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The Grand Illusion

The waves slapped the side of the ship as the ramp to the tender bounced and creaked. We stepped onto the smaller boat, single file, our day bags in hand filled with sunscreen, beach towels, snacks and magazines. I had waited for this day for over two decades. The other passengers surely couldn’t be feeling what I was feeling. A day trip for them was a reunion for me. With a place that had burned itself into my heart like no other. The anticipation had me on edge in sort of a, “Let’s just get there and take me back to what was and help me get that feeling back again,” kind of way.

I glanced at the shoreline I knew so well, but then again, didn’t know at all. Like me, it had taken a different shape in the 27 years since we last met. The once sleepy skyline was now etched with high rises and massive structures. Beach umbrellas of orange and blue and yellow dappled the white sand. I didn’t remember that many sailboats. Twenty. Thirty. A flotilla to welcome me back.

I took a seat on the rail. I looked down into the crystal clear Caribbean. The turquoise waters that I floated upon, swam in, and explored underneath. The first sign of familiarity.

My memory erased the humidity. I didn’t remember the air being so thick. But the breeze and smell of the saltwater immediately took me back to dive boats and suntanned boys with accents and rum cake and meat patties covered in Pickapeppa sauce.

Perhaps the most unfamiliar element in this moment was my husband who sat beside me. Never looking up at the memories I was taking in (they were my memories, after all, not his, made long before we met), but instead, head down, eyes on phone, checking his emails for the first time in three days now that we had cell service.

“That’s where I lived!” I excitedly pointed in the direction of a hotel that had replaced the structure that was my home.

“Mmm hmm,” he said, swiping his screen, never looking up.

“That’s the new Ritz that was built. They tore the whole Holiday Inn down,” I said, trying to make sense of the section of beach I knew was mine, but couldn’t quite connect to that moment in time.

“Cool,” my husband replied, not really answering what I had just said and clearly not as invested in this moment as I was.

My eyes scanned the expanse in front of me. One hundred billion neurons triggering an explosion of moments that stacked on top of one another. Though it would be hours until sundown when the reggae and soca would begin, I could hear the music of nights past bouncing off of the water. Sweaty bodies smelling of coconut oil, salt and vacation lust, dancing too close for the heat, but not close enough to satiate the urges inside.

The heavy chains that connected us to the ship rattled me out of my trance as they untethered us and were tossed on the tender’s floor. We were on our way. The boat motor telling me I was that much closer to placing my feet back on that sweet Cayman soil. Home.

We spent the day at a condo generously provided by a longtime friend who lived on the island. The complex was located next door to the hotel property where I once lived. As we drove down the road toward our day retreat, just as I would see a familiar sight, I would be thrown trying to recognize a newly built hotel or strip mall. Everything seemed so much more compact than I remembered when I would ride my bicycle from condo-to-condo, dropping off flyers for that week’s comedy shows. I moved here my 29th year to work as the house emcee at the Coconuts Comedy Club at the Holiday Inn. Four nights a week I would perform for locals and tourists, while spending my days diving and snorkeling and tanning and drinking Red Stripe. Not a bad gig for a single girl trying to make a living.

Once we arrived at the condo, I threw my bags onto a chair, slid open the glass door and took a huge breath of tropical air into my starving lungs. It was like being injected with a soothing anesthesia that calmed every cell under my skin. I stepped outside onto the patio, while my husband turned on the TV to watch CNN.

“Aren’t you coming out to the beach?” I asked.

“I’m just going to stay in and watch TV,” he said as he plopped down onto the sofa, remote in hand.

“You came all the way to the Cayman Islands to watch TV? Don’t you want to see my world? Where I lived? Everything I loved?”

“Nope. Just going to stay here. You go. Enjoy yourself.”

Dispirited, I closed the patio door behind me and headed toward the blue. Passing two fantastically plumed roosters along the path, pecking at the grass for feed, I eagerly headed toward a familiar sound that pulled me closer. The waves gently lapped the shore and became louder as I approached the beach. I walked to the shoreline and just stood, looking out at the horizon, then to my left, then to my right. Where was I? Who was I? Where was the girl who once called this home? Where did her body go? Who were all these people? Where did they all come from? Where was my youth?

The sand wasn’t as soft as I had remembered, nor the water as warm. My once cute teeny bikini was replaced by a one piece bathing suit accented with a skirt to cover the years of food and neglect that had accumulated in my lower regions that were now feeling extremely uncomfortable in the heat. I headed south down the beach toward my home turf. The massive hotel that replaced the modest structure that once stood on this property made it almost impossible for me to get my bearings. My brain was unable to connect the past to the present in this unfamiliar canvas.

I looked out toward the water trying to remember Daniel and the time we swam far offshore where the sea was still shallow, and he held me close to him as I straddled his waist while the waves gently rocked our bodies under the sun. Looking back toward the hotel, flashbacks of us laying in bed eating ice cream cones, not worried about anything, and positive that love would prevail and our days would always be filled with moments like these. Though the memories were still strong in my mind, connecting them to this place at another time was paradoxical. It wasn’t like it was just another lifetime ago, it was as if maybe it didn’t really ever exist.

I walked back toward the condo and spent the rest of the afternoon, uncomfortably tanning on a lounger. Not wanting to flip over to tan my back so that people wouldn’t see the dirty secrets that were hiding under under my swim skirt. Twenty seven years of french fries that had made their home on my thighs. I was counting the minutes until I could head back to the ship.

As we embarked back onto the tender, my day bag seemed a bit heavier. Wet towels mingled with the heartache of the realization that a place cannot remain the same when you change. Time changes people. Time changes places. You can only truly go back to exactly where you were, in your mind. And with the roar of the boat motor and the blue of the sea, and the now faded memories of reggae and soca music and cute tanned boys with accents, I didn’t turn to look at the shoreline to say goodbye.

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