It’s just not Jouvert if you don’t come home covered in several layers of paint/mud/abeer/oil. That was the whole point of Jouvert, to allow yourself to free up in a way you couldn’t/wouldn’t for the rest of the year, to purposefully get as colourful and dirty in your chosen medium as you could. Sonia didn’t understand those who came out to Jouvert but ran from paint and powder. As the saying goes “You can’t play mas and ‘fraid powder.”
Sonia examined the flakes of paint that had fallen to the floor as she absent-mindedly played with her hair. She’d foregone her usual Jouvert attire of shower cap and bandanna this year and left her hair free to the elements… and of course copious amounts of paint and mud and oil. It had been worth it though. Each touch of a hand smearing paint in her hair or across her face or her body had felt like a blessing. We are all one here and all are welcome.
Her face lit up and she grinned from ear to ear as she remembered the many friends she’d met on the road. Her hips lifted and ground the air in imitation of the wining and gyrating she’d done on the women and men she’d danced with under the influence of the music and the euphoria of being on the road.
Carnival was all about feet, Sonia decided. She stared intently at hers, which were propped on the couch as she lay on the floor. “Note to self: wear proper shoes for Jouvert,” she thought. She regretted the decision she’d made to wear her old shoes that were falling apart, simply because they could take paint. She’d thrown them in the garbage the minute she walked, no, hobbled, through the door. Thank the Lord she lived around the Savannah so she only had a short distance to limp home, wishing her legs would go numb instead of feeling like they were on fire.
The living room door flew open, startling her, but it was only her roommate and her girlfriend passing through on the way to their bedroom, already all over each other. At least they made sure the front door was locked before going inside. Sonia went back to contemplating her toes, a bit annoyed with herself for letting her paranoia spoil the memories she’d been savouring. It had happened to her during Jouvert too, when she’d found herself glancing over her shoulder to see if he was around, looking down his nose at her in the way he used to.
Her stomach contracted as she remembered the last time she’d seen him three years ago, when he tried to romance her with flowers and a ring to convince her he hadn’t meant to hit her when she’d told him she was going to play Jouvert with her friends. She’d exited that relationship the same day, but it had left her with a bunch of self-esteem issues and a lurking antipathy towards Jouvert and the whole Carnival season. That’s where she had met him after all, one of those stories you hear about all the time, when you make a connection while wining on the road. Usually though, the connection doesn’t last past Ash Wednesday, but she’d been flattered by the attentions of the red Rasta who’d continued to call her wanting to take her out.
She’d fallen easily into a relationship with him, thinking it cute that he didn’t like it when she talked to other guys, or wanting to know where she was all the time. They’d spent hours on Whatsapp and Messenger, and he was always waiting for her when she left work, even showing up randomly to take her to lunch. It wasn’t until two years in, when he started to accuse her of flirting with every guy she talked to or cheating if she went out without him that she started to realise that he was becoming abusive. He’d flirt with girls in front of her and insist she was misinterpreting things when she complained. Then he shifted to making her feel like all her clothes were slutty, making her cover up whenever they went out, even though they were the exact same clothes he loved to see her in when they first met. She hadn’t known then that these were all symptoms of emotional and psychological abuse, having grown up in a culture where jealousy was cute and hearing “it’s not abuse until he hits you.”
She’d hung on through the screaming matches and the accusations because she was reluctant to waste the time she’d invested in the relationship… until she’d come home that day all excited about playing with her friends in her favourite band and he’d slapped her for wanting to “go out with that bunch of whores and look for man.” As she looked up at him from where she’d landed on the floor, adrenaline racing through her body and sick to her stomach, she’d decided to get the hell out of there before anything else happened. She’d spent the night at her best friend’s house and he’d brought her flowers the next day, and an engagement ring of all things! As though she’d really go back to him after that.
She’d packed up all his things and changed her locks, but he kept calling and showing up, professing his love, even after she’d told him several times to take a hike. She’d ended up moving away from her neighbourhood within a couple of months and had been really lucky to find a room near the Savannah with a couple of girls she knew from work. Being away from his control had made her realize how much she’d put on hold to be with him and live up, or down, to her expectations of him. She’d even found the courage to apply for a job in a field she’d always been interested in, but hadn’t previously applied for because he hadn’t liked the idea of her earning more money than he did. Sonia had been utterly shocked when she got the job in marketing, but she’d welcomed the change, which really couldn’t have come at a better time.
She’d turned into a hermit for Carnival for the next couple of years after that, not wanting him to find her on the road again. He’d also stripped her of some of her confidence when it came to her body, so she didn’t even want to think about being on the street for Carnival, where it was the norm to expose as much as possible. She didn’t know what was different this year but when her friends invited her to play Jouvert again, she said yes.
A deep pit had opened in her stomach as she dressed in short shorts and a crop top. She walked to the Savannah with her friends, the lone silent one among a bunch of laughing girls, and asked herself what the hell she was doing. Minute by minute she had to convince herself not to run back to the house and lock herself in.
The sound from the music trucks hit Sonia like a brick wall, lifting all the hairs on her scalp and arms and almost lifting her off the ground. The music ran through her like a balm, washing away temporarily the weight of expectations that lay on her shoulders, to look good, to behave. Then the rhythm section began playing and Sonia almost involuntarily began to dance, not caring who was seeing.
The announcement was made that the paint was ready and Sonia was one of the first ones there, eagerly dipping hands into the different colours, red, yellow, blue, pink, orange, purple, until her face, her hair, her body and clothes became rainbow coloured. Streaks of red ran down her legs, her arms were a mixture of blue, purple and orange and handprints blossomed wherever she could reach. She grabbed handfuls of paint and smeared her friends and anyone within reach liberally and laughed uproariously at the expressions on their faces. As the trucks paraded down the road, she danced behind them, wining with friends and strangers.
It was the freedom that went to her head, the freedom of knowing she was seen and saw and was accepted, that she was free to be free with her body in a way that she wasn’t for the rest of the year… and indeed that she hadn’t let herself feel for years. It was knowing that if she freed herself from the tyranny of “good clothes” that concealed her flaws and let her belly hang out and her cellulite jiggle as she walked through the streets, no one would care.
Acceptance. It whispered to her from every smiling face that grinned back at her as the trucks crawled along the streets, blaring their music, as crowds reached their hands towards the sun as it crept over the horizon to greet them. The huge crowd danced across the Savannah stage—as one—as at no other time of the year.
It was this willingness, this national permission to let go of your stress, your anger, your worry, that made Carnival the most looked forward to event on the calendar for most Trinis. This was the beauty of Carnival, and Jouvert in particular, she supposed. The only one you had to take seriously was you.
Sonia’s feet throbbed as she came off the stage, and she finally let herself realise how much pain they were in, though the rest of her felt fine, still flying high from the effects of the music and letting loose for the last five hours. She reluctantly decided not to follow the trucks back to the mas camp and slowly trudged home, exchanging a friendly greeting with others she met along the way. She let herself into the house with a sigh, threw her shoes into the trash and lay on the floor with her legs propped on the couch, feeling immediate relief in her poor, abused appendages. It had been worth it, she thought. Maybe mas next year? Who knew?
Paula Lindo is a journalist, writer and activist of Jamaican and Trinidadian heritage. She enjoys reading and learning about Caribbean fiction, past and present. Her journalism focuses on the arts and social issues in Trinidad and Tobago, where she currently resides.