Saturday, June 30, 2007

Birth (New Jersey, 1967)

My mother's labor pains come six weeks early. Grandpop and Daddy carry her out of the house on a chaise lounge that has been sitting out by the pool. It is a warm June day and the Jersey shore air tastes of salt.

The floor of the hospital room gleams. My mother's torso contracts. The sheets get bloody.

I am tiny.

I fit into my father's big square hand. He has crooked eyebrows and his nose slopes to the left and his mouth is never still, but his hands are perfect. His fingers are kind and loyal and straight, the kind of fingers a new child's head can rest in, that hold almost steady as the fontanelle pulses against new air.

I can't go home. I am wrapped and wrapped in a cotton blanket so my limbs can't flail and I am gently placed in an incubator. It is warm.

My mother takes the medicine that the doctor gives her to dry up her milk. She has beautiful breasts. The air is humid.

My father feeds me first. One giant hand cradles me. The other hand holds a bottle. The plastic nipple grazes my cheek and I turn my head toward it. I begin to suck. The formula is sweet.

I lay in my father's hand rocking gently, gently, like I am floating in the ocean.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Lost (Reno, 1993)

We sit at a blackjack table in Reno. I am not a gambler but here I am anyway, and now I await each hand from the dealer. Pasek is looking at his nine and seven as intently as if he were looking at his prize rooster flashing his sharpened spur around his neighbor's chicken at a cockfight in Banyualit. A cacophony of electronic noise buzzes and pops around us from the slot machines.

Across from us a woman with a bright face and red lips sits with a bucket between her thighs, filled with $20,000 of black chips. She keeps putting more and more on the table. My limit was $100 but Pasek has been back and back to the ATM. I get nervous about wasting money, but am secretly thrilled to be profligate, at least until Pasek gets up to go to the ATM the second time.

But I say nothing and try to beat the dealer. Pasek's face shines and shines as he studies his cards and his muscles bulge from his bent forearms and I remember him holding the rooster's neck, examining his claws before he puts the spur on. Before the sacrifice.

Pasek's face shines and shines until all our cash is gone.

We go out from the brightness into the black night. We don't bother to say anything. I turn the key.

We drive and drive through the desert, away from the lights of Reno, back to San Francisco. No matter how fast we go, a sense of loss rides with us through the dark night.

Then we stop. We pull over by the side of the empty road to piss under the glowing moon, under the stars that pierce burning holes in the black sky. We wet a circle in the dust. The sky hangs over us and we just stand there, containing our shadows, in the wideness of the desert.

Like we are nothing.

I had another little sister,
he tells me suddenly.

The road winds around past where we stand.

I forget about the money and how long it will take the checks to clear next week.

The bright-faced woman reaches between her thighs for more and more chips. I ask the dealer for a another hit to get as close as I can to twenty-one. Pasek's hands hold a fan of cards.

In Banyualit he feeds his prize cock cooked beef with his fingers. The fight is about to begin. He cradles the bird in his lap
as he smooths its feathers. His forearms embrace and then release his rooster to let determination, cruelty, and fate take over. All the men are squatting and sway back and forth in sympathy as their roosters spar and leap. It is cruel and bloody, but I put down money the first time he takes me to a cockfight, because I want to please him.

And I want to see what will happen. Win or lose. Life or death.

Outside of Reno, I take his wrist, his sleek forearm whose muscles are suddenly not apparent, and he angles half his body into mine.

I took care of her while my mother was harvesting rice. She was two and I put her on my handlebars in front of me. I was so proud of her. We rode all around the village on the muddy path to tell my neighbors about tonight's wayang kulit. We rode and rode. I told them all to come watch the shadow puppets, and she balanced on my handlebars.

If you go around to the back of the stage, the flat leather puppets are painted in bright colors. But if you look at the screen, they are just shadows flitting in the dim coconut oil light to tell us the same stories again and again. White monkeys, feuding cousins, irate kings, our thoughts.

The moon shines on us. Our faces half-moons, one side dark.

We were riding and riding and then she fell. My tire hit a rock and she flew.

If I speed and speed through these dark desert rocks, is there anything I can prevent?

She flew and was flying and became part of the air.

His head bends into my shoulder, here on the road outside of Reno, and I let him fall into me.

I wanted to catch her. My arms tried to catch her.

My arms, my arms reach for air, for nothing, there's nothing there to hold. For a moment, we teeter in darkness, all shadows. And then in the dark I find him, wrap around him.

I want to drive so fast that I am on the muddy path in Bhuana Sari, I am there at that moment to catch her as she tumbles over his handlebars, to catch her so she doesn't hit her head and fall into a fever and then become his littlesisterwhodied on this dry roadside not far from the casinos. In the three years I have known him he has not once mentioned her.

His little sister named Latoya, water.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Stars (Bhuana Sari, 1990)

The sun was going down and his little sister named Putu and I were walking in the gorge and she kept lighting one match at a time, pop, that would illuminate a foot or two of muddy ground at a time. All the green faded into grey and black. I would feel like I was losing my balance, and then remember how Pasek walked looking not down at the ground immediately in front of him, but look to a point further out, and scramble to it as if the ground were not littered with pieces of black lava rock and clutching roots. His feet danced around them as if they had eyes.

In the dark, I realized how dependent I was on Putu to navigate these dark trails. The jungle clicked and hummed with insects. My skin itched, and was covered in a layer of sweat.

I followed and followed the short bursts of fire at the end of Putu's arm.

Putu's arm was long and graceful. The first time I saw her, she was standing at the entrance to the kubu, swaying so slightly, balancing a load of firewood on her head. She wore only a brown sarong wrapped around her narrow waist. The jungle grew around her. There was a sack filled with drying corncobs, and chickens squawking over spare kernels.

I wished to belong to a place like she did. I wanted her grace and balance as she scrubbed my body with black rocks in hidden streams. I wanted Pasek's hands always moving towards me, after he cut bamboo or dealt cards for a chiki game or caressed the head feathers of a cock before slicing off its cockle with a quick sliver of bamboo.

I wanted my desires to be foremost. I wanted a plate of rice brought to me as soon as I felt hungry. I wanted my hand held as I crossed shaky bamboo bridges, my body washed in shallow pools. I wanted my eyebrows plucked, my body examined and opened as if it were an orchid. I wanted to stop thinking, to be like water, moving to fill the container I was in.

I embraced Pasek from behind as we sat in a crowd barely watching a Bollywood movie up in the mountains, with a jacket covering his lap so we could think the crowd was unaware of our young desire. I wanted to be a firefly over the flooded rice paddies, a firefly whose intermittent glow led our way back to the kubu, which this night was empty.

It was seldom empty.

We lay in a little brick room with a window cut out to the stars, with a chicken or two hopping on me while I smoothed and smoothed his back except for that one hair that bristled. I wanted to look at the few little boy pictures he had and to hold that little boy's hand as he was walking to school in a crisp white shirt and red shorts. I wanted to find hidden springs with him, to cross rickety bamboo bridges, to catch dragonflies and fry them on sticks.

The window opened and opened to the stars.

Chickens were hopping over stars with their dinosaur feet, and stars lit up their feathers from within. The stars reached and reached over the sawah, the hills of Kayuputih and Anturan, the smoking Gunung Agung, and spread far above the Pacific, guiding us to the western deserts of the United States.

We went up into the stars, starting that night.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bridge (Kalibukbuk, 1990)

I wake with his hand in my hair.

A mosquito coil has burnt to ashes.

I still can see gold in his skin, but also yellow and brown and red.
His mouth is a perfect bow, and his hand says, you knew but you did it anyway.

I knew.

His eyes bear traces of this archipelago’s trade routes and conquests, waves of peoples in his eyes. A Majapahit conqueror sweeping a Bali aga off her feet, an Arab bringing a struggling goat to an island of pigs, Malay sailors who’ve populated so many islands, the unstoppable waves of China, the pull of the equator, the draw of difference.

I can smell the stink of the ditch that runs through the villages to the sea.

My eyes are foreign, of the other side of the world, whose edges met this one long ago. Our words occasionally share the same roots. My uncle’s eyes slant up.

We look at each other and our eyes lose their shape, there is just us looking, each of our limbs intertwined. A look to cause a sailor to decide to not join the others as they continue to discover more islands, to see how easy it is to build a hut from bamboo, gather alang-alang grass for the roof to keep it dry and cozy, toss away cassava scraps to attract a few pigs and chickens, and make children whose eyes bridge sea and sky.