Vieques

by Devan Del Conte

The ferry chugged away from the coast of San Juan, and the captain’s voice came over the PA system: they would arrive in forty-five minutes. Leslie and Alec were on their way to the island of Vieques.

Alec scooted back on the slick plastic chair, trying to ease the ache in his lower back. He edged away from Leslie and shrugged his shoulder. The ferry smelled faintly of gas. The chairs were bolted in a series of long blue rows that reminded Alec of his middle school cafeteria. Leslie clutched his arm, moaning complaints about her nausea. This was the moment Alec knew for sure: he did not love her.

Alec was thirty-three years old and two days married. It was the first day of his honeymoon. They sat at the end of a row of seats in the muggy interior of the ferry and Alex watched the water out the window, a clear and glacial blue. He thought about how this same water may have flowed in the currents around the shores of his hometown in Georgia, hugging the sands where his father’s old house stood. Or down the Mississippi that rolled past his and Leslie’s Memphis condo. That was miraculous to him, and he thought of saying so; but he could imagine Leslie’s response, her tacit, unenthused but qualified agreement.

Jenny, on the other hand. Jenny would point out that miraculous was an imprecise descriptor, that it failed to do nature justice. They would have a conversation about ocean currents: upswells and longshore, the deep sea conveyor belt that fertilized Antarctica.

Yeah, Leslie would say, Miraculous, she would say, staring him in the eye for too long and smiling like a child.

Alec had done a lot of research for their trip. Vieques was five miles wide and twenty long and still quite pristine: more or less untouched until three years ago. It had been a testing sight for naval missiles in a past life, he knew. He prided himself on his thorough preparations.

He held a trifold brochure open with one hand while Leslie squeezed the other. He shook the brochure flat: a bright map with outdated clipart showed dirt roads snaking the length of the island, branching off to beaches marked by smiling suns.

There had been plenty of moments he could have acted, called the whole thing off, scratched that itch of uncertainty in the back of his head. When Leslie had the flu a few months ago and kept asking for orange juice. Reeking of sweat and vomit, her hair clumped with grease, she’d reminded him of a clogged shower drain. I’m dying, she’d whined, and he’d wondered, with mixed emotions, if she might be. But then his father died, and in the blur of the following months, Alec proposed.

The word forever echoed in the back of his mind. He tried to recall a positive memory about their relationship (an exercise he’d learned from a worksheet on intentional empathy—a page from a book given to him by his father nine months ago with the inscription in his father’s shaky hand, Make it work) and what first came to mind was an image of the dip in the center of his mattress.

They docked and unloaded.

A man met them at the station to hand off their keys and their rented Jeep. Leslie, still pale, her face shining with sweat, talked to the man in cheerful, broken Spanish.

On the way to the house they took a wrong turn (left at the Green Market, but somehow Leslie had never mastered her lefts and rights), and they spent twenty minutes wandering; there was a lot of hopeful pointing.

Alec, babe, Leslie said, straining against her seatbelt. Horses!

Two nags had parted the trees and trotted out of the jungle: a grey and a chestnut, both powdered with road dust. Did you know there were wild horses? Leslie said.

They’re not wild, Alec said, seeing the brands on their haunches: horseshoe-shaped scars with indiscernible letters inside.

See, he said, pointing, they’re marked.

Should we try to find their owners? Leslie said.

Alec shook his head and explained that the horses had owners but were allowed to wander the island to save money on boarding and feeding them. This was exactly the sort of thing, he thought. He’d sent her probably twenty links with the pertinent information for this trip and he’d bet she hadn’t read a one of them. Twenty-six years old, she still acted like she was twelve: relying on him to manage everything, explain everything. When they first met, (she was his doctor-recommended chiropractor—he had a mild case of scoliosis) it had been endearing. The charm was lost.

They crept down the road behind the horses. Then two boys, Alec guessed them maybe eight and twelve, brothers from the looks of them, came jogging down the road towards them. Alec braked and tapped his fingers on the wheel.

The horses ambled over to the boys. The older boy slipped rope halters over the horses’ ears. He grabbed his brother around the waist and hoisted him up to lay across the grey horse’s back; the little boy swung his leg over and leaned forward to grab the lead rope dangling from the halter. The older brother grabbed a hank of the chestnut horse’s mane, and mounted. He looked up and waved at the Jeep.

Hey, Leslie said, waving back, beckoning the boys over. The horses trotted over to the passenger side of the Jeep, the grey snorting and tossing his head. Alec recalled riding with his father around their property when he was a little kid. His dad would toss him onto an old gelding and they’d ride side by side, his father ponying Alec’s horse, holding it so close that their boots brushed together. He listened as Leslie spoke to them in Spanish and the older boy pointed up the road. She must be asking directions.

Gracias, said Leslie and the boys wheeled their horses and vanished into the jungle. Amazing, Leslie said.

Oh yeah, said Alec. Really something. He patted her on the thigh, shifted into third and picked up speed. The Jeep bounced over the uneven road, and Leslie told him it’d ride smoother if they went faster. He nodded but didn’t change speed, and Leslie recounted the boys’ instructions.

Ten minutes later they jolted to a halt in their driveway, the seat belts catching them. Alec shifted to neutral, pressed down the break and let the engine idle, staring at the orange stucco, the unfinished wood steps to the front door. It looked like a house a child would draw. He hitched up a smile and turned to Leslie.

Home sweet home, he said. He would end it when they got back to Memphis. He would call Jenny and take her to dinner.

*

On their third night, Alec and Leslie jammed themselves into a van with seven strangers. Another vehicle loaded up behind them, and chatter spilled through the cracked windows.

A tour guide climbed into the driver’s seat and turned to them and smiled, teeth shining out of his dark beard. He clapped his hands once.

Hokay, he said. Let’s roll. He turned up the volume on the radio, and Mariachi music crackled through speakers. Alec felt Leslie’s damp leg resting against his own. They trundled through the woods and the moonless night, the trees crowding in from either side. They were going to the Bayou Bay, an inlet where tourists could paddle around in bioluminescent plankton, marvel at water that glowed when you stirred it. They came to a stop and flooded out of the van with the others.

They were in a dark clearing with too many bugs and Leslie whined and swatted her at legs. Alec helped unload the kayaks and he and Leslie got separated in the quiet jumble: shifting bodies and swinging ends of boats. The guides lined the kayaks at the shore and pushed them off in groups of threes and fours, slipping them into the black water. Their prows etched green arrows across the bay.

The guide with the beard and bright smile held the edge of a kayak while Alec climbed in. The guide shoved the boat with an outstretched leg and said, Enjoy yourself! Alec rocked back and settled into a slow paddling rhythm. The glowing water was thick with other boats and dinoflagellates. A good word, Alec thought. He imagined microscopic brontosaurs churning their legs through the water, glowing like the stars he’d plastered over his childhood bed.

Then her voice, snaking its way between the whispered conversations of the other paddlers.

Alec? she called. Babe? Alec?

He bristled. How did she expect them to find each other out here? He steered to the left, trying to follow the echo of her voice across the water. No point starting a fight, he thought. Might as well make the last days count. He heard her call his name again and twitched, rolled his shoulders to loosen the tension. A good memory: at their condo in Memphis, Leslie sometimes cooked for him naked. She didn’t actually know how to cook, but she stirred pots of pasta water and made break-and-bake cookies: breasts spilling out around the bib of her apron, the view when she bent to open the oven. Sitting at the kitchen table watching her, Alec felt pretty lucky.

Something thumped against Alec’s kayak and spun it, leaving an arc of glowing water in its wake.

Shit, said a woman’s voice out the darkness. Sorry. Still getting used to steering.

Alec strained his eyes. He couldn’t make out her features, but when a man beside them slid into the water with a gentle splash and dove beneath the surface, the woman’s blond hair caught the glow. No problem, he said, and gave her a quick, friendly lesson on how to hold the paddle. She laughed at him and paddled off.

Alec, Leslie called, Alec? Babe?

*

Back at the house Leslie called him into the bathroom. She shut off the lights and closed the door behind them. In the darkness, her fingertips slid under the waist band of his swim trunks. She slipped them over his legs, and they fell to the floor in a puddle of nylon.

The water came on and when Leslie stepped under the stream she lit up like a fairy: a thousand green-white sparkles cascading down her black hair, outlining the curves of her body, swirling around the vinyl floor and down the drain, glowing plankton headed back to sea. Alec stepped into the shower and pulled her close.

*

Leslie curled in bed beside him like a little pink shrimp: spent. Alec wondered about the blond girl from the Bayou Bay: was she here with someone? Had she moved here to get out of a bad situation? Maybe she flitted from place to place, globetrotting and never putting down roots. Leslie’s breath whistled through her nose and Alec tried to dredge up some emotion for her. When his dad was sick: he had been straining to take a shit, passed out and never woke up. Two months in the hospital. Brain scans and feeding tubes and tickling his feet; asking him questions; watching the twitching of his hands for answers. Nine days in hospice.

Leslie was there for it all. She mopped the old man’s lips with a sponge on a stick and never told Alec that he might wake up. For that, he’d loved her.

*

The next morning, Alec padded into the living room after his shower, toweling his hair dry. The fine layer of sand that covered the house crunched under his bare feet. I have an idea, he said.

Hmm? Leslie didn’t look up from her magazine.

Tonight, let’s each do a scouting mission. Find a new place on the far side of the island that we think the other would like. Leslie looked up at him and he smiled widely and raised his eyebrows.

I guess we could do that, she said. Isn’t that kind of weird though, going off alone on our honeymoon?

Who cares? he said. If it sounds like fun to us, we should do it.

Leslie stared at him. Yeah, she said. Sounds good. She looked back down at her magazine, and pulled a blanket over her lap, a dusty rose color that matched the decor. It was the same blanket Alec had seen in every hospital room he’d ever been in. The same one his father had been lying under when he died. It wasn’t even cold in here. Alec wondered, almost guiltily, if Leslie had sensed his thoughts in the past days. She was no intellectual, but she did have an almost scary knack for reading people.

He flopped into a chair across from her and looked at the cover of her magazine. Celebrity bullshit. She probably hadn’t read a book cover-to-cover since high school. Alec liked a good scandal as much as the next guy, got a real kick out of Nancy Grace filling him in on the latest murdered or missing tots, but Leslie had no balance in her consumption. No taste. A good memory: there was their first threesome. A friend of Leslie’s, Charlie-short-for-Charlotte, worked the front desk at Leslie’s chiropractic clinic. Then when Leslie had been in China for two months for some alternative healing workshop, she’d found them a girl on Craigslist back in Memphis and had Alec Skype her so she could watch him fuck Craigslist Jenny. When they were finished, Alec and Jenny watched Nancy Grace, and Jenny made some pretty insightful comments about their judicial system. They’d seen each other sporadically after that, meeting over lunch breaks, at motels. Monogamy wasn’t for her, Jenny had told Alec. But who knew? Who could say what would happen when he got back to Memphis.

Well, Alec said, I think it’ll be fun. He stood and threw the towel over his shoulder and petted Leslie’s hair when he walked by.

*

That night Alec called for a cab. A local in an unmarked Toyota pulled up and honked his horn twice.

Alec pecked Leslie on the cheek. Love you, he said. Try to find us some place good. Her smile was tight; she waved goodbye.

The door clicked shut behind him, and Alec climbed into the passenger seat. He hesitated between Hola and Hello and settled on a nod and a smile, then asked the driver to recommend a good restaurant towards the North shore.

They drove a little ways inland and up in the hills and the trees grew close. The cab rolled to a stop at the top of a steep drive and Alec gave the driver a handful of crumpled bills.

Gracias, Alec said under his breath.

He climbed the steps to the wrap-around porch and asked for a table outside. The restaurant was built on stilts: dark wood and jungle and pink drinks, palm fronds hanging over the porch rail. It seemed like a place where there should be hammocks.

Alec ordered a drink, and then another and made small talk with the waitress.

He watched a woman smoking at the bar: dyed blond hair, curvy frame. He took a sip of his punch, nosing the umbrella out of his way. An orange cat stalked down the rail past Alec’s table and he stroked it. He and Leslie had a black cat named Juniper, and once they tied a cape from Leslie’s teddy bear around Juniper’s neck and watched her race around the house. It had been pretty fun.

Alec gulped his drink and watched the blond girl. Was it the girl from the Bayou Bay? Why not? he thought. He wouldn’t ask though. He’d know from her voice and she’d know from his and why had she laughed at him anyway? Digging his straw around the ice, he slurped the last sips then went to the bar for another. He leaned casually next to her and asked for a cigarette.

*

A few drinks later. A handful of small talk. A casual graze of her thigh.

Then Leslie saying, Hey, and sliding into a seat across from them, her face blurry and quizzical. Alec didn’t move away from the blond girl but tried to rearrange himself from the inside out—subtle platonic shifts.

Hi, he said. We picked the same place, he said.

Leslie stared at him, her eyes working to focus. She held her empty glass to a passing waiter.

I’ll give you two a minute, the blond girl said and walked back to the bar. She lit a cigarette.

Alec and Leslie stared at each other; he chewed the tip of his straw. A warm breeze rattled the trees.

I found us a third, he said. What do you think? He tried to gage how fucked up Leslie was. She got quiet and still when she was wasted, but same for when she was pissed: who could know? She stared at him with flat eyes and then at the blond girl perched on a bar stool.

The three of them naked in the king sized bed, on their knees and slurping at each other’s faces and necks, a wriggling fleshy tripod. One of them pushed Alec’s shoulders and he fell onto a pile of pillows, groaned and shut his eyes; he buried his fingers in the hair of whoever had her mouth wrapped around his cock.

Leslie was staring at Alec, her eyes dark like the water of the Bayou Bay. Alec looked for the little dinosaurs sparkling in there while she moved him like a mannequin: posed him over the blond girl, wrapped his hands around her neck, arranging his fingers, her nails flashing blue.

The blond girl smiled dimly up at him, her hands tied to the bedposts.

*

Alec woke but didn’t open his eyes. He kept his face buried in the sheets that smelled like sweat, like sex and piss. Blurs and empty patches from the night before. The restaurant; fried strips of avocado; the three of them snorting something off a toilet tank. His body was sore.

When he opened his eyes it was still dark out, but a shaft of light from a streetlamp shined through the window and made his head ache. He was cold and threw an arm out behind him, feeling for Leslie, and his hand closed around… something.

Months later, he realized he knew she was dead in that moment but staved off the knowing. He’d have flash backs that he didn’t trust but couldn’t erase: full days spent in bed weeping, Leslie stroking his hair and murmuring comforts.

Now, he rolled over and the blond girl’s eyes met his, fixed and unseeing. The light from the window lit a path over the floor and onto the bed, across the lump that must be sleeping Leslie. It lit the blond girl’s hair; her dark roots; her shiny dead eyes.

He pressed the back of his hand to her cheek. No, no, no, he thought, his hand going cold and empty; his head pounding; her eyes impossible and blue like a picture Alec saw when he was eight: Earth from four billion miles away, a faint blue star. He remembered looking at it and thinking: my lunchbox is in that picture somewhere, little blue star, eye slitted—staring, her mouth open, the tip of her tongue showing between her teeth like the cat’s when it slept. In his head, the dead girl shrank to fit on the tip of a pin—a spinning music box girl with snow white hair and blue Earth-eyes tilted at the corners and a mother who grew her like fruit. He saw her, spread open beneath him, spread open like the frogs from seventh grade science lab limbs snapped and held to the table with map pins heart still pounding in her chest—

Alec squeezed his eyes shut and rolled away, clutching the sheet to his chest. He heard a soft mewling sound and realized it was him. He had to get up.

The tile was cool beneath his feet; sheet wrapped around his shoulders, head between his knees, he took three deep breaths. On his way to the living room he grabbed Leslie’s arm and pulled her, stumbling, behind him.

*

They sat on the sofa and Alec stared out the window. Somewhere, a rooster crowed. A thumbnail moon hung in the purpling sky and Leslie sniffed. Alec said: What do you remember?

Leslie pulled her knees to her chest. Heels of her hands pressed to her eyes, she shook her head. Just little snatches, she said. Not…

Me neither, said Alec. What did we take? Do you remember?

Leslie shook her head again, clasped her hands around the back of her neck. Her eyes were smeared with makeup and she looked very young in the soft light. It must have been hers, she said. I didn’t bring anything.

She has bruises, Alec said. On her throat, she has bruises, but I don’t think—

Oh god, oh god. They’ll think you—

Me? They’ll think I…?

Leslie shook her head. Tears and mascara shone on her cheeks. The first fingers of daylight crept into the house and across the floor, firming the shadows. The droning of motors from outside, whoosh and fade of passing traffic. Alec lay his head in Leslie’s lap and she tangled her fingers in his hair. Alec knew they were thinking the same thing: the image in his mind flowed out of his head and up Leslie’s fingertips, through the thick nerves of her arms and into the base of her skull to splash across the back of her brain. They saw the blond girl curled and staring in their bed, her neck puffed and blackening. Her limbs beginning to set.

*

They decided on Playa Grande and they were silent while they worked. Alec swaddled the dead girl in the soiled sheet and then once more in the woven blanket, tucking the dusty rose cotton in on itself. He propped the bundle in the corner by the back door, beside the mat where they kept their hiking boots.

While Leslie cleaned the bathroom, Alec pulled the Jeep around back.

He hoisted the dead girl over his shoulder and hurried back down to the car, wondering where she would fit. The sky was shifting pink at the edges, rolling round to morning, and Alec’s ears pounded and rang. The Jeep was open on all sides, kayaks strapped the roof, where would she go? Even through the blanket he could feel every inch of her. The firm weight of her on his back.

He balanced her with one hand and stepped onto the nerf bar—peered into the yellow cavity of one of the boats. That would do. He positioned a hand between her shoulder blades, the other under her thigh and shoved her hard up and over his head. Her neck barely wobbled, already freezing in place; she was awkward and unhelpful. He maneuvered her legs, shoving them to the front of the kayak, bending her knees to fit. He heard—felt—a deep chiropractic pop.

He found a bungee cord in the shed and strapped her down. The door latch clicked and Alec started, then turned to see Leslie standing at the top of the porch steps. She had changed into loose linen pants and a tank top. She came to stand beside him and squeezed his hand.

Alec walked around the car, checking to see if anything was visible: the blanketed mound of the blond girl’s head showed over the lip of the boat. He piled snorkeling equipment into the other kayak to distract from it. Rearranged a life vest.

*

Leslie drove. She drove fast and they skipped over the road like a boat skimming waves.

Alec was grateful for her. He knew it couldn’t happen but he feared a hand getting jounced out of the kayak and dangling—waving at passing motorists. They glided over the empty road.

Left up here, said Alex, pointing. Leslie braked, almost missing the gap in the trees.

*

Deep water, heavy rocks, a landmark moment.

*

When it was done, they paddled back. They climbed out in knee-deep water and pulled the kayaks onto the firm sand of the shore. Leslie had been weeping when she climbed into the boat, arranging her legs around the corpse, its head resting in her lap. A body beyond all adjusting. Leslie was quiet now.

They walked up the beach and collapsed on their backs in the pillowy sand. Alec closed his eyes against the sun and his breath heaved in his chest.

When we get home, he said, opening his eyes. Let’s look for a house, a fresh start. He heard Leslie start to cry again and reached for her. She sat up and folded her legs, held his hand in both of hers. She leaned over and rested her head on his chest. Alec listened to the waves slosh over the shore, heard them crash against a rocky outcropping.

After a while Leslie sat up and brushed her hair out of her face, and Alec wished that she’d come back.

Don’t you think that’d be good? he said.

Alec? Leslie said, her voice thick but steady. Babe?

He opened his eyes and turned his head to her.

Her eyes were fixed in the distance.

What? Alec said. He turned and searched. Some twenty yards back, the beach was abruptly overtaken by jungle. The leaves rustled and through a screen of trees, Alec saw him: a boy, the younger one they’d seen in the road on the day they arrived. The boy sat astride the grey nag. He met Alec’s eye—then wheeled the horse and disappeared, crashing through the jungle.

 

Devan Del Conte is an MFA candidate in Memphis, where she lives with her two dogs and enjoys anything to do with melted cheese or swimmable bodies of water.

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction

2 responses to “Vieques

  1. Reblogged this on Creative Expressions and commented:
    REBLOG: Check out this wonderful short story ,Vieques,
    by Devan Del Conte…. then check out the rest of the site!

  2. Pingback: Vieques – Devan Del Conte

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