The Leopard Ray
Sneer. That’s what I did best. A rebel act from some TV show I’d seen, the perpetual frown, the mouth twisted in a leer, the ‘I spit on you and all of your kind,’ look in my narrowed eyes.
It didn’t help my case.
“Jasmine, your behavior is unacceptable. You are excused from this table.”
The polite words were sheathed in ice. They stabbed me right in the chest and stupidly I looked down, half expecting to see my own fork planted there.
“Leave.” That word pushed me out of my chair, shoved me out the door, and slammed it behind me.
“Come back here and shut that door the right way!” The words chased me down the gravel path. I dodged, trying to lose them behind the hibiscus bush but they caught me in the form of more threats, “All right, stay down there, but don’t come back before you’re sent for, you hear?”
No answer required, only blind obedience. I wondered what my television rebel would do in my place. I looked at the flimsy, immaculate building perched on the cliff overlooking the sea, and I concluded he’d probably give a tantrum kick at the pylon holding it up and watch as it crashed. With icy eyes and a mouth twisted sideways. Screw you too.
My anger burst and I was left with a hollow in my chest. Anger was all that was keeping me going. I wandered down the path towards the beach (Private, s’il vous plait) and then walked out to the very end of the diving board Mr. Hollywood-Swimming-Pool-Architect had installed. Mr. Hollywood-Swimming-Pool-Architect had designed his own house. He had built it on a piece of million-dollar real estate on the island.
I stared at the horizon hopefully. Praying for a hurricane that would wipe the place off the map and spare my own house. My house was soggy during the rainy season, ants swarmed in cereal boxes, tarantulas drank in my shower and moths blundered softly through the rooms at night. Its rooms were small, dark, and dank, with millipedes curled in secret places. It was all we could afford.
Mr. Hollywood had paid our rent that month, as he’d paid the last month’s rent and “Goddammit Jasmine, can’t you be nice to him? He took us all to Virgin Gorda on his yacht for Easter. Please honey, don’t sulk like that, he’s nice to me, and if you’d just be a little more friendly…”
I concentrate on the black, volcanic rocks in the water that act as a natural breaker and keep the beach from getting swept away. They’re made of black lava – I know that they can cut like glass, and that they’re smoother on one side because of waves and wind. I know that the whole island is like that, smooth on one side, jagged on the other, and it takes away the bitter taste in my mouth. Just knowing things that Mr. Hollywood could never understand is soothing.
“Get off that diving board.”
Shit. Mr. Hollywood’s mutant son. I pretend not to hear. I’m safe out here. Percy would never dare wobble out to the end of the board, he’s afraid of height, has something called ass-ma, and is perpetually covered in a thick layer of white grease to protect his fairy-white skin.
“I said, get off that diving board. My father doesn’t like it when people sit there. It’s for diving, not sightseeing.”
I don’t reply. Why bother? His father didn’t like it when I did anything. When my mother mentioned timidly that I got a good mark in school, Percy’s father started in with how many classes Percy skipped and how his IQ amazed everyone. When she said, ‘Jasmine tried out for the gymnastics team,’ he replied, ‘They have gymnastics on this island? Who do they compete against?’ and he barked with laughter and said, ‘Percy is on the best crossbow team in Los Angeles County.’ My mother tried one last time, ‘You know, I was thinking about sending Jasmine to a private school in the states, to widen her horizons, you know.’ He just stared at her, then at me, and he didn’t even try to look charitable. ‘Jasmine in a private school? Why waste your money? She’s fine in the public school, I hear they have a very good secretarial classes.’ That’s when I blocked him out. Shit. And that was on the second dinner date. With Percy and me on our Very Best Behaviour. Afterwards, we dropped all pretence of getting along.
* * *
Percy hisses ‘white trash’ at me under his breath, but I know where it really hurts him.
I turn, very slowly, and pretend to lift sunglasses off my nose. “Oh Percy, it’s you! Why are you out in the sun? Go right back inside and put on your turtleneck and your long underwear. Then lie down and relax. Play some Nintendo. It’s good for you.”
He bunches his face up as if he was going to scream, but a lifetime of having manners pounded into him have taken away his better instincts. Instead, he turns and makes his way towards the little bungalow-daddy-built-Percy so that he could stay at the beach yet be out of the sun.
I decided to show off. I placed my hands on the end of the diving board and kicked my legs into the air. I could stay on my hands indefinitely. The board was stable, the water, twenty feet below me, was clear turquoise and I could see black sea-urchins, pink whelks, and schools of bright fish swimming in the reef. The water was thirty feet deep beneath me, but I could see to the bottom as if I was looking through glass. I stayed on my hands until the muscles in my shoulders started to quiver, and I was just thinking about letting go and dropping into that crystal world below, when I saw the leopard ray.
Surprised, I gave a cry. “A leopard ray! Percy, come look!” The magnanimous instinct within me had not been altogether crushed by Percy’s insufferable arrogance. Besides, I liked to show off. Percy knew the difference between sea anemones and sea urchins only because he stepped on one once when he forgot to put his plastic diving-sandals on his feet. Nitwit. He screamed so loudly we all thought he’d been struck by a stingray, or stepped on fire coral, or something dangerous, but it was only a peppering of black spines stuck in his left foot.
“Get a bowl of vinegar,” said my mother, pushing me towards the house. I looked in the kitchen, but aside tofu in the fridge and some sort of imported tea I didn’t find anything. I went down to the beach with an empty bowl and told Percy to pee in it. You might have thought I’d just slapped him. His father swept him up in his arms and drove him to the hospital. Percy screamed the whole way. I had to sit in the back-seat with him. His daddy wouldn’t dream of leaving my mother and me alone at the beach house. We might break something.
They were used to tourists at the hospital. However, there was a shortage of vinegar that day. The nurse told Percy to pee in a stainless-steel bowl and for a minute, I thought that Percy’s father would actually rent a private jet and take him to Florida for treatment.
He peed in the bowl, finally. It’s no use to pull out the spines with a tweezers; they just crumble and get infected. You have to dissolve them in acid.
Such a soothing thought. I smiled as I watched the leopard ray, the rarest and most beautiful fish in the Caribbean.
Percy actually dared come up behind me on the diving board. “Where?” he shouted.
I didn’t look at him, I just pointed. Then I turned and I saw he had his crossbow, and he was about to shoot the leopard ray.
“No!” I cried, and shoved him back.
He tottered on the diving board, almost fell, then made a terrible face and aimed at the fish gliding right on the surface, his dappled wings waving gently at us. “Get out of the way!” he snarled.
He was two years older than I was, but smaller and puny. I reached for him, intending to grab his neck and shake him, when the crossbow fired.
There was a sound like a hornet, and the metal arrow dove into the water, striking the ray a glancing blow. The ray leapt, its gold and black, dappled back glowing in the sun, and then it disappeared into the reef, exactly like a leopard slipping back into its jungle. I wanted to pound Percy’s head into the sand, but he was staring at me with his mouth hanging open, and that’s when I felt a strange coldness in my side. The arrow had passed right through me on its way to the sea. It punched a hole right through my kidney, which we found out later, when the x-rays came back.
Luckily, Percy didn’t listen to me. I was all for wrapping my towel around my side and hiding the damage. Because I realized that however proud his daddy seemed of him, it hid an overwhelming desire to crush him to dust and start over again, and maybe get something bigger, stronger, and without ass-ma.
Percy had enough sense of self-preservation to let me say it was all my fault, that I went to the bungalow, opened the forbidden cabinet, and took the weapon so that I could kill a dangerous stingray. So that Percy might swim in safety.
They operated on me in the local hospital. They were more used to tourists with sea urchin spines, so they screwed up and I lost my kidney. That’s all right, I can live with just one. But I can’t ever become a drinker, says Percy very seriously.
I tell him to shut-thefuckup, to give me some of his herbal tea, and to teach me how to get Mario all the way to the princess.