“Betty was the first woman I dated seriously after my marriage ended, and everything about her screamed trouble from the very start.” Jackie Summers goes to the Dominican Republic and gets more than he bargained for.
Ten years. I tell myself I’m not a workaholic, but it’s been a decade since I’ve taken a holiday. I’d just turned thirty, and my life was on hold. I was newly divorced, and full of uncertainty the last time I set foot on these sands.
Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. The principal beach of the capital city, Santo Domingo, is a pearl of the Caribbean. A mile long crescent moon stretch of white sands and crystal blue water that never gets more that four feet deep, it’s rife with Dominican culture. Purveyors of traditional Dominican foods, craftsmen and artisans comb the beach, alongside fine-ass Dominican women. Women like Betty.
Betty was the first woman I dated seriously after my marriage ended, and everything about her screamed trouble from the very start. We met in the strip club where she worked; somewhere around the middle of the dollar a minute lap-dance she was giving me, she leaned forward, voice full of whiskey and menthol, and whispered “you should call me.” She reeked of shame and sweat and I stank of basic decency—I’d spent the last ten years with one woman; how could I say no? She was the kind of woman who’d make you dance naked in the rain; the kind that made me wish, as I did while I was driving ninety miles per hour with the top down in my ’72 Buick Skylark convertible, steering wheel in one hand, bottle of tequila in the other and her hands down my pants while she growled “drive faster, Jack“—that I had a turbo option. She made crazy seem so … normal.
My flight is crazy. Jet Blue must be making a fortune on these flights, because the plane I’m on is packed except for the emergency exit seats (which I get upgraded to because I can speak English). No matter how uneventful the flight is, anytime a plane full of Dominicans lands, they all applaud.
I remember this. Its been ten years but I remember it all, from the frío frío they offer you as soon as you clear customs (an ice cold El Presidenté, the official beer of the Dominican Republic) to the incredible variety of faces waiting to greet loved ones at the gate.
Dominicans are people of color. They come in all shades: ivory, ecru, honey, bronze, chocolate brown and blue-black. Most are as dark or darker than me but to call them “black” would be simplistic. Red and blonde hair, green, blue, and light grey eyes—they’re fully Latino: equal parts Taíno, African, and Spanish. They are a beautiful remnant of the horrors Europeans visited on the native populace of the Caribbean, slaughtering men, raping women and then using the appropriated islands as ports for African slave trade.
My hotel is one hundred feet from the beach. Hot water, double bed, air conditioning, clean sheets, TV, and a safe, for thirty US dollars a night. The gigantic rottweiler the proprietor warned me about takes one slobbery whiff of my hand and drops all pretense of viciousness; I’m his new best friend. I drop my things off, lock up everything of importance and head down to la playa.
My delusions about blending in if I keep my mouth shut because I’m black are shattered the second I hit the beach. A large Dominican man marks me immediately, swings his arms open, and calls me “brother.” I double check my forehead for a flashing neon ‘sucker’ sign before I respond “hola.” He walks and talks with me as I re-familiarize myself, exploring the beach and local businesses. His English is better than my broken Spanish. He tells me about his time in California, how he came to speak four languages, and his three kids, interspersed with his opinions on the finer points of local civility.
Clearly he’s a hustler but I don’t get his angle just yet. He assures me that the finest restaurant on the beach is the one where he works, so I agree to come back later for dinner.
The red snapper that was caught, fire grilled and subsequently became my dinner that night was delicioso. “John” now suggests I accompany him to a club he knows of where the most beautiful Dominican women hang out. I hop on the back of his motorcycle (and by that I mean motorbike, and by that I mean motorized bicycle) and hang on for dear life as he drives to “Club Mariposa.” It takes a little less than half a second from the moment we enter the club for me to realize that there are no other men present. As I sit, every (half-naked) woman in the place rises and smiles, forming a semi-circle around me. “Now” John says, “you choose.”
Christ. I’m in a brothel. This country has a messed up relationship with sex.
Betty was six years old the first time an uncle touched her. She was eight when she was raped by her cousins. At twelve her brother started molesting her. At seventeen she walked in on her fiancé fucking her sister, and her first husband, as an anniversary gift, once bought them admittance to an exclusive swap club. The relationship she was in before she met me ended when her then boyfriend offered her as a birthday present to his best friend.
At thirty years old, I was the only man she’d ever met who didn’t treat her like a sex object, even though my first contact with her was her grinding herself into my crotch in nothing but a thong. “Once long ago” she told me, “you and I were one soul, and a mistake was made in the cycle of rebirth and we got split in two. We’ve been trying to find each other since, but you took too long this time. Next lifetime,” she said, “come get me at six years old.”
I remember this as I look at the circle of chicas now smiling at me, some of them obviously not of legal age of consent in another country. I ask John to take me back to my hotel, and the second I dismount “death on wheels,” he shows his angle.
“Are you going to take care of me now?” he says. He wants money. “Por qué?” I ask. Money for showing me around, money for his advice, money for taking me to the club, money for “protecting me.” When I hear the words “protecting me,” everything that is Brooklyn in me comes to the top of my throat. “Protecting me from what?” I ask. “This is my town,” he says, looking off into the distance. “If you want to have a week with no trouble, it’s 2,000 pesos.”
I have absolutely no idea how much 2,000 pesos is worth in US dollars, and at this point I don’t care. If he had pulled a gun or a knife and tried to rob me outright, I might have respected his “gangsta.” But to just try and PUNK me? I don’t THINK so.
“Are you threatening me?” I ask. I’m in his face now, taking his measure. He’s ten years younger than me, half a foot taller and has the kind of muscle you only get from a lifetime of hard labor. “Look me in the eye,” I say. “I’m on vacation. I’m going to be here for five days. I don’t want trouble. I don’t want to have to THINK about trouble. If anything happens to me while I’m here; if I eat a bad shrimp, if I stub my toe, if I get A HEADACHE, I’m going to assume it’s your fault. And then, I am going to come looking for YOU. So tell me RIGHT NOW, am I going to have trouble this week … ?”
John takes a good look in my eyes; he’s trying to tell if I’m bluffing. “No,” he says. “No trouble for you.”
Either he’s lousy at poker or I’m better at it than I give myself credit for. I turn in for the evening and wonder what tomorrow has in store.
The roosters in the backyard don’t wait for sunrise; I wake to the sound of cocks crowing and construction. Everywhere you look there are buildings in various states of partial undress. I sit by the side of the pool considering how I will top my first day, as the proprietor brings me huevos con jamón for breakfast. At this point, it’s clear that while the idea of five days of drinking and womanizing is enticing, the reality is a LOT less appealing. It just doesn’t seem like my reason for being here. I grab a towel, my iPhone and enough money for food and water for the day, and make my way down to the beach.
The “motorcycles” that own the streets sound like chain-saws with bronchitis. These things make Vespas look like Lambourghinis. The natives ride two and three deep, with no helmets and no fear. Every third motorist pulls up next to me and offers to be my personal concierge—weed, cocaine, chicas, every sort of vice is available. I don’t claim to be a paragon of virtue; I’m simply not interested. I politely repeat what becomes my most useful Spanish phrase while on vacation: “no quiero.” I appear to be in the minority.
The beaches of Boca Chica are littered with European men on semi-permanent vacation. The barrage of bloated, leathery orange bodies and man-boobs on display resembles so much luggage that might have washed up on shore after several days at sea. To me they serve as a powerful public service announcement against the ills of a licentious lifestyle. This in no way acts as a deterrent for the sometimes two or three ridiculously young women available to each of them for about the cost of a weekly metro card. Here, the Peso (or more accurately the Euro) is God.
Betty was clearing fifteen hundred dollars a day when I met her, easily matching the salaries of her mostly Wall Street clientele. She had a dual masters in business and psychology from an Ivy league university; a better combination for being a successful exotic dancer I can’t imagine. Apparently she had left her homeland before falling into the profession her sistren suffered through, but they still shared the same religion; Mammon just rewarded her more richly.
I find a palm tree that suits my liking and pick an audiobook that suits my mood: Eckhart Tolle,The Power of Now. I surrender to his thick German accent and the powerful Caribbean sunshine like so much cerdo asado. I move twice that day; once around noon to devour a heaping plate of fruit so fresh the colors burst in my mouth–piña, coco, mango, papaya, melon, sandîa, y naranja. The next time I rouse myself is around four o’clock, for pescado con tostones–fresh caught fish, marinated in lime juice, and sliced platanos, prepared on the beach on the spot.
Both meals cost me around one American dollar. I think about the global economic downturn so omnipresent at home and I wonder if anyone here cares. The people here grow or catch their food. They live in houses with tin roofs and dirt floors (and X-Boxes). They play baseball on the beach with broomsticks and bottle caps. No one here cares about the stock market or the sudden devaluation of high rise condos or the sharp rise in unemployment. The rich in the first world are consolidating their assets; major corporations are getting multi-billion dollar bailouts. Here the poor are still poor and their lives seem totally unaffected by a global recession, and I wonder: are they happy?
Wednesday morning a minor miracle happens: the hotel wireless internet suddenly begins to function. I’m sure none of the beach denizens care if they’re getting ten mps, but to me it’s Christmas morning. Or more accurately, the morning of April first, my favorite holiday. Not only can I check my email—I admit, I need a fix BADLY—but it allows me to perpetrate an April Fools Day prank on all of my Facebook friends simultaneously. Today it’s more Eckhart Tolle—A New Earth—along with some Wayne Dyer thrown in, as I laze under my palm tree; eating when I’m hungry, drinking when I’m thirsty, and snoozing in a way that would embarrass the average house cat.
On my stroll back to my hotel a gorgeous woman tanning her self in nothing but a thong smiles at me; I introduce myself, happy to speak English for the first time all week. She’s Swedish and her friend is French. The conversation is just starting to get interesting when a man in a security uniform points a baton in my face and starts babbling in Spanish; the only words I can make out are “no moleste.” He thinks I’m Dominican. I ask him to speak slower and play what I think is my trump card; I say plainly “I AM AMERICAN.” He doesn’t care; he points the baton in my face and repeats himself. Terrific; I’m dealing with a mall cop.
For a moment I consider sharing the finer points of the Spanish I DO know with him–pendejo, maricon, hijo de perra, cabron—I might not be able to converse, but I sure as hell can curse. Before I can bestow any of these gems on this Latino Paul Blart, the French friend intercedes on my behalf and explains that they initiated the conversation with me, and not the reverse. I thank her (in French) for her kindness, finish my stare-down with mall cop, and move along.
Thursday is more of the same, except by now I’ve moved from Lao Tzu to Sun Tzu; it’s The Art of War and The 48 Laws of Power rumbling through my semi-conscious mind like distant thunder. Hearing the basics of strategy as told by the masters—Napoleon, Machiavelli, Gracian, Han Fei—makes me think of how badly I’ve violated many of its principles. I can feel the concern over battle fronts waiting for me at home creep into my present. It’s then I’m suddenly grateful for Eckhart’s thick accent in my head, reminding me to ask myself what is wrong with my NOW: not a damn thing. I realize that all of my mad bouts of anger are just my ego’s inability to accept the moment. At this moment, I’m warm, well fed, well rested, and sitting on a beach instead of in front of a computer. I’m on top of the world.
“Para el cima,” she said to me. “Tú y yo, to the top.” It was the millennium, and Betty was going to visit her home country for Christmas and New Years. We’d been dating for a year and a half and it was all finally coming together. I spent every day before she left with her: running errands, shopping, cooking with her family, helping her prepare for her trip. I was with her the night before she left, listening to her make grandiose promises about our future. She spoke of things we would do together, places we’d go, mutual goals we could accomplish. I drove her to the airport in the morning and kissed her tenderly, her eyes full of hope.
She was gone for six weeks. She came home five weeks pregnant, like she’d fallen off the plane and landed on someone’s dick.
The instant she got home I knew something was wrong; her scent was different (she wasn’t ovulating). After being home for a week or so she started joking, complaining about how fat she was getting. I pulled her aside and consoled her. “Honey, you’re not fat,” I said. “You’re pregnant. Now is there something you think I should know?”
I look in the mirror Friday morning and my head and forehead bear no resemblance to what would otherwise be considered “skin.” I look like I’m wearing a black latex swim cap; it’s clear I’ve shown a fundamental lack of respect for la Diosa del Sol and she intends to punish me. I listen to The 33 Strategies of War and The Dancing Wu Li Masters, uncertain if I should stay out of direct sunlight at this point, as I’m fairly sure the damage has been done.
My evening shower confirms my worst fears, as my “helmet” sloughs burned skin like so much wet tissue paper; I’m molting. I now resemble a billiard ball with half of the paint chipped off. The first thing I do Saturday morning is buy a bandana in the form of a Dominican flag to protect both the tender soft skin on top of my head, and my vanity.
It’s my last day here and I decide to leave the iPhone at my hotel and go unplugged for the first time all week: I want to be fully present. By now all of the local vendors know me by name: JuanCarlo, Jose, Gabriel, Jesus, and Pablo all take a few minutes to talk with me as they get their hustle on; I try not to get in the way. Alejandro offers me his best table; it’s underneath a gigantic umbrella ten feet from the water at the same restaurant I dined at Monday night. He likes my Italian sandals; I take them off my feet and tell him they are his. He looks at me incredulously and calls me “brother;” unlike everyone else who’s used the term all week, I know he’s being genuine.
“You and I are not so different,” I say. “We both want to work hard, make as much money as possible, and go home and make love to our women. You do it here on a beach, and I do it back home, in a tower of glass and steel.”
I walk barefoot back to my hotel, trying to soak up every sensation: the warm breeze on my skin, the ocean in my ears, the cobblestones cutting up my feet. This moment, like every other moment in time, will never repeat itself, and I want to remember it.
When Betty and I break up, I take up smoking so that I can remember the taste of her kiss. I smoke seven packs of Newports one after the other on the first day. For three months, I come home at night, sit on my fire escape, smoke a pack of Newports and drink a pint of Tanqueray. I dream of a little girl with her brown eyes and my last name, and I mourn the future that never was, and never will be.
When I get over her I quit cold turkey. Nothing I do can improve the immutable past, and there’s no way of telling how pain in my past may have prevented future pain.
That was ten years ago. There’s no telling how choices I make today will affect me ten years from now, and that’s ok. Will I be happy? Don’t know, don’t care. My life is ahora mismo: here now. At this moment, I’m warm, well fed, blackened from a week in the sun, and sitting on my sofa in front of my computer learning how to embrace the uncertainty. What is wrong with my NOW? Not one damn thing.
I wonder what tomorrow has in store …