By Katherine Jamieson
A tropical love story in Guyana.
The one-room schoolhouse rang with the din of teenage girls’ voices in the humid afternoon air. Someone had erased the sentences with their adjectives and nouns underlined from the black wooden slab we used for a chalkboard and scrawled out a rough schedule for the upcoming concert: Indranie—Chutney dance; Onica—I Believe I Can Fly; Wanda—Modeling. Scratchy dub music played on the school’s dinged up tape deck, and a few girls gyrated their hips seductively to the deep bass line while the others sat around languidly braiding each other’s hair.
Deborah, the school prefect and informal director of the concert, was complaining to me. “Miss, dem first year girls actin’ stupidy, talking nuff nonsense. Miss, we must tell dem speak properly, and learn they lines, right, Miss?”
“Yes, yes, Deborah, please help them learn their lines,” I said fanning myself with some loose papers. I was sitting at one of the student desks, trying to imagine how the chaos in front of me would turn into a performance in the next six weeks, when we heard thumping sounds on the staircase. Mayon, a short, soft-spoken girl popped her head into the dim interior of the room.
“Miss, mail come for you, Miss,” she said under her breath. Happy for an excuse to escape, I followed her out into the blinding sunlight and down the open-air stairs to the first floor of the YWCA building. The cement walled office was a cool refuge from the heat of the upstairs.
“How dem girls doin’?” asked Amanda, the bookkeeper, smiling knowingly as she glanced up from her handwritten ledger.
“Oh, you know, we tryin’,” I said and she laughed at my use of the noncommittal Creolese expression. A radio played softly behind her, the baritone announcer of “Voice of Guyana” announcing that water shortages would continue indefinitely.
A white envelope sat on a pile of student papers on my desk. My name and address were handwritten in blue ink with a wavy print, the work of a pen gripped between arthritic fingers. Ministry secretary, I thought. I got my official correspondence at work, the invitations to meetings with the many committees, groups and coalitions of the development world.
But flattening the page against my scarred wooden desk I could see that it was not the carbon-blue tinged product of a typewriter. In my hands was the crisp work of a computer printer, as rare in Guyana as a piece of good chocolate or a glass of wine.
I had the pleasure of meeting you recently. I know you work at the YWCA. I find you very attractive and the only reason I am writing to you instead of approaching you in person is because I am a woman. I wish I could see your face when you react to the last sentence. This is the first time I am doing this and I am still very unsure that I will post this letter. I am not writing to you because I assume you are so inclined, but because it’s the only way I can know if you’re interested. I am Guyanese and you should know by now how our society reacts to people whose tastes are not of the norm.
Does the fact that a woman finds you attractive repulse and disgust you, or are you indifferent to this attraction? Does it leave you cold or is there a bit of interest on your part? If this letter repel and offend you I apologize and suggest you stop reading now and destroy this letter. If it leave you cold and indifferent then please forgive me for approaching you in the first place. Like I said it’s the only way I could know. If there is a bit of interest on your part then the next step is how can I know without you knowing who I am. It should be obvious that I will not give my real name or address to you.
Please do not show this letter to anyone with the intention of finding out who I am so that you can draw me out and humiliate me. I am not a ‘nut-case’ as you Americans say. I have no intention of stalking you, threatening you or making your life miserable in any way. I just want to know if you are interested, and if you are, how can we get to know each other better. If you are interested please send a letter with one word in it, either YES or MAYBE. If you are not, the letter should say NO. Send it to ‘Murray’ at post office box 10880. If I don’t hear from you I will take it that’s a NO. Please believe me when I say I have no intention of trying to destroy your life here in Guyana.
My first thought was that the letter was a trick played by another volunteer. People were known to get a little punchy out at their rural worksites. But the author had brought in vestiges of British English (“post this letter”), and dropped the “s”s on their verbs, as in Creolese, the Guyanese spoken dialect, a subtle but sure sign it was from a Guyanese. There was also urgency in the tone, which made me think Murray, whoever she was, was serious.
“Good news ya get?” asked Amanda. I looked up from the letter to her wide brown eyes, and warm, easy smile. She was a little older than I was, in her mid-20s, and, like most Guyanese she loved a good joke. Could she be Murray? But there was nothing sly or coy about her question, and she seemed quite happy with the cricket player she’d recently been going dancing with every weekend. It seemed unlikely.
“Just one of the Board ladies complaining about the girls again,” I said, tucking the letter back into its envelope and sliding it into my bag. “You know how they like talk.” Amanda, no fan of the middle-aged, upper-class women who decided her meager salary, gave me a knowing look.
“They best mind their own,” she said, shaking her head.
Back upstairs I rejoined the girls who were practicing a vaguely pornographic dance routine to the song Me Wan Dugga Dugga. I was still thinking about the letter. Murray? What kind of Guyanese woman uses “Murray”—a decidedly un-sexy and un-Guyanese name—for a pseudonym?
I am not writing to you because I assume you are so inclined, but because it’s the only way I can know if you’re interested. Such a delicate work: inclined. The Guyanese I knew were far more irreverent about sex, and didn’t dance around the topic. But this was a unique situation and the author clearly had a great deal to lose. She was choosing her words carefully.
I am Guyanese and you should know by now how our society reacts to people whose tastes are not of the norm. Of course, she had to know that this wasn’t only the case in Guyana. But what was most unnerving was that Murray, whoever she was, had guessed right about me.
“Y’alright, Miss?” Deborah asked. I studied her open face looking for signs that she might know why I was distracted. Murray? But my students, Deborah included, were largely guileless, much more likely to blurt out a secret attraction than compose a letter and deliver it to my desk. Every year a few of them filled out school enrollment forms and under the category of “Sex” marked “Yes.”
“I’m all right. You know, Guyana hot.” I had found this to be a great catchall excuse. In truth, I did feel unbearably hot in that moment.
“Yes, Miss, Guyana hot!” Deborah agreed, nodding vigorously. “Ya must sip a drink with ice in the afternoon, Miss, to keep the blood down from ya face.” My students loved to give their foreign teacher advice about how to survive in the tropics.
“Deborah, I have to leave for the market now. You’ll keep working with the girls on the dances?” The need to leave the stuffy room and the terrible, rough recordings of the dub music was suddenly intense.
“Yes, yes, Miss, no problem, Miss,” she reassured me in her confident Prefect voice. Seeing my distracted look she added, “Don’ take it on, Miss! The Y-teens concert gon’ be something’, Miss. Nobody ehn’t gon’ forget it for long time!”
Like so many of my projects at the YWCA, the Y-teens concert had started off innocently enough. The girls signed on with their typical manic enthusiasm for anything non-academic, and the Headmistress, Mrs. Corlette, agreed that it would be good for them to do something that made them feel like they were attending a “regular” school. The May Rodrigues (a Portuguese name pronounced “Rodreegz”) Vocational Training Center was for “Early School-Leavers,” the Guyanese euphemism for high school dropouts. Most of our students had had limited education and many couldn’t read beyond an elementary level. The school was charged with teaching them basic skills and a trade before they were released into the world of early adulthood, which generally meant pregnancy.
I had been working as a “Youth Development” volunteer at the YWCA of Georgetown for less than a year, and I had accomplished little, failing even to define the basic outline of my job. Before school began it had been deadly quiet. The director, a kind but distracted woman, seemed rather startled when I showed up for work each day in the professional-tropical outfits I’d bought in the States. Without any clear direction, I took on various projects with gusto: cataloguing the library of dusty, donated books; attending Ministry of Youth meetings. Still, most of my early days were spent sitting at my desk in the office, watching the director shuffle papers and waiting until I could head to the market to shop for dinner.
The girls began to trickle in around July, meeting in the director’s small office accompanied by their young-looking mothers and often a sibling or two in tow. They were silent for the most part, chastened, sitting up straight in their best, pressed church clothes. An air of desperation hovered over these admission meetings, a sense of last resort. Having missed out on more formal education, the girls were there to learn a trade—strawcraft, crochet, food and nutrition, typing—which their families hoped would enable them to earn an income.
By September, the trickle was a torrent. Gone were the demure girls of those early interviews, and in their place was a jostling mass of young teenagers tromping up the rickety wooden steps “skinning teeth,” teasing each other, and flirting with the occasional boy who stumbled into the building. The schoolroom could barely contain them, and chairs, notebooks, pencils and teachers were always in short supply. Down in the office we braced ourselves for the morning onrush of almost a hundred girls fresh off the speeding minibuses from poor neighborhoods all over Georgetown: Albouystown, La Penitence, South Ruimveldt, Tiger Bay.
It didn’t take long for the girls to find me. While just weeks before I had been at loose ends, now I found myself flooded with interest, curiosity, demand. “Miss, Miss!” came the cry as I walked through the hallways, followed quickly by a girl weaving her thin arm through mine, making an urgent request for something: a favor, a treat, a little bit of money. The girls wanted my friendship, but they also saw that I could provide things their teachers couldn’t, or weren’t willing to. I was only a few years old, and they assumed I was from “New Yawrk,” the city they believed encompassed the whole of the United States, which they knew from soap operas, movies and luxuriant Red Lobster commercials on the pirated TV stations. Mostly, I was just different from anyone else they had ever met, and this made them think I could give them what they needed, even when I couldn’t.
The girls drove the energy of the Y, pushing against its conservative, “Christian,” origins, and giving it a reason to exist beyond a staid female social club (husbands complained the letters “YWCA” stood for “Your Wife Constantly Away”). In truth, ours was only a stopgap, makeshift program. The two full-time teachers in their 60s could not make up for all the failings of the Guyanese educational system, or the years of instruction the girls had missed because they were sick or caring for siblings. There were never enough books or pens or notebooks; the girls sat around for hours, sometimes whole days, copying notes or crocheting doilies, braiding each other’s hair or filing their nails. Still, every morning they arrived dressed in their freshly pressed uniforms: white, short-sleeved, collared shirts with a patch of the school’s crest sewn above the breast pocket. Like me, they were dressed and ready and young, but ready for what? We all seemed to be waiting for an answer.
My job was to bring “youth development” to this school, a vague mandate that included teaching “life skills” like “time management,” “goal-setting,” and other concepts that made no sense in Guyanese culture. At 22, I too fell under this category of “youth,” clumped right in with my students at the age of potential, vibrancy, leadership. The problem was that none of us knew how to tap this effectively; I, like they, felt stultified and somehow misunderstood. Eventually, I gave up trying to teach the curriculum that had been thrust on me and looked for other ways to engage the bristling hum of the girls’ pent-up energy and desires. And so, the idea for the concert was born.
“Eh, eh, dese gals gon’ drive me pressure up again!” Mrs. Corlette said as I entered the school office, slamming her hands down so hard on the plastic, floral desk cover that a red pencil dropped to the floor. The Headmistress was in her 50s, short and stout with Jeri-curls that shook seismically when she was angry. “Good morning, Miss Katrin. How ya do?” she asked, as she bent down to pick it up.
“Fine, Mrs. Corlette. You wanted me?” For a moment I wondered if Mrs. Corlette—Verley was her first name—was the author of the anonymous letter. Could Verley be Murray? The thought was ridiculous. Instead of attraction, Mrs. Corlette often seemed to be irritated with my exuberance and the extra work that fell to her when I wasn’t able to follow through on all my big plans.
“Yes, yes, gal, sit down,” she said, and I pulled up a wooden chair opposite her. The school office was so narrow that only her desk, a student’s desk and a few chairs could fit in the room. Sunlight filtered in through the wooden boards nailed over the open-air windows, and outside we could hear the nursery school children singing from the yard: There’s a brown girl in the ring, la, la, la, la!
The Headmistress wet a handkerchief with purple liquid from a bottle on the desk and began to daub her forehead. “I want to hear about this concert for Y-Teens. Dese gals tellin’ me all sorts of tings, and you know how dey like mek story,” she said. She fixed me with her strong, intelligent gaze and I squirmed against the hard wooden chair.
“Well, I know we have a lot of work left to do, but the concert’s not for a few weeks…” I began nervously detailing my conversations with the DJs and soda vendors, and describing, as best I could, the ever-shifting menu of performances the girls were planning. As I spoke, she took careful notes in her precise, floral script. In the few months since she had taken over the administration of the school, Mrs. Corlette had established the first ever schedule of classes. She had a deep, generous laugh, but in the downstairs office we often heard her thundering strides through the ceiling, her usually resonant tone turned nasal when she yelled. Outside the classroom she was the picture of composure. The girls lowered their eyes and quieted when they saw her.
The Headmistress had sensed, correctly, that I was in over my head with the concert. My students’ lives were dominated by the unending drudgery of caring for younger siblings, cooking and cleaning, with breaks only for school and church. Without realizing it, I had unwittingly put in motion the major social event of their year, perhaps of their young lives. This night was their opportunity to wear what the Headmistress called “naked skin clothes,” and impress the boys who they otherwise never got to see. All my efforts to tone it down had been firmly rejected. “No, Miss,” they explained patiently. “For bubble-up you must have…,” and then they would list various non-negotiable standards: a full sound system, printed tickets, a photographer, a raffle and drinks and food to sell. The task of organizing all of this had fallen on me, and I was wandering in a wilderness of Guyanese teenage party-planning, barely keeping it all together.
Mrs. Corlette sighed when I finished. “Ok, Katrin. Ya must just tell me if ya need help.” Then she added, “We have to watch dese girls, ya know. We must careful none gon’ to the Sea Wall afterwards!” She laughed at the reference to an infamous spot where young couples met. Part of the unspoken job of the school was to keep our students from getting pregnant before they graduated. Every afternoon, boys would appear on their bikes and circle the building in long, lazy arcs. The teachers watched these boys and they watched the girls who they came to visit. I had only a vague idea of the “wickedness” they feared: girls sleeping with minibus drivers for free rides; furtive meetings in the stretches of farmland behind the city neighborhoods. We were supposed to stop this, to mold the girls to a vision of propriety from a past Guyanese generation. Fortunately, no one knew quite how ill-suited I was for the job.
As I was gathering up my notes to leave, Mrs. Corlette stopped me. “Tell me more about dis Youth Challenge project. Dese girls know they must be walking in the jungle with snakes, carry heavy bags, no make-up and ears rings?” She raised her thin eyebrows skeptically.
In addition to the concert, I was also trying to get some of my students to be a part of Youth Challenge, an international organization that brings young Guyanese, Canadians and Australians into the Interior of the country to do service projects. The vast majority of Guyana is uncharted wilderness—jungles, savannahs, mountains and rivers—and this was the first group I’d heard about that gave young people a chance to explore their own country.
Initially a group of girls had shown some interest, so I started helping them raise money for the trip. Then, one by one they began dropping out. “Miss, me mudda say no, Miss,” they told me, without further explanation. The sudden change of heart confused me, until the women in the front office set me straight.
“You know, Katrin,” Amanda told me, shaking her head. “Malaria is serious business.” Maylene chimed in that “tigers” roamed in the Interior, and then they both laughed that “jumbies”, or ghosts, might come when you spend a night in the jungle. They informed me that most Guyanese avoid the Interior at all costs for these real and imagined dangers. Meanwhile I had been blithely promoting the wonders of the traveling there, never realizing how engrained the distrust of this region is, or how I would be looked upon for encouraging its exploration.
“We still have a few girls interested, Mrs. Corlette. The Director, Ardis, and I are meeting about it today,” I told her.
“The Rasta girl?” she asked.
“She’s not Rasta, but yes, the one with locks. She’s a student at the University of Guyana, and she’s traveled all over throughout the Interior, in the jungles and mountains. She says it’s quite safe, really.”
“Ok, Katrin,” she said as she turned back to the papers on her desk. “Ya must know what you’re doing,” she added, her tone implying just the opposite.
When Ardis came later that day I was meeting with some of the girls about the concert and I had to ask her to wait.
But the girls were too distracted by my visitor to continue. “Who your nice friend, Miss? Me like she hair,” my student Abiola said reverently, reaching over to touch Ardis’ ringlets.
“Abiola, I’m not sure Miss Sanmoogan wants…” I started, but Ardis waved me off.
“Ya Rasta?” the girl asked, pulling the tight curl to its surprising full length. Ardis laughed.
“No, I just don’t relax my hair. I twist it. See?” She separated a few strands and then wound them back together, one over the other, until the curl popped back into place.
“It look nice, Miss,” Abiola said, trying it with her own hair.
“Sorry about that,” I said, sitting down next to her after the girls had left.
“All these students must keep you busy.”
“Oh yeah. You seem comfortable with them,” I said. “Have you done a lot of teaching?”
“Not really. I just grew up with a lot of girls like this, over in Hadfield.” Hadfield was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Georgetown.
“Really?” I said, and then regretted it. I had assumed from her standard English and high position at Youth Challenge that she’d come from a well-off family. But she didn’t seem to be offended.
“Most of the Youth Challenge participants we work with are from Georgetown’s top high schools,” she said. “I’ve been trying to get more girls like these interested for a while.”
“Well, about that, we’ve had a lot of drop-outs since we last talked. The girls are telling me that their parents won’t let them go,” I said apologetically.
“Yeah, Guyanese don’t like risk too much, you know?” she laughed. “The Interior can be dangerous, of course, but only if you don’t know what you’re doing. We’ve been going there for years,” she said. She reassured me that even if only a couple of girls from the Y ended up on the trip, she’d be happy. “I’d like to organize something bigger for them too,” she suggested. “Would you be open to taking a camping trip beforehand to give them a little practice living outdoors?”
“I think they’d love it,” I said. “But I can’t do anything until this concert is over in May.”
“Oh right, the big concert they’re all talking about. I’d like to come. Can I buy tickets?”
“Seriously? It’s going to be a madhouse. I can barely keep track of who’s performing, and I’m beginning to think it’s all just a big excuse for them to meet up with boys.” Ardis laughed.
“I’m sure that’s true, but it still sounds like fun. My secondary school used to do these kinds of concerts every month.”
“Ok, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” I said, smiling.
“You can’t scare me off,” she said. “Now how much are the tickets?”
A few weeks had passed since I’d found Murray’s letter on my desk, and I still had no idea who’d written it. I imagined that it must have come from a Guyanese woman I’d met briefly, perhaps at a party or through another volunteer. But when I thought about it no one came to mind. I’d also ruled out all the women I met through the Y. Maylene in the office was both very Pentecostal Christian and devoted to her husband. The mothers of my students were too burdened to be seeking out new romantic liaisons, and the Board members were all decidedly stodgy and straight.
Early on, it had occurred to me that Ardis may have been the letter-writer, but I quickly ruled her out. She was very friendly and generous with her time, but also a bit formal. There was a quiet privacy about her, and I sensed that she had only a small, select group of friends. An anonymous love letter seemed too obvious, too common for her. Then there was the fact of her beauty. She was naturally striking, though she wore no makeup and little jewelry. After one of our meetings she’d run into a very handsome black man she knew, and there seemed to be chemistry between them. I imagined she must have many potential lovers, if she was not involved with someone already.
I hadn’t responded to the letter because it seemed too dicey to reveal my sexuality to someone I didn’t know. Please do not show this letter to anyone with the intention of finding out who I am so that you can draw me out and humiliate me. Murray’s words summed up my own fears. I was curious, but it didn’t seem worth the risk if I had no idea if the person on the other end could be trusted.
Although I’d had a few girlfriends toward the end of college, I’d been dating a man named Todd almost since the beginning of my time in Guyana. We’d gotten together early on when we were set up with neighboring homestay families, but now we lived a few hours away by bus and seeing each other was more of a challenge. I’d thought about breaking things off with him, but Guyana was a hard place to live and the idea of being single here didn’t appeal to either of us. Still, we were bickering more often when we saw each other; I was feeling restless though I wasn’t ready to admit it to him or myself.
Three days before the concert, Todd called to say he wanted to come. Because I’d been so busy at school, I hadn’t gone to visit him in a few weeks. The letter lay in the top drawer of my dresser, but I’d never gotten around to telling him about it.
“You do know it’s going to be loud and hot?” I asked him. “Really hot.”
“I just want to see you. How’s it going?” I could barely hear his voice over the crackly line. Todd lived in a small town along the highway and there was no phone service in his house, so he was calling from the health clinic next door. I was sitting on the floor of my house in blackout, with invisible mosquitoes buzzing around in the darkness. Candle flames flickered high in the corners, furniture throwing long shadows across the shiny, wooden floor.
“I’m in one of the acts now. You can’t watch,” I said. I’d been teaching some of the girls sign language, but they didn’t want to perform alone, so I’d agreed to join them.
“Of course not. Though, it can’t be worse than when you read the poem at the evening student graduation,” he chuckled. I cringed. Todd and I had worked at the Y together when we’d first come to Guyana, before we’d gotten our full-time job placements. I’d given an impassioned reading of a poem by a Guyanese author, which was met with blank looks and a smattering of awkward applause.
“You’ll probably end up selling drinks and moving a lot of heavy stuff around,” I said.
“You can’t talk me out of this. If I take another bath in the Atlantic, I’m going to lose my shit.” There was a “brown-out,” an extended period of blackout, in Todd’s area, and he hadn’t had electricity or running water for several months. Showers at my apartment were another major incentive for him to visit these days.
“How’s the concert going, anyway?”
“I’m just hoping no one gets pregnant afterward.”
“Good luck,” he said, laughing.
We got to the school early on the day of the concert, and Todd and I loaded blocks of ice into metal basins, resting the bright sodas on top where they glowed like costume jewelry. Some wiry teenage boys arrived wearing baggy pants and gold chains so heavy they seemed to strain their thin necks. Where we should put dis, Miss? they asked, wheeling in twelve enormous speakers. The scarred wooden floor looked vulnerable under the hundreds of pounds of equipment, even before the DJ started testing the system and the room began to shake. Todd shot me a look.
“You said you wanted to come….”
“I know,” he said. “Let’s just get through this and get a drink.”
“Hello, Miss!” my students called, running up to me smelling of heavy perfume. Excitement mixed with roiling hormones had brought them to a fever pitch. At the school they were not even allowed to wear ribbons, but tonight their hair had been straightened and curled, set into complex configurations that swept up off their heads or flattened against their faces in spikes. They wore metallic bellbottoms and rhinestone encrusted halter-tops; spandex dresses with ribbing; flowing silk saris. Their lips sparkled with magenta glitter. A few of them had fake eyelashes.
“I feel underdressed,” I whispered to Todd.
“You mean overdressed?” he said, pointing to Deborah who had showed up in a clear plastic dress over nylon shorts and a bikini top.
Ardis and her friend, a British development worker, arrived about half an hour early. I was busy selling drinks so I didn’t see them at first, but she waved from the doorway as they went into the classroom. I waved back, as I made change for one of my students.
“Who was that?” Todd asked.
“Oh, that’s Ardis,” I said. “The one I was telling you about who takes kids into the Interior.”
“Could she be more beautiful?” he said, glancing inside as she took her seat.
I nodded, pushing the sodas deeper into the basin of melted ice as the Headmistress made her regal entrance. She was wearing more make-up herself, and had on a stylish, low-cut blouse.
“Everyting all right, Miss Katrin?” she asked, laughing her deep belly laugh and grasping my upper arms in her strong hands. “When ya come Guyana, bet you didn’t expect dis!” she said, clapping her hand on my back.
“I’ll just be glad when it’s over, Mrs. Corlette,” I said, and she laughed again.
Right before the show, I pushed my way through crowds of girls and parents to find Ardis and thank her for coming. “I’m sure there are other things you’d rather be doing on a Saturday night,” I said.
“No, this is great,” she said speaking loudly so I could hear her over the music. “It brings it all back.”
“I’ll be ready for some quiet nights in the jungle after this,” I said.
“Me too!” she said.
After some negotiation with the DJs to lower the music to a less painful level, the concert finally began. Deborah and another girl were the informal MCs, introducing the acts. Most involved dancing with the girls imitating the popular Soca performers they saw on TV, winding their hips in fast, rhythmic gyrations. A few of the Indian girls danced to music from popular Indian movies, wearing full saris and gold jewelry around their necks and ankles.
“Modeling” consisted of girls stalking across the room and giving provocative looks to the audience over their shoulders. A few of my students sang popular R & B songs in surprisingly clear and rich voices, while others recited poems in memorized monotones. We didn’t have enough chairs, and many of the girls and the boys they’d invited stood at the sides and back of the room, singing and sometimes dancing along with the performers.
During the concert, I moved between the main performance room and the balcony, where Todd was still selling our now dwindling supply of drinks. He pulled me on to his lap, and offered me a red soda. “What time is it? Hasn’t this been going on for a few hours?” he asked.
“It’s only 7:00 now, and we’ve still got about half the acts to go,” I said, pushing the damp hair away from his forehead. “You can back to my place if you want and I’ll meet you there.” He shook his head.
“No, I wouldn’t miss seeing you up there,” he said, smiling.
Only as I took the stage after a raucous rendition of a dub hit, did it occur to me how completely out of place my act was with the whole concert. All night long the wooden planks had been creaking under the thunderous dancing, the crowd exploding with laughter and cheers. It was hard to distinguish between performers and guests; the more popular the act, the closer the audience came to rushing the stage.
In contrast, I’d taught my students to perform to a gospel song in sign language with me. After all the overtly sexual songs and dances, I’d be introducing the first religious music of the evening. I blushed a little as we began, realizing that once again my act was completely out of step with the culture around me.
Someone asked the question
Why do we sing?
When we lift our hands to Jesus,
What do we really mean?
Only one of my students, a tough-looking girl named Carol, had agreed to do the performance with me, and we signed together in unison. I looked out over the crowd of my students and their families, the Headmistress, and Ardis. The audience was not thumping or calling out, but they were listening. Our performance seemed to have shocked them into silence. All eyes in the room were on us.
Someone may be wondering
When we sing our song
At times we may be crying
And nothings even wrong
Ardis’ face stood out, her long neck and hair distinguishing her from the crowd, and I smiled at her. Later she would ask me why I had worn so much eye shadow that evening, though I hadn’t been wearing any makeup at all. Only when I looked at a picture of myself on stage did I realize that the light was shining on the reflective coating of my glasses and had tinted my eyelids bright pastel pink and purple. The rest of the audience must have noticed it also, and I can only imagine how strange I looked to them: violet eyelids, pink skin, singing silently with my arms and hands.
Todd had come in from the balcony now and was standing in the shadows at the back of the room. He looked wilted from the heat, and bemused by my oddball act. Mostly he looked ready to go home. The song played on, building to its finale:
And when the song is over
We’ve all said
In your heart just keep on singing
And the song will never end
Carol and I continued, our fingers and hands moving quickly and finally dropping our arms to our sides. Then the audience did as we had taught them in the beginning: they applauded as a deaf audience would, shaking their hands in the air, fingers loose. I looked out at all the brown and black and yellow hands waving at us, at Will’s white hands, and Ardis’ thin light brown hands. It was beautiful and strange to be appreciated in this subtle way on this loud night, in this loud country. For a moment, I heard the silence completely, and I saw how I had created it.
It felt as if all the grime of Georgetown was being seared away as the bus hurtled to our campsite the next week. The sunset was fierce that evening. Violet and magenta streaks shot from a line of palm trees in the distance, and once we reached the highway I sensed a new Guyana altogether. Gone were the piles of trash and blocky buildings, the blaring music and crowds. Sugar cane and rice fields bordered the initial stretch of asphalt, but as we moved further toward the Interior, cultivation stopped and the houses petered out. Then it was green, green for miles, green as far as any of us could see.
It was getting dark by the time we arrived, so we set a fire in the pit and cooked chicken and rice. The girls were excited and talkative, full of questions about camping trips Ardis had taken in the past. She and I had originally planned to sleep in the spare, military barracks with the girls so we wouldn’t have to pitch a tent. It was a clear night, though, so Ardis suggested we hang up our hammocks and sleep outside on the porch where it was cooler.
I was trying to arrange my sleeping bag and sheets in the hammock when she said, “Do you want some?” She was holding a bottle of cream liqueur.
“I’d love some, as long as the girls don’t find out,” I said.
“Of course,” she said. “We’ll be discreet.” She was already pouring the thick, tan liquid into the plastic mugs we had used for dinner.
“This stuff is my favorite,” she said. “Have you tried it?”
“A few times,” I said taking the mug. “Oh, wow, that’s amazing. Like an alcoholic milkshake.”
It was a mellow night, the heat tempered by the foliage. Chirps and croaks erupted from the nearby jungle. We picked up our conversation from our weekly meetings, and she told me about her thesis project, a study of male prostitution in Georgetown. She had been interviewing Guyanese drag queens for the last few months with a group of her classmates. As we talked, I could see her small profile, her mouth opened wide when she laughed, her high cheekbones shadowed in the dim moonlight. The rest of her body was hidden in her sleeping bag, deep in the low-hanging hammock.
“They’re out there every night, and there are always john’s for them. Married guys, of course,” she said. The drag queens were beat up often, either by their customers or boys who went after them at night just for fun. With the rate of HIV rising rapidly, they were most likely already positive or soon would be. “It’s a pretty impossible life, being a transsexual in Guyana,” she told me.
I felt warm and light from the liqueur and the easy conversation between us. There didn’t seem to be any risk in telling her now. “You know, I just got something from a woman,” I said, pausing. “Who’s interested in me.” Ardis raised her eyebrows. I told her about the letter.
“Wow,” she said when I finished. “So you have no idea who wrote it?”
“Nope. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I can’t figure out who it could have been.”
“Are you going to respond?” she asked, shifting in her sleeping bag.
“No, it’s too much of a risk to write back. It feels like someone is trying to get me to admit something, and I don’t think it’s safe.” The tone of our conversation had dropped. “It’s amazing what gay people have to go through here, keeping everything secret. Not that it’s so much better in the States.”
“Yeah,” she said softly lying back. I could see the moonlight reflecting on her fine skin, her hair bunched in curly masses around her ears. Her hammock swung softly with the weight and motion of her body. We talked for a while afterwards, but it was getting late. Soon after, we were asleep.
The next day my students accused us of being witches, staying up all night cackling and keeping them awake. Even though we had had only a few hours of sleep, I had plenty of energy all day to run the seminars. The rest of the weekend we spent teaching and cooking with the girls, and chasing after turquoise butterflies as we hiked through the rainforest.
I had brought a camera and the girls begged me to take pictures of them, hanging off the tree house and hugging each other on the stairs. But Ardis ran away whenever I pointed the camera. It was just a joke at first, but as the weekend went on I realized how much I did want a picture of her. To remember the weekend, I thought to myself.
Finally I took a photo of her under an outdoor canopy. The girls are posing behind her, smiling at me, their hair still damp from the rain that had been falling all day. Ardis is lying down, her head resting against a wooden pole. Her head is tilted, her face slightly out of focus, her hair a blurry mass of curls. She is looking to the left, and I cannot tell if she was aware she is in the frame. I took the picture anyway. Against her will or not, I wasn’t sure.
A few days later Ardis called me at home.
“Hey,” I said, “how are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. I was wondering if you have a second to talk.”
We spoke about the weekend for a few minutes, then she broke in, her voice lower and more serious than I’d ever heard it. “There’s something else I need tell you. I haven’t been honest and I don’t feel right about it,” she said. She paused. My stomach tightened. “I sent you that letter.”
For a moment, I didn’t know which letter she meant, and then I did. My heart started to beat quickly. I took a few deep breaths, but not loud enough so she could hear them. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you when you brought it up,” she said, “I just didn’t know how to explain. I didn’t think I’d ever hear back from you.” She sounded embarrassed and a little sad. But there was no regret in her voice, and that was what I was listening for.
I took a breath. “It’s Ok,” I said. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you too.” I didn’t know what to say now. “Do you want to have lunch tomorrow to talk about it more?”
She paused. Then she laughed a little, nervously. Then I laughed, nervously. “Really, this is fine with you?” she asked again.
“Really,” I said, “Fine.”
Katherine Jamieson is a graduate of the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program who has been published in multiple volumes of The Best Women’s Travel Writing and The Best Travel Writing. This story won the Grand Prize Silver in the Eleventh Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Story of the Year.