|Jan/Feb 2012 Fiction|
I was in a foul mood that whole holiday season. The gallery was insane. The major artist I was promoting for the December show went off his meds, whatever concoction of antipsychotic drug cocktails he was being fed. Did he become manic, round the clock productive? Of course not. He tucked himself into the fetal position at the back of his closet, clutching a blanket and wanting to die. I convinced him, after gentle, loving coaxing failed, that I was not only going to kill his sorry ass if he didn't paint, I was going to hurt him really, really badly. This was effective motivation for a paranoid schizophrenic. He got it together and gave me a stellar showing, even though I had to babysit him 24/7. I gave him two blue bombers before the opening so that he wouldn't tremble at the sight of me. We sold every piece, beautiful neo-surrealism, very painterly in the tradition of the Flemish masters. They possessed an ethereal fear and alienation that clients just couldn't get enough of. I should have never slept with him the night of the opening, though.
I had only a day to deal with Christmas preparations. By this time I was not only a bitch on steroids, but a jet propulsion steam roller ready to kill anyone who blocked my way. I smoked a joint in the car and downed two Bloody Marys at brunch before grabbing sales clerks and ordering them to wrap whatever was on the manikins in the store windows. I motored to the book and music stores for stocking stuffers and pushed the wavering prevaricators out of my way. I don't understand people who can't make decisions. I wrapped the last few presents at my apartment and headed for LaGuardia.
My mother and sister Sherry were already engaged in enemy combat when I arrived at my parents' dilapidated Tudor in Des Moines. If previous behaviors were any indicator, it would only be about five minutes before doors slammed and tears began to flow. I ignored the drama and concentrated on the silver Christmas tree, turning different colors as the color-wheel spun. I really needed to go to the bathroom, but the hall bathroom door was locked. I suspected my brother Christopher (we are strictly prohibited from calling him Chris) had barricaded himself in there to eat Christmas cookies unnoticed.
My dad had taken Wendy, their ancient poodle with bad teeth and breath, to Petsmart to buy her another Christmas doggie outfit, because the one mom bought was fake gold lamé. Dad proclaimed it made it her look "slutty." My sister's demon spawns hurtled through the house ringing bells from Mom's Christmas collection, which she had displayed on the sideboard ever since I was a little kid. Sherry is the only person I've ever known whose decision to stay home with the kids was truly detrimental to their well-being. I cracked open a miniature from the plane and downed a Quaalude in my old bedroom. When I reemerged, Mom started lamenting that Christopher and I needed to start our families: "Please Muffin, before it's too late." I told Mom she might consider facing the fact that Christopher and I weren't going to be breeders. She really had no idea how much work and courage it took to go to New York, not knowing a soul, and then to start and maintain a successful business.
Christmas day went pretty well by our standards. I guess I had had too many of my numbing, shopping remedies by the time I wrapped my stocking-stuffers and departed for Des Moines. I accidentally gave Mom a Buddy Guy CD. She usually listens to gospel and that Reader's Digest kind of classical music with shit like "Clair de Lune." My brother Christopher put on Buddy and my mom asked, what in the Sam Hill is that? Somewhere, someone I know has, no doubt, opened Gospel Greats and wonders if it's really cool to listen to "How Great Thou Art," especially if they consider me an infallible tastemaker. Sherry started crying during dessert and told mom she never valued her. A carefully rehearsed soliloquy followed. Mom dramatically folded her napkin, pushed back the dining chair and took to her bed for the remainder of the day. I heard Christopher rummaging through the cookie tins in the kitchen. I had lied and told him he looked fabulous since he started Jenny Craig. Last night he was crying in his room when I knocked to ask if he had any sleeping pills. He just sobbed and said, "I am so lonely." I held Christopher a long time. I worried what might become of him. Dad and I discussed Wendy's medical problems, which were considerable now that Dad had bought doggie health insurance. One of Sherry's demons screamed, "Mom, Robbie's trying to stab me in the eye with a pencil!" I retired to my room and prayed the numbing Gods would deliver me from this disturbing scene.
The only thing that kept me from insanity and murder this whole month was the knowledge that I would be back in the Caribbean soon. I left the smoking, scorched earth of my family battleground in Iowa and started my epic journey to the island of Bequia, where I would spend a few days in seclusion and then sail to Mustique for New Year's Eve. The brochure was always in my blazer, coat, or robe pocket. I touched its crisp edges when the artist threw a fit, when mom pleaded with me to find a nice man, when I stepped in Christopher's cookie crumbs in the bathroom and had to brush off my feet before I crawled back in bed. I envisioned myself sitting by the rock pool on a remote, idyllic hillside of a converted sugar plantation overlooking a brilliant aqua bay.
The place was remote. I flew from Des Moines to Miami, Miami to San Juan, where my luggage disappeared into a black hole and turned up on my doorstep late in the spring, and San Juan to Barbados, where I boarded a plane only to find Robert Plant sitting across the aisle. He was quite talkative and funny. There was a smashed bitch that got on our plane by mistake, and when the flight attendants ushered her off, he started saying, "Stiff upper lip, stiff upper lip." Actually, I was really disappointed. If fame and fortune can't buy you off of a crowded Liat flight, what is it worth? That was the Barbados to St. Vincent flight. In St. Vincent I took a ferry to the island of Bequia (where Robert Plant was also staying).
My room was beautiful, with rustic stone walls and floors from the old carriage house. The plantation shutters were flung open to allow the Conde Nast Traveller view of the bay from the long terrace. Mosquito nets hung above the bed. Fuchsia hibiscus flowers were placed in conch shells. There was a bottle of island rum on the bureau. I poured a glass and rolled a joint with the ganja I had scored from a native at the docks named Lennox. "Lennox," he said, "like china." My cell phone declared there was no service, and I blissfully slept the afternoon away.
When I woke, it was late and I needed to scurry to make dinner. I turned on the shower and held my hand under the nozzle waiting for it to heat up. Christ, no hot water. I shivered, alternately sticking one leg or arm in at a time, and Miss Sassy only got a cursory washing. I had no clothes, so I chose my black knit pajamas from my carry-on bag, thinking if I wore lots of jewelry to dinner, no one would know. I started putting on makeup and noticed something enormous and black swooping in the room. The dark shadow started aiming for my head, and I realized it was a bat! Then six black wings buzzed me in the bathroom as I screamed and grabbed the bedside lamp and swung fiercely into the air trying to kill them. Finally, after chasing them away from my person, and in the process destroying the lamp, they casually roosted at the pyramidal apex of the ceiling and dangled from the rafters, illuminated by the scant glow of the nightlight.
I panicked and ran down the path to the plantation, stumbling over a tree root and scraping my knee. I found the proprietors instructing the servants on dinner. I conveyed my plight as calmly as possible—even though I was close to hyperventilating—to Lijsbet, the owner, and she coolly told me the bats were harmless and normal. She went on to say that the water here was solar heated, which I inferred was synonymous with unheated. She introduced me to her gaunt husband, Pietrer, who she informed me was an Afrikaner and spoke little English. I felt sure that, Afrikaner or not, he could bloody well speak English but chose not to. He coldly nodded and walked away, and then she turned her back on me. I was shocked. (Usually these Caribbean hideaways are run by garrulous, lovably drunken British expats named Enid and Nigel. They tell colonial stories, sail in regattas, and the men dress in drag, dance in the carnival parades, and steadily down gin and rum.)
Our dinner consisted of a watery stew that I suspected was comprised of local goat and soggy plantains. I drank heavily to endure it all, and the strange crowd, which included a sad looking German couple, two gay Greek men from New York, and Jorgen, a plump Danish businessman who was with a very young, blond Russian who really didn't look quite legal. It was then I gleaned that not only had the management of this place changed, but the beautiful people don't come here anymore. I left dinner and snaked my way down the hairpin turns, precipitously close to plunging cliffs, searching for the local "jump-up" in the dark.
I was looking for a specific bar rumored to serve Shroom Tea. I asked the proprietor, Presley, who was talking with a tall man wearing sunglasses and long dreadlocks, if the rum punch was good.
"Excellent," he said. I asked the guy with the dreads what he was drinking.
"Presley's Island Tea. It's very good, mon. It's got lots of island herbs and spices. Very refreshing." He smiled with gleaming white teeth. His name was Clinton. I could see myself in the mirrored lenses of his glasses. Christ, I had forgotten that I was wearing my pajamas.
"What is your name, beautiful lady," said Clinton, the smooth lady's man.
"Marskilo," he said. I corrected him at least ten times but finally accepted that for the duration of this conversation, I was Mars Kilo. The local band returned to the stage, and Clinton asked me to dance on the sand dance floor. While I was dancing, I noticed a couple of things. Clinton had not had a bath in some time. I couldn't keep my eyes off my reflection in Clinton's mirrored glasses. I was enthralled watching myself sway to the reggae pulse. We must have been dancing for days. I was tripping.
"Clinton, are there any exotic mushrooms in Presley's tea recipe?" Clinton just gave me his big, Miss America smile again.
"Clinton, this is going to be a very good night."
The resort brochure I received praised the beautiful songs of the island birds one would wake to. I awoke before dawn to screeching that sounded like a mass murder being committed in the trees by the terrace. I stumbled out of bed and tripped on someone's big shoes. My heart sunk for a moment as I considered it might be Clinton, then saw a blond head turn on the pillow. The bird shrieked again, and I fumbled with the pack of European cigarettes.
"Arrrkkkk-ooooww," came another blood curdling cry. I dug in my bag for Advil and threw the big shoe at the tree.
"Arrrrkkkk-ooowowowooww," the bird fiercely replied, flapping its wings. I jumped back in the room.
"Get me off this fucking island."
"That's what I am here to do," said the blond head, rising from the pillow. Usually I would have confessed that I had been in a drugged, alcohol-soaked state and asked him to leave, but this guy was really hot, and he was saying the words I wanted to hear. My body winced with a second wave of throbs, this time emanating from my knees and palms. I recovered the memory of us screwing doggie style for hours on the shore, him behind on bended knees, upright and swigging from a bottle of rum as the first gray wisps of light colored the horizon. I had spied a bent and ancient man rocking on his porch, gnarled hands clasped tightly on the edge of the armrests. I guess the harbor natives usually have to pay their local satellite provider extra for this kind of visual.
The blond walked over and rubbed my shoulders. "Remember, I have a sailboat, and I am taking you to Mustique," said the heavily accented Swede voice. I looked at the blue eyes, the perpetually sunburned nose of a Nordic who didn't belong in the tropics, the boyish charm that had made me want to perform nasty acts with him all night long.
"Why don't I get us some coffee? You can pack and settle things with Lijsbet," he said.
What was his name, something English, began with an A... Arnie, I think? He probably had one of those names with lots of those double As and funny looking Os that are twenty letters long and that no one could pronounce. Arnie quit rubbing my shoulders and started dressing. He walked toward the terrace and flashed a killer smile at me. "Has anyone seen my other shoe?" He walked in the direction of the squawking bird. This was going to be a good day.
Arnie and I had a beautiful lunch of grilled lobster on a terrace that looked over the harbor. We walked down hill to the docks, went down into the cabin of the sailboat, and I stowed my things. I felt Arnie's arms come from behind and reach around my waist. I turned around, and we kissed. He pulled his shirt over his head and asked, "Do you want to smoke a joint?" Everyone has such bourgeois habits these days. Can't anyone just fuck anymore?
He went home to get clothes and for a run to the liquor store. Luckily I had packed a bikini in my carry-on. I changed into the swimsuit and grabbed my book and sunglasses. I lay down on the forward deck and started rubbing on suntan lotion. I could see Arnie running down the hill waving his hands frantically.
"Mars! Mars!" Arnie flew down the hillside like Satan was on his heels.
"It's Marcella," I said, grudgingly accepting my island name.
"Mars Kilo, you've got to get out of here. Now!" Arnie started grabbing my things and throwing them down to the dock. "My wife is here! She and the kids were supposed to be in Stockholm."
"Arnie, where am I supposed to go? Lijsbet had someone who wanted my room. I don't have anywhere to sleep. It's the holidays, for God's sake. You can't just throw me off!"
"Mars just get off the boat. My kids are here and my wife is very jealous. Come to the harbor master's office with me. We'll find you a charter." I followed a frantic Arnie to the office. I sat outside while he made calls. Arnie came out of the office and approached my bench. He said he thought he had one, but he needed to go over in person to ask.
Fifteen minutes later Arnie returned with a tall, oddly dressed man of about sixty. He looked like a sun-dried stick of beef jerky. He had wild white hair, fanatical blue eyes that seemed slightly askew, a long scraggly beard, and ragged clothes that made him look as if he had washed up here after surviving a shipwreck. I didn't like the look of him.
"Arnie, may I have a word with you in private?" I pulled him back into the office. "That guy looks nuts. I don't want to be alone with him."
"Mars, he is the only sailboat that isn't booked in the islands. He's okay. His name is Helmut. He's an odd duck, but I promise you he is safe. I'll meet you in Mustique. My wife will be heading to her parent's house on St. Vincent for the New Year. It's just for the night." I followed Arnie out of the harbor master's office.
"Mars, this is Helmut."
I shook a calloused hand. "Helmut, I want you take good care of Miss Mars on the way to Mustique." I reluctantly boarded the ragged boat. Helmut took down his laundry from the line and went below. He came back with sails and started rigging them. We finally set off across the water. Helmut never uttered a word. I thought I'd try to get the ball rolling.
"How long have you been sailing, Helmut?"
"All my life," said Helmut gruffly. I have sailed around the world by myself two times. I plan to do it again." He sunk into silence again.
"Isn't that dangerous? How do you do that?"
"You do have to watch out for pirates. They'll try to board. I guess going around the Horn and the Cape are the worst, and the Southern Ocean is unpredictable. You miss sleep when you're on the ocean in the shipping lanes." Silence.
"What do you do?"
Helmut pulled at his beard. "You can only sleep twenty minutes at a time or you might get run over by a container ship. You scan the horizon. You never know if they have radar."
"How do you stay awake?"
"I use two alarm clocks."
"Ah, two alarm clocks."
"You can't trust just one Chinese alarm clock, so I use two." Helmet gave me a crafty smile, as if I should be impressed by the keen use of his intellect. Great. Arnie put me in a boat with the Ancient Mariner, who has been sailing around the world for years alone, which means he's some insane misanthrope and is probably sleep deprived to the point of psychosis.
"Will you stay in the Grenadines?" I asked.
"No, since these bloody natives gained independence, this place has gone to shit. These blacks don't know how to do anything. They have ruined these islands."
Let me add racism to Helmut's list of virtues. Usually when faced with an overt racist, I smile and casually add my family is mixed, which is a lie, but it shuts people up quickly. I kept my mouth shut with Helmut. He might have been a Nazi who would exterminate me if I wasn't racially pure.
We had been sailing for four hours. The Ancient Mariner kept tacking back and forth, seemingly getting nowhere. I started calculating if I could swim to Mustique. I swim laps every day. Perhaps I could make it. It was getting dark. I started freaking out. The Ancient Mariner was smiling daftly at the water. His eyes were way too intense. I was starving and thirsty. Helmut apparently wasn't used to receiving guests on his boat.
"Helmut, is there anything to eat or drink on the boat?" The Ancient Mariner looked shocked and descended into the hull, where he busied himself. He came back with a brick of saltines and peanut butter, a pot of tea, and a bottle of rum. He seemed quiet pleased with his sudden burst of hospitality.
"There is only one drink for the ocean," Helmut proclaimed, a little too loudly."Tea with rum! The tea keeps you awake and focused; the rum relaxes you." He poured the tea into a mug and topped it with a generous dose of rum.
I held up my cup in a toast. "To tea with rum."
I really needed to sleep, but I was scared to crash on the Ancient Mariner's boat. God knew what he would do with me. I thought about Hansel and Gretel and wondered if he might try to eat me. After all, he may have had to resort to cannibalism in his adventures on the high seas. I fought back the fear that tugged at my heart as the last of light in the sky waned. I went below and located the Ecstasy I bought from Clinton. This would keep me from sleeping. I looked at the stamp on the pill. It said "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
Mustique was in view, but we didn't seem to be getting much closer. I tried to relax, just be in the moment, sip my tea. I lay on the bow of the boat taking it all in. Everything looked so beautiful. The stars were exhilarating. I yelled from the bow, "I love this water. I love tea and rum!" Helmut was enjoying himself now. He went below and came back with another sail and started changing it. I've sailed many times in the Caribbean and never had anyone change the sails midway. You go, Helmut, live the fucking dream. The Ancient Mariner's the real deal.
We finally sailed into Mustique at lunchtime the next day. I asked Helmut if he ever came here. He hated it. He snarled, "Bunch of rich people." (All the glitterati have homes there; Princess Margaret had one, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Tommy Hilfiger. There are two tiny inns on the island and the rest are private villas. On Mustique they strive to keep the riffraff at bay.)
I was thrilled as I made my way to Basil's Bar, and I couldn't believe who turned around from the bar to smile at me. Arnie.
"There you are."
"I'm pissed, Arnie. You didn't tell me you had a wife. You put me on a boat with that fucking, crazy Ancient Mariner. It took us twenty-four hours to get here."
"Helmut's okay," he said.
"He watched me pee, Arnie! I went to the head, and I could feel eyes on me. He must have a peephole. I said, 'Helmut, I can't pee with somebody watching me. I'm a timid tinkler.'" I could have killed Arnie, but I didn't want to be alone on New Year's Eve. Maybe I should have brought a friend from home. I had thought about it, then quickly realized that I hated all my friends in New York.
I bought a backless sequined mini at a boutique and joined Arnie in the bar for a rum punch. I was so thirsty. I couldn't keep my hands off him. I just had to touch him. He felt so good. Maybe it was just the X talking, but this was going to be a good night.
Mustique was beautiful on New Year's Eve. People had come in from all around, and the harbor was filled with yachts. There was a flotilla where Oprah was hanging. At midnight, fireworks and flares from all the yachts in the harbor shot over the water. Arnie and I hit the dance floor with the crowd. We were dancing to a local song, "Get That Pig off the Floor," when I felt someone shove me from behind. The woman had tears and—worse—that crazy Fatal Attraction look in her eyes. I thought it might be Arnie's wife, but this attacker had a British accent. She pulled a tiny knife from a corkscrew and waved it menacingly through the air. Arnie tried to restrain her, but she attacked him as well, leaving shallow gashes in his skin as if he had been attacked by a child with safety scissors. She threw punches wildly and managed to wallop me several times. Several members of the crowd at Basil's finally subdued her. Arnie suggested we run for his boat because her husband was even crazier than she was. When we got there, Arnie's boat was on fire.
"We've got to get out of here. I know a guy that has a motor launch," he said.
I boarded the boat with Arnie just as dawn was breaking. I tried not to throw up on the choppy seas. I asked, "Where are we going?"
"Who was that woman?"
"Lady Emily," he said. "We had an affair, and she refuses to believe it's over."
"She pulled out a chunk of my hair."
He was quiet the rest of the way. I threw up a couple of times. We came into the harbor and approached the dock. Arnie went to pay the bill. I fought another wave of nausea as Arnie argued about the fare.
"The price we agreed on was $150. Now you think you can charge me twice that?"
"The price was $150 per person," the native said.
"You saw her standing beside me and you told me $150," Arnie shouted. "That's all I am giving you, you crooks."
"$300," the native said emphatically. Arnie threw $150 dollars in his face and walked toward the customs office. I dug out my passport and asked Arnie for my wallet and my lipstick, which I had stowed in his coat pocket the night before. I coated my split lip, hoping to ease the smarting. The boat operator came inside, too, and was talking to a customs official and looking at us. When we went through customs, they searched my billfold and patted me down. They asked Arnie to take off his jacket. As they went through his pockets, my heart sunk. I had stashed a couple of joints and the remaining pills I bought from Clinton in the cigarette box. Arnie was screaming at me as they led him away. I promised to get him a lawyer straightaway. "I'll get you out of jail today," I said. But I freaked out and handed my platinum American Express to an agent and chartered a flight to Martinique, where I boarded the next flight to JFK.
I landed at Kennedy and walked through the veritable United Nations of people clearing customs. They seemed to represent the four corners of the earth. I stepped forward to greet the customs agent.
"Anything to declare?"
There was so much to declare, but I shook my head and tiredly said, "No, this is it. My bags were lost." I was still wearing the sequined mini dress and bruises had formed where the woman had attacked me. One of my teeth felt loose in its socket. I was really crashing from the pills, and I found it hard to keep myself composed.
The cab driver couldn't speak English. I kept slowly repeating my address, and he kept calling on his radio to someone who spoke his language. The more I tried to guide him, the more incensed he became. Probably in his country he would have pushed me down a well for barking orders. I finally insisted he let me out when I was within walking distance of my building.
I walked a long time in the damp, ice-cold air, every now and then a large stray snowflake sailing by. The stars wavered behind flimsy clouds. The closer I got to my apartment, the more emotional I became. I was crying by the time I came to the cathedral. I wandered over by the Nativity scene and sat down by Jesus' manger and shook my head.
"Holy, fucking, shit, Jesus, you've got to help me," I cried. I put my head in my hands. "I promise I'm going to try to be good from now on. I am going to get Arnie a good international lawyer tomorrow. I am going to try to be a better person..."
"Now, there, there, baby, dry those tears." I couldn't believe it, but right there in Jesus' crib sat a black transvestite in a Pamela Anderson wig, swinging a crossed, fishnetted leg embellished with a silver platform shoe at the end.
"Are you Jesus? Oh, God, I'm tripping again, aren't I?"
"Does it really matter, sweet pea? Does it matter if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? The point is that I am here now, and I'm gonna help you get your shit together."
"But why are you dressed like that?"
"I chose a form that would not intimidate you. You're in a bad way, and I don't want you to feel judged right now. Now, you be a love, sweetie, and run across the street and get us some wine and some cups. You look like you need a drink." I started walking across the street. He yelled, "Get white wine. People always give me red, some kind of blood/Jesus thingy. Oh, and a pack of Kool Filter Kings."
Jesus poured the wine, then hit the pack of Kools against His palm before he pulled the string of cellophane and lit each of us a cigarette. I gulped my Dixie Cup straight down, all the while watching Jesus. I inhaled my cigarette down to my toenails. Jesus refilled my cup. "That's better, child."
"Now what's all this about? You always running around going crazy, girl, all mad and nasty all the damn time, drinking like a fish and eating X like candy."
"I don't know. I don't know what happened to me—when I started hating everyone and everything," I said.
"Mars Kilo, always at war with herself and the whole world. Now I know you don't understand my ways, so I'm going to try and break it down for you. You are just about one stunt away from becoming Amy Winehouse." Jesus pointed His cigarette at me after this remark.
"I don't want to go to rehab or die!"
"What I suggest is that you begin by looking around you and seeing what's good. Every day, seek-it-out. What is there to love each day? I also suggest you look for some new friends. That's the biggest bunch of trash I've ever seen, your pack of friends. They may be rich, but they have no value. Last, I think you might feel better if you give back. There is some beautiful art in the Grenadines. Rather than wreak havoc down there, help those people. I want you to bring that art home to New York and promote it in your gallery."
"And that will work? What about Arnie?"
"Let Arnie take care of himself. He's trouble with a capital "T." Do what I suggest, and that will be a start. I have taken the liberty of booking you an appointment with a good therapist, Daniel Goldstein."
"But he's Jewish," I said.
"Baby, Jesus is a Jew."
"I've been such a bad person."
"Yes. But, you've done some good, too," Jesus said. "You gave an associate the gospel album, who regifted it to someone who also regifted it. It ended up in the hands of Brian Eno, and he's producing a reggae-inspired version of "How Great Thou Art." He's negotiating with Bono and The Wailers. So thanks to you, Jesus is getting some good press. Now bow your head while I pray. Child, I grant you grace. Today will be the first day of the rest of your life. Now go in peace to love and serve."
I opened my eyes, and the drag queen Jesus had been replaced by the sleeping baby in the manger. I still considered this the product of too many drugs abused over the holidays until I looked closer at Baby Jesus' hand and saw that it held Dr. Goldstein's card.
I took the card from the infant's hand. As I walked home, the snow turned into a light misting of rain. I thumbed the sharp edge of the business card in my coat pocket, knowing it would keep me safe until I could get help. I gazed at the beautiful skyline of New York through the diaphanous film of the low clouds until the mist turned into rain and washed me, sins and all, away.