Nowhere Slow: Try Me First, Eat Me Later

Jonathan Gourlay engages in deep, penetrating discussion at a sakau bar.

Fingerlynn is a chain-smoking, wiry mother of four. She is timeless in the way that characters in myths and fairy tales are timeless. She laughs in a single deep hah. This gunshot laugh is often followed by a punch to my shoulder: not a good natured “ol’ chum” punch but a serious, bruising jab. She is in a tiny minority of adult Pohnpeian women whose body can be described as “athletic” (as opposed to “diabetic”). Her dark, small eyes are beautiful like a ferret’s. She is my best friend, and every night we head for the Try Me First (Eat Me Later) sakau market to argue with each other about oral sex.

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Sakau is a mildly narcotic pepper root. The root is mashed, soaked and squeezed through hibiscus bark. It seeps through the soft, wet bark in long, brown, viscous snots. The sacred gloop is caught in coconut-shell cups and passed around at feasts with great ceremony and solemn ritual. Since sakau first floated to Pohnpei from the neighboring island of Kosrae hidden in a goddess’ vagina, the drug has been a central feature of Pohnpeian culture. The sakau we are drinking tonight, however, is not the stuff of legend but commercial sakau. A local fisherman, Limwasahsah, needs gas money for his boat, so he’s opened his sakau market tonight. This sakau is squeezed into a plastic funnel, caught in an old gallon-bleach jug, and sold for a dollar a glass. A glass consists of two level servings from a can of Vienna mini-sausages.

The nearly toothless, always shirtless, pot-bellied fisherman named Limwasahsah sits in the corner of his market, dangling a cigarette from his cracked lips, which is the only thing about him that is remotely like a young Robert Mitchum. He is one of the happiest people I have ever met. His googly eyes dance with mischief as he sits in a dark corner of the market and laughs the night away. It’s comforting to know that nothing could possible happen to me that wouldn’t be inherently funny to Limwasahsah.

Fingerlynn and I usually retire to Try Me First market after work. We sit on cracked plastic chairs around an enormous upended spool used for telephone wire (a cousin works for the electric company). The market is built next to the road. The structure itself consists of a few logs of swamp wood nailed to a tin roof and attached to Limwasahsah’s family’s small store, which has a full supply of Vienna mini-sausages and lollipops to munch/suck on while you drink your sakau.

Fingerlynn and I gulp down sakau, rinse with soda, spit, and watch the traffic. We know the cars, the people in the cars, and the gossip about the people in the cars; the cars that have thick, dark tint on all of the windows, including the windshield, are those of cheating spouses. The police stop by in their pickup truck, three of them standing on the rusty truck bed, in order to get some take-out sakau in rinsed out bottles of Filipino rum. The village can expect an extremely calm, slow response to any emergency tonight. The Seventh-Day Adventist kids, teen-aged American teacher-volunteers, whiz by in their distinctive yellow Chinese firetruck. The ambulance speeds by at 20 MPH, headed down the winding jungle road to the moldy hospital. We can tell by the cars following the ambulance who is sick. People honk and call to us. To each car we call “come drink, come drink…” like the goblins tempting their prey with forbidden fruit in Rossetti’s Goblin Market. Most cars slow down and call back to us, “We’ll be back in a minute.” They won’t really be back, but it’s impolite to say “no.” Every night, we sit and call to the cars. We are fixtures. There’s Fingerlynn and Jonathan, where they always are, every night, getting buzzed and watching traffic. It’s our version of sitting on the couch with a beer and channel surfing, only the couch is on the side of the road and the beer looks and tastes like mud.

Fingerlynn believes that oral sex is a foreign invention, brought to Pohnpei by Westerners in the 19th century along with “pain, suffering, and Christmas.” In a way, she is a cock-sucking, pussy-licking creationist: she believes that oral sex appeared on Pohnpei through the not-so-divine intervention of European sailors.

I, however, have more of an evolutionary take on the issue. My logic is that any human group surrounded both by banana trees and edible clams cannot help but make the simple logical leap to oral sex. Besides that, there is the fact that cultural memes travel lightning-fast on Pohnpei. After a shipload of cheap red hair dye arrived on the island, some kids on the north side of the island began putting a red stripe in their hair, and within two weeks, nearly every man, woman, and child on Pohnpei had a red stripe in their hair. At the turn of the millennium, a beautiful girl was known as a “butts 2000″; this lasted about a month before we all gave it up. For a while we screamed the English word “budget” to anyone who answered a question with a plain yes.

“Are you drinking sakau?”

“Yes.”

“Budget!!!” (Maniacal laugher.)

I have no explanation for this behavior or why it’s funny. Neither does anyone else, really. It just happened. “Budget!” took hold for a few months and then disappeared. It might have had something to do with prostitution or something to do with the woefully inept government of the neighboring island of Chuuk, where the “budget” game was said to have originated.

Logic, reason, science: all of these gifts of the Enlightenment carry little weight with Fingerlynn. Oral sex came from mehnwai (foreigners) because it is a mehnwai thing to do. Like budgets, head colds, AIDS, and customer service, oral sex is one of those sneaky mehnwai phenomena that the forthright and moral people of Pohnpei could never invent. It seems horribly important to Fingerlynn that oral sex not be a spontaneous human invention enjoyed by every culture and instead must be a virus spread by craven, sex-obsessed Westerners. To suggest anything different is to question the very core of what it means to be Pohnpeian.

The sakau wanders aimlessly in my bloodstream and caresses my brain into a pleasant fog. I can’t feel my legs. Or more like my legs aren’t talking to my brain at the moment. After about two hours of banter, we have downed three cups (six sausage-cans worth) of sakau. Fingerlynn and I are passing into a euphoric haze that only exacerbates our argument, which must now navigate the mazy way from its inception in some deadened synapse to actual vocalization on my lips.

“Consider the home-made porn movies,” I say.

Horrific porn movies are being passed around the island. One, involving a large lady with skin fungus that is remarkably similar to the tinted windows of adulterer’s cars, is the sort of thing that makes me want to pull an Oedipus and skewer my eyes. My argument: any culture where cheap video cameras are available will spontaneously begin recording sex. Her argument: the idea of porn and the cameras are mehnwai inventions and Micronesians who use the cameras to record their trysts are more mehnwai than Micronesian. They have been corrupted.

All Pohnpeian men will tell you that sakau enhances their virility. All Pohnpeian men are lying. If the muscle-relaxing effects of sakau weren’t enough to kill any remaining sexual function, Fingerlynn’s final gambit in our argument inevitably does. She mentions a cousin (it’s always a cousin, because everyone is everyone else’s cousin on Pohnpei) who is currently dying in bed. Local medicine and magic cannot save him. His malady? His wife or someone was riding him in the coconut-grating position when she pulled the trick that all Pohnpeian women know: she broke his dick. I now desire sex with a Pohnpeian woman about as much as sex with a female praying mantis, which is to say a lot, even though I know the outcome cannot be good. So there lies this poor cousin, bent over in pain, dying of a broken wiener all because of the wiles, prowess, and anatomical knowledge of the Pohnpeian female. This is the end of the argument.

I will gladly keep the secrets of oral sex to myself, as a mehnwai, if Fingerlynn keeps the secrets of murder by broken dick to herself, as a Pohnpeian.

It is dark now and the cars are infrequent. The market is lit by one weak light bulb, covered with a red plastic bucket. Light and sound are difficult concepts for the sakau drunkard, best kept at an arm’s length. Limwahsahsah has been sitting in a corner of the market and laughing at us all evening. His wife made us some boiled banana to munch on. I don’t miss the opportunity to mispronounce the Pohnpeian name of this dish as “stinky penis.” The jovial gossip and argument portion of the evening is over as we sink in our plastic chairs and drift like tired, overstuffed eels inside our minds. Limwahsahsah turns up the volume on a locally produced CD of Casio-keyboard caterwauling. The tune is a cover of a Creedence Clearwater Revival song; “Lodi” off of the Green River album, I think. I want to protest, but the music has a physical presence, like a blanket made of humid air, that stifles speech. My body is on vacation and my mind is working overtime. The CCR tune re-appropriated for Pohnpeian screech-song seems to be the last piece of the argument I need. It seems terribly important. If I could just impart this last piece of the puzzle. Cultural cross-pollination something something something — it all briefly makes sense.

Fingerlynn and I are now completely drunk on sakau. We grunt, spit, and half-heartedly punch at one another. I really want to leave the sakau market, or at least stumble to the side of the road and pee, but I can’t seem to move. This intense need to leave is perfectly balanced with an equally intense desire to stretch out this time with my friend. I want the evening to last forever and in a way, it is lasting forever. Perhaps there is a sakau-induced quantum shift of some sort. Or maybe there is, like, a quantum snapshot that stuck the DNA of that very moment in time like the dinosaur DNA stuck in amber from Jurassic Park (these are the thoughts that sakau will bring you). I am still, even now, at that sakau market ingesting the dirty nothingness in the coconut-shell cup. The three of us are there under the thin tin roof of the open-air market, having the same argument each night, never reaching a conclusion, laughing at the same jokes, watching the traffic, going nowhere slow.

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.