Next Year in Paradise

Ginnie and Roger were already planning next year’s trip, when they’d just arrived for this year’s annual family vacation, one of the lesser Caribbean islands with a Catholic-sounding name. They preferred to just call it Paradise, as in Next year in Paradise we’ll rent a car for the far beach, the one with the goats. When their daughter Maxine was little, Roger would hoist her on his shoulders to hang their bag of peanut butter sandwiches from a high branch so the mangy gray goats couldn’t nuzzle for a bite. By next year, Maxine’s baby would be old enough to make goat sounds, if Ginnie sang “Old MacDonald’s Farm” like she used to with Maxine.

“What sound do goats make?” Ginnie asked.

Roger, reclining in his lounge, didn’t look up from the book resting on his expanse of belly.

“We’ll get one of those little hut contraptions,” Ginnie went on. “You know, like a playpen with a top? Set it in the shade.” She pointed to a clutch of palm trees. “And she’ll need one of those inner tube things, the kind with a seat, and some of that special baby sun block.”

“Waste of money,” Roger said, turning a page. “Regular sun block will do. And she might be walking by next year. Won’t like being cooped up in a cage.”

“Not a cage,” Ginnie said, angling her chair away from him, to face the sun. “You know what I mean, like a pup tent. Kids always like tents. Remember how Maxine used to beg me to drape a blanket over the dining room table? She’d spend the whole day under there if I’d let her.”

This was the first time in years Ginnie and Roger were alone on the island, Maxine back home with her husband Stu and the new baby. It had been touch and go if they’d make the trip this year. First Maxine was laid up with high blood pressure, so Ginnie’d had to take off from work to go up there and help out. Stu tried, but he only knew how to cook chicken stir-fry, with red sauce over spaghetti or teriyaki sauce over rice. Then the doctors decided to take the baby early, and there was the jaundice that lasted long past it was supposed to.

But everything was fine now, thank God, the baby fattening up, nursing like a champ, Maxine whipping out a boob at a moment’s notice, so Roger couldn’t bring himself to look at her below the neck. I was better off not knowing what everything looked like under there, he said.

Judy, Ginnie’s boss at the bookstore, told Ginnie to take her scheduled vacation, never mind all the time she’d just taken off for the baby. Judy knew Ginnie was no good to anyone without her week in Paradise.

They booked the same week every year, used to pull Maxine out of school if her vacation didn’t fall the second week of February. In the fifth grade, they actually got a phone call from her teacher, suggesting they leave Maxine home with a friend, as if her life would be ruined by missing a week of multiplication and fifth grade spelling. But Madame Jeanette expected them, reserved their cottage a year in advance, took next year’s deposit at the end of last year’s week when they turned in their keys – cash, Roger would peel from his wallet the bills he’d stashed before leaving home. No need for cancelled checks or credit card receipts. In Paradise? he’d say, a handshake and trust all that was needed between him and Madame Jeanette after all these years.

She always saved them the same cottage, plenty of room for noisy children, although there’d only ever been Maxine, directly across from the beach, pink and soft underfoot, no need for shoes. Madame Jeanette advertised a B&B, although they’d learned early on there’d only be the occasional homemade breakfast, if Madame Jeanette happened to be in the mood.

We have ze same name, Madame Jeanette had said that very first year, Ginnie and Roger also alone then, treating themselves to a week in the tropics as they tried and tried for a baby, as if sun and heat would start their innards properly cooking, a bun in the oven, as someone’s grandma might say, not Ginnie’s, who would’ve had some spicy Yiddish exhortation. Ginnie didn’t bother mentioning to Madame Jeanette that her name was actually Virginia, for the state where her grandparents ended up fresh off the boat, the American name Ginnie’s grandmother had picked to celebrate her escape from Eastern Europe with its poverty and pogroms. Zhinnie, Madame Jeannette pronounced the soft French J, ma soeur. Although sisters, of course, would not have the same name. Soul sisters, Maxine sneered one sullen teenage year, rolling her eyes at the story she’d heard umpteen times.

Once, after an argument with Roger, surely something about Maxine – were they too hard on her, or too easy? – Ginnie had encountered Madame Jeanette on the midnight patio, had inquired after Monsieur Jeanette. The Madame had turned away with a flap of her hand, as if to say, You I will know, the fights, the secrets, the kids gone wrong. But me, no. I belong to myself. So much for sisterhood. But the next morning she left a basket of fresh banana muffins on Ginnie and Roger’s porch, under a dishtowel against the lizards and the brilliant tropical birds.

If you’d asked Ginnie, last year, whether she could’ve missed any baby so much after one day away as she missed Maxine’s, she’d have said you were crazy. It’s not as if she saw the baby every day back home, with the kids way up in Boston. Stu had set them up with a computer, with a camera and speakers, so they could goggle and burble at the monitor down in Connecticut, while at the other end sat Maxine with Ruby in her lap, sucking on her burp cloth or nodding off to sleep, hardly noticing the show going on for her benefit.

Roger even toted the new laptop with him on the airplane, practically getting strip-searched after forgetting to take it out of his carry-on going through security. But of course there was no Internet at the cottage, no wireless in their corner of Paradise. They’d have to wait ’til they were home next week to get a look, Maxine flapping one of Ruby’s arms up and down in a frantic way for the camera. Say hi to Grandma. Say hi to Grandpa.

Ginnie always resisted the urge to tell Maxine to be careful, she might dislocate Ruby’s delicate shoulder. Hard to believe this was the same Maxine from those first days in the hospital, afraid to pick up the baby, practically afraid to touch her, she might break. Maxine was turning into a good mother, talked to the baby nonstop, carried her around all day in one of those papoose baby carriers. She certainly had all the paraphernalia, the swing and the bouncy seat and the baby genius CDs, Ruby should learn Mozart in her sleep.

Ruby. Maxine and Stu had picked a good name. For Ginnie’s mother, Rose, but better. A gem, a sparkling jewel. Perfect. Ginnie finally understood the phrase light of my life in a way she hadn’t when she’d been a harried young mother herself, Roger rolling in late every night from the office, and Maxine with the colic that lasted a full year, never mind only three months like the books promised. Guess she never read the books, Roger would say, lifting a squalling Maxine from Ginnie’s aching arms just when Ginnie was sure she’d drop that baby, if she didn’t toss her into the trash.

Ruby, on the other hand, was a placid, happy baby, gurgled and cooed in front of the computer, seldom cried, or if she did Maxine wasn’t admitting to it. Maxine seemed to have developed a sudden need for Ginnie’s approval, phoned home every day, which was not her usual habit, reporting how much Ruby had nursed, slept, pooped. She’d made Ginnie promise to check for cell phone service in Paradise, but, as always, there was none. Everyone knew there was only one landline at Madame Jeanette’s, in the Madame’s bedroom, off limits except for the direst emergency, which Maxine had discovered the hard way the time she thought she could sneak a call home to some gangly high school heart throb. It’d be good for Maxine, this week on her own, without her mother to lean on for advice. Still, Ginnie flipped open her cell phone every morning to check for bars, always a spark of hope, and then a pang of regret.

At the market, buying milk and juice and Ginnie’s yogurt and Roger’s fiber cereal that Maxine called straw, Ginnie spotted just exactly the inner tube she wanted, with a cloth sling seat so the baby could sit safely, not slip out the bottom. Roger said she was nuts to buy it now, a year in advance, but the way the corners of his mouth crept up when he pulled out his wallet to pay told a different story. He was just as nuts about that baby as she was.

By the end of the week, Ginnie had read six novels and a story collection she was previewing for the bookstore, Roger had finished the latest John Grisham and his backlog of Popular Science, and they’d bought blow-up swimmies for Ruby’s tiny arms, a folding umbrella to protect her from the sun, and the cutest baby swim suit, a one-piece tank with foam inserts all around the waist like a built-in life preserver. Ruby was going to be the safest baby alive in Paradise next year.

“We should stop,” Ginnie said. But she couldn’t stop, planning the easiest route to push the stroller to the water, wondering if their favorite island burger joint had high chairs. When Roger discovered, in one of the free island dailies he picked up at the market, a service that would store stuff for winter folks, Ginnie even dragged him to the new discount mart for a folding crib – wouldn’t Ruby need a place to sleep next year? He laughed at her foolishness, but she didn’t have to ask twice.

Who’d have imagined a discount mart in Paradise? And high-rises going up, condominiums and time-shares. Now this storage service, so you didn’t have to schlep stuff back and forth every year, what with new airline weight restrictions and that damn airport security.

Ginnie and Roger were changing, too. Won’t be much of a vacation, Roger’s cheeky brother Paul had teased before they left, now that you’re sleeping with a grandma, and Ginnie had surprised herself, feeling not old, but newborn with joy. All week she noticed Roger patting her rump, ogling her breasts, as if she were the new mother sporting a youthful, milk-filled rack. Rack! A word she didn’t remember Roger ever using before, at least not in reference to his wife. When they made love, he took special care to please her, brought glasses and a split of chilled champagne to bed, on the last night even joked about trying again, twice in one night, like when they were kids.

In the morning, Roger paid the storage fellow who picked everything up, arranged for him to deliver the load to Madame Jeanette’s next year. Then he unfolded the bills for next year’s deposit, planting a kiss on each of the Madame’s cheeks to seal the deal. Some things never changed, second week of February, their week in Paradise.

That was last year. Last year’s next year has turned into this year. Confusing. Which is how Ginnie feels. Confused. Swimming through fog. Gasping for air. She and Roger are once again alone in Paradise.

Even after four months, people back home were still asking what happened. Did it have something to do with the jaundice? The difficult birth? Was the crib mattress too soft? Too hard? As if it was somehow Maxine’s fault, and then, by extension, Ginnie’s.

Are you sure Maxine understood the new rule against blankets in the crib? Roger’s obnoxious brother Paul had the nerve to ask. How could any new mother be expected to keep track of all the rules, especially when those rules shifted as quickly and dangerously as quicksand?

No wonder everyone asks, Ginnie thinks. If they can figure it out, it won’t happen to them.

Madame Jeanette doesn’t ask. She packs up the crib and the swimmies and the life-preserver bathing suit that were delivered from storage as scheduled – the delivery Ginnie and Roger forgot to cancel, their minds full to bursting with other thoughts – and whisks them away, Ginnie has no idea where, and Madame Jeanette knows Ginnie won’t care. The Madame seems suddenly old this year, her lovely copper hair now a brassy bronze, dangly earrings turned from island exotic to dead weights threatening to stretch old-lady earlobes down to bony brown shoulders.

The island is different this year, as well, not older, but suddenly younger, flooded with children, a tsunami of babies in arms, in strollers, in backpacks, and toddlers weaving and lurching, unstoppable forward motion. Every which way Ginnie turns her head, she sees only sand toys and saggy diapers, tiny sunhats and sandy thumbs in rosy mouths, little boys with their Yankees caps and their swim shorts down to their knees. But it’s the little girls Ginnie can’t peel her eyes from – dimples and soft curls and ruffled bottoms, sweet rolls of flesh behind their necks, Ginnie’s secret place for bestowing kisses and blessings on Ruby.

Against all the strength and wisdom she possesses, Ginnie finds herself secretly planning for next year, Maxine and Stu already trying again, although Ginnie knows from experience sometimes you only ever get the one chance. There’s a family filling a blow-up baby pool with buckets of water, their own safe baby-sized ocean. Look at that little one’s miniature safari hat, perfect to protect her gentle white neck from the sun.

“It’s our fault,” Ginnie whispers, “with our plans and our purchases. We shouldn’t have done that. We gave ourselves a kine-ahora, quoting her grandmother, Yiddish for jinx, or evil eye, or worse, no English equivalent for the troubles she’d once seen.

“Nobody’s fault,” Roger says, not bothering with the pretense of a book this year, just staring at the unchanging ocean, so close to the equator there isn’t even a tide to break the seamless monotony. He’s the one who brought home the news that the kids were trying again, after a trip to Home Depot with Stu, unexpected confidence shared over nails or roach killer or drill bits. Ginnie certainly didn’t hear it from Maxine, who’s too busy back at work for those daily phone calls, back to her old self, if Ginnie didn’t know better. Ginnie is secretly relieved Maxine doesn’t call, Ginnie who once told knock-knock jokes while Maxine’s broken arm was casted, who sang Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats through stitches in Maxine’s knee. “Nobody’s fault,” Roger repeats, “don’t shop for troubles,” quoting his shrink. That’s something else new this year, the shrink.

So they pass the week on fruity vodka cocktails and platitudes, set upon by the intrusion of familiar floral fragrances, blinding red sunsets, insistent singing birds. Too much. It overwhelms the senses. If only it could knock you senseless.

“We should phone the kids,” Roger says. “Maybe they need us.” Which Ginnie translates to mean he needs them, needs to hear Maxine’s voice. Maxine, his own baby girl.

“Don’t you know there’s no cell service on this goddamn island?” Ginnie snaps.

At night she lies in bed, pretending to sleep, remembering that dreadful first week home from the hospital, when Ruby wouldn’t sleep at all. Maxine and Stu were bleary with exhaustion, Ginnie on the foldout couch, up every hour trying to help, discovering there’s a reason God makes mothers young. Take her into your bed, Ginnie finally advised Maxine. That’s what I did with you.

But the rules, Maxine said.

Fuck the rules, Ginnie said. It was three in the morning. Maxine was crying. Everyone does it. It’s every new mother’s secret.

Ginnie startles upright in bed under the ceiling fan stirring the cottage’s dense humid air, reaching blindly in the dark for the comfort of Roger’s cool back. But Roger is in the living room, weeping, no help at all. Not that he hasn’t been trying. He washes the breakfast dishes, except he forgets to use soap. He straightens the bed linens, although when Ginnie crawls back in at noon, she finds he hasn’t really made the bed, just pulled up the duvet to hide sheets still crumpled and twisted, evidence of the night spent less than sleeping.

The bedroom sliders allow Ginnie to avoid Roger on her way to the darkened patio, where she finds not solitude but Madame Jeanette, who seems to subsist on tall glasses clinking ice cubes and lack of sleep. Madame Jeanette doesn’t ask, so she’s the one Ginnie chooses to tell.

“It wasn’t the crib mattress,” Ginnie says, “or some forbidden crib blanket. No crib at all, at least not so you’d notice, turned to extra storage space for packs of diapers, piles of laundry Maxine couldn’t find time to put away.”

Jeanette holds out her glass, and Ginnie takes a sip of something that burns going down, an unexpectedly intimate gesture.

“If she’d been asleep in the crib,” Ginnie continues, “maybe Stu would’ve been the one to find her. Aren’t fathers supposed to get up for the 6 am feeding? Why did it have to be Maxine, half asleep, pulling Ruby to her breast? Do you think she was cold already, the baby?” Ginnie is whispering now, and shivering despite the heavy tropical heat. “It might help,” she says so softly she might only be thinking it, “if only I could know she wasn’t cold.” She takes another drink, this time a long swallow, before handing back the glass. “The Internet says it’s safe to sleep with your baby, or else it’s not. Who knows?”

“This knowing,” Jeanette says, “this will change something?”

The next morning, the last day before the long flight home, Roger sneaks away when Ginnie has slumped into the drugged sleep that eluded her at night, returns with a rental car, a bottle of French wine, plans for a trip to the far beach, the one with the goats. Then he gets lost along the way, meandering across the island, no one to ask directions, so by the time they arrive, it’s nearly dusk. And they find the goats are gone, banished, replaced by a tiki bar and raft rentals, the steel girders of a new high-rise towering overhead, blocking the last waning view of the sun.

They drink the wine and ride back in silence, not at all mellow. Then they make love – the first time this week, the first time in a long time – slowly and drunkenly, like the two old people they have become. She needs a lot of wine, and he needs a lot of time. It was better last year, when you were sleeping with a grandma, Ginnie thinks, moving and grinding under his weight, tears sliding backwards into her ears. Roger pauses briefly, mid-thrust, then resumes. Had she spoken out loud?

In the morning, Madame Jeanette has the taxi waiting, as always, a bag of warm croissants and Styrofoam cups of milky coffee they’ll have to drink before going through security. Roger rolls out the bags, Ginnie lagging behind, checking under the bed, in the bathroom drawers. She double-checks her purse – passports, wallet, house keys, phone. Roger doesn’t have to know that she noticed bars one day midweek, when she thought to check, cell phone service having apparently arrived along with the high-rises on Paradise. Tonight, back home, she will call Maxine, be strong for her once again.

By the time she steps outside, Roger is holding open the taxi door, glancing at his watch, Madame Jeanette grabbing Ginnie for a hot, bony hug before heading into the cottage to strip the bed for the next visitors. If Roger handed her the cash for next year’s deposit, Ginnie missed it.

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