I got to Maria’s at about nine-thirty. That’s the restaurant where my partner Msima works. They’re front of house, in fact they’re manager now that Qew has left for the mainland. It’s been about two months I guess that Qew’s been gone now.
I got there and went straight to the counter where I always sit. I’ve made a habit of sitting there on weekend nights waiting for Msima to get off work. That’s usually about when the kitchen’s wrapping things up. I wasn’t sure what to expect tonight though, it being the wishing moon. There was a bright crowd of witnesses out on the beach waiting for the turtles to start hatching, I could see them from the counter.
The place was really hopping. It was all candlelit of course, like everyplace along the beach is this weekend. Thank you, Msima, my love. The beach and all the shops for years now have lit themselves sparingly by candles and torches on this one set of nights each year. The nights leading to the wishing moon when the turtles hatch. There was someone already at the counter in my usual seat, a mainlander. They looked to be alone, and I asked if the seat to their right was taken.
“No,” they said and motioned for me to sit.
They were just finishing the last of what looked like the seasonal risotto. It’s remarkable every time I have it, and I commented so. They smiled and agreed, sat back and put their napkin on the counter, then picked up the book sitting next to them, a textbook, I couldn’t make out the name.
Olloar appeared and cleared my neighbor’s plate. They nodded and greeted me by name, “Hi, Aartivv,” and then almost immediately another of the staff I knew, Melissa, came and filled my glass with sparkling water. She’s the one mainlander who works here. Well, and Maria I guess.
“Good to see you Aartivv,” Melissa said.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Likewise.”
“Coffee? Or anything else to start?”
“No, thanks, I’m good with just this fizz,” I said and I took a long sip from the glass she’d just poured me.
The guest at my left looked my way from their book, then went back to reading. They looked to be a she, like Melissa.
In all the time I’ve been coming here, I’ve never shared this little counter before. It’s just a three-seater, and most nights isn’t used for guests at all. But it’s the weekend of the wishing moon and they need every seat they have in the little restaurant. There are two main dining rooms here, they’re separated by a large hearth with stacks of firewood on either side. The dining room facing the beach has a wall that rolls up completely, opening the room to the patio outside. Tonight we could look out past the patio, to the beach where the witnesses were amassed at the water’s edge. This year it looked like most were mainlanders dressed in reflective shorts, glow bands, and glow paint, holding their lights and strobes and phones high to guide the just-hatched turtles toward them and the water. There were so many witnesses this year. It was a spectacle really. Behind them, now and again a pod of adult turtles lifted out of the bay, soaring a few meters over the water, glowing a soft blue against the night sky before they disappeared again below the surface. I wondered if Msima was even upset not to be out there with the witnesses this year. The first hatching they’ve ever missed.
Msima was there at the pass between the kitchen and the dining rooms. I could honestly just sit here and watch them work all day. They have a grace that can make taking out the trash a beautiful act to attend. Behind them the kitchen was all motion and alive with talk as Maria and her staff cooked and coordinated each meal, then brought them all plate by plate to the pass where Msima would double-check the orders and the presentation before calling Olloar, Melissa, or Oxxrann to take the plates out to the guests.
Just then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and Oxxrann slipped past me toward the pass. “Hi there good-looking,” they said with a smile, letting their hand drift from my shoulder down the length of my arm as they walked past.
“Oh, hello Oxxrann.” They enjoyed flirting with me, and with Msima, and I think everyone else too for that matter. I certainly didn’t mind. They were tall and thick-bodied, with their shirt unbuttoned low, revealing very bold, colorful markings across dramatic cleavage. A pile of beachglass green hair sat atop their head, and a beaded chain connected their septum ring to their earring. Not many as young as them still wore such jewelry.
Well, the place is busy, I thought. Msima might be missing out on witnessing the hatching, but she’s been hurting for money since business has been down this year. And this year the hatching just doesn’t feel the same anyway with the sponsorship and how it’s changed everything.
Melissa came back and asked the mainlander next to me if they wanted to see the dessert menu or have a coffee or drink.
“Coffee, yes, and I already know I want the tart,” they said.
“Very good.” Then to me, “Aartivv, do you need to look at the menu?”
I didn’t have a chance to respond, Msima intervened, leaning over the counter. “Melissa,” they said, “The kitchen is preparing a special tasting menu tonight just for Aartivv.” Msima giggled the way they do, and winked at me. The other guest at the counter looked at each of us with their book held against their chest. And then Olloar appeared with a plate for me.
“Well, all right then,” said Melissa and she went back toward the pass with Msima.
“Here we have two bites of almond and fig nestled in a housemade sharp cheese puff,” Olloar said. “Enjoy.” Olloar left for the patio.
My neighbor at the counter said, “You seem to be rather well known here.” They held a curious look on their face and smiled.
“Well, I happen to date that extraordinary person there,” I said nodding toward the pass. “Msima, the one with the closely shaved head and bright black eyes and that strong, colorful line of markings up their back.” Msima’’s top had an open back proudly displaying her markings.
“I’m Josie,” the guest said, extending their hand, which I took. “She,” she said to me.
I started to introduce myself, but she interrupted, “And you’re Aartivv, yes I got that,” she said, amused with herself.
“Don’t they treat me nicely here, though?” I said.
“That much is solidly apparent,” she said and chuckled. “So, are they,” she asked nodding toward the pass, “Msima…the witness Msima?”
I don’t know why I answered her. “Yes, they are,” I nodded. “How do you know about that?”
She closed her book and set it down, and swiveled in her chair to face me.
“Oh, I’ve read about the beach here, and how all this started. I’ve been here before. They’re the one who organized the first witnesses. And the lights-out campaign, isn’t that right?”
“Mmmhmm,” I replied with a mumble, nodded and turned back to my plate. I ate the first of my two bites. Msima and I caught eyes and they flashed that smile at me. I felt a little protective. Josie sensed this.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude,” Josie said, turning back toward her book. “I’m just honored to be here. Really, I’m just a tourist.”
We both smiled and then she went back to her book and I finished my appetizer. It was something about statistics, her book. My appetizer was amazing; one bite each, with a flavor greater than the sum of its parts. I turned in a slow circle and took in the place. I’m old enough to remember when the beach was not built up like this, before all the mainlanders started coming. Before all the shops. Before we worried about money. When the only light at night was us and the turtles glowing out under the stars or moon. Long before any of these mainlanders were born.
Behind me was a small two-top, a mainlander couple, man and woman. I remember before that too—men and women. Most all the guests were mainlanders, of course. The woman at the two-top got up and then walked over toward the restroom.
Msima came around the counter just then and stood right next to me, looked around furtively, and then kissed me quickly on my cheek.
“Thank you for dinner, sweetheart. This is a special treat,” I said and took their hand.
“Well, it was the kitchen really. I asked them to save one of the specials for you, and they decided to just save one of everything for you instead!” They chuckled and leaned in close to me again, nuzzling my neck, then blowing my long hair away from their mouth with a laugh.
I looked up at their smiling black eyes that I loved and saw as they shifted to the beach and the turtle hatching and the spectacle it had become.
“Pretty wild, right?” I said.
“Yep,” she replied after a pause.
The mainlander woman returned from the restroom and came up to Msima carrying a worried epression.
“Excuse me,” she said
Msima turned, “What can I do for you?”
The woman appeared tense and rigid. “There’s a—there’s someone in the restroom.”
“Okay?” Msima drew it out like a question from their brilliant smile.
“They’re…” she hesitated to say the word, and when she finally did, “naked,” she puckered her face as if the word tasted bitter. “The door was open, and he was, it was, it was naked and bathing I think. And he doesn’t look healthy.” The mainlander woman pursed her lips and shook her head.
“Oh,” Msima said, and quickly walked over to the restroom and knocked, opened the door a crack, and then went inside and closed the door behind them.
Many of the other tables had taken note of the interaction. The mainlander woman sat back down at her table. “Oh, I can’t believe it,” the woman said sharply to her partner. He looked concerned and reached for her hand. The woman appeared genuinely shaken.
Next to me Josie had noticed as well, and turned from the couple to me with a concerned look on her face. She looked at her book, then set it down. Melissa brought her the tart and coffee she’d ordered.
“What’s going on?” Melissa asked me.
“Don’t know. There’s maybe a homeless person in the restroom, I think. I’m not exactly sure.”
Melissa looked toward the restroom, then scanned the entire room. “Well, that’d be a first, but not surprising I suppose.” The mainlander man at the two-top caught Melissa’s attention. As she went to them, Msima came out of the restroom with an elder who looked like they could indeed be homeless. They were a native like us, old and small, wearing some filthy clothes that didn’t fit. The right half of their face was covered in markings that glowed brightly in the dim light of the dining room. Everyone’s attention was on the two of them as Msima helped the confused looking elder out toward the patio where they could access the beach.
I can remember before things like this as well.
“The smell,” said the mainlander woman who had stumbled upon the elder. “Oh,” she complained and grimaced toward Melissa.
“I’m…” Melissa stammered toward the couple, “Let me…”
The mainlander woman continued, “Oh, I think I might get sick.” Her partner took her hand once more. “I’d like to leave,” she said.
Josie, the guest next to me, had turned around to see this again, and again looked at me with a worried expression.
Msima came back in from the beach where I could still see the glowing elder sitting just outside the patio.
“Ok, that’s fine,” Melissa said to the couple. “I’ll go get your bill for you, unless you’re sure there’s nothing else you’d like first.” Melissa offered.
“Bill?” the woman said. “You’d consider charging us after this? On our anniversary?”
“Ma’am,” Melissa said, but didn’t add anything else.
Msima came by just then and leaned in to Melissa and said, “I’m just going to fix a little something for that elder, I’ll be right back.”
“Come on now, honey,” the mainlander man said to his partner.
“James,” she shot back at him, “You didn’t walk in on that!”
I could feel my own markings begin to heat up. Josie looked at me again, looking rather ashamed, actually. She noticed the markings on my forehead and cheeks, then averted her eyes to where they landed on my legs, where more markings showed below my skirt, which had all begun to softly glow.
Melissa followed Msima into the kitchen where I saw them chat. Msima looked out toward the dining room and the couple who were preparing to leave. Msima came back out to the front room, straight for the couple. As they came past me I could see her spine markings glowing brightly, heliotrope, my favorite color. They were the brightest light in the room.
“I’m sorry to see you leave before finishing your meal,” Msima said to the two of them.
“This was supposed to be a special night,” the woman said back to them.
“Yes, you’re right. It was supposed to be a special night,” Msima said.
“And now it’s ruined,” the woman said.
“I would have to agree,” Msima said.
“When we get back to our room—” the woman began, but Msima walked away, toward the patio. “Excuse me,” the woman called to the space Msima had left, but she got no response. Msima had moved on.