Sunscreen & Coconuts
“Oh, you nearly got it, Aidan,” I murmured. I scribbled the correct spelling next to the misspelled word.
I cringed at the misspelled word on the next line: Field. f-e-i-l-d.
I ran my hand over my face. “I before E, you guys,” I muttered aloud. “We spent forever on that lesson.”
“Except after C, right?"
I looked up from the lined paper that was rapidly becoming marked up by my green pen. My waitress smiled down on me, a filled coffee pot in one hand.
"More coffee?" she offered.
I placed my hand over my nearly empty coffee cup. “I’ve had too much already,” I refused. “You’ll have me bouncing off the walls pretty soon.”
“What are you working on?” she asked.
I shuffled through the remaining papers on the table. “First grade spelling quizzes.”
“Oh, are you at the Friends School?” She named the private elementary school only a few blocks from our location.
“No, I teach at Woodrow Wilson.”
My waitress rested the coffee pot at her hip. “I don’t recognize the name. Is it a charter school?”
“Nope. Regular old public school.”
I could have predicted the look she gave me—a mix of sympathy and bewilderment. But after five years of teaching in Boston’s public school system, I was used to it by now.
“Wow. Good for you,” she admired.
I forced a wavering smile to my lips.
Back in the 1970s, there had been an attempt to integrate Boston’s public schools. The history textbooks tell about Jim Crow segregation and Brown v. Board of Education, but northern cities are largely lost in the narrative. Attempts to balance the racial makeup of Boston’s public schools through forced bussing had led to massive white backlash, and in recent years, the elected school board appeared content with the status quo.
This had resulted in the gross underfunding of schools in the district where I taught. Luckily, in the first grade, my students didn’t yet require expensive textbooks or individual laptops, but even then I typically ended up buying my own supplies for my classroom when the storage closets ran out of crayons, glue sticks, and construction paper.
“Want me to clear away the other place setting so you have more room to grade?” she offered.
“I’m good. I’m waiting on someone.”
I’d been hoarding the table for two for the better part of an hour. Between my employment as a public school teacher and my seemingly solo status at brunch, I couldn’t imagine what she thought of me. I probably seemed to her the saddest person on the planet.
“I guess I could handle another re-fill,” I said.
It took a long moment for her to realize what I was requesting.
“Coffee?” I supplied.
She barked out a laugh. “Oh, right!”
A knock on the plate glass window pulled our joint attention towards the front of the restaurant. The person for whom I’d been waiting smiled and waved at me through the restaurant’s front window.
Between the awkward exchange with my waitress and my friend’s tardiness, I was already in a tested mood. I tapped at my wrist where a watch would be. “You’re late.”
I doubted Racy was able to hear my censure through the thick glass, even without the competing sounds of the neighborhood on a Sunday morning. But my disapproving gestures were enough for her to understand my complaint.
She clasped her hands together as in prayer—a mea culpafor leaving me to fend for myself at brunch.
“I’ll grab you another menu and freshen up that coffee,” the waitress announced.
I felt the slight tug of smugness. I wasn’t entirely pathetic.
My friend Racy skirted through the restaurant’s entrance, pausing briefly at the hostess stand to indicate that the other half of her dining party was already seated. I shuffled papers on the table for two, collecting my students’ spelling quizzes, and packed them away in my workbag.
Racy dropped her oversized purse on the floor and her body in the seat across from me. “I know, I know,” she huffed. “I’m late—unforgivably so. But I have an excuse this time.”
“You always have an excuse,” I pointed out.
“But this one’s actually good,” she countered.
Instead of offering up the explanation for her tardiness, Racy reached across the table and confiscated my glass of juice. She took a quick sip and made a disgusted face the moment the liquid passed her lips. ”Oh, God, “ she practically gagged. “What is that?”
I grabbed the glass back. “Orange juice.”
“Just juice?” Racy continued to express her disgust. “What’s even the point?”
“I was waiting for you!” I defended myself. “I didn’t want to drink alone.”
“Why not? I do it all the time.” Racy removed her sunglasses and flung them onto the table. They stopped when they struck against my near-empty coffee cup. “God, I’ve had a day,” she sighed.
“It’s not even noon,” I remarked.
“My point exactly.” She sat up straighter in her chair and craned her neck. “Where’s our waitress? Did I interrupt you trying to get your game back?”
“Why do you think I’m flirting every time I talk to another woman?” I accused.
“I don’t know how you lesbians work,” she dismissed me.
“Do you flirt with every man you talk to?”
I audibly sighed. “Where were you this morning? Chewing your arm off to get out of some investment banker’s bed? Carrying your heels through Chinatown?”
“Not this time.” She continued to look distractedly around the restaurant in search of our elusive waitress. “I was planning our Christmas vacation.”
Racy and I weren’t dating. Even if she’d been my type—which she wasn’t—she was the definition of hyper-heterosexual. We’d traveled together over the past two Christmases, however, because we’d grown up in the same small, Midwestern town. Even though we’d graduated high school together, we hadn’t exactly been friends back then, more like acquaintances, but we’d reconnected in recent years when our respective parents discovered we were both living in Boston.
I visibly slumped in my chair. “I told you I don’t want to go back there.”
“And neither do I,” Racy was quick to correct. “Which is why we’re going to be spending Christmas this year—wait for it—at an all-inclusive resort on the beautiful, exotic island of Curaçao.”
“Curaçao?” I echoed.
“It’s in the Caribbean, just off the coast of Venezuela.”
“That sounds expensive,” I lamented. “You do remember I’m a public school teacher, right?”
“You remind me every chance you get,” she countered. “Listen, it’s the off-season. Everyone heads home for Christmas, so these resorts offer incredible deals. Trust me, even you can afford this trip.”
“Isn’t it hurricane season?”
“Nope. That ends in November. We’ll have nothing but perfect, blue skies.”
“I’ve heard that a lot of the islands down there aren’t gay friendly.”
“I’ve thought of that, too,” she grinned. “I did some research, and according to everything I’ve read, Curaçao is the most gay-friendly island in the South Caribbean.”
While I delayed, Racy continued to explain her plan: “They speak English, and they drive on the right side of the road. It’s an adults-only, all-inclusive resort on a white, sandy beach. There’s an incredible man-made lagoon, and at night you can see the floating cities of cruise ships just off the shoreline. We can leave as soon as your semester is over and come back before New Years Eve when the flight prices spike again.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You’ve really put a lot of thought into this.”
In my experience, Racy wasn’t much of a planner—more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants-er. The fact that she’d made sure I would feel safe in a foreign location spoke miles for the effort she’d put into this idea.
“Don’t say no, Mercy,” Racy pled. “I know how much you covet your school breaks, but wouldn’t you rather spend your Christmas drinking a Mai Tai on a white, sandy beach surrounded by women in bikinis instead of shoveling your car out of snow bank?”
I folded my hands on the table. “You make a compelling argument, Ms. Sawyer.”
Racy’s grin widened. “So is that a yes? Christmas in Curaçao?”
A disembodied voice floated across the airplane’s public address system: Ladies and gentlemen, the cabin door is now closed. At this time, please turn off all cellular devices and assure your seatbelt is fastened and secured.
My seatbelt had long been fastened. I’d turned my cell phone to airplane mode even before my flight had boarded. I had a paperback mystery novel in the front seat pocket, and a bottle of water and a pack of gum to keep my ears from popping. I was ready for my seven-hour flight.
Or at least I’d thought I was.
The woman seated in front of me turned around. “Excuse me. Would you mind switching seats so I can sit with my son?”
She gestured to the boy in the middle seat beside me. He looked about fifteen with his scruffy brown hair poking out from under his Red Sox baseball hat.
I was loath to move; we would be taking off any minute. The seatbelt sign was illuminated and flight attendants were running through the final steps in their pre-flight routine. I didn’t want to make a fuss. I didn’t want everyone in the vicinity staring at me and wondering why I was switching seats at the very last minute. I wanted to tell this middle-aged woman that if she’d booked her flight earlier, she wouldn’t be having this issue, or that she should stop being a helicopter parent and let her teenaged son sit by himself.
I wanted to say all of these things and more, but I didn’t. I unfastened my seatbelt instead. “Of course,” I conceded.
I collected my belongings in the immediate area and waited for the teen boy to unfasten his safety belt. Our movement set off a domino effect, disrupting the elderly woman who sat in the aisle seat and the two passengers in the seats next to the suburban mom.
A flight attendant rushed up to the congestion in the center aisle. “We’ll be taking off soon.” Her look of annoyance gnawed at my conscience. “Please return to your seats.”
“I’m so sorry,” I felt obligated to apologize for the entire group.
More shuffling and maneuvering and knocking my knees and nearly my head transpired before I successfully exchanged seats with the overly protective mom.
Once in my new seat, I fastened my safety belt and prepared for takeoff. Even though I sat in coach, each seat was equipped with its own miniature monitor. I couldn’t help noticing that all the other touch screens in my row were illuminated except for the monitor directly in front of me. I jabbed my index finger against the blackened screen, but it failed to respond.
“Great,” I muttered aloud.
Yet again, my inability to say no to inconveniences had resulted in more inconvenience. At least I was still by a window. I would have never been able to relax in the center seat, too worried that I might unintentionally drift across the invisible seat boundaries, and my elbows always got rammed by the beverage cart when I sat in the aisle seat.
For the next few hours I tried to lose myself in my novel. I rarely had time to read for fun anymore. Not having a traditional 9 to 5 job made carving out free time a challenge. As a teacher there was always grading to do or lesson plans to construct.
My reading was periodically interrupted by the snoring man seated next to me. Unlike myself, he appeared to have no qualms about spreading into my personal area. I found myself shrinking closer and closer to the airplane window to evade his creeping form.
He seemed to choke on a particularly violent snore, and in the process, woke himself up. I observed him out of the corner of my eye as he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He reached his arm across me to pull up the shade covering the small airplane window. I felt his shoulder press more tightly against mine as he leaned even closer to the window.
“Where are we?” he asked, as if I’d be able to tell by looking at the nothing but blue ocean below.
“I’m not sure,” I mumbled before returning my attention to my book.
He leaned back into his allotted space, but continued to invade my mental space. “Huh. I haven’t seen one of those in a while,” he observed.
I had no idea to what he was referring, and I really didn’t want to engage in conversation, so I simply raised an eyebrow.
“Your book,” he clarified. “Most people read on their tablets these days if they even read at all. I’m a Candy Crush kind of guy myself.”
My seatmate continued his attempts to draw me into conversation, asking questions about where I was from and what I did for a living, but my resistance proved stronger than his curiosity. Eventually he returned to intermittently snoring until we reached our destination.
The flight had tested my patience, but I felt my mood lift when our landing gear kissed the pavement of the tarmac. As the pilots taxied toward our gate, I pressed my nose against my tiny window to the outside world, eager to see Curaçao for the first time. I would have to wait a little longer to start my vacation, however, as the passengers around me reclaimed their carry-ons and we collectively inched towards the airplane’s exit.
I shouldered my carry-on bag and scanned the vicinity for directional signs. I always felt a little overwhelmed upon exiting airplanes. I needed a moment to regain my bearings.
I spotted the familiar sights of airport concessions and travel-oriented shopping, but a small part of my brain registered that we were in Willemstad, Curaçao, nearly 2,500 miles from Boston.
Racy’s excited grin and a blast of refrigerated air greeted me when I finally de-boarded the plane. She waved at me a few yards from our gate. We’d been on the same flight from Boston, but she preferred the luxury of First Class while I didn’t see the point of overspending for a little extra leg room.
“Wow, you didn’t waste any time getting into vacation mode,” I remarked with an amused chuckle.
Her black leggings, sweater, and Uggs from earlier had been replaced with an aqua-blue romper, wedge heels, and an oversized sunhat.
“You were taking forever,” she explained, “so I changed in the bathroom.”
I wrinkled my nose. “You make it sound like I wanted to be at the back of the plane.”
“You should have flown First Class with me.”
“You know I don’t have that kind of money.”
“You know I would have paid for your upgrade,” Racy countered.
“You know I don’t like handouts.”
She sighed loudly. “I know.”
I often wondered why Racy insisted on spending time with me. As an investment banker, she made significantly more money than I did. I consistently felt like my budget held her back, but to her credit, she worked hard to not make me uncomfortable about it. She just couldn’t control that I always felt uncomfortable.
“How was your flight?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “This vacation isn’t off to a great start.”
Her smile flattened. “Oh, no. What happened?”
“Not important. It’s fine. Let’s get through customs and find the resort shuttle. I’m ready to actually start this vacation.”
From the slow-moving line to retrieve our checked luggage, we moved next to the even slower-moving line towards the island nation’s custom agents. For it supposedly being the slow season, the line wrapped back and forth through the large ground-level space.
Racy had her phone out and blindly shuffled forward in line without looking up from her phone screen.
“I hope you’re not doing work,” I chastised.
“Just a few more e-mails before I totally go off-grid,” she promised.
I leaned against a concrete column. I was more than eager for vacation to actually start—to be through customs and at the resort where I intended to change into my bathing suit and read my book by the pool and not leave my cabana until it was time to catch my flight back to the States. I closed my eyes and rubbed my fingers against my temples.
I didn’t know how Racy had seen me; her eyes hadn’t strayed from her phone.
“There’s aspirin in my bag.” Instead of getting the medicine for me, she shrugged off the shoulder strap and dropped her purse into my hands.
I unzipped the main zipper and rummaged around inside. Instead of finding the shape of a pill bottle, my fingers closed around a different kind of shape.
“What is this?” I asked, pulling the red, shiny orb from her purse.
Racy’s eyes flicked briefly in my direction before returning her attention to her phone. “Looks like an apple. It came with my in-flight meal.”
“You can’t smuggle fruit into a foreign country!” I hissed.
“Then throw it away.”
“But we’re in line.” I felt myself begin to panic. “I can’t get out of line to find a garbage can.”
“I’ll save your spot,” she offered.
My voice pitched. “No savsies!”
She arched an eyebrow at my anxious outburst. “We really need to get you away from those kindergartners.”
“First grade,” I corrected her.
“Whatever. Same thing.”
I normally would have set the record straight about the many and varied differences between kindergartners and first graders, but I had an apple to make disappear.
I continued to pick apple remnants from my teeth after we breezed through customs; I’d never eaten a piece of fruit so quickly in my life.
Racy and I left the air conditioned confines of the Willemstad airport in search of the shuttle that was supposed to bring us to our all-inclusive resort. The sun was bright outside of the airport, and I could feel the heat of the blacktop beneath my bargain store flip-flops.
I juggled my bags, while I searched for my sunglasses. Racy continued to walk at her brisk, city pace while I dug around for the sunglasses I was sure I’d seen earlier. I walked, shuffling in small steps, my eyes lowered to the inside of my purse.
“Racy. Hold up.”
“I see our ride,” she told me.
“Just give me a second.” I stopped so I wouldn’t trip on my flip-flops.
“I’m gonna check-in with the driver.”
“Wait,” I pled.
I successfully located my sunglasses at the bottom of my cavernous bag, but when I looked up, I realized I’d found my sunglasses but I’d lost my friend. I scanned the immediate area with no sign of her aqua-blue romper.
A small man with a clipboard waved in my direction. I looked to my right and to my left. He appeared to be beckoning me, but I couldn’t understand why he was standing in front of a beat up, white passenger van. That couldn’t be our ride to the resort.
I took a few tentative steps in his direction, not completely committing. A big, floppy white hat appeared through the opening of the sliding side door. A feeling of dread settled in my stomach. What was Racy doing in that dilapidated van?
“Hustle up, Mercy,” she called to me. “We’re all waiting on you.”
The man associated with the battered van hustled to my side. “Help you with your bag?”
He didn’t wait for my response. He grabbed the long handle of my wheeled luggage and my sweaty grip slipped. I could only watch in anguish as the man loaded my suitcase into the back of the van. I winced when he slammed the back door shut.
“Inside please, Miss,” he encouraged.
I supposed if I were going to be kidnapped or murdered for stepping into a stranger’s van, at least I’d be going with my best friend.
I ducked my head and entered through the sliding side door. The back of the van was filled with other people, but I spotted Racy and her giant hat in the middle row. The man who’d sat next to me on the plane was alone on the short bench immediately in front of me. A young couple—newlyweds maybe—sat in the very back. They were too busy taking selfies from multiple angles to notice anyone else.
The air conditioning had been running, so at least it was mildly cooler in the van than outside. The side door slammed behind me, and I had no choice but to sit down. I ducked my head so as not to start vacation with a concussion and flopped down on the middle row of seats next to Racy
I reached for the closest seatbelt. “Are you sure about this?” I quietly grumbled for only Racy’s ears.
I uselessly mashed the ends of my seatbelt together, but the pieces wouldn’t fit.
“It’s fine. I’m sure the hotel’s regular shuttle vans are just all filled up.”
“I thought you said this was the slow season,” I practically accused.
“Okay,” she shrugged, recognizing the flaw in her argument, “maybe the regular fleet is being maintenanced.”
The man with the clipboard hopped into the driver’s seat and shifted the vehicle into drive. The engine revved and the airport began to disappear in the rearview mirror. Any misgivings I’d had would have to be put on hold.
The man taking up the front bench leaned forward to talk to the driver. “What can you tell me about Le Mirage?”
The driver turned his head slightly. “Pretty good time.”
“What about the women?”
“Depends on what you like.”
I glanced sharply in Racy’s direction, but she was back on her phone.
The man eventually sat back in his seat and left the driver to his task.
“I booked us a snorkeling excursion for tomorrow morning,” Racy announced.
“Just now?” I marveled.
“Those things fill up fast, so I made arrangements when I booked our hotel. It’s a smaller group so we’ll get plenty of individual attention.”
“Kind of like this five-star shuttle experience?” I couldn’t help the dig.
Nothing about our vacation thus far had me feeling relaxed. The van bumped down dusty, unpaved roads. No street signage reassured me that we were going the right way. Small shanty houses lined the street. The driver frequently slammed on the breaks to avoid hitting livestock that darted into the road.
“What have you gotten us into?” I muttered for only Racy’s ears.
“Lighten up, Mercy. We’re on vacation now.” Her words said one thing, but the confidence had drained from my friend’s tone, which made me even more worried.
The van approached a mechanized gate. The security fence around the perimeter of the property was too high to see what was beyond the gate. I knew we’d probably come to our resort, but between our dented van and how rocky the trip had started, I expected the worst. American women being sold to the highest bidder, just beyond the gate.
The driver rolled down the window and typed a code into the security box at the entrance. I leaned forward to try to make out the numbered sequence, but the fatheaded man seated in front of me obscured my view. I exhaled loudly; we might have needed to know that code in order to escape.
The mechanized gate soundlessly opened and our van inched forward. My previous misgivings melted away upon seeing the grand driveway leading up to the resort’s main building. The driveway to the resort was close to a quarter mile of lush vegetation and meticulously landscaped yard. Vibrant flowers in full bloom lined the long paved driveway that led up to a towering building that looked like a giant thatch roof. As we approached the main building, my excitement increased; the lobby area was open on all sides with a clear view of the ocean just on the other side.
I only looked away from the picturesque vistas when I felt a hand on my knee. Racy’s smile looked smug. “I did good, right?”
As much as I hated giving her too much credit, I nodded.
The young men working the valet stand opened the side door. Everyone in the vehicle poured out onto the concrete sidewalk and waited while staff worked quickly and efficiently to unload our luggage from the back of the van.
A woman with a tablet approached Racy and me while we stood on the hot concrete.
“Bon bini. Welcome. Names please?”
“Racine Sawyer and Mercy Lewis,” Racy provided for the both of us.
“Ms. Sawyer, Ms. Lewis, welcome. I have you in an ocean view room with two queen beds, checking out with us on December 27th. Is that correct?”
“You got it,” Racy confirmed.
The woman swiped two key cards through a credit-card reader attached to the top of her iPad.
“Here are your room keys. I won’t need to link your credit cards since we’re an all-inclusive resort. You won’t need to charge anything back to the room, and please remember not to tip your servers or other staff.”
“Why not?” I felt compelled to ask.
The woman smiled evenly. “Because we’re all-inclusive.”
She hadn’t answered my question, but she pressed our room keys into our hands and moved on to the next hotel guests before I could ask any additional questions.
“Well that was weird,” I grumbled, shouldering my toiletries bag.
“What is?” Racy asked.
“Why can’t I tip if I want to? Are they trying to keep their staff in perpetual poverty?”
Racy laughed. “You and your conspiracies. They probably want all their guests to receive the same treatment and have the same experience. If you start tipping, it throws that philosophy out of whack.”
“If you say so,” I said, still not convinced.
Our room was located in the main resort building; a short elevator ride to the third floor had us to our final destination. Once I ascertained that my key card worked on our room door, I felt myself finally beginning to relax.
“Do you have a bed preference?” Racy asked before throwing her oversized purse on the closest bed.
I shook my head, not really paying attention; I was too distracted by the big blue ocean beyond our hotel windows.
Racy flopped down on the first bed, apparently claiming it for herself while I continued to walk towards the full length windows that turned out to be sliding doors that opened onto a narrow balcony. Quiet music filtered up to our room from the large pool directly beneath the balcony, but I was far more impressed by the crescent-shaped lagoon at the edge of the resort property. I couldn’t hear the ocean, but I could definitely smell it in the warm, salty air.
I closed my eyes and exhaled. The warm sun was gentle and reassuring on my face.
Racy’s knowing voice called to me from inside the room. “Ready for this vacation to start?”