The tourists were all but gone and it was a relief, in a way, their absence. It helped me forget. The rum helped too, and the scenery had helped for a while, though most of that had gone with the tourists. Irma really trashed this place. She hammered the dimpled green hills down to a matted brown pulp and chewed up all the beaches. She tore apart the docks and left all those gleaming white yachts in a jumbled heap along the shore. She clogged the swimming pools with dirt and sand and ripped the roofs clean off of some places. That’s what happened to Bambi’s.
Bambi’s roadside bar was a driftwood shack overlooking the sea. Set on a shoulder of rock along the island’s main road, there was just enough room for the bar and a half dozen cars to park before the land broke away, and then it was a hundred-foot drop to the rocky shore below. Sometimes, and now that no one was around especially, it felt like you were standing at the end of the world, which was why I stopped running when I found this place.
When I moved down here from Pittsburgh, Bambi gave me a job slinging Painkillers because her former mainland bartender, a woman from Denver, finally decided she’d had enough of island life. She’d moved back home the week before I showed up. The bar was one of those places that attracted natives and tourists alike. Mainly, people came for the Painkillers. Bambi’s secret recipe was legendary on the island and even I wasn’t sure what she put in it. She mixed the drinks at home and brought her brew to the bar in one-gallon plastic jugs that I and the other bartenders pulled from the fridge and poured into clear plastic cups for the customers. Any idiot could do this part of the job, and so our real purpose was to entertain people while they drank.
Bambi always had one bartender on staff from the mainland to deal with the tourists. She said they liked to see someone from home because it made them think anything was possible, that they really could pick up and move down here on a whim if they wanted to, and that possibility, she said, sold more rum. I never doubted her theory and one of the perks was that I got to drink as much of her legendary brew as it took to keep me smiling and chatting. Usually, I didn’t mind this part of the job, except for the one time a group of Steelers fans showed up waving a black and gold terrible towel and wanting to know if they could hang it in the bar. They claimed to have planted a towel in every bar in the Virgin Islands and for some reason, this irked me. At the time, I might have said it was their imperialist attitude or some such bullshit, but really it was the fact that I simply did not want to be reminded of home. Of course, Bambi was there and she was all for it because everyone left shit from the mainland tacked to the driftwood walls of her bar. She even moved aside a pair of pink panties and a union jack to make room. The best thing about the hurricane, as far as I was concerned, was that it ripped that towel off the wall and cast it into a roiling black sea.
* * *
I could have left after Irma. A lot of people did, but I stayed, and that garnered me a degree of begrudging respect from Bambi. I was pretty sure she’d only tolerated me before, but after the storm, she seemed to soften towards me. Most of the other bartenders never bothered coming back to the shack It was understood there would be no customers, and without customers there would be no pay.
When I showed up the first dry day after the storm, I found Bambi alone, raking all the debris into a pile and muttering to herself. She was standing in the middle of the shack. The door was gone from its frame, and light was pouring in from the open sky above. She looked older than I remembered her—there seemed to be more gray streaking her hair, and the creases around the corners of her eyes were deeper somehow. She looked frailer too, like the wind might pick up at any minute and carry her away, as it had everything left untethered and most things nailed down.
For a moment, she stopped what she was doing and stared hard at me, like she was both surprised to see me and not at all surprised, like she was thinking that of all people of course it would be me. Then she shook her head and went back to raking up splintered chunks of driftwood and shards of broken glass. I found a shovel leaned up against the sea-facing wall and began heaping the rubble into a large blue drum that Bambi had somehow managed to get inside the shack.
When we’d finished with the floor, Bambi handed me a bottle of water and we rested for a moment alongside what remained of the bar. I took a long drink while she stood squinting up at the late morning sky. The sun was beginning to dispense with the clouds, and blue patches were opening up above us.
“You know I can’t pay you,” she said.
“Figured as much,” I said.
“Don’t you have people worried about you back home?”
I thought about my parents. I spoke to them about once or twice a year and she was right, I should try to let them know I was ok, but without Internet or cell service it wouldn’t be possible anytime soon. Then, for the briefest of moments, I allowed myself to think about Heather. I allowed myself a glimpse of her pale, freckled skin overlaid with a dark ribbon of her hair, the way she slept on her side with half her face obscured. Then I fixed my gaze on the horizon, a flat blue line of never-ending sea, and shook my head. “There’s nothing left for me there.”
Bambi had the trunk of her car stuffed with plastic tarps, and I helped her drag them out and haul them over to the roofless shack. I’d always been pretty good with tools. My father owned a construction company and, at one time, I’d planned to take over the family business. I was perched on a rafter with a hammer and a mouthful of nails when Monika showed up around noon, toting a brown paper bag packed with peanut butter and plantain sandwiches.
Bambi saw me wave to her daughter and she gave me a knowing nod, as if I’d finally confirmed her suspicions. In a way, I suppose I had. It was true that Monika and I had been sleeping together for some time now, though we’d done our best to keep things private, at least as far as Bambi was concerned. But Bambi was likely thinking now that Monika was the reason I’d stayed, and this wasn’t entirely true. If anything, I was the reason Monika was still here, not the other way around.
* * *
Monika asked me to leave with her again that night. She’d always wanted to leave, even before the hurricane, only now her desire to go was more urgent. We were lying together on the floor of Bambi’s. My apartment building was trashed and I was nervous about looters, so earlier I’d asked Bambi if I could crash at her bar. I told her I’d get to work first thing in the morning, and that I’d keep an eye on the place overnight. She said I could stay there as long as I wanted.
When Bambi left to get home before curfew, Monika stayed behind with me. The two of them exchanged a hard look that seemed to last a long time. It was awkward for me because I didn’t want to be a source of tension between them, which was why I’d insisted on keeping things secret between us. Finally, Bambi waved her hand, a dismissive gesture, and said, “You’re grown.” Then she left.
Monika must have planned on staying the night with me because she’d brought dinner too: cornbread and spam. I built a fire behind the bar. There was plenty of refuse around—dead brush and jagged strips of cardboard—dried by the afternoon sun, which I gathered and used as kindling. Then I found a battered square of drywall on the side of the road, dislodged from someone’s wall—who knows where? I broke the drywall into little pieces and set them on the flames to burn slow and hot as impromptu charcoal so we could warm our food wrapped in foil.
Later, when the mood struck her, I wasn’t expecting it. She caught me rummaging through the extra tarps trying to find one suitable enough to sleep on. Her nails dug into my skin as she yanked off my pants, always in a hurry to take what she needed from me, and I let myself fall down into the pile of tarps with Monika following after me. Soon we were tangled in the odors of our sweat, drywall smoke, salt and whatever must was rising up off of all those old tarps, which had been stashed away in the humid heat somewhere dark and out of sight behind Bambi’s place.
When we were finished and panting, I thought for a moment of Heather and how we always had to start slow and work our way up to something like that, and how afterwards I had always felt satisfied, whereas now I felt empty and starving for more. But Monika was done with me, at least physically, and she wanted to make plans.
“Will you go with me?” She lifted her head from my chest and locked her serious, dark brown eyes on mine. Monika had studied hospitality and business at the local university and, instead of leaving for a mainland job after graduation like most of her friends, she’d stayed behind on account of her mother and she’d gone to work for one of the big international resorts on the island. But now the resort was shut down for repairs and the higher-ups were offering her a mainland position with full benefits. She hadn’t yet mentioned any of this to Bambi.
“I’ll take you to the airport,” I said.
“That’s not what I mean.”
I knew she wanted me to go with her because I’d grown up on the mainland and she wanted me there to help her acclimate to—what was for her—a foreign place. And I suppose it was possible that she hoped we might grow to love each other, or at least to see one another as a permanent couple. More than once she’d said we were “a good fit”, and though I agreed with her the sad truth was I’d been down this same road before. In fact, I’d been farther down the road that time, much farther down. Back in Pittsburgh, Heather had been my fiancé. We’d had the wedding all planned and mostly paid for. We’d invited the guests and arranged their tables. We’d selected the music the D.J. would play, and my groomsmen and I had already been fitted for our tuxedos when I woke up in the middle of the night and felt like I was suffocating. Honestly, I couldn’t breathe. Heather had to find me a paper bag to huff into and she spent half the night rubbing my back until I finally calmed down.
What I’d seen that frightened me was the rest of my life—my career at my father’s construction company, the house we planned to build, even the children we would have—all lined up in front of me like empty boxes on a survey.
When I could breathe again, I told Heather not to worry, that I was fine. But I just couldn’t shake it—the fear that I would die in the same place I’d been born and that I’d never see or do anything. So after a few more days I called off the wedding. I quit my job at my father’s company, took all my savings and left.
For a while, I drifted—Lexington, Savannah, Charleston, St. Petersburg—working temporary construction jobs, and then in bars until a coworker in Key West told me about the place where he’d grown up, a tiny Caribbean island sixty or so miles east of Puerto Rico. I knew as soon as I stepped off the plane that I’d finally found what I’d been looking for. No other way to describe it—I belonged.
“What about your mother?” I said. “I promised her I’d help put this place back together. Who would help her if I left?”
Monika sighed and let her head fall against my chest with a thud. Then she dug her chin into my ribs and asked, “What are you afraid of?”
I felt a warm breeze come in off the sea. The tarps I’d nailed down to the driftwood walls were rustling overhead and the sound of the surf below was steady as a heartbeat that sometimes races but never dies. I felt safe there, crouched on a rock at the end of the world, and I wanted to stay in Bambi’s bar forever, but I didn’t know how to explain this to Monika. I didn’t know how to convince her that I was happiest in this place where the economy had been a wreck even before Irma hit, where there was nothing but devastation and loss, and no hope for the future. How could you tell someone that when they had a golden ticket they wanted to share, and all they’d ever wanted was to leave this place behind?
We spent a few more nights together at Bambi’s, sleeping on a sagging old air mattress Monika found at her mother’s, which I had to inflate with my own lungs because there still wasn’t any power. In the mornings, Monica would go home and make plans for her secret move while I repaired the shack. Bambi always came by before lunch with food and supplies. Then she’d leave around dusk, just before Monika came back with dinner and another reason for me to leave.
I felt the ebb and flow of those two women, mother and daughter, like two competing tides. In the daylight, Bambi trickled in and stood by silently, noting the repairs I’d made from a shady corner, monitoring my progress and then offering a flurry of suggestions. Could we make the door frame bigger, put a window in overlooking the sea, and maybe, someday, add a new deck out back? Her words were quick and sharp, strictly business, but I could tell she was glad I’d stayed, glad for my help, and maybe even accepting of my relationship with Monika, because she always left a quart of her legendary brew for me in a nook behind the bar.
At night, Monika came crashing in and poured herself over me, a torrent of aching desire and impossible dreams. First she would love me in her rough, hurried way, and then she would build an imaginary life for us together on the mainland. One night she described the apartment we would live in and the following nights she talked about the things we would see and do when she wasn’t working. Things I’d taken for granted because I’d grown up with expansive shopping malls and amusement parks, nightclubs and sports stadiums; places that Monika longed to experience but that I never wanted to see again. Then, in the morning she’d go rushing out the door, leaving me stunned and dizzy, and thinking I must be crazy for telling her to go without me.
For a little while, I allowed myself to hope that Monika might change her mind. She was still on the island after all, and the bar was hers if she ever wanted it. Bambi had said as much. This made me think that if she stayed, then maybe someday we could run the place together. The hard truth of the matter was that though I cared for Monika, if I was being completely honest with myself then I’d have to admit that I cared for Bambi’s bar more. And so I hoped all the improvements I’d been making might help her see the bar’s potential and convince her to stay. I was even willing to consider the possibility of children if that would make Monika happy. But then we got the news about Maria, another category five storm headed straight for the Virgin Islands, certain to be a direct hit.
That evening, Monika came by and we sat out back on a driftwood bench I’d built overlooking the sea. For a while, I don’t know how long, we passed a jug of Bambi’s brew and watched the horizon for signs of the hurricane, but there was nothing to see that might forewarn its arrival. Then a sluggish movement caught the corner of my eye. Something prehistoric was scaling the mangled trunk of a leafless tree. It took me a minute to realize that I was looking at a green iguana, basking in what remained of the tropical sun.
Monika caught sight of the lizard. She shook her head and muttered, “Of course that thing would survive the storm. Soon they’ll be all that’s left here.”
The iguanas were not native to the islands, and most people considered them pests; an invasive species that devoured garden foliage and out-competed native animals.
I didn’t say anything.
Monika must have been well on her way to drunk because her voice had a slight slur to it and was hot with anger. She looked hard at me then and said, “You’re just like that fucking lizard over there. Stubborn. You wash up on the beach one day, dig your claws into some hot rock and never let go.”
I drove Monika to the airport in Bambi’s car. Bambi stayed behind at her house. She said she had too much to do before Maria hit and no time for long good byes. She said I could stay with her at the house if I came back. She said she could use some help boarding the place up. Then she gave her daughter a quick hug and told her not to forget where she came from.
As we drove, it was clear to see why any sane person would want to leave. The winds had ripped the leaves from all the trees and they looked inverted, like tangled roots had taken the place of their branches or, worse, like a midwestern winter had descended upon the tropics. Snarled power lines that had yet to be restored flanked the road, and there were piles of trash and debris all over, blocking lanes in some places. We passed a field of broken solar panels and a half dozen abandoned cars left in ditches along the side of the road. It was as if the island itself was trying to shake us off its back.
When we got to the harbor I slowed down long enough to gaze at the forest of masts from sunken sailboats jutting up above the waterline. There was a wrecked sloop stranded on a concrete dock with heaps of trash spewing from its eviscerated hull.
“I can’t imagine how Maria could make things any worse,” I said, breaking the silence in the car.
Monika regarded me with placid eyes. Before we left, I’d worried she might make a big scene in the car. I’d worried that she would ask me to leave with her again, and that she might cry. But now I saw she had already given up on me. All that was left was a detached curiosity. I would be lying if I said that didn’t hurt some, but I understood that she was simply doing what was natural, walling me off for her own protection.
“What happened back in Pittsburgh? You never told me why you left.”
I thought of Heather. I wondered where she was and who she was with. I wondered if she had a family. She’d always wanted kids and a part of me hoped she’d found the life I’d refused with someone else. But there was another part of me; a selfish, spiteful part that could not abide the thought of Heather’s happiness. It was the same part of me that hoped Monika would be lonely on the mainland. That she’d be miserable there. Secretly, I hoped she’d come running back to Bambi’s and pour herself over me.