“She wouldn’t tell me,” Baker says. “She came back from town and when I asked how it went she said it was productive and that she has a meeting tomorrow.”
“What time?” Cash asks.
“In the morning,” Baker says. “She wasn’t sure how long it would take.”
“Are you worried?” Cash asks.
“No,” Baker says. “It’s Mom.”
Right, Cash thinks. They have never had to worry about Irene in the past. But now… things have changed, haven’t they?
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Cash asks.
“Same thing I did today,” Baker says. “Waiting for the phone to ring, but it’s Sunday so I’m sure nothing will happen. I would like to get out tomorrow night, though. What do you think about that? I want to eat at La Tapa.”
“La Tapa?” Cash says.
“Do you remember that girl, Ayers?” Baker asks. “From the reception?”
Cash’s heart starts bobbing up and down. Yes. Ayers. Yes. He tries to keep his expression neutral. “Yeah, why?”
“She works there,” Baker says. “And I want to see her again.”
“See her why?” Cash asks.
“Because she was Rosie’s best friend,” Baker says. “She has information.”
Cash clears the plates. Ayers was Rosie’s best friend and she possibly does have information, but Cash gets a very strong feeling that that isn’t why Baker wants to see Ayers again.
You’re married! He wants to snap. To Anna!
But instead, Cash makes a decision. He’s going to the British Virgin Islands tomorrow.
Cash avoids group tours for a reason: they turn even the most authentic experiences into a Disneyland ride. It’s unavoidable, he supposes. This tour company, Treasure Island, which takes a group of twenty people on a three-stop adventure to another country, needs to make the experience safe and user-friendly. And fun!
“Most of all,” Ayers says over her headset microphone to the assembled group, after explaining where the life preservers are kept, how to disembark at the Baths of Virgin Gorda (they have to jump off the boat and swim to shore), and how to defog one’s mask for maximum snorkeling visibility, “we want you to have fun. In that spirit, the bar is now open. Come get your painkillers.”
Painkillers, Cash thinks. If only. And yet he finds himself shuffling to the bar behind a big fat guy in a HARLEY-DAVIDSON OF SOUTH DAKOTA t-shirt. There’s nothing wrong with this guy or any of the other couples or families aboard the boat, except that they are taking up Ayers’s time and attention. It’s like she’s running a day care, Cash thinks. Everyone has questions: What if they aren’t a strong enough swimmer to make it to the shore in Virgin Gorda? Will there be gluten-free options at lunch? Is it true that the Baths have been spoiled by too much tourism? Will there be sharks? What about barracudas?
Ayers answers all the questions, and Cash surreptitiously hangs on her every word while he sips his painkiller (it’s rum, cream of coconut, pineapple juice, and orange juice, with nutmeg on top). He had to go online and look up what the Virgin Gorda Baths even were—when Ayers said it yesterday, he pictured a cavernous building populated by overweight Slavic men—so he knows it’s a rock formation that has created various “rooms” that can be toured. After the Baths, they’re stopping at Cooper Island for lunch, and on the way home they’ll snorkel at a spot called the Indians.
“How’re you doing?” Ayers has caught him back in line for a second painkiller; the first one went down way too easily on an empty stomach, and he knows that after his second, he should avail himself of the fresh sliced papaya, watermelon, and pineapple as well as a piece of the homemade banana coconut bread. Otherwise he’s going to be one of the people who doesn’t make it to shore.
When is the last time he’s done any real swimming? he wonders. Junior-year gym class at Iowa City High School?
“I’m good,” he says. He knows he should engage some of his fellow adventurers in conversation—there’s a gay couple about his age who look nice—so that Ayers doesn’t think he’s a snob or socially awkward. Cash has been too busy feeling jealous about Ayers’s relationships with her two male crew members: James, the captain, and Wade, the first mate. James is a West Indian guy built like a Greek god and Wade must be a retired Hollister model. Both of them call Ayers “baby,” and when Cash first arrived at the dock, he saw Ayers and James hugging, but then he realized James was offering his condolences. Still, Cash is discomfited by the physical attractiveness of the crew; it seems designed to make Cash and his fellow adventurers feel unremarkable.
“I’m sorry I don’t have time to chill with you right now,” Ayers says. “It’ll be different on the ride home.”
“No worries,” Cash says. “I’m a big boy.”
Ayers gives him a nice smile, one that targets his heart. Has he ever reacted this way to a woman? Geez, not since ninth grade with Claire Bellows, who ended up being his girlfriend all through high school until she went off to Northwestern, where she proceeded to hook up with Baker. His own brother. That had been devastating, Cash won’t lie, and it had led to Cash hating Baker and being very mistrustful of women. Since then, Cash’s romantic life has consisted of weeklong hookups and one-night stands, usually with the women he was teaching to ski.
Cash takes his second painkiller to the upper deck and chooses a seat near the gay couple. The sun feels good, and there is something about being out on the water that reminds Cash of standing at the top of a mountain. It’s elemental, he supposes, communing with the earth. Ayers, over her headset microphone, gives the group some background history—the Danish settlers, the sugar plantation, the slave revolt in which African slaves from St. John swam to the British Virgin Islands to freedom. She points out Lovango Cay, where there used to be a brothel for pirates—the pirates called it “love and go,” which was then shortened to Lovango; everyone laughs at that story. Ayers shifts her focus to Jost Van Dyke, home of the world-famous bar the Soggy Dollar (Cash has never heard of it), then to Tortola, on their left, and the “sister islands”—Peter, Norman, Cooper, Salt, and Ginger—on their right. Cash goes downstairs for another painkiller, and when he comes back up to the deck, he says to one of the members of the male couple (tall, balding, pale), “So is this your first time to the BVIs?”
“Affirmative,” the other man (short, dark) says. “Chris’s parents just bought a timeshare at the Westin so we thought we’d come down to see what the fuss is about. How about you?”
Cash needs to pick a story and stick to it. “Here for a week with my mom and my brother. Family reunion.”
Chris says, “Did they come with you?”
“No,” Cash says.
“My kind of family reunion!” the short, dark-haired guy says, and the three of them do a cheer.
Thanks to another painkiller or three (Could Cash really have had five drinks already? It’s not even ten in the morning), the morning passes quickly, with soft, blurred edges. Once they reach Virgin Gorda, Cash’s anxiety about jumping off the boat and swimming to shore melts away. He’s an athletic guy, in good shape—that should count for something—and sure enough, he makes it with ease. Ayers leads the tour through the Baths. They’re not like anything Cash has ever seen: huge granite boulders that form a series of rooms and formations with shallow pools of warm turquoise water in each. They start out viewing the Whale Gallery—a rock that looks like an orca shooting out of the water—then move on to the Lion’s Den and Moon rock. Cash’s favorite room is called the Cathedral because of the way the light reflects off the water, spangling the rocks with color and making it look like stained glass. Ayers not only offers charming commentary, she is attentive to the older and less agile members of the group who have difficulty negotiating the rough-hewn wooden steps and squeezing through narrow passageways. Cash helps out wherever he can, offering his hand and allowing a little girl, five or six years old, to jump down into his arms. He feels like a Boy Scout, but then again, he was a Boy Scout.
Ayers whispers in his ear. “Want a job?”
Does he want a job? Only five days ago, Cash made what he thought was a major life decision to return to the mountains. Now his father is dead and Cash’s “life,” or what’s left of it, has been turned on its head. What remains that is solid and reliable? Winnie. His mother. In a pinch, he supposes, his brother. There’s nothing to stop Cash from moving down here and working for Treasure Island. He could live in his father’s villa. As outrageous as the thought is, it holds appeal. He realizes that Ayers is only kidding, but what if she’s not kidding?
He’s drunk, he needs to slow down, but when Chris and Mike ask him if he wants to join them for a beer—there’s a bar at the exit of the Baths, of course—he says yes.
He has never before seen the appeal of day-drinking. Lots of people drink while skiing; many, many folks choose to do two or three runs and then hit the bar. Cash likes his daytime hours to be productive, and so he saves his drinking for the evening, which is probably a legacy of his strait-laced midwestern upbringing. Now, however, he understands how liberating it is to get intoxicated while the sun is out. It feels decadent in the best possible way. The world seems alternately kind, forgiving, absurd, and hilarious.