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South Pacific Affair
This page formatted 2007 Blackmask Online.
For those—and they are but a tiny few—who never even think of buying a return trip ticket
In the sharp moonlight, Ruita's skin was a creamy brown framed by the jet-black blur of hair crumpled beneath her head. Her loose cotton print blouse probably was made in Japan, and the tailored walking shorts had come all the way from the French Riviera. Her hands played with the tiny white flower in the dark hair, and she seemed to be studying the tender gully her neat breasts made pushing against the blouse.
I sprawled beside Ruita, smelling the exciting perfume of her body—trying not to remember other perfumes I'd known. My eyes were also on the jutting molds of her bosom, and I wasn't listening to her small talk about methods of increasing the mother-of-pearl mussels in the lagoon. It didn't matter I wasn't listening... she really wasn't hearing her own words any more than either of us heard the wind in the palm trees, the sea thundering and hissing over the reef before us, or the small, clean noises of the busy crabs and rats in the sand and bush.
We were there neither to talk nor to listen—you don't take mats and lay in the moonlight to chatter about mussels. She talked to cover the awkwardness as she waited for me.
I closed my eyes and wondered what the hell to do—with women I cared about I always played the fool. Why couldn't I make love to Ruita and marry her? Or love her and forget her? Probably hundreds of popaas had sprawled on this very beach during the last century with “native” girls, and I was the only clown making a problem, a “thing” out of it. All the greedy popaas—bastards to their teeth.
I tried not to think, not even to listen to the meaningless words, the soft voice with the hazy French accent, the silly words flowing down her chest and past the breasts I wanted so much to kiss.
“... and the reason pearls have vanished,” Ruita said like a school girl reciting her lesson, “is that the mussels are taken out too quickly, to get the mother-of-pearl. They have no chance to form a pearl. Mussels are sensitive, require a certain depth and delicate temperatures, a hard coral bottom to cling... Ray, are you listening to me?”
“Yes. The tender souls of giant mussels.”
“Don't make fun of me.”
“I'm not making fun of you. I'm... nothing. Nothing!”
“The best place to raise mussels is a lagoon completely ringed by a reef. In that way the embryo mussels will neither be eaten or carried out to sea, nor will there be sharks to trouble the divers or...” She began to cry softly.
“Damn it, don't cry!” I said loudly. I opened my eyes, touched her hair which was soft and silky, looked at her thin features and wondered for some stupid reason if this was the white blood in her. I had to fight to keep my hands from her face and after a long second I said, “Ruita, don't cry, please. I'm—sorry about all this.”
She raised her head and tried to dry her tears on the collar of her blouse. “Am I so undesirable I must beg you to love me?”
“Hell, you know—”
“Then I shall beg you.”
“Stop it. I want you so much this is torture.”
“For me, too.” She turned and looked at me: her dark eyes and wet face seemed to sparkle in the moonlight. “What is the trouble, Ray?”
“I don't know. That is, you know how it is with a man and a woman... sometimes,” I said, trying to weasel out of it.
Ruita laughed, shrill laughter edged with hysteria that cut the other noises of the night. “But I don't know how it is with a boy and girl! This will amuse you, Ray. When I was in school, in Sydney, I wrote a term paper on how the island people were not neurotic because they never had to suppress their desires. Now, isn't that amusing? I am certainly the only girl in the entire Tuamotu Atolls who has reached twenty years of age and has not been with a man. Do you think I will be the first islander to need the services of a... how do you call these doctors who delve into the mind? I—”
“Cut it out!” I said, angry, then ashamed of my anger— which I knew I was using as an out. “Look, what do you want me to say? All right, I'll tell you—I'm scared!”
“Scared? Oh, don't worry, I will not give you back one of your popaa diseases!”
“Take it slow, Ruita. I thought we were past the color-line bunk.”
“Why are you frightened, then?”
“I'm frightened that I'll never be able to leave you,” I said quickly, almost in a whisper. “I'm scared for myself—not sure I can take it here.”
“I have much money, we can live elsewhere or ... are you afraid to take a vahine into the popaa world?”
“Ruita, don't twist my words. I can't take the... the... outside world. Neither can you. You know how much I want you but I am scared of spoiling it, of ... I can't put it in the right words,” I added, knowing how weak it sounded.
Ruita jumped to her feet and picked up her mat. She started to cry again.
“Wait, honey, I only—”
She walked toward the palms, calling out something in Tahitian which I think meant I had humiliated her. Humiliation is something atoll people don't know much of.
I sat on the mat for a long time, telling myself I was watching the sky for a shooting star, listening to a coconut crab digging at the base of the nearest palm. Yet I was glad I hadn't made love to her—and it would have been love because that's how deeply I felt about Ruita. In fact I was a bit proud and amazed at my will power. And I also felt like a prize jerk.
After awhile I got up and picked up my mat—the tidy touch—then I threw it away, started walking along the beach toward the village on the other side. Numaga is an island, not an atoll, one end almost reaching a height of three hundred feet above sea level like a mountain. Of course it was hardly a “hill” but in the flatness of the Pacific it seemed like Everest.
My sneakers were worn and the sand got in between my toes. I walked slowly, sweating a little in the cool night breeze, and so full of desire I felt feverish. I wanted a drinking nut but kept to the beach—at night you can't see them coming and while a falling nut may be a gag in the movies, a direct hit can split your head open.
I came around a slight bend in the beach, saw the sea breaking against a high point of the reef, sending up a wide luminous spray. I stood there for a moment, aware of some kind of tree with low heavy branches at the edge of the sand, behind me. The branches touched the sand and I heard a woman giggling, got a whiff of the sickening-sweet odor of strong palm wine.
A nude fat woman, her bosom swaying like soggy punching bags, lurched toward me, giggling something in the island dialect I didn't understand. In the moonlight I could see her glassy eyes, and when she stumbled against me, the stink of wine was all about us. Her body hot and moist with sweat, and that added sharp odor. Due to Milly and her perfumes, I was almost an expert on women's odors.
But this wasn't any bottled perfume, this was human heat. If the woman was old and flabby, in my sad state she seemed suddenly most attractive. Pulling her against me, I kissed her heavy lips, my hands digging into the damp softness of her hips. She sighed, giggled hoarsely, then abruptly pushed me away—playing it coy. She took a few steps sideways into the shadow of the tree. As I started for her, something hit my jaw and I was on my face in the sand, before I passed out.
After much difficulty I finally got the stars into focus; I was seeing various odd-colored clouds and flashing bright comets which certainly weren't in any sky. Sitting up, I shook my head, spitting out sand. I stood up slowly, kept telling myself it was an accident, the woman had butted me with her head. But she wouldn't have left me alone on the beach, and I knew very well there was only one man on the island, perhaps in the world, who could wallop like that.
As my head cleared, I got mad—I'd been Sunday-punched I Down at the water's edge I found a hunk of coral the size of my fist, and started to run. After a few hundred yards I panted up to the stinking copra shed, which was simply a tin roof open on all sides. Beyond it I saw Ruita's large modern bungalow with its coral cement foundation, double roof, and real glass windows. The screened windows glistened like silver in the moonlight, but there wasn't a light on inside. Standing by the shed, I got my breath back, as I wondered where Ruita was. I knew she liked to read before turning in.
It was all crazy: Ruita at first ignoring me, thinking I was merely another white trader, then believing the silly yarn of Eddie's, about me being part Sioux Indian—which I'd told him as a joke. Ruita and I speeding toward what should have been a natural beginning of love and...
Somebody moved in the shadow of the shed. Raising my hunk of coral, I approached softly. Through the copra-sharp odor I ran into a cloud of cheap bay rum, the sounds of somebody humming. I found my lighter, got a flame going.
A bleary-eyed old man held his face to the light, toothless mouth in a grin. He was wearing a torn, striped polo shirt and a loin cloth; his brown face was deeply wrinkled and his bushy hair a hard grey. He was lying across an ancient and rusty bicycle—the only place on the entire island smooth enough for riding was the village street—about one hundred yards long. He was one of Ruita's copra workers, but I couldn't remember his name. Waving an empty bottle at me, he asked in bad French, “God be with you this night—have you a cigarette?”
I put the lighter out, took a butt from my pocket and he pawed in the darkness till he found my hand. I gave him a light but he shook his head and placed the cigarette over one ear. “Merci. An American cigarette?”
“No, French. Have—”
“Too bad. I like the strength of Cam-Mells. But merci.” This was said in fair English.'
I asked, “Have you seen my partner, Eddie?”
He told me in Tahitian he didn't have the smallest idea of what I was saying.
“Eddie, Eddie, the ugly one, the strong man—where is he?”
“Ah, that one.” The old man got to his feet carefully, as if the bicycle were something delicate he might break by stepping on it. Now he came out of the shadows and waved the bottle—it was hair tonic, part of our trade goods. He said in French, “The one with the broken face is most wrong. He tell me this no good but I find it a most delicious drink. You have more?”
“Where is he?”
“There is anger in your voice, monsieur. I—”
“Damn it, do you know where he is?”
“No. I look for him too, I am anxious to buy more of these spirits. Have you any?”
“No, and no more on the ship, either,” I said, walking away. I went down to the small wharf made of coral blocks. Our dinghy was up on the beach and I walked over and sat down on that, lit a cigarette. Puffing hurt my jaw and I rubbed the butt out in the sand, put it back in my pocket. The coral rock was still in my hand. I suddenly threw it as far out in the lagoon as I could, watched the splash, the smaller movements of some frightened fish.
There wasn't any point in braining Eddie—he had a vast knowledge of knifing, kneeing, punching, I would only be kayoed again. Beside, it was stupid to blame Eddie for tonight; there was a joker back in Chicago I should have beaten to death. If I'd only slugged Barry once, perhaps tonight would have turned out differently. Or would I still be sucking around Chicago?
Glancing up at Ruita's dark house, I considered running up there and climbing into bed with her. But all I did was wrestle the dinghy into the water, row out to the Hooker. Climbing aboard our cutter, I went below, lit the paraffin lamp. Brushing fat roaches from my bunk, I poured myself a shot of rum, which only made me hotter.
Eddie was sleeping in his bunk, across from mine—his brown body in light contrast to the dirty canvas. The moplike black hair glistened in the dim light; his thick, puffy lips were open—the sweet odor of palm wine battled with the general copra stink of our boat or maybe they joined forces. Even relaxed, the great muscles of Eddie's squat body were heavy and firm, like lazy snakes.
I kicked his shoulder. Kicked because Eddie sometimes comes out of a drunken sleep dreaming he's still in the ring, punching.
He sat up too quickly—rubbed his eyes like a ham actor. When he sat up there was the wet imprint of his body on the canvas bunk. He'd swum out.
He yawned and saw the rum, reached for it I pulled it back as he jumped off the bed with cat speed, grabbed the bottle, took a fast swig and belched. Running a hand over his battered face, he asked, “Ray, did you make yourself and the lovely Ruita happy?”
“What's the idea of smacking—” My jaw hurt when I talked.
“Ruita is Tahitian for Louise,” Eddie rasped, the way he talked from too many head punches. “Glad you awoke me, Ray, I was dreaming a very bad dream. There I was, on the beach with this pretty gal, when suddenly a popaa comes from out of nowheres—with a skin-full, and dressed funny. Could be in this here dream I was back in the old, old days, and this was a sailor off a whaler. In my dream this popaa bent over us, offering the girl some trinkets. I saw she liked them. When I told him she was my girl, he kicked me—he was wearing shoes—says, 'Beat it, kanaka!' That's something, isn't it, Ray? Hardly hear 'kanaka' much, at least not down in this part of the Pacific. But I used to hear it too much. Now it's 'gools'? or—”