Without anyone to remind me of my humanness, I float in the clouds, dissolve into the wind-ripples, and dance with the glittering moonbeams illuminating the dark sea crests. I’m free to fall through the sky with the shooting stars and raindrops. I let go of limits I’ve placed on myself for the sake of how other people might judge me, and try to recognize my own self-judgments too. I feel ready to be me, whatever the consequences.
“Maybe I’m losing it,” I say to the circling frigate bird, “but I don’t care. This feels so right!”
Peni Te Fare
Daydreaming, I follow my furry new friend on a morning walk along the edge of the reef. Rocky, a sweet, lanky local dog, yips and wags his tail, madly bounding after fish in the tide pools while I pick shells, cartwheel, gaze at sea life, suck on urchins, and admire knotted driftwood along the mix of beach and reef. When the midmorning sun grows too strong, we head back across the islet toward the bush where I stashed my longboard early this morning. I sidestep a pile of coconut husks as we come around the front of a home, and then nearly trip over the foot of a wooden ladder that blends into the sand below.
“Whoa!” I exclaim as I catch my balance. I look up to see the hulking figure of an old white-haired Polynesian man teetering at the top of a rickety handmade ladder, spackling spatula in hand. He’s filling the cracks between the new plywood sheets on his lagoon-front dwelling. His great round belly up there looks about as steady as a bowling ball balancing on a toothpick.
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” ‘Iaorana!” The Tahitian greeting sails from his mouth.
” ‘Iaorana!” I reply.
Despite the obvious strength that remains in the man’s body, the great mass of his chest leaning way out while he works with both of his hands concerns me. I cringe as each gust of wind makes his tuft of white hair lean farther and farther over, threatening to upset his fine balance. To make matters worse, I notice he has only six toes between his two feet.
To my great relief, he comes down, and introduces himself as Tautu. He walks over to a faucet for a drink of water, and offers me a glass. I’m parched from the morning’s excursion, so I gladly accept and follow him into the overhanging shade of his house. After a bit of verbal floundering, I understand that he is getting ready to paint the house peni te in Tahitian. He has spent all of his seventy-some years living on the island, the last ten alone. His wife had passed fifteen years ago, and his only son had moved away to find work.
I spontaneously offer to help. I never want to see him on that ladder again! A great smile spreads across his face. We finish up the spackling, and make a plan to meet at 7:30 am tomorrow to start painting.
I wake the next morning to clear skies and paddle my longboard ashore. First, Tautu and I roll two empty fuel drums over and set them on end, then place two long two-by-six-inch boards atop them for scaffolding. I work on the upper walls, while he covers the lower. Despite the towering language barrier between us, his calm, wise presence reminds me of being with Barry. The thick white paint goes on sticky by midmorning, and we work our way around the house, following the shade. Rocky chases crabs nearby.
Around 11 am, Tautu lumbers down to a platform in the lagoon shallows where his neighbor leaves him a daily supply of fish. He cleans and scales five or six small reef fish, then walks back behind the house, where a large iron spike protrudes from the ground. He thrusts a brown coconut onto the metal spike, tearing off the dried husk circularly until only the hard, round inner shell remains. He then taps around its circumference with the dull side of a large kitchen knife, and the nut magically falls open into two perfect halves. Next, he pulls out a wooden board with a metal grater attached and places it on the step of his house. Sitting down on the wooden end, he scrapes both halves rhythmically until all the coconut meat is grated into the bowl between his feet.
I watch curiously, continuing to roll the walls with white paint, carefully covering up small patches Tautu had missed. Soon after, he calls out something that I take to mean, “Lunch is ready!”
Following him into the house, I wash my hands while he sets an overflowing pot of white rice on the table in the kitchen next to a glass bowl of carefully sliced raw fish and onions. He then fills a square of white tea cloth with a couple handfuls of the freshly grated coconut meat, and squeezes it out over the fish. The thick white milk dribbles down his hands and into the bowl. With a few squeezes of lime, lunch is served.
Sitting at the table across from Tautu, I think back to my many lunches with Barry, and days spent helping around his house hauling firewood, taking the trash bins in and out, or climbing up to fix something difficult to reach. Young and old need each other. I want to live in a world where there is time to help others, where the elderly are not put away in nursing homes. Barry was in good spirits when I called a couple weeks ago. He’d been out sailing aboard a friend’s boat, and even took an icy dip in the sea, one of his favorite pastimes. My plan to go north excited him; his encouragement continues to be unfailing.
Three days later, the final touches to the second coat of paint make the house gleam like an overly whitened smile. As he does every evening, Tautu sends me home with more fish than I can eat for dinner. I tie them together and place them on the nose of my longboard. A curious pack of small black-tip reef sharks follows me home. I drop them a fish or two once I’m safely onboard.
I haven’t heard from the Spaniard in a month, and I’m beginning to worry that something happened to him. I’m here where we’d planned to meet, but there isn’t another boat in sight. Nearly every day, I connect to the Sailmail station via the radio and download my emails. Before this stretch of silence, he was emailing constantly. Then all at once, no news?
Finally one stormy morning, his name pops up in my inbox. I open and read, “Ussy, I am arriving in four or five days more.” Yay! But wait, there’s more “I need to tell you that I invite Elena to meet me since you couldn’t come and we are sailing together for three weeks is the girl from Easter Island I told you about when we meet in Galapagos. I hope you not be angry. We both get ciguatera very bad and very sick most of the time. She return home by plane yesterday. I decide to pass another time with her to be sure when I come to see you. Hastapronto. Te quiero. Gaspy.”
My heart hits the cabin sole. How could he? Why didn’t he tell me sooner? The wind howls through the rig and driving rain beats down on the decks. I’m suddenly terribly lonely. How could he leave me wondering for weeks, while he’s been off on a romantic sail with someone else? For the next few days I mourn the future I’d been anticipating together. Being alone no longer feels peaceful. I mope around Swell, swinging between sadness and anger.
I must make a choice. I can leave quickly, or stay here and face him. I don’t feel good about seeing him in my fragile emotional state. I’m hurt and jealous, and I know I won’t be able to let it go right away. This is no way to start our dream life. My gut screams “Run!” But my stupid heart wants so badly to feel his love once more. I slowly prep the boat for departure, but all the negative emotion has left me weak. I’m cautious because I know that in order to go to sea, I have to be at my best.
Two more suns set before I see his yellow-striped hull entering the pass. When he drops his anchor near Swell, I head over to greet him and wince through an awkward hug. He looks thin and bitter. He brings up the ciguatera poisoning and I look at him without much sympathy.
Contaminated fish karma, I think smugly.
I wait for an apology. I wait for a shower of affection, or an affirmation that Elena isn’t the girl of his dreams. That he loves me more and everything is going to be just like it was.
Instead he blames the situation on me. “Oye, you should be come up to meet me,” he says. “You is just celosa (jealous). Is not so big deal.”
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