Short Story People Like Them
It would never be said that Gloribel wasn’t the first, or the last, to swallow what wasn’t real.
It would be said that they were all the most unpleasant sorts. That they were reckless, greedy, shortsighted, not too bright, disrespectful, ignorant, lazy, entitled. That their priorities were askew. That the powers that be had got the best of them, had duped them, had made them believe that they had to do the things that they did. But that they were the most unpleasant sorts wouldn’t be entirely true—for they each had redeeming qualities, no matter how deep said qualities were buried. And to be fair, stressful situations bring out the worst in all of us.
The beach setting had lured Shanya. The all-inclusive aspect appealed to Tral. The escape from crowded subways and crowded coffee shops and all the ways they weren’t meeting expectations—dips in social media followers, passed-over promotions—appealed to them both. Five days and six nights on what had been billed as the Platinum Coast of an island with a history that had been scrubbed clean for high-paying visitors like them who wanted to bury their feet in white sand and stare at turquoise waters without having to think about the people who’d been dragged along the beach from the hulls of ships after spending months, chained, at sea. An island where Gloribel and Herman, and thousands like them, rake perfect tracks into the sand to rid the beach of excessive seaweed, or cigarette butts, and say, “I’m excellent,” behind masks, through gritted teeth, when asked “How’re you doing today?” after high-paying visitors place orders for two baskets of french fries, a bottle of champagne—“With the ice bucket this time”—and a strawberry daiquiri from a lounge chair in the 9 a.m. morning heat. An island where the sun crisps most visitors’ skin while some argue the merits of “trickle-down economics” and the value of “hard-work ethics.” An island where Gloribel and Herman, and thousands like them, shove guava-juice-stained, and chocolate-stained, and semen-stained, and blood-stained, and diarrhea-stained sheets into searing-hot water to reclaim their gleaming whiteness before being retucked around feathery mattresses—or trashed when resilient stains won’t budge.
It would be said that it was all Shanya’s idea. “The vacation.” “The escape.” “After all they’d been through.” “As if the pandemic wasn’t enough.” And after confirming the Platinum Coast did indeed get a strong Wi-Fi signal, Tral agreed that the escape had potential. On his last Zoom call, he casually dropped that he was getting away for a few days.
“Yeah, this Platinum Coast thing. Shanya’s idea,” he said with a well-rehearsed no-big-deal-to-me shrug.
“Platinum Coast? Baller! I didn’t know you had it like that, Tral. I see you.”
But the comment made Tral feel unseen. So he dug deeper. He ran his hand through his thick hair, flashing the gold watch his father had given him when he moved away. “I’m more low-key. Hitting links. Some Frapin Chateau Fontpinot and a Cuban.” None of which he’d experienced. “But you know what they say: happy wife, happy life.”
He thought back on this exchange while he watched a tired-looking man in long pants charge tourists twenty dollars to take a photo of the red, yellow, and teal parrot that sat on his shoulder. And when the sunburned kids and their picture-taking parents scattered, Tral watched the man trod up the beach with shoes that kicked sand into the air. He read Take a Photo of Me on the back of the man’s long-sleeved shirt.
Long sleeves in this heat? Tral thought, while Shanya used her hand to keep the sea breeze from blowing her hat from her head while she took selfies. #selfcare.
It would be said that Shanya’s ring slipped off her finger and circled the polished marble sink like a speed skater on a track before disappearing down the drain when she was simply trying to wipe excess sunscreen from her hands.
The toilet behind her flushed.
She stood slack-jawed in front of the mirror.
Tral asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
Her hair was loosely pulled back from her face—her hands raised on either side reminiscent of that painting about a silent scream. But the bathroom lighting was flattering. “My fucking ring!”
“ My ring—the wedding—”
“Shanya! That is a four-carat princess-cu—”
“I know what it is, Tral!”
“Okay—I’ll call the concierge. I bet this kind of thing happens all the time. I mean, right? People must lose rings, earrings, cuff links, whatever, down the sink all the time. Like hundreds of pieces of jewelry—just down the drain—”
“Are you going to call or just talk to me about the millions of dollars lost in hotel bathrooms?”
“It’s just—you know that ring cost more than our car, right? And you went out of your way, for, like, months , to tell me that you wouldn’t accept any other ring. Carried that photo of the ring with you everywhere. That was the ring you wanted, yadda, yadda—” he said, trailing her to the phone.
“I need to speak to someone who can help me,” Shanya told the concierge.
Gloribel had dropped two extra rolls of toilet paper off to the VIP honeymoon suite (the one with a private roof deck and two separate plunge pools), had assured the guests in the recently renovated garden-view family suite that the room freshener was organic and therefore wouldn’t trigger their four-year-old’s asthma (she left out the fact that the freshener was a necessity if the mildew smell caused by the persistent sea breeze was to be adequately concealed), had ducked under the tape to make sure the fresh coat of paint was dry after that unfortunate accident, and was making her way back to the Executive Club’s concierge desk—she’d been promoted off of the general population’s concierge desk—when her earpiece chirped.
“Ring down the drain. Room 5254. Anyone in the area?”
Gloribel heard a smooth and familiar voice respond. “I’m reattaching a sofa leg in 5280. I can be there in five.”
It was the same voice that chattered next to Gloribel on the bus every morning—about how he could do his boss’s job better than his boss, or how the new direct flights would impact the resort’s capacity and therefore what’s expected of him. The same voice was mostly silent on the bus after each twelve-hour shift every evening. This was the voice that regularly told her, “Hurry up, we’re going to be late,” while Gloribel sat on the toilet half asleep, dreaming about stealing a few moments in the pedicure chair at the spa, before the sun came up Monday through Friday. The voice that said, “I’m too old and tired to keep doing this shit,” before kissing her cheek out of habit every night.
Despite what the visitors who find out Herman and Gloribel are married think, they didn’t meet at the resort. They didn’t fall in love sharing after-hour drinks at the closed-down bar. Nor did they catch each other’s eyes while wheeling mounds of dirty linens past each other under the shade trees, along meandering garden paths, while doves cooed, as if in the cliché island romances . Instead, they met in fourth grade, long before access to the beach had been restricted by foreign developers who would import bananas instead of believing that tourists could enjoy the plantains and figs from the crops that had once provided financial security for the families in the town in which Herman and Gloribel were born and raised.
First came the fences around the best beaches—the spots where Herman and Gloribel and their families would sit under trees to eat picnic lunches or nap, when not skipping waves or fishing or diving for what lay hidden beneath the waves. Then came the buildings, empty at first—sometimes for years while money exchanged hands overseas. Permits. Payoffs. Negotiations . Then came the people who threw around money as if they’d never worked for it a day in their life. People who might not eat a plantain but would pay exorbitant amounts for all-you-can eat imported bananas and extravagantly dole out small tips for bottles of cheap sparkling wine and discreetly slide big tips to keep indiscretions quiet.
By the time Gloribel and Herman were in seventh grade, myths about tips were legendary. There was the $10,000-tip from a man (everyone had conflicting opinions on where he was from) who insisted on smearing his feces on the walls of his room and wrote a whole story in shit on the wall next to the bathtub. And there was another ten thousand dollars from a Canadian woman who had to visit the resort nurse after the head of her electric toothbrush snapped off in her vagina. Caught-in-the-act adulterers went anywhere from one thousand to five thousand dollars. Exhibitionists usually went for five hundred dollars. But the most infamous, and possibly most mythical, was the $100,000-tip from a family who’d stayed for ten days. A mother and father and two little boys. They left cash, in an envelope, with a note that said: Thank you for the wonderful service . Everyone said they were the cutest boys you’d ever seen. Their faces blazoned across all forms of media when their private plane vanished from the radar and they were never seen or heard from again.
First came the fences around the best beaches—the spots where Herman and Gloribel and their families would sit under trees to eat picnic lunches or nap.
By the time they finished high school, Herman and Gloribel were dating and their parents had respectively sold their farmlands to developers. For a good price , they assured their children. Everyone wants french fries these days. Not plantains. And after decades of toiling in fields, they now get to watch satellite TV from the sort of concrete apartment complex that tourists would never see, miles from the land they’d known.
But for Gloribel and Herman, no land meant that their own children would never chase each other through rows of tender stalks or catch shade beneath flapping plasticky leaves. It also meant they wouldn’t have to work the land, for better and worse. And mythical tips call.
It would be said that Gloribel got to Shanya and Tral’s room first. She knew it would take her husband longer than five minutes to fix the sofa leg in 5280. It was always coming off. The salted air had stripped the wood of its strength. Yet time after time, Herman continued to patch and screw and glue what would only continue to grow weaker and weaker.
Gloribel turned left and headed to 5254, instead of turning right and heading to the Executive Club. A ring down a drain, and the potential of a mythical tip, had more allure than whatever question waited for her at the desk.
The door flung open before she could knock. Face-to-face the two women eyed each other up and down as if through a mirror before Shanya broke the trance. “My ring—” she stammered.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m here to help you. Don’t worry; this kind of thing happens all the time,” Gloribel offered in the voice she reserved for small children and situations like this.
“See, baby! I told you. All the time,” Tral added, emerging shirtless from the bathroom to put his hands on Shanya’s shoulders. Gloribel pushed the vision of Tral’s hairy chest out of her mind when she smiled at Shanya’s husband. His eyes were the same rich brown as Herman’s. She wouldn’t know that Tral’s mother, too, said her son’s eyes were the color of mahogany.
“May I come in?” Gloribel asked the foreigners.
“Oh, yes, please,” Tral and Shanya said in unison, stepping aside to lead Gloribel into a bathroom she’d visited dozens of times.
“The repairman is on his way, but sometimes this is a quick fix.” She liked calling Herman “the repairman”—it amused her to think that strangers believed her husband could fix anything simply because he was called a “repairman.” And she preferred the word repairman to husband . “Let me see what I can do.”
“Anything you can do would be a help,” Shanya gushed nervously.
Gloribel pulled clean gloves from her pocket. “Are you enjoying your stay?” she asked, trying to distract them from their anxiety while she rolled the latex over her fingers. She didn’t know what else had been in their sink or had gone down the drain.
“Oh, yes—everything’s been great!” Shanya shared overenthusiastically.
“Until this,” Tral murmured with the sort of dramatic flair aimed to elicit a laugh.
“Yes, until this,” Gloribel fake-chuckled on cue. “Not a nice thing to happen on vacation,” she said sympathetically, keeping up her side of the performance.
Tral and Shanya crowded behind Gloribel while she reached into the sink and twisted the drain plug. She watched them through the mirror while they peered over her shoulder in anticipation.
“Is this your first time on the island?” she asked—the question, again, more a question of distraction than curiosity.
“Yes,” Tral said. “But we’ve been to . . .” and he named a list of places that meant nothing to Gloribel.
She continued to twist while she watched Shanya grip her husband’s thick arm. Shanya’s dark hair had come out of its tie and now spilled over her caramel-colored shoulder. “You two look like you can be from here—like islanders!” she said, smiling, while continuing to work the plug.
“What?” Shanya asked through the mirror. “We’re not from here.” She let go of Tral’s arm and squared her shoulders. “We’re from . . .” And she named the place that filled Gloribel’s parent’s TV.
“Yes, but . . . you look like—” she saw Shanya’s jaw clench so tried a different tack, “—your vacation is so good it looks like you belong here!”
That one always seemed to work. At least for a one-dollar tip.
Shanya’s face softened and Tral said, “Yes! I was just telling my wife last night that we should get a little place here. Right, Shan? Didn’t I say that?”
“You did, baby. A place on the beach would be nice.”
“Very wonderful idea,” Gloribel said, instead of saying, There are no more houses for you to take from us.
“We just need this ring back so that we can make a down payment on your beach house. Or probably just buy the whole thing, cash!”
“Hey, you can’t sell my ring,” Shanya exclaimed nervously while Gloribel focused on the drain.
“Don’t worry, babe. You’ll have your beach house and your ring. Right, Glo-ree-bell?” Tral asked, reading Gloribel’s nametag in the mirror’s reflection. “How’s it going? Almost out?”
“Almost got it!” Gloribel exclaimed, snaking the mechanical plug from the drain—just as there was a knock on the door.
It would be said that Gloribel was alone in the bathroom for less than ten seconds when Shanya trailed Tral to the door to let Herman inside.
Gloribel heard Tral say, “You must be the repairman.” And she heard her husband say, “At your service.” And she heard Shanya say, “We’re so glad you’re here,” before they all filed into the bathroom, one by one.
Gloribel and Herman exchanged a knowing look—but they kept the familiarity professional—and she handed him the plug, and he snatched the flashlight from his belt and glanced at the toothbrushes on the counter before pouring light down the drain. He peered down the hole, moving the light to the right and left before retrieving a screwdriver from his pocket and plunging it inside. The room was dead silent except for the sound of a metal digging at the sides of a moldy drain.
“I don’t see anything down there,” Herman declared after some thorough scraping.
“Fuck!” Tral exclaimed.
“Don’t worry, sir,” Herman said patiently as he got to his knees to twist the valve under the sink—severing any flow of water. “Sometimes things fall all the way here, to the goose’s neck,” he explained, clanging the bend in the pipe below the basin with a wrench that seemed to have appeared from nowhere.
“This is a very good repairman,” Gloribel encouraged—though her voice sounded strange, maybe unsure—as she handed her husband a wastebasket to catch anything that would pour from the neck.
Shanya hid her face in her hands.
Herman lay on his back and grunted with each wrench.
“Do you have to do that?” Tral asked, growing impatient.
“Yes, sir. I have to take this apart to find the ring.”
“I know that. I mean the deep breathing or whatever you’re doing. Is it necessary?”
Herman declared, “It is not necessary, sir,” and he let his nostrils flare with each turn until the neck broke apart in his hand. He let some water and gunk fall into the basket, and they all waited for the clink of the ring falling out, which never came. Herman stuck his fingers in the hole. Then the screwdriver. Then the flashlight.
“There’s nothing here. Madame, was the water going when—”
“No—no! No water. I don’t think so—I can’t remember.”
“Fuck, Shanya! You forget everything—try to think. This is a four-carat—”
“I fucking know! Princess cut! No, I wasn’t running the water! Happy?”
“No! I’m not fucking happy! You just lost a car down a bathroom sink! Maybe two cars!” He turned to Herman and asked, “Now what?”
“I’m sorry, sir? I don’t understand your question.”
“What. Do. We. Do. Now?”
“This is a question for your insurance company, sir. There is no ring in here. It is gone.”
“What the fuck, gone. It’s not gone.” Tral’s eyes grew bigger. Rounder. “She took it,” he said, pointing at Gloribel, who had been daydreaming about tangling her fingers in Tral’s hairy chest while she inspected her fingernails. She thought they needed clipping.
“Or—or,” Tral stammered. “I don’t know. But I saw how you looked at each other when you showed up. You both took it. Shanya, call security.”
“What? No, I’m not calling security. Because why? I had too much sunscreen on my hands and my ring went down the drain?”
“No, because they took your ring!”
Shanya stared at Tral blankly.
“From the drain, Shanya.”
“I don’t even know how that’s possible. Leave it alone, Tral.”
“I don’t know how it’s possible either, but that’s what they did. This place is bullshit!” he flared, storming out of the bathroom. They all heard the phone bang against the bedside table. “Get me security!”
“You two look like you can be from here—like islanders!”
It would be said that the head of security, who was in fact Herman’s second cousin once removed, had to pry the men apart. The head of security wouldn’t know that Herman tried to deescalate the situation by crawling out from under the sink and holding his hands out in front of him to say to Tral, “Sir, we’re not like that. C’mon, man. Look at us,” motioning to Gloribel, and Shanya, and Tral, and then himself. But he didn’t actually say, We’re the same.
“What are you trying to say?”
“Nothing, man. I’m just saying—do you really want to do this? I mean—security?”
“Oh—I see. You want to take it there . But let’s be clear, man ,” he said, jabbing his index finger into Herman’s chest. “I do want to do this. I’m not afraid of security because I have nothing to hide.”
“Neither do I,” Herman announced, clenching his fist next to the hammer that swung from his belt.
“Bull. Shit.” Tral cocked his head to each side with each syllable.
Herman mimicked Tral. “Bull. True.”
“What? Bulltrue? That’s not even a thing. I want my fucking ring.”
“Then your wife shouldn’t have lost it,” said Gloribel with restraint in her voice. She let out a sigh and looked at her watch, knowing that it would take a security guard at least four minutes to work their way through the everyone-wear-lime-green 2022 family reunion at the “Shore Pool” before getting to 5254. And she had things to do.
Shanya chimed in—she spoke directly to Gloribel. “What did you say, thief ?”
But Gloribel scoffed and rolled her eyes, making matters worse.
“How dare you!” Shanya lost her composure. “People like you!”
Gloribel watched the veins in Shanya’s temple pulse.
“You’re not even going to deny it! It’s true, isn’t it? You’re in on it together! Tral saw . . . you . . . you look at each other!”
“Madame, I don’t think looking at each other is a crime,” Herman tried.
“Don’t you dare speak to my wife like that! You and this bitch have no right to talk to us at all!”
“And you, sir, should refrain from calling my wife a female dog.”
“Your what a what?” Shanya asked.
Amid the overall confusion, it’d be hard to say who landed the first punch.
It would never be said that Herman truly believed the ring had been washed into the bowels of the resort’s drainage system when it didn’t fall into the wastebasket. Nor would it be said that his cousin told management that Tral and Shanya were the worst sort only so that Gloribel and Herman could keep their jobs. They’d all seen worse.
It would never be said that Tral donated sperm, asked his parents for a loan, asked his sister for a loan, asked his boss for an advance (all of which he paid back) and googled how much kidneys go for, before buying Shanya the ring of her dreams. Nor would it be said that he started taking antianxiety medication the week after he proposed.
It would never be said that Shanya never wanted Tral to call security—because the ring that speed-skated down the drain wasn’t her real wedding ring. Because months before the trip, she’d been testing out what not being married would feel like. Slipping her ring off from time to time. Just to pretend. But there was that one time when she forgot where she put it—she forgets everything—and she never saw the real ring again. But she still had the photo—the one she’d shown Tral dozens of times. And the jeweler assured her it was all he needed to make an indistinguishable-from-real replica.
It would never be said that Gloribel had fished the ring out of the drain with a toothbrush in the ten seconds it took Shanya and Tral to let Herman into room 5254. Nor would it be said that Gloribel thought about putting the ring in her pocket before deciding her mouth would be a better hiding place, knowing that these kinds of people were known to insist on frisking—or saying things like Show me your pockets! Nor would it be said that she planned to endure the drain-scum-covered ring in her mouth for only a few minutes, before “discovering” it amid the clutter on the countertop. A heroine who’d discovered the ring when all hope was lost would surely be deserving of a mythical tip!
But the plan went awry when the bathroom brawl broke out and Gloribel was caught in the pushing and shoving. And when Shanya pulled her hair, her head fell back on her neck, letting the ring slip into the back of her throat. She choked. Gagged. Coughed. Tears sprung to her eyes and she tried to catch her breath while Shanya clawed at her face. And using a strength she didn’t know she had, as the ring scratched at parts of her anatomy she couldn’t name, she swallowed it.
It would never be said that Gloribel checked the contents of the toilet (after her morning coffee) for three days, and thought about making a doctor’s appointment, before she heard the tink of metal hit the ceramic bowl. And it would never be said that when Gloribel boiled the ring in bleach, and the metal turned black, and the glue softened, and the crystals fell into the wash basin before she crushed them to dust with her fist, the vision of chasing wind through banana leaves at the back of the house she might own faded. It would never be said that Gloribel wasn’t the first, or the last, to swallow what wasn’t real.
And so, Gloribel and Herman continue the search for mythical tips, long after any trace of Shanya and Tral had been cleaned away in preparation for all those who would escape to their sandy island.