Nowhere Slow: Sweet Nights at the Coral-Dredging Site

It isn’t a good idea, but Jonathan Gourlay plays with the Queen of Hearts on the island of Pohnpei.

Moonlight / You’re just a heartache in disguise

The way that Senseleen’s dark hair waterfalls down her neck awakens an entire adolescence of adolescent longing. In that long, black swirl I see the paradise of sweltering weather, loose morals, and primordial mystery that Gauguin, Rousseau, countless sailors, wanderers, and convicts sought in the Pacific. Each wave of her raven tresses holds the allure of escape. Escape from civilization, from boredom, from phony, pointless suburbia, from empty, masturbatory America… here is the real, the pure, the original primitive soul in tune with nature’s rhythm, that soul that craves only the ecstasy of the flesh, the soul that spurns the thinky death of the intellect… all that is best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes. One flash of those eyes and I’m ready for my own post-impressionistic escapade, where I will contract syphilis and drunkenly paint away my remaining days.

Senseleen is sitting in the front seat of my Japanese sports car and we are parked near the ocean. The Mazda might be impractical — its undercarriage scraped the stones as we meandered down a thin road to this former coral-dredging site, now abandoned and empty — but at least it has a sun roof that allows the ocean breeze and the moonlight to play in her hair. The silver light bounces off of Senseleen’s several golden teeth. Her gold caps have hearts and crosses etched in to them. She is wearing a gold velour top, copious amounts of gold-plated jewelry and high heels that make her walk bow-legged. Juice Newton’s 1981 hit, “Queen of Hearts,” plays on the radio.

dredging

Won’t you keep my heart from breakin’ / if it’s only for a very short time?

At the dredging site, thin roads of coral jut out into the ocean. These roads were once wandered by giant metal claws that reached into the ocean and scooped up coral for Pohnpei’s roads. The maze of roads is surrounded by nothing but ocean and mangrove trees. I’ve been to this place before. It took me a year to find it. When I found it I finally understood where everyone was going on the weekends and during lunch breaks. Senators with tinted Toyota trucks hold intimate meetings with their constituents here. The police investigate and commit crimes here. Boozy teenagers occasionally dump their parents’ cars in the ocean.

Things both sinister and beautiful happen here on the complex pathways of the coral-dredging site. It’s an important place. The site provides a neutral space for us to do stuff on. Nobody owns these newly dredged spits of land. Nobody can be angry with you for being “on their land” and no embarrassment for anything that happens here can shine upon anyone’s family. Every inch of Pohnpei is owned by someone, but these few thin roads are free.

I might as well try to kiss Senseleen.

Lovers, I know you’ve had a few / but hide your heart beneath the covers / and tell ‘em you’re the only one.

On my last trip to the coral-dredging site I parked the Mazda in the dark, stopping only when I heard bits of the road falling into the ocean. How I made it to wherever I was, I don’t know. I was a bottle of tequila short of common sense, but I learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes what happens in the front seat of your Mazda in the moonlight when you’re not thinking straight is, in fact, pretty wonderful. I wouldn’t trade the bits of that event that I can recall for anything.

Honey you know it makes you mad / why is everybody tellin’ everybody / what you have done?

Kissing Senseleen is like kissing two cold eels. Canned eel? Is there such a thing? You know that gelatinous goop that rises to the top of a can of Ox and Palm corned beef? That’s the image that comes to my mind when kissing Senseleen. Still, one mediocre kiss shared over the gear shift of my Mazda won’t stop me from being completely smitten.

Getting Senseleen to the coral-dredging site was more convoluted that most drug deals. Here’s how it went down: I must have sounded depressed to her uncle one night when we drank sakau together. Her uncle informed her auntie that my problem was that I was single and needed a wife (everyone thinks I need a wife). So her auntie talked to Senseleen’s mother and asked if I could call Senseleen. Both mother and auntie agreed it was a good idea. I called Senseleen at work. I couldn’t call her at home because of the slight possibility that her father would answer the phone. If her father answered the phone and knew it was me, he would be required to be very angry at both of us even though I had not yet laid eyes on Senseleen. I called up the local school where Senseleen was a teacher and got the principal to pull her out of class so I could ask her out. Senseleen, whose mother had tipped her off, agreed to meet me. Her auntie told me to be ready for “the call” on Sunday. I waited by the phone until the call came. I was told to drive past the auntie’s house. The auntie would follow with Senseleen in her car. We would meet up at the parking lot of the College of Micronesia and there we would exchange “the package.”

In the parking lot, Senseleen scooted into my car and ducked below my un-tinted windows. I asked her where we should go and she looked at me like I was a lunatic. I was expected to act, not ask. In considering where to go there was one rule I had to keep in mind: we can’t be seen in public. Being seen in public, even as a passenger in a car, is all that it takes to be married to someone. This cuts down on wedding expenses, but it can also lead to being “married” to people who I just happen to be walking near, or who I offer a ride home to, or who I sit too close to at a sakau bar. The honest answer to the question “How many times were you married on Pohnpei?” is “I don’t know, but at least once.”

I offer to take Senseleen to my house, which is reasonably private. She again looks at me like I’m a lunatic. She knows my neighbor all too well. My neighbor takes a census of my car every time I drive by. She notes the times she hears my rumbling sports-car muffler leave or arrive at night. In fact my muffler has become known as the “Ghost of Jonathan’s Hill” because its evening moan and wail can be heard throughout the neighborhood, announcing my comings-and-goings. We can’t go to my house. Thank goodness for that tequila-fueled night of good judgment or I would never have known the secret location of the romantic coral-dredging site.

Playing with the queen of hearts / Knowing it ain’t really smart / The joker ain’t the only fool / Who will do anything for you.

I can see Senseleen two times during the day: when she is feeding the pigs and when she is taking a bath. Without her gold trimmings, Senseleen is basically a farm girl. She has muscular, wiry arms and rough pig-slopping hands. She spends her days grating coconut for pig feed, washing pans and clothes in a stream, scrubbing floors, and carrying fifty pound bags of rice up a hill. Her roughness doesn’t make me like her any less. In the evenings I sit with my daughter near the ornery, enormous pigs and watch Senseleen hose them off. My daughter is fascinated by the pig poop that sluices towards the ocean.

Senseleen and her equally if not more gorgeous sister like to bathe beneath the bridge over the Lehnmesi river. They perform this complex feat with colorful skirts hiked up over their breasts. I blame the leering men of the Peace Corps for this habit; formerly, Pohnpeian girls simply went topless. Sometimes I just happen to be taking my daughter to swim in this river when Senseleen, her sister, and assorted younger cousins are bathing there. What does one say to a pretty young woman washing her four-foot-long jet black hair in a cool jungle river? I don’t know either.

After a week or two, my hanging around Senseleen is verging on being disrespectful to her father, who can no longer plausibly deny my existence. It’s not my land. I don’t have the right to be there, even to watch the pigs. I am told I need to get clearance from Senseleen’s father before any further loitering.

Her family’s house is perched atop the twisting, entangled roots of giant mango trees. One Friday night I sit alone in the kitchen of this tree-house, eating cucumbers mixed with kimchi and pretending to enjoy them. I wait one long hour before Senseleen’s father comes home from drinking sakau, the calming and mildly hallucinogenic pepper root that I could really use a coconut-shell full of at this point.

I amuse Senseleen’s father. Out of the blue there’s a thirty-something foreigner sitting in his kitchen, stammering in Pohnpeian and eating spicy cucumber. In the other room his two daughters have plugged in the family’s Casio keyboard and are singing church hymns like two sirens — the mythological creatures, not the thing the on top of an ambulance.

“They’re doing that for you,” says the father.

It’s a-hard to be a lover when you say you’re only in it just for fun

If you notice a pasty guy, half-naked and bobbing alone in the middle of the Lehnmesi river, that’s me. Young boys returning from school call from the bridge, “She won’t be here tonight!” I pretend not to understand what they are talking about. I coolly float in the river like it’s simply the place I want to be. Alone.

Or maybe you notice me patiently waiting near a long cement pen of screaming pigs. I like pigs. Maybe I just want to contemplate these particular pigs. They are fascinating creatures. The passing schoolboys note that she won’t be here either. I have been cut-off, erased. I no longer exist in Senseleen’s world. I’m not sure why except that once it happens her uncle, the secretaries at work, my neighbor, and the lady at the grocery store check-out agree that this is the way that Senseleen always acts. They name at least five other guys who have gone through the same process of pig-slop watching, river-swimming, and hot-cucumber eating. Everyone knows. Didn’t I know?

For all of my effort, I was alone with Senseleen a total of three times. Two times we went to the no man’s land of the coral-dredging site, the another time we wasted watching a bootlegged DVD of Music and Lyrics. All the romantic fantasy I indulged in just made it more fun for her to make me another notch in the thin elastic band that keeps her bright yellow skirt perched above her breasts as she bathes in the river.

Baby, I know it makes you sad / But when they’re handin’ out the heartaches / You know you got to have you some

If there’s one thing that is constant on Pohnpei, one thing that I could count on for the eleven years that I lived there, one thing that is woven into every aspect of the culture, it is Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” off of the album Juice. I have seen young boys in baggy pants line-dance to it at talent shows; I have seen diabetic elderly ladies wearing muumuus shuffle to it at parties; I have heard multiple versions of it in probably all seventeen of the Federated States of Micronesia’s official languages; for eleven years I heard “Queen of Hearts” playing, somewhere, every day. It’s a fact so random that it’s maddening. Why Juice Newton? Why that song and not “Love’s Been a Little Bit Hard on Me”? Why Pohnpei?

I loved “Queen of Hearts” when I was in elementary school. I loved Juice Newton because she looked like Bailey Quarters on WKRP in Cincinnati, who I also loved. When I hear “Queen of Hearts” I am eleven years old. I’m back at Babyos record store playing Donkey Kong, attempting to rescue a girl from a monkey. Juice Newton is on heavy rotation. I am too busy jumping barrels to learn the lesson of the song: you got to have you some heartaches.

Whatever mysterious allure islands hold, whatever romantic notions I might get about the people who live there, are instantly shattered with the first strummings of the intro to “Queen of Hearts.” That song is from my past. I listened to it in a little record store on the west side of Chicago. The song represents everything I am supposedly getting away from. I wonder if Gauguin had a similar experience — perhaps he plugged his ears during nightly turn-of-the-century Tahitian sing-alongs of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Hello! Ma Baby.”

Real island girls don’t live in paradise. They just happen to live somewhere warm that doesn’t require much clothing. Idealize them at your own peril.

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.