Been together like school children,
Then you hurt me just in vain.
Lord, I’m your weary child.
Happiness, come back awhile.
Cause if you don’t come, I’ve got to go
Lookin’ for happiness.
The road is dangerous.
Well, if you don’t come, I’ve got to go
Lookin’, Lord, for happiness, happiness.
—I’m Hurting Inside, Bob Marley
I know this man. Not terribly well. But in the way I know a lot of people. I talk to him every now and then. Depending on the route I take to go home. He always struck me as a gentle soul. Willing smile that lights up his eyes and you don’t notice that he’s missing teeth. He’s too young to be an elder but too old to be a contemporary. So I listen to his jokes when I stop at his van and crack a joke or two of my own and he’s nice enough to laugh at them. He is the coconut vendor who occasionally gives me advice on my love life and my work and whatever is on my mind that particular day. I guess I like him because he listens without prejudice. We give each other glimpses of our very different lives and I am usually thankful that I took the time and unplugged myself from my headphones long enough to share with someone who is not part of my immediate circle of loved ones and friends.
This day is the first I have seen him in a few months and it is so hot that I harbour soucouyant fantasies of escaping my skin that I swear is sizzling like I have already turned into a ball of fire. The asphalt is melty soft under my feet and Maracas is too far to be an achievable goal at this hour. He smiles when he sees me and I ask for my usual medium jelly. The jelly he has is firm and so he waits for me to drink the water and then patiently scoops the jelly out for me, more concerned about me breaking my nails than I ever could be. It’s then that I notice that his skin on his right arm is singed. Pink flesh peeps through burnt black patches. It looks like it’s healing well. I watch his arm as he separates the jelly from the husk and I wonder if to engage my Trini maco gene and work this obvious scar into the conversation. I am suddenly shy and wishing that I didn’t notice. I fear that I don’t really want to hear the story.
I don’t know if he has noticed me watching but he offers an explanation. He says he got into a rage and burnt his car and himself in the process too. I try to make light of the situation. Why you do dat, boy? I try to disguise the horror in my voice behind my Trini tone of trivialisation. He says, rum nah. Matter of fact like.
It’s obvious that this is the answer. He tells me about his wife again and I remember him telling me a few months ago that you can be with someone and still be all alone. He says now that he wishes she would leave him alone after he’s had a long day and not come and bother his head with her own failures. I don’t know what else to do. So I stuff my mouth full of jelly so I don’t have to come up with a more reasonable response. And I give a noncommittal nod. Like I understand the need to be left alone sometimes. Like I am secretly relieved that he only burned his car and himself.
Relatively speaking his behaviour is reasonable. Domestic violence headlines haunt us every day. I am disturbed that I am relieved at this man’s self-harm. I don’t ask any more questions. I am not a counsellor. I try to listen without prejudice but find myself wanting to plead with him to get help from some place that I fear does not exist. I don’t know where to tell this man to go and get help for his rum problem. Or his anger that he is now wearing as a scar on his right arm. I eat my firm jelly and he looks off into the setting sun. It is still unbearably hot but the coconut water soothes me a bit. The streets blare with police sirens, shuffling piper feet, the cursing of some inebriated hawk-and-spit regular.
When I am finished swallowing my jelly and the tears I want to cry for a man I hardly know, he is upbeat. He says he is going to get back the car he burnt. I ask what he’s putting on the arm. He says he is monitoring it. Testing his healing by his capacity to feel pain. The day he stops feeling, he says, is the day to get worried. I am more worried about healing the other scars. I manage to ask him, so you done with that rum ting, right? Nah! His response is swift and backed up by evidence of his continuing habit, a bottle of something held triumphantly in his hand before he puts in back in the barrel at his side. Rum till we all die, amen. I make a parting plea with him to give up the rum ting. He smiles and says okay, he will try. I smile and say take care of yourself.
Even the gentle souls here brush up against the face of violence. And some of us carry our scars outside but there are many more of us carrying our scars inside. And the rest of us look on powerless to intervene except to give whatever extra love we have to spare, even as we try to love ourselves into healing our own wounds. Shocked that the people we know. Our neighbors and friends. Our lovers and coconut vendors, all have the capacity for violence. It’s not just the monsters in the newspapers. It’s not just the disturbed teenagers beating up their school mates on tape. It’s not just the sicko police man brandishing a gun in the middle of cricket to stop the dutty wining antics of pitch stormers. Violence is closer than we like to admit and growing to be so common that soon scars outside will be national emblems.
He smiles his gappy smile and I go home, even more acutely aware of how powerless we all are to confront the growing diseases of violence, anger and how those problems are heavily medicated with alcohol. Who will save us from our scars? Who will be able to tell where the scar tissue ends for the healing to begin?