First published in Florida Writers Association Collections, Vol. 15: Secrets, 2023
Memories of Sarah fill my Sunday afternoon as I sit beneath the canvas roof of our favorite place on the beach, a little Tiki bar called Jamaica Johnny’s. My sun-warmed skin cools as palm fronds feather-dance against a darkening sky and rain etches circles in the sand. I sit alone, sipping rum and coke as lightning strikes in the distance. The pounding beat of a Reggae band silences the thunder. The chair to my left is empty. Sarah’s chair. I summon a vision of her wind tousled hair, a half-smile playing on her lips. The Reggae beat is sensual, the song suggestive.
I close my eyes and will myself to see her as I did that other rainy Sunday when we sat here together, her fingers reaching across the table, pressing into the palm of my hand. We listened to the Reggae beat, the same singer singing the same suggestive song.
I remember how captivated I was the first time I saw her at David’s party. He brought me into the family room to show off an art déco sculpture he had purchased from a Sarasota gallery. Sarah stood a few feet from the sculpture, talking with a small group of women, hands in her pockets, laughing. The round tortoiseshell glasses she wore had slipped down to the end of her nose, but she didn’t seem to notice. The sight enchanted me.
“David,” I murmured, tugging on his sleeve. “Who is the blonde wearing the khaki overalls?”
“That’s Sarah,” he said. “She’s new in town.”
I asked if she was there alone, and if she was single. David told me I should ask her myself and dragged me over to the women.
“Excuse me ladies,” he announced in his drama queen voice. “I have an important introduction to make.” He grasped Sarah’s left hand. “Sarah, I’d like you to meet my dear friend Rebecca.”
She smiled. A crooked, brief smile that was adorable. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. Then David placed my right hand into Sarah’s left hand, so that we were not shaking hands, but holding hands. I felt my cheeks warm when he pressed our palms together and said, “stay” as if he were commanding a dog. Then he turned and sauntered away. Sarah and I both laughed self-consciously, and as much as I hated to do it, I released her hand.
Two things I never believed in were love at first sight, and happily ever-after. But meeting Sarah changed my mind. Within the first nine months of dating, we committed to each other. I dreamed of someday marrying Sarah, if such a thing ever became possible. Yet we never even lived together. When I proposed the idea to her, she reminded me she wasn’t out to her family, and may never be.
Sarah’s parents are Christians with a capital C—Southern Baptists who consider homosexuality a sin. Even worse, her brothers believe being gay is an abomination, which caused Sarah to fear being cut off from her nieces. Sarah’s sexuality had to remain a secret, and that secret forced me back into the closet with her.
For the next year and a half, we kept separate homes. And then the unthinkable happened. A malignant brain tumor struck Sarah down. Of course, I wanted to be with her at every stage, to support her, to let her know I loved her, but her family shut me out. I had always suspected Sarah’s mother disliked me—that she could sense Sarah, and I shared a secret relationship.
The night before her surgery, I found Sarah alone in her hospital room, sitting on the edge of the bed, barefoot and wearing a blue hospital gown. When I leaned over to kiss her, she turned her face, offered me her cheek.
“Mother is here somewhere,” she whispered.
“Okay.” I perched next to her on the bed. “Your teeth are chattering. Where’s your robe? You should have socks on.”
“Not cold,” she said, her chin quivering. “Scared.”
I grabbed her hand. “Oh, Sarah, I—”
Before I finished my sentence, her mother bustled into the room. “Well, hello, Rebecca. How long have you been here?” Sarah pulled her hand out from under mine. “You know, dear, it’s not proper to sit on a patient’s hospital bed.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, my cheeks burning. “I just got here a couple of minutes ago.”
Sarah told her mother she was okay with me sitting there, but I stood and moved to the foot of the bed.
“Get under the covers, Sarah.” Her mother dimmed the lights and gestured to the door. “She needs her rest now.”
Sarah’s eyes pleaded with me to stay. I wish I hadn’t given in to her mother’s obvious command that I leave, but I did. I leaned over, brushed Sarah’s forehead with my lips, and whispered, “I love you.”
Many months have gone by, and I’ve returned to Jamaica Johnny’s alone, to sit near the beach, to close my eyes against the images of hospital sheets soiled with bodily fluids, the silent blip of Sarah’s heart monitor arcing and falling in syncopated rhythms. I struggle to erase the hospital scene and instead try to hold on to the memory of Sarah and me making love against a backdrop of the Reggae beat. I long for her breath on my cheek, to press my mouth against her throat, and feel the vibration of her life force. My darling, blue-eyed Sarah.
The Reggae band stops playing, but its sensual beat continues in my head.