Photo by Jenny Marvin on Unsplash
The Bermuda Triangle
by Sherrie Harvey
How would you girls like to spend the summer in Bermuda? My mom asks my younger sister and me. The May fervor of the approaching summer excites us. My tumultuous year has flattened our family’s emotional landscape and as I look back on the not-so-distant horizon of the past twelve months, this summer vacation sounds delightful. Both of my parents have been drinking more than usual, which is a lot, frazzled by the divorce. It’s 1984. Thriller plays on the radio in the background. The only thing better than watching Daryl Hannah as a mermaid in Splash would be looking for one.
Ohhh–yea! Right on! I am fifteen and Heather is thirteen and boy, what a paper we will be able to write for “what I did on my Summer vacation!”
For how long, I ask? The whole summer?
My mom replies casually.
Oh, I don’t know–a few weeks at least…perhaps longer. It depends on the flights and stuff.
I wonder what “stuff” means–but I assume it has something to do with Mom’s new boyfriend and his schedule.
Mom tells us that she ran into her friend’s older sister from her Catholic grade school days last week. (Yes, my mother still has friends from grade school.) Her friend’s daughter is in the Navy and rents a four-bedroom house on the island. My mom calls her friend’s daughter, Mimi, who invite us to stay as long as we like.
My mom tells us and oh, by the way, there is no drinking age in Bermuda!
My sister and I have been conditioned to believe that drinking is magic. We cheer and wahoo–we are going to Bermuda.
As summer creeps up, my dad, who has moved out of our house into his own apartment six months ago, teases us about the dangers of crossing the Bermuda Triangle. The price we would pay for a few days in paradise could be deadly, he says with an evil glint in his eyes. Together, we look up the location on the map in the leather-bound Encyclopedia that sits on our fireplace mantle, even though he has been there once before. The island is located on a swath of the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, South Florida and Puerto Rico. My dad, in addition to being a word junkie, Stephen King and Dean Koontz fan, and a reader with a huge imagination, likes to scuba-dive. In fact, he dove in Bermuda.
Dad says the ominous, unfaithful waves are so inviting! He regales us with the mysteries of disappearing ghost ships, sinking airplanes, failing navigation equipment, starving pirates, and bubbling waters.
He works the names of the ill-fated ships into everyday conversation as he calls me by my nickname.
Sher, the Witchcraft of 1967 would be a great name for a short story.
Hey. Sher–Scorpio:went down in 1969–the year you were born. Can you feel the spirits living inside you?
Sherri, you write your first poem in 1980. Funny, in 1908 also, the ship The Poet sunk with thirty people on board. Maybe you should recite that to the spirits when you meet their spirits.
Ha ha, Dad.
But I am thrilled–I love being scared. My sister: not so much. She thrives on complacency. She and I are so different. I love school-she hates it. Our parents read bedtime stories to both of us as children. As a result, I love to read. She hates it. She still carries her beloved book My Summer Pony with her when we take road trips. She has had that same book since she was seven. She will probably be carrying that book around when she is twenty.
Dad graces us with more practical information as well, but I am not sure how it will be useful. Population: 65,00 in a total area of 21 square miles. You’ll be a minority, he tells us. We live in Indiana, a place where we don’t really know what that means. He tells us: 63% blacks, 33% whites and rest are Asians and other nationals. I wonder. What is a national?
And then he starts reciting his version of a story, using us as subjects…
Then, as Sher and Heath dive into the sweltering sea under the blanket of stars, the muted beauty of the island reveals itself …only Heath and Sher would know how to help Bermuda from stealing so many lives. The island will tell the beautiful ones her open secret. Sher and Heath, sworn to secrecy, shall inherit the code…but what must they do to help? mwahaha
And always, he comes back to the main idea that tells me what is always on his mind:
Did your mom tell you there is no drinking age in Bermuda?
We acclimate fast to the gentle gurgle of island life. From Mimi and Tom’s living room, views of the Atlantic Ocean turquoise water present itself as far as the eye can see. They rent a house close to the Air Force Base–where all three–Mimi, Tom, and their roommate, Mikey, spend their days off. There is plenty for us to do while they work. Tom has a narrow face and round belly, and Mikey’s as tall as a tree with long weeping-willow arms. Mimi, Tom, and Mikey tell us stories of swimming in the crystal caves as the shimmery, ever-changing light casts shadows on the walls. The sharp reefs of Shelly Bay capture the caterwauling of lost souls howling in the wind, and the hairy prattle of permanent houseboats clanging against the metal docks in Harrington Sound. Mimi gives my mom a must-see list and she takes it graciously, but she is more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of woman.
The first night, we head to The Officer’s Club for dinner and cocktails. For my sister and myself, we have not become accustomed yet to drinking with meals. But, since all of us celebrate our vacation, mom orders cocktails she thinks we will like: Malibu Rum and pineapple juice. We listen to calypso island music, the careless whisper of Wham and Tina Turner crooning What’s Love Got To Do With It? We devour fish chowder with black rum and sherry peppers, broiled spiny lobster with lemon and melted butter, and we chase our dinner with the sweet dessert of yet another Malibu and pineapple. My sister and I, after only two drinks, fall in love with the hateful concoction. Sweet sedation. We free our teenage inhibitions. Relax. When in Rome, my mom says as she drinks CC and Diet, her usual. What could be safer than drinking with your mother? By the end of the night, inebriation overtakes all of us. My sister and I are plotzed. We laugh like children, hug each other, salute our hosts. We dance and laugh more to the rhythm of the island. After hours, we close the club down.
Although we wake up the next morning feeling a bit cloudy-headed, the sight of the ocean sunshine outside cures it. Our first day trip lands us in Horseshoe Bay, and my blonde sister and my dirty-blonde self luxuriate in the ocean waves, frolicking in and out of the water body surfing, pale pink sand beneath our feet. Slam, slap, slurp waves fill our ears. Mom lies on the beach reading Danielle Steele and drinking CC and Diet Coke from a gallon cooler. My sister and I engage each other by default–there is no one else for either of us. Four Bermudan girls younger than us play nearby and watch us ride the waves. All four of them keep inching closer and closer as we swim. From a distance, their dark skin shines like obsidian in the see-through water.
After an hour, we get hungry and go grab fish sandwiches at the beach shack for a picnic. Mom grabs a cocktail and offers one to both my sister and I. We refuse this one, ready to get back in the water and drift. The Bermudan girls watch us from a distance. Mom watches them watch us and since she suspects they are hungry, she gets extra sandwiches. If she thought they were cold, she would give them the shirt off her back. My mother mothers everyone. That’s just the kind of woman she is.
Upon return, Mom summons them with love and and a whistle call. They approach cautiously at first, tentative of all of us. As they approach, my mom tells them:
Oh, look how pretty your eyes are!
As my mom rambles on, their straight-line mouths eventually change into smiles. When they smile, the whites of their eyes and their neon teeth dazzle: a stark contrast to their ebony skin. Their eyes jade-green glowing mantles of truth. Tiny thin frames with crazy afro-curls make them look so much bigger than their size. They look like baby voodoo priestesses. Mom lays all the food out on our towels and they dig in with the hunger of days. These skinny girls sure can eat! They ask us about Meri-ca, why we are here on their island, if we have met River Phoenix. Why our hair is the color of sunshine.
The orange sun seers shadows in the sand as we share stories, ask questions, make friends. After eating, they reach out to touch our hair in awe, their bony stick fingers rake through our yellow straw mops: pure uninhibited, unabashed curiosity. They haven’t seen much yellow hair. Oddly, their eyes look just like ours–electric green flecked with gold. This first exchange with the island girls imprints our souls forever.
That night, we hit The Officer’s Club again. My sister and I go home with Mimi after one drink. All of us exhausted for different reasons. My mom stays with Mikey and Tom. As we leave, they are all three doing shots of tequila at the bar. My mom kisses us good-bye and tells us how much she loves us, but her tequila breath makes me sick to my stomach. I pull away from her and she reminds me, hey–we are on vacation! Party! She tries to talk me into staying, but I just want to sleep.
Up with the sun the next day, my mom, sister and I return to the same spot on the beach. The fragrance of oleander and hibiscus blows in the wind and suddenly, the Bermudan girls appear out of the beach grass horizon like angels of mystery and intrigue, sun bouncing off their dark skin, waves roaring in the background. Our new friends beckon us to follow them with one skinny wave. They show us the deep and hidden ravages where the shoreline meets the cliffs. They point out the green sea turtles that bury themselves in the blue-eyed grass where the sand meets the plains. The elder sister, thirteen, relays stories of gods and goddesses who sprinkled the turtles with stardust to make the patterns on their shells. Like fingerprints. Each stamped with their own brand of unique.
The girls teach us how to find the queen conch shells, saturated with their own signature pink-ness like the shimmery lipstick my sister and I wear: Zinc Pink. We place them up to our ears and the island secrets sizzle and wave inside our heads. As the day wanes, we search for birds nests in the bushes of the land mass arms that hug the bay and build forts around the nests to discourage the rats from taking their eggs…the rats are devils, our new friends tell us. They eat crops and fruits. Sometimes, the Bermudan girls tell us, the rats visit their house in the night and try to steal their souls, but they pray to the barn owls–eaters of the rats–for protection. They believe the owls keep them safe.
The island girls are ambassadors of the animals. My sister and I would never have known that any of these creatures even exist without the observant eye of the girls. We are mesmerized. And they can’t get over the color of our hair, full of the promise of American opportunity and American culture. We can’t get over the color of their eyes, full of the mystery of the ocean, the grass on the bluffs tinged with sand. So common and so exotic at the same time.
My dad’s voice of danger echoes in the whispering wind but I dismiss it because the day feels too good to be real. It feels so good to just step off the map and float. My sister and I engage wholly in our surroundings. We don’t even fight for the girls’ attention because they make us feel as exoctic as they feel to us.
When we finish our animal hunting, we jump off rocky cliffs five stories high into limitless deep-blue waters, again and again, sinking deep. Splash, dash up the cliffs, splash again. Up and down, high to low, breathing the delicate scents of blossoming bushes under the sun, simultaneously sun-soaked and baked dry, the sugary smell of fermenting fruit hanging heavy in the air. In Bermuda, at the beginning of summer, for three midwesterners, the living is easy.
The next day, Mikey’s day off, he takes us to his favorite spot: Tobacco Bay, where he keeps a slim, fat-bottomed fishing boat. He spends his day teaching us how to drive it. It barely holds all four of us, so as we cruise around the remote land clumps off the coast, he leaves my mom and sister on one of them to teach me about the boat. Mikey instructs me:
The boat turns due to thrust being directed left or right forcing the stern–the front–to move sideways. Since water provides less friction than pavement when the stern moves one way the bow of the boat moves in the opposite direction. Point left, go right. Sherri, are you getting this? Here, you drive. Practice.
Me, drive? I can’t do that! It’s your boat?
You aren’t going to hurt anything. Let’s see how you do. I bet you’re a natural nautical goddess.
Turns out I am. The small boat could fly! The less weight, the faster the boat, Mikey tells me. We flip around the minuscule islands above the mystic see-through water for a while, wind chapping our lips and crusting our hair before returning to collect my mom and sister, peacefully communing with the underwater landscape with a snorkel and mask where we left them, sun-baked and relaxed. Then I stay and snorkel and he teaches my sister to drive.
The next day, Mikey must return to work and he turns us loose with his boat. We cruise around the little islands that surround the pristine aquamarine waters in the neighborhood of Tobacco Bay, the briny air hanging on our lips. At first, I am tentative with the boat, but caution doesn’t last long. My sister and I bicker over who gets to drive and we roux-sham-bo. She wins. I shove her a little, but the anger doesn’t last long. After twenty minutes, I fight to drive. I am an adrenaline junkie–I drive the speed right out of the boat, the bow of it jumping the little wake of the waves. My mother, lidded cocktail cooler in hand, is a great sport, but eventually gets tired of us trying to whip the boat around so quickly to try to shake her loose into the friendly water and begs for rest.
So we stop on some little-unnamed spit of land so we can all refuel. Famished, we eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with Fritos and cokes. We pull out the snorkel and masks and flippers and float until our pale backs can’t absorb one more ray of sun, then we throw on t-shirts and float longer, the water making us all so light. Feeling the breeze play in our hair and the salt water lift our bodies, we are so easy with each other: a rare treat between my sister and me.
And as we snorkel the clear waters, warm closer to the top, and cool down where the sun hasn’t touched, we watch the fish circus underneath the surface. Both the peacefulness and the turmoil of life underwater makes memories for us all as we discover a world under the waves. The calm water presents a parade of blue parrotfish, angelfish, bluehead wrasses. Deeper, we spy hammerheads and catch the tin-foil glimmer of barracudas’ teeth, so close but so far. We spot fire coral against moss green reefs, wave to mustard fronds and shadowy seaweed, tall as trees, and stare into the blind eyes of electric eels. We relish in an exotic world we have never known. All the while, we try to imagine the many lives lost out at sea for wrecked fishermen and crashed airline passengers in this friendly and inviting playground. In the midst of all this beauty, we can’t imagine ugly. Danger feels so far away. We wonder about the enigma of the Bermuda Triangle.
Floating in the salt and over these warm waves, bewitchment fills the air. I feel ready for anything. Possibility lies on my skin like the salt. If only the barracuda could speak or the fronds could write, I could decode the ominous mystery of this stunning, exotic but oh-so-dangerous landscape. I could crack my dad’s silly lines that come into my head…
Then, as Sher and Heath dive into the sweltering sea, the muted beauty of the island reveals itself even more…how will the heroines help Bermuda from stealing so many lives? The island will reveal her secret…
The next day, I begin my lifelong love affair with motorbikes. Mikey has a little one–a six-speed Moto Guzzi V7 Stone. And after work, he teaches me to ride it. I am grateful–I need a break from my sister. He is mid twenties–6 foot 5 with cannons for arms and a bald patch on the top of his head only visible when he sits down or bends over. I think of The Velveteen Rabbit and wonder if the hair on the top of his head had been rubbed off by someone who loves him. Mikey feels so real to me. So kind and gentle. A fellow midwesterner from Michigan. He is in the Navy with Mimi and Tom. He tells me he joined because he wanted to see a different part of the world. He enlisted because he wanted to know how other people live and think. I get it. I understand. I am honored that he trusts me with his bike. He has given me a vehicle to leave things behind.
Life for the next few weeks entails swimming, cruising around with Mikey’s boat in the water or his Moto Guzzi on the island, lying on the beach by day, storming The Officer’s Club by night. I want to stay here forever, getting lost and finding my way at the same time. Although I imagine life isn’t this easy for the voodoo priestesses, for me it is. I want to be an island girl.
After two and a half weeks, my mom tells us she is ready to go home to see her new boyfriend. My sister and I are not ready to go. We rarely agree, but this time, we unite. We protest. So she leaves us with Mimi and Tom and Mikey. And Mikey’s boat and the Moto Guzzi and The Officer’s Club. Leaves us in the care of Mimi, Tom and Mikey. We are stoked. In paradise with no supervision as all three of them not only work full-time, but they are not really that much older than us–mid twenties. They understand the allure of the island, of the secrets it holds and the fun it promises. But in the back of my mind, I hear the stories my dad told us: sunk ships. Haunted souls. Bubbling waters. The voodoo of the Bermuda Triangle.
At first, when my mom leaves, my sister begrudgingly hangs around with me. At the beach, I read and relax but her restless heart can’t do that. She wanders on her own up and down the beach collecting shells. We don’t fight, but there is always a distance between us. But still, our days are full of waves. Our nights are full of rum. My sister and I, regulars at The Officers’ Club, purify ourselves. We become skilled at drinking Malibu and Pineapple. We dance our legs off. We make out with strangers in their cars at the tail end of a tiger-wild night. Some nights, we catch a ride with some random person leaving the club. Some nights, Tom and Mimi join us. One night, we just sleep out on the beach on towels from the lost-and-found, letting the Bermuda cicadas’ consistent buzzing lull us to sleep.
On the beach that night, my sister meets some new friends and she doesn’t introduce me. I see her talking to them and I don’t really want to know them. I don’t like the way they look. I get a bad feeling from their straight-line mouths and oiled-up skin. I call them the Wharf Rat boys. I see them in the shadow of the moonlight backlit by the wedge of the cliffs, their cigarette tips marking their path, laughing and talking. Shadow people And things change after that. She chooses their company over mine. I hate her for it.
My sister spends the next few days getting to know the Wharf Rat boys and going all over town with them. An-emotionally young but physically-mature thirteen, my sister looks so fine in her red string bikini. So full of sex appeal older than her years. She is not yet aware that the tidy commerce of her beauty holds such power. She has been fattened on pop song promises of love and licks up the attention of the Wharf Rat boys. She is full of false bravado.
Their leader, Tommy, picks her up in his 1967 Plymouth Cruiser early in the morning. She goes with him, I imagine, trying to redesign the rough edges of teenage angst into something loveable. At the sight of him, my lip snarls but my sister beams with hope. As if hope alone could change a person. As if hope could change the wild wolf-like look in Tommy’s eyes. Like a fish fighting the hook. Dark shoulder-length wild curly hair, oiled skin, cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Barefoot and disheveled. Not big on talking. Works construction. Navy brat. Followed by three young, dumb groupies, aspiring to one day be as cool as him. All of them, smoking whacky weed and drinking coconut rum, lighting bird’s nest on fire with their lighters and talking about tits and ass.
Not my kind of boys. I am older than my years. The dumb litter of their teenage angst does not appeal to me. I want cosmopolitan and traveled in my man. And I can’t stand the smell of nicotine.
My sister can’t get enough. As she balances the need to be lost with the wish to be found, she isolates me with lack of knowledge of where they go or what they do. When I ask my sis what she, Tommy and clan do all day, she stares a hole right through me. Takes a drag off of her cigarette and blows it in my face. I will never forget the frank unapologetic way she silently holds my gaze.
Despite worrying, I can’t persuade my sister to accompany me on the motorbike. I can’t get enough of ocean life, the crisp air, the world underwater, and the relentless, ceaseless waves. Waves of light fill the skin of me. The tidal pull of the ocean defines me. The sun relaxes the questions in my head. I am scared for my sister, worried about her sharp edges getting sharper. But I am also resentful that she chooses the Wharf Rats over me. I can’t change her mind no matter how hard I try. Even later in life. And I try. But then, the strong pull of the ocean, the wind from the motorbike tossling me loose, a nip of rum beckoning and soothing my restless soul set the days straight for me.
The island offers itself to me and I accept. I spend my days exploring and thinking– riding Mikey’s Moto Guzzi around with Walt Whitman, Thomas Hardy or Stephen King or VC Andrews to keep me company. Books, snorkel and mask and a towel in my backpack, looking for dolphins in Horseshoe Bay or sea turtles in the tall grass on the shores of Lighthouse Beach. I explore the shadows in the crystal caves, the underwater kingdoms of the coral reefs, the cliffs overlooking the shoreline. And I spend my nights sounding my barbaric yelp and drinking Malibu and pineapple juice in The Officer’s Club. When I see my sister dancing with Tommy, she doesn’t even acknowledge me. His hands all are over her butt. I have another drink to forget about her.
After two weeks of this life with no rules and no supervision, my mother calls and tells us that school starts soon, and we should come home now. She arranges our flight home. I don’t want to leave, but I am a good girl, at least so my mother thinks, at least in Indiana.
On the flight home, we are lucky enough to get first class. I try to order a Malibu and pineapple from the stewardess, and she laughs and asks for an ID. My sister and I share an almost-companionable silence, almost. We have never really been friends. Her desperate aloneness and desire for solitude are palpable in the quiet silence. We will never be the kind of sisters who long for the company of each other. But we are both tough. We have never been, nor will ever be, the kind of people who break easily or who have to be carefully kept. Bermuda has both hardened and softened us. We both leave a little part of us on that tiny, dangerous and alluring island.
I would look back on that trip as the trip of a lifetime. My sister would call it the trip that ruined her.
She would, off and on her entire life, hate my mom for abandoning us. For failing to provide guidance. For not setting rules that we wouldn’t have followed anyway. She would tell my mother, over and over, how irresponsible she was for leaving us. She would incriminate my mother for her own shortcomings: perpetual tardiness, inability to stay employed, lack of financial resources–all because my mother failed at establishing rules.
My sister would express time and again how horrible freedom can be when a person is born to follow. Although I never knew what had happened to her in the beach-kissed days and moonstruck nights, for some reason, she would blame Bermuda. My sister would hate my mom for coming back home early to spend time with her new boyfriend.
I wouldn’t hate my mom at all. Ever.
That summer, I felt so lucky, so invincible. How enchanting life was, in Bermuda, following the whims of the wind. I would spend my life relishing in that independence. Drinking every freedom granted to me like a runner craves water. The privilege of a lifetime rests in the freedom to become who you are destined to be without restriction, but it doesn’t happen overnight. The act of becoming takes a lifetime.
Leaving Bermuda, I just know how light I feel, light as air, but my sister–oh so heavy like an already-soaked sponge. She cries as the plane takes off, and I think she is crying because she misses Tommy. Her tears are words needing to be written.
Later in life, I would come to realize that Bermuda both brought us to life and killed us at the same time. The shiny-white shark-tooth-smile of the trip of a lifetime. I wouldn’t find out for years that my sister did not share that reverence. That summer for her was a lustful beast, blood-smeared and chilly. It left her empty as melted ice but filled me up with the sunshine of youth, deceptively simple and full of gusto. Pleasure is such a slippery word. Double-edged. Like the way rum removes the rough edges of the soul and feels both good and bad at the same time. Like the way a tight muscle feels both horrible and wonderful during a stretch. Like the way the seductive power of risky business both thrills and sedates. Like the beautiful irony of the secrets of the Bermuda Triangle.
About the author:
Sherri Harvey currently teaches English in California’s Silicon Valley, holds an MA in Modern Fiction and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She spends her days trying to balance thinking with doing by pouring over words, taking pictures, galloping her horses, hiking with her dog, scaring her husband and drinking vodka. She believes that the childhood force that gave shape to her thinking was the opportunity to travel extensively. When in doubt, go somewhere. She has published in Animal Literary Magazine, daCunha Global Storytelling, 3Elements Literary Review, TaxiCab Mag, Sunday Night Stories, Light, Space & Air and daCunha. She blogs for Women Who Explore. Check her out at sherriharvey.com.