Lukas Bondevik does not enjoy the bamboo forest. His feet are aching from the confinement of his shoes and the long walk; he is excessively sweating and the humidity clings unpleasantly to his skin. His hair is uncomfortably greasy and flattened under the large (overpriced) straw hat—the lady selling it said it was ‘best-quality rattan’—he purchased in Kuta several days ago to shield his already sunburnt face from further exposure to the sun.
________ had pointed out that it was a woman’s hat, judging from the ribbon tied into a large bow around the brim, but he hadn’t cared, and he certainly doesn’t care now. When they arrived, an old lady passing by said something in Balinese, and their guide translated it as a warning that there were lice living in the bamboo leaves—lice that could fall into your hair anytime.
Lukas was absolutely horrified, and though the guide had said that she was probably just teasing, he did not want to take any chances. He remembered the hat, ran back into the tiny house he stayed in, snatched it from the bedside table, and ran back to the entrance of the forest.
His DSLR hangs heavily from the strap around his neck, already moist with his sweat. Twice already he trips on patches of soil spilled onto the path, or on slabs of broken flagstone on the path.
Occasionally, as noted in his job requirements, he snaps an image of the twisting forest path or of the canopy of thick bamboo trees, trying not to take too long in order to not be left behind by the two people already at least three metres ahead.
“Oh yes, we clean the roads every four hours. The older women of the village come here in turns to sweep the roads. It’s just been swept half an hour ago.”
His ears itch as he hears a small gasp of amazement from _________ as she asks the guide another question. Stupid guide. What was his name again?
“Slow down,” he calls out, and too late, he realises he sounded whiny.
________ and the guide turn around. “Tired already, Mr. Bondevik?” the guide asks, with a friendly smile that Lukas misinterprets as patronising. Lukas narrows his eyes viciously at him and sucks in a sharp breath.
“Bondevik,” ________ says, “Your feet hurt, don’t they? Take off your shoes.”
Lukas stares at her blankly, not doing anything. All he is thinking of is how she is addressing him by his last name, a cold, unfamiliar word rolling off her lips; and how much it signifies the unseen distance that is now between them.
“Come on, Bondevik,” she repeats, holding up the sandals dangling from the fingers of her left hand. “I’ve done it too, see? Stop being a baby and take off your shoes. It feels good.”
Did she just tell him to stop being a baby? Ouch, that hurt more than what he expected, coming from her especially. “Take off your shoes”, she said. Screw that. He’ll just step on a pebble or a branch or a tiny animal, and then fall and die. He doubts _________ would ever help him when that happens.
“Lukas,” she says, lowering her tone, and damn, there it is—the tiny sliver of hope. His first name sounds so good rolling off her tongue, addicting as it always had been, and he wishes she would say it like that again, just like she once had. “Your feet will feel better. Just do it. Trust me.”
“Trust me,” she said this time. How could he say no to that. He takes off his shoes.
The stone path feels pleasantly cool underneath his feet, and as much as he hates to admit, _________ was right. It does feel better, and within a few moments he is able to catch up and walk alongside her and their guide, positioning himself to her right.
“Wayan,” ________ begins (Aha, that was his name!), “A man told me that the village is built like a human body. What does that mean?”
“Ah,” the Wayan (note how he is referring to their guide with ‘the’, the way he would refer to an animal or an inanimate object) says, “The three mandala. In our philosophies we know that the human body is separated into three parts: the head, the torso, and the legs, or the lower body.”
“Well observed,” Lukas murmurs, unable to hold in the snide remark. _________ shushes him sharply and he smirks spitefully, but it quickly melts away when she turns her head completely from him to give her full attention to the Wayan.
“The head is the center of all thoughts and ideas, and since those come from the gods, the head is believed to be sacred. Likewise, in the northernmost part of the village, we built the great temple. The torso is where the stomach and intestines are, and everyday they work hard to digest the food consumed by humans. So in the middle of the village, we built houses and shops to reflect this. Lastly, the lower body expels waste. A bit far south is the graveyard, where the departed spirits are laid to rest, if the bodies aren’t cremated and washed downstream instead.”
A shiver creeps up Lukas’s spine when he heard that, and perhaps it is just him, but he catches a whiff of fresh jasmines—tiny white jasmines, the ones growing atop the damp ground on graveyards—and the sharp, heady smell stabs at his nose, causing his head to spin momentarily.
He stays silent for the rest of the walk. He doesn’t even realise when they are out of the forest until—
He blinks. “We are out of the forest already. _________,” the Wayan says, and Lukas tenses at the sound of her name. __________, the Wayan called her, _________, whereas he is simply addressed as Mr. Bondevik.
Suddenly Lukas feels as though he is standing on a cliff and _________ is on the cliff opposite him, separated by a wide, roaring ocean stretching for miles below, and standing next to her is the Wayan, in all his tall, tanned glory.
“…When is your flight?” the Wayan finishes asking.
“It’s tomorrow morning. A bit before seven,” she answers, and adds, “Lukas will be leaving at around two hours after me, if I am correct. Nine twenty-five, I believe.”
A tiny spark lights itself in the pit of Lukas’s stomach and worms its way into the confines of his brittle heart. Not only did she use his first name, but she remembers when his flight was too? She actually listened to that tiny detail casually rolling off his mouth several days ago in polite conversation?
Perhaps, he thinks, getting a little light-headed just thinking about the possibility, perhaps she still cares about him. Just a little bit.
“Aren’t you, Bondevik?”
Ah. Back to Bondevik. His hopes deflate by a little bit. He clears his throat. “That is correct,” he confirms, glancing at his watch. “And that leaves you… about sixteen hours to finish your article.”
“And what does that leave you, Bondevik?” she says, peeking down to count the hours on her own watch (it is not the platinum-plated watch Lukas gifted her two years ago—he had enjoyed showering her with expensive gifts—much to his chagrin). “About, hmmm, say, eighteen hours to take some pretty pictures?”
Her patronising tone hurts him more than he knows she can imagine, and he simply nods in reply. He thanks the Wayan curtly and excuses himself.
He drags his feet back to his tiny guesthouse—it was more of a tiny building heavily decorated with elaborate wood and stone carvings depicting Hindu epics; with a bed and bathroom—and takes a long shower, trying to drown himself.
When he is done he takes his camera and heads out again. It has become cooler. Near him is a group of children, still in their uniforms, jumping and running and singing. School, as the Wayan mentioned, starts at seven in the morning and ends at twelve in the afternoon. Now it is around five, and they are still playing outside?
Lukas considers talking to them—he might even get to take their picture for his blog, yes, that would be wonderful—but then he remembers there is a bit of a language barrier. Aside from the basic 'om swastyastu’—he’s practised to say it before in order to get the pronunciation right; it is ridiculously long for a simple ‘hello’, he thinks—he knows not a single word in Balinese.
Too late, they spot him and a girl whispers to her friend, who giggles and nods before coming over to him.
“Good morning, Mister,” she says, smiling widely.
Lukas stares at her—her eyes are wide and deep brown like the earth, and there are grains of white rice stuck on her forehead (a cultural symbol, he assumes)—before saying, “Good afternoon. Not morning. Morning is past already.”
Damn it, he sounds like he is reprimanding her and he expects her to frown or back away, but she does not. Instead, she points to his camera. “Can I try?” she asks.
“No,” he says immediately, “It’s very heavy and very hard to use.”
The girl whines and tries to coax him, but he changes the subject by offering to take her picture. She smiles widely and beckons all her friends over. The natural lighting is golden and soft and beautiful—what luck!
Lukas remembers the straw hat all of a sudden and after some consideration, tells Wina (that was the girl’s name; her nickname, more precisely, because her actual name was so long that Lukas didn’t even remember what it was) he’d be back. He walks back into the guesthouse and retrieves the hat, putting it atop Wina’s head.
“For you,” he says, and she beams at him, thanking him profusely, mixing in English with her native Balinese. She fiddles with the bow at the brim, and twirls around, running off with her friends, perhaps to show off her gift.
“How generous of you.”
Lukas does not turn around. Moreover, he takes a closeup of Wina, smiling widely in her new straw hat, and says, “You know I am.”
__________ laughs. “How’s work?” she asks him, and he shrugs his shoulders.
“So-so. I did what the agenda says. You?”
“Quite good. I just interviewed some people about the local history. I’m having dinner at the village head’s house tonight, and I’m going to interview him afterwards. Do you want to come?”
Yes. He wants to come. He wants to come so badly. It’s been so long since she’s given him an official invite, and if he can guess correctly, something is shining just a bit behind her eyes—something that he hopes is kindness and adoration, or perhaps if that’s hoping too much, at least some consideration.
“No, I think I’ll just sleep in early tonight,” he says instead.
“Are you sure? There’ll be plenty of food, and the mistress even told me to invite you. They have a large table.”
“I’m sure,” he answers, even if his heart is quietly screaming in protest inside his chest. “I’m a little tired. Besides, I’d hate to disturb your interview, and I think your boss wouldn’t like someone from Independent Traveler snooping in on your ‘exclusive interviews.’”
“Suit yourself,” she says breezily, and he regrets ever saying no.
He ends up walking slowly to nowhere in particular with _________, as the light starts to fade and the stars start to climb.
“Watch the stars with me,” _________ invites him all of a sudden, and he knows that she knows he does not need to say anything to confirm that he accepts her invite. They walk downwards, towards the south, where the graveyards are, while Lukas tries his best to ignore the prickling in his skin. He would never in his right mind go anywhere near a graveyard, but __________ is with him and he feels like he can do anything.
The stars twinkle brightly when they are nearing the graveyard—Lukas can smell the jasmines now—and __________ stops walking. She successfully identifies various constellations, tracing her finger over the dots.
“There’s Canis Major. See that over there?”
“There’s Cassiopeia, so Perseus must be… Ha! There it is.”
“They still look like dots to me.”
“Don’t ruin my fun, Bondevik. Now, do you see that? Over there, the cluster with three stars. That’s—“
“Orion’s Belt. I know that much, at least.”
__________ laughs. “At least you learned something from all those stargazing trips.”
There is a bit of silence before _________ starts pointing out more constellations. Lukas nods and hums in understanding, slipping in a little, “I see,” and, “Where is it again?” to indicate that he is paying attention to her.
“You look a bit sad, Bondevik,” she points out, eyes to the sky.
“Mmm-hmm. Sad. A little broken, even, like you’re missing someone terribly.”
“I think you know well who I’m missing,” Lukas says, unable to hold in his words, as though his tongue had a mind of its own.
“Anyway, it’s getting a bit late, I’ve got to go to dinner in half an hour,” she says after some time, glancing at her watch, and upon realizing Lukas is looking at the timepiece on her wrist, demands, “What are you looking at?”
Lukas blinks, clears his throat, and shakes his head. “Nothing in particular,” he says, meeting _________’s gaze. In the dark, he can’t really read her eyes, and was taken aback when she suddenly says, “I still have it, you know.”
“Still have what?”
“The watch. The one with the platinum-plated links. The one you gave me on…”
Lukas is silent as a storm of what seems to feel like a million emotions—some so good that he wants to shout with joy from the rooftops, and some not so much—churn inside him, leaving him nauseous and weak-kneed. “I see,” he manages to not stutter after a long, thoughtful pause. “I’ll walk you to your destination.”
They say nothing during the walk back, and Lukas does not speak with her until tomorrow morning. At four in the morning he awoke, packed his things (he didn’t bring much, so it didn’t take long), and dragged out his suitcase. _________, who stayed in the guesthouse opposite his, came out fifteen minutes later, surprised at the sight of Lukas sitting with his suitcase on the terrace of his guesthouse.
“Isn’t my flight ahead of yours?” she asked, “Don’t you still have pictures to take?”
“Dearest,” he says (damn it, his tongue slipped) slowly, “For me, four days is more than enough to take pictures. Well, at least, pictures for my job. I hope you won’t mind me joining you to the airport.”
She is silent before saying that she does not mind, and they walk together to the village hall. Outside, a taxi driver is waiting to take them to the airport. They climb in and sit as far away from each other as possible. __________ falls asleep almost immediately, and Lukas is both thankful and disappointed. He looks at her sleeping figure longingly before sighing and staring blankly out the window.
They arrive at the airport two hours later, and Lukas calls her name to wake her up. When he receives no response, he gingerly shakes her shoulder. Still no response. A strand of her hair gets in her face and after some consideration, with the most feathery of touches, he carefully tucks it under her ear.
“___________,” he whispers in her ear, and she stirs. They get out the car, take their luggage, and walk to the terminal. The check-in counter for Lukas’s flight is not open yet and he waits for _________ to check in, then goes with her to get coffee. He insists on paying, of course.
“You have not changed much,” _________ points out, and adds, “Lukas.”
If she knew what the sound of his name rolling casually off her mouth did to him, he would be ruined. He goes up to the barista, orders his coffee black and quickly orders ________’s the way she likes it.
“And make it fast, we’re on a hurry,” he adds.
When he returns to their table moments later with the coffee, _________ takes it, says a thank-you, and slips a bill into his hand.
“You are not paying for my coffee, Bondevik,” __________ says firmly, and it felt like a harsh slap right to his face. She might as well say, ‘We are no longer related in that way.’
“The barista seems to be energetic today,” Lukas says instead. “That was quite fast, hmm?”
“Well, we’ll see how good she is, shall we?” __________ says, taking a slow sip. “Not bad. I’ve had better, but this isn’t bad.”
Lukas agrees with her. This coffee is perfectly average—it does not taste thin and watery, it does not taste heavenly either—and Lukas accepts it. It is better than no coffee at all.
“I think she fancies you.”
“The barista. She fancies you. She’s been ogling at you since you placed the orders, and when you told her to be quick, she practically went overboard to go as fast as she can.” Then, lowering her voice and leaning closer to Lukas’s face, she adds, “Don’t look now, but she’s staring at you now.”
Lukas does not look. He feels nothing at _________’s statement, not even mild surprise or flattery. He simply hums and dismisses it as nothing.
All eyes could be looking at me, he thought, the entire world could adore me and shower me with attention, but if it does not come from you, then happiness abandons me.
Lukas waits for her to finish her coffee. They leave the coffee shop together and walk to her gate.
“Last call for flight GA927—“
“That’s me. I need to go,” _________ says.
“Wait,” Lukas says.
(Tell her you still love her. What do you have to lose? You’ve already lost her once. If she turns you down you won’t lose anything, and there’s still the tiny possibility you can rekindle the hint of love left between you.)
“Lukas,” she says gently, “I need to go now.”
He stares into her eyes and realises how much he’s missed her, and he opens his mouth to speak. He hesitates for a fraction of a second.
“…Have a safe flight, _________,” he says, and he says it with his entire heart, hoping that _________ can find the ‘I love you’ behind his words.
Her eyes widen a little bit, and she gives him a tender, flooding smile. “To you too later, Lukas,” she says, “I’ll see you soon.”
And then she goes, just like that. Her presence lingers like the sweet smell of incense slowly burning in the distance, before slowly fading away completely.