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The Forgetting Time
Sharon Guskin


On the eve of her thirty-ninth birthday, on the bleakest day of the worst February in memory, Janie made what would turn out to be the pivotal decision of her life: she decided to take a vacation.

Trinidad was not the best choice, maybe; if she was going that far she should really have gone to Tobago or Venezuela, but she liked the sound of it, Trin-i-dad, its musicality like a promise. She bought the cheapest ticket she could find and got there just as the carnival revelers were all going home, the gutters filled with the most beautiful trash she’d ever seen. The streets were empty, people sleeping off the party. The cleanup crew moved slowly, in a contented, underwater shuffle. She’d scooped up handfuls of confetti and stray glittery feathers and plastic jewelry from the curb and stuffed them in her pockets, trying to absorb frivolity by osmosis.

There was a wedding going on in her hotel, an American woman marrying a Trinidadian man, and most of the guests were there for it. She watched them circling one another, the aunts and uncles and cousins wilting in the heat, their cheeks daubed with a smear of red sunburn that made them seem happier than they were, and the bemused Trinis, who were always in groups, laughing and talking in fast Trini slang.

The humidity was intense, but the warm embrace of the sea made up for it, like a consolation prize for the loveless. The beach was exactly like its picture, all palm trees and blue water and green hills, with sandflies that brushed and stung your ankles to remind you that it was real, and little shacks planted here and there that sold bake ’n’ shark—deep-fried shark in a pocket of fried fresh dough that tasted better than anything she’d ever eaten. The hotel shower sometimes had hot water and sometimes cold and sometimes it had no water at all.

The days passed easily. She lay on the beach with the kind of glossy magazine she never usually allowed herself, soaking in the sun on her legs and the spray of the sea. It had been such a long winter, snowstorms falling one after the other like a series of calamities that New York was ill prepared to meet. She had been assigned the bathrooms of a museum her firm was designing, and often she had fallen asleep at her desk, dreaming of blue tiles, or taken a car home after midnight to her silent apartment, collapsing into bed before she could wonder how her life had turned out this way.

She turned thirty-nine on her second-to-last night in Trinidad. She sat by herself at the bar on the veranda, listening to the rehearsal dinner in the open banquet hall next door. She was happy to have avoided the requisite “birthday brunch” back home, those throngs of friends with their husbands and children and their enthusiastic cards assuring her that “This is the year!”

The year for what? she’d always wanted to ask.

She knew what they meant, though: the year for a man. It seemed unlikely. Since her mother had died, she hadn’t had the heart to go on dates the two of them couldn’t analyze afterward, moment by moment, over the phone; those endless, necessary conversations that sometimes went on longer than the dates themselves. Men had always come and gone in her life; she’d felt them slipping away months before they actually did. Her mom, though, had always been there, her love as basic and necessary as gravity, until one day she wasn’t.

Now Janie ordered a drink and glanced at the bar menu, choosing the goat curry because she’d never had it before.

“You sure about that?” the barman said. He was a boy, really, no more than twenty, with a slim body and huge, laughing eyes. “It’s spicy.”

“I can take it,” she said, smiling at him, wondering if she might pull an adventure out of her hat on her next-to-last night, and what it would be like to touch another body again. But the boy simply nodded and brought her the dish a short time later, not even watching to see how she fared with it.

The goat curry roared in her mouth.

“I’m impressed. I don’t think I could eat that stuff,” remarked the man sitting two seats down from her. He was somewhere in the midst of middle age, a bust of a man, all chest and shoulders, with a ring of blond, bristling hair circling his head like the laurels of Julius Caesar and a boxer’s nose beneath bold, undefeated eyes. He was the only other guest that wasn’t with the wedding party. She’d seen him around the hotel and on the beach and had been uninspired by his business magazines, his wedding ring.

She nodded back at him and took an especially large spoonful of curry, feeling the heat oozing from every pore.

“Is it good?”

“It is, actually,” she admitted, “in a crazy, burn-your-mouth-out kind of way.” She took a sip of the rum and Coke she’d ordered; it was cold and startling after all that fire.

“Yeah?” He looked from her plate to her face. The tops of his cheeks and his head were bright pink, as if he’d flown right up to the sun and gotten away with it. “Mind if I have a taste?”

She stared at him, a bit nonplussed, and shrugged. What the hell.

“Be my guest.”

He moved quickly over to the seat next to hers. He picked up her spoon and she watched as it hovered over her plate and then dove down and scooped a mouthful of her curry, depositing it between his lips.

“Jee-sus,” he said. He downed a glass of water. “Jee-sus Christ.” But he was laughing as he said it, and his brown eyes were admiring her frankly over the rim of his water glass. He’d probably noticed her smiling at the bar boy and decided she was up for something.

But was she? She looked at him and saw it all instantaneously: the interest in his eyes, the smooth, easy way he moved his left hand slightly behind the roti basket, temporarily obscuring the finger with the wedding ring.

He was in Port of Spain on business, a corporate man who had done something lucrative with a franchise, and he’d decided to give himself a little “vacay” to celebrate the deal. He said it like that, “Vacay,” and she had to stifle a wince—who said things like that? No one she knew. He was from Houston, where she’d never been and had never felt the need to go. He had a white gold Rolex watch on his tanned wrist, the first one she’d ever seen up close. When she told him, he took it off and put it on her own small moist one, and the thing dangled there, heavy and sparkling. She liked the feel of it, liked its strangeness on the same freckled hand she’d always had, liked watching it hover like a diamond helicopter over her goat curry. “It looks good on you,” he said, and he glanced up from her wrist to her face with such directness of intent that she blushed and handed him back the watch. What was she doing?

“I guess I should get going.” Her words sounded reluctant even to her own ears.

“Stay and talk with me some more.” His voice had a note of pleading in it, but his eyes remained bold. “Come on. I haven’t had a decent conversation in a week. And you’re so…”

“I’m so … what?”

“Unusual.” He flashed a smile at her then, the ingratiating grin of a man who knew how and when to use his charms, a tool in that arsenal that nevertheless flared, as he looked at her, like metal in the sun, shining with something genuine—real affection coming right at her in a blast of heat.

“Oh, I’m very usual.”

“No.” He considered her. “Where are you from?”

She took another sip of her drink; it fuzzed her edges a bit. “Oh, who cares about that?” Her lips were cool and burning.

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