Excerpt from “Eye Water”

By Jennifer Coke

Eye-water (tears) is an archaism elsewhere, but not in Jamaica . . . similarly, mouth-water is saliva. It may well be, however, that both these expressions are loan-translations from African languages: Ibo and Mandingo have just these combinations.

– FREDERIC G. Cassidy, Jamaica Talk

I shouldn’t have been surprised by Melody and Donald’s getting together. The Neville Lewis fiasco should have prepared me for anything. Hindsight. It’s not necessarily a terrible thing; it keeps you humble. It holds up your past like an x-ray to white light, and shows you exactly how dumb you can be. I’m pretty sure now that I wouldn’t have slept with Neville if Melody hadn’t won the beauty contest.

By this time we had moved to Kingston. Mama had prodded Daddy into accepting a professorship at the university the year Melody started high school. She nudged him by subtle references to Carl Moncrieffe’s success. Mama, Daddy, and Uncle Carl all had gone to college together, and something about Mama – the way she held in her stomach and smoothed her dress, the way she averted her gaze when she saw him – dropped a hint that Uncle Carl and Mama had been lovers. One day while we were taking turns hand-beating butter and sugar for one of Mama’s lead-heavy cakes, Melody came right out and asked Mama if she used to go out with Uncle Carl. Mama cracked a couple of eggs into a bowl and said, yes, but that was a long time ago.

Melody wasn’t satisfied. “Well, how come you didn’t marry him?” He’s soooo handsome.”

You could tell by Mama’s face that something had happened that she wanted to dismiss. Her vagueness seemed too contrived. She measured out a teaspoonful of rose water into the mixture. “Oh,” she said in a careful voice that held neither happiness nor self-pity, “I met your father. Every girl on campus was after him.”

Well, that was hard for us to imagine. It was hard to imagine even after we’d checked out a sepia photograph of Daddy dressed to the nines in his double-breasted flannel suit with lapels a yard wide and pants that could have saved his life if he’d jumped from a plane. There was Daddy, chin up, squinting into the lens, a Panama hat worn gangster-style on his head, and a proud and proprietary foot up on his big-nosed car. But he didn’t look like any silver-tongued Casanova to me.

So, Daddy had either swept Mama off her feet, or with his legendary sterling grades promised her an extension of the life they had known on campus. Knowing Mama, I’m sure she found identity in the glow of Trevor Ward’s success. Old sweet-talking Daddy must have had her in the moonlight, spinning out his life dreams, and she must have fallen hard for it. I can just hear Daddy telling her that he was going into politics; you never know, maybe run for prime minister when Jamaica became independent from Britain. Mama had always told us that even back then Daddy had known the country had to go that route. But young Jean Beckford couldn’t have known that somewhere along the line, Daddy’s fear of achievement would make him sabotage any chances at success.

It was a shame Daddy spent half his life not doing anything particularly rewarding to him. Daddy was brilliant. We heard it often from the people who heard him speak; we heard it from his students. He wrote long manuscripts that he had to be coerced into submitting for publication, but he loved the double-bass roar of his voice and he’d give speeches without anybody asking him twice. He loved the way birdlike women would shyly give him damp handshakes and flutter up compliments to him after those speeches. But Daddy, Ph.D. hot in hands, opted to settle for the first safe job he found – headmaster of some rural boys’ school. Meanwhile, Uncle Carl set out to build his construction empire, and Mama with her bright eyes was left with dreamdust. So, all she need do was mention seeing one of his trucks or relay an invitation to his house for dinner, and Daddy would wake up the next morning with his insecurities in bed with him. He’d be insufferable all day.

Mama knew this and wasn’t above using a little emotional blackmail. She’d imagined herself a city girl, shopping at Nathans in Kingston with the girls, going as a family to the Christmas Pantomime or the ballet at the Little Theatre. So when another long letter of invitation to join the faculty from the University of the West Indies arrived at the house, Mama decided she wanted to salvage some of those fantasies she’d had in college.

“Did you see the mail?” she asked Daddy gently at dinner.

“I saw it,” he growled.

Mama ladled some meat and gravy over his rice.

“Well, what did Errol have to say this time?” Errol Paisley was a classmate of theirs who, to hear them talk, stayed near the bottom of the class. As these things go, he was now dean of the faculty of Political Science Studies at the university.

“Same thing.”

“You’re a fool if you don’t take that job, Trevor. They’re not going to keep asking you.”

“I told you before, Jean. You’re not getting me to live in Kingston.”

“Well, you can live here by yourself the rest of your life,” she said, and set his plate down hard in front of him.

Daddy said nothing.

Melody and I pretended to be invisible. The last thing we wanted was Daddy’s hostility to arc over and zap us. This was a new and private squabble; we hadn’t heard this script before. Melody touched my knee lightly with a cold big toe. I chugged my lemonade and focused on my plate, waiting for Daddy to hiss his teeth and tell her to stop her nonsense. He didn’t.

“I don’t know why the hell I married you,” Mama said finally, laying Uncle Carl on the table, activating the tension that had run through their married life all these years.

Daddy got up instantly, crashing his chair to the ground, and went to listen to the BBC news. I got up and righted Daddy’s chair, and the women of the house ate in silence. It wasn’t more than three months later that we moved to a house abutting the university campus in Mona Heights, a pretty development with streets named after flowers.

Those were the good days. Downtown wasn’t just a park in the middle of town with a chiming clock tower and a rusty cannon phalanxed by a bright hemorrhage of Canna flowers. Kingston was bustle and policemen blowing frantic whistles at traffic. I can’t begin to tell you how urbane Melody and I felt living in the low concrete house, its flat roof railed off by decorative wrought iron to provide a cool place for nighttime entertainment. We loved the row of trees flanking the path-sized sidewalk, trees that Daddy had a man whitewash halfway up their trunks. We even found pleasure in watching the gardener push a rattling lawn mower over our hybrid carpet of a lawn, instead of hacking at long, half-breed grass with a sickle like he’d done in Black River. And I swear every morning for weeks we walked around in that dazed fugue state between waking and sleeping because we were up as soon as the sun touched our beds. We didn’t want to miss anything. There was so much to learn from our new friends who knew so much and who took power from our moon-eyed delight of the city. Town kids didn’t wear play clothes. When good clothes faded, they simply stopped wearing them. And town kids our age had outgrown the four-o’clock rural convention of showering, changing into freshly-pressed clothes, putting ribbons in our new braids, and going for a walk. After a while Daddy stopped telling his town kinds that we looked like ragamuffins and that we couldn’t come to the dinner table until we looked tidy, and Mama stopped wearing anything floral which she thought broadcasted that she’d lived in the country.

I don’t know what I was expecting from this move to Kingston. I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I was convinced that by some miracle I would suddenly become this new, popular person; I was bound to start meeting boys. Well, it took me four years, but I met Neville Lewis.

Neville was in our carport taking shelter from the rain on one of those October days when it rains so hard people stay home without apology. “It rained,” was good and sufficient excuse for missing work or school. I peeked out at him waiting out the storm, watching the heavy scrim of rain run, watching the cruel water trampling the blossoms, swamping the lawn, eroding the road, drowning the city. He stood there shivering in his wet clothes and his soaked-through shoes. Mama took pity on him and sent me to invite the poor boy in for a towel, bully-beef sandwiches, Guinness Stout mixed with milk, and newspaper for his shoes.

I couldn’t believe it. Neville wolfed the sandwiches in exactly four bites. The food was like an enormous tumor in his left cheek. I could even hear his long jawbones squeak as they knotted and strained.

“That slipped down good, boy,” he said, handing me back the plate. “This damn rain made me miss my lunch. Maybe that’s a good thing. There ain’ nothing worse on this earth than lunch on campus.”

“You’re welcome,” I mumbled. “Anytime.” God. I was seventeen and I still felt nervous and thick with boys. Mama had done me an injustice by sending me to an all-girls school. I tried again. “You sound like you’re from Barbados,” I said.

“Oh, now you’re insulting me. Do I look like some round-face Bajan boy? No, man, I’m from Trinidad. Steel band, carnival.”

“Blood pudding.” I pretended to gag.

“If you ever tasted it, girl, you wouldn’t be doing your face like that.” He looked at me for a second. “Hey, listen, you like jump-up?”

“You mean dancing to calypso till you drop?”

“Now you’re talking. Look here, the boys are planning a fete, real Trinidadian jump-up, steel band, costumes, everything.”

I couldn’t picture myself doing anything like that, and my face must have shown it. “That’s too wild for me,” I said looking out into the rain, trying to hide my face.

“You Jamaicans don’t know how to have a good time, I’m telling you. This is going to be like back home.”

This copper-colored boy was stepping in the shit already. College kids from the other islands, Trinidad, Barbados, Antigua, even the littlest of islands, liked nothing better than to take potshots at Jamaica, and it was beginning to get on my nerves. They compared the food, the weather, the politics, the temperament of the people to their own, and we invariably paled in comparison. I decided to take him down the only way I knew how. Go the intellectual route.

“Come now, you’re forgetting something, man. We have a different history here. We’re British and Anglican, not French and Catholic. We don’t need a big blowout before Lent like you and your stupid carnival.”

Neville crossed his arms and gave me the kind of smile you give a six-year-old sure of her facts. If there was someone else in the room, he’d have nudged them and shared a private snicker.

I knew this, but I was on a roll; I couldn’t stop. And at this point I couldn’t care less what he was thinking. “Every year around carnival time you hear about a bunch of people getting killed and all that. We just aren’t as rowdy as you Trinidadians, you know.” I said Trinidadians like I’d say assholes but either he didn’t get it or he was getting used to the slur.

Neville tugged on his red moustache and arched an invisible eyebrow. “You don’t have to tell me, girl. I know.”

“So how come you’re planning this fete from October?”

“Never too soon to start planning fetes, man. In fact we’re having a little on Friday night.”

“Oh, dry run.”

“Well, sort of.” He smiled. “We like to practice and practice till we get the drinking down just right.”

Okay, I might have liked Neville because he could make me laugh and he could take insults.

“Listen,” he said, his tongue a metronome. “You think your father will let you go?”

So, this was how people got asked out. I had a date. Me. I forgot about Neville’s jingoism. I forgot his wet lips. I even forgot what he looked like. Our conversation was a tape I played a hundred times in my head, before I went to sleep, on the bus, in the shower. I combed through a wardrobe that held nothing but rags, it seemed, and I knew the panic Cinderella must have felt. But Melody lent me her new pink dress, styled my hair, and told me I was going to look fabulous.

Neville came early. Melody looked at his long, copper face, at the self-consciousness bowing his concave body, at his pointed toe shoes. “Your boyfriend is here,” she told me, avoiding my eyes.

My boyfriend. How sweet those words ere, and how soon they soured and curdled. One look at Melody’s face told me everything I didn’t want to know. I could almost see her shaking her head and telling me that I could have done better than that. But she went willingly enough to get him a soft drink, and to run interference while Daddy checked out his pedigree. Daddy could be brutal on Melody’s young men, giving them the third degree until he found out who their parents were and where they lived, then he’d go disappear behind the evening newspaper. But Neville got him talking about a history syllabus, and Daddy warmed right up to him. One less worry off my mind.

I finished dressing and called Mama to my bedroom. I was shaking. The zipper on the dress was stuck halfway down. I couldn’t find my left shoe.

“Calm down, sweetie pie, let him wait,” Mama said. She fumbled with the back of the dress for what seemed like hours and I could feel myself relax as the zipper finally sang its way up. Mama gave the dress a few final pats, and spun me around.

“Look at my pretty daughter,” she said. “I just hope that boy is worth it.”

Melody’s dress was tight, but I was beginning to feel sophisticated. My lipstick was the exact shade of the dress, I was wearing high heels, and I was going to a dance with a college boy. I was so nervous it felt like my throat had grown fluff. I rushed to the kitchen to get a cold sip of water.

Edna, the maid, let out a thin wolf whistle, crossed one arm over her middle, and with the other cradled her cheek in surprise. “Miss Monica, is you that?” she asked in patois. “You look so sweet. You look like film star.”

I walked into the living room tall as a bride. But in the fifteen minutes it took me to finish dressing, Neville had not only set Melody aflame with an invitation to the big fete in March, he had also asked her to enter the beauty contest that would cap the party, the big bang. He was sure he could get her a sponsor. He was sure she would win.

I felt like old flowers. I have never again in my life felt as ugly as I did at that moment.

“I didn’t know you had a sister,” Neville accused me as we drove to the fete.

“Yes, she’s exactly two years younger than me. We even have the same birthday. She’ll be sixteen. I’ll be eighteen.”

“She’s younger than you? You sure?”

“Course I’m sure.”

“She just seems older.” He shook his head. “You two don’t look anything alike.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve heard it all my life.”

“She’s nice. Not as serious as you.”

Damn, there it was again. New acquaintance, ancient comparison. Translate serious as less fun. I sat there feeling counterfeit in Melody’s party dress that had grown so tight the waist was digging into my skin. I had nothing to say. I just looked out the window. The sliver of moon in the curdled sky looked like a nail pairing. If I’d had the guts I’d have asked Neville to turn the car around and take me home. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him that was witty or clever. Luckily, he did all the talking and all I had to do was nod.

We lived a half mile away from the campus, but I’d never even set foot in the student union. It wasn’t anything like I’d pictured from Melody’s stories. It was nothing more than an open-air, gym-sized concrete area, with a long counter that could serve either as a bar or concession area, and a huge stage. The place was fenced in by a rough, ten-foot concrete wall topped by embedded bottle shards that threatened serious laceration to riffraff gate crashers. We could have killed ourselves on the small metal tables it was so dark. Apart from the lights on stage the only other light came from the soft, throbbing flames of candles in meshed glasses. Neville led me over to where his roommate, a short Trinidadian Indian names Singh, had pulled several of the naked, gray tables together. There was the usual bored acknowledgement of introductions. I scraped a metal chair up beside Singh’s date, Ellen, a thin, nervous girl who pawed him with her eyes and talked to him in baby talk.

“Want something to drink?” Neville asked me. I heard myself ask for a beer. He returned with beers for everybody at the table and excused himself. As one of the organizers of the fete he had to see to the gate receipts, make sure there was enough booze. He’d forgotten to tell me that. Singh also disappeared after a while, so I found a friend in Ellen who seemed a little in awe of me after finding out that Daddy was Professor Ward. By then I’d chugged my first half a bottle of beer, realized I was getting drunk and it wasn’t unpleasant. By the time I’d emptied the last of the suds into my glass, Ellen and I had become giggling buddies.

“I don’t know what it is about West Indian men,” she said. “But they always leave the girls and go off to I don’t know where. You ever notice that?”

“Well,” I said. “I’ve never been out with Neville before. It’s our first date.”

“Oh, that’s right. You’ll really like him. He’s a sweetheart.”

So Neville wasn’t an all-time loser after all. People liked him. I sat back and enjoyed the warm alcohol buzz. It was as if the rhythmic steel-pan timpani had reeled me into some kind of meeting place for charismatics. The Trinidadians in one raucous voice sang out the hook line of every calypso, grinning at the obsequious double entendres, and everybody seemed to be dancing in some other hot, hazy world. It was wonderful. But I was content just to watch them; I couldn’t quite trust my feet. Neville came over from time to time and taught me to do the jump-up, hands in the air, do whatever you wanted with your body. And more than anything I didn’t have to spend the night wondering if anybody would ask me to dance, I was on a date. Even Singh asked me to dance. Before I knew it, Neville had pulled me into him for the traditional slow last dance, and I found myself following as easily as when Melody insisted that she teach me to slow dance.

“We ought to do this again soon,” Neville shouted over the music.

I smiled and nodded like some idiot savant. So the date hadn’t been that bad for him after all; he wanted to see me again. I felt as if I’d aced an exam. Neville left the motor running as he walked me to the front door, gave me a tentative wet kiss, then writhed his cold tongue into my mouth.

“Thanks for a great time,” I whispered. I was having a hard time breathing.

“My pleasure. Listen, tell your sister I’ll be talking to her more about the contest. Maybe I’ll come by tomorrow night.”

He did come by the next evening and subsequent evenings and the pattern was set. When Melody didn’t have a date, the three of us sat on the roof talking until decorum sent Melody to bed, and Neville turned to kissing me. On these nights Melody came off as the wiser, more worldy sister and I took on the role of the younger sister by default. Melody had graduated with her “O” levels and Daddy had found her a job as some kind of executive secretary for a friend of his at Desnoes &Geddes, the distilling company. She was so damned grown up at sixteen, and she reveled in the pleasure of buying me little presents with the money she earned. Sometimes when we were alone, though, she still wanted to bounce ideas and fears off me. For instance, finding the cocktail dress for the beauty contest took on the urgency of planning a wedding, except I wasn’t going to be a bridesmaid and Daddy refused to pay for any of the expenses. Melody was almost sick with worry.

“I’m just skylarking,” she told me.

“You’ll win,” I told her, sure that either Margaret McFarland with her high cheekbones, or Debbie Pershad with her heavy mane of hair and dimples would. Skepticism bred from familiarity. We never seriously thought Melody could win.

“I’m just going through this stupidness for nothing. Tomorrow I have to run back to the dressmaker, again, come with me?”

“Melody,” I said, tired of the whole contest. “Relax. Just wear the dress Carole sent you, and be done with it.”

“You just want people to laugh me off the stage, that’s all.” Our older sister Carole had sent a dress that might have been haute couture in Paris, but was too haute for Jamaica. Melody thought it was the ugliest dress she’d ever seen in her life. To me, it rustled quiet sophistication and class.

Melody ended up wearing a long, emerald, water-patterned taffeta dress that fit like skin through the bodice to the skirt, a full and rustling parachute that she had to be reminded not to pick up when she walked. A short, pout-mouthed professional came in and did her hair and makeup, and she looked like a bona fide beauty contestant. My sister Melody looked like she’d walked right off the cover of Woman’s Own magazine.

Mama, Neville and I were alone in a sea of people as we watched Melody clip-clop across the stage, her behind working like a show horse. We whooped and clapped as she walked up to an unseen mark and rocked her feet into a quasi-third position ballet pose Mama blew her kisses and grabbed my arm tight as we watched Melody’s legs tremble in her stiletto heels.

“My Lord, she looks like a big woman,” Mama whispered.

“She’s going to win, Mrs. Ward. I’m telling you she’s going to win,” Neville yelled. “Just you watch.”

“Like a big woman,” Mama said again.

“Go Melody,” I yelled, hands cupped around my mouth.

Neville put his fingers in his mouth and let out a long, piercing whistle that made my ears ring. I nudged him with the sharpest place on my elbow. He kept looking to the stage, then looking at me with proud, shiny eyes as if he had personally molded her from clay and breathed life into her.

The winner of the Mona Heights Beauty Contest was Miss Melody Ward, daughter of our own Professor Ward, her first prize an all-expenses-paid Caribbean cruise, and a year’s supply of Colgate and Palmolive products.

Mama went home to wake up Daddy with the news and to leave the dancing to the young people.

Neville was crowing. He told her she’d win. He knew she’d win. He’d bet the boys on his floor she’d win. He danced so hard in celebration that his half moons of sweat expanded until they took over his shirt. Melody, out of gratitude, a sense of obligation, danced with him briefly until her current boyfriend jumped in to claim his prize and Neville sought me out to dance.

Finally, he was giving me some attention. Annoyance had puffed me up, but I knew I didn’t dare pout. I had the feeling that if I wasn’t on my best behavior he would dump me and I’d be back to going to bed at nine o’clock on Saturday nights. A boyfriend was the ticket I needed to double date, to be on par with Melody. Besides, Neville had served notice on me. He talked incessantly about how Ellen had been giving him trouble, and that if he were Singh, he wouldn’t stand for any of that rubbish. So, naturally everything he did was fine with me as long as we could go out, as long as I had a boyfriend. And in the five months of our relationship I lived in dread that he’d tell me he didn’t want to see me anymore.

I swallowed my anger and clung to him. I breathed in the wet, fish-smelling sizing of his new shirt, hating the wet cloth against my cheek, but enjoying being mashed against him, enjoying the faint underlying whiff of Aqua Velva. I was dancing with my baby. I could feel his heart beating as loud as a cheap clock. I could hear his breath coming out thin and fast and wheezy. He kissed the top of my head once and mashed me closer. Something inside of me swelled and burst and something liquid ran fast and delicious through my body.

By this time I’d been letting him feel me up through my blouse. In the movies I’d been running my hand way up on his leg and giving him a little squeeze. I’d even let him slip a rude, long-nailed finger under the elastic of my underpants. We never discussed the gradual sexual progression, and he hadn’t asked me to sleep with him. So that night when Neville suggested we walk over to his dorm, I never planned on anything much more than a series of mouth-numbing kisses in the dark, maybe some heavy petting.

Ha. Up in his dorm room Neville peeled off his wet shirt, unzipped his trousers, hopped out of them, and skinned his jockeys over his too-lean hips. He stood butt naked before me. His penis seemed so far out of proportion to his spare body; I could count every rib. He came toward me grinning, like a proud but shy teenager flag bearer in a parade. He gave me a kiss with his rubber lips, and walked me backwards over to the bed.

“What’re you doing?” I whispered.

“Shh, relax, I just want to touch you.” His hands were cold. “Don’t worry. I won’t put it in.” His breath was metallic from a combination of a day’s worth of rum punch, beer, and excitement and my mouth felt sticky and tight from his kisses.

He took my hand and made me squeeze his penis. I could feel the blood rising; I felt my own sweet contractions.

“Feel how much I want you.”

“We’d better go back. C’mon, Neville, stop.”

“Please, you can’t leave me this way. Please.”

I decided what the hell. I didn’t want this yet, but I didn’t want to come off whiny and juvenile. Besides Melody had long lost her cherry and wore her status like a badge. Neville also had a way of cajoling me into doing things and going places I knew we’d catch ten tons of grief from my parents for, by insinuating that I was less fun than my sister. I was tired of dealing with the sting of comparison. But it seemed there was no getting around it. Mama compared Daddy to Uncle Carl, Daddy and Mama wanted Melody to be like me, and Neville wanted me to be Melody.

I lay wooden on the bed and allowed him to take off my clothes. He fished under the bed and came up with a condom. His hands shook as he took it from the foil and snapped it on. He made the same twisting motion you use on a childproof medicine cap on my breasts and jammed his penis into me harder than I thought he needed to. I didn’t think it would hurt much. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t ready for the red, tearing persistent pain that wasn’t anything half as fun as his fingers had been. It didn’t seem worth doing. Three involuntary cries tore out of Neville. He collapsed on me with his full weight and was quiet. I think he snored on my chest for a while, then he jerked up suddenly and slapped me on my bottom.

“C’mon, we better get back, girl,” he said. His voice was rusty from cheering for Melody. “Your sister will be looking for us.”

He yanked the rubber off and sailed it through the window into the blue night. My legs were shaking from the unaccustomed position, from regret, and I sat there shaking on the hard, narrow bed. Tears grouped and trembled against my lip, and I didn’t care about biting them back.

“Don’t start with the crying,” Neville warned. But he held me while I blubbered. “Hush, hush. It’s all right.” He picked up my underwear from the floor and handed it to me. “C’mon, now, put your clothes on.”

I muffled my face in the pillow. He should have sailed me out the window with the Trojan. I felt that disposable. I just sat there and bawled till my throat got hoarse. I was crying because my body had been taken so casually, because of the pain of that new knowledge, because Melody had won the contest, because somehow I knew that my love affair, like the contest, was over, and because I knew that Neville Lewis tolerated me but loved my sister.

This excerpt is copyrighted material, and may not be presented in another form without permission from the author.

[tags]Jennifer Coke, Eye Water, Jamaica, Frederic G. Cassidy, Ibo, Mandingo[/tags]

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