When the door to the propeller plane closed, Crystal was on her way and I was alone again…but not for long! I sat under the shaded airport waiting area for less than a minute before an old man teetered over to greet me. I was used to being approached by the locals here; it was just part of being a new face in a town of less 200 inhabitants.
The old man hardly breached four feet. In fact, some of the nine year-old girls that were dotting on me to my right were about his size. He looked to be in his mid-seventies or so and of Asian rather than Tahitian descent. Wisps of his long gray hair fluttered at his shoulders while he took my hand in his.
“I Jacques, whas you name?” He asked.
“Leeeez,” I replied, (the easiest French pronunciation).
“Oh, Leeees! Is very prity name. I Chinese doctor. I live here 14 years. You like here?” He almost trembled with excitement as he spoke.
“Oui, c’est fantastique.”
“Oh, tu parle Frances! (Oh you speak French!)”
“Ok, tu vien a ma maison, mangeeeeer? (You come to my house to eeeeeeeeeat?)”
“Ummmm, ok?” …I replied, despite knowing that what I really needed was a nap It appeared as though I would crush his very soul if I refused, though, and Chinese medicine had always interested me. And I didn’t feel much like cooking…so why not?
“Ok, you come 12 o’clock…Okaaaaaaaay?” And proceeded to describe where to find his house. There were only three roads, and everybody knew everybody…so I knew it wouldn’t be tough…
A few hours later, I located his house, across from the Protestant church, and lifted the cord off the nail that held his gate closed.
“Jacques?” I called, pushing my way inside.
“Ouuuuuuuuuiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! Vien. Vien! (Yeesssssssss, Come. Come!)”
He led me through the barren sideyard and pushed past a red curtain and into his home. He led me into the living room where there was a bed and a chair and one of those cats with one paw in the air sitting on a shelf, along with an enormous sea turtle shell and a red-tasseled Chinese calendar. I couldn’t put my finger on the smell that tinged the air—something between iodine and oyster sauce. I tried to take small breaths as he led me past the bare plywood division into the dark kitchen area, where he pulled out a small plastic chair for me and then promptly kissed me on both cheeks, with more saliva than I appreciated. I figured he was just overly excited to have company. His words leapt like musical notes as he served me some powdered juice in an empty yogurt container. Scanning the clutter that he’d pushed to the other end of the table, I noticed various packs of pills, liquid viles, and a revolting morsel of used cotton–brown and twisted—jutting out from the teeth of those medical scissors with the little grippy teeth at the end. My already wavering appetite promptly hit the deck.
I tried to shrug it off, and asked him to tell me how he wound up out here in the outer islands. He had left China with his parents to live in France at only 4 years old and was now 74. He’d come to French Polynesia during the era of nuclear bomb testing, where he’d been a doctor on the one of the main atoll testing sites. I didn’t quite catch what had happened between then and now, but I decided not to pry, and changed the subject to medicine. It soon became clear that he was not a doctor of Chinese medicine; he was schooled as a doctor in France, but was of Chinese descent. Ok, I guess in another sense he was still a ‘Chinese doctor’…but his other responses to my questions didn’t seem to be adding up either…He talked of his houses in both Papeete and France, “big land, biiiiiiiiiiig house!” He said. Looking around I wondered why he chose to stay there, but that wasn’t my business…
I managed to stomach a polite majority of my plate of rice and steamed, despite the horrid spout of used cotton lingering in my peripherals all the while. I told him my need of a safe place to leave Swell while I went back to California for Barry’s memorial, and his eyes lit up.
“Ma cherieeeeeeeeee go to Californieeeeeeeeeeeeee?”
“Yes, I must leave in less than two weeks,” I explained.
“Oh, don’t worry. I help ma cheriiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeee!”
Following a helping of cake that he’d baked himself, he kissed my cheeks again and insisted that we go talk to his friends about a safe place to leave Swell. The truth was that I had already made a thorough scan of the village area. There was no secure spot. With the fetch of 10 miles across the atoll, the wind waves made anchoring near town inarguably too dangerous, and Swell drew too much water to fit inside the tiny marina. The quay to which Swell was currently tied had to be vacated at the arrival of the weekly cargo ships. I mentioned the new boatyard across the way, but he insisted it was much too expensive…
“I pay, ma cherieeeeeeeeee.” Him pay? What? This was getting weird…?
Following lunch, Jacques led me proudly around the village, introducing me as his ‘cherie’ (darling or ‘sweetheart’) in a long drawl of excitement. “Voila ma cheriiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeee!” He’d say to those we passed. Oh dear, this was getting a bit uncomfortable. I realized that he thought I was now his girlfriend!! I did find it remarkable that in the last year or so, it seemed that men of any age found it appropriate to pick up on me, but Jacques could have been my grandfather!
Finally, I made my escapesuffering through two more wet cheek kisses, as long as I agreed to come for lunch the following day!
“Ok, I see you 12 o’clock toooomorrow, cheeerriiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeee?!!”