On the back of his bike Sarah feels like she might really be alive. That this is what it might mean to be free, every pin number she’s ever had, every security code she has ever punched in, falling away, rolling out behind her, like wedding rings skimmed across a dirty lake. Realising, at full throttle, that a life doesn’t have to be negotiated and a woman doesn’t have to be safe. Here the night isn’t a cold thing to be run from, a danger to be negotiated and avoided. Dewa hasn’t offered her a helmet and she likes how the air feels skidding off her face, between her bare legs, the bike flying along streets, close to ditches, onto paths, driving through a night with no stop signs and nothing feels as exhilarating, nothing seems as reckless as deciding to kiss a foreign stranger in the bright fluorescence of a convenience store backlit by scorpions floating in bottles of tequila, and leaning in, sweet relief on the back of a motorcycle and letting him take you home. When Sarah wraps her arms around his slight middle it isn’t because she’s frightened; she clutches his hips because it’s as if their bodies have done this before, as if the bike, at this speed, is fast tracking some parallel history between them, some secret muscle memory – here, where the world is not lit in orderly intervals so everything is visible in evenly distributed planes of light, like it is back home, here, where the dark hovers in a blanket over everything so the light punctures and splits and explodes – a string of pretty apparitions on a hill, the only light on a road, a disco in a black van, a palace of open rooms in a forest, an oasis in an inky rice field, here, where even the light is lovely and secretive it is possible for Sarah to believe in something more momentous than deja vu.
Dewa tells her a story about the Indonesian angels while he’s washing her hair. At first, she’s distracted, caught by the sensation of his fingers on her scalp, the waft of coconut, knowing the hard water will mean frizz later when her hair dries out, something she says nothing about because Dewa never comments on the state of her hair. He doesn’t care. Sarah is like nearly all the other westerners in this town, a little made, a little ruffled, a bit too pink and sweaty. He tells her about an ancient Indonesian king caught spying on a group of angels swimming naked in a waterfall.
‘The King fell hard for one of the angels,’ he says dipping her head under the faucet. ‘He wanted to take her for his wife. When the gods came, the King pleaded he was in love. He loved her. She was probably already pregnant. The gods agreed to let her stay, but anytime they wanted her back they could take her away.’
When they move to the rooms in her open suite, he walks around without comment, suddenly quiet, staring through the bay windows into the forest like he’s searching for a sign. Sometimes he takes a few minutes to settle, to come to her on the bed because to acknowledge the difference between them would be worse. Watching him, Sarah realises there’s another reason why he’s telling her this story.
‘What happened to the angel?’
Dewa reaches for a glass of water on the bedside table, avoiding her eye. ‘The gods made good on their word.’ He sighs and both of them lie quietly, thinking about what they ought to be beholden to, the bargains they’ve already struck and the people they’ve left behind.
Sarah stretches out on the enormous bed, strangely hard like all the beds seem to be in Bali, knowing Dewa is taking an inventory of her head. Watching for the small signals of her passing. Knowing this secret time can’t last and that Sarah’s paid too much for what can never be recompensed. And despite the love, despite what’s happening between them, all the world is designed to make them a farce – imbalances, fair trade agreements, executions – in her own part of the world they’d say she was being played and he’d say long deeds deserve long knives but no-one will ever recognise the angels swirling around them, in any kind of manifestation of her and him.
‘You’re just like the angel,’ Dewa says, a hard look on his face she doesn’t recognise. ‘But you weren’t delivered by a god. You came down in a plane.’
Sarah can’t believe how pleased she’d been to see his face that afternoon outside the Monkey Forest, leaning through the window of the transporter smiling at her, waiting. She’d felt the eyes of the local men pooled under a Banyan tree smoking thinly rolled cigarettes crouched on the balls of their feet shooting looks at her, but she’d been defiant, hadn’t smiled. She was on edge, being around the monkeys had uncaged something inside her, watching them wrench lollies out of the clenched hands of Japanese tourists had made her tense, competitive, she’d wanted to be in charge, to say let go you fucking idiots or they’re going to claw you to death – before Dewa arrived she’d wanted to scale something, rip something apart. She wanted this too much.
Sarah has already learnt the shape of his face, the lines of his body, how he moves so differently to the other men she’s known; how he looks at ease in his skin, his clothes, every place he inhabits. No pouchy fat, no self-consciousness. Never moving fast if he can help it and always telling her to slow down, like she doesn’t understand how to make her proper way through the world. The mantra. The cliché. In the night he asks her to look away from him, to rest more closely on his chest because he can’t stand watching her think.
‘All that noise,’ he says waving his hands, his slender wrists decorated in her hair bands and other talismans he’s collected from her rooms, ‘all the mess.’
The next day by the pool, she asks him what he’s been doing since she last saw him and he says, ‘Just sitting,’ like it is possible and something she’ll never really get. Sarah wonders how he can afford the thick gold chain sitting on the curves of his collarbone, like jewellery is supposed to but often doesn’t on western men where it hangs mostly like a sign on a pig. And she knows why Balinese men are true gangsters because they’re authentic and imitations; they’re somewhere in between. And she is trying not to think about how he lied to her that first morning driving her to the rice fields about not having a girlfriend and feeling for her briefly, a girl put aside for a bule. And there was no duel or Jane Austen game of trickery and persuasion. There was no need.
When Sarah sat in the front seat she’d already won.
The way he crawls into her space in the dead of night with few words but always the right ones and soft, silly laughter. Sarah naked, waiting behind the mosquito net, his light weight, his gliding impressions on the bed – he does not announce himself. There are no stories, no drinks, no complaints, no television. No wrestles with shirts or shoelaces. He doesn’t overrun the room, he blends and sheds his clothes like he wears them, without effort and Sarah knows this isn’t real, that she’s playing the part of the angel in the story and that it’s not about purity, since that old tale is now about something else – a mythology twisted by time – powers that be no longer deities in the trees and the wind and the sky but mixed messages delivered by satellite. Dewa calls her an angel not because of the way she looks, she’s no girl, the connection is about everything she promises. What she represents. The difference. Men like him call women like her angels not because they’re often fair or blonde or white or rich, they call them angels because in the end, they rarely stay and only visit. They come from a world that has a promise in it to begin with, and before the sun comes up he leaves through the gauze and the open door and Sarah is the one who has been visited. And no-one will believe her. And no-one will believe him. This is the secret history they share. You can be a king or a queen in this world, maybe even an angel but the gods have gone somewhere else and no-one will ever own the world again as much as rich white men.
Sarah knows nothing about their affair sets her apart. That when you’re lying poolside, degrees of separation are hallucinations, mirages in the haze, that she’s just like all these other westerners saying and doing the stupidest things, getting animals and spirits and humans confused. Wondering what they might come back as, asking, three sheets to the breeze and suddenly keen, what others see in them. Looking their Balinese bartenders in the eye and asking earnestly, a little afraid, what kind of spirit animal am I? Women on organised tours always secretly pleased when they’re likened to big cats, because people always want to be felines or dolphins or bears, not the things they mostly are: apes, badgers, spawn in clam shells. And so it goes – how the animal you move like on the outside isn’t the animal you have on the inside – your animal doesn’t have to be an animal at all but can be some weirder, stranger thing. Your sprit animal can be a city, a brand of beer, even Gordon Ramsey. And Sarah thinks no-one ever wants to be who they are. The handful they’ve made. They want to be everything; they want to be the whole fucking zoo.
And so here they are, carrying their tiny glass menageries around in foreign countries, the fragile tinkling bits falling off at parties, getting left on the floors of sticky bars, the Balinese men playing along when what they really see, Dewa tells her later, are so many twisted humans, so many fucked up auras, so many weird people half-passed out by the pool or sweating on their candy coloured yoga mats legs splayed out pretending to be dogs and cats, what they really see are people beyond the edge of knowing anything, nine cocktails in, three slices of pineapple away from a moment of reckoning.
Dewa says he can tell the exact tone of what Sarah wants from him by the crease in her forehead, right between the eyes, the place where she knows all these glittering young white people will place their ten dollar bindis next year when they feel brave enough, spiritually bolstered enough to tackle India. That’s what finding yourself is all about. Commitment. Resilience. Wandering around, acting all sanguine in fisherman’s pants when the baggage comes with you. Resisting the urge to visit Ketut Liyer because Julia Roberts already did and the locals reckon he’s a crook.
Dewa pressing the soft skin between Sarah’s thumb and forefinger before sunrise concerned about how tense her body is when all she’s been doing is relaxing, telling her she needs to sleep today, not watch television, or see anyone, or get out of bed. He tells her she’s dragging all that tension around with her and it’s heavy and she’s still dragging it and has been for a long time, like a super trawler with a giant net. A twenty-first century woman with a sack full of weed, dead fish and broken shells.
‘Cut,’ he says making scissors with his fingers like he’s talking to a child, ‘cut.’
Dewa tells her all the Balinese staff joke about drunk guests falling into rice paddies and gardens and fish ponds and how easily no-one remembers anything, cycles of arrivals and departures set on rinse and repeat, because on the dawn of every horrid awakening there’s always a green smoothie, two and a half hours of ashtanga, and the possibility of announcing yourself renewed. And all the pool boys and the drivers and the gardeners agree, especially when you’re hot and lying around in a bikini, and then they disagree because they know westerners like Sarah who roll around the world like pale ghosts without a home never need too much convincing to do anything. Unpredictable, crazy, ‘Sometime worth my effort,’ Dewa says winking at her, ‘always worth shooting.’
If Sarah could take down her dreams from somewhere in the sky and make them mean something, she would. In her old life a dream was only what happened before the alarm went off. Here, the illusion could be dragged into the day. Fill up a night. If Sarah could be in something that represented a dream all the time, there would be no more need for going someplace else. If Sarah could really live her dreams she wouldn’t be thinking about how chanting and the sound of gongs being struck in the distance sounds exotic. About how lost she is in a foreign country without a ceremony. She wouldn’t be thinking about the possibilities of tribes, of making new ones and shimmering if she could, like a string of lights in a foreign sky because what we dream about is never the same. Not everyone dreams of jets and fountains of money falling like endless gilded rain, of glory played out on a field or perfect oily arses tilted high for entry or for other humans to be dead. Not everyone dreams of cars with heated seats and apartments with plunge pools in LA, and Hermès scarves and gilded headphones and monogrammed tents. Some people only dream of more food or surviving the knife fight or for their dad. All that wishing swirling. Strong as the ether from all our mobile phones, an invisible stain not quite enough to remind us that all we have is this body, this time, and a last walk into the dark alone.
Sarah kneels on the hardwood floor, feels her left hip crack like it never used to and she knows it won’t be long until her parts start speaking back at her, breaking off, abandoning the host, shrinking under her shell like dried plums. There’s a moment she knows now when a body starts to pay you back for the eight thousand 3 ams, the roller coasters, the bad fucking, the deep-sea diving. When it says don’t push me, when everything fun you’ve ever done registers in your skin like a rusted cage. She can feel this erosion and with it another idea settling in. That what her body wants, in fact, what it needs, is a burrow. The way a sick cat nestles into a hole, Sarah might have to take her body home. And the magic of what she’s felt here lifts off her like a veil. The sound of her country opening up inside her, the views she has made, flickering in the eyes of her skin, never a single thing but a series of flashes, images, all that space holding nothing in but somehow everything that ever was – trees that blend ceaselessly into mountains and horizons and land, salt plains stretching and most of all, space that is only water and sky, great blue swathes sweeping up like a separate atmosphere, like a country with its own moon and gods and time, a country down there at the bottom of the earth hovering separately, like a private planet.
The longing is real.
The Balinese coffee is suddenly thick and bitter in her gut. The stench of burning rubbish, the idea that almost everything here makes her feel nauseous. The water. The chicken. The fake milk. Her lover’s scratchy hand. None of this is working and everything is slipping away. And here she is spinning at the quickness of it. Even Dewa. Even him. The long nights in her unmade bed, another imposter, another aborted plan.
She walks to the shore trying to stave off the feeling, but what she really wants to do is run, right now, find the first driver and fly through those winding, scrappy roads to an airplane that will rise and return her, take her away, just like the angel in the story and all the other cowards.
On the beach she baulks at the dirty sand not like home. This is what Bali has become for her, a sparkly dead thing, something over. The water tepid between her toes, the slimy rubbish and weed curling up around her ankles and her legs, a Coke can, a plastic bag sloshing against her in the sickly tide, and so Sarah goes in up to her thighs, hoping to feel something, knowing she came here like a fish on an ocean current, heading towards the noise on the reef – the sound everyone’s after, the epiphany, the lover, the aha moment, the concert of joy, this redemption she’s been searching for rolling off the walls – swimming and swimming and swimming in not realising what she’d actually done was head straight for a wall of mouths.
Voices in her head saying this is not your sea Sarah, you’re wading into a used sleeping bag and inside it someone else has left sticky candy wrappers and a slimy warm sensation like the residue of piss. Can’t you smell the diesel Sarah? The backlog of a thousand distant boats chasing dolphins? Endless planes banking over the bay. Don’t you realise that this is you Sarah, hovering over the dead coral like a lump of white fat in a watery stew. You and all the other pale seekers out here, the only large things left, soaking up all the charge, and there’s too much of you all together, too much residue, snot and mucous bubbling up a snorkel, the fleshy bits on your face pinched by the mask, squished and redistributed. And you’re hanging here and you know you’re the colour hound Sarah, the magnet, the thing that’s stripped the coral, made countless things extinct, spectacular things grey. The fish so small there’s not enough flesh. This is it Sarah. You’re no longer in the preview. Don’t go under. Trace your footprints and go backwards, go back to where you think you come from, go home instead.
Read the rest of ‘The idea of women’ fiction issue:
‘The world is fire’, by Ariane Both
‘If someone told me I was dying I would drink myself to death’, by Judyth Emanuel
‘Make my back burn’, by Fikret Pajalic
‘The crucible’, by Vivienne Cutbush