I had set out to describe – kind of vavoom destination style - a long weekend I spent in Waiheke Island just before Christmas, but instead I keep coming back to this string in my head linking a honey and vineyard-saturated island off of Auckland to Antarctic-battered Invercargill, a place that couldn’t be less vavoom, and now l can’t pull the two apart.
I got to Waiheke on a Friday, still wearing my work coat with unreturned second keys, scone crumbs, gum wrappers and work receipts in the pockets; I walked from the boat to the place I had booked, sticking to the grassy verge of a road that went in and out of afternoon light through the bush. I shifted my carry-on bag from one shoulder to the other, looking at the free folded map I’d taken from the ferry terminal and holding it up. The sun hit the sides of my sunglasses, making me squint, and I kept charging down the wrong roads, thinking they connected until some kids on bikes pointed me down the path that cut through the bush and led to the road I was looking for. I was limping a little, and annoyed, by the time I saw the tops of tents on the lawn first, through the trees, then a roof, a porthole window, and steps leading down to bean bags scattered around the deck of the main house where my boots echoed off the wood. Reggae music mix was coming from a stereo in the kitchen. I watched as a guy below with long dark dreads did a cannonball into a rock pool and then backstroked his way to the side. A leap up and out, a tugging up of soggy shorts, and he walked a few feet away to a Jacuzzi, where he slowly lowered himself in, arranging his dreads over the side, just behind him, as the steam rose around his face. On an upper deck covered in drying board shorts and bikini tops, a girl was trading beer space in the outdoor fridge covered in Jaigermeister stickers for a bottle of vodka.
I assessed this all woodenly –sunglasses still on - at the reception desk. I felt like an alien creature sent to destroy mankind by first blending in, pretending to be a relaxed and fun person.
That morning at the airport bookstore I had bought Gone Girl, and had read a few chapters on the ferry trip to the island as Auckland’s skyline disappeared and the wind whipped at the jackets and dresses of the passengers standing all around where I was sitting. It was a novel about a woman who suspects her new husband wants to kill her and every so often I would look up and watch the people from the wedding parties travelling over with department store bags of wrapped gifts hooked on their arms – the woman who cut my hair the next day said 20 per cent of New Zealand weddings happened in Waiheke – and I wondered if I should put the book away, to restore equilibrium to the boat, but then I’d pick it up again because the heroine talked like I do and I wanted to know how the me in an alternate life gets into that kind of situation and then how she gets out of it.
Later, checked into the hippie homestead with folded linen on my lap, I sat on my tiny bed, hungry, but torn. I had food with me, but I didn’t want to make dinner in the communal kitchen, because it would mean I would probably have to speak to people. I thought about this dilemma for awhile, staring at the wall, hands settled politely. Then I took off my work jacket and my boots and took out my sandals and a sundress. I put the linen on the bed and my book in a satchel, put my earphones on, pulled my iphone out and turned on music, and walked into town, down through Little Oneroa reserve and Pohutukawa trees in full Christmas bloom, a bright, punk red. People were still in the waves, even though the sun had gone down.
I hated that I had every opportunity for rest all around me, but I couldn’t flip that switch to let it in. I used to dive right into beautiful, free places and absorb them and not fear long, blank spaces of time, but now there open sesame process with an access code that mysteriously alters, leading me away from feeling pressured to frantically produce something, anything, and just hide out and be still for a little while.
There’s breathing exercises to do this, or the visualising of a still pool of water, or a sunset. Or, for natural-born loners who have to fake extrovertism during the work week, there are nice dinners, alone, with wine, wearing a favourite lip gloss and nail polish and a new bracelet, in a town on an island where no one knows you.
There’s an art to this. You have to choose the right kind of table in the right kind of eating establishment to do the fork-winding and drinking and staring at nothing and reading, especially when it’s a Friday night at the beginning of summer. Outside that night it was warm and people were on decks and laughing, touching each other’s elbows as they made their points and running fingers through their hair and looking over their shoulder at the boats in the water and the stars coming out.
I did find an Italian restaurant for this, one with spaghetti to be wound around a fork, and four hours, nine chapters and about a hundred horrified facial expressions later, I left the place with a deep, deep hatred of the heroine, but with an unshakable love of the Marsala-drenched Tiramisu I had just finished, remembering just in time that I was not at home, watching back episodes of Offspring on my laptop in bed, and it was not cool to delicately run a finger along the bottom of the bowl and lick it. At some point between the tomato and basil bruschetta and the scallops the waitress had come by and had switched on the lamp above my table for me as I read. All night she had felt like a guardian of this zone I was happily building dream sandcastles in; I almost expected her to check my temperature and smooth away the hair from my forehead as she left with the wine bottle. I had had two glasses and I’m a lightweight so even the stars looked delicious as I walked carefully down the steps, hand on railing. I had marked my place in the book with a serviette, and couldn’t wait to keep reading. There was a trail above the ocean that went back to Little Oneroa and as I walked it, thinking about how the story had changed on me so fast and then thinking how I wanted to be able to do that, to hold someone captive in a restaurant for four hours with a strong storyline; and then I just thought how very fine it felt to be on an island, at night, just looking up at the stars, and down at the sea, and how I had three more days of this place all before me – I had already planned to read all night, then soak in the spa in the morning and nap until my facial and maybe book a pedicure for the afternoon. I heard myself say out loud Your table is waiting. And I had to think about why I said that at that moment. Then I remembered and it made me grin a bit, at how I’d pulled that one out of my head.
On a Saturday in Invercargill, during March, which was a difficult month for me, I woke up and decided I needed to put on a dress, and get my hair cut then go out to breakfast. I needed a plan. I needed lists, fresh goals. I had bills to pay, all the stupid mundane bills that you put off doing all month but bills like parking tickets can be that one thing you can take control of, when another part of you feels like everything is just a downward spiralling mess and you just wants to stay in bed until it all solves itself.
I ordered eggs and a coffee and went to bar table by the window which had chairs tucked underneath. I like the deep-seated booths, but of course those are for two people or more on busy Saturday mornings. I didn’t really mind the barstools. My coffee came. I stared off and drank it. A few chairs away, there was a guy on his laptop, and he started talking. I thought he was on his phone, but realised he was talking to me. I turned to him and answered back because I’m a nice person and it’s Invercargill, not New York City, and even if he was a psycho killer I probably work with his cousin, and he moved down to the seat next time mine, to show me what he was working on on his laptop, and I resigned myself to eating my eggs, when they came, while he talked. If he was interested, really, in anything I had to say, this would have been bearable. But it was evident pretty quickly that it didn’t matter what I thought about anything, he just wanted to talk and have someone, anyone, respond. I understand that this usually comes from loneliness, and I hate people being lonely. But it made me really sad that the spiritual revival bill writing morning I had planned, would now be spent trying to arrange my face into appropriate facial expressions.
The waitress came over with my breakfast. She swooped in really. She looked at me and at him. Then in this slightly affected five-star dining establishment voice and said to me pointedly, ‘your table is waiting.’
She stood there awkwardly with the eggs and a giant pepper grinder like I was an idiot. I didn’t understand.
‘Your table,’ she said again, in the voice, with new urgency. ‘It’s waiting for you.’
Then she left with my eggs and started walking towards one of the booths. I picked up my coffee and my papers, apologised to the guy with the laptop, and followed the waitress to the table I hadn’t asked for.
‘You didn’t need that this morning,’ she said, putting down my plate and serviette and silverware and then showering the eggs with the cracked pepper. I realised then how haggard I probably looked, which was depressing. I sat down obediently, thinking okay so you and I are terrible terrible people. We’re going to get in big trouble for not being nice girls; that poor guy... Then: So I can I just do that?The whole morning began to gain this whole new sense of liberation. I was giving off the vibe of someone wounded, weakened, vulnerable to predators who had moved in to pounce on the last of my energy at the watering hole. But that morning I had this protectoress who had just given me permission to be a mess. And now I had the booth.
I sat there for hours, triumphant. I spread Home and Garden magazines and bills all over the place and ordered more coffee, called my brother, texted friends, made plans to run a marathon and go to surf camp in Bali. I took a magazine quiz and didn’t like the result so I took it again, lying a little bit, and got the answer I wanted. I increased the amount going into my long term savings account by $25. I paid all my parking tickets. I ordered the lemon cake for lunch.
It didn’t solve anything massive in my life that Saturday morning; but I got traction, and I got a little bit of myself back. I go back to that cafe most Saturdays now, even for a takeaway coffee, out of loyalty.
In Waiheke, after that walk home from the restaurant, I came back and met the grandson of a Mayan revolutionary on the deck above the rock pool and Jacuzzi eating olives and pita bread with humus under Christmas lights. When I am exhausted the first thing to disappear is my curiosity of other people, but I came back from dinner full wonder for everything, and when I rounded the corner and everyone was there – the guy with dark dreads, the girl loading the beer fridge, plus ten other people around a big, long wooden table covered in wine bottles – and it seemed rude and silly to go to bed, so I grabbed a wine glass from the kitchen and came back out. Some of my best friends in life I have found at backpackers on nights like this, and I love that this underworld of jobless, wandering adventurers has always existed, around long tables illuminated by Christmas lights, with stories to tell, and all night to tell them, which is a whole other kind of table that was waiting for me.
The grandson of the Mayan revolutionary didn’t introduce himself that way, but as a painter on his way back from Nepal to Mexico for Christmas. He was a Buddhist, but his family was Catholic. He had been named after a patron saint. Christmas would be spent on his ranch on the coast. It was a ranch he had inherited from his father who had died a few years ago. Everything he told me about the family land, surrounded by the cartel, on the ocean and his father were responses to questions I asked, and I know, I know, I know it makes complete sense that everything would be fabricated. That his grandfather had been given the coastal land, as part of a grant from the Mexican government to the Mayans, and the Mexican president, in turn had been given the son of the Mayan leader to be raised in Mexico City. How that son though, was handed over to the president’s Italian bodyguard to be raised by the bodyguard’s family, a man the painter still thought of as a second, maybe even truer grandfather. Then how is own father had grown up strong, brilliant and had taken his education in Mexico City and had become a doctor, had fallen in love with the daughter of the patriarch of the hacienda he was a doctor in and married her, and then became a politician; the painter had been pressured to also go into medicine or politics but he went to art school in Ashland, Oregon instead and now has a studio there, as well as in Nepal and Mexico. He only paints five portraits a year and they are always commissioned, usually by wealthy fiancées who believe they are marrying the most beautiful woman in the world. But the painter is the one to decide that. Part of the arrangement is that the couple is flown to one of the studios and her beauty is assessed by him. He only paints the most beautiful, because he only does five portraits and he is in demand. But he is a Buddhist and of course, true beauty is elusive.
It was better than a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. It was like Arabian Nights.The whole table has been invited to the painter’s ranch, to ride horses and hunt for jaguars in the jungle next Christmas. I googled the painter and his family and the Mayans later and it adds up; but even if it didn’t, it was better than Gone Girl, which I finished the next morning and then abandoned to the shelf in the backpacker’s lounge, before walking barefoot across the hot, hot deck, togs already on, even before coffee, pulling my sundress over my head and taking a big leap into the rock pool.
My point, maybe, is that sometimes you need the quiet corner tables, just for one night or Saturday morning, before you can really come back to the big long tables on decks, and ask people how they are, and really have capacity to let them tell you all about it.
And tip your waitress. They are guardians.