“The letter was astonishing, but so were the whole four days,” Lorna writes to her friend Tracy in London. “We were the most unlikely traveling companions, three mismatched, but oddly complimentary women.” She wants to explain the surprises and frustrations and hilarity and trauma and delight of their time at Coral Villas. But how to begin?
Lorna rocks on the deck of her compact “demi-villa” sipping a pleasantly bitter, cold Bintang beer. She makes out two mountains across the Lombok Strait in Bali. Are they volcanic like so much of this shape-shifting country? The call to prayer is slowly whirling to conclusion. Now, from a neighboring garden: peeping birdsong and lowing water buffalo.
“Paradise,” had laughed to her friend. “What the hell are you supposed to do in Paradise?”
Tracy said, “Find a lover. Climb a mountain. Be adventurous. For godsake, take a break from your bloody books.”
Lorna’s other friends agreed.
“You work too hard.”
“Take a rest.”
“Unwind and explore.”
So after three weeks in the archives and lecture halls of Java, she’s flown to Lombok, a sultry island where she can see Bali, but where the local beach has fewer sunburned tourist bellies. Lorna’s grandparents came from Madagascar. Her own field—some would say her expertise—is the ancient trade routes and migrations between Indonesia and the Malagasy world. She loves the yellowing records, the musty, fabric thick covers of ships’ logs, the curious stains on the paper of antique diaries. She’s most at home in the “there” and the “then,” in currents of long ago.
Friendship is important to the good life, her grandmother used to tell her. But Lorna’s passion is work. Lovers have come and gone; no one wanted to share her with the archives. Now at forty-five, Lorna has given up on an enduring lover.
She inhales, noticing the fragrances of saltwater, tropical flowers and some garlicky dish from the café below. “The café, Tracy, it all began at the café.”
The beachside restaurant is empty except for a handsome older white woman sitting erectly at the adjacent table. Lorna nods.
The woman smiles wanly.
Lorna scans the menu, glances at the beach where French and German tourists recline on red striped chaise lounges. Lombok men entice tourists with snorkeling flyers. One woman offers massages. Another sells gaudy towels. Finding few takers, the vendors wander down toward the cheaper hotels.
She sips a glass of the outrageously priced wine and waits for her meal.
The white woman is also waiting.
Lorna admires the stranger’s taupe linen sundress, the pale green cardigan shrugged over her shoulders. Her own loose cotton shirt and pants make her feel slapdash. Suddenly, she hears herself inquiring, “Is this your first visit to Lombok?”
“My fifth.” A tart Australian accent. “I used to come with my husband. He died last year.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
She nods, then brightens slightly. “It’s as beautiful as ever.”
“I’m dining alone tonight,” Lorna says by way of invitation.
“Me too. I usually sit at your table. Somehow they lost my reservation.”
Lorna realizes she’s feeling a little lonely and tries a final time. “Would you care to join me? You’d have a better view from here.”
“That might be nice. Thank you.” She slides over on the bench.
“Lorna.” She extends her hand.
“Celeste.” The woman tents her palms in Namaste, bowing.
Lorna blinks, wonders if she gargled today. No, no. It’s the woman’s acute physical reserve. Lorna feels positively easy-going in comparison.
Celeste likes to talk. She comes from Melbourne, fourth generation of Irish prisoner stock, quite fashionable now, she laughs. Her husband Roland was a merchant banker. After the boys grew up, she and Roland took early retirement to enjoy his hard-earned money.
“You’re from here, then?” asks Celeste?
Even locals assume she’s from Java. A prodigal daughter with an English accent. Such welcoming people, they also call Barak Obama Indonesian. Actually, she has the same coloring as the American president, a complexion that blends in easily here. As a scholar, she’s learned Grandpa’s stories about Indonesians settling his part of Madagascar are true. As a kid she paid little attention. Back home in multi-culti London, she’s clearly “of color” but few people ask specifics.
“No, I’m English.”
“Yes, the accent,” Celeste’s Australian twang broadens. “But…” she reddens.
“My four grandparents emigrated from Madagascar to Kenya with their vanilla plants. Mum and Dad immigrated to London under the ‘right of abode’ provision.’” She’s told the story to puzzled colleagues all over Indonesia, most of whom nod comprehendingly because they know about the trade routes. Celeste, however, looks more baffled than ever.
As Neela serves their meals, fish stew for Celeste and calamari for her, Lorna studies her companion’s face. Late sixties at most, she guesses, only about twenty years older than herself. Yet chic women with such bearing seem from a bygone era.
Her ruminations are interrupted by a broad, American voice.
“Mind if I perch here a sec?” The Asian woman with the sunny blond hair asks breathlessly. “I’m Rosie.”
Celeste glances curiously, almost clinically, as if awaiting an explanation.
Rosie accommodates. “See that massive German over there. He’s been shadowing me all afternoon. ‘Does Fräulein wish to walk on the beach? Welcome to my room for a drink. Please join me for dinner?’ Sheesh. My colleagues swore the Villas were cool for single women. She grips the table’s edge, trembling. “He’s starting to freak me out.”
“Welcome.” Lorna smiles at the pretty young woman—Japanese American?—with the intelligent eyes, diamond nose stud and flamboyantly spiked yellow hair. Her trim figure is disclosed to excellent effect in a skimpy pink halter top and tight shorts. This is a beach resort, Lorna reminds herself. Now, across from Rosie, she’s transformed from the young frump into the prim auntie.
“Do join us,” Celeste says kindly. “We’re each dining alone.”
Clearly puzzled by the comment, Rosie doesn’t question her temporary refuge. “I’m Rosie Hongo, just here a few days. Or not. If Lothario persists, I’ll escape back to Jakarta.”
“You live in Jakarta?” asks Lorna.
“I work for the U.S. Embassy. Minor, minor post. I put in for Indonesia because I wanted to see Kalimantan, Papua, the Flores Islands, but I’ve been stuck in the Jakarta office all year. Weird place. Poverty everywhere, yet the city center is crammed with five star hotels and malls splashed with Max Mara, Harvey Nicks, Dona Karan. Nutso traffic. L.A. without the good flicks.
“I’m Lorna and this is Celeste.”
“In every city, say Delhi, one just needs to know where to look,” Celeste finishes her wine and signals Neela for another glass.
Neela takes Rosie’s dinner order.
In Celeste’s portentousness Lorna recognizes something of her own discomfort, an inadvertent haughtiness born of vulnerability.
“My last posting was Delhi.” Rosie sounds nostalgic. “I’d give anything to be back. When were you there?”
“My husband died in India this past October.” Celeste looks out toward the bright lamps of the bobbing fishing boats.
Lorna follows her gaze. These deck lamps are tiny stars blinking in the sea.
Celeste composes herself and continues, “Roland was cremated in Udaipur.”
“That must have been so hard,” Lorna murmurs.
“Hardest for my sons, who…” she loses her train of thought.
Lorna’s still taking in Celeste’s loss.
Both Douglas and Arthur were pallbearers. Douglas, as elder, lit the pyre.”
“Heartbreaking.” Rose nods.
“Yes.” Lorna reaches out, but the woman withdraws her hand before they touch.
Rosie’s voice softens. “Sometimes I work with bereaved families. And you did the right thing. Cremation is the least painful way to take a loved one home.”
“Oh, Roland didn’t go home. He was a traveler at heart. I am carrying on for both of us. The boys and I scattered his ashes in Pushkar Lake. So many good people there—Gandhi, Nehru. Roland would have wanted that.”
Good people, Lorna muses: major figures in Indian history. Celeste doesn’t mean to be pretentious. They’re each flustered in this new place. She craves a glass of the overpriced wine.
Catching Lorna’s bewildered expression, Rosie says, “So we each wound up in this Eden alone.” She turns to her subdued companion. “What brought you here, Lorna?”
“Archives. And a few lectures on early trade routes from Indonesia to Africa and India.”
“Yeah,” Rosie blushes. “Isn’t it cool—this entire world of culture and commerce existed before the Euros got on their boats. And they think they brought us civilization.”
Celeste gets something in her eye and pulls out a mother of pearl mirror.
“So what are you?” Rosie persists. “A geographer? Historian?”
Americans are so direct, something she admires, yet finds faintly abrupt. Most people outside the academy don’t get past her one sentence potted research description. “Interdisciplinary post-colonial studies.”
“Dope.” Rosie grins.
“Students earn degrees in that?” Celeste’s eyebrows lift.
“It’s a graduate focus.”
Neela serves Rosie’s Very Veggie Napoleon.
Glancing into the darkening night, Lorna notices the sunbathers have disappeared. Some have metamorphosed as diners in the now crowded restaurant.
Celeste turns to Rosie. “What drew you to the Foreign Service?”
She shrugs. “I longed to see the world and didn’t want to join the Marines.”
“To be honest, I used to have grand ideas about bringing peoples together.”
“But now?” Celeste tilts her head.
“I don’t know. It’s easy to get discouraged, even cynical. Everybody wants something. Visas, work permits, green cards, scholarships. In and out of the office. Oh, I do have some great Indonesian buddies. Super people. It’s a lucky life, but the day to day job…”
Lorna likes Rosie. Imagines they might be friends if she lived in London.
“Since you’re familiar with Lombok,” Lorna asks Celeste, “Can you tell me what to see? I heard about a weaving village. And a fishing beach at Ampenan.”
Celeste smiles. “Both excellent. You can hire a car at the front desk.”
“Hey,” Rosie says, “Lorna, want to do that tomorrow? Together?”
“I’d love to.”
“Good, we’ll make a great duo.” Rosie beams.
Celeste signals for another glass of Sancerre.
They fall silent, waiting for Neela.
“I wonder if I might join the expedition?” asks Celeste. “It’s been ages since Roland and I visited those little villages.”
“Of course,” agrees Lorna before she sees Rosie lower her eyes.
“Fine,” Celeste addresses Lorna. “We’ll ask for Amin.”
“Amin it is.” Rosie brightens. “Thanks for the sanctuary from Hans. I’ll skip dessert because I’m kind of wiped.” She folds rupiahs and tucks them under her plate.
Back at the demi-villa, Lorna slips into a nightgown and surveys her posh room. Accustomed to rudimentary university guest houses, she can’t believe the opulence of this four star resort. Even though Tracy found her a deal online. For the first time in years, she feels like a foreigner in Indonesia.
She pulls a Bintang from the mini-fridge. It’s refreshing, alcoholic and five times cheaper than the wine.
Her sheet is turned down—what a bizarre custom—and the room reeks of fresh pesticide. Better than malaria. She’s grateful for the ceiling fan cutting through the evening’s thick humidity. Finally, she slides into bed with her novel, an endless Richard Russo that Tracy said was funny.
This holiday is like a train journey, Lorna tells herself. She’s heard great stories traveling across England, India, Malaysia. Meeting people, opening up, then disappearing forever.
The Bintang is empty and she hasn’t turned a page of the book.
Rosie is waiting at the front desk when Lorna arrives.
“Sorry about last night; I got the feeling that you’re not keen on Celeste joining us.”
Rosie smiles ruefully. “Well, it was the polite move—to invite her. Very English.”
“It’ll be fine. It’s just that I deal with rich expats all the time. They ‘know how to do’ India or Korea or wherever. Guess I thought the two of us together would have more fun.”
Fun, yes, Lorna considers; she’s right.
Celeste and Amin appear from different directions.
The short, alert man in his thirties greets Celeste with a small bow. “Ibu, welcome back.”
Celeste sits in the taxi’s front seat, clearly her place. Rosie and Lorna climb in the back.
Just past the hotels, touristy cafés and batik shops, they’re deep in countryside. Blue sky, blue sea, green, green farmland, and a shore trimmed with palms, high grass, tropical plants. Lorna can’t name half the flowers. She’s realizing, day by day, that despite years of studying the archipelago’s history, despite her close Indonesian colleagues, she doesn’t know much about daily life here today.
“We’re lucky to arrive after the rains,” Celeste explains. “By high season, this thirsty land drains to brown. Now we have the best of both worlds, dry and green.”
Lorna recalls last week’s lecture in Malang, her voice straining against the shrill thunder.
Soon they’re overtaking horse carts crammed with people holding unweildy bundles. Amin deftly weaves around bicycles. Now: an invasion of motorcycles. Vroom. Vroom. Sooty exhaust thickens the hot morning. Her colleague Aliv, claims the motorcycle is Indonesia’s national animal.
Next week, Celeste declares, she’ll travel to a small village in Thailand, “the sweetest little hotel on a lagoon.” Then it’s on to Jaipur, Udaipur and of course Pushkar. She doesn’t spend much time in Melbourne these days. “Dull as dishwater without Roland,” she groans. “I’m lucky to have friends all over the world inviting me to visit.”
On the roadside, people dry brown rice for mills which strip the nutritious skin and produce white rice. For years Lorna assumed this bad habit was inherited from Europeans for whom white was the optimum color. Then she learned indigenous people had shucked rice for centuries. So much for her post-colonial theory.
Suddenly, Amin pulls into the village of Sukara, a collection of small houses constructed of woven grass and tiled roofs.
“Amin will find us a local guide,” Celeste explains, glancing around.
A young woman walks in their direction.
“Oh, look, it’s Indri, the girl we had three years ago.” She lowers her voice. “Hard to believe she has three children, isn’t it?” She gazes expectantly at the young woman.
Indri extends her hand. “Welcome to our village. May I show you around?”
Celeste smiles thinly, steps back and tents her palms.
Lorna remembers Celeste doesn’t shake hands and wonders if she’s disappointed that their host doesn’t recognize her.
Rosie pumps Indri’s hand. “I’m Rosie. This is Lorna and Celeste.”
“Americans!” she declares in a polyglot accent.
“Nope,” chuckles Rosie. “A mini United Nations here. Lorna is English. Celeste is Australian. I’m American.”
Indri nods blankly, then offers a few details about the village and her family. The pretty young woman—eighteen or nineteen at most, Lorna surmises—parts her glossy black hair in the middle and secures it with a plastic flower barrette. Her gold-green batik sarong is accented by a pink Garfield t-shirt. She looks younger than Lorna’s students—which she is—not like the mother of three kids.
They follow Indri through a gaggle of ducks. “We use them for eggs; sometimes for meat.”
The sweet aroma of cow dung envelops this neighborhood of small, neat houses. An open door reveals three chairs, a simple table and straw floor mats.
Lorna wonders, if her grandparents hadn’t emigrated from Madagascar, would she be living like this?
Indri stops at a home where the veranda is larger than the house. In one corner of the porch a young woman holding baby in one arm, weaves with her other. A gleaming green and yellow cloth with the occasional strand of pink. In the far corner, a grandmother swirls newly spun thread into skeins. The weaver’s mother chats with a neighbor rocking another baby.
Who’s watching whom? Lorna wonders.
“You try now,” Indri invites them to work the loom.
The women regard one another.
“I’ll give it a shot,” Rosie laughs. She slips off her sandals, steps on the porch.
The weaver’s mother—a round woman in her thirties—pinches Rosie’s arm, murmuring approval.
Indri translates. “Very white,” she is saying.
“Whatever.” Rosie looks chagrined.
She carefully steers a stick back and forth through the radiant threads.
With each row, the older woman raises her right thumb in approval.
Lorna and Celeste click pictures.
“Terima Kasih.” Rosie stands, bowing to the weaver and her family, who wave as Indri leads the group back toward the village center.
Two boys are chasing puppies down the road. “Pergi! Pergi!”
Lorna tightens, aware of the Islamic proscription against touching dogs.
Indri looks intensely relieved as the dogs scamper into the bush.
Rosie starts to tear up.
Celeste strides ahead with Indri.
“Sorry,” Rosie sniffs, “My own little mutt just died. I found Kutta in Delhi five years ago. Last month he got cancer and…I guess he’s one reason I’m here. I couldn’t stand to be in the flat alone.”
“I’m so sorry.” Lorna puts her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “My cat Mimi has been with me eight years.”
“Thanks. People think, ‘just a pet.’ But Kutta was my pal. Made me laugh every day.”
“Welcome to our showroom,” Indri leads them into a small concrete building.
The village cooperative boasts shelves and shelves of folded ikat, batiks and weavings.
“Would the ladies like to try on traditional costumes?”
Rosie and Lorna demur.
“Oh, come, come,” Celeste chides. “It’s expected. Yes, Indri, by all means, please.”
Celeste reappears, gaudily draped in chartreuse and gold.
“Would you like a photo?” Lorna asks tentatively.
“Why, of course,” trills Celeste. Turning to Indri, she asks, “May I try this? The whole outfit and that one in purple, please.”
Indri smiles for the first time that morning.
Nodding approval at his passenger’s packages, Amin opens the car doors.
Lorna hopes he gets a cut.
Back on the main road, Celeste twists toward the back seat. “Sukara girls marry young and don’t use birth control. Most have six or seven children. All villagers share in the store profits. In an odd way tourists help revive and foster traditional weaving.”
Lorna knows this, but she’s never really done the tourist thing like this. The shawl she bought for Tracy is nothing compared with Celeste’s munificent purchases.
Back to Coral Villas, Celeste showers before her massage. Rosie investigates snorkeling gear and Lorna plans to spend the afternoon swimming laps in the pool, resting, absorbing the visit to Sukara. Perhaps one thing you do in Paradise, she thinks, is pay attention.
Each woman settles into her appointed seat. Amin drives them down the coast to Ampenan, a storied fishing village.
Rosie leans forward, speaking slowly and clearly. “Do you have a family, Amin?”
“Yes, my wife and I have a son and a daughter and we all live with my mother.”
“Busy home,” Lorna says. Although she misses her mother, she could never live with such a fiercely opinionated person.
“I would like to build a house of our own. Yet that is very expensive.”
“I imagine.” She recalls yesterday’s story about his route from dishwasher to waiter and, when his English improved, his coveted ascension to driver and guide.
“But soon the international airport comes and brings more work.” He nods.
“A disaster!” Celeste claps her hands. “Lombok will change immeasurably. It may be good for people’s pocketbooks, yes. But a catastrophe for our quiet paradise.”
“Whose paradise?” Rosie clearly she can’t help herself.
“My dear, you must understand the seclusion enhances Lombok’s appeal.”
“But more tourists will come when they can fly directly from Europe, the Americas, Africa, other parts of Asia…”
“Yes,” Amin says to Rosie in the rear-view mirror. “More jobs. Many more.”
Celeste is speaking to the windshield. “Those tourists will stay in ghastly high rise hotels. A completely different class of people.”
“It will bring income.” Rosie says flatly.
Lorna knows her own sadness about modernization of these ancient islands is an academic indulgence.
Amin parks at a small, congested port. Blue and white boats bobble close to shore; container ships float further out to sea. Two men repair nets, talking and laughing. Nearby, a clutch of silent bare-headed women in t-shirts and sarongs squat around baskets, curing tuna.
Lorna takes a long breath of salty air. Being present in this every day island scene makes her research feel more and less real. People have fished here for millennia. They’ve sailed in and out of the archipelago to remote ports, recording many of the journeys in her cherished yellowing logs. Yet today the fish and the ports are different. Technology has totally transformed navigation and record keeping.
On the drive to their next site, Lorna contemplates the green rimmed coast and the calm turquoise sea. A world apart from the turbulent waters around her own chilly Albion.
Today, Lorna joins Celeste at the massage spa. If you don’t get a massage in paradise, where will you get one? She hears Tracy’s voice.
Muhri, a quiet, self-contained man, points Lorna to the dressing room where she finds a robe and a pair of black plastic panties. Baffled at first, she then realizes the color will show through the white sheet. A compromise between Koranic taboo and resort capitalism.
Muhri’s touch is gentle and assured. Soon she’s inhaling a dozen tropical perfumes from the oil he rubs into her shoulders. Half-listening to the dulcet gamelan music, she dozes.
At 6pm, a ridiculously relaxed Lorna floats downstairs to the restaurant.
Tonight, Celeste sits at the view table.
Lorna considers the divergent worlds of her two acquaintances. Celeste grew up in the bush, the first person in her family to finish high school. She found unexpected success at college. Ten years later, she left an auspicious sculpture career to marry Roland, and founded a charity to send at-risk youth to art school.
About Rosie, she’s discovered the imp was a Rhodes Scholar and speaks twelve languages. She’s torn about her State Department career, mundane now, but promising. How long can she stay if they discover she’s a lesbian? Well, she’s not sure of her sexuality but wishes her boss would stop asking pointedly about boyfriends.
Lorna hates the tension between the two women. Rosie distrusts Celeste’s assured declamations and Celeste is uncomfortable with Rosie’s rough edges. Once again, as with her parents and then her colleagues, Lorna is right in the middle. Not the best spot for chilling out. Lorna reminds herself to think about the train. Stories remain; people vanish. She likes these very different women, feels sad and relieved that they’ll soon disappear.
“So, my dear, what did you think of Muhri’s massage?”
“Completely revitalizing,” Lorna admits. “I haven’t had a massage in years.”
“Truly?” Celeste is astonished. “There are spas all over London. I recommend a superb place in Belsize Park right near you.”
“Murhi took his job so seriously,” Lorna smiles, “as if it were a sacrament or something.”
“But it is. It is!” cries Celeste. “Have some wine. I bought a bottle to celebrate.”
“Our little trio. You simply don’t know what you’ve done for my spirits. Thank you for breaking through the gruff reserved that first night. I do apologize.”
“Not at all,” Lorna protests, embarrassed. “Is Rosie back from snorkeling?”
“Snorkeling?” Celeste is alarmed. “Alone?” Where? No one told me.”
Taking a long sip of the refreshing wine, Lorna answers, “Gili? Gully?”
“Oh, not the Gilis!” Celeste is shaken.
“Neela.” She waves to the waitress, then pivots back to Lorna. “We must ask the staff if she returned safely.”
“What’s wrong with the Gilis? I read they were a popular beach with families.”
“The Gili Islands are vile spots off the Southwest coast. Men hang out there. Oh, god, she went by herself, didn’t she?”
“No. Of course Amin drove her. And he was supposed to collect her at five. I bet they’re just delayed on the road.” Lorna reminds herself Rosie is a taekwondo black belt.
“Yes, Ibu?” Neela appears.
“Dear, please ask reception if Ibu Rosie has returned from those dreadful Gilis?”
Lorna detects a faint smile on Neela’s face.
Celeste is shaking her head. “Perhaps she’s upstairs showering. She’s not the promptest person.”
Lorna dwells on the dramatically shifting sky, on the sun setting over the nearby Bali mountains. Indonesia is so fierce and unpredictable compared to her docile English countryside. The moon fills in from the opposite side down here. The sky lights up with different constellations. Yet these are the very stars under which her grandparents slept in Madagascar. Drawn as she is to this place, she knows she couldn’t live in a world lacking the simple Northern pleasures of lavender and early autumn pears.
They each sip wine in silence.
“You guys look glum!” Rosie drops into a chair. “Disastrous massages?”
“Oh,” Celeste claps a hand over her heart. “You had us, well, me, in quite a panic.”
Rosie, whose wet hair is flatter and darker than usual, seems bewildered.
Lorna thinks she looks prettier without the spikes and realizes Rosie’s mother probably agrees with her. God, when did she become such a fuddy-duddy?
“Traipsing off to those remote islands alone.” Celeste can’t let it go.
“The Gilis are pretty close,” says Rosie. “So sad about the coral. Getting damaged by sea level rise and local sewage.”
Celeste offers wine. “But you were all alone.”
“I had plenty of company. A Belgian couple and a family from Malaysia were snorkeling on the same beach.” She pours a glass of wine, savors the first sip with her eyes closed. “But hey, it was nice of you to worry.”
Celeste bursts out laughing. Lorna finds herself giggling. Rosie joins in. Around the café, heads turn toward the jolly women.
“Our last morning!” Celeste laments from the front seat. “It’s a shame I have foot reflexology at two because we could explore the other side of the island. Sembalun is a sweet mountain village. Next time! Roland always says, said, ‘You have to leave something for your return.’ We’ll save Sembalun for our next visit.”
Rosie whispers to Lorna, “Does she think we’ve joined her Explorer Troop?”
Lorna clears her throat. She, too, is growing a little weary of Captain Celeste. Gazing out the window she watches children walking to school in pressed beige uniforms. Many girls wear what they call the jilbab. How do they bear the heat?
“Here we are,” announces Amin. “Lingsar, ladies.”
Their guide, Wayang, a thin man from Bali, points out two separate sites—one for the Islamic and Animist Sasaks and one for Hindus. “The holy eels swim at this shrine for Lord Vishnu. They can be enticed to the surface for a boiled egg.”
Celeste blanches. “You two go ahead. Roland once lured them and I reckon you’d call them fascinating creatures.”
“Thanks.” Rosie pops a tic tac. “But I don’t want eels swimming in my dreams tonight.”
Unfazed, Wayang guides them through the holy site, paying particular attention to the impressively large rocks pilgrims reverently lug here from Mount Rinjani.
Amin taps his foot impatiently beside the car. Holding the door for Celeste, he asks, “When is your appointment, Ibu? Do we still go to Narmada?”
“We must, of course.” She turns toward the others, “Oh, this gem of a park lined by waterways, dotted with lakes and Cambodia trees, was designed in the 1700s…”
“Pardon,” Lorna interrupts, “but Amin is right. Don’t you have a 2pm appointment?”
Celeste opens her pendant watch. “I had no idea. Thanks Lorna dear, for the reminder.”
How can the woman be so sensitive to local customs one moment and so imperious to Amin the next? Remember the train journey, Lorna.
Amin makes good time until he hits the village of Sengiggi, where the road is jammed with trucks, buses and motorcycles.
“Can’t you hurry?” Celeste frets.
“Ibu, I must be careful.” His voice is gentle, but authoritative.
“Do just scoot around that bus,” Celeste demands.
“People on the road,” he answers coolly.
“God knows how long it will stand there!”
Amin hunches over the steering wheel, steps on the gas.
“Oh, no,” Rosie calls out. “There’s a little dog. Amin, Amin! Watch out!”
Lorna sees a clumsy black puppy dodging traffic.
“Right here,” Rosie is shouting, “in the road.”
Lorna hears a thud and knows they’ve hit the dog.
Now she sees the puppy slumped down, dark red blood seeping from its scar of a mouth.
Rosie throws open the door of the moving car, leaps out.
“Careful!” Celeste reaches for and misses Rosie’s hand.
Amin screeches to a stop.
Celeste calls, “Rosie! Watch the motorcycles. Oh, Rosie!”
“Help. Help!” Rosie cries. “Amin. Amin, we need to get him to a veterinarian.”
Tourists and locals gape from the sidewalk.
Lorna rushes out after Rosie, directs traffic around her friend, the dog and the stalled taxi. Oh, damn, passionate, dog-loving Rosie. She can’t leave her out here amidst the swerving, squealing vehicles. She hears Celeste sobbing.
“Amin, please!” howls Rosie. “Help us! Please!”
He steps out reluctantly. “I am sorry, Ibu. I cannot assist.” He shakes his head sadly, keeping a distance. “Dogs are unclean and haram.”
“Please.” Tears stream down Rosie’s red cheeks.
Amin looks more uncertain than resistant.
He stands, paralyzed.
Lorna sees Celeste has collapsed against the door, trembling, her eyes squeezed shut.
“Look, he’s hemorrhaging.”
His face frozen, Amin returns to the car.
As he steps on the gas, Celeste is sobbing again, her head between her hands.
Deftly, Amin weaves through the congested street.
Lorna watches until they turn the corner, out of sight.
Rosie screams, “She’s going with him. For a massage! Can you believe it?”
Lorna says evenly, “We’ll flag down another car.” She learned this calm, this practice of “behaving as if” from her grandmother. People think she’s serene; she’s simply learned to postpone terror.
“It’s all her fault.” Rosie’s voice is panicky. She sniffs back tears, stroking the dog.
“Accident,” Lorna thinks the word was coined for this situation, but she can’t say that to Rosie. Instead, she waves to advancing vehicles. They slither by.
Anxiously, Rosie thumbs her Blackberry with one hand, texting Jakarta contacts about Lombok veterinarians, while comforting the dog with her other hand.
It starts to rain.
Hours later, Lorna is still drained and agitated. As she walks to an early dinner, she hopes to catch the sunset, maybe from a table on the lower terrace, out of sight.
Approaching the café, she notices Celeste is already at “their” table, which is set for three. Lorna considers retreating, ordering room service and eating peacefully on her deck.
Something impels her forward.
Celeste’s face looks as if it’s been shattered and reassembled with several pieces missing.
“I was praying you would come.”
Lorna slides next to Celeste. “Rosie is still in Mataram, with the veterinarian.”
“She found a vet!” Celeste exclaims happily. “That resourceful sprite.”
Lorna can’t think how to respond.
Celeste raises the bottle toward Lorna’s glass.
“I don’t…” she begins, then recalls the woman sobbing next to Amin. “Thanks, I could use some wine.”
Tentatively, Celeste asks, “Will the dog be alright?”
“It was doubtful when Rosie sent me home. Nothing I could do. Maybe nothing the vet can do.”
“What a shame. I was looking forward to our farewell meal.” Her voice is fluting again.
Lorna notes the bottle is almost empty. She waits.
Eyes red, breath short, Celeste grasps Lorna’s hand. “Oh, I am so ashamed. It’s all my fault, urging Amin around the bus. Then I abandoned you both. And the poor dog.”
Lorna wonders unkindly if Celeste had a good reflexology session, then she softens, aware she’s never seen Celeste touch anyone before.
“Today’s horrible accident brought it all back. Every detail so vividly.”
“Rol suddenly collapsed to the street. People, dozens, clustered around. I couldn’t get anyone to call an ambulance. I stood there, waving like a berserk windmill at passing cars and rickshaws when Roland breathed his last. Waving my arms when I should have been kneeling next to Rol, holding him. When I should have…”
Lorna tears up. “It was a crisis. You did your best.”
“No, I should have held his hand,” Celeste sobs,“caressed his face.”
Neela appears. “Something is wrong with Ibu? Can I help?”
“No, terima kasih, Neela,” Celeste manages. “I think I’ll have dinner upstairs.”
“Here, I’ll walk you back,” Lorna offers.
Celeste nods, her eyes closed.
“Perhaps Neela could you bring my prawns and my friend’s dish upstairs? We’d like to have dinner in my room.”
“How very gracious.” Celeste looks like a girl rescued from the bottom of a well.
Lorna glances back dolefully as sun hits the horizon of endless water. Her last night in Paradise.
About 10pm, Lorna is released from her novel by a knock on the door.
A ragged Rosie, hair askew, dress dusty, collapses in a chair. Half her spikes have drooped in the rain. Grateful, she accepts a Bintang and the roasted vegetarian sandwich Lorna had wrapped for her.
Lorna waits as Rosie eats and drinks, then asks hesitantly. “How is he?”
She yawns. “The vet thinks Buster will pull through. We’ll know by morning.”
“Buster? You found the owner? Tourists?”
“No, but I couldn’t keep calling him ‘Dog.’ I considered the Indonesian ‘anjing,’ but people use that as an insult. ‘Kutta’ didn’t fit. He responds to ‘Buster,’” she says sheepishly.
“Great name!” Lorna giggles. Rosie joins her, cracking the tension.
“Will the vet try to locate the owner?”
Rosie sighs, obviously exhausted. “He says no one would claim a dog with these injuries. He’ll take months to heal, if he survives.”
Lorna stares out the window at the rising moon.
“But that woman!” Rosie clenches her teeth. “That wretched woman and her fucking foot reflexology. I’ve never met anyone so heartless.”
“Maybe,” Lorna begins tentatively, “maybe not heartless.” Why does she need Rosie and Celeste to understand one another?
“Let me tell you about our dinner conversation.”
“You ate with that woman after all…”
“Wait, Rosie. Listen.”
Lorna sits alone at the café. It’s been a sleepless night and she’s up too early.
Neela welcomes her with coffee and big smile.
Lorna wonders if omnipresent Neela sleeps in the kitchen.
Inhaling the warmth and aroma of the steaming cup, she watches a predawn sky alchemize to gold as the sun rises over the sea. Yes, she’ll tell Tracy truthfully; she has learned to relax. A little each day. To savor the salty bounty of the southern waters 900 years after “her” first boat journeys. To enjoy today’s sun. And in accepting the contradictions within Rosie and Celeste, she acknowledges some of her own. She still loves her work, but now she also relishes the shimmying of palm fronds and the scents of flowery perfumes. Mission accomplished, Tracy. Almost, anyway.
Lorna turns to a grinning Rosie.
“Buster made it?!”
“Yup. Looks like I have a new dog.” She rubs sleep from her eyes.
“You’re taking him to Jakarta?”
“Vet said it was a peachy idea. Since it’s impossible to find him a home here. Because of Muslim prohibitions. I should have been more sensitive to Amin. Attitudes change from island to island. The Balinese like barking dogs for protection. I told you my Jakarta neighbors loved Kutta. A lot of city professionals have pets. Anyway, the vet was super relieved that I could adopt Buster.” Yesterday’s anxious face is now alive with relief and excitement.
“You’ll have one more friend in Jakarta.”
“Can’t have too many.” She laughs. “Hey, where’s the massage queen?”
Lorna frowns. “I haven’t seen Celeste this morning.”
Neela pours Rosie’s coffee. “You ask about Ibu. She sailed for Bali to catch an earlier flight to Thailand. She left you ladies a letter.”
Rosie accepts the ivory vellum envelope then hands it to Lorna.
Lorna removes the letter, placing it on the table between them.
Apologies for my stupid, panicky behavior yesterday. I was too full of my own heartache to respond with any dignity. I admire the nobility you both showed.
Attached is a money order which I hope Rosie will give the veterinarian to pay for treating what I imagine will be her dog.
Rosie stares at Lorna, who grins.
There is enough left over to help him develop the clinic. I’m certain more animals will be rescued by other decent folk.
I hope against hope that we meet again. All of us. My address and email are below. Farewell and thank you for four idyllic days.”
With great affection,
Rosie is shaking her head and Lorna once again marvels that the gelled spikes don’t move. “The white lady buying absolution. So-damn-typical.”
Lorna studies her young friend’s resolute eyes. “Maybe,” she begins, then pauses for the right words. “Maybe it’s only a matter of degree how different we are from Celeste.”
Rosie shrugs, stares at the ocean.
“Even if my very ancient ancestors were Indonesian, I now travel with a London education and salary.”
“Which buy me access, comforts, with largely insulate me.”
“OK, Professor,” Rosie sighs. “OK, maybe she did her best.”
“Maybe we each did.”
“And Buster survived.”
Rosie can’t help herself—“Idyllic?”
Lorna shrugs. “You’re the linguist. I’m just an historian.”
Neela places two elaborate breakfasts on the table: breads, fruit, eggs and potatoes.
“Sorry, I didn’t order…” Rosie begins
“Compliments of Ibu Celeste,” Neela smiles sadly.
“Terima Kasih,” they say in unison.
Paradise, Lorna will tell Tracy, is more complicated than you might imagine.