By Joanne C. Hillhouse
She’s driving with her friend Essie when she hears it for the first time. And her heart just about jumps out of her mouth, and she’s scrambling for the door handle even before she knows what she’s doing. And Essie laughs as she pulls out her Blackberry. “It’s just my phone you doe-doe head.”
Then Essie’s on the phone telling Eric and Raj that yes they’ll meet them at the East entrance of the Recreation Grounds, the one by the prison. But now Claudette isn’t in the mood for the all night fête. In fact, it kind of feels like her whole Carnival is ruined. And over such a stupid thing too, a stupid ringtone of a screaming woman, and who the hell begins a party song with a chilling scream.
Essie plays her the entire song once she wraps up her conversation.
“You na hear the new hot song yet? Where you been? E wicked bad!”
She presses some buttons and the screaming starts again and though Claudette knows it isn’t real, her feet dances a bit on the floor of the passenger-side of Essie’s dad’s Suzuki, as though trying to get away.
The rest of it is what she’s come to expect from the popular Antiguan soca band — a catchy if repetitive rhythm, rhymey lyrics, playfulness with lascivious intent. Except this one is less playful and more aggressive. Kick een she back door the singer sings with glee, and Essie sings along; rocking a bit as she holds the BB in one hand and steers the car with the other, eyes flicking between Claudette, as though gauging her reaction, and the road. They are crawling now, the Red Eye crowd creating a bottle neck on Old Parham Road.
Claudette wants to t’ump Essie in her stupid face; punch her so hard her stupid tacky silk-front wig comes loose. Her fist clenches and she snaps. “Enough!”
Essie laughs and laughs. It’s a familiar laugh, a laugh that teases Claudette for still being such a baby. It’s the laugh her best friend has used to goad Claudette into every bad decision she’s made since high school. It’s the laugh she uses when mocking Claudette’s accomplishments, like her earning Student of the Year when they left school two years ago. Essie and Claudette are frenemies on a good day, with little more than age and history and geography linking them to each other. But history and geography are hard things to shake. So here Claudette is, back in Antigua after a year at University of the West Indies in Jamaica, home for the summer and circling back into Essie’s orbit.
But in all fairness Essie couldn’t have known.
Claudette hasn’t told anyone.
Here’s what happened. Where she lives on campus backs up against the Papine community in Kingston; between her and Papine there is a footpath the university students use for convenience, and an unmanned gate that is always open. She shares her box like room with a girl from middle Jamaica, a girl she barely spoke to all year, a girl too much like Essie. She’d been proud of her ability to resist the taunts and temptations, to reinvent herself into a young woman who owned her reserve and her oddities. Her roommate had tried to strong arm her into making the trip out to the coast with the group of them headed to Negril and a part of her had wanted to go, but she was proud of her decision to stay. She had exams coming up and they might laugh at her bookish ways but she’d be the one making the Dean’s List if she had anything to say about it. Come to think of it, maybe not much had changed after all. And she did kind of find herself feeling antsy once she was alone. Maybe she should have taken a break from the books and gone. She’d never been to Negril but their hard sell had kind of made it sound like paradise, a paradise of laid back debauchery, easy and available loving, and sunsets, beautiful sunsets. She pictured herself pressed up against some guy dancing hard like the earth needed their unleashed energy to keep spinning or something. When the banging on her back door jarred her back to herself she realized she was touching herself and the Poli-Sci book was abandoned wrong side up on the floor. When had that happened?
The banging sounded again and she jumped though she’d been expecting it.
“Who’s there?” she called. And she should’ve breathed easier when the voice came, Freed. Freed was a boy she’d been crushing on. He was tall and kind of built but not like those gym rats, not even like the boys who ran the length of the football field every day. Nah, he was solid like he’d been born that way. He was in a lot of the same classes as her and they’d got to talking a few times. He was from one of the other islands like her, which might explain why he was on campus this holiday weekend too. Except with as many girls as he usually had fishing around, that he’d hang back when the campus was this dead surprised her.
She let him in. But didn’t know what to do with him once she had; why he was there. Before she knew what was what he was on her on her bed and her mind was having trouble catching up.