USVI III: Tropic Solitaire

Part 1 | Part 2

Early in the pandemic, I resolved not to let 2020 be a lost year. I mostly succeeded. I bought a house, managed a great summer trip, strengthened some local ties, filled my newfound downtime with some productive and athletic pursuits, and tacked on this spontaneous Caribbean adventure at the end. It was a trying year at times, certainly; never have world events felt so immediate, in spite of my isolation, and the pandemic put my most pressing search into a deeply unsatisfying pause. But I came through it all the same, and the Virgin Islands provide some catharsis ahead of a quest for more satisfying releases in 2021.

When I went on this summer’s road trip, I went with pretensions of grand discovery. I got a sense of it, perhaps, but little more. Before I left for this one, though, I looked back on how I started 2020 and realized I already wrote the only beach story I needed to write for the foreseeable future. I am not on a plaintive search for anything besides the obvious sun, surf, and rum. I can zone out as I gaze into the waves, write down little nothings, let this account come naturally over time, let it stand as a testament to two weeks of freeing, clarifying escape in a strange era.

Traveling alone is nothing new for me, but that travel usually comes in a tent, not in a L’Esperance. Seeing the view, a friend calls me Citizen Kane, though I’ve arrived at this Xanadu merely through good fortune and general competence. I also undertake this journey amid an ongoing pandemic, which comes with obvious limitations. Many Virgin Islands activities, given the weather and buildings designed to beckon in the breeze, can go on with only minor changes; a beach is still a beach, and there’s plenty of space on the ones here. But with a few exceptions, there are fewer opportunities for a long afternoon of casual banter at the bar, or a night out on the town: except one somewhat later ferry ride back from St. John, I’m back at my hilltop perch for the sunset each night. With a view like this, why not?

Even in paradise, life settles into the same rhythms of the past nine months, albeit with better Zoom backgrounds and more novel diversions. I start my mornings in the exercise room; when the internet goes down briefly one day, I hop in the pool until it reboots. I rotate my work stations between the great room couch and the pool house and the kitchen counter, while evening reading or writing happens on other stray patios or seating areas. On nighttime Zoom calls, the fauna are so loud that one friend thinks an alarm is beeping in the background; dog barks and rooster crows give the night some life. For a few days during the first week, a vicious wind rips across Flag Hill. Said flag whips in the wind outside my window, and I settle into a rhythm of trade wind management, bartering between cool air flow and keeping my work papers from flying off to Venezuela. I spend inordinate amounts of time locating kitchen implements and figuring out which light switch is where.

My job proves entirely doable from thousands of miles away. I miss my second screen and feel an odd limbo in being two hours ahead of my work calendar on central time, but any annoyances are fleeting. At one point, my distance even proves beneficial, as most of the internet goes down in Duluth while I can jump in and manage a focus group with my pretentious background. (I got in a debate with the woman I meet at the St. John brewery: do we rub our tropical lives in, or try to hide it with blank wall backgrounds?) On the flip side, malfunctioning data tools are just as anger-inducing whether one has snowbanks or palm trees in one’s backyard. Work ends, happy hour begins, and I rinse and repeat the cycle the next day.

I mostly cook for myself in the villa, forking over the price for food commanded by an island that must import practically everything. I do chance a few meals out, most memorably at Duffy’s Love Shack, an open air tiki bar and a Red Hook institution that proved educational for nine-year-old Karl when his adult companions got “lei’d” here for ordering exotic drinks. Sadly, this time around, its confines feature just five tables and my lonely stool at a bar; the fun drink glasses have been replaced by plastic cups for the duration of the pandemic, and the mechanical shark gazes down on the proceedings in forlorn silence. I settle for enjoying the ever-colorful view of the parking lot around Duffy’s. Just in front of me, a college-age girl vomits in a bush (this is four in the afternoon); across the street, a security guard and a few good Samaritans chase down and corner a shoplifter. “Dinner and a show,” muses the woman at the next table.

My solitude continues on New Year’s Eve, a strange night to be alone. After wrapping up a Zoom around 11:00 local time, I launch a cathartic solo dance party to a college-era playlist, then head down to the pool deck and dive in at midnight. The pandemic has killed the usual festivities at the cable car platform just around the hill, but stray fireworks erupt here and there across Charlotte Amalie, while a villa below me supplies a soundtrack and another launches a few lanterns into the sky. Car horns honk, and somewhere, a lonely flute player pumps out Auld Lang Syne. Later, a drum circle erupts down the hill, and I stand out in the prow of the balcony and revel in my perch above it all.

I get plenty of reading done, from Zadie Smith short stories to some grazing off my aunt and uncle’s shelves: a book on St. John, an autobiography of the paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey, a brief delighted dive into some convenient Wallace Stegner. On the weightier side, I give myself equal doses Jerusalem and Athens: first, through Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, the blur of divine ecstasy under the moonlight, and later, as I move toward a return to my earthlier concerns, yet another return to Hannah Arendt and The Human Condition. At the end of the dream is action, and a time to begin.

It is an incongruous time to enjoy two weeks in paradise. The pandemic rages on, and several close friends or their spouses contract the coronavirus while I am on St. Thomas. Others in my life are consumed by work, lockdowns, or other various annoyances. Early in my stay, my 94-year-old grandmother’s intestinal woes lead to a touch-and-go emergency surgery; with characteristic steadiness, she plows through it and is on the road to recovery. To sit and talk to a hospital-bound woman who can count the number of times she has left Wisconsin in her life on one hand is a jarring contrast for her grandson who alights to villas atop Caribbean islands on a whim. Toward the end of my stay, I find myself watching a news feed of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol while helping facilitate a tribal entrepreneurial focus group taking place in Minnesota while gazing out on the sun-splashed harbor of Charlotte Amalie. How’s that for cognitive dissonance?

A less self-assured soul might feel some guilt over the good fortune that allows me to enjoy these two weeks in paradise. But throughout this trip, as I knew it would be, my composure is basically a constant state, even with chaos elsewhere. I’d like to think this is some new equanimity, but history suggests there will still be lurches, and a little well-timed anxiety can be a healthy corrective at times. But if that ferocious ambivalence is the threshold of freedom, I took another step toward the door on this trip.

At times, this adventure just feeds my wanderlust. The sailors I meet on the Ram’s Head on St. John bring to mind C.P. Cavafy’s Ithaca, a poem anyone returning home from a great journey should revisit: that freedom to put into “harbors new to your eyes” isn’t limited to the ancients, is something I too could do in a sailboat down the Antilles to keep this dream alive. There’s so much of the world I have yet to see. Someday, perhaps. But fixating on that as the end goal would miss the point. “It’s been one my best escapes ever, but escaping alone ain’t life,” I text my Duluth brain trust on my final night.

The fisherman I talk with on the Hull Bay beach tells me of his lifelong escape: endless surfing and fishing, traveling up and down the island chain, a home on the hill peeking out over the bay. “Living the dream,” I tell him; “I never need to act for anyone,” he assures me. It’s a dream, yes, but not my dream. I am here to play that game, to accept different roles on different stages, to know that my life contains multitudes, not some essential trait that I can find if I boil everything else away under the Caribbean sun. But there are moments when it all coheres, when all the different threads twist together, and whether they come on a picturesque ruin on St. John or on a moonlit ski trail in Lester Park, they show how to fend off any lurking demons and open up the complete range of possibility. And so, refreshed and tanned and one step further along a twisting, potholed island road, I begin anew.

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