CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
It is the low season and the pool is not crowded. A fiftyish German couple occupies the area nearest the beach path, buttressed by open bags and facedown magazines. A darkly tanned woman pulls a ululating child across the shallow end. A young couple lies side by side on their stomachs, listening to headphones, so still they barely seem to be breathing. And him. Reading a newspaper. He is the last guest she notices, and then she cannot take her eyes off him. At first she registers only a vague asymmetry: there is too much towel at the bottom of the chaise. A second take and she realizes that his right leg ends just above where the knee should be. He is tanned all over, his bronze skin shimmering. Below his checked blue swimsuit the tip of the stump is ruffled and dark like a big, brown oyster. He looks up from his newspaper; she smiles and looks away. She closes her eyes, inhales deeply, feels the sun on her face and chest, hears the child splashing, the murmur of conversation, wind riffling the palm fronds.
Dear Eric: Greetings from Candi Dasa. It is paradise here, and I’m finally relaxing after a busy but productive conference in Hong Kong. They really made a fuss of us VPs at the conference, which was flattering but very tiring. Anyway, I’m here now, soaking up some sun. The hotel is pretty fabulous. Maybe this time I’ll go scuba diving!
She dozes after a beer and chicken sandwich, opens her eyes to sunlight. Zigzag flashes inside her eyelids. The next time she looks his way someone from the hotel staff is standing beside him, and they are talking. He has an ease of movement, a gracefulness, the way he sweeps his hands in gentle circles when he speaks. Copper skin splashed with freckles, his face happy, boyish. Does he normally wear a prosthesis? What does the stump feel like? Soft and private, like a penis, or withered and gnarled, all cicatrix and tendon? Would it hurt if it dug into her thigh? Maybe it’s hard like stone. Eric would be gawking like a vulture, would have made some crack by now. I’m not picking that guy for touch football. Or maybe an Ahoy, under his breath. Stupid, drunk, arrogant Eric. She’s better off without him. But the wasted years, the wasted everything, fester inside her, a rusty knife scraping away at her soul. At the conference, she was aware of being a new demographic, the childless and divorced women. How did she become one of them? So much seems to have eluded her. She wants a Diet Coke, but the waiter has disappeared. She wishes she had her guidebook with her, already marked with Post-Its, yellow flags for nearby attractions, pink for day excursions. She could prioritize and plan.
She walks along the swept slate path to the promontory above the beach, sits on the bench there and watches the waves pounding the rocky shoreline. Even with her sunglasses on, there is an abundance of light, as if another sun has dropped down from the sky and is melting in the frothy spume.
By the time she returns to her room, her shoulders and chest are reddened. After a shower, her breasts look pale and puffy in the mirror. She watches CNN for half an hour and falls asleep with the TV on.
She wakes to light streaming through the curtains. Orders room service. Smells the coffee even before the knock on the door. It is strong and delicious. Of course, Java, Sumatra, these are the coffee islands. Funny, she never thought of that. She is suddenly hungry and devours the croissant and sliced papaya.
The concierge asks if she wants a taxi. No thank you. She turns left out of the hotel gates, walks down the dusty gutted road, past mangroves and rice paddies, palm trees and long dry grass. A shack, the top of a temple, telephone poles. Ugly glasses, dances badly, eats like a pig. Enumerating Eric’s faults is a game she plays compulsively and, when she catches herself, stops immediately. Bits of sea, still as a noon meadow, flicker in the gaps between the trees and bushes.
Back at the hotel, she changes into her bikini and sarong, thinking she will walk down to the sea, maybe wade in her flip-flops through the rocky surf and look for shells. But she stops when she sees him at the pool, frowning at his newspaper. She pauses beside his chair, her knee inches from the stump. Hello. Up close it is thinner than she’d thought. Excuse me, but do you speak English? He tells her that he does.
I was wondering, do you know your way around here?
Yes. An open palm invites her to sit. She perches on the edge of the chaise beside him. She doesn’t, of course, have a burning question, having forgotten just about everything she’d bookmarked in the guidebook. The only thing that stuck in her mind is Tirta Gangga, so she asks him about that. He nods and smiles as though he were hoping she would ask exactly that. An easy drive from here … The water garden is beautiful. His voice is calm, almost soothing, his eyes dark as black marbles. She notices his ropy forearms, long fingers. She finds herself staring at him, for longer than is polite, considering his skin, the patch of dark hairs on his chest. She doesn’t dare look at the leg, not now, not when she is sitting right next to him.
A quick dip in the pool. The water is barely even cool, but it is pleasant to be underwater with the sun above her, twinkling on the surface. She wishes she had goggles so she could look up through the water at the aqueous sun and sky.
You must go to Amed Beach, he tells her while she is drying herself off. Lovely at sunset. Very vivid. He pronounces his Vs with a slight bray—wiwid. A waiter appears, and he asks if she would like a drink. Won’t say no to a cocktail. And just like that they are chatting. His name is Arin. He asks if it is her first time there, smiles when she says yes, nods knowingly when she says she works in asset management. And what do you do? He shrugs. I’m a trader. She thinks foreign currencies; she thinks weapons, elephant tusks, sex slaves. She imagines he lost his leg in a helicopter crash, tiger attack, drug war.
Dear Eric: Hello from Bali. I’m having a blast. I’ve made fast friends with a couple from Frankfurt and a man who owns the largest bank in Singapore. How silly of me to worry about traveling alone. Turns out I love the freedom. You go farther when you travel alone. And meet nice people when you get there. Hope you are well. How goes the business?
Some islands will disappear. Arin tells her this. Not any time soon. Ewentually. The sea comes every day and takes away some sand, bit by bit, and it will dig up whole islands. He doesn’t know which ones.
Around lunchtime he gathers his things and, with a bag slung across his shoulder, pulls a wooden walking stick from beneath a towel. She wishes he’d stayed so they could eat together. She could have asked where he was from, maybe told him a bit about Chicago. She eats alone in the restaurant behind the pool. She flips through her guidebook, scans the single-page photocopied digest of the Herald Tribune she picked up at the front desk. On the way back to the pool she chats briefly with the German couple. They are from Hamburg, it turns out, and are going scuba diving tomorrow. There’s an empty bottle of white wine and two glasses on the table between them. Eric would have joined them, ordered another bottle, not worrying what a bottle of wine costs at a hotel in Bali, and proceeded to prattle on about his time in Germany in B-school, his visit to the Mercedes factory, his theory about the auto industry, ethanol, the future of hybrid cars. No more of that, thank God.
She had decided on Uluwatu, the cliff-top temple, for the afternoon. But now that she’s had lunch and another swim all she can think of is a hot shower and a nap. It’s not a contest, she tells herself. You don’t get a prize for seeing the most things. Back in her room, she applies a citrus face masque, does some yoga on the bed. Showered and clean, she lies on the bed naked, freshly shampooed and lotion-slick, her face tingling pleasantly. The curtains and window are open, not that there’s much of a breeze but the fresh air smells good. A triangle of light splashes across the bed like a spotlight across her ankles. She draws a hand under her breasts, where the bikini top digs a bit. She can hear voices from the pool. If they were together on the bed, now, someone standing outside could see them perfectly.
He greets her as if they’re old friends, and soon they are chatting. Yes, there is a rainy season in Bali, he says in his tromboney voice. No, he’s never seen snow. When she applies sunscreen she is careful not to lean too far over and expose too much cleavage or the roll of fat on her tummy. Not that she’s fat. She is not. She knows from the looks men gave her at the conference that she’s still attractive. She thinks about asking him to spread sunscreen on her back. Maybe later.
She tells him she’s planning to drive to Uluwatu. Would he like to come along. He smiles, and for a moment she thinks he is going to say yes, but he declines.
Some things to take care of. I’m not really on holiday. Just pretending.
You pretend pretty well.
You’re very … you seem. She wants to say content. Happy.
Why not. Life is good.
What is it you do exactly?
I sell furniture and crafts. To shops and hotels, like this one. Have you seen our good teak furniture? Wery well made. Wery beautiful.
After a while he stands up, collects his things, picks up the walking stick. She can’t help glancing at the stump, hanging now beneath his shorts. Enjoy your afternoon, Carol. Thank you. You too. He doesn’t go inside but to the open-air cabana next to the pool where he lies down on a massage table, and soon a powerfully built woman is kneading his back. She’ll go for a hike tomorrow, or walk into town, and reward herself with a massage. Pamper yourself, her sister said. Don’t worry about work or meeting someone. Why would Alice say that about meeting someone? How does she know what Carol is and isn’t worrying about?
Arin’s massage seems to last forever. After a while the heat becomes too much for her. It’s as if her body is covered in hot wax. She presses a finger into her shoulder and makes a white halo. She doesn’t want to have to stay out of the sun tomorrow, so she goes inside for some shade. The bar is pleasingly dim and cooled by massive ceiling fans.
Dear Alice: Believe it or not, I am having a romantic dalliance with a charming entrepreneur from Thailand. Anyway, I was wondering why you asked if I’d like to come with you all to Sanibel Island, but then you just went ahead and took the trip without consulting me. Whatever the reason, why can’t you guys just tell me? And is that why you were so adamant I go to Bali? A sort of consolation prize? I think we need to have a talk when I get back, don’t you?
He is not at the pool or on the massage table when she returns, and she takes her towel, iPod, and paperback novel and walks along the slate path to the terrace of sand above the sea where she sits on a beach chair, overlooking the choppy green water. The waves below make a coiled, tinny sound. She gazes at the sea and smudgy horizon, breathes deeply, aware of being where she is—far from home, alone in a beautiful place, sitting above perilous rocks, facing the future. Just beyond the breakers, stacked cement pillars once thought to prevent the beach from eroding sit uselessly in the water, algae covered, resolute in their futility, a stupid and ugly gesture against the inevitable. The guidebook says they have flying fish here. That isn’t something you see on Lake Michigan. She looks at the surface of the sea, at the rummaged water and swoops of color. Actually, they don’t fly at all but glide across the water, flapping with their strong tails. She wonders if they can see above and below water. And if people eat them.
She listens to her iPod for a while, a jazz CD that isn’t exactly what she wants to hear, but she doesn’t have all of her albums on the iPod yet. She had her assistant set it up—a pretty, popular young woman named Mabel—and was a bit self-conscious about the CDs she gave her. Right now she’d like to listen to Loretta Lynne or some of the other albums she’d been embarrassed to add to the stack on Mabel’s desk. Wasn’t that silly? As if Mabel gives two shits what kind of music she listens to.
She wants to linger, wants to watch the light fade from the periwinkle sky, but her back is getting stiff. She rotates her neck and scans the shipless sea. We find ourselves in paradise. The words ring unbidden in her head, and she wonders if she read them someplace. Perhaps she’ll put them in a postcard, if she ever writes one. Of course, there’s no we here, kimosabe; she is alone. And it doesn’t look like paradise. Pretty, sure, but paradise wouldn’t have the algae, the cement girders, the trash. Paradise would have fine white sand and bright flowers. The brassy jazz in her earphones is out of kilter with the sea, the lazy, constant waves. Maybe if there were the flying fish, the soundtrack would be right.
Dear Eric: How is Chicago? I hope the weather isn’t too bad. My news is that I’ve become romantically involved. Go figure. With the Prince of Sumatra, no less. Needless to say, he is charming and handsome and brilliant. Speaks about seven languages and loves country music. It’s all a bit crazy and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ll be staying on a bit longer, then dragging him to America.
That night she joins a group that is going to the theater. The German couple is among them. Arin is not. Made, the man who drove her from the airport, is their driver and chaperone, and as soon as they’re seated in the minivan he begins a brief account of the play, which is called Calonarang. He recites a brief synopsis, as he drives, and she wonders if he’s memorized a script of sorts. A legendary Balinese queen, Calonarang, is accused of practicing black magic, imperiling the kingdom and jeopardizing her daughter’s chances of marrying a noble prince. The van bumps along the muddy road toward the little town.
And what happens at the end? Carol asks.
Ah, you will have to see. It is very exciting.
The theater is a small outdoor stage with folding plastic chairs. Before the play, women with elaborate headdresses perform a dance. They make long arcing movements with their arms and slither around the stage. It looks, Carol thinks, as if they’re being electrocuted in slow motion. There is a brief intermission during which drinks and chocolates are sold, then the play begins. She is pleased that Made told them the plot. It’s like going to the opera: best to read the story. It’s unclear what happens at the end. There’s a rumble of drums and worried expressions as Calonarang wreaks havoc on the kingdom. Finally, a man in gold and silver robes kills the queen. Which appears to be a good thing. They carry her off the stage, and everyone dances and looks happy.
She asks at the front desk. The man who was at the pool yesterday. But the young Balinese girl gives her a blank look. Arin, the man with one leg, the man who sells furniture and crafts. Now she smiles brightly. Of course. She says the name differently. Mr. Ahreen. He check out today.
Really? Such a shame to come to such a lovely place for such a short time.
Oh, he is back very often. Must be he goes to other hotels, then back to Jakarta.
The phone rings, and the girl picks it up. Carol walks away. She will look at the shop, maybe buy one of his items, a little mask to put above her bedside table, or one of those wall hangings for her office. People will stop in and ask where it is from, and she will tell them about the Asia-Pacific conference—and the tale of her holiday romance, with a mysterious man whom she later found out, is a former mercenary and international weapons trader.
The next day a different woman is at the front desk. Carol asks if she could get in touch with Mr. Arin, explains that she is interested in buying art and artifacts for her office. The woman seems to understand, says she will phone right away.
She buys rubber shoes so that she can swim in the ocean, but even with the shoes the rocks hurts her feet, and mostly she floats on her back, looking at the horizon and worrying that a current will drag her too far from the hotel or smash her into one of the big cement girders. Up close they look more natural—green and opalescent, covered with algae and barnacles. They could be living things, God’s creations. Still, the stretch of sea would be a whole lot prettier without them.
She is in the bar not reading the book in front of her when the call comes. She’s a bit surprised that they know she’s there. A teenage bellhop brings the cordless phone on a wooden platter. Arin announces himself and asks how she is. Yes, he would be delighted to show her some of his things. He has authentic Indonesian tapestries, masks, wooden boxes and bowls. He can show her photographs of teak furniture. He’s in Sanur on the southern end of the island. He’ll come back to the hotel tomorrow afternoon.
Dear Eric: Well, this is going to surprise you. I’m thinking of starting an entrepreneurial venture. Importing Balinese furniture. I’ve got to do a bit more due diligence, but I think there’s a good market in the US. Beautiful products, and with the exchange rate it could be very profitable. There’s a manufacturer here who will invest in the joint venture. Perhaps you can give me some advice on marketing materials and trade shows. At any rate, I’d like to discuss it with you when I get back.
Fucking Eric. Drinks too much, lies, hypocritical, bad breath. Twiddles his thumbs, gummy smile, never apologizes. Still, sometimes she feels bursts of tenderness. Gravelly laugh, happy eyes, warm and solid in bed. She orders another drink. Later she’ll watch pay-per-view in her room. The tenderness fades. The fact is she wishes him ill. Nothing terrible, a little accident would do it, an unhappy turn of events, like his new little girlfriend dumping him and stealing money, that would be okay, bring him down to earth, make him reconsider a thing or two.
In the morning she rents a moped and drives to the water palace. It’s a bumpy ride along the rutted dirt road. The place is a ruin of Disneyesque architecture, fallen-down pagodas, broken urns, statues strangled with vines, water-spouting bheesties with fat cheeks and soccer ball bellies. The guidebook says little about the place other than it was a “garden folly” built by a king who reigned over a hundred years ago. Two German boys are fighting over a PlayStation. Cement bodhisattvas spit plumes of water into muddy troughs. She has forgotten her camera.
Back at the hotel, Arin is waiting in the lobby. He is wearing long pants, two black shoes. So he does have a prosthetic leg. A white hat and folded newspaper sit on the table beside him. She walks over, thanks him for coming, tells him she’s just going to take a quick shower. Please, he says, in his cooing voice, take your time. In the shower she imagines that he is thinking about her, fantasizing, picturing her soapy and naked. She dresses in a bikini and sarong, lets her hair down.
He is waiting for her in a small conference room behind the management office. The hotel manager, a gray-haired man in suit and tie, shows her the way, then shakes her hand rather elaborately and leaves. When she enters the room, Arin thanks her again, asks what kind of office she works in, nods knowingly at her response, asks about Chicago.
Please, he says, allow me to show you some things. He sweeps a hand around the room, offers her something to drink. No thank you. The table is covered with wooden masks and bowls, the chairs slung with hand-dyed tapestries. The tapestries are special, only made in Indonesia. She bends close to one or two, says yes, they are very beautiful. They represent, how do you say, spiritual ideas? Gods and demons, the chi or inner spirit. They are hand-colored with natural dyes—indigo, betel. Wery special. He rubs a fabric between thumb and forefinger and inhales as if a marvelous scent is passing through the tips of his fingers into his lungs. Stick figures with stomachs full of what look like rocks and arrows. Lovely, she says, and her eyes move to the two-ring binder with plastic sleeves. She picks it up and flips through the pictures of tables and chairs, desks and benches, all teak and mahogany—big, lustrous. The photograph album is vinyl, heavy. She looks briefly at each page. He is leaning against the wall, watching her, not speaking. He smiles when she looks at him, runs a hand across his hair. Not quite right, she says, putting the album back on the table. Thank you. She walks out of the room before he can say anything.
Soon she is through the amber-tinted glass doors and outside. The sky seems to be singing, a chorus of light, hallelujahs of sunshine. She feels as if she’s breathing in the sun, pulling big draughts of it deep into her soul as, for the first time, the heat feels right, like an old friend who has been away too long. She is ready now, sufficient to the place. She settles into a chaise and dabs suntan lotion on her face. Another afternoon of doing nothing. Never mind the day excursions.
Anthony Schneider’s work has been published in McSweeney’s, the Believer, Boldtype, Details, and Mid-American Review, among others. He lives in New York City.