My legs felt strong after sitting all afternoon as I walked up the hill past the white lady, past the bald man, inhaling the smell of incense giving way to bull shit, then the bull, long black hairs on its penis and shit caked to its hind, I thought of what the 68-year old woman said to me before I left; use all the senses to bring the reader to me.
She was a strange one. She came in wearing trick glasses with cartooned eyes. She gives them to the Tibetans, she said; they’re like children. And yet she told me to tell the world about their plight, about the cruel Chinese who deprive them of their nation. Funny how she fetishizes them.
Her right eye drooped, her faces was lined deeply like clay folded over itself, and when she brushed up her bangs, which stuck before falling back down across her forehead, she revealed a raised pink mole the size of a small chickpea. She had the broad Hooser-shaped nose with small nostrils of many Western Americans. She sought my help with her computer, her small Dell, the cheapest one available she said, so she could send a message back to her husband. I got her online, entered into Excite.com her e-mail password taped to the corner of her screen, and listened to her story.
She used to grow pot in Humboldt, moved up to Portland actually, West Linn, a nice area, where she took a job growing indoors a huge area 200,000 plants before they caught her and send her to federal prison for five years in Texas. Good thing it was federal because if it had been state she would have been just another prisoner behind bars. At least in Federal everyone had an advanced degree, a doctorate, Master’s or law degree. And there she was able to learn about Buddhism, which she’d only scratched (and here she scratched the table with a long and sharp, nicely maintained nail) the surface. She’s here on a group trip with fifty others and they told her no Levi’s, only skirts and high-rising blouses.
I had been sitting here for three hours. I was going to teach English with the Tibetan ex-political prisoners but when I walked in I saw a woman with her MacBook Pro open and a spiral notebook open filled with dialogue. I asked her if she is a writer and she said so, inviting me to sit. We talked for two hours, one of those fateful conversations that runs through the publishing industry, writing, America, World War II, New York, Portland, road trips, psychic nature, and Buddhism. Now I was getting ready to go so I politely closed my computer and wished her well.
I walked up the hill, looking out at the pastel colored houses with Tibetan strings of flags drooping widely from tree to tree, the evergreens rising higher and higher, each landing looking foggier and foggier until the snowline, at the peak, rocky crags exposed. Yes, I definitely felt strong, like soon I could hike to Triund, where the snow begins. But if that plan goes anything like my plan to talk with the Tibetan ex-political prisoners, I might have to wait until next trip.
For dinner I went to a recommended restaurant and ate pizza. I know what you’re thinking. Save the pizza for Italy. But some restaurants in the area pride themselves on their wood ovens, and at a certain point, when you no longer are in the mood for Indian, it’s about the range of choices available. You don’t compare the pizza or the Thai food with the quality you get back home, you simply compare it to the other restaurants in the area. After a month of being unable to cook or to where those foods are originally made, you look for little salt, nice ambience and general freshness and quality. Usually these factors produce tasty food. I sat on a pillowed stage and met a Canadian woman with her half-Tibetan child, a pretty little girl who didn’t look half-Tibetan at all, with blue eyes and black hair and too much energy. She was conceived on the May full moon, almost exactly six weeks ago.
Her mother was pretty cool, until we started talking about Australians who I resent with their easygoing manner and ability to be accepted and liked in any part of the world, their lack of culture, and their general disposition to drinking and surfing. Whereas, when I tell people I’m American, mostly in Europe, I get condescending looks, as though I’m a child with a history of peeing the bed. Slightly better, when I tell them I’m from New York, at least they think I’m an asshole. This woman was just another one– she said, with good reason bro. I didn’t want to reduce our nice conversation to nationalistic hostility. Thankfully, she regretted the aggression in her tone, and said, “Your government. Same as China: the people are good, but the government’s are what the rest of the world doesn’t like.” And this was a good compromise, because any government in a position of power is bound to be disliked. Not like Canada has ever had to make a world decision, with its population smaller than California…
When I walked out of the restaurant, two young Indian men stood in front of the entrance. One wore a white fedora, and looked like an Indian adonis, except his hat gave him the vague sense of a gangster; the other had long, clean black hair parted in the middle, big eyes and a prominent mole on the left side of his broader, Japanese nose. “Good food?” the one with the fedora asked. I couldn’t be sure if they worked for the restaurant, or for a shop nearby. “Yeah, I had the pizza.”
“Where you from?”
“New York,” the way all the foreigners pronounce it, emphasis on the first word, nodding in approval.
“Where are you from?”
“Delhi.” So they didn’t work here after all; they were on vacation, and clearly, they had money. Then a third man walked up. He was tall and virile, with a small space between his eyebrows, and stubble rising high onto his cheeks.
We all introduced each other and the taller man, Davi, invited me for tea at the Japanese restaurant where I had had lunch earlier. “Aw man,” I faltered, “I really should be getting home soon.” Thoughts of my veranda and the value of a lonely evening flared up before me; that was my routine, that was what I had been expecting.
“Come on, be a man,” David said, imitating Russell Peters, which I didn’t catch.
We walked down the hill I had walked up earlier, noting the beautiful view, the Tibetan flags in the distance, and the snowy peaks, and back to the Japanese restaurant. It was full, but we finagled four chairs and sat without a table on the patio. It was dark and everyone at the surrounding tables spoke quietly in candlelight. We ordered ginger lemon honey teas, one by one, from the waitress crouched in expectancy, who laughed when Dav finalized it. Slowly, we started to get to know each other, or rather, they started to get to know me.
When a nearby table opened we moved to it. They asked me about India, pointing out the similarities between it and the U.S.– the physical extremes, how 70% of our populations don’t have passports, how we think we help the world, notions I’d considered on my own and was glad to have confirmed.
Davi played with the candle in front of him. He lives in Tokyo, sells jewelry, is here on business/pleasure with his pals. Ram of the marked nose used to live in Bangkok. Dav is still young, just a little older than I am. I told them the story of how I grew up in Sicily and we talked of women.
Davi spread the oozing wax on the table and pushed it around. He was really making quite a mess, and was entirely aware of it. He saw a French woman he had met the other day, Etondie, going to the bathroom and when she came back, he tried flirting with her, but she was mostly unresponsive. “You’re French, you’re supposed to be more flirty, vrai?” And she stood there, tall and awkward with her small eyes and thin body in the dark, not sure how much to give this Indian man, how much she could trust him. He didn’t care at all, saying maybe we can hang out later, yes, no, maybe, subconsciously, with his body still angled away from her, still kind of playing with the wax, saying, honestly I don’t care about you either.
When she sat, her friend went to the bathroom. Davi stopped him on his way back to Etondie’s table. He was well-dressed, from Poland living in Galway. He must have been gay, or maybe asexual since Davi got out of him that he’d had neither boyfriend or girlfriend for three years. His white collared shirt was tucked in to chinos, he wore a silver watch that matched his silver pen in his shirt pocket. he was soft-spoken, and looked just like Bob Dylan, which was a compliment, I told him. Turns out Etondie’s name was actually Ondie, but, you know, wouldn’t have made much of a difference. He went to sit, and we guffawed about our interaction, how he seemed just as reticent as his unattractive friend to hang out with us, and yet how he was slightly curious, with the attitude of a child walking past a newsstand, seeing girly mags for the first time.
We stood to leave and find some girls. These guys had been partying all week; they were on holiday, after all. I was just watching. I couldn’t believe all the people I’d been meeting today– the first time I left the safety and comfort of my veranda in ten days, and it was like I was a magnet.
We tried talking to a few girls like Ondie, asking where the party was. Until we saw a couple of attractive girls wearing red. I asked them where they were from. Norway. Typical. We were walking into the main square, which buzzed with lights and excitement. The IPL was held in Dharamshala today– a grand cricket match, and there was a game on now. High lights illuminated the square and scores of Indians thronged to get into the cool-place-to-be, the oldest restaurant in Mcleoudganj. There were green and pink lights strewn from restaurant windows on the other side of the square, and thousands of moths cluttered the high white light; cars honked; policemen in khaki and berets signaled; the mob pushed in front of the restaurant; and the Norwegian girls, who were not two, but five, were walking past us to get a seat. Upon Davi’s guidance, Ram and Dav scouted it out. It was full, but the Norwegian girls were there, and if they were going to sit, so were we.
“Hello again,” I said to one with curly brown hair, green eyes and a red blouse.
“It’s full,” she shrugged. But there was movement ahead. They were going upstairs, to the roof. And so were we.
Soon we were seated together, and I was sitting next to her. Pernila. Very tan. Nice forehead. They were all wearing red because today is National Norway Day, when they gained independence from Sweden. They drank beer, and sang us their national anthem, describing how back home everyone dresses up in their national suit, reserved only for special occasions, with poofy sleeves and pants with roses painted on them– traditional Scandinavian garb– and dances on tables, drunk, shouting hoorah.
The girls were served first, and we were ignored. Oddly, as though by inclusion, Pernila never got her soup. It took an hour to get our waiter to bring me a beer and to take the gents’ orders. There was music and colored lanterns, the smells of Chinese food, Indians in cricket jerseys leaning over the banisters to mock the crowd below. The moths had not let up in the white light; tall white people drank mugs of beer; and above I glimpsed stars and the fluffy underside of evergreen branches through the tarps. Everywhere was a sense of celebration.
When Pernila and my friends finally got their food, all was well in the world. I was fighting back the urge to compliment Pernila since I knew that all the girls were staying together in two rooms, and she was tired after being in the doctor’s office all day due to a dust allergy, which had constricted her throat this morning. Save it for tomorrow, if we go to the waterfall, if I ever see her again. And I told myself to enjoy simply sitting next to this fine young Norwegian, and all of her friends with high cheekbones and a propensity to nationalism on this fine May evening. I looked up at the pinnaced frond of the evergreen bough, the fluttering moths in the black sky, thinking of how in Atonement, Emily remembers the sophistry of a scientist who once told her moths fly to light to try to get past it into deeper darkness, which is what they really like. Sophistry indeed. I smiled, feeling my beer, and looked beyond the moths into the cosmos above.
The cricket match was over, the furrowed brows that accompany bill-paying had uncreased, Ram had shown me his party trick of tucking a lit cigarette into his mouth by attaching it–how I don’t know– to his tongue, and we were outside in the mob of drunk Indians. They wanted photos with the Norwegian girls. Of course they did. I told the girls to own it, strike a pose, and look like the swimsuit models they could be. But soon everyone wanted a picture. We were like celebrities. We had emerged from that restaurant where Pierce Brosnan eats when he comes to Dharamshala. We could be related to him. Or we could be cricket players. And Pernila started charging 100 rupees per photo. They were willing, heads nodding, eyes bright, yes, one more, group photo. We had to get out of here. Now they were pushing. Now they were following us down the hill, maybe fifteen men. What did they use these pictures for, Pernila asked. Masturbating. Obviously. To show to their friends. Look who we made friends with. We went out for beers. We stayed in a guest house together. WIth all of them. No. They wouldn’t. Pernila asked the portly little one, why do you want these pictures? Personal reasons. Duh. They kept walking. Group photo, they called out. We tried telling them to go home, but they didn’t care. We were celebrities. Of course we would say go home, of course it was annoying. Did paparazzi stop taking shots because it was annoying? But enough was enough. 3000 rupees for photo, Pernila shouted. Yes, yes, they nodded, eyes brighter than ever. We are your bodyguards. Where you need to go. No, we know where we need to go. A car coming down the road fell into a faulty grate. That sound and the spectacle took away two-thirds of them. Now there were five or six left. No! Enough! Not one more group photo.
I could see the girls were growing testy. I felt their fear growing but conquered it with manly confidence–without saying anything I rose to my full height and thought, they are safe with us. Again the stragglers at the back of the group pressed forward and the closer men who had been successful once earlier, pressed harder, “We’ll be your bodyguard, one more,” they tried to touch the girls, their elbows, their backs. The girls response was in violation, the way you reprimand a child when he’s done something egregious, like kicking gravel, or throwing sand– sudden and direct, without forbearance.
I helped the girls, throwing my arm around Pelmina’s waist, feeling its lumbar cushions, the fleshy soft muscles and the divotted length of her spine. “Back off guys, this is my girlfriend.” This sent a momentary recoil through the men, and a gleam of love from Pelmina. For a moment, I was chivalry embodied.
Now there were four left and this was the last straw, either my courage in sacrificing myself for Pelmina spurred her, or she viewed it with outrage– that I should be so presumptuous. In either case, this turn of tides lasted only a second or two. She had had it. She stood on a platform and explained how it felt to her admirers as my friends and I snickered, to have strange men following her; she didn’t want or need a bodyguard, now finally, go home. This direct address, without feminine coquettry, from atop her sounding perch, finally caused the barrier to fall. The men understood that their action was no longer flattery; it could not be considered romantic. But with man’s desperation at saving face, the portly one called, “One group photo.”
“No group photo!” And he turned, leading the rest of his friends with him.
We were glad to be rid of them. Had they followed us longer they could have seen where the girls lived and that would move beyond the bounds of decorum and into criminality. At the steps leading down to where my new friends lived, we stopped, offering to walk the girls the rest of the way but knowing they would be fine from here. They turned, a group, and with bodies pumping down the hill in the darkness, my friends tottering back and forth watching them, I never said good-bye to Pelmina.
I turned to walk back up the hill, and Ram, Davi and Dav joined me. On the way they and a group of five other young men worked together to dislodge the car wheel from the open sewage grate. Ram was chewing betel, disappointed they wouldn’t heed him when he said to push the top of the car and have the driver roll forward. Finally, they jacked up the fallen side, and did what he’d suggested. I lolled back. We continued up to the lights, the colored ones out, drunk men still collecting what remnants they could of the night. Some still crowded the front of the restaurant, some danced, some drank water and smoked. We decided to meet here at noon the following day; Davi had the Norwegian girls’ number. We slapped hands, jeered in jest, and I walked up the dark gravel path to my veranda, where I had not left my senses.
Today I saw Shira. He came out into the sun of the patio, his eyes slitted in seriousness. Last night he had had an accident. He didn’t see a step and fell forward, his leg going limp, ankle twisting, and him slapping the cement. He showed me his knees, bloated and cut. He had trouble squatting this morning in the bathroom. It looked like a torn muscle. He couldn’t stay here walking these steps. He’d have to leave immediately. I was already late to meet my new friends. He asked me to tell the woman that he was leaving and to come collect the money. He spoke with the severity and realization of his limitations, the knowledge of his curse beginning to show its power, yet unfulfilled.
I had always noticed Shira stiffen when walking down the stairs. I asked him why. He told me that when he was a kid he had been hit by a car, had his legs run over. A student driver. He shook his head with the jollity in his eyes that used to show when we would sit at Munchies’ and he would note silently one of my quirks, mentally comparing me to Gaptu Singa, “We all have to get back to reality.”