from Surviving Paradise
With all the blessings of Easter upon me, I wake up with a pop and look around my room, thinking, ‘this is good, what I’ve got here is really good’. I walk from room to room soaking up the privacy of my own house, full of things I love: sunset colours in one room, shells and blue things in another. I walk down into the back garden with scraps for Marble the pig. ‘You’re looking positively effervescent today,’ she says. ‘I know,’ I tell her. ‘I’ve got an inner glow on. Do you want to kiss me? It will probably bring good luck.’
Douglas continues to block any discussion about separation when I have tested the water on the phone. He has booked to come over later in April and it will have to all come down then. Meanwhile, I put on a dress, and pin gardenias in my hair for the Saturday market. It is already very sunny as I make my way down the main stretch of stalls, which feels more like a runway this particular morning of enervating light. I step into the shade of the flower stand of my friend Dora to talk about ukulele classes for teachers, a running conversation we conduct week to week. It is wrong to expect anything to happen too quickly here.
Dora’s stall is edged with old paint buckets of bird of paradise and huge feathery heads of wild ginger. There are two picnic benches, one she conducts business from, and the other for socialising. My friend Danny sits chatting to a very striking man I have never met. I feel sure he is new to the island, because if you saw this man once, you wouldn’t forget him. He is dark and athletic, and also having an inner-light-bulb day by the looks of things. It is hard to look anywhere else. He stands to shake my hand and kiss my cheek when Dora walks me over to introduce us.
‘Nancy this is Toko. Toko meet Nancy.’ She might as well have said, ‘Eve this is Adam. Adam, meet Eve.’ We both smile so broadly it’s almost hard to talk. He is the new Maths teacher at Titikaveka College, but he would like to see some drama introduced in his form room, and perhaps I could come and lend a hand.
I wish I knew more about the bio-chemical transformation that accompanies physical attraction but it feels to me like every cell in the body, and especially in the groin, is injected with warm toffee that pulls us down, down, down, towards all things horizontal. Paradoxically I also feel capable of flying.
Eventually I leave, soaring over the market homeward. For the rest of the day it is a huge effort to think of anything else.
Monday at work I receive a message from Toko proposing we meet midweek at his school. I am smiling and wiggling reading his note. I realise with a start how unprofessional this looks, and pull out some possible lesson plans, glancing around to check if anyone has seen. When I’m in this sort of state, it feels like every gesture goes shortwave; people in the back blocks of the Ukraine know I have a crush; somewhere around a table with steaming borscht and vodka, they are discussing the likelihood of copulation within the week.
By wildest chance, I am cycling by his school the next day and drop in to officially say yes. He carries an armful of books and I push my bike — a couple of shy sophomores — as we head for the coolness under the flame tree. He has on a pastel knit shirt with a collar, and admiring it I notice his nipples are showing right through. I have to stop myself putting my hand over my mouth and saying ‘Oh my.’ He can only stay a few minutes, as they are waiting for him in a staff meeting. Before he goes he says, ‘Why don’t you come join me for dinner afterwards and we can make a bigger plan.’ As in what?
Douglas’s phone call that evening is just the bucket of ice water this situation needs. He is very lonely in his new job. There is one good guy on staff, a grounds person he plays music with, but everyone else is problematic. I listen for the bigger picture, trying to gauge the possible outcome were I to come clean and say, ‘It’s over! I’ve wanted it to be over for ages. Ever since you didn’t fucking tell anybody we were engaged! Or actually, since that time two years ago when you licked off a thick coating of chicken grease from every damned finger on both hands, right down to the web for God’s sake, in front of my whole family, and then snapped at me for asking you to stop!’ But I don’t. I continue to listen, and ask about his family, because I am the biggest liar I know.
And also because I like Douglas. I had loved him actually. Most centrally his sense of humour, which had been a big plus in my life over the four years we had been together. But somewhere along the line we had gone from adult partners to a mishmash of mother-son — sister-brother, which was my doing, every bit as much as his. I had so much good training in co-dependency, it was a shame to waste it. I had been right there at my mother’s elbow learning the wily ways of the enabler. Tolerance, practised without discernment, becomes complicity.
I cancel the meeting with Toko, at the last minute, leaving a message at his office no one gives to him. It’s horrible to hear later he sat waiting for a long time but I can’t trust myself to meet with him and not somehow advance things. That night I vacillate between ‘poor ole Douglas, he’d be so betrayed’ and ‘I’m being melodramatic; I don’t even know for a fact that Toko has amorous intentions and somebody else could have cooked for a change.’ But actually, I’m pretty convinced he does. I have canned mackerel for dinner.
The next day I confer with Sarah. She reminds me it’s a job. I can’t cancel school appointments because I have a crush on someone. It’s time to be a whole lot more professional, about everything. I reschedule with Toko and meet him in his classroom after school. There is no mention of dinner. While he reads out a few ideas, I glimpse his shirt and sure enough, two pencil points. He gives me two huge cucumbers and a watermelon. ‘Extra from my neighbour’s garden,’ he says. I avoid the market that weekend. I know I am weak.
It’s a very small island. My friends Jenny and Pitman come over to borrow a mattress. ‘We met this really lovely guy Nancy,’ says Jenny.
‘He’s coming to the gym,’ adds Pitman, who runs a fitness centre.
‘He said he’d met this really lovely Canadian woman,’ continues Jenny, ‘and we wondered if it was you.’ They give each other the eye.
‘Do you think we should invite you both over?’ asks Jenny.
I decide I should just give him a call myself and straighten everything out. A wave of circumstance overtakes. The next day in yoga class, I try to pull my head down to my knees, like I used to do but can’t do anymore. There is a finger-in-the-cheek pop and a lightning bolt of pain runs through my lower back. I’m not able to get up off the floor until a doctor has come and injected my lower left flank with muscle relaxant. I’m transported home in the back of a bread truck by the yoga teacher’s husband. I don’t give a lot of thought to Douglas or Toko or anything much except getting to the toilet without further injury.
Later that week Toko calls.
‘Oh hi Toko. Thanks for the watermelon and cukes. Listen it would be good to have a chat… No I couldn’t come at the moment, I’ve hurt my back…well sure if you want to, but I haven’t got any food…well if you don’t mind that would be great.’
I call my friend Sarah to tell her of the latest development. ‘I’d better come over and supervise,’ she says.
Toko arrives with bags of food and gets busy. He pulls my mattress closer to the kitchen — with me on it, no problem — and I get a really good look at his feet and calves which are slender in contrast to his muscular torso. Yes, he is settling into his new school, and very happy about finally having a chance to stay in the family home, it’s been such a long time coming.
‘What about you?’ he asks. ‘What’s your story?’ and bingo, Sarah arrives. I introduce everyone from ankle height. They quickly deduce they went to the same university. ‘Oh my Gosh! I flatted on that street too,’ says Sarah, pitching in to help set the table. ‘And what about the phys-ed tutor that used to…’ and on it goes, both of them stepping over me like a wrinkle in the rug. Toko and Sarah eat on either side of a candle; I’m on my stomach, the plate on the floor, just short a water bowl and fleas.
Sarah has saved the day, sort of, and there was no inappropriate behaviour whatsoever.
‘He’s a bit of all right,’ she says while Toko is in the loo. ‘Shame you’re already taken.’ She is teasing, I presume, till she cocks her head in that special Sarah way. ‘But I’m not. I might give you a run for your money.’ I hadn’t counted on this. It sharpens my appetite. Now there are two obstacles; my almost ex-boyfriend and my best friend. If this was Florida, I could go right to Oprah and win shameless notoriety. But I’m in the Cooks. It will be best to say nothing to anyone.
Sarah waves ‘Cheerio’, giving me the ‘be good’ eye, and Toko stays back to do everything he can think of to make me comfortable. I wait till I can hear his bike down the drive to crawl into the toilet on my hands and knees. He is so lovely, and especially in a state of pain, it would have been so nice to be held.
My kids are coming for a holiday from Melbourne and Toko volunteers to organise flowers and pick them up from the airport. It’s my son Keegan and his partner Selena and one-year-old Lily.
‘What’s going on?’ they ask once he is out the door. They are laughing at my denial. They don’t see any great gravity to the situation.
‘I thought you were breaking up with Douglas anyways?’ I didn’t think I’d gone viral on that yet. Maybe they bumped into the Ukrainians.
Toko arrives on the Sunday morning to take us all to a traditional church service in his neighbourhood. I am beside him in the pew, and it’s as if my adenoids, taste buds and nerve endings have all migrated to the patch of arm nearest him. We stand to sing and the shawl covering my shoulders slips down. Before I have a chance, he catches and replaces it. It seems sacrilege to be staring at the minister in the midst of that kind of body shiver.
I wonder what Douglas is up to?
I lie awake analysing the line between faithfulness and infidelity. There are some givens, you would think, like no sex with anyone other than your spouse unless otherwise negotiated. What if I called Douglas and said, I know you don’t want to break up, but would you mind if…? I remember as a young person learning about a tribe of people living in Northern India who awarded conjugal rights to a woman’s husband’s brothers. It was a revelation to learn that people make different rules to suit them, and I haven’t forgotten it.
During the Ministry of Education induction sessions designed to teach us about life in the Cooks, it was explained that moral standards were more conservative. The illustrative story: a single female teacher had been ostracised for entertaining a gentleman caller on her porch, unchaperoned. There were no helpful stories about adultery.
The much bigger issue should surely be around feeling out of integrity with myself? No. I was embarrassingly concerned about what other people thought.
I had been a teenager in the seventies, supposedly the era of sexual liberation. This hypermoral vigilance in the Cooks seemed like a backslide. I had previously ignored social pressure and formed relationships with same-sex partners and had a generally unorthodox approach to relationship. A pivotal experience re-emerged, trying to scare me into being a good girl I imagine.
As a young teen, my friend Lindsey used to invite me over to play at her house which had lots of property and a pool. She had an older brother named Damien, best known to my family for the time he had lit my little brother’s shoe on fire with a magnifying glass. Damien had a gang of friends, and the spring I was fourteen, they were busy building a tree hut.
They had always ignored Lindsey and I except to try and shock us with rude gestures, most memorably a line up of ‘brown-eyes’ hanging over the upstairs railing as we came up the stairs. I could barely breathe with the shock of it for about fifteen minutes. I had no idea people did those sort of things.
Once their hut was built, they wanted guests, and we would do. It involved a bit of chase and tackle, which was typical pre-mating behaviour, both in the neighbourhood and at school. If a boy pushed you, or hit you with a snowball, it was to be assumed they liked you. I got caught, and they were carrying me up the hill to the hut while Lindsey ran beside. ‘Go get help,’ I yelled, but I was also laughing. I had on a slippery jacket and they kept dropping me. I was sweet on Jim Bormann, and just he remained in the hut once I had been dumped. There was some smart-lipped discussion about the fact we both had braces. ‘Call if you get stuck, and we’ll bring pliers.’
I made a few more trips back to the hut, on a more voluntary basis. I knew it was not a great idea. Rumour was the whole gang of them had ended up in hospital with alcohol poisoning, and their families were all researching laser tattoo removal.
Until one day, Mrs. Gillian got involved.
Across the road from us lived a slightly younger friend whose family was Baptist. Debbie and I played in her basement, mostly dolls and imaginary dramas set in the Wild West, and that was only just on the wane as I was slow transiting out of girlhood. Debbie’s mother, Mrs. Gillian went roller skating every Saturday night with her hubbie Ian, and always had something home baked sitting on a plate in the kitchen. This particular afternoon Debbie stayed downstairs when Mrs Gillan called.
‘Nancy will you come up here please?’
I thought maybe we were going to plan something for Debbie’s birthday.
‘Now come and sit here beside me on the couch.’ Her tone was not that of a birthday meeting. Something was wrong, I could tell from her face. ‘You need to know Nancy, that things are being said about you around the neighbourhood.’ My heart sped. ‘People are talking about things you are doing with those boys.’ The shame came like a tidal wave.
‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘I definitely do not want to have a reputation.’ I was cured of those boys in one couch-sitting. Which was good; they weren’t the best company and I knew it. The multiple brown-eyes were my first clue and one other stands out. One boy had a car which terrified my mother. We were out cruising, Lindsey and I in the back with a boy either side, and three others across the front. You could do that with those old cars.
We were on the long incline of Hillcrest Road, and ahead a plump young woman was crossing. The driver leaned over his shoulder to say, ‘Hey guys! What do you say we knock off a fat one?’ They cheered, and we sped towards her. Mrs. Gillian was right; my mother was right; they weren’t worth it. And I remained quietly nervous about my reputation, forever. Was that pride, or good sense? Whatever it was, it was now spilling out of my back pocket.
I decide that not touching Toko would be a really obvious and helpful boundary. I am less likely to topple down the slippery slope if I’m not adding to the frisson with parting hugs, for instance. Imagine if I were to actually register his pencil points against me. I share my plan with Sarah, who thinks I’m being a little dramatic perhaps. I remind her how obvious it is when two people start with the little extra touches, that we must guard against rumours. If anything is to happen, it must wait until after the April holidays.
Douglas at latest report was getting along a little better at his new school. Sarah says we have to be sure to weave him into the conversation so Toko gets the picture. Toko hosts a dinner at his house and we are diligent: Douglas this, Douglas that, but no one actually says, ‘By the way, Toko, Douglas is still in the picture’. It’s obvious, we think. But of course it’s not. Like anyone, Toko only see’s what he already believes. I’m living alone; I flirted with him madly that first day at the market; and I’ve never actually managed to clarify the truth.
Finally, on a beach with just the two of us, the mosquitoes demolishing our ankles, I blurt it out. ‘I’m a slut! I mean, I still have a boyfriend!’ It actually took three paragraphs and sixteen mosquito bites to get to the telling sentence. Previously my vaka girl friends had been coaching me. ‘Just tell Toko you have a break-up pending.’ That felt like a really horrible sort of betrayal of Douglas.
Nonetheless, I hint to Toko about the relationship winding down. Just tiny little hints that confuse him. Mixed messages are passive aggressive Sarah informs me too late. There are many places in my life I have been guilty of a lack of clear communication. It’s a form of dishonesty. If I’d been honest with Douglas a long time ago, would we be here?
Toko is definitely surprised, bordering on pissed off and says he doesn’t think he’ll come to my birthday party after all. It’s a very muddy time and he withdraws, which is sad. The things he had shared about himself that very same night, the things he had done in life and thought better of, his courage in starting anew, all stacked up to a reflective, compassionate guy.
‘You might be lucky, or you might not,’ says Sarah. ‘There are a lot of single women sniffing around the island, and he’s quite the looker. That Norwegian woman that always wears hot-pants has definitely got plans for him. And of course I’m still single.’ She wouldn’t. But then, maybe she actually would.
Too bad. I’ll have to take my chances. Playing around with public opinion in a small community has consequences. And even though my local friends have told me local people play around big time, I’m not local. I’m under the microscope. I decide against saying anything to Douglas about reinventing polygamy in the South Pacific, and return to giving my full attention to what he did on the weekend. Toko and I will have to be later, or never.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Fulford completed the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in 2012. She is working on a memoir entitled Surviving Paradise.