Thursday, September 17, 2009

Olympics (San Francisco, 1992)

In San Francisco, I earned eleven dollars per hour and was supporting both of us on that, so we ate a lot of cabbage, eggs, and red adzuki beans. But oh! He’d grind the spices in a black volcanic stone mortar from the Singaraja market, in that tiny Victorian kitchen in the Western Addition, standing there wrapped in only a maroon ikat sarong tied around his small waist, light reflecting off the golden curve of his back.

First he’d toss a dash of salt in the concave center of the mortar, then peel two pieces of garlic and smash them with the wooden end of a cheap Chinatown knife until they oozed, shave the thin brown skin off fresh ginger and chop up its sinewy light green flesh into smash-ready chunks, cut translucent slivers of shallot, pinch off a corner of dried shrimp paste, and finally slice up tiny Thai chilis into circles of red and green. It all looked beautiful just before the final grinding, the reds and greens and whites tossed carelessly but arranged just so, a quick flash of beauty ready to submit to the pestle, to blend together into sharp tastiness.

Oil sizzled in the pan and he’d dump in the spices and the air was pungent with the smell of fried shallots and shrimp paste and hot chili, a smell that never really left the places where we lived. He’d fill the pan to overflowing with cabbage, and the runny eggs would fluff up as they cooked. The adzuki beans would boil in a spicy soup, like the soup his mother used to serve us in the kubu, spicy to make you feel as if your hair were about to fall out and your lips burned. The whole meal didn’t cost more than five bucks.

The first night he came to San Francisco, we missed dinner. Since he came in 1992, it was an Olympic year. At the airport, when he walked off his flight from Denpasar, he looked different, smaller and more boyish in his green cotton button-down shirt, his face filled out, his cheekbones a little less prominent. His thick dark hair had grown long and he smelled of coconut oil. We stood there for a moment, just staring, shy, and then I fell into his arms and he wrapped his long arms around my waist.

Our roommates were not home, at least I don’t remember them being there. We lay on the living room floor in front of the TV to watch the summer Olympics, because it seemed too sudden to go directly to the bedroom after months apart. I didn't care that the carpet was ugly and smelled of beer. There were bay windows that looked out into a courtyard. On TV, swimmers dove elegantly into the pool, sliced their powerful arms through the water, as the announcer droned on, and then we were tracing each other’s faces, remembering each other’s strangeness. I almost felt sick as my body got used to his again. His nose was flat as a boxer’s. The announcer’s voice receded into the background. His long dark hair blinded me and I held it around my face so it would keep covering me, to keep me from seeing anything beyond it. His fingers no longer felt strange. His skin, softer than mine. Streamlined bodies moving through heavy water, from one side to the other, lighter than if they walked on earth. Swimming, swimming, flying through the water, swimming, flying, swimming, flying. The announcer is saying something. I can't see or hear. In my imagination they're almost to the other side, they're touching the finish line like it's a new continent. Gold, silver, bronze.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Enchanted Island (Gili Trawangan, 1990)

The travel guidebook claimed it was a fine swim from one Gili island to the other, and I knew I was a strong swimmer.

Every day in Bali I plunged into the Java Sea, and swam far out from the black sand beach to where I could float, and from the gently swaying water gaze at the green hills of Kayuputih rise above Lovina and the solid purple peaks of Java pierce the sky to the west.

I swam to near where the good coral was, scarlet and deep. I swam through sea lice that stung and stung my fingers. I swam so far that I could no longer see the touts selling postcards, the massage women, or the wooden bench where every day we sat and drank sugary iced tea and smoked single kreteks with Lasmana, the blind man.

One day Pasek and I take the ferry from Padangbai to Lombok, wanting to vomit as we pull away from Bali's shore. After sitting cross-legged on the floor drinking coffee for several hours at his cousins' house in Sengigi, we charter a carriage led by an emaciated horse to go in the direction of the Gili Islands. A boatman with a wooden sampan rows us out to an island with no cars and a few huts with thatch roofs that arch into the sky.

The sands here are white. We hold hands and slowly walk the entire perimeter of Gili Trawangan, stepping around chunks of driftwood that branch like capillaries. We stop and sit on a rock, and we turn toward each other and embrace, his wiry forearms loosely and tightly holding my waist.

My guidebook says I can swim from this island to the next, and it certainly looks easy because the water is so clear and calm. My arms are strong from swimming every day through the stinging sea lice. Pasek doesn't want me to go, but that's because the Balinese think the sea is full of black magic.

I pull my body away from him, feeling his shoulders drop through empty air, and dive into the clear warm water. I swim and swim. My muscles pull and glide through the sea and my limbs send schools of green and red parrotfish scattering. Huge sea turtles glide underneath me. I lose track of time. I keep my eyes closed to prevent the salt from stinging, and because I know I am going in the right direction.

I lift my head up briefly for air, and it is then I open my eyes.

I am quite far from the shore I have left, and even further from the other shore. Suddenly I realize that the current is not pulling me toward the next island. It's actually pushing me further out to sea. For a second I just want to keep flowing with the current - the water is so warm and there are no sea lice here and the sky is so wide and indigo.

I just want to flow and flow and not have to go back to land. I don't want to be in a hut as it gets dark to see if it is true that Lombok is full of black magic. I don't want to find out what is behind those dark flashes I see on Pasek's face after we kiss.

I look back, and barely see him standing frozen on the shore of Gili Trawangan, scanning the wide sea and the tiny dot I have become. I realize how far apart we are. My arms start to flail in panic.

The guidebook says it is possible to swim from island to island. But suddenly I realize the guidebook is wrong. I need to learn not from books but from surviving the swim back, from spending a night in a hut on an island full of black magic and finding out for myself if it is real.

Suddenly all I want to do is go back.

I turn and use all the strength in my arms and shoulders, one arm cutting into the current, then another, over and over, as hard as I can against the strong current as it pushes, pushes, pushes me away from solid ground. I fight, despite the currents that try to rip us apart, to be close to the figure standing on the shore. Though I can barely see him, I know he is watching me.

Finally I break through the strongest part of the current and the water calms and there I am right up on shore clasping Pasek's feet, and he reaches down to take me gently in his arms, knowing fully he had almost lost the chance to do so ever again.

We spend the night in a hut with a roof that arches into the sky.

He gives me sips of water as I toss and turn and burn with delirium, a red face always there. Pasek knows that the face is an evil spirit who has been able to access my weakened soul. He can see it too.

He braces a chair against the door so it can't be opened. He curls his hand around the ancient keris he has brought with him from Bali. And then he comes close to me.

The red face inside my mind grows and grows and the room shimmers and it is as if I am still swimming out to sea and the room is rocking as the waves lap it. I know now that Pasek is right, it is true that Lombok and especially the sea is full of black magic.

Then I feel a cool dry hand on my forehead, another hand on my chest, and slowly, slowly the room stops swaying. I begin to relax, to give up my futile tossing and turning, my resistance to the reality of how it is here.

Tomorrow Pasek will tell me he can't travel with me any more, that he needs to go back home. But he doesn't say that tonight. He just wraps his body around mine so I can't tell where his skin ends and mine begins, and the rocking of the room transfers to his arms. He gently, gently calms me inside as we breathe together on this island surrounded by the untamed sea - his chest, my chest, one breath after another here on this dry land, the rattan walls of the hut bringing in and letting out the evil of that water.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cremation (Panji, 2008)

The village of Panji, which is Pasek's father's home village, will hold a group cremation on July 7th. When I was first there in 1990, the rice farmers of Panji still carried corpses to the cemetery gently in their bare calloused hands. The next year, they carefully wrapped their dead in batiks, placed them in the backs of Jeeps and drove them to be buried.

Three years ago Pasek's father died. With a sharpened bamboo stick, he fought the Dutch, and cut the umbilical cords of twelve children, five of whom lived. He would always pull up a rattan chair for me in the dusty courtyard and was always was the first to offer coffee and pink rice cakes. Even when he was still healthy and vibrant, he told me he wasn't scared to die.

The year he died, many fathers died. There wasn't enough money for a grand enough cremation, so the fathers were first put under the earth.

On July 7th, they will be dug up, a procession will begin to the beach, and a tall pyre spun wildly around and around by those bare calloused hands, confusing the bad spirits.

Pasek calls me, across the oceans, the day his father dies.

I sit on my steps in my West Berkeley neighborhood, the house across the street a pink Victorian rumored to still harbor women of ill repute. The neighborhood is changing though, architects moving in with their Ikea kitchens and bamboo floors. I fumble to give my baby a breast, to quiet him so I can be present on the phone. I am alone. Pasek is gone a continent away, and I have finally started a new life by creating one.

A car pulls up to the pink Victorian and a woman walks out and sways towards the driver. The architects who own my place have done a good job with the rock paths in the front garden and the upside-down shades that offer privacy but let light in. Suddenly I remember living across the bay in San Francisco with Pasek, and the day I came home to a bathroom sink filled with roses. I wonder what ever happened to our cockatiel Missy, who sat on Pasek's shoulder and loved to pluck grains of rice from his lips, who one day flew out our back door and soared towards the Oakland Hills.

I loosely hold the phone to my ear, but I am listening with my entire body. The rocks in the front yard become a blurry grey river. I stop seeing the pink Victorian. I only see Pasek and his father, Nyoman Mantra, among coconut palms, squatting low to the ground as they pit their roosters against each other, his glossy black hair on one side, his thick white swatch on the other, iridescent green and red cocks sparring in between. The first time we return to Bali from San Francisco, Pasek, the eldest son, takes his place next to his father, elbows akimbo, and they are there for hours, fingering wattles, stroking tail feathers, slightly swaying, barely using words.

In Bali, you are supposed to hold your tears to let a spirit leave peacefully.

He didn't.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Gambling (San Bruno, 1998)

We sit at the Lucky Coin Casino on the 101 with plastic buckets of red and black chips clutched between our legs. I'm not a gambler like you. I usually lose at backgammon, I pick up abandoned pennies on the street, I don't like to waste. I won't do anything for a hundred bucks. I'm not plotting every relationship ten moves in advance. I miss the microtwitches and reddenings of a face that a good poker player tunes in to. I can't charm a baby. I'm not the first one to feel when the breeze's direction changes. I think the whores who tromp around in casinos carrying trays inelegant, with lips too reddened, their alcoholic offerings weak with melted ice.

It is a cut-rate casino so the whores are worse-looking than usual. I watch you eyeing your cards, figuring out whether to ask for another hit. Your eyes glitter as possibility becomes reality. Your eyes go from your cards to your dealer, dealer to your cards, and finally you ask for one more, to see if your human will and hope really can subvert the laws of the universe.

I am playing too but only because you are - I want to feel what you feel when you're winning. I want to feel camaraderie with that plump blonde over there with her tub of $20,000 worth of chips, who keeps stacking them on the table without fear of losing, as if what she has in her bucket is coinage from a fantasy novel and she is a genie free to be ridiculously profligate, to fulfill everyone's wishes.

I want to see what your life means, whether you'll pass or go for blackjack, exactly how much you'll risk, and for what. I want to see just how far you'll go and I won't. I want to not care for tonight that gamblers always, always lose; that we will walk out of here not being able to take anything more out of our shared bank account, not talking into the black and cold night, our hands apart.

And when that loss comes, I will its punch to be gone, like the watered-down whisky.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Slave Fort (Cape Coast, Ghana, 2001)

From the top of the whitewashed fort, I can see the glittering blue waves of the Atlantic, softly swelling, pierced by painted fishing boats lined up on the beach. I stand on flat taken ground, cement.

Up here was where they prayed, the masters who hadn't yet succumbed to malaria or typhoid. Reverent, they looked up to the wide sky, to their maker, and then they looked down, through a square hole cut in the floor, to the dungeon of women below.

Choose a woman, who won't yet go through that door of no return. Turn for one last long look at the jumble of colors on the shore, the graceful palms gently swaying, market women selling fish.

You will leave this hallowed ground for good. In the darkness below, you will be chained together for generations.

They took gold for me, she remembers, as the door shuts behind her.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Food (Bhuana Sari, 1993)

Memek tilts her head in the red brick door frame. She keeps her full lips closed over her orange teeth out of shyness, but when she sees me and the nurse approaching the wooden gate of the kubu, her mouth bursts wide open.

"Maee," she urges, motioning us to come with her fingers.

She sees that my sarong ends at my knees, and comes over to pull it down to my ankles, as is proper for a young woman, shaking her head at my violation. Then looks at the nurse and back at me and suddenly she bursts out laughing.


Stepping over this threshold starts a meal. With a guest, a special meal that includes fresh eggs and sometimes a chicken.

She pulls a rattan seat into the dusty courtyard for the nurse and gestures for her to sit.

We are far from the beach. It is hot and humid up here, the air, still. The nurse pushes her hair back from her forehead. The kubu has a brick doorway but is mostly made from bamboo. Its three tiny rooms have housed two parents and at least five children, and one of the rooms is reserved for prayer. Chicks hop in and out of the doorway.

Cooking means at the very least wringing the flesh of coconuts to derive their oil, a process that takes some time. Putu is sent to pick green beans, gather corn. Made arranges the firewood. No one is talking, but everyone takes small actions to help fulfill the larger goal.

My role is to entertain the nurse. I show her where the cows are tethered, where the chili grows. I show her the stream we bathe in, I show her where the pigs are snorting through the garbage and the place to shit and look at the view across the gorge.

She asks me again about Suki, the local restaurant owner who wrote her a love letter. I shrug, suddenly feeling fearful about sharing too much with an outsider. Expectations are different here, and Suki is Pasek's cousin. She will leave in a few days, so what is the point.

The sun, which sets at the same time every day on this equatorial island, is getting lower in the sky, which is fantastically purple. A fighting cock crows, getting restless in his rattan cage. This dusty courtyard is surrounded by a fence made of branches, covered with furious green vines. Time seems to bend and hang in the shimmering air.

I think about Suki's German wife, and how we met a few years ago, before the restaurant was even built, when it was a plot of banana trees right by the beach. There were one or two restaurants then, more like shacks serving up big heaping bowls of nasi goreng, and Bali Bintang was the only bar, by the river flowing to the sea. The German wife had worked as a translator for ten years in Munich, when she came to Bali and met Suki, and decided to put her savings into building a new restaurant in Lovina for the tourists.

Their new restaurant was right across from the temple where I saw an old woman spontaneously fall into trance, and next to the temple had sprung up the bar where Australian women ate salted peanuts at tables with the local teenage boys, and the blind man Losmana played Spanish guitar, his fingers dancing across the strings.

When that temple was empty it was a place to hide at midday.

It abutted the black sand of the beach crowded with European sunbathers and Balinese sarong sellers. It was a place where at midday, Pasek took my hand and drew me behind its sheltering walls and slowly slowly pulled me to its ground, and it was hard to ever again get up.

It was where the sky was turning, where my trajectory began to switch direction. I was just there for fun, I was leaving in a week, I ignored the stars falling out of the black night sky and was turning my attention towards confirming my plane ticket which took a nine-kilometer ride to the telephone office in Lovina, a sobering wait, a series of calls.

At that temple, two things happened: the old woman fell into trance right in front of my eyes next to the temple wall, by the side of the dirt road, and then either before or after, in the middle of a day spent sitting at the wooden bench of Made Sutra's warung drinking jasmine iced tea with an inch of ant-laced sugar at the bottom, either before or after he took my hand, my not-serious hand, and pulled me gently behind the labyrinth of the temple walls to the empty inside that everyone knew to leave empty, and this-is-not-my-place became my place, the place where I finally understood what I had missed.

"Is he married?" the nurse asks again.

The coconut oil is finally done, and Memek begins to grind chilis and shallots and ginger with a mortar and pestle made of black volcanic stone.

The sky is a peculiar combination of purple and orange. When I was a child, I learned the sky was blue. Mosquitoes buzz. The nurse fidgets in her seat. I know what she is thinking, that this is taking too long.

She is from my country, after all. She deserves to know, or maybe I want to tell her so she won't go back to him and his wife will never find out and be hurt. Or maybe I am just a gossip who can't control my big mouth.

I begin to wish the nurse had never confided in me. As I have spent more and more months here with Pasek, the villagers are expecting me to follow local norms, and why shouldn't they? Why shouldn't I?

"Pretend you tricked me, " I begin, caught between two worlds.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Dance (Bhuana Sari, 1993)

We walk on the black pavement, blurry with heat. The nurse and I turn right at a mud path bisecting flooded rice fields. I have been this way before. Pasek's cousin looks up from planting green shoots and raises his eyebrows. We turn left, and the jungle grows silently around us. We walk, and an entire family scoots up the trunk of a coconut palm, and we could drink young coconut juice if we want to. Then on the blacktop again, hot road sticking to our sandals, pass a pool table with young boys squinting at its corners, pockets waiting for the balls.

There is the path, we wouldn't see it if we didn't already know it was there. We turn, brown mud under our feet. Walk and walk past the house with too many children, and the one sister who couldn't have any. Keep walking as the purple sky fills with flying foxes, impossibly large. It is still light out and we are leaning against terraces of green, everywhere we look is green, as if the universe has eliminated all other parts of the spectrum. To escape its uniformity, I remember Memek's teeth, orange from betelnut and kretek cigarettes, sticking out from her gaunt face. She was really beautiful once, Pasek told me, twenty years younger than Bapak, who knew her when she was a child. I didn't believe she was beautiful until the night she felt compelled to show me how she used to dance the legong, many years ago, and youth and lightness and flow came back to her long arms, and I learned by watching just how to dance.