GONE TO COME BACK
// R Des Jardins
Last month we crossed the divide.
As of now, I’ve lived longer in the States than home.
I’m still a Caribbean kid.
Still defined by a childhood salt-caked and rusted, spent at the beach, on boats, tripping over the round, worn cobblestones of Christiansted in my sweaty school uniform. Stretching through the thorns for yellow limes. Picking papaya, mango, guava, guinep. Eating tart tamarinds and sour passionfruit by the dozens until our teeth hurt to the touch. Shimmying up a coconut tree before breasts made it impossible and twisted heavy jelly nuts until they dropped into the sand with a muted thud.
By the time I got my license, I knew to always have a machete and bikini in the car.
I was prepared to pick fruit, cut bush or suddenly swim.
Those days, I drove through the smell of weed and rum and ocean, surfing the breeze with my arm out the window. There was the sound of waves, the flute of quelbe and bass of reggae. Tremendous steel pan troupes shook my chest. Bawdy calypso songs and someone spinning me around to merengue, salsa.
Everyone’s parents were so brown and drunk and beautiful, and the kids were off on their own—ever covered in sand, sticky with fruit. You could spot their quick limbs over there, sharp angles splashed through the sea, bodysurfing until the reef made them bleed, following stingrays for mesmerizing hours, hiding up in a fort in a rubber tree where they would roll the soft sap into balls that hardened to bullets, covering dried coconuts in mud so the red ants would come and create firebombs. Cousins chased me with live lobsters they caught or bleeding fish still on the spear. Uncles were everywhere, their leather sandals slapped, mustaches scratched, they grabbed me to dance the second they saw me and everyone else on island just blurted out “Bish-OP!” when they drove past.
“L’il Bishop!” They yelled when I was alone, because they couldn’t remember my name or whose child I was, but they knew I was part the big Bishop clan. I swelled with pride at my mom’s fun family. I wished I had her name instead. I gave it out when I introduced myself to wrinkled Crucians who stooped down to hear me.
“Ruby? Who you be?”
“...I’m a Bishop.” Which meant, I am someone. I may be blonde, but I belong here.
I flew away for college in Boston. There, it looked like I stepped into a photo negative—all at once the people I passed were pale and the sky around them dark. Even blondes were suddenly a dime a dozen. At parties, I spent my memories like so much spare change, exploiting my newly exotic hippie childhood for cocktail conversation. I told tales of those infancy naps in baskets under bars while my parents crooned country and calypso from stools in the corner— a little something for every kind of drunk. When we got too long-legged to fit beneath the bar, there were sleeping bags rolled out in the back of the truck, so my brother and I could crawl into a bed while they worked songs late into the night. We would wake up to stars racing past, and played a silent game of trying to tell from the sways of road and the trees curved over us exactly when we were almost home.
When the parties were over, I'd shiver through the city. My dozens of seventies sweaters, thrifted on island, layered like I’d seen in magazines, were not winter’s match. I lost the sunshine, studied away my accent. My hair turned dark, and when I returned home for the holidays folks didn’t recognize me on the street. My hands became permanently numb from the endless ice—glasses slipped through my fingers and smashed. All around me was sharp broken glass—sharp, not smoothed by the sea like the treasures I’d collected. I felt my body floating away. The winds whipped between buildings and whispered ill wishes. It tried to knock me adrift, but I still had an anchor. I had nowhere else is home. I had people who stayed where they were planted. I had my born-and-raised mom and all her sunburnt brothers. I had my dad who ran the crab races and walked barefoot through the streets. There was a place and people I could always return to, relax into.
I’d been exiled before.
Right after I turned nine, after Hugo ripped through our house.
After a night in my bottom bunk with bookcase and card table held close to ward off glass flying through where the windows had been. In the morning there were sailboats piled up in the streets, pieces of our porch in a friend’s pool far away and an astonishing blue sky where the roof had been. “All those records,” my mom moaned as we surveyed the swirl of vinyl, drywall and broken furniture before us.
Hugo took the leaves from the trees and the music from where my house once stood.
So instead, we sang. For two weeks we harmonized as we mucked through what was left, from sun-up until the mosquitoes came out. Then, with no house or a school left, they sent my brother and I off to live with some family in Vermont. There we saw snow and skied for the first time and in social studies we learned about immigrants and they pointed to me as their real-life refugee. And I was never warm. At night on the mattress on the floor, I silently listed everyone I missed and cried myself to sleep.
Now I sleep in the States by choice—in this cold city I picked. I survive hurricane season in my own way. I get a salted rim the way my father did, claiming tequila made his guitar ring smarter—lick it and think of the sea and family. I ride a bike to soar through the streets the way we did in the time of star baths in the back of a pickup truck. I sharpen the machete by my bed, stay stronger than storms, ready myself for seasons. As home enters the third month without power, I turn off the lights and remember that I lived through the eye and came out the other side.