One curiously balmy day in
spring, the beach along the old log-hauling road north of Fort Bragg
is littered with condoms, Prussian blue condoms, almost phosphorescent,
each equipped with a crinkly, translucent reservoir tip. They’re ankle-deep along some stretches of sand.
The gelatinous masses glistening in the sun aren’t really, of course,
remnants from some underwater safe-sex orgy of mermaids and other sea creatures.
They’re Velella velella, by-the-wind sailors, mobile hydroids that appear
to be confused about whether they should be jellyfish or anemones. The Prussian
blue part of the condom look-alikes, no more than a few inches across, is a
buoyant float, sort of like an inflatable lifeboat in a perfect doughnut shape.
The reservoir tip is actually a tiny sail, an arc of chitinous material with
the feel of old cellophane. The sails scatter in the offshore breezes or stick
to rocks long after the rest of the craft has melted away.
The wind bloweth where it listeth. Inhabitants of open areas of the Pacific,
Velella floateth where they floateth. Wind patterns may take most of them to
the coastline of Japan one year, to our own shores the next. True drifters,
they might also be considered midget saints, not so different from those medieval
Irish monks who braved the sea in round baskets woven from reeds, though the
monks trusted the God that made the wind blow them wherever, not the wind itself.
It’s a great art to saunter, according to Thoreau.
know if I’ve sauntered much, but I’ve certainly drifted,
wandered without direction, artlessly, aimlessly, what the Balinese with
their penchant for onomatopoeia call kalincak-kelincok, a tongue-twister
of a phrase which neatly echoes the back and forth, here and there, up
and down of genuine drifting.
Some years ago I spent most of a day reading a book in the shade of a banyan
tree beside a temple on the outskirts of a town on that very island. I was
happy, in that aching, empty sort of way you can be happy if there’s
nobody around to remind you of your loneliness. I saw only a few people, and
spoke to none of them, not until after sunset, when I met a foreign couple
at the barong dance. They had also come early to score choice seats. We passed
the time before the performance began testing our foreign language skills.
Dressed in a strikingly chic outfit, she was quite capable of talking charmingly
about nothing for hours. She was, in short, very French. Her husband, a goateed
sprite with an elfish grin, taught at the lycée.
After the dance they invited me to their favorite café. Though I wasn’t
particularly hungry, I planned to be in the town for a couple more days and
figured tagging along would be a quick way to discover its best restaurant.
The reputation the French have for fussy discrimination in matters of art,
fashion, love and food is usually well-deserved.
It was late, the café rather full but quiet. That soon changed. The
French tourists were returning home the next morning, and they were determined
to make the most of their final hours on Bali. His wallet was bursting with
rupiah, useless on the foreign exchange. The food wasn’t nearly expensive
enough, so we had to burn money on tuak, the local beer brewed from palm. We
toasted each other. We toasted the sun, the stars, the tropics, Aphrodite,
the waitress, the egg rolls and nasi goreng she brought, the duck, the barong
dance. As we tried to fit together our impressions of the dance, it became
clear that choice seats hadn’t enhanced our understanding of the colorful
There was a shaggy lion—the barong. His opponent, armed with tusks, with a
long tongue that dragged along the ground, was the ferocious witch Rangda.
They pranced about, singing, declaiming, threatening, accompanied by hosts
of unusual allies. In the dénouement, a bunch of bare-chested fellows
in checkered skirts ran around screaming, brandishing krisses. Eventually they
committed a Balinese version of hara-kiri with their sinuous knives, poking
their pectorals with the blunt points, and the lion laid down with the witch.
Halfway through her nasi goreng, the wife slid off her chair and began imitating
the barong’s side-kick, the monkey, who clowned around with the audience,
as well as the other characters. At one point during the dance, he had sashayed
off the stage, placed his mug in the wife’s lap and gazed longingly,
with fluttering lashes, into her eyes. She did the same now. With the deep
sigh of a smitten beau, she put her head in her husband’s lap and mooned
for all she was worth.
“Je t’aime aussi,” he crooned, running a loving hand
through her hair, “mon petite guenon.”
And then, pretending to find a flea among her many curls, he popped it into
his mouth and chewed with the exquisite satisfaction of a gourmet savoring
The café broke up in laughter. Apparently the late diners had been following
their antics, even the waitress, who covered her mouth with her hand, as if
she weren’t sure it was polite or proper to laugh at customers. Wati
was her name. Barefoot, her long braid of glossy black hair tied with a soiled
yellow ribbon, she moved without seeming to move at all. Her eyes were deep
and serious, the wary eyes of a startled doe, an outcaste, a waif. It seemed
the world they saw wasn’t a smiling matter. Wati didn’t, as a matter
of fact, smile much. But when she did, she had what’s often called a
winning smile. Though
in her case it was more of a winning losing smile; the sweet, simple curve
of the lips lit up the café. The next night I found myself drifting
back there for dinner.
Since I’m by myself, I bring along a book for company. I’ve been
reading Caesar’s record of the conquest of Gaul. Though much of it may
be no more than propaganda for a future dictator, you can’t help but
admire Caesar’s cunning, his dash, his cockiness, the way he remained
undaunted by obstacles. Feeling a bit cocky myself, I order a brem rather than
my usual beer. With my first sip of the sweet rice wine, the sake of Bali,
I’m sorry I haven’t tried it before. I ask Wati for another.
Gaul—the story of its capture by the Romans, anyway—winds up lying
on the table beside a plate of rice studded with shrimp and vegetables.
It lies face-down, like a soldier weary, or dead, after a battle.
Mud and mutinies, bad food and forced marches. The lot of the foot soldier
hasn’t altered much the past couple thousand years. Neither has the world
that puts weapons in the hands of farm boys. The powerful still jockey for
more power and keep the powerless quiet with bread and circuses.
“Gallia est divisa in tres partes” is
my memory of how the book begins in the original. It was over thirty years
ago I read it for the first time, and I wasn’t paying close attention. The girl next to me in Latin class had
gingersnap eyes and passed me notes across the aisle. A judge’s daughter,
she would ask me over to the house when she knew that her mother would be busy
at a church rummage sale, her father locked away in the study with his meerschaum
In the spacious parlor of that house, on a couch next to the piano, I learned
what a French kiss was. She would’ve taught me more, if I’d shown
that I had the foggiest notion what to do after our teen-age tongues met. She
must’ve found me rather a dull pupil. She tried her best, and she was
certainly patient enough. I simply didn’t get it.
My novelty was probably what attracted her. I came from the wrong side of the
tracks, and my family hadn’t been in town more than a week when high
school started. I was new. So new, in fact, I didn’t recognize my team-mates
on the soccer field. In our league opener, forgetting in the heat of play that
we were the ones wearing red, I kicked a hummer into the wrong net. Our goalie
flashed me a look of disbelief and horror as the ball whizzed past him, then
sank to his knees in despair.
“The dying goalie,” she giggled in the twilight as we walked back
into town together after the game, comparing the stricken attitude of the goalkeeper
to the naked, wounded Gaul expiring so nobly in the frontispiece to our Latin
text of Caesar. “I mean, it’s only a game, a dumb one at that.”
This was the first of many twilights we spent shuffling through the falling
leaves of autumn, sharing our thoughts, imagining the contours of the lives
that lay in front of us. We were sophomores, and had the answers to everything
but the questions on the Latin quiz. The sunsets turned a special deep indigo
that fall, and early frosts made the bare branches of trees glitter like cracks
in a broken windshield.
It was a time of ferment and folk singing. Songs of protest against war and
racial injustice wafted over the airwaves from the big city. She’d attended
hootenannies there, and knew many of the lyrics by heart. On our long rambles
down narrow two-lane roads, her voice rang out over the hushed countryside
pure and clear as crystal. Some nights when she sang the old ballads about
pining hearts weeping well-a-day, hearts gone smash down by the banks where
the waters flow, I caught a hint of some hot, wild longing in her voice, a
trembling like a bell tossed by wind in the belfry of a forsaken church, but
I didn’t get what the tremble was all about.
A wealth of hair hung straight down her back, and her face was the perfect
oval of a Madonna painted by a Renaissance master. She wanted, more than anything
else, to become an artist herself. You had to suffer for your art, make sacrifices
for it, but the artist’s life was the only one worth living. She shook
her fist at the stars as she said this, daring them to try and stop her.
A fitful snow fell on Halloween night, dusting the jack-o-lanterns flickering
on porches, leaving lace doilies just big enough for a
table in her fine lashes. A few weeks later, winter arrived in earnest. Patches
of color appeared on her cheeks as we tramped through the slush of town into
the virgin white silences of favorite haunts in the hills beyond. It was so
quiet there, we couldn’t talk. We stood in the moonlight, in the cold,
holding our breaths, letting the stillness seep into our bodies. Sometimes
we kissed. I forgot my gloves on one of our rambles, and when we returned to
her empty house, she tucked my frozen hands between her thighs to warm them.
I didn’t quite get it. I removed them when the blood was flowing again,
and she got up from the couch to play a frenzied movement from some piano sonata
she’d learned by heart.
I never did get it, not even when the snows began to melt and she gave me a
book to read, the juiciest passage highlighted with pink magic marker. The
moony, swoony passage chronicled a young woman’s fear and delight as
she sank into the soft hay of a hayloft and lifted her skirts to a man for
the first time. The man, a rare honeyed fire in his fingers, promised to be
gentle. It was high summer, the corn drooping in the heat. I’m not totally
sure, but I think there was a thunderstorm at the crucial moment.
In any event, about the time the first daffodils were shaking their yellow
bonnets at the sun, we stopped walking home from school together. She moved
on to a junior at a nearby college. He picked her up after classes in a maroon,
late-model Ford coupe with a spotless tan interior, a suicide knob and lots
of chrome. We no longer passed notes in Latin class as Caesar marched about
Gaul stamping out rebellion and securing his corn supply.
Before the school year was over I moved on myself, to yet another new town.
We did, however, manage to have one last conversation. Under a willow next
to a creek, we went over old times as the water burbled past and clouds wandered
overhead. Her sun dress was filmy. Her calves showed right through it as she
sat hugging her knees, reflective, melancholy almost. Then the subject of her
boyfriend the college junior made its way into our musings. Solid rumor had
it that he was a two-timer.
“You idiot,” she hissed at me, “you imbecile. You child!”
According to her, I didn’t know the eentsy-weentsy teeny little bittiest
thing about love, or women, or her. She couldn’t believe she’d
ever bothered with me. What a nincompoop I was! Of course a woman wanted a
man to pledge undying love for her, and her alone. But what would a pledge
like that mean from a man with so little spirit that he would never have a
fling? He didn’t, naturally, have to cheat on her to prove he was a man
worth loving. But if the man simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have
a steamy affair, how was the woman supposed to know he was really alive, that
he really loved only her?
“Do me a favor and grow up sometime, will you?”
With that parting shot she stomped off. A pair of girlish hips swinging under
a flowered sun dress was my last glimpse of her. The urge to tell her there
was a green stain where she’d been sitting on the bank failed to reach
The logic of her argument about fidelity escaped me. I figured she was probably
right, though, since she seemed right about most things. Maybe as the years
passed I would gradually come to perceive hidden truths about things as complex
and important as love and sex. We had both found it significant that the first
conjugation we learned in Latin was for the verb “to love.”
“Amo, amas, amat,” and so on. Sadly, all those declensions and conjugations
we studied together are lost to me, as dead as the Latin language itself, with
its finicky grammar, its ablatives of means or instrument.
I wonder if her hips still have some hint of girlishness. I wonder
if she got as far in her studies as Ovid, if she ever sighed as a lover
pleaded with the horses of the night to gallop slowly, more slowly. I
heard she married a doctor and settled down in the suburbs of a metropolitan
area in the Midwest. She had kids no doubt, and they grew up and probably
turned out okay, but did she ever paint the pictures she used to dream
about, or bring an audience to tears with a song or a poem?
While I’m thinking about the girl with gingersnap eyes, Wati sits down
at my table. The café is empty, the street outside dark. The café actually
feels more than empty, as though the fluorescent tube buzzing overhead is the
last source of light left in the universe.
“Your wife is where?” asks Wati.
I tell her I don’t have one.
“Your girlfriend is where?”
I shake my head.
She clucks her tongue after she says that, reading the
lines in my expression to see if I’ve been telling the truth. And
then a shy smile flits across her lips, quick and nervous as a hummingbird
snagging a sip of nectar from a fuchsia.
“I’m twenty-four,” she says.
This time I get it. The moment the sliding steel gate separating the café from
the street clangs shut, I fold her in my arms and press my mouth to hers. She
leads me out back, where there’s a small bed with a lumpy mattress. It’s
the end of the dry season, not a cloud in the sky, few mosquitoes around, and
we drag the bed out into the open, under the stars.
Her ferocity takes me by surprise. Perhaps it’s been so long, and her
hunger is so bottomless, her teeth have forgotten how to bite to keep lovemaking
well this side of pain. It’s maddening. I don’t want Wati to stop,
I don’t want her to go on. I’m about to cry out, move from beneath
the insistent shove of her body, the knives of her kisses, when she begins
It’s the wave, the one that comes when flesh melts away and two souls
lock together. She sits up suddenly to ride it, spreads her arms wide to greet
it. There’s a moment like that breathless double-dare you moment on the
swings in the playground when you build up enough momentum to go right over
the top, to catapult the swing clear over the bar. And when the sky finally
releases you, your feet no longer touch the ground beneath your shoes. You’ve
shortened the swing’s chain. You’ve been filled with exaltation,
and all you can hear is the pounding in your ears.
Slowly, sound returns, the ordinary sounds of the world. A few crickets, a
distant car, a sleepless gecko geckoing in the rafters of a thatched overhang,
repeating the name we’ve given to his kind over and over again in the
night. Wati is asleep. I watch the unfamiliar stars of the Southern Cross sinking
below the tops of coconut palms. I think dreamily how I could stay here forever,
under these strange stars, get to know them, with Wati’s soft cheek nuzzled
into my shoulder. I think how twenty-four might be considered over the hill
in Bali, how courtship must be so easy here because it’s warm, and luscious
fruit so abundant, ripe all year round. And then, feeling silly, I too slip
into the world of real dreams.
When I wake, Wati is already dressed. She sits on a chair beside our bed, gazing
at a dawn that can’t be more than ten minutes old. On her lap is a metal
tray holding two glasses of coffee and a bowl of sugar with a spoon in it.
Sensing that my eyes are now open, she turns to me.
This is the way people usually say good-morning at this time of day in Bali.
But the way Wati speaks the phrase, it sounds more like good-bye. Under my
questioning glance, she turns her face aside.
“Kalincak-kelincok,” murmurs Wati.
I don’t quite get it yet. She flashes me a crooked smile.
“I’m still alone.”
Her simple words shatter me. They echo like a fragment from a lost poem of
Sappho. I want to fill in the rest of it for her. Last night, I want to say,
desire tore the petals of loneliness from me and cast them into the abyss.
This morning I’m a naked flower, too.
The teaspoon, trembling slightly in her hand, clatters against the sugar bowl.
She smiles again, letting me know she understands how much I want to speak,
to serenade her with all the missing poems in the cosmos. But we both know
there’s no time. I’ll be leaving soon. Kalincak-kelincok.
“Selamat pagi, Wati,” is all I manage to say.
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