Illustration by Jia Sung.

Singular, the way each male member of the expedition keeps his face serious before pulling on the joint. Well, yes, it is their last, and blessed be whomever digs up a dealer here, so many thousands of miles across the ocean. The language alone.

But the natives speak the same one. The explorer with the roach is explaining the real root of their problem: we must think island. It’s got to be hidden.

My lover agrees. He’s tied a vine to his ankle and is going to throw himself over a cliff at dawn in twelve hours, with three of the natives. They keep it somewhere, they have to be just as stoned, he says.

Or stupid, I say.

To a man, they turn to me, my guilelessness, my personal political dumb straight femaleness reveals itself once again and they make no comment, the worst.

The leader, who was the last to see Rockefeller before the crocs got him, suggests I go eat bread in case I still feel like vomiting.

I was going to say he ate the fish too, but okay. I get it. Except the painter of the expedition is sitting cross-legged in front of the door staring at his painter hand instead of moving aside. I make a motion to kick him. The guy with the vine around his ankle, my lover, shrugs the c’est la vie he’s all about.

I kick at the painter.

Through the window there’s a color riot about to rot, the black and white world of night seeping into green birds, red blooms, swarthy brown pigs, sky broken up into islanders going about the late-day business of drink and sex, and telling stories I can’t get over: the ocean’s orgasm so strong waves wash to the mountain top, the stars that fall down and roast a pig. I’ve only read translations, and to me the natives are unreadable, stamped, however, with kindness, and they dance and fish in boats badly now that we, in the royal sense, have landed our own and conquered and, in particular, have come to document their aforementioned.

I’m the sound girl of the expedition. The instrument I wield steals the souls from their drums, the usual. The rest of the expedition work the cameras and throw themselves—well, one of them—off cliffs to either show the natives that we are stupid too, or to demean their feat. The natives dance or fish when they feel like it and thus the cameras poke everywhere, and my baton of a mic too. Friendly enough, they don’t eat us like they did in the good old past. These men I’m with—strange, I am the only woman, the natives have noted—these men gather every night after their cameras break down or run out of film or get too heavy, and they smoke and boast and plan the next day’s shoot and whatever feat they feel they need to amp their big adventure, as if it is not enough to poke around all day in the natives’.

Caught in all that slow-motion smoke, I think therefore I am—

lonely.  The lover with the tied-up ankle makes making love into exercise. It’s a long way from home and the short relationship we had before we left. The others in the expedition are a little curious about such an arrangement. I am best silent so when I do speak, they’re astonished, the dog can dance, etc. I should be sitting next to the stoned lover and holding his what?

I kick the painter again.

Released at last from the smoky room, I practically dance. I would like to dance like or with the natives, with sex in every swerve, but I don’t have the knees.

At the end of my walk into the dark, the ground goes hot, the litter of coconut and its leaves has grown much thinner and the natives ahead are flapping at me with warning gestures with flashlights. There’s a pit that ends with a long trench, where a row of carcasses smoke—dogs. All the officials in the throng around the smoked dogs are very cheerful. The dogs always run into the road, the prime minister-doubling-as-a-fireman says, offering me a drink. Public safety, he tells me, is paramount.

The paramount chief in some place in Africa, I tell him, is smothered so he doesn’t die a natural death.

He says they must smother these chiefs in bed, implying by his smile that is not a bad way to go. I smile back because what else? I accept a drink, a half coconut shell filled with milk and liquor. The roasting smells great, but I think of Fido, all the little Fidos, so foolishly domestic. The prime minister asks, Why isn’t this being filmed?

I could say no one’s going to rush out of their drug-induced stupor for a public safety ritual. The scene is barely lit anyway: the wavery fire and torches of flame, the batteries of the flashlights on flicker. I am surprised when the painter shows up to beg his own coconut cup of hootch.

Are you ready to go tomorrow? All packed? I ask him.

In some ways Gauguin never left, he says.

I roll my eyes, only inside my brain.

After the dive tomorrow, the expedition will fly away, all except myself and the lover. If the lover lives, of course. I refer to the lover as “the” to put some distance between my fear he might die and his fear I will leave him. You will kill me if you leave me, he says. He is going to beat me to it with this ankle thing. After the rest of the expedition leaves, we’re supposed to shoot the intimate life of the native.

The painter says he senses my difficulties with the intimate life. In his experience, he says, an island magnifies them. The smaller the island—

He puts his arm around my shoulder. All my naïveté pushes into my mouth, not just the saliva of fear that someone has noticed the lover’s manipulation of me, confirming that it is happening, and not fear that this painter is hitting on me for his own pleasure, since no natives have joined him in his hotel room, despite invitations, or so he says.  Did you know, I say, these flowers—I shake off his arm in the act of pointing—are most fragrant at night, but they have no nectar and dupe their pollinators?

There are always two sides to a story, he laughs. I have a spare room at home, for instance.

I am nothing if not loyal, I am no one if I leave someone. Do I want to kill the lover? I don’t have bruises yet. What I answer the painter isn’t the thanks for saying something.

I walk back.

All at once it is the next a.m. The men minus one point their lenses at the three natives and our one, all of them vine-tied. Will worry go over the cliff with the lover? He doesn’t care that I’m worried. He could care less. He is there, poised and stoned, with frangipani in a wreath around his head. Fragrant enough, he takes two steps and leaps over the cliff.

His ankle isn’t even sprained.

Then the airplane flies off with the painter in it, an animal in the sky that is fleeing the cinders of what roasted the dogs, more or less, my translation unfaithful.

What am I being so faithful to? Adventure. I am as bad as the rest. What did the lover do months later to trigger whatever letter I sent to the painter that he sent me a telegram, again offering exit? Did I write Help on a piece of paper and put it in a bottle? What I remember is the rain of the island forcing the rats into the bedroom.

Now I want to tell the very end of the story about how I learned the lover was finally dead so many decades later, three years after the cancer took him, how he refused treatment, how he had no money anyway, no insurance. All those years he paid no taxes or rent, had no social security card, no email, no gas bill. The widow he never married had his sons put his body into the back seat of a borrowed car and then drove into the night to another state where they dug a hole. He told her he would wake her from her sleep for the rest of her life if she didn’t follow his orders. Haunt, he said, the way he said it to me.

Terese Svoboda

Terese Svoboda's most recent book is Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet. Her most recent novel is Bohemian Girl (Flyover Fiction). In September 2017 she read in Glasgow, Dublin, and Edinburgh, and was in residence at Hawthornden Castle, which is very scary since it has no Internet.