Now, years later, when I recall the events of that May in 1987, I am engulfed by sky. When all you have is flat earth, sky is what you hold on to. Flat earth is beautiful. I know so, which is why I chose to forget. Or I would have surely lost my mind. Slit my wrists. Walked into a rising salt tide. So in the in-between years, before memory jolted me into the final week of that May, buses repaired the fractured seams of my being. I swear to God, buses kept me sane. Amidst blaring horns, diesel smoke, beggars demanding nothing less than a saqamoli dollar coin, and vendors of boiled Sigatoka corn at the Suva Bus Stand, the efficient clockwork of bus drivers brought order. Their neat schedules. Back. Forth. Back. Forth. Back. Forth.
The clinical regularity of Galileo’s pendulum clocks. Mathematical assurance of a world safe and good. Suva to Vatuwaqa, Suva to Nadera, Suva to Samabula, Suva to Valelevu, Suva to Navua. And back. Every journey complete.
This was how I learned Suva. Learned to love her a little. Until I sat eating a toasted egg and chilli sandwich at Hop Lee’s Café on Marks Street one Saturday morning, and realised I was in love with this bastard of a city risen from a mosquito-filled mangrove swamp slightly over one hundred years ago.
It was not the food. It was the skinny prostitute who walked in from Caesar’s Palace on Waimanu Road: knee-high leather boots, tight leather skirt the colour of blood, a black corset blouse, hair streaked like a cockatoo. You could tell she’d just finished from one of the cheap, by-the-hour rooms above Hop Lee’s. There was a strong chance an Indian taxi driver or young Fijian civil servant was naked and knocked out with his pockets emptied upstairs. You could tell she shopped at either Value City or Bargain Box; if you stood close at the counter that pre-loved fabric whiff was a possibility; or aged Fiji Bitter beer on gums and teeth enamel; or dried cum on her thigh. The absence of love. That smell.
She bought a pack of Pall MallTM 10, four hard-boiled eggs, half a dozen buttered buns, a half-litre AquasafeTM bottled water, and The Fiji Times. She dropped the eggs and buns with the Indian beggar asleep in front of Ronak’s Fashion House, and sallied down the street. A white cab slowing to mock her.
To love any city, you have to go beyond its face, torso and limbs to navigate its nether regions. Its waste end. Its older, untrendy drinking holes and hotels; its port; its vegetable and fish markets. I had distaste for Walu Bay, the King’s Wharf, and the Suva Market. Marks Street’s only saving grace is Hop Lee’s Café – that chilli they have no issue adding to eggs fried in Punja’s soy bean oil. For the chilli, I tolerated the Saturday morning brawls spilling into the corners of Waimanu Road and Marks Street, the gathering early morning jeering spectators in front of Lala’s Store, screeching wives dragging their husbands into rattling taxis, and the unsolicited increase of my vocabulary in profanity. And in other languages too. I know the words for ‘fuck’, ‘bitch’, ‘thief’, ‘you have a small dick’ and ‘your mother has a big vagina’ in Taiwanese, Indonesian, and Filipino. That corner is a language school, a true cultural exchange of Asia-Pacific, you learn the languages whether you like it or not.
Of course, this was in the years before the new Chinese arrived and took over the strip from opposite the Suva Carnegie Library to the ShellTM Service Station; when the crew of Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese fishing boats still paid patronage to Caesar’s Palace and King’s Hotel drinking parlours. Prostitutes had moved their trade to the inner city, moving away from their old reference of kabawaqa or boat-climbers, nametag from an earlier time when they waited until dusk, tied their clothes in plastic bags and swam the harbour to Asian fishing-vessels anchored at the deep end of Suva Bay. But since the coups, there had been cases of various sisters being accosted at the edge of the harbour or in the middle of the harbour by soldiers or the police. To avoid arrest for loitering, a few prostitutes had to relearn urination and defecation. It was a tough time. But like all industries in a city, it adjusted and moved to quiet, flea-ridden hallways and rooms of the inner city streets and there was a bustle in business for taxis and black markets.
And it was on that Saturday at Hop Lee’s Café that I awoke to the knowing that I loved this bitch city. That I had a chance at forgetting the flat lands I once called home. That I had a chance at forgetting a group of men who came one pink dawn and quietly slit the bellies of all twenty-nine of my father’s cows so that we woke to intestines alive to the quiet lowing of cows and bulls pleading for death. That I had a chance at forgetting it was the calves who went first. That I had a chance at forgetting the face of my father who had to slit twenty-nine warm throats, throats he once placed his gentle hands on to calm them before milking. That Saturday, over a plate of chilli eggs, I knew I had a chance at forgetting how my father never spoke a word again.
This city had given me new life. A chance at being torn apart for completely new reasons. It was no longer going to be a flat world with warm cows and a silenced man. Marks Street and Waimanu Road were no longer dirty stretches of Suva, they were the most real, the most alive. I forgave them their filthy buildings, bad plumbing that leaked water onto the facades and awnings of clothing stores and cheap cafés, their tangle of drunkenness. I forgave Marks Street the obscenity of a yellow pot-bellied bear mascot, a stiff pain to the eye. I forgave Waimanu Road its stench of hair-straightening creams from new Chinese-run salons. I forgave Lala’s Store for no longer selling cotton mosquito nets, for now selling only cheap Chinese nylon nets that tore easily. I even forgave the two peddlers of stolen gold watches and necklaces who hung between the Marks Street and Cummings Street junctions of Waimanu Road. I was Christian in my forgiveness. I was born again.