I squinted across the parking lot and sighed, letting the humid breeze blow away the last traces of airplane air. There was no rush, really, no need to dash around, check my watch or even wait closer to Tom so we didn’t lose track of each other in the shuffle while he got the luggage. Because, I reminded myself, down here there was no shuffle, no tight schedules, no worries. There was one runway, an outdoor luggage cart with ours in plain sight ready to grab, and a long, lazy month in a beach house just down the road.
I already knew what to get at the small market on the way to the house, which drawers I’d use to stash my stuff before shoving my suitcase under the bed, how I’d lay my mask and fins out on the porch till morning and my swimsuit in the little wicker chair by the deck. I’d sit in the cabana with my daughter, Becky, on her days off from teaching at the Island School, just exactly as I’d done when I’d stayed there over Christmas. It felt so good to be back, to be waiting outside the airport repeating it all in my mind with calm certainty that nothing had changed a bit. While I’d gone home to three months of Maine freezing and thawing, Rock Sound, Eleuthera, Bahamas, stayed exactly as I’d left it.
When it comes to being on island time, I’m usually there before the plane even lands. I feel the change coming over me like a deep cleansing breath and, as soon as I can swap my L.L. Bean boots for Tevas, I’m back in the groove. But today was different. Today was April 16, 2013, the morning after the Boston Marathon bombings—and by the time I made it through the sentinel of security at Logan Airport, past the “what’s going on in the rest of the world” news coverage in the Nassau departure lounge and, finally, to the remote end of this out island—I felt like I’d escaped much more than mud season in Maine.
Hauling his huge rolling duffel packed with more snorkeling and fishing gear than clothing across the parking lot, my husband, Tom, seemed to agree. He looked up at the palm trees with a weary, but expectant smile that told me he’d reached the leg of the journey when horsing stuff around was no longer a hassle. The exertion was now earning him rum drinks.
“Luggage is all here,” he announced, and I nodded. Despite sharing an adventuresome streak that lands us far and wide, we still find comfort in stating and acknowledging the obvious along the way. I, especially, have a need to repeat things out loud to myself—our flight numbers and gate numbers, our departure and arrival times—re-reading them from the itinerary I keep in a giant paper clip in my carry on, reciting them off the airport monitors, again when we get to each gate and, finally, hopping up and echoing the boarding announcements as they come over the PA system. Fidgeting over the reservations, the little details, then freewheeling how they actually come to pass is, after all, how we manage to venture so far off the Carnival cruise line. Once again, a fine-tuned balance of focus and faith carried us from the JetBlue Airbus 320s, through the bowels of the “domestic” terminal, and on board an island hopper turbo prop, leaving the dolphin encounter brochure families back in Nassau.
We also left behind Comfort Inn, McDonald’s, Verizon wireless, and Hertz Rental Car. I did make arrangements for a car, supposedly, the same one we’d driven back December. But I had no rental contracts, no formal agreements, no guarantees. “This is where the paperwork ends and the trust kicks back in,” I reminded myself. The more I scanned the parking lot for the ancient RAV4 that wasn’t right there waiting for us when we landed, though, the more I wished I could rifle through my clip full of printouts for some verification, something with today’s date on it, something official. Visions of the armed guards and bomb sniffing dogs that surrounded me in Boston crept back to mind, and I couldn’t help voicing how vulnerable I felt standing so far from home, waiting for one man to fulfill his promise: “Where is Coco?” I demanded.
You just couldn’t be in Rock Sound for more than five minutes without seeing Avian Morley, AKA “Coco.” Besides being the go-to guy for transportation, his restaurant/bar/conch stand was the most happening place in town. Heck, even Martha Stewart and her camera crew managed to find him, lured from afar to taste his legendary conch salad. Plus, to me, he was the face of Rock Sound, the essence of what it took to thrive on the sleepy end of this out island. The minute I met him back in December, “gotta see Coco” stopped having much to do with practicality and logistics, and became all about wanting to just be around him. Yup, I told myself, if there was one thing I was pretty sure I could count on in Rock Sound, Eleuthera, on the morning after the Boston bombings, it was finding Coco again.
“Hey, hello and welcome back, dahlin’!” he greeted, coming across the parking lot with car keys and a big bear hug. I was struck again by how much he reminded me of someone I couldn’t quite place. It didn’t matter, though, ’cause I’d found Coco again. And the way his huge, easy smile felt the same as looking out through the clouds from the puddle jumper plane to spot my first glimpse of turquoise water, so vivid but tranquil over the long stretches of white sand, was all I needed to know for now.
“Coco! So good to see you again!” I said. “Hope you didn’t wait here too long. And, oh, we do want the car for four weeks, but our bank back home has a maximum per-day ATM withdrawal, so we’re going to have to pay you cash in several chunks so you don’t get hit with a MasterCard or check cashing fee.” He nodded, smiled, and walked us over to the familiar grey RAV4. “No problem, no problem,” he said.
Classic Coco, I thought, climbing back into the banged up SUV. It was hard to tell if the odometer had moved in the last three months since it was still hovering around 200,000, and we were still too hesitant to do the kilometers-to-miles conversion. “You sure this thing has enough ground clearance to get us down the remote beach roads?” I’d asked the first time we saw the RAV4. According to the Eleuthera travel guides, venturing off the Queen’s Highway to explore could be as risky as it was rewarding, and I found myself remembering how a gorgeous tropical view hadn’t helped Tom Hanks much in Castaway.
“No problem, no problem,” Coco said. “Drive slow.”
Hadn’t I heard that tons of times in my travels! No problem, mon. Usually it came across as the island way of saying there really was a problem, but we want you to calm down, chill out, have another rum drink so you don’t notice. That’s what you tourists expect us to say…pay us to say. When the boat captain on my first trip to the Bahamas told me: “No problem, dahlin’ we go snorkeling today,” it meant even though it was hailing and blowing a gale, I just needed to have another Goombay Smash and get on the boat. Even back home at a local concert hall, I heard the manager for Bob Marley’s sons’ reggae tour say “No problem, we’re on island time,” to the volunteer usher ladies (who seemed all the more perplexed by dreadlocks). I’m pretty sure it meant the musicians chillin’ out in their tour van (right next to the police station) an hour after the concert was supposed to start were not experiencing any hassle.
When Coco said no problem, it was different. His way was like a mantra, half lullaby, half chant, a personal affirmation that “every little ting gonna be alright.” Hearing him repeat it over and over, I could believe and make it my own truth—whether I was bouncing down a jagged road in a rental jalopy, or trusting that he could just shut down his entire restaurant on Christmas Day to invite us and a small gathering of other “locals” to dinner. “No problem, no problem,” he said when Tom got his wallet out and tried to pay for the bottle of wine we drank with our turkey with all the trimmings and fresh banana cream pie. “You’re family now.”
Other vacationers told me they came to Eleuthera for the people, by-passing islands with more amenities, but less soul. That Christmas night, as I watched the annual Junkanoo festival, I understood. The residents from Rock Sound, Tarpum Bay, Governor’s Harbor, and the other communities linked together on their skinny strip of limestone between the Atlantic and the Caribbean were family, parading by in one big celebration of life and tenacity, and I was mesmerized from my eyes down to my swaying torso. The costumes drew me in, colorful and gaudy as the tinsel-covered Christmas trees I’d gawked at as a child. Somehow, too, the drum beat and the rhythm of their age-old dance of joyful defiance filled me reverence, the kind I’d get gazing up at stained glass windows in a candlelit church. The brass section tooted by, keeping it upbeat, and I was whisked out of church, back to the roadside revelry. Had I ever been able to leave that moment in time, rooted there near Rock Sound with my family, I actually could have dreamed I was just a bit off Broadway. Then along came Coco, king of his community’s Junkanoo band, dressed like a Bahamian police constable, dancing with all his might and clowning around for the crowd.
It wasn’t until I got back to Eleuthera in April, and I was sitting in Coco’s restaurant watching his Junkanoo video, that it finally hit me. Big Papi! He was the David Ortiz of Rock Sound, Big Papi without the beard, or the bat, or the big baseball salary. Plus, while he didn’t have the same bling as the Boston Red Sox MVP, he lit up that parade route like a shimmer of diamonds. “Can you please make me a copy of this DVD?” I asked Coco.
“No problem, no problem,” he said. But I never saw it, or Coco, again. Coco died in a motorcycle crash in September, just up the road from his last, jubilant march. I heard the awful news as the fall colors were fading back home in Rangeley, Maine, and the air was taking on a chill that made me dream of dancing barefoot in the Bahamas. I’m no stranger to grief, both the kind that stabs me swiftly in the heart, or drains me slowly like a wound that can’t heal. Still, the loss of Coco stunned me to my core. How could I miss someone so profoundly I was pretty sure I was never going to see again? Now that Becky had finished teaching down there and moved to Boulder, I should have been better soothed by happy memories of time spent with a great guy on a laid-back island. People come and go, after all. And sometimes I’d end up wondering things like “whatever happened to that guy who used to work here….he was nice.” I’d find out he’s not coming back, observe a moment of silence, shrug and move on. Not so with Coco. Not even close.
The night Becky called and told us, Tom and I looked out over our lake and toasted Coco, drinking the special Rangeley Red Juice liqueur Tom made from raspberries we picked in the warm August sun. We wished more than anything that Coco could taste it with us, beaming his approval. We drank to living life in the moment—and to the mixed blessing of having a friend like Coco, now gone, who left a legacy of how we’d treat ourselves and others in his memory.
I cried a lot over Coco. And with Christmas coming around again, I’m sure I’m nowhere near done. I am finding comfort, though, in a picture I keep near my desk. It’s Coco, in his element down by the clear, blue water, palms up and arms spread wide, grabbing all life has to give. He sort of reminds me of the the giant portraits that, as a kid in church, I thought only Christ could pull off. Striking a “come to Jesus pose,” He’d conjure up a powerful spirit vibe I figured must be reserved for the Son of God Himself. As an adult, I now believe the spark comes closer to earth. It moves through people like Coco, who show us how to carry Heaven with us, day by day, in our attitudes. Each time I see his picture, I now also know that it’s my bittersweet burden to always remember, to always radiate how he made me feel—instantly special, a forever friend.
No problem, Coco. No problem.