At one end of a long wooden pole he pulled down and then pushed down, the pole a lever that he swiveled on its fulcrum to bring a bucket of water to the ground near the well. Maroon gym shorts hung from his hips, rubber flip-flops on his feet. His limbs were long and his muscles were the same way, long. Raised veins trellised his forearms.
The well was where two roads met, the one road paved but severely damaged, the worse for wear and lack of maintenance, the other road dirt. There was no traffic and there was no one around except for him at that Y-junction between the two roads. Around the lip of the well, mortared stones rose no higher than a foot off the ground. Overhead in a mauve sky, orange clouds ran like skid marks.
He went down on his haunches and began scooping water from the bucket with a tin can. When his body was wet he lathered with a bar of soap. His hair was light brown and sun-streaked, and it was thrown back. He looked like a mendicant.
He raced to soap his skin and he raced to rinse off, and when he toweled off he moved with the same haste, for he had begun to shiver. He knew this would happen so he was in a hurry from beginning to end. He needed to bathe. Bathing was important because cleanliness and health were linked, or so he believed, and to sink further into what was upon him was unthinkable.
He had to finish, had to towel off, had to step away from the slick red mud that he had created in his washing, step out of that goo and onto dry dirt to wrapped a lungi around his waist and to pull his wet shorts down and off his legs. He had chosen this time of day in an attempt to slip between the day’s heat and its dusky darkness, and now, as he sat on a flat washing stone cleaning the mud from his rubber flip-flops with his towel, feet held up, he began to shiver in earnest. In the not-far distance bird chatter emanated loudly from broad-leafed trees.
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, pitter-patter on palm fronds—it was almost soothing as he woke to listen to it.
Earlier, he had thrown his sleeping bag open because he was burning up. Before that, before sleep, he had been shivering from having come in from the well, sleeping bag offering warmth, which finally stopped the chills. But then the room began to spin, palm frond walls and ceiling, daylight fading, surroundings barely illuminated, no electricity. He had candles and a flashlight, but why bother? He was on his way out. It was a repeat of the previous four nights—stomach cramped, intestines knotted, vision berserk, bones aching, head pounding, body wrapped in uncontrollable chills that rattled his jaws. There was nothing to do but to get inside his sleeping bag and wait for warmth. When the chills stopped, sleep took him away.
He woke sometime after that and the room was pitch-black and he was burning up. He threw the sleeping bag open and took his lungi off and put on a pair of jockey shorts that rode below his money belt, money belt sagging from around his waist like a spent garter. The reason for the jockey shorts was to protect his genitals from mosquitoes.
He reached down for his water bottle that was on the floor next to his cot and he brought the bottle up and drank, but in short order that water started swishing around in his stomach and he hoped he wouldn’t vomit. He put the bottle back down on the floor and went prone on top of his sleeping bag and looked up at the darkness. He slipped off again, but how cruel that he had no awareness of sleep’s relief except for brief moments of entering and leaving.
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, the sound of rain on the palm-frond roof of his room, which was a respite from hot humidity. He took comfort in the rain’s softness. He heard no mosquitoes at his ears and noted that mosquitoes hadn’t been a problem in this room, which was raised six feet off the ground on wooden poles, an elevated structure of four palm-frond rooms with frond doors that opened and closed on hinges of course twine, framing and flooring rough-cut wood, 2 X 4 approximations that were irregular along their lengths. There was a ladder from the ground to a three-foot-wide walkway, walkway situated in front of the frond doors. His door, though, was the only one in operation because the other three rooms were vacant.
He was alone but for a husband-and-wife team who ran the place. The husband and wife had a small child, the three of them residing in a mud-brick house that had a connecting patio with a frond awning, four wooden benches and two wooden tables under the awning. The patio was termed a restaurant thanks to a hand-painted sign that hung from the eaves of the awning—restaurant—all in lower case letters. The mud-brick house and its open-air restaurant were about fifteen yards away from the elevated, palm-frond rooms, which the couple rented out for a reasonable price.
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter. Water was dripping on his legs. At first it struck him as inconsequential, but then he realized that it wasn’t.
He swung his legs off his cot and reached down for his flashlight that was on the floor and turned the flashlight on and ran its beam up at the ceiling, which was the same as the roof, ceiling and roof of the same fronds. He had to get out from under the leak and this, too, came to him in expanding importance. He directed his light around the room, which was a surprisingly large room, and found that water was streaming down from any number of places. Pitter-patter had turned into a deluge.
He pulled his cot to the side, but it wasn’t a smooth operation because the floor’s hand-cut boards were uneven. He had dropped his flashlight on his sleeping bag and in the light’s beam he saw water jumping from irregular floorboards all across the room, but at the same time that gapped flooring allowed for swift drainage. There were no puddles.
Picking up the flashlight, he searched the room for an area where no water was coming down. Thunder and lightening began at the same time. The room shook and everything went silver like a reverse photograph, a flashing negative. The sound was defining and his eyesight was spotted for minutes on end after the photograph was finished.
Locating an area spared from streams of water, he dropped the flashlight on his sleeping bag and grabbed the cot’s wooden framing with two hands dragged the cot across the room, wooden legs bouncing off the floor. Bang, bang, bang. When he got to where it was dry, he let go of the cot and picked up the flashlight and pointed its beam upward. The frond ceiling/roof over this area was holding.
He then thought about his possessions, which were in a cloth bag and a couple of canvas saddlebags. The beam of his light found those bags near a stream of water. He walked barefoot across the room and picked up his bag and saddlebags and went back to his cot and stowed those things under the cot. Using a hand towel, which he used for a pillow, he dried himself the best he could.
He then stood and wondered what to do, but he didn’t think about this for too long because he heard the rain slowing, and then he heard it stop, and not long afterwards the streams of water stopped, with only isolated dripping remaining. The night was suddenly quiet except for thunder in the distance. He remembered that it was windy when it was raining, but now the wind was gone along with the rain.
Chills began and he felt them move into his body from his skin. He took his wet jockey shorts off and got into his sleeping bag, which had wet patches that he now tried to avoid by bending his body. He was shivering and his teeth were chattering.
He began to feel warmth and with this he felt a sense of luck, for if the warmth weren’t to arrive he’d be in big trouble. His flashlight was still on and it was lying on the floor next to his cot. He wanted to keep it on because it offered a degree of comfort and discouraged dizziness, but he couldn’t because the batteries would run out and the flashlight, beyond all else, had to remain operable.
He reached down and turned the flashlight off, and with this he felt his arm get cold and he felt that coldness go up into his shoulder and this surprised him. He yanked his arm back inside his sleeping bag and put his arm against his chest.
The room was dark and he tried to find something to look at, but his eyes found nothing to grab onto and things began to spin even though he couldn’t see anything. It was like he was falling and spinning.
He was on his side and he was curled up like a baby. His head was pounding and his eyes felt like they were going to pop out of their sockets and his stomach was twisted and his bones hurt. He wasn’t cold, and that was the only good thing about what he was, for everything else was haywire.
He passed out.
The sky is blue and there’s not a cloud in sight and he’s in the open-air patio that’s termed a restaurant and he’s trying chai and bhaji and a roll. The roll is a piece of bread the size of a baseball and the bhaji is bean bhaji that’s spicy and hot, but not too hot. He tried these the previous mornings, tea, bhaji, and bread, and now he’s trying them again. From where he sits he can see waves lapping at white sand and he remembers that he heard waves sometime around first light when grayness entered his room like a mist.
The man who runs the place stands in the doorway of the kitchen watching him, while smoking a bidi. The man’s son is nearby. The boy is wearing a white T-shirt, but nothing else, pee-pee and buttocks exposed along with a couple of plump legs. The child is barefoot and walks as if stumbling. A piece of torn bread is in the child’s one hand. A yellow dog, which is the family pet, sits its haunches and watches the child. The child uses his free hand to grab onto benches for support. The child is of an age where he’s learning to walk.
Thus far the chai is okay. He’s taken a couple of sips and it’s in his stomach and it’s not tumbling. He tries the bhaji and then the roll. He picks up his glass of chai and sips, and is about to spoon more bhaji into his mouth, but then he feels it.
He gets up from the table. He needs to get out of the patio, and he needs to make it to the bushes that are in back of the raised structure that houses his room. It’s where he defecates and urinates, but now he’s got to get there so he can vomit. The man is watching and he feels the man’s eyes following him as he makes it across the clearing to the bushes, but once he’s in the bushes he finds that he can’t vomit. His guts are tossing, but he can’t throw up.
Bent over, he emerges from the foliage and goes to the ladder that leads to the walkway and goes up the ladder and opens the frond door of his room. In his room he sits down on his cot and sees the room start to spin. His head is pounding, his bones ache, his stomach is a mess. He lies down, and he tries fighting the pain, but the pain is out of control. He loses track of time but there occurs a moment when he understands that sleep is right there within his perception.
She is sitting on the edge of his cot next to his right leg and she is looking at his face and she is smiling and he has no idea what she is doing in his room.
It must be afternoon because there is strong sunlight coming from under the eaves. It takes a few moments, cognition assembling pieces. He was walking back from the well, shaking with chills, and she was at the side of the dirt road. She said something to him, which he didn’t understand, and he said, “Sorry?” And she said, “Oh. You speak English. You are not German.” And he said, “No. I am not German.” She said something more, and he said something in response. He was in a hurry, light fading, bats slicing the air.
A flower, perhaps an orchid, is wedged behind her ear where her hair leaves off, short-cropped hair that is blonde and thick. He feels a flash of panic and looks down to see if he is wearing any clothes. Yes, he’s in his lungi, no shirt, though. Only his madras lungi, but that’s enough, because that’s what he was concerned about. He smiles tentatively. He feels calm. The room isn’t spinning. He has no fever. His stomach is okay.
“You must eat ginger,” she says.
Her face is sun-red and so are her bare arms. She’s wrapped in light green cloth that is almost translucent. The cheeks on her face are puffed and her eyes are blue.
“Yes, of course. It will make you well.” She speaks with an accent. He recalls that she laughed the day before when he asked if she was German. “Of course,” she had said. “Is it not obvious?”
“Ginger?” he questions again.
“Yes, of course.”
He smiles at this.
“I will bring you ginger,” she says, and then repeats, “It will make you well.” Her eyes go down over his body. Her recognizance is frank. If she told him her name the day before, he has forgotten it.
He raises his right hand and places it on his chest. He is calm, but exhausted.
“How do you know I’m sick?”
“The thin man at the restaurant told me.”
“This restaurant right here?” He gestures.
“He told you I was sick?”
“Yes. He said, ‘Sick man.’”
He chuckles while thinking about the man’s English, which is limited.
“How did you find me?” he asks, and on top of this, “Why did you come here?”
“You pointed, yesterday.”
He looks at her. She continues to smile. Her teeth are slightly gapped.
“I will go to the market and search for ginger.”
He waits, but she only sits, smiling.
“Okay,” he says, but his response is only to satisfy the need for a response because for him ginger registers as nothing, or even absurd. Actually, the entire scene since he’s opened his eyes strikes him as surreal.
She sighs and says, “There are many Germans here.”
He waits, but she says nothing more. He’s vaguely aware of other lodgings along the beach, but he doesn’t know anything about them or who might be staying in them.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’ve forgotten your name.”
“I am Elsa.”
This doesn’t sound familiar. Maybe she didn’t tell him her name the day before, but then again maybe she did. He’s still not sure.
“Yes,” she says, “Dwayne,” while pronouncing it carefully, but whether she heard it the day before, he can’t tell.
Dwayne smiles. Elsa smiles. Elsa’s shoulders are bare, green cloth tucked under her armpits. She’s not fat. She’s medium. Through her arms and shoulders there is strength. The green cloth outlines the contours of her breasts, no bra.
“I came here to get away from Germans,” she says, “but there are Germans here, too.”
Dwayne listens to this and then says, “Where did you come from?”
“Goa. The beaches north of Panjim.”
“I was at one of those beaches,” Dwayne says. “Chapora.”
“Chapora,” Elsa says. “It is nice. But of course there are Germans there, too.”
“Yes, among others.”
“Did you arrive here by bus?” Elsa asks.
“No. I arrived by bicycle.”
“Did you buy the bicycle in Panjim?”
“No, I bought the bicycle in Amritsar.”
“Amritsar?” she says. “In the Punjab?”
“You have come by bicycle from Amritsar?”
She falls silent. Her smile is gone. She stands up and looks down at him.
“Where is your bicycle?”
“It is chained to a pole under this building.”
She reaches down and picks up a colorful cloth shoulder bag from the floor. The bag’s little mirrors and design designate Rajasthan. She loops the wide strap of the bag over her shoulder.
“I will look for ginger in the village,” she says and smiles briefly before turning to go to the frond door, where she puts her hand through a hole and raises the door and shoves it outward, which initiates a blast of sunlight.
Dwayne squints his eyes and sees her silhouette going out into the sunshine like a ghost. The door closes with a brushing sound, sunlight extinguished. He hears footsteps and then hears a different sound and understands that Elsa is going down the ladder. The ladder-sounds end and Dwayne listens and thinks that maybe she is standing at the foot of the ladder looking at his heavy black bicycle. Perhaps the yellow dog is on its way over from the patio to sniff at Elsa’s leg. Dwayne continues to listen, but he hears nothing more.
He has bought two coconut shells of yogurt, half shells that form cups, bought them at a kiosk-like place on a dirt road five minutes away from his room. He has walked back to his room and has gotten a spoon and has removed the square piece of paper from on top of one of the shells, the paper to protect the yogurt from flies. He sits on the walkway outside his room and he spoons runny yogurt into his mouth. The yellow dog has come over to sit its haunches below where Dwayne is perched. It is hot and there are wispy clouds in the sky.
Three-quarters of the way through the first shell of yogurt his stomach begins to knot and with this panic sets in because it’s a familiar pattern.
The coconut shell falls to the ground below the walkway. The spoon as well goes down there. The other cup of yogurt, the full one, is kicked when Dwayne struggles to his feet. There’s a thud that the full shell makes when it hits the ground.
Dwayne’s bent over, hands coming to his stomach. As he turns toward his room he sees the dog down below with its orange-red tongue moving in and out of a coconut shell, slips of white goo lacing the dog’s muzzle, silver spoon in the red dirt nearby.
He goes into his room and pushes the door shut and goes onto his cot. The room begins to spin and he tries to stop it by focusing on a wooden table that’s away from his cot, but the table starts spinning along with the room. He closes his eyes but this makes things worse. He opens his eyes and at first there’s no spinning, but within moments the palm-frond walls and ceiling begin to turn. He’s on his back and then he’s on his side, but it makes no difference. He can’t stop the room from spinning. His stomach feels like it’s digesting shrapnel.
He moves his legs from side to side. He grabs a hold of the cot’s frame, but nothing helps. He wants sleep to arrive, but at the same time he fears its arrival because things are so out of control that he thinks he might not wake up. The thought of dying crosses his mind.
The image of the dog slurping yogurt with an orange-red tongue flashes in his brain and quickly turns into a repetitive movie-like reel that oscillates between slow motion and frenzy, a phantasmagoria that he carries into sleep.
Elsa is holding a gnarled root in her hand. Dwayne blinks his eyes and senses that it’s late afternoon. He doesn’t know if she woke him or if he woke on his own. He didn’t hear anything. He just opened his eyes and there she was, looking down at him with a root in her hand. She is wearing the same green cloth, which extends from her chest to her knees. There are folds and tucks, and the cloth is arranged so that from the waist down it is loose. He imagines her walking with long strides.
“You should eat this,” she says and smiles.
“Is that ginger?”
The root has a gray skin that appears flaky.
“How do you eat it?” he asks.
“Cut it into pieces with a knife and eat the pieces.” She continues to smile. “Do you have a knife?” she asks.
“Well,” he begins. “I do, but . . . maybe if you could put the ginger on the table over there. I’ll get to it later.”
His fever is gone. His vision is normal. He looks down at himself and sees that his flip-flops are on his feet. He’s wearing his lungi. He puts his feet over the side of the cot and gets rid of the flip-flops. He feels skinny, he feels empty. He’s certain he’s lost weight.
Elsa sets the ginger down on the table and then takes a flower from behind her ear, a larger flower than what was behind her ear the day before. She puts the flower on the table next to the ginger. A toothbrush and a tube of Colgate toothpaste and a candle and a box of matches are also on the table. But now, with the flower, the table has been transformed, for it now looks like a still life waiting to be painted. Elsa walks over and sits down on the cot next Dwayne’s hip.
“You must eat ginger. It will make you well.”
Dwayne says, “Yes,” to satisfy the requirement of response. Elsa looks at his body, head to foot. Dwayne feels drained, but comfortable.
Elsa begins talking about Christmas in Nuremberg, which is where she is from. She tells Dwayne about the night market in Nuremberg’s central square, which takes place on Christmas Eve. She talks about how it is cold, and how there’s a ceremony in the square along with the market, everyone turning out for the ceremony—families, young people, old people. Dwayne listens. Elsa’s English is very good, and there are ways she puts things, and there is her accent, both of which intrigue Dwayne. Her voice is soothing. Dwayne’s glad she is talking. She tells him that ten days ago she was in Goa for Christmas.
Elsa continues to talk. She tells Dwayne about her room down the beach, and about Goa, and about her parents’ house, and about the trains and buses in India. She glides from one subject to the next, Christmas, Easter, summertime in Nuremberg. Dwayne inserts a “yes” here and there. He wants her to continue. English doesn’t seem to burden her. She reaches for Dwayne’s water bottle that’s on the floor.
“Wait a minute,” Dwayne says. “It’s best not to drink from that. I don’t know what I’ve got, but whatever it is, you don’t want it.”
Elsa looks at him, water bottle in hand.
“Even sitting here,” Dwayne says, “might not be all that safe.”
Elsa sets the plastic bottle back down on the floor. Birds are calling. Dusk must be in progress. Dwayne thinks about lighting the candle on the table, but now Elsa stands up.
“I will return tomorrow,” she says. “Is there something I can bring you?”
Dwayne still doesn’t understand the context of her kindness. She is standing and waiting. The strap of her colorful bag is over her shoulder.
“Pepsi-Cola,” Dwayne says. “If you can find a couple of bottles of Pepsi, that’d be great.”
“I will try.”
It’s when he’s urinating in the bushes in back of his room the next morning that he understands what he has. His urine is purple. A half hour later he squats and defecates, which confirms what he suspects. His stool, what little there is, is chalk-white.
When Elsa shows up in the early afternoon Dwayne is sitting on the walkway in front of his room. Elsa walks to beneath him and looks up. “Hello,” she says. Near her sandaled feet there are the two empty coconut shells. The spoon, though, is gone.
“I have hepatitis.”
She continues to smile as she says, “Did you eat ginger?”
Elsa is wearing a cotton skirt and a short-sleeved cotton blouse, both with floral designs, but the designs don’t match. Dwayne wonders if she understands what hepatitis is. She walks to the ladder and starts up. When she reaches Dwayne on the walkway she stops.
Dwayne has been to the patio-restaurant and has brought his own glass and has asked for chai. He has drunk two glasses of chai, and so far it’s okay. He feels weak, but the tea didn’t cause him any stomach problems, nor any fever or headache or spinning vision. He feels content sitting on the walkway looking out at the scene before him—red dirt, mud-brick house, palm trees, white sand, blue sea, yellow dog sleeping on the ground near the patio.
Elsa sets her bag down and reaches into the bag and brings out two bottles of Pepsi-Cola. Dwayne looks at the bottles and says, “Terrific.”
“Do you have an opener?” Elsa asks.
“Yes. I’ll get it.”
“No. Tell me where it is. I will get it,” Elsa says.
“It’s in my bag under the cot. Green and red and blue bag.”
Elsa goes into the room and after a moment returns with the opener and sits down on the walkway. Dwayne takes the opener from her and uncaps the bottles and hands one bottle to Elsa. They raise their bottles and drink. The cola is not cold. It fizzes strongly, and after the fizz settles Dwayne swallows. It tastes good and Dwayne imagines that he needs glucose.
“What do I owe you for the Pepsis?” Dwayne says.
“How much did you pay for the bottles of Pepsi?”
“It is not a problem,” Elsa says.
Dwayne sits for a moment, and then raises his bottle and drinks.
“Do you know what hepatitis is?” Dwayne asks.
“Of course. This is India, is it not? Everyone knows hep.”
Dwayne has noticed that Elsa favors “of course.” She uses it often.
“It’s a contagious disease,” Dwayne says. “You can catch it from me.”
Dwayne waits for a response, but Elsa only looks out. The dog has stood up and is arching it’s yellow-furred back. It circles twice before settling back on the ground. The dog looks like a thin Labrador.
“We will have to wait,” Elsa says.
“Wait for what?”
“Wait for your health to return before we kiss.”
Elsa moves into the room next to Dwayne’s. She supplies him with Pepsi-Cola and she tells him stories about her life and about her thoughts, but Dwayne’s not always sure where the stories end and the thoughts begin. She tells him, for example, “Walking on the beach next to the sea at night in moonlight without clothing, is wonderful, for it is freedom, and how could it be otherwise?” Dwayne doesn’t doubt this, but whether it’s experience that speaks, or imaginings, he doesn’t know.
They go to the well and wash while standing in red dirt that becomes mud. The days and nights pass. Dwayne is on the mend, but he is weak. His urine has lightened. He’s eating more and Pepsi-Cola continues to taste great. He only wishes it were cold.
It rains one night and Elsa sits on his cot the next morning and reports that her room is completely dry. No leaks.
They take exploratory walks. One afternoon while walking on the beach, they spy a gaggle of nude bodies in the distance. Elsa declares them German and with this they turn and head back from where they have come.
“What is it that you have against Germans?”
“I left German to see something else, but in Jodhpur, Delhi, Agra, Goa, I find Germans.”
“I came here, and even here there are Germans, until I saw you.”
Small waves collapse and throw spume toward the beach. Dwayne is carrying his flip-flops in one hand, Elsa her sandals in one hand.
“And there was my boyfriend. He was German.”
“We split up in Goa.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“It is not important.”
He now possesses an appetite. He makes requests and Elsa returns from the village, sometimes with the requests, sometimes without. It is, after all, a small village.
He spreads strawberry jam onto the baseball-size rolls that are served in the patio of the mud-brick house. He drinks chai and brings his own glass to the patio for the woman to fill with chai.
It was in the shop that sells Pepsi-Cola that Elsa discovered the jars of strawberry jam. She has described the village to Dwayne. He thinks he might want to go there for a haircut.
The bus stop is just beyond the well. Elsa says the bus comes hourly, twenty minutes past the hour, and that it’s on time. Dwayne finds this hard to believe, because nothing in India is on time.
They decide to go to the village, and indeed the bus is on time. In addition, the vehicle isn’t crowded. Dwayne says, “Double miracle.” Elsa says, “I told you so.” Her English continues to amaze him.
The bus is a recycled school bus and its front door never closes. They reach the village in fifteen minutes, road paved but riddled with chuckholes. There’s hardly any traffic, only a few motor scooters. But there are bicycles and pedestrians.
A single street defines the village and from where the shops begin along that street to where the shops end it takes no more than ten minutes by foot. Elsa and Dwayne stroll. In an open-air barbershop with a hard-packed dirt floor, Dwayne gets a haircut and a shave, straight razor in the hand of a lean man who wears thick glasses. Dwayne’s hair is taken down to a nub. When he emerges from the barbershop, Elsa laughs and tells him, “You look like a convict.”
They load up on essentials—bread, Pepsi-Cola, hard candy, soda crackers, strawberry jam, bananas, limes, toothpaste, matches, candles, incense, and six tins of sardines imported from Portugal. Elsa wants to buy ginger at a spice shop, but Dwayne reminds her that he’s still got the root that she gave him a couple of weeks ago.
The bus leaves on the hour from the center of the village. They board. The driver gets in and starts the engine. The windows of the bus have no glass except for the front windshield. Horizontal bars have been welded across the window openings, three steel bars to a window. Dwayne wonders what happens when it rains.
Prior to Elsa’s entrance each morning there is her chanting voice, low in volume and indistinguishable for language, along with a strong whiff of incense, both of which drift into Dwayne’s room from her room. It is the same every morning, chanting and incense. It is this that wakes him.
And now, as she sits on his cot, she looks down at his body as she does every morning, but on this morning her reconnaissance stops where his lungi is tented.
Dwayne thought he’d be embarrassed, but for whatever reason he isn’t. He looks at Elsa’s sun-red face. An aroma of vanilla and flowers clings to her vicinity. Dwayne is lying on top of his sleeping bag. Above the waist he is bare-chested. Outside, birds are announcing the day.
“You are well,” Elsa declares.
Dwayne can’t think of a reply, so he says nothing. Elsa brings her hands up as if to show them to Dwayne. Her hands then go down to untie the knot of his lungi where it is bound below his bellybutton. She does this slowly and carefully, and then she opens the folds of the lungi with the same care. She holds the cloth open before allowing it to drop to either side of his body.
Dwayne is aware of his breathing and at the same time there is the moment, which is suspended. He is waiting for what comes next, and it occurs to him that whatever it is it will be no less surprising than what has already transpired.
Elsa stands up. Her smile is gone. Dwayne’s smile falters. She brings her hands up and unties the knot of her green garment and lets the cloth falling to the floor. She is naked.
She continues to stand as if to invite examination. Her feet are in sandals, but other than sandals there is only flesh and dabs of hair strategic locations.
Elsa slips her feet out of her sandals and leans down to rummage inside her colorful cloth bag that is on the floor. Dwayne looks at her hanging breasts. He can almost feel their weight.
She straightens. There is something in her fingers, and now, as she tears the wrapper off, Dwayne sees that she is holding a condom. Elsa steps over to the table and places the torn wrapper on the table next to the ginger root.
A text of sorts has begun where none existed before. Dwayne unties his money belt from around his waist and drops the money belt on the floor.
Elsa leans and rolls the condom down the length of Dwayne’s erection. As with everything else, she does this slowly and carefully. When she is finished, she straightens and looks at him. Dwayne, looking up at her from where he lies, finds nothing lacking in Elsa’s body. She is shapely and there is muscle tone.
Elsa puts her left knee on the cot next to Dwayne’s hip. Her hands come to either side of Dwayne’s shoulders to support the weight of her torso as brings her body over his. She reaches under herself and directs Dwayne’s erection while easing back and lowering her weight. There is a gasp, but then that remark disappears. Her hands are free as she sits on him. She begins a smile as she starts to rock, no embarrassment. Dwayne wonders when this was conceived.
She moves with intent. She is not shy. Dwayne is surprised that he can be thinking about Elsa’s intent given the immediacy of the situation, which is one of pleasure. Perhaps it is because he feels somewhat removed. He attributes this to the way things have transpired, and now, as he watches Elsa start to quiver, he wonders about voyeurism, but how voyeurism possible given his involvement? He senses that he is not only watching Elsa, but is watching himself as well.
Elsa’s smile fades and her hands come to the tops of her thighs and her fingers dig into those thighs as she shutters.
When she falls onto his chest, he puts his arms around her. She is breathing heavily and Dwayne can feel her body trembling.
Her breathing calms and she remains prone on top of him. Dwayne can almost feel her thinking.
She pushes herself up and rocks a couple of times to see if he is still there. He is. She smiles.
Her cheeks are puffed more than usual and this gives her a bratish look. She starts talking to Dwayne in English, voice accented and guttural. She rocks back and forth over his hips as she looks at him. She is smiling, but it is different from before, for now, in addition to mischief and candid, there is a hint of animation, which her languid voice supports. She knows what he wants even though he doesn’t know it until it arrives. Under her tutelage Dwayne’s body gathers itself and tumbles as if clairvoyance were at work.
Sitting down at their regular place in the patio, the man approaches their table, a bidi smoldering between the man’s fingers. He accepts their order and then calls it to his wife who is standing in the doorway of the kitchen: “Two chai, two bun.” The wife turns to go into the kitchen, thus leaving her half naked son to stand along in the doorway. The boy’s large eyes latch onto the dog, and with this the child teeters across the red-dirt patio to where the dog waits.
Dwayne and Elsa have brought a jar of strawberry jam. Dwayne, though, has forgotten his glass, but no one seems to notice. When the tea and rolls arrive, Dwayne produces a pocketknife to spread the jam.
The man returns to stand in the doorway of the kitchen. His wife joins him and together they watch Dwayne and Elsa eat and drink. Occasionally the wife’s eyes go to the child who is with the dog, child and dog at the edge of the patio where the shade leaves off, day’s heat developing, but not yet vicious.
“Baba,” says Dwayne. “More chai, more bread.” The man responds, “Two chai, two bun?” Dwayne says, “Yes. Two chai, two bun.” The man turns to his wife, who is standing next to him, and the man says, “Two chai, two bun.” The wife goes into the kitchen. The child and the dog are on the ground where the dirt is not packed. The child’s rump is in red dust.
After breakfast Dwayne and Elsa return to Dwayne’s room. Dwayne’s stomach is fine and so is everything else. Dwayne and Elsa undress as if it were assumed. Elsa produces another condom from her colorful cloth bag.
“You have energy,” Elsa reports.
“Yes, I do.”
“I do, too.”
The day proceeds between Dwayne’s room and the patio. More chai, more bread, more strawberry jam, more condoms. In the late afternoon Elsa and Dwayne go to the well to bathe.
He sleeps and he dreams, and when he wakes in the morning he remembers that he didn’t dream when he was sick and delirious.
The morning is the morning-after. Dwayne is sore, but in the right places. When Elsa enters his room, after incense and chanting, she says with a smile that she is sore, and with this she proceeds to show Dwayne exactly where it is that hurts, which produces giggles.
According to Dwayne’s count it’s the fifth condom that’s coming out of Elsa’s Rajasthan bag. Sensing a question, Elsa says, “The condoms are from the shop where Pepsi-Cola is sold.”
The man and the man’s wife are in the doorway of the kitchen looking on. On the table in front of Dwayne and Elsa there is chai and bread and strawberry jam. The child is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the child is asleep. The yellow dog, though, is in evidence, but not in the patio. The dog is peeing on bushes at the perimeter of the cleared ground, which surrounds the mud-brick house and the patio and the palm-frond rooms.
It is determined that they need go to the village because there were only six condoms in the pack.
Dwayne asks, “When did you buy them?”
“Yes. When did you buy the condoms? I’m just . . . curious.”
“I bought them the day I bought the Pepsi-Cola.”
“You mean the first time you bought Pepsi?”
The dog begins trotting back toward the patio, gait spry.
“Actually,” Elsa says, “I knew when I saw you at the well.”
“I knew you were phallic.”
Her vocabulary stops him. “Phallic?” he says.
Dwayne sips his tea. Elsa sips her tea.
“Where did you learn English?” Dwayne asks.
“There was school, of course, and there were movies. I like watching movies.”
Dwayne holds his glass of chai gingerly with his fingers at the top of the glass because the glass is hot.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word ‘phallic’ used in a movie.”
Elsa shrugs a shoulder. “It is the correct word, is it not?”
Dwayne continues to hold his glass of tea as if the glass and the hand holding it were stalled on their way to his mouth.
“That’s what I saw,” Elsa says. “Phallic. And that’s what I felt.”
The dog has entered the shade of the patio to stand and to look out toward the sea.
“The body knows before the mind knows,” Elsa says. “The mind dictates strategy, the body dictates need. It is when we ignore the body that there is trouble.”
Dwayne listens to this as it replays in his head, for when Elsa is speaking there is her accent, which garners his attention. But with this particular statement there is something else that necessitates consideration. Dwayne looks at his glass and sets it down. The glass is almost empty. Dwayne looks toward the doorway of the kitchen and says, “Baba. Two chai, two bread.”
The man turns to his wife and says, “Two chai, two bun.” The wife turns and leaves the doorway to go into the kitchen.
“So,” Dwayne begins, “it was at the well, three weeks ago, when you first saw me, that all this was determined?”
“No,” Elsa says. “None of this was determined, but something was decided. You came by and I spoke to you. The next morning I came here and asked Baba if there was a man here who spoke English. Baba, of course, doesn’t really understand English, but he pointed and said, ‘Sick man.’”
Dwayne nods. “Weren’t you kind of . . .”
“Of course I was scared. Or, perhaps nervous is a better word, but I was also excited. I was looking for something, and that is always exciting.”
“And when you found me sick?”
“Yes. I found you sick, but I found you alone.”
Dwayne moistens his lips with his tongue. His lips are chapped.
“I waited. You allowed it,” Elsa says.
Dwayne waits. But Elsa says nothing more.
“You helped me through my sickness,” Dwayne says. “It was . . . You sitting on my bed and talking. And you kept coming back. I was . . .” He raises a hand and gestures, but it’s vague, as if he were motioning at something beyond articulation.
“Of course, I was waiting.”
“Yes,” Dwayne says. “And now?”
“And now,” Elsa says, “we do what we are doing. That will continue until something comes next. Can it be any other way?”
The man comes to their table with an aluminum tray and transfers two glasses of chai from the tray to the table and then does the same with two small plates, a roll on each plate. He picks up the empty glasses and sets them on the tray, and does the same for the two small plates from the previous serving. The man returns to the doorway of the kitchen and hands the tray to his wife.
Dwayne looks at Elsa and says, “And what comes next?”
“One day you will leave this place.”
“Yes, I will.”
“Take me with you.”
On Elsa’s face there is a half smile, and Dwayne wonders if it is a tentative smile, perhaps a nervous smile.
“I’m on a bicycle.”
“I will purchase a bicycle.”
“Purchase a bicycle?” Dwayne says. “I’m headed south, Cape Comorin, southern tip of India.”
“Yes. You told me. It is where the three seas of India gather. It is a holy place.”
Dwayne picks up one of the glasses of chai and sets the glass in front of Elsa and picks up the other glass and sets it in front of himself.
“Did I say it was a holy place?” Dwayne asks.
“No, I don’t believe you did. But everyone knows it is a holy place.”
Dwayne picks up his glass of chai along the lip of the glass and raises the glass and sips.
“You are thinking that it is difficult,” Elsa says. “You have told me and I have listened—weather, hills, mosquitoes, food, roads, punctured tires, sickness, exhaustion—I understand.” Elsa pauses, perhaps for emphasis.
“But look at you,” Elsa says, “it shows.”
“Yes. And it is what I came her for.”
Dwayne can only look at her face.
“When did you think of all this?” he asks.
“When I sat on your bed, when we talked. You told me you were on a bicycle. I went outside and saw the bicycle.”
“I understood your body at the well, and I understood the rest when I saw the bicycle.”
Again, he can only look at her, and perhaps for his benefit Elsa picks up her glass of chai and sips, which serves to ground the conversation.
“And now,” Elsa says, after returning her glass to the table, “I understand even more—and so do you.”
Dwayne is stalled.
“If you say ‘yes,’ or if you say ‘no,’ next will begin,” Elsa says.
“I imagine it will.”
“Don’t think,” Elsa tells him. “For it is not your mind that moves you. It is your body. Your mind would never undertake a journey such as yours. Your body and its energy has put you on the bicycle, and it is this that moves you from north to south—is it not?”
He moistens his lips with his tongue.
“And it is your body that has determined what has taken place here.”
“What does your body say? Not your mind, but your body. For it is in this that a correct future will be determined.”
Elsa waits. Dwayne smiles helplessly.
“You know what my body says.”
Michael Onofrey was born and raised in Los Angeles.
Currently he lives in Japan. His stories have appeared in Arroyo,
Cottonwood, Imagination & Place (anthology), Nagoya Writes, Natural Bridge,
Spilling Ink Review, and Two Hawks Quarterly, as well as in other fine