“Don’t worry,” she says. “Your bag is fine. I stopped at Sam & Jack’s for sandwiches. I got three because I wasn’t sure what you liked, and I got some of their homemade potato chips and a couple of kosher dills. And I went to Our Market for smoothies!”
Baker looks down in the console to see two frosted plastic cups, one pink, one pale yellow. He was too nervous to eat the banana Cash gave him so he threw it to the iguanas on the way down the hill. But now he’s both starving and dying of thirst.
“Which one is mine?” he asks.
“Take your pick,” Ayers says. “There’s strawberry-papaya and pineapple-mango.” She turns up the music—it’s Jack Johnson singing “Upside Down,” and Baker surprises himself by singing along. Until this very moment, Baker hated Jack Johnson, harbored an almost personal vendetta against him, in fact, because one of Baker’s former girlfriends from Northwestern, Trinity, had loved Jack Johnson so ardently. She would only have sex with Baker if Jack Johnson was playing in the background. Needless to say, this had made Baker jealous, and because of this jealousy, he declared Jack Johnson overrated. Now, however, sitting next to Ayers, who is singing along with gleeful abandon, sometimes in key, sometimes not so much, Baker fully understands the appeal. The music is happy, undemanding, and full of sunshine. It’s going-to-the-beach music, the same way that Billie Holiday is rainy-Sunday-morning music and George Thorogood is drinking-at-a-dive-bar music. Thanks to the many hours Baker spent with Trinity in bed, Baker knows all the words. He chooses the pineapple-mango smoothie, it’s delicious, and he finds a magic arrangement for his legs so that he can relax. He was right to come, he thinks. He’s happy.
They twist and turn and wind around until they’re somehow back on the Centerline Road. To the right is a stunning view of the turquoise water and emerald mountains.
“Coral Bay,” Ayers says. “Fondly known as the Other Side of the World.”
They cruise down hairpin turns until they reach a Stop sign, an intersection, a little town on a harbor filled with boats.
“Skinny Legs is that way,” Ayers says, pointing left. “Legendary. I wish I could say we’ll have time to stop for a drink on the way home but we probably won’t.” She turns right and they meander past colorful clapboard cottages, a convenience store called Love City Mini Mart, a round open-air restaurant called the Aqua Bistro. “Best onion rings on planet Earth,” Ayers says. She hits the gas and they fly up around a curve and nearly collide with three white donkeys standing on the side of the road.
“Donkey!” Ayers cries, and at first Baker thinks she’s as surprised to see them as he is. What are three donkeys doing on the side of the road? Ayers pulls to the shoulder and the donkeys leisurely clomp over to the car. Ayers reaches across Baker, grazing his leg with her arm, which sends an electric current right to his heart, and she pulls a withered apple from the glove box.
“Do as I say, not as I do. We’re not supposed to feed them.” Ayers sticks the apple out and the alpha donkey eats it from her outstretched palm. She looks at the other two and sighs. “I wish I had three. Sorry, guys!”
When they pull back onto the road, Baker says, “Whose donkeys are those? Do you know them?”
“There’s a population of wild donkeys across the island,” Ayers says. “I do have one favorite. I call him Van Gogh—he only has one ear, and I keep the apple for him. But I wanted you to see them up close. You haven’t been to St. John until you’ve seen the donkeys!” She throws her hands up. She seems positively radiant, and Baker hopes it’s because of him. She’s wearing a crocheted white cover-up with a white bikini underneath and her blond hair has been wrangled into a messy bun. She is so pretty it hurts, and she keeps an apple in her glove box for a donkey with one ear. Baker can’t imagine anyone being more infatuated than he is with Ayers Wilson right now.
He feels a buzzing against his leg and the sound of bongo drums. It’s his phone. He has to re-contort himself to slide it out of his pocket. He checks the display: Anna. He hurries to silence it, then to turn the phone off completely. He’d like to chuck it out the window. When he got home the night before, he saw he had six missed calls from Anna, but there was not a single voicemail. Anna doesn’t believe in voicemail; it can too easily be ignored.
What’s up? Baker had texted first thing that morning, but he had received no response. That was Anna’s way of punishing him for not answering his phone. But Baker didn’t want to talk to Anna on the phone and now that she had confessed to falling in love with Louisa Rodriguez, Anna no longer got to say when and how they communicated.
“Who was that?” Ayers asks.
“My brother,” Baker says quickly. “He probably wanted to remind me that I’m meeting him at High Tide around three, or whenever we get back. I forgot to ask you, is that okay? Can you drop me at High Tide?”
“Works for me,” Ayers says.
Finally they reach the beach, and, as promised, theirs is the only vehicle around.
“Sometimes there are snorkelers,” Ayers says. “But hopefully not today.”
In the back of her truck, she has two beach chairs, the picnic, and two pool rafts. She and Baker carry everything out onto the “beach,” which is a half-moon of smooth blue cobblestones. Baker has never seen a stone beach like this one before. It’s tricky to walk, but Ayers strides ahead sure-footed and Baker attempts to follow suit. She places the chairs down, hides the picnic in the shade of the chairs, and slips off her cover-up; it’s like a veil falling off a piece of art.
She picks up one of the pool rafts and heads for the water, which is a bowl of crystalline blue.
“Come join me when you’re ready,” she says.
“Oh, I’m ready,” Baker says. He shucks off his polo shirt, takes off his watch, puts his phone and his watch in his backpack, rubs sunscreen on his face, hoping he worked it all in. There is nothing less attractive, Baker’s school wives have informed him, than a lapse of personal grooming in a man—back hair, yellow teeth, unclipped toenails. It has led him to become overly sensitive about how he presents himself. Anna, of course, wouldn’t notice if he had hot dogs growing out of his ears, but now there is someone new to impress.
Baker grabs a float. The water looks inviting, but there’s a slight downward incline and the rocks are difficult to negotiate, and they’re burning hot besides. Baker decides to run for the water, praying he doesn’t break an ankle, and then throw himself and his raft facedown onto the water’s surface. This works, sort of, he’s in the water now, half on the raft, half off. He probably looked like a buffoon. He made a huge splash and now there’s a wake undulating through the water that reaches Ayers. She laughs.
“Come over here,” she says.
He paddles over to her and flips onto his back without too much trouble. Ayers reaches for his hand. They hold hands, drifting across the surface of the bay. From here, Baker can better appreciate the beach. The stones are backed by scrub brush and the occasional palm tree, and on either side of this bay are rocky outcrops. It’s silent and deserted. They might be the last two people on earth.
Baker closes his eyes, feels the sun warm his skin. This is delightful. He doesn’t go to the beach enough. Why is that? Probably because the closest beach to Houston is Galveston, with its sour brown water. Floyd loves it, of course, and clamors to go whenever there’s a break from school. But that’s because he doesn’t know any better. When Baker and Anna were in Anguilla on their honeymoon, she was stung by a jellyfish during their first dip into Meads Bay, so for the rest of the week they hung by the resort’s pool.
When he and Cash were kids, Baker remembers, their family went to Jamaica. Russ had been keen to go, but this was back when he was still a corn syrup salesman, and so they had traveled on a budget; even at ten years old, Baker had realized this. They had stayed at a hotel not far from the airport, and for the first few days, it poured rain. Baker remembers watching television, exactly as he would have done at home. His father walked out onto the balcony every time the rain abated, thinking it would clear, but it never did. Finally, Russ had broken down and given the boys each three dollars for the arcade in the lobby, even though Irene believed video games corrupted children. Baker and Cash had quickly tired of the pinball and Ms. Pac-Man, and they decided to sneak out of the hotel. They darted across a busy road to a real Jamaican village, where people were selling crocheted hacky sacks and bootleg Bob Marley tapes. A goat was being grilled on a half-barrel grill, and a man was playing the guitar and singing in a language Baker and Cash didn’t quite understand. Irene and Russ had shown up a little while later, Irene plainly frantic at first and then relieved and teary, then more furious than Baker could remember ever seeing her. When the sun came out the next day, it didn’t matter: Irene stayed in the room. But Russ, not wanting the vacation to be a complete loss, had rented a car and driven the boys all the way to Dunn’s River Falls; on the way home, they stopped at Laughing Waters beach. Baker remembers racing for the waves, screaming and splashing, with Russ right alongside him, giddy as a little kid. Later, they had dried off with the threadbare towels they’d taken from the hotel and stopped at Scotchie’s for jerk chicken and rice. Baker can practically see Russ, glowing from a day in the sun, throwing back a Red Stripe to cool the spice of the chicken. His father had been happy. His father had loved the tropics.