Oct/Nov 2007   Travel

I Promised I Wouldn't Write

by Fernando Morro Emerson

I promised I wouldn't write. I look at the ocean and watch the bow cut into the water. When the spray throws arcing rainbows, I grin. When flying fish launch from the wake, I call out to my wife.


Some say that the superstitions of the Bermuda triangle are due to the circular currents of the region. We take the ship's elevator to the top deck, ten stories above the water, and it is easy to see the currents stretching for miles, a contrast of smooth curls against the beaten blue. I have read about this Sargasso Sea that mariners once feared would trap, and I see what looks like the edge of a sandbar stretching for miles. A middle-aged woman tells her husband she thinks she sees land, but I know she does not. We are two miles above anything solid. At seventeen knots we overtake and parallel the strand. We see the Sargassum rise and fall on the four-foot swells, and the lady tells her husband she realizes it's the golden weed on the water.


I wonder how I will describe the water if I do decide to write. It is as sharply rippled as the thin, desiccated skin of an old woman. Under this radiant foil of rippling creases, beneath the trailing spray that erupts into white rose bouquets and petals and ringlets, there lies a desert. In the Sargasso Sea, this warm clear loupe of life glides over a lifeless Sahara.


When we arrive in Bermuda, my wife tells me she wants to dive the wreck of the Vixen. She is twenty-nine, a fitness trainer who worked with me through stretches and weight training only six years ago, and me, two decades on her age. Three years ago I would have swum to the Vixen with her. I can't today because my lungs are becoming desiccated, and me with them. Day to day life has been manageable, but diving in the warm clear water is a reality that will never come again.


"Go and enjoy. I'll meet you when you're done," I tell her. "We'll have dinner and drinks, and you will tell me all about it."

"I wish you could go diving with me, sexy," she says.

"Me, too. But I have some other plans."

"What will you do?"

"I'll go to church." I laugh.

"Seriously, I wish you could go diving with me."


I put on the motorcycle helmet. The South Shore Road edges the long sweeping curves of the cliff. The edge drops away in lush greenery, sloping down 70 or so feet to horseshoe coves of cream colored sand and coral bastions jutting heroic from the sea. I am astride a pathetic motor scooter. The engine detonates with a high-pitched buzz, but it is sporty and sleek and more than suitable for the island's speed limit of thirty-five. A powerful motorcycle passes me on the right, a young black rider in a hurry. My lungs burn and squeeze despite my medications. I struggle for the next fulfilling breath, and it comes. I open the throttle, and soon I am leaning into the curves along the cliff, doing fifty. I don't know if it's 50 miles per hour or 50 knots but it feels good to be in the open air. In a half-hour I see the small sign for the Elbow Beach Hotel, and with a few lashing turns, I am in a tiny parking lot for bikes. I shut off the engine and remove my helmet. It is quiet and hot. I walk in a garden, through an arch of stone, down a flight of steps, and under the cantilevered confection that shades the rotary to the lobby. A dark man with thick legs wrapped in Bermuda shorts, wearing a white shirt and a white pith helmet, opens the door for me. I am in time for high tea.


"Which tea do you prefer, sir?" the waiter asks me.

How the hell should I know? I am an American on a British island. I look at the menu of teas and then gaze around. The only other guests are two elderly women. One is an American by her accent, with coifed white hair and French Riviera sunglasses.

"Darjeeling," I say to the waiter, because the menu says it comes from the Himalayas and that appeals to me as exotic. The whole ritual includes scones, jams, and tiny crustless sandwiches——it is all new to me.

I've seen the hotel in an issue of Architectural Digest and have come with a professional interest to see for myself. The view from atop the cliff is the airbrushed blues of sky and the dry brush sparkle of sea, framed by tall pines whose pointed tops have been snapped and flung by the last hurricane. The waiter drops the white napkin like a parachute across my lap. Every piece of linen is linen, and the silver is silver. The chairs and tables have wicker accents. The public spaces are rich in colonial elegance, the easy chairs carved with pineapple-shaped legs, and the walls hung with old nautical paintings in gilded frames.


An elderly British woman half reclines on a couch. Her voice is wispy and delicate. Agatha Christie comes to mind because I don't know any better.

"It's not like it used to be, Joseph," she says to a brown man in a hotel executive's sport coat. He has a great, round belly.

"No madam, not like it used to be."

"How long has it been, Joseph?"

"I've been working here 45 years, madam."

"Forty-five years," she considers. "They are going to build more condominiums, I hear."

"Yes, madam. More condominiums."

"How do you feel about that, Joseph?"

"Well, madam. They say it's the future."

"But how do you feel about it, Joseph?" She pleads with a gentle, patrician tone. Joseph ponders for awhile.

"It's not like it used to be, madam."

"No, Joseph." She says wearily. "It's not like it used to be."

I know the hotel hasn't turned a profit in ten years because the oil sheikh who owns it holds himself to her standard. We are, after all, isolated in the Atlantic, 650 miles from anywhere.


The motor scooter ride back is more satisfying. It's the tea, I think. It's for the soul, like my espressos in New York City are for the blood, and I drink in every precious view. Every roof is gleaming white. The roads are edged with fragrant oleander, frangipani and hibiscus. The islanders have planted thoughtfully. I ride along now at sea level, only feet from the water. Empty boats bob at anchor. I cross a small drawbridge with a crumple of timbers. It is only a few feet wide and allows sailboat masts to pass.


Too late to signal, the engine pops like ripping canvas as I yank into a dangerous right turn. A local taps his horn without anger. I've heard they take tender care with the lost and foolish. The bike shoots into the blind entrance, scrambling up a hill on a road through the woods. The banyans and cedar trees open to a clearing that overlooks from a high bluff the world as Bermudians know it. I stop, straddle the bike with my feet on the ground, the engine idles, and I am alone on these 40 acres of hilltop. The view is of interconnected islands and bays dotted with boats.


"Promise me you will spend the time with me," she has asked. "Promise me you won't write on this trip."

We're so far away from the distractions of our real life, but with my journal and pen, I'm breaking my promise.


Mark Twain said he wanted to go to Bermuda rather than heaven when he died. I shut off the engine. In front of me stands a cross over ten feet high, two long pieces of weathered driftwood with the longer vertical spar staked into the sloping ground. My footsteps crunch over the gravel as I walk to the tiny white cottage built before the year Sixteen-Hundred and Twenty. The screen door bangs behind me, and I'm alone in a cool white stone room as large as a common bedroom. Weathered beams above my head cross a pitched ceiling. There are three rows of wooden pews and an altar with a crucifix on it. Beside the altar, a doorway leads to a kitchen barely wide enough for two people. A back screen door leads to the cistern on the grounds. I sit on one of the pews before the altar and then slide to my knees.


"I've not thanked you for saving my life a few years ago," I tell my God. "For letting me outlive every published statistic. I asked for your help so often in that first year, but since I've survived, I've lost you in my heart. Since that time, in my pain, I've scorned my beliefs and filled myself with bitterness. It was the price for survival, I understand now, but today, I'm far enough outside myself that I can say to you, thank you for this time, however short, because the breaths come harder and harder more frequently. I'm afraid the end will be slow, and I don't want that, but I'm not sure I want it fast, either. I'll only think about today. Thank you for today."

I get up and move to the counter in the kitchen. There's paper and pencils to write a request for a prayer, for the Gregorian chants that will take place in this chapel in an hour or so. I write on the paper:

Michael Conrad

I don't explain that he is my troubled son whom I missed growing up. He's fifteen now. Still with his mother, and she is disillusioned with me even though happily remarried. She is an heiress and doesn't feel the need to return my calls. I will not be there for my son, and that is a greater pain than my cancer. It may become his greatest pain, too. He doesn't know. I slip the request with a $20 bill into a slot in the counter, then leave.


I ride through the arched entrance of the ancient fortress wall of the Royal Naval Dockyard. I see our ship, a wedding cake of stacked decks. I also see the dive boat that my wife is arriving on, churning across the bay. I drive past the clock tower, follow the route around the grassy lawns, and goose the throttle between the old, slave-built storehouses. I want to be there when the boat touches dock.


She is up and down on her toes with enthusiasm. Her voice is a continuous, clear current in the chatter that surrounds us. I am listening and smiling. She has swum with a bearded barracuda, seen through that warm, clear loupe the ossified ribs and decaying remnants of a wreckage strewn under 30 feet, four miles from shore. The fish have swirled around her, enveloped her in their curiosity, and nipped at her colorful bikini. She has held on, jostled by the rough chop on her return. Her auburn hair is wet and matted slick, her brown eyes sparkle with strands of Sargasso gold, and her shoulders are freckled, toasted by the sun. She has been on an adventure. She is breathless with excitement. I am breathless, too, and breathless for her.


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