Waiting for the Hurricane
The turquoise sea rolls back and forth, restless as a tiger pacing the walls of a cage. The moon, pale yet luminous, takes a last, tender look as it gives way to the sun. The peeping of the tree frogs fades with the darkness, and the birds take over with their morning songs. It is an in-between moment, not night, not day. Shading my eyes, I scan the horizon. There is no visible sign, except the agitated waves, that a Category Four hurricane is headed toward Bermuda.
Last night, before Jean-Paul and I went to bed, I switched on the television in our hotel room. I browsed through the stations – CNN International, a network from Miami, the Africa Channel – until I found the emergency weather alerts. Rudimentary text ran across a plain screen. Hurricane Danielle, according to the latest update, was expected to swerve east before morning. Bermuda would likely be spared a direct hit, although rain, strong winds and rip tides were possible, and small watercraft warnings were in effect. I should have felt relieved. TV meteorologists had been pointing excitedly at Doppler images of the Atlantic for a week before our trip, focusing their attention on a whirling mass of wind that was growing in size and moving steadily northwest. Danielle, they declared, would likely hit Bermuda, arriving within a day of when we were scheduled to land on what we had hoped would be an island paradise.
My husband, thankfully, rarely watches the news. He is a nervous flyer, and I didn’t want to add the specter of a hurricane to his fears. When we talked about the trip, I avoided any mention of the approaching storm. I just told him to pack shirts with collars for the formal restaurants, and to pour shampoo and conditioner into containers we could pack in our carry-on luggage. We agreed that I didn’t need to bring my own snorkeling gear, because we could rent what we needed at the Pompano Beach Club. I never considered canceling our plans. The idea of this escape had carried me through a difficult summer. I couldn’t let the dream go now. Besides, I told myself, the hurricane might only glance Bermuda – tip its hat, so to speak, and move on.
In the end, the flight was uneventful. We landed safely at L.F. Wade International Airport, and took a pre-arranged shuttle van to the Pompano. That was Thursday, the day before yesterday. For the next twenty-four hours Bermuda remained on alert. By Friday, however, word was getting around that Danielle might not make landfall. Most tourists, I was sure, breathed a sigh of relief. My own reaction surprised me.
I felt disappointed.
This morning, trying to move quietly so I wouldn’t wake Jean-Paul, I slipped through the middle of the floor-length curtains and slid open the glass doors to the balcony. Heat and humidity enveloped me as I stepped outside the air-conditioned room. I shut the doors and settled onto a lounge chair with a small table next to it. Then I placed my notebook and pen on my lap, and surveyed the scene in front of me.
The pink and white buildings of the Pompano Beach Club sit on terraces forged out of the rocky coastline. Our building is located near the highest point, and provides a stunning view of the sea. Stone staircases connect the upper terraces to the main building below, and provide access to a small beach at the edge of the water. I can’t see the beach from our balcony, but the sea stretches toward the horizon like an endless, turquoise bed sheet fluttering in the wind.
I take a deep breath, and warm air fills my chest. I try to absorb the fact that after envisioning this getaway for so many weeks, I am actually here. I remember writing to the owner of the Pompano in July, and telling him I was hoping for a balcony with an ocean view. He responded right away, promising to hand-pick our room. Now I am sitting on that balcony, and I feel an intense need to experience this place, to notice everything around me. I grasp at the sights, the scents, the sounds, but they flutter around me like butterflies, impossible to catch. I am keenly aware that in just two days, Bermuda will be nothing but a memory.
Jean-Paul spent the summer attending doctoral classes at Smith College in Northampton. While he read thick books and wrote research papers, I stayed at home in Boston. I worked from my home office as a freelance writer, and struggled to pay the bills. I fed our three cats, cleaned their litter boxes, and brushed their thick summer coats. I chatted with neighbors about the unusually wet spring, and planted orange marigolds around the edges of the back deck, and purple and pink petunias along the cracked cement walkway that leads from our front door to the street.
Friends worried that I would be lonely, and called now and then to invite me to lunch. But it wasn’t loneliness that troubled me as the days wore on. It was a haunting feeling that the future I had envisioned as a child might never come to pass. I wandered through the rooms of our house, trying to figure out why what I had wasn’t enough. I picked up a framed photograph of Jean-Paul and me smiling, and looked at it for a while. I petted a cat sleeping in the sun near a window. I ran my fingers across the bindings of the books lining the shelves in my writing room. Outside, sitting at the table on our back deck, I watched a cardinal as it issued staccato chirps from a branch of the crabapple tree. It flew off, leaving me with an emptiness as real as hunger pangs.
I knew that I had been waiting for as long as I could remember for something that I could not name in words. And although I could not identify this thing, I was beginning to suspect that it might never arrive.
Leaning against the back of the lounge chair, I stare out to sea and examine the horizon, then inspect the landscape around me. Beneath the balcony, a pathway winds through a carefully tended garden. The grass is an emerald green. A short, thick tree squats near the stone staircase. It looks like an oversized pineapple half stuck in the ground. The tree’s long leaves sway in the breeze, reminding me of the tentacles of an octopus. Birds chatter, and although I can’t see them, I imagine them hiding among the trees and flitting between the manicured hedges. The idea of the birds makes me happy. I take another breath.
I have always relished quiet, but even as I enjoy the serenity of this moment, a switch seems to flip in my head. I think about the hurricane, and wonder if the breeze is stronger than usual, if the waves will become more dramatic. I remember how smooth the sea looked yesterday, and am curious about how rough it might get.
Yesterday morning, the woman at the front desk gave us directions to the food market, then raised her eyebrows when we turned down a ride. We insisted on walking, an option not considered by most hotel guests. By 10:00 a.m. the temperature had reached the mid-80s, and the humidity was already oppressive. The driveway from the main building to the road is long and hilly. It passes several houses hidden at the top of small hills, and cuts through one end of the Pompano’s large golf course. When it finally meets the main road, the market is about 600 yards to the left.
Still, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the tropical feel of the island, to see the thick, green Loquat trees, the tall date palms, and the exotic Surinam cherry trees up close. So we walked. The air was heavy with the fragrance of bougainvillea, amaryllis, and hibiscus blossoms. By the time we reached the main road, our faces were red from the sun, and our T-shirts and shorts were damp with sweat. We turned toward the market, and then walked past it, deciding to pick up groceries on the way back to the hotel. After a short while, we came to a bridge that Bermudians claim is the smallest drawbridge in the world, and we crossed over it onto Somerset Island.
Hugging the side of the narrow road, often without the benefit of a sidewalk, we walked past houses painted pastel colors: blue, pink, yellow, and green. Many of the homes had tidy English gardens accented with flowers. Between the neighborhoods, crops grew in small fields. We hugged a stone wall on one steep hill, hoping the buses that thundered past wouldn’t hit us. When we arrived at a fork leading to a paved pathway on the right, Jean-Paul suggested we get off of the road.
“This will get us away from the cars,” he said. His pale skin was showing signs of sunburn. Jean-Paul has blue eyes and light hair, and his complexion isn’t ideal for spending time in the sun. I have dark eyes and hair, and my skin rarely burns.
“Do you think we should start back?” I asked, peering as far as I could see down the lane. I was thinking about the distance we had walked, the glare of the sun, and how long it would take us to get back to the hotel.
“I’m enjoying this,” Jean-Paul said, unconcerned about all that. “Let’s walk a little further.”
The path led toward the towering wall of an old fort. A large mangrove tree stood at the top of the wall, and cascading down the side was an astonishing tangle of mangrove tree roots. A few feet past the tree on the other side of the path, an old staircase led through the grass and down a small hill. We followed the stairs to the edge of a wide body of water, which I found out later is called the Great Sound.
The unfathomably clear inlet seemed to sparkle in the sun. We stood quietly for a while, staring across the sound to the opposite shore.
“I can’t believe we found this spot by accident, and have it all to ourselves,” I said.
Jean-Paul nodded, smiling.
Three hours after we left the Pompano, we returned carrying soda water, a bottle of vodka, and snacks for the room. Our faces and clothes were dripping with sweat. Blisters had formed under the straps of my sandals.
We were ready for a swim in the sea.
When we checked in at the Pompano on our first day in Bermuda, the staff informed us that at low tide, the ocean is shallow all the way to the reef. Professional snorkeling expeditions head out to the reef daily, although some visitors paddle out on rented watercraft, which they tie to the buoys while they snorkel. To avoid the cost of a kayak or paddleboat, we rented masks, snorkels, and flippers, and set out to swim the quarter mile to the reef.
It was afternoon, however, high tide, and the sea was soon deeper than we expected. The water was warm and salty on our skin, and the sun was hot on our backs. On the ocean floor, the white sand seemed to dance in the scattered sunlight. Jean-Paul and I are both strong swimmers, and we progressed at a relaxed pace, propelling ourselves forward with slow, even kicks. The only sound we could hear was the splashing of our flippers moving in and out of the water. The setting was idyllic, but as the water got deeper I became more and more nervous, even though the scene beneath us didn’t change. My stomach felt tighter and my breathing quickened. The closer we got to the looming shadow of the reef, the more anxious I became. Intellectually, I knew there was no real danger; sharks aren’t often seen off the coast of Bermuda, and a shark attack hadn’t been reported in years. Still, I have had a phobia about sharks ever since I saw Jaws as a child, and as we approached the reef, I began to think I might panic. I signaled Jean-Paul, pointing back toward the shore. He nodded and emitted a garbled “OK” through his snorkel. We turned and headed back to the beach.
This morning, I regret the decision to turn around. I wanted to explore the reef; I am sure I would have enjoyed seeing the tropical fish. I have snorkeled in the ocean before, although usually under the supervision of professional guides. Now, with the water kicked up by the hurricane, I suspect I won’t get another chance on this trip. Today’s snorkeling expeditions will likely be suspended, along with the rental of small boats and equipment.
Thinking about my disappointment, I forget the joy of the swim.
Crests of white foam are beginning to signal rough conditions further out at sea. The buoys near the reef are bouncing in the waves, and a square wooden raft, anchored to the sea floor a short distance from shore, is pitching up and down. I take another deep breath, feel my lungs expand, smell salt and flowers in the humid air. I look at the words I have been scratching in my notebook, and they stare back at me, ragged and uneven on the page.
Our room is located in a small, square cottage. The main building, below, houses the beach club’s front desk and foyer, a small bar and lounge, two restaurants with large windows facing the sea, and a game room with a pool table and ping-pong table. From here, I can see where the building opens to a large outdoor patio with a lima bean shaped swimming pool. Tables with pink and white umbrellas surround the pool. The umbrellas are tied shut because of the early hour, or maybe, I think, because of the impending hurricane.
Beyond the main building, large white clouds hang low above the water. The only obvious sound, besides the calls of the invisible birds, is the monotonous hum of the HVAC as it cools the main building. Occasionally, I catch the slap of a wave as it crashes against the rocks.
A Kiskadee flycatcher, about ten inches long from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail, suddenly lands on the balcony railing. We stare at each other for a moment. A black stripe runs across the center of its white head, making it look like a robber wearing a mask. I am struck by the vividness of its yellow breast. I have never seen a Kiskadee flycatcher before. As I admire the bird, it turns toward the garden and lets loose a raucous call, like a trumpeter summoning a regiment. After a few more boisterous cries, the bird spreads its wings and takes off.
The pineapple-like tree dances a slow hula, and the breeze lifts the hair gently off my forehead and cheeks. For a moment I think about nothing.
Yesterday morning, the first time I sat out here, I spotted a school of gray fish in the water near the beach. They swam toward the shore, moving as one, reversed their direction, then reversed it again, the ultimate synchronized swimmers. Forward and backward, sometimes swirling in circles, the fish followed the gentle motion of the current. I reflected on the idea of rolling with the punches, moving without resistance to the ebbs and flows of life. But as I considered the thought, the fish leaped from the water and hung for a split second in the air. Their bodies, in formation, flashed silver in the sunlight before splashing back into the sea. It happened so fast I wasn’t sure I had seen it. But a short time later, they did it again.
For a second, I am like the fish in mid-air, fully in the moment between what was and what will be. I get a glimpse of what it is like to exist wholly in the middle. But the moment passes and the sensation slips away. It is replaced by a familiar watchfulness, and suddenly I understand. The danger is not the hurricane. The danger is the waiting.