Foreign Exchange

Fiction

Vincent walked to the back of the plane, to the very back where the seats didn’t properly recline, took his place by the window and hoped without much conviction that the two empty seats beside him would remain that way. Flight 966 left Toronto for Barbados every morning and it always seemed to be full. It was April 12th, the sky was overcast, but the airport crew working on the tarmac wore light jackets. Low season in the Caribbean would officially begin in three days time; winter had passed, summer would soon be here.

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In the broadest of outlines, Vincent knew what he was doing here; he could trace his way back through a series of random events that inevitably led him to today’s seat assignment. It was harder for him to imagine why all the other passengers filing down the aisle had come to join him here today. There were couples on vacation, Barbadians going home, men and women on business. They’d all packed their bags the night before, felt excitement or discomfort or both at the thought of leaving their home or returning home, had double checked their tickets and passports, wallets and contact lenses if they wore them and had, like Vincent, crawled into bed knowing that by the following day they’d be sleeping in another country.

“We’re right here.”

Vincent looked up and saw a man standing beside the empty seats to his left. His words were directed toward a woman standing behind him and, as she waited for him to crawl into the middle seat, Vincent lifted his elbow off the dividing arm rest—there was a certain observed etiquette about these sorts of things—but immediately began to regret his decision, thinking it impulsive and too full of goodwill. They were a couple, thought Vincent. And couples had the option to lift the bar between themselves and inhabit space that strangers were unable to access.

Do you know how humiliating it is for me? Everybody knows.

He was reminded—not that he needed any reminding—that he was one body short of a couple himself, that he was alone. That was his fault. It was all his fault. Kathy had kicked him out, had actually kicked him. The surprise he felt when her leg had snapped out from beneath her, striking him in the calf, made him bend down in his seat and give it a rub. It was still sore.

“After everything, how could you?” she’d shouted at him.

He still didn’t have an answer for that. He’d just done it, without planning or even mischief, certainly with little or no foresight.

Had he ever believed he’d get away with it? On a small island like Barbados you had to be an expert, a local, to carry on an affair, and from what he’d read in the papers and heard in the rum-shacks, not even they could keep it a secret for very long. Of course his wife would find out. And she had.

“Do you know how humiliating it is for me? Everybody knows. There I was waving at people on the road, talking to them and they knew. It was my place. And now I can’t go back.”

Kathy’s words, so clear in his mind, so obtrusive and loud, made him momentarily fear that the man sitting beside him had overheard them. It made him feel claustrophobic. He shifted in his seat and leaned against the window.

Kathy always sat in the middle seat. The first time it was so he could see the island from the air. “I’ve seen it before,” she’d said, which hadn’t led Vincent to relinquish his spot even after he’d seen it too. It wasn’t very gallant of him, he reflected, and he wondered if he’d never offered to make his wife more comfortable because she’d first visited Barbados with her former boyfriend. He’d seen the pictures: tanned bodies with white teeth smiling into the sun. He’d never thought that it had bothered him, even after he’d recognized their hotel room from the photo album, reasoning that everybody had a past. Kathy had a way of taking possession, of making things and places, people too, her own. It had been Kathy’s history Vincent had entered into when he arrived on the island, not the man who’d come before him.

Only it wasn’t her island anymore, or her history, thought Vincent.

“Nobody knows,” he’d said to her.

I know!”

“I mean, we kept things secret.”

“Secret? What sort of secret could it be if I found out!”

And that’s when she’d kicked him.

The familiar routine of departure soothed him; the snapping shut of the stow-away bins, the cross-check and electronic dings, the safety presentation and announcement of flight time and weather and, finally, the command by the pilot for the flight attendants to take their seats before the great whine and shuddering as the plane lifted toward the sky.

Vincent reached into his breast pocket for his sunglasses but didn’t pull them out. He never actually wore sunglasses on a plane, just liked the thought of what they represented, of the bright light he was about to enter as the plane pierced the clouds. It was the moment when he knew he was out, freed from the steel grey bonds of winter. But it wasn’t winter anymore, and he was still escaping.

“Vacation?”

The man in the middle seat was speaking to him. Vincent nodded. “No,” he said, contradicting himself. “I rent a house down there.”

“Lucky.”

Vincent didn’t like the idea of someone thinking he was lucky and offered a vague nod.

Kathy never had a problem telling people they rented a house in the Caribbean. She’d mentioned it without a trace of self-consciousness. It was different for Vincent. In the beginning, when he was still showing the signs of illness, when he was still yellow, there was an unspoken understanding. But Vincent looked perfectly healthy now and felt that he had to be careful because people didn’t like the idea of someone in their thirties going back and forth to the Caribbean for no good reason.

“My wife and I were going to go to Saint Lucia but there weren’t any seats so our travel agent recommended Barbados. She said it’s a good place. We’re staying at the Almond Beach Resort.”

“That’s a nice place,” Vincent said, pulling out the flight magazine from his seat pocket. For people like that, thought Vincent, it was all interchangeable: a bed, a beach, a buffet. Maybe it was once like that for him too.

Flipping the pages until he got to the route map, he stared at a world bound together with yellow rope lines and followed the flight path southward until it terminated on a tiny dot in the ocean. Vincent squinted as if that would help him to better see the rented cottage on the cliff, its wooden shutters closed against the wind, car tucked in the garage and, just beyond the garage, his two dogs stretched out in the morning sun clueless to the fact that he would be arriving there this afternoon: Brunei, arthritic with age but still loyal, massive and watchful—a real guard dog with balls still attached—and Maxi, an island pit bull whose brown-haired tail swished left to right with the precision of a windshield wiper in moments of excitement. They’d be happy to see him. That, at least, was something.

It was the dogs, thought Vincent, who’d first made him suspect or at least imagine the possibility of leading a double life. There was his dog in Toronto, Dylan, who would obsessively follow him around the house whenever he began to pack his bags, sniffing the scent of abandonment; then, in Barbados, when it was time to pack his bags again, his other set of dogs would listlessly keep watch by the gate, not even moving out of his way when it was time to go. He’d often have to lift up his suitcase and step over their depression.

Vincent had sometimes wondered if the dogs could smell one another, if he carried their scent from one location to the next, confirming not just that they’d been temporarily abandoned, but that they had also in some been betrayed. He’d always found it difficult to leave them; he’d also found out how easy it was to forget them.

It was more than just forgetting. Somehow, by the time Vincent reached his destination, what he’d left behind had, in some real way, ceased to exist. He’d walk through the door of his cottage in Barbados, see everything as it was on the day he’d left and feel that the time between these two events had collapsed. It was the same when he returned to Toronto.

Shifting his focus from the tiny Caribbean speck, Vincent stared at the whole world again and came to the conclusion that he wasn’t the sort of person who could properly believe in the existence of any other place but the one he found himself in. He loved his dogs, but he forgot them; and Vincent was aware he wasn’t just talking about dogs.

He hadn’t wanted the dogs in Barbados. You can’t rent them out like a house and then leave them behind when you’re finished, he’d told Kathy. She’d insisted otherwise, especially after their white Barbadian neighbours across the field had let it be known that they knew a few things about the island that had been left out of the tourist brochures. The dogs were necessary for protection, they said, against what they claimed euphemistically as “people’s foolishness.” Clearly, in hindsight, there were certain types of foolishness that no dog could protect you from.

“I do a lot of travelling too.” The man sitting beside Vincent was staring at his map. He pointed toward Asia. “I just got back from India. That place is booming. It’s unbelievable what’s happening over there. Places like that are going to take over.”

“We shipped some of our IT work to India,” said Vincent, like he was still working, like it mattered. They could send the whole fucking company overseas for all he cared.

The burping and the pain below his ribs had begun during his first trip to Barbados.

“You work in computers?”

“Foreign exchange.”

“How do you get to go to Barbados all the time? You do work down there?”

“I got sick.”

Vincent noticed the man’s wife put down her magazine.

“I’m okay now. The doctors thought it would be a good idea if I stayed out of the cold so my wife and I rented a place in Barbados.”

He felt better for saying that he had a wife; and it was true, he did have one. Besides, he reasoned that it was an improvement over saying he was sick and getting a divorce.

“Is she down there with you?”

This came from the man’s wife.

“We go back and forth.”

Vincent offered a weak and, he thought, rather hideous smile. For a moment no one said anything, just sat in the seats and listened to the sound of the engines propelling them forward.

The burping and the pain below his ribs had begun during his first trip to Barbados. He’d put it down to the change in food and the consumption of tropical alcohol but the symptoms hadn’t gone away after his return. Vincent was too busy catching up at work to bother much about his body and besides, he wasn’t the sort of person who went to the doctor just because you weren’t feeling well; you went to the doctor because you were feeling terrible. A month after his trip, he saw the doctor.

It all happened pretty quickly after that: the rounds of specialists, the blood work, ultrasounds, CAT scans; pretty soon his eyes had started to go yellow. His body just broke down. It was like when Vincent needed to pee and the closer he got to the bathroom the more he needed to go. The same with the doctors. Before each appointment he felt a little sicker until pretty soon he could no longer function at work.

Primary sclerosing cholangitis. He hadn’t heard of it. Not that it mattered much, he had it, and it was attacking, or would eventually attack, his liver. The doctors didn’t understand much about the disease and couldn’t tell him how he’d contracted it. And they didn’t have a proper cure. The only thing to be done, they said, was eventually to replace his liver. And new livers, they’d told him, weren’t all that easy to come by. In the future they’d be able to use transgenic pig livers, but Vincent didn’t live in the future and wasn’t entirely sure he wanted bits of a pig inside of him.

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What Vincent discovered was that if you added up all the impossibly rare diseases in the world it came to an epidemic. Only one person from work had heard of what he had and only because some famous American football player had died of it—as if, thought Vincent, that made his disease a little more legitimate. Most of the people he worked with were men, and men, even his closet friends, didn’t seem capable of all that much sympathy. He wasn’t sure if it was different for women—he thought it might be—but even some of them appeared, when you got right down to it, hostile. It was as if his colleagues believed he might infect them. It was the herd mentality.

Vincent had seen it operate in the financial markets, the way everyone suddenly piled into tech stocks or real estate bonds, bought yen one week and dumped them for dollars the next even if the fundamentals hadn’t really changed. They sniffed weakness in him, saw that he was lame, and the herd had to move on; they didn’t have time to protect Vincent.

His job wasn’t a charity. He of all people knew that, was even proud of it. He also knew that he couldn’t keep up the pace. Still, when he was pulled aside one afternoon and told to take some time off, he hadn’t been ready for it. He’d stood there, conscious that they’d been waiting for him to make the first move, to save them from the burden of discharging him. Disability insurance would cover his expenses, they said. He could come back when he was feeling better. That was one and half years ago.

It wasn’t his illness that kept him away now. It was something else. The person who’d picked up his belongings that final day at work and walked out the door was someone he no longer felt familiar with. The bonds were broken; his colleagues had slipped away from him and before Vincent knew it, he’d slipped away from them. In the beginning, he’d visit them after work. They needed to unwind. He couldn’t drink. It was a problem not drinking, to stay sober while the voices all around him became louder and everyone spoke without looking at one another, except when ordering more drinks from the waitress. No one ever mentioned his disease, which Vincent appreciated—he didn’t want to talk about it either—but there’d come a time when no one was asking him because they’d somehow forgotten that he wasn’t well. It wasn’t polite, he thought, not asking, even once. There was something horrible about it.

Unlike his friends and colleagues, Kathy had been there for him, with sympathy though not indulgence.

“Right now your job is to recover,” Kathy had said, and recovery, according to her, was too important a job to simply remain resting. It entailed work. It was Kathy’s idea, and not Vincent’s or the doctors, to rent a house in Barbados. The idea, at least initially, hadn’t been particularly appealing.

“You can swim,” Kathy reminded him. “Salt water is good for leaching out the toxins. You can take walks along the beach. You can lie in the sun and relax.”

Listening to her, Vincent felt grateful she wasn’t suggesting Florida, where people were both sick and old, expiring in condos fifty stories above sea level. Well, that’s how he pictured it anyway. Barbados didn’t have condos, or not very big ones anyway, and it was also blessedly free from any venomous snakes, spiders and life-threatening water-borne diseases. There was a spot of dengue—Vincent had read about it in the papers when he’d visited the island on vacation—but generally Barbados was an island with all the virtues and few of the vices associated with the tropics. Kathy said it had been famous for taking in sick people for centuries.

She wasn’t the sort of person who tolerated depression if only, Vincent suspected, because she disliked the inefficiency of it. Unfortunately, Vincent found that he didn’t need to be efficient: he had no job; and he was being paid.

There was the special kitchen where all the knives were lined up, large to small, each in its plastic sheath; and there was the way she organized the fridge, where every compartment was taken very seriously. Vegetables always needed to be in the bin marked vegetables, the same went for meats. And she couldn’t stand the sight of missing eggs—it was as if she’d found gaps between her own teeth when she stared at the empty slots. The house, of course, was always in impeccable order, an order she was by and large happy to formulate and maintain. Kathy was very self-sufficient that way. Vincent did his best to comply with her needs—overall he found them beneficial—but as they were her needs, only she was invested with the proper authority to carry them out.

It had all worked rather well until Vincent became sick. Then, despite her sympathy, it was as if Kathy didn’t know what fridge compartment he should be stored in. He was always in the house, messing things up. He was the mess.

“I’ll come and visit,” Kathy said, as if he’d be around the corner. “And you won’t be down there all the time, just when you feel like it.

At first, Vincent didn’t feel like it. He found it odd that you could, on a whim, jump on a plane, change seasons, habits and location, all within a few hours. He wasn’t used to that sort of thing. It wasn’t that Vincent hadn’t travelled before. He’d taken vacations, travelled for work; but there’d been plans for that, people had been notified, time set aside, return dates booked. This was different, and for reasons he couldn’t properly explain it didn’t feel right, morally speaking, to be able to take to the skies like that, to fly on a whim. He didn’t think it was good for the environment, although unlike Kathy, whose sense of order seemed perfectly suited toward sorting recyclables in their proper bins, he had to admit that the only time he was truly interested in the environment was when it made him uncomfortable. Maybe what bothered him was simply the idea of all that oil siphoned out of the earth and burnt off at thirty thousand feet in the air, all so he could take a walk on a beach.

Looking out at the blackened fins of the jet engine, Vincent was beginning to wonder if there were better uses for all that oil when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

Vincent considered it rude to be interrupted like that—surely the man sitting beside him could tell that Vincent wasn’t in the mood for conversation—but turning his head he saw a flight attendant standing in the aisle waiting to deliver him a drink.

“How long are you going down for?” the man asked after Vincent placed a cup of orange juice on his tray.

“I don’t know exactly. You?”

“A week.” The man smiled. “It’s sort of our honeymoon.”

“Congratulations.”

“We were married six months ago.”

Vincent took a sip of his drink and emptied his mind.

“What’s there to do?”

The man beside him looked at Vincent as if suddenly frightened by the prospect of unscheduled time. Vincent hesitated. He’d played tour guide before and had once caught himself talking proprietarily about the island, as if it was his, as if he belonged, before spotting the displeased face of a Barbadian sitting in the row across from him. He was more cautious now.

“There are lots of things to do.”

Vincent ran through a perfunctory list: a drive up the east coast, shopping in Bridgetown, golf, caves, scuba diving. Or sleeping with another woman, he thought. Maybe he’d slept with Sonia because it was just one more activity, like para-sailing; one more thing to do and see in a foreign country. But Vincent might have been wrong about that. He wasn’t really sure about anything anymore. Except this: the dogs would be happy to see him.

“You can walk my dogs if you want.”

“Dogs?”

“I have two of them.”

“My wife wants a dog,” he said without looking at her. “But we’re so busy we can’t even have a honeymoon on time.”

Vincent nodded, aware that he’d once been busy in just the same way.

“Who takes care of them while you’re away?” asked the man’s wife.

“Someone comes over and feeds them everyday. They live outside.”

This description struck Vincent as almost elegant in its simplicity. While they did have someone who fed the dogs and filled up their water bowls Vincent knew that the type of care the woman in the aisle seat was getting at had lately been provided by Sonia. She gave them walks and petted them. She gave them love.

“They’re not really pets. They’re more like guard dogs.”

“Isn’t it safe?” This question came from the man. “I heard Barbados was safe.”

“Don’t they get lonely?” asked the woman.

“Yes, they do,” admitted Vincent.

It was the loneliness of the dogs that had led him to Sonia, his loneliness too when he thought about it. If the dogs hadn’t escaped through the fence, if he hadn’t gone in search of them, if they hadn’t ended up at Sonia’s home, then he wouldn’t have slept with her.

“I got robbed at knifepoint in the Dominican Republic. It’s not like that place is it? There’s a lot of poor people in the Dominican.”

His wife wanted to know more about the dogs. Vincent thought she was a bit obsessive about them. Where had he gotten them from? What kind of breed were they? How old?

He remembered the way Sonia, dressed in a white cotton shirt, had leaned down and petted the dogs, her bare feet resting on the cool concrete of the porch. “I think you’ve lost something,” she’d said when Vincent approached. He’d never slept with a black woman before.

He kept bringing the dogs over—they offered a sense of domesticity completely at odds with the facts at hand, but he soon began to feel that it was a mistake. Whenever Kathy came down, Vincent began to wonder if they would somehow manage to convey to her where they’d been and what had been happening. If he saw Kathy offering them a biscuit, he always made sure to offer them two more. “You’re spoiling them,” she’d say fondly, which always made him feel even more guilty because he knew she found his indulgence touching.

It was all bound to come out sooner or later. Nothing could be kept secret on a small island. Neighbours had noticed, neighbours had gossiped. It didn’t need the dogs to let Kathy know what was going on. And obviously it wasn’t the dogs’ fault that he’d slept with Sonia. Vincent hadn’t been in contact with her since events had overtaken them and he was unsure how she would react when he arrived. Hours later, when the plane began to make its descent, he already found it difficult to imagine what they had in common. He lived in two worlds; perhaps what happened in one place made no difference in the other place. His life would reset, as it had previously done, to the moment before he’d left.

“Is that Barbados?”

The man beside him was pointing out the window. Vincent stared down at the coral island as the plane gently glided down the west coast. He could see the hotels and the boats and, as they got even lower, some tourists lying on the beach.

“That’s where you are,” Vincent said, spotting the outline of the Almond Beach Hotel.

The man’s wife leaned toward the window to take a look.

“And where are you?” she asked, but Vincent didn’t have an answer.


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