A Paradise Like No Other
By Susan Wheelis
The dark-haired smooth-faced young brown-skinned woman dressed in a yellow and orange sarong walked quietly along the brick pathway toward the porch of my hotel room carrying a tray of what appeared to be baskets each about the size of her hand. Birdsong filled the lavender sky, high-pitched exotic warblings I couldn’t identify, while close by roosters crowed a more familiar chorus. The sun had just come up on my first morning in Bali…
And that was as far as she got in her notes that morning at the Bali Keraton Hotel in Denpasar, because she was afraid her head was going to explode. She would have felt an awful lot better if she hadn’t fooled around with the bartender from the Singapore airport the night before. For that, maybe she could blame her editor, who had suggested stopping off either in Hong Kong or Singapore to break up the long trip from San Francisco.
That’s what she told the cute brown-cheeked bartender when he served up her first beer and inquired about her presence there (and why wouldn’t he? Five foot eleven, beautiful reddish-blonde hair—a weird weave that her hairdresser in the city had given her—good breasts, great legs, lovely tan. Her nose was slightly irregular—she didn’t like to remember why. Except for the nose and the color of her hair she looked an awful lot like her mother. But this morning, waking up in the cool shadows of the beach hotel she saw a puffy face, with patches of discoloration, so that one cheek looked darker than the other, and her neck seemed to have added a crease along the line of her collar bone. And her slightly overlarge nose, yes, all right, her father’s nose).
She never remembered her mother looking so unprepared for the world, but then, two things, one, her mother, a beautiful Mexican woman, never showed her face without having first put on her makeup, and, two, her mother died of uterine cancer when Susie was only six. She remembered little of her, except for bedtimes, when her mother told her stories about Mexico and how before modern times the gods told people how to live and what to do. Chac-Mool brought rain. Or was it Tlaloc? Or was it Huitzipochli? She couldn’t remember much about this, in fact, amazed herself that she recalled these names so all chockablock in her memory.
The heart is very precious to a Mexican woman, her mother said at bedtime one night—or so she recalled or (perhaps even mis-)remembered it—because in the ancient days the priests cut out the hearts of the sacrificed and offered them to heaven.
Even the thought of it right now made Susie shudder. Cutting out the heart!
One more memory, much more gentle, and more mysterious, of her mother remained—she told Susie how as a child she had while living for a while in the United States with her aunt learned English by listening to radio broadcasts of a children’s show in which there was a story about a kingdom beneath the sea called the Land of the Lost, the place where all the things you lost turned up.
(And the memory of a taste—what was it?)
So at thirty-five she had no idea how she was doing in relation to her mother. Her father, a wealthy vagabond, born Wilensky who later changed his name to Wheelis, had lived only into Susie’s twenties. But some of his words stayed with her. Put a good face on things and they’ll work out. Too bad he had helped to make her face so distinctive. (But she didn’t want to think about that.)
She couldn’t remember on which occasion he had first said it. Maybe after her school advisor—this was at a private girls’ school in Troy, New York—suggested that she see a therapist. Which she did, in Albany—Mrs. Oakton, a slightly overweight woman who put her on several different kinds of medication. Or maybe it was after the disaster of her graduation. Sunny day, not bad for Troy in June, a light breeze, all these girls in their white dresses, looking so virginal. (Well, she might look that way. But during rehearsals for Revels, in this her senior year, scaly-skinned Mr. Trumble, the young school carpenter who smelled of paint and turpentine and helped with the sets, met her in the parking lot and invited her into his truck where they made out wildly, with fingers and mouths on fire. And that spring there was a drug dealer in Troy, a stinky, because unwashed, long-haired freckle-faced Irish guy, a high school dropout who talked about philosophy and punched her on the arm so hard in play that she had a bruise for a week. He was the first boy she did it with and he made her feel as though he’d punctured her, though she had no bruises from it.)
But she and two friends, Pip Masterson, an anorexic blonde girl from New Haven and a foreign student named Antonia Gulbarra, were barred from the ceremony because a week before they had signed themselves out for an off-campus trip without permission, something they had done a zillion times that year without getting caught. Christ, what if they had gotten caught with a joint! Or the beer she’d learned to love when her mother died—that was the taste she recollected but could not at first name—and she tried to as a way, quite a successful way, actually, to anesthetize herself against sorrow. And what would the administration have done if it had found out about her taking acid in the middle of a Yankees game where her class went for their senior trip? Would they have had her arrested? Crucified? (Her father told her how he had been caught drinking and thrown out of his school when he was twelve.) Not much consolation as Susie watched her classmates walk to the stage and receive their diplomas while she and her two accomplices had to remain seated on the sidelines.
“Susan Wheelis!” she shouted at the end of the ceremony from where she milled about with the guests and public. (Her father had chosen to be in Patagonia on a ski trip!) A few people looked around. There was her therapist, a surprise guest, staring over at her from the other side of the crowd.
“That’s me!” she announced. “I don’t have to have somebody say my name. Susie! The only one from her class admitted to Berkeley!”
Mrs.Quentin, her favorite teacher—English—a bird-like woman with dyed black hair, who always praised Susie’s writing, waded through the crowd and took her by the hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Susie felt so relieved when she didn’t say anything more.
“I love you,” Susie said, and kissed her on both cheeks.
Mrs. Quentin, who always seemed to enjoy Susie’s antics, was surprised. She started back and let go of Susie’s hand.
“Susie,” she said, “I wish you well.”
Upon his return from the world below, Susie’s father sent some money to the school—a late gift to this year’s development fund. A month later she received her diploma in the mail.
By that time Susie was living in her own apartment on the Lower East Side and working in a battered women’s shelter where she spent the rest of the summer learning about the dark side of marriage—she and one of the other volunteers who worked there had a joke: forty thousand battered women in America each day, and you know why? You said this and raised a fist and put a menacing (male) look on your face. They just won’t fucking listen!
By the end of the summer she moved to Berkeley.
Her father had an old friend, someone he attended Columbia with (when he had still been Wilensky), a writer who lived in San Francisco.
“You want to write?” he said. “You look up Hal. He’s a real writer. He can set you straight.”
She didn’t want to be set straight. She didn’t want to be set crooked. But after a few weeks out of curiosity—and out of boredom with her classes—she called the man her father had recommended. She knew he would be old but that didn’t bother her. Young boys bored her. She wasn’t sure why, except that they were boring.
It was her father, she supposed. He set a high standard for being interesting, no matter what you thought of him.
She and his old school friend Hal met at a North Beach coffee house. The writer had a snow-white beard and his breath smelled different from the breath of boys she knew—it smelled mature, marinated, ready to cook, she couldn’t find the words to describe it. And then it came to her: it smelled like her father’s breath.
And then what did he bring up? Almost as if he were reading her mind!
“You look a little like your father,” the man said. “That’s good. I remember him as a handsome man.”
“If you’re a girl, you don’t want to look handsome,” Susie said.
Hal ignored her attempt at agitation.
“Does your father still fancy himself an adventurer?”
“He’s stopped mountain climbing,” she said. “He had to admit he was getting too old for that.” The fact was she hadn’t spoken to him for a while and was making this up. But it sounded right. He must have been doing something like that in Patagonia.
“It’s a brave man who admits he’s getting too old for certain things,” the writer said.
“But he’s still waterskiing, and he wrecked a speedboat a couple of years ago down in Florida.”
“Good for him.”
“And he took up skydiving.” This was true.
“I think he wrote me about that,” the writer said. He paused and stared at her.
“And still plenty of girlfriends?”
Susie didn’t say anything.
“I suppose I shouldn’t ask a man’s daughter that question.”
Susie shrugged, pushing a finger to one side of her nose.
“I put him in a novel of mine once,” Hal, the writer, said.
“Which is that? Have I read it?”
“Have you read any of my work?”
“I will now,” Susie said.
Hal wanted to sleep with her—a girl knew something—but she kept him at arm’s length—or finger’s length, anyway. She had an argument against it. It would be close to incest, wouldn’t it? But she was lonely and horny, and so now and then they’d go up to his place in the Mission, a wonderful top-floor apartment with a roof-garden filled with all sorts of plants and flop down on his bed and cuddle, and he would give her plenty to drink—though, as she remembered it, he never drank anything himself—and she’d take out his penis, and pull him off and he’d then fall asleep, snoring in a fatherly way.
He gave her a copy of the novel with the character who was supposed to be her father, but for somebody who wanted to be a writer she just couldn’t get deeply involved in a work of fiction. She wanted to read about real things. Her life on its own was fiction enough for her. If only Hal had written about her father in a magazine article. She wanted answers, not stuff someone made up. That, she decided, was the kind of thing she wanted to write. Magazine articles. They read like little stories, and they were all true, and you learned from them. Sad—nothing at Berkeley helped her learn how to write one. She felt as though she were wasting her time, spinning around and around, never moving forward.
That winter quarter she matriculated at UC Santa Cruz. Everybody at Berkeley thought she was crazy. All the students they knew wanted to go in the opposite direction, Santa Cruz to UCB. So what? She was who she was. It was a perfect fit. She loved her classes under the redwoods and she loved the town even more. Either she spent time in the woods or at the beach or the aromatic dark interior of the Jahva, her favorite coffee house downtown, or at the beery-flavored Catalyst, the best rock and roll club on the central coast, and she was stoned a great deal of the time, and when she wasn’t she wanted to be.
Why not? She asked the question often, sitting on the rocks at Natural Bridges, staring at the undulating ocean, mesmerized by the horizon where water and sky met in a mysterious fusion. That fog sitting out there, what would it cover up, what would it reveal? She also asked another question. Where are you? Thinking of her mother. Are you out there somewhere? Where the water meets the sky?
Looking back on it, she had to admit she didn’t have much of a taste for traveling. Santa Cruz felt like home—more home than any home she’d ever had. It wasn’t until she took a writing course that she thought of other things. Her instructor was Carter Wilson, a tall thick bear of a man, bearded and imposing. But as sweet as the honey bears loved. He had written a novel set in Peru, and she thought that was so cool.
When he asked her once during office hours what she thought she might do with her talent—what? I have talent? She was amazed at hearing the word!—she heard herself say, “I wanna be a travel writer.”
“You could do worse,” Professor Wilson said.
A week of intense thinking followed. Why did I say that? Where have I ever traveled? Where have I been?
Why? She rode her bike to Natural Bridges and climbed out on the rocks and asked the ocean.
Why not? the ocean replied.
The fact is she had always wanted to be a writer of some sort or another. That’s why her father sent her to Hal. When her mother was alive, she wrote poems to her, none of which, fortunately, survived. When her mother died, she stopped writing. But she took a course from Mrs. Quentin and that had helped her produce a number of sketches of the life going on around her. Nothing earthshaking, but it helped her develop a sense of narrative, which was the one thing missing from her writing. Because it was the one thing missing from her life.
“Find the story,” Mrs. Quentin always said, pursing her thin pink lips and trying to make a smile.
Susie could tell from the way the woman said the words that she didn’t think of them herself. But still they rang true.
What’s my story? She wrote little pieces she called stories but she knew they weren’t real stories.
“How do I find the story?” she asked Carter Wilson.
“You have to find a way to fuse emotion and action,” Wilson, a good writer and a wise teacher, said. “But you’re a smart girl. The world’s your oyster. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”
She didn’t say this to him but she thought to herself—I’m smart, but what do I know? First I have to know what I’m feeling, don’t I?
Not necessarily, said a voice in her head. You have to know what you’d like to be feeling but not necessarily feel the feeling itself.
Okay, she said in response. I’ll try to find it.
And she went out in search of it.
For example, at the Catalyst one night soon after she met a guy with an exploding rose tattooed on his thigh and they danced like crazy, crazy. To look at her you’d think she was trying to shake loose her limbs because she wanted to be rid of them. And the guy, really cool, just sort of stood there, wondering, who knew, she only guessed, if she knew what she looked like.
But of course she knew, she was a crazy horse, a colt, a frenetic filly, shaking loose those limbs!
Later, back at his room in a little beach town south of Santa Cruz, Mister Rose Tattoo exploded inside her—she thought of that, wrote it down the next day, pleased with herself—and though she didn’t feel much herself she knew what she was supposed to be feeling.
Fat chance. His breath smelled of cigarettes and whiskey, he had stale bitter body odor almost like the smell of tar, and when he pushed her face toward his genitals she caught a whiff of everything he hadn’t washed away for days.
Weeks and weeks went by after that evening and she couldn’t get the taste out of her mouth. She’d brush, gargle with mouthwash, and brush again. She just couldn’t get rid of it. It took weeks!
More weeks went by, the year went by. The season shifted. She changed her hair color. Her skin grew dark from the sun. She went out with a few more boys and things happened but it was all just mechanical. Her writing seemed to her to unfold in the same way. She chose a subject and wrote about it but felt nothing, except relief when she was finished. If she thought hard about it she could imagine what a feeling should be like—the way a blind person might try to imagine color by employing the other senses. Red is hot, like the surface of a rock after it’s been out in the sun. Green is cool, the air in the shade of trees. Purple is like licorice, tasty and sharp and deep. She couldn’t remember when all this had started for her—or, better to say it stopped for her. Probably with her mother’s death, yes, of course.
Love—the soft pliable feeling of dough under your fingers.
Lust—hunger for sex like hunger for dinner after a long day without food.
Well, it wasn’t so bad. She could live this way.
Hate—she drew a blank on this one. What was hate like? How nice that she couldn’t feel this one. It almost made up for the other lacks.
And then there was always sadness.
That spring her father came for a visit, staying in the city with his writer friend Hal and driving down to Santa Cruz in a rented van.
“You’ve gotten too thin,” he said. Bluntness was also his style. She thought she inherited the trait from him.
“I like the way I look,” she said, studying him, the large forehead, the big swatch of pure white hair, his eyes so dark by contrast.
“Hal says I look like you but I think I look like my mother.”
“Hal is my dear friend, one of my oldest friends. But he’s got some flaws. Did he try to…?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“Do you think I look like my mother?”
“Come on, Susie. Are you trying to kill me? Talking like that?”
“Are you trying to kill me?”
“Have you been taking your medicine?”
“The medicine your psychiatrist told you to take.”
“She wasn’t a psychiatrist, she was a therapist. And that was when I was in high school.”
“So you don’t take it anymore?”
“What are you taking?”
“If you want to know what medicine I take it’s only fair I should know what you take.”
“No, it’s not. And besides I don’t take anything.”
“You’re a healthy old horse.”
“You shouldn’t talk to your father like that. But, what the hell, that’s pretty good. A healthy old horse! I like that!”
“I’m glad,” she said.
“I’m glad you’re glad,” he said.
It was like an intense tennis match, and she felt exhausted when he went back to his motel.
Some parts of your life went quickly and smoothly, other parts bogged down in the mud of everyday, and thinking back about them was also different from living them, too. For instance, her father’s visit that seemed so slow when it began turned into a speeded-up nightmare.
“I don’t want to impose,” he said. “I’m going to do my own thing for a few days. I’ll be back on Sunday to take you to lunch.”
What had she said? Had she encouraged him in this? No, no, please say no.
Because early Sunday morning when she was sitting up in bed reading the Ramayana for a course the ringing woke her. She sat up, couldn’t figure out where she was, her legs were numb.
“Susie? It’s Hal. Hal—”
“Hal, Hal, I was asleep, a deep sleep, I was dreaming. I was dreaming about—”
“Susie, listen to me. Your father—”
“He can’t make it? He’s supposed to take me to lunch. The fuckhead. He didn’t have the guts to tell me himself. What is he doing instead? I’ll bet he found—” She picked up the book and hurled it against the wall.
He let her rant, he let her rave, and later she couldn’t figure why, maybe because he was a novelist and wanted to hear her full reaction or maybe he was—and this was probably it, because he was, as she certainly knew, just a man like any other man—miserable because of what he had to do and didn’t know how to do it.
“What?” she said, when he finally told her. “What?”
The New York Times obituary later said only that he died of an accident. They didn’t tell the whole truth, and it made her so angry.
If she were writing it, she would have told the truth:
Martin Wheelis (born Wilensky) died Saturday in California, when his hang glider crashed on the Pacific Coast Highway near the town of Davenport. Wheelis was born in New York City in 1924, the child of immigrant parents, Benny and Iva Wilensky. His father was a successful medical supply wholesaler. He attended Columbia University and served in the U.S. Army as a medic during the last year of World War Two. Upon returning to the United States, he married Elena Portal, the daughter of a wealthy Mexican businessman, and worked in the medical supply business and later in medical manufacturing, particularly dialysis equipment, and founded a major hospital corporation. He was the father of a daughter, Susan Wheelis, who was living in Santa Cruz and waiting for him to call at the time of his death. When she heard the news she threw the book she was reading across the room where it hit the wall and fell broken-backed onto the floor. He took crazy chances, and he died in a crazy accident. He was the only parent who stood between her and death and now she was afraid. She picked up the book and tried to smooth its pages.
She always associated the Ramayana with her father’s death. In many ways this made sense. A battle epic, her father had been a medic, the prayers—as soon as she hung up the telephone she went to the local Buddhist temple to light incense and pray. She didn’t know what else to do. Later in the day she called Hal to ask about the accident, the body, about what to do about everything else. Her father’s lawyers were already on the case, Hal told her.
How did they hear about it? Why hadn’t she heard first?
Your father carried instructions in his wallet, Hal told her.
About what to do in case of his death.
Oh, she said. Be prepared.
Right, Hal said.
How can they write things in the newspaper without telling me?
The lawyers, Hal said.
I don’t even know the lawyers.
They’ll find you, Hal said.
So what do I do now?
He thought she was asking how to go about seeing the body. He told her what to do. She was glad to know that, but that’s not what she was asking.
She called Carter Wilson and asked him.
“Susie,” he said, “you’re in shock. Can I help you in any way?”
She hung up and called the police and she must have gone to see them, because she had a vague recollection of men and women in blue uniforms and a hospital and a body, but what she really remembered clearly about the rest of that day was returning to the Buddhist temple where an old monk with an unusually pointed chin conversed with her in a quiet voice.
“Are you alone?” he said. “Is not a good time for being alone.”
“I’m always alone,” she said. “Even when I’m with someone.”
“Is there someone for helping you?”
The monk smiled and his chin flattened out.
“I need something else,” she said, and left and went downtown on her bike to the forsaken south end of the Pacific Mall where, within five minutes (and after the transfer of an extravagant sum of money, but what did she care now about that?) she was handed a bag of leaves and seeds.
She pedaled to the ocean and found herself a slab of rock and tried time and time again to light up, but the wind off the water proved too strong. A crowd of pelicans sailed past her, executing small but difficult maneuvers with their wings.
She remembered a rhyme her father once chanted to her when she was quite small.
A rather odd beast is the pelican.
His beak holds more than his belly can.
She couldn’t tell you anything much about the Ramayana except that it was about war. But she said this child’s rhyme over and over to herself while watching the ocean buck and heave itself against the rocks with the consistent boom of a crash.
She rode home and tried to sleep but that didn’t help.
Hal called her again.
“Are you taking care of things? Do you need any help?”
“Do you think I’m helpless?” It was a question halfway between indignation and real inquiry. Something sprung loose in her and she cursed him and slammed down the telephone.
“I know what you want!” she shouted, to no one.
She called him back and apologized. As far as she could remember this was the last time she ever apologized to anyone. She knew he wanted only to help—and to sleep with her. But you suffered people like that only if you loved them, and she hardly knew him. So when she picked up her father’s ashes, as per arrangement in his will, as administered by a San Francisco lawyer employed by her father’s New York lawyers, she didn’t call Hal. She went alone to the beach just north of Davenport, clutching the stoppered jug beneath a flowing black coat, and when she thought no one was looking—because someone was always looking at her, she was so striking—she waded out into the surf, opened the jar and cast the ashes upon the water.
Most of the powdery substance blew back in her face and she began to cough, and she also ruined a good pair of boots.
But who cared now!
He left her money enough for her to live the way she wanted to live. But money can’t buy you love. She loved to sing that Beatles line after her inheritance kicked in. No, it couldn’t. But it bought her a lot of other wonderful things. She never appreciated her father as much as she did when she took off all her clothes, or got out of bed mid-morning and didn’t get dressed for a while, and danced around the master bedroom of the house she bought in Pacific Heights, stopping now and then and studying herself in the mirror on the walk-in closet door.
Okay. Still uplift in her breasts. Her legs looked good. Her nose looked a little funny, but she would never change it. Standing sidewise she admired her behind.
“Nice,” she said.
And wasted, she thought. There had been nobody since her night with the man with the rose tattoo.
“But you want somebody, of course. We all do.”
Dr. Robert Wald speaking, her new lovable cuddly bear of a shrink. She liked him the way she liked Carter Wilson—these men were like big stuffed animals, one Jewish, one Protestant. Carter Wilson was gay. Dr. Wald was not. It helped her to get different perspectives on her life. Her father was a tough wiry man.
“Why are you thinking of him right now?” Dr. Wald said.
“Because you don’t remind me of him.”
“That could be either good or bad.” He laughed.
She liked that, a doctor who laughed.
“I was just thinking about him,” she said. “I think about him now and then.”
“A lot or a little?”
“What’s a lot? What’s a little?”
“Wait a minute,” the doctor said, “I ask the questions around here.” He laughed again. “Seriously, do you think about him every day? Every hour?”
“And your mother, do you think about her every day?”
“What’s she got to do with this?”
“A lot or a little,” Dr. Wald said.
“What?” she said.
“You were supposed to laugh,” he said. “I charge you a lot of money so the least I can do is make you laugh now and then. Or try to.”
“I don’t care about the money,” Susie said. “That’s the last thing I care about.”
“What’s the first thing?”
“I think our time is up.”
“We actually have about a minute and a half left. But if you say so. We can leave this until next time.”
A carpenter was redoing her kitchen cabinets, a sturdy ginger-haired guy with a drawl. She tried to flirt with him but he made it clear she was a distraction from his work and she had to respect that. It was just that he reminded her of the carpenter from Troy, who had fingered her in his truck during Revels.
“Come to the Wilensky mansion for a drink,” she said to Hal over the telephone that night. She hadn’t spoken to him since the day she tossed her father’s ashes into the Pacific.
He laughed and asked if he could bring a friend.
She felt hurt, and then felt stupid for feeling hurt, and said, “Sure.”
That visit changed everything. Hal’s guest was a slim redhead with big shoulders and large wire-rimmed glasses and an attractive mole to the left side of her small nose. Her name was Connie something or other, and she was an editor at the city’s second newspaper. Susie didn’t like the way the woman looked at her and when the redhead went to use the bathroom Susie said something to Hal about it.
“You don’t like the way she’s looking at you? That’s a good sign, if you’re not gay,” he said.
“I’m not gay,” Susie said. But even as she said it she wondered about what she was saying. The woman returned to the room. Five months went quickly by after that—amazing, morning after morning of fog, afternoons of sun! Days of rain in winter!
Five months! Connie—the redhead—moved in and the two of them spun out of control for a while, like two teenagers who just discovered sex, and then they settled in to a more measured routine.
“Suz-ee. Con-ee. We both have ee sounds in our names.”
“What does that mean?” Connie said.
“I don’t know,” Susie said.
“You are loony,” Connie said.
“Don’t say that.”
She often cried in Dr. Wald’s office after exchanges like that.
“She says I’m crazy.”
“That just means she loves you,” Dr. Wald said. “And she can’t figure out why. Because you never can figure out why you love someone. So you either think you’re crazy or the other person is crazy. Or at least that’s what you say.”
And then he waited. Why not wait? It had been five years that he’d been treating her, more.
Susie knew what he was waiting for but wouldn’t—couldn’t say it. She didn’t even want to think it. Love. Say the word over and over and it became just a noise. Love love love…
She stared at her doctor, his thick hair, his rugged face not unlike her father’s.
Love love love…after a while it sounded like the noise a badly tuned car engine makes, lugging along, in neutral…lovelovelove…
It was love when you loved—and she felt good loving the way she loved Connie, from what she called the “behaving” part or all the nice things you wanted to do for the other person, from buying them chocolates and jewelry to trying to cook interesting meals for them right down to what she thought of as the “messy” part, what they did in bed together, well, “in bed” was a euphemism for what they did where they felt like doing it, because they weren’t exactly discreet, because, unlike New York or other cities, San Francisco was not a city where you had to be discreet—and it was love when you fought and shouted nasty things to each other.
And love with a girl was different from love with a boy, Susie found. Not that she’d known many boys.
There had been the kid from Troy. And the school carpenter. And then there was the guy with the rose tattoo.
And one man, Hal, but they never got further than just fooling around, if that was what you called it, her taking him in hand and yanking.
When it came to sex, she just felt so—nervous! She sweated and her body felt as though a low-level electrical charge was running through it. That first time with the Troy boy—which happened in his mother’s house, while the woman was out at work at some kind of 7-Eleven or something—when she lay on her back and he shoved himself into her, she just wanted to cry, from shock, from fear—because aside from all of the discomfort and the annoyance she had a terrifying thought—what if her father saw her like this? (She knew her mother would think it was okay, because she had done this herself…but her father? He saw things from his side only, and that was a man’s side, and never in a million years would he have been sympathetic to the girl’s side—though she wondered what he thought about her mother? Did he think badly of her for doing this? Did he think darkly about her every time he climbed on top of her? A chilly shudder made her shiver all over just thinking about it, which made the Troy boy say, “That was good, huh?”)
But the drugs helped and the vodka helped. (She didn’t have any recollection of the vodka until she found the half-empty fifth standing next to Mr. Rose Tattoo’s mattress on the floor and identified the awful metallic taste on her breath and figured it out.)
She didn’t need all this help with a girl. It was just easier, and so why not keep things easy? A girl knew what you were like and what you liked. A girl was soft, the way you wanted someone to be. A girl was tender, the way you wanted someone to be. And with a girl you didn’t have to do all those annoying things like shaving your armpits and shaving your legs. A girl didn’t push you, because she knew what it was like to be pushed. You put your mouth, your nose, your hands, your fingers where you never would have thought of doing it when you were a child, because you wanted to, not because you had to. But now that she knew she missed not knowing. Couldn’t you just live in a state of not-knowing and still have as much pleasure? And as much—what was the word she wanted? Not fun. She didn’t think of herself as ever having much fun—she just found things interesting.
As Susie thought of it this kind of thing, lovemaking with another woman or lesbianism as the rest of the world thought of it, was a place to visit, not one she thought about living in all her life. So she assumed that she was the tourist and Connie was the permanent resident. But Connie had been married once before and she sometimes talked about men at the newspaper whom she found attractive.
“Enough to marry them?”
“You know, Suse, there’s one thing I’ve learned so far in life and that’s never to say never about anything.”
“I suppose I could get married, too, sometime,” Susie said.
“That’s right,” Connie said. “You just haven’t met the right girl yet.”
“I meant to be.”
“I want you to know I’m not jealous of you flirting with those guys at work.”
“That’s too bad.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want you to feel jealous.”
“Yes, I want you to imagine me sneaking around on you. I want you to think about me taking the sportswriter by the hand and leading him into the stairwell and kneeling in front of him and opening his fly and—”
“So you are jealous.”
“You are so stupid,” Susie said.
“I am? Why?”
“Because you’re going to ruin it.”
“What we have.”
“What do we have?”
Susie wouldn’t say—because, she hated to admit, though she did from time to time, at least by her behavior, in her sessions with Dr. Wald, she couldn’t say.
But on the whole it was a good time, the period in which Susie, with Connie’s tutelage, became a real writer. First, she did a few freelance pieces for a Marin country throwaway. And then local color pieces for the Santa Cruz county freebies. After a year or so she had enough clippings to get herself an assignment from the Mercury-News, a travel piece about a weekend she and Connie were going to spend south of Tijuana.
It was a good boilerplate piece about the resort hotel and the surrounding area. (Of course she left Connie out of the piece for the Mercury-News, but she sold a revised version to Out, a funny piece on trying to look as though you were just roommates when instead you were lovers, while taking a vacation in a conservative Mexican resort.)
Except something happened to them while they were there, something that Susie could barely remember. Connie found it hateful and embarrassing. Susie had no opinion about it, something that just happened. They were drinking margaritas on the balcony of their room and she was saying, “This is my mother’s country.”
And Connie, a bit more intoxicated than Susie had imagined, lifted her skirt and said, “This is my mother’s country.”
And Susie heard herself saying, completely out of character (but then you only think you know who you are, right? Until it’s almost all nearly over?), “That’s disgusting. That’s something some guy would say.”
“No, no, no,” Connie said, “a guy couldn’t say that. A guy couldn’t make that pun.”
“It’s still disgusting.”
“What turned you into a prude all of a sudden?”
Connie shook her head and looked toward the ocean.
Here is what happened next, as Susie remembered (or misremembered or hallucinated it, or all three things together):
She told Connie she had to get out for a while and left the room, stumbled along the hallway, leaned against the banister for a moment or two taking deep breaths (because she was more drunk than she thought she was when she left the room) and then descended the stairs to the lobby, and hurried to the beach, as if she’d forgotten something that the incoming tide might wash away if she didn’t get there soon. Staggering across the sand—stumbling. Falling face down onto the sand. How long she lay there she didn’t know, listening to the drumming of the surf. Feeling as though she were surfing along the sand, but sinking deeper and deeper as she went, and then not surfing but burrowing down, down, down, nose first, like a sea otter, like a diving cat, like a seal pup, like a dolphin, like a mermaid.
Diving to the Land of the Lost. Where behind the rising towers of bubbling foam she spied castles and palm trees and minarets and skyscrapers and hills covered with sheep.
A woman speaks to her, and she responds in perfect Spanish, I have tried to be good, Mama.
I know, the woman says.
Life is so hard without you.
I feel the same way. But, my daughter, it is not how smart or tough you are but how you accept the bad things life serves, not how you enjoy so much of the good. Will you remember that?
I’ll try to remember that, Mama.
Good, my darling.
And with a sweet smile and a shake of her head and a wave of her hand the woman climbs onto the back of a giant seahorse and disappears into the bubbling mist.
A boy stood over her, offering his hand.
This was Fidel, beach attendant for the hotel, two raisins for eyes, long limbs, dark, dark hair.
“Oh, my God,” Susie said.
He helped her to her feet, and she stumbled against him, nearly knocking him over.
“You come with me,” she said. “I want to meet you.”
“What?” the boy said.
“Yes, yes,” Susie said. “I want meet to you Connie.”
He said something and led her to a cabana, and it was dark inside and they stumbled about, landing finally on a pile of beach towels. Was it dark when she first came in? Now it seemed to turn blacker than black and she felt herself being picked at, plucked at, fixed, fucked, but tepidly, as though there was a mouse or a small bird at work…
She opened her eyes to the light of the sun, the door open. Her top was gone, and she fumbled around for it, found it slung across the back of a beach chair, where the boy sat, a big grin on his young face.
“You!” She slipped back into her top, jumped up and grabbed the boy by the hand.
“Where have you been?” Connie stood hands on hips in the doorway to their suite as Susie led her new friend to the room.
“I don’t have to tell you,” Susie said. “You’re not my mother.”
“No, I’m not. And just thinking of you coming out from between my legs makes me want to throw up.”
“If you throw up, Fidel will clean it up, won’t you, Fidel?”
The boy shrugged.
“Excuse,” he said.
“You’re excused,” Connie said, shoving him back out into the hallway.
“Don’t hurt him.” Susie pushed Connie, sending her staggering back into the room.
“Excuse,” said Fidel, hurrying away along the corridor.
Who knows how she did it, but out of this wreckage came a perfectly acceptable travel story by Susie about the resort.
By the time they returned from Mexico they had regained some semblance of their old happiness together. By the time Susie put her article together she could scarcely remember that they had fought, let alone what they had fought about. Isn’t that the way love—lovelovelovelovelovelove—went?
Then came a night with a dinner with Hal at a small Italian restaurant near his apartment on Russian Hill when she and Connie were drinking hard. (Hal usually never had more than one beer and on this occasion he stayed true to form, watching, the writer watching…)
Though it was a remark of his that initiated the turn toward disaster.
“You look a little tired, Connie,” Hal said.
“Maybe I am,” Connie said.
“Oh, you should get more sleep,” Susie said.
“That’s what I’m tired of,” Connie said.
“Sleep?” Susie said. “Sleep—”
“Your stupid remarks,” Connie said.
“What did I say that’s so stupid?” Susie felt a little chill in her chest, as if someone had rubbed her breasts with an ice pack.
“I don’t know,” Connie said.
“Well, ladies,” Hal said, “it’s probably best to—”
“To what?” Connie stared at him as though he were the person in real trouble here.
The writer shook his head.
“Would anyone like dessert?”
“I would,” Susie said.
“Listen to her,” Connie said. “You can hear the problem.”
“You can?” Susie felt absolutely perplexed by all this.
“You can hear it in your voice. Your whiny know-it-all-little-girl’s-I’m-a-baby-bitch-give-me-everything-because-I-deserve-it voice.”
“Wow,” Hal said. “That’s a mouthful.”
“Oh, you shut up, too,” Connie said.
Before the evening was over it came out that Connie and Hal had once had a brief affair, that she’d gotten pregnant by an editor at the newspaper, that her father had left her mother for a dental hygienist—nothing Susie had heard before. So she was surprised at what she felt, which was next to nothing.
Connie became enraged, and before the week was over they had split up.
Susie wandered for a while, traveling to Mexico again, this time staying in cities, Guadalajara, Veracruz, and making a brief sojourn to Mexico City, rather than the countryside. In Guadalajara she met an American potter, a gentle middle-aged man with a large bald spot and beautiful hands, who after only four days invited her on a tour of the city’s cathedral and in the cool shadows of the interior of the nave asked her to stay with him.
“Me? Susie Wheelis?”
“You,” he said.
She enjoyed the attention. He was very sweet, to the point of hiring a mariachi band, three clean-shaven melon-faced young men, two grizzle-bearded old men, all in spangled blue costumes to serenade their table at dinner that night. What could she do? (Well, she knew what she could do, she could stay, she could flee, she could turn hot, she could turn cold…) She went home with him. When she awoke to moonlight and the cry of strange birds outside this man’s window she wondered if he knew what a distinctive clayey odor arose from his body when he slept. (She kept the birds in the travel piece she wrote, and the description of his pottery, a tour of which he gave her later that morning. She left out the sex and the odor of clay.)
So she wrote that piece for the San Jose Mercury and another Mexico piece—this one on safety for tourists in Mexico City, which around this time was just beginning to seem like a dangerous place to visit, what with all the carjackings and such downtown—for a travel site in the newly emerging World Wide Web, something she could, unlike most freelancers, afford to do without worrying, because it paid virtually nothing. (It was a funny paradox, and pathetic, she supposed, as well, that in order to become a travel writer you had to have some money, because until you started writing for the upper echelon publications no one could really afford to send you where you wanted to go.)
Her inheritance went churning along, producing quite enough money for her upkeep, and even her excesses, each month.
Excesses: which included a small amount of coke, which she used several times a week for a couple of years.
“There’s a joke,” Dr. Wald said when toward the end of her second year of using they discussed admitting her to a treatment center. “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you’re earning too much money.” He paused. “You’re not laughing.”
“I don’t earn much money. It just comes to me.”
“You’re both lucky and unlucky. If you have no limits, that can create some problems.”
“I have limits,” Susie said.
“I don’t want to die.”
“Good,” Dr. Wald said. “I’m glad to hear that. It’s good to have a baseline in these matters.”
“Do you always have to joke about things like this?”
The doctor smiled and leaned forward in his chair.
“I think humor is a very important part of life. Don’t you?”
“I don’t think my troubles are funny.”
“Good. Another baseline. More limits. Good.”
So, no, she didn’t want to die. Not that afternoon. But she didn’t want to go into a treatment center either.
A few weeks later, her system suffused with cocaine, she passed out in the ladies’ room of a particularly expensive restaurant in Berkeley and as things went dark she thought she was dying.
“Mama?” she said in a whisper.
No answer, not until she woke up in a hospital, drenched with sweat and having peed where she lay.
“I’m not your mother but I’m here to help you.”
Big black woman, breasts swaying like two pillows behind her flowered smock—Susie wanted to hug her. She felt too weak to raise her arms. But within hours she signed herself out and went home to a few days of abstinence and solitude. Most of the time, she slept, a mask over her eyes.
If she dreamed she didn’t remember anything about it. So at her next session with Dr. Wald she made up some dreams. Including one about a dive down into the ocean to the Land of the Lost with her mother.
“You’re too young to know about that,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“You didn’t dream that, did you?”
“Yes,” Susie said. “No.”
“And you’re not old enough to have heard that show on the radio. Someone told you about it, yes?”
“My mother told me,” she said. “I didn’t dream about her. I lied. I wish I could dream about her, though.”
“A lot of what we think we remember about our early life is a kind of dream that we talk ourselves into. We create it, we invent it. It’s a kind of poetry. You’re a poet, Susie.”
“I’m a travel writer.”
“That’s a special sort of writing. But it involves some poetry, doesn’t it?”
“You have to evoke the spirit of a place and let people know whether they want to go there or not. Is that poetry?”
“Maybe. What other kind of writing have you done?”
“Since I got out of school? Just travel writing.”
“Have you done any stay-at-home writing?”
“Have you tried to write about where you’re from instead of where you’re going?”
“About New York?”
“That’s where you were born. Is that where you’re from?”
“You’re getting tricky with me now.”
She scrunched up her face and pushed a finger at her nose.
“If you travel, you start out from somewhere,” Dr. Wald said. “Would you like to talk about where you’re starting out from?”
Susie kept pushing at her face, her nose.
“I know where I’m from.”
“The Land of the Lost.”
Was it months? And then it was years that her life turned in to a strange mix of good work—she had gained a certain expertise in what she did, that was certain—and deep troughs, periods of blackouts and declines. As when she spent a few days up on Puget Sound and did a piece for a national travel magazine—her clips had accumulated and she was getting better and better assignments—on high tea at the grand hotel of Victoria, British Columbia, and returned home to binge on coke so fine that it nearly killed her.
“Am I ready to go in now?” she asked Dr. Wald at their next session.
“I hate that,” Susie said. “Either answer me or don’t. But not with a stupid question. Are you a psychiatrist or a rabbi?”
“Sometimes I wonder,” Dr. Wald said.
“My father was that way.”
“A psychiatrist or a rabbi? You never mentioned that.”
“He was your way.”
“Always trying to be funny.”
“Did he ever succeed?”
“Yes, he died.”
“And you think that’s funny?”
“He made all this money for me.”
“I’m glad he’s dead.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, I meant—”
“I know what you meant, Dr. Wald. I was just teasing you. Goddamn it, can’t I have a sense of humor, too?”
“Of course you can.”
“God is cocaine’s way of telling you you’re having delusions.”
“I’m happy you think so.”
“But let’s come back to your father for next time.”
“Time is up?”
“Up, down, one direction or another, our session is over for today.”
“Am I going in?”
“I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of thinking you can get rid of your drug habit without doing any serious or deep thinking about yourself.”
So they signed her in to a small and very expensive private facility in Marin where she stayed a full month, and one afternoon, while walking the grounds in the company of a woman named Maria Fernandez, a small-breasted, curly-haired stock broker from the city who was like herself a first timer at the hospital, she heard about Bali, though it wasn’t what she was focusing on at the time.
“It’s paradise,” Maria Fernandez said. “My husband took me there on our honeymoon.”
“Not since I went into our savings account for coke,” Maria Fernandez said.
“He divorced you because of that?”
“I’d marry you because of that.”
Maria gave her a strange look, and they kept on walking. For the rest of the month she stayed as far away from Susie as she could—which took some doing, given the small groups and the intimate arrangements for meals and such. She left a few days before Susie, but not without coming up to her, her eyes a little teary, and without saying a word handing her a slip of paper with a telephone number.
Susie waited a week after she left the facility before she called.
The Fernandez woman lived in a large loft in the Mission District. From her large leather sofa you could see the lights of the Bay Bridge.
“If I was going to write about San Francisco,” Susie said, “I’d say that the real thing to do here is look out over the Bay Bridge, not the Golden Gate.”
The Fernandez woman said something but Susie couldn’t make it out. It was all a little too disjointed—talking with her, hugging her, kissing her, spilling the bag of coke onto the parquet floor, crawling around naked on their knees, noses to the wood, trying first to snort it up, and then trying to pick it up with business cards.
That’s when Susie looked up and from across the large space saw the turbulent sneering face—the carved wooden demon mask—on the far wall, its flaring yellow nostrils, arched eyebrows and protruding red tongue giving her a long version of the chills. It stared at her even as she stared at it. Oh, my God, she said to herself, I’m going to jump out the window.
The mask raised its eyebrows and wiggled its tongue at her.
“Who are you and what do you want from me?” Susie could hear her voice rise in a despairing whine.
The Fernandez woman looked over at her, from where she crouched on her knees, her head raised above the mess on the floor.
“What did you say?”
“Not you,” Susie said. “I’m talking to the mask.”
Susie grabbed her friend by the hair—“Hey!” she protested as she shook loose—and pointed her in the direction of the mask.
“Oh,” Maria Fernandez said, “that’s from Bali. It scares away the evil spirits.” And returned to grazing on the coke.
When things had grown calm again—this was hours and hours later—Maria talked a little about that island in the Indonesian archipelago where she had visited and bought the mask.
“It was an anniversary trip, my husband and I spent two weeks there. And then we broke up. But that had nothing to do with Bali. You should go. You’ll like it. You’re a travel writer, right? You can write about it. It’s paradise, even without coke.”
Susie glanced over her shoulder as she talked, trying to look the mask right in the eye.
“Maybe I can get an assignment.”
“If you go,” Maria said, “I’ll give you the names of some places. Hotels. There’s a small town in the mountains you’ll want to visit.”
“Mountains? I thought it was an island.”
“The two don’t cancel each other out, islands, mountains. There’s so much there, the beaches, the ocean, the mountains, the rice fields. The whole island is like a huge rice bowl.”
“I don’t like rice,” Susie said.
“You will when you go there. There’s a dessert, it’s called kus-something, made out of black rice and palm sugar. My God, it was delicious.” She paused and then went diving nose-first back toward her coke. “Wish I had some now…”
A year went by before Susie found out how prophetic that was. And while it was a good year for her travel writing—among other things, she was invited to join a group in Marin called “The Far-Out Writing Women” and contributed an essay about Mexico to an anthology of travel writing they were gathering—it wasn’t a good year for her life.
Maria Fernandez fell in love with and married a guy from her office. And two things happened in the Far-Out Women writing group—she met a naturally blonde-haired Far-Out Woman of forty she thought she would die for. The woman was the mother of two teenagers and lived with her husband though they no longer shared a bed, and Susie sneaked off with her for occasional coked-up afternoons in a hotel in downtown San Francisco. And she met a husband of a Far-Out Woman, this guy a successful businessman with a paunch who took her with him on a trip to Salt Lake City where she got so drunk on vodka they had to call the hotel physician. Back and forth, that was the year.
The amazing thing was, the worse her life got, the better she worked. Somehow she could get past all of her inner turmoil, the heaving turn of her worries and pains, real and imaginary, and make a travel story that gave the impression of real easefulness and competence. She knew, of course, how superficial her work was in tone, how shallow emotionally. But this was magazine writing, not confessional literature. All you wanted to do was let the reader know what it might be like if she took the same trip as you.
Oh, she could hear, with an inner sigh accompanying the words, just what her Dr. Wald would say about that if she told him.
And what is it like taking your trip? Would you write about that?
Yes. The life of Susie Wheelis.
That’s private, not for publication.
Then you may never know.
I know, I live it.
Wasn’t it E.M. Forster who said, I never know what I think until I write it down?
She got some assignments for a national travel magazine, mostly about Bay area locations.
She drove down to Santa Cruz one afternoon in the middle of the week to have lunch with Carter Wilson and thank him for the help he had given her with her writing. She thought it was a pleasant meeting, though afterward he asked her if she was all right.
“Why are you asking that?” she said.
Wilson, towering over her, shook his head. “You seem…a little nervous?”
Susie walked along Pacific Mall for a while, wondering about what he had said. She didn’t think she felt nervous. She thought she felt normal. Did she look nervous? How did nervous look? And how did normal look? She turned to stare at herself in a store window and that was when she saw the mask.
Or its cousin.
Red tongue protruding, eyes wide, painted cheeks. She felt as though it was staring directly into her eyes.
“Are you following me?” she said.
A woman passing by stopped, as if Susie had spoken to her, shrugged, and continued walking.
Tenngara read the sign over the entrance to the store. Inside the place was an aquarium of incense and tingling bells, hanging tapestries, carved wooden gods and goddesses, some of them floating on strings attached to the ceiling.
A pale-skinned young girl in a brightly-colored tunic came floating up to her.
“Can I show you something?”
“Where’s all this from?” Susie’s eyes darted back and forth, up and around at all this merchandise. But she already knew the answer.
She had an early dinner with Maria Fernandez in the city on the evening of her departure and when she left for the airport she had a lot of suggestions and addresses of hotels, shops, and a recommendation about visiting a particular healer (what did she know about Balinese healers? What could she know?) and a few telephone numbers—telephones in Bali, what a strange thing to contemplate!—in her notebook. She perused these during her flight—nearly fourteen hours to Hong Kong and two more legs after that!—but at this point in her journey they were only odd sounding names in Indonesian—Keraton, Made Surya, Oka Wati, Puri Lumbung…the list went on. She dozed, the plane shuddered with turbulence and she awoke, stole past rows of slumbering dark-haired people, Indians, Balinese, Chinese, who knew? In the lavatory she squatted over a vile smelling toilet, deciding that though she was soaring along thousands of feet above the Pacific she had already arrived in Asia. Make a note, she told herself. Never get to the bathroom last. She slept again, and there was Hong Kong, dreamy islands floating in the clouds of early morning.
Two more legs, but short ones, of her three-legged flight, Hong Kong to Singapore (where she spent the day and a night, and had her drunken encounter with the airport bartender) and then to Denpasar, the capital of the Indonesian province of Bali. The airplane was thick with jocular Australians who shouted to each other about beaches and beer—if they’re a cliché, what am I? Susie said to herself.
A pilgrim, she decided, a pilgrim coming home to a place she never knew.
And then she thought: where did that thought come from?
She wrote this in her notebook just as the airplane was making its final approach over water: voices in my head, who am I? Talking to whom?
First thing she saw first time she stepped outside the hotel room: a woman paused before the steps leading to the outside entrance of her room, setting down the tray, lifting from it one of those small baskets, woven, as it turned out, from palm leaf and holding some small flowers. She placed it to one side of the steps and lit a stick of incense and lay that across the basket. She stood up and without looking at her moved on to the next room, and Susie remained there in the doorway, watching the smoke rise from that stick of incense, and though it took a while for the thought to form in her jet-lagged mind, when she finally understood that this offering was meant to keep away the low-level demons from her temporary dwelling she began to notice these little altars everywhere.
Susie got out her notebook—the profusion of those baskets of flowers and incense, and the ranks of stone shrines that line the roads, those little altars everywhere laden with flowers and smoking sticks of freshly ignited incense offered up to protect homes and villages and shops and street corners from everyday evil. And also the large brightly decorated towers of wood, with designs of demons and animals, which will bear up bodies for cremation ceremonies, ubiquitous on this Hindu island province in an otherwise mostly Muslim nation. And the family temple yards—a number of shrines surrounded by rectangular stone walls—within the larger compounds that you pass by. And the skirts of checkered material—“What is that for?” she asked her driver, a husky fellow with a constant smile on his mahogany face—black and white for yin and yang and good and evil—draped around the base of the temples. And the numerous Hindu priests in white jackets and the women in multi-colored sarongs who make the offerings.
The van driver she hired to drive her into the mountains stopped to show her the fruit and flower market in the hillside village of Bedugal where floral offerings, part of the daily ritual of asking for blessings on the workplace, littered the messy floor. The market already seemed blessed with its tropical overflow of seventeen varieties of bananas—Susie, feeling her professional responsibility, made notes. “What do you call this?” she asked the driver over and over again, “What do you call that?”—its mounds of mangos, papayas, lychee, passion fruit, tamerind, the exotic “snake fruit” and mangosteen, Balinese tangerines, Chinese oranges, and even a few pyramids of familiar Red Delicious apples imported from exotic Washington State. Small floral offerings greeted her at the entrance to her rustic cottage (a building designed in the manner of the local rice storage barns) in the village of Munduk, a tiny location smack in the middle of high forest, clove and banana plantations, and terraced rice fields, that was one of the earliest centers of Dutch colonial rule of this island.
Note: One of the first things we did upon our arrival was get a lesson in the construction of these offerings from the woman who attended to them for all the cottages on this property. Our model was the small ashtray-sized palm box that holds a specially constructed palm leaf cut somewhat in the manner of origami and a number of small flowers, with a thumb-sized blossom called the pandan at the heart of the arrangement, presided over by a smoking stick of incense. In my own clumsy way, I put together a few of these and offered them to the local gods on my balcony.
Damned if it didn’t work! How else to explain the incredible multi-tiered beauty of the view, layer upon layer of light of varying intensity, rice paddies in the foreground, with their constant musical accompaniment of the water running in the irrigation ditches that served them, leading down to a series of palm-fringed ridges all the way to the distant glistening plain of the Java Sea. Had she done anything with her life to deserve this vision? Dozens of swifts dipped and swerved in the late afternoon air above the rice fields, accounting for their daily fill of insects. Offstage, cocks crowed and the spark and sputter of motor bikes swelled the clearest air she’d ever noticed.
That first night in the mountains of Bali, exhausted as she was, she was awakened by the peeping, creaking noises of the lizards on the ceiling calling to each other for sex or food or who knew what.
“Eck-oh,” Susie tried to imitate them. “Eck-oh.”
She lay in a restless mess of jet-lag torpor, getting up and going out onto the little balcony to make notes by the light of the faint cabin lamp. Her legs were cooled, sitting there. It was like wading into a tepid stream, like the irrigation ditch for the rice paddies—she could hear it gurgling.
Wouldn’t it be nice—well, not nice, but easier?—to be a lizard, walking up walls, walking upside down on ceilings?
Dawn inched up out of the blackness of what turned out to be the ocean, distant and yet so near beyond the last ridges covered with rice paddies.
She was hungry but her eyes burned and her head ached, so she crawled back to bed and lay there until the full sun flowed in around the edges of the windows and door.
She took a deep breath. Here the air smelled of coffee and cloves and flowers she couldn’t name.
Most Balinese eat rice three times a day, sometimes plain, sometimes mixed with vegetables or fish or chicken, abjuring utensils and employing the right hand to shovel food into the mouth. Rice—in the dish called kus kus, the black rice sweetened with palm sugar that we ate for breakfast, and the white rice and red rice that we ate at lunch and dinner, and the yellow rice mountain salad (a pyramid of saffron rice surrounded by eggs and vegetables) that made up a special appetizer. The rice we ate with forks while sitting in the dining pavilion of our cottage-complex in Munduk tasted all the more delicious for the fact that as we chewed it we could see the very fields across the road where it had been grown.
Breakfast—she’d eaten like a pig and made notes about what she ate. There were a few other people at the table and they talked to each other about their trip, their flights, their work. She only half-listened, the most interesting thing she heard being the remarks of a balding man, almost old enough to be her father, who was apparently an expert in Balinese masks. He wore a T-shirt and little granny glasses—the kind worn by teachers she hated—and jeans. He was there with a woman—his wife?—a woman who looked a little like Susie’s friend Connie. Now and then Susie looked up from her notetaking and stole a glance.
The woman caught her eye.
“We’re hiking to the waterfall,” she said. “Would you like to go with us?”
Susie felt her heart make a little flutter, a feeling somewhere between bird wings and butterfly wings.
“Eck-oh,” Susie said.
The woman didn’t get the joke.
“The noise the lizards make,” Susie said. “On the ceiling? Don’t you have them?”
“Oh,” the woman said with a laugh, “you mean ‘gecko’?”
“Gecko,” Susie said.
To name the plants and trees and herbs we walked through would be to make up a list like Eden’s garden: several varieties of banana, and papaya, jack fruit, mangosteen, avocado, monkey fruit, the infamous foul-smelling (and delicious) durian, snake skin fruit and monkey tail, hibiscus flowers and wild poinsettia, taro and cassava, and coffee, cacao, ginger, betel nut, arica nut, lemon grass, lemon basil, nutmeg. Our guide, a gentle-handed middle-aged fellow named Ketut, who doubled as a security guard at the hotel, shinnied up a papaya tree for a ripe fruit for a snack. Papaya in paradise! Oh, the creamy taste of it!
It had been steamy hot as they climbed the lower part of the small mountain and Susie’s T-shirt had stuck to her skin. Beneath the forest canopy the air cooled down and she enjoyed the sensation.
“This is, like, an air-conditioned island,” she said to the middle-aged man, who, at breakfast had explained some of his research into the masks of Bali.
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” the man said, picking up his pace.
“I’d like you to tell me more about masks,” Susie called after him, and he looked back over his shoulder, smiling tepidly.
“Oh, I’ll have to show you my book.”
“Fuck you,” Susie said, under her breath. “Don’t you like me? I could fuck your brains out.”
She hoped he heard her, she hoped he didn’t hear her. What was happening? This was Paradise, and she was trembling, shivering in her T-shirt and sarong all the way up to a clearing where a waterfall hit the rocks with the sound of a thousand open faucets. A large green-tinted pond spread out from the base of the rocks. Without hesitation, she waded in up to her chest and pulled off her T-shirt and dipped herself, head and all, into the water, emerging with a cry of pain and exhilaration, holding her T-shirt high overhead like a battle flag.
“Balinese!” she called out. “Bare-breasted!”
Poor Ketut, the guide, he looked away, as if he’d never seen such a sight.
Another upward tending path a few days later took us into the rice fields, those light green terraces delicately carved out of the sides of the hills, and another on a walk through the high forest to a temple on the shore of Lake Tamblingan, one of the volcanic crater lakes of North Bali’s mountains. As is the custom, we wrapped temple sashes about our waists and approached the main altar. Beneath the wooden base of this particular shrine at the heart of this open-air temple sat a large oblong stone inscribed with faintly visible Chinese characters dated back to somewhere around the eighth century, the time of the earliest Buddhist visitations to this island at the distant end of the Indonesian archipelago.
She had heard about this site back at the hotel and she hired Ketut to drive her here. Now she walked around it, stepping on the faded flowers of old offerings.
“This is holy, right?” She looked over at her guide, who nodded.
“Which is the holy part?”
The guide stared up at the rectangular patch of faded blue between the high thick branches of the banyan trees.
“I want to see if I can take a picture of the holy part of it,” Susie said.
Click, shusssh. Click, shusssh…as she walked every which way around the stone, the camera made the kind of noises she sometimes thought went off in her brain while she slept.
“Think I got the holy part?”
The guide smiled at her, then looked away.
One morning in the middle of the week a notice went up on the billboard in front of our dining cottage:
From 08.00 a.m. to 12.00 p.m.:
Cremation of Ida Sri Empu Dwija Kertha’s wife
We cordially invite all of you to observe
the above procession.
That morning just after breakfast, by arrangement the night before, a sandalwood-colored boy, Ketut’s son, wearing T-shirt and sarong came wheeling up to the hotel on his motorbike and she hopped on the back and they raced along the mountain roads at what seemed like speeds much too high for them to live.
“You want us to be cremated, too?” she shouted, freeing a hand from around his waist in order to pound her fist on his back.
The boy turned around and smiled, which made her even more frightened, because of the oncoming vans and motorbikes. Entire families perched on one bike, rounding turns like vehicles in a ferocious competition.
But something had overtaken her ever since she had arrived on the island, an inexplicable feeling that here was something more and if she only paid attention she might figure out what it was and it might help her to find some calm, some peace in her own life. The offerings, the perfumed air, the music, the gentleness of the people around her all seemed to conspire to make her feel this way, nothing all those years of work with Dr. Wald had ever done.
So here she was, racing along these narrow roads, taking her life in her hands—but then she was her father’s daughter, wasn’t she?—trying to get to one more ceremony that might reveal to her something she needed to know.
Oh, and with the air streaming past her, her face pressed against the wind, she thought of her father—his body burning in the all-consuming flames, his ashes blowing back in her face.
Too bad, too late, the bier was still smoking when they arrived, but though a gamelon band chimed and chocked its tinkly rhythmical music into the ashen air, the body—or ashes and bone?—was gone, and though a crowd that must have been family and guests milled about the cremation grounds and a row of priests sat beneath a canopy behind the smoking remains, chanting, Susie felt a terrible cold chill of disappointment.
I’m always too late, she said to herself, too fucking fucking late. She prowled about the grounds, walking right up to the little pavilion where the chanting priests sat cross-legged on small cushions, clicking away with her camera, though she might have been invisible. And her heart sank, not only because she worried it would hurt her story not to have included this cremation but because of her sadness at her sadness. Wasn’t she ever going to grow up? She couldn’t have felt worse than if she had been at her own funeral.
“Morrow,” the boy-driver said.
“Another one tomorrow?” Susie said.
“Yes, yes, always,” the boy said, vigorously nodding. “Now sand?”
“Sand…bitch,” he said, pointing to a path along an irrigation ditch in one of the ubiquitous rice fields that spread out everywhere from just about everywhere on the island.
She laughed and followed the path, which took her to a beach where the sand was grayish-black—the residue of an old volcanic eruption—but she didn’t want to think about the past, not anything that far back, so she gave her attention to a wattled old cow, the same color as the sand, that someone had tethered to a post just beyond the high tide mark. It moaned as she approached it, slobber dripping from its thickly cutaneous lips.
“How now?” she said, and laughed at her own feeble joke, as the cow flicked its tail and dropped discs of brown dung onto the already darkened sand.
What was she doing here?
But before Susie could even try to answer herself the boy-driver called out and waved to her, and she returned with him along the irrigation ditch back to the cremation site—now completely deserted except for the lingering odor of ash—and hopped onto the back of his motorbike, arranged her legs and sarong, and rode like the wind back to the hotel.
“Come with me,” she said to her driver as she dismounted in front of the entrance.
He smiled, bowed.
She crooked a finger at him and he followed along. They passed a few guests on the pathway to the cottages and Susie stared at them in preemptive fashion.
“Older woman, young boy, they can’t stand it,” she said to the driver who nodded, smiled.
On the steps of her cottage she paused, dug into her purse for her key.
“Dollar,” the boy said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Susie said, opening the door. “More than a dollar.”
Inside the room was cool and as delicately lit as a fishbowl in morning sun.
She threw her purse down on the bed and turned to the boy.
“Can you get me something to… you know? Smoke?”
She pantomimed the intense sucking inhalation of working on a slender joint.
He smiled, bowed.
“Go on and get it,” Susie said.
He smiled, bowed, stood in place. In his eyes a strange sort of acknowledgement flickered on and off.
“I need it,” she said.
He smiled, bowed.
“Stop that,” she said, “you’re driving me crazy.” And she stepped right up to him and began to undress the docile boy the way she might unwrap a candy bar.
Hal78@aol.com… greetings from Ubud, the arts town of this island, weird to find an internet café here so far from anything but that’s the way modern life is… it’s really hot here… air is always filled with odors of flowers…the boys are smooth-skinned… and ha!ha! hairless… almost… like brown mice… or Chihuahua dogs… don’t know yet about the girls, don’t know if I’ll know… my father would love it here, racing all around everywhere on motor bikes… tourists are mostly Europeans and Japanese, I hate the Americans, they’re such prudes…
Red22@sfchronicle.com Con… I know it must be weird hearing from me… I’ve been traveling I’ve been making notes for a travel piece for… whoops, I hit the wrong button, are my hands growing? The keyboard seems so small… like Alice down the rabbithole? So I’m here in Ubud, in Bali, and about to get in a van and take a trip to a local sacred spring… cool, yes? I mean, doing it, don’t know if the water will be cool…
Mail delivery system… 3k… returned mail… user unknown…
[Bye, Hal! But Connie?]
MariaH@earthlink.net… Yo, hey! Here I am, and I saw that face today here in Ubud, the face of the mask, familiar, familiar! Just like the one on your wall, those eyes wide open, the big nose, the tongue sticking out, a red carpet! It didn’t keep the bad spirits away from me. I went to the sacred springs at Tampaksiring and my notes about Ubud (pages and pages about the masks I saw) washed out when my notebook fell into the pond… It was terrible, and the water was icky and I objected to the sign saying women having their periods weren’t allowed in… how would they know? It’s the honor system, of course… Getting ready now for an afternoon trip to East Bali and the so-called “mother temple” at Besakih, midway up the slope leading to Mt. Agung, the island’s most active volcano.
Mail delivery system 3k returned mail user unknown your email is being returned because…
She jumped up out of the chair and flung herself toward the young man behind the desk.
“My emails aren’t going through!”
He smiled, shrugged.
“Do you know how much this is costing me!” Hands on hips, shouting.
“Internet,” the young man said. “Yes, it costs.”
Susie tossed her head, as though she could shake herself free of all this trouble.
“I’m going to Besakih today. How much will the van cost me?” Before he could reply, she said, “You should give it to me for free, all this time I’ve been spending on the computer.”
“Yes, it costs,” the young man said again.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Some other guests wandered up the path past the reception and turned to stare at her.
“What are you looking at?” she shouted at them.
Rwald@psych.net. I am so angry, full of anger, burning up if I wasn’t so pissed off, these fucking emails never get through and this probably won’t either… I’m here in Bali, I looked at a mask and got myself a travel assignment and I’ve been traveling up and down this little island that’s supposed to be calm, like paradise, but all it does is churn me up inside…
“What do they do up there at Besakih?” she asked the van driver, an older man, graying, thin, uneven skin color—what happened to the Bali boys when they grew up.
“Say prayers,” he told her. “Meditate. Get blessing.”
“Meditate? How do you meditate?”
At this height, with the peak veiled in fast-moving clouds, I wandered among the hundreds and hundreds of Balinese worshippers, listening to the priests chanting in Cawi, the old Javanese language in which ceremonies are conducted, enjoying the tinkling of the holy bells, and making my own little flower offerings…
And now here she sat, shoulders slumping forward, in the temple of Basikih, near the top of Mt. Agung—clouds shifting past and back across the face of the mountain, like curtains just opaque enough to mask the mystery, just sheer enough to allow for a glimpse of the holy peak—sitting, legs crossed, on the stone floor of the outdoor temple, eyes closed, hands resting lightly on her knees, but it wasn’t doing much good…she could imitate the people around her but she couldn’t seem to feel the way they did…instead of feeling comfortable and ready to sink down into some relaxing mood—which was her idea just then of what happened in meditation—her thoughts flitted about like little birds, every which way, chirping, squawking, picking at seeds, fluttering wings, her mother’s face, dark, indistinct, behind a veil of lost recollection, father’s gruff voice, a glimpse of him naked after a shower, her face in the mirror, boy settling his dangling apparatus down toward her face, the wind, the bells, odor of incense, oils splashing across her lips, opening her eyes to see the dark stone of the temple, white coats and sarongs of the priests, dark white oil of frangipani, the kiss of jasmine, bougainvillea, flowers as offerings, Cawi song on the air—never never ever was she going to find the way! Too nervous too twitchy too anxious too frightened (behind her bluff, the broad face, the smile, the nose), too worried about the past, the future—she closed her eyes again—
Someone touched her on the shoulder and she sat up, opened her eyes.
“Who are you?” she said, staring at the woman.
“Susie? Don’t you recognize me? Well, my hair is a lot shorter. But I knew it was you in a heartbeat. It’s me, Pip, Pip Masterson? From school?”
The bells, the chanting, the incense, the wind blowing cool off the mountain, it turned Susie’s head, made it spin, she felt faint, she hadn’t been eating all that much, suffering in her bowels, cramping and bloating. But recovering enough to seem polite—she hoped—she took her old schoolmate’s hand in hers.
“I can’t believe it!”
“Believe it,” the woman said. Another American—big, bluff figure, bigger than big Susie, wrapped in sarongs, scarves—stood next to her and Pip pushed her forward. “This is my friend…” Whatever her name was, this woman with the broad forehead lowered her eyes. And Susie and Pip talked and talked as they left the temple compound and walked down the mountain toward the vans, where their drivers stood waiting.
That night in Ubud, Susie and Pip Masterson got together for dinner (Pip’s friend went back to the hotel, plagued by a bug she had picked up the other day) and the women talked and talked, about that horrible graduation day when they both had to sit it out, about how much had changed since high school, and how much remained the same. Pip seemed so self-assured, much more calm than Susie remembered her, while she herself felt agitated by all this, she didn’t know why, she heard the temple bells in her head, she had no appetite, she drank wine, she had to pee twice, her legs trembled as she walked and shook with nervousness when she sat back down at the table, and she spilled two glasses, unusual klutziness—
She stood up and shook her head.
“I have to go to sleep.” Yes, sleep, but that was only the surface of things, she wanted to sink into darkness, to knock herself out, unconscious.
“Do you have plans for tomorrow?” Pip said. “We’re going to see a healer out in the country somewhere. Want to come?”
A beam of light broke through Susie’s mind and she saw Maria’s face, beaming.
“A friend of mine gave me the name of a healer… It’s in my notes somewhere. What’s the name of your healer?”
The long uphill walk on the rutted road alongside an irrigation ditch the trio took the next morning gave Susie some time to marvel at the coincidence. Pip’s healer and the name of the healer recommended to her by Maria Fernandez—the same man! As much as she hated to believe it, this was some kind of sign that she had to see him, wasn’t it?
Though she didn’t know what she would say to him. No, no, that was a lie, the truth was, she didn’t want to think about what she had to say. If she could say anything at all—did he even speak English?
Pip didn’t seem to know.
“You just heard he was very special, right?” the schoolgirl turned woman said to her companion.
“That’s right,” the big woman said. She had a quiet, something like sultry voice, and kept her eyes lowered as they walked. “A friend of mine came here to see him years ago, and was never the same again.”
“I have a friend, too,” Susie said. Maria Fernandez’s face came to mind. “But I don’t know what happened to her when she came here.”
“My friend was transformed,” the woman said. “I want to be transformed.”
“I just want to stop feeling…” Susie stopped abruptly and, as though she’d seen a deer in the woods, made a hushing sound while touching a finger to her lips. Up ahead in the ditch a naked woman showed her backside to them as she bent over to bathe a small child in the irrigation flow. Even at this distance they could hear her quietly singing in a language they would never know. In the distance, a dog barked and bells tinkled. After pausing a moment to listen discreetly they walked past her, Susie turning to watch the laughing child reaching up to play with the small brown mother’s two fistfuls of breast.
The healer, according to both their sources, lived at the top of a high ridge overlooking miles of sloping rice terraces. By the time they climbed past the first level of fields Susie wanted to stop and rest. Her blouse felt like a soaked towel and her sarong imprisoned her tired legs. Her disagreeable state wasn’t helped by the stink of garbage, animal and otherwise, as they passed small huts constructed of broad palm leaves and sheaves of cardboard. Dogs lay on their backs in the sun. Children scrambled in the dust out front and adults waved to them as they passed. No one seemed particularly surprised to see them walking by, which made Susie think that despite their lack of specific directions, they were headed toward the right place. She was dripping sweat. If she could have caught her breath she might have asked her two companions how they were doing.
A boy on a motorbike roared past them at high speed, as though it were only her imagination that the incline was so steep and the dirt road so rutted and rocky. From the other direction came a group of men carrying large sacks of something that smelled, by contrast with the trash, utterly sweet and delicious.
Or was that the breeze from somewhere else?
They stopped to rest. By now she and her friend Pip had stripped down to T-shirts and were moaning about the heat. The other woman kept her outer shirt on, though clearly she was suffering. From where they stood they could look back down the mountain to see the terraced slopes and ridge after ridge leading all the way to the reflected silver of the surface of the sea. Mt. Agung had been swathed in fog. Here it was purely sunlight, and the air was clear. On this ridge, near the top of this island—ninety miles long and fifty miles wide, she knew, from having done her homework in preparation for her visit and the writing of the article—she might as well have been lifted somewhere off the planet itself. Nothing she had ever seen prepared her for such beauty and mystery—and plainness—the dirt road, the smell of trash, the odor of fruit and flowers—all this, all this—well, maybe things she had read but certainly nothing she had ever felt inside.
And, of all things, it frightened her. Where this feeling was coming from, she couldn’t have said. But she was suddenly quite scared, as if she had trekked all her life and now climbed these ridges only to fear coming face to face with something entirely awful and destructive. Her heart beat hard and erratically and her legs—the climb alone would have done it but now there was all this fear on top of it—wobbled and her knees buckled and then went stiff. There was nothing around her but air and yet everything seemed about to close in.
But look! How ridiculous it all was! Here, in paradise, the air was warm and clear, the world was beautiful, and she was heading toward even more interesting pleasures than she had ever seen before.
“Susie, let’s go,” said her friend Pip.
So she kept on moving.
Their trek came to an end just behind the next ridge, where the road dipped down alongside another rice field and curved off into a grove of clove trees and banana trees. A young boy came trotting up to them and stopped.
“Gooday?” he said.
“He sounds Australian,” Susie said.
“No, no,” Pip said, always the smart one, “he’s asking if we’re here to see Tjokorda Gde.” She nodded to the boy.
“I didn’t even know how to say his name,” Susie said. “Jesus, and I have to write an article about all this.”
“Come on,” Pip said, taking each woman by the hand and leading them as she followed the boy along. Within a few minutes they had managed a deep groove that ran through the lush undergrowth—what passed for a path up here—and found themselves at the stone entrance to a small compound. However awful the odor about the rest of the hill, here it smelled ten times worse. Chickens clucked their way across their feet and several mangy dogs lay about the yard as though they had been dead a very long time. From the far corner came a patrol of guinea fowl. Two fighting cocks, each in a separate cage, crowed at them and each other. Two parrots, high on a rooftop, began speaking in a language Susie couldn’t understand.
“What are they saying? What are they saying?”
Ignoring her question, the boy led them directly to a small cement structure at the edge of the compound and pointed to the open doorway.
“Thank you,” Pip said, reaching into her bag for some money.
“No,no,” Susie said, “that’s not courteous. They’re courteous here, they don’t do these things for money.”
The boy nodded.
“See?” Susie said.
“He heard the word ‘money,’” Pip’s friend said, in a rather masculine growl. “Give him something.”
“I won’t be a part of this, corrupting an ancient culture,” Susie said. And she stepped inside the hut.
“Jesus,” Pip’s friend said from the doorway.
Over her shoulder, Susie said, “Just kidding.”
She took a deep breath, inhaling the odor within, a pungent mix of what Susie took to be the island’s most delicious offerings, the cloves, coffee, frangipani and a dozen other perfumes. A young woman with a sunken jaw sat before a flickering television screen as soldiers paraded around a large monument. She stood up, revealing a huge belly, and smiled toothlessly, gesturing toward a door that led on into the house.
In a back room sat a small pinched-nosed man with skin the color of a Hershey bar. Susie nodded a hello and he grinned and said something in his own language.
“First?” the boy spoke up from behind her.
“Susie?” Pip said.
“You go,” Susie said.
“I will,” Pip’s friend said, stepping up to the healer. “I really need to know some things.”
“I don’t want to know anything,” Susie said. “I already know enough.”
“So why are you here?” Pip’s friend angled her chin at Susie in a really strange way, as though her head were not her own.
“Why are you here?” Susie came back.
Pip’s friend pushed her face close to Susie’s, so close that Susie could almost taste the girl’s breath, a heady odor, tinged with cardamom and mouthwash, and perhaps even a drop or two of alcohol. Had she somehow managed to find a glass of wine to drink with breakfast? (That didn’t seem possible, but then neither did Susie standing here in this hut on a high hillside on this remote island getting ready to talk in a language she didn’t understand to a peasant who was supposed to be a magician.)
“I want to know who I am,” the girl said in a hoarse masculine whisper.
Susie turned away, her head spinning, and ended up looking the healer right in the eye.
“Yes,” the man said, pointing at her.
Susie shook her head.
“Go on,” Pip said, “he wants you first.”
“I can’t. It’s so stupid.” Susie backed into the wall of the hut. A lizard started across the far wall, and she could smell its breath, or her own breath, or the water running beneath the shack.
“I’ll go,” Pip’s friend said, approaching the man.
He bowed toward her and the friend bowed, and the man touched a hand to the top of her head and she sank to the floor in front of him.
“Hurt here,” he said, touching a finger to the top of her skull.
“Yeow!” the girl said, in a deep growl, the noise sounding something the way a printed noise on the page might be supposed to sound.
“Hold,” the man said, pressing his thumb into the girl’s head.
“Stay awake,” the man said. “Be yourself.” He lapsed into a series of mutters or curses or prayers in the language none of them could understand. When he finished, Pip’s friend was tilted to one side, shivering as though caught in a winter rain-storm, murmuring “I see, I see, I see…” And bursting into a racking course of tears and sobs.
“You,” the man said, his eyes falling on Susie.
“Your turn, Pip,” Susie said.
“He said he wants you,” Pip said.
“Your friend needs you,” Susie said. “Take care of him.”
“What? What did you say?”
“Take care of her,” Susie said.
“No, no, no, what did you say?”
“I don’t know what I said.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t. Go away.”
“You,” the old healer said over their voices, this time having reached behind him. He picked up a flexible long stick and pointed it at her.
As though she were a sliver of metal filing and the old man the magnet, she moved toward him, directed by his stick.
“You,” he said, waggling the tip of the stick in front of her face.
The small room was so claustrophobic and Susie felt faint, her body hot and cold at the same time, her stomach in her throat, her throat in her toes. She bowed her head and felt the stick whip across her scalp. She began to cough, as though a piece of food had stuck in her throat. Next thing she knew she had sunk on her knees to the floor.
“Look,” the man said.
She looked up at him.
“You, you,” he said, pushing at his own nose.
“Touch my nose?”
“Face,” called the boy from the doorway.
“What about it?”
The man spoke again.
“Eat your face,” the boy said.
“That’s crazy,” Susie said, trying to get to her feet.
The man made noises.
“Stay,” the boy said. Susie lay back on the floor.
The man spoke again and her head went spinning from the noise of it, the language she couldn’t fathom, the clucks and tickings and slurs and blaps. Heat rose in her chest, midway in her throat.
“What?” she said, croaking like a large frog.
The boy hovered above her, his eyes flitting back and forth like insects in jars.
“He tell you,” the kid said, “you have a broken heart, not bad heart, not sick, but broken, like…” The man spoke again and the boy listened. “He tell you, broken heart makes bad liver, your face fat because of it…”
“God,” Pip Masterson said, “I’m not going near this guy.”
“We came here to get the truth,” her friend said, sitting up straight and speaking in a voice still a little ragged. “Don’t you want the truth?”
“Whatever that is,” Pip said.
“You know what it might be,” her friend said.
“Hush,” Pip said.
Words spilled from the old man’s lips.
“…remember all the stories make you sad,” the boy translated. “See them in your face and put face on nose and swallow nose. Look at me.”
Susie stared at the boy but the boy pointed to the man who was grimacing and trying, it seemed, to squeeze up his face full enough so that his nose bent toward his mouth.
“Face go here,” the boy said, touching his throat. “Here,” he said, touching his belly. “Here.” He reached around and apparently touched his backside.
Susie lay there, staring up at him.
“I need to what?”
The man warbled at her.
“What?” she said.
“You talk too much,” the boy said with a smile. “Just eat, eat…”
“That’s so dumb!” She waved her hands about as though she were trying to shake them loose from her wrists. “Dumb!”
She could hear her voice rise in increasing dismay. “Eat my face? I came all the way here for this?” As though she’d been knocked to the ground by a passing vehicle and wanted to spring up to show she wasn’t hurt, Susie suddenly scrambled to her feet and stumbled from the hut, brushing roughly past the pregnant woman in the outer room, staggering into the courtyard and falling face down into the dust and feathers and pellets of fowl manure. Writhing on the ground she tore at her sarong like a mad woman while birds cackled around her and dogs barked and parrots screeched and the sun beat down and the electrical charge of her life crackled and sizzled along her limbs. Nothing would ever come of this, except a magazine story so terrible and so far from the truth that it might as well belong to another person—nothing—not yet. No, no, no, never—at least not until she figured out how—to—eat—her—face.
Alan Cheuse is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, the latest being his essay collection, Listening to the Page: Adventures in Reading and Writing, now out in paperback from Columbia University Press. He serves as book commentator for NPR’s evening news-magazine “All Things Considered,” and lives in Washington, D.C.