His country is the land of paradox and contradiction; where a frustrating government pleads for more productivity but can’t provide an efficient bus system to get people to work on time.
Clifton—or the newly stylized Cliff, as his well-to-do friends call him—knows he should have been out of the apartment at least fifteen minutes ago if he wants to catch an early bus to get to work. He works doubly hard at his job in the ICT sector, which means he gives online technical support to people overseas. In his hurry, he pulls a T-shirt over his thin frame, only to realise it’s on backwards. He fixes it while struggling with his keys to lock the front door, then runs off before noticing that he’s left his phone and has to turn back.
Ambition tells Cliff that with a master’s degree in psychology he should be working somewhere with better pay, but the job market is so volatile. Worse, he never seems to have free time or energy to write application letters, much less go on interviews. The job barely allows him to live in uptown Newland Park. His salary might be able to cover his expenses more if he lived in a cheaper area, but he feels safe there. Safety has no price.
Cliff’s six o’clock Saturday morning shift is his worst. Sleep is burning in the corners of his eyes. It forces him to question his decision to stay out late last night rubbing shoulders with neighbourhood friends, Alex Pattel and Max Richardson. Those kids only work to stave off boredom, he thinks, as he hurries down the long street to the bus stop. It’s just that he feels somehow obligated to say yes when they ask. He never imagined that he, Clifton Moore, would have rich friends like those who like him enough to invite him out. If only his mother could have stayed in the one-room house where she raised her three kids—his sister, nineteen-years-old and on her second child, and his brother, now deceased from a bullet to the back of the head, and himself—and seen him then.
Well, maybe not exactly the scene last night. Cliff wore a black tee with the words ‘Pink Lives Matter’ in neon pink on the back and he is positive she won’t respond well to that.
Still, Cliff can’t blame his friends for being late. He got home at 11:00 pm, which might have given him enough sleep, if only he didn’t have to spend half the night explaining away that one selfie he took. Matías, a bed and breakfast owner from St Augustine, Florida, and his long-distance boyfriend of the last two years, was jealous.
"Why does that one guy have his hand on your shoulder?" Matías asked.
"We were taking a selfie to celebrate the end of a stressful week. It’s not like his hand was around me the whole night."
Cliff has grown accustomed to Matías’ jealousy, so much so that if Matías stopped questioning his every move, Cliff would worry that he had been weaned. Last night, however, Cliff could have done without the interrogation. While he assured Matías of his faithfulness, he battled exhaustion and an almost instinctual desire to retaliate and blast the man for his affectionate-looking shirtless picture from less than a week ago.
The caption of Matías’ Facebook post read:
'Enjoying Ponte Vedra Beach with my new
bestie Eduardo #VivaLaPlaya #HaceCalor'
"Don’t you miss your big papi baby?" Matías asked. A smidgen of a Dominican accent still played around the edge of his words. Even in frustrating moments like these Cliff found it sexy.
"Don’t you miss these muscles holding you tight?"
"Yes, Matías, I do."
"No te creo."
"Don’t say that, babe. It’s because I miss you so much that I have to go out sometimes and forget about it."
"Why you wanna forget me when all I do is think about you?" Cliff held the phone away from his face and scoffed dramatically while Matías continued. "You know what I been thinking ‘bout all night?"
"Huh? I didn’t hear that."
"I said, I thought about you all night and when you came here last winter."
"You were in my bed and mai was staying in the other room so we couldn’t make noise. I was giving it to you so good, I could see it on your face. You wanted to moan so bad that you started biting my neck. That made me give it to you harder."
Cliff was silent.
"Didn’t you like that, baby?"
"Yes," Cliff said before a yawn escaped. "I did."
"Then why the fuck you need to hang around with these pretty boys for?"
Whenever Matías guilts him like this he never complains. He never dares complain about anything Matías does. God forbid that it might put undue pressure on the man and derail Cliff’s plan. He was determined to leave this godforsaken land of paradox and contradiction before the next twelve months. Matías was an important part of that; Cliff must marry him and they must live happily ever after on the coast of Florida.
Right now, however, Cliff must catch this damn bus.
As Cliff continues quickly down the long stretch of road boxed in by the most beautiful houses and apartment complexes you’ll ever find in one area, he hears a bus in the distance. Seconds later it barrels past him down at the intersecting street. Shoulder slumped in disappointment, he contemplates if he should return home and sleep for ten minutes, but then decides it might be smarter to wait at the bus stop and sleep in the bathroom during lunch.
In the seconds it took Cliff to gaze contemplatively at his watch—an expensive birthday gift from Matías—a man in a pink hoodie emerges from the big house at the end of the street and continues along his way ahead of Cliff.
The house of revelry, as Cliff and his friends call it, is where some gay men have sought refuge in Newland Park from homophobic violence in poorer communities. If only they would have left their ghetto behaviour behind with them, Cliff has thought on many occasions.
There is always a party behind those walls, no matter the hour, and it is a source of complaint for the neighbourhood. The one Newland Park Citizens’ Association meeting that Cliff went to, he saw how the old and demure Chinese Jamaican who owned the property came under fire for his tenants’ behaviour. The Association complained about the noise, but that was a cover for the issue that couldn’t be discussed openly. They couldn’t do that. Someone might construe it as intolerance or even homophobia and that was unbecoming.
Cliff had, on more than one early Saturday morning, seen the man in the pink hoodie leave the house with his hood drawn tight over his head. His imagination already painted a picture of a closeted gay man who visits the house on Fridays so that one night per week he can have his heart’s desire from behind thick walls and a high fence.
The thought of the clandestine arrangement made Cliff ooze curiosity. He couldn’t run without looking suspicious. So, he walked hurriedly towards the bus stop behind the man who wore the slimmest blue jeans that showed off well-carved legs and a swagger that made him look like an extra in a Dancehall video—specifically of the gun tune subcategory of songs.
Another paradox of life in this country was how every safe uptown community was neighboured by a poor ghetto. Doctors, lawyers and businessmen needed gardeners and housemaids, Cliff supposed. The ghetto of Newlands Park was Two River. It was in that direction that the man in the pink hoodie disappeared each Saturday and today was no exception. The man simply went around a corner and disappeared before Cliff got to the end of the street. The high hedges make it impossible to see anything before reaching the end of the road.
Ten… twenty… thirty minutes pass as Cliff waits for another bus. His feet shake impatiently when it gets to the hour mark.
Two River was a neighbourhood of organized chaos. Houses were arranged in no discernible pattern, like remnants of a bomb explosion. Fifty percent of everything was made of galvanized zinc.
As dawn gives way, Cliff witnesses the community come alive. A loudmouthed shopkeeper opens her establishment and yells to the people scattered outside, waiting to buy her produce. Children greet each other on the street and start to run amok. Other people go about their business.
A few church-goers, who join Cliff under the bus shed, vocalise the complaints he kept in his mind about the slackness of the bus system.
Meanwhile, across the street, an attractive looking Rastafarian man has caught Cliff’s attention.
Almost like a movie, everything slowed as the man walked over to a standpipe placed conveniently at the front of the community. His rag is draped over his shoulder and soap is in his left hand. Cliff was no newcomer to bathing outside—having grown up in a rural community where it was the norm—but nothing prepared him for the lust that overcomes his body when the man takes his clothes off. First shirt, then shorts exposing a beautiful, toned body that is exactly the kind he likes—not the sculpted in a gym body, but the kind that is produced from hard work and physical exertion.
The man douses himself in water. Cliff feels self-conscious witnessing such lust beside so many people. Still, he can’t help but stare. If Matías could hear his thoughts, his migration plans would be screwed for sure.
Cliff groans internally with disappointment as the bus comes and he has to leave the scene of sheer, unfiltered male beauty.
His country is the land of paradox and contradiction where an oversexed populace puts taboos on every sexual act.
Conrad—who everyone calls Ras Connie since a few years ago when he started sporting locs—was an ace student, all the way up to high school. Some declared him the smartest boy in Two River, which, to young Conrad, wasn’t saying much. With no lunch money and sometimes no bus fare, Conrad ate his bread with syrup, ketchup, warm vegetable oil or whatever his mother could find and hustled his way to school.
"Don’t watch no face mommy," he used to say to his mother brazenly, professing to her that he didn’t care about what others think.
She would respond with a chuckle and call him a forced-ripe child, which is to say he has matured too early.
Always with a tattered book bag, washed-out uniform and second-hand shoes more porous than a strainer, young Conrad made up for his financial shortcomings with constant application to his studies.
The light of hope never left his eyes until it came time for university. With scholarship rejection letter after rejection letter, he felt the future he envisioned for himself slip through his hands.
He traded dreams of fixing arteries with fixing pipes and the accomplishment of earning his own money kept discontent at bay for a few years until the hardships of adulthood caught up with him.
When discontent turned into depression and ate through his heart, he sought refuge in love. Grand plans of marital felicity were conjured with his high school girlfriend as they shared a small dilapidated one-room he rented from her mother in Two River. While his heart was never convinced it would bring him happiness, his mind was, and it became mind over matter.
He could never find enough money to marry on. Plumbing paid only enough for him to eat, pay rent and come back to work the next day—and that was when jobs were available. When his first child joined them, living in sin in the same rented one-room, his heart slumped. It drove him to seek comfort elsewhere and soon he had two children by two different mothers and no one to love him.
Some external force was to blame for his downtrodden existence because it was certainly not for a lack of determination on his part. He soon grew disillusioned. Rastafarianism gave him the best tools to channel his discontent and as locs grew so did his apathy.
Not until a long-time friend referred to him jestingly as a rent- a-dread did he contemplate that his looks could become an eroticized commodity. In that market, his competitive edge became his intelligence and the distinction of being considered good-looking. This way of life was not because he chose it; it was thrust upon him. That, he believed, acquitted himself from judgement or any scrutiny from society. He engaged only in normal sexual intercourse with women—the only exception being that one time and the white sodomite paid him handsomely enough to pay both his children’s school fees and reconnect his electricity—and kept his activities discreet, so he was beyond reproach.
So now he wonders what this boy knows about him that he decides to stare at him from the bus stop from across the street. The indignity of being forced to bathe in public is enough, without an engaged spectator sexualizing it. He feels himself raging with anger even after the bus collects the man.
"Sodomite," Ras says under his breath and walks home to get ready for market.
It is summer, when heat becomes a burden more than a welcomed escape. The flow of visitors from the north has dried up as it always does. Entire hotels closed annually in the wake of lost revenue. At this time of year, Ras, himself, also experiences a considerable drop in personal income—the worst time of year too— right before his kids are preparing for a new year of school, with all the accompanying expenses.
A hustler by necessity, Ras supplements his income by peddling his own bottled concoction of a Spirulina-based performance-enhancing serum. A hungry clientele of men made to feel like their masculinity is tied to sexual prowess, form the stronghold of his customer base. While the profits are far from enough for him and two families, he can survive through summer.
"How you can ensure me this thing will work?" a lady higgler in the market selling cantaloupes asks in her attempt to haggle Ras’ price down. "Since this my first time buying, why not take off a percentage until I know it works?"
"Lady, ah telling you it works. When your man comes to you in the bedroom tonight you will realise that you should be paying double what I charging."
As they argue, an exquisite-looking young woman—too well-dressed for the grimy local market—comes over to inquire the price of a three-pound cantaloupe from the lady. She catches the eye of Ras and he wastes no time in perusing.
Words like poetry spew from his mouth:
"The ocean is a
when we touch
what a commotion.
never have to tell you hush;
treat you right every
day and every night."
He accepts his victory in the broad smile that appears on her face as she giggles.
Her country is the land of paradox and contradiction; where criminals carry little blue copies of the New Testament in their back pockets and quote Psalms to protect themselves from bad-minded people and evildoers.
Ramona Budhai—named Roland at birth—spent her first seventeen years of life in a rural existence. Her father, Satahoo, was an Indo-Caribbean farmer with great land holdings, sufficient wealth and the complete respect of townspeople for miles and miles beyond the boundaries of his rice, tobacco and banana farms.
Her mother she never knew—a boyish mistake her father made in his young years when he and a pack of friends paid a prostitute for sex. With sufficient compensation, the woman disappeared from existence and Satahoo was left to raise his apparent son with more pride than any father ever had for a child.
"From when you were born, all the way till you started high school, people say you too pretty for a boy child," Satahoo said to his daughter with a steady stream of tears betraying an artificially hardened face. "So, this is what it comes to now?"
Ramona was doubly hurt. She found it hard to hurt a father who did nothing but dote on her since birth. Even when Ramona first came out to her father as gay in the days when she still answered to the name Roland—an unheard of act for rural people— the love of her father still flowed. He killed a goat, had a curry feast and welcomed the then boyfriend of Ramona. It was a very different scene when she affirmed her gender to her father.
Fear of losing face with the townspeople made him do it. She was asked to leave the family home.
She is now her own woman, living in a communal house and paying her own rent. She has had many a boyfriend—if you can call them that. Typically, a married man comfortable with his life and looking for more. She has always been romantic and in love with the idea of being in love, but ever since her boyfriend from her Roland days told her she was disgusting and broke her heart, she has given up on love. Satisfaction nowadays comes from the fact that she can live true to herself.
That pent-up emotion is why her heart got ahead of itself when a man in the market blew words the sticky sweet of a too ripe nectarine into her ear.
"So give me a talk nuh, beautiful?" the man says to her.
No one had ever called her beautiful before. Roland had been called too pretty for a boy, but that felt to her like a completely different life.
"I’m in a hurry. I can’t talk now."
"Five minutes is good enough for me, beautiful."
He keeps using that word beautiful and she can feel her resolve weakening with each repetition. This is dangerous. If this man comes to know beyond who he thinks she is, she will no longer be safe.
She walks away and he follows behind declaring to his customer that he will return soon.
"You really gonna leave me like this, beautiful?" he says walking close behind her. "An angel like you just comes into the market this peaceful Saturday morning to break my heart and leave?"
In the sunlight, from the mesh merino he wears, she can see the impressions of a very well-kept body and the features of his handsome face are made more pleasing by the excess of hair everywhere.
Funny how when the typical men who are attracted to her chase her she wants to run away screaming ‘I am not a sexual object!’
All her ambitions have been put on pause because trans has now been imposed as her overarching identity and she has to first grapple with that. Though, if she ever had the chance to exist as she pleases, she would live a sedentary life in a quiet neighbourhood, practise medicine as her day job and grow her own urban farm as a hobby.
As this man who calls himself Ras Connie courts her, she finds herself feeding off the good feeling of being an object of true unfetishized desire.
Against her better judgement, she obliges his request. She lets him lead her to a less congested corner of the Saturday morning market where his onslaught continues.
"What you do with your life, beautiful? A woman like you can’t be nothing less than a model or a beauty queen."
She tells him of her ambitions to practise medicine and is surprised when he tells her that he had similar ambitions before he had two kids to feed.
Ramona refuses his request for her number more than once. "Facebook? Email address? Anything at all?" he asks.
In less than half hour of conversation, he makes her hopeful that if he gets to know her beyond the physical then maybe he won’t mind. She wonders if this could be love at first sight or if she really believes in that sort of thing. But she holds strong and denies his requests.
"So how I get in contact with you, baby? You come to this side of the market often? Should I look out for you?" His insistence continues as he loads her bags into the back of a chartered taxi.
"I don’t know. Let’s see what happens," she says.
As the driver prepares to drive off he slams his hand hard against the roof startling her and indicating to the driver to halt. He pushes his head through back seat window and steals a kiss.
"If I ever see you again, baby, you know that is fate putting us together," he says to her.
She watches from the rearview mirror as he stares longingly at the taxi driving off.
Her mind is now a place of confusion and indecisiveness; a thirty-two-point compass searching for an ever-shifting true north.
Ras is sure he has met the love of his life. Such a sweet, beautiful woman with such even dark skin and a thick head of the most beautiful natural hair. That is exactly what his life needs. A woman like her will be the charm that changes his fortunes.
He walks back to the market to make that last sale and get home. An animated group of people have gathered at the cantaloupe lady’s stall. He walks up to the cantaloupe and through the crowd.
"Come lady, you want the thing or not?"
"Better you go with your green juice. My husband can do without anything that you’re selling."
Ras detects the woman’s voice is laced with judgement.
"What wrong with you, lady?"
"Ras, you BOW man," he hears from a male voice among the crowd; a term meaning he has demeaned himself by giving into immorality.
Ras is taken aback. In everyone’s eyes, he sees the same judgement as the woman’s voice.
"You ever see me bow yet? What you mean?" he asks defensively; meanwhile, he wonders if they could know about his clandestine work.
"You don’t realise that the woman you running down is a man?" the cantaloupe lady says to him.
"What you mean?"
"Is a he-she you just put talk to," he hears the same voice shout from among the crowd.
"Him never know," one woman says.
"A so them always fool man," says another woman.
"No he-she can’t fool me," says the same male voice.
Ras becomes enraged by the situation that he tells himself he has been put in. If his anger was a hundred percent, he maximizes it times ten for effect.
With all the profits from his morning’s labour, he buys himself a machete and has it sharpened so much it cuts through its makeshift sheath of cardboard.
"If another one of those things ever set foot near me again them dead," he declares.
His mind is now a place of confusion and indecisiveness; a thirty-two-point compass searching for an ever-shifting true north.
Friday morning and Cliff is on his way to work for his late morning shift. The bus he travels on has had a facelift courtesy of ads from a state agency with the words ‘country over self’ all over its branding. Never mind that he is forced to stand for the hour-long commute because more than a few seats have gathered puddles of water from the dripping air conditioning vents. The broken bus looks better on the outside at least.
The phone in his pocket vibrates. He ignores it. He knows who is calling already. This is its seventh unanswered ring.
"Don’t go anywhere tonight. Just go home," was what Matías said to Cliff in their conversation earlier that morning. "I prefer to have you in bed than out with guys I don’t know."
Cliff is feeling embattled. He can’t decide if the potential benefit of the relationship is worth it to have a man try and control his actions from so far a distance. The invisible cage of his own making constricts him tighter with each ring of his phone. It takes a few more rings before he shuts it off. The cage still remains.
Work goes as smoothly as listening to the complaints of irate North American customers all day can go. At lunch break, Cliff has already had enough, with half the day still left to go. He slips into the bathroom and checks his phone to see that Matías has left him three messages:
Matías [10:56 am]: Papi sorry I got mad at u. Disculpe ❤❤❤❤❤❤
Matías [10:59 am]: Wanna talk to u abt smthn important 2nite so dont go out. PLEASE.
Matías [11:30 am]: Drivin me loco here. U ❤ ur papi or no?
Cliff [5:16 pm]: Will call u tonite.
Their conversation later that night shows no residue of their morning difficulties. The phone sex is as good as it can get; though it makes Cliff long to smell the fresh scent of cocoa butter at the nape of Matías’ neck as the man moans the filthiest words of Spanish into his ears when they merge in ecstasy. His only limitation in phone sex is when Matías eggs him on to moan louder on the phone and he can’t from fear of being overheard by his eighty-two-year-old landlady.
"Babe, I have something to tell you—well ask you about," Matías says.
"Sounds serious." There is a pause. "Is this why you’ve been on edge all day?" Cliff continues.
"Hear me out."
Matías pauses again.
"You can let me know if this is too soon or what, but I’ve been thinking about this for a long time now."
"I’m not like a Rico Suave and I’m not romantic and I’m always getting upset but I love you, I do. And I’m thinking we’ve been doing long distance since we met almost two years now. It’s time we figure out where this is going.
"I want you here. With me. You don’t have to answer now. But if you agree we can get things in order for you to move here next year. I’ll buy you a ring and do it right. You get what I’m saying."
Cliff is thinking.
"Don’t go quiet on me," Matías continues. "What do you think? You don’t have to answer me right now—but—what—what do you think?"
The thing that Cliff wants most in the world is before him and he is silent. All he has to do is say yes. He can’t understand why he hasn’t said it yet. He contemplates whether he really loves this man or it’s the chance at a better life that he is using Matías for.
"You know what, it’s probably better you not answer now. Think about it for a bit. Sorry to drop that on you."
"No, don’t apologise," Cliff finally says. "I love you too and I love being with you."
"Gracias a dios, you had me shook papi."
"It’s the idea of leaving my home permanently that kinda has me scared."
"I’m gonna be here. Us being together will be your new home. Plus, it’d save me a lot of heartache sitting here being jealous of a whole country of guys I don’t even know."
"Are you gonna be jealous of all the guys in Florida if I move there?"
"I’ll have better things to do with my time." "Like what?"
"You want me to tell you what I’ll be doing with my time?" "Yes. Describe it. In detail."
"Most of it involves you on your back—"
Cliff’s phone rings at that minute. It’s his mother. He doesn’t pick up.
"You should talk to her. You say you hardly ever talk to her," Matías says.
"Yeah, I think I should. If she’s calling this late it must be something. But I wanna know what I’ll be doing on my back."
"We’ll pick it back up tomorrow night papi."
"Dile a tu mamá que su yerno dice saludo."
"Yeah. I’ll go tell her you say hi and listen to her freak out."
Matías laughs. "Look at my little papi learning Spanish."
Well into his depressing conversation with his mother, Matías’ velvet voice replays in Cliff’s mind. He wonders why all his conversations with Matías can’t go as smooth as that. As soon as Cliff starts to become disenchanted with the man, he finds all the right words to say that wipe the slate clean.
"You not hearing what I’m saying?" his mother asks on the phone.
"Sorry, what? Repeat." Cliff is dragged back into reality.
"I say if the people at work don’t give you your pay yet?"
"Yes, it’s in my account. I checked this morning before I went to work. Else I wouldn’t have bus fare to leave the house."
"So, can’t you help me out with this light bill?"
"I already budgeted for it."
Cliff knew this was coming. He and his mom talk once per month. It is always right after payday so she can guilt him into covering one or more of her bills. Cliff actually takes pride in knowing that since he has been employed, his mother’s electricity has not been disconnected. What frustrates him is the fact that his sister contributes almost nothing to the household that she lives in with her two children.
"I’m also asking you to send me some change if you have any. Your sister youngest baby come down suddenly with fever and from this morning we’ve been here working on her. We might have to take her to the doctor."
Cliff doesn’t respond.
"You hearing me?" his mother asks.
"Why can’t she buy medicine for her own child?"
"Don’t mind that. We are all family."
Cliff has heard this same speech so many times already, but it takes on new importance in the wake of Matías’ proposal.
His mother continues, "If anything happens to you, you meet in accident, your foot cut off, it’s us you always have and is right here you coming back to your home. No matter where you reach in life don’t forget your family."
All night into the morning Cliff thinks about this. His marriage to Matías would solve a significant amount of his problems, but will it solve them forever?
He can’t keep Matías a secret if they marry, can he? Was that what stopped him from saying yes last night? He wonders what the fallout from his mother will be and if there were to ever be a falling out in his marriage with Matías. Will he still belong to the family home his mother so proudly professed?
Another Saturday morning has arrived where he has to drag himself to the bus stop from lack of sleep. More than once he considers sleeping in another hour and splurging from his pay on a taxi to work, but that money can contribute to his niece’s doctor visit. He puts it out of his mind and walks on along the street under the cover of a hazy morning.
As he turns the corner around the high hedges, he is surprised to see the body of the man in the pink hoodie lying on the ground. He can’t seem to register the sight before him. He almost wants to ask the man if he’s okay, but it is futile. The body is without a head.
His hands tremble on their way to his pocket as he flees the scene and back to his house. He must call the police, but before he does he calls Matías.
His mind is now a place of confusion and indecisiveness; a thirty-two-point compass searching for an ever-shifting true north.