“Hello friend,” he said suddenly coming up alongside me, matching my gait step by step. I had just gotten off the bus at the Kangding station in western China and had left the busy yard, bag in hand. As I turned, he saw my surprise and then a reserved caution in my eyes, the corners of my mouth. “Looking for a place to stay?” he said.
I thought that he saw through me, saw an imposter, a foreigner pretending to be Chinese. I looked down at my dark blue overcoat, thought about my hair pulled simply back and reassured myself that I looked like I fit in. There was nothing about my sensible traveling clothes, which were plain enough, the dark brown pants and black shoes that could give me away. I didn’t exactly know why it was so important that I felt I should be undercover. Perhaps it was because I felt like I shouldn’t be here in the first place. The ticket agent in Chengdu had said that foreigners were not allowed on this particular bus route. The agent didn’t say why, but had looked at me closely and asked me directly if I was Chinese.
“Yes,” I said. And then under my breath, added American. Her question was like a dare, and I couldn’t turn it down. I said, yes, and she sold me the ticket.
Kangding, located in Sichuan province but considered one of the gateways to Tibet, had hot springs, lamaseries, and mountains with hiking trails nearby, but I couldn’t stay because I had to meet my friend Ben in one week up north in the city of Xining in Qinghai province. We had separated in Chengdu after having traveled together for three weeks. Also, he had the guidebook. We had decided that I needed it less because the path that I wanted to take, in part for the adventure and fun although designated “rough,” was straightforward. Simply take buses north, then east. Ben would be traveling by train and might need the book for suggestions on navigating the cities.
I had met touts like this one before, but generally shook my head at them, thinking they were looking for outsiders who they could overcharge. But it was getting late. It had been a long two-day ride from Chengdu. On the full bus, we had to endure the fumes, the constant bumping and lurching, the cold breeze winding through cracks in the windows that wouldn’t close all the way. The outside seemed so far away. I was tired.
The tout had short spiky hair, a bounce in his step. He was young, maybe twenty years old, I thought, and had clear skin, thin lips with a fuzzy moustache, bushy eyebrows.
As he spoke to me, his eyes scanned the street restlessly. “I’ll take you some place close.”
He stopped and gestured to the motel we were in front of as bikes and people in the dusty street weaved in and around us. “Come on, what do you say?”
“This is it?” I said, looking at the plain three-story building.
“Okay,” I said. I couldn’t see any other motels along the road. This one would do, and it was close to the station. I’d be leaving early tomorrow for Serxu on a three-day bus trip north from Kangding. From there, I’d need only a few days to get to Xining.
After a stop by the main desk where I checked in, the young man followed me into the room on the second floor. The electricity was out, he explained, hence the darkness of the halls and why I had to fumble with the key. “It happens often in this town,” he said. He politely pointed out the puddle in front of my doorway that I’d have to remember to jump past.
When I couldn’t open the door, he took the key from me, and then gave the door a kick. Inside, there were three beds.
I realized then that he had me buy the whole room, that usually the price was per bed, that he’d made some extra money for the hotel from me. No matter, it’d be only one night before I was on the road again, heading north. I had to realize that being new in the area meant there would be things I didn’t know—this was part of the cost of travel, and I should be prepared. He sat on the middle bed as he watched me heave my bag onto a chair.
“Thank you,” I said, implying, good-bye, but he stayed.
“You’re not from here are you,” he said.
“No. How could you tell?”
He shrugged, said he didn’t know, just a guess. “You’re from Beijing right?”
I smiled, surprised. It was the first time someone thought I was from another part of China. “Well, actually no.”
“Guangzhou?” He asked.
“No, I’m from the United States.”
He stifled a laugh, and narrowed his eyes. “I don’t believe you.”
“Really. I was born there.”
“But you’re not white. You don’t have blue eyes. And you speak Chinese.”
“America has many people from different cultures there. My parents were born in China, but raised in Taiwan. They moved to America.”
“In the movies, everyone has a gun and they’re white or black.”
“Well do the movies you see here reflect your life?”
He thought about this for a moment. Then, he shook his head no.
I was born in Iowa because my father was finishing his graduate studies in math there. My parents had met in college and married the year before in Taiwan. I didn’t really start speaking English until kindergarten. And perhaps because the first five years of my life were steeped in Chinese, I can speak it to this day without an American accent. In elementary school though, they thought something was wrong with me. Silent much of the time, teachers imagined that I couldn’t understand what was happening in class. I imagine now that my mind needed time to adjust from speaking and thinking in one language to another. I don’t remember not understanding, didn’t think myself to be quiet, felt I was present, observing always. If I was on the periphery, I didn’t mind. They sent me to a one-on-one specialist who talked slowly to me, looked me in the eye, and played board games with me. I loved the attention, to be asked and to have to respond, to have a space to respond. I only went twice because she had discovered that I could understand what was happening, what she said to me, and sent me back to class concluding that I was only terribly shy.
Dawa glanced at me. I imagined that he saw a young woman on her own, waiting for him to leave, her hand resting on the red zipper of her dull bulky red bag, the size of a few basketballs, just big enough to be slightly unwieldy. She sat on the bed, right on the edge with this waiting, this observing, this reflective air about her, as if she expected life to happen for her, just fall into place for her. He had perhaps met city folk like this, who had this sense about them--of taking things for granted. Perhaps he felt sorry for me.
He said, “Do you need some time to rest? How about if I come back in five minutes and we can go out for a walk, get something to eat.” I was a guest here, didn’t make a stink about paying for three beds, and since he found me perhaps he would take care of me he had decided.
I said, “No thank you, I’ll be fine.” Thought I’d take it easy, relax, wander around the town. I looked forward to being alone.
But he only smiled, waved and stepped outside.
He came back a few minutes later. I sighed, surprised that he really returned, but then thought why not. Perhaps he could show me around, maybe I could learn something. As we passed the front desk, the attendant sipped her tea and waved a hand at Dawa, and said, “Not at your usual haunt today?”
He gave her a confused look then made a face at her. He leaned in towards her briefly and she slipped him what looked like money.
A fee for bringing me in to the motel, I thought.
He pointed a finger at me and said to the attendant, “We’re going for a walk. Guess where she’s from?”
I pulled his arm to keep him from saying more and to save me from answering. He only laughed. “Why not? It’s the truth,” he said when we were outside.
“Fine, but you don’t need to tell people.”
“It’s only Peng. She’s a friend.”
Night was just about dusting through the streets now, and it was more noticeable since the electricity seemed to be out in the entire town, no flickering glows suffusing the paths or on the shoulders of people going home. A slight wind, a stirring chill whipped about our legs and in our hair, but it was still mild enough out. For me, it felt wonderful to walk unencumbered by luggage after having been in the cramped bus these last two days. The rattling of the bus could be numbing. At first I resisted it, the intrusion of the constant bumps, but then I noticed them less and less. I wondered how if one was in that world too long, whether one’s brain would adjust to those movements without one even knowing, without having a say. Could one become addicted to that shaking, and the sense that something was happening and one was going somewhere, when maybe one wasn’t?
On the bus, the man who I sat next to had a long yet thoughtful full face. I imagined him to be a salesman of maybe a corner shop, of medicine perhaps. I didn’t know for sure what he did because I didn’t want to give myself away by asking and thus inviting questions, and perhaps getting myself kicked off the bus, that is if they really did want to keep foreigners away. Although I spent the last two days sitting next to him, I knew little about him. Did a kind face necessarily mean a kind person? The man on the bus, all the other passengers, and even the people on the street were these blips of mystery passing by me, bundles of stories. I thought of how it was hard to know people, how although life these days in some ways is so much faster especially with the internet and the commercial expectation of receiving everything on demand, that some things cannot be rushed, like really getting to know someone, or even oneself. Nothing replaces time, observation, and reflection, I thought.
I glanced at Dawa. He was somewhat stocky, and it was if he were caught somewhere between a long late stretch of adolescence and early adulthood. Perhaps it was his round face, those high cheeks, or maybe how he walked almost on his toes, his heels hardly bumping the ground. He had this excited energy that seemed so deeply a part of him that it made his hair stand up in tousled wisps about his head and moved him to speak quickly with flickering gestures of his fingers. At first a bit suspicious about him, of how he turned up at my side, matching my steps as if it was a game, now I felt more at ease.
The man on the bus was friendly enough, and kept his composure well when the bus went through some steep mountain passes sometimes weaving close to an edge, causing loud gasps from passengers to erupt. He often took a picture from his chest pocket. I caught a glimpse once—it was of a woman holding a child on her lap. He’d rub a thumb tenderly along their faces before absent-mindly touching his own, slowly tracing the creases of his light curvy wrinkles. I wondered if he was with them now, if they had met him at the station; perhaps they were home now, a silent comfort about him.
Once when the bus stopped to let another pass on the thin dirt road, he had reached across me to the open window and pulled in a branch on a tree that had young leaves. It was as if winter was already slipping away. Chengdu was quite mild, and I knew we were quite west and south in China. He plucked a leaf, smelled it, and handed it to me. As I inhaled its sweet scent, the freshness of green, a sprinkling of sun and deep warmth, of concentrated wind and water, he said, “Don’t be fooled. It will get colder yet.”
Yet here in Kangding, this town tucked into a valley next to the towering Gongga mountain, I couldn’t imagine it, the cold he talked of. This cold was manageable. It ruffled the surface like wind, stung sometimes, but didn’t go much deeper. Besides being nestled between two rivers, the Zheduo and Yala, the low cement buildings, which lined the main street made it look similar to many Chinese towns I had traveled to. It was early February and people dressed in thick clothes in dark colors. I learned later from a guidebook that from 1939 to 1951, Kangding was the capital of short-lived province of Xikang, and historically capital of the local Tibetan kingdom of Chakla. Kangding was right on the Tibetan border.
The small side streets all seemed to wind up leading to the main street, which now resembled a ragged tear in the earth. In the middle lay a long, dry river of dirt dug up for construction and the laying of pipes. Its deep rifts looked as if the earth had imploded, caving in on itself. The last of the rush hour crowd was resigned to pulling bikes through the dirt lanes on the very edges of the street an intimate shoulder’s length away from buildings, bike tires and feet all caked with mud. I felt my steps sucked in by the earth, heavy and deliberate.
My parents both left China at the age of one because their fathers were with the Nationalist army and in order to escape the Communists, fled to Taiwan. As a child growing up in the States, I didn’t often see my grandparents because traveling to Taiwan was expensive as were international phone calls. I had lots of questions about Taiwan and China, but my parents rarely talked about their thoughts about the past. When I got older, I traveled to Taiwan on a study tour freshman year of college. Post college, I lead a study tour in south China. This was my third trip to Asia. I don’t know why I got restless in the States and wanted to go back to Asia, not sure of what I was looking for, but knew I hadn’t found it yet. What I did find was that traveling felt exhilarating; it gave me a buzz to be in a place where everything was new, and a place where I looked like I fit in.
My parents, especially my father, were against this particular trip to China. “We raised you in America to have a stable life, get a job and settle down. Why travel to a place where we ran from? Why go somewhere to suffer?” Both sets of grandparents had been refugees in 1949 when they escaped from China. They left their homes, left all of their belongings, and many of their relatives to go to Taiwan. My parents were upset that I didn’t have a plan, that they wouldn’t know where I’d be, that I was risking my safety unnecessarily. My father disowned me because he thought me unfilial for disobeying him by coming. Now that I was here, there really was no going back.
Walking with Dawa, I suddenly had a sense of wanting to compete with the night, race it before it fell all over town. I wanted to see everything, and do everything. I started walking quickly, not minding the mud that began to splatter on the lower cuff of my pants, leaving spots on my black shoes. There was so little time to see everything.
“Wait,” Dawa called from behind me. “Why the rush?”
“Tell me about this town, what is good to see?”
“There’s nothing to see here. Same as anywhere else.”
“You say that because you live here. It’s hard to see what you have when you’re living somewhere.”
He shrugged. “Maybe so. Are you hungry?”
We had stopped in front of a noodle shop with one wall open to the street a cauldron, of steaming water at its doorstep, spices and warmth beckoning the passerby. Although I wanted to be moving, I had to admit that I was hungry. In this town, doors were often as wide as walls and people could take one step and be inside at a table. Someone put out a rack of steamed buns on top of a barrel of coal sitting by the door out on the street, which soon sent thick winding strips of steam into the air, which passerbys could not help but notice.
Not a bad place to work in the winter, I thought, standing next to the warmth always. But the trade off would be summer when the steam then would be repelling, adding to the heaviness of one’s own sweat. Perhaps that was the reality of what all work was like, a mixture of pluses and minuses, of compromises. I’d have to find work at some point when my travel money ran out. I didn’t have much. I was out of college a couple of years and before coming on the trip, I had worked as a volunteer in a pro-bono law office in El Paso representing refugees seeking asylum and made some money doing freelance photography. Afterwards, I had interned with the San Francisco Mime Troupe while working part time at an Asian American theater. I enjoyed all the jobs, but I wanted to travel, to feel like I was on the edge of something, to get away from what was familiar, to test life.
We stood by the steaming buns.
“What about that?” I waved to the mountain that loomed above the town.
He glanced at it, and said, “What? The mountain? There’s nothing to see there. Anyway, it’s practically invisible to us, standing there every day. If only you could see the boredom, how suffocating it is here.”
“Let’s keep going,” I said. We walked through the streets in silence for awhile, turning randomly, following any path that appeared. As night fell, Dawa started speaking about his life, about how he was a fireman, how it was a rotating shift and how he’d be there only a few days a week anyway, not his choice, but a job given to him by the city. How his friends and he at the station did little but read the paper, drink tea, and how he didn’t know much about fighting fires, and he was afraid of fire actually. He spoke of how he was the youngest child of seven in his family, how his uncle and his uncle’s family were killed by Chinese soldiers in ’59 and how his parents decided they had to leave Tibet. He was born later, had not ever been there and learned what it was like only from the stories they told of that time, of leaving their home. He had been born and raised in this city.
He was Tibetan. I noticed now that his name didn’t sound Chinese. I turned to look at him. I hadn’t met a Tibetan before. He dressed in black pants, a green jacket, had dark hair and eyes. He looked Chinese to me, or rather, I had assumed that he was. He spoke perfect Mandarin.
Somehow we had circled back to the same noodle shop we had just passed by half an hour ago. He looked at me with an eyebrow raised. I nodded.
Inside, the place was filled. People chatted but there was a quietness about as everyone concentrated on eating. Candles stood on all the tables because the electricity was still out, and this soft light made the whole place seem peaceful. A middle-aged man with an apron around his waist set two hot bowls of chicken soup in front of us.
We turned to the noodles—they were thick, inviting. I pulled a pair of chopsticks from the can on the table and started eating, head down, sipping the hot broth that pleasantly burned my throat. I loosened the top buttons on my coat. The noodles were delicious. We were both silent for a while. Dawa finished first and looked around the place. He nodded to the owner with a gesture at me.
“Take a look at her. Guess where she’s from?”
I looked at Dawa shocked. I opened my eyes wide at him and shook my head slightly.
But he only smiled and ignored me.
The place fell silent as everyone turned to look at us.
Dawa stood up. “Guess! Any of you.”
No one said anything.
“She looks Chinese doesn’t she? But she’s not! She’s from America!”
I kept my head down and continued eating my noodles, retreating inside myself, but felt myself turning red.
“You don’t believe me? Say something, tell them,” he said to me.
I ignored him. People went back to their meals.
He sat down and was about to stand up again, when I put a hand on his arm.
“Let’s go,” I said.
Outside, Dawa was indignant. “Why didn’t you say anything? Back me up?”
“Why should I? What’s the big deal?” I was surprised at how after the shock of being identified wore off, I didn’t mind that he called me out. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone there. Perhaps I wanted to pass as Chinese because I felt I should be able to. I looked Chinese, my parents were Chinese, I could speak it. Why shouldn’t I belong? People went back to eating. Nothing had changed. Why was he so interested in my looking Chinese but not being from China?
I turned to look at him, and thought of how I had assumed he was Chinese, part of the majority. He spoke perfect Mandarin, dressed the way people dressed all over most of China. Our family histories had some similarities, I thought, how they had left a place, how we as children had grown up somewhere different, how we had only stories about that place, or in my case, a lack thereof. We were both pretending in some ways to be something our looks, like masks, let us have access to—part of the majority population, but it was something we didn’t necessarily feel.
The next morning, I found a seat in the middle of bus 413 heading north along the Tibetan border to Serxu. One of the early arrivals, I chose the middle because I thought it might be the most stable, and a window seat so I could lean my head against the glass when I felt sleepy. The seat cushion, hard and covered in a plastic-like fabric, had rusted wire poking out of the side near the window. I shoved my bag under the seat in front and settled into the one, which would be mine for about the next three days depending on weather and the status of roads. The window streaked with dirt and shady smudges revealed a dusty yard full with buses, dented and worn. But the buses were rugged. On the ride to Kangding, the one I was in struggled up incredible heights on the thinnest of dirt roads. It heaved itself around tight corners and was somehow able to allow others coming directly our way to pass.
In the evenings, we’d spend nights at the guest-houses the driver chose. I had taken overnight buses, which instead of seats, had thin cot-like bunkbeds on two sides, which allowed passengers to sleep, but could only fit a third of the people on a bus that had seats only. It made sense to fill the bus with as many people as possible and stop for the night. Also, there were no streetlights on these thin mountain roads. The going at night would be treacherous.
The ticket taker leaning against the front of the bus yawned and checked her watch. She had thick mittens on and had crossed her arms to keep warm. I wondered if she minded the early shift. The hardest part might be getting up in the morning, but perhaps she’d be off just after lunch and it might give her time to stop off at the market on the way home before her afternoon nap and before the lunch time crowds. This woman must know the station so well—perhaps she could walk it blindfolded.
The bus filled quickly. The luggage brought aboard came in all sizes and shapes, from crates of oranges, to multiple cloth bags tossed in by one man who made his way with them to the back. Some, such as the man who sat down next to me, had very little. My bus neighbor easily slipped a simple black duffel bag under the seat in front, then shifted in his seat, bumping against my shoulder. Around forty, he seemed to be a large man, but I couldn’t tell because his beige coat was thick. We caught each other’s eyes and nodded. Then, I saw a hand rise over my head from behind, startling me, but then it made its way through the opening between the seats and land on the man’s shoulder. It turned out that they knew each other, and they shook hands warmly between the seats.
The engine started and it seemed we were about to go, when the woman leaning against the bus suddenly hopped on and wandered slowly down the aisle staring at everyone. She stopped right by my seat and tapped a finger on the back of it, while pointing to the man behind me, my bus neighbor’s friend.
“You,” the woman said. “Are you Chinese?” I glanced up at her briefly. She tilted her head at him so that even her halo of tight curls seemed pointed down accusingly at him.
“What do you say I am?” he said.
“Where are you from? Show me your identification card.”
I didn’t turn back but I imagined her eyes narrowing, her hand open wide. “For all I know you could be a foreigner, a smuggler perhaps, dressing as a Chinese,” I heard her say.
He laughed loudly, deeply at this.
I slouched down low, kept my arms around myself, hoping my drab blue jacket and black hat would render me invisible in the sea of grays and the dark muted colors of my fellow bus-mates on this early morning.
Ben had been a participant in the study tour I lead the year before, and we talked about traveling more in China at some point because we felt that the study tour although fun, had packed too much into its schedule. So we kept in touch. He quit his job at a small newspaper in California, and so we decided to actually do it. We met up in Hong Kong and made our way north mostly by train. We had got along well these past weeks, both of us falling into the rhythms and routines of travel: I handled the ordering of food, the money, buying tickets, partly because I could speak Chinese, and he, the maps, the guidebook. Yet being together all the time wore on us. We had different ideas about where to go, what to do, and both of us relished the opportunity to travel alone.
I kicked my red bag further under the seat. I was surprised that they were looking for foreigners here. It’s good that Ben didn’t come. He had a large bag and square glasses. People often mistook him for being Japanese, although he was third generation Chinese American.
The man behind me must have had his residence card in order because she moved on, pointing to someone else behind. “You. Where are you from?”
The tundra spilled into valleys and hills around us; soon, we had left Kangding and the looming Gongga Mountain far behind. We continued going higher, the road taking us winding up hills and then through valleys. The mountain peaks in the distance seemed small, part of the landscape. Small tufts of dried grass covered in some snow appeared vivid when close, but as I looked further away, they blended into the stretched skin of land as if disappeared. The bus jumbled its way past snow smattered peaks following the narrow tracks made by other trucks and buses. There was a comfort of sorts in driving along in their deep-set grooves, for if others had gone this way and made it, we hopefully would too.
I looked out the window and said a silent goodbye to Dawa. Last night, after our meal of noodles, Dawa took me to the outskirts of town. The dirt street had morphed into an empty alley, a twisting path, lined on both sides by low shack-like buildings pressed together. I started worrying that I didn’t know the way back to the motel, but we soon stopped in front of one the low buildings. Pushing open the wooden door, he went in first. Inside, an older man hunched over a folded newspaper, his face, those pages, illumined by the glow of a candle. He had one knee over the other and leaned a shoulder against the wall.
The man glanced up at Dawa and merely shook his head.
Dawa breathed out quickly, and said, “But it’s been all day.”
The man shrugged and returned to his reading.
Dawa grabbed my wrist and pulled me further inside. “You must see.”
He hustled me into another little room that looked like a storage room, with tall box like shapes against the wall. We were inside a videogame arcade.
“This is my favorite,” he said stopping in front of one game and fiddling with the joystick. But the machine looked dead without electricity, although I could imagine the light of the figures reflected in his eyes, the wall of sound. He came here practically every day he said.
The sun worked itself higher in the sky, and I sat up and stretched my arms, twisting my spine, as if freeing myself from some invisible weight. I couldn’t help but smiling. I couldn’t believe I was here. Outside, there was a sea of snow and land. No matter the ragged condition of our transportation, how it puttered along, there was no one else around for miles, and we were travelers, all of us.
Sometimes I felt is if I had been traveling all my life. My parents moved around a great deal following my father’s jobs. He had finished his doctorate in Iowa and worked as a teaching adjunct in various places. During the 80’s, the computer boom happened and he got into the industry and the family went too. In my childhood, we had not stayed in one place longer than three years. I sometimes felt all this moving around was in my blood. It seemed so easy, just buy a plane ticket and go. But I envied those who had hometowns, neighbors and friends they knew since they were children, a place to call home.
In school, I did well. I remember my sixth grade teacher coming up to me at my locker one morning congratulating me. “Good job,” she said, “on your report card. You got all A’s.” I was just as surprised. I hadn’t tried very hard, just followed directions, did what she told us to do. I liked that she was happy about it. Afterwards, I managed to get all A’s through high school. My father wasn’t satisfied though. He’d glance at the report card and his response was always, but what about the next quarter, what if you can’t keep it up.
We lived mainly in the midwest although we moved to New Hampshire and lived in Michigan. In school, I was often the only Asian person in class. I do remember Simon from 4th grade who was Filipino. I had a friend named Janice in high school who was also Filipino. I knew no Chinese Americans my age. I had accepted that my parents were different from everyone else, that we ate with chopsticks, had rice every night, weren’t encouraged to speak at the dinner table, and couldn’t wear outside shoes in the house. I realize now my two, and later three, siblings and I together were a part of two almost separate cultures, one that consisted of a set of strict rules inside the house and with our family, and the other, in school and in the outside world. Moving around to so many places may have helped keep the two even more separate. In every new place, the culture of our family stayed the same, a constant, a kind of unconscious secret.
I glanced around at the man sleeping next to me, his chin at his chest, mouth opening with each breath. Many of my other comrades in travel seemed to be dozing. Perhaps it was just as well.
Just then, I felt a knee at the back of my seat. Then it bounced. I tried to ignore it, and stared back out the window, and caught not only a slight glimpse of my own reflection, but a hint of the man behind me as he shifted in his seat. The knee didn't stop. Was he doing it on purpose? Could he be so absentminded? I shifted. It didn’t help. I felt my head bouncing against the seat now, and with a sigh, turned around, stood slightly and raised an eyebrow at him, gave him a stern asking look.
What I noticed first was his beard. Thick, tight dark and white curls ran down his cheeks and collected at the end of his chin. I could hardly see the shape of his face. He had heavy wrinkles around the eyes. It was as if his face were a map without the details. Just some general guidelines to mark the major cities and rivers--the landscape, a secret.
He smiled, feigned surprise at my stare. He stopped his knee. His smile was one of confidence in a diffident manner.
I turned back around and leaned my head against the glass. I felt a thin cool breeze from the crack in the window. The coolness sent a shiver from my face down into my gut, how did it know the way? Such a clear, direct path that I wouldn’t be able to trace myself even if I concentrated hard with eyes closed. Yet it was a breath of fresh air from all the cigarette smoke that filled the bus like a dense morning fog, a smog. The smoke had started slowly filling the bus from when we had left the station. This would be a long trip to Serxu, I sighed, thankful that the window didn’t fit its frame perfectly so that air from outside could come in. I waited for the knee to come again, but it didn't.
The path here rose high on the thin road, on the side of this mountain, so high that on one side of the road, there was mountain, and on the other side, sky. I liked the feeling of being on the road. Here there was some order to this traveling chaos. There was a direction, a path. Once one had a ticket, one could let go and had only to follow. No decisions really to be made, just watch what happens as you pass by.
My neighbor shifted in his seat. His elbow rested against my arm and I moved a bit, to lose the connection, and he readjusted so that it pressed against me again. I looked around. Everyone was packed in quite tightly; I shouldn’t complain. So I let it stay there, and felt my own arm warming through our touch, could feel it even through both of our coats, this persistent blunt heat. At first, being on a crowded street or market or bus, with people all around felt unbearable to me, like being in a packed elevator with everyone waiting, holding themselves still. But at some point, one had to breathe. I’d have to slowly adjust to the feeling of being crushed. It took awhile to get used to. Relaxing, letting go would make the time pass easier.
On the train ride to Kunming, Ben and I had to sit in the hard-seat section for the first day and night because the hard sleepers were sold out. It was amazing how so many people could fit in the hard-seat section on the train with people standing, leaning everywhere, sleeping in the aisles, on the luggage racks, resting in the awkward spots between cars on strips of dirty cardboard or on bulky suitcases. It could be so quiet, so blank, an air of patience, a forced endurance. You begin to lose a sense of self. The boundaries you have for yourself must change in such close quarters with others. The larger group becomes an extension of each person. One person moving, shifting, coughing necessarily affected everyone else.
We were lucky to be able to find a place with a short table in front, and then sleep hit like a massive boulder that one would try to dodge, try to move or wrestle away, but it was so so hard. I could hold myself straight no longer at about four in the morning and put my arm on one edge of the table and put my head down, and just as I did so, the woman next to me, sitting on the very edge of the seat lay her head on my back. She was older and somewhat portly and I didn’t have the energy to even care. Small spaces forced compassion perhaps. She could easily have been me.
Here in the bus, we all had to grow into each other in part because we couldn’t move, but also because we couldn’t leave, get off the bus, unless we wanted to find our own way to Serxu. I should forgive the knee, forget the elbow.
The bus chugged along the thin path. We were climbing up the side of another peak. The road wound its way around and I could see many other peaks behind it and alongside. On the way to Kangding, we still passed by construction workers and small villages; here, we were already high up in the mountains, and we were alone. We didn’t pass anyone.
Head tilted back, mouth slightly open, my bus neighbor had been sleeping like that since the morning, waking only to eat when we had our bus breaks. He seemed content, as if he made this journey often enough, felt this way best to pass the time. Indeed, it was attractive--all the petty sounds of the engine, bumps in the road, smells, might be muted by a dense snooze.
I let my eyes slowly close.
Suddenly, the bus started sliding. The back wheels slipped out to the edge of the road. The path had grown increasingly steep, and the snow had continued to fall, so it was no wonder that the path became slippery with compressed snow and ice.
There was a silence to the whole thing, a balletic wavering, a fervent back wheel spin. I caught my breath, held on to the seat in front as the whole bus creaked. Gasps filled the air, and the bus itself seemed to hold its breath, as if it were alive, as if it were deciding what to do.
Someone screamed. The bus shuddered again. My fingers were pale from my grip. I pushed my knees forward so that they met the seat in front.
It wasn’t like crashes one might imagine—swift, an uncontrollable swerve and impact. This was uncontrollable for certain, but there was a stretching of time as if the bus was trying to decide what to do, and it went this way and that, as an ice skater might taking a leisurely stride, left, right. We veered to the right and flipped into the snow.
The impact was unceremonious—a muffled thump. But inside our world, everything was in upheaval. Every seat had been taken and now we were mostly thrown out of them. Luggage so carefully put under our seats had slipped away and made its way to the side that was now the ground. And yet there was a feeling of amazing luck, as we all knew that it might have been just as easy to slip to the other side, and have fallen into the ravine, for these roads were snowy and slippery, thin, no rails on the other side. Just air. It had always been a possibility. We had some close calls earlier when the tires spun out here or there, but once we were righted, we forgot.
Just a moment ago, I could have closed my eyes and not even be here. Outside was out, seemed far away from the window. Now the howling breeze from the crack in the glass was a reminder of how one slip, one prolonged tenuous spill, and the illusion could be smashed.
We made our way over to the front of the bus and heaved ourselves out the door into the bright outside, the snow, the distance that we had all watched safely from the window, from the thin walls of the bus that kept us, our chatter, our smoky air in. The wind hit me, and took my breath away, sending me chills, while all around a light snow floated about, as a pale veil might in the wind, ripples carried on rays of sunlight.
People stood around in small groups, chatting, smoking. We were so close in the bus, now suddenly we were once again strangers, a loose collection of people. One little girl in a red coat and two ribbons in her short hair, unfazed by the crash, ran around and stopped to pick up something in the snow, delighted. She shrieked and ran to her mother to show her.
I stood off to the side near the ravine and felt my heart beating quicker as I thought about how we might have just died together. Still in shock somewhat, I replayed the feeling of the bus falling again and again, reviewed in my mind how it was that we got to be here, to be so still. I felt small standing here, feeling snowflakes land on my face, melt. We were part of the sky here.
My feet were getting cold now, and I noticed that the sun was lowering in the sky. I stamped in the snow, pressed my hands together.
The Beardman who sat behind me on the bus suddenly appeared at my side. “Beautiful isn’t it?”
I nodded, but felt wary. I still remembered the leg bouncing, and his petulant look, unbecoming in a man his age, I had thought.
Being in the bus didn’t do the outside any justice. Standing in the immense quiet and among the peaks it was like understanding and seeing something else, another sort of movement and pace that worked together. The bus seemed a ragged line drawn in something already perfect. An awkward note in a subtle symphony perfectly composed. It was only now, being forced to step outside into it, we could stand and admire, but the reality was that it didn’t so much care about us. It just was what it was. And it made sense somehow. If we had gone the other way, in the larger realm of things, did it really matter?
Closer up, the Beardman looked older, weary, the white in his whiskers outnumbering the dark. “Tell me why you are here,” he said.
“I’m just passing through.”
“Why not? It just happened this way. I’m going to Xining.”
He asked where I was from, and I told him. I had decided that I’d not trumpet where I was from, but if anyone were to ask me directly, I’d tell him or her. He nodded his head thoughtfully.
“There are no great sights out this way that would merit a travelers attention. This bus is heading to Serxu, and then you are going to Xining? This is not the quickest way, or the safest way. And what is there to see on this route?”
I didn’t respond.
He shook his head. “So young, so naïve. People live here because they have to, travel here because they have to. You know why they’re looking for foreigners? Why they don’t want them to take these buses? Because people die on this route quite often. Just last week a bus like ours slipped into a valley on this road—everyone gone. What use is it for you to be here when you don’t have to be? You don’t understand anything here.”
He swooped down and picked up a handful of snow and gave it to me, as if a dare. “You’ve much to learn. Who knows, maybe you’re supposed to be here. Maybe you’re trying to test fate. Fate plays odd games sometimes, serving up the unexpected. But I suppose fate is funny; it finds you somehow.”
I understood now why this road was off limits to foreigners, the city officials not wanting to lose any on these roads. How would they be explained? It made sobering sense. I hadn’t thought too deeply about why before, spurred on by the excitement of being somewhere one wasn’t supposed to be, daring to be.
When I was fourteen I once got lost in our neighborhood. We lived in Michigan at the time, in what was called the “cigarette” suburbs. All the street names were named after cigarettes: Pall Mall, Viceroy, Camel. All the houses were split-level. I wasn’t normally allowed to stay out late, but it was summer, and hot outside one night, and I went for a bike ride by myself. I turned from one street to the next, not paying attention, and before long, didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t believe it. I knew these neighborhoods well, had biked them often, although I didn’t pay attention to the names of the streets. How could it be that I was lost? Did the night really make everything look so different?
I stood in the middle of the street—everything was quiet at 9:30 pm—with my bike leaning against me and turned this way and that. Everything looked the same, manicured lawns, sidewalks on both sides. I felt my heart beating quickly, a surge of adrenaline, fear. I felt very awake all of a sudden; the lights in the houses seemed bright, sharp. I got on my bike and decided to ride a bit more to see if I could find something familiar. As it turned out, I was only a few streets away from home, but in the moments that I was lost, my mind went to extremes—what if I were lost forever, what would I do for food, what would my parents think, do? Although I was scared, something about me liked the feeling, liked being lost and then finding my way back, of testing my intuition and reactions somehow, luck.
I had been thinking about Dawa going to the arcade everyday, playing his videogames and I thought of how we were alike in another way. We both liked being lost; it was easy, a kind of running away.
“I’ll take care of you.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
He shook his head with a smile, glanced at me and said, “I’ll take care of you.”
“No need, I’ll be fine. That is if we can get the bus back on the road.” I didn’t want to be taken care of. That was part of the reason I was here on this trip. I wanted to get away from other’s expectations of me, get away from expected order.
We both glanced at the bus and saw some helping stash rocks behind the back wheels.
“Really, this area is not like other areas in China. There are different rules out here.”
I shrugged then, because I knew once we got there, I could easily slip away, if the station was as chaotic as any of the others I had been to. I thought of the three line description in the guidebook of this trip, and thought how strangely distant, unexpected a place can be from its description, how different the landscape looks in reality as compared to that on a map, reality to one’s imagination.
I stuffed my cold hands into my pockets and rubbed them against my legs. It started snowing more heavily. The flakes caught in the creases of my coat, on my pants. I suddenly felt quite at ease, as if infused with a freshness of breath because I tried to allow the wintry landscape to enter me slightly, my skin, or rather, felt I should be open to it. There was nothing else to do but wait and try not to think too far ahead, think about what if they couldn’t get the truck out, what if we had to spend the night here.
The Beardman jumped in to help the seven or so other men pushing the bus. I watched his bulky form eagerly pushing along with the others. Why the helpfulness? Why the interest in me? The bus heaved once, twice, and finally, the sound of crunched snow and shouts of encouragement rang out, and the bus was once again back on the road.
On the bus now, everyone was in good spirits. There was talk in the air and joking. Sleepman, my bus neighbor, slipped out a rumpled pack of cigarettes from his chest pocket. He pulled one out and tapped the man in front with the bed-head and waved for him to pass the cigarette up to the driver. The man did so and added one of his own. Soon there was a long steady line of thin pale sticks making their way to the front, passing from hand to hand above everyone’s heads and moving steadily through the chatter, the jokes, the shelled peanuts, oranges and other snacks that had just burst on the scene as everyone seemed to partake in a sudden mini-celebration of how we were alive, how we were moving albeit slowly, how we survived the crash.
Everyone but the driver celebrated. He didn't even look back as the person behind him tapped him on his shoulder again and again to hand him the cigarettes. He focused on his driving, and took the smokes without thanks and tossed these gestures of good will--an offer of thanks perhaps to him or to fate for allowing us to get back on the road and moving again--in front of the dashboard where the stash grew visibly in a tattered cardboard box until they made a small white mound that was almost half as high as the steering wheel.
Before the crash, I heard people murmur about the fumes, complain about how slow the bus was. Yet no one dared say anything directly to him. They were afraid of him, afraid of this dour man who really seemed to hate his job and us along with it. At rest stops, he always stood off to the side, alone. If someone spoke to him, he answered in monosyllables or with short head tosses. He wouldn't ever honk the horn or call out to us when the break was over. He'd walk over to the bus, start the engine, and take off. It happened more than once that we'd start to move and someone would be running alongside the bus desperately pounding on the windows, almost left behind. The driver would stop, then curse fervently at the person, like he did when the few trucks and cars that passed us pushed the bus too close to the side of the road.
He handled the bus deftly enough, roughly, as if he had been doing it for years. I wondered how many crashes like the one we just had had happened to him. How hard it must be for him, to start a trip half expecting not to make it home each time.
Dusk came slowly. Only a few hours left on this bus trip before we would stop for the night. The peaks of mountains far away seemed endless. As the bus struggled up a hill, we passed by a tall structure by the side of the road. We had passed a few and came upon them more and more frequently. This was different from the others mainly due to its size. The entire structure looked to be made of cement, and was built layer upon layer like a pyramid except each level varied in height and was circular with descriptive whorls at the edges, as if the artist had tried characterizing wind in its structure. It wasn’t that the entire structure was dazzingly white that made the stupa so dramatic; it was the lines of triangular flags like loose braids of different primary colors that had been tied to the top, which didn’t just flutter in the wind, but stormed there, tearing into the air, that made it a surreal vision. Some of the older flags were torn and tattered, but everywhere there were new ones added by pilgrims to the lines, brilliant in color and sturdy. I touched the window with a finger.
Sleepman yawned and stretched. He pushed his belly out so that it almost hit the seat in front. He scratched his head, sighed. He was a heavy man but there was a lightness, a quickness about his movement, about the way he rubbed his cheeks with his fists briskly. I could hear his mouth opening and closing. He seemed relaxed, but his eyes darted around with a practiced carelessness.
“Longest time I've seen you awake,” I said.
“Card game last night.”
Sleepman smiled, raised an eyebrow, and said, “I had better luck in my youth. Maybe I just didn’t think so much then.”
“Why do you still play?”
He shrugged. Sleepman pointed to the mountains, to some dark spots far away, and asked, “Do you know what they are?”
“Yak. I'm like one of them. They're grazing all the time because they have to. It's in my nature.”
“In your nature? Sounds like an excuse.”
“Don't underestimate those yak. You'll see more of them out here, and let me tell you, some of those yak are ta ma de feng zi, fucking crazed. They scare easy, but those horns on their heads could kill a person with just one toss. They can kill someone just because they're afraid, and not even know what they're doing.”
“Sounds like they’re dangerous.”
“Sure, but the key to remember is, mostly only when they’re afraid.”
“Do you know the man with the beard?”
“I saw you talking to him earlier. Don't worry about him. He's OK. He told me that he'd take care of you. You're lucky,” Sleepman said, as he turned away and looked out the window on the other side.
This was too much. “I can take care of myself. What does he do?”
Sleepman laughed a bit. “He's a traveler. He knows people.”
At this, I had to pause. A traveler. What did he mean? The driver suddenly honked furiously and drove faster. All the talk in the bus cut out.
Sleepman leaned into the aisle to look out the front window.
“What is it?” I tried to look past his arm.
He said nothing so I stood a bit and leaned over him and caught a glimpse of a lone figure standing in the road, waving in front of the bus. He wore a long coat with sleeves that hung over his arms.
The bus picked up speed. The man saw that the bus was not going to stop and dived left. I turned to look out the window next to me, and saw the man lying in the snow alongside the road with his tall fur hat tumbling away from him.
Out the back window, I saw him standing now, hat in one hand, staring after us. I lost sight of him and saw only the other passengers' eyes staring at me, Beardman too. I turned to Sleepman, “Why did the driver leave him behind? He picked up a guy on the road earlier. Remember? Just outside of Kangding, there was a man by the road who signaled for him to stop, and he did.”
“That man was Han. Like you, like the driver. This guy we just passed was Tibetan.” He shook his head lightly, said, “Look at this.”
Three other men stood in the road up ahead forming a line linking their arms out firmly with each other. The bus went faster. They didn't move. He was going to hit them.
The driver slammed on his brakes. The bus skidded and slipped side to side. For the second time today, the bus filled with screams. We came to a halt.
The driver cursed under his breath, “Stupid people. Don't want your life? Throw it away then. See if I care next time.”
In Michigan, the school bus stop was a block and a half away from our house. It took about fifteen minutes to walk home from there. Once coming home from school near the end of term, I was the only one dropped off. As I set off for home, another school bus passed by, and a kid, a young boy with stringy blond-brown hair who I had never seen before, stuck his head out the window made a face at me and shouted, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from!”
I remember standing still. I had no response. The bus sped away and I just watched it. I could hear the kid laughing, then continued walking, somewhat in shock. He was a kid, what did he know. I was born in this country. I had no other home, I said to myself, shaking my head. The anger came later. Who was that kid? What right did he have to make such a comment? I felt bewildered that I was judged by how I looked, by features I could not change, and because of them deemed to not be a part of a place where I lived. And he was a child too, where did that energy come from? Did he get his views from his parents? In school, I had often been the only person not white in class, but it hadn’t seemed to matter. I had friends, did well in school. I didn’t feel like I was treated any differently. I hadn’t felt any different. But this kid shattered that illusion, and reminded me that I did look different from the majority, and that some would always see me as other, as an outsider.
But here, I was Han. I hadn’t ever thought of myself as Han, just Chinese. In America, I was mostly Asian, a word which included Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai among others. I knew the Chinese government claimed there were 55 ethnicities in China. But I hadn’t thought about this in any real way, hadn’t thought about what it meant to be part of one group and that it made a difference; it hadn’t mattered. I hadn’t met anyone who wasn’t Han in the States or previously in China, or maybe I had, and just didn’t know. I realized that in many of the cities we had traveled through, they were mostly inhabited by Han, the definite dominate majority. Being Han in China was like being white in America. This was why I had assumed Dawa was ethnically Chinese, and why he and the kid on the bus had such a hard time with my being American. We didn’t fit the stereotypes. I hadn’t ever considered myself part of any ruling majority, and suddenly felt aware and unsure of a sense of a certain power that came with this designation.
The men unlatched their arms. One man pounded on the door and then pushed it open. They quickly got in. They stood tall and they brought in the wind, the outside, which blew at their long hide coats making their figures billow. With each shin high fur booted step, snow shivered off onto the cold rubber floor of the bus, and the freshness that swept through was a tantalizing one that woke people up, made them sit up straight.
I was struck by their calm. These were the first Tibetan nomads I'd ever seen. They wore long thick coats that hung to their knees and fur hats on their heads. Where had they come from, what were they doing, weren’t they cold? Kangding was the last city we had been in, and it was now about three in the afternoon and we hadn’t passed any villages in a long time. It was as if these men existed in another world, were at home in the cold, in the desolate landscape. This outside, this world outside of the windows of this bus, made sense to them; they lived in it. For a moment, I realized that I had assumed that life happened only in towns, that while we were passing the landscape outside, didn’t see it as habitable, as real somehow.
The driver just stared at them.
One man, the stockier of the three spoke for the other two and said softly in Mandarin, sternly, slowly, “We need a ride to Serxu.”
“Look for yourself. I've got no room for you,” the driver laughed harshly.
“And what about your smell,” the driver said under his breath, but just loud enough so everyone could hear, continuing, “They bathe only once a year.”
The leader was still so calm, and said, “We'll pay you, of course.”
“30 kuai each,” the driver said as he fiddled with his stash of cigarettes on the dashboard. He began piling them up one by one.
“That's too much,” the leader said, his eyes steady on the driver.
“That's the price. Pay it or leave,” the driver said as he knocked the pile of cigarettes down, glanced out the window.
“We've taken other rides from this point. I know the price. That is too much.”
The other two standing men were silent. Everyone now stared at the driver.
The Tibetan man the driver passed up earlier had been running and now caught up. He jumped in through the open door, breaking the quiet with his loud breathing and carried in another gust of wind with his step.
The driver tossed his head. “Ta ma de, another one,” he murmured.
A voice from the back called out, “Hello Driver. Master. Let them stand in the aisle if they want. Let's get going. It's late.”
It was Beardman speaking lightly, jokingly. Sleepman tugged at my arm, nodded his head to the front. “Don't look back,” he whispered.
The driver stood suddenly, glanced back trying to see who spoke. At the same time, the leader held out the money he was willing to offer to the driver.
Beardman said, “Yes, that's right of the man. Just take it, let's go. We all want to get there soon. Driver, Master, you're a reasonable man.”
Sleepman made agreeable noises. Others did too.
A new line of cigarettes began making its way up to the driver. The driver took them, then grabbed the money from the Tibetan leader, and thrust the door shut so that the man who came in last was thrown slightly forward and lost his balance. But the other men caught him and held him up.
And the bus moved on.
The Junior Ambassador
- for Alice Miller
My brother, thirteen, was eager to try out a used set of golf clubs given to him by our father. It was his proposal that I join him on a walk to the nearby senior high school where he would hit balls on the vacant football field and I would watch. I am eight.
I said, “Certainly Greg, that sounds like fun for you, and given that you would be severely punished if you were to leave me home alone, I would be very glad to accompany.”
“Why do you talk like that?” he said.
“Never mind,” he said, “You can carry the bag and be like my caddy.”
”I'll be like a real caddy,” I said as brightly as I could, “like those boys I've seen on television, only, of course, much younger.”
“Hurry,” he said. I hurried. We walked down a hill, past a gas station, a small quaint but sad correctional facility, the friendly bail bondsman's office and on to the senior high. He climbed the fence and politely reached for the bag so that I could climb the fence with ease. We took a position beneath one of the goalposts and he said, “Hurry, give me a wood.”
“There are two.”
“Just give me one.”
The field was surrounded by a track and it happened that there was a man, probably in
his mid-forties, running very slowly around it. It looked like running, the way his elbows moved up and down, the way his breasts rippled, but the pace seemed more like walking. The man was wearing a girdle. I wondered if he was embarrassed. I chose not to look at him long, though he was a curiosity to me. Rather, I said, “Greg, let's be careful that we don't hit a ball in the direction of that running man.”
“Is that running?” said Greg.
“I see your point,” I said, “but still...”
“Give me a tee and a ball,” said Greg, “and I'll show you how to play golf.”
“Excellent,” I said, and as I was zipping shut the compartment for tees and balls, I felt a sensation like none I'd ever felt. It took perhaps a minute before I could attribute a cause to the pain below my right eye. My vision seemed less precise. More, I seemed to be on my back, the feeling of grass tickling my neck. Greg was standing over me.
“You have to stand back,” he said. “When I swing the club, you have to stand back. Didn't I tell you that? I know Dad told you that.”
I confess that for a moment I was not only stunned by the sharp blow to the head, but I was puzzled by Greg's apparent anger. And then I seized upon exactly what was happening.
“You seem angry, Greg,” I said, “but I think you are frightened. We both know Dad won't be happy about this.”
Let us cut to the kitchen, three hours later, where my family likes to have its dinner. Greg had encouraged me to keep my mouth shut about what happened. If I were questioned about the golf ball-sized contusion beneath my right eye, I was to say, I fell down. We rehearsed my performance many, many times, but to Greg's dissatisfaction, I felt I had to tell him I am uncomfortable with dishonesty. And, I added, Dad won't likely buy it.
“You could fall down,” he said. “It wouldn't have to be a lie.”
“Nor would it be the truth,” I said. It was easy to see his increasing agitation and I felt bad for him. “Look,” I said, “Dad is not unreasonable. He may be upset -”
“He'll freaking freak,” said Greg.
I would describe our father as a kind-hearted man who in most circumstances displays good judgment, but on the occasions when he's felt his instructions have been ignored, he is capable of surprising vehemence. I have considered at such times that perhaps he was robbed of his own childhood, the opportunity to make poor choices and be forgiven, the relative security required to test the limits of his own parents' authority; but when this has been foremost in my consciousness, I have reasoned, wisely I think, not to broach such a discussion. He would hit me and neither of us would feel good about it. Greg's assessment of the situation seemed accurate.
We entered the steaming kitchen, Greg first, me flanking on the left, my wounded right eye in the shadow of his left shoulder. Mom was removing a plastic sealed bag of creamed chipped beef from a pot of boiling water. On the table was a bowl of steaming rice. What an excellent cook she is, and I was happy to tell her so.
“Mom, every night it seems you outdo yourself.”
“It comes frozen in a pouch,” she said.
“But the quantities, they're always perfect.”
“Both you boys, wash your hands,” she said.
Our father was seated at the head of the table and he seemed not to have taken notice of us. He was picking at something stuck between the tines of his fork. He is not a fan of food from pouches and recently, I think only the day before, he said as much to my mother. I admired his directness, but I think he failed to appreciate my mother's point which was also direct.
“You're not the only one with a job,” she said. And she added, “You want real food, you cook it.”
It is difficult, frankly, to say what he made of her points because the rest of dinner, in spite of my best efforts, they ate in silence.
Greg reached back and took hold of my sleeve and we turned in perfect tandem to face the sink. Under other circumstances this might have been a fun game - we are pretending to be fighter jets or water ballerinas - but my senses are acute and the fragrance emanating from Greg could only be described as a byproduct of intense fear.
“This is not a game,” I whispered to myself. We washed, we wiped our hands and we shuffled to our seats.
Dad's examination of the silverware led to an examination of the flatware. He was certainly preoccupied, and I think unpleasantly so. It was Mom who brought the subject, as it were, to the table. “What the hell happened to your face, Whitley?” Here I must pause to explain that Whitley was a name chosen for me in honor of my mother's deceased father. The former Whitley was an editor for the Linoleum & Congoleum Catalog and in the evenings he taught ballroom dancing in a studio. He was said to have had perfect form when it came to dipping. About the name I feel somewhat neutral, but my father has registered his opinion in two words:
“Seems girlish.” I once overheard him tell my mother, “The kid's already going to have a rough go at school. Why put him through that?”
Dad took my chin in his hand and turned my head to face his. I looked as brightly as I could into his eyes and what I saw - a function of my unique gift - is that he was making a correct set of inferences.
He turned to look at Greg, still gripping my chin. I could only see Greg through the corner of my swollen eye and he looked small and cloudy.
“I want an explanation,” said my father.
“Listen,” I said, “it was very painful and I don't feel ready to talk about it.”
“He fell down,” Greg said into his glass of water.
“In fact, I did.” It only then occurred to me that Greg's remark was true - his cover was literally true!
“How did he fall down?” my father said.
“Very fast,” I said. “Very hard.”
His eyes were set on Greg, but to me he said, “I want to hear from your brother.”
“How did it happen?” said Mom.
In the silence that followed, I realized that our strategies had failed. The best bet would have been for Greg to come clean, but he was not speaking. I'm not sure he was capable of speech. I took it upon myself to break the impasse. After all, I figured, what good are my gifts if I don't put them to use when most needed. I fancied myself a connoisseur of good taste and a curator of good will; a peace-keeper. “Dad,” I said, “and Mom, I believe that Greg would like nothing more than to share the details of my injury. I guarantee you he feels bad about it. But Greg, I'd say understandably, is frightened of reprisals. Perhaps we can come to some agreement before we move forward, a few careful words about how we might proceed.”
My suggestion was met with such silence I could hear the blood beating in my father's neck. Any moment, it seemed, Dad would reach over the bowl of chipped beef and grab Greg's collar. It was a spectacle we'd witnessed before, and though I've never queried Mom outright, I know it makes her deeply uncomfortable. She swallowed as if she'd seen a mouse on her spoon. I also don't like it, the spectacle. Greg is my big brother. It frightens me to see him helpless and trembling. I get a dark picture of human beings and the future. But, to my great surprise, Dad sat back and sighed. It's as if he'd had a moment of critical self-reflection and I couldn't help but feel proud of him.
“Golf,” he said. An ambiguous smile came over his face, the slow and uneven relaxation of many small muscles. “I'll bet you wanted to cream that ball.”
“That's the spirit, Dad,” I said. “I see were finding some common footing now.”
“And,” my father said, now grinning, “you probably saw an opportunity to silence Whitley in the process.”
“What?” I said. “Am I hearing you correctly?”
My mother's face looked as if it might either burst or cave in, enormous pressure behind the seal which was her lips. She was doing her best to refrain from ... laughing!
“I must speak,” I said. “I don't like where this is going.”
“That'll do, Whitley,” said my mother with a hand over her mouth.
“I think you've said plenty,” said my father.
“This is outrageous,” I said. “I feel outraged.” All faces then turned toward me. If there was any expression, I'd have to say it was a look of doubtfulness.
“Jeez,” said Greg, “you don't know what it's like spending the day with him.”
“I can hardly imagine,” said Dad. “What'd you use?” He reached over to give Greg's bicep a manly squeeze.
“It was the driver,” said Greg.
“Back swing, was it?”
“And did you meet the ball then, squarely?” asked Mom.
“You know,” Dad said, “this chipped beef really isn't that bad at all.”
“I wonder why they chip it,” said Greg.
“That's something I never thought about,” Mom said. “Maybe Whitley has an opinion.”
“I'll bet he does,” said Dad.
And I can't tell you what followed in terms of conversation. There was laughter and the enthusiastic scraping of forks on plates. There was, for my brother, my mother and my father, peace and conviviality. I felt like a person among aliens or an alien among people - what did it matter? What did it matter what I felt?
Fasten your seatbelts, frequent flyers, final boarding call for Jazz ad nauseum. Jarring turbulence, celiac effects. Bad enough, showing the same in-flight movies twice, let alone "Airplane One" and "Airplane Two." Membership doesn't always have its privileges. We've been down this route before, "chicken or fish," the flat choices, like a dirty joke, remind we've not all reached the Mile High Club. Save some peanuts for us. The upright position, any position, your poor stewardess gags on a familiar preamble. Terminal boredom. They don't care about emergency exits, no one's leaving alive. Extinguish that cigarette in my glazed eye. Adjust your codpiece. Oh we see you flyboy, cockshy jetstream, crane our necks to the sky, preening gestures and pavonine splendour. Inspire us, as we inspire you with our 4H steer, curare frogs and crude tattoo of Hunter S. Thompson. Bottle, pint or jar, all paths lead to the Ship & Anchor. Who's to say we deserve better. Jitney jarvey, admire our bush pilots. Buzz the Innisfail water tower, barnstorm grain elevators, crash and burn. Vile cockpit of your frolicking mind, fly student standby, pluck out white pubic hairs, take us to a hundred other hoary places we'd rather not go. Get a reaction, any reaction, excuse me, did someone kick the back of your chair, they wanted bulkhead seating. Just remember on your next journey, the natives are restless, tiny ants on the ground. Together, alone, apart, we all get there. Some by Greyhound.
The Grand Collector
I was stretched out on the lumpy bed that came with the apartment and was looking through the pages of Iberia by James Michener. Maybe I'd go to Spain someday. From there it wasn't too far to Sicily where Archimedes was buried, holed up in a nearly unmarked grave like my apartment. My itinerary changed when the phone on a small table alongside the bed rang with an urgency familiar to only eight o'clock calls.
"Is this Wilbur Dobbs?"
I put down the book. I wasn't going to Spain or Sicily. Forget it. I wasn't going anywhere. It was Him. Again.
"Your student loan is delinquent. Again," He said.
It was Johnson from Allied Credit Corporation in Chicago, the Grand Collector of National Defense Student Loans, delinquent accounts division. I recognized and hated His curmudgeony, gravel-coated voice.
I had never met Johnson but had concocted an image of Him in my mind. In fact, I don't think anyone outside of the reinforced fortress of Allied Credit Corporation had ever met Him. Johnson was probably not even His real name. His name and identity were carefully guarded secrets like Yahweh or some Druid wizard. He probably wore disguises when He exited the building.
I imagined Johnson sat at a great oaken desk in the largest gray cubicle in the entire skyscraper that housed Allied Credit Corporation, the largest collection agency in the world. The skyscraper was crowned with a halo of clouds at the top and somewhere in that hazy mist He controlled all His delinquent accounts including mine from the University of Urban Failures where I had graduated with a ten year payment plan.
His sprawling cubicle was surrounded by a honeycomb of smaller ones. The collectors in those cubicles hovered like bumblebees and archangels in the vicinity of His cubicle. They spoke to Him with deference and eyes averted though secretly, they couldn't wait until He made His last collection and all His accounts were cleared. Then He would anoint one of them as the next Grand Collector.
The aisles cleared for Him at break time when He visited the snack machine where He pressed A7 for peanut butter and crackers. When He returned to His cubicle He lit a Bering cigar and then hung it from His thick, ruby-colored lips while He dialed graduate scofflaws like myself and pressured a payment out of them or promised eternal retribution. In between calls Johnson thought about His dinner, some variation of cabbage and sausage, served in His private dining room.
He wore a white dress shirt, brown pants, white socks and black shoes with thick rubber soles that could stomp on bugs and muffle the sounds of their crunching shells. The skin on His face was pale and doubled from years in His kingdom of cubicles and fluorescent lights.
I really hated dealing with the motherfucker.
"I paid on it, Mr. Johnson, Sir," I said.
"You haven't paid for six months, Mr. Dobbs. You have to pay something every month. This is America, the land of minimum payments. You have to make one every month. For everything. That's what makes America, America. Lowest bids and minimum payments."
"The land of minimum payments. Yes Sir," I said trying to humor Him. "I don't have the money right now. What do you want me to do? Rob a convenience store?"
That was a very American thing to do. That would get Him off my trail I thought. It didn't.
"Let me tell you a story about a man who had no debts and no minimum payments."
Oh no, I thought. Another parable.
"He came into this world without debts and he lived his life without debts. He didn't own a house. He didn't own a car. He didn't own a powerboat with Johnsons on the back. He didn't own a sailboat. He traveled everywhere by foot. The few things he had were paid for by his father who lived on a distant mountain."
"I wish I didn't have any debts, especially a National Defense Student Loan," I said.
"People began to believe in him and his extraordinary power to be debt free. His friends, neighbors, even strangers began to believe in him, that he had a special God-like power, some kind of magic, to have no debts, no minimum payments, and to be happy and free. They looked at him and said, 'Oh, Ram of No Outstanding Balance, show us your way. Show us how to be free of minimum payments. Show us the way to Eternal Life without debt. Turn all the digits in our monthly statements to zeroes, and we shall be free to worship you every day not just on the first, fifteenth or thirtieth day of the month."
"Did he do it? Did he change them?" I asked.
"Not so fast, Mr. Dobbs. Before anything happened, The Prideful One from the Fulfillment and Enhancement Division invited the Ram of No Outstanding Balance to walk with him on a shopping spree through the Mall of the Coin-Operated American, Fifty Percent Off, Double or Nothing. The Ram, dressed in clothes that were too large and distressed, sackcloth, said nothing when the Prideful One handed him a large, designer shopping bag with reinforced handles."
"Show your followers your power, your freedom, and your glory," the Prideful One said. "Show them the way to Eternal life. Fill the bag of their emptiness with diamonds as big as hard-boiled eggs, and topaz as large and as blue as the sky. You have fifteen minutes to fill the bag and make it a full udder of merchandise, compliments of the Management of the Mall of the Coin-Operated American."
"The Ram took the large shopping bag and promptly sat down on a bench and did nothing but stare at the Prideful One, despite the enticing smells from the nearby World Food Court and all the alluring window dressings designed by the Fulfillment and Enhancement Division."
"Very well," said the Prideful One. "Follow me to the second floor."
"A mall with a second floor?" I asked the Grand Collector.
"Yes. The Ram followed the Prideful One to the escalator in the middle of the Mall. When they reached the second floor the Prideful One said, "Show your followers your power and your freedom. Jump to the kiosks below and let the emptiness of your designer bag act as a parachute and cushion your debt free fall."
"Shoppers had gathered below the Ram and began to chant, 'Jump. Jump. Jump,' but he found another bench and sat down and stared at a sapling growing in a nearby black bucket. By then the Prideful One had blanched and gotten down on his knees before the Ram. 'You have resisted and won. No wonder you are debt free and have no minimum payments. Let me escort you to the Final Exit Doors of the Mall of the Coin Operated American.'"
"The Prideful One wasn't finished though. He led the Ram down the escalator to the first floor then paraded him through the World Food Court. Cooks and servers lined up behind them in a train. Cooks and servers in resplendent uniforms and hats from Japan, China, Mexico, Italy, Greece, Lebanon, America, Cuba, and Little Eddie's from Philly, left their stations and followed the Ram of No Outstanding Balance to the Final Exit Doors that led to the parking lot and the three-tiered garage."
"Behind the cooks and servers came shoppers and customers with trays laid out with napkins and silverware. The Prideful One turned to look at the sea of faces behind them. 'You could lead armies into battle you are so powerful,' he complimented the Ram who glanced in dismay at the rearguard of believers and followers."
"Won't you stop at this Last Stand of Kiosks and fill your designer bag with Swiss watches, personalized license plates, and extra large chocolate chip cookies?" the Prideful One asked. "Compliments of the Management of the Mall of the Coin Operated American? Mm?"
"The Ram ignored the Prideful One and hastened his pace toward the Final Exit Doors which sparkled a short distance away like diamonds and sunlight. When he reached the doors the Ram turned to address the gathered throng before he slipped away and returned to his father on a distant mountain, never to been seen again."
"A man with an empty tray interrupted the Ram of No Outstanding Balance before he could speak his final words to his followers."
"Where's my number 6 from the Shanghai Café?" the man asked.
"Where's my number 3 from the Grecian Urn?" another customer called out.
"Yeah. Where's our food?"
"The Ram backpedaled through the Final Exit Doors, turned, then sprinted through the parking lot pursued by the stampeding mob with empty trays.
"It's in the designer bag," someone yelled.
"The Prideful One remained inside the Mall of the Coin Operated American. He nonchalantly removed the walkie-talkie from his alligator skin belt and pressed a button.
"Security. We have a thief in the west parking lot."
"And so Mr. Dobbs, are you a thief? When am I going to get my number three payment from you, my number six payment from you? When am I going to get anything from you?" Johnson, the Grand Collector of all delinquent student loan accounts, asked.
Like I said, I hated dealing with this motherfucker. And His parables. Every time He called, He shoveled a load of sheep shit on me.
"You're in Chicago, huh?" I asked.
"That’s right," Johnson replied in His worn, scratchy voice.
"It's a toddling town," I said, grasping for something to say.
"It's the city of big shoulders."
Johnson coughed into the phone. A dry, phlegmless cough. The wind off Lake Michigan.
"It's hog butcher to the world," I said.
"What's your point, Mr. Dobbs?" He broke in.
"How about the Cubs?"
"How about the Cubs?”
He began blubbering about the losing seasons. Talk about your Urban Failures! The Cubs were the best failures money couldn't buy.
Then I disconnected, but I knew The Grand Collector would call again at eight o'clock in the morning, disguising His voice, conning me into a meaningless conversation.
Sooner or later, I'd have to pay up or listen to another parable from the motherfucker in the Windy City. All that for a minimum payment. For National Defense! Talk about Your Urban Failures!
When my eyes open like crocodile slits that emerge gradually from the miasma of a swamp, a groan escapes my parched lips. The small room comes gradually into focus and I start taking my bearings in these immaculate surroundings where I have spent the last twenty four hours. They have opened my body and taken out my womb, you see. A routine procedure for them, but a sort of a one-off for me, as you might well doubt. My mother is sitting beside my bed leafing through a glossy magazine. A glorious creature stares vacantly at me from the front cover, her pout a silent query. My mother brings the fingers of both hands to her temples and starts rubbing them slowly. She does not realize I am already awake. My gravelly lids flutter and my vision swims for an instant. My mother is a gigantic praying mantis with hair dyed a hideous purple-violet shade. The praying mantis: an insect that lives mostly in Africa and now I might add by my bedside in this posh clinic where they removed my womb. A pear-like cavity meant to shelter foetuses and incubate life. Mine was taken away because of something called ‘fibromatosis.’ A cluster of fibromas that thickened the walls of my uterus and caused so much bleeding I was drained and anaemic. It also blighted my prospects of ever having a baby. At the age of twenty-five. Still a virgin. A wombless virgin. Had I read this in a story, I would have snorted at the improbability of all this bad luck heaped on just one person. But, well, this is reality and I am the girl with all the bad luck piled on her.
I feel something poking between my thighs. It must be the catheter they inserted into me to evacuate my urine. The only thing that has ever penetrated me. When I try to turn on my side, jolts of pain flare in my midsection and irradiate all my body. It is the Caesarean, the incision that enabled them to reach my innards and extract my womb. When the nurse comes with a painkiller, I can see she is breathing through her mouth. A solid wall of overpowering sweat odour comes between us and the poor woman is struggling not to let her disgust transpire. I am amused by the look on her face and her attempts at not crinkling her dainty nose in front of me. My mother is still engrossed by the magazine. I have decided that I cannot speak. It feels as if my vocal chords snapped the moment they dug my womb out of its cavity. It took my voice away with it. My mother is first flustered by my silence and then she grows annoyed by what she must have depicted to herself as my tantrums. Before the doctor arrives for his routine check, she applies some madder colour to her thin lips and rearranges the pleats on her skirt in case the man manages to match her with a forgotten recollection off a dusty shelf in his memory. She is a singer and an ex-beauty queen, my mother is. Two songs of hers were broadcast on Tunisian radio a few times in the last years. That’s all. But she lives in the hope that some important person will ask her to participate in a show or a local festival to re-launch her non-existent career. My mother goes by the stage name Noor because she found her real name Rebeh too rustic, too blunt, reeking with the tang of manure and countryside effluvia that were obdurate reminders of her modest, prosaic origins. So she changed it to Noor. She could not even live with her own name.
I am wedged between two male siblings that have absolutely no care whether I live or die. We have nothing in common save for happening within the magnetic field of my mother’s paranoia. We are no better than makeweights that she uses to animate the backdrop of a stage where she is the only attraction. I remember the night when she awoke us at twenty past one with a tone of emergency which induced us to think that a family member had died a horrible, unexpected death. It was simply to posse a search for a fur coat she had worn on a gala dinner in honour of an ex-minister, back in 1978. She said she had to make sure the maid had not filched it. After an hour’s worth of milling around the house in a drowsy haze and scrabbling half-heartedly in all the closets and wardrobes, it dawned on her that she had swapped it with a peddler for a choker which only proved to be some tawdry rhinestone bauble.
My mother expects everyone to be wallowing in the emanations of her sublime aura. She is past the climacteric of her life but she cannot bring herself to stare this crushing reality in the face. Instead, she has retreated into a glittering cloud-cuckoo-land; a fly inside an amber capsule. She shuns mirrors and I have always longed to shove her face in front of a magnifying looking glass and turn her basilisk gaze back on her. She always starts the day with singing exercises to the maddening clunk of a metronome. At the most unlikely hours of the day or the night, she has a gargle with a mixture made of honey and lemon juice to preserve the ‘crystalline’ timbre of her voice, as she is always inclined to claim, because a voice like hers needs continuous care. She expends much time and energy backbiting the other singers and hoarding titbits of gossip about each one of them as if they were delectable morsels to feast on with relish. She never fails to justify the blatant lack of solicitation on the part of composers and producers by the fact that she has been victim of sihr, that somebody, jealous and vindictive, must have slipped something in her drink or food and jinxed her. So she has regarded all food proffered to her with a combination of suspicion and distrust. She spends hours on the phone trying to get through to people who do not want to speak to her but she is much too imbued with her illusions for the realization to hit her.
My mother has been absorbed by herself so much so that she has failed to grasp the magnitude of my sufferings. I spent the past months before the surgery observing everything from behind a red haze. Blood permeated the texture of my surroundings. It saturated every pore of my sensory system. The blood that refused to clot or stay put. My life force was being siphoned off me. I became a sort of human colander. Not even sanitary napkins could soak it up quickly enough. I cursed their manufacturers, the ads, the women in those ads with their confident, reassuring smiles, the comforting slogans. The moment those wretched things were wedged between my weary thighs, I was painfully aware of their obtrusive presence, overloaded as they were with my blood. I could feel the latter spewing out, deflating me, depleting both my body and spirit. I started fearing I would crumple down with a wistful whoosh of exhaustion. A huge puddle would sometimes smear the rear of my skirt and form a sort of eerie Rorschach pattern that encoded the riddle of my predicament. Then, stubborn maroon stains would etch themselves on the skirt material like rusty spectres and would linger despite my fierce scrubbing attempts. It was my curse and I trailed it wherever I went till I ceased to go anywhere and dropped out of my faculty classes a few months before majoring in French literature. I felt like a leprose should have felt in her quarantine condition, crumbling under the touch of a mysterious malediction.
I could almost sense the crimson tides surge and pulse, a fiery flower blooming inside, its fat blossoms choking my uterus; a Baudelairian flower of evil. I could feel the viscous, syrupy tendrils sneaking their insidious way ever so slowly. I could mentally trace their sinister course and envision the slithery red serpent that would poke out its ugly head and betray the brittle condition of my insides for everyone to see. I could picture the blood pumping from my heart through my arteries, veins, and capillaries. I felt I had nothing in my body save for blood. It was sadly paradoxical that the primal life fluid where I was macerating could prove the death of me and the more drained and withered I grew, the more brimming with vitality my mother was. An uncanny decanting process was unfolding itself. My udder-like breasts lent substance to my picturing myself as a cow being sacrificed on the altar of my mother’s vanity. It was an irrational, impulsive presentiment I could not very well account for.
My jaundiced complexion was a ghostly sight accentuated by insomnia and the darkish patch of down on my upper lip. My mother was appalled that a daughter of hers might look like a marooned wreck so she decided to take matters into her capable hands. She hired the services of a woman who came and intoned Fatiha while stroking with an insistent circular motion both my belly and underbelly. She applied an unguent, then a sort of stinking poultice that she moistened with her saliva. She recited many surats from the Qu’ran and prescribed a hizb latif, a ceremonial where a paid group of men, chanting the glory of Allah, thumped tambourines in a cacophony of religious hymns intended to drive evil away from the house and its dwellers. It was to no avail. The abnormal growth that usurped my womb refused to be dislodged by a few ritual incantations. When the doctor finally pronounced himself on the necessity to ablate my womb, my mother, the best Job’s comforter you could ever find, told me with all the smugness she could muster: “Giving birth was the worst experience in my life! Consider yourself lucky you’ll be spared the nuisance!”
From the seclusion of my room, I dissected and pored over people’s deeds and funny habits that were likely to give them away. My blood, my very body betrayed me so I decided I had to find out other people’s foibles that were susceptible of crackling the veneer of confidence or normalcy. I yearned to become a spirit of chaos, to watch other people’s lives come apart and rejoice in the fact that I was not the only one whose self was caving in on her. I became the crocodile woman, with jutting jaws, serrated teeth, wallowing in dung-like resentment. My movements were automatic, my jaws locked to keep sealed, deep within me, a hell begging to be let loose, reverberating with the frenzied screeching of infuriated apes. My tears were ones of gloating that I was not alone in shouldering my burden, a doomed Prometheus who suffered to have her liver pecked at in solitary suffering. My eyes were slits that filtered and broke down everybody’s gestures and words without their being aware of my presence. I blended in the background the same way a submerged crocodile would be mistaken for a random piece of flotsam on the surface of a body of water. The only markers of my passage were dandruffs: flakes of dead skin I strewed everywhere I went in Tom-Thumb-like fashion; specks with a life of their own that were the only signs of my ever having been there at all.
I took to positioning myself behind the window of my room, a sort of elevated observatory overlooking the street, with its blinds pulled down so that only slats of wood mediated the outside world. My crocodile eyes would miss nothing about people’s routines as they went about their daily errands. It was a kind of cloze test where I tried to fill in the blanks. I was motivated by a vampiric thirst to uncover what they deigned to give away for me to gorge on. Take for instance the house from across the street with its manicured shrubbery and well tended garden. Why is it that only boys from a certain age ever went in and out to visit the elderly gentleman who lives there on his own? What about the clubfooted woman who went out at nine in the evening and came back at seven in the morning or the retired teacher who lingered in his veranda furtively observing the little girls playing in the street, never missing a beat, his eyes glassy and seldom blinking? A favourite of mine was the butcher’s wife who would wait for her husband to leave to do her washing on the roof of her box-like house. A young sturdy mason would be, then, working on the roof of the adjacent house. She would sit on a footstool and put a kasâa, a circular pewter utensil, between her plump thighs casually spread on each side. She would lean washing the clothes with soap suds up to her elbows, her generous breasts straining against the fabric of her blouse. She would seem intent on the task at hand, studiously ignoring the man’s hovering presence and hungry glances.
When I could not find enough gratification from my street speculations, I turned to those who lived under the same roof as myself. Take my oldest brother for example. Mother always fussed over him and expatiated about each and every of his deeds. He was the apple of her myopic eyes, weeld ommu, mamma’s darling as she proudly referred to him. But she could never notice the kind of stealthy, voracious looks this prodigious progeny cast at my younger brother’s male friends when they came to our house. When one of them addressed him in that laid-back, virile fashion young men would purposively assume nowadays, the corner of his left eye would twitch and a spasm would animate his cheek as if the pressure were unbearable.
The foolish creature (read: my dear mother) never noticed, in the midst of her solipsistic delirium, that her youngest son had grown a beard and that his eyes had taken on a fanatic glaze and his buck-teeth a menacing thrust whenever his glance landed on a ‘wayward’ female who did not conform with the way his imam said a female should behave. You had to see how he looked when he watched, because he did watch, those Lebanese girls in hot, sultry video clips, grinding their hips and panting their ways through a song. Did my mother ever remark my father’s moist looks from over the rim of his glasses, following languidly the maid’s movements while the latter vacuumed the dining room carpet in twice the time it normally took to do so or when she very deliberately stooped with the excuse of straightening the fringes of the horrid ochre rug taking her own sweet time, with her huge rump twitching provocatively almost under my father’s nose? No. Of course, my mother did not. She could not for the very life of her realize that her oldest son was a closet queen and the youngest a closet fascist. Her third eye was blinded, turned as it were, inwards to that mesmerizing, interior landscape clothed in the mists of her delusions she spent so much of her time and energy tending to.
Today is the big day for my mother. Some reputed, popular singer succumbed a few weeks ago to a heart attack (in the morning after a wild night with an eighteen-year-old boy). A live show has been programmed in homage to his long career to which a group of singers, who have known him, have been invited. My mother is one of them. Before she left for the municipal theatre, which is the venue of the show, she was bubbling with excitement at the perspective of being finally given the opportunity to astound people with her ‘divine’ talent. Much thought and money went into the choice of the dress, a white slinky thing that was meant to have a dazzling effect but that highlighted, instead, the ravages of years and diabetes on her emaciated figure. It also made the purple tint of her hair and the magenta hue of her lipstick blaring, glaring splotches. She looked like an exhibit out of a museum but she was ensconced within a golden bubble of delusion that nothing could prick.
After she wafts out in a cloud of cloying perfume, I am on my own in the silent house. I look around and meet her panoptic gaze transfixing me from out one of the gilt frames that spangle the sitting room. Her eyes stalk me. Her smile nettles me. I pause in front of one of her portraits. Then, I casually saunter to the room at the end of the corridor and penetrate the inner sanctum where she has erected a shrine to the diva she could have been. She spends most of her time in this room wrapped up in self-contemplation. I am immediately enveloped by a petri dish atmosphere of stuffiness and deluded splendour. The air is almost thick with my mother’s presence. It has drenched her aura. The room has retracted on itself in hostile recoil and I can feel reproving eyes monitoring my gestures. The scissors, I previously took from my mother’s sewing kit, acquire a soothing heaviness, anchoring me down, lending a purpose to my stride and a tangy edge to my anticipation. Photo albums are stacked high in tottering piles, but the most treasured of my mother’s possessions lie in the exquisite red lacquered box she keeps swathed in burgundy taffeta, on top of a wardrobe where all her gala dresses are stashed away in plastic shrouds. I know about it because I have always poked around unawares of my mother.
The scissors sound like a pair of steel jaws as they snip and snap at her cherished photos with a busy, gluttonous enthusiasm. Those photos where she is handed the first prize in a local beauty contest and others where she is wearing that goddamned fur coat, grinning from ear to ear, bursting at the seams with jubilation over being herself. In all the photos, she is the undeniable centrepiece and soon gaping holes stare back in places where her beaming face used to be. When I am finished, I replace the photos methodically, put back the box in its hiding place and get out of the room replete and satiated for the first time in what seems like ages.
I position myself in front of a small TV set I carried into my room waiting for the show to begin. Her performance is due in half an hour. It is a huge and ugly celebration. When her name is announced on the mike, the camera trained on some spectators’ faces shows blank stares of bored indifference. When my mother struts onto the stage, she is a pathetic white blob in the middle of enormous garlands of flowers and an incalculable number of wreaths intended to adorn the stage but that have a sickly, funerary look to them. I feel an odd pang and a constricting sensation in my chest. She opens her mouth and closes her eyes to intone the first notes and I think that a technical problem has supervened, for nothing issues out of her mouth. Only a tremulous string of voice comes out magnified by the microphone she is clasping, her knuckles white. The first catcalls and jeers soon ensue. Bloody idiots. How dare they?
I can see my mother for the first time the way she really is: a pathetic, old woman in the clutch of panic, reeling with the shock of realization. She manages to wobble her way through the song and the host intervenes with a forced smile to end her ordeal. I switch off the TV set and starts waiting for her as if on a wake. When she comes home, she finds me sitting bolt upright on the chair from across the door. She peers uncomprehendingly at me. I rise slowly and trudge up to where she stands, looking as if it were the first time she has ever clapped eyes on me. When I come a few inches away from her, I can see the mess that is her face. Her mascara has run in shallow runnels down her clotted-cream complexion and formed ridges on her foundation powder. I enfold her in my arms and she goes all rigid as though struck by rigor mortis. I rest my head on her shoulder and say nothing. I stare at our reflection in the mirror, two figures entwined in an unlikely embrace, and a tight smile slightly cranks up the corner of my mouth while a few tears trickle down my glazed eyes. Tears of the crocodile woman.
The mother and father wait, all they can do before the big 36-inch SONY rinitron, watching CNN-Europe, compliments of the dish father bought for the Stanley Cup and March Madness, but now they’re staying alert and sleepless over a new kind of madness that was supposed to be over but continues to offer painful daily blows, small and large, a boy here today, maybe two tomorrow and the wounded, he knowing the word not telling the half of it, the coma, a lost limb, all those gut shots, yes, the wounded, the man-made-meat, some wounds lasting more than a lifetime. And mother and father just watch, nod off waking up, looking for Will who enlisted for tuition and to get out of this no-longer factory town, now a flatland of outlets. And eating in the living room, too, now more a living room than ever, with microwave, mini-fridge, and water dispenser and Will they never even get a hint of on the screen, although every once in a while there’s a postcard the message neutral, meant to reassure, which it doesn’t, although that’s not Will’s fault, father sees that it’s someone else’s, mother thinks it’s Bush’s and goes red in the face, blown up with held back tears and anger, and sometimes they hold hands on the couch and other times he’s off in his recliner, “The Churchill,” a Father’s Day gift from Will and mother three years ago (and there will be no such celebratory day for either of them this year, which will be their second, or maybe perhaps never, this the real worry). And he remembers for a moment how he’d used to watch O’Reilly and all the others being so sure so certain so stupid in righteousness and now he knew, and should have probably have always known, that that sure easy feeling, so full of hairline cracks like that Lladro figure that mother has of a mother and child all in white and pale blue. He now notices that she’s removed it, the pieta, from the corner, the etagere, that’s it, what she called it, and, hell, who’d want to look at a mother and dead son, even if it’s just out of the corner of your eye, and maybe that’s worse anyway, as the tv’s probably the corner of the eyes, too, and he’s the son of god and all, and he thinks the small g is good, although he still prays every once and a while. But he’s still thinking of mothers and children when he turns to Al-Jazeera, up around 900 or so, which he sometimes watches when mother falls asleep because he feels strangely comfortable with this strange channel, and the only time he feels anything now is when he sees mothers and dying children or toddlers screaming besides dead or dying mothers (and why doesn’t the cameraman do something, but these scenes are in every country, he knows, but how does that make it right?, he wants to know)
One day, then, and day is now harder to notice with the shades down and the drapes drawn, and the summer heat of the room lets up a bit in the night. And although it still isn’t the day, sometimes he can see the date on the lower right on CNN and hear about the terrible heat in Paris and Rome, hotter than the heat of this room, and it’s to the right of all those beautiful anchor women from Pakistan and Malawi, it’s like looking at Miss Universe every few hours and not like the network anchors that mother used to say were full of Botox, and he sees young men in the ads selling deodorants and cars and sexy young girls on cell phones, and he wishes his son, and maybe all the sons in the world, had taken that job at the P.O., but then they’d closed their branch and, where was he? Oh, yes, one day, well one day they’d removed some things, just a few at first, an end table, he thinks, and neither said a thing, but he then moved the other end table into the front yard, along with a table lamp and then there she was behind him with a vase and, oh, yes, the pieta and its stand, and by week’s end almost everything was outside and they usually moved things at night when it was cooler and the things got heavier, so that at the end of the week most of the living room was on the lawn. And they’d had TiVo installed in another set so when he went out for things he could play back what he’d missed and all that remained in the living room now was the couch, the recliner and the wall clock which she had set forward by eight hours and she’d finally disconnected the damn chimes in the thing. And the “Churchill” took over an hour to get out both sideways and had to be tilted at funny angles, because he’d told her he could do it himself and didn’t need her help, well not actually told her, as they hardly spoke, just looked each other in the eye and yet they were closer than they ever were and sometimes had wild, yelping, un-shy sex on the floor because now the couch, too, was out of the house, too, and which they’d managed together, not that they’d arranged it like some show room set, they just put it down here and there, the hell with the neighbors, although they seemed to understand and actually Bob Brown had earlier given him a silent hand with the recliner, whose legs got stuck and was so heavy from all those metal parts and maybe some of the neighbors were helping them watch and there was Mrs. Frost, whose son, Charlie, was back but was no longer really there and she would sometimes leave some tomatoes and peaches on the kitchen door step.
And then there was another day sometime later when they got up and drove three hours in the old blue Taurus that Will wanted them to replace with something foreign, but he liked the feel of the old car and Dennis down at the corner let it pass inspection telling him each year that this was the last and that he hadn’t seen that crack in the side window which must of happened after the car left the garage. And they drove the local roads to 17M and over Rt. 6 to 9W and over the big bridge and later through a tunnel into Brooklyn, the first time either had been there ever and they knew that somewhere in between they’d passed ground zero, and then, after the tunnel and some other roads, they were on Atlantic Avenue (and later he got a ticket because the meter was broken and he thought that those were free, but it was New York after all and he paid it as soon as he got back, although it took a while to find his check book, which was still in the right-hand drawer of the desk on the lawn). And Atlantic Ave., which he’d never even heard of, except when they’d all three play Monopoly on summer vacations years ago. But she knew of this street and neighborhood somehow and she did the driving after the tunnel and she seemed to know all the streets, which were crazy and one way, but she kept going and turning, right, left, right, and right again. And she knew where they were headed on the sidewalk through crowds of people of all ages and hearing Spanish and a lot of Arabic, which he recognized from Al-Jazeera, and he thought he’d even heard a Jordanian accent, but by then they were in one store and then another and mother pointing and saying a word or two in Arabic and so maybe she’d been watching, rather than napping, and he was suddenly hit by the worry that maybe the TiVo wouldn’t work, wouldn’t save the hours, but her look said it was ok. And then there were lots of parcels, and he hadn’t really been paying attention but it looked like a lot of cloth, fabrics which the shop keeper’s daughter helped them with to the car and who offered them her prayers for Will, although neither thought they’d mentioned their far-away son. And then there was a rug, costing more than the recliner, the tv, and the couch together, and this time a boy, maybe just 12, helped them carry it to the car, and the Ford had plenty of room, so Will was wrong there about getting a Camry, and again the boy said he’d pray for Will and for all three of them. And last was food, grains, cereals, spices he’d never heard of, but mother sure knew what it was she wanted, and she also took a bit of advice now and again, like from the woman behind the counter and from one of the customers, and then both offered prayers, too, while things were being wrapped up in glossy brown paper, and she gave mother a small cross, and he guessed she might be Christian, maybe from Lebanon, although the others he thought were Muslim.
And then they were back, unloading the back seat, the trunk, unrolling the rug, and her unpacking groceries on to some small shelves she’d brought in from the kitchen and then they moved the little ice box, which they still called every refrigerator they’d ever had, they moved it on to the lawn, too, and then she began to cook—somehow she had also picked up a small stove and smells of cooking oil and spices filled the room, he thought he’d recognized cardamom and then he fell asleep and woke up to see that the curtains and drapes were gone and somehow she’d gotten the ladder out of the garage and was putting in what looked like a small hook and now the fabrics ballooned down from the ceiling, all colors shimmering slightly from the rising heat and he carried the ladder back to the garage and saw that the lawn was clean now of everything. And he didn’t really much care what happened to the stuff. And then he’d had his idea and went back over to the car, not going through the house, knowing Clare’d know what he was doing as he pulled onto to 17 West and drove to the Home Depot in Goshen, and soon he was back with stuff he’d bought with a nice young man helping him with the heavy load.
And later, in the evening, there were Bob Brown and Mrs. Frost and, of course, there was mother, too, all carrying the flat, full bags into the living room where mother had rolled up the carpet and the rugs and Mrs. Frost and Clare were raking the sand, spreading and evening it out, a pretty good layer of the stuff and then he and Bob brought in the plants—all they had were these wilting ficus, but he took the plants anyway, would bring them back to health, as they’d like the room and its humidity and then they all sat down to tea from a brass pot with a long spout and they all dozed a bit and when he and Clare woke up, Bob and Mrs. Frost, he thought he’d never known her first name, had gone and later the tvs were onto the lawn and then were taken off somewheres. And since that day they’d never bothered again with TiVo or Al-Jazeera, or CNN, although he’d miss Daljit Dhaliwal. And, for however long it took, they’d sit there and wait, drinking tea and eating couscous or dates and sometimes Bob would bring lamb and Mrs. Frost, Fran, she told them, call me Fran, she’d bring spices she’d started growing in her garden.
And they’d all eat and sit silently on the rug on the sand and then Bob and Fran would leave and the two of them, Bill and Clare, would sleep and pass the day until evening until Fran and Bob would come back together. And the sides of the tent would move slightly from the small motions of life and from the heat, and he’d pick up some sand and let it run between his fingers. That was how it would be for the four, waiting, as long as it would take, waiting, perhaps, for a fifth.
Jay took up birding late in life. When he turned fifty, his girlfriend Brenna gave him a Peterson Guide and a nesting box. You’ve got to get out of the house more, she told him, or that cholesterol’s gonna kill you, regardless of how much red wine you drink. Even though Jay thought the whole idea was for bird-brains, he figured he’d give it a try to keep Brenna happy.
That first summer, they had a brood of six tree swallows. By the second summer he’d added five boxes to his trail in the park, and he fledged eleven bluebirds and nine tree swallows. By the fourth year, Jay was going to Pelee Island for the Hawkwatch, to Nebraska for Sandhill Cranes, and the Everglades for cormorants, anhingas, and ospreys.
One August, he was standing with Brenna in a cattail marsh on Presque Isle, watching purple Martins gather. He was pricing out in his head what two weeks in Belize would cost when he began to notice his shoulder blades were bothering him. Brenna’s Oh-oh as she felt his back made him remove his Eddie Bauer all-cotton wilderness shirt so she could have a better look. Looks like you’re sprouting, Jay, she observed, concerned.
His doctor confirmed what he suspected: he had actually grown small wings--white ones, maybe seven inches long--from his shoulder blades! And, his doctor added, they may stay and grow. It’s like those freak kids born with tails now and then. While the doctor recommended surgery, and Brenna suggested larger shirts (she found it all a little sexy, after all), Jay was uncertain.
He stood on his back porch one morning at sunrise, not having slept much during the night. The coffee cup warmed his hands. Facing north, he thought he could scent the coming winter. But the little wings were lifting and falling, turning him around, to the south. Migration time was beginning. He needed to be ready.
He is dating a girl who loves to die.
Of being undone by the belt, by hands, by a razor. Of having the life choked out of her like a farmyard chicken. She tells him these things, blushing, as if she’s admitting to having a shoplifting habit, or fantasies of being with other girls. She’s pretty as a lily, has an I.Q. of 197, and once won the Annual Hawthorne Park Sadie Mae Bakeoff with her now famous gooseberry cobbler. After kissing on their second date, she tells him she likes her hair pulled, so he pulls it. A little at first, then harder.
“Do you think I’m weird?” she asks.
“Weird like Elvis? Weird like the pope? Like three-headed donkeys? What weird do you mean?”
She wears tee-shirts plastered with images of metal bands like Slayer and Pitchfork Abortion. She has skulls and snakes tattooed in cyan and red up and down her left leg and arm. She cuddles with a loaded snub-nosed .38, and a sharpened Guatemalan machete hangs on her nightstand like an old brown promise. She owns 246 skull-related items: a skull-shaped doorknob, skull-shaped lamps, skull coffee cups, skull panties. On top of her piano sits a human brain soaking in formaldehyde.
“It’s from Haiti,” she says. “Some poor slob who died of hunger.”
During the day she writes grants for a non-profit begging food for the homeless. In the evening she listens to Mahler and Metallica, tends her cat, coaxes the tomatoes.
“I can do the hair thing,” he tells her after two weeks, “but that’s where I draw the line.” She pouts, shuffles around the kitchen in her little skull slippers. “You think I’m weird, admit it,” she says, sounding like a bad trial lawyer on a bad television show. “Say it, say it.” She stands next to him now, petting his hand as if it were a lizard, offering up her alabaster face, her little skull earrings dangling. “Please,” she says, “just one slap. I like it, honest joe, I do.” She stands there a full minute, eyes closed, on the edge of a wince. When he turns his head and walks away, she shuffles off to the next room, yelling behind her: “You’re so fucking uptight, like some goddam fucking Republican accountant. I can’t believe it. It’s not like I’m asking you to buy an SUV or use chemical fertilizer on your precious squash. You’re sucked in like the rest of them, PC to the nutbag.”
A minute later, he pokes his head into the room. “PC Republican?”
She can’t hear him. She’s in her headphones watching porn on her computer. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a man with a long black whip straddling a woman who is bound and gagged. He wants to leave, but five minutes later is still standing there, watching.
After dinner, they hand feed each other tiny chocolate cakes shaped like kidneys, livers, hearts.
“Who’s my favorite little Hannibal?” she says, placing a pair of lungs on his tongue. “Just tell me that. Who is he, huh, huh?”
He shoves an eyeball into her mouth, and then a hand with a missing thumb. He kisses her hard, slipping off his wingtips and climbing on top of her. They noodle up on the couch, their arms and legs intertwined, so much sinew and bone. He nuzzles her throat while she writhes, waiting for her to kiss him back, to do something other than slither and sigh. She doesn’t. He sits up and pulls her on top of him, until she is square in his lap, her head thrown back, blouse half off, left breast giving him the old mal ochio.
He is thinking of Sasha, whom he had ditched three months ago, and then of Mira whom he had left a year before that. How much he loved them both. He is already calculating when he will stop dating this one. He is picturing his life as a chart with arrows pointing down, a vast bear market from birth. He is picturing his life as a coupon, as a fajita in white sauce, as a questionnaire. He bangs his forehead against hers, once, twice, three times, until she begins bleeding.
“Who’s your Daddy?” he spits.
Her eyes light up like a jack-o-lantern, her cheeks flush. “You are, you are,“ she says, in a rush of breath, bouncing on his lap. “You’re my Daddy!”
“Goddam right I am,” he growls, grabbing a hank of her black hair and pulling it slow. Squeals. Giggles.
While he’s pulling her hair, she’s grimacing, grinding her pelvis into his. Their eyes lock on each other like a couple of boxers spoiling for blood. Images of his past loves pour into his brain, a slide show of slasher romance movies. He is sitting on a bench being punched in the head while explaining to Sylvia that he’s not ready to live with her. He is weathering blows from Mona, who’s kicking him with her Mary Janes as he walks out the door. The images explode in a fist of color and he’s thrown back into the present, as she grabs his hair and yanks it like a weed.
“Bitch,” he screams, slapping her hard across the face. “You bitch!” With each slap, she grinds herself deeper, more forcefully into his leg. He can feel her wetness through his Dockers, can fell himself grow hard, harder. He’s holding her head in place with a fistful of her hair while slapping her repeatedly with his other hand. She’s making sounds he’s never heard before, and the harder he hits her the more she screams, moans, gurgles. Within minutes, they both come.
A week later they’re popping edamame, sucking on a couple of peach sakis at Yoshi’s Sushi Hut. She flicks the flaccid shells at his ear until he makes her stop by grabbing her hand.
“Oooh, tough guy,” she says. “Can’t take a little bean, bud?”
After dinner they walk downtown, past coffee shops and cafes full of twenty-somethings purring into their cell phones and drinking lattes. Neither of them says a word for blocks, but then she slips her hand in his and strokes his shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she says.
“Worry what? Who’s worrying?”
“I know it’s not who you are.”
“Who’s got nothing to do with it,” he says.
“I mean I know you don’t hate women, not really,” she says.
“What a relief,” he mumbles. He’s watching a man in his 30s wheel a three-seated stroller up the street, stopping periodically to offer each of the tykes a treat, which he dangles just above their mouths like a worm. Two of the infants are laughing hysterically, and the other one is crying. The man is smiling widely, now placing a treat in one mouth, now in another. He’s whispering to his little sparrows in baby-talk code. “Look at that,” he says to her, pointing to the man. “Isn’t that amazing?”
“What?” she says.
“They’re just playing with him.”
“Not in the babies.”
“I know what you want,” she says.
He looks down, careful to step over the crack in the sidewalk.
From the third week, he could feel his interest in her wane, and he resolves to break off the relationship after one month. It isn’t any one thing in particular that disturbs him or that he finds missing. It’s a matter of principle. But now is as good a time as any, before the inevitable talks about commitment and co-habitation, plans for the future, the expectation for more, the sharing of skull broth. One month. In and out. No harm.
She’s warm and glowy when she answers the door, and taking his hand leads him upstairs.
“You’ll love this,” she says. She’s wearing a black garter with fishnets, a silk-screened tee shirt featuring an image of a bloody head at the foot of a guillotine, and Chloe. Her bedroom’s pitch black, but when she lights a candle he makes out an over-sized coffin perched on top of the bed, with a white silk lining. She stands in front of it grinning, with her arms held just so, as if she’s offering him the top prize on a game show for trivia buffs of necrophilia. “Well, what do you think?’
“Zoinks,” he says. “Hmmm.”
“I’ve got this thing I want us to do.”
“Don’t tell me.”
“Hello? Crypt to Death Gyrl. . . . Don’t tell me, as in tell me.”
“Here,” she says, shoving a pair of handcuffs at him. “Pretend I’m dead. Make me your fuck doll.”
She crawls inside the coffin on all fours, and he handcuffs her to the headboard, going at her like a hyena who’s cornered a wounded prey, like a reporter at a press conference on corporate malfeasance, like someone who has finally, finally been given permission to breathe after a lifetime underwater. When she squirms too much, he grabs the machete from the nightstand and says: “Move again and I’ll slit your throat.” Her entire body reddens, she drools, moans, trembles, her legs spasming like a guitar string plucked too hard. After he’s finished, he uncuffs her and she rolls over in the box. “Grrrrrrr,” she says, taking a nip out of his ankle. He blushes, pulls on his pants.
A week later, he’s in her kitchen shoveling eggplant dip into his mouth thinking how he’s going to break it off, which words he’ll use. She walks by, ignoring him. Her eyes are glassy, like they’re full of glue, and her steps small, deliberate. She sits on the edge of her giant skull throne and places her right arm on a small glass table, palm out. With her left hand she takes a razor blade and slices into the crook of her elbow about a half-inch above the vein, grunting pleasurably as she does. Her gluey eyes seem to fill with sand. Blood pours over the arm and onto the glass creating rivulets of viscous red sludge. He can see her face in the glass’s reflection. White, distant, spectral. She never once looks up, but after a few minutes of staring at the blood she begins to lick it, slowly, with quick little flicks of her tongue, as if she were a rabbit or a cat. When she finishes, she wipes the blood off her arm and the glass and holds it under cold water, then swabs her wound with alcohol and bandages it.
“You’re a freak,” he says to her as she’s dressing her wound.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Freak, as in looped, as in damaged, as in brain-addled, neuronally lacking, scarred, toasted. Freak, you know.“
“You should try it sometimes,” she says, snipping the end off the bandage.
“I’ll put it on my to-do list.”
“The only thing you’ll put on your to-do list is the same crap you’ve been putting on it all your life. Face it, you’re a pussy.”
“Schmuck, listen: You belong with some desiccated cube girl sharing a nice cup of hot chocolate, humping in the dark during the news, and then falling asleep before the Late Show, while whispering endearments to each other like they were the fucking pledge of allegiance or some other prayer for sissies.”
He slaps her across the face, and then backhands her harder. She falls against the counter picking up a spatula and swinging it at him, catching him flush across the cheek, slicing his lip. He tastes the blood with his tongue and howls, his eyes now murderous, huge. He hits her again, knocking her to the ground, then pounces on her punching her head, pounding it into the floor. He rips the bandage from her arm and blood pours onto the cold linoleum, spatters the walls. Her blood’s all over his hands as well, mixed with the blood oozing from his lip. When he stops to wipe it from his eyes, she bucks him off of her, flips herself over, and buries an uppercut fat on his chin. More blood spurts from his face. He throws his head back yowling, blindly grabbing at her, gouging her eyes, putting the full heft of his weight into every punch. She continues to fight back, flailing away with both arms, kicking him. He grabs her shirt and rips it off, scratching her the length of a laughing skull tattoo, and then her pants, which he pulls from the waist, the zipper catching against her skin, shredding it. She’s on her hands and knees as if crawling away, but she’s not crawling, and he rips off his own pants and enters her, all at once like a stab, a needle, and she screams, a hot stifled scream that peters out into something closer to a guttural coo, and he’s slamming her as hard and as fast as he can, not thinking of his past loves, or what he’s going to say to her, or his own pain, he’s just deep in his body slamming, slamming, slamming her with so much force he feels as if he might disintegrate into a squadron of butterflies. “You don’t know me,” he screams at her, shoving himself in her up to the hilt, while viciously slapping her head and back, “YOU DON’T KNOW ME!” After he climaxes, in a furious and prolonged canine yelp during which his throat quivers and his eyes roll back in his head, he slumps over and passes out, collapsing into a slick of blood.
An hour later, he wakes to the sickly smell of blood, which is everywhere around him, and in his mouth. She is clean scrubbed, wearing a pleated skirt and black tank top sitting on the couch reading a paperback called Secrets of the B.T.K. Killer, listening to Rachmaninoff, sipping chardonnay, nibbling from a plate of crackers and cheese. One of his eyes is caked shut with blood, but through the other he can see her. “Jesus,” he says, “what . . . are you okay?”
She holds a finger up signaling him to wait while she finishes a passage. He slops around in the blood, managing, finally to rise to his knees. “What . . .?” he blurts out, holding his head as if he’s going to faint. “I . . . I’m so, so sorry,” he whispers.
“No doubt,” she says, placing the book on her lap, sipping her wine. Then: “The mop’s in the corner. You know where the door is. Try not to cry on your way out. It makes me sick.”
We had returned to Marijana and Marko’s small home from a bright sunny afternoon of swimming in the turquoise blue waters of the Adriatic Sea and were having a light snack of olives, fruit, wine, bread and cheese. The aroma of baking bread saturated the air as we sat crowded together on an old green couch in the kitchen. We were leisurely talking
about our swimming, sunbathing on the hot rocks, the fish and octopus speared by
Marko, anticipating the delicious fresh meal awaiting us that evening, when the phone
rang. Marijana answered in her usual soft voice, spoke briefly and returned to the table.
“It’s our neighbor, Branko, you remember him don’t you? He has just returned home
from his required month’s service time as a reservist in the army. He is coming over to join us.”
Marko, glanced at his wife, with a look of concern, and said, “I hope he is ok.”
A memory came to mind of sitting in this same kitchen with Branko, a tan, laughing,
handsome Croatian man from Dalmatia, in his early forties, hugging his blond, slender
wife Maja while talking about his students at the elementary school where he taught. He
told many jokes that day as he played and attended to his children, Vera and Mirko,
whom he clearly adored. We had shared a similar lazy afternoon, still covered with salt
after swimming, a little sunburned, smelling of the sea, relaxed as we shared a barbecue,
wine, stories, and laughter.
As the evening had progressed we shared more serious
reminisces of the five mortar shells that hit and severely damaged Marijana and Marko’s
home during the Serb shelling of Dubrovnik in the first months of 1992. They had hidden
in terror with their son, Alex, 12 and daughter, Maria, 14, never leaving their beloved city
during the six months of bombardment and fires that began in December 1991 and
continued until June 1992. It was the first year of the war in the former Yugoslavia that
turned the country into a battleground and living nightmare for five years.
Marijana, a biologist with a lively wit and quick smile, had taught in the same Dubrovnik
High school for twenty five years, with many friends and colleagues, but now she
was regarded with suspicion by some and threatened by others because she was born into
a family of Serbian ancestry. Marijana and Marko had both grownup, been educated,
raised a family in a Yugoslavia that no longer existed, where ethnicity,
religion and national origin did not matter and everyone was a Yugoslav. They and all the
friends who visited them at their home still clung to that notion refusing to call
themselves anything other than “Yugoslavs”.
I had returned each summer since 1993 to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia to direct
summer camps for children who had been traumatized by the fighting, and become
friends with Marijana, who had been my student in a seminar on working with children
with PTSD. She was a beautiful athletic woman who loved to hike, knew every flower
and fish and whose hands now shook as she spoke.
She, like every one in that scarred city, had a variant of post traumatic stress.
Before and after the camp sessions I was a guest in her home and became part of the
circle of friends in her scarred neighborhood.
It was now August 1995, and a blitzkrieg by the Croatian army had reversed some of
the earlier losses of the war. In two days of intense fighting on August 5 and 6 in which
thousand of people were displaced and hundreds of civilians killed,
Croatian soldiers and reservists had taken back an area in central Croatia, seized by the
Serbian army in the beginning days of the war. The Krajina,”border” area had been
settled by ethnic Serbs 500 years earlier to claim the area for Serbia. The Croats who had
been ousted from their homes in the earlier fighting in 1992 quickly returned to reclaim
their land and that of their fleeing Serb neighbors. The promise by the Serbian
government to protect the homes and lands of the “Serbians” living there had vanished as
the soldiers retreated and left the villagers to their fate.
Marijana and I had been at our camp on an idyllic island in the Adriatic, comforting
terrified children as planes flew overhead and all lanes of transportation, by sea, air, road
and rail were closed. We had listened to radio reports of massacres, killings, including
two students of Marijana’s shot on the beach near Dubrovnik as they sunbathed. When
the travel ban was lifted we were able to safely send the children back to their refugee
camps, displaced persons centers, homes and orphanages and now spend time
The fighting had been over for ten days, the reservists sent home and we were once again
trying to relax and act as if everything was normal, sharing the beauty of Dalmatia and
the relaxed friendly spirit that survived in Dubrovnik. At the same time, we were trying
to ignore the reality of divided families, grieving soul-destroyed children and adults
living in constant trepidation of the next assault.
There was a knock at the door and Branko entered. He was unshaven, red-eyed,
disheveled, with his hair uncombed. He lurched through the door, moving like a drunk
zombie and landed in a chair at the table, reeking of alcohol and the smells of being
unwashed, and exhausted. He immediately reached for a glass of wine, poured it himself, downed
it in a gulp and poured himself another.He stared at us, his eyes
open, not appearing to comprehend anything.
The atmosphere in the room shifted as if one of the sudden summer Adriatic afternoon
thunderstorms had made the sunshine vanish in an instant. The other three of us looked
at each other in dismay, and Marijana asked if he was hungry. Before he could respond,
she cut two big pieces of fresh bread put slices of cheese and salami between them and
handed it to him. Branko stared blankly at the sandwich as he drank another glass of
strong red Dalmatian wine in one swallow.
“How is Maja”, Marko asked?
“I haven’t seen her yet, Branko replied.
“What about Vera
“I haven’t seen them either, I can’t face any of them.
He put his head down
on his arm and began to cry. Huge racking sobs shook his body. He said, “I can’t sleep.
The images keep coming to me and I am afraid to close my eyes”. What had happened to
this strong, vital, loving man? He said he couldn’t talk about the fighting or the war and
he didn’t want to think about it either. We all wanted to be compassionate, support him
and respectful of his need for privacy. I was shaken by the profound changes in him.
Branko looked as if he were an old, broken man. None of the light, grace, and vitality that
he brought in with his presence last summer, was evident. We sat in a strained silence
and then tried to make small talk around this sad distraught man in our midst.
finally, “We never should have gone there. None of this should have happened. I can’t go
home, I can’t let them see me.” He started crying again and suddenly cried out “I am a
murderer.” then softly repeated it,“ I am a murderer”. We sat in stunned silence unable to
look at him or one another.
He started talking quietly, “As we entered a village we were supposed to take, I saw
someone running and as I had been instructed, I shot at him. I saw the person fall. I went
to see, and he was dead. But he was a child, the same age as my Mirko. He hadn’t done
anything, he was just a child. Then a few minutes later, while I was still standing there, a
man ran out to the body, cradling it gently in his arms, rocking back and forth, saying,
‘My son, my son’. It could have been Mirko. I turned and started to walk away when a
bullet whizzed by my head. I whirled around and automatically fired my rifle, not even
thinking. I heard a cry, turned, and saw the man crumple, his body falling on top of his
son’s. It could have been me, it should have been me. I walked away from the fighting. I
could not pick up my rifle again. They sent me home. I’m not a soldier, I’m a teacher, but
I had to go for my damn month, why now?” He screamed and held his face in both hands.
“How can I enter my home, face my wife and children, how can I return to my
classroom and face a room full of trusting children. I killed one just like them, killed a
father just like me, just like me? What have I become? What has this war made me? What
is left for me? For us?”
We sat in silence, each with our judgments and thoughts of two destroyed families. I
cried softly and closed my eyes from the sight of Branko and tried to recall the man he
had been. I remembered too many other men, other families I had been with whose
worlds had been destroyed forever, no matter how much rebuilding of their houses took
place. The holes in their hearts, left not by bullets but by shame, outrage self hatred, fear
and unspeakable regret do not fill, close and become whole. These holes are unlike those
left by the shelling of the Dubrovnik house where we now sat, whose roof had been
repaired and replaced with new red tiles and now was restored and complete.
As the bright Adriatic sunlight turned to dusk we watched the ruined husk of a man,
alone with his unspeakable regret and sorrow.