Suzanna’s 60-year-old back is tight from caring for her 80-year-old mother who is bound to a wheelchair. “I lift her from the bed into the chair, from the chair to the toilet, and back all over again,” she sighs. “It’s a lot.”
Suzanna lies out on top of my Therm-a-rest and exhales “nn-nn” when I push my thumbs on the knot directly.
“Is this okay?”
I knead and press until something in her loosens.
My mother taught me to give massages when I was eight years old. I remember practicing for the first time on my grandmother, how soft her face looked after even the simplest of backrubs. Since then, massage has been one of my favorite gifts to give––all I need is my hands and someone in need (oil is a luxury).
Ili is next. She takes off her shirt and lies facedown, tilting her neck to the right. I unhook the four clasps on her bra. Ili has three tattoos on her upper back, all in black ink: a skull with two flowers coming out of the ear, the word LOVE, and a line about an inch long without explanation or context.
After the massage, Ili takes my hand. “You come?”
I nod and shrug a sulu around my hips. We follow the footpath to the next village over, Levuka-i-Gau, her home. Mango seeds litter the path between. She points up to the mango trees where the fruit is just starting to get ripe. I ask Suzanna when they will be ready to eat.
“Not yet. Soon.”
We pass two bulls grazing in the tall grass. I put my pointer fingers on either side of my head, bow my neck down low, and stick out my rear, imitating the bull’s proud stride, defraying any tension by making fun of myself.
“Eeeo! Yes!” Ili shouts, exuberant.
I swivel my hips, stop walking, back it up, get low, pop up, vogue, freestyle with my wrists arching high to the sky, and throw in a few rib isolations for good measure.
Ili laughs her tall laugh and joins in. “Hop hop! We hop hop!”
Knowing how to dance (or at least being uninhibited in doing so) has gotten me far while traveling. What I can’t communicate verbally, I can say with my body. Plus, it just feels so good to move, to cut the persistent tropical languor with a goofy groove, to let my body run free.
I follow Ili off the main path as she takes my hand and leads me into her village. Bright roosters and peeping chicks peck the ground. The passage snakes between a cluster of tin houses. We wind our way to the water/shore/seawall where children splash and swim in high tide.
Ili’s husband chops wood with a long-necked axe. She greets him with a warm smile and insists that he puts his axe down for a moment to shake my hand. The smell of wood smoke and curry wafts from a fire and an accompanying big pot.
Ili reaches for my hand and we walk further up the hill to meet Suzanna’s mother. Suzanna wheels her into the main room of the house.
“Take off your shoes,” Ili reminds me. “Tombe. Sit.”
I take a seat on a squishy foam couch against the wall. Suzanna pushes the chair over a woven mat and as close to me as the wheels will come.
Her mother looks me in the eye and says a sentence in Fijian. I look to Suzanna, the question in my glance.
“She says she can’t walk.”
I touch her mother’s shoulder and say how strong she is. The radio hums away in Fijian, the rhythm of the words both familiar and strange. We hold each other’s eyes for a second, saying everything and nothing at once.
“We go?” Ili says.
I thank Suzanna and her mother––“Vinaka vaku levu!”––and follow Ili out the door and up a hill. We pass a group of Fijian men who lean against the trunks of tall coconut trees, passing a cigarette between their lips.
Ili guides me into the commissary where she introduces me to Lucy. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust from the brightness of outside. Lucy and I exchange a handshake and a kiss on the cheek. Then Lucy busies herself putting things into a plastic shopping bag. The sound of it rustles in the cavernous room.
With my eyes finally acclimated, I look around to take stock of the room. A gaudy, golden-lettered Santa Claus sign wishes people who exit a Merry Christmas. Two pairs of cleats sit lonely on a high shelf. Boxes on boxes of chicken flavored ramen noodles lean on each other in the room’s far corner. There’s a mug full of packaged toothbrushes near the cash.
Lucy hands the shopping bag to me: a package of butter biscuits and tropical juice mix.
“I didn’t bring any money––” I protest, but Lucy waves her hands nonchalantly, insisting that I take the gift. I bow my head in thanks.
I follow Lucy and Ili into an adjacent room that houses woven mats, a Hollywood-esque depiction of a blonde Eve reaching for the forbidden fruit, and a shelf with seashells of various sizes and colors. Lucy calls her daughter in from the kitchen and asks her something in rapid-fire Fijian that I have no hope of understanding.
In the meantime, Lucy takes out a sewing box and unravels a spool of brown thread. In one swift motion she fixes the needle’s eye on one end.
Lucy’s daughter returns minutes later with two handfuls of yellow flowers. She takes a moment to look me from head to toe, and then sits down next to her mother, biting off the end of the flowers and handing them to Lucy, who threads them onto the string, one by one.
“Bua. That’s how we call the flowers,” Ili explains, lifting the completed necklace up and over my head. “It smells good, mm?”
I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I smell sweet and feminine. Ili puts one of the bua flowers behind my ear, too, for good measure. I feel gorgeous.
Lucy calls her eldest son in from the yard where he was smoking and gives him a short sentence of instruction. He jogs out of the room and reenters a few minutes later with a coconut that I can only presume he has climbed up a tree to fetch. Lucy’s daughter finds a sharp knife in the kitchen and hacks off the coconut’s top in three bits. She hands me the coconut to drink.
Now not only do I smell sweet, but my palate is full of it, too.
Ili and I dance and laugh the whole way home.
Such grace, the act of giving. Hands to hands.