On the plane, she dreamed two sniper rifles were being pointed at her head.
The landing announcement jolted her awake.
Joseph Salvador Airport was surrounded by barbed-wire-topped walls. Everything outside was dangerous. Or so the concrete, bunker-like immigration and customs building seemed to indicate. She might be better off taking the next plane back, she thought. But she’d already agreed to write a feel-good story on the island’s first lady, an old college roommate.
It was late afternoon on New Year’s Eve and a roasting 98 degrees. The other passengers standing on line with her were mostly expats, some dragging bags bursting with barely hidden American produce for the island’s famous New Year’s Day stew.
In the past, she might have interviewed her few fellow passengers while waiting for the delayed flight. But a recent case of malaria — and temporary hearing loss from the volley of rocket-propelled grenades that had blasted part of the roof off the last hotel she’d stayed in — had lessened her enthusiasm for anything but the essential aspects of her job.
It was almost her turn in the customs line when a bearded, white-haired soldier approached her. He was holding a sign with a picture of her, an old photo in which she was wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest while reporting from Damascus. Or was it from Congo, Cairo, Gaza or Kabul?
The old man motioned for her to step out of the line, and as soon as she did, a dozen younger soldiers, dressed in the same leaf-lizard camouflage fatigues, rushed forward and surrounded her. They escorted her to a luxurious lounge filled with buttoned leather couches and paintings, which, by their massive size and extensive floral detail, she could tell were national treasures.
“The first lady’s looking forward to seeing you,” the old man said, in perfect Midwestern English. In her now 10 years as a war correspondent, there was always a despot, or a despot’s assistant, who spoke perfect English or had graduated at the top of his or her U.S. college class. The old man didn’t need to tell her his story. She already knew it, even though it was not the story she’d come to tell.
At the first lady’s request she had been handpicked by her magazine’s editors to write a feature on how a first couple sitting on the Western Hemisphere’s largest oil and natural gas reserve would spend their first New Year’s Eve in power. The timing was good, as she’d already been fantasizing about the next phase of her career. In the past few weeks, two female journalist friends had been killed. One was shot in her apartment; the other, blown up by a car bomb. When she was a little girl, watching live reports from Kuwait, Afghanistan and elsewhere, she’d told herself that she wanted to spend the rest of her life walking that fine line between life and death. She’d never imagined the cost — not just the sexist and racist harangues from military brass, and even some colleagues — and the overall loneliness of too often being the only one. But also the deaths. All the unnecessary deaths.
Without warning, the first lady stepped out from an adjoining room. She hadn’t aged a day since they’d roomed together at Barnard. The first lady was wearing plain blue jeans and a white cotton shirt and still towered over her, especially in her high-heeled boots. Her thick, long black hair, layered in extensions, hung past her shoulders.
“It’s good to see you, Jess.” The first lady usually spoke with a trained accent that merged French, English and Spanish, the languages she’d grown up speaking as the only daughter of one of the island’s roving diplomats. Recently she had taken a trip to Madrid for a Women and AIDS conference, so her accent was mildly Castilian.
“I’m sorry I’m so late —” Jess said.
“The plane was delayed. We know. You insisted on not accepting our plane.”
“Thank you, Madame, but really I couldn’t —” Jess was unsure what the protocol was.
“I’m still Marlene,” the first lady said. She winked at the white-haired soldier, who removed his military cap, then pulled a white wig off his head. He then peeled off his beard, revealing a young, penny-colored face.
“Meet my husband,” the first lady said. “The president.”
“Welcome,” the president said, laughing.
In the armored SUV, in the middle of the 10-car caravan taking them to the presidential couple’s personal residence in the hills, Jess’s impulse was to ask about the coup d’etat that had brought this young colonel to power, but instead she asked how they met. As Marlene described her return trips home and the many parties at which she and her husband kept bumping into each other, Jess tried to look out of the windows to see the streets, but the windows were too dark, almost like curtains. Besides, the president had his own road, with towering barricades that kept the city from view.
If she’d been working the politics beat, this is the kind of point Jess might have pressed the president on. But she’d been told by the first lady’s press office that these kinds of questions were off the table.
The private residence had once been a five-star hotel, with its own nightclub, botanical gardens, hunting lodge and zoo. Jess and her hosts parted ways in front of the indoor fountain in the mile-high-ceiling lobby.
“We’ll see you at the ball,” the first lady singsonged, while holding her husband’s hand. She motioned with her head for a small army of handlers to show Jess her room. She and her husband looked giddy, like any newlywed couple who’d inherited a small kingdom worth billions of dollars.
Jess’s suite had an open terrace with a panoramic view of both the grounds and the city, which had been bombed by the army during the coup. According to the most recent reports, 10,000 people had died.
Far out in the beautiful indigo sea, she spotted a ship flying the island’s red and black flag. Marlene had tacked one of those flags above her bed in the room they’d shared freshman year. Red for the people’s blood, she’d said, black for their roots.
On the deck of the ship, soldiers were reaching behind them and, two by two, dumping black body-size bags into the sea.
Jess wished she had binoculars. She quickly searched her bag for them, coming up instead with the long, white chiffon toga gown, approximating what she’d been told to bring for the first couple’s New Year’s Eve white ball. Then she heard music.
From down the hill came the throbbing echoes of drums that travel writers always managed to slip into stories about this place. The drums were soon joined by tambourines — hundreds of them — then the booming sounds of conch shells. At one time, Marlene had told her, these islanders’ slave ancestors used conch shells to send messages to one another.
Hundreds of people wearing bright-red satin shirts and papier-mâché masks of jungle animals, primarily lions and tigers, were now marching up the hill.
Jess grabbed her notepad and ran down the stairs.
The music stopped.
The president and first lady were standing at their front door greeting the musicians. The music started again as the group sang joyfully, “Madame Jess. Bienvenue. Welcome.”
At Barnard, then-Marlene Boyer had been a theater major. Jess had seen her perform in several college productions: The Wife of Bath from “The Canterbury Tales,” a brown Hester Prynne in a modernist version of “The Scarlet Letter.” But now Marlene had the stage to herself. And she wanted Jess there to witness it and to tell the world about it.
Jess spent the time between being serenaded and dusk walking the grounds. At every turn was some telltale sign of Marlene’s taste. An allegorical sculpture by a world-famous artist followed trails lined with some of the rarest and most expensive orchids in the world. Plush banquettes were positioned for the most flattering views of the city, and of the sea.
Four men in matching beige linen suits were following her. They tried to be discreet, but their impenetrable dark glasses and the constant whispering into their sleeves gave them away.
Down a path lined with pine trees still decorated for Christmas stood the first lady. She and Jess gave each other the girlish hug Jess had been expecting at the airport. Then they held hands and looked one another over from head to toe.
“I thought you would have managed your own coup and brought democracy to this place,” Jess said.
The first lady raised her fingers to her lips, shushing her.
“They hear everything,” she said, pointing to the men nearby.
The women walked over and sat down on one of those banquettes overlooking the sea.
“We don’t live the way they write about us in the world press,” the first lady said. Jess’s eyes lingered on the massive, heart-shaped pink diamond on her left ring finger. “We’re not like our parents. We’re young. We’re educated. Yes, we’re rich. But they still talk about us like we’re stuck in the Middle Ages, like we’re savages.”
“Your husband’s human rights record —” Jess couldn’t completely turn off her old self.
The first lady pretended not to hear.
“I’m counting on you, Jess,” she said. “Just like you were able to count on me.”
Jess had wondered when this would come up. Was it time for her debt to be repaid?
She was the first person in her family to go to college. She and her parents had managed to string together enough aid and scholarship money for her first year of college but fell short when it came time for paying for the next three years. She was about to take a job and go part time, or drop out altogether, when Marlene persuaded her family to pay for everything. And now Marlene wanted a story.
Jess kept her eyes on the single white ship in the middle of the water. The deck was now clear, and the ship was slowly drifting back to shore.
“What’s happening there?” Jess asked, pointing.
“On New Year’s Eve, traditionally we clean house,” the first lady said. “That’s quality control.”
The ball was held under a large tent on the property. Everyone was dressed in white, which made them look, in the intentionally golden light inside the tent, like festive ghosts.
Marlene beamed as she and her husband greeted each of their guests. Her husband seemed to be following her lead, doing exactly as she was doing, air-kissing and embracing some, then keeping others at arm’s length and offering the same level of frisson she did.
Jess waited for the line to thin out and for the husband to drift away before approaching her again.
“I want you to write one of those pieces about me,” the first lady pleaded. “Maybe not now, but one day. And I want to be worthy of it, too. ‘The U.S.-educated first lady does good for her people.’ I can take you to orphanages and women’s shelters, things we actually run here, where we’re doing some good.”
For the first time since she’d arrived, Jess noticed a glimpse of the old Marlene, the Marlene who, even with all her money and connections, always felt a little bit left out.
Part of the reason she’d asked her family to pay for Jess’s education was so that she could have a guaranteed friend at school, but not a friend ever invited to her home, or to attend her wedding. A friend of circumstance.
After dinner, there was dancing. The president and first lady reenacted the first waltz at their wedding, something it seemed they’d done at every party since. Then the music changed, and they exchanged partners so that the first lady and another official quietly danced to the same slow ballad as Jess and the now stoned-faced and silent president.
Soon after, everyone was ushered out to see the fireworks. During the explosive finale, Jess’s heart was racing so fast that she thought she was going to collapse. In the last year, she’d been too close to too many actual explosions. She covered her ears and somehow found her way to the residence.
The next morning, Jess woke up to find a warm bowl of the island’s New Year’s Day stew on her bedside table.
Her head was still throbbing as though the fireworks were going off again inside her head. She ignored the stew and staggered over to the balcony for fresh air.
The morning sun was so bright that the sky reflected itself in the sea. There were no ships that morning, and the streets in the lower city were empty.
She heard laughter down below. Sitting on one of the banquettes beneath her balcony were the president and the first lady. They were still dressed in their clothes from the night before, his white suit, her white toga gown. They sat totally still, looking down at the city and at the sea, as if they were only now, finally, taking in their new beginning.
Were they just posing, Jess wondered. For her. For their people. For each other. Or for the closing line of the story that the first lady knew Jess would end up writing.
Edwidge Danticat won a MacArthur Foundation award in 2009. Her most recent novel, “Claire of the Sea Light,” is out in paperback.
Related stories: Fiction by Alice McDermott; fiction by TM Shine; Writing Ernestly: How eight novelists scored when run through the Hemingway app; Crunched: Top-shelf writers with Washington connections.
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