Conk on the Head

Now, this had to be the left-hander’s coup de grace. Shop Boy was driving 75 kilometers per hour on the left side of a two-lane road.

Of course, it was a foreign country, and that’s what the locals do, but still. There are anywhere from six to eight rotaries, or roundabouts if you prefer, on the way from the airport in Grand Cayman to the road we needed to find for the East End of the island. Negotiating those bad boys is like driving upside down. So you’ll have to forgive Shop Boy’s inexactness on the number. I lost count in all the screaming.

Sweating it? Oh, you betcha. But I’d been doing that since the morning before. See, we were supposed to be lounging on the beach already but had, ahem, missed the last U.S. Airways flight of the day out of Baltimore that would have reached Charlotte in time for the connecting flight. This being the off-season for Grand Cayman, there are only a couple of flights per day.

You should have seen us on that sad ride home from the airport. It’s the kind of harsh lesson and crushing disappointment that’ll make you straighten up and fly right. No more of this last-second race to the check-in counter for us. The lady who’d scolded us for, like, 15 minutes gave us a final warning:

Our only option was a flight that left at 5:45 a.m. the next day. Airport check-in and security opened at 3:45 a.m. Be waiting at the door.

Don’t have to tell Shop Boy twice. The fear of god — or, more precisely, my sister Margaret — was firmly installed. If I wasn’t waiting at that door at 3:30 a.m., we’d mess up the wedding and create another of those moments that you spend the rest of your life trying to live down. Nope, 3:30 was gonna find me on the airport sidewalk, nose pressed against the window, passport out of its sleeve and driver’s license in my hand, boarding pass ready for inspection, chewing gum for the trip — orange for Mary, peppermint for Shop Boy — packed neatly into the carry-on, laptop out of its case, shoes off and wristwatch stowed away, cellphone in “airport” mode and pants sagging with my belt already rolled up and stuck inside my left shoe.

Mary? She immediately rushed to the alarm clock and set it …

For 3:30 a.m.


“Oh, relax, Shop Boy,” Mary said. “She was just being an officious jerk. We’ll be there by 4:30 for a 5:45 flight, and we’ll be fine. We’re already packed, right? Trust me. ”

I did. Who I didn’t trust was me. We’d absolutely killed ourselves at the printshop to get ahead on things so that we’d be ready and guilt-free for the trip. Mary’d been up really late for several nights in a row and Shop Boy, a notoriously twitchy sleeper, hadn’t done himself any favors the past few weeks either. Look, Shop Boy’s an absolute freak about being early for the morning train to D.C. If I’m half a minute late leaving the house, the panic sets in. Mary can’t even watch anymore. And yet twice in the last couple of weeks I’ve slept through the alarm(s) and had to gallop in my wrinkled shirt and mismatched socks for the train, barely making it aboard. OK, Shop Boy … point taken.

Anyway, Mary gave a little, Shop Boy gave a little, and we got to the airport early enough that Mary could purchase every single magazine with Michelle Obama or Sarah Jessica Parker on the cover. There were about 30.

And six hours later, the pilot announced that we were beginning our descent into Owen Roberts International Airport, a quaint (gulp) little place. But the airplane’s brakes held, and soon Owen Roberts employees were wheeling the stairs — cool! — up to the plane.

Did I say cool? It’s off-season down there for a reason: It’s hot. The tarmac was a blast furnace. Still, as we descended the stairs, our arrival felt a bit … presidential. Our suitcase awaited us. And once the customs agent stamped our passports — cool! — we were dashing off to the car rental place, having gained an hour through some unexplained international time difference. Shop Boy was not asking questions. We still had to drive across the island to the Reef resort for a late-afternoon wedding. My life was on the line, or so it felt.

Mary had explained the whole driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road deal during the flight. I hadn’t thought to ask before then. Not that Shop Boy should have been surprised. She makes me do
everything left-handed in the printshop, because she is a lefty and this right-handed letterpress stuff is so old-fashioned and, dare we say it — yes, she does — discriminatory. So how awesome was this?

We’d reserved a sub-subcompact car (“Chery QQ or equivalent”), but the place gave us a free upgrade to “teensie-weensie.” Which was nice, because in researching the Chinese-made Chery QQ, Mary had seen it described as a knockoff of a Chevrolet model, but with none of those annoying safety features that Americans insist upon. You know, the idea of coming through a fender bender without massive head trauma and all that. Drivers are a dime a billion in China, apparently.

After a bit of confusion over Shop Boy’s credit card — we’d forgotten to activate it, oops — and a few scowls from the vacationers queued up behind us in the heat, we loaded up our little green clown car, pointed in a direction that felt to Mary like east (I don’t even guess anymore) and off we scooted.

First roundabout: Whooooo-aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Second roundabout: Look out! … Whew!

“I’m so glad you’re driving,” Mary said as we dodged an impatient islander in the third roundabout.

“I’m so glad you’re navigating,” Shop Boy responded.

And we laughed. Teamwork. This was more like it, shaping up to be just another wacky adventure in the Mary and Shop Boy Show.

This Grand Cayman place is pretty cool. Everywhere is low to the water (hate to be here in a hurricane), it’s about an hour and15 minutes by car — even Chery QQ, I’m guessing — all the way around. All these weird, beautiful plants and odd animals like the wild roosters, the jet-black birds with the sideways tails and the little lizards who rushed up to check us out when we stopped at a public beach. Iguanas, by the way, make for pretty disturbing roadkill. First of all, the two we saw were the size of speed bumps. How could you not see these dinosaur-looking monsters in the road and stop in time? The darn things could total a Chery QQ. And it’s not like they’re dashing out into the road. They are lumbering beasts. Yes, one of them was killed in a roundabout, so maybe it was a “him or me” thing. Still, sad.

We finally reached the Reef at about 3 p.m., were greeted by the incredibly friendly staff, handed a cup of rum punch and sent to our room, which had a balcony overlooking the beach. We quickly surveyed the place, found it clean, slipped into bathing attire, locked up our passports in the room’s safe (a wise choice, we’re told) and went to find Shop Boy’s family. Only a few had made the trip — Dad, sister Rosemary and, of course, Margaret — but since a misunderstanding over our predicament the day before had led to a curt exchange of text messages (my bad), Shop Boy had some groveling to do.

Mission accomplished — we all chuckled it off — Mary and Shop Boy set off for the sand and the ocean for a little chilling before the wedding. If you haven’t been, the sand isn’t like the stuff we see in the United States but more like billions of tiny pebbles bashed into grains by the tide against the coral and volcanic rock. We’ve not been to Bermuda, but you can see traces of the pink that its sand is famous for on Grand Cayman’s beaches. Cool.

We finished our rum punches, dipped our toes once last time and went in to dress for the big event. Shop Boy was casual — the wedding’s theme — in khaki pants and a really boss shirt from Acapulco that Mary’s cousin Mollie had given me. It had been a favorite of her husband, so it meant a lot to me to get to wear it. Mary looked really great in a beachy sundress, her windblown hair a shade wilder and even more awesome than usual. (She kids that little girls are always so drawn to her because she reminds them of a tall muppet.) And off we went.

Two rows of chairs were set up on the beach, and the island minister stood beneath a lovely arch, back to the ocean, to do the honors.

Vinny and Natasha were, unsurprisingly, a beautiful bride and groom. And, as the sun began to set, they were suddenly a beautiful wife and husband.

Now, where do they keep the food around this place? While the bridal party took to the dock for photos (Mary and Shop Boy were in the first family shots, then became just a couple of hungry guests), we began grazing. Chicken satay. Beef kebabs. Conch. Just the beginning of a fun and delicious reception pool- and oceanside. Shop Boy and Mary relaxed.

We’d made it, by trusting ourselves and our teamwork to get us there even after the missed-plane fiasco. It’s a bit Two Stooges sometimes. Mary knows Shop Boy’s worst, but doesn’t play to that. I freak out over my own weaknesses, but know that Mary’s strengths play to mine, and mine (mostly) to hers. Weddings of other people tend to shine some sort of light on your own marriage. You forget, if you’re lucky, that wedding-day feeling of “gosh, I hope this works, because it really seems right.”

Shop Boy has.

Here’s hoping Vinny and Natasha have before the honeymoon’s over.


By the way, I called the delicious shellfish “conch” and was politely corrected by the local server.

He pronounced it “conk.” They ought to know, I guess. It’d be “cawnch” or something in Baltimore, so there you go.

You learn something new everyday. And by relaxing and having faith no matter what goes wrong, you learn a little about yourself. Some days you learn lots. This was one.

Driving on the wrong side of the road?


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