Chapter 15: Pearl
Nassau, Bahamas - 1936
The airplane jumped and rolled. Pearl clutched Ulysses’ hand tightly and listened carefully to the growl of the engine. Any minute now, it would stutter. She knew it. It would stutter and stop, and they would go crashing into the water. Ulysses had insisted on Pearl sitting next to the window on this, her first trip on an airplane, for her maximum enjoyment, but she wasn’t enjoying this at all. Her hand flew to the window shade, and she slammed it closed. She would never see her mother and father again. Their last words to each other would forever be the angry words they shared during that terrible scene on what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life, her wedding day.
On the afternoon of her wedding day, they dined in a beautiful oceanfront restaurant. Uly had insisted upon champagne and she had readily agreed, hoping to purge the sadness from her with some bubbles. It hadn’t worked. Although she’d only ever had a few sips of champagne, mostly on New Year’s Eve, Pearl was convinced she’d be able to handle the alcohol. After all, her mother could drink an entire bottle at the club and remain a joyful, ebullient spirit whom every person in the room craved the company of. Not so for Pearl. She’d become weepy and sentimental, gushing to Uly about her love for him and trying to convince herself that love was all that mattered. She wanted to believe the reaction of her parents was only the mood of a moment, as Uly insisted. Uly ended up taking her back to his hotel room in the late afternoon and putting her straight to bed with a glass of water and a tender kiss.
Uly had business to attend to that evening. He’d come home late, but she had been ready. She’d recovered from her champagne excesses and had taken a long bath, preparing herself for what she knew would be the most romantic evening of her life. Uly had been gentle, tender, and attentive. Making love to him was everything she’d dreamed it would be. By the following morning, when she woke to find a love note on her pillow, she knew she’d made the right decision. Uly was correct, her parents would come around. She would give them space and time, as he suggested. When he’d arrived home the day after their wedding, Ulysses had informed her that, unfortunately, the promised honeymoon in New York City would have to wait. He had at least two more weeks of business in Palm Beach and then it would be straight home to Nassau.
“Your parents will come around before then.” He’d said. “Perhaps we can bring them with us when we return to The Bahamas. Now they know that’s where their grandchildren will be raised, they may even consider moving to our little island paradise.”
It was clear that Pearl’s mother had packed her red suitcase. She had filled it with all of Pearl’s most cherished possessions. Her favorite jewelry was there, the violet dress she’d been hoping to wear on the streets of New York City. Her mother had even included one of her own scarfs she knew Pearl coveted. Surely, this suitcase, packed with such love and attention, was a sign. Surely it meant that Ulysses was right. Her parents just needed time. They loved her, both of them. They would come around.
But they hadn’t come around. They hadn’t come to the phone when she had called daily from July’s hotel room. They had returned none of Pearl’s couriered messages. Ulysses had forbidden Pearl from going to her old home, or attending the club.
“We must present a calm and dignified front, my angel. We can’t have a scene. It could affect business if your family speaks out. And so far they have not, which I take as a good sign. It means they are planning on reconciliation. They will get used to the idea. Give them time.”
She had given them two weeks. It was not time enough. And now she was on a plane about to die. They may not even recover her body, her parents would never see her again.
A booming thud shivered through Pearl’s torso and her stomach flipped as the airplane seemed to hop. This was it. These were the last moments of her life. She squeezed her eyes closed and gripped tighter to Ulysses’ hand. It would be a tragic, yet romantic, death. If they recovered her body, she would be holding the hand of her soul mate. Surely that would be enough to change her parent’s mind.
“This is it!” Ulysses said. How could he be so cheery?
The engine roar faded to a murmur, and the plane slowed. Pearl opened her eyes and lifted the shade from the window. There were no more clouds or glimpses of the blue ocean. Outside it was a forest of green through which pushed a path of cracked grey asphalt. They were in The Bahamas. Her tummy butterflies were back.
A car picked them up outside the tiny airport. Pearl was still shaky from the flight, but pulled herself together enough to smile at the older Bahamian gentlemen who had stacked their brand new luggage onto the back of the car. This included her red case from home, which she refused to give up. The driver had a gentle smile and wrinkled pink palms, which she saw when he lifted his hand to tip his hat in her direction. She smiled in return and he said a jumble of unrecognizable words. She glanced at Uly, who laughed at her confusion.
“He said, welcome to the island. That’s John. He’s your driver and general helper around the house. You have a cook and housekeeper as well. His wife Shelley. You’ll get used to the patois. If you don’t, John will just have to try harder. Won’t you John?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Hanna,” John said.
John had driven them through the downtown and Pearl’s butterflies expanded to fill her chest with excitement. She was not in Palm Beach anymore. There were the familiar palm trees and the salt-scented breezes, but the architecture had a feel of the distant past. And unlike the wide, clean, half-empty streets of downtown Palm Beach, masses of people crowded the messy streets, their faces primarily black. There were beautiful women in linen dresses and wide-brimmed hats hustled past with piles of shopping bags. Sharply dressed men leaned against the trunks of trees, taking advantage of the small patch of shade, smoking cigars and chatting. A police officer in a crisp white uniform and funny helmet stood on a box in the middle of the street, enthusiastically directing traffic with dramatic movements and hand signals. It was choreography worthy of George Balanchine.
“What do you think, my angel?” Uly leaned over and nuzzled her ear, lighting the fire in her belly that she couldn’t get enough of since her wedding night.
“It’s wonderful!” She said. And she’d meant it. Then.
Nassau was not the paradise that Ulysses had promised. The newlywed Hannas had been in their home for two weeks now and Pearl was homesick and miserable. Uly had rightly expected her to arrive and immediately step into her role as lady of the household. He’d been a bachelor for so many years, he’d told her. He was looking forward to having a home, instead of only a place to sleep. She was failing him terribly.
“It’s been two weeks, Angel. I don’t mean to be a complainer, but Highwater looks exactly the same as the day you moved in. What happened to the woman’s touch?”
Ulysses had come home around 8:00 pm, which was early for him. Since their return to Nassau and Pearl’s introduction to the disaster that was Highwater, Uly had been out most nights until after midnight. She didn’t blame him. He worked so hard and, as he said, the type of work he did required long hours of entertaining and pretending. She knew he’d much rather be home with her, but the fact was she was lonely.
“I’m sorry, darling. I know I haven’t done much.” That was an understatement. She’d done nothing. Now she turned in a circle in the middle of the living room and saw only stacks of old newspapers, ragged old sofas covered with blankets marked with cigar burns, and a long shelf with rows of liquor bottles and an ice bucket.
“You have a housekeeper. Have you not asked Shelley to work on cleaning all this up?” He swept his arm across the scene as though she had created the mess, and it hadn’t been exactly this way when she’d arrived.
“Yes. I have. She’s awfully busy, she says Uly. She has to cook our meals as well.”
“Angel, did you look outside around 3:00 pm this afternoon?”
“No. I was… busy… why?” She hadn’t been busy. She’d been in bed. She never seemed to get out of bed. The Bahamas could not be significantly hotter than Palm Beach, but to her, it felt significant. It felt as though from the moment she rose from her bed, she was swimming instead of walking through the day. The heat made her irritable and nauseous. In fact, this morning, she’d lost her mango breakfast shortly after eating it.
“Well, I happened to be passing by, and your “busy” Shelley was lounging outside having a sleep under the avocado tree.”
“You were here? This afternoon? And you didn’t come to see me?” Pearl had spent so little time with Uly since they’d arrived back in Nassau. He was so busy. She was so lonely. She’d tried with Shelley, she really had, but the woman just nodded at her smiling and continued to do things exactly the way she’d always done them, which was badly.
“I was busy, Angel. Just passing through.” He walked to the cigar-burned couch and flopped down, the ceiling fan stirring lazily above him, making no difference at the speed someone currently set it. She’d asked John to change that, as she couldn’t reach the cord. He’d obviously ignored her.
Now Uly snapped his fingers and John rushed over, although he’d been invisible the entire day. “Fetch me a gin and tonic. Slice of lemon too.” Uly said.
John rushed away, moving faster than she thought it was possible for the man to move. What Pearl wouldn’t give for lovely, efficient Ella right now. With the thought of Ella, a pang of homesickness hit her in the gut and she spoke before she thought.
“Maybe a quick trip home would cheer me up. What do you think?”
“No,” Uly said.
And that was that.
Ulysses was angry that her parents had not yet made amends. He’d been convinced they would hear from them prior to their return to The Bahamas. He expressed his disappointment to her frequently. It was almost as though he blamed her for them not bringing her back into the fold. But she’d tried everything. They were still angry. It was inconceivable to her she hadn’t spoken to her mother for a month, but Uly seemed more upset by that fact than she was. His earlier casualness about her being cut off had disappeared, and she didn’t know what to make of it.
“To be honest, Pearl, I am tired of you asking about your parents. You need to play the game. It seems they require a longer separation from their daughter before they realize their mistake and a longer separation we shall give them.” Pearl had never heard the anger in Uly’s voice directed toward her. It was frightening. What he said next was worse. “And I need to you to step up and do the job I married you for. I need to bring people to my family's home to entertain and do business. It needs to be a home I would want to welcome people to and right now, it does not fit the bill. This, my angel, is your responsibility. It is also your responsibility to be a lovely, dutiful hostess. I would be ashamed to present you as my wife just now. You are letting yourself go, darling. You look like you drowned in the sea and I dragged you out, barely alive. Time to straighten up. Now go to bed angel and get some rest.”
Go to bed? It was 8:30 pm. He was home for the first time in weeks. She’d expected they would dine together. Was she a child to be ordered around?
“Are you coming, too?” She asked, thinking perhaps she’d misunderstood his intentions for the evening.
“Absolutely not. I am going to sit and enjoy my drink and then have my meal on the patio. I’ll have Shelley bring yours to the room.”
Pearl was curled in a ball on the bed and sobbing when Shelley arrived with her dinner. Everything was awful. She’d made a terrible mistake.
“Aw, don’t cry, Ms. Pearl,” Shelley said. “Shelley will help you sort it all when you have some more energy. We can do the house together.”
Pearl looked up at the kind face of the old woman. “You’ll help me, Shelley?”
“Surely, sweetie. I’ll help you get everything ship-shape.” Shelley put the tray on the side table and sat on the edge of the bed next to the curled-up Pearl.
“But, You have done nothing since I arrived,” Pearl said. It was also true that Pearl hadn’t asked. She’d been slightly afraid of the bossy old woman who had shooed her from the kitchen and ordered her back to bed on several occasions.
“Mr. Hanna, he don’t realize he can’t push you now. You need a few weeks to rest. You’ll get your energy back, though, and we’ll make this house a mansion.” Then she did something stunning. Shelley placed a palm flat on Pearl’s equally flat stomach. “Mr. Hanna? He’ll be better when the baby comes.”
The baby? Of course. The baby. How could Pearl be so blind? She hadn’t worried when her monthlies hadn’t arrived. Sometimes that happened when she felt stressed. But everything else… the fatigue, the sickness, the easy tears that came now as she placed her hand over the old woman’s.
Pearl was pregnant.