by Susan Bonetto
My steadfast Midwestern parents get credit for ‘raising me right’, but I didn’t learn the consequence of forgiveness until I was well into adulthood in a land on distant shores. I grew up with the meaningful mottos, ‘forgive and forget’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. I would have said that I practiced these moral codes but it was in Fiji where I learned how little I grasped of their meaning.
My husband, Oscar, and I lived for one year on Leleuvia Island, an infinitesimal atoll that juts out of Fijian seas. Leleuvia is a permanent home to no one, a backpackers’ resort hosting the holiday comings and goings of youngish travellers. It is a landmass that, at high tide, spans a sum total of four blocks by one block. Twice daily, it stretches and yawns as the tide flows out, growing to a magnitude of nearly six by two blocks.
Given its size, staying on Leleuvia was akin to being placed under a microscope, where everything about you is known and discussed by the other residents. The resort staff observed our every move, dissecting our recurring interactions, clothes worn, food eaten drinks drunk, even our casual chitchat. Typically Oscar woke early and did a walk-about greeting our Fijian friends and co-workers. But, one morning, he slept late and it was I who, instead, stopped for tea at the back of the kitchen where the two cooks and their helper prepared the wood fire for the guests’ breakfast.
“Where’s bosso Oscar?” Lena asked.
I smiled a simple response, “Bosso’s at home.”
“He’s still sleeping?” she wanted to know
“Why, do you need him for something?”
“No, I just hope he’s all right cuz he’s usually up already,” Lena cooed, starting to stir a potential pot of worries amongst the employees.
Since, perhaps, everyday life doesn’t stimulate enough or, conceivably, for cultural reasons to which I never had birthright, this microcosmic indigenous community included its share of gossip. Fijians delight in recounting stories about people they know, stories being the precise term as truth is not a required ingredient in the telling. Mention to a Fijian that you have a bellyache and, by nightfall, people are discussing your likely appendicitis. Comment on the newly arrived, sculpted Italian beauty and during the evening’s grog festivities you will be teased about your desire for her. At times, this type of gossip infected Leleuvia and, once, blew towards us with a full cyclonic force that bent and broke the boughs of our finest friendship there.
We’d met Judy and Hans, the dive masters and only other resident expats on Leleuvia, more than three years back when we all were visitors to the island—each couple with the pipe dream of living there. Our subsequent visits overlapped and we became fast friends given our shared thoughts of leaving our developed worlds behind and moving to an infinitesimal island in the South Pacific. Once located there we’d become daily coffee buddies and confidants.
But one day, long after our relationship seemed secure, a long-staying tourist shared ugly rumors with me. As the tale went, our marriage was in trouble due to our mutual, straying eyes. It was hard for us to believe that our marriage was a subject of intense analysis. Married eight years, without a day of regret and with a momentous secret—we were now trying to have a baby. Foolishly, we tried to understand the gossip’s foundation. Apparently, each week, when one of us departed on the daily ferryboat for an overnight shopping trip to the mainland and capital city, Suva, we started tongues wagging as, in Fiji, devoted couples do not travel alone or spend nights apart.
I knew that there’s no sense in addressing rumors, as they take on a character of their own, expanding exponentially. But our local population was minute, and we discerned that, while the locals propagated the buzz, our good mates, Judy and Hans, had planted it. This data felled me; I couldn’t help myself, wanted to clarify the ‘whys’ and ‘what’s’ and visited Judy to ask “Really?” She confessed that she had made several comments about our relationship based on our abundance of independent overnight trips combined with our flirtatious manner with tourists, dancing and carrying on during the nightly entertainment. I started to debate her unsubstantiated facts but quickly grasped that she thought it amusing and didn’t care that her opinions had wafted across the island
We parted that day with animosity and proceeded to live side by side, un-speaking, on this miniature piece of land. For weeks, Oscar and I passed our once, closest friends multiple times each day and didn’t concede a greeting. Nightly, we sat as strangers at the same picnic table, visiting with the ever-shifting tourists concurrently. We must have seemed an awkward quartet to the short-term guests. Four members of the Swiss Family Robinson living and working in enmity.
On top of everything, their two-year old son, Ben, was both our buddy and inspiration behind our fresh thoughts of parenthood. Our captivating adopted child, he unfailingly arrived at the bungalow with the sunrise, an elfin alarm clock calling out his version of our names. “Oska, Susi, we go fishing?” Ben joined Oscar at the reef on the edge of the island for some morning casting and he sat on my kitchen counter licking spatulas and spoons as I baked cakes. Before day’s end we showered off ten hours of sand and mango stains together. The disease that swept over our relationship with his parents didn’t affect him and he continued his visits, taken home by Judy in icy stillness on warm tropical evenings. As they’d walk away I’d occasionally consider how to put things right but held onto the belief that we’d been wronged and, thus, our bond was broken.
Our indigenous friends surely watched in surprise as we behaved so differently from them. Months before there had been an argument between two of the ‘boys’—the young men who worked on the island. Their angry words turned to shouting and broke into punches. I saw blood and thought they would destroy each other. They had to be wedged apart and taken to separate borders of the island to cool off. The next evening these two men sat together around the grog bowl, singing songs and telling stories. I expressed astonishment to my closest local confidant, Lena, at seeing the duelling, hate-filled men laughing together. She explained it to me simply, “Fijians always forgive. It’s too small a place to stay mad at somebody.” To this day I don’t know if ‘place’ meant world, country, or our diminutive Leleuvia Island community when she gifted me these native pearls of wisdom.
But we were Americans, not Fijians, and I couldn’t bear to look at Judy, aware of the callous thoughts that she’d scattered. And, so, we continued our stalemate. Two months later, we lived through a hopeless night when a hurricane devastated much of the island and closed the resort. A week thereafter, while mourning the loss of our island dollhouse, Oscar and I relocated to Suva. With no ceasefire in sight we left Judy and Hans behind without a ‘goodbye’ while we sought more favourable conditions.
Once settled into city quarters, we began making habitual weekend visits to Leleuvia. As our boat came ashore we’d hear Ben’s small voice calling “Oska, Susi coming!” Throughout the weekends we played with Ben giving no acknowledgment to his parents. Six months later, through the same coconut grapevine that launched our cold war, we discovered that Judy was pregnant. As the months passed we watched her from the distance ripening and swelling like late summer fruit, Oscar and I ruminating silently over where she would have the baby. They had only a sparing business since the hurricane panted half the island away and eked out the most basic living with their dive business. The island had no medical facilities and Judy would need to find shelter in a developed location before long. One Sunday afternoon as we motored away, Oscar looked back towards our weekend sandbox where Judy sat playing on the beach with Ben. He shook his head, attempting to square his thoughts, then glanced at me and said, “I feel sorry for her; she’ll need a place to stay in Suva when the baby comes.” To which I half queried, half stated, “We can invite her to stay with us?”
And Oscar nodded assent.
That evening I placed a call to the island’s radiophone. Lena’s husband, Sireli, answered and, after a ‘Bula Vinaka’ greeting, I asked him, “Can you please find Judy and tell her that Susan wants to speak with her?” While waiting I imagined a new chronicle commencing about us peculiar foreigners. Judy came on the scratchy line and I spoke a mere one sentence—I asked if she wanted to stay with us until the baby was born. She didn’t hesitate, breathed a “Yes, thank-you,” and appeared on our doorstep three weeks later. The friendship resumed. No major discussion, psychoanalysis or sorting through feelings. Judy arrived with suitcase in hand, hugged each of us, and moved into the guest room. She stayed for five weeks pre and post delivery and during this period we shared coffees and cakes again, discussing safe tidbits of daily news until we regained a time when we could dive deeper into values and convictions once more.
This sort of thing never happened to me elsewhere. People who wounded me fell out of my universe and were erased. Judy, Oscar, Hans and I damaged and tried to shatter our friendship some years ago. But the forces of time and place wouldn’t allow it. Instead we learned absolution. None of us live on Leleuvia anymore. Since then we have shared many substantial events—child rearing, parents lost, jobs gained, jobs lost, lives lived. Today we reside in different countries but remain united, communicating often and warmly as people can who, once upon a time, forgave each other in Fiji.
Susan Bonetto grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin before moving to California where she met and married an extraordinary man who encouraged her to live abroad (with him) and travel as far and wide as possible. While living in Fiji, their son, Alejandro, was born. Susan works as a global Human Resources Consultant and has been fortunate to have lived in the U.S., Fiji, The Philippines, and Argentina and travelled to more than 30 countries. One of her Fiji stories, ‘Before We Lived Barefoot’ recently won second place in TransitionsAbroad.com’s 2014 Narrative Travel Writing Essay Contest while two of her travel articles have also been selected for future publication on this webzine.