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Skin Game

The story you're about to read took place in Ubud, Indonesia. You might have heard of Ubud, there's a pretty popular book about it which catapulted the little town onto the world map — particularly the one for bruised hearts in need of repair. If you don't know the book, you will certainly have seen the screen adaptation in which Julia Roberts plays the leading role. Oh you know, 30-something lady travels across the world wanting to heal after a divorce, then she meets the man she will eventually marry on a tropical island in Indonesia? Yep, that's the one.
I visited Ubud in the winter of 2015 and even though I hate to say it, I fit into the hearts-in-need-of-repair-scene irritatingly well. Funnily enough, as soon as the plane touched ground, it seemed like Eat Pray Love was a script written just for me. Within a week, I stumbled into a beautiful little home just for me, shortly after that I met a very charming older entrepreneur, and then I got acquainted with a talented guitarist who invited me on a trip across the island. Really, by the time I stepped off the boat close to the shoreline, I expected a film crew to appear. I mean, was this included with the plane ticket or what?
But, luckily, quite a few “unscripted” things happened too. One of those events is described in the story below. Read it, enjoy it, and share your thoughts in the comments.

Skin Game


Please Note
Even though this story is based on true events, it is a work of fiction. I have tried to recreate events, places and conversations from my personal memory. I have changed the names of individuals and some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.

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It's another blazing hot day in Bali and I've just returned from a refreshing swim. I swim about an hour per day in Ubud, in a beautiful outdoor pool surrounded by tall, leafy trees and spiders the size of my head. Afterwards, I belt out Amy Winehouse songs under the shower at the edge of the pool — which I'm sure the staff appreciates — and then I change in the bathroom of the overpriced restaurant. Their luxurious hand soap doubles as detergent for my bikini and I usually nick a roll of toilet paper too. Stealing toilet paper is something I take strange pride in. I know it's wrong, both the stealing and the pride, and writing about it for that matter, but I do it anyway.

I wave goodbye to reception on my way out and start walking through the ricefields to get back home. My home is beautiful and, in this case, that's an understatement. It's a single-storey, freestanding house with a high Javanese-style roof and a neat little garden all around it. I have my own kitchen, a decadent bathroom and a gigantic patio. In a discreet corner of the patio, there's a large sofa with silk sheets and about 1500 pillows on which I often lounge and ponder about when to eat those fresh mangoes. It's both nauseatingly perfect and curiously unreal. A quixotic absurdity. A decision gone right.

Today, however, is different. And not in a good way. Just after I've hung my swimming gear to dry, readying myself to sink into tropical bliss, I can hear people on the other side of the ricefields. Two, three, maybe four voices are engaged in a loud, incessant dialogue. I stretch out, expecting them to quieten down any minute, but no such luck. With the volume of their voices steadily rising, my irritation starts to rise too. You see, one reason why I decided to rent this place — which isn't cheap — is its tranquility. This part of Ubud is known for being separate. Expensive. Snotty. It is a far-from-the-madding-crowd kind of place and these people, these foreigners, are stomping all over paradise.

My ears pricked up, my body tense, I lean over the edge of my sofa and try to unravel their objective. I can't say for certain but, the more I listen, the more it sounds like they're a tour group. A tour group! Absolutely. Terrible. News. Before you know it, handrails will be installed. Signs will be put up. Someone will open a little stand selling toilet paper and chewing gum. Travel agents will appear on every corner. The roads will have be widened. My tropical pool with the elephantine spiders will get really crowded. I won't be able to impersonate Amy Winehouse anymore. All will be lost! Anxiously, I listen to the voices getting nearer and nearer, trailing across the ricefields, curling around my beautiful home until finally, they reach the edge of my little garden. My private little garden.

“Yep!” I hear a loud, distinctly American voice exclaim, “Oh yeah, definitely some hot spots here”. Hot spots, indeed! I rise up from my sofa and decidedly walk across my patio. We will see exactly what hot spots are being discussed here. “Hi there,” I say, and I really want to add, “I am Daenerys Stormborn, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, khaleesi to Drogo’s riders, queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and I take what is mine with fire and blood,” but instead I ask, “What you guys doing?”. Instantaneously, a sinfonietta of clarifications washes over me. My face goes from left, to right, to center, back to left again, trying to meet everyone's gaze and in a way, the battle is already lost.

There are three men at my garden gate, an American, a German, and a Saudi. The American introduces himself as Callum. Callum's in his late forties and has a large camera slung over his shoulder. He's dressed in a pair of oversized green combats, a khaki T-shirt and a brownish bandana. All of it sticking to his tall, overheated body like wet clingfilm. His nails are painted with metallic nail polish, alternating between sparkly blue and deep purple. An obvious wild card. The type of person who pops up anywhere and everywhere. At a LGBT party, on a solitary trip through Siberia, attending the G8 summit. Whatever the occasion, he'll always be dressed in oversized green combats, a khaki T-shirt and a brownish bandana. A large camera slung over his shoulder. Nobody bats an eye. Callum's the leader of the pack. A luminary. A fashion icon.

The German guy is called Christian. If Callum's the photographer, Christian's the model. No doubt about that. He's topless, wearing nothing but a pair of leopard skin leggings, snake leather shoes and a little straw hat. Christian's body is close to perfection. Broad shoulders, muscular arms... Suffice to say that those leopard skin leggings would look an absolute car crash on anybody but him. His beauty, however, is a little broken. Traces of acne scars linger on his face and he seems just a fraction too old to be ranked among the up-and-coming. Furthermore, I can sense a typically European kind of arrogance lurking behind the wholesome facade. There's a Pied Piper quality in there. A false bottom — and I don't mean that in a bad way.

The third man, the Saudi, is called Parsa. Parsa is assisting on the shoot. He's the youngest, the quietest and — I suspect — the most grounded of the three. He notices all, yet interferes little. He's clever, unobtrusive, and sensitive to the people around him. Hands down the best assistant I've ever seen. To top it all off, Parsa has an olive skin, a full head of glossy curls and eyes so dark you get lost in them. Life can be cruel indeed. He's the perfect addition to wild card Callum and seductive Christian — the two of them having a Bonnie and Clyde effect on each other. Parsa will keep the posse out of trouble and in the gravy.

“Can we take a look around your garden? That okay?” Callum's metallic-colored toenails are already making their way into my queendom. “Of course,” I say, and I feel my left arm involuntarily stretching out to the side, not unlike a prima ballerina welcoming the antagonist into her space. Callum's presence starts to zigzag through my garden, across my patio, prowling in front of the large open doors. All the while he is thinking aloud, judging angles, colors, backgrounds. Identifying “hot spots”. He makes a congenial impression, but he can't be entirely harmless. Never trust a man who wears nail polish, I learned that from experience.

I turn to Christian, who is about to take off his shoes, and ask, “So, what exactly are you guys doing? Is this for a magazine?”. Christian's eyes meet mine and as he straightens himself he says, “We're playing”. Then, I watch his expression adopt a peculiar kind of significance and he repeats, “Just playing”. “Okay,” I smile, and I pretend to understand exactly what that implies but honestly, I'm clueless. They're just playing. Right. Topless Christian swaggers across my patio and I wonder what the rules of the game are. Parsa, I think, Parsa will know.

I can't recall exactly when or to whom I've given it, but with my permission we enter into my living room, which doubles as my bedroom. Callum walks straight up to my huge, four-poster bed. “Yep,” he thinks aloud, “oh yeah”. I don't want to brag but, my bed is beautiful. It is without doubt, the most self-possessed, charming object in my already very charming home. It's been handcrafted from solid wood with a floor-length, off-white mosquito net draped all around it. It's a bed made for sleepless, full moon nights. Profound revelations. Amorous cries. It is a bed which, up until that moment, I've chosen to fill solely with my presence. Seducing nobody but myself into sweet slumber and reverie. It is mine. My bed. I like it that way.

“Would you mind if-” Callum does not have to finish his question. “Of course,” I say, and I stretch out my arm again, the graceful soloist, “be my guest”. Christian's leopard skin legs saunter languidly across my living room. He first places his hands, then his knees, then his entire body onto the mattress. He turns towards me, rests his knees on the edge of my bed and holds the mosquito net half open in front of his chest. He smiles. There's a topless model on my bed and he's smiling at me. Callum peers through the viewfinder, “One second” he says, and he walks over to Christian, takes the mosquito net from his hands and tucks it into the top of his leggings, “Better”. Snap. “Slightly cheeky smile, Christian”. Snap. Snap. Snap. I watch Christian produce the most disturbingly perfect, slightly cheeky smile known to man. On command. Snap.

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Parsa is asked to re-drape the mosquito net a few times. Pillows are rearranged. My precious handwritten journals are removed from the bedside table. At one stage, Callum's hand makes a couple of slow circular movements over the camera, his eye glued to the viewfinder, “I like it. I like it,” he says, “now, Christian, why don't you try to...eh invite someone into that...eh lair, if you like”. Christian, with the nonchalance of a cat — or a leopard — stretches out onto his stomach, glances over at me, and takes on a frighteningly alluring expression, inviting fictitious me into that lair. I, meanwhile, have gone from prima ballerina to anxious waitress. I pace back and forth in the background, mobile phone in hand, nervous grin on my face.

Thing is, I have to organize my visa extension and I'm trying to gather the wherewithal to compose a text to Kadek. Kadek is my Balinese landlord. He's in his early forties, tall, father to two boys, and incredibly protective. You would think that by being a single woman with the funds and impetus to travel to Indonesia, rent a house and set up a new life for yourself, you exude something akin to female independence. Not in this case. Kadek and his family are too caring, too hospitable to treat me like the suffragette I aspire to be.

There is no arguing with them. They want to know where I go, with whom, how late I'll be home. The lights are switched on for me at night, so that I won't get lost on my way back. They check in on me every morning and every evening. Once, I tripped and fell backwards into the ricefields. As I tried to get back on my feet, they appeared from out of nowhere and transported muddy-me back to safety while I bit my lip and tried very hard not to cry. So much for my vote for independence.

As I'm writing to Kadek, I realize that now is not the right time. Kadek will arrive two minutes after I've sent the text and then, well... It would be a tense scene. I decide to save the message and redirect my attention to the man on my bed and his accomplices. Now, Christian's face is resting on the palms of his hands, his feet perched up into the air. I'm asked if he could possibly rest his feet on my pillows, “Oh absolutely, go ahead,” I say. As it happens, Kadek is to barge right into the scene, but not until after the shower shoot. So I guess that's a good thing, right?

“Yep, got that covered,” Callum says, his face slowly detaching itself from the camera, “In the can”. Christian peels off my bed and Parsa hurries over to straighten the sheets. I briefly talk to Callum, who promises to send me one or two of the shots — both of us agreeing that the bed is, indeed, a very difficult object to photograph. All I need to do is befriend him on Facebook. I'm on the patio, scrolling through Callums, when Christian is suddenly behind me. “Sorry,” he says, “the toilet?”. “Oh, it's at the back,” I say, and I touch his arm to guide him to my bathroom. I notice a little smile on his face and as we pass Callum and Parsa and my freshly made bed, I can't help but smile too. Life, it seems, has a pretty satirical sense of humor.

I open the door to my bathroom, which is a getaway in itself. It's the second reason why I decided to rent this place. A large shower head is placed at the top of a dramatically curved wall, which is aligned with a selection of tropical plants. At the opposite side, there's a huge marble slab which serves as a sink and a big mirror which shows you what you look like when showering on a tropical island. Part of the bathroom is roofless, meaning that you can peer up at the sky at night and ask why you deserve all this goodness and how come they don't make bathrooms like this back home. Christian takes one look, turns around to Callum and says, “Hey Call, Call”. Again, all three talk at the same time. A question is asked and prima ballerina stretches out her arm, “Of course”, she says, “it's all yours”.

Then, entirely against my expectations, Christian walks to the middle of my living-room-slash-bedroom and starts to roll down his leopard skin leggings. Within 30 seconds, he is completely, utterly naked. To make matters worse, everyone seems entirely at ease with Christian being completely, utterly naked. Before I have time to decide exactly how I feel about all this, he turns and walks over to my bathroom with a type of confidence only a privileged white male in the 21st century can exude. And even though I'm starting to find all of this just a little unfair, I can't help but have a look at the merchandise. A look which Parsa, with his observant presence, does not fail to notice. I blink quickly and check my phone. Who exactly, I wonder, is playing here and who is being played with?

As Christian and Callum are setting up the scene in the bathroom, me and Parsa head into the garden to find an appropriately sized leaf. Don't ask me to explain. As we stand at the foot of a small tree, Parsa suddenly squats down and points, “Look,” he says, and I squat down too. Together, we observe the strangest green creature I have ever seen — and, for the record, I've seen a lot of strange creatures. It has a stretched, oblong body, disproportionally large disc-shaped eyes, two angled tentacles and a short, sharp tail which reminds me of a scorpion. We look down at it and it looks up at us. Parsa tells me that, with his macro lens, he can make a photo of it showing every little detail. We spend quite some time peering at it, and it meets our gaze with a sense of awareness and something akin to pride. Eventually, we turn and go back inside. Leaf in hand.

I leave the boys to their work in the shower and busy myself searching for Callum on Facebook. Eventually I find him through a mutual friend which reminds me just how small Ubud is. Too small really, to allow for malarkey like this to happen. When they're finished, Christian dries himself with one of my towels and saunters back into my living-room-slash-bedroom, au naturel, talking to me as he steps into his animalesque leggings. I give my card to Callum and then, as quickly as they came, they vamoose. Game over.

Right as their posse exits, Kadek enters through the garden gate. I can see his eyes widen to the size of small saucers — not unlike the insect — and he tries to catch their attention but the musketeers are already headed towards their next mischief. “Who are they?”, Kadek demands with an urgency in his voice I haven't heard him use before. “Just some friends,” I say, hesitantly. “What they do?”, he stands in the middle of the patio, hands on hips, ready to sound the alarm. I sit down at the table, sink my chin into the palms of my hands and say “A game, they came to play a game”. “Oh,” Kadek responds, “a game”. I can tell that he doesn't really understand — neither did I — but I decide not to offer any further explanation. Kadek, his hands slowly releasing their grip, checks his phone and then makes a sharp turn. “I do the cleaning,” he says. “Sure,” I say.

A bit later that day, as Kadek is standing in front of the open window by the sink, Christian suddenly appears and jumps across the ricefields in front of the house. “Hey, look,” I say to Kadek, “look, that's him. The guy from the game”. “Oh,” Kadek responds, pretending he doesn't care. But a moment later, I catch him peering through the window. “Nobody there,” he says, “he already gone”. And I guess he's right.

© Elzemieke De Tiège, all rights reserved. Please do not alter, crop or copy. Thank you ♥

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Please note that, although this story is based on true events, it is a work of fiction. I have tried to recreate events, places and conversations from my personal memory. I have changed the names of individuals and some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.

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