Change location, race, add Carribean color and a subtly different story emerges.
The Taste of Regret (Caribbean Version)
She reminded him of a wet cat, sheltering under the overhang of the Ferry Building from the driving rain, blowing off Charlotte Amalie bay. She protected the child with her arms, but they were drenched by the monsoon-like rains that come to the Virgin Islands every summer.
He'd spotted her several times since his return to St. Thomas, working at one of the booths near Fort Christian, but he'd never had the courage to talk to her. But now, the sound of the rain drumming on the roof of the rental car gave him a sense of urgency. He knew it was probably the wrong thing to do, but he veered over to the curb, leaned over to open the door and motioned for Callie to get in.
The shock of recognition spread over her face, swiftly followed by sadness and anger, and then she slowly shook her head. Exasperated, by the rain blowing in as much as by her rejection, he mimed rocking the baby, and then held his hands wide apart, palms up, challenging her decision. She gave in and ran across the narrow parking lot to the car.
As he reached out to help her get in, the touch of her made sparks fly--static electricity from the storm, he supposed. She slammed the door, cutting off the wind and the salty smell of the warm rain off the sea.
After she settled the baby between them, she locked his gaze with her wide-open brown eyes that still reminded him of a child discovering her world. On closer inspection she might've had a bruise under one eye, but her flawless skin was the rich caramel color found inside a chocolate candy, so it was hard to tell. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, he thought. Even with her hair down, half-covering her face with wet stringy ringlets, she was as pretty as he remembered.
And he knew exactly how she would taste if he leaned over and kissed her hello.
Callie glanced at him from under the protection of her hair. She noticed some changes that the years had wrought. The laugh lines on his face were a little deeper. The lock of hair that always escaped onto his forehead, was graying now. But under the worn, cut-off jeans and sleeveless t-shirt, his body still looked athletic and strong.
He hadn't changed as much as she had, she thought wryly as she glanced down at her body. Three kids had added a few pounds and shifted the rest. Shaundra fretted and gave a brief cry, wanting the breast, but she decided the baby would have to wait. The drop in temperature from the car's air-conditioning frosted the windows, giving the illusion that they were traveling alone through space.
He drove the Mitsubishi with studied concentration through the rain without conversation. It gave her time to think, but she smelled the musky maleness of him and rational thinking went out of her head. Funny how his smell--leather, sweat, tobacco, but mostly his plain man-smell--brought back memories of her initiation to love. She felt a stirring of heat in her loins as she remembered exactly how he would taste if she kissed him.
Neither of them seemed to know how to start the conversation, she thought. There was either nothing to say or there was too much to say. Tires hissing on the wet pavement, the car slithered up the street toward the airport. Finally he cleared his throat and broke the silence.
"How are things with you, Callie?" he asked. "You're looking good."
That wasn't a question she wanted to answer. Unconsciously, she fingered the faint mark under her eye. Then she turned away and looked out through the rain-swept window at the incoming Delta jet throwing up a tidal wave of spray as it hit the far end of the runway. Her ordered life seemed to have been suddenly hit by a tsunami as well.
"Oh, you know. Up and down. Peter's out of work...again."
Why had she said that, she thought? She didn't want Jack to pity her. She needed to move the conversation to more neutral ground. She glanced around the car's interior as though she were a sailor home from a long voyage, looking for familiar things--and seeking signs of a womans presence. She realized what she was doing and spoke to conceal her irritation.
"What do you do? Shovel out the mess from an old car and put it into the new one to make it seem like home?"
"Oh-ho, the little kitten grew up and got claws."
She didn't know what to say next, so she said nothing, twirling one of the ringlets of hair in her fingers. She realized what she was doing, and irritated, stopped and put her hand around the child. She hated herself for acting like a schoolgirl. That was her role before, and she was a grown woman now.
"Where do you want me to take you?" he finally asked without looking over at her.
"I live out Fortuna way. Just keep straight on." She forced some animation into her voice to break the tension. "I appreciate you stopping to pick me up," she said. "I bet you didn't even recognize me," she said coyly.
"Who are you, little girl?" he teased. "Did we ever meet before?"
"Dammit, Mon, cut out the little girl stuff," she said, dropping into the patois that even educated Islanders used whenever they were annoyed with whites. "I be a grown woman now with three chirrun. Not the little girl you used to know." Or tumble in the backseat of an old Honda, she thought. She was angry with herself for having started the game.
"I guess not." He paused, seeming to turn that over in his mind, and then said carefully, "I didn't mean to put you down. Are you mad at me for kidding around?"
"No problem. I just grew up enough to speak up for my own opinions, I guess. Have you moved back here to live?"
"Down on a long sabbatical. I'm teaching at the University in Austin again."
She made her voice seem casual, as though she wasn't hanging on the answer. "Are you still married?"
"No. Elizabeth and I got divorced right after you and I stopped seeing each other." He paused. "After we went back to the mainland," he amended.
"Not because of..." She stopped because she was unsure if she really wanted to know.
"Us? No, I can't say that. She never suspected anything as far as I know. We were ready to move on with our lives, I guess...just without each other."
He grinned that lop-sided grin that made him so boyish and appealing still, and her heart melted just like the old days. She fought with herself and found a catty reply.
"After we stopped seeing each other, you said. You mean after you broke my heart, don't you?" He didn't answer, so she went on. "Why didn't you come back when you were free, Jack?" she said softly.
"How would I have lived? The island house and the money belonged to Elizabeth. There's no jobs in St. Thomas if youre not a 'belonger'...," he said bitterly , "so..."
"Thats not fair! There's not enough jobs to go around for those of us born here, and...," she over-rode his voice.
"...no matter how competent or qualified you are..."
"...it's our island!"
"...it's your island!"
They finished the old familiar lines of argument together and burst into laughter.
"I could've worked while you finished the novel," she said, half-seriously, thinking of Peter and his endless drinking while she eked out a living selling t-shirts to tourists.
"How would that have looked? I'm old enough to be your father."
"I was over the age of consent. And as I recall it, I had to nearly get naked to seduce you." She smiled at the memory. "We women always make the decision about having sex, you know."
"Man smart, woman smarter!"
He grinned at the old island maxim. "And here I thought I was the one in control, a goddam Jumbee seducer."
She smiled back "You were so slow I thought I'd be an old maid before you got around to making a pass at me." She turned serious. "So. Why didn't you call me?"
"Well, I kept up with you through Jimmy. He said you'd found a young fellow and were about to be married. I didn't think it was my place to interfere." He looked over at the baby in the carrier on the seat between them and nodded. "Looks like I was right."
"Thats a pretty name. Nice baby. And you got two more...?"
"Both boys. Jacky is eight and Peter's three. They staying at their Graundies while I took Shaundra to the doctor at the clinic. I don't have to be home until six..."
She stopped in confusion, her face aflame. It sounded like an invitation. That wasn't what she'd meant. Or had she?
He ignored her remark, continuing as though he hadn't heard, "I keep hearing around town about you being a writer now. How'd you get started doing that?"
He'd deftly changed the subject and let her gently off the hook. If she wanted to be let off.
"You started me off. Remember that diary you gave me for my eighteenth birthday? I used to write in it every day about what we'd do or say."
"I gave you a diary? I don't remember," he said. Liar, he thought, the diary was given with the secret hope, scarcely admitted to himself, that she might remember him sometimes with fond memories. He shook off the forbidden thoughts and tuned back in to what Callie was saying.
"That's why you write in a diary, so you won't forget the important things you learn about life---or the people who're important to you."
"I guess there's a time when you have to put those girlish memories away," he said.
"Not all of them. Not the good memories."
"No. I suppose not. We did have some good times."
"So you forgot about the diary. What do you remember?"
His thoughts raced back to that year when he was thirty nine, coming to grips with the reality of a failed marriage and his unrealized dreams of being a famous novelist. He and Callie met at Brewers Bay Beach. The affair happened so quickly he had no time to think. Callie was blooming into womanhood and loved him without reservation. How could he explain the sheer joy and anticipation of every meeting--followed by guilt because there was so much difference in their ages. How could he express the pain of giving her up without exposing his loss? Remembering the past hurt, so he forced himself back to the present.
"I remember I told you there'd come a day when you'd get married and have a bunch of kids. That it'd be best if you forgot about me."
"You didn't believe it. Not the forgetting part. Not in your heart of hearts, you didn't."
"I believed it." Another small white lie wouldnt hurt.
"Well, you were wrong. You know what they say about first love."
"A first love stays with you forever." She sighed. "I really did love you, you old fool." She stared out through the pouring rain without looking at him, exhaled and then firmly said, "Pull over and go down to Brewers Beach. I have to feed the baby or she'll cry."
She turned back to him, their eyes locked, and he felt the challenge of the past in her gaze. He found the road that led toward the beach and turned into a parking area they had used many times before. It was empty and the beach was deserted because of the storm. He parked and looked out at the bay. As the windshield fogged over again, she began to open the buttons on her sodden blouse.
Without a word, they leaned toward each other to kiss. He knew exactly how she would taste. There would be the sweetness of mother's milk with its promise of the future, and the bitter taste of regret.