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Freedom (excerpt)

FREEDOM (excerpt) by Jay Humphrey

They say in vino veritas. Well, it’s sure true that a bottle of wine and a few Mai Tais will kinda make you feel like, you know, just go for it! Or was it the seven-year itch? My wife Jennie and I had been married about seven years. All I know is that Freedée walked up to me in the downtown Papeete gallery, put her hand on my shoulder, stretched up to my ear, and whispered, “My name is Freedée. That means freedom.” Then she licked my ear—only a little flick. I just stood there. In shock, I guess. She grabbed my arm and started to show me around the paintings.

Well. Freedée. There she was. Five foot three inches of bronze-skinned, black-haired, dark-eyed Tahitian … energy. She looked just like the woman on a South Seas calendar that, as a teenager, I’d pinned on my bedroom wall back in Cleveland. When Jennie and I married and got our own place, she let me keep the picture tacked up in the garage next to my workbench.

Freedée stopped. “This one’s of me,” she said, pointing to a beautiful nude. “The artist is a friend of mine. Are you an artist? Maybe you’d like to paint me? Think you’re up to it?”

What did she mean by that? Was that a kind of, you know, racy joke? I sort of hedged my bets in answering. “I think so, I guess, if I understand you, that is.”

“So you do talk,” she purred.

“Yes, I do,” I said proudly. I was feeling pretty good.

I should tell you my name. It’s Gerry Smythe, a common name, except for the spelling. I think the “y” and the “e” give it a touch of class. But I’m really just an ordinary guy, I guess. I’ve been a loan officer in a bank for eight years. Not a very exciting job, but it’s stable. In these crazy times, it’s good to have an anchor you can trust. You know, meat and potatoes on the table, and next month’s rent pretty much guaranteed.

I’d dreamed of Tahiti ever since I got the calendar with the picture of that bare-breasted woman lying on the sand at the edge of an amazing blue lagoon. Not too many topless Tahitians in Cleveland. Except for maybe at Cheetahs, but I certainly don’t go there. So, finally, there I was. Jennie and I’d saved enough to take a seven-day, six-night vacation package to Tahiti. The first night, we’d seen a Tahitian dance show at the hotel. Man! Can those women move their hips! And the men, all that knee wobbling and thrusting! The whole thing’s, well, you know, kinda suggestive. Probably wouldn’t go over too well with our church group, but Jennie didn’t seem to mind. She’s such a good sport.

Speaking of the hotel, we loved the place. We even took pictures of the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet. Anyway, our second night in Papeete, we decided to check out the local art scene. And now this thing with Freedée was happening. I’m sure it’s every man’s fantasy. So what was wrong with this picture? You’ve probably guessed by now. Jennie. She had just returned from the bathroom, and was now standing about 20 feet from us, staring.

I’m sure it was the alcohol’s fault. We’d shared a bottle of French wine at a very late lunch around the hotel pool. The sun warmed our skin right through the canvas umbrella. After lunch, even with a coffee, I felt a little high. Back in our room, I’d hoped Jennie and I would maybe, you know … but she wanted to take a nap. So I went back down to the lobby, and read a book for a couple hours.

Just before sunset, we took a shower, then set out for our walk. A bar on the waterfront had a late happy hour, so each of us had a Mai Tai. It was a beautiful scene. Just the two of us, sitting there watching the surf break way out on the reef. We left the bar, and, thanks to the trusty tourist map from the hotel, we found the gallery we were looking for.

I love the way Jennie looked that evening. She had on a pair of tight white pants and a dark blue camisole kinda thing with a light purple Tahitian shawl over her shoulders. And she was wearing the dangly silver earnings that give her the gypsy look I like.

But, back to Freedée. Obviously, I should have pried loose from her then and there, as soon as I saw Jennie. I should have told Freedée I was married—I was wearing a ring—and pointed out Jennie as my wife. But, no. I didn’t. Anyway, I guess I was somewhat miffed at Jennie. I felt she was sort of taking me for granted. I mean, we’re in Tahiti, and she wants to take a nap? Okay, so maybe she wants a more exciting life than a banker can provide. But I’m tall, still slim, reddish hair. I’ve always thought of myself as a California surfer kinda guy. So what the hell. Sometimes, you know, you gotta take the bull by the horns. Why not play out this scene with Freedée a little? Show Jennie that I’m still attractive to other women. At least some other women. Well, one other woman. Apparently.

As Freedée began to explain another painting to me, she slipped her arm around my waist. At that, Jennie crossed the room and calmly planted herself right in front of the painting. She smiled at us, a big grin, but didn’t say a word. Just looked at us, smiling. Freedée looked her up and down. Of course, this was another moment for me to introduce Jennie, to explain the situation. Instead, I just stood there.

Freedée glared at Jennie. “Who are you?” she said, crisply enunciating each word.

Jennie looked at me. “Tell the nice lady, Gerald.”

“Ah, yes. Of course. Freedée, I’ve been meaning to mention this to you. This is my wife, Jennie.”

“You brought your wife to Tahiti?”

Jennie took a couple steps toward Freedée and crossed her arms. “He didn’t bring me. We came here together. For a vacation,” Jennie said, a cat playing with a mouse before biting its head off.

But Freedée was no mouse. You couldn’t easily intimidate her. She tightened her arm around my waist. “So, American woman, you like the islands? The hot sun? The delicious, cool water? Sexy, no?” Jennie didn’t answer.

“Oh, yes, she loves it,” I said, casually trying to make Freedée’s arm go away from my waist. But she held on.

“My name is Freedée,” she said to Jennie. “That means freedom.”

“Oh really? My name’s Jennie. That means marriage.”

Freedée laughed out loud. “That’s okay. You in Tahiti.” She pointed to a handsome Tahitian man who was smiling at us from across the room. “You like him? He’s a gift!”

Jennie just stood there, staring at Freedée.

Then Freedée gave this truly carnivorous smile. “You Americans, you make everything so complicated. You always have to say I love you. What’s that? Three words. Here, we just say you, me—we go.”

“That’s four words,” said Jennie.

But Freedée was amazing. She laughed again. “Come with me,” she said, and grabbed Jennie’s arm. “I show you both a great bar. The owner’s a friend of mine.”

* * *

We left the gallery and walked along the harbor past the yachts and the occasional rusty, inter-island cargo ship, then turned a sharp right off Boulevard Pomare and headed inland. Freedée had let go of my waist—I guess we were on neutral territory—but she constantly grabbed my arm to focus me on every point of interest we walked past. And even some points without much interest. About three blocks in, we saw the Turtle Bar. It was behind a dirt parking lot that was occupied by a few old cars and a couple of taxi stands.

“Henri is a good friend,” said Freedée as we entered. The bar was in full swing. It seemed a bit early, but I guess we were on island time. She led us to a table in the back corner and yelled out to the owner. “Henri, three Mai Tais! Make them special for me.”

I looked around. It was a pretty cool place. Kinda like I’d always imagined after seeing that movie, South Pacific. The long, dark bar was filled with Tahitians drinking from brown beer bottles. Behind the bar were cartoon drawings of beautiful island women, each backlit—I notice these things—casting a sexy glow from the back-bar out to the rattan bar stools. The walls were covered with nets decorated with big glass turtles and seashells lit from within, which gave the room a kind of underwater feeling. Other lights that looked like translucent fish were suspended on chains from the ceiling, fish head down. Each fish cast a tiny spot of light on a table. A small outrigger canoe was also hanging from the ceiling. Local pop music was blaring from the sound system.

And the customers! Wow, what a crowd. All Tahitian! The women were gorgeous—most of them dressed in bikini tops and tight short shorts or those sarong-type things slit up to the hip. Man, were they sexy! I just don’t have enough words to describe them. I must admit that the men were also pretty attractive. All smiles and gleaming white teeth. Many of them were bare-chested, wearing only loose-fitting cotton pants. Their bodies were lean and tan with muscles like Olympic swimmers. A few of them even wore those sarong things wrapped kinda like shorts. I don’t think that would look good on me though. Maybe on Jennie. What a crew! Nothing like this place in Ohio.

Bon soir, mes amis,” said Henri as he deposited three vats of some rum concoction on our table. He winked at Freedée, then walked back to the bar. So far, Jennie hadn’t said a word. But after a few sips of her Mai Tai, she seemed to thaw out a little.

The music switched to Tahitian drums. The rapid beat was hypnotic. It reminded me of the music in the show at the hotel. Have you ever watched the women doing a Tahitian hula? How can they move their hips so fast? And the men! But I’ve already told you about the dancing.

The next song was a guitar ballad that made you see the soft moonlight on the lagoon, feel the sea breeze sighing through the palm trees, and smell the sweet perfume of frangipani. It made me feel kinda poetic. Freedée leaned real close to me, and I realized the perfume was really hers.

She caught the eye of a Tahitian Greek-god type in the crowd, and motioned him over. “This is Tiko,” she said to Jennie. “He’s beautiful, no?”

But Jennie wasn’t falling for any of Freedée’s charm.

“Hey, American woman, you like him?” cooed Freedée. “He’s yours. I give him to you, a present.” Freedée laughed as she again encircled my waist with her arm.

Now, I must say that Jennie looked pretty good. Tiko gave a nervous smile, but he did give Jennie an appreciative and pretty long once-over. He said something in Tahitian to Freedée, which made her laugh.

“Come on, American woman! You want to dance? I get Tiko to dance with you,” urged Freedée.

“Not now, thank you, Freedée,” Jennie answered icily. “But I’m sure he’s very nice.”

I guess Jennie didn’t want to embarrass Tiko. He just smiled, nodded to all of us, turned and strolled back to the bar.

Henri, mon ami, encore trois Mai Tais, s’il te plaît,” Freedée yelled.

I’d studied a bit of French in high school, so I knew she was ordering more drinks. A beautiful barmaid danced her way through the crowd to deliver them to us. As she leaned over to put the drinks on the table, her breasts were right in front of my face. Oh, my. Yes, ma’am. But I didn’t lose my cool. I didn’t embarrass anyone.

Merci, merci,” I said, keeping my eyes pretty much on my drink.

The barmaid flashed me a smile and giggled as she walked away, her hips swaying like—like—like hips. Lovely, luscious, Tahitian hips.

Freedée motioned to another Olympian-type local guy, who sauntered over to us, grinning all the way.

“Hey, American woman, this is Pierre, my cousin. He’s beautiful, no? I give him to you. He’s a gift.”

As Jennie glanced up at Pierre’s rippling muscles, Freedée’s hand moved under the table to the front of my tropical-type shorts. They’re my favorite travel shorts, khaki with, you know, big pockets on the sides. Well, I guess I was beginning to feel the effects of the rum because I let her keep her hand there. I suppose I even sort of encouraged her by casually moving around a little, all the while seeming to be completely involved in the meeting with Pierre.

“Freedée,” Jennie said, “I’m just not in the mood to dance right now. But you’re right, he’s quite beautiful.”

My turn to smile. I guess Jennie was starting to feel the rum, too.

Suddenly Freedée whipped her hand away from my shorts and grabbed my arm. “Let’s dance, handsome!”

Good grief. I wasn’t ready to get up from the table with the obvious bulge in my light khaki shorts. To gain time, I pretended to consider the idea while thinking frantically of cold showers, broccoli or mowing the lawn. I also wanted to see what Jennie was going to say. She just pursed her lips and sighed.

Freedée stood up and grabbed Jennie and me by the hand. She pushed Jennie over to Pierre and the four of us moved onto the tightly packed dance floor. The rum, the music, the crowd of bodies pressing together and swaying, the soft glow of the lights in the warm tropical air. It all began to carry me away. Even Jennie seemed to be having a good time. When the music stopped, she was standing next to Freedée and me. Freedée wrapped her arms around us both, bringing our faces close together. She looked appreciatively at Jennie and said, “You are very beautiful, American woman. Not physically, but inside.”

Jennie pulled away. “That’s it! I’m tired,” she spat. “I’m going back to the hotel. And you, dear husband, do whatever you damn please.” With that, she marched out from under the suspended outrigger, through the crowd, past the nets and turtles and shells, and out the door into the parking lot.

“Hey, Jennie, wait. I’ll go, too,” I called after her. But my legs seemed a bit numb. I guess I wasn’t quick enough. Okay, be that way, I thought. Just when we were all having fun.

Freedée quickly sat me back down at the table. “It’s late, not safe. She’s a nice lady. I take care of her. You stay here.”

Freedée dashed out the door. It seemed only a moment and she was back at my side. I must have nodded off while she was gone. Another ballad was playing. The couples were dancing close, very close. Freedée guided me again into the midst of the rhythmically moving bodies that swayed like a kelp forest in a gentle surf. She glued herself to me. All too soon, the music stopped.

“You want to see my place?” she whispered.

Now I began to panic. I’d never intended to let things get this far, had I? But let’s face it. Freedée was dynamite. Without waiting for an answer, she took my hand and led me out of the Turtle Bar …

************

“Freedom” is excerpted from The Day You Love Me by Jay Humphrey.

As a high school student, Jay Lewis Humphrey determined that one of his main goals in life was to seek a variety of experience. After graduating with a degree in English from Stanford, he went on to get an M.A. in English, an M.A. in Drama, and a J.D. Jay interspersed his academic endeavors with international travels and pursued a varied career in theater and television, law, writing and teaching. “Freedom” is one of six stories in Jay’s collection, The Day You Love Me. For more information, go to jaylewishumphrey.com

You can order The Day You Love Me here.

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