Wednesday, January 4, 2017

THE BEAUTY OF BALI by Peter Nolan Smith

Back in the 90s I developed an annual routine of working seven days a week at the diamond exchange during the Christmas season. The weekly income and commission from the sales provided enough money for a 5-6 month hiatus in Asia and my yearly bonus paid for the around-the-world flight. Once Richie Boy and his father finished their January vacations, I quit 47th Street for the winter and bought a round-the-world ticket from Pan Express Travel Agency.

Two weeks after January 1, 1993 I bid Richie Boy and his father good-bye for the third time in a row. Snowflakes swirled in front of our window. Richie hugged me and his gruff father offered a mean-spirited Bon Voyage.

“Don’t expect your job, when you get back.” Manny was serious about this warning. To him there was work and little else.

“I won’t be back soon.” February was dead in the Diamond District. March and April were also zombie months for diamonds, although young people got married in the summer and no one sold more wedding bands than me.

“I’ll see you in May.”

“I’ll come see you.” Richie Boy was a die-hard surfer. The waves in Ulu Watu were double overhead in the winter. They were out of my league, but Richie Boy could handle the swell. “Maybe in March

“He’s going nowhere.” Manny expected his son to uphold his fanatical work ethic.

“Manny, sie gesund.” I wished him well.

“You take care of yourself.” The old man got up from his desk and pressed a hundred dollar bill in my hand. “Have a few drinks on me.”

“I will.” Those were the last two words he would hear from me in six months. I was leaving New York that evening.

The flight from NY to Bali took about 30 hours. A cab from Denpasar drove me up into the mountains. My parents had Poste Restante Ubud as my address.

Ubud was a simple market town set in the verdant rice paddies. I lived in a simple house overlooking a ravine. Villagers bathed in the stream in the evening. The sun set between two distant volcanoes. The music of the Legong band warbled in the air filled with dragon flies. The small village offered backpackers a chance to discover hidden Bali with the comforts of cold beer and nasi goreng.

The town was family friendly and many of tourists stayed at the hotel up the path from my house. It had a swimming pool and served a tasty gado gado. One couple from the North Shore of Boston were vacationing with their two teenaged kids. I came from the South Shore. The husband and I discussed the Red Sox’s chance for winning the World Series. The wife was into traditional dancing. Her daughter was studying ballet and looked like a dancing girl from a De Mayeur painting. Her name was Dawn or Kakatu in Bahasa Indonesian.

The long-haired brunette sneaked peeks at me lounging by the pool, whenever her parents weren’t watching her every move. I had a good idea what she was thinking and avoided her, for young girls are big trouble for men in their early 40s.

One night I attended a dance performance of the Legong girls at the temple. Their lithe movements to the acoustic music was a pleasure to the eye. The candle-lit courtyard was easily to mistake for the 18th century, if I ignored the rumble of traffic beyond the red brick walls. After the end of the show I gave the venerable teacher $5 or 10,000 rupiah, which was enough to buy her young performers a meal at the market.

She thanked my gift and lifted her eyes to the flickering streetlights. They wavered with the dying surge of distant electricity and then the village was plunged into a primeval darkness. Outages were common occurrences in Inodnesia and I flicked on my flashlight.

Dawn stood in front of me.

“Hi.” She wore a red shirt without a bra.

“Where are your parents?” I walked out of the temple. Kerosene lamps illuminated the small warungs. Car headlights lit the road and I yanked Dawn out of the road.

“They went to the hotel before me.” She pushed back her long brown hair.

“Then I guess I have to walk you home.” There were no taxis in Ubud, at least none that could navigate the narrow footpaths through the rice fields. “You’re not scared of the dark, are you?”

“Not with you.” She reached out to hold my hand.

“Just follow me.”

I skirted her grasp and proceeded down a small lane between several Balinese family compounds. The high walls created a narrow chasm leading to the open rice paddies. The hotel lay across the darkened fields and I felt a little like Orpheus leading his wife from Hades, except Dawn was no Eurydice and Bali was more heaven than hell.

“Can we stop for a second?” Dawn's eyes shone with the rising moon. “I want to look at the stars.”

“Okay.” I sat in a rice shack. Thousands of fireflies hovered over the golden husks of rice. Overhead the cosmos glowed with an equatorial intensity heightened by the lack of electric light. Dawn lay down on the bamboo pallet. The stars painted her skin silver.

“Do you think I’m beautiful?” She touched my thigh with a trebling hand.

“Anyone your age is beautiful to a man as old as me.” My resolve weakened under the caress of her fingertips and then cracked with a kiss tasting of bubble gum.

“How old are you?” I sidled to the edge of the rice hut.

“15, but my friends say I look older.” She shimmered with forbidden youth.

“You do look a little older.” I had hoped 18. I had hoped wrong. “Let’s go. Your parents must be worried.”

“Can’t we stay a little longer?” She unbuttoned her shirt.

“No.” One more minute and I would cross the bounds of decency.

“You don’t know what you’ll be missing.” She pouted with the failure of seduction.

“Oh, yes, I do.” I had been fifteen before.

Dawn’s mother was waiting at the hotel entrance. Worry was not the word to describe her expression and I said firmly, “I brought back your daughter intact.”

“I’m not intact.” Dawn pouted with vengeance. “I’m not a virgin. I’m a woman.”

“Young girl, get to your room.” Her mother nodded her thanks and the next day the family had decamped from Ubud.

I resumed my life without any threat from Dawn, but I remembered her lying in the bamboo hut wearing only starlight.

I regretted telling her ‘no’, knowing that I would have been wrong to say ‘yes’, but then it was only one regret of many and at forty I had plenty of chances left to regret doing the right thing instead of the wrong.

Beauty was all around me in Bali.

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