Monday, December 10, 1990


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.”


"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.

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