William “Billy” Benton

What follows is a brief excerpt from En Mer (At Sea), the first of the two novels that comprise the Novel Duo that is Pinctada

“It is still a few hours ‘til sunrise,” Oliana says. “The daylight may bring the Picayune … et si la mer est plus calme nous irons à Puama’u. Nous aurons besoin de repos, alors dormons ensemble jusqu’au lever du soleil.” [… and if the sea is calmer, we will go to Puama’u. We will need rest, so let’s sleep together until sunrise.”]

Bill is about to protest, but when he glances at Bambi, she smiles at him, lies down next to Oliana and kisses her cheek. When Bambi closes her eyes and drapes her arm across the old woman’s bare belly, it astonishes Bill, but it also emboldens him to lie down with his back toward Oliana and with his skin lightly touching hers, an act dictated more by the parameter of Oliana’s mosquito netting than by Bill’s preference.

It seems only seconds, but it must be longer, Bill thinks, before he hears the slow, regular breathing of his two mat-mates, which suggests they have dropped off to sleep, but for him, sleep is something the extraordinary novelty of the situation keeps at bay. With his mind spinning, he rolls onto his back, his eyes wide open, and tries to focus on one of many random thoughts flying through his consciousness. Pearls are a recurrent theme as his imagination creates scenarios unsupported by his experience, and in the middle of one such speculative scenario, the sleeping Oliana turns toward him and places her arm across his chest. He hears her soft breathing in his left ear, feels the pulsing, slight draft of her breath against it, and nearly laughs aloud in amazement.

Here they are, he and Bambi, Bill considers, partners in this improbable, evolving adventure, having to deal with extraordinary developments, including the immediate phenomenon of having an elderly, naked woman snuggling next to his naked self on an island as far as a person could be from the current events depicted in Fox Movietone News’ footage at Port Townsend’s Uptown Theater.

“The only people on Earth,” Bill whispers, and so it feels, but as he considers this, he wonders how many millions of individuals experience moments when they feel isolated, disconnected, as lonely as if each of them were, somehow and impossibly, the last people left on earth. He has been one of them, Bill knows, growing up fatherless and without extended family. Acknowledging that he has used sports to surmount what he accepts as an innate bashfulness, he can think of no one with whom he has felt unconditionally and emotionally linked, no one he has ever thought of as a true friend.

Some part of Bill resists the urge to feel responsible for the barrier he knows has been thrown up between himself and others, the barrier that is seen by others as his being shy, and as he thinks this, an answer steals upon him with certainty. With a shiver, he comprehends that since his birth his only deep and intimate connection with another human being has been with his mother, Laura. He knows such a connection is normal for a baby or young child, but he feels anger rising as he appreciates that his connection with her had continued into his teen years, a situation that Laura, he thinks, has exploited by keeping him close to her, sharing her adult worries with him and making them his, creating within him a stultifying sense of vulnerability caused by the belief that his very survival depended upon her and only her.

It surprises him that this revelation has arisen now given his abandonment of Laura several months before. A perverse sense of satisfaction washes over him as he imagines the hurt that she must have felt as she read the getaway note he had left for her, a note that had proclaimed his life with her was “not doing him any good,” that he was tired of being “leaned on every time you run over a rough patch.” Thinking of that line in his note peels another layer off the onion, and a stronger wave of anger flows over him as he realizes that his connection with Laura—the emotional umbilical cord that he has cut—has always been conditional and dependent upon his compliance with her wishes and needs, that he has been manipulated, that his childlike fear of abandonment has been exploited.

Bambi, he considers, is the first person who has ever peered through the barrier that has been thrown up to protect his inner being, and in so doing, she has challenged him to think about things he has always taken for granted, or things about which, were it not for her, he would never have considered doing, things like what is happening at this very moment. That is not to say, he knows, that Bambi has not spun a web of expectations around him, but more and more, the web is beginning to feel as though both of them are doing the spinning, a mutual endeavor that is binding them closer and closer. Bill worries that he may become—perhaps is becoming—as dependent upon her as he had been upon his mother, and he wonders if he should guard against such an eventuality.

Usually a side-sleeper, Bill feels the need to roll onto his right side, and as he does, he moves closer to Oliana, and sensing this in her sleep, Oliana clasps him closely to her. He knows Bambi has made this intimacy, this most human of connections, possible. Oliana’s innocent, sleeping embrace flies in the face of his American indoctrination and initiation into what it means to be a man, and he realizes that something inside him has changed, not slowly, but with the quickness of a switch being flipped on … or is something being switched off, he wonders, and if so, what is it?

A familiar thought arises in his mind, the notion that he is but a spec of stardust floating upon the earth, something not unlike how he has felt when alone at Ultima Thule’s helm on a starlit night, his soul unaffected by things that newspaper headlines are shouting out as things about which everyone should be concerned. He and Bambi had read about the latest “threat to world peace” in a two-week-old edition of the Sydney Daily Telegraph while wiling away the time during Ultima Thule’s refit in Pape’ete. The story had described Gamal Nasser’s recent nationalization of the Suez Canal, the subsequent outrage of the French, British, and Israelis toward the Egyptians, and the outrage of America raised against the sounds of war coming from their allies, as well as at the audacious behavior of the Soviets in supporting Egypt. The whole matter had seemed then, and it seems now, something entirely removed from his life, from the lives of the people of the Marquesas, and perhaps from millions of other people across the planet for whom such things pale in comparison to the essential demands of their daily lives. 

Time slips away until a knock on the doorjamb at the entrance to the bungalow awakens Bill and his two sleeping mates, and the voice of Puaiti calls out, “Le soleil est levé. Il est temps de se lever et de briller!” [“The sun is up; it’s time to get up and shine!”]  

Oliana calls out, “Ia oro na, Puaiti! Donnez-nous une minute pour mettre nos pareo,” [“Hello, Puaiti! Give us a minute to put on our pareo,”] and then, smiling, she whispers, “Hurry children, Puaiti is like a missionary about some things.”

Bill and Bambi scurry to their own sleeping mats, and with their backs to the doorway, they quickly wrap their pareo around them, but not before they hear Puaura’s high-pitched voice laughing and declaring, “Je viens de voir le fond de Billy,” [“I just saw Billy’s bottom,”] which is followed by a less than adamant shush from her mother and by a loud guffaw from Oliana.

 “Look at you,” Bambi says as she goes to him and gives him a peck on the lips, “you’re not even blushing,” which serves as confirmation that his lifelong inhibitions may, in fact, be shedding away.

—En Mer and Found and Lost in Paradise are two separate novels that are intended to be read as one, and as such, they comprise Pinctada, which can be purchased as a Kindle book or as a trade paperback via Amazon or Amazon U.K.

For more information about Pinctada, other books in the Myers/Benton Chronicles, or other examples of my literary efforts, please visit Jeff Lee Byrem Creations

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