By Mark Ulyseas
For The Bali Times
This incident occurred last month. Names and places have been changed.
Mama wipe the blood off my face
I canâ€™t see through it anymore
I need someone to talk to and a new hiding place
Feel like Iâ€™m looking at heavenâ€™s door
Mama I can hear the thunder roar
Making its way down Godâ€™s distant shore
I can hear it calling for my soul
Feel like Iâ€™m knocking on heavenâ€™s door
– Bob Dylan
Michelle was a troubled soul, all wrapped in black, striding the neon lit streets of Kuta looking for solace amidst the adrenaline sweeping the night.
She walked into the crowded warung and sat down on the vacant chair at my table. She smiled wanly at me and looked away somewhat self-conscious, clutching herself. Her short, cropped black hair, almond eyes and porcelain skin were fascinating. But her clothes intrigued me: the full-sleeve black blouse, back sarong and black scarf around her neck.
â€œYouâ€™re Muslim? You shouldnâ€™t be eating here; this place serves Babi Guling (roasted sucking pig),â€ I said.
â€œNo, no, I am Catholic,â€ she said in a thick French accent.
Wayan, the proprietor, walked over and handed her the menu.
â€œYou suggest something because I am vegetarian,â€ she asked.
â€œGado Gado (boiled vegetable salad) for her, and a bottle of the cheap French wine, chilled, on my bill, thanks, Wayan.â€
After the first glass of wine, which she drank like a hussy, she loosened up and without much prompting launched into confessional mode, narrating her life. It was like a play by Peter Handke â€“ the audience bearing the full force of harsh truths without the cushioning of soft words.
Michelle lives in Paris. She is 25 years old with only a just-concluded 5-year relationship under her belt. No guilt of one-night stands or indiscretions in darkened doorways. A few years back she developed a non-contagious incurable skin disease all over her body, except her face and neck. Her then-boyfriend stopped making love to her and within a year walked out of her life, afraid that she had leprosy.
Presently she is the co-owner of an art gallery in Paris with a man who, she says, sexually harasses her. He has tried on many occasions to wrestle her to bed and has repeatedly told her that no man would want to be with her in her present state and that he was actually doing her a favor. Apparently he is married and has two children.
Michelle wants out of the business but she is stuck as the large investment that has been made comes mainly from a bank loan. Her trip to Bali, the second in 10 years, has a purpose â€“ to end the pain.
â€œDo you know how I look under these clothes?â€
Michelle lifted a part of a sleeve, revealing a scaly inflamed surface, like an underdone steak.
â€œItâ€™s all over my body. It itches. I need sleeping pills at night. I feel like one of those dogs on the streets of Bali â€“ beautiful but afflicted by ugliness, destined to suffer the scourge until death. I want to die. I want to walk naked into the sea on a moonless night. I want to dwell in the arms of the Goddess of the Sea. The Balinese have told me that if I wear green, the Goddess will take me. Do you know, whenever I swim in the sea, the itch goes away? Itâ€™s like a balm, not only for my body, but also for my spirit.â€
I kept quiet, trying hard not to concentrate on her words, for the feeling of acute hopelessness was all-pervasive.
Michelle stared at me for sometime and then reached to touch my hand, which I slowly withdrew because I was a coward. I was terrified of being infected by her disease.
The look she gave me was one of resignation, like a street dog beaten into submission, waiting for the final verdict, when death envelops all.
Beneath the exterior of her inflamed body I knew resided a soul yearning for the Promised Land to take away the suffering and to give her peace and tranquility while she slept.
The warung had emptied out. It was past midnight and Wayan gave me the signal to leave by having the floor under our table swept. I paid the bill and we walked out into the roar of the night.
A taxi pulled up on the kerb and honked. She opened the door and glanced at me. I shook my head and gently told Michelle to go home to Paris for Bali gave only life to all who came to suck on its nectar; death was not an option for her, here.
Michelle kissed me on the cheek and whispered in my ear, â€œI will return home to try one more time and if it doesnâ€™t work I will come back to Bali to rest forever in its embrace.â€
Before I could reply, she got into the taxi, which sped into the rabid traffic. For a few moments I stood on the road, then lit a cigar to calm the feeling of despair that had caught me in its vice-like grip.
That night I drove home to Janis Joplin’s gut-wrenching Cry Baby and the question that sometimes comes back to me whenever I visit that warung: Could it be that some people, just like Michelle, arrive at heaven’s door but do not have the strength to knock on it?
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om