Sunshine and Bougainvillea

My wife had never learned how to properly relax, so I decided to strangle her in sunshine and bougainvillea. Tess worked madwoman hours (sometimes over sixty a week). I’d stay up late waiting for her to come home, watching Letterman and laughing at his smart-ass shtick while my dog, in turn, watched me from the front corridor with a look of profound melancholy on his mug. I was only fifty, but I had been retired for three years already, having sold my successful chain of barbecue restaurants at a handsome profit. Tess still worked at an investment firm although it was quite clear that neither of us had to work anymore. She said she couldn’t think of doing anything else. Yet I felt no overwhelming urge to rejoin the world of commerce and as a gentleman of leisure I spent most of my days plodding around our garden. Our garden, which was as big as a football field, had grown much larger than I had ever thought it would. It had both flowers (roses, tulips, daisies, pansies, carnations, sunflowers, and

David Oppegaard

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violets) and food (asparagus, basil, pumpkins, green beans, carrots, tomatoes, two long rows of sweet corn). There was a weeping willow in the center of the garden and beneath the willow was the most comfortable bench I could find. Whenever I got tired of weeding or planting bulbs I liked to sit beneath the willow, knead the grass with my bare toes, and read stories by P.G. Woodhouse. Tess rarely made an appearance in our garden. When we were first married she like to visit it when the weather was mild and there was enough wind to keep the bugs at bay. I would be watching the mysterious night sky, maybe eyeing the summer triangle, and suddenly her arms would snake around my waist, hugging me to her warmth. Her hips would begin to sway with the wind and soon we would be dancing, floating off to our own terrestrial groove. It was now twenty years into our marriage and we had not danced in our garden for a very long time. If I wanted to gaze at something strange and mysterious I no longer needed the night sky, but had only to look at my wife as she slept beside me. I would watch her breathe and think that, though we still loved each other, the nature of our love had changed. I would think about how passion and an almost needy hunger had been replaced by a fluid co-appreciation that reminded me of the purr of an expensive, welltuned engine. We simply worked well together, and I thought this was enough. * One day I got sick of plodding around my garden and feeling lonely so I called our travel agency. It had been so long since we had contacted them that our usual agent had passed away. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss,” I replied upon hearing the news, “but who do I have to kill around here to get a good travel deal?”

David Oppegaard

Sunshine & Bougainvillea

3

Maybe that insensitive joke/question was the reason we ended up going to a strange, out of-the-way place like Trinidad. I looked Trinidad up on a map and was surprised to see it just off the top of South America, just a dozen or so miles away from the coast of Venezuela. The sucker was barely in the Caribbean at all! But, hey, the Caribbean was the Caribbean, so I got us two airplane tickets and a hotel reservation. I thought it would be necessary to almost violently tear Tess away from work, but she surprised me when I surprised her and said, “Great, Ralph. I could use a little down time.” * Tess wasn’t too awed by Port of Spain as we drove into town via taxi. I had to assure her that not all cities had to have buildings over four stories high and that we really were in the downtown area. Our hotel had TV, but it was foreign TV with no Letterman. I had to settle for the lousy John Grisham book I had mistakenly purchased for the plane ride. It was another yarn about drunken Southern lawyers fighting against bad odds with eloquent orations, as if the South were filled with a bunch of hard-drinking, Cicero types. I found it strange that my wife was with me when I fell asleep. I was used to curling up on my side of the bed so that when Tess finally came in at night she would be able to slip into bed easily without disturbing my sleep (when awakened in the middle of my sleep cycle I often leap to my feet before I reach consciousness, though I have never been in either the armed forces or prison). It was even stranger to find Tess around when I woke up in the morning. Admittedly, it wasn’t very romantic; Tess was already dressed and vigorously pacing our room. Her blonde hair was swished as she paced and her gray eyes made repeated

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sweeps of our hotel room, not really seeing anything as her forehead creased in thought. I knew that when Tess stopped pondering the crease would still be there, years of meditating upon stocks and bonds having given it permanence. Tess noticed me watching her. “Good, Ralph. You’re awake. Let’s go shopping.” I smiled. “You’re looking beautiful this morning, dear.” “Thank you, dear. Please hurry. It’s getting warm outside.” * The city was hot and dirty and I liked it. It was fun to see so much life, so much color. There were clumps of wild bougainvillea growing everywhere in reds and yellows and purples. Flowers draped the tops of walls, sprouted up in alleys, wrapped themselves around light poles, and even sprung up around the feet of the steel drum musicians practicing for Carnival. I wanted to pick every patch of bougainvillea and drape Tess in it. I would clap and laugh as she led our own private procession down to the sea, where we would finally rest, fling off our costumes, and run into the warm Caribbean sea. “What are those barbarians saying?” Tess asked me, joking. She was pointing at two Indian guys chatting near a fresh produce stand. “It’s a dialect of English. The guidebook says we need to practice a ‘quick ear’ in Trinidad.” “A quick ear?” Tess asked, looking up at the sky. “A quick ear.” “That’s a cute idea. Say, isn’t that the brightest sun you’ve ever seen?”

David Oppegaard

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I looked up at the sky with her. There were a few puffs of clouds and one very bright sun. I could feel the rays of sunlight pouring down onto the city, washing it in heat and energy. I smiled, reaching out to wrap an arm around my wife who wasn’t there anymore. She had darted into yet another ceramics shop, and I followed her with some reluctance. * By the end of our second day in Port of Spain I was getting a little worried. Tess didn’t seem as excited by our vacation as I had hoped. “Don’t worry,” I told her as I switch off the light beside our bed (I did this with caution, the damn thing had shocked me that morning). “We’re off to the Caroni Swamp tomorrow.” “It’s strange, Ralph,” my wife replied, laying an arm across my chest as she closed her eyes. “I’m not used to being around you all the time. You’re a different person than I remember you being.” “Is that good or bad, dear?” My wife didn’t answer me, so I decided she was asleep. * Our boat was leisurely gliding through the mangrove trees of Caroni Swamp when Tess turned to look at me. A dozen other tourists were with us on the boat, snapping pictures of the spider crabs, snakes, and blue herons as if they were scientists cataloging the entire swamp. “It’s too bad, Ralph,” Tess said. “What’s too bad?”

David Oppegaard

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“I think the National Geographic TV specials ruined this swamp for me.” “How so?” “I’m used to seeing everything perfectly. But I couldn’t even see that alligator everyone was pointing to back there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to be here in person, but it’s just not the same as all those neat close-ups.” The boat floated onward and no one spoke. I was glad for this. People talk too much, as if they’re worried that others will think they’re dead if they don’t come up with some mundane observation every thirty seconds, maybe even try to do one of those premature burials on them. I remember hearing a story about this guy who went to Russia and fell in love with a beautiful St. Petersburg girl. Neither of them spoke the other’s language. They just walked around the city holding hands, smiling and pouring their souls out through their eyes. I love my Tess dearly, but I don’t think she could handle a relationship like that. She needs things to be verbalized too much. Words seem to vindicate her, silly as that sounds. * As the sun started to set we came to a large clearing in the swamp. In the center of the clearing was a round, green island. “Ladies and gentlemen,” our guide announced, killing the boat’s motor, “we will wait here now and as the day ends the famous scarlet ibis will come home to roost on that island there.” Tess looked over at me skeptically. I shrugged. “It’s a pretty bird.”

David Oppegaard

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We waited for the scarlet ibis and I wondered if I should bother to get my camera out again. Tess checked her watch three or four times. Then something swooped over our heads and at first I think they’re on fire, but that’s just how the sun is hitting them. They are red, bright red. I laugh because I’ve never seen anything so damn red before. They are newly minted copper birds. More fly out of the trees around us. They dip and sail and coast and breeze on in, settling down in clumps of neon red on the island. More and more of these amazing scarlet ibis pour out of the swamp, hundreds then maybe thousands of them. We have found scarlet ibis Manhattan. The green island now looks like an overgrown poinsettia. I looked at Tess. She was smiling and I remembered the young girl she was before we married, the one still rich in time and not so practical in spending it. This made me think about back home and how everyone is always spinning around like so many windup toys. I admired the easy languor of the Trinidadians we had met, the slow way they moved and how it showed that they have time for anything, are open to everything. There was a hazy smoothness that hung over the Caribbean like a soothing drop cloth. I didn’t know if Tess sensed this yet, but the edges of life were a little smoother so close to the sun, the little pains easier to ignore just ten degrees from the equator. * The sun descended as we chugged back through the swamp. The setting sun left an aftermath of pink on the horizon that astounded me. The boat’s sweeping searchlight guided us through the maze of twisted mangroves as the folks around us droned on and on about nothing important, nothing worth blocking out such a peaceful scene. *

David Oppegaard

Sunshine & Bougainvillea

8

You know how the heat is supposed to “get to people”? Makes them more tired and irritable than usual? Well, Tess is immune to such mortal weakness. Day after day we excursioned ourselves all over Trinidad, flying up and down the winding narrow island roads with the recklessness one normally attributes to ambulance drivers and the suicidally young. Tess drove our rented automobile with a fiery countenance that reminded me of Tom Cruise in that racecar movie, Days of Thunder. The entire time she drove I sat in the passenger seat flinching, struggling to come to terms with driving on the left side of the road. One reckless afternoon: “Ralph, you know what? I like driving here.” “Why is that, dear?” “You can’t see around the corner on these winding roads. Cars and people just suddenly pop-up, like in a video game.” “Huh,” I grunted. Tess smiled. The wind stirred up her blond hair and a few strands stuck to her smooth cheek; I brushed it back into place with my hand. “What are you thinking about, Ralph?” “The subtleties of post-colonial culture and the influence it has had on the development of calypso into the twenty-first century.” “No, Ralph. Really.” “Um, how I like to brush your hair away when it sticks to your cheek.” “How sweet! You know Ralph, you’re still a pretty nice guy after all these years.” “Thanks.”

David Oppegaard

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“I mean it. I don’t think I’ve met anyone as easygoing as you. You’re like some sort of Buddhist monk, or maybe a placid lake.” I squint, imaging a placid lake. “Everyone else I know is always in a hurry, always talking and acting and moving. Not you, Ralph. You’re slow and steady.” We took a corner at about fifty miles per hour. To our immediate right was a drop of alarming distance. Tess screamed. “What!?” I cried, bracing myself against the passenger door. “What is it?” Tess gasped for air. “I haven’t checked the Dow for a week!” Then it was my turn to gasp for air. “Christ, Tess! I thought we were about to die!” “An entire fucking week, Ralph!” * I have often wondered what my life would have been like had I not married Tess. I would not have had the start-up money from her father and probably would have settled for a manual job, perhaps something in lawn maintenance. As for Tess, she loves money. She nurses what we have and it grows and grows and grows. I have no idea what to do with so much of it, what could possibly be worth all the hassle. I think it would be nice if money didn’t exist at all. I think it warps people and their view of things. Money makes people work for things they really don’t need and do things they really don’t want to do. But then, go ahead. Try and live without it. *

David Oppegaard

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On our final night in Trinidad we walked around the Savannah. Tess wasn’t such a big fan, but I personally loved the Savannah. It was the best right before sunset when everyone in Port of Spain was out relaxing from the day, walking and jogging on the rectangular-with-a-curvy-end sidewalk that ran along the park’s perimeter. Green parrots flew overhead in squawking pairs and I thought they looked fat and happy. Clusters of black and Indian men played cricket and soccer in the Savannah’s tall grass, laughing and calling out to each other in that beautiful English dialect Tess and I couldn’t quite catch. I admired the carefree bearing of the men as they played; they seemed like school children released early for summer vacation. As we strolled Tess talked about all the work she’d have to do when we got home and my thoughts drifted. I thought about the speechless lovers in St. Petersburg and reached for my wife’s hand. She squeezed my hand back, smiled, and kept talking. We walked past a tall mango tree and I noticed a cluster of yellow bougainvillea growing around its base. The flowers glowed golden in the twilight and I wanted to take them home with us, plant them and see if ambrosia sprouted from the soil. Then I remembered that bougainvillea was a warm weather flower, and that I lived in Minnesota. Tess stopped speaking, but I didn’t notice. I was now watching a coconut vendor whack the top of a coconut off with his machete and hand it to a pretty young lady. I doubted the truthfulness of the vendor’s “Frosty Ice Cold Coconuts” sign. “Ralph?” “Yes?” “You didn’t answer me.”

David Oppegaard

Sunshine & Bougainvillea

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“Oh. Sorry.” “That’s okay.” We continued walking. “You make me nervous when you’re so quiet.” “Sorry.” “Don’t be sorry. Just tell me what you’re thinking about.” I stopped and hugged my wife. She smelled like vanilla hotel soap. “Tess, let’s stay in Trinidad. We can have sex on the beach, both the drink and the act. I’ll clothe you in beautiful flowers and you can forget all that stress from the States. We’ll live here, with these happy people. We’ll let the sun be our god. ” Tess laughed. “Sorry, Ralph. We have to go back. We have non-refundable tickets.” “Screw the refund. Let’s stay. I’m sure we could buy a nice place near the ocean.” Tess pushed me away. “Ralph, America has given you everything you could possibly want out of life. You retired at forty-seven, for Christ’s sake. You get to putz around in that garden of yours everyday while most of the planet is just struggling for existence. I don’t mind that you don’t work, dear, but don’t insult those of us who do. Day in and day out I get up before you and go to bed after you. Sometimes I think that if you had things your way you would float around everywhere in a warm happy cloud, oblivious to everything else but yourself. Ralph, I’m proud to work and accomplish things.” Her eyes glowed and she patted my hand. “C’mon, dear. Let’s keep going.”

David Oppegaard

Sunshine & Bougainvillea

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I paused as she continued walking along the path. I thought about the last twenty years I had spent in our garden and in our marriage and I wondered if Tess was right. Was my garden just a pleasant prison? Had I had taken the idea of retirement too literally, retreated too far from everything? Even though we were rich enough now, Tess was still out there, pounding away at life. She was working hard toward her goals; though I may have questioned the nature of her goals, at least she had goals. A pair of joggers huffed by me. It was almost dark now and the Savannah was buzzing with human life. “Ralph, hurry up!” Tess shouted, waving me onwards. I thought again of the St. Petersburg lovers and did not move. “Ralph!” I shrugged and stepped forward. Tess took my hand and we strolled on, the warm night so thick with the scent of bougainvillea it was like we were drunk and young again, still falling for concepts like Love with a capital L and a Caribbean unblemished by violence, poverty, or noisy, bubblegum-chomping tourists.

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