TO THE SOUTH SEAS
Painting His Date
It was in the Two Mosquitoes bar that Theo saw Maria. She was voluptuous. She was tall, her legs long. Her fine breasts protruded out from her cotton blouse, and she wore no bra. She was very drunk. Here is the woman I have to paint, he said to himself, and she has to be in the nude. He bought her a drink, and then another. He spent the rest of the afternoon buying her drinks, prepping her for what was to come. She could hardly stand on her feet when, half dragging her, he somehow managed to get them both to his room, stumbling and falling all the way. But they made it. Theo hastily unbuttoned her blouse and loosened her skirt and let it fall to the floor. She wore no undergarments. He removed her blouse. She stood there, still as a statue, not attempting to cover her naked body. For the longest time, Theo stood there, immobile, she before him, looking at her and her naked body, longingly. Her skin was the color of mahogany and without blemish. He had never seen such perfection in a human body, so much unlike those models in art classes. He had to hurry while there was still enough light to paint her. He hastily began to set up his easel and pulled up a chair for her to sit upon. When he turned to look for her, she had collapsed on the bed and was fast asleep. The temptation was too great. He tore off his own clothes and fell upon the bed. She didn’t move. These hot Creole women, he thought, and did what he had to do.
Still, he had to paint her. It took all his remaining strength and effort to prop her up in the chair, her naked body catching the last glimmer of light. He worked feverishly and as quickly as he could, squeezing oil from the tubes onto the pallet and applying the colors with the skill that he had mastered. When the light faded completely, he dragged Maria back to the bed, laid her down and fell upon the bed beside her, his model and lover for the day. Neither of them moved.
Theo awoke with the first light the next morning. His head, like one of those drums the night before, pounded painfully, but he was still thoughtful of the painting resting in the easel. He got up from bed and he knew the moment he looked at it that it was good. He knew when his paintings were good. He didn’t have to ask another. Those that didn’t please him he destroyed immediately. This one he would keep. This one any member of the Idiot Club would want. But no, after a thought, this one he would keep. This painting was special. He had to keep it forever. He wondered what Maria would think of herself when she saw the painting. He was tempted to awake her but he would wait until he had coffee and came back. He pulled the bed cover up from the floor where it had fallen and covered her. He did it in great care, almost in admiration for her, for, after all, he had painted her body, immortalizing her for all eternity. He was about to leave the room when he thought she might awaken, and fearing she would admonish him for sneaking out, he took some francs from his pocket and laid them on the table next to his easel.
Theo went out into the street and found the nearest cafe, “Café et cognac,” he shouted to the waiter and then to a group of early morning imbibers at the next table he called out in a loud voice- “Ole.” They motioned for him to join them at their table, which he did happily.
It was noon when Lucas found Theo sitting in a cafe, not the one from early that morning but another one, quibbling with two Creole women sitting nearby for his being too stingy to buy them drinks. “Come, Lucas,” Theo called when he saw his friend. “Buy these lovely girls and me a drink, and pay my bill too.” He looked up at the waiter. “This stupid man wants his money.”
The two women now turned their attention to Lucas.
“You haven’t paid your bill?” Lucas admonished him.
“I don’t have money. Why you think I ask you to buy these ladies a drink?”
“You spent your money. What were you going to do?” “Wait for you.”
“What if I didn’t come?” “You would come.”
“Theo, you’re crazy.”
“No, my friend. I have been working, and waiting for you to see the painting,” He started to swill down his drink, but remembering the glass was empty, he turned it upside down on the table. Lucas paid the waiter. He knew he had to get Theo out of there and back to the ship, but first, Theo reminded him, they had to stop at the hotel and fetch Theo’s things. The girls at the next table cursed when the two men left, for not buying them drinks. With Lucas supporting Theo under one arm they stopped at Theo’s hotel.
“Maybe Maria still sleeping,” Theo said when they climbed the four flights of steps. “You will like Maria.”
Theo pushed the door open, blocking the view from Lucas, and letting out a gasp, fell back against the door. Lucas heard the gasp, and then Theo cry out, “No, no.”
“No what,” Lucas demanded and pushed Theo aside and entered the room. It took a moment for the scene to register in his mind, and when it did, when he realized what had happened, he broke into laughter. It wasn’t a simple laugh, a light laugh, it was a deep resounding hearty laugh. He couldn’t stop laughing, to the annoyance of Theo. Maria was not in the room. She had left but, before she had, she desecrated Theo’s masterpiece. She had taken one of Theo’s brushes, dipped it in brown ocher and attempted to paint a bra and skirt on what was once her naked body. She also added a moustache and goatee to the canvas. The painting was ruined. Lucas stopped laughing when he saw the hurt on Theo’s face. For a moment he even thought that Theo might break down into tears. All the way back to Astrolabe, feeling sorry for Theo, Lucas had to humor and console him, and he felt that sorry for his friend. But still, he thought it was funny.
After Martinique they steamed through the Panama Canal; the heat was unrelenting and the air was heavy with humidity. But once through the canal, they entered the enormous expanse of the Pacific Ocean. It was near the end of the rainy season and the colors were a myriad of hues with patches of tropical sky visible, mixed with shimmering white clouds dotted with dark windswept rain showers. Theo jotted down the names of colors in his sketchpad: turquoise and azure blue, merging into the deepest shade of cobalt. The sea, a spectacle of indigo and navy blue, interspersed with flashes of emerald green.
A week after leaving the Canal, the good ship Astrolabe made an unexpected stopover at Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas. Captain Varva had received a radio message that a few dozen Tahitians were stranded on the island when the trading schooner they were aboard sprung a leak and had to be careened on the beach while repairs were made to the hull. Seeing the possibility of making a few extra francs on the side, Captain Varva diverted Astrolabe to the island. Theo was delighted when it was announced they would be making an emergency stop. The very name Nuka Hiva set Theo jumping with excitement. He would have jumped ship had it been possible. Here in the Marquesas was where Paul Gauguin had come to paint and it was here that he died. The stopover was all too short and furthermore they could not go ashore. All they could was stare at the island from behind the ships’ railing.
“Don’t worry,” Lucas assured Theo. “We will be back.”
Theo had never even met a Tahitian in the flesh; he had never even seen a Tahitian except in photographs and in the movies; and now he was confronted with a shipload of islanders. He was in his glory, mesmerized by their looks, their actions, and their total lack of indifference of his staring at them. He couldn’t refrain from grabbing his sketchpad and begin drawing them. He almost felt if he didn’t hurry they might all go away. His first islanders; they were Gauguin paintings coming to life. They came aboard, uninhibited, young and the old, grandmas and grandpas, infants and swaddlings, smiling and cavorting, the womenfolk bearing pandanas sacks filled with fruit, the men carrying bunches of banana. There were sacks with squealing pigs and chickens tethered together by their feet. Uncomplaining, jolly in their actions, they spread out their mats on the hard steel deck. No sooner were they settled, even before the anchor was weighed, they began spreading out food: baked yams and taro, cooked fish and octopus and fruit that Theo and Lucas had never seen before. They readily shared what they had with the two white men; poppas they called them. As the meal was being prepared, two burly men began strumming guitars. Another took out his sharkskin drum, and a third unpacked his wood blocks. They began making music, wild savage music to the tune of guitars with the beat of sharkskin drums and wood blocks. A young girl, in her early teens, encouraged by the elders, got up to dance. She rose shyly; giggling all the while, did a few gyrations with her hips, to the clapping of everyone’s hands and then quickly dropped down to the deck again. But she was not idle for long. A huge, heavyset Tahitian woman in a flowed muumuu slowly rose to her feet, without being asked, began dancing the tamaure; and now the young girl joined her. One woman reached for Lucas’ hand, wanting him to join in the dance. He backed away sheepishly. But not Theo. This was his gig. He didn’t hesitate, and no prodding was needed: he leaped to the fore. He joined in the fun, swinging his hips in lurid movements imitating the young girl, and bringing hilarious laughter from everyone, even the captain who was standing on the bridge looking down. Theo did make a ridiculous spectacle of himself, and everyone loved it. Theo loved it too, the dancing and frolicking. The gaiety most likely would have kept up into the night had not Astrolabe entered open seas and the motion was not altogether agreeable to everyone. Soon came moans from those who became seasick. Islanders rushed to the rails. Many didn’t make it that far. The deck became a sloppy mess.
The morning they arrived in Tahiti, there was a rumbling of loud voices aboard Astrolabe that spread throughout the ship from deck to cabins. Had they struck something, a reef, floating debris, another vessel? Was the old lady giving up the ghost and sinking? No, it was none of these. Land was sighted and the news spread. Those below rushed on deck and everyone ran to the railing for that first glimpse. Tahiti appeared as a dim silhouette a few degrees off the port bow. With the coming of dawn, before the sun rose, jagged peaks stood out against a red lacquered sky. Theo thought Martinique had been beautiful but the scene that now opened before them was by far the most beautiful, the most striking, he had ever seen.
“Are you nervous?” Lucas asked as they approached the harbor that marked the entrance to Papeete, the legendary Tahitian capital. Theo could do little more than nod. The moment was too emotional for him, for he was too choked up to speak. But what began as a thrill to him turned, slowly, into bewilderment. No outriggers came out to greet them; there were no happy smiling islanders bearing flowered leis. That’s what Theo had read, what he had heard, what happens when people arrive in the islands. Instead, a skiff came out from the harbor and aboard was the pilot, a grizzled old Frenchman with a scowl upon his face and a moustache that cascaded down over his upper lip. He didn’t smile; he didn’t greet the captain or any of the passengers. He joined Captain Varva on the bridge and guided Astrolabe through the entrance into harbor, past trading schooners and copra boats pulling at their anchors. No one moved about the vessels. As they neared the quay, their half asleep crewmen prepared to toss out their mooring lines. The helmsman swung the vessel hard to port and suddenly, at the next bend, the scene changed, like a curtain on a stage play abruptly opening. A cast of players appeared, waiting. It was dazzling and exciting to behold. It was everything Theo dreamed it would be.
Yes, this was “boat day,” always a big event on Tahiti. Word reached Tahiti that Astrolabe had picked up the stranded folk in the Marquesas. When Theo saw the gathering waiting on the quay, he could feel his heart beating, almost out of control, like it never had beat before. Theo knew instantly his dream was fulfilled. Hundreds, no thousands of islanders, were there to greet the arriving passengers. They came on scooters and bikes and broken-down truck buses, and some walking, all to watch the ship arrive. They came smiling and waving, and some strumming guitars. And everyone, man and woman alike, and child too, wore flowers, around their necks, wreaths on top their heads, tucked behind their ears. The waterfront was a sea of flowers. And they brought armloads of more flowers for the arriving passengers.
Theo was thrilled.