In The Lagoon, At Midnight

The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man …
The trade wind gets into your blood and you are filled with an impatience for the unknown.

– William Somerset Maugham

It was the last place I expected to feel lonely: on a little coral atoll in the South Pacific, home to the Tahitian black pearl farm where I would be volunteering for a month.

And during the day, I didn’t. Mornings were spent on the lagoon, in a long silver jon boat as I helped three men haul in baskets of oysters. The baskets hung deep below the surface on a network of ropes, swaying lightly like shirts on a clothesline, waiting for a breeze. Afternoons found us back on the farm, a rag-tag sort of building that was perched on stilts over the reef. We’d talk, make lunch, play Yahtzee, drink a hundred cups of instant coffee.

Only at night, when the men returned to their rooms and I was left to my own devices in my bungalow for one, did the loneliness creep in, the one ghost I can never quite shake no matter where I am in the world. It was too perfect – this bungalow whose bright blue exterior matched the turquoise lagoon just steps away, this rickety bridge connecting my atoll with the farm, this narrow island called Ahe, where the only thing marking our days was the sun itself, bright, golden, omnipresent. All of it served only to remind me that I had no one to share this with.

One day after lunch, the farm’s manager, an attractive Frenchman named Lucien, asked if I wanted to go to the village with him. I jumped at the thought of movement, at this chance to see more of Ahe beyond the farm.

As we set out across the lagoon, he stood in the back of the boat, one hand on the motor, the other holding a beer. We cut lightly across the water, skipping even, but a bump from a larger wave sent sea spray flying into my face. I turned around. Lucien cocked an eyebrow and bit his lip into the hint of a grin. I wasn’t sure if it was him or another wave that made my stomach do a flip. I leaned back on my arms and stretched my legs out in front of me, feeling lucky to have my own private chauffeur across a crystalline sea.Since I’d arrived on the farm, it had been Lucien that my mind always returned to, like a favorite spot in the sun. He had one gold hoop in each ear and a thin, scruffy beard. His hair was sandy brown, short but with a playful curl up top that he ran his fingers through now and then. A single tattoo, a band of Polynesian design, wrapped around the top of his left arm. Above all else, he was tanned and remarkably so, his skin the shade of well-steeped tea. But what drew me in the most were his eyes, flickers of amber that seemed to hide nothing.

I’d never seen him wear anything but shorts, not even shoes, but I liked to imagine he had a T-shirt or two tucked away in his room, faded and a bit tattered around the neck. He had been living on Ahe for ten years and before that, in the capital of Papeete for another ten. He was born in France, near Paris, but his father’s job led them to leave when he was a young child. They had spent a few years on Martinique before moving to French Polynesia.

Lucien seemed kind, tutting only when the boat’s motor wouldn’t start in the mornings. It wasn’t just how he carried his tall frame or the strength with which he swam up from the line, bearing all those heavy oysters to the surface. It was the way he cradled Mec, the farm’s playful orange cat, in his arms like a child, the way he was the first to leap up from the table when that stupid cat caught his paw in a basket and wailed like the world was ending. It wasn’t Lucien I was falling for, but the idea of him, a man living out his life simply on an island, farming pearls, drinking coffee no matter the time of day. A man without ghosts, whose contentment depended upon nothing more than a full pouch of tobacco and a book of crossword puzzles.

There wasn’t a hint of restlessness about him, and in this he was unlike any man I had ever known.

When a two-storied building appeared on the horizon, with a real roof instead of thatch or tin, I knew we’d reached the village. Children were swimming in the water as we pulled up; Lucien cut the motor and moved past me to the bow, taking a rope in his hands to moor us along the quay. I didn’t know why we’d come, or for how long, but was happy simply to follow him.

We walked through the village down a side street, past a primary school, cemetery, and nurse’s office. “The cycle of life,” Lucien said. He knocked on the door of the house behind the infirmary, home to a French couple named Hélène and Guillaume who had lived on Ahe for three years. Hélène was the village nurse, a petite woman with silky brown hair. Her government salary meant that Guillaume, with his goatee, paunch and thick dark ponytail almost as long as his wife’s, didn’t have to work.

We spent the evening around their kitchen table, beer flowing as always and me the only one not smoking. “Are you okay, Candace?” Lucien kept asking, and I kept assuring him I was fine. Actually, I was more than fine, sitting quietly, blissfully, with a fluffy white cat named Bon Bon on my lap. Lucien told me they were being unfair talking in French, that they all knew some English, but I didn’t mind. As they talked in a language I couldn’t understand, I wondered what it would be like to belong here, to belong to Lucien, who sat tall across from me and seemed almost to be pulling his stomach in, as though to flatten it. I toyed with the idea that he was trying to impress me. It was working.

Guillaume showed us pictures on his laptop of a recent fishing trip to a neighboring island. I shifted seats around the table for a better view, placing myself closer to Lucien. When it grew dark, the couple got up to make dinner. “It’s only chicken and pasta,” Guillaume said as though apologizing, but he and Hélène served us warm fresh baguettes and shaved Parmesan, and they felt like delicacies.

Hélène brought out wine, boxes of red Zumuva – “It is great … it is Zumuva!” the cartons read – and a French liqueur that tasted of sambuca. For dessert, Guillaume had baked delectable chocolate soufflés in little bowls, using only sugar, chocolate and eggs. Lucien grew affectionate, kissing my hand, leaning in close. When he spoke to me, I had to work to hear him over Hélène and Guillaume’s banter.

“What?” I would ask.

He’d angle himself even closer, the smell of cigarettes strong on his breath. “I said, ‘Are you okay?’”

It was midnight when Lucien and I tumbled down Hélène and Guillaume’s front porch, talking smack as we walked, drawn to each other like the opposing poles of two magnets. We lowered ourselves into the boat but started drifting from the quay before Lucien could untie us. He crouched over the side and used one hand to paddle towards shore. I made fun of him from the comfort of my seat.

“You won’t be laughing in a minute,” he said.

On the way home, the motor slowed halfway across the lagoon and I turned around, afraid we’d broken down.

“Wanna go for a swim?” Lucien asked.

“I will if you will,” I said, sounding like a kid on the playground.

“Is that a dare?”

The words were barely out of his mouth before he was in the water. My heart rolled its eyes as I pulled my dress over my head and dove in after him.

“Over here,” Lucien said when I surfaced, one hand holding onto the side of the boat, the other extended in my direction. I took it and let myself be pulled towards him. My face looked up into his, full moon silhouetting his head. Suddenly, I saw that there wasn’t any question of a kiss, that the entire day had been leading to this moment, that it was obvious our lips would eventually find each other’s. I opened my eyes, wanting to take in the full moon and the sky incandescent with stars, this solitary lagoon in the middle of the Pacific, this beautiful Frenchman I had my arms wrapped around – easily the most romantic situation I’d ever found myself in, and probably ever would.

Instead, there was only one thing I could think about: I’d never kissed a smoker.

And yet the unmistakable taste of tobacco was nothing compared to the salt water I kept swallowing in what I could only assume were unhealthy amounts. Treading water while making out proved as impossible as patting my head while rubbing my belly. My legs had a way of looping up behind Lucien toward the surface; it felt like slow motion swing dancing. After a few minutes, he pulled me back into the boat and we sat for a few seconds drying off. For the first time on Ahe, I was freezing, shaking even.

“Is it because you are wearing these wet things?” he asked, tugging at the top of my swimsuit. It was an old bikini, one whose neck and back ties had long ago formed unyielding knots.

I laughed, a bit nervously, and laid my dress over my legs as he started the motor. At the farm, I waited on the dock as he went upstairs and came back with a fresh bar of soap. He rinsed the salt from my skin, pouring jarfuls of water along my arms and down my back, while I stood there somewhat helplessly.

“You don’t like it,” he said. It wasn’t a question. He took a long beach towel and wrapped it around my shoulders, pulling me into him. “Let’s go upstairs and get warm.”

But I stayed behind on the dock as he walked in, unable to move any closer. I didn’t know if I liked it or not; I didn’t know if I wanted to. It wasn’t that I couldn’t picture it, falling asleep to him whispering exotic sweet-nothings in my ear, waking up in his tattooed arms with only a tangled sheet to cover us. At least that would be something to do at night. But it was the idea I could picture, not the reality. It was strange to have a wish met so suddenly, for Lucien, whom I had admired so much from afar, to be here now, telling me I was sexy, pronouncing it “sex-zee.”

It seemed too easy, too quick, too convenient a solution to my loneliness here. I’ve moved countries, hiked volcanoes, jumped off bridges with nothing but a bungee cord strapped around my feet, but so often the hardest courage for me to summon is the courage to be alone, to not rush into fighting off the ghosts with whatever temporary fix I can find.

“I should get back,” I said, not sure of how convincing I sounded. But Lucien walked me home anyway, stretching his hands out behind him for me to hold in the darkness, stopping to kiss me on the bridge, on the shore of the island, on the steps of my bungalow. It was all I could do to pull away and say goodnight.

In the morning, there was no mention of what had happened. As I arrived at the farm for breakfast, Lucien walked past me to the sink.

“Sleep okay?” he asked with the slightest glint in his eye, a single flash and it was gone.

Gone like Ahe’s rainstorms that came quick and poured down hard, gone like what never would be, or maybe never was.

[Photo credit: Flickr user SF Brit]