Four Days in St. Croix
The plane ride levels you off quickly. All the expectation and excitement bends under the pressures of modern-day transportation. It isn’t glamorous, not even for the first-class passengers. Yelling children, reclining chairs, the snap-rip of a magazine page in your hands—the ride is a means to an end. We endure. We eat too much, read, and look out the windows at the specks of white like tiny flipping coins on the blue expanse below. And then with a wobble and a stomach-drop and clutched fists, the flight is done. Four days of freedom are in front of us. We laugh.
— Vacation, she squeals, not for the first time but for the first time since we boarded the plane those five, six hours ago.
— To the Carambola Resort, I say, my sunglasses on. The taxi accelerates onwards and upwards thought the island’s mountains. No, not mountains, it’s just the island itself. Geometry is different here, distances incalculable. The taxi climbs over the swollen middle of the island, this gathering together of rock and green vegetation, and then we descend on the other side.
The hotel is not new, thankfully. It’s been worn, bares the tree-rings of an existence that began in the ’20s (— or maybe in the ‘30s, she says). The doors fold in. Twist the knobs and pull on the slats and invite the wind into the room. The fresh air cools us better than the air conditioner and reminds us that people once lived in the days before artificial air. The island wind was passing through when the Rockefellers built this hotel, when old Captain Blackbeard sailed the waters off the shores of Santa Cruz, and long before that, too.
The endless afternoon becomes an endless evening. Time appears to be something of a joke around here. After dinner, we go for a walk on the empty beach.
— Stars, she says. Look at the stars! It’s amazing how many stars there are. We’re so far from the city now.
— What do you think about, I ask, when you see all these stars?
— I quickly look down again and kick the sand so the baby crabs don’t bite my toes.
And so we kick the sand and there’s Orion’s belt in the sky and a white rock that looks like a bird in the dark. We get some rum punch at the bar but don’t drink too much, and then head back to the room to watch TV and talk about how it’s impossible that Heidi Klum could actually be so thin and so pregnant all at once. It’s time to rest; there’s a lot of vacation ahead.
We race down to the water’s edge. The ocean here, perhaps driven by the wind or maybe just subject to the same conditions, is steady and constant. Waves sprint towards the shore to die in a gasp of foam that bubbles up into a sandy soup. The undertow pulls the water back and feeds the next wave. For the swimmer, the key is to wade in past the breaking point to that tender area where the peaks and troughs roll through but where your feet can still touch the soft floor. I could float here forever, and I do.
For some reason, the water is extremely salty, much saltier than the Cape Cod ocean with which I am more familiar. I don’t know what causes the super-saturation, whether it’s a Caribbean thing or if it’s particular to this beach. But when I swim up behind her on a sneak-attack mission, the water kisses planted on her neck are surely both salty and sweet.
— Do I look like a sad clown? she asks. We are back at the chairs drying off with blue-and-white-striped towels. Thin, imperfect triangles of make-up run down her cheeks, reaching down from the lower eyelids to cover her sun freckles. She tries to embellish the look with a frown, but fails in the best way possible.
American tourists are not the only ones on this beach. Tiny beige-white sand crabs skitter across the damp beige-white surface when the water recedes, shuffling sideways as all Crucians seem to do. Several small steps, stop, dig in the sand, and hide. Their small black eyes, unblinking, peer out from the soft holes.
A more potent presence is the wind. It remains the island’s dominant feature, equaled in constancy only by the rhythmic pounding of the waves. We sit side by side in a hammock and look up, the only direction available to us. Clouds, irresponsible but harmless, pass by us as easily as false words pass the lips of a liar. In the next moment, the wind kicks up. Great handfuls of sand have been gathered and tossed in our faces and all we can do is shield our eyes with our books until it’s over. But it’s never a hardship, the wind, not even in the moments of sand blindness, because it’s the wind that keeps us sane in the Caribbean heat.
Later, we discover that the pale sand crabs are not the only crabs in town. On our way out to lunch, I open the door and step out of our room and several feet away is a proper crab, red and black and solidly shelled. He’s traveled several hundred feet from the beach to this spot outside my room. I’m not sure exactly what he’s doing here. He may not be sure, either. When the crab and I make eye contact, he moves to the corner at the base of the wall and stands as tall as he can on all his legs. He raises his claws high and opens them wide and puffs out his chest.
— Look at me, says the crab. I’m big and scary and you don’t want to come near me. Please don’t come near me!
— Don’t worry, Mr. Crab, I reply out loud. We are on our way to lunch. Will you stand guard for us while we’re gone?
I peer back over my shoulder as I walk up the steps, and Mr. Crab is patrolling the hallway, this one small piece of his island, little legs moving beneath his heavy shell, claws still raised and battle ready.
Day three arrives quite suddenly. We’re finally ready to get away from the isolation of the resort.
— Where should we go? I ask. Christiansted first for lunch and then what?
— Doesn’t matter, she says. Let’s just go. I’d rather not have a plan.
— All right, sounds like a plan, I say.
We drive the car across the island, through the rain forest and by the beer-drinking pig show (non-alcoholic beer is the answer). When we get to the beach on the far side, a massive, hulking Carnival cruise ship has docked at the end of a long pier. In the shadow of the not-quite-white ship, we discover a little place called Coconuts on the Beach.
— Let’s stop for a coconut!
We park and pull in and to our happy surprise find that today’s special is two-dollar margaritas. These are heavy-pour drinks, too. We settle into the plastic chairs with our drinks that never seem to run out, perhaps because the ice is melting at the exact same rate that we’re able to suck through the straws. A guy in a straw hat and a Tennessee t-shirt sings solo acoustic songs: the Allmans, Cash, Willie Nelson. We sip margaritas, toss a fiver in the singer’s tip jar, and let the thick afternoon stretch by us.
— People come here and never leave, apparently. Why not us? Could we stay here? What would it take to do that?
But we don’t stay forever. Vacations end. The trip home is long; we have two layovers and the weather is nasty. This wind along the length of the East Coast is different than the island wind. Our plane is violently tossed about as it attempts to hang in the air. The time we spent on vacation is clearly over, contained forever within a four-day period that only seems to have much different dimensions. What did we leave behind on the island, and what, if anything, did we bring home with us?
We finally land in Boston after 9:00 PM. It’s cold, it’s rainy, and it’s tough to be back. We have to wait for a cab at the cab stand, and all the unwinding of vacation has already begun to recoil. When we finally get home, our heads are wet and our feet hurt and I have to be back in the office in something like ten hours. Crossing the door into the apartment, we drop our bags and look at each other. Her makeup is streaking down her cheeks from the rain.
— Sad clown? she asks.