by Loren Sundlee
The sand slips away so gradually from the huts to the sea one might think that little more than a high tide could be one’s immersion and destruction. Aubrey Calland sat on a bamboo chair on the deck of his hut behind a fence of palm stakes that offered about as much defense against tide or thieves as a cough drop would a heart attack.
That morning the placid sea climbed into a haze behind which reached the mountains of Timor Leste. Nearer a ragged straight edge of reef angled at low tide. Several times a day long, lean ferry boats brought guests to Atauro Island from Dili, circling around the reef and dropping their passengers on the shallow sandy beach. In smaller boats fishermen, alone or in pairs, angled or netted their living.
While most guests were off diving or snorkeling, the too old, too young or otherwise deficient opened their books or played with their toys. To Calland, this indolence was part of his perpetual engagement in staying alive. His doctor had prescribed some activity but not too much. Walking or jogging, light exercises, a regulated diet and a battery of pills which, as far as Calland could tell, merely served to counteract one another.
The huts sat among patches of flowers laced with byzantine paths of sand leading to and around the huts. Among them were huts with compost toilets on one side and on the other bathrooms with large water tanks and a dipper. Tea kettles with holes in the bottom hung from the ceilings. Dip water into the kettles and you had showers. Near the main office was a covered social area of tables with chairs, fans overhead and half walls lined with drink coolers, thermoses of hot drinks and books representing two decades of vacationers’ diversions.
The old friend he was visiting in Singapore suggested that the hyperactive pace of modern life could be toxic to a troubled heart and recommended Atauro Island as a place so mellow and removed from the modern world that it might be palliative. Calland had thought it might take a while to adjust to showers from a holey tea kettle, compost toilets and group meals–not to mention the heat, humidity and when there was no breeze, flies. But all of that had come easily, as did reading and dozing on the deck of the hut, grateful for any breeze that passed.
Mornings he walked the beach before breakfast, hoping to delay the atrophy of his leg muscles. Toward 7 a.m. he would shuffle into the dining area, pour himself coffee and observe the other guests. The only other person there early was a woman he had noticed the night before, and it seemed awkward, maybe rude, not to join her at one of the long tables. He said good morning, offered his name and hand. Her name was Fiona Barber, and her accent was Australian.
Do you dive? He asked.
Not much anymore, she said. I seem to be susceptible to ear infections, the prevention and cure of which is more trouble than it’s worth. How about you?
Never took it up, he said. I’ve spent most of my life in colder climes and waters.
So what brings you to Atauro?
Heard it was peaceful–from a friend in Singapore.
She gazed out past the overhanging roof and a hut to the blue sea. Well, it is that, I suppose. Maybe all the peace a person could want.
What about you? He asked.
A friend is coming to join me on an afternoon boat.
How nice! Calland said. Fiona Barber glanced at him then back to the sea. Her light brown hair was starting to gray at the edges of its curls. Her skin retained some of its smooth texture, and blue eyes invited a second take. She seemed like a woman who would not be without companions if she wanted them.
Is your friend a diver?
No, he’s . . . my friend wants peace as well.
Then may we all find it, he said, raising his cup as if to toast. She smiled just a little and raised her own cup just a little.
What part of the States are you from?
A little farther south, he said.
So how do you know Illinois?
I lived in Iowa for a couple of years.
But why? Just kidding. Iowa is a fine state.
Yeah, well . . . She looked away again, out to sea as if to summon something.
The next morning, after breakfast, Calland walked through the market next door–wooden stalls packed with mostly useful items: soap, shampoo, batteries, canned goods, cigarettes–things he remembered from variety stores when he was a kid. Like the old Woolworth stores–things that were both useless and necessary. A young woman between the stalls and the beach sold fruit: fat, stubby bananas, coconuts, mangos, papayas and others Calland couldn’t identify.
Then he continued down the dirt road that paralleled the beach, past houses, some without doors, where kids of varying ages mingled with dogs so crossbred it was hard to imagine a DNA test tracing their muddled ancestry.
At a dive shop he watched divers don their apparatus: rubber suits, tanks, regulators, gauges, weight belts, and with fins in hand follow the dive master down to the boat where they sat along the sides, put on their fins and held their masks ready for the boat to stop and they would follow the dive master’s lead and fall back into the sea.
Calland wondered what it would feel like to be submerged but with the help of gadgetry able to pretend for a while to be a fish. It was one of the thousands of things he would never experience and would endeavor not to regret.
He wandered on up the beach. Ahead a small plane lifted off from an airstrip he couldn’t see that ran parallel to but inland from the beach. A group of shirtless boys kicked an old, tattered but still-inflated soccer ball.
When he had his fill of sun, humidity and flies, he turned around and headed back to the resort hoping a breeze would bless the afternoon.
Passing the resort office, its door open, he heard Mrs. Barber talking to the receptionist. So why can’t they just take one more passenger? She asked.
Because the boat is full. They can only take so many people. It’s the law. You’re scheduled to leave on Thursday.
But I have to get back to Dili, Fiona Barber said.
Is it an emergency?
Not exactly, but I do need to get there.
The only way would be if someone should cancel their trip. If they decide to stay on longer . . . But that isn’t likely. Then they would give up their reserved passage.
Can you let me know if there’s a cancellation?
Fiona Barber emerged from the office scowling.
I’m sorry but I couldn’t help hearing, Calland said. Is something the matter?
I need to get off of this island, she said.
But your friend . . .
Change of plans. My friend had a change of plans. Now I’m stuck here alone for two more days. She looked up into the trees as if for advice from the coconuts.
I’m sorry to hear that, Calland said. He was tempted to add, Is there anything I can do? But that was a phrase he had heard so often, usually insincere or useless, he had trained himself to avoid it. Instead he nodded toward the dining hut, They’re serving lunch.
I’m not hungry, she said and turned away.
When Calland had finished his lunch, he filled a second plate and carried it to Fiona Barber’s hut. Following the serpentine path among the flowers, he mused at how many people might find it a blessing to spend a few days on Atauro. He set the plate down on the small coffee table on the deck. The door was partly open, and he could hear movement inside.
Mrs. Barber, he called. I brought you some food in case you get hungry. I’ll leave it here on your table. I’ll stop by later and take the plate to the kitchen.
Thank you, she said. That’s very thoughtful of you. She didn’t appear at the door.
A breeze had arisen, and in the shade of his deck he read and dozed to the sound of kids playing in the shallows, sun glistening off the salt water on their brown skin. Farther out and up the beach the dive boat was anchored above the divers in their afternoon dive, their days portioned between the two worlds.
After a couple of hours he grew restless and walked back toward the social room, passing Fiona Barber’s hut. Much of the food was gone, so he picked up the plate, carried it to the kitchen and left it with one of the young workers. In the eating area, he drew a bottle of chilled water from the refrigerator and signed for it on the chit sheet. Among the trees and buildings the breeze was blocked and the heat seemed to squat on Calland. Small fans hanging from the ceiling turned lazily waiting for sundown.
Fiona Barber walked by to the water dispenser, reached a plastic cup from the cupboard, poured a drink and sat down across from Calland. Looking at him directly, she asked, Would you be willing to swap boat reservations with me? I think you leave tomorrow; I leave the following day.
Calland met her gaze and said, I fly out for Singapore the following day. I have a hotel reservation for tomorrow night in Dili.
Could you change them?
The hotel probably. The flight I don’t know. My friend is planning to pick me up at the airport. I’d have to change those plans, too.
I wouldn’t think of asking, she said, except that this is very important.
He looked into those pale blue eyes–eyes droves of men had probably got lost in over the years. How important could it be? He wondered. If it was an emergency, a plane could be called to evacuate her. That would be expensive. Where do important and expensive intersect? And where does her friend fit into the picture? And does her favor of him justify his asking those personal questions? But then how inconvenient would it be to change his hotel and flight reservations and call or email his friend in Singapore? How bad would it be to spend another day on Atauro? She probably doesn’t deserve it; she may have had a lifetime of favors.
Sure, I’ll trade with you, he said.
Oh, you’re a darling, she said. Immediately he regretted his decision. She bounced off toward the resort office to begin arrangements for the switch.
That evening at dinner Fiona Barber found an Australian family to eat with, talking with animation. As the diners thinned out, she rose, too, glancing toward Calland and waving discretely as she left.
The next morning after breakfast he wandered past the neighboring shops looking for souvenirs. The infinitely inbred, mostly hairless dogs seemed to hang out everywhere or wandered from one shop to another in amiable dereliction. He was most interested in the weaving called tais. Most often they were the work of women who had kids to feed. The ones he found weren’t the best quality but that hardly undermined all the labor that went into their making.
Toward noon the boat arrived with new guests. Fiona Barber was a passenger on the return trip. Calland watched from a distance as she boarded the little skiff that took her and her bag out to the main boat. Mid-afternoon a boat from another company brought passengers. Among them, a tall, handsome fellow went directly to the resort office, where he seemed agitated.
The receptionist noticed Calland walking by and said, There he goes now. There’s the man who changed boats with your wife.
Excuse me. I’m Dennis Barber. I was told that you traded passage to Dili with my wife.
Calland introduced himself and explained that Mrs. Barber was eager to leave.
Did she mention why?
Only that she was expecting a friend to join her but that the friend had a change of plans.
Did she say anything about the friend? Were they going to meet in Dili?
No, there were no details. But she seemed eager to leave, he said. Barber was clean shaven with sandy colored hair, and Calland guessed that he played a lot of tennis. He ran his fingers through his hair nervously and went back to the office where Calland could hear him ask about the next boat to Dili, which wasn’t until the next day.
Later, before dinner, Calland joined Barber at the dining hut, where he was drinking a can of Bintang beer.
I understand you spent some time in the States, Calland said.
Barber nodded. That’s where it started. I was a visiting professor of agriculture at a college in Iowa. We liked it well enough, in spite of the weather, so I extended for a second year. A guy named Toffness was in my department, and we became good friends. He’s the friend my wife was going to meet here. He’s in Timor L’Este trying to help with the crops. I didn’t know he was here. We live in Darwin. My wife said she was flying up to do some diving. Only a chance email from another friend in Iowa tipped me off about Toffness. I began to suspect.
He gazed off at the beach at low tide. It was only then that the past–the true past–began to come into shape. Trips over the past decade–almost two. Her trips alone or with a female friend to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines–places to dive, shop, get away. Toffness just happened to be in those places. I never put it together.
Barber took a swig of his beer. He must have heard that I was on to them and backed out on their little rendezvous here. And now they are both in Dili. He finished his beer and said, You want one? Calland declined and got a glass of water from the dispenser. Barber pulled the tab on his beer and asked, Where are you from?
Illinois. We were practically neighbors.
That’s all I needed–more friends. How could I have been so dense for so many years? How can a supposedly intelligent man be so duped? A classic cuckold.
You’re not the first. She must have been very careful. And after all, she chose you not him.
She chose us both. Our friends go on about how we’re the ideal, loving couple. What will they say now? How will I face them?
Have you decided what you’ll do?
I don’t even know what I’ll say. It’s another world.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. It sounds like you were a good husband.
Stupid would have to be good, Barber said.
Calland shook his head. I’m no expert, but I think love asks us to take risks, dare to make mistakes. Fiona probably knows how lucky she is to have you–and she’s probably terrified right now about this.
I hope so, Barber said.
The Timorese girls had brought the pans of food over from the kitchen, and guests were filing in, cleaned up from their diving, snorkeling, swimming and hiking. They helped themselves to wine, beer and soft drinks from the fridge. So far as Calland could tell, he and Barber were the only guests who were there in suspended animation, waiting.
Calland slept fitfully until the high tide withdrew and waves ceased their crashing in front of his hut. By the time he was out walking the beach, the sand sloped down to jagged rocks and coral that were disguised by placid sea at higher tide. It was his last morning, and he wanted to implant in his memory the graciousness of water, beach and coconut palms, mangroves and fig trees. He would not come here again.
When he got back to the dining hut, Barber was there drinking coffee. His eyes were bloodshot. Calland got himself some coffee and sat down across from him, deciding to let Barber speak first.
You might think that for all the stewing I did on the subject of marriage last night I’d be ready to write a book.
Does that mean you have it figured out?
Barber snorted, Not bloody likely.
Calland looked out to sea. Looks like we may have a smooth ride if this holds.
We are somewhat protected here, Barber said. It’s out in the Wetar Strait where it can get choppy. Always be on the lookout for what’s around the corner.
Barber smirked just a little as he said that. One of the girls gave the call for breakfast, and the guests lined up. The two men ate quietly, having just one topic for conversation and it being just one man’s business. When they finished, Calland offered his hand and said, You seem like a good man, Dennis. Fiona knows that better than anyone. Good luck.
Calland didn’t see Barber again until he was in the skiff with a couple of other passengers on their way out to the ferry. Barber was under a coconut palm waiting for his boat to load later. Calland could imagine the man’s anxiety and fatigue facing a three-hour boat ride and then the mystery of what he would find in Dili. He could hardly be in worse shape to face an encounter. He was tempted to feel sympathy for the man. But he couldn’t.
Maybe this conflict would be the beginning of the end of his marriage. Maybe his life would alter drastically. Maybe this was a sad time. But to Aubrey Calland it was a time to cherish. Barber and his wife had been married–mostly happily it would seem–for more than twenty years. Nothing could erase that, even if it was a false joy, even if Fiona had been unfaithful, Dennis’s joy had been true. And even now in this difficult time, he was alive, vital–too vital to sleep. Anxious, hurt, embarrassed–but alive.
When all passengers were aboard, the pilot steered them around Atauro Island and out into the Wetar Strait. Calland’s body cradled his fragile heart. He gazed out across the calm sea, near and far, hoping that something would appear. Maybe a whale would breach.
About the Author:
Loren Sundlee has published a dozen short stories. His novel Unsaid is currently being considered for publication, and he has begun work on a second novel. He lives with his family in Yakima County, Washington.