Okay, the joke’s over. I think we can all agree that things have gotten out of hand: I’m lying on the couch, reading, when I feel a physical presence behind my head. Who is in my house? I ask myself. Unannounced drop-ins are common occurrence here – in fact, they are the only functioning drop-ins I have witnessed, as planned get-togethers invariably go bust – but surely not unannounced wandering into my living room? Can it have come to this?
Before I can further explore this bend in societal norms, I simultaneously smell and feel hot and unsavoury breath around my head and neck, clearly belonging to someone who has been eating over-ripe mangoes. Too terrified to turn and face my attacker, which I, absurdly, think is a bear – logic, of the “there are no bears in Guadeloupe” variety, always loses to gut-clenching panic, am I right? – I freeze and hope it will think I’m dead. An eternity passes, I’m still not moving, and I suddenly hear my heart popping out of my chest – except that it’s not my heart, but rather the clip-clop on my tile floor of the goat whose face is suddenly beside mine and who is reading over my shoulder. It’s a beautifully surreal moment, goatie and me, cheek to cheek, reading Cereus Blooms at Night, but then the magic is over as he makes a clumsy dive, revealing his true book-eating intentions. The spell being broken, I snap out of my paralysed state and chase him outside with a chair, then bring in the laundry I see him eyeing. Oh please oh please, let me not wake up in the night to a goat chewing on my mosquito net.
The good news is that Steve bought me a phone in Dominika, snazzy and functioning and small; the bad news is that he came back with it, so I’m back on the hook for piano lessons. His place is such a sauna, and I hate teaching piano so much (and am ready to kill whoever wrote “The Birdie,” the hideous beginner-level song that has been running through my nightmares for weeks) that I – and let’s admit it was inevitable – became slightly hysterical in our recent lesson. As the damn birdie got worse and worse with every run and a nine-second song was taking minutes to plough through, I started to play an accompaniment and told him he had to keep up. Wrong notes, so be it – let’s try to enjoy this crappy little waltz instead of dragging it along like a death march. I was merciless in my time-keeping and made him keep doing it until he finally started to find a flow to the song. (Those teachers among you who may be shocked my traumatizing methods, don’t worry: there is little to no pedagogy involved, but rather the time-old instinct of survival at all costs; it was Steve’s ego or my will to live, and I think I made the right sacrifice.)
When he made a nervous joke about my being like a metronome but mean, I said I showed no pity, just like the army. “Have you been in the army?” “No," I answered, "but I imagine it’s like this.” I should be modest here and say that, in hindsight, that’s not so funny, but in fact it still makes me laugh. Boot camp as a miserable piano lesson. Needless to say, I stomped that joke into the ground, calling him “soldier” more than was strictly necessary, making dorky comments about dropping down and giving me twenty – badly-worded and serving only to emphasize how out-of-touch I am with most things military – until I thought I was the funniest person on the planet and dreamt about how much I’ll make Letterman laugh when I’m on his show to promote my latest stand-up tour.
When Jeff said I have to do a good job teaching so that Steve will be ready to play at Jeff’s wedding next year and I said he was more than ready now, as long as the first dance is to the timeless classic “The Birdie,” I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. To be fair, they hadn’t even offered me a glass of water – I should have helped myself when I recognized the oncoming giddiness; should know better by now – so I was dehydrated and irritated in a 52-degree boiler room: a sure recipe for uncontrollable giggling over glaringly unfunny material. I thought I might have scared them off – was Steve eyeing his Bible, perhaps seeking comfort? – but apparently we’re on again on Monday. Are they un-faze-able? Maybe if I break something?
The junior-high and high-school contracts finished on April 30th, so there was a Saturday afternoon garden party for all the assistants which I had no interest in attending. The assistantship co-ordinator (and I use the term loosely) woke me that morning with a bullying phone call, I absolutely must come, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (what, to hang out with Jamie from Missouri? You’re so right – let met come to your party. Let me die happy), so I ended up meeting the ride she arranged for me and being taken to some government building in Gosier. When I got there they were in the middle of the speeches, every second one by the I-know-everything-about-everywhere-in-the-world guy from our October meetings. Every time he introduced a speaker, he turned it into an eight-to-ten-minute opportunity to tell us about his having been to Boston or his daughter studying in London. I guess he forgot that most of the guests were French and half the assistants are Spanish. And as for those who understood his English rambling, people who are from England aren’t impressed that you’ve been to London – neither are the rest of us, for that matter. Shut up, already.
Then it got downright weird, as they called us up one at a time for our diplomas, apparently confusing a paid teaching job with high school graduation, and insisted each person make a speech. A speech! The first few were so bewildered that they actually thanked people and said they loved Guadeloupe. By the fourth or fifth graduate, though, the snarky undertones started in, made worse by buddy’s insistence on commenting on each person’s hometown. (“You’re from Philadelphia? Tell them about the bell.” “Um, there’s a bell.” “And?” “And, I’ve seen it.”)
I used my moment of power (there was a microphone involved) to try and find a home for Sprocket – no takers, the heartless bastards – and couldn’t think of any significant Bryan Adams lyrics, so Canada was not fairly represented. For that I apologize. Mostly I felt stressed out, because after so many speeches upon arrival about our being our countries’ ambassadors and having our nations’ reputations on our shoulders (don’t worry, Canada ol’ pal, I was charming and demure without exception and kept a whole lotta peace; your name is unsullied in fair Guadeloupe), this set of speeches was all about going home as ambassadors of Guadeloupe, spreading the word that there’s more to this island than just palm trees and beaches. (I thought of aiming a psssst or a “nice ass!” in his direction but remembered that I am a Canadian ambassador and Canadians aren’t supposed to be sarcastic.) Can’t I just hang out? Do I have to be everybody’s ambassador?
The best part of the afternoon was discovering that I was considered the mystery assistant this year. Having not hung out with any of the cliques, I was suddenly assumed to be aloof, adult, even – if I may – cool. (I ask that you refrain from comment at this juncture.) Information somehow gets around so that people approached me to ask about my “Reggae Man” boyfriend, my scary boat ride to Les Saintes, my turn in a Carnaval parade, my throwing up last week-end. (Never figured out why – dehydration our best guess – but puked up the entire contents of my stomach and ruined Bronwyn’s last night here.) (Sorry again, Bron.) How did they know the details of my life? Why did they care?
Meanwhile, everything I said came out funny, every story was bang on; I had them eating out of my hand. And so I discovered, after years of trying to master poise and self-control in public (with little success), that the key to seeming aloof is just this: actually be aloof. See, I couldn’t care less what this group of people thinks or doesn’t think of me; I don’t know them, I’m sure they’re really nice, I’m not looking for a “this was totally the best year of my life!” group of friends. Conversation? I’ll take it or leave it. And the effect: they can’t get enough of me! I’ve achieved detachment! This is only valid as long as I feel no commitment, of course. My geeky enthusiasm and over-eagerness will do doubt resurface sooner or later, my lack of poise will return. But let me tell you, that Saturday afternoon in Gosier, Gwyneth had nothing on me.
Oh, and Sprocket had babies! Two of them! She was elusive for a while but then showed me shyly where they were curled up in the garden. I felt like a grandmother; it was the most important moment of my life. I told her how proud I was and we had a good cry together, and now I feed her three or four times a day, as my landlady told me I should. I don’t give her milk because I know a female isn’t supposed to drink another mammal’s milk, I assume even more when she’s nursing. Any other thoughts? Advice? How long do I have to wait to touch the kittens? (If she brings them in the house I’ll have to move them out.)
Cross your fingers for me, because my gas tank ran out and I haven’t been able to co-ordinate a ride to the gas station to replace it, so I haven’t been able to cook (again, I use the term loosely) for a week. I’m feeling generally malnourished, possibly from living off of bread, coconut and the mangoes I get to before the goats, so let’s think gas-stove thoughts in my direction; I could use a nice hot plate of peas and cous cous.