By Joanne C. Hillhouse
She’s driving with her friend Essie when she hears it for the first time. And her heart just about jumps out of her mouth, and she’s scrambling for the door handle even before she knows what she’s doing. And Essie laughs as she pulls out her Blackberry. “It’s just my phone you doe-doe head.”
Then Essie’s on the phone telling Eric and Raj that yes they’ll meet them at the East entrance of the Recreation Grounds, the one by the prison. But now Claudette isn’t in the mood for the all night fête. In fact, it kind of feels like her whole Carnival is ruined. And over such a stupid thing too, a stupid ringtone of a screaming woman, and who the hell begins a party song with a chilling scream.
Essie plays her the entire song once she wraps up her conversation.
“You na hear the new hot song yet? Where you been? E wicked bad!”
She presses some buttons and the screaming starts again and though Claudette knows it isn’t real, her feet dances a bit on the floor of the passenger-side of Essie’s dad’s Suzuki, as though trying to get away.
The rest of it is what she’s come to expect from the popular Antiguan soca band — a catchy if repetitive rhythm, rhymey lyrics, playfulness with lascivious intent. Except this one is less playful and more aggressive. Kick een she back door the singer sings with glee, and Essie sings along; rocking a bit as she holds the BB in one hand and steers the car with the other, eyes flicking between Claudette, as though gauging her reaction, and the road. They are crawling now, the Red Eye crowd creating a bottle neck on Old Parham Road.
Claudette wants to t’ump Essie in her stupid face; punch her so hard her stupid tacky silk-front wig comes loose. Her fist clenches and she snaps. “Enough!”
Essie laughs and laughs. It’s a familiar laugh, a laugh that teases Claudette for still being such a baby. It’s the laugh her best friend has used to goad Claudette into every bad decision she’s made since high school. It’s the laugh she uses when mocking Claudette’s accomplishments, like her earning Student of the Year when they left school two years ago. Essie and Claudette are frenemies on a good day, with little more than age and history and geography linking them to each other. But history and geography are hard things to shake. So here Claudette is, back in Antigua after a year at University of the West Indies in Jamaica, home for the summer and circling back into Essie’s orbit.
But in all fairness Essie couldn’t have known.
Claudette hasn’t told anyone.
Here’s what happened. Where she lives on campus backs up against the Papine community in Kingston; between her and Papine there is a footpath the university students use for convenience, and an unmanned gate that is always open. She shares her box like room with a girl from middle Jamaica, a girl she barely spoke to all year, a girl too much like Essie. She’d been proud of her ability to resist the taunts and temptations, to reinvent herself into a young woman who owned her reserve and her oddities. Her roommate had tried to strong arm her into making the trip out to the coast with the group of them headed to Negril and a part of her had wanted to go, but she was proud of her decision to stay. She had exams coming up and they might laugh at her bookish ways but she’d be the one making the Dean’s List if she had anything to say about it. Come to think of it, maybe not much had changed after all. And she did kind of find herself feeling antsy once she was alone. Maybe she should have taken a break from the books and gone. She’d never been to Negril but their hard sell had kind of made it sound like paradise, a paradise of laid back debauchery, easy and available loving, and sunsets, beautiful sunsets. She pictured herself pressed up against some guy dancing hard like the earth needed their unleashed energy to keep spinning or something. When the banging on her back door jarred her back to herself she realized she was touching herself and the Poli-Sci book was abandoned wrong side up on the floor. When had that happened?
The banging sounded again and she jumped though she’d been expecting it.
“Who’s there?” she called. And she should’ve breathed easier when the voice came, Freed. Freed was a boy she’d been crushing on. He was tall and kind of built but not like those gym rats, not even like the boys who ran the length of the football field every day. Nah, he was solid like he’d been born that way. He was in a lot of the same classes as her and they’d got to talking a few times. He was from one of the other islands like her, which might explain why he was on campus this holiday weekend too. Except with as many girls as he usually had fishing around, that he’d hang back when the campus was this dead surprised her.
She let him in. But didn’t know what to do with him once she had; why he was there. Before she knew what was what he was on her on her bed and her mind was having trouble catching up.
See the thing of it was that despite Essie’s best efforts — “God you’re such a baby” — Claudette was still a virgin and it had gone on long enough now —she was 19 after all — that she was kind of embarrassed to own it. So she pretended like she knew more than she did and became one of those don’t kiss don’t tell girls. But if she thought about it she’d’ve realized that she and Freed had been dancing to this point for a while now. She sought him out for more than class notes and hung on his every word, and he flirted back. But since he flirted with every girl and, rumour had it, bedded a lot of those, she’d never had cause to think he felt anything for her. That question was answered with his hands between her legs, heavy finger massaging her clitoris just over her panties, her squirming every which way not sure if she wanted to get away or give in to it. She does wish she could stop thinking so damned hard about it.
Oh God, what were they doing? Oh God, what would her mama say? Oh God, wouldn’t Essie just laugh at this? Oh God, what if he realized she was a virgin? Oh God, would it hurt?
Maybe it was that last question that had her pushing back after a few frantic moments of him sliding up on her, his hand between her parted legs, his heavy penis rubbing against her leg through his basketball shorts. Oh yes, he played basketball, maybe that’s why he stayed so fit. Because she could feel his muscles now, the way his stomach muscles clenched as he bucked. She was skinny and soft and suddenly embarrassed by her body. And that had her pushing even harder. But he was heavy. And he didn’t stop. And she didn’t scream. And when he pushed inside her it hurt bad and it never got better, the feeling like her insides were scraping and like she had to take a massive dump. She prayed she didn’t not during the middle of all this; not while she was crying and whispering for him to stop and telling him how it hurt, not when he was shuddering on top of her and finally stilling, breathing hard.
And Oh God, he hadn’t used a condom. And later, when he left as he’d come through the back door, there was blood. But then maybe all girls bled the first time; she was sure she’d read that somewhere.
“You lose weight?” was the first thing her mama said.
And of course she noticed that in addition to not eating, she wasn’t sleeping.
Thank God for Essie. That’s what she’d thought when her friend re-inserted herself into her life because Essie, at least, was a distraction.
So here she was, still not fully in control of herself, and unsure of what had her so scared. He hadn’t broken into her room. There was no darkness, no masked man, no broken glass as she leaped to safety as people liked to imagine they would do in situations like that. She hadn’t screamed. She’d just whispered no, over and over and over again, and he hadn’t stopped.
Stupid song. And stupid her for letting it get to her like that.
They parked in the T N Kirnon schoolyard and walked between the other cars lined up in the school yard. And there they were, their dates. Both with their pants down and their chests up, like penguins. Freed didn’t wear his pants down around his knees showing his underwear and he slouched a little bit as if compensating for how tall he was, used to meeting people half way. She’d liked that about him, that she had to look up to talk to him, that he seemed to be leaning toward her.
These nights, when she dreamed about him, it always began like this, her smiling up into his face and some kind of glow behind him like sunset making it difficult for her to see his eyes. And at the back of her throat, a scream biding its time to scratch its way out.
Joanne C. Hillhouse is the Antiguan and Barbudan author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, and Oh Gad! She’s been published in several anthologies and journals. Joanne runs the Wadadli Pen writing programme to nurture and showcase creative works by young people in Antigua and Barbuda.