Fiction | ‘Manta Rays, a Massage Lady, and Love’ by James Roth | Issue 37 (Jan, 2021)

Carl, rolling himself a cigarette, said, “I’m thinking of getting another tattoo. Have any ideas?”

“None,” Willie said.

“Help me out here. You see beauty in everything.”

Willie said nothing.

“Want one?”
“I told you I was trying to quit.”

Carl lit his cigarette and blew some smoke across the table toward Willie. Willie told himself he wasn’t going to give in to Carl. He’d about had enough of him. 

“What about a manta?” Carl said. 

“For a tattoo?”

“That’s what we’re talking about.”

“Were we? Not the same predator motif,” Willie said.

“What?”

“You asked me.”

“Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” He drew on his cigarette and blew the smoke across the table.

“Go to hell,” Willie said.

“I probably will one day, but not today.” 

Willie and Carl had met in a tattoo parlor on Ko Samui and decided to travel together. Carl had gotten two tattoos of snarling tigers there, the head of each resting on his pectorals. They were the kind of tigers depicted in legends with disproportionately long claws. Willie had gotten a tattoo on his back, just above his waist, of Buddha sitting lotus style, his right hand raised in his iconic pose. 

Willie said, “When I’m in the water with a manta it’s Zen like. Timeless.”

“A timeless tattoo of a manta. Now to find someone who can do it. Probably no one on this island. Why did we come to Indonesia?” And at that moment Carl began to watch the young waitress who had just walked past them, taking drinks to a couple sitting at a table under a palm tree. She was wearing a blue sari with prints of blue and green tropical fish on it and a yellow silk blouse. Carl said, “Now I remember,” he said. 

Willie decided that he’d had enough of Carl for one day. He stood up. 

“Where you going?” Carl asked.

“The bungalow.”

“Sit down.”

“Why? You’ve got your mind on other things,” Willie said, jutting his chin out in the direction of the waitress, who was now standing in the kitchen, a couple of kerosene burning stoves behind a wall of split bamboo covered by a roof of palm fronds.

“Something wrong with having needs?”

“They’re gentle creatures,” Willie said, “mantas.”

“Hard to believe they eat this little shit. Not what I need.”

“Plankton,” Willie said.

“Have a cigarette. Sit down. Go to hell with me.”

Willie walked away and turned on his flashlight and found his way along the beach to their shared bungalow, a flimsy structure of thin wooden planks on pilings, and got in the hammock. Now he could enjoy the beauty of the island. A breeze coming in off the sea was making the leaves of a palm brush together. Waves were splashing up against some rocks. Over the mainland a quarter moon shone between passing clouds. Willie thought of a manta, imagining that it was gliding by him, as one had that afternoon when he and Carl had gone on a trip to see them. A sense of awe at the sight of something beautiful had come over him. Then he saw the beam of Carl’s flashlight down the beach. The beam neared the bungalow and then struck him in the face. He winced. Carl tripped and stumbled onto the porch, yelled, “Fuck!,” and grasped his foot. 

Willie could smell the stench of beer and cigarettes coming off him. “Go inside,” he said.

Carl continued to thrash around on the porch for a few minutes longer, holding his foot, and then lay still. Willie was thinking that maybe Carl was aware of his surroundings, and awed by them, too, and then he heard him snore.

Willie hopped down from the hammock and kicked Carl in his ribs and said, “Go inside!” 

Carl crawled into the bungalow. Willie got back into the hammock. He longed for someone to share this beauty with. 

***

Willie spent the next morning writing about mantas in his journal while lying in the hammock, occasionally looking out over the sea. Now and then a cloud would pass over the island, bringing a shower and rainbow. 

He had just finished his writing when a woman who gave massages stopped at the bungalow. She was perhaps twenty-five but looked much older. Her hair was done up in two braids tied off in red ribbons. She was wearing a boxy muslin dress, dirty at the hem, pink flip-flops, and holding a basket of massage oils and towels.

“You want massage?” she called to him. 

He was immediately suspicious. He knew her game. Asking a tourist for a massage was just a cunning way for prostitutes to get him inside his bungalow, where she would start off with a massage, only to use it to seduce him. Carl had invited several of them into their bungalows as they hopped from island to island. But there was something in her manner, perhaps her smile or the sadness in her eyes, which he couldn’t stop himself from giving in to. He got down from the hammock.

“Here,” he said, “on the porch.”

“Why here?” she asked.

He couldn’t tell her why. 

“Okay,” she said.

She spread a towel out on the porch. He took off his T-shirt and lay on the towel. She rubbed some oil onto his shoulders and, as she was kneading the muscles, said of his tattoo, “You not Christian?”

“I believe in all religions,” he said.

“Me Christian,” she said. “Do you like Muslims?”

“There’s good ones and bad ones,” Willie said. 

She continued with the massage for a few minutes, then asked, “You alone?”

“I have a friend,” Willie said. “But he’s gone somewhere.”

“When he return? Maybe hour?”

“No,” he said, “soon.” He really had no idea where Carl had gone, but he had his suspicions about why she had asked about him. 

She returned to the massage, digging her thumbs into his spine, all the way down it to his shorts. She didn’t bother to roll back the waistband, which came as a relief to Willie. He thought that maybe all she really offered was massages. He began to think of the few girlfriends he’d had and the great satisfaction there had been with them in shared experiences. He wanted to feel that way again, and so he decided to risk telling this massage lady about the experience he’d had with the mantas.

“Yesterday I went on a snorkeling trip,” he started off.

She was now pressing the heel of a hand onto his lower spine. He couldn’t stop himself from groaning.

“Pain?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

“What?”

“The massage.”

“How much you pay?” she asked.

“For the snorkeling trip?” 

“Tell me.”

He told her. 

She sighed.

“My friend and I went to the other side of the island,” he said. “There’s a small bay over there where the mantas feed.” He waited for her to say something. When she didn’t, he held his arms out, like they were the wings of a giant manta gliding through the water.

She laughed.

“They’re so beautiful,” he said. 

She kept on with the massage, working her fingers down along his thighs.

“Don’t you think so?” he asked.

“What?” she asked.

“Mantas.”

“I never see.”

“You’ve never seen a manta?” he said. “And you live here on this beautiful island?”

“Always working,” she said. “Need money. Tomorrow you want massage?”

“What about you going with me to see the mantas?” he said.

“Must working,” she said.

Willie had an idea. He rolled over, looking up at her, and she stared at him anxiously. “What?” she asked.

“I’ll pay for a massage,” he said, “but we’ll go see the mantas together. Okay?”

She had such sad eyes. All she knew was giving tourists massages. That wasn’t much of a life. 

“How much you pay?” she asked. “Only money for one massage?”

They agreed on a price, and Willie rolled back over onto his stomach. She continued on where she had stopped, working her hands down his legs to his calves and feet, until she had finished. She said, “You pay me now.”

Willie got up from the porch and went into the bungalow and found his money in a pocket of his backpack and counted out the amount, plus a little extra, and returned to the porch and handed it to her.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Willie,” he said. “My name is Willie.”

“Thank you Mr. Willie.”

Her name was Hendra, and she lived in Tomita, the only village on the island. 

***

The boatman tossed the anchor off the bow, it caught, and the boat, a simple canoe-shaped thing with outriggers, swung around, facing the wind. A cliff of black volcanic rock was now off the boat’s stern. Osprey circled in the updraft made by the abrupt rise of the cliff out of the sea. The land, except for an escarpment, was jungle. The sea was a dark blue, soupy with plankton.

Willie said, “This island is so beautiful.”

Hendra looked at him, seemingly a little puzzled at what he’d said. “You say you have friend. Where?”

“Back in the bungalow asleep. Too much beer.”

They laughed.

“Maybe he want massage?” she asked.

“No,” Willie said, “I don’t think so.”

“You ask. For me.”

“Okay, I’ll ask,” he said, knowing that he wouldn’t. He hadn’t wanted to lie to her. “Forget my friend,” he said. “You’ve lived here all your life, and you’ve never seen the beauty?”

“Sometimes I go to the mainland for shopping,” she said.

Willie had never known anyone so innocent. She had on the same muslin dress, and under it a ragged one-piece blue swimsuit, something a tourist had probably given her. The swimsuit had so many holes in it that she had worn a man’s white T-shirt under it.

Willie helped her put on a snorkel, mask, and fins. He got into the water, and she, with the help of the boatman, followed him over the side of the boat into the water. She and Willie began to snorkel along side-by-side in the plankton-filled water, searching for mantas. Soon one appeared, its mouth gaping open like a trawling net. The tips of its wings rose and fell ever so gently, exposing its belly, which was as white as a cloud. The manta passed by them, turned, and came back their direction again, and this time Willie followed it as far as he could until he could no longer hold his breath, to feel what the manta was feeling. 

When he surfaced the two of them returned to the boat and held onto the gunnel. They pushed their masks back onto their foreheads.

“So beautiful!” Willie said. “What a feeling!”

“So beautiful!” Hendra said. “What a feeling!”

Willie thought he would never forget this moment, bringing joy to Hendra. Life was supposed to be like this, sharing happiness with a woman, not traveling from island to island with Carl. 

Willie and Hendra snorkeled for another hour or so, until Hendra said. “I must go home. My family waiting.”

Hearing this, Willie wondered had if he’d gotten everything wrong about her. Certainly the gap between them had narrowed a little. He was sure she’d felt something. The experience of seeing the mantas must have narrowed the distance between them. 

“Family?” Willie asked.

“My mother and father,” she said, “to cook for them.”

“Yes!” he said. “You must take care of them.”

The boatman started the engine and guided the boat back to the other side of the island. During the short trip the engine noise made it impossible for Willie to talk to Hendra. There were so many things he wanted to tell her, so many things he wanted to know about her, too, but he couldn’t, not with the noise of the engine.

The boatman ran the boat up onto the beach, and Willie hopped out, taking Hendra by the hand and helping her step onto the sand. They walked along the beach to his bungalow. Carl was lying in the hammock, smoking a cigarette.

Willie said to Hendra, “You have a good dinner with your mother and father.” 

“You pay!” she said.

Willie paid her, and she walked off.

“How much was she?” Carl asked.

“It wasn’t what you think.”

“Sorry to hear that.” 

Willie entered the bungalow and went to the mandi and sat on the concrete slab floor and dipped out fresh water from a barrel filled with rain water to wash himself off. 

He dried himself and went out onto the porch. He’d go up to the restaurant later. For now he wanted to enjoy the sunset and the spreading darkness and the appearance of stars. He wished Hendra was there to enjoy it all with him. That would be the beginning of their long lasting love.

After a while Willie got his flashlight, turned it on, and found his way along the beach to the restaurant–unfortunately the only one on the island–and sat with Carl, who had finished his meal—spaghetti—and was having another beer. An empty bottle of Bintang was resting on the table. The waitress came to their table, and Willie ordered grilled fish and nasi goreng, something traditional. Carl had been staring at her while taking Willie’s order. She hurried off to the kitchen.

Willie said. “Can’t you see she’s not interested?”

Carl said. “I’ve had it with this boring island. I want off this rock.”

“I’m staying,” Willie said.

“You’re getting laid. How much was she? You probably paid too much. Bring me another beer!” he shouted, waving the empty bottle of Bintang. “You’d think she would’ve seen the empty when she was her, the bitch.”

Willie was overjoyed. He’d be rid of Carl. He began to think of how he would spend the following day with Hendra. Maybe they’d walk the beach together at sunset before she had to return to her family to cook, maybe sit under a palm holding hands as they watched the waves coming in.

The sound of the ferry arriving from the mainland brought him out of his fantasy. The engine chug, chug, chugged along. Then the boatman cut if off. A silence returned. The ferry rode up on a wave and came to a rest on the beach. Willie heard the excited but nervous laughter of some tourists. 

A minute later they had come up into the lights of the restaurant. One of the tourists was a girl traveling alone, a plump redhead with a green and yellow smear of a tattoo over her right breast. The tourists were met by the caretaker of the bungalows. He led them off to some vacant ones. 

“You’re leaving tomorrow,” Willie said.

Carl rolled himself a cigarette and lit it. He sat there smoking the cigarette. “Maybe not,” he said.

The waitress brought Willie his dinner and Carl his beer and rushed off to another table. 

***

When Willie woke the next morning he was disappointed to see that Carl’s backpack was still in a corner of the bungalow, soiled underwear and T-shirts spilling out of it. The only ferry off the island had already left. Carl was still on the island, and Willie had a pretty good idea where. He and Carl had reached their end.

Carl wasn’t at the restaurant that morning, which came as no surprise to him. For a change, Willie could enjoy himself. He had a banana pancake and coffee and drank the coffee slowly, under the fronds of a palm, listening to the waves falling on the beach. He could make out the sea in the distance, a deep blue in the deep holes, an aqua green up near the beach. Carl, fortunately, wasn’t there. Willie then returned to the bungalow and wrote in his journal about Hendra, and a poem about their time together in the company of the mantas. When he wrote, these experiences of his became more real. To not write was to not know them well, he thought. 

He was finishing up the poem when Carl surprised him by stepping up onto the porch. 

“What a beautiful island!” he said, and spread his arms out to more dramatically express what he had said.

Carl looked at Willie, seeming to expect a reaction, and when none came he laughed to himself before going into the bungalow to gather his clothes and stuff them into his backpack. 

Out on the porch now, his backpack backpack on his shoulders, he said, “Maybe we’ll meet up again.”

“There’s a lot of islands,” Willie said, “thousands.”

Willie lay in the hammock, listening to the splashing of the waves on rocks, and as he did he found himself thinking, more and more of Carl, who was now probably in bed with that redhead. He imagined that they were whispering to each other and sharing intimate jokes and laughs. He shouldn’t have been jealous of Carl–his was a passing sexual encounter–but he was, and to put an end to this irrational envy he had to go and see Hendra. 

He leapt down from the hammock, found his sandals, put them on, and left the bungalow and walked along the beach, hatless under a blazing tropical sun until he came to a spit of glistening white sand that made him squint. Just around this there was a small bay, some wooden fishing boats, blue and yellow, moored there, their bows lolling up and down against the incoming tide. 

He came to Tomita, a few homes made of bamboo and thatch, others of concrete blocks, all along sandy lanes. On the lanes there were a few shops which sold water, bananas, and cigarettes. The shopkeepers all called to him, but he pressed on, ignoring them. He saw that there was a church in the distance and further on a mosque. Tomita was divided into Christian and Muslim neighborhoods. The Muslims seemed to have it worse off. Their homes were made of palm fronds and scraps of plywood and plastic that they probably had scavenged from the beach. In the yards of some of the Christians there were vegetable gardens. 

Willie went over to an old man who was sitting on a log under a palm in front of one of the shops and asked, “Hendra? Do you know where she lives?”

The man squinted up at him, spat some beetle juice into the hot sand, and pointed at a home next to a pile of coconut husks left over from the making of copra. On the roof was a new satellite dish. 

Willie walked down the lane to the home, feeling his heart beating a little faster as he neared it. He stopped at the front door. Inside he heard a man and a woman talking, then the laughter of the woman and the crying of a baby. Willie wondered if this was the right home. He looked back up the lane in the direction of the old man, who nodded his head, to indicate that Willie was at Hendra’s house. 

Willie knocked on the door. The man and woman stopped talking. The baby continued to cry. The door cracked open. There was Hendra, looking back at him. He had expected her to be pleased to see him, but she clearly wasn’t. In a shaft of sunlight Willie saw a child crawling across a linoleum floor. He took all of this in and couldn’t stop himself from shouting, “You! You and I! I thought. . .”

The man had by now come to the door and knocked it all the way open. He said something to Willie in Indonesian and shoved him back with the heel of his hand. 

Willie stumbled and fell into the hot sand. 

Lying in the sand, he yelled back, “I hate you, Hendra! I hate you!”

The man slammed the door shut. Willie heard the bolt of a lock slide shut.

Willie pushed himself up and brushed off the sand from his legs, which only now did he feel was burning him.

He then heard Hendra and the man laughing. 

As Willie walked away the sand pulled at his sandals like tar, and, in the distance, the glare of the sun on the sea seemed to him like flames from hell.


James Roth, who lived and taught in Japan and China for many years, has written several nonfiction pieces, but this will be his first published short story in more than twenty-five years. He completed a historical mystery novel set in Meiji era Japan and looks forward to rewriting many of the stories that have been on his computer’s hard drive for years. Until the Pandemic struck, he was an English Language Fellow in the U.S. State Department’s Language Program at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, where he lived until recently. Now he is in Cape Town, South Africa, waiting out the pandemic, hoping to return to Zimbabwe to continue his fellowship.

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