We were on the beach when the man approached us, pulling a marijuana plant out of a faded black JanSport backpack. I started to laugh. It seemed like just the kind of ridiculous caricature of a scene from a film set in Jamaica — a bare-chested Rasta man pulling the entire plant out of his bag as though only twenty minutes ago he’d lifted it from where it hung drying in an unused closet in his house. But there we were, and it was really happening. He wanted to sell to us in the aggressive way of Jamaican merchants, so that even though we hadn’t shown any interest in his product, he was pulling it out of his bag and asking how much we wanted. Andrea and Tracy, true to themselves, jumped up and backed away. I’d hoped they’d relax on this trip. Who wouldn’t want to smoke bud in Jamaica? And it was basically being handed to us.
I’d observed from the corner of my eyes the group of dykes sitting close by. One of them had blue dreadlocks, reminding me of a woman I’d hooked up with in New York, Jessica with the emerald hair. But what had fascinated me about her was that though she was Chinese-American, she spoke like a black woman, and it seemed to come naturally to her. We’d sat next to each other at a coffee shop in gentrified Brooklyn and hadn’t talked until she was getting up to leave, and by then there was all this built-up tension. The sex had been mediocre. Besides the woman with blue dreadlocks, there were three others — they were all tattooed and pierced with partially shaved heads, that aesthetic of gay white women. I’d noticed the prettiest one among them — soft butch because of her long brown hair and black bikini — and she had looked away when she saw me looking. The next thing I knew, the dykes were crowded around the Rasta man and me, Andrea, and Tracy were leaving, and afterwards, we were passing a blunt around on a secluded area of the beach as the sun went down. I learned that they were graduate students from Chicago.
“Our friend who used to be gay is getting married to a man,” the one with blue hair explained. Her friends chuckled, but had I imagined that though she smiled, there was something darker behind it?
“I’m here for a straight wedding, too,” I told them. “Tia and I fooled around, but she would never admit that there is a gay bone in her body.”
They clucked knowingly.
They wanted to hear about my life in New York, which made me feel self-conscious. I always wanted to impress queer women, and people tend to have naïve expectations of life in New York. I started talking about a club I’d been to. A woman I’d met on Tinder was DJing, which was how I made it onto the VIP list. All night long, people were saying that the singer Shirley was on the dance floor and it seemed that everyone but me had seen her, until I went to use the bathroom and she held the door open for me. The woman with the blue dreadlocks was actually Mexican-American, so I’d forgiven her the hair offense, until she said, “Who’s Shirley? Sorry, I don’t listen to pop music.”
When the talk of their dissertations and the bliss of the Caribbean sun started to bore me, I got up to leave. But there had been a transcendent moment when the blunt had been in my hand, and I looked around at four other women who were not yet thirty and seemed at peace with something as primal and contentious as desire for other women. I was happy and I was gay, and it occurred to me that both of these things could happen at the same time. “I’ll see you ladies later,” I said, but I was looking at the one in the black bikini. Her name was Jen.
I found Andrea and Tracy eating in the dining room. Andrea had an entire fish laid out in front of her, and Tracy was sipping a thick, fragrant soup. Even though I couldn’t reasonably hold it against them, I was annoyed that they’d gone to dinner without me. I’d only been away for maybe thirty minutes and they were already carrying on without me. I knew that if it had been one of them who was delayed, we’d have waited. But this wasn’t always the case for me. I would do a gay thing, and when I came back both of their faces were posed at me in an ordinary way, but I couldn’t help wondering what they had said about me behind my back.
“You made some new friends,” Tracy said, smiling, but I could see that she was studying me carefully.
“Yeah, they’re from Chicago — they’re graduate students,” I explained. “They’ve also come for a wedding.”
“A gay wedding in Jamaica?” Andrea looked confused.
“No, it’s a straight wedding.”
“Oh, that makes more sense.”
I’d always wanted to go to Jamaica as a tourist — to see the island as an outsider. Who doesn’t want to, at a certain point, be pampered in her own home? It’s why, I suspect, my mother used to ask us to bring her a glass of water even though the kitchen was the next room over, and why she would sit in the bathtub after a long day at work and call one of us to scrub her back. Yet when I told my mother that I was going to a destination wedding in Jamaica, spending all that money for a couple I’d known in Madison when I was in law school, she hissed her teeth and asked if I didn’t have better use for my money. We’d left Jamaica when I was a child, and we’d gone back only to visit family.
But I was optimistic — here was the trip I’d always wanted to take with my friends, and finally it was happening. And I needed to travel. I wasn’t over Allison. After I graduated, she’d moved back to New York with me, but it was all drama with her, the persistent gaslighting and the fact that she was always the victim as no one, not even I, who claimed to love her, could understand her trauma. As a girl, there’d been a man who lived next door, who invited her over affectionately and then forcefully, and it had gone on for years. When she announced that she was moving back to the Midwest, that Brooklyn wasn’t her speed, and that I reminded her of her mother since we shared the same horoscope sign, I hadn’t begged her to stay. I was in love but I was tired.
Tracy and Andrea were both excited about our trip. They were still living in the Midwest pursuing their degrees, and I would call from my apartment in Brooklyn and they would tell me how the college town hadn’t changed — the undergraduates were still plentiful and boozy on a Saturday night, the black eligible men were few — and then they would gush over how lucky I was to be living in New York. And so we all had our separate reasons for fleeing to Jamaica. We looked forward to the buffets of tropical fruit — we would, we pledged, eat mangoes by the half dozen. We wanted to sit by the Caribbean Sea, our legs naked and warmed by the sun. We talked about a man Andrea was interested in — a man in her department who was giving her mixed signals. We talked about a man who’d asked Tracy to dinner but she was unsure whether she was interested. I offered advice. Neither of them asked about my romantic life. Sometimes, I thought they were just no longer interested in our friendship, but then I reminded myself that they’d made a point of keeping in touch. Still, when I hugged them, I would wonder if they felt uncomfortable. I questioned whether they thought I was destined for hell or if I had, in some way, opened up their minds to other ways of living. But really, I had no idea what to think.
When we arrived at the hotel room, although we’d never discussed sleeping arrangements, I noticed that when we sat down to figure out our evening plans, I was sitting on one bed by myself and they were sitting on the other bed. Later that night, they crawled into bed together but I only registered this through tipsy eyes, and so it wasn’t until the next morning that it stung.
Red bougainvillea framed the grounds of the hotel, those prideful flowers, and meanwhile Brian, the best man, lightskinned and pretty, decided in his head that I was interested in him. I could tell that he was the species of black man who believed that he was a catch because he was college educated, hadn’t ever been to jail or sold drugs in the hood, and as far as the world was concerned and fuck the fact that it exoticized him, he had a big dick. A man like that wasn’t about to let a black woman forget that he was her ideal and the fact that his ex-girlfriend, who he had been briefly engaged to, had been a white woman. Over drinks, he tossed his Ivy League education and job in finance my way, mentioning it casually but making eye contact with me every now and then to see whether this information impressed me. All of us who had come for the wedding had met in the bar, reacquainting or meeting for the first time. There were a little over thirty of us, and energy was high because here we were in paradise. Brian was talking about a restaurant he had gone to with an ex-girlfriend, and a few minutes later, Beyoncé and Jay Z were seated at the table next to them. Tracy and Andrea, and Isaiah and Tia, our two friends to be married, as well as everyone else gathered around looked impressed, but I almost rolled my eyes. When I left to get another drink, Mr. Wall Street showed up next to me, flashing his well-attended teeth, and meanwhile I was wondering exactly what it was that he wanted from me. I assumed that it was a little vacation sex because he had the misfortune of traveling to a beautiful locale during the off-season, that he was without a girlfriend, and that the woman he was sleeping with in New York, a pretty little young light-skinned thing or a naïve white girl, couldn’t be taken on the trip without assuming that it meant something more than it was.
“Has anyone ever told you that you could pass for Lisa Bonet’s little sister?” he asked.
I laughed. “Someone once told me that I’m Lisa Bonet with Queen Latifah titties.”
He grinned, taking a long sip of his drink. “Of course, this was before my breast reduction.”
I could tell that he wasn’t quite sure how to respond, so I continued, “Which Lisa Bonet do you mean?”
“Which Lisa Bonet?”
“Yeah. Are we talking Cosby Show Lisa Bonet or married-to-a-Game-of-Thrones-babe-warrior Lisa Bonet?”
He laughed. “I still haven’t seen Game of Thrones. What are you drinking?”
“Pineapple juice with rum.”
“I’ve never had that combo before.”
“Yeah? A woman I dated put me on to it.” He was visibly surprised, which I loved. Some men tried to brush it off as though they’d known all along. I reminded them of their aunts who believed in incense, shea butter, and head wraps — the type of woman who was always less conforming than their mothers, who wore pantyhose to church on Sundays. They admired these aunts, these pariahs and poets who kept relationships and children with men they weren’t married to. But unlike their aunts, I’d gone too far. I liked it best when they couldn’t hold their disbelief, because who were they to assume anything about me? One Jamaican man in Brooklyn, just someone who had approached me on the street, told me, “Yuh too pretty to be wid women.” Brian and I talked for a bit longer, during which he asked the obligatory question of whether I also dated men, and when I said that I no longer did, I could see that his interest waned and he scanned the room to see who his other options were.
He was gone by the time Tia showed up next to me. “So Brian found out that you don’t date men, huh?” We laughed and turned to look at the other woman he was now in the process of wooing — a cousin of Tia’s with long extensions, who was wearing one of those extraordinarily low-cut dresses that small-breasted women can get away with. I’d had a crush on Tia when we were in law school together. She had a way about her that made it seem like she slept with women. I’d even assumed that much until she introduced me to her boyfriend when I bumped into them on campus. One night after we shared two bottles of wine, the both of us newly single and commiserating, I dared myself to tell her that when I first met her I thought that she was gay and that I had had a crush on her. We’d laughed about it as though it was a silly thing I’d said because I’d had too much to drink. But then a few weeks later, before Tia had gotten together with Isaiah, we’d fooled around. We hadn’t had sex exactly but we’d come close, and afterwards she was apologetic because she’d been the one to kiss me. She wasn’t sure, she said, that it was anything more than a thing she wanted to try, and because I didn’t want to be something someone tried and more so because it seemed that Allison and I would be getting back together, we agreed to be friends.
When Isaiah came over and put his arm over my shoulder, I shuddered without meaning to. I’d never gotten used to him — he’d played football in college and was one of those beefy, touchy types. It mattered greatly to him and Tia that they were both Chicagoans who had gone to the same elementary school when they were little and had met in graduate school in Wisconsin, but it was far too sentimental and irrelevant a story to matter to anyone else, because they were so mismatched. Tia was a sensitive, artsy type who had somehow stumbled into law school because her middle-class upbringing had determined this path. I imagined that in five years she would quit law to work for an art nonprofit, when she wasn’t caring for her and Isaiah’s children. Whenever I imagined them having sex, it always began with Isaiah lifting Tia and throwing her into bed. I never thought they would date for more than a few months — just long enough to realize their incompatibility.
“So when are you getting married?” Isaiah asked, now squeezing my shoulder. It was obvious that he was joking, that what he meant was that he wanted everyone to be as happy as he and Tia were, but I couldn’t let him have it. I couldn’t be nice because nice to me was too passive, so I said, “And subscribe to a system of patriarchy?” Beside him, Tia rolled her eyes. In two days, she would make a beautiful bride. She was one of those undercover beauties who would change out of her jeans and T-shirt into something glamorous and you’d wonder how you’d managed to overlook her in the first place. Once, drunkenly, Isaiah asked when I was going to join them in bed. We were outside a bar, smoking. He had lit my cigarette for me and afterwards he stood looking at me for too long a moment, and so I knew what was coming. Before that night, I’d suspected that I didn’t like Isaiah, but afterwards I determined that I didn’t like him. I knew that Tia never told him about us. I could tell that she was confused enough about it to keep it to herself for a long time, maybe as long as forever. It always seemed to me that Tia was one of those women who might have been a lesbian, or at least open to desiring women, if life had opened up the possibility and she had welcomed or at least fallen into it. It occurred to me and still occurs to me that something like that could have happened to me. I might have married a man in a destination wedding in Jamaica if life hadn’t taken over with a cloud of mystery to offer me another direction. It’s more than being in the right place at the right time. It’s more nebulous than that.
In New York, I’d gotten into the habit of sleeping with women I couldn’t take seriously. It was either that, or gain twenty pounds from overeating, or take up cocaine or something, anything to take the edge off. One of the women, too young for me at twenty-three, started to cry when we saw each other on the street after I’d ignored her calls and texts for weeks. “I’m sorry,” I called after her, crossing the street to get away because it would have been crueler to tell her that I would never be able to love her. I continued glancing behind me for the rest of the afternoon — not sure if it was her spirit or my conscience that was taunting me.
I’d met Allison in a coffee shop. It was far enough from downtown that graduate students had taken claim. The first time I went in to meet a classmate, I stood for a long moment looking at the menu written in chalk that hung high above my head. I hardly ever went to coffee shops. I liked to study in private and I hated the taste of coffee. Allison watched my face carefully from behind the counter, smiling a little smile as though she wanted to laugh at customers like me who deliberated for a long time before they ordered something as basic as a chai latte. I kept going back, sometimes with friends but mostly alone. I kept ordering chai lattes for three months before Allison said, “We should get a drink soon. I’m assuming you drink? You look like you drink.” How had she known that? Was it the long dreads hanging down my back? The big hoop earrings and Cosby sweater I’d worn that day? Was it because I was black?
Slowly, I learned things about Allison too. She was a graduate student in the poetry program, she drank something called a matcha latte, and she liked cotton candy colors. Between customers, she read poetry books at the counter or drew faces of imaginary people in a little black notebook. When I told her that I wrote poetry yet I had declined a funded poetry MFA program for law school, her eyes widened. “I’d love to read your work someday,” she said, and I could tell that she meant it.
The evening we met for a drink, I was just beginning to question my sexuality. I looked around the bar and made eye contact with a black woman I recognized from around town. I saw us as she must have seen us, but now I know that I projected what I wanted her to see: two women, one of them almost the same coffee-with-cream shade as her and the other with long, messy blonde hair hanging around her face, on a date.
With Allison, it had been like learning a new language. There was a different vocabulary to dating women. She showed me where and how to position my body during sex. I even learned to love coffee. But we were so different. She was certain that poetry could change the world, but I wasn’t so sure. I knew that she would respect me if I quit law school and published a chapbook. Her parents were intellectuals who never had to fret about money, not like my mother had to, and Allison was the same. There was an entitled, naïve way about her that I kept forgiving. She was the kind of white person who would never let me forget my blackness — she would detail oppressions to me as though I hadn’t lived them.
“I know I’m black,” I told her once. “You don’t have to keep reminding me.”
“Why are you so resistant to love?” she’d asked, which was an entirely different argument, but she couldn’t understand that.
Tia and Isaiah convinced everyone to go to the dance-hall-themed party in one of the resort’s entertainment rooms. I’d spent too much of my life subjected to men rubbing against me as a masculine gesture of dancing, but just as I was about to bow out, Tia gently placed her hand against my back as though she could read my mind. The room was darkly lit, and, accompanied by a Beenie Man song, I could almost smell the sex in the air. Those of us women who had traveled without dates danced together, but eventually everyone besides me peeled off as men approached them. Andrea and Tracy were dancing with two red-haired brothers from the UK, who kept exchanging glances at what I imagined was the possibility of both getting laid on the same night. I could see Tracy being game — she had a way of sleeping with men because they’d called her beautiful. A dog had bitten her right cheek when she was a little girl, and even now that the scar had faded, she slathered the area with foundation before appearing in public. Andrea had a face like a baby with her fat cheeks, but she was more cynical than she looked. A man had to earn her pussy. I swayed alone in the midst of strangers, shaking my head at the men who approached me. A few feet away, Tia was rubbing her ass against Isaiah’s crotch. I tried to catch her eyes, but she was looking past me.
I’d stepped outside when Brian approached me.
“Tired of dancing?” he asked.
“I just needed a moment. It’s hot in there.”
“I can understand that.”
We walked down to the beach. As we sat facing the water, I remember that we talked about all kinds of things. He’d voted for Obama but was disappointed by the presidency. He thought Obama should do more for black people. He’d dated his high school girlfriend throughout college, and was disappointed that she hadn’t waited a little longer for him to grow up. She’d married a white man in graduate school. He hadn’t eaten meat for the past ten years. He thought that with time maybe Allison and I would get back together.
“You’re different than I thought you were,” I told Brian, as we were walking to his room. He tried to hold my hand, but I wouldn’t let him. Afterwards, I made him high-five me, which made us both laugh.
On my walk back to the dance party, the sea air felt good, calming. I wasn’t thinking about Brian or Allison or anyone else. I was remembering a day from my childhood when my father drove to the sea and left me in the car to go into a house, which belonged to one of his extramarital lovers — though I didn’t know who she was at the time. When they came out of the house together, she handed me a cup filled with cherries that were cold, as though she’d just taken them from the fridge.
There were a few dancers straggling, and Isaiah broke from a conversation with his cousin about the upcoming NFL season to tell me that Tia, Andrea, and Tracy were in the bathroom.
“I had one in my early twenties, but I would never tell Isaiah,” Tia was saying, too loudly. She was a confessional drunk. I’d walked in just as another woman was leaving, and because a wall separated the door from the sinks, she couldn’t see me.
“You think it would bother him?” Tracy asked. I imagined that she was looking in the mirror, smoothing her foundation to keep the scar hidden.
“I just don’t think it’s his business.”
“You really believe that she left with Brian?” Andrea asked.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Tracy said.
“Why wouldn’t it surprise you?” Tia asked. “From what I saw, she couldn’t tolerate him. And isn’t she a lesbian?”
“I don’t know what she is,” Tracy said.
They laughed. I left as quietly as I came.
Andrea, Tracy, and I could talk about everything — the length and width of a man’s penis, how we had failed our mothers and how they had failed us, the nitty-gritty of being a woman, black, and Caribbean, and everything else in between. The stuff at the back of our throats or buried even deeper. But we could never talk about Allison. When I discovered that I could find myself in love with a woman, whenever I thought about the two of us holding hands in public in that Midwestern town, I only worried about Tracy and Andrea seeing us before I could come out to them. And when I finally told them, with the simplicity of “Allison and I are dating,” they admitted that they’d known, they’d noticed our intimacy. It was clear that it had been a conversation between them, and it wasn’t that they were cruel or unsupportive, but I had thought that they might appear more interested in the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me. But I couldn’t think about that just yet — I could only think about the relief of telling them. Afterwards, I cried in the shower.
There is so much you want to tell your friends. You want to tell them when happiness looks different than you ever imagined it could — that what you had been waiting for, how you were expecting love to feel and to look, doesn’t compare to another version that is altogether a surprise and nevertheless, unbeknownst to you, what you had been waiting for. You want to tell them that the first time a woman kisses you, you are deflated and ecstatic by how normal it is. You want them to ask about the sex — even though at first you don’t know how you feel about it. You want to explain because to tell is sometimes the only way to understand. It had been like being unwrapped — your soul and your body being reduced to their most essential hungers. You hadn’t thought about God or blasphemy or what your mother would say; your mind, your being, had been elevated to a place where none of that mattered. It had been freeing to give in to love like that. I hadn’t imagined that I could be that brave. And this, this triumph, is a thing you want to say to your friends.
The summer I realized I was a lesbian, I thought about my island. What, I asked myself, if we built islands around ourselves, because it’s no sin to be self-sufficient? I even tried to write a poem about it. It was about independence and loneliness, protection and fear — the latter I tried to deny for a long time. I tried to make the imagery beautiful — the landscape lush, and the sea a color from my childhood when we still lived in Jamaica and my father used to take us to the beach on Sunday mornings. I returned to the poem two months ago, when I finally quit my job at the law firm and found an administrative job I was overqualified for, but which freed up my evenings to write. But eventually and repeatedly the poem would come to a standstill because language betrayed me every time. I didn’t know how to articulate the face my mother made when I told her that I’d gone against everything and found myself in love with a woman. First, I wanted to be a writer, and then I discovered that I was a lesbian, and after everything, attending law school and all those years of sleeping with men, those desires still found me in the end. There seemed to be no island that could hold me then — no place seemed far or big or safe enough. Yes, I could leave, could wrap blankets of protection around myself, but I would remember my loved ones and what they were thinking of me. The silence would be lonely.
The day after the dance party, Andrea and Tracy came looking for me. I imagine that they’d tried our room as well as the dining areas and bars before they came to the beach. After lunch, I’d gone back to our room to take a nap, leaving them to flirt with one of the waiters, who joked, though I suspected that he was serious, that he was looking for an American woman to marry. Later, I would learn that they’d wanted to know if I was coming with them to a reggae concert put on by a Bob Marley impersonator. Jen and I were sitting on the beach, and she had been talking about her dissertation — she was going on in a way that made me realize that she wanted to impress me. We were holding each other’s gaze, and she was talking about suicide and women poets, women who to her had been casualties of the time during which they lived, and meanwhile I was wondering why it seemed that the only “queer” women who pursued me were white intellectual types, ones who spent too much time in their own heads. I’d had bad luck with this kind of woman — overly sensitive, entitled despite their secular humanist liberal thinking. When the conversation lapsed and we were looking toward the sea, I turned back toward her, thinking of a question I could ask that would keep the conversation going, but before I could speak, Jen kissed me. It was only a few seconds before I pulled away, my fear overwhelming my desire until I remembered that I was at a resort. I’d heard of people killed in Jamaica for less — even the suspicion of their sexuality marking them for a violent visitation. I looked behind me to see Andrea and Tracy walking away from us. I knew that they’d seen us. Before I could think what to do, I jumped up and caught up to them.
“We didn’t want to interrupt,” Tracy said. She was smiling, but I could tell that she was uncomfortable. She was the worldliest of us — she’d traveled, she’d had foreign lovers — and yet she couldn’t handle this. Andrea looked as though she was making a conscious effort to fix her face in a pleasing way. She was the softer of the two, reflecting a strict, uppermiddle-class upbringing in Barbados. When I’d come out to them, my voice had become the texture it changes to when I’m holding back from crying. Andrea had told me, “I think it takes strength to be vocal about something like that.” Tracy had warned me against telling my mother.
They’d never seen me physically affectionate with a woman before, though. Something about how they were standing together now, how one of them could speak for the both of them, and there was as well the fact that they weren’t going to address the thing they’d seen, made me feel that in that moment the only option I had was to walk away. So I went back to Jen, and afterwards we met her friends in the bar, and by then I was okay, I wasn’t thinking about Andrea and Tracy and why my sexuality was an elephant in the room of our friendship or what they had thought when they saw me kissing another woman, because I didn’t care. The piña coladas were strong, and I was distracted by my horniness and the knowledge that Jen and I would fuck when we got to the room she shared with her friends. We did, and I’d never had sex like that before — it was as though it being transgressive made it hotter. Maybe we both felt as though we had something to prove. That’s the only way I can explain it.
When I got back to my room, Andrea and Tracy were sleeping. It was 2 a.m. and I still felt very much awake. I looked out the window for what seemed a long time, listening to the sea kiss the shore as though it could tell me its secrets. I whispered a poem about women who loved women, mermaids, who lived at the bottom of the sea. I was too tired to write down the words, and in the morning I could only remember the images evoked — women with hair the colors of coral, with tails of emerald and topaz, those bare-breasted creatures that were both human and animal. In the shower, I remembered that later that day I would have to wear white — we all would. It was one of those trendy new things people were doing at weddings. I’d been annoyed having to go out and look for a white dress, a color I never wore, but right then it seemed that I could sit through a hundred white weddings. Because I have a habit of talking to myself, I said out loud what I would have said if I had friends interested, eager to hear about my night. I said, “I just fucked a woman in Jamaica,” and then I dried off and, still smiling from the memory of skin on skin, eventually drifted off to sleep. ●
Text copyright © 2018 by Alexia Arthurs. From How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs (Ballantine Books, July 2018)
Illustrations by Tania Guerra for BuzzFeed News
Alexia Arthurs was born and raised in Jamaica and moved with her family to Brooklyn when she was twelve. A graduate of Hunter College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has been published in Granta, The Sewanee Review, Small Axe, Virginia Quarterly Review, Vice, and The Paris Review, which awarded her the Plimpton Prize in 2017.
How To Love a Jamaican is out July 24.