Kimberley didn’t know that her estranged father, Mr. H, cloth magnate, up-and-coming politician, had been shot. While he was in Trinidad, sliding from the leather backseat to become a heap on the floor of his car, she was still in self-imposed exile in Barbados, her tongue traveling down the ripples of her “roommate” Rachel’s sculpted stomach.Kimberley’s bedroom windows were open, letting in the groans of the Atlantic Ocean as it churned and twisted and crashed itself against the brown curves of the island’s south coast. So easy to mistake the sound for Rachel’s pulse, gushing as it climbed her trembling thighs. Kimberley held them up and open, knees in stiff peaks, knowing from experience that resistance heightened the intensity for Rachel. Soon, though, the ocean was drowned by another noise, the kind you might expect to hear at a murder, with Rachel bucking and shaking as if her very life was leaking away.
There would be a few minutes, Kimberley knew, of Rachel being deaf, dumb, and blind. That crucial interlude, when Kimberley could satisfy herself. She’d become expert at doing it secretly, noiselessly, with nothing but a tiny lurch and an almost imperceptible gurgle. Rachel must never know—she would misunderstand, read too much into it. She was a Pilates instructor, not a lawyer; she didn’t grasp fine distinctions the way Kimberley did. She hadn’t done the research the way Kimberley had. She didn’t know that a perfectly normal woman, like Kimberley, could experience physical arousal with another woman and not be psychologically aroused. Intent, i.e. mens rea, was everything—lawyers knew this; without it, a person was innocent.
Kimberley was innocent. She was not a lesbian.
She assured herself of this as she rolled her forehead across Rachel’s belly, clutched the bedskirt and waited for her own heart rate to slow.
She had never been the instigator of these midnight trysts—it was always Rachel. And Kimberley only obliged because she wanted Rachel to be happy; they’d been through so much together. When Kimberley was in law school back home in Trinidad, Rachel had been the first to respond to her ad for a roommate. One look at this pretty, hazel-eyed foreign student with the sun-bleached dreadlocks and wooden necklaces, and Kimberley knew Rachel would not last long in accounting school. But she’d rented her the room anyway. And when Mr. H had thrown them out of the apartment and cut off Kimberley’s allowance, it was Rachel who’d found a new place for them and paid the rent that whole year. And when law school was over, it was Rachel who’d said, “Why you don’t come home with me to Barbados? We got law firms there too, you know.” And it was Rachel who’d asked a favor and gotten Kimberley a job. This new breezy Barbados life, out of Mr. H’s reach, was so different from her life in Trinidad. This was a life Kimberley had herself grafted, from only those things she could control. And she owed it all to Rachel.
So whenever, off-and-on, Rachel came reaching, putting Kimberley’s hands where she wanted her to start, saying—no, almost chanting—“I need it, Kim,” Kimberley found herself doing things she wouldn’t for anyone else but Rachel.
But still, she was not a lesbian. Not at all. Neither of them was. They were Soulmates with Benefits.
Rachel’s hands left Kimberley’s short curls, gripped her arms, tugged. Tonight was about to end as these trysts always did, Kimberley expected: a cuddle, some whispered good-nights, then Rachel would slip from the bed, float away to her own room and, by next morning, it would be as if nothing had ever happened between them. Soulmates with Benefits.
Instead, Rachel mounted Kimberley and used perfect teeth to pluck at the thin strap of Kimberley’s pajama top.
“It’s my turn, it’s my turn,” she sang, squeezing Kimberley’s breast.
“No, that’s okay,” Kimberley said, trying, gently, to pry her off—as she’d done the few other times Rachel had ever tried to touch her in this way.
“Come nuh, lemme do it,” Rachel whined, nibbling lower and lower.
Rachel yanked the strap. Kimberley’s breast rolled out sideways onto the sheet, like a dead thing. Rachel swooped down and swallowed the nipple.
“Stop it!” Kimberley’s arms shot out, her skin prickly with a heat she knew well: shame. She’d felt it last week, too: standing naked before the doctor in Bridgetown because her insurance had demanded a physical.
Rachel fell backward off the bed, her head sounding a dull thud on the floor.
Blunt force trauma. Lawyer kills live-in lover: Kimberley pictured the sordid headline as she scrambled up, trying to stuff herself back into the pajama top, trying to extend a hand to Rachel, trying to apologize. Her body burned as if she’d been drinking Cockspur rum straight from the bottle all night.
Rachel slapped Kimberley’s palm away and stood. “What the rasshole wrong with you, girl?” she asked, pushing Kimberley. Twice.
Kimberley let her, because a lawyer should be just and fair, because she had assaulted Rachel and a victim should be allowed to retaliate. So, from the edge of the mattress, where Rachel’s last push had landed her, Kimberley stammered, “Sorry, sorry…”
“Cheese d’on bread!” Rachel exclaimed, in her rankest Bajan accent. “So you cyah try just once, Kim? You always gotta behave like somebody killin’ you?” Rachel’s chest heaved. She made fists, then abandoned them, splaying her fingers, clutching for something that wasn’t there.
“Look, I overreacted. Sorry. But it’s your fault: you surprised me,” Kimberley said.
Rachel had never, ever been this aggressive—not in bed, not in any aspect of their life together over the last three years. Sure, she was a free spirit in many ways—with her essential oils, pottery classes, and the ugly organic vegetables she grew on the balcony—but Rachel had always respected Kimberley’s rules. Personal care items—especially toothbrushes—were not for sharing. Always knock before entering and ask before taking. And, most importantly, no means no.
“I don’ understan’ you,” Rachel said, deflating, finally, onto the bed next to Kimberley. “You does keep nuff noise sayin’ you love me, you love me, but you never want me to touch you. Wha’ kinda love that is?” She bent and picked a pillow off the floor, hugged it tight. In the sunset glow of the bedside lamp, she looked so tortured.
It made Kimberley feel like a bad person.
“I do love you,” she said, sliding closer, stroking Rachel’s cheek. “But I told you before, babe, I’m just not comfortable with…”
“Exposure. Yeah, yeah. You like to use big words like that, and make every damn thing sound so highfalutin… when it really very simple.”
“Look at me, then go watch in the mirror at you. See any difference?” Kimberley said.
“No, don’t start that shyte, this hour,” Rachel replied, shaking her head.
“Watch these hands… two slabs of pork, right?” Kimberley said. This kind of self-deprecation came easily to her. She hated her body, always had.
“Nuttin’ wrong with your hands,” Rachel said, rolling her eyes and fiddling with her silver toe ring.
“See, you can’t understand, because you look like a model. I look like the box the shittin’ stove came in.” Kimberley’s ugliness was ipso facto obvious, so she found it easy to talk about that, instead of the other reasons she didn’t want Rachel to make love to her—those were harder to mention because she didn’t fully understand them herself.
“Stop it, nuh!” Rachel begged, clamping her ears.
“Yup, like Mummy always says: I’m cursed. All Daddy’s Syrian genes—I have them. Short, square, hairy, and just plain…” Kimberley let the sentence trail off and hung her head for dramatic effect, waiting for Rachel to retreat in a fluster of apologies.
But Rachel got up, pillow still in hand, and began pacing the isthmus of carpet between the bed and the closet. “That is bare, feckin’ shyte!” she said. “Is all in your feckin’ head. I try and I say: lemme show you, nuh, babes? But, no, watch we: I still cyah touch you when we in public, I still cyah touch you when we by weself. We just stuck. Is like one big, fleckin’ experiment for you, Kim. Well, I tired. Cor blimey, is time this relationship get growin’!”
Kimberley shut her eyes and squeezed her temples—another habit she’d inherited from her father—reviewing all the anomalies of the last few months. Rachel had broken up with that last guy, Errol the Engineer, in January, and things had been different since. Usually, within two weeks, she’d have another man on the scene, but she hadn’t mentioned anyone this time. And she’d been more clingy than usual: crawling into Kimberley’s bed more often, asking, “You love me?” all the time. Other questions, too: asking to accompany Kimberley to work functions (“No!”); trying to hold her hand on Broad Street (“Hell no!”); asking, “Where we goin’ from here?” (“What the ass wrong with here?”)
“You listening to me?” Rachel cried.
The pillow hit Kimberley’s face, then fell to the floor.
Kimberley launched from the mattress to jab her finger into Rachel’s face. “I treat you like an experiment? Don’t talk shit, girl,” she said, then turned on her heel and headed for the door. She was almost there when she found herself marching back to Rachel. “Listen, I know what going on here. Errol fuck up your head and now you depressed and taking it out on me. But you’s the one experimenting, Rachel. Since we land in Barbados, is you who been hopping from dick to dick then running back to me to lick your wounds.” She took two giant steps toward the door again, then two giant steps back. “I been right here all the time. I’ve never even touched anyone else. I don’t ask you nothing, I don’t police what you do with your pussy, because all I really want is your heart. So don’t talk to me about experimenting. You’s the queen of that!”
The fogginess in Rachel’s eyes cleared, and something more edgy took its place. She aimed her chin at Kimberley and said, “Awright, then. I done experimentin’. Mummy and Daddy invite us to the beach house again. Saturday. We goin’ this time.”
“So you not asking, you ordering me to go?”
“Well, you need to come, Kim, because I tellin’ them ’bout us. I mekkin’ it official—since we shuttin’ down the lab and done-ing the experiment, right?”
Kimberley wound her arm around the bed’s tall wooden post, effectively tying herself in place. “Tell them what about us? What exactly?” she asked, in the cautioning voice she used with dishonest clients.
“Kim, them ain’t stupid,” Rachel snarled. “I sure they suspect already. We goin’ start by tellin’ them, and when you see we have their support, I know you goin’ feel different ’bout—”
“You know… coming out.”
Kimberley’s knees weakened; she leaned hard against the post, causing the bed to creak under her weight. These last few months, all the tiny cracks and chips in Rachel’s usually predictable behavior—Kimberley saw a pattern glinting now. Everything came together to form a hideous, mocking mosaic.
“Rachel, dear,” she breathed the words up from the depths of her patience, “coming out is for lesbians.”
They locked eyes, both listening, it seemed, to the L-word rebounding off the walls.
“Well, I tellin’ them,” Rachel cried. In that lamplight, her shriveling brown face was a sapodilla spoiling in the sun.
And in that instant—it must’ve been a premonition—Kimberley thought of Mr. H. Him, standing over the gardener, making sure the sapodilla tree was planted exactly where she (eight-year-old “Kimmy”) had wanted it in the backyard of their family home in Trinidad. And, years later, him kicking her out and calling her a “big, fat, nasty queer.” For a long moment, Kimberley felt herself swept up and swirling in a kind of vertigo of hate, but she wasn’t sure who she was hating. Mr. H? Or Rachel?
She released the bed and took a step toward Rachel, not knowing what to say or do, desperate to pick up the pillow, slam it into Rachel’s face and hold it there until she recanted her stupid, stupid plan to expose their relationship. Rachel must’ve sensed it. She shouldered past Kimberley and ran from the bedroom, across the corridor, to her own.
Kimberley spent the next day, Friday, in a pissy mood, and it didn’t help that the managing partner kept needling her about a legal opinion for a Hong Kong client. He wanted it by day’s end.
Things got even worse when, around 3:00, she said to her secretary, “No, you don’t need another coffee break, Beatrice. I’m waiting on those pages,” causing Beatrice to eye her from head to toe, wheel back the chair, grab her handbag, and sashay out of the office saying, “I don’ need dis ras, nuh,” under her breath.
By 5:00, Kimberley had two-finger-typed almost seven pages and was exhausted. Flipping through the scribbles in her yellow legal pad, she estimated at least another forty-five minutes of work… on a Friday evening. If only she hadn’t been so impatient and nitpicky with Beatrice all day! She dug her daily planner from the nest of papers and jotted a note for Monday: Take B to lunch. Maybe buy flowers?
Needing a break, she turned from the static glare of the screen to stare out the window at the Bridgetown sun: it always shone so fiercely at this hour, clung so desperately to the sky, fighting against its fate—its own nature—just before leaking like an injured egg yolk into the dark porcelain sea. Kimberley never noticed the sun in Trinidad, but now her eyes followed a length of light as it passed through the window, bringing a million specks—the fine print of the Universe—to her attention. Rachel was wrong; life was complicated.
She returned to the computer screen, took a bite of the flying-fish cutter that had been sitting on her desk since lunchtime—the bread now dry and choking. She ate slowly, skimming the last paragraph she’d written: International Business Corporation … Hong Kong resident … Barbadian courts … separate legal personality … blah, blah, blah. Her brain felt clogged with other, more personal arguments.
She could not be a lesbian. A lesbian was a woman who habitually engaged in sex with other women. Kimberley didn’t have sex-sex with Rachel, and she didn’t want to have sex with anybody at all. Not that she had anything against intercourse, per se. In fact, had she not met Rachel she would’ve done it by now, with some man. The moment she graduated, Mr. H would’ve found a suitable match for her with some other Syrian duckling—even if he had to import one from Syria itself. Like her older sister, Kimberley had grown up knowing she would have to marry for profit, for dynasty, and she and her husband would have sex for those same reasons.
But Rachel had changed all that. Their very first time together, Kimberley discovered a power that had freed her, but also frightened her. All the things she didn’t know how to do, things she’d never done before, they soon came naturally as she embraced the delicious, illicit power of devouring another person. To tear at them with your teeth and hands, to pry them open, to spread them wide, to reach until the tip of your tongue discovers their softest core. To take that too: to curl your lips over it and swallow the last of their dignity. To leave them with nothing but their own plaintive cries. To own them.
Kimberley didn’t want any human being to own her. Not even Rachel.
The thought made her skin itch. She began typing again, calling out the words, pounding them out on the keyboard and willing herself to concentrate on their meaning.
Her cell phone rang. Oh shit, Rachel.
Kimberley let it ring through a few cycles while she steadied her vocal chords. When she did answer, and Rachel said, “He-e-y,” in the lilting way that implied, “I’m sorry and ready to make up,” Kimberley’s pinched shoulders released.
Rachel knew what she’d done, how unreasonable she’d been.
“So, Pelican, right, babes? What time?” Rachel spoke in a tone both breezy and strained. She was referring to the pub, the Thirsty Pelican, where they sometimes spent Friday evenings.
But Kimberley wasn’t ready to absolve Rachel just yet. She couldn’t allow her to get away with this: to start a doomsday countdown and then just waltz back in and stop the clock by asking, “Where’s the party?” No, no, no. In a court of justice, Rachel would have to allocute, to spell out her apology. Kimberley was saying all this when Rachel cut her off. “Cor bleh, I did get on like a real cunt, eh. Last night, how I come at you. Sorry, babes. Let we just forget it and got a good time tonight, nuh. That’s what we really need right now.”
Kimberley smiled and picked up a pen, started sketching on the legal pad. “What we need, Rach?” she said. “Ain’t you didn’t need the scrambled eggs I make this morning? Instead, you leave with your face twist-up, like I make you suck lime for breakfast.”
In the dead air, she heard Rachel’s struggle for a comeback. Poor thing was never good at witty repartee, and when she gave up and burst out laughing, Kimberley found herself laughing too. And when Rachel said, in a voice crackling with emotion, “Never mind all that, I always goin’ need you,” Kimberley caved.
Who else would ever say that to her?
“An hour,” she said, adding some tiny squares of light to the engorged heart she’d been drawing. “I’ll meet you there.”
When she plopped her brief-bag onto the front seat of the BMW, Kimberley was in a much better mood. She’d convinced the managing partner not to issue the legal opinion until Monday, claiming she needed to check some case law at the Supreme Court. Rachel was at the bar—she’d already called twice more—and Kimberley was excited to see her and have the scare of the past twenty-four hours put behind them.
She slid her phone into the dashboard holster and swung out of the law firm’s lot. Not even two streets away, it rang again, and she pressed the answer button without looking.
“Good God, woman. So I tell you 7:00 and you call back at 7:01? You serious?”
Silence. Then “Kimberley,” spoken by her mother’s glacial voice. “Why haven’t you called?”
“Mom?” she asked, her mind blank.
“Your father’s been shot, and you don’t call? He’s a politician, so I’m sure it’s been on the news there.”
“What? How?” Her muscles seized.
“Last night. Do you really not know what happened?”
“A robbery? Is he dead?” Kimberley swerved the car and parked alongside the Parliament building. A shadow in the guard’s booth moved, and she imagined ski-masked bandits storming the cloth store, kicking in the office door, demanding Mr. H open the safe. That could happen these days. Not in quiet little Barbados, but back home, in bloody Trinidad. She pictured Mr. H trying to smooth-talk while reaching for his gun, his giant hands being too clumsy in the end. The man was a troll, but she didn’t want him dead. She leaned over the steering wheel and put her face within inches of the phone, as if that would help her comprehend what her mother was about to say.
“No, no,” Mrs. H’s voice got clippy, “it was a… young lady. He’s at Santa Marta Private Hospital.”
“Ohhhhhh,” Kimberley said, flopping back into the seat. A tiny smile played on her lips. Mr. H being shot by a bandit—that would’ve been cruel. Mr. H being grazed by some little whore—that was comeuppance. “Well, good for her.”
“Kimmy, don’t be—”
“Really, Mother. You know he deserves it.”
“Nobody deserves to be shot. I swear: you can be so selfish sometimes—just like him.”
“At least the ‘young lady’ had the balls to do what you never could.”
“Just come home. They say he’s critical.”
Kimberley didn’t know what to do with the word critical—it was more than the bullet-graze she’d imagined. Part of her rushed out like a speedboat, but then stalled, drifting back to indifference—her usual mode whenever she thought of her father.
“Give me the number for the hospital. I’ll call every day,” she said. She swung the flap of her brief-bag and pulled out the legal pad, still open on that page with her heart-doodles, the pen clipping its side.
“He’s your father. You can’t really think that’s good enough?”
Tired of Mrs. H’s sarcastic questions, Kimberley decided it was time to ask some of her own. “Mother, was that fun for you? Wearing all those bruises?” she said, seeing in her mind’s eye the fingerprints studding her mother’s neck like a turquoise necklace. “Give me the number, please.”
“If I can forgive him, why can’t you?” Mrs. H said.
Kimberley pressed the pen into the page, going over the existing lines and curves of the heart, making them deep and thick. “You should call Miss Ivy too, Mother. I bet she’d be happy to know he’s in critical—”
“Shut up! Don’t talk to me about silly things you only half remember.”
A drop of water fell from Kimberley’s nose, landed on the yellow page, making it swell.
“Silly? Silly, eh? And half-remember? No, Mother, I remember every detail.”
Her ninth birthday party. The heel of her plastic, magical pony “high heels” had broken off, and she’d left everyone in the garden and trekked all the way back upstairs to change them. Miss Ivy, their housekeeper, was at the sink. Mr. H stood behind, squeezing her. Miss Ivy thrashed around—a black mouse in a trap—her head almost butting the metal faucet. She begged him, “Mr. H, no… Oh God, please. The Mrs. home….” Although Kimberley hadn’t known exactly what was happening, she’d sensed that her father was taking something Miss Ivy wanted to keep, and she’d felt sad because she knew Miss Ivy would lose it anyway. Just like Mrs. H always lost to him. Women were cursed, Kimberley had decided then: their own bodies didn’t even belong to them. She had run to her room and locked the door. Curled up, under her magical pony-and-rainbow sheets, she had prayed and prayed to fall asleep and wake up a boy. That way, she’d always belong to herself; other people might even belong to her. But Mrs. H came searching for her to rejoin the party. Kimberley told what she had seen, and Mrs. H turned whiter, ghostly, but she’d dragged Kimberley back into the garden, whispering through gritted teeth, “You will forget what you saw, you will speak of it to no one, you will smile and finish off this party like a good hostess. Or so help me God, Kimmy, I’ll throw away all those presents.”
Now Mrs. H was trying the same bullshit. “The point is, child: if your father dies, you’ll regret it. Besides, how would it look if you’re not here? Your sister is flying eight hours from England; you can fly thirty minutes from Barbados. I’ve booked the ticket. Put your ass on that plane tomorrow at 5:00, okay?”
“I not coming!” Kimberley said, grabbing the phone from the holster and bringing it right to her lips, but Mrs. H had already hung up.
Tears blurred everything: the street, the inside of the car, Kimberley’s own hand. She grabbed some tissues from the glove compartment, sopped her eyes, and blew her nose. The legal pad still sat on her lap, heart all pockmarked with water, ink bleeding in places. It made Kimberley think of the graffiti that once covered her room—her Goth teenage years. Mr. H had hated all the black, the heavy metal, the androgynous baggy clothes. “W’happen to all the kiss-meh-ass ponies?” he used to rail when he was drunk. “Them kiss-meh-ass ponies on rainbows?”
From the street, Kimberley glimpsed Rachel. At a cocktail table with some of their friends—Dexter, Carl, and that crew—but a little too close to some girl in a yellow jumpsuit so tight it resembled an adult onesie. The girl’s index finger wagged and wagged as she made some emphatic point, and Rachel was being persuaded; her frown and chronic nodding made that obvious. Kimberley had seen this chick circling Rachel before. Together, they looked like they were planning to rob the place.
She squeezed herself into the room and shouldered toward Rachel, moving on the same adrenaline that had piloted her car since Mrs. H’s phone call. She felt wide-eyed and giddy, desperate to get Rachel to the quieter side of the bar, to tell her about the shooting.
“Aye,” she said, touching Rachel’s elbow and waving at everyone else in the cluster.
“Hey!” Rachel replied, and as she bent for a cheek-press kiss, over her shoulder Kimberley glimpsed Yellow Onesie fleeing.
Why? She wondered, but had more urgent matters in mind.
“You actually make it,” Rachel said, hand lingering on Kimberley’s hip.
“You not gonna believe what happened,” Kimberley said, nudging the hand away, a gentle reminder of the rules of public engagement.
“Tell me, nuh?” Rachel beamed. Yet Kimberley found herself standing there, tongue-tied. Her lawyer senses took over, and she foresaw that Rachel might ask about facts and emotions Kimberley didn’t quite have. Not yet. Everything about her father being shot was still a swirling black slurry in her mind.
She had to say something, though. So she embellished the story about the legal opinion and how she’d tricked her boss.
Rachel laughed and said, “After all that, you need a drink, babes,” then grabbed Dexter’s arm, propelling him toward the bar.
Kimberley flashed a smile around, exchanged a few words with others in the group, nodded her head, tapped her feet, tried to enjoy the soca music—new catchy stuff from last month’s Carnival in Trinidad. But she felt tired and locked out of all the merriment, as if she was still in the parking lot looking at everyone through plate glass. She’d told her mother she wasn’t getting on that flight to Trinidad, and in her head, playing in a loop, were all the reasons why she was justified. And yet, she felt a niggling doubt. A stray bit of shrapnel, spiraling, etching a tiny but painful track inside her chest. But she was determined not to notice the ache. Thank God, Rachel and Dexter were weaving back to the table.
Through swords of light and tendrils of smoke, Rachel moved, like a celebrity. Everyone eyed her, while she eyed Kimberley. Their misunderstanding was over; they were Soulmates with Benefits once more. Rachel handed Kimberley a cup of fries; everyone cheered Dexter for balancing the tray of tequila shots all the way from the bar; the group raised glasses; somebody did a countdown; and then Kimberley licked the salt, tossed the golden liquid down her throat, and bit hard into a piece of lime. She shuddered at the taste, but felt alert again. Alert enough to focus. On getting drunk. On forgetting.
After tequila came vodka, and they clashed beautifully. Just what Kimberley needed: her mind loose, stumbling around. Unfortunately, it collapsed on the doorstep of an unsolved mystery: that girl, Yellow Onesie. Why had she run away earlier? Why did she keep glancing over all night? What had Rachel told her about them? And it felt like more than a coincidence when, around 9:30, Kimberley stepped out of a bathroom stall at the same moment Yellow Onesie did.
They saw each other in the mirror. The music of the bar reverberated in the packed bathroom, and yet they seemed to be alone in a bubble of suspicious silence. The girl smiled, and Kimberley tried to, but it came out as a sneer.
They both reached for the paper towels. Yellow Onesie got there first.
“You and Rachel,” she said, patting her hands, “you make a fine… team.” Then she tossed the tissue and walked out, swinging her ass.
Kimberley rushed back to the table. Rachel was dancing with Dexter and Carl—a kind of three-person conga. Kimberley yanked her out and dragged her to the other side of the bar.
“What you tell that girl about us?”
“Who?” Rachel asked, wrenching her wrist away.
For a few minutes, they stood there in the corner, behind a rubber plant, spitting insults in each other’s faces.
“Okay, okay,” Rachel said, finally. “I did need to talk to somebody, and she understan’. She’s the onliest body that understan’ this problem we in.”
“And what problem is that?” Kimberley shifted her weight from leg to leg, like a boxer squaring up.
“Same type of relationship, nuh. So she know how it feel.”
“How what feels? Careful, eh.”
Rachel took the dare. “To be somebody nasty li’l secret,” she said, then dropped her eyes and fondled a rubber leaf, as if confirming its fakeness.
Kimberley clamped her palms against her temples, to stop her head from exploding. This coming-out bullshit, again?
And that word, nasty, and how Rachel had dragged it out, raking the past three years, along with Kimberley’s purest intentions, through scum and sewer and then flinging them back in her face.
Kimberley couldn’t bear it. She stabbed a finger—as hard as she could manage—into Rachel’s breastbone, just above all that rosy cleavage, and said, “You can’t play victim with me, girl. I know the truth about you.”
“What I is, then? To you, Kim? And what’s the truth? I listening. Go ’head.”
One of Rachel’s dreadlocks had sprung loose from the tie-back and fallen onto her cheek. She dashed it away, hazel eyes blazing, never more beautiful or more repulsive to Kimberley. “The truth is, Rachel: you’s just a kiss-meh-ass bully. Just like my father.”
Kimberley left the bar.
After a long shower, she went out onto the balcony to smoke a cigarette and let the sea breeze slap her around a bit, sobering her. The apartment complex was quiet and dark. Even the sky seemed to be in off mode: no stars. A few boats bobbed in the distance, spaced out along the horizon like white traffic dashes on a black road to nowhere.
Kimberley had spent the whole hour thinking, about her father and about Rachel. Two currents, same gulf, they seemed. Both pulling her down to where she didn’t want to go, but where she sensed all the missing answers were buried and rusting: her memory of the last day they’d all been together.
She and Rachel had been making breakfast when he’d banged on the door. Kimberley opened, but he headed straight for Rachel, yelling, “Get out! Get out!”
Rachel had turned from the stove, looking to Kimberley for an explanation.
“I want this Bajan bitch out! Right now,” he’d said. “No wickers on my property! That’s what you Bajans call them, right? Take your despicable habits back to Barbados, young lady. And as for you, Kimberley: I sent you to school to be an attorney, not a big, fat, nasty queer.”
“No, we’re not…” Kimberley began. Rachel hadn’t yet kissed her. She hadn’t yet taken Kimberley’s wide, awkward hand and guided it down to the narrowness between her legs. None of that had happened yet. They were innocent.
Yet Mr. H cut Kimberley off. “Save it,” he said. “I own this shittin’ place; I know everything that happens here. And for godsake, you let the maid find you together? You know how those nigger-people talk. By now, the news must be all over Pleasantview.”
That’s when Kimberley understood his accusation. A couple days before, she and Rachel had been up late, eating popcorn and watching DVDs. They’d fallen asleep right there, on her bed, and that’s where the maid had found them the next morning, entangled.
Kimberley tried to explain this to Mr. H, but he grabbed Rachel’s arm, dragging her toward the door, saying, “They’ll use this, Kim—mark my words. You will make me a laughingstock in Pleasantview, you stupid cow!”
Peeling his fingers from Rachel proved impossible; he was too strong. So Kimberley grabbed the broom and, for a millisecond, she did hesitate, but then she struck him hard on the collarbone. With a howl, he released Rachel and swatted Kimberley halfway across the room. Everything happened in slow motion next: Rachel crawling across the tile, lifting the hem of her nightie, dabbing Kimberley’s lip, printing bright red spots on Tweety Bird’s faded feet.
“I want her out. Today,” Mr. H had panted over them, mouth wet, face rabid.
Kimberley’s insides had roiled as if she were on the verge of diarrhea.
“If she leaves, I going too!” she had sputtered, the words salty with tears, snot, and a little blood.
“Do it,” Mr. H had warned as he stalked off, “and you’re dead to me, young lady.”
He’d left the door wide open.
The click-clacking of the locks made Kimberley startle.
Rachel was home from the pub. Although Kimberley felt softer toward her now, after reliving that memory, she didn’t want to talk just yet.
Please head straight to your room! But no… kitchen noises: water gushing, china rattling, kettle gurgling. For what felt like forever, Kimberley sat there in hostage mode, staring at the balcony curtains, willing them not to betray her. Then a gust lifted the gauzy panels into the living room, caused them to curl and beckon like fingers, and not long after that, Rachel stepped out onto the balcony.
Kimberley got up and walked to the railing. The wind had died and the sea had returned to a patient mumble. She needed to speak first now, to control the conversation. “Dad was shot last night,” she said into the blackness before her.
Rachel’s chair—or maybe the table—screeched. “You mekkin’ sport?”
Kimberley turned, but her hands clutched the railing behind her. She took a deep breath and told Rachel about the phone call from Trinidad.
Rachel set her teacup down. “I so, so sorry,” she said, flapping her hands as if she were overheating and needed to self-cool. “That’s what you was trying to tell me? Earlier, nuh?”
When Kimberley nodded, Rachel rushed over, hugged her, whispered more sorries, then led her inside to the couch, pulled her down, and cradled her head. The touch was innocent and undemanding. Kimberley closed her eyes and tried to let every hard feeling dissolve in the warm silence between them. They had survived so much together.
“So when you leaving?” Rachel asked, twisting a curl of Kimberley’s hair.
“But you just say he critical.”
“I’ll see him at the funeral.”
“You mad? He’s your father.”
“After how he’s treated you… us… why are you on his side?”
“What the rasshole! The man deadin’. This ain’t ’bout tekkin’ sides, Kim.”
“You sound just like Mom.”
“Look,” Kimberley said, raising herself and her voice, “it’s my father, my conscience, so thanks for your concern, but I can make my own decisions.”
Rachel bared her palms in surrender. “Awright, I can’t force you,” she said. “Whatever you choose, babes.”
Kimberley lay back down and they settled again, Rachel twirling Kimberley’s hair and rubbing fingertips into her scalp. Kimberley shut her eyes and felt her whole blunt bulk lifting and floating with each breath. She was one of those boats out there, lolling in the tide, seaweed trailing and caressing its sides.
“Life so fleckin’ short, eh?” Rachel interrupted. “I cyah imagine my Daddy gettin’ shot. Or Mummy dyin’ so sudden. Them is the onliest thing I love in this life—and you, of course. Nobody else. Please, Kim, let we just go tomorrow, nuh? Let we just do that one thing for now. I ain’t goin’ say nuttin. I promise, babes.”
Kimberley was tired. She didn’t want Rachel to pull away. More than anything, she wanted to be smothered, until she couldn’t breathe, until she blacked out and forgot herself, her mother, her father—every damn thing in Trinidad. She reached up for Rachel’s neck and drew her down.
“Okay,” she whispered as they kissed. “Whatever you want.”
Lunch had been pleasant and lighthearted—no pressure at all—and it was difficult not to like Rachel’s modern parents: Mrs. Clark, a kaftan-loving Swede who taught feminist studies at the university, and Mr. Clark, a stately Black man—a dentist—who grew taller every time Rachel said “Daddy.”
After they had cleared the dishes into the kitchen, Rachel smacked Kimberley’s ass with a tea towel and said, “Let we go for a walk, nuh?” and Kimberley agreed.
They picked their way down some steep stairs to the beach, and on the last crooked step, Rachel grabbed Kimberley’s hand, counted to three and ordered, “Jump!” They raised a puff of white sand as they landed, and then Kimberley chased Rachel to the shade of a coconut tree.
They sat catching their breath on a sun-bleached log, while Rachel coiled and coiled the pendant on her coral necklace—something she only did when she was nervous. Kimberley was about to ask what was wrong when—duff!—a coconut dropped from the tree. They both ducked at the sound, and Kimberley cringed inside, because it reminded her of Rachel’s head hitting the floor on Thursday night.
“You think we should move?” she asked, but no answer came.
“I tellin’ them,” Rachel blurted out. “Now that we here and I see you with them, Kim, I know is the perfect time. Let we just do it.”
Kimberley grabbed a stick and began drawing on the sand. Her heart and mind raced but went in different directions. She found herself tracing a big smiley face, perhaps to distract from her own face, which she could not trust to convey the right reply to Rachel. What was the right reply? She flung the twig away and made her eyes scour the beach for some anchor, some mooring. There! A woman on the jetty to their far left, the breeze on her long-sleeved blouse made her appear to be shivering. Or there! A tall, Nordic-looking woman strutting toward them, topless, her areolas like red cocktail umbrellas. This kind of exposure could only happen in Barbados—never, ever in Trinidad.
“Let’s do it,” Rachel repeated.
Kimberley spoke, then, in a strangled voice, “You promised me.” She wasn’t angry—which surprised her—just scared; there was a gun to her head, it seemed.
“Is the onliest way we goin’ be happy, babes. We gotta be together in the open now,”
“But I don’t need that, Rach. All I need—”
“But you love it, though.” Rachel made a fist on Kimberley’s thigh, and beat out a rhythm as she continued, “Yeah, when you lickin’ and fingerin’ me. Cor blimey! You love that cunt! You does try to hide whenever you comin’; you think I don’t know… but I know, yes. You love it. You’s a bare feckin’ wicker, just like me. Admit it!”
“Is that bitch from the pub, right?” Kimberley knocked Rachel’s hand away. “Karen? She’s putting you up to this? You fuckin’ her or what? Don’t tell me you’re so stupid you can’t see what she’s trying to do to us.”
“No,” Rachel said, “you’s the problem, Kimberley. Three fleckin’ years: waitin’ for you to stop hidin’ yourself, waitin’ for you to be ready. That finish. I tell you: I ain’t hidin’ nuttin’ no more. I ain’t waitin’ again.”
She got off the log and stood over Kimberley.
With upturned hands, as if the air around them was collapsing, Kimberley pleaded, “What you want from me, girl? Blood? I can’t!”
Rachel glared down, silent and goddesslike with the sun behind her; only her tears moved. Kimberley tried to match the stare, but looking up like that, into the light, made her eyes sting and weep. She lowered them to the turquoise sea, a glistening sheet of glass that stretched out to oblivion.
Rachel moved, offering her hand. “Are you coming?” she said. Her face craggy and foreign. Her voice splintering as she added, “Please?”
A feeling swept over Kimberley, the same feeling she remembered from so long ago, when she’d watched her father with the sapodilla tree. A revelation, uncluttered by the fine print of life, of how deeply she loved this other failed human being. Then, in the same moment, the feeling seemed to crest and topple over on itself, draining away, as she glimpsed afresh the hopelessness of loving anyone that much, the inevitability of disappointment, the terrifying pain.
A knot loosened, and something inside Kimberley slipped away and drifted off toward the horizon’s sheen. She glanced at her watch, rising from the log as she whispered, “I going, Rach. I need to go back home.”
Rachel began to cry some body-wracking sobs. “Is Trinidad you mean? You leaving me, Kim? You leaving me, nuh?”
Kimberley wrapped her arms around Rachel, rocked her as if they were slow-dancing—right there, out on the open beach, for anybody to see. She didn’t know if she was leaving Rachel. All Kimberley knew was that she could never live a new life, never have a new home, until she went back and spoke with her father.
She loved him. She needed to tell him—as soon as possible—and give him a chance to learn why the kiss-meh-ass ponies had died.
Celeste Mohammed’s debut novel-in-stories, Pleasantview, will be published by Ig Publishing on May 4, 2021. Her work has appeared in the New England Review, LitMag, Epiphany, and The Rumpus, among other places. She is the recipient of a 2018 PEN / Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, the 2019 Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction, and the 2017 John Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Celeste graduated from Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, with an MFA in creative writing (fiction).