a low glass table on which sits an old orange juice carton containing a beautiful bougainvillea bouquet. Each of these rooms comes with an outside terrace with a nice view of the sea. Once, when my younger sister Celine spent the day with me while I did my rounds, we locked ourselves in one of the rooms that were unoccupied, for a few hours. We had stripped down to our underwear and lain on the bed, eating insipid leftovers from a plate we had stolen from a tray at the door of one of the other occupied rooms, watching TV and letting the air conditioner blast us until our skins were ashy. At the end of the time, we had stared at each other and burst out laughing. We were soon sobbing with laughter. “This is it?” Celine had gasped finally, wiping her eyes. “Air conditioning and TV? Rich people really fool-fool!”
I had laughed but deep down I wanted to be one of those people who could afford silly holidays and hotel rooms. I saw their possessions carelessly lying about when I cleaned their rooms: Compact Disc players, video cameras, those little computer gadgets that played music; the things I would never ever be able to afford. And I would do anything for that life.
Now Peter is suddenly in front of Denise and me. He is mostly lean although he has the beginning of a beer belly. He is tan with limp, thinning hair the colour of wet sand, which he keeps always in a ponytail beneath his cowboy hats. Today, he is bareheaded and his wet hair, splayed about his shoulders like octopus tentacles, reveals a balding pink head.
“Mr. Peter,” I say quietly, my fingers playing with the hem of my cotton candy pink maid’s uniform. I can see a fish in his tight swim trunks. I turn my eyes away. “Su-gah,” he says in the slow way that I imitate in the mirror sometimes. He pats his stomach and makes a sucking noise between his teeth. “You’re a naughty girl. I told you, it’s Peter and Denise. And we’re still waiting for your answer.”
I glance over at Denise, who’s bobbing her head and looking expectantly at me. “We’re offering good money here,” Peter continues in the voice that makes the blood sing in my ears. “I know I don’t have to tell you how much Uncle Sam means around here.”
I remain silent, the pressure in my chest making me feel faint. Through the muffled ebb of crashing waves just beyond the window, I hear my heart pounding. Peter is right; one Yankee dollar was like a nugget of precious gold and can fetch almost one hundred Jamaican dollars on the street. Hotel pay is not good: the rich hotel owners that play hug-up with the government are the ones who reap most of the benefits. Still, it is better than nothing. I think of what the money would do: fix a patch of Ma’s leaky roof; buy clothes for the other children. I think of Isaiah in Kingston, the only man I have ever been with, the only man who has ever loved me. The money can take me to him.
I feel Denise drawing little circles on my back with her fingers and the feeling is not unpleasant. She sits up so that she can speak directly into my ear, whose lobe still has in the soiled little loop of string that was threaded in when my ears were pierced a few weeks ago. “Yes Sugar, naughty girl,” she says. Her lips are cool against my skin, her voice smoky, hoarse. It reminds me of a trickle of water in a dried-up riverbed. “We'll be going back home day after tomorrow. So? What’s the answer gonna be?” She places a damp kiss on my neck, soft as morning dew, before blowing on the small hairs on my face.
I feel goose flesh rising on my arms and I feel sick, as if I am going to puke.
Outside the window, the sun shifts suddenly behind some clouds then appears again, streaming in through the windows, lighting the room, and their faces, making them seem harsh, unkind. I look out at the sunlight on the water and in the swell of people my eyes find the girl in the leopard bathing suit doing strong swimmer’s laps in the distance.
I imagine the girl is me.
She smiles at me when I bring her plate to her table. It is already eleven in the morning; the dining hall is deserted. She is sitting alone at a table set for four, her braids spilling down loosely about her shoulders framing her tiny face. Today, instead of the leopard bathing suit, she’s wearing a low-cut, sleeveless white top, under which she isn’t wearing a bra, loose-fitting white pants and white sandals; next to her my clothes look like they should be in a pile for the garbage. Up close, I see that she is even prettier than I’d believed; brown eyes, small nose, sloping cheekbones that show up her small mouth. She’s ordered the saltfish fritters, calalloo and fried Johnnycakes and a mug of chocolate tea.
I set the tray down and tell her it is good and she seems surprised that I can speak at all.
“You, uh, speak English real good,” she says, giving me a small smile before leaning forward to smell the food. “You new here? I’ve never seen you around, I don’t think.”
I tell her that my friend Adele, who’s supposed to be on dining hall duty today, is out sick and so I have to fill in for her. “I’m usually on housekeeping,” I say. “Sometimes at night I work in the bar. I’ve seen you there before – you always take Absolut and cranberry juice.”
I stand waiting for her to remember. And what, maybe ask me to sit with her? Already I can imagine us being friends – she will tell me her name and I will tell her that she is the person I would most love to be in this world.
But she immediately seems to forget that I am there and starts to eat. I feel dismissed, useless, like a comma almost.
It is a clear day, already almost eleven, and the sun is pouring into the dining hall, a large pastel-coloured room with a view of the beach with many tables set with white tablecloths, fancy heavy crockery and gleaming sterling silverware. In a quick movement of her head, there is a flash, a sparkle at her ear through the fall of her braids.
And I cannot move. I know that I should, but I am helpless; my feet heavy as if they are stuck to melting tar. My stomach begins to quiver because I want to lay my cheek against that large stud that sparkles in her ear, and to feel the smoothness of that jewel against my teeth. Nothing seems as important to me now as getting two real diamonds for my ears – not Ma’s roof, not the clothes for the children, nothing.
Not even Isaiah.
Outside, I see a million butterflies flitting about in the golden sunlight. He once told me that there’s a place in Kingston where, in butterfly season, you can see them falling out of trees like golden rain. We’d made plans to marry beneath one of those trees. But those plans, like Isaiah, have all disappeared. Suddenly, an image of Peter and Denise appears before me, the money they have promised me for one night.
It is only for one night.
As I turn and walk away I wait for the guilt I expect to wash over me, telling me what to do. But it never comes.
In the yard the younger children are chasing a mother hen and her baby chicks on a scabby patch of grass. They do not notice when I lift the latch of the dilapidated wooden gate and walk in. The smell of chicken poo is strong in my nostrils. Celine is on the front porch talking to a boy from a neighbouring district who has ridden his bicycle up to see her. She is the sister that follows me. She is prettier than me with good hair and a straight nose.
“Sugar,” she calls out, waving. From where I stand I can see her soft breasts bouncing beneath the thin cotton of her blouse.
“Where’s Ma?” I ask.
She shrugs with a typical teenager's irrational annoyance and turns back to continue her flirting, to continue listening to that breadfruit-headed fool’s silver lies.
My mother is sitting on a three-legged stool, bent over washing clothes in a pan under an old banyan tree at the back of the house. Her hands are busy making the scrips scrips sound I liked hearing as a child.
“Ma,” I say, approaching slowly, my street shoes covered by a film of dust that came from the mile-and-a-half walk from the hotel. Guilt makes me imagine the odour of sex coming off my skin, which is raw from scrubbing it clean in the shower I took in the maid’s quarters after sneaking out of Peter and Denise’s room before daylight.
She looks up wearily after a while. Her body is strained and old from having too many children too fast. She has an unhappy mouth and eyes that, in the mid-morning haze, are the colour of coffee grounds.
A soft breeze ruffles the tree leaves and rains down twigs in my mother's hair. “You get pay?” she asks sharply, spitting on the grass at her feet before curiously eyeing my satchel. Poverty has roughened her once-soft edges, she has forgotten how to say thanks, how to smile.
I look at Celine, who has come around the back being towed on the boy’s bike. I can tell she’s come to see what Ma and I are doing. I look at her and wonder if she has allowed the boy to do things with her that he shouldn’t. In Plantation where we live, it is easy for dreams to turn into vapour when you are poor. I remember the previous night with the Americans: the flash of pale skin in the moonlight, and mine barely even discernible in the dark of the room, and how I had sat still, frozen with fear and guilt when Denise’s hands had found the front buttons of my uniform as Peter walked naked to the window to pull the curtains, his skinny pink sausage dangling between his legs. How I’d remained rigid when Denise’s tongue flicked like a snake’s over my nipples and other parts of my body that I am too ashamed to say, and then how, in spite of myself, I had gradually begun to rock my hips as Peter grunted and thrust deeper and deeper inside me.
A lizard, the colour of many rainbows, slithers by on the ground. I hand Ma the bulging envelope, from which I have removed a couple of the Yankee hundred-dollar notes for myself and which I will place in a secret hiding place, beneath a loose floorboard in a corner of the dining room. The rest of the money in the envelope will keep my mother and my sisters and brothers fed and clothed for a while.
“I had to work two shifts.” I say the lie with a smile. “I made some extra.”
She looks suspiciously at me before snatching it away with a soapy hand, and tucking it into her bosom. “Just thank God that you get that job over there at the hotel,” she says, resuming her washing. “You lucky.” She slaps at a mosquito on a varicose-veined leg and begins to hum the words of a hymn she sings at the clap-hand church she visits on Sunday mornings. She does not say another word to me.
Again, I am dismissed.
I turn and walk toward the crumbling little house, with its leaky roof and rickety floorboards, hearing the words of the hymn trembling in the air.
A mighty fortress is our God…
I can see, looming over the roof of the house, the distant hills, brown and parched from the prolonged drought, something that all the Yankee dollars in the world cannot fix. As my mother’s off-key singing fills up the morning, I find myself wondering what I would say if tonight, when she crawls onto the spot beside me on the mat that we share, she asks me how I really made all that money. What would I say?
I think maybe I would close my eyes and picture myself as the girl on the beach in the leopard bikini with two diamonds in my ear. And, above the sound of crickets chirping outside our window in that vast country night, I would tell my mother what she wanted to hear. There in the dark I would whisper, “Ma, the Lord moves in mysterious ways.”