National Botanical Gardens 1986
In the middle of the hurricane belt, hurricanes never seem to touch Trinidad. The meteorological maps are perplexed. They show storm after storm approaching the island and beating a path around it. Trinidadians don’t even take precautions anymore. They prepare for things with the gather and the cook. In Trinidad, we call it liming. Anything becomes a good enough pretense for a lime. Hurricane coming? Lime. Election results? Lime. The Pope visiting? Lime. The Queen? Lime. Armed overthrow of the government? Lime for days. It is the ethos of the Trinidadian. It is his magic. It is an imperative towards life in the same way that Europeans know conquest. We are born in and reared by it. We believe it a God-ordained imperative; and this mish-mosh of people from all over the world, all of us gathered here in this gateway between the Caribbean and South America, still not sure if we’re here for good or if this is a way station, cannot be bothered by impending storm. We are a conglomeration of wandering tribes, after all. Our entire world is a marketplace; our inventions, of the show and beauty variety. We are supplicants to the make-and-give-away. We invented a beautiful thunder from the insides of discarded oil drums. We learned to bend wire into visions we could mistake for gods. And so, when we are told of hurricane, we think of the circular swirling winds. We think of masquerade costume and Renegades coming up Charlotte Street. Every moment provides us with opportunity and imperative for beauty.
And with the rainy season almost upon us in August, with the thick, hot, haze of the Atlantic always in the air, we’re preparing to be gorgeous. I’m preparing to be gorgeous on a Friday night, because I’m 18 and I’m Trinidadian, and even if my job as a clerk at the Chocolate Factory says I have to come in that Saturday morning for inventory, there is no reason for me to not go to this party, to not lime all the way from off of work on a Friday, with only a brief stop back home for a shower and some food before I meet the fellas and we joy-ride all over the North East before we go to this big DJ clash, where everybody will be and besides everybody, Gail, in particular, whose teeth are jewels in the calmer Caribbean sea to our west, whose smile is probably what calmed the winds that became gale force when they hit Grenada and St. Vincent and Jamaica, because no-one as beautiful as she smiled at storms, there. And there’s no way I’m not meeting Gail there and holding her and swaying to some slow tunes in the dark in a corner right next to the big speaker box, my head a little bad with the rum and coke I’m going to have there.
So I grab a drink with Peter and Omar after work, and I stop by Hereford’s on the way home, and fire a quick one with Uncle Mikey who is often there, but he’s not yet drunk so he doesn’t think he needs me to carry him home, even though he wants me to stay longer and have another. But I know it’s going to be a long night and I intend to not be drunk when I see Gail, so I thump Uncle Mikey on the back, and promise him I’ll see him right there on that stool on Sunday night. And I drive home, slowly and easily for once, thinking of Gail the whole time and what I’m going to wear. I call the fellas, because you don’t show up at no fete without your pardners, your boys. Dexter isn’t coming out. Larry isn’t coming out. Cyril isn’t coming out, but Rudy is coming out and will meet me at my house and Dave will come out if I come for him, so I say yes. Because there’s no way you don’t go get your boys if they need you to go get them. It is the Trinidadian way. It is the way with your pardners, your number one crew of limers.
At home, Mummy has made a pelau. She and my step-father are liming too. But they’re staying in tonight. They are already divorced but maintain something between civility and passion. They are hurricane children too. This way is their prerogative. I lie on the couch and doze off because I’m tired a bit, and don’t wake until Rudy’s voice says aye boy from over the half-door of the kitchen. This is before crime makes it so we have to put metal bars on every doorway, before we have to think about home-invasions. I startle awake to Rudy’s massive shock of curly hair, and infectious, always-giggling. This is before liver-disease that no-one can diagnose for him. He suggests we should start it up right now and I tell him that he knows where the rum is and he goes to the cabinet and pours the Vat 19 on some ice and offers a Good Night to my mother and step-father, while I go to shower.
I’m slower than usual in getting ready because I want to make sure to look smooth. I iron my best jeans, the Sergio Valentes; grey, skinny. Brand new white adidas sneakers with fat laces that my godmother sent for me from New York. I go with my flyest plaid shirt, ironing it slowly, listening to Run DMC and Kool Moe Dee on my boombox as I dress. And when I pick my hair out and smooth down the sides, I know Im ready for the biggest DJ clash of the year. I know I’m ready for Amitaph vs C.I.N. I’m ready to hold Gail while something slow by Debarge comes through the big boxes.
Rudy and I jump into my mother’s Datsun 120Y. I’ve had my boy next door, Sean tune it up a little. Sean builds cars or modifies them until they fly, so I like the little touches he can put on the car; how it leaps like a dolphin when I step on the gas. We take the back way, up through Maraval, through the Northern Range and the night, to go to Diego Martin to pick up Rudy’s other pardner. We hustle through the black, narrow roads, me gearing down and accelerating through bends, for the thrill as much as trying to make up time. We stop at a snackette along the way and pick up three Carib, and I cradle the cold beer in my lap in between gear changes. We head back over the mountain after we pick up Rudy’s boy. We head around the savannah and up over the Lady Young Road, for the curves, for the hills and steep drops. We’re going to get Dave and when we pull up in front Dave’s house on Pasea Main Road, he’s waiting already out in front his father’s rum shop. He has a bottle of Vat 19 in his hand, and he is easy in his slow leaned forward gait as he walks. Dave is still the captain of the West Indies youth squad. We still expect him to become an opener for West Indies within the next 5 years. Everything is golden in our expectations, because we are Trinidadians and the only time I’ve ever seen a hurricane was in 1974, and I came outside in it because no one thought it was too dangerous for a 6 year old to go out onto the gallery to see the storm; because we’re liming. Coconuts are bullets through the air as if thrown from some massive invisible hand rifling the ball in from extra cover. Trees are javelins down Trinity Street, but miraculously no-one’s house is destroyed in our village. No-one is killed. We liming, and now we’re going to the DJ clash.
By the time we park and we’re walking in it’s midnight. And we taking our time strolling in because we can’t look too anxious. We can’t look like we fighting it. We have to look like we belong, like is just so we move, cool, cool. I’m looking out for Gail, but trying not to look like I’m looking out for Gail. But then Gail steps out of the murky dark of the party and she’s smiling that smile. She’s wearing a matching brick red, or maybe burgundy, floor length skirt and halter top that sweeps up over her perfect collar bones and around her neck where it’s tied. And her perfect belly is exposed down to where her skirt hangs onto her perfect hip-bones, and she’s smiling that smile, and I’m still playing it cool, because my pardners are meeting her for the first time and I can feel Rudy freeze with awe and Dave’s laugh turn into a nervous giggle and as I remember it, Gail is even more cool and confident than I am. She walks up and slides her arms around my neck, and kisses me gently on my mouth and I’m hoping that by the end of this night Gail will be my girlfriend, but it’s early and the DJs haven’t even let loose yet.
For a people absolutely unafraid of hurricanes, it’s amazing how much we’re always looking for rain. We can smell it coming. We don’t want to be in it. We always want shelter from the rain, but it will not stop the lime. It will not stop the party. But it will stop us from going to work. It will make us late for any appointment. Like brown people all over the world, we see an appointment time as an hour before which we should not arrive. We see any appointment time as a sunrise. I’m thinking of this when I’m thinking how perfect this night is, even though I haven’t heard from Curtis for the longest while. And I wonder about what time I should leave since the air is thick and it doesn’t look like rain and I have a long day of counting barrels of peanuts, and chocolate syrup and sacks of flour and candy-bar wrappers, beginning in about 6 hours. But I’m chilling with my dudes and the lime is sweet and there’s a girl who is sweet and gorgeous and doesn’t hold back when she’s laughing so I decide that rather than leave early I’ll compromise by not drinking anymore. So I go looking for Gail to get my hold and slow grind on, in the dark next to the big speakerbox. Lionel Ritchie is singing Hello, is it me you’re looking for, and clearly it’s time, and when I find her, she’s craning her neck to see where I am and smiles that smile again and we don’t even have to talk, we just graft our bodies into each other’s and I haven’t yet bought my ticket to leave for New York, and New York is a place on television to besides. Gail’s neck smells clean like soap, like sunlight, like she washes in the river, which of course she does not, but that’s how close my face is in her neck and how close we’re grinding. Her fingertips are firm against my back and sometimes my neck, and I’m smelling something rich in her hair and neck and I’m not afraid of hurricanes and don’t know enough to be fraid of snowstorms or tornadoes yet, and we dance through that song and the one right after it, without stopping like the beat was all the same because the DJ is on his game and knows how to mix one song right into the next so the couples in the dark don’t have to stop, never have to stop being in love, because the DJs too know in their bellies something about a marketplace people who build temples of love out of wire and songs and rain and burgundy skirts they sewed themselves, and by the time Gail and I get through the next slow jam, we know something made of carnival and hot sun and storms is happening between us, and I lean my forehead against hers and promise to call her the next day, and I stroll through the crowd until I see Rudy and Dave and make a signal in the air like an umpire signaling a home run, which means we’re making a turn from there, and they should wrap up if they still want a lift home. And Rudy’s boy decides to stay on, and my pardners decide to leave. It’s a little past three, when I step out the door, giving a fist bounce to some other fellas I see there and we head home.
We’re closest to Rudy, so over the mountains again; fast, the only way I know how to drive. the turns are sharp. The roads are narrow. The drops off the road precipitous, but I’m not yet afraid of roller coasters or heights or failing or being in particular neighborhoods at the wrong time, or giving myself entirely to a woman whom I love. I drop Rudy off and fist bounce and Dave comes around to the front seat and we head for El Socorro and when Dave steps out the car and says Laters at about a quarter to four, I know I’m a little more tired than I would like and I have what is usually a half hour drive home, but I know I can do it in twenty easy. The car is already ten years old. It has no radio and no seat belts, but the engine makes the car into a leopard and when I wind the windows down and begin singing outloud on my way home, I know I’ll be fine. I begin with my choir’s entire repertoire. I sing Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho, then I sing the African Sanctus, then I sing Handel’s Requiem. I’m making myself laugh by hitting Wake Up Johnny as I zoom past The Butler Highway, and the 120Y is doing 90 and I start in on the catalog of Air Supply and the songs of Bonnie Tyler. I’m singing Black Stalin as I hit the lighthouse and I know I’m almost home free and I’m singing Bodyguard from the Steel Pulse catalog as I gun up French Street, and nothing has ever happened to me. I’m invincible and my muscles still do everything I tell them to, so quickly I don’t even have to tell them yet. I hit the savannah and I’m a genius, so I’m singing the J Geils Band. I’m singing Michael Jackson. I take the corner by the College and I know I’m less than 5 minutes from home. I’ve done the dangerous thing and won again. I’ve beaten something and tomorrow I’m going to ask Gail if we can go out for real, to see a double feature at the cinema and maybe get some ice cream, and I’m pretty sure she’s going to say yes and soon she’ll be my girlfriend, and I’m damn near home, so I stop singing.
Later I’ll say that the last thing I saw was the Emperor Valley Zoo, which abuts the Botanical Gardens. Every day I walked to and from school through those gardens. It was a good long walk, about 30 minutes and I’d dilly dally going through there and get to school late and be in trouble often. And I’d take walks with girls I liked through there and steal kisses leaned up against the big cedar trees. Our cross-country race went through those Gardens and up the hill at Mount Belvedere. So many of us spent so much living in those gardens, walking and jogging past the old historical cemetery and learning the Latin names of the bougainvillea and the poui and the hibiscus.
Later, a mechanic will say that I was doing at least 80 when I hit the railings, but I know nothing of speed when I’m awakened by a hurricane of steel and glass. The car is in the air forever after it hits the curb and my ears are full of a gorgeous thunder. In the eye of that chaos, I can hear bullets of steel parts rifling past as I bury my head in my hands and abandon myself. I thank God I’m alone and for a moment I’m glad for the cocoon of the cockpit. The bottom of the car is grazing the ixora shrubs and everything is quiet, and I wonder where Curtis is again and glad he isn’t with me, because I don’t yet know that he’s been diagnosed with AIDS. I do not know he’ll be dead in six months. Dave will be wheelchair bound in 2 years, all our dreams of his professional career gone, and I’m in wonder at the quiet still, and realize only then, that I’m flying, and the 120Y lands in a thick patch of grass and in front of me, a massive beautiful cedar, but the car spins and spins and spins like a top, and eventually spends itself and stops. And I’m not even scared I discover. I sit for a few seconds, and a security guard from the nearby President’s house runs over to see if I’m okay, and I tell him I’m good and the door can’t open, so I climb out the open window and piss on the tire and walk back towards the street where a car has stopped, and they offer me a lift, which isn’t far at all by now. I’m three minutes from home, and they stop because we don’t yet know what carjacking means in Trinidad. And I get home and wake my mother up and of course she’s hysterical and I have to tell her a million times that I don’t have the slightest scratch on me. And my step-dad puts his clothes on and makes a phone call and they get the car moved out of the gardens before daybreak, because Trinidad still operates based on whom you know can do what when, and it still does. And anyone on my block who sees the car with its broken front axle, thinks I’m dead, because no-one answers our door, because I’ve got up early and gone to work to inventory chocolates.
When I come home, I call Rudy and Dave to tell them what happened, and Rudy comes to my house immediately and together, and in silence we walk down to where the car left the road and jumped the curb and became an airship, and we followed the flight and trajectory to where the car landed and made a crop circle of spins and stopped two feet in front of the tree that would surely have killed me, and Rudy whistled and scratched his head and we could barely talk except Rudy said You lucky as fuck, Rog, because we don’t yet know how unlucky he is; that he’ll be dead in less than ten years, his liver failed and failed and failed to keep up with the prerogative to lime that we held as confirmation of our manhood, our Trinidadianness. And Gail never became my girlfriend because I never called her that day or the next and by the time we spoke next, our moment was passed, the way these things pass, easily like that in the blazing speed of youth.
My step-father sent me for cigarettes in his car that afternoon, otherwise, he said, you’ll never drive again, and I trembled all the way to the store, but came back safely, cruising slowly into our spot. I learned to drive fast again and I loved Marcia harder than I thought I loved Gail that night and we mourned Curtis together and made love again and again in the six months we had before I left home. But everything had changed. I knew something more was coming. I had to go out in the world and make something happen for myself. I had to live at full throttle, even as I was getting more and more aware of how many storms were headed my way.
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