Monday, December 10, 1990

Vacation

I wrote this short story one afternoon in December, 1990, at the Hotel Cathay in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. It was published a few years later in several magazines that were really one sole magazine, with a name like Porthole. It was given free to all cruise-ship passengers for a month. 

Eric Moody, a few paces ahead of his bikinied wife, scanned the blinding beach and said with a frown, “It's just up ahead, I'm sure of it.”

He waited for Pamela to agree then realized she was down at the tide-wrack, looking for seashells. He watched her clockwork movements as she knelt, and thought: Five foot ten inches of glory. He called out, "It's not much farther.”

In the severe beauty of tropical light and cobalt ocean he felt heat-dazed and pale-skinned, his entire body revealed as excessive flesh. Up and down the hotel-edged beach, bronze Balinese chugged along, mimicking in their absurd good health Pamela's rangy walk and mocking his own fatigue. Even ancient stringy Balinese women, ridiculous in straw coolie-hats with numbers attached, had enough strength left in their old age to offer him an hour’s vigorous massage for a mere three thousand Indonesian rupiahs.

Pamela turned and, pushing back honey-gold hair, ambled over with that loose-limbed gait which always reminded him of TV programs about gazelles. She waited until she was near before she spoke.

"I'm sorry, I didn't hear what you said.”

"Doesn't matter.” He screwed up his face at the afternoon sun. “Hot enough, isn't it? I won't mind a nap when we get back.”

Pamela smiled at him, the only white man still as white as the beach. "When we get back? Our hotel’s the other way.”

"I don't think so.”

"Of course it is. By those banners.” She indicated a few pennants of blue, red, and yellow on bent bamboo poles, distant in the direction they'd just come.

He thought: Look at her. Tanned already. You can take the girl out of California, but you can't take California out of the girl.

"They all have banners.” He pointed in the opposing direction. "Those are ours. You see?”

"I know I had a hotel here somewhere, officer, I just can't seem to recall where I left it.”

“Be serious. Don't you think it's up ahead?”

"I think you got all turned around when we went swimming,” said Pamela. “Does it matter? We're on vacation.”

"I guess not.” He wiped his brow with the back of his clammy arm. He'd been about to point out that unless they decided where the hotel was, they could keep going back and forth in this heat for hours. He realized suddenly that Pamela was quite sure of herself. He said, "I'm sure most anyone would be happy to be lost out here.”

"Exactly. And it's good for you to get some exercise.”

"Lost on a beach in Bali."

"You make it sound so exotic," she murmured.

"Isn't it?”

She shrugged. “Sanur? It's one of the least Balinese places on the whole island. We can walk into any one of these hotels and call Boston direct. That's not lost.”

"And wake someone up, you mean." He thought he recognized that sequence of brightly-painted outriggers pulled up on the sand just ahead. "I know where we are," he said triumphantly. “This way.”

"Why are you so eager to get back to the hotel?”

"Sooner or later I wouldn't mind a nap, for one thing. But we can keep walking, if you like.”

“Want me to meet you back there? You know how easily you burn.”

"I call it a stockbroker’s tan.” He had a quick vision of the cool of their thatched bungalow, Pamela's tan lines, the wide-bladed ceiling fan lethargically turning. With generosity toward her unreliable sense of direction, he said, “Which way? You choose."

"The Moodys of West Newton, Mass., have lost their hotel.”

"Don't be sarcastic. Not lost. Misplaced."

"I still think we should be staying up in the hills," she said. "That's where the real Bali is. All the books say so. We've been here nearly three days and we haven't gone any farther than Ubud.”

“It took us two days to fly here, with the time difference. There's nothing criminal about taking it slow.”

She said, "We've only got a week left. I'm just worried we'll never find a temple festival. And I'm sure the Balinese don't hold cremation ceremonies anywhere near the hotel. They’re too devout.”

"I thought they did their cremations and festivals all over the place." Ever since Pamela had heard the call—grad school, Comparative Religion, age thirty—simple foreign savvy got treated with reverence. He added gently, “We can drive into the hills whenever you want. Stay all day in some village, I don't mind.”

"I just don't want to come thousands and thousands of miles and feel like I'm missing Bali.”

"I couldn't agree more." Ahead, always ahead, stretched the sand’s dazzle and the similar hotels in local woods, hidden by jungly palms and burnished to the natural colors of the island. They wavered in the heat and made the shore one continuous mirage. He said, "Maybe you're right. Maybe those aren't our banners."

She said, "I have an idea. I'll race you into the water. When we come out we'll both remember the hotel in the same place."

"I'm not sure we will."

"So we’ll lie under a palm and I'll give you a massage."

“Why not back in the room?” He thought: at ninety dollars a day, including two meals, service, and government tax, I deserve a massage. My clients should get off so well.

She said patiently, as if explaining something significant to a child, “You don't understand, Eric. We don't have a hotel anymore. We are going to have to sleep on the beach from now on. Or a rice paddy up in the hills. You better get used to it."

He said, "I'll ask someone. They all speak English."

A couple of muscular Balinese teenagers traipsed by and smiled at his wife. He glared them on. At his gesture a wrinkled old woman in a flapping flowery sarong came over. Her straw hat was labelled 53.

He named their hotel. She said simply, "Bali massage. One hour, five thousand rupiahs.”

She waved a bottle of transparent oil in his face.

"Another time," he said. "Right now we want to find our hotel.”

"You know, a massage would do you a world of good,” said Pamela.

"I'm sure her fingers aren't like yours."

Pamela said almost wistfully, "She's a pro. I'm just an amateur.”

He was fumbling for a joke about quantity versus quality when Pamela said to the old woman, “Two thousand rupiahs.”

"Madame?"

"No, mister.” Pamela pointed at him. “Two thousand.”

“Four thousand.”

"Why not tomorrow?" he suggested.

“Bali massage, one hour, three thousand rupiahs,” said his wife firmly.

“Okay, okay,” said the old woman. With unexpected strength she pushed on his shoulder blades. Obediently, like a front line of infantry mown down by grapeshot, he found himself on his knees. The nut-brown peril hopped around behind him and her cunning fingers dug into his biceps as if they were foam rubber.

“You have to lie down all the way, darling,” said Pamela in a curious tone of voice. "Just let it happen.”

He glanced up, but her head was directly in front of the sun and he saw only a tantalizing long-legged silhouette. The wizened fingers gave an insistent shove and the beach hit him like a punching bag. He sprawled indignantly lengthwise at his wife's feet.

She laughed. "Right where I want you.”

He reached out to grasp her ankle. She deftly side-stepped. His chin pressed deeper in the sand. He said, "She'll do you next.”

He heard the rustle of money changing hands. Pamela bent down and whispered in his ear, "I'll do you next."

He watched her feet turn and walk away, toward the water. With satisfaction he closed his eyes and gave himself up to the ministrations of the fingers. The old woman cackled and he felt a pool of viscous liquid, a hot glue, spreading across his back. Before he could protest the cruel fingers were kneading it into his already-burning skin. His head swam with the sickly-sweet coconut vapors. His sweat sizzled as it sprang up on his cooked flesh like grease dripping down the sides of a ham. The hands crept lower to the small of his back, then boiling oil was poured on his thighs and the torturing barbarians went to work there. He was a little surprised at the knowing sensuality of the fingers and decided perhaps his wife had been right. Women knew a thing or two about women. He abandoned himself to the experience and thought about his wife.

Some minutes later he realized he must've fallen asleep. The fingers were gone. His body was a flaming sticky sea, a disastrous oil spill that had caught fire. He groaned and got to his feet. The ocean was merry and blue. He couldn't see Pamela anywhere. Then he noticed the message scrawled in the sand.


WENT BACK TO THE HOTEL  <———————>  ???


Enraged, it took him over an hour to find his way back. By that time, she had moved on.

Wednesday, December 5, 1990

Navel Maneuvers

Written in 1990 for G.Q. magazine

No one ever forgets his first really supreme belly-dancer. It is the loss of a virginity of sense: yes, the female body can do all that, and to suitably serpentine music. Mine took place at a private restaurant in Marrakesh, in decadent North African style. Tribespeople from southern Morocco came to entertain. The dancer was lithe, sultry, charged with animal vitality, and frenzied; probably she’d been smoking kif. Her dancing was so uninhibited she seemed dangerous. This experience has never repeated itself.

Until recently in the Middle East there were several places one could go in search of her dance. Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, and Istanbul are the traditional belly-dancing capitals. Now that Baghdad is less accessible, and Beirut unfortunately still off the beaten track for most Americans, Cairo and Istanbul alone have to carry the veil.

A century ago writers crossed the world seeking this primal experience—like Gustave Flaubert, keeping a diary in Egypt:

“Kuchuk shed her clothing as she danced. Finally she was naked except for a veil . . . behind which she pretended to hide . . . at the end she threw down the veil . . . sank down breathless on her divan, her body continuing to move slightly in rhythm.” (1849)

Flaubert’s countryman, Théophile Gautier, was more analytical in his book on Constantinople. The dancing, he wrote, “consists of perpetual undulations of the body: twisting buttocks, swaying hips, eyes flashing or swooning, nostrils quivering, lips parted, bosoms heaving, necks bent like the throats of lovesick doves . . . . ” (1854)

Lovesick doves indeed. Lady Duff Gordon was less sentimental. One dancer’s gyrating breasts, she noted, “were just like pomegranates and gloriously independent of any support.” (1865)

The dance’s origins probably lie with gypsies wandering the region many centuries ago. Among connoisseurs of the art, Cairo has long had the edge in reputation, though belly-dancing undoubtedly was developed by odalisques of the Ottoman sultans’ harem in Constantinople for the pleasure of their lord and master. Imagine my surprise, then, at being awakened by rumors that the belly-dancing standard was on the rise in that magnificent Turkish city now known as Istanbul. Without hesitation I flew down to the Golden Horn to devote time, valuable time, to investigate.

You can spend your life looking at belly-dancers and come away none the wiser about the fine points. First I called on Nancy Ermenidis, an American woman who’s lived ten years in Istanbul and earned an unsurpassed reputation as a teacher of the dance.

“Most belly-dancers have no art,” she said. “It’s the gypsies who keep the art alive. You can go to their camp at Sulukule, and pay them to dance. But the girls keep the real dance to themselves.

“The degeneration’s not in the lack of teachers but in the expectations of the audience. The requisite here is to be young, have a good body, and not mind showing it. Girls now wear a bikini with lots of things hanging down. The level of dancing here is better than it was ten years ago; the problem is that male audiences want only to see flesh. And there’s a precarious balance between the sensuality and the sexuality of the dance.

“A good belly-dancer should transport you. Two of the best are Burcin Orhon and Tulay Karaca. A good dancer will be barefoot, or in slippers—never high heels. The bad ones walk around a lot. They don’t want their makeup to run. Most don’t do anything with their hands, they have only a few movements. Egyptian girls aren’t allowed to show their bellies or legs; here we bare the midriff. But meat doesn’t matter, age doesn’t matter: belly-dance is all illusion. What’s too bad is there could be someone in a low nightclub in three skirts who’s better than the others but who isn’t encouraged because she doesn’t show a lot of flesh.”

I decided to start with the gypsies, encouraged by visions of James Bond in From Russia, With Love—knife-throwing, cat-fights, the usual. So I enlisted the sturdy companionship of Erdogan, a kind, amiable man who was boxing champion of Istanbul for three years. He in turn enlisted the aid of Abdullah, who “knows all the gypsies.” Erdogan, no alarmist, made it clear a yabanci (foreigner) wouldn’t be safe visiting the gypsies without local guidance.

Istanbul at night is full of otherworldly visions: floating mosques, lit-up minarets, crumbling ancient walls. I remember we passed through a shadowy arch, trees stood up in darkness, then suddenly lights on rude stone buildings blinded me. Filthy fat gypsy women fell upon our taxi, reaching out their hands, imploring us to choose their dark-eyed, willing daughters. “Gypsy people have no god,” said Erdogan approvingly. “Money only god for gypsy.”

A deal was struck. We were led into a low house with sloping floors, then to a small room garishly lit by bare bulbs. Right away four young men joined us, wailing away on drum, lute, tambourine, and clarinet. Three girls came in. Two sat immediately on our laps, the third stripped down to a bikini and did a bored dance. Several enormous women built like wrestlers came in and started yelling at us. Abdullah yelled back.

“If Abdullah not here,” said Erdogan, “too much money. Tourist come alone is not safe, like night-cluip. Don’t go night-cluip, sir.”

Money changed hands (about $50, a week’s wages in Istanbul), and the bikinied girl undid her top. Perhaps she was fifteen, beneath her mascara. She stood inches away from each of us and demanded money. A boy of about three wandered in bouncing a red ball, followed by his grandmother. A new argument started as our beers came. The musicians howled. In the airless room we were dripping with sweat.

“Don’t worry,” Erdogan announced. “Sex not possible with gypsy.”

Rapidly the other girls got up from our laps, did the business of wiggling their breasts, extorted a tip, dressed and went away. We were left with our beers, the fattest grandma, and the musicians.

Another evening, ever in search of the Gypsy Experience, I went out to Kumcapi, a nest of fish restaurants by the Sea of Marmara. There were many gypsy musicians improvising away, the fish was superb, but that night no “butterfly” girls showed up to dance.

Still I didn’t give up the Belly-Dancing Quest. I went to one of the fanciest “turist” clubs in Istanbul, atop the Galata Tower (14th c.). I’d seen Tulay Karaca dance there years ago, but Tulay’s expressive limbs had sugarcoated my memory of the club. It’s one of those international joints where they keep changing your ashtray but never change the singer, some creep who patters to the audience in twelve languages and knows a song in each. The first dancer was a tall blonde in sequins and heels who tossed her hair and stared us down imperiously. She had a knowing saunter, she twirled and teased and shook, but she didn’t come close to the artistry I was seeking. The second dancer, who also wore a bikini with streamers, reminded me of the mountains coming to Mohammed. Had I lost faith?

The U.S. Consulate confirmed Erdogan’s dire warnings about the Turks-only nightclubs in the Pera district, that present foreigners with a $1000 beer bill, then beat you up if you refuse to pay. One night I found my way alone past clubs with names like “Harem” and “Lolita,” avoiding the obvious strip-and-clip joints. Shortly after midnight I ended up at the Beyaz Saray on Mesrutiyet Caddesi, by the merest coincidence within shouting distance of my consulate. A doorman quoted me $10 a beer including cover, and I walked into a spotless, ’70s-style club with imitation art-nouveau panels of nude women. I felt safer there than in any lunatic-driven Istanbul taxi.

At the bar a lovely Iranian woman named Zeynep suggested I buy her a drink. She had long black hair and the natural aristocracy of many Persian women; fortyish, she’d left Tehran nine years earlier, after the revolution. She slipped away as the lights went down.

The star, Aylin Erol, wore white high heels, and her bikini glittered. At nearby tables men smoked and watched with great concentration. Ten minutes into her dance Aylin turned wanton, flashing plenty of leg and shaking her copious breasts. Her hips rotated and pulsated and she finished with a fascinating belly waggle. Despite the high heels, I soberly rated her the best so far.

A knife thrower, athletic folk dancers, a Turkish Desi Arnaz, and an amazing sword acrobat followed, notably superior to their counterparts at the tourist nightclubs. Occasionally I was joined at the bar by a “whiskey dolly,” who’d let her hand stray to my leg, then ask me to buy her a drink. No one ever realizes how much he resembles a foreigner until he’s the only one.

An ample blonde dancer came on, extravagant belly undulating. Growls went up as tidal waves crossed her navel and her breasts grew rowdy with the music. She stooped low to let men push 100,000 lira notes ($4, that week) into her cleavage. Once they got their moment of erotic contact they lost interest, and she finished lackadaisically.

By three in the morning, two dancers later, I was sated and ready to give up. Had I journeyed so far for so little? Then, to my surprise, Zeynep appeared onstage. At first I didn’t recognize her. She was slender, barefoot, supple, her legs hidden by swirling skirts, her midriff bare. A long veil sailed behind her as she whirled. She lacked the voluptuousness and youth of the Turkish dancers, but I saw immediately that she was the mother lode.

Her hands spiraled around every crossbeat. After a languid ballet of arms alone she went into an intricate sideways shimmy, now swaying, now teasing. It grew to a complex wriggle, a lascivious shudder, that engulfed her. A drum solo erupted, and her hips furiously punctuated then counterattacked the muscular beats, faster and faster. Her arms floated and swam upward. The other instruments wailed, and Zeynep shifted into a slow, grinding cadenza, powerful accents rippling from her expressive shoulders through her body to her pleading knees. As the music climaxed she went spinning, black hair hurtling around her. She finished abruptly, to an assault of the drums, and we all howled.

Istanbul! Youth! Zeynep! And the moon!