For the purposes of this trip to St. Lucia, let's just say I'm twenty-four.
Caribbean rain showers down on us without warning, breaking apart our slow grinding and scattering dancers and musicians alike. Vitor and I duck under a wooden overhang, grasping hands and giggling at each other, our cheeks flushed red. He runs the palm of his hand along my waist to the small of my back, gently but firmly pulling me into him until I can smell the sweet rum on his tongue. "I wasn't done dancing," he smiles down at me as he slowly sways his hips in a languorous figure-eight. He's in luck: the rain quickly passes, leaving the night air damp but no cooler. The guitars and steel drums resume their insistent flow as Vitor leads me back into the street along with dozens of locals. I turn my back to him, pressing against his chest as he wraps his arm around my belly and guides me in an intimate rhythm.
My friend Hannah and I have just arrived in St. Lucia in late September; the off-season timing means cheaper rates, not to mention near-empty beaches. Reveling in the feel of a private paradise, we stake out a spot just where the sand blends into an untamed forest. Behind us is a large orange and white hotel, seemingly abandoned save the lone attendant occasionally crossing in front of the pool on some errand or another. The Caribbean splashes a few feet from our bare toes, stretching languidly for miles.
Hannah and I spend long days lounging on towels in the sand, chatting, reading, and trying to tan. Local men frequently wander over, attempting to sell us sea shells or baseball caps, or simply asking whether we're enjoying St. Lucia. Having lived in New York City for several years each, we're initially wary of these men, assuming they're trying to get into either our purses or our bikini bottoms. But, sipping our fruity rum cocktails at a local bar the first evening, we notice that the women are every bit as friendly. A cab driver explains that tourism is crucial to St. Lucia's economy; all citizens can speak English and are encouraged to be warm to visitors.
"Can you imagine this in New York?" I ask Hannah. "Instead of subway ads telling us to quit drinking soda, Bloomberg would be imploring us to 'be kind to tourists.'" Every local we meet encourages us to join them at the street party Friday night, a weekly tradition involving barbecued meat, fish and vegetables, flowing beer and rum, and a live band playing a mix of reggae, Afro-beat, and slow-paced hip-hop.
Friday evening is as warm as the rest, so I wear a short ruffled skirt and a sleeveless top, sandals, and a bit of jewelry. I don't need a jacket, and Hannah and I are sharing a small purse between us, with a bit of cash and not much else. It feels weird to be carrying so little. We left our Blackberries, IDs, and credit cards at the hotel, still worried we were obvious targets for pickpockets.
But as we step out of the small bus and into the throngs of a vibrant street party well under way, my lack of valuables doesn't make me feel safe. I feel quite naked, exposed; unarmed, if you will. If I were to get into any sort of trouble, I truly don't know how I would get myself out of it. My senses are on high alert; I smell roasted cod and peppers, hear the sound of a steel drum, see laughing St. Lucians everywhere. I feel vulnerable and anonymous, which is actually kind of exciting.
I've always lived in large cities, and was taught from a young age that cultural and racial differences are worthy of celebration. I grew up in Canada appreciating the mosaic of people, and continue to do so living in New York City. In St. Lucia, however, I'm exceedingly aware that I'm a glaring minority. I spot a handful of other white people who I assume are tourists; the other couple hundred revelers are locals unwinding after a week of work. Hannah and I buy two bottles of Piton, the local beer, along with chicken, red peppers, and onions that have been barbequed and speared on long wooden sticks. As we nibble, we make our way down several short streets. We reach the heart of the street party: a four-piece band and a makeshift dance area. While Hannah uses a bar washroom, I look out at the dancing crowd, swaying my hips slightly.
"Would you like to dance with me?" I turn my head to the questioner, ready to utter a polite "no thanks," but then I get a look at him. He's half a foot taller than me, with a mass of dark hair, plump red lips, and the type of warm brown eyes that a girl can get lost in.
"I… oh. Well, um, I'm here with a friend," I stammer, trying to remember her name. "She's, uh, she'll be right back."
"Okay," he smiles at me. "I'm Vitor."
"Nice to meet you, Peter," I say.
"Vi-tor," he says again more slowly, glancing down at my lips and back up at my eyes in a way that makes my blood pump faster. "It's Brazilian."
"Vitor," I smile. "I'm Alison."
"Please to meet you, Ah-lee-sahn." I decide I really ought to move to Brazil.
Hannah reemerges and the three of us head to the bar. As she fends off a stream of approaches from young locals, Vitor tells me about the new job that has him traveling around North and South America. "Maybe I come to New York sometime," he says.
"I would love to show you around," I respond, even though his soft and seductive nature seems completely incongruent with the aggressive dating scene back in Manhattan.
Before long Hannah decides to head home, taking our shared purse with her; she gives me a bit of cash which I stuff in the side of my bra.
"Are you sure you'll be okay?" She asks out of Vitor's earshot.
"Definitely," I assure her. "If we were twenty-one years old, then splitting up would be a horrible idea."
"Right. We would both get raped and murdered, or sold into slavery."
"Exactly. But we're pushing thirty. Our stock on the black market has plummeted by now."
"Good point," she laughs. "Have fun! Don't forget, we're heading to the volcano tomorrow."
As she makes her way through the crowd, Vitor returns from the bar with two rum-and-pineapples. I thank him and take a sip, giving a soft "mmm" of approval. We hold each others' gazes for a moment, until he bends his head towards me and opens his mouth slightly over my bottom lip, sucking it in gently before running his tongue along it. He pulls back (entirely too soon) and smiles at me while he guides me to the dance area. His lips are plump and every bit as soft as they look.
After hours of dancing, interrupted only briefly by the rain, we find a bench under a street lamp away from the music. In the light, I notice how young he looks, and can't help but ask.
"Twenty-three," he says. "And you?"
"Twenty-four," I lie without hesitation, praying my vacation glow is making up for the four years I just tossed away.
"Ah, an older woman," his eyes appraise me once again. "I love that. You can teach me things," he murmurs as he pushes back my hair to nibble at that spot behind my ear.
And he does get one lesson that night: always be prepared. As we're fumbling with each other's clothing back at his hotel room, I murmur, "Do you have a condom?"
He stops, and his face drops into a sweet, troubled little pout that makes me want to keep him forever. "I almost asked the cab driver to stop so I could buy some, but I didn't want to seem presumptuous."
"Maybe the front desk has some?"
He calls them, but no luck. So he orders a cab instead. We re-clothe ourselves and head down; I bow my head shamefully as we pass the reception desk.
"Where to?" The driver asks as he pulls away from the hotel.
We glance at each other. "We need… um, a store. Please."
He eyes us via the rearview mirror. "What kind of store?"
"Well, a pharmacy, if there's one nearby," I say, trying my best to act matter-of-fact. He doesn't respond, so I feel compelled to add, "I need to buy a toothbrush."
He lets out a deep-bellied laugh. "At 2:30 in the morning?" He makes a wide U-turn, heading back to the hotel, then reaches into his glove compartment and tosses a fistful of condoms back to us, still belting out laughter. "This is St. Lucia, there's nothing to be ashamed of! You do what you want here!"
We take his advice to heart. The next morning we awake to a room flooded with sunlight. "I feel like we're on our honeymoon," he murmurs, tracing his finger down my chest. "You know, I saw you two nights ago, eating with your friend at the Sunset Grill," he says. "I wanted to approach, but I couldn't find the nerve. Anyway, I didn't want to disturb your dinner."
He asks me to spend the day with him, and for a moment I'm tempted. But why spoil it? I have myriad complicated relationships waiting to baffle and aggravate me back in New York. Why not let this one stand, crystallized in a perfect twelve-hour window, flawless precisely because it's twelve hours long?
I tell him Hannah and I have plans to see the volcano. "I could come," he offers. "I'll be your body guard." When I politely decline, he implores me, "We must keep in touch. You maybe will come to Brazil sometime, and I will come to New York. We will see each other again."
His emotional openness would be refreshing if it weren't so naïve. In the morning sunlight, his youth is suddenly glaring at me. But true to the moment, I feed the fantasy. "Of course we will," I say, touching his soft, round cheek.
And of course, we never do.
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