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  • Paula Tiberius

Responsibility On Bubukie Island

While I was in Jamaica a few weeks ago, I took a little side trip on a boat to Bubukie Island where a group of us were treated to grilled lobster under the shade of a spectacular sea grape tree.

I met a young man there who was one of the guides for a group from a different resort, and we started talking. His name was Shawn Smith.

I was joking around with him at first, asking him if he knew where Keith Richards lived (he’d never heard of him) then dialing it back to ask where in Negril one could hear real dance hall reggae. He had a lot to say about that subject.

I asked him where he was from and he pointed up to this lush, green mountain in the distance where apparently there are spring fed rivers and even a little lake. I told him it sounded like paradise, or at least a lot closer to it than these goofy hotels. He liked that.

Then he said, “Come, let’s sit.”

So I followed him over to a ‘table’ and ‘chairs,’ which I’m putting in quotes because they were actually just armatures – bamboo frames really. I was hesitant to sit on a row of sticks but he said it was more comfortable than it looked. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a Jamaican man pronounce the word comfortable, but it was quite something. It sounded like it had ten syllables.

I asked him why he left the mountain village and he said that he came to check on his mother.

“The situation was a lot worse ‘dan I thought,” he said.

“What, drugs?”

“Yes, ma’am. Lot of drugs. And my little brother was going to be in trouble, seen?” They say ‘seen’ all the time – it’s kind of like our ‘y’know.’ “So I took my brother and we get out of there.”

“What, you take care of your brother?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How old is he?”

“He 17.”

“And how old are you?”

“I am 24.”

“Wow, that’s young to have that much responsibility.”

He looked away and shrugged.

“Seriously, you should be really proud of yourself that you have your shit together to the point where you can take care of your brother. When I was 24 I couldn’t take care of a cat.”

He giggled at this, which was really so sweet, and we kept talking. He asked me where I was from and I told him. He looked wistful and started to talk about what it must be like in Los Angeles, everybody being so happy and rich. He said he’d like to go there, but he had to take care of his brother. He said he wished there weren’t so many poor people in Jamaica.

I told him that America’s not as great as he thinks it is. One in five children go hungry. One in five, Shawn! We’re not the greatest country in the world when we can’t feed our children.

“For real?” he said. “I never hear that fact.”

Then I went on an even longer diatribe about poverty in America and how the health care system is broken and poverty is rampant, ending with ‘it’s not right.’

“I know, it’s not right. But what can you do?” he asked.

“You can strengthen the government programs, make better schools, offer free health care, even the playing field for poor people so everyone has a chance,” I said. (I know, lighten up Tiberius – you’re on an island about to eat lobster!)

He looked at me sideways for a long time. “You know, I heard about ladies like you, but I never met one before. Now I met one.”

I smiled, not really sure what he meant. Socialist? Sympathetic? Political? Pasty white? Boring?

“Well, maybe not so bad here in Jam-ay-ca den,” he said.

“Look at this beautiful water, beautiful sand, trees. You have an apartment that you rent for you and your brother?”

“Yes, we have a room – it’s not bad.”

“Do you cook or get fast food to eat?” (I know, why am I badgering this kid?)

“No fast food. My brother like that, but I like to cook at home. Then I know what’s in my food, seen?”

“Amen to that.”

Then he told me he really likes me, not in a ‘husband and wife’ way (cute!) but as a friend. I said I really liked him too, and that he should be very proud of himself for taking care of his brother. Then I gave him twenty bucks and told him to take his brother out for dinner some night.

“Respect,” was his response. That’s another really big word down there.

Violet has this game she likes to play when we walk around the block in the evenings. She runs up ahead and sits down on the sidewalk pretending that she’s been abandoned by her mother. I’m supposed to approach her and say, “Where’s your mother, little girl?” at which point she makes up this long story about why her mother left her. It’s always different – sometimes her mother was following an ice cream truck and just forgot about her, sometimes she had to get on a plane and left her behind – and then it always ends the same way. I offer to be her ‘new’ mommy and show her around her ‘new’ house and introduce her to Jackson and her ‘new’ Daddy etc. It’s pretty disturbing, but she just loves the game, so I play along.

After meeting Shawn, I had a better understanding of Violet’s need to play this game. Sometimes the only way to know who you are is to challenge the core of what you know to be true. Shawn had to grow up fast, taking his younger brother away from his druggie mom, creating a new family dynamic where he was the responsible breadwinner, someone to be counted on. He told me he would never take bad drugs because “look what happen.”

Violet is compelled to play around with the idea of responsibility, as well as her own vulnerability in the world. She knows someone needs to take care of her, so she tests her parents out with a game to reinforce her idea of where she belongs. Lucky for her, Richard and I aren’t going anywhere.

I wish Shawn all the strength he needs to keep himself and his brother secure. And I wish for all the things I told Shawn would help fix America.

Also, the lobster was freakin’ delicious. They grilled it plain, then poured garlic butter over it – hello!

The cat liked it too. A cat on an island. Hmm.

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