“Powerfully voiced… smart, edgy, well-written… an impressive first.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Beautiful and affecting.”
“A truly original, indeed essential, novel.”
“A lovely, compelling first novel.”
“This complex, mesmerizing first novel is both a traveler’s tale and a lament for the home left behind.”
—Regina Marler, for Amazon.com
“A remarkably solid debut novel.”
“Powerfully voiced…smart, edgy, well-written…an impressive first.”
“A confident and powerfully voiced first novel in which a couple—damaged, haunted and desperate—find redemption.
Having both just arrived at the airport in the Dominican Republic, Tollomi rescues Michelle from a customs nightmare. After this meeting, the two are inseparable, becoming more than friends and less than confidantes, sharing an enigmatic bond they’re afraid to speak of. Young and seemingly independent, Michelle has been traveling aimlessly,escaping something (even she’s not sure what—she suffers an amnesia that has erased chunks of her past and bits of her present), landing in the Dominican Republic to claim the house her grandparents bought in the ’40s on a whim.
Tollomi, West Indies born, American educated, travels the world helping the dispossessed, barely acknowledging his own exile from the island of his birth. To others, the pair seem charming and bright, but they can see each other for what they are—Tollomi being beckoned by mermaids to drown, Michelle followed by the ghost of her grandfather. She finds a job at an American bar and begins rebuilding her house, while Tollomi searches for the remains of a revolutionary movement that seems to have died with the assassination of its leader. He meets Carlitos, a young man selling sodas on the beach, and the two begin a doomed affair in the midst of an atmosphere of burning gringo hotels and a fixed presidential election.
As Michelle’s house nears completion, she becomes increasingly disturbed. Though suspecting the truth about her memory loss, Tollomi is too consumed with Carlitos (who may have ties to the torched hotels) to help her. The narrative is remarkably assured in weaving the futility of the revolutionary arsonist’s deeds (none of the hotels are really damaged being made of cinderblock) with the futility of Michelle and Tollomi’s continuing to believe nothing is wrong with the other. A dramatic conclusion brings the chance of a new life for both.
Smart, edgy, well written: an impressive first.”
“Sarah Pemberton Strong debuts with Burning the Sea, the story of two drifting souls who come together in the Dominican Republic. Michelle, an American and a lifelong wanderer, has just left a lover in Berlin. She arrives on the island and meets Tollomi, a young man from St. Croix whose history is just as fraught as hers, and each tries to fill in the gaps in their respective pasts. Michelle wants to rebuild a ruined house once owned by her grandparents, and Tollomi begins an affair with a local boy named Carlitos as various tensions simmer across the island…. Beautiful and affecting.”
“Burning the Sea, a remarkably solid debut novel, contains a wealth of complex contrasts. The writing is at once lush and spare, dense and elegant. It’s a novel of shimmering dreams and slippery truths, yet it’s set solidly in the very real, dusty world of West Indian poverty and political unrest, with the devastating impact of invasive tourism as backdrop. Its paired central characters are American-born Michelle, a lesbian who travels the world to escape traumatic childhood memories, and Dominican-born but American-educated Tollomi, a gay man who travels the world because he’s ashamed to return to a childhood home he’s foolishly forsaken. In sum, it’s a book of many levels and much texture, slow to get going but with eventual impeccable momentum. First-time novelist Strong lived in the Caribbean for several years, so it’s no surprise that she brings its culture, its problems, and its charms to life so vividly. Her real achievement is accomplishing the same mesmerizing feat with Michelle and Tollomi, two heartbreakingly lost souls who, through finding each other, discover how to heal themselves.”
“This complex, mesmerizing first novel is both a traveler’s tale and a lament for the home left behind. In the case of Michelle, a young American, her childhood home is barely remembered. But even when her body was sitting at the dinner table, her mind wandered: “I never knew when I was doing it. I tried to be my own jailer, but my mind was too quick for me. It slipped out between breaths, and I never knew it had gone until someone called to me from far away to come back and answer for my mind’s behavior.” What propels her is a search for a truer origin, a spiral path that will take her to the Dominican Republic, where her grandfather once owned a dilapidated house. On her way, she falls in with Tollimi, a political worker with a gift for disguising himself, for slipping the bonds of identity, that is even better-developed than Michelle’s. Readers whose interest in the West Indies and Caribbean is stirred by Burning the Sea will find it makes a brilliant—and equally well-written—companion volume to Nelly Rosario’s novel of Dominican family life, Song of the Water Saints.”
—Regina Marler, for Amazon.com
“Sarah Pemberton Strong has done that wonderful thing… created a truly original, indeed essential, novel. Burning the Sea, a story of intellect, adventure, and intrigue, explores what happens when we live with our ancestors and, more hauntingly, what happens when we don’t.”
—Jane Summer, author of The Silk Road
“Burning the Sea is a richly textured novel of memory and rebirth—of the struggle to understand both the pain and mystery of the past and the passions and human connections of the present. This is a lovely, compelling first novel.”
—Ann Wadsworth, author of Light, Coming Back
Sarah Pemberton Strong’s remarkable debut novel is a mesmerizing and highly original story of emotional dislocation, political intrigue, and the powerful forces of memory and desire.
In an airport in the Dominican Republic, two troubled wanderers are drawn together by a chance encounter and a shared sense of longing. Michelle is an American with holes in her past and so strong a need to wander that she walks in her sleep. Tollomi is a native of the West Indies, thoroughly Americanized by education and in search of his true self. The two forge an intense connection that allows them to comprehend each other’s haunting secrets, even as they remain blind to their own. For Tollomi, salvation lies in his deep involvement in Dominican politics; for Michelle, in the urgent desire to rebuild a long-abandoned family home that she believes holds the key to her lost memories. Michelle’s obsessive drive and Tollomi’s passionate affair with a young Dominican man pull both protagonists into a vortex of political tension between Dominicans and Americans, setting in motion an explosive series of events both transcendent and heartbreaking.
The world is not so large. From Frankfurt I took a plane to New York, where I had to change airlines. After waiting all night at JFK because the pilot scheduled to fly the plane was stuck in customs in Puerto Rico, we left—it was morning by then—and five hours later the plane dropped below the clouds and I looked down and there was the island. Green hills, red and yellow earth, the sea changing from blue to green and breaking white against the edges of the land.
When the plane touched down everyone cheered. We stood jostling in the aisles while they rolled the staircase into place. A baby sat down in the aisle and cried. An old man was having trouble with the cardboard box he had jammed into the overhead compartment. The line inched forward, and then at last I stepped out of the plane into the air and the heat and light of the island. I took my first breath of island air and suddenly I was happy. The air was alive, buoyant with the humid smell of earth, of flower sap. The sea was not only in the water but in the air. When the wind blew I smelled through the hot smell of the runway a whiff of salt and seaweed.
The terminal was one stucco building at the edge of the tarmac. I walked toward it through the wavy heat, breathing. Grass. Earth. Wind, tinged with a faint sharpness: the smoke from a fire miles away. If I had arrived here walking in my sleep, I would have known by that first breath of air that I was on an island.
We straggled up a narrow walkway half-blocked by a group of musicians frantically playing accordion and drums. Past the musicians we spilled out into a room jammed with yelling people. One end of the room was open to the runway, partitioned by a dented metal ramp onto which men in green shirts were beginning to throw the luggage. I stood at the edge of the crowd and watched. Things were being thrust at me: customs forms, a paper cup half full of warm rum. “Es gratis,” said the girl holding the rum tray. I took a cup and we smiled at each other. She had a beautiful wide smile that was missing two teeth.
Everyone pressed forward, shouting at the baggage handlers. Bulging suitcases and taped boxes were all over the floor. I saw my knapsack being flung into the air, but I couldn’t see where it landed. I drank the rum and slipped into the press of bodies.
I found my bags and lugged them toward the opposite end of the room where the long customs tables stood. People lined up—infinitely patient though the whole island was out there just on the other side of the big metal doors—and waited for their turn to greet the men in khaki uniforms and have their papers examined, their bags and carefully taped boxes opened for inspection.
When my turn came, the customs officers went through my knapsack and all at once became very excited. They took my knapsack and my tent and carried them through a metal door where I wasn’t permitted to go after them. What was the matter, I asked. I hadn’t been paying attention to the luggage search. I had been watching two small boys on the other side of the room trying to drag an enormous suitcase across the floor, and now my own bags had been taken away by the customs man.
They told me what was wrong in a rapid-fire Spanish I could not understand. I thought they needed a little extra money. I was prepared for this. My Spanish was clumsy, but bribery requires surprisingly few words. I leaned against the customs table and waited for the officers to come back out and explain the imaginary complication that could be resolved for a small fee. But no one came out. The people in line behind me dragged their belongings to other tables and then I stood there alone, waiting. I became aware that I was being stared at. I looked around. I was the only gringo in the airport. My feet began to hurt.
At last the metal door opened, and two men came up to me in a blur of military uniform, sunglasses, guns, and a torrent of Spanish.
Why was I carrying something, they wanted to know.
“Carrying what?” I asked.
They repeated the word, which I had never heard before. I tried to think what could be in my luggage. Tent? Camping stove? “Do I have to pay to bring them into the country?” I asked. I wanted to make it easy for them, I wanted to get out of there.
But that wasn’t it. They weren’t interested in money. They were getting annoyed. They repeated the word I couldn’t understand. I shrugged and tried to look charming and innocent.
They repeated themselves a few more times and then gave up on words: One of them put a hand on my arm in a way I would have understood in any language.
Come with us, the hand said.
I looked at the door in the wall through which they had taken my luggage and then I dropped my shoulder bag on the floor. Everything inside spilled and scattered. I took my time picking the things up: I was afraid.
“You’re having trouble with your declarations?” A voice speaking English. I looked up from collecting my crumpled napkins and deutsche marks and ticket stubs. Another man had joined the customs officers, a pair of feet shifting back and forth in leather sandals. I looked up all the way, and a tall Dominican peered down at me. He was dressed in a pressed cotton shirt and trousers, not a uniform. I stood up.
“They took all my luggage,” I said.
“Oh?” he said. “It’s possible you’ll have to pay them something.” His American accent was perfect, as if he had gone to great pains to make it so.
“They don’t want money,” I said, grateful to be speaking English again, “I tried that.”
“Would you like me to ask what the trouble is?”
Before I could answer he had turned to the shorter of the officers and said casually, “¿Hay algun problema con el pasaporte de ella?”`
“Con el pasaporte, no,” the officer started, but the other officer, the one who had grabbed my arm, interrupted, speaking so fast I understood nothing. The stranger listened, nodding occasionally. He had an unusual face. His skin was light brown, but his eyes were blue. Not the hazel-green I had noticed on a few other light-skinned Dominicans, but really blue, as blue as my own. His hair was somewhere between African and Spanish: It was brown, not black, and sat close against his head in curls too loose to be called kinky, too tight to be waves. As I watched his face while he listened to the officers discussing me, his expression wasn’t exactly consoling. When they finally stopped speaking, he looked quite grave. He nodded several times and turned to me.
“What is it?” I asked.
He frowned. “This man,” he said carefully, as if having difficulty choosing his words, “this man says you’re carrying…explosives.”
“Explosives. Some sort of bomb?”
“Of course not. Tell him to bring my luggage back.”
The stranger turned and said something to the officers. I could tell it wasn’t what I’d asked him to say. I wondered if I could just leave the three of them there and walk out of the airport without their noticing. I closed my eyes for a moment.
Then I remembered something. A little cold wave passed through me. I knew what all the fuss was about.
“I know what the matter is,” I said.
They didn’t turn around. I went up and stood right next to them. The officer who had grabbed my arm was wearing a lot of cologne. The leather on the holster for his gun was cracked.
“Disculpe,” I said. I couldn’t think of how to say it in Spanish. “Yo sé que, que es la problema, el problema…” I didn’t have the words. I tapped the stranger’s arm. “I know what the problem is,” I said in English. “I was in Berlin, and I—”
“Berlin?” He turned all the way around and gave me an odd look.
“Berlin, Germany. You know the Berlin Wall?”
He gave me a slight nod.
“They took it down—”
“I know,” he said. “On Thursday.”
“People were setting off firecrackers. To celebrate. Somehow I got some. They must be in my knapsack. I forgot I had them.”
He looked at me and kept looking, not casually, too long. He took in my too-short hair, my dog-eared passport, my dress with the hole in it. He was trying to decide something about me, but I didn’t know what it was. Then he turned to the customs officers and began to speak. I couldn’t catch any of it: His Spanish was too fast, too Dominican. So I watched their bodies instead. Whatever he was saying, the officers were not impressed.
The stranger turned back to me. “They don’t believe you’re a tourist,” he said.
“What do they think I am, a Communist spy?”
He gave me a sharp look, a shut-up-for-God’s-sake look. And I saw that his hand was shaking slightly.
“They want to arrest you,” he said.
I felt myself leaving. He was saying something, but I couldn’t hear it, it was as if he was saying it to somebody else. As if I were very far away or watching a television with the sound turned down, I saw the stranger turning to the officers, taking out a package of cigarettes and handing it around. The cigarettes were lit, inhaled, and they began speaking again. I watched their mouths move. One of the officers took his hand off his gun. I saw the other one laugh. The stranger laughed with him. Then he turned back to me and said something.
“What?” I said.
He frowned, and touched me lightly on the arm. And then I could hear him again. “They say you can go,” he said gently.
“Pero se quedan las maletas,” said the short officer.
I understood that. “My bags have to stay?” I asked.
“He says if you want them back you’ll have to come in the morning and fill out a special form. Then they’ll give them to you.”
“Can’t I fill out the form now?”
He turned back to the officers, and there was a brief consultation. The answer seemed to be no.
“He says he can’t return anything that’s been confiscated because it’s not his job. The man you need to see will be here tomorrow.” He lowered his voice. “If I were you,” he said softly, “I would leave before they change their minds.” Our eyes met then, and I suddenly wondered why he had gotten involved in this. He obviously didn’t work for the airport. He didn’t seem to have any luggage either. Some man out scouting for a damsel in distress? The complication, the small fee. It was time to get out of there.
“All right,” I said, “I’m going.”
I turned around and began walking empty-handed along the length of the room, past the other long customs tables, which were now all empty. At last I reached the metal double doors at the far wall and the guard nodded and I went out through them and then the heat and air and brightness hit me and I was outside.
I squinted and looked around. I was standing on the curb where the taxis pull up. I knew it was a long way from the airport to the city. I couldn’t afford a taxi. I looked around for a bus stop and didn’t see one. The concrete plaza seemed strangely deserted. The wind I had felt on the tarmac had died down, and the air smelled faintly of diesel. I thought of asking someone for help and wished I weren’t wearing a dress. I looked down at the dress. It was still there.
“Hey,” said a voice in English. I turned around: the stranger again. He was holding two small leather suitcases, one in either hand. “I’m driving into town,” he said. “Shall I give you a lift? The taxis cost a fortune.”
“If you want to catch a bus, then, it’s a three-mile walk to the main road. Do you want a ride to there?”
I sighed. Traveling by myself, very by myself, I had learned by error that the words of men are of limited value. In a language you don’t speak, words are useless. In a language you do speak, words are too easily used to tell lies. Who knows what is behind words? Did I want a ride to the main road? What did that mean?
“Thanks for translating in there,” I told him. I wanted to hear him say something else so I could hear his voice again. Words may lie, but the tone in a man’s voice always gives him away.
“Don’t mention it,” he said. “It completely distracted me from my own panic. I hate going through customs.”
“Panic? So you’re the Communist spy.”
He laughed, and when I heard him laugh I decided to go with him. Travel requires a certain amount of recklessness; otherwise, it’s just a vacation.
We jostled down the main road in a battered and dusty sedan. He told me his name was Tollomi, spelled it out for me, and before I could ask him whether it was Spanish, he changed the subject and began to talk, more rapidly than I would have guessed he could manage in English, and told me all about the area we were driving through. He told me the name of the district, that there was a very old cemetery near here, that the highway had been repaired since he was here last but he would be surprised if anything had been done with the slums, and did I see that vine there?—that was a plant that grew only on this island, nowhere else. The overly practiced manner I had noticed earlier in his speech seemed to have disappeared, as if after a few minutes of exercise, his knowledge of English had come fully awake. I knew Dominicans often went to the U.S. to work and stayed for years. When he paused for breath, I asked him how long he’d been living there.
“I don’t live in the States,” he said. “I flew in from Puerto Rico, but before that I was in Guatemala.”
“You’re from Guatemala? I thought you were Dominican. So where did you learn English?”
“I was just in Guatemala doing some work,” he said. “Before that I lived in Buenos Aires. A lot of people speak English there. See those palm trees? The ones in Argentina are totally different. These are royal palms. During storms they bend almost to the ground, but they don’t break. Then when the storm is over they spring right back up again, unless of course it’s a hurricane. If the winds are strong enough, even a royal palm will break.”
He went on talking about the trees. I stopped listening and just looked at him. He was trying to distract me from asking about his origins by simply reciting the list of places he had been. Dazzle them with the stamps in your passport, but don’t show the cover. It was a trick I sometimes used myself when I didn’t want to reveal my nationality. It made me curious. I was curious about anyone who played the same games as me.
He went on about the trees and the names of the plants growing wild in the ditches. He mentioned famous monuments on the island, beaches, and the view from Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in the Caribbean. I closed my eyes and tried to hear in the rise and fall of his voice some cadence or trace of pronunciation that would give him away. I wanted to guess and guess right. But I couldn’t hear a thing. Except for his looks, he might have grown up in my hometown.
I opened my eyes again. The road we were driving over was a mess, and despite Tollomi’s maneuverings we kept hitting potholes. He drove like someone used to driving on bad roads, with studied carelessness. We had long since passed the place I thought the bus stop would have been, but, having gotten in the car at all, I thought I would stay in it all the way to the city. I wasn’t afraid of him, and I wondered why I wasn’t—and if I should be. Whoever he was, he wasn’t the person sitting here beside me, driving with one hand on the wheel and yammering on about some statue some dictator had built and how someone named Trujillo had cut down all the trees.
As I was thinking this, he broke off in mid sentence and glanced at me. He saw I hadn’t been listening, and his face seemed to shift and drop in dismay. Then the car swerved, and I went sliding over the seat and banged into the door as he yanked hard on the wheel to keep us from going off the road.
“Sorry,” he said, slowing down. “I almost hit a bird.” He glanced at me again and added, “Did you see it?”
“No,” I said, rubbing my arm.
“I’m sorry—I didn’t see it either until it moved. Some people say it’s very bad luck to hit one.” His voice shook a little.
“It’s certainly bad luck for the bird.”
“They say, if you kill a bird by accident, it foretells the death of a person.”
His hands were tight on the wheel. What had upset him? I didn’t think there was any bird. Perhaps he was unsettled because he saw I wasn’t interested in the personality parade he was staging for me. I began to feel nervous myself. It was obvious he was trying to hide something behind all his practiced chatter, and now he knew I knew it.
“Would you like to stop for something to eat?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, not wanting to be in the car anymore. “I haven’t eaten anything since a piece of chicken on the floor of JFK Airport.”
He smiled then and turned the car off the highway onto a side road. This road was a dirt strip winding through pastureland. It twisted back and forth along itself as if it had been made by cows circumnavigating boulders and then trudged up a small, extremely steep hill. He had to put the car in first gear, and as we inched over the crest I caught a whiff of salt in the air. We were nearing the sea. Houses began to appear, small houses of scrap wood built right up against the road. We had cut over from the main highway into some sort of village. The first crossroad we came to marked its center. There were more houses here, with small fenced plots of land in the dirt behind them. I saw pigs and a few skinny dogs, children standing in the slanting doorways, two men with their heads buried under the hood of a blue pickup truck.
He stopped the car and we got out. The road was full of mud, and the air smelled of it and of the pigs. “There’s the restaurant,” he said, pointing to a small wooden building. A sun-bleached plastic sign commanding tome coca cola was nailed over the doorway. On the faded red beside the Coke logo the words restaurante lucia had been carefully painted. The men working on the truck stopped to watch us as we crossed the road and went into the restaurant.
Inside I was blind for a moment. I shut my eyes and opened them and blinked and saw a cement floor in a shadowy room. Five tables stood empty. At the opposite end of the room a door stood ajar. On each table stood an empty Coke bottle holding a wilting flower. No one was in sight.
Tollomi stepped all the way into the room, at ease again. “¡Hola! ¿Quién vive?” he called, and waited, looking intently at the door to the kitchen. After a few moments it was pushed open by a young man who stared at my white skin as if both of us had come down out of the sky. “¿Buenas, como ’tá usté?” Tollomi said. The broad vowels of the Dominican accent said better than words could, I belong here. I am one of you.
He did not, he was not, but he fooled the waiter just as he had fooled me in the airport: “¿Bien, bien, como tú?” the waiter returned in kind, and seemed to relax. “Siéntense, siéntense,” he commanded, and we sat down.
He offered the menu, which was written in magic marker on a piece of cardboard. I held it in my hands and looked at the stumbling letters, and suddenly I felt very happy. I looked around the room at the painted blue walls of scrap lumber and the rickety tables, and I slid my feet out of my shoes and along the cool, waxed cement floor. I didn’t recognize anything on the menu. I looked across the table to Tollomi. He was smiling, his face perfectly confident again.
“Can you hear the sea?” he asked me.
I shut my eyes. Through the gaps in the wall, faintly, I heard the sound of movement, a movement that would never be stilled.
“I hear it,” I said.
“Do you like it here?”
I opened my eyes. He was watching me. I nodded. I started to ask him how he knew about this place, and stopped myself. The best way to find out about those who keep secrets is to say nothing. If you ask and ask, you never get an answer. If you stop asking, eventually the answer slips out; it slips out to fill the space left by your silence.
The waiter brought the food and set it down before us with much flourish, waited until I tasted a bite. I was unsure what I was eating, having chosen it at random. I swallowed the strange mouthful, grinned and nodded, offered Tollomi a bite. “Qué rica,” he said to the waiter. Satisfied, the waiter went away. I looked at Tollomi. He was watching the waiter cross the room, and there was an attentiveness in his face that struck something inside me and resonated in a way I knew well. In the few seconds before he brought his gaze back to the table, I saw in his face one of the things he was hiding. He was gay. I saw it like an image flashed on a screen, so quickly I wasn’t sure I had seen it at all. But then he looked back at me, and when our eyes met his face changed. He knew at once what I had seen, what I was thinking. And then I knew I was right. The ability to read minds like that is the skill of women and of children. No man has that kind of intuition unless he’s been treated as something other than a man. It’s the skill of people whose existence has been defined in terms of someone else’s power. I read it on his face and he read it on mine.
Then it was awkward, as it always is when your knowledge of a person suddenly goes way beyond what they have told you with words. It happens after you’ve made love with someone for the first time, or if you open the wrong door at a party and find somebody crying.
He tried to speak, stammered, stopped. All his self-assurance had disappeared again. His brown skin was flushed, as though he were on the verge of breaking into a sweat, or even into tears.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
Still he said nothing. He took another forkful of food, a drink of water, and finally looked at me out of his strange blue eyes.
“I’m fine,” he said. “A lot has happened to me in the last few days. That’s all.”
He was sweating. He wiped his forehead with the napkin and took another bite of rice so as not to have to answer. And I didn’t ask again. I went back to my own meal, and we finished our food in silence.
We paid the check and still he seemed upset. He didn’t have a monologue to launch into, and he wasn’t used to that. I watched him pull money from his wallet and saw the strain on his face, a thin veil of exhaustion blunting his features. People used to being in control are always the most easily undone. He had lost the upper hand with me, simply because I wasn’t drawn in by the well-rehearsed personality he had presented. I was interested in him, though. So to put him at ease again, I began to talk myself. There is one conversation whose pattern every traveler knows as surely as monks know their prayers. When two travelers meet they recite it to each other. It is the litany of where we have been and where we are going: This is what I have seen and this is what I missed, this was my fortune, that was my narrow escape. Dragons slain, maidens rescued. This is our religion.
We left the restaurant and walked past the car, through the village and down a dirt road. As we walked along the road with our feet in the red-yellow dust, I recited for him this litany as others might recite a psalm or a fairy tale: to soothe with the familiar someone who is afraid. Like any religion, this one keeps to its genre; it follows a certain path from which it does not stray. I have had this conversation of traveling a thousand times, and it may climb hills and cross valleys and pass all kinds of interesting things, but it never wanders off into unknown territory; everyone knows what the boundaries are. Nobody gets lost, everyone knows the end: happily ever after, exchange of addresses, train schedules, maps, then the parting of ways. Amen. The dirt road under our feet was growing sandy. The sun was beginning to set. The sky grew red. “Red at night, sailor’s delight,” I said. I kept talking. I talked of cities I had been in, seas I had crossed. He listened in silence. I talked of trains caught and missed, boats taken, planes delayed. The road ended, and we walked over a field of sand and wild palms, and I talked and talked, told him of stories I had heard and people I had met. Then the field ended and then the land ended and we stood at the beginning of the sea.
And then I realized I didn’t know where I was. Something had rolled away from my mouth like a stone from in front of a cave, and the words I was speaking were not the words I had meant to say. I was telling him how I had left Berlin, of the house I had come here to find because I had dreamed of it on the train. I told him how I’d left home, I told him the stories about me I’d listened to since I was a child, I told him how I had left my own memory somewhere that was not on a map. I told him how I left everywhere, was always leaving, could leave without moving my body at all, and my words came out of me like the colored scarves a magician pulls from the mouth of a stranger in the crowd.
I was the stranger, and I hadn’t known such words were inside me, right on the tip of my tongue.
Who was the magician? I felt a stab of fear, as if maybe he really had been in control of the interaction the whole time, had somehow tricked me into telling him all about myself. How had he done it? By now it was dark, and, though he sat right beside me on the sand, I could no longer see his face. I peered at where his face would be if I could see it and he read my thoughts and produced a lighter from somewhere in his clothes and struck the flame.
When the tiny light hit his eyes, it was myself I saw reflected there. It was myself I was talking to, the self who goes away from me at every fork and bend and who I could never catch, no matter how I tried. My teeth began to chatter. How had he pulled all this out of me? With his own silence. All my words had gone rushing in.
He let the lighter go out, and we sat for a moment in the solid darkness. The waves broke over and over, and I was dizzy, I was hot, I was shivering cold. And then the food poisoning hit and we spent the rest of the night beside each other vomiting onto the sand.
I have never been so sick. I shook and heaved and had chills and sank into a haze without time where everything swam and rocked. I was seasick without the boat. It went on and on. When at last I could raise my head, the night was gone. I looked up at the early gray sky above us and then out over the water. It was nearly sunrise and off to the east the clouds and the sea were all red. It was very beautiful. I leaned over and threw up again.
“Hey,” I said. The huddled form on the ground beside me did not stir. Tollomi, his name was. “Tollomi,” I said, “look at the sunrise.”
He raised his head and sat partway up, groaned, and lay down again. “Red in the morning, sailor take warning,” he mumbled.
I shut my eyes.
We lay on the beach until the sun was all the way up in the sky, and then we got up and stumbled across the sand and the field to the main road. When we reached the car, we collapsed into the seats and stayed that way for a long time. We had left the windows open, and the cracked leather was wet with dew.
We were both too weak to drive.
“Are you sure you don’t want a double bed?” says the woman behind the desk. She has steel-gray hair in rollers, and quick eyes, glancing first at Tollomi then at me. Wherever he’s from, he looks Dominican, and I am obviously a gringa. She’s suspicious of what we might be doing here together, looking anxious and dirty, in need of more than a room. But Tollomi talks to her in Spanish for a while, and then she leads us outside, across a little yard and down an open-air hallway lined with doors. She selects one and flings it open, allows us to crane our necks around her for a glimpse of two single beds and a dresser, and then addresses me. “I have other room,” she says in English, “much better. This one, beds too small, you don’t want to sleep on these beds here. Too small. Come look at other room, I give you for fifty pesos. You and your husband, more comfortable there. It has”—she looks at Tollomi—“una cama matrimonial.”
Tollomi smiles. He told her we’re married: If we say we aren’t, she’ll insist we take separate rooms and I can’t afford it. Her insistence on propriety might be due more to her need to repair the hotel generator—which is making an ominous banging sound—than to the enormous gold-plated cross around her neck. Either way, Tollomi is right: It’s easier to say we’re husband and wife.
I peer into the cheaper room again. It’s true—it’s not particularly nice, but I don’t want to spend more. I have money saved up from Berlin, but only enough for a couple of months. I don’t know where I’ll be next week even, and things might be expensive there. I should be frugal.
“These two single beds will be fine,” I say in my bad Spanish. “This room is fine.”
She shrugs—her shoulders, her eyebrows, her arms. Crazy gringa, she is thinking.
The shrug bothers Tollomi. I know this about him already: To him every cultural miscommunication carries the faint scent of disaster, like gunpowder carries the scent of war. He can’t stand the tension, he must diffuse it.
“Doña…” he begins, and launching into his perfect Dominican Spanish, he tells her that his wife has peculiar sleeping habits, that she insists she sleeps better if she has her own bed. His eyes twinkle with a light he wants her to think is meant for her—American women are crazy, doña, we have to indulge them—and is actually meant for me—straight people are crazy, Michelle, we have to indulge them.
The woman looks at me and smiles. The smile means that we’re women, she and I; we know men are crazy—they want only one thing from us. Of course I would want my own bed; I must be tired, poor thing.
I smile back and so does Tollomi. Now we all understand one another. We respect one another. It’s such a good feeling it’s almost as if he had told her the truth.
She reaches into the desk drawer for the room key and gives it to me. Tollomi asks her what her name is.
“Isabela Sonnenberg,” she says, her tongue barely arriving on the other side of the German surname.
“And your husband?”
“Felix Sonnenberg,” she says, and fingering the cross around her neck she shrugs again, smiling. It’s out of her hands, this shrug means, Sólo Dios lo entiende. Only God understands it.
“Don’t worry about the price of the room,” Tollomi says while he’s unpacking. “It’s on me.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I tell him.
“I know I don’t have to. I want to. It’s fine, Michelle. I’m loaded.”
“I don’t even know you.”
“You don’t?” he asks, and then turns away quickly and pretends to look for something in his luggage. I know he’s thinking about what happened the night before in the restaurant and on the beach, that sudden intimacy of talking, and of silence too, that passed through the air between us like a germ or like desire: an invisible something that enters the body before you know what it is. It’s a day later now and the feeling remains, a subtle shift in the chemistry of the blood. And Tollomi’s started to talk about it and stopped himself. He’s afraid to bring it up, to feel exposed all over again. So he doesn’t say anything more and neither do I. It’s as if we’re pretending nothing happened. He hunts around in his luggage, finds his cigarettes, and lights one, and I pay for my half of the room.
Later that night, just before I fall asleep, I remind myself of where I am. I do this so I won’t forget during the night. I’ve done it ever since I first began waking up and finding myself elsewhere. It’s not the elsewhere I’m afraid of: Everywhere is somewhere. It’s the not knowing how I came to be where I am that frightens me. I’m not afraid of getting lost, but of lost memory. Like all fear, this fear contains within it a seed of desire. Embrace your fear, it’s said, and it will yield. I wrap my arms around my body. In this darkened room where I lie, the smell of burning trash and jasmine blossoms and cut grass tells me I am here on this island in this bed and not elsewhere. It is a marvel to be here. The wind is low, the sea muffled, quiet outside the slatted wooden shutters closed against the mosquitoes. If I listen with my whole self, through the darkness I can hear Tollomi breathing on the other side of the room. I have to stop breathing to hear him: His breaths come in the same intervals as mine