Art by Mike CrivelloIT BEGINS AS A QUIET URGE, BUT ENOUGH of one that I ask the Creole shopkeeper. “Pardon, madame.” Yes? she answers with her eyes, pale green like sea grapes. “La toilette?” She shakes her head and turns away, as if such things should not be discussed. The shop is in downtown Fort-de-France, Marti-nique, which, if not for the humidity and banana fields, could be in the south of France. Peugeots, baguettes, Catholic churches — Frenchy, it is.
This shop is the only one in the French Caribbean to sell mesh undershirts, to protect the body from mosquitoes, they say. I want a sleeveless one, nude color, because it's sexy. My Guadeloupean friend wants one for her daughter, because she gets eaten up every August. Scratches herself silly, she tells me. We pay 80 francs each ($13.50) and tuck the shirts into our bags. The morning outside is wet and hot. The streets are narrow and one-way, for the most part, lined with small hotels, patisseries, cafés, vendors selling torch lilies, lobster claws, anthurium. “Pouvez-vous me dire où est la toilette?” I ask my friend as we walk up the Rue Victor Hugo. I am a long way off from frantic, but heading down that road. She shrugs her shoulders and puffs her lips as if to say she has no idea. “Don't people in Martinique have to pee?” I ask her in English, because I don't, at this moment, feel much like looking up the words in my pocket dictionary. She tells me it's not a problem, to forget about it.
We stop at Tati, a famous French discounter that's thankfully air-conditioned, and something on the order of Kmart. It attracts families from all over the West Indies, who come by boats on which they get seasick, to buy more than they can afford. My friend wants to stock up on school clothes for her kids, and bathing suits. We step inside the elevator, packed full with Creoles. Everyone smells of sweat. Ladies flick their wrists, fan themselves with store fliers. The doors slide open onto the second floor. A man with a bullhorn announces some special; shoppers flock toward him. I search for the bathroom. Three pair of French lace panties for the price of one is a bargain I can do without. I can no longer pretend that my bladder isn't a problem.
“La toilette?” I ask a female clerk behind the counter. She points her index finger up, shakes it quickly. “No, no, no,” she says firmly. “Do you speak English?” I ask. She clicks her tongue and whispers to another clerk behind the counter. I am a little bit frightened now, and search for my friend among the crowd of patrons, who hardly look up from the goods. I imagine myself in L.A. What would I do? Find a gas station. Or a restaurant. I struggle to look up “gas,” then “station,” in the dictionary. My friend is sympathetic. She asks the clerk for me. The two converse for a moment in Creole, each pointing in a different direction, and then send me off toward the chichi French department store Galeries Lafayette, a few blocks away. I nearly run, praying I don't get lost. Cross my fingers.
I pass a central marketplace where farmers sell avocados, mangoes, papayas, nutmeg and saffron, where old Creole ladies in brightly colored madras mix aromatic colombo into pots of whole chickens they will sell for lunch. Their gold slave bracelets clink as they prepare the yellow curry. “Galeries Lafayette?” I ask one of them. “Oui,” she says, pointing. “Merci, madame,” I say, wiping the sweat from my neck with the hem of my black linen skirt.
I find and enter this temple of the white bourgeoisie; békés, they are called. Past the makeup counters and eau de toilette, past the scarves and the Lalique, until I find a salesclerk. If I were on Martinique's wild side, to the north, I'd just squat next to a waterfall. But I am in the middle of a sparkling chic store that in America would have some sign pointing to a restroom. I am dizzy from the heat, from the run, from my panic.
“Pardon, madame. La toilette?”
No, she answers, without looking up from a case she is stocking with Chanel products. I can smell her Coco from a few feet away.
“Do you speak English?” I ask, assuming that most whites in Martinique do.
“No,” she says sharply, and turns away.
“If I spend $100 for a scarf, can I use the bathroom?”
“No bathroom,” she says, “for any price.”
I take off back toward the central market, to look for the Creole woman who helped me before. She had a kind way about her. No sneer at all. I walk very fast, wondering how much longer I can hold it. I see the woman, who smiles at me from a distance. She is chatting with a man selling straw goods. “Excusez-moi, madame. La toilette?” I nearly scream.
She takes my hand and leads me into a little room. There is a stall without a door, a tiny sink, an altar with plastic flowers and white candles. And yes, there's a toilet. “Pour vous,” she says, and walks away. I thank the saint for whom the candles are burning.