Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bikini Bandit

I'm not just a city person, I'm a New Yorker. Not by birth but by choice. And New Yorkers don't typically just drop in upon one another to visit, or to "give a check," as they say in Jamaica.

We schedule, we plan, we make appointments to do lunch. We keep our guard up and we're cynical by nature. And frankly, when we are cocooned in our apartments, an unexpected knock on the door or, more aptly, a startling ring of the buzzer gives us pause. We glance at one another.

"You expecting someone?"

"Noooooo, not me. You?"

"Nope." Brows furrow.

But when we are in Jamaica, there seems to be an endless stream of folks passing through, dropping in, giving us a check. Only a handful have been given the closely-guarded secret of our arrival date, an even smaller number have actually been invited to come visit us. But many have heard through the sea-grapevine that we are in town and they come, seemingly by the dozens, day after day after day.

I'm a bit of a recluse myself. It's an adjustment.

Don't get me wrong. There are folks I'm delighted to see, to catch up on what they've been up to since we've seen them last. We gossip and laugh about life in yard. True friends.

But then there are the rest.

You know who I mean. You've heard of Empty Nesters? Well I call the unwelcome visitors the Empty Guest-ers. They come empty handed. With empty bellies. And empty wallets. Guess what else is empty? Their schedule! They come to spend the entire day with us, wonderful news, no?

And so it was with Nadine, who knocked on our door early one morning. Still groggy from sleep, I was less than thrilled to find a sullen 15-year-old girl on our doorstep, making the typical Empty Guester announcement: I've come to spend a day at the beach with you.


Well, at least she was alone. But that also struck me as odd. Nadine is usually with her mother Denise, a relative of my husband. I've always liked Denise. She's a hard-working, married mother of 3 and has a full-time job. Denise typically phones us first, asking when she can come and visit us. As you might imagine, that's a huge bonus in my book.

More importantly, Denise has always seemed genuinely interested in just coming by to say hello, to catch up with our family and see how our girls have grown. She wants our children to know one another, to keep the American "cousins" in her children's landscape. She never asks for a thing and never complains about her own struggles. Denise is cool and kind.

So why was Nadine alone on our doorstep? She was suspiciously empty-handed for a full day at the beach, even for an Empty Guester. No purse, no bag, no towel, no change of clothes. Nuttin.

Brows furrow.

I told her we're still getting ourselves up and sorted out. I suggested she could go up to the front and sit at a beach-front table at the Whistling Bird bar while we get dressed.

"Have you had any breakfast yet, Nadine?"

She only raised her eye brows, pouted her lips and shook her head. Ok, I'll make some breakfast and bring it up to a table at the front. The girls will join her in a minute, as soon as they get into their bathing suits.

So I whip up some scrambled eggs and toast and haul a big platter full up to the beach. I see that my girls are sitting alone at a small table while Nadine has planted herself on a tall bar stool, flirting with the bartender.

And drinking a Red Stripe. On our tab.

"Nadine? No more Red Stripe," I say, as she tips the brown bottle up and drains the last of it. "Your mother would hardly be happy to learn that I plied you with Red Stripes while you were under my watch at the beach. You're only 15. No more beer."

She shrugs her shoulders and slips off the bar stool, headed for the eggs and toast. I glare at the bartender, hissing "Juice and soda only, ok?" He starts muttering about Jamaican pickney drink young and it's only Red Stripe and American pickney "jess cyan hangle it like Jamaican pickney dem an'"--- I stop him. "Look, if she's under my care, she's not drinking, ok?" Now the bartender shrugs his shoulders.

After devouring more than her share of the scrambled eggs and toast, Nadine asks for the key to our cottage. She needs to use the bathroom. Sure, I say, handing her the key on the long, blue nylon cord. She turns and strolls back along the sandy path toward our cottage, swinging the key around her finger in big looping circles.

"Mommy, she was drinking BEER!" my oldest daughter whispers. My little one, sitting next to her, is wide-eyed and nodding her head.

"Yeah," I sighed, "I know. It won't happen again. She must just be feeling a little feisty, being down here alone without her parents. But I told her it is NOT permitted. No more Red Stripe for Nadine." My girls look at each other and snort, starting to giggle. Not only is Nadine bold enough to order a beer, stunning in itself, but to put it on Mommy's bill is too much for them to imagine. They are clearly in awe of Nadine, their very first Bad Gyal.

I'm disappointed that I now have a 15-year old to wrangle and entertain all day. I was looking forward to just setting myself up in a quiet corner of the property to draw and paint. My girls, however, are now looking forward to whatever surprises Nadine may have in store of us for the day. I typically dread having a day-long Empty Guester in the first place, nevermind one who clearly was planning to push her teenage boundaries.

Brows furrow.

Nadine returns a few minutes later, handing me the key and slumping down in a chair. She's quiet and clearly bored, considering her options. "Cyan mi haff one pepsi, miss?" she asks. Sure.

She walked over to the bar, got a Pepsi from the bartender and returned to our table. She then announced that she was going to "tek a walk 'pon de beach. Mi soon come." Giving the girls a little wave, she spun on her heel and briskly walked off in the sand, heading up the beach. Part of me thought I should stop her but part of me was relieved that she was gone. After all, she'd gotten to town by herself, clearly she could handle a walk on the beach alone. And clearly she really had no interest in spending the day with an 8-year old and a 10-year old, let alone the American Auntie who wasn't going to buy her any beer.

So now what do I do?

"Don't be too long, Nadine," I rather lamely called after her.

Although not from Negril, she knew this town as well as I did if not better. I figured she'd return by lunchtime. As soon as she was hungry. Still, I felt uneasy. I walked over to the the bartender and asked him if he thought she'd be alright alone. Of course HE saw no problem with her drinking Red Stripes all day, so I don't know why I valued his opinion of the situation. I guess I just wanted to hear someone else say "she'll be alright, nah worry yuhself."

Which is exactly what he did say. And now it was my turn to shrug.

Still, it gnawed at me that she was left in my care and was now cavorting up the beach. I called Denise but her phone went straight to voicemail. I left a message, saying that Nadine had arrived safely and eaten breakfast, but had taken off up the beach. I just wanted to let her mother know that I really didn't feel as if I had much control over her.

Sure enough, by the time lunchtime rolled around, so did Nadine. I don't know what she'd been doing for the past few hours, but she still looked bored. And she was hungry and in need of the bathroom. Clearly we were just the convenient service station for her day at the beach. After serving Nadine and my girls some lunch, she announced that she was ready to go home. And she needed cab fare.

Brows furrow.

"Your mother isn't planning to pick you up?"

"No, miss, she nah leff werk so soon and mi want fi go back a mi yahd." Alright, alright. I gave her the equivalent of $10 U.S., more than enough for a route taxi ride home and a snack for the road. She mumbled a "Tenks,miss," then glanced at the girls, jutting her chin out and up toward them. "Likkle more," she smiled. And she headed up the path toward the gate out to the road. Gone.

It wasn't long after that I got a call back from Denise. She was upset but also embarrassed -- she had never given Nadine permission to come check us at the beach today. In fact, she hadn't seen Nadine for nearly 3 days. "She run off, she a chobble mi so, Veek-toddy-ya. Mi nah know wha fi do wid dat pickney." She shared tales of more-than-typical teenage rebellion, tales that would curl your hair. She was worried and also disappointed to know that Nadine had just slipped through her fingers. If only we had known. I promised we would "hole her dung" and call again if Nadine resurfaced.


After hanging up the phone, I glanced around the cottage and noticed that something just didn't feel right. I went into the bathroom and noticed some small cosmetic items and toiletries were gone or, at the very least, not where I'd left them. And tucked into the corner of the bathroom, rolled up into a ball and stuffed behind the door, was my blue-flowered bikini, soaking wet. It left a large puddle on the floor.

So Nadine had a swim at the beach after all. If she'd asked me if she could borrow a suit I'd have gladly loaned her one; I was annoyed that she'd simply sneaked off into the bathroom and slipped on one of my suits without asking. She then had simply put her own clothes back on over the bathing suit and went to "tek one walk pon de beach." Pretty clever for an Empty Guester.

It soon became clear that Nadine had helped herself to a few more of my things -- a white linen blouse, a black camisole, and a pair of camouflage pants, all of which were now missing. I suppose she didn't steal the bathing suit because it was too wet to stuff into her bag with the other things.

But she had no bag. She was an Empty Guester. No purse, no bag, no towel. How'd she carry off so many pieces of clothing and toiletries?

Brows furrow.

It was much later in the evening that Nadine did resurface. She had, in fact, been carrying a very sizable backpack while on the road for 3 days, and she'd stashed it in the utility bathroom adjoining our parking lot. One of the groundskeepers tipped me off, after spotting her darting in and out of the tiny shack. I found my missing clothing shoved into the bag and dutifully retrieved them, feeling sad and angry.

The Empty Guesters always got under my skin. But I always tried to check myself, to try and put myself in their shoes and be more gracious, knowing that I lived a privileged life in comparison to most people I've met in Jamaica. It's a fine line to walk: am I a sucker if I open my home and my wallet? Am I selfish if I don't?

The Bikini Bandit put me to the test that day. She didn't strike me as a "sufferah", someone plagued by bad luck or bad choices. But what did I really know about her life? Not much. I got my things back, the day hadn't cost me much and I ultimately helped return her to her parents. So now my reclusive shell has become a bit thicker as a result and the other Empty Guesters will have a tougher time when they next cross my path. But it is Nadine who I worry about more, not myself.

Brows furrow.

Bikini Bandit
ink and watercolor on paper
Print available here.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely love this story & painting Victoria. Knowing me the way you do, you know I could not have put up with the situation at least at your age. Maybe now; and then I'm not at all sure. Admiration for you is in order.

Ron Southern said...

How does one know who anonymous may be?