Acrocomia aculeate

Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them…They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

— Jeremiah 10:5

Power Lines, Andrew R. Ko

Power Lines, Andrew R. Ko

The resort guard, who protects whites and other rich people on the island, leans against the beach access gate and pulls his cap low over his face to watch me with eyes I can’t see. If I was really in prison and if I did have the choice, my last meal would be a glass of Sancerre and a soupe de poissons with the little garlicky-Gruyère and rouille dipping toasts sinking slowly as they absorb the spicy orange broth. But I have three weeks left of vacation in the DR and the air conditioning doesn’t work anywhere on the island. It’s too hot for soup. Hortense, the nude sunbather with wrinkly breasts who sits near me, tells a story about a chica who beat a guy with a crow bar because he put a dent in her new white truck with gold rims. When the police got there, chica beat the cops even harder.

Olivier, my French husband, whose body is covered with red, swollen bumps, lies beside me slapping away mosquitoes. He’s been waiting six hours to see a doctor who makes house calls on the beach. My sweat sends me sliding off the plastic chair every time I move and I’m afraid to fall on him. But I can’t go anywhere. I can’t get out. Sketching palm trees does keep my mind off Trujillo sometimes. But this Dominican dictator had been short with a puffed chest and the palm trees are tall and slender.

I draw the trees like every tourist who has drawn them here before. At first I believed they were different from the paintings sold in the village market by Haitian refugees. And indeed, Hortense took them for pot leaves with scraggly stems and asked where to buy some for her bad, sagging knees. The last time I smoked pot was in the middle of a busy Parisian street with a self-exiled Bosnian Serb artist in a tracksuit, who claimed he only guarded a door for Milosevic during the war and never saw any Muslims. I was trying to impress him so I could get an interview and make him see. The gendarmes arrested me and finally let me go because I convinced them that I was conducting university-funded research.

I am trying to forget the dissertation I just finished on dictators, a prison of sorts where I still feel at home.

The doctor may never come. Mosquitoes hovering and humming above Olivier’s eyelids lull him asleep. Here, I don’t let myself nap or sleep because I don’t like thinking about my insomnia. This dictator haunts me in life but kills me in my dreams. The guard smokes and writes a text on a phone with a cat-whistle ringtone.

No one looks as I take out the forbidden books I’ve rolled into my only towel that smells of dirty, salty socks. It’s how, at age twelve, I snuck Lady Chatterley’s Lover down to the pool and devoured it right in front of my aunts, who were reading the latest Reader’s Digest Condensed volume. Each time I got to a part where Connie ran to the gamekeeper’s cottage for sex, I dove in and did front and back flips in the water until that foreign, hot itchy feeling between my crossed legs went away. But I didn’t need to hide much of anything. Raised by my grandparents, no one noticed me at all unless I got sick, and it only counted if I had a fever. I could be a victim of something beyond their control, nature’s inflictions on my body as a sore throat for example, but they were too old and tired to deal with the rage adolescence played against those corporeal parts my grandparents didn’t want to know about. Hypochondria, how I had contracted various deadly illnesses was my obsession until I started to learn about dictators.

I read the first lines by this forbidden writer, taking comfort in feeling like the self I am not supposed to be here in Las Terrenas. A few pages in, I get to the part about Trujillo’s assassination and my throat, my chest tighten. I close the book and cover it with the towel over my lap. I sketch, I sketch a palm tree for my life.

It wasn’t my fault that the unsuspecting bookseller back in Atlanta happened to be from the DR. I went in looking for tourist guides. After he had shown me a few, I couldn’t help it. I confessed my dissertation because it was what I had always done with booksellers when I wanted the latest work on some dictator to feed a chapter. To this short, fat man whose cell phone lit up blue as it rang silently in his breast pocket, I tearfully admitted that I was bored without my diss. I missed things like the adventures of Gaddafi’s traveling tent. Happy to feel useful in a bookstore where he was usually asked about self-help books, he led me to fiction.

“These are very, very interesting and very, very beautiful tales,” he said with one hand on his cell phone-covered heart, the other clasping a book by Alvarez, “on the DR’s very, very bad pain, on Trujillo, the dictator, so, so much suffering. Dios mio!” He began each sentence as if singing and ended them with whispers.

On the way out to the car that already glimmered with Atlanta’s parking lot heat before noon, I remembered the tourist guides I’d abandoned as I clutched my forbidden purchases. My second time at the cash register, I tried not to be annoyed by the bemused smile lurking in the bookseller’s crinkling eyes. My new companion’s name was Trujillo.

Olivier wakes and looks up and me, rattled by the violence of a snore interrupted and lies back down. He stretches his hand out to me and massages my foot. I give a little groan to tell him it feels good and he smiles.

“Nolia, if I could to kill mosquitos and sand fleas, I am in the heaven,” Olivier murmurs, shading his eyes with his other hand, “cannot we stay here and to be happy forever?” And he could. Like all French, he is obsessed with having the real five-week French experience of les vacances. Since living with me in the US for two years, he’s suffered through one-week sprints to the beach and back. The rule that nothing gets accomplished during August is so sacred in France that my father-in-law put his sick mother in the hospital with the hopes she wouldn’t die before la rentrée in September. While not on vacances, everyone talks about les vacances at every coffee break, dinner party, or play date. The average Voltaire-spouting Parisian’s head fills with air en vacances. Les vacances, les vacances, les vacances. Olivier, triumphant, is finally en vacances.

This is why he tolerates his sand flea and mosquito bites. But I don’t. From head to toe, I apply the aloe and other creams that relieve his itching three times a day, a ritual that takes an hour. I say this to him because I have to: “Oui mon amour, let’s forget everything and live here. And be happy.” He kisses my hand. The faint odor of calamine makes my stomach turn.

While Olivier marvels at his ever-deepening tan, chaotic scenes from CNN International I saw on my wedding day compel me to live like the dark tropical rain that falls unannounced in the middle of afternoon sun here in Las Terrenas. Six months ago, I got married on the same day of the great Haitian earthquake, which I blame on dictators. Trujillo’s grandmother was, after all, Haitian. A French husband and a Bordeaux village wedding made me the envy of the few friends I had left. As they sprayed my hair and polished my toes, I watched the news and tried to seem interested in bridesmaid chatter of blue garters and champagne. The day after we got married, I told Olivier the honeymoon would have to wait. I needed the time to develop a chapter on weather patterns and their influence on dictators. When I published this as an article in a prestigious journal, I carved out my place as an expert in the field.

And here I am now, on the other side of Hispaniola in the DR, just to the right of six months ago. Papa and Baby Doc play over and over in my mind like memories of my first kiss.

A blue pick-up truck blasting Bachata from speakers rigged to its roof pulls up to the terra cotta columns of Bonita Resort’s entrance gate. A group of guards wearing white polo shirts and navy blue caps descend from the bed carrying steaming Styrofoam containers. The guard watching us takes one and they all sit on the beach to eat their lunch of rice, pasta, and chicken neck, the same meal they’ve been eating all week. A new guard takes his place. His ringtone sings Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

I can’t stop sweating and I can’t go in the water to cool off because my husband must not see the books. They start sliding off my lap, but I catch them.

“Mental and emotional rest,” my doctor prescribed each time I went to him with one of my chronic bellyaches, secretly hoping for a chance pregnancy to save me from finishing my dissertation on dictators. Perhaps I would be like one of Ceausescu’s heroine mothers with ten children. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Tito, Mao (at a certain point my advisor told me I needed to shift my focus away from Europe), Pol Pot, Kim Jong-il, Papa and Baby Doc, Mugabe, Gaddafi, Castro, Al-Bashir, Pinochet, Jiang Qing, and along with their victims, had become perverse but loyal companions. I did try to make real friends when I went to archives in Berlin, Rome, and Belgrade. But as soon as they began inviting me to parties, out shopping, or to their parents’ country house, I would disappear. It was too hard picking out mini-shorts at H&M or hunting for truffles with Gerlinde, Francesca, or Miljana while trying to guess whether or not their grandparents collaborated with Hitler, Mussolini, or Tito. The real problem with getting close was not that I wanted to find out more about dictators; it was that I, for no reason that any therapist could make me understand, wanted to get close enough to feel like a victim. I dreamed about drinking Mateus Rose from Hussein’s secret wine cellar stockpile while he wasn’t looking. There was nothing Stockholm about my condition, protested I.

Olivier was going to take me back to Paris as a graduation present, but the last time I spent my time alone there drinking Sancerre with soupe de poissons at the Hotel Lutetia, 45 Boulevard Raspail, watching the little toasts sink to the bottom. One thing I do love about France is that it’s a country where talking about dictators is an everyday sport, encouraged by the consequential intellectual public. In America, I’ve discovered, people who talk about dictators do big things like make movies or build museums. At the Lutetia, Hitler’s Parisian abode, for example, I interview a long-retired waitress who served champagne to Picasso, Josephine Baker, Coco Chanel, the Gestapo, and Jewish refugees as they all made this hotel their home sometime in the 1940s. It’s in that sandless rainy city where I sometimes think I have a chance at being happy.

Olivier changed his mind about Paris when we last went to the doctor. “Sunshine, clean air, and reading for pleasure only. Try women magazines,” the doctor wrote as a joke on his prescription pad that he gave, chuckling, to Olivier when I finished. Like my grandfather, another doctor, this one didn’t think antidepressants could help anyone who willed herself into darkness. Olivier’s graduation present to me was this trip to Las Terrenas, a book about palm trees, and a sketchpad.

Michael Jackson sings out of the guard’s cell. The doctor’s arrived and he takes Olivier’s temperature.

Still on the beach, the doctor finishes his examination of Olivier by checking for bumps between his toes and cleans his hands with Purell. “Mon amour, I must to go to the village because my bumps are very, very bad,” Olivier says, rubbing my neck, “I must to do cortisone injection.” His eyes rest on my face, suspecting nothing.

Almost forgetting the books, I start getting up to go with him, but he insists that I stay on the beach and go swimming because he sees the sweat dripping on the sand under my chair. Ever thoughtful Olivier.

Oui, mon chéri. I’ll be here relaxing and drawing.” I show him my sketchbook and he smiles.

Très bien, mon amour.” He presses some pesos in my palm for the bar. I’ve taken a liking to Ron Barcelo caipirinhas.

Mon cheri!” I call out to him, remembering not to get up as he walks with the doctor to his jeep.

He turns around and nods because he knows what I am going to say. “Oui, mon amour. I get it for tonight for our freedom night.” I’ve been asking Olivier to rent a four-wheeler for a couple of days so we can get away from the resort restaurant to eat beans, rice, and fried plantains with the locals, who probably don’t use white linen napkins with each meal. We were going to, as my grandmother, a belle from rural Georgia, would say went I went on a research trip, “get down and dirty with the natives.” By natives, she meant black people and she wondered why I traveled around the world to talk to them. I don’t think she quite understood that the black help, who still had to ring at her back door instead of the front well after the end of the Civil Rights Movement, weren’t exactly “natives.”

Olivier can’t wait to drink cheap beer. I can’t wait to interview “native” Dominicans about Trujillo when Olivier goes out for a piss, too drunk to notice me.

In between these sketching sessions and exorcising dictators, I’ve been drinking in the Dominican cure of sun and rum and now I am bored with the balmy air and French tourists who can’t get over that I speak their language perfectly. Americans only speak English, Hortense instructs me. Hortense’s last business trip to Atlanta had been a disaster. “J’ai rien compris du tout, du tout!”

I look to make sure Olivier is gone with the doctor, grateful to be alone and free of his sensitive skin. I don’t feel like waiting for our four-wheeler and Olivier may not drink as much beer as I hope. I wrap the books in a towel and walk away from the resort’s clean lines of green lounge chairs and umbrellas towards the dilapidated pinks and blues of the village.

I come upon children in nothing but dusty underpants shrieking in Spanish as waves lap their feet. Some older boys have swum out to the sandbar with shotguns to impale fish, pesos that will feed them for days. As I follow women with plastic totes tied to their heads, weaving in and out of the motorcycles and four-wheelers parked by the beach vendors selling T-shirts with American labels, the antiseptic of the resort dissolves into color and life. Two shirtless girls gnawing on bits of sugarcane, twins maybe, look at me with expressionless eyes while their legs dangle in the fresh water of the rio that slices across the sand from the ocean to the main road of the village to a music I can’t hear. A man cracks open a stack of stale coconuts, swiping off the tops to sell their water, which I can see has dried and turned Styrofoam-like as he walks to tourists sun-bathing at the resort I left behind. Once the water has dried like that, no one would buy the coconuts.

I swear to learn Spanish so I can ask them all about el Corte of 1937, Trujillo’s greatest and most secret accomplishment. They don’t understand my Italian the way I understand their Spanish. I was more interested by Mussolini than Franco. I, in fact, understand everything, but my tongue won’t form the questions. I’m a mime, trapped by my gestures that reduce me to a clown. I may as well be my grandmother.

Dizzy from hunger and heat, I sit down at a restaurant hiding behind fishing boats, whose names painted red have almost peeled away, their identity now illegible. I unroll my towel and put the books on the table, happy to see them released from their damp terry cloth prison.

But Olivier could be here any minute. I have to do something to stop myself. I take out A Guide for Palm Tree Lovers, but all the words lead back to Trujillo.

Qu’est-ce que vous désirez Mademoiselle?” asks Paco, twirling a dirty dishtowel over his shoulder. He’s the French owner, one of those that had inhabited the island for years and whose face was wrinkled and yellowed like the rest of the Gringoes, who had forgotten, in spite of themselves, that their skin was different from the Dominicans. He, like all the others, had stopped using sun cream long ago, as all the red left in his body was the blood in his veins and in spider-web capillaries on his nose and legs. I order a pulpo guisado and a Presidente beer listed on the chalkboard mottled with eraser marks.

Without much trouble, Olivier could indeed find me here. I don’t really know how long I’ve been gone. In this place of few clouds and scarce shade, with no street names and clear water, clocks seem to tick without hands or numbers.

Beer and steaming octopus s

téed in tomatoes, cilantro, and spices from the little yellow Maggi packets sold in every mini-market on the island arrives. A pile of rice browned in onions and red peppers fills the second plate. A chubby adolescent, my dissertation years have whittled me into a breastless stick in spite of all the take out I ordered. I must eat and eat, the doctor says. I also must drink and drink. I take a swig of the Presidente as my eyes sweep the beach like nervous crabs. Except for the kite surfers, the lingering late afternoon heat empties the beaches. Paco relights the stub of his cigar. My beer’s gone, the green glass stops sweating. Paco, without asking, brings me another.

I try to forget, but the beer softens my will. I stare, I stare at the palm trees, which cut up my view of twilight’s orange beginnings like jail cell bars. I’m behind them.

Several rounds of beer and the blurring colors of twilight make it hard to read, hard to think and my body wants to move. The words are silly, hollow, fleshless. Some fishermen, after selling their catch to Paco, stay to drink Presidente and dance the Bachata, coming from a cell phone. I leave my flip- flops in the sand and accept the drunken trance that pulls me to them. No real words from them, but holas and broad smiles. No, I didn’t want to buy any pescados. I just want to say it, to find if they can help me understand the T word regime. The boys who had been spear fishing from the afternoon joined our dance, their small feet gently pummeling the sand in time with the music. I pronounce the word, I hear it pour from my mouth. It comes again and again, but I don’t hear it anymore.

When I was eight, I locked myself in my grandparents’ upstairs bathroom when they were throwing a party for a senator. I didn’t know at the time that he was the one who closed public schools for seven years because the state refused to integrate. So no one heard me above the music and chatter as I screamed for help. I finally lost my voice and crumbled into the quiet a child cannot stand unless already asleep. It is the tear-dried despair of these moments that forces only a child’s genius to take hold. An adult finds a solution or gathers herself. A child makes a game. I was a pirate lost at sea and like a message in a bottle, I unrolled toilet paper under the door. I discovered many years later that I had been released when the senator’s drunk mistress tripped on it looking for the tryst-appointed bedroom.

Now I’m yelling silence and I’m no longer a child. I say it again with a French accent to the Haitian man who passes without looking at me. He sells rolled up paintings and blow-up parrots. I wonder if he’s related to Trujillo’s grandmother or to someone who was macheted to death in 1937. I watch him make his way down the beach, his head hung low to avoid the off-season absence of clientele.

I return to my table, not because I look ridiculous mouthing a dictator’s name that no one seems to recognize, but because I know this is what I should feel. I know because I feel my grandmother watching. My beer has been refreshed again. I decide I am just warming up to test my broken Spanish for interviews about Trujillo with the dancers. I want to go in deeper.

Smoking another cigar, Paco’s been watching me. In the way that only French men can do, he’s permitted himself to study me without once averting his beady, alcohol-swollen eyes. Purple splotches cover his yellowed skin that glistens with abundant sweat. Something about Paco reminds me of my grandfather as he used to drink his evening cocktails with a handful of salty peanuts. Paco’s conversation with me had already begun in his head and it is only a matter of minutes before he finds the chance to spring upon me with his loneliness.

He doesn’t bother with pardon as he sidles his chair up to mine and says in English, nodding towards the dancers “The Dominicans, they learn to do dance before they can to walk.” A Haitian waitress in tight white shorts and high heels brings him a grande Presidente in a bottle holder made of bamboo. He doesn’t say her name, he doesn’t say merci.

Because I can’t shake the good manners that have been instilled by my southern upbringing in Georgia, I condemn myself to give Paco a minimum of what my grandmother calls, emphasizing the vowels, “human decency.” A little polite conversation never hurt anybody, she said in her debutante drawl. “What history do you mean?” I pause and stammer. “You mean, you mean…Trujillo?”

White bits of spittle cake the rims of his lips except for the place where he held his stubbing cigar. “Précisement. Trujillo.” A pedantic gleam crossed his face. Radiant, he finally has my attention. He clears his throat, preparing for his lesson. I see my grandfather in his rocking chair on the porch staring at humid sunset, his fingers tightening around his Jim Beam with one tiny ice cube. I sit beside him, young, my hair in pigtails, made to listen all summer long out of human decency.

Paco talks. He runs a newspaper about French expat life in Las Terrenas, the cabaret parties, the French school end-of-year carnival, the businesses of real estate and aestheticians, the ins, and the outs of island living. He travels back to Haiti and brings cancer patients to Santo Domingo for chemo. He hunches over me, his shoulders losing their form, his white belly covered with gray hair spilling out of the plaid shirt he’s forgotten to button at the bottom.

He chuckles at me with recognition and nods towards the dancers. “Quelle belle histoire, celle-là. Yes…that was, just that – how do you say – history.” History. Yes, that was what my grandfather called the stories he told me. Lest we forget, doomed to repeat.

Or has Olivier perhaps embedded spies all over the island whose job it is to keep me from discovering Trujillo?  I shouldn’t have been so careless. In addition to the Palm Tree Lover’s Guide, Olivier had bought me a snorkel and mask for graduation. Each night, I have been so meticulous about rubbing sand and salt water into them so he would believe that I spent my days admiring coral. I hung it to dry every night along with the bathing suit I soaked in salt water and sand in the sink. There must be cameras in the room.

But, no, poor man, my husband trusts me. And this journalist, Paco, poor man, is too withered to follow anything but the doings of other withered expats in the village and the tourists that cross his drunken path. My grandfather too, he was harmless although I tried to hide from him each evening as he went through it all again. The Battle of the Bulge, holding the brains of his best friend on a snow covered, blood covered field in France, holding out a cigarette to the emaciated Jew at Buchenwald, who was killed by another cigarette-hungry prisoner right before my grandfather’s eyes, holding on to the silver spoon he found in the Eagle’s Nest, holding out when he could have shot the German deserter right between the eyes. Then there was letter he wrote me once a week when I was in college, outlining how he would have systematically killed Hitler, torturing him cell by cell. My grandmother thought it was sweet that her husband liked to have me, one of fourteen grandchildren, as his cocktail companion and never really asked what we talked about. She told me to make sure and save his letters so that my children could read them someday.

Paco shakes so hard I worry that he may be getting sick. But it’s just the prelude to an eruption of a deep, raspy laughter. He waves his splotchy tobacco-stained hand at the dancing fishermen and boys. “Regard them. The Dominicans are people of the present. They have no memory at all. Look at that boy there.” He points his finger to the small child who stops dancing to eat a slice of coconut that a plump woman has been pounding a rock. “He sells a plastic toy to a tourist. He takes the money home to his parents. They buy food with it. He eats this food and isn’t hungry. Then he can to dance again because there is nothing in the future but the plastic toy he must to sell tomorrow. The past is the one he sold earlier today.”

Paco hadn’t finished.

“And they dance and dance. History is just that, history. It doesn’t to exist. They are people of the present. They don’t want to make history. Only money.” He settles back into his chair, shaking off his laughter. As if just now recalling the point of his own joke, he sits forward again and asks, “Why do you interest yourself in Trujillo? There is nothing here. Nothing. Take horse to the El Salto del Limon and regard the waterfall. It will be to you pleasing.” I say nothing.

He raises an eye and leans in closer. “Why, mademoiselle, why?”

I am shaking too with an unprecedented cooling of my ambition and, for the first time, a relief I feel in knowing precisely pourquoi. I now so want to believe that all has really been forgotten here. I want to believe that I too, can forget. Paco is perhaps a denier, a colonialist, a collaborator, a perpetrator, and every other vocabulary word I’ve used in my dissertation. Or perhaps a stinkin’ Kraut, as my grandfather would say. But the fishermen smile and dance without hearing the name that spells their tragic history. I’ve come to some kind of end. I, I cannot, for the life of me, say or ever again, write a word.

Paco gets up to leave. He sways, but he doesn’t seem as drunk as I thought. “Au revoir Mademoiselle.” His eyes rest on my breasts. “Passez un bon sejour a Las Terrenas.” He puts on a cap and disappears behind the restaurant’s tin walls. I was sure to have been the first to leave. I run back to the hotel in the sand pinkened by the sunset. I don’t take the books.

When I got back, Olivier told me that we would have the four-wheeler the next day. I tell him, for the first time of our marriage, about my grandfather and the plan for cell-by- cell destruction of Hitler. Olivier never knew his grandfather, who was executed in 1944 against a wall in Paris that now bears a sign with his name, along with other French Resistance fighters. We have a chip of that wall in a frame at home in his office. “Do you think you grandfather would have been saving mine?” he asks, half joking, half crying. I tell him I hoped that it would have been the other way around. My grandfather needed saving.

During dinner that night at the resort, a less-swollen Olivier grabs my hand under the table as he talks about differences in his life in the US and in France to a new French group of dining partners. They change every night. He has perfected these stories he’s told many times, each one has become a performance. The laughs, the gasps, and nods always come at the same places, as they if they have a rhythm to which even the Dominican fishermen on the beach could dance and clap. I usually try not to doze during this show. But this clasp of tenderness, this sign of his own boredom with the rhetoric that seems to sustain, and imprison, him among his friends, moves and stifles me as it must have moved and stifled me to listen to my grandfather for years. I am sustained, and imprisoned, by dictators and the humid sunsets, salty peanuts, and the Jim Beam cocktails of my youth. For Olivier, it’s the ups and downs of a French guy in America. I decide I love him for this and promise myself to love him enough tomorrow and the next day so I will not go back to Paco’s for the books.

We make love for the first time in months, and afterward we make whispered plans to spend the afternoon tomorrow on a rented boat away from the sand with a picnic of fried shrimp sandwiches and a chilled thermos of Cuba libras. Sunburned and still-drunk, our lovemaking in the boat is without abandon because I am now a tourist in a country with a history that doesn’t concern me for once. For now.

Olivier’s doctor has told him to not let any sand touch his skin for several days. On the way to dinner the next evening, I wrap my arms tightly around him on the four-wheeler and rest my head on his shoulder. It’s hot, but he wears jeans, socks, a long-sleeve button-down shirt, a scarf around his neck, and a hat to protect him from sand fleas. The perspiration coming from his back leaves marks on the front of my dress. I say to him, teasing, that he looks like freshly-arrived colonialist and I thank Paco for my lightheardtedness. We laugh tonight and drink cheap rum cocktails. Dominicans who smell of sweat and lime juice dance to the Bachata. We order appetizers of fresh calamari and pulpo carpaccio. The rum lets Olivier stop scratching. We realize we’ve forgotten about beans and rice as we stumble out of the Mosquito bar kissing.

The four-wheeler is gone. In its place stands a group of Haitians leaning against a fence. They smile at us under the fluorescent street lamp as they deny the theft. We give them a few pesos. They tell us where the police took it. For a few more pesos, we hail a motoconcho, the island’s taxi service, to bring us to the station. In my head, I begin to turn the pages of my forbidden books and see a sunset, humid with words of war and bourbon.

Three men dressed in khaki uniforms lounge in the parking lot and stroke their rifles. I can tell Oliver is scared, itching himself madly. With a force that I had never seen in him, he pulls me off the motorcycle and tells me to sit in a plastic chair. I wait as he disappears into the dingy building.

Olivier comes out of the office and places a stiff hand on my shoulder. “If we give them a thousand pesos and keep them our passports, we could to get the freedom four-wheeler back tonight.”

In fact, there was nothing illegal about where we had parked. It was how the police supplemented their meager salary and calmed their boredom. It was how only a few Haitians survived El Corte, by paying off the more charitable of Trujillo’s soldiers. But we had spent all our money on cocktails and the passports are locked in the hotel safe. The men stroke their rifles. I am, at long last, a real victim, the object of attention about something other than my hypochondriac daydreams.

I approach the guard and stand on my tiptoes so I can reach his face as I slap it. I move in slow motion, but the slap itself is quick and loud.

The lounging men in uniform stand up and run toward me. Olivier holds his face as if I had struck him. The men shine their flashlights in my face, which I feel streaked with mascara and sweat. They move closer.

“Trujillo!” I scream it and I scream it again.

“Trujillo!” I pronounce it slowly and hear it echo off the walls of the parking lot.


The people in the street, who had been dancing and talking stopped. The police freeze. It’s the first time I hear complete silence on the island. I can make out the sound of the waves crashing on the beach across the street.

Then, they all laugh. Only Olivier glares at me in disapproving disbelief. The sound of the laughter, the uproarious choir of men and women, the sopranos, the baritones, the sweet melody of the children all have a rhythm to it like all things here that have silenced me.

As I run and run, the laughter never diminishes. I kick off my shoes and run on the beach. Olivier, who stays on the sidewalk for fear of sand fleas is probably calling after me, but I hear nothing but the laughter and my heart pounding in my temples. Without the four-wheeler, he can’t keep up. In this flight over darkened sand and water, I, for the first time, know and fear that I might be able to forget everything as long as I keep running from my own capture. A resistance fighter and a face-slapper of corrupt police, I will live a secret, underground life with or without a four-wheeler, without dictators, and without my grandfather. This frees my body to move lightly without tiring. I get away as the palm trees lining the sidewalk whisk past me, their soft rustle urging me on.

Jennifer Orth-Veillon received a PhD from Emory University in Comparative Literature. A Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the Department of Literature, Communication, and Culture, she teaches courses on war, human rights, and multimedia representation. She has also translated the work of French playwright Bernard Marie-Koltès. She is writing her first novel based on the intertwining lives of WWII veterans and their families.