Flipper Does Tahiti
© Copyright 2012 by Steven Hunley
Photo by Louan García on Unsplash
Tahiti. Somehow we’d got our butts to Tahiti. Why? I said it was Paul’s fault. Gauguin had run off there and I wanted to know why. I figured if it was good enough for Gauguin, Captain Cook, and Somerset Maugham, it was good enough for me. That was my excuse. For Kristina it could have been the fragrant vanilla plantations, the lush tropical scenery, or the pounding surf. But it wasn’t. She needed no excuse. I was the kind of a guy who needed an excuse; she was the kind of a girl who didn’t. We scraped up the money and there we were. But we’d cut it real close, too close. We had to leave by tomorrow or be out of funds. So we were laying our francs on the rattan table counting them up. We needed to eat.
“There’s four francs and change,” she said. I laid down a curled-up five-franc note.
“Here’s another five,” I said.
“Good,” she said, “That’ll be enough. No more avocados!”
We’d been stealing avocados off trees. They’re plentiful in Tahiti, and grow so large the branches bend under their weight ‘till they touch the ground. I often wondered how many Gauguin had eaten when he was down and out.
“Let’s get ready,” she said from pure hunger, “Now.”
I put on my last clean clothes while she slipped into blue and white dress printed with hibiscuses. She started to brush her long blond hair in the dresser mirror. After she finished we gathered up the francs and change. She gave herself a spritz of perfume at the same time I doused myself in cologne.
“Ready?” I asked.
“My appetite is more than ready,” she answered. “Let’s go.”
We walked out, feet stepping on white flagstones, set in green grass, between tall brown coconut trees that reached all the way into the tropical sky and headed to the restaurant straight out of Somerset Maugham or Joseph Conrad.
They had tables outside, twenty-five yards from the beach. The sun had just gone down leaving romantic afterglow in its place. Moorea sat off quietly in the distance. This part of Tahiti is protected by a reef so there are no immense breakers, just wavelets lapping the white coral sand. The only other sound was the trade winds sneaking between the palms, leaving only a whisper. We sat down at a table with a white linen tablecloth and examined the menu and decided on French onion soup. With that we’d get a baguette and fill ourselves. The waiter appeared. Not exactly a stereotype, he was more a prototype, slim, slick-haired and quite formal in his black and white attire. He should have been waiting on a table somewhere on the Champs Ellysees.
“French onion soup for two,” I ordered imperiously.
Kristina started to laugh. We’d eaten cheap before and she knew we would again. It had become a joke between us, a cheap joke at that. We’d traveled the world together on a shoestring, always staying in cheap hotels, always starving, just to see the variety of its peoples and it’s geographic wonder.
The restaurant was nearly empty. We were savoring the quiet. There is something in French Polynesia that soaks into you. It’s right, it’s calm, it’s beautiful. But you have to be quiet. You have to let it soak. Then, after a while you feel, “I’m right, I’m calm, I’m beautiful.” Man or woman it just soaks in.
soup and baguette arrived and we dug in. After my first taste of
soup I bit a piece of bread and decided,
“Nothing can bother me here.” I was wrong.
The clatter of people was approaching. We heard their voices, two small voices and one grown-up one. Bursting from the shadows were two girls about nine and one mother. Like us they were Americans. One girl had blond hair like the Mom. From that, and the fact she was being exceedingly bratty we assumed she was the daughter. By bratty I mean loud and demanding. Tahiti hadn’t soaked into them yet. They had just arrived and were still carrying as baggage the noise of America. Mom was continually searching through her purse, probably for her valiums. Thus occupied she didn’t notice the beach, the sea, the palms, or anything else, just the contents of her purse. The waiter gave them the menu and strolled off. We sipped our soup and ate our bread and tried to be content.
The waiter returned. Mom asked him what they had.
“We have…” he said, and proceeded to list every single fish in French Polynesia, ending in the magic word, “Mahi-Mahi.” Blond daughter seemed to hear this word only. It probably appealed to her sonically. It does have appeal to the ear, you have to admit. So she started,
“Mahi-Mahi Mommy, I want Mahi-Mahi,”
She held up her arms, clenched her fists, and began to scream it over and over.
It became for her a chant. And she would have her way.
“Mahi-Mahi Mommy, I want Mahi-Mahi!”
This begun to grate upon our ears. It broke the continuity of our evening. You know how I hate broken continuity. At this point I leaned over to Kristina and said,
A surfer girl, and therefore an expert on seafood, she knew all the fish by their common names. But this was no fish.
“It’s dolphin,’ she replied in a whisper.
“Oh,” I said gravely.
Mom was trying vainly to offer alternatives to a child she had spoiled rotten long ago. It was no use.
“I want Mahi-Mahi,’ the child bellowed at the top of her lungs.
Mom called the waiter over.
“What’s Mahi-Mahi?” she queried.
He thought quickly.
“Oh,” he replied, “It’s marinated in lemon, butter and garlic. It’s very good.”
I think that he somehow knew about American T.V.viewing habits, and this knowledge had informed his response. Still, this seemed to satisfy her. Her next comment was,
“We’ll,” she said pointing to her daughter and herself, “have Mahi-Mahi. And she’ll have,” she said pointing to the other child, “chicken.”
“Very well Madame,” he replied curtly, and strolling off, disappeared.
By this time my last supper in Tahiti was spoiled. It was ruined, done, over with, and nothing could save it. Again I was wrong. Kristina would see to that.
As their plates were started on, ours were just being finished. Our last bit of baguette was being dipped in the last drop of onion soup. It was over. I could no longer hear waves lapping the white coral sand, nor the winds whispering as they slid between the palm fronds. Feeling quite finished I sighed, dropped my napkin on the tablecloth and helped Kristina with her chair. Turning to leave I stepped behind Mom, then past her. Noticing Kristina wasn’t behind me I turned to see that she was just four steps away, almost directly behind Mom. She could easily catch up. But then she slowed, at the same time bowing her head near Mom’s ear. The two girls were greedily stuffing themselves now and so, silent. As soft as it was spoken I could still hear her whisper in Mom’s ear,
“By the way… Mahi-Mahi… is…dolphin.”
She crossed behind her, then in the other ear said with an even softer tone, “Yeah. You just ate Flipper.”
That’s what I liked about Kristina, she could be benevolent and informative.
I grabbed her hand as we prepared to walk back into the shadows. Again I was aware of the waves lapping gently against the white coral. Again palms rustled and swayed. I turned to catch one last glimpse of Mom. Mom was still sitting, immobile, staring silently at her plate. She hadn’t moved an inch. Tahiti regained her silent beauty by leaps and bounds. I guess it was soaking into Mom.
was, that’s for sure.
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