Tom showed up as a third-stringer where I worked in Bali. That is to say, he was the third teacher to be hired midyear, replacing previous teachers who’d left in disgust. He was then, and remains today, the most typical Australian I’ve ever met.
Tom was tall, bald, and very present. He loved to knock back a beer or three. His entire wardrobe consisted of Billabong shirts. His most common utterances were “mate” and… “ma-a-ate.” He had an odd sort of crossed-eye on one side. I never held that against him, though combined with his oddly slanted brow, he slightly resembled Sloth from The Goonies. He was a good bloke, I reckoned.
I remember fondly the day he was asked to become Lord Buddha. Not in any transcendental kind of way. It was for Lord Buddha’s birthday, a high holy Hindu holiday, and the school community had organized some sort of event where Lord Buddha would float down the Agung River on a bamboo raft, surrounded by candles. Meanwhile on the hilly riverbanks, fire spinners and traditional Balinese dancers did their thing. It was total sensory overload. When he came floating down that river, his face reflected total serenity.
Most incredibly, I was paid to be there. So it goes with international teaching. No way to really know what you’re signing up for.
At some point that winter, or maybe it was spring (in Bali, the season is always “unbearably hot”), the principal hired a personal assistant. I was keen on the new girl straight away. She had a sassy attitude and bottomless brown eyes. Bali has no shortage of attractive Indonesians, but Betta was a bombshell. We went out once or twice, but things went no further than pizza and beer.
Then there was this one day we went out to one of my favorite hidden beaches. It was a magical day. I was determined to make my intentions known, but even with a stunning scenery, flawless weather, and just the two of us there, everything completely perfect, I could not get the words out.
So when we had plans with folks later that night, I would do everything possible to demonstrate social proof. Maybe then, I thought, with the subtle backing of my peers, I would work up the confidence to say what needed to be said. That, with the inertia of our beach day pushing the pheromones forward, smell of sunscreen still fresh in our nostrils, I could not lose.
I worked the crowd of friends and coworkers with deadpan humor and fearless anecdotes. I managed to get myself invited on stage to jam with the musicians at a blues bar. Later at the nightclub, I worked some moves with Betta on the dance floor. Nothing amazing, but corny enough for her to have fun all night.
Sometime well after midnight, we ordered a fresh round of cocktails and talked about what next. She noted that Sibang Kaja, where we both lived, was pretty far away. It would be such a long drive. And we’d been drinking.
I noted that in Kuta, there was a pretty nice hotel, an easy walk from the bar.
She remarked that a hotel was an interesting idea. Maybe she’d have another drink and we could talk further.
At that moment, Tom loped over and clunked onto the barstool, the opposite side from where I sat next to Betta. His face spoke a thousand beers. His one good eye was half-shut, while the crossed-eye was jerking around slightly, attempting to scan the room. He wore a child’s grin. I’d seen him this drunk a few times before. He was Liability Level drunk. On similar occasions, we’d had to physically force him into taxis, or talk him off tall buildings. I wasn’t too worried though. My escape was already planned, and like James Bond, my escape would land me in the arms of a beautiful woman.
That was until he abruptly leaned in, across Betta’s lap, towards me. Gesturing impersonally towards Betta, he mumbled something about how great of a couple we were. Now, he knew damn well that wasn’t the case. Dude was trying to sabotage my game. But why? Surely, he wasn’t trying to seduce anyone, this drunk? This late at night?
That’s great, ha ha yeah, I muttered, scanning the room for an excuse to break away from this fake Buddha cock blocker.
He continued, “Ah mean… she’s a great bird, mate. And I should knah. Because ah…”
She bolted him a glare so venomous as to poison a thousand men. It clicked just then. The two of them had slept together! Dear god!
Now, I’m not one to give a shit about things such as who’s slept with whom. Everyone can and should sleep with whomever they wish, as many times as they wish, wherever that may be, pending consent, and barring of course, public playgrounds and middle rows of passenger jets. What I gave a shit about was how Tom had managed to torpedo my entire night. From this point forward, any kind of chemistry Betta and I had going on had been dashed across the barroom floor.
But Tom wasn’t done yet. What he said next was precisely what Betta and I hoped to hell he would not say.
“So I waz thinkin’… since we all know each othah… maybe the three of us could ah…”
Oh hell. No.
Betta remembered just then, she had an early appointment. On a Saturday. And suddenly, she felt quite sober. Really, she’d only had two cranberry things, and had been nursing them all night. Maybe she’d just drive home after all.
That said, she’d be happy to give me a lift.
But Tom wasn’t done yet.
“Oi. Give us a lift home then?”
My life on Bali often felt like an extensive episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Long and drawn out. Darkly funny. Full of the most unlikeable people I’ve ever known.
After we rolled Tom out of her jeep, in front of his bamboo yurt, we continued on to my place. It was a long, dead silent, palpably awkward ride home, our minds riddled with images of Tom, naked and aroused. Just as we pulled up, I turned to her, out of shits to give, and stammered out what might be the best romcom speech of my career.
“Listen. I don’t care that you slept with Tom. He’s a complete fuckwit, but none of that matters. What matters is I find you really cool. And smart. And hot. You’re really hot. And I want to keep spending time with you. And I’d like us to be more than… whatever this is we’ve got going on right now. And we talked about me taking you out for your birthday next week, and I still want to do that. So clear your calendar, because we’re going out. On your birthday.”
She was at a loss for words, and said “Okay… thanks,” and I think we might’ve shaken hands or something ridiculous like that and I went to bed thinking about what a total shithead and moron I was. And I began to plot the ways I could murder Tom and get away with it.
A week later, I made good on my promise. Not to murder Tom, but to take Betta out for her birthday. Pizza and beer, as usual. Except this time, it felt like she was sizing me up through all the small talk. She was looking at me differently that before. This time, after dinner, I gave her a lift home. I parked the bike and we walked to her door. I wished her a happy birthday and turned to leave.
“Wait,” she started. “Truth: when you said all that stuff in the jeep the other night…”
Yeah, I said. It was all true.
“Good,” she said. “Very good.”
She took my arm. We went inside.
Bali was an amazing year. That was the year I learned to sort-of surf. The year I lived in a bungalow without walls. The year I learned the value of fermented shrimp paste. However, I’d throw all that away, if I could spend just a little more time with Betta. She might be the coolest girlfriend I ever had. Those five months just weren’t enough.
Strange as it is, things might never have panned out, if not for crossed-eye Tom. What an asshat.