The Folklore Project
Tennessee Williams Crazy
By Jessica Langlois
Eleuthera is an important beginning.
Eleuthera is an island 50 miles east of Nassau. It is about 100 miles long and, at its narrowest, less than 100 feet wide. The western side of Eleuthera faces the Great Bahama Bank. The east faces the Atlantic Ocean. At Eleuthera’s most slender point, a person can stand in one place and throw a stone in the water on either side. A stone thrown towards the Great Bahama Bank can be seen as it sinks. Ripples will expand ever outward. A stone thrown towards the Atlantic will disappear immediately in the waves and wild foam beating the shred of coast. The Yin and Yang are as expressive as ever in these two bodies of water, separated by what amounts to a line.
“Eleuthera” derives from the Greek adjective eleutheros, meaning “free.” I suppose I was searching for freedom when I traveled there in February 2015. I was suffering with a severe bout of depression at the time — a case of creeping melancholy that conquered my mind well before I realized I had lost it. Eleuthera wasn’t the first of my freedom rides that season. I had travelled to Italy only a few months earlier. My faculties had not completely collapsed by that point. I could feel myself slipping away, but couldn’t figure out why or where I was going. Renting a car in Rome and exploring Tuscany seemed like a logical prescription for my fading self-confidence.
I planned the trip to Eleuthera with a woman I met in Tuscany. She lived in a small apartment at the top of a bell tower in San Quirico d’Orcia. Compassionate and wise, her company encouraged me to be gentle with myself. Like Glenda to Dorothy, she held a lantern to the road all women travel, and I found comfort in the sisterhood of the journey. She divided her time between Tuscany, Wisconsin, and Eleuthera, where she kept a rich man’s house during the months it went unused. I kept in touch with her after Italy, and as I expressed increasing desperation she suggested we meet in Eleuthera. Just having a destination gave me immediate relief.
The week of the trip, she called with regrets: A family emergency would keep her home, and without her, the rich man’s house wasn’t available. Undeterred, I went anyway. My friend knew many Eleutherians and promised she would help get something squared away.
After two plane rides, I arrived on Eleuthera unsure of what plans had been made for me. Strapped with a backpack and my lifelong dependence on the kindness of strangers, I walked outside the tiny airport and waited for a ride. My pre-arranged driver showed up promptly. He took me to a locally owned inn on the only road running through the island. The inn looked like a box, made with layers of pastel concrete, topped by a lid. It had the appearance of a Bahamian jail. The owners also ran the best restaurant on the island, which was next to the inn. Occasionally, some resort folks would leave their gated paradise to have an authentic Bahamian meal at this place, but largely they served a cast of local fisherman, pineapple farmers, and retired drug traffickers.
I spent four nights on Eleuthera, the last of which was Valentine’s Day. Among the guests on Valentine’s Day was Gigolo, so called by the young man tending the bar where I was sitting alone with a rum drink and conch fritters. I would only enjoy my naiveté for a few minutes, until the barkeep added that Gigolo had brought with him three prostitutes — two from Guatemala and one from Cuba. Gigolo had also booked a room for the evening, where it was clear he intended to open his business for the night. A mix of fascination, shock, and pity distracted me from finishing my meal.
I retired to my room well before Gigolo’s party and tried with no luck to fall asleep. This was my last night on Eleuthera, and I wrestled with why I was even there. What had I actually gained in the Bahamas? It was an adventure rich in characters for certain, but what on earth was I thinking? All at once, I felt desperately alone. I could see myself as an empty bottle, floating in the middle of the sea. How did I get here?
I felt unessential. In the darkest corner of my being, where I’d lost all faith, I was dispensable. I didn’t want to die, but it wouldn’t matter if I did. I wept in front of the mirror, holding my knees to my chest.
All of this was suffocating my mind when business opened upstairs. As fate would have it, Gigolo had booked the room directly over mine. The action lasted until morning. The shrieks, growls, and crashes were shocking. At one point, I thought they had a lion in the room. I will never be sure they didn’t have a lion. Those poor girls.
As for my inner dialogue, things got serious. I am all too familiar with rock-bottom and never fail to appreciate the full stop. I believe I’d been unknowingly mining for humility, and, all at once, I struck it big. There I was, on a strip of island in a cinderblock motel lying on sheets with the texture of paper towels.
A country girl from Alabama done gone Tennessee Williams batshit crazy in what amounted to a pop-up whorehouse in the Bahamas.
My inner steel magnolia straightened her back. Like my grandmother at a tacky wedding rehearsal, I calmly took command of the situation. The symbolism of being on the divide of calmness and chaos slowly came into focus. I saw myself fighting for my life in the ocean’s heaving waves. I had drifted too far in a perilous direction. I could sink, or I could swim.
The Taoist summation of Yin and Yang is that two halves together complete a whole, but the two halves are not always in balance. The two halves must shift and chase each other to maintain the equilibrium of the whole. Yin is believed to be the feminine of the two, more reclusive and passive, like a still cape of tropical water. Yang is the masculine expression, active and strong, like waves beating a rocky coast. As I recognized my Yin and Yang being wildly out of balance, I also realized that the disproportion was not the root of my depression.
My Yang expresses my soul, and my soul knew how to stay alive. Adventurous and resourceful, my soul kept the faith. Planning a trip, even haphazardly, kept a fire burning within me. Adding a departure to anywhere on my calendar gave me a destination, and with that a reason to keep going. The beautiful people and places I experienced defended my otherwise supernatural enjoyment of life.
My Yang had taken over as a way to keep me whole, until I could reclaim the harmony of my inner nature. Eleuthera was more than an impulse to escape. Eleuthera was my soul giving me a lifeboat.
Eleuthera was the beginning — the first strike against the marble. The real work had to be done, and it was hard, but a resilient woman emerged. She’s been shaped by the scared little girl she once was, the acceptance of her own mind, irreplaceable loss, recognition of her inherited strength, and the boundless power of gratitude.
My past and present carved themselves into the marble until I was, at last, able to set myself free.