I was working on a treadmill At Bart’s Gym in Port Moresbywhen my Australian ex showed up at the front door. I could see through the gym and foyer to the ominously large silhouette of him, baseball cap, moustache, bandy legs and all.
“What are you doing here?”
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said, staring. “Oh Nancy” he sighed (in his sotto vocce) “I can’t believe it’s you. I can’t believe you’re here.”
I didn’t hug or kiss him, nothing. I was wary. Once in Uni a freaky snake-handling kid acquired a fatal attraction to me that was repulsive and attractive at the same time, and this was but a brief dress rehearsal for my three years with D, the man who read my diary, cried on cue, and hated everyone I didn’t meet through him. So compelling was this obsession that I felt sick and depleted when he was finally gone.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” he lied. It had been what? Four years.
“You too D, you look happy.”
“Oh no, not me.”
It was decided I should have dinner with him the following night. When he rang to confirm I put my hand over the receiver to get my housemate Douglas’ suggestion of a good Chinese restaurant. And I could feel the heat of D’s ire on my palm, building to imminent explosion because here I was already flaunting association with another man. D picked me up and we drove around Moresby talking a bit, edgily, and when we did finally enter the recommended restaurant Douglas was actually sitting across the room with a group of friends. I waved, and winked conspiratorially. Thank god for witnesses. D grew stiff and quietly livid, almost to the point of walking out. I had to plead for him to sit down again, insisting that Douglaswas only my friend for god’s sake. Welcome back to that familiar feeling of being possessed, adored one minute and despised the next.
Dinner grew friendly with wine, and reached a sparkling accord for an hour or so. The next evening I met him at the Islander Travelodge. When I shut the passenger side door of his enormous electric-locking Pajero, I noticed a stack of newspapers and magazines in the back seat, next to gift wrapped packages and gift bags.
“These are for you,” he gestured.
They were gifts from his travels through America. Newspapers from every town. The New York Times Sunday magazine, the New York Post, then as I looked closer there were papers from every obscure place I had ever lived in the US: the San Francisco Chronicle, The New Mexican, and the Santa Fe Daily. This came from a cross-country drive with his current girlfriend, Angela. He’d driven by my sister’s building in theMission, and apparently sat outside my mother and stepfather’s home inSanta Fe, waiting in a rental car for a while.
“Where was Angela when you did this?”
“At the hotel doing laundry.”
From the small town of my aunt’s bed and breakfast he’d brought The Navajo Times. There were airport gifts like perfume and handbags and my favorite face lotion. A watch and a pretty scarf, and later, back at his big Ela Beach flat, a leather briefcase. The closet had a shelf dedicated to them: a new perfume, a pair of stockings, a pair of gloves. Toiletries, beribboned teddy bears. They were a series of birthday and Christmas gifts he’d never gotten to bestow, he said, and they had a sickening familiarity of Duty Free gestures: the kind of gifts mobsters give their girlfriends.
“I can’t accept these,” I said. “They’re not for me, they’re for Angela or your daughter.”
He lay down on the bed fully clothed. “Join me her for a minute.”
“No, really D.”
“Nothing going. Just a lie-down.”
Idiotically, I complied. Upper arms touching, we stared at the ceiling but I can’t remember what we said. Only that I got up and moved to the front room before long. At first curt about this, he soon followed. We stood on his balcony overlooking town and remembered good times. He cried. I was cold. It also frightened me that I did not share his depth of emotion. This was a man who’d once run naked around a Northern Territory motel parking lot just because I’d asked him to. He was a warm and gentle man who stirred very little in me but friendship, and at this moment, the familiar terror of his wrath. In form, just as I had always done, I taunted him for no good reason. Told him how much I missed my boyfriend in the States. Innocently at first, but then like turning the knife (because it hurt me as well) I told him all about my pilot with whom I’d lived in Dingman’s Ferry, about how he used to kiss me goodbye and then zoom over the house every morning. How he didn’t want to join me in PNG after all, and was probably with someone else now.
Rather than sorry, D seemed pleased. It was a relief to have line drawn between us. He had jumped right into the deep end of his obsession and now I knew he’d start pulling back, as I failed to reciprocate. The pilot didn’t so much bother him as my aloofness to D himself right now, and it wouldn’t be long before he’s start insulting me, sneering, accusing me of whorish and bizarre behavior. His love was a hatred. Reminded me of the stroke my old dog once had, somewhere just outside his brain, the vet told me: it made him cross-eyed, wobbly and weak for a while, but then it went away. I just needed to get home safely before D turned.
“Why do you make me out to be this dream?” I asked. “You ask me to be myself, but when I do, you get nasty.”
It’s true that I could be just a venal and unreflexive myself. ”
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don't know.” And he cried again. Then he called a cab and told me something snide before I left: something about how he was so glad he didin’t live with me any longer, what a hell that had been.
Another evening [listen to me: I went out a second time with him!] we went to the Korean restaurant. It was a maze of semi-private booths and screened off rooms, a good place for politicians to take their girlfriends. The waitress cooked our meal on the table as D told me horrible gossip about people in Lae and Hagen. He wanted me to know that an expat man who had always had an eye for me was said, by an indiscrete chemist to be taking herpes meds. I got up to go.
“Please take me back now.”
“You disgust me,” I said.
And so it went.
The very last time I saw D was at a function for the newly appointed Communications Minister, whom I was keen to interview. My girlfriend Leonie was his cousin and she invited me, we all came with Douglas and moved easily through the crowd of ‘Manus Mafia’. Just as I was being introduced to the Minister I spied D over his shoulder, standing in a corner staring at me. He moved to another wall, talked idly to someone else, and kept a bead on me. I tried to mingle. There was a young British woman who’d been a linguistics student specializing in romance languages and who confessed to finding Pidgin was hard for her. I guessed she wouldn’t be tackling any local languages, then, and she laughed. D was drawing closer. I excused myself, found Leonie, and escaped.
He returned to the States on his holiday the following year, again with Angela (poor sod), and looked up all the remaining places I’d spent my childhood, including Vergennes, Vermont, smallest city in the USA (where he actually drove 13 miles out of town to my grandparents’ lakeshore home.) He staked out all three of my former apartments on the Lower East Side of New York. Months later, over the phone, he admitted all this, and said he’d even driven out to Dingman’s Ferry in search of my love shack---and although he’d never quite found the house, he’d stood on the road somewhere and could imagine the sensation, after my description, of having this man’s plane zoom over at 500 feet, wings dipping down to say hello.
“What was the number of your cabin on Squaw Hollow Trail?”
“My cabin? What, you thinking of going back to find it?”
I was making a music video for Pacific Gold Studios. It starred John Wong and Patti Doi, two of the top singers in the country, both lovely men. Greg Seeto, boss of Pacific Gold, had thought ‘Under the Boardwalk’ would be a great cover to do, not only because John has a real crooner’s voice, but also because both John and Patti are Islands boys: Patti’s from East New Britain, and John’s from New Ireland. Under the Boardwalk boys. Unfortunately Greg did not go for my idea of big John wearing a laplap on a boardwalk along the main boardwalks of Rabaul (this was before the volcanic eruption that destroyed those boardwalks). He nearly gagged at the thought of putting John in village clothes. John is a big barrel chested, moon faced islander, with beautiful almond eyes and a huge smile. He sported a wicked little goatee at the time, and Greg thought he’d be a hot crossover in black jeans, open shirt and steel tipped boots. The Melanesian Johnny Cash. I walk the boardwalk. Patti, on the other hand, was a Tolai cutey: snub-nosed and fresh-faced, he liked to wear circular blue granny glasses.
So Pacific Gold sent one of their producers, Mike Wild, to supervise the construction of a set in a community theatre, with a slatted boardwalk running across the stage and an upturned banana boat surrounded by white sand. We shot the bejesus out of it one long afternoon. I’d borrowed a pro Hi8 camera from Chris Owen and wanted a series of long takes to begin the clip, thinking this would be arty. John and Patti worked tirelessly, lipsynching like experts, unfliching on the close-ups, full energy for every take.
Oh when the sun comes out
And there’s tar up on the roof
And your shoes get so hot
You wish your feet were fireproof
Under the boardwalk
Out by the sea
On a blanket with my baby
That's where I'll be
The next day we moved out of town to a big wooden dock belonging to Loloata Resort. We made a day of it, and all sort of friends came and picnicked on the dock, while I lined up a double row of beautiful babes dangling their legs in the water. John walked through lipsynching as they gave him over-the-shoulder come-hither smiles. Then we shot from under the boardwalk, from one side and another, with different poses, at different paces. Mike Wild and I had different ideas, so we shot everything twice.
Under the boardwalk
Out of the sun
Under the boardwalk
We’ll be having some fun
Under the boardwalk
People walkin above
Under the boardwalk
We’ll be fallin in love
Under the boardwalk
I had exactly one four hour block at the post production studio to slop it all together. A real rush job, slightly out of synch and not fine tuned. I thought it was good though, and just needed more time. The policy at Pacific Gold was to shell out K500 max, for pre and post-production, so I’d have to pitch for more money. It wasn’t grat, I have to admit, it was too slow, with too few cuts (I has some stupid idea about counter-pacing). But Greg Seeto hated it. Hated the clothes John and Patti wore, hated the cuts, the pace, even the drop-outs on the old used tape they’d given me to shoot on (because they wouldn’t foot for new tape). In the end Mike Wild recut it into something else, something better.
I was introduced to Anna and Toby. Anna was a Belgian criminologist at the National Research Institute and Toby was her Kerema boyfriend, appropriately enough, an ex-raskal. I myself might have chosen another brand of informant/lover, but to each his own. Toby was a professional lay-about. He did have a chiselled lean look, his face framed by long dreadlocks and body always nattily attired in hippie chic. Anna had a dress code for her posse. She herself was often in midriff shirts and miniskirts, her hair wrapped in a scarf and arms tinkling with bangle bracelets, an outdated Madonna. They’d adopted Toby’s nephew, a little boy named Joe who epitomized the same look for infants, with cornrolls and bright Oshkoshoveralls, that sort of thing.
“Eeeeuuu,” Anna would say,” I just hate this terrible mismatched way Papua New Guineans wear their clothes!”
Vivid and fun, Anna always had people around the house. She’d put on a Senegalese CD and tell stories about Toby’s sexual stamina, throwing her head back in a big open laugh. Proof of his reputed sorcery powers came when he’d found a necklace that had been stolen from her in the dump by Koki market, far across town. Anna also insisted he knew exactly what she was thinking sometimes. She say this stepping over Toby’s food on the floor, a breach of taboo that would send them both into peels of laughter.
Easter 1994 a bunch of us went to Hula up the coast for the weekend. We traveled in a convoy of cars, and for some reason we left after work Friday. I took three girlfriends in my little Suzuki (the car Douglas once said he’d never before seen off blocks), which was a stupid idea as it became dark right away, and there we were like live bait barreling along in a motorized go-cart. But there were other cars around us, so we felt safe. Gima, a beautiful Hula girl, sat up front with me and worked the slippery radio dial, because we needed to banish the dead quiet outside.
Lydia, a visiting Belgian consultant with a sweet tooth for dangerous men, sat in back with a quiet highlands girl named Gloria. We sang along badly to Steve Lahui, the Navigators, Basil Greg and other PNG pop bands. And the volume went way up whenever ‘Under the Boardwalk’ came on, which was climbing the charts at the time.
Oh when the sun omes out
And there’s tar up on the roof
And your shoes get so hot
You wish your feet were fireproof...
Then it started raining. We were bouncing along badly paved roads with toy windshield wipers. The rain was blinding, but at least we could follow backlights on the cars ahead. We turned off to a rutted dirt track, which slowed our pace, but we couldn’t stop because the rain would soon make the road impassable. At one point we had to, though, because one of the heavier cars ahead was bogged and needed a tow.
Just then a series of Land Rovers tried to squeeze by coming from the other direction. It was the local Minister of Parliament and his mob. They leaned out and told us not to bother, the road’s so bad ahead we’d never make it. Not in that car, ladies. But at this point our escorts had moved ahead and we were halfway there.
We got bogged a little later, and all got out and pushed the car. Twice. One section of road was completely washed out so we forged a path through the tall pitpit grass nearby. Then the muffler fell off, so we had to string it on and continue under the noise of a prolonged honk. But finally, astonishingly, we made it to Hula, where everyone had already arrived. We broke out a picnic at someone’s mother’s house in the village, and later laid down a great tarp on the beach. There we told stories and scratched sandfly bites until we fell asleep. In the morning, Gima and others were aghast to see Anna walk down the beach with Toby in a bikini, turning every single head casting a huge fishing net along the shore.
Back in Moresby, I got into a whopping fight with Albert Toro. We’d been working together in his production company Tukana Media. Because I wanted to keep my pilot’s license valid, I would every now and then take up a cessna from the Port Moresby Aero Club with one of the Instructors there. It was just a way of keeping me current, a way to relax and fly low over beautiful aquamarine waters. The Instructor, whose name escapes me now, was a nice guy, a former teacher who took to flying later and could tell me good stories about setting down at Daugo island, out of fuel, and getting birds stuck in his fuselage, and how villagers sometimes sabotage planesby putting water in the tank.
I always flew with a copilot, because I didn’t know the airport, couldn’t understand the tower calls in the PNG-inflected English, and didn’t have experience flying in such heat. And because it’s more fun with someone else. o one afternoon I invited Albert’s son, Sobo, who was about twelve then. He wanted more than anything to be a helicopter pilot flying in and out of the mining camps in PNG. That was what he ate, played and slept to do. When I asked him to come, he jumped at the chance. The night before the flight, this very shy kid who spoke no English, even called me at home to ask for a lift in the early morning. He said his father didn’t want him to go, but he really really wanted to go. Nancy, mi gat bikpela laik long dispela samting. My heart ached for him because I could imagine what a disappointment it would be if he didn’t get to go. I wondered how many cool things a kid like him got to do and how long it would be before another chance like this came along.
I asked to speak to Albert, but Sobo said he was already drunk and passed out, having made a big announcement about Sobo not going, it’s too dangerous and he’d be late for school. Then Albert’s wife Theresa got on the line and said there was no fuel in the van to drop Sobo off, but she really didn’t want to get involved. I told Sobo that I’d call back in the early morning, and I’d ask his father then. When I rang in the morning he said his father was still asleep. So I said I’d just drive by and see.
Sobo was getting into the van when I pulled up, to be dropped at school, and Albert came out to the upstairs porch saying I should go, to leave his son alone.
“Emi pikinini bilong mi Nancy !”--He’s my son!
But I yelled back, asking how he could do this to him when he’s waited all week to go, this is a big thing for him, and all kinds of things that were none of my business to say. It’s entirely possible Albert had seen me handle a car and feared for Sobo’s life.
“Yu wanem kain biket man?!” What kind of bighead are you?
“Yu wanem kain meri kam stilim pikinini blong mi—longlong missus ya!”
Some wantok of Albert’s sitting under the mango scolded me as I got into my car, saying Albert is a very important man, and I shouldn’t talk to him like that.
“I know, I know,” I fumed, and sped away.
Meanwhile Anna was having trouble with Toby. He’d disappear for a couple of days and Anna would go ballistic, and call me late at night insisting I accompany her to the Hohola settlements where his sister lived. We’d pull up to the little wooden house and wake everyone with the headlights. Anna would stride out for a screaming match with Toby, leaving relatives and myself dumbfounded and embarrassed.
At some point I just refused to come along anymore. And just about then, my role was taken over a young woman named Nadia. She arrived from Sydneyon some sort of cultural exchange visa and went to work recording a cassette with studio musicians at Chin H Meen Studios. Her voice was deep and sultry, and she’d composed a handful of terrific reggae-calypso songs. But her real claim to fame was the fact she’d been raised in Hagen. Her stepfather had been an anthropologist conducting fieldwork for couple of years outside Hagenwhen she was a child, so she called herself aHagenmeri.
The consummate artist, Nadia knew no doors or time constraints. Instead of discouraging Toby from pissing off to Hohola, she’d join him, forgetting recording and rehearsal dates at the studio. She’d arrive with entourage at Chris Owen’s at any hour, and he took to hiding rather than answering his door, just to get his work done. At one point the High Comm was paying for her to stay at a top Port Moresbyhotel, and she invited everyone to come eat on her tab, but felt deeply disappointed later, when the High Comm wouldn’t cover her phone bill. This was a woman whose stage dress was a braless leotard and thigh-split skirt, in a country where where back-up singers in music videos had been pack-raped by relatives for dancing in public. It wasn’t as if we didn’t all wear short skirts, because we did. We’d all go dancing at the Moonlight disco where everyone would line up like a hoe-down and dance the particular knee-wobbling, hip-thrusting, or wrist-twisting dance of their province.
The drama of Nadia’s career amplified when she returned from a tour of PNG, New Caledoniaand the Solomon Islands with Chin H Meen artists, and had in tow a very nice Solomons boyfriend named David. It emerged alittle later that David had left his job and his fiance to follow Nadia. But this was all right, as Nadia needed a manager. Besides, the unspoken but much whispered truth was that Nadia came from a wealthySydneyfamily and her uncle was a major player in the Porgera mine. He was the one who’d organized the cultural exchange visa, although it remained unclear what precisely was being exchanged. Still, it was terrible to hear later that David’s fiance at home had committed suicide. Undaunted, Nadia was about to perform at the annual Hiri Moale Festival in Moresby. She needed a ride from the hotel and somehow my friend Douglas was roped in. He and his other passengers waited forty minutes for Nadia and David to emerge from the hotel, and when they did, she reassured them.
“You know they’ll wait for me to start.”
Closer to the fairgrounds, she wanted to take a back route. She feared the crowds would see her and riot.
“Oh, I think we’ll be all right,”Douglas assued her, refusing to drive her to the performer’s tent. “You’re welcome,” he said as she dashed out and slammed the door.