I felt marginally better the next morning. After taking a cautious inventory of my faculties I even decided to tear up the detailed instructions I’d written the night before regarding the disposal of my remains.
Michael made coffee but I couldn’t drink it. “You have to ingest something,” he chided, as if using the word “ingest” would convince me to do anything other than laugh in his face (if I’d had the energy).
Next he tried to persuade me to eat a bowl of cereal. Corn flakes, no less. I made feeble, gagging sounds and retreated to the balcony with Book Two.
This was Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World. Hardly a masterpiece, I admit, but gripping in its own way.
I felt true pity for the heroine, Alice Goodwin, when she went to jail for a crime she didn’t commit. Halfway through the rousing courtroom scene, my fever broke. Between the penultimate and final chapters my nausea subsided. By the time I put the book aside I felt almost giddy.
I was reminded, not for the first time in my life, that there’s nothing like someone else’s troubles to cheer you up.
Michael, restless as ever, sensed my upgraded status and proposed another beach outing. I agreed but suggested we try a prehistoric-monster-free beach this time around.
Luckily, while I’d been reading a book with the word “map” in the title he’d been studying actual (i.e., useful) maps. This was another of his favorite, vaguely obsessive-compulsive, activities. He spread out a wrinkled map across the kitchen table and pointed to a strip of land along the southwestern corner of the island.
“Playa Grande,” it was labeled, in pseudo-gothic treasure map script.
When the U.S. Navy had vacated Vieques earlier that year, Michael patiently explained, two-thirds of the island had been turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a National Wildlife Refuge, which now contained all the best beaches on the island.
And one of the best of the best, according to Michael, was Playa Grande.
After downing a couple of fistfuls of pills, I grabbed a towel, and we were on our way.
I’ll never forget that first drive to Playa Grande.
The road leading to the beach takes you in an almost direct north-south line from the top of the island to the bottom. At first the road looks like nothing more than a rocky dirt path that leads to nowhere. But after a few twists and turns it broadens slightly and, once you’ve chugged and bounced your way up a very steep hill, it opens up suddenly onto a deep, lush valley into which the road plunges you straight down before climbing up again.
This roller coaster ride is repeated three times until you crest the final hill and there before you lies the turquoise Caribbean, fringed by towering blackish-green palm trees and backed by a broad lagoon.
It was so extravagantly travelogue-beautiful we actually laughed out loud.
The final stretch of road leading to the beach was deeply rutted, even by island standards, and very overgrown. Palm fronds slapped the windshield, prickly pears scratched the car doors. A furtive-looking mongoose shot across the road in front of us. To our left, through the thick sea grapes, we caught occasional glimpses of the sparkling sea.
Then quite abruptly we came to a Jersey barrier, upon which had been spray-painted, in a sprawling hand, “Bridge out.” Thanks for the update.
It was a huge beach (thus its name) and there wasn’t a soul in sight. To the left stretched a long curving expanse of sand that led, in the far distance, to a promontory beyond which we suspected Esperanza lay (Michael later confirmed this with his trusty map).
And to our right, just beyond a shallow tributary that obviously fed the lagoon behind us, lay the most glorious expanse of beach either of us had ever seen, culminating approximately half a mile away in an artfully-arranged collection of massive boulders cascading down the hillside into the sea.
For at least two or three minutes we stood in silent awe until Michael said, “Are you up for a short walk?”
I surprised myself not only by saying yes but meaning it—even in my current feeble state I couldn’t imagine saying no to such beauty.
Wading gingerly across the broad, shallow stream, flip flops in hand, we marveled at the tiny sea creatures darting through the water as our footsteps roiled the warm sand, and eventually we made our way to the other side and along the white beach.
It was glorious, exhilarating—and tiring. After about fifty yards I began to flag. The sun was powerful even at this time of year and sweat was trickling down my back. Excited though my mind was, my body was rebelling.
“I think I need to sit down,” I said in a pathetic, reedy voice, barely audible above the crashing of the waves.
Without a word, Michael took my arm and led me toward a thick grove of palm trees nearby. “Sit,” he said, extracting a towel from his backpack and spreading it out in a shady alcove.
I sat. And although I felt better in no time, I had no desire to move. This was paradise.
And then the wheels began to turn. This would be my bower, my refuge, my recovery room, for the remainder of our stay.
This was where I would get well.
“Let’s come back tomorrow,” I said, smiling to myself. “I’ll bring another book.”