Sunday, April 27, 2008
"Dancehall Queen", 12"x15.5" Mixed Media Collage
The fiery red and orange flames of her tattoo only partially obscured her stretch marks. I stared at her belly, trying to figure out which came first, the baby or the fire.
We'd spent the better part of the morning at Sangster International Airport, waiting for our daughter to arrive on a flight from JFK. She was flying alone, an unaccompanied minor at age 12, and the stress of the day had worn us out. We were tense, anxious and didn't speak much as we sat outside, sheltered from the sun but not the heat. Neither of us dared tempt fate by acknowledging what was in the back of our minds. We just waited, doing the mental calculus of arrival time plus baggage claim plus immigration time plus unforeseen delays plus, plus, plus. Where was she?
When she finally burst through the sliding doors, looking 5 years older than when we last saw her just 3 weeks ago, I started to cry. Delight, joy, relief. Her younger sister and I peppered her with questions -- about her new clothes, her new purse, the flight, the summer program and on and on and on. Her father gave her a silent but strong hug and picked up her bags. You'd think he'd just seen her at breakfast.
We piled into the car, her sister and I chattering away about our stay in Jamaica so far as my husband steered us away from the airport and toward Negril. We'd barely turned off the low road before he said, "Mi wan fi stop and give mi sistah one check. She nevah si di girls dem fram lang time." He made a sharp left off the road and pulled up quickly in front of a squat concrete structure, just yards from the main highway, lonely in the stark landscape of the roadways extending from the airport. The concrete blocks were not rendered, each block and the oozing mortar in between still visible. This tiny oven escaped the direct heat of the midday sun with only a few branches of a single sparse tree, stretching up from the roadside.
Damn. It looked hot in that little house.
"Which sister lives here?" I asked.
"Elaine, mi sista fram mi faddah."
I know that in Jamiaca there are no half-sisters or half-brothers, no "steps" of any kind; if you share a parent, you are sister and/or brother. Case closed. I have to admire the simplicity of that kinship. But I didn't remember ever stopping at this little block house before. I thought I'd met all the siblings on both sides of the family. Perhaps we had met before, another time, another place.
As we spilled out of the car, the girls were obviously not too keen about making a pit stop on the way to Negril and the beach. They glared at me. Before they could speak, a wirey 50-something woman in a flowered housedress, flipflops and a baseball cap quickly met us at the car. Big smiles and "greetings" and "come inside, mon" and "look how dem big!" as she poked and pinched the girls and beckoned us to come inside the house. The girls looked at me, pleading silently to stay in the car and just keep daddy on track. Nope. Not happening. After a long morning at the airport, I was happy to receive a little Jamaican hospitality and followed Sister into her house. "Come ON," I hissed. "This is Daddy's family. This is YOUR aunty. Aunty Elaine. Be polite." They fell in line and trooped inside behind us.
The first room was small, maybe 5x10, windowless and the walls covered from floor to ceiling with framed photographs and yellowing newspaper clippings. A small overstuffed chair and a tiny table were the only pieces of furniture. A large orange and white cooler took up a quarter of the room. Elaine quickly twirled open the combination lock and flipped open the cooler top, digging into the ice to retrieve a red stripe for me and an icy pepsi for each of the girls.
"Mi haffi keep dis cooler lock up," she explained, "or mi pickney dem drink off mi bizness." She swiftly slammed the cooler shut, snapping closed the lock and lead us into the next room. The house was surprisingly cool and dark and we quickly passed through into the dining room, with the small kitchenette visible just beyond.
Well, at least I thought it was the dining room.
Twice as large as the first room, and with both windows and an open door to the alley on the left, it was much brighter. And I saw a round wooden table and a few folding chairs across the far side, just before the entry way to the kitchenette. But as I entered this middle room, I noticed one single bed to my right, pushed up alongside the wall and another full-size bed along the wall to my left. Each bed was occupied. In the middle of the afternoon. Elaine seemed not to notice.
On the bed to my left, a young woman and a young man, both clothed but barely so, lay partially entwined on top of the covers, with a standing fan blowing a cool breeze over their glistening skin. They each looked to be about 17 or 18.
To my right, a young woman in a peach-colored nylon half slip and black lace bra lay alone, also on top of the covers but under the breeze of a second standing fan. She also appeared to be in her teens, her black lacquered hair piled high in wide looping curls and waves, or rather, piled horizontally northward from her forehead. Her huge brown eyes opened slowly and she gazed briefly at this procession of strangers entering her dining room-cum-boudoir. Then she turned over and went back to sleep.
"Wek up, wek up," shouted Elaine. "A your uncle dis, an unno cousins fram farrin. Cho! Wek up! Wek UP!"
The pair in the other bed, sat up abruptly, wiping the sleep from their eyes and giving us weak smiles, inaudible hellos. "Dis a mi likkle son, Norris an' 'im girlfren Tameekah," beamed Elaine, as she headed toward the stove in the kitchen. "Siddung, siddung," she smiled, pointing to the dining table. The girls and I each took a seat around the table and I found myself just inches away from the peach slip and the black bra.
That's when I noticed the tattoos.
A dozen crude, quivering orange flames crept up her belly, from beneath the elastic top of her slip, rising to tickle the bottom edge of her bra. And intersected with the stretch marks along the way. I'd never seen anything quite like it.
"A dat me big dawta, Cherine, " Elaine smiled, as she brought heaping plates of fried chicken over to our table. "Git up, git up Cherine! A yuh likkle cousins dis. Cousins fram New Yahrk. Git up, Cherine!" Cherine began to stir. "Watcha, see how dem pretty an tall! " Elaine smiled even wider as she touched my little daughter's hair. "Dem pretty an nice, " she clucked. And then, of course, the requisite question, "When yuh gwan have one bwoy?" My husband just smiled and stepped outside for a smoke.
To my left, Cherine slowly sat up, swinging her bare legs over the side of the bed. The flames collapsed slightly under the rolls of her flesh. She gave a glimmer of a smile as she glanced at me, and then broadened her grin as she saw her two cousins. She jutted her chin out and up toward them. "Dem sweet and pretty, eeeenh?" My girls didn't quite know what to say. They began to feign extreme interest in the chicken in front of them, trying not to look at the lady in her underwear staring at them.
Cherine was quite pretty, a browning with huge black eyes. She didn't much resemble Elaine, who had a very dark complexion, a broad nose and a cramped face. Cherine's face was a broad smooth oval, with full pale lips and a hint of India in her features. This effect was heightened by the prominent placement of a small brown beauty mark smack in the middle of her forehead, a permanent bindi. I introduced myself and the girls.
"Mi haff one dawta," said Cherine, reaching toward the headboard of her bed and retrieving a framed photograph of a little girl in a sundress. As I began to talk to Cherine, drawing her out, I learned that she was older than I thought, 24, her little girl was 8 and that she was a dancer. A professional dancer.
Well I know what that means when I hear it back home. A "professional dancer" typically does not dance on a stage but on a pole. I hoped that wasn't what Cherine did for a living but the lingerie and the tattoos gave me pause. And who was I to judge?
"Show dem, Cherine, show dem how you gwan an wine. Play dem one video," shouted Elaine from the kitchen. Cherine smiled broadly now and nodded. At the foot of her bed, a small table held a portable tv, a dvd player, a haphazard stack of dvds and what appeared to be a clump of hair on a small molded plastic hat stand. Cherine saw me staring at the peroxide-colored lump. It appeared to be a taxidermy project gone awry.
"Dat a mi wig", explained Cherine, "fi when mi werk." I glanced at my girls, who hadn't said a word, their eyes wide. Cherine shuffled through the dvd's, consulting with her brother Norris in rapid fire patois before selecting a favorite and inserting it into the player. Norris pointed the remote at the player from across the room and a grainy image filled the screen. Despite the flashy cover on the dvd box, this hardly appeared to be a professional production. More like a home movie.
The scene appeared to be an outdoor night-time gathering, the dusty ground enclosed by broad 7-foot high swaths of rusty zinc, yellow bare bulbs throwing spots of light onto the small crowd. The muted bass beats of the music strained to be heard through the television's tinny speakers, a soft babble of conversations in the background. "A dance party, dat," smiled Cherine. "A dat where mi werk."
The camera panned a cluster of young women, slowly swinging their hips, staring down into the dirt, clutching their drinks and looking bored. One-by-one they seemed to take their turn as the star for the camera, stepping forward and stepping up their game. What little clothing they wore was tight and brightly hued, a variety of gem-colored halter tops, mini skirts, and vinyl boots. Their overly-styled hair was black, blue, pink and blonde, with manicures to match.
And then we saw Cherine. Compared to the rest of the crowd, she was modestly dressed in low-slung tight white bermuda shorts with a white mesh midriff top. Her peroxide wig was in place, looking much more like a regal headdress than it appeared on its stand in her bedroom. She wore knee-high gladiator-style sandals and began to prance and strut, pausing only to grind and wine as the camera tilted down toward her hips. Norris and Elaine hooted and clapped. Cherine looked at me and smiled broadly, nodding. I smiled back, saying "wow, that's amazing, you look fabulous."
I glanced again at my girls who looked bored and unbelieving. How could this possibly be someone's job? "Deh pay mi a munny fi dance, seen?" Cherine told me, clearly proud of her work. And within seconds, the camera had moved on to another young woman and Cherine stepped back into the cluster of other dancers.
A saucy dancer with long brown extensions, wearing a denim mini skirt and emerald metallic halter, filled the frame.
She shimmied fast and furiously and stared provocatively out of the TV. As the camera moved into her face, it slowly tilted down her body, closing in on the vibrating mini skirt which now filled the screen and and seemed to rise up with each shake of her hips. Suddenly, her legs widened and the skirt flew completely up. Uh oh, I thought, here comes the snapping of the thong, the flash of the silky panties.
Except that she wasn't wearing any.
Nuttin. Not a thong, not a g-string. Just the glorious body that god gave her. And completely shaved.
Norris hooted again, Elaine laughed loudly while Cherine scrambled for the remote, smiling but trying to fast-forward through the dvd. Now the bald punanny shimmied and shook at double-speed. I don't know which was more unsettling.
I looked quickly over at my previously-bored daughters. Horrified doesn't quite capture it. Now they simply stared at one another, speechless, afraid to look directly at the tv for another second. My youngest wouldn't make eye contact with anyone, only staring into the face of her older sister, looking for guidance on what to say and what to do. I smiled at my 12-year old when she looked over at me. She didn't look 5 years older any more; she looked much younger, pleading silently with me again to just "go".
I had to agree that perhaps it was time to make a move.
Posted by VH McKenzie at 8:26 PM