Boyfriends are trouble, I said. He leaned over and gave me a high-five
Along the beach, surfboards spring up like bunches of tropical flowers; they lean against wooden posts, their tails planted in the sand. Tanned merchants scamper to and from the ocean, filling plastic buckets with salty water, then they rinse the surfboards clean and run their wrinkled fingers down the smooth surfaces. The faded colours are left to blossom in the sun.
Men with dark sunglasses and raspy black beards wheel their painted food carts onto the sand and unfold them near the crumbling stone barrier that divides the beach from the street. They flick their cigarettes with their lips and place beer, pop, packages of rice crackers and greasy fried potatoes on display.
Groups of women crouch in the shade of palm trees, talking in low murmurs and preparing baskets of pineapples, mangoes, papayas and watermelons to carry on their heads. They wrap paring knives in the folds of their sarongs, ready at any time to peel and slice the soft, ripened fruit.
A woman with long, slanted eyes and sagging cheeks struggles with a pen and a piece of paper, trying to write something down. I clear my throat and she steps back. It is early morning and the tide is low. The sun sits on top of the waves, rolling lazily to shore.
The woman shoves the pen and paper to the side and makes a welcoming gesture with her hand. “Yes,” she smiles. “Something for you?”
His nickname is So Much—what people always say when they thank him. On the day I met him, he invited me to a “bottle ceremony.” He later explained that he was hosting a pot-smoking party at his apartment with a small group of friends.
Signs hang at every street corner— cautionary messages in bright, bold letters, translated into several languages, warning tourists that anyone caught purchasing or consuming drugs will be heavily fined; they could even be sentenced to death.
“Don’t worry,” he said, patting my shoulder. “This is my country.”
He is twenty-four years old and he works as a merchant on Kuta Beach, six days a week from dawn to dusk, renting surfboards and teaching tourists how to surf. “The trick is,” he told me, “you find someone, looking lost.” That’s how he found me, I guess.
He led me into the ocean, held my surfboard steady and gave it a push when a wave approached. “Paddle, paddle!” he called after me. “Now stand up! Up!”
The next morning he emerged from the water, dark and glistening in the sun, and sat down next to me. “What do you do at night?” he asked me, “Do you go dancing?” He shook his head, flung his wet hair from side to side, brought his finger to his ear. “I don’t like house music,” he said. “I like love songs.” He told me he had a girlfriend from Holland, almost ten years older than he was; he dated her for nearly two years. “Yeah, she comes here, you know,” he shrugged, “stay here with me. It was nice.
“She was old,” he said, “But I like Western. Much better way of thinking. Balinese girls,” he shivered, “too jealous.” He put his arms behind his head. “How long you here for?”
“Long time.” He looked at me. “You come here, every day. Talking with me. Make friends.”
A beautiful surfer boy came and sat by the edge of the sea. He rested his surfboard against his legs, and the waves rolled at his feet.
A group of tourists asked if they could have their picture taken with him. I could tell they were tourists by their pasty skin, long pant legs rolled up to their knees, and sweaters tied around their necks. In other words, they looked like I did a few weeks ago.
The beautiful surfer boy stood up, knocking the sand from his shorts. He hovered over the tourists and flashed their camera a thumbs-up. Then he lay back down on the sand. He drew his surfboard under his head and used it as a pillow. He lay parallel to the sea and gazed up at the sun.
He did not move for a very long time. I know because I was watching him from farther up the beach. I was sitting beside the French professor.
“He moved,” the professor said.
“I know,” I said.
“His arm,” the professor said.
“It means he’s alive.” I brought my hand to my eyes and shielded them from the sun. “It’s a good sign.”
The professor got up and circled the beautiful surfer boy. From time to time, he knelt down and made like he was picking something up. He was pretending to collect shells.
I laughed out loud. The beautiful surfer boy drummed his fingers against the sand.
“He looks young,” the professor said upon his return. He put a silver piece of shell beside me.
“How do you say ‘young’?” I asked.
“J’aime les jeunes garçons.”
“Your French is improving,” the professor said. He stretched out on his blanket and closed his eyes.
The sun was sinking. Clouds were streaks of pink in the hazy sky.
I looked for him again, but the beautiful surfer boy was gone.
“Je pluie,” I said.
“Je pleure,” the professor corrected me.
“That’s what I said.”
“No,” he said, “you said, ‘I rain.’ That doesn’t make any sense.”
Number One Thing
“Write your name for me, please.” I passed him a pen.
“Write your name.”
He flashed a toothy grin and adjusted his baseball cap. “Jaya,” he said, “My name is Jaya.”
“What’s your last name?”
He fidgeted, made a small mark, dropped the pen. “No,” he said. “That is my only name.”
“What does it mean?”
“No, it doesn’t mean a thing.” He sat on a foam skimboard next to my towel and dug his toes in the sand. “Why don’t you have a boyfriend? Why are you always alone?”
“Boyfriends are trouble,” I smiled.
“Boyfriends are trouble,” he repeated. He leaned over, put his hand in the air and gave me a high-five.
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“I work all the time,” he said. “Balinese girls don’t like me; they don’t like dark skin.”
Jaya is from Sumatra. He said, “It is like a garden. Very big trees. Pot grows everywhere. We use it in cooking. We put it in soup—you know soup?” He waved his hand in front of him. “Grows in big patches. Pot. It’s free, not like Bali.”
“Why did you move here?”
“Three years ago, I moved,” he answered. “Sumatra is full.”
“What is your favourite thing about Bali?”
He crinkled his forehead and drummed his hands on the skimboard.
“Your favourite thing,” I said again. “Number one thing about Bali.”
He took his hat off and hung it on his knee.
“No,” he said. “Girls.” He flashed me another toothy grin.
I leaned over, put my hand in the air and gave him a high-five.
The man in the room beside me, a doctor in Belgium, had a Balinese girlfriend. I’d see them walking down the cobbled streets, her delicate wrist resting on his hip. He’d turn protectively toward her every time a scooter sped by.
“The Balinese don’t believe in public affection,” he said, “and everyone around here, they know one another. They are actually quite strict.”
“What are girls like in Belgium?” I asked.
“They’re great. Most of them have pleasing faces and light hair. I guess it depends on the region. I don’t care for light hair.” He glanced at his Balinese girlfriend. “But sometimes girls from Belgium have red hair and red eyes.” He laughed. “Oops! I meant, green!”
He was from Belgium and spoke Dutch and French. She was from Bali and spoke Balinese and Indonesian. They both spoke a little English.
They talked with their hands a lot. His hands were pink and fleshy next to hers, tanned and elegant and fluttering through the air like birds. Who knew what they were talking about? I think they were creating their own language.
One night I sat outside my room in the hot, moist air. The lamp above me was bare and dim. A small sphere of light encompassed me. Beyond that, I could not see a thing. Pale moths flapped their tired wings. Some burned against the lamp and fell to the ground.
The doctor from Belgium stumbled up the stairs. He put his hand against the wall and rested his head against his door.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He straightened his back. His face was red. He could have been sunburned; he could have been drinking; he could have been crying. He could have been any of these things. He could have been all three. I couldn’t tell. It was dark out and I was sitting under a dim light.
He said, “You know, Balinese families, they often sleep in the same bed. It is their custom. They are used to it.” He sighed. “It gets so they are lonely. They are frightened, and they cannot sleep alone.”
So Much leaned in close and inspected the love marks on the side of my neck.
“Mosquitoes in your room last night,” he said. “Oh no! Mosquitoes in your room last night.”
He rolled around in the sand, moaning and laughing, “Where was I? Where was I? I was working! I could not protect you from the mosquitoes in your room last night.
“What did I tell you?” He sat up and flicked his hair back. “What did I tell you? Mosquitoes in Bali are a problem! Oh no, oh no!” He said, “I could not protect you!”
We sat on the beach and watched the sun set. A busload of children ran down to the water. They played in the glittering ocean and struck poses in the sun, casting long shadows against the pink backdrop of the sky.
I was walking up the beach with my surfboard tucked under my arm; the tail, dragging in the sand behind me, made a thin wavering line, a trail.
A man with a long, narrow face, pale eyes and a friendly smile nodded at me. He said he had met me a couple nights ago at the Ocean Beach Club, only “We were both very drunk.”
At the party at the Ocean Beach Club, there had been an open bar for an hour between ten and eleven o’clock. I had consumed several complimentary cocktails.
I remember the flimsy plastic cup filled to the rim with a blue alcoholic drink, swishing and spilling all over my hands; my fingers stuck together and left gooey fingerprints on everything I touched. Where was I? I was on the dance floor. I was spinning, spinning, spinning. And everything was blurred in the neon lights. That’s all I could remember.
He was still smiling at me. “You are from Canada, right? I am from Switzerland.”
I asked him his name.
“Philip,” he smiled.
“Nice to meet you, Philip,” I said. “Sorry, I don’t remember the first time.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “Would you like to go for dinner—tomorrow night?”
“Sure,” I said.
He was smiling. And that’s how he walked away: smiling.
Philip ordered a tuna salad, only he didn’t realize it was a real salad, with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and everything. He ate the tuna off the top and pushed the plate aside. “I ordered the wrong thing,” he said.
In Switzerland, he said, he had had a girlfriend, and he had smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. But he’d broken up with his girlfriend, and now he was trying to quit smoking.
He had dark purplish rings under his eyes. He told me that they varied day to day in size and colour.
“I don’t know what they mean,” he shrugged, “I just always have them.”
I teased him and said it was because he didn’t eat his vegetables. Later, when he kissed me, I tasted the licorice from his Nicorette gum.
I developed a large bruise on the outside of my thigh, the size of a human fist, glowing deep purple against the dark of my tan.
Philip told me I needed to be more careful with my surfboard. “You can get really hurt,” he warned me. “The waves push your surfboard back on you. And the waves can get really strong.”
I couldn’t remember getting hit by my surfboard. But then, I never remember things like that. I only realize afterwards, when the pain starts to emerge.
He swam out into the ocean, waded next to me and offered me tips on how to surf. By the end of the day, his skin was puckered with goosebumps and his teeth were chattering.
“Oh, what do I know?” he said, running his hand through his sandy hair. “There is always something else to learn.”
“I love pizza. I could eat it every day,” Philip said.
On the way to the restaurant, he asked me, what kind of crust would I like? There are many kinds: thin crust, deep-dish—some are filled with cheese.
We were riding his scooter down a crowded street, right beside the beach. On either side of us, groups of shirtless boys and shoeless girls wandered in and out between parked vehicles. We shot through the narrow spaces between idling cars that were stopped in traffic. Rushes of air roared into my ears. “Can’t we decide later?” I shouted against the wind.
Over dinner he told me he had once conducted an experiment with pizza. “People always tell me to bite more,” he explained. “They say, it is much better for your stomach if you bite more, between thirty and forty times. The first few times I try this, everything was fine. But after a while it was disgusting. It was like eating pizza through a straw.
“And it was cold,” he concluded. “Sometimes it is better just to do things your way. Who cares what other people tell you?”
Philip saw a kite in the sky and pointed at it. At first I didn’t see it.
“Why do you always do that?” he said. “I point that way and you look in the other direction.”
At last I saw it, a distant dot of colour fluttering in the sky. I squinted against the sun. I could hardly see anything. Black shadowy splotches clouded my vision.
Philip said he would like to bring a kite home with him, but what’s the point? In Switzerland, he said, there is not enough wind.
“I guess because you are not by the sea,” I said. I tried to conjure up the map of my high school geography textbook. I blinked again and again. The sun-splotches were still there, dark holes puncturing everything I looked at. “Is Switzerland by the sea?”
“Oh yes,” he answered. “We have this little thing called the Swiss Sea— connects Switzerland with America. You must come: you must sail across this sea. I will be waiting for you on the other side.”
“That would be the quickest way,”
“Yes,” he agreed, “and the easiest.”
The other night, Philip shook me awake as I fell asleep on his shoulder.
He said, “How long have we known us?” He said, “Are we going to try and see us again? Or are we dead?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’m not very good at talking about this sort of thing.”
I sat in the back of the cab, staring out the window. It was early morning, still half-dark. The local people were opening their shops, rinsing the sidewalks with their garden hoses, lighting sticks of incense, honouring their gods.
Something rippled through my body, up my spine and into my throat. I held my breath. I closed my eyes and pretended I was underwater. I knew if I did anything, something might come out: a black bird, a prickly fruit, a lump of sand. My thighs left sticky outlines on the vinyl seats.
The cab driver didn’t say anything. He drove. He kept his eyes on the road. At the airport, he overcharged me. He put my bags on the side of the road and held his hand out. I didn’t barter. I didn’t argue. This is something they expect you to do, but I didn’t say anything. I just gave him the money. He folded his hand over the bills and climbed back into the cab.
I picked up my bags and walked away. I didn’t look back. Why? I knew the cab was gone. What could I do? I just kept on walking.