I was on Virgin Gorda, ashore at 8:00 a.m. doing my last loads of laundry before the trip south. Out of the wash and into the dryers, I was waiting to start folding. In came the cleaning lady, an older black woman, local, probably in her late sixties.
“Good morning,” I said.
“Good morning,” she replied, her speech thick with an island accent. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Jennifer,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Ariel,” she said.
Her childlike directness and something about her mannerism, a slight slur in her speech, a limping eyelid, had me wondering if she might be slightly handicapped. A laundry room cleaner at a little beach hotel, a Sunday morning, mopping up the floor around the leaky washing machines, who wants that job?
“You on a boat?” she continued with her frank queries.
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes,” I said elaborating, “my husband and I are here on our boat, we’re anchored just out there.”
“Where are your children?” she demanded to know.
“I don’t have children,” I answered. “It’s just my husband and me on the boat, just the two of us.”
“No children?” She peered into my face. What kind of woman has no children? she seemed to be thinking. I was shaking my head. She paused. Maybe she misunderstood. Maybe I had children, but they were somewhere else. She felt the need to double check. “No children?” she asked again with a note of incredulity.
“No, I don’t have any children,” I answered.
She stared, sizing up the wrinkles around my eyes, my skin damage, my hair, natural or colored? I suspected she was trying to determine my age; maybe there was still time for me. Maybe there was hope.
“No babies?” she asked a third time just to be sure.
I never want to answer that question. It brings back too much. If I answer at all, I keep it short and move the conversation along. But sometimes I just blurt it out – a blunt answer to a blunt question.
She plunged the mop head into the wringer.
“No babies,” I said. “I had one baby, but the baby died. After that no more babies.”
This was final. She stopped mopping. She looked me in the eyes.
“One baby? Baby died?” she asked stunned.
“Baby died,” I said.
Her head dropped a little and shook from side to side. No. This news was not okay.
“Baby born dead?” she asked bluntly. She needed to understand this.
“Yes, I said,” simplifying.
“At hospital? Baby dead at hospital?”
“Yes,” I said again. This was not the whole story and not exactly the truth, but I was not going to try to explain. It was complicated.
“Baby born dead and no more babies?”
“The baby died at the hospital, and after that, I had no more babies,” I said as a matter of fact. This was all true. Paralyzed, she tried to take it in. Sensitive to her discomfort I summed it up for her, “It was a very sad time,” I said.
“Very sad,” she agreed.
Slowly she resumed her work, moving her mop in semi-circles over the smooth cement floor. “Very sad,” she said again before shuffling out of the laundry room to continue her chores on the porch.
In a moment she was back.
“Your baby, boy?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, “a boy.” Again, not the whole story but not having answers is so difficult. I know. So, I gave her the answers she needed.
“Boy baby, born dead,” she summarized. She was picturing it now and looking at me, hard, searching my face, questioning my eyes. How had I survived this? How had I gotten up every morning and lived each day after this, after a baby died in the hospital? Again she wandered out muttering to herself, “Boy baby die no more babies.”
The floor by now was perfectly clean, she had mopped up the puddles and emptied the garbage bins. There was no more cleaning to be done, but Ariel kept coming back. It was as though she couldn’t bear to leave me alone with this news, as if this had all just happened. On this sunny Sunday morning, a woman in the laundry room had a dead child. Someone should be with her. She kept swinging back in to check on me.
I was folding the last of my clothes. She could see I would soon be leaving. She had one more question.
“Your son, how old is he?” she asked using the present tense.
“Nineteen,” I said without a moment’s hesitation. “He would be nineteen now. He would be a young man.”
“A young man now,” she repeated, knowing all that I had lost. “Nineteen.”
“It was a long time ago,” I said, jamming the smalls into my laundry bag. “It was a sad time, a long time ago.”