she and I were of the same people, by size alone she could have been Balinese,
buying fruit in the market for which she in the early market bargained hard. Obscured
by the large piles of incense burners and bananas, rubber sandals and wafts of
offerings the Balinese sent up to the gods all day, we could only hear her voice,
again equal to the native women's in pitch as she refused to allow them to choose
her fruit for her: mangosteen, durian, the spiny rambutan. We had met at a traditional
dinner a friend, by then estranged, had recommended to us. Seated at the table
there began a warm, torrential rain, and the courtyard pond began to fill, threatening
to spill its cache of fish over the rim onto the flat garden stones, which grew
quickly slippery as a sweaty woman's breasts. Thunder shook the thatch of the
enclosure, while the diners, mostly young, chatted quietly, politely, in English.
Like Noah's animals, most of the others were travelling in heterosexual pairs:
two Japanese, two Swedish, two Americans, two British, peering at one another
in the flickering light.|
"Are you two travelling alone?" the man next to me asked. Pots of tuberose and wild ginger flanked my other side, making me feel hemmed in by the rain.
"They appear to be travelling together," the physician said, smiling a little.
Just then, our Balinese host appeared like a magician from behind a batiked curtain of violet and blue. When he asked if any of us were vegetarian, the physician raised her hand but served herself the variously cooked ducks anyway, which did not represent a contradiction to her.
After this we became friends.
Constantly damp, inundated by green, my lover and I lay prone on our single beds at night listening to the geckos call their own names. Mosquitoes buzzed our heads, the largest mosquitoes we have ever seen, and we burned green coils of pesticide so that we were able to sleep. There was a temple outside our front door that a woman, in the employ of the hotel, covered twice a day with offerings: incense and marigolds the lizards darted from cracks in the stone to eat. All day women carried baskets of bricks and sand on their heads, back and forth in front of the veranda on which we sat, my lover and I, watching as the clouds moved to obscure the early morning mountains, reading Jane Austen in the afternoon. Additional bungalows were being built next to ours, and periodically the owner came to sit on our veranda and speak in a tired voice about his day. "They are very slow," he would tell us, smiling as the women plodded by, baskets of stones on their heads. "But this is business," he said. Listening to him, watching the women work, we felt ashamed of our desire not to move, and for this reason agreed to go the next day with the physician on a driving tour of the island.
She'd been living on an Indian reservation for the past few years, manning a free clinic single-handedly like a missionary in the wilderness. Orphaned early in her life, she lived rootlessly, compelled by service, and looked at every place she travelled as a possible site for a practice. Certainly, we agreed, the need here was obvious. "Where is the nearest clinic to your house?" she asked the driver. "What is the word for friendly, how would you say 'which way to Ubud' in Bahasa Indonesia?" The physician smiled at him through her questioning. She kept placing her hand on his arm, directing him further into the terraced hills: Tirtagangga, Besakih, temples my lover could not enter because of her monthly blood. The driver wore a mustache and Western clothes. He smiled and answered the physician's questions, kicking his sandals off as he drove. My lover and I, quiet, sat in back all day. We stopped at a fancy restaurant for lunch, bought spices in a market surrounded by native women and their sons hawking nutmegs, vanilla beans, exquisite saffron threads. "I would like to see more," the physician said. My lover and I, dazed, held our heads.
Late in the day the driver took us to a temple and left us in the parking lot. "This is Sangeh," he said, "the last place I will show you today." The physician frowned a bit. "It is very special," he assured her, though firm, "not too many tourists here." He sent us ahead and stretched out to take a nap in his car.
The temple sat on the edge of a small glade of trees, mossy stones surrounded by a rusting iron fence, famous for its band of monkeys who were sacred to the place. We bought bags of peanuts, and a Balinese woman showed us the grounds. "Hold like this." She bent down and laid a peanut in the palm of her hand. A monkey came and lifted the peanut between its forefinger and thumb, delicately, like it was taking tea. We strolled the perimeter of the temple, stopping to feed the greedy monkeys who followed behind us, discreetly at first, like dogs.
"I had a woman lover once when I was in medical school, but I had to leave her," the physician said.
I felt myself grow defensive. I brushed the hair back that was clinging to my face.
"Not because she was a woman," the physician said, "but because she was angry and unreasonable all the time."
"Just like that?" I asked her, bending down to give a monkey a peanut.
"I had started seeing someone else. A man," the physician said.
The guide, confused by our conversation, grasped my thick arm in both her hands. "You have husband?" she said.
"No husband," I told her.
"Why not?" A monkey with a child on its back reached its hand up to us. The guide took a peanut from my sack and fed it to the monkey.
I spied my lover standing beneath the trees outside the fence, nodded to her, and shrugged. I let the guide steer the physician further into the temple and instead followed my lover into the trees, away from the parking lot with its buses and heaving kiosks. A group of young monkeys followed us at a small distance, tentatively looking up at us from the ground. The more we ignored them the closer they came, until one of them placed its paw on my leg, letting it rest there. Don't forget me. "Hanuman the monkey god rescued an important princess," my lover told me. I looked at her. "Rama's wife. That's why they're sacred," she said, feeding the monkey a peanut. I touched her shoulder, which was warm and damp, and she pointed for me to look up. Every so often one of the guides clapped her hands, and all at once the tree tops would explode, like balloons expanding from the heat. Even from a distance we could tell the bats were huge, flying foxes, dense as the eagles that sometimes circled the dunes near our house. Standing still we could hear their wings like pennants in the burdened air. "You didn't forget me in there," she said.
As was, by custom, expected, I returned to the temple to give our guide some money for the tour. There she was, still in conversation with the physician, who had by that time taken the guide by the arm.
"Permisi," I said and laid some rupiah in the woman's hand. The physician did the same.
"You are very beautiful," she told us, "you will have husbands soon." "Terimah kasih," we said. Thank-you very much.
At night on the long way back to our village the driver insisted we raise our windows and lower our voices so as to pass among the spirits unnoticed; every fifteen days the spirits took to the fields and dark roads, preying on trespassers in the night.
"Why do you do this?" the physician asked, but the driver hushed her and shut the headlights, speeding and floating through the dark. My lover by that time was squirming visibly in her seat, overcome by a fear she later came to recognize as old and pertaining to long rides with men in cars.
"A graveyard," he whispered a few minutes later, expelling his breath in a series of long, quiet sighs. "The spirits will eat us if they know we are here," he said. There was a kind of pleading in his voice.
"Do you believe that?" the physician asked. The driver deposited us in a pool of light outside our door. Small bats circled the streetlamps, gorging themselves on the moths that could not help but be drawn there.
"I do not want to find out," he said.
The following week, the physician hired the driver to travel the perimeter of the island, spending some time in a small isolated village along the northern coast. They rented a boat from which to explore the shallow reefs that cupped the shore. The driver in his trunks and native sarong was beautiful, skin as smooth as that of the sleek fish they watched slide suggestively in and out of the coral. He began by touching her tentatively at first, helping her in and out of the boat. The next day his hand grazed her thigh as they swam, and instead of moving away from his touch she allowed his hand to linger there, which we imagine came as a surprise to them both.
When the physician returned from her journey she came to see us at our bungalow, sitting on the porch with us and watching as the women carried their heavy loads on their heads, back and forth all afternoon. Cows in the pasture nearby rolled their deer-eyes toward us, women winnowed rice that had ripened during the length of our stay. The physician carried her money and papers in a pouch which hung suspended from a leather cord between her breasts, secured for safe measure by other cords that tied around her waist. It reminded my lover and me of some elaborate sexual device, but whether it seemed dissuasive or tempting we could never quite agree. From this pouch she drew a photograph of herself and the driver, who was indeed beautiful if slightly blurred, posing shirtless in the bright sun. Easy to imagine what lay beyond them: palm trees, bungalows, the rapacious Java Sea, but the physician's automatic camera had erased the background, allowing the two of them to inhabit the entire frame.
Dusk invaded the valley. Colorful banners snapped in the paddys, hoping to scare the voracious birds, and my lover sketched them in watercolors to send as postcards to our friends in the States. A woman of spectacular attention, she had been watching the fields for hours, nodding periodically to appear at least a bit engaged in the physician's final tale, which went like this: She'd spent her last evening in the village trying in vain to procure a spermicide from the local family planning clinic. Phrase book in hand, gesturing and drawing pictures on a pad, the man there understood enough only to keep producing condoms from a box beneath the rattan desk at which he sat. "What could I do?" she asked, throwing her hands in the air and smiling, sighing and blushing like a girl. Women were coming in from the fields, holding hands with each other, slapping the flanks of their cows. We paused to watch them, my lover, the physician and I, enjoying a silence the ease of which we had not actually earned.
"It's been great meeting you," the physician said. She laid the photograph in my hands. "So you won't forget me," she said, and walked away.
My lover and I lay in our twin beds that night, across the way from one another yet so close our hands touched when we hung them over the side. "He was exceedingly sweet to her," my lover said, getting into bed with me despite the heat.
"His girlish hands," I said, feeling her curl around me like a snake.
"His filed teeth smooth as fruit," my lover said, drifting off.
Late in the night, the rains came. Geckos courted till dawn in the thatch, and rats, sacred to the Balinese, gorged themselves like gods on the bread we left open on the table as we slept.