Surya wondered onto the beach and just sat until it was dark. It was the part of the beach where many desperate young Indonesians tried to survive by selling or steal whatever they could. Tourists, some of them unsuspecting and others very much in on the commerce of this place, would leave their hotels and restaurants to walk along the sand. Some wanted the joy of the night ocean lapping onto their feet. Others wanted to feel the smooth brown flesh they could never have in their ‘respectable lives’ back home.
Among the young Balinese on the beach, some were homeless as Surya used to be. Others were just out for a good time. Many of them were looking for a rich tourist to take them out to dinner and the disco. Some wanted a more permanent relationship–one in which for the price of an occasional blow job they could live in the kind of comfort they had only seen in discarded magazines. The talks that often ensued; solemn, decorous and purely theoretical discussions of love and romance, were only a means to an end. When left with nothing else to sell, their need overtook such details.
Surya had told himself endlessly that as long as he could paint, carve or dance, he always had something to sell that would leave him with his self-respect. But the flood had destroyed endless hours of work, and with it, his will to try again. How could he pick up and start over again, that required hope. There was nothing left of him. He was empty of inspiration for art or life. The thought of painting those joyful, traditional scenes for rich tourists made him cold with contempt for every living thing. The thought of lifting his arm high enough to put brush to canvas was an effort beyond all comprehension.
“What was God’s reason for this devastation of my life? Was Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa trying to say that I was meant to live the despair of the homeless? Or did He even care about my pitiful needs?” Surya made an effort to restrain his anger, but he couldn’t . His eyes grew bigger, and the tiny red veins in his eyeballs inflamed as he held his breath. He felt full of bitterness as though his wounds had been splashed with vinegar. This beach could sometimes be dangerous at night, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore. What was his life worth that he should be concerned with such matters.
“My name is Salvatore Elderman”, a voice announced with the self-conscious bravura of a famous bullfighter. The man’s voice was an intrusion, but getting up would require an effort Surya didn’t have. He sounded Australian, but looked as if he wanted to be anything else. Making himself comfortable in the sand next to Surya, he extended his hand and repeated his uninvited introduction. The juxtaposed ethnicity in his name was only the first evidence that this man was not quite comfortable in his own skin.
Surya wondered if the wilting daffodil in the buttonhole of his lapel had been overcome by the competing scents of sweet cologne and body odour. Under that flower, one could detect faint shadows left behind by decades and dozens of deceased daffodils. As the man crossed his legs, Surya was dazzled by the shine on his old shoes. This was in sharp contrast to the condition of his trousers. Like the rings of a deciduous tree, one could count the recent rains on the cuffs of his pants by the layers of faded mud stains.
His eyes squinted in an apparent effort to focus on Surya. He leaned in closely and proclaimed in a voice loud enough to be heard for several meters on all sides, “This is the twentieth year that Archie and I would have visited Indonesia. Of course, back then there weren’t many modern conveniences.” He placed a wrinkled hand on Surya’s knee and continued, “Archie loved you young island man.” His fingernails were so polished and shaped that they looked like glass guitar picks digging into Surya’s leg.
As he leaned in closely, Surya noticed the meticulously shaped mustache, which extended beyond the corners of his lips in gentle upward curves. It seemed to be a kind of smile made of hair. It was kept with such flawless mathematical precision as to render all the more jarring the unruly clumps of hair which protruded from his ears. Surya considered at what age Salvatore Elderman had become so focused on his upper lip that he stopped seeing the rest of face.
He looked careworn, yet his coiffure didn’t seem to acknowledge that fact. For every strand of hair, which swept up, there was an equal and opposite wrinkle that slid down. This made his face into a kind of crisscross pattern of conflicting realities. The colours and shapes in his hair reminded him of a black burette sitting on a thin line of gray. Surya could almost count the number of teeth missing from his comb by the distances between the ridges that ungulated in that well practiced display.
Surya felt curiously threatened by this old man’s mixture of self-awareness and obliviousness. He wondered what parts of himself he no longer saw, or would not see in another twenty years. Perhaps, when his suit was new, his skin taut and his vision clear, Archie had told Salvatore Elderman that his was a particularly stunning countenance. Perhaps, armed with that image of his own personal power, Salvatore Elderman traded a lifetime of objectivity for a memory of one moment of magic.