Fiction / Amanda J. Bradley
:: Angry Queens ::
Maya fingered a long string of wooden beads, wondering if she’d ever actually wear them back in New York. Are they exotic but earthy or just cheap and tacky? Near her in the stall of the open-air market, Sadie haggled with an older Jamaican woman, who was ample, with a green and red scarf scooping up her braided hair, graying at the temples.
“I’ll give you five dollars for all three.”
“No, woman. Five dollars for one. That’s a good price.”
“For three or I’ll walk,” Sadie said. Maya could tell she meant it. Upper East Side. Nannies. Summers in the south of France. Sadie had more money than God. This trip to Jamaica was slumming it for her. Sadie’s job entailed some sort of philanthropic something or other she chose to do. Although Maya had known her since college, she had yet to figure out which insanely wealthy American family Sadie was a twig on a branch of, although she knew it was one of them. It made Maya a little sick to her stomach to hear her friend insisting on three beautifully handcrafted wooden tropical fish for half the price of one, so Maya put the beads back and turned around to face them.
“You about ready?” Maya asked.
“Yes,” Sadie said too clearly, accentuating the s with a hiss, and then looked at the woman peddling wares to give her one last opportunity to take her offer.
“Five for two,” the woman said, sweeping her eyes over Sadie from head to foot in a slow, deliberate way, a half-disguised sneer in her gaze. Sadie pursed her eyes, one hand on her hip.
“That’s very generous,” Maya said to her friend.
“Fine. You drive a hard bargain.” Sadie dug through her purse then flipped a five-dollar bill out of it, sticking it out at the woman with her thin, white, gold-bangled arm. The woman took it, tucked it into a pouch around her waist, and handed the fish to Sadie.
“I would like a bag.”
“No bag.” The woman ambled around so that her back was facing Sadie to arrange items on the shelves where she’d removed the two fish.
“I’m hungry,” Maya said, pulling Sadie away from the market. “Let’s find something to eat. Do you want to return to that café we went to yesterday?”
Sadie was still fumbling with stuffing the fish in her purse, but managed to focus long enough to respond, “Let’s try somewhere new.”
“Okay. Head to the strip?”
“Yes. That’s good.” The two women adjusted their strides to walk toward the heart of Montego Bay. Back in New York, men tended to gawk at Sadie more. She was tall, extremely thin, her muscles lightly toned, with a small nose, big eyes, and flawless peach skin. Her hair looked healthy and swingy and ranged throughout the year from blonde to light auburn, depending on Sadie’s mood at the salon. Sadie took advantage of the perks of her money and had a personal trainer, a personal chef, a private hour of swimming at the pool in their building. By contrast, Maya felt pudgy and mottled and brown.
But here in Jamaica, both women had noticed Maya got most of the male attention. Jamaican men whistled at Maya, served Maya’s drink first at the restaurants; all winks and nods went in Maya’s direction. After a man had approached Maya as she and Sadie sat perched on stools sipping pineapple juice and coconut rum, the bartender had told her, “We love the light brown ladies here. Where you from?” Maya was from Queens, but her parents were both Filipino.
As Maya and Sadie strolled to find a place for dinner, the men they passed whistled at Maya, made grand gestures in her direction with their hands as if she were a celebrity or royalty, blew kisses her way. Sadie didn’t mind; she was rarely fazed by much of anything. Maya did not want the attention. She cast her eyes downward, their advances making her uncomfortable and wary. She was relieved when the women finally took a seat at an outdoor table of a restaurant on the main drag. Maya ordered a Red Stripe, Sadie a daiquiri, and the women relaxed into the early evening heat.
“What is Tom doing while you are away?” Maya asked her friend. Maya knew Tom the same way she knew Sadie: they’d all gone to a small northeastern liberal arts college together over a decade ago. Maya had been in love with Tom since the night they’d somehow ended up coupled as a team for a dance marathon. They’d danced all night, taking turns reviving each other when one or the other’s energy flagged, and they’d won early the next morning when the last rival couple finally conceded defeat. Maya and Tom had gone to breakfast together at a diner near campus. He’d been such a gentleman, giving her his jacket on the walk across campus into town, offering to pay. Sadie had no idea Maya loved Tom, but Sadie was oblivious that way.
“Working, as usual. He probably won’t notice I’m gone unless the kids remind him.” Maya knew this was patently false. She saw how Tom looked at Sadie when they all went to brunch or dinner or a museum or concert. Maya usually brought her brother or a friend from work to these outings so she would feel less like a third wheel. “When are you going to let me set you up with someone to date?”
“I am happy with my life, I’ve told you,” Maya said. “I do not need some belching, snoring man to clean up after and cook for. I like my job and my independence.”
“How can you like that job? It sounds so depressing. I mean, how can you leave it at work instead of crying into your wine every night? Those helpless people in their dingy apartments! How do you stand it?” Sadie’s disdain for Maya’s social work clients was the one thing about her friend that really made her bristle. Maya understood that Tom adored Sadie, so she forgave that Sadie had won the man. Maya did not covet her friend’s wealth; she’d always felt money was a little wicked. Maya was growing accustomed to the fact that she would probably not have children, so she did not begrudge Sadie’s bright-eyed, sandy-haired brood. But her friend’s disdain for her clients really angered Maya.
“Not everyone was born into a world of opportunity, Sadie. Have you no compassion?”
“I do have compassion. That’s why I’m asking how you don’t cry yourself to sleep at night with so much sadness and poverty in your face all day,” Sadie protested.
“Ignoring the problem is not the way to fix it.”
“I don’t ignore it. I give a great deal to causes that aim to end poverty.”
“You keep your distance from it, though. You don’t understand the daily struggles, the systems and cycles of abuse in place.”
“Causes need workers—people like you, but they also need funds from people like me.”
“Well, then get off my back about how I can stand it if you think it’s a worthwhile job.”
“Done.” Sadie said, turning her eyes toward the distant horizon behind Maya’s head. It was a familiar pose of hers and often made Maya think of an angry queen. A great rumble of engine noise clambered into hearing range and continued to grow louder. Everyone on the patio adjusted their line of sight to see where the racket was coming from. A series of what appeared to be military Jeeps rounded the corner at much too high a speed for the smallish road, and muscular black men with long dreads secured back, bandoliers of bullets hung like sashes across their chests, and enormous black automatic rifles in their hands clung to the bars of the Jeeps precariously. One, two, three, four Jeeps trucked their way around the corner and down the way, stern faces of the men aboard not even glancing at the tourists ogling them from the restaurant’s patio.
“Well, that was a sight to behold!” Sadie said, the rare gleam of excitement in her eye.
“I wonder where they are going. What is the government like here? Is there a military action underway? Should we have researched more what the political situation is right now?” Maya’s questions tumbled out rapidly.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Sadie said. “They are probably just going from here to there, and that’s how they do it—with style.” Maya admired her friend’s nonchalance. She used to interpret it as bravery but lately had begun to understand it was genuine indifference. Maya felt she would be happier if she could siphon off just a tiny bit of Sadie’s lack of concern for danger or suffering or the ills of the world; Sadie had enough to spare. “Are you finished with your dinner? We should scoot if we’re going to catch the sunset from the beach.” Maya began rummaging around in her purse, and Sadie added, “I settled up for us when I went to the restroom.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Maya said. She really hated how often Sadie picked up the tab, even though it made sense for her to and even though Sadie could not care less about paying for her friend.
“Let’s go,” Sadie said, rising from the table.
Maya and Sadie had happened to be on the beach as the sun went down their first night in Jamaica. The sight had been so spectacular that they decided to make a point of witnessing the sunset from the beach every night they were there. Now they bustled back along the sandy road toward the beach near their hotel to make it in time. They plopped in the sand several yards from a cabana serving drinks and playing reggae from loudspeakers; a breeze blew in off the water. The sun sat perched in the sky, a giant pink orb. Seconds later, the orb had dropped to straight ahead, resting on the horizon, a torrent of bright orange and pink, casting a lavender pall over the ocean, and then mere seconds later, it was a half crescent, a barely visible sliver and then gone. It couldn’t have taken more than a minute for the sun to disappear in one swift motion, dropping the friends into twilight. It simply fell out of the sky. Watching it, Maya felt her breath catch at how quickly beauty could disappear, just like that. She glanced at Sadie’s profile, and wondered if she were thinking, too, all the usual schlock about how quickly life passes, and how we are left with only the fleeting memories of the spectacular events that make up our lives until we, too, cease to exist. Probably not. She’s probably thinking, “Well, that was pretty.”
“Well, that was pretty,” Sadie said. Maya was dreading going to bed because every night Sadie had been sneaking out of their hotel room once she thought Maya was asleep. Maya then would read her book and slap her face against the pillow in frustration and shift positions repeatedly, worrying about her friend before she finally managed to sleep. Where did she go? What was she doing? Was she safe? To try to tire her friend out tonight, Maya suggested they go dancing at a club. She knew from the many wedding receptions they’d attended together that this would mean Maya sipping drinks at the bar, grown self-conscious since her dance marathon days, and Sadie dancing lavishly for many hours, but Maya liked the idea of wearing her friend out tonight and getting a fuller night’s sleep herself. “Let’s have one more drink then hit the hay,” Sadie said.
Maya’s face was turned toward the window on her pillow, away from Sadie’s bed. She was secretly plotting to follow her friend tonight to see where she went out of sheer curiosity. After some time of stillness had passed, Maya heard Sadie slip out of bed and wander over to peek at Maya, who kept her eyes closed, listening. She heard Sadie dress and apply lipstick, brush her hair in the bathroom, then slip out the door. As soon as she was gone, Maya threw on jeans and a pair of tennis shoes, grabbed her key card and wallet, and snuck out behind her friend. She decided to take the three flights of stairs, figuring Sadie took the elevator, and Maya rushed down them as quickly as possible, knowing she was a minute or so behind Sadie. As Maya exited the hotel and stepped out into the fresh ocean breeze, she quickly glanced at the beach directly across from the hotel. No signs of Sadie. There was only one direction down the one street with any nightlife, so Maya quickly scanned for signs of Sadie’s slim figure and spotted her friend’s long stride heading toward the nightlife.
Maya clambered down the steps and followed Sadie at a distance, ready to sidestep into the shadowy palm trees lining the street if her friend glanced back. But she never did. Sadie suddenly darted across the street, waving at someone. Maya followed the direction of her wave with her eyes and saw two young men outside another hotel who appeared to be waiting for her near the lobby. One of the men was tall with long, dark hair and was covered in tattoos. He wore ripped jeans and a concert t‑shirt with the sleeves cut out. He had some kind of leathery-looking black thing around his neck. The other man was shorter, preppier. His hair was cut short and reminded Maya of Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. He wore a pink polo shirt and khaki shorts with brown sandals under muscular calves. They were clearly together, but by appearances had nothing in common. Maya wondered if they were prostitutes.
Sadie strode up the steps, put her arms out, one hand touching each guy, and pulled them through the door of the lobby. Maya crossed the street to see into the lobby better. She watched the three of them enter an elevator. Maya remained where she was and waited, considering what to do. Soon, she heard a light swoosh sound above her and looked up to see Sadie and the tattooed guy stepping out onto the patio of a hotel room. They were all over each other, and he was removing Sadie’s shirt. Maya turned away and swiveled to head back toward the hotel.
As she walked, Maya tried to identify what it was she was feeling. All she could think of was Tom’s face as he settled his jacket around her shoulders after they’d won the marathon, how he’d listened so intently as Maya had explained at the diner why it had been so important to her to win the money for their charity of choice. Her father had been suffering ALS then, before he’d died, and she had wanted to raise money for ALS research. Tom had been so shocked to hear about her dad, so sympathetic. He’d asked her to tell him about her father and what their relationship was like, what her fondest memories from childhood were of him. He had really listened.
But the next time she and Tom were together, it had been like nothing ever happened. Tom never mentioned Maya’s father to her again, never asked how he was, didn’t even know when he died. The sudden epiphany dawned on Maya as she walked the oceanside street that Tom and Sadie really were perfect for each other. Neither of them cared about much of anything. Maya suspected if she told Tom about Sadie and the tattooed man, he would listen intently and then act as if the conversation had never happened. It would not eat away at him or corrode their relationship or change anything whatsoever.
Maya neared the hotel and decided to go sit on the beach for a while before returning to the room. The cabana was closed now, and not many people were around at all. A couple walked together down by the water, some people were milling about up by the hotel, but Maya felt more alone than she had in days, in years maybe. She found a spot by simply stopping when it occurred to her to, and she situated herself on the soft sand. The world is ugly. Beauty is painful because the world is ugly, not just because beauty fades. Maya crossed her ankles and leaned back on her stretched arms. She dropped her head back to view the cascades of stars in the black sky.
A tall man in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt seemed to appear next to her out of nowhere and asked if he might sit. Maya found she could not care less whether the man sat next to her or didn’t, whether he kept walking or she said yes or no, whether he smiled at her or spoke to her, or if she went back inside. She gazed up at the man blankly. He sat down.
“Where you from?” he asked. “You are beautiful.”
“New York,” she replied. Maya laid back in the sand, and the man leaned down next to her. She closed her eyes. He stuck his tongue in her ear. She didn’t care.
From the writer
:: Account ::
Jamaica Kincaid’s book A Small Place, about colonialism and white tourism to her home country of Antigua, was very much in my mind as I wrote this story. I first read that book long after I had made trips to the Bahamas and Jamaica, and it was eye-opening to me. I wanted to show through a story the perniciousness of wealthy white privilege, which is why the story opens with the well-to-do Sadie haggling rudely with a Jamaican artisan. Maya is the more relatable and likable character, but by the end of the story feels overwhelmed by Sadie’s and Tom’s nonchalance as people who have the privilege of not having to care about much. When Maya witnesses Sadie’s mistreatment of Tom with the other men in Jamaica, Maya has an epiphany that Tom really wouldn’t care that much anyway. This breaks Maya.
More generally, I am interested in the brutality of the world: inequality, unfairness, violence. I wanted a sense of that brutality highlighted in the story, too, and set in contrast with the world’s beauty.
Amanda J. Bradley has published three poetry collections with NYQ Books: Queen Kong (2017), Oz at Night (2011), and Hints and Allegations (2009) and has published fiction, essays, and poems widely in anthologies and literary magazines such as Paterson Literary Review, Chiron Review, Lips, Rattle, The New York Quarterly, Kin, The Nervous Breakdown, Apricity Magazine, and Gargoyle. She lives in Beacon, New York, and her website can be found at www.amandajbradley.com.