When our son is born Karl and I start taking vacations in the Bahamas, in remote, barren islands a million miles from any grand hotel. On this trip Aaron is 10 years old and his friend Jason who lives across the street from us is a few years older. The four of us have gone on a dozen similar vacations, to Cat Island, Guyana Key, Tobago, Green Turtle Cay, the harder to get to, the more isolated and pristine the destination, the happier we are.
We have become seasoned travelers. On each trip we pull matching suitcases packed with food and bathing suits and gear, well prepared for delays and malfunctions and discomfort. To get to this particular island we have to take three planes and then a small boat. A travel agent booked the flights in these pre-Internet days, and left too little time for a connection, so even before we disembark from our second plane we can see our next flight take off down the runway and soar up into the cloudless sky leaving us far behind. We park the children with the luggage and talk to the airline representative, too bad she sympathizes, no more planes today, she says, this week everything is full because it is Festival.
While we are wandering the terminal the children fall asleep on top of the suitcases. Finally Karl and I get together with some other stranded voyagers and charter a Piper Cub. Everyone crowds into the small plane and the children take turns sitting next to the pilot. We fly low enough to see our shadow rippling on the water.
On our first day on the island we stay close to home, snorkeling off the white sand beach in front of our rented villa. I float face down in the turquoise sea, my body rising and falling weightless with each gentle swell, everything silent except for the sound of my own breath. I am living in a world suspended by the tide among painted fish and spiny creatures and swaying coral, tiny squid in schools of darting poignancy, heavy jowled groupers, shiny barracuda behind me barely seen, once a glorious bug-eyed green eel, slowly opening and closing its mouth, clouds of striped little fish, buttery yellow fish, rainbow fish, a jungle of water images down here, below me. I am an angel shadowing them. I don’t swim or scull, just drift at the whim of the waves. A small kick of my fins, a tiny undulation, sends me in a new direction. I feel sinuous, a dolphin, my arms against my sides to make me streamlined. I could float forever watching my fish folk dance.
The island is scattered with cottages and goats, sad gardens scratched out in rock. We drive to town in a dusty golf cart we rent for the week and as we bump down the potholed path the children shriek with laughter in the rear. We plan to use a pool in town set among palm trees next to a long jetty. Reggae music plays over loudspeakers. The children dive in and out like otters and laugh while we lounge in aluminum chairs and drink Mexican beer.
I leave Karl by the pool to watch the children play, and walk to the pay phone outside the island store. I pull out the scrap of paper on which I scribbled my lover’s telephone number. It is morning on our island but afternoon where he is, at work, and he is surprised to hear my voice, he did not expect me to call when I am on vacation in the middle of nowhere.
Back in the villa where we are staying, our bedroom has windows looking out to the sea on the east and the sound on the west and the sand in between. Later, after Karl and I make love I lie on the bed naked and sweaty and think about my lover. If my husband wonders why I am silent, he doesn’t ask.
Hello, I say, when my lover answers the phone, it’s me, and he is surprised, my devotion is delicious to him, more than he is accustomed to but he is pleased. For myself, I love the sound of his voice and his accent. He wants to talk dirty over the phone but I am self-conscious on the public street and can’t stay long anyway. We don’t have small talk. If I let him he would tell me about his day. I do not want to hear it.
I have to go, I say, I will talk to you when I get home, I adore you. He is cheerful, says he loves me too, and although he is disappointed that I won’t arouse him on the phone, it takes more than one missed opportunity to upset him. It isn’t until much later, when I have to choose between my husband and him and don’t choose him that he will be sad enough to cry. I adore you, I say again, and hang up the phone
Later, Karl and I walk on the beach, heads down, looking for shells. Our bare footsteps weave between the shallows and the wet sand and the shifting dunes, sun warm. Aaron and Jason run in circles beside us until we all get so tired that we sit where the water laps at our feet and look into the endless glittering azure sea, skipped with wavelets. The sand is soft, pale, and the children are brown, happy with their handfuls of cowries and conchs, starfish and hermit crabs.
That evening, Aaron and Jason build a corral to keep the crabs in, piling up stones in a big circle outside on the terrace. They name each crab and make plans to race them and smuggle them home in a suitcase. Overnight the crabs escape. The children consult with each other and agree that perhaps the corral was not quite tall enough. They decide to find more crabs and build a higher fence.
Next day we take a rubber dinghy out into the bay so the children will have something to cling to when they get tired and I can float free in the salty water, arms outstretched, the children’s voices far away, looking at the sky. I feel saturated with sun; the children hold their breath and dive to the ocean floor to snatch up sea biscuits and sand dollars. The sea cucumber we remember too late has a diabolical defense; it expels its internal organs and disgusts any predator. I make a face, the children groan. We pour the cucumber back into the sea, guts and all, keeping our fingers crossed that it will regenerate once we leave and the children sit in the dinghy among their remaining treasures while Karl and I take turns towing them home.