by Janice Nigro
People stared at Ava as she wandered through the market, even though westerners were common in Sorong. The island city grew up around the international business of oil and natural resources, and was becoming a point of entry and disembarkation for divers destined for Raja Ampat. The airport was no longer a one-room building with a single industrial-size fan cooling passengers waiting for a jet to land on the only runway blasted into the jungle. The first time she landed there, the local fire department made up of a team of teenagers with their younger siblings as spectators stood next to the runway with their portable fire extinguisher. The days of a cow holding up a landing were no longer. The airport was now two stories high, and equipped with elevators, escalators and air conditioning. But the same young security agents played with their phones while the bags passed through the x-ray machine.
Still not many foreign women traveled alone around Sorong. People everywhere offered to give her a ride. She managed to thank them in the few words of Indonesian she knew and even to learn some new ones for different fruits and vegetables.
She was breathing in the aromas, the good and the bad, listening to new voices, when someone from behind her asked, “Can I help you?”
It was him.
She turned around. Made laughed and handed her a flower he had bought from one of the vendors, a small wild orchid she would never see anywhere else.
“Do you like the market?” he asked.
“I love all the products here. But I feel bad when I buy from one person and not all of them.”
“It’s a tough life. And you don’t have these fruits and vegetables at home.”
“Yes, you have to help me, steer me in the right direction. I will buy bananas that I think are sweet, but then they turn out to be the ones you eat like a vegetable.”
“Yes, yes. Let’s take a look around.”
He showed her some different fruits he liked and bought some vegetables he would take to his home in Sorong while her research boat, the boat he was captain of, was moored in the harbor.
“I’m taking a ride over to my home here. How about coming along?”
She hesitated for a moment and then said, “Sure. Not many chances to where you live on land.”
He led her over to his motorbike and strapped a helmet on her head. He started the engine, and once she was settled behind him, he took off. They zigzagged through the lawless traffic in Sorong and then headed outside to a quieter side of the island, her hands clenched to the back of his shirt. They had almost reached the house when rain started like a waterfall, just as in Norway where she had been living.
“I’m soaking wet,” she said, when they reached his home.
“Here, I have something you can change into,” he said once inside. He handed her a sarong.
She stepped into the bedroom looking out onto the sea to dry off and tied her sarong into stylish wrap around her curves. When she came out, Made had changed into some dry board shorts. His wet hair shined and his lean muscular chest glistened.
He led her around the rest of the house. It had a kitchen, a front room, and a toilet and an outdoor shower, in addition to the bedroom.
“As you can see, there isn’t much for us to do. It’s a big rain out there. I’m not going to ride back to the boat until it stops. What about making dinner?”
“I’d love it. I’m not the greatest cook, but I can help,” Ava said.
“No, no, you are my guest. How about a drink?”
“No alcohol, please.”
“No problem. I will press a glass of fresh mango juice for you.”
“So, you are alone here? This is your man cave?” Ava said as she sipped her thick fresh fruit smoothie made with tree-ripened mangoes and no sugar.
“My man cave? Does it look like a man cave? I don’t even have a TV here.”
“I’m just teasing. No, in fact it’s quite the opposite. I’m not sure if I should ask what does go on here.”
“Well, I am a man now. I should have a place for loving a woman.”
“I had fun where you used to take me. Those are some of the best memories of my life.”
“Mine too,” he said looking away from her while he continued chopping vegetables.
“What do you do when you’re not on a ship?”
“I paint. And work on this house. I built it.”
“I can see that. Each piece of wood fits perfectly with the one next to it. And some of these paintings are beautiful.”
“I always find something to paint. Or I make it up. Like the underwater scenes.”
His style had a childlike quality about it, and like underwater, Made followed no rules about which colors to use. They were all just there, although she could see they were not commercial paints.
“I knew you were talented but I didn’t know just how much.”
“Yeah, it’s been a few years since you see my work. I use whatever I can find to paint on. The colors are all natural.”
He put the ingredients in a pot and the air began to fill with the spicy aroma of a local curry as the dish simmered. He cracked open two cold, locally brewed beers, ignoring her no alcohol request, took her hand, and brought her out to the veranda. He went back in and came back out with his paints.
“No, no, no, no.” Ava said.
“Yes, it’s such a big rain. We can’t leave, and dinner isn’t ready yet.”
She relented and took a sip of beer.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Nothing, just sit there.”
Her hair was up in a messy bun fixed with a chopstick. Standing behind her, he pulled on it, unraveling her thick brown hair and watched as it fell onto her shoulders. She felt his soft hands move down to her shoulders and then to the knot at her neck holding the sarong up. She grabbed the top of the fabric as it fell slightly below her breasts.
“There,” he said, “just like that.”
“OK, I’m not comfortable.”
He had seen her body before but that was years ago. She gulped down a few more sips of her beer.
“You can’t show this to anyone else,” she said. She still brought her knees up, resting her chin on them as she sat facing him.
“I use models all the time.”
“Uh huh, models,” she said.
“Indonesians are not afraid of breasts.”
“What? This is a religious country.”
“No religion can make us to feel embarrassed about what the gods give us.”
“So that’s how you see it?”
“Not exactly. But I’m a man. I can make many women happy, so why not?”
“Don’t you want to be with someone, one special person?”
“I do, but so far my relationships haven’t worked out.”
“What happened with you and your wife?”
“She didn’t want to live on a boat. And I didn’t want to live just on land. Some relationships survive the lifestyle. Others do not. There were other men around who could give her what she wanted. The end.”
“Those are tough criteria for any woman.”
“Some women work the boats. I married a princess. She would never work on a boat.”
“You should have your own boat!”
“I’ve thought about it, but I don’t have the kind of cash necessary to build the boat I want and to run it. And the diving industry is a competitive business dominated by Westerners.”
“But most of the time, Indonesians are running the boats. I was on one once where there was almost a mutiny against a western manager. He was an idiot. The fact that there was almost a mutiny by the Indonesian crew is the proof.”
He laughed, “Yeah, we act humble while doing our jobs on the boats, even if we work for an asshole.”
He got up to check on the food. She took a moment to rearrange herself, feeling the pearl hanging at her neck. When he came back with a couple of fresh beers and took up the paint brush again, she assumed her position. The rain was still pouring down.
“Relax,” he told her as he touched her hair.
The waves fell on the shore, and the rain tap-tapped on the leaves of the trees cocooning the house. She took another sip of her beer and forgot about her sarong, letting it fall into her lap, while she dropped her knees to the side and held onto her ankle with her free hand. He continued to paint, asking about her life in Norway and about the snow. She hadn’t thought about the cold for the last two months. She hadn’t thought about the West much at all.
The aroma from the curry began to filter out to the veranda.
“No looking,” he said. He smiled as he got up to check on dinner.
She tied up her sarong and moved around to the other side of the canvas to see the painting.
Her eyes got big.
“Now that’s the look I should have painted,” he said.
It was her. A few lines captured the features of her face and body all on a backdrop of oversized leaves in the jungle surrounding the little house.
“That’s what I see when I look at you.”
He brought out two plates of food to the veranda. It was dark now and still raining.
“We must stay for the night.”
She could do nothing. “You better behave.”
“Right,” he said.
He took the painting and put it on a shelf in his bedroom on a wall facing out to the sea.
One taste of the curry and she devoured the rest of it.
“This is delicious! I’d like more!”
“You eat big!”
“It took a lot of energy to sit there while you painted me.”
“I would paint only you for the rest of my life if you would let me.”
Her phone vibrated and flashed next to her. She picked it up knowing it would be Anders. He wanted to know if she was OK. “Miss U” she texted back. “Love U” he texted back.
“The boss of your heart?” Made asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
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