I THOUGHT I was finally getting my period, which did not make me happy. It made me happy to have traveled for four months like a man even though I suspected it was unhealthy. It was a Sunday and I felt tired so I went to read on the roof of the Vajra Hotel. I did not like the Vajra Hotel, or Kathmandu for that matter. It was a hip place and I didn’t know to hang out in hip places. I like dumps, villages, places without beaches or apple pie or buffalo burgers. There was a line of aching low in my belly I was sure were cramps. But nothing happened at the Vajra except I got a headache from falling asleep in the sun.
In the evening I met friends for dinner at a place famous for its momos — Tibetan dumplings. Afterwards walking back through black alleys, picking my way amongst dogs foraging through heaps of garbage neatly set against the walls, I started to feel the earth move beneath me. It was getting harder and harder to walk and I kept telling myself to get to the bridge then over the bridge, up the short hill on the other side and take the first right and there was the Peace Guesthouse, a dirty yellow thing not reassuring in any way. I stopped in the road. There were three different ways I could get to the bridge from there. That was where I made my first hallucinating decision; I got into a rickshaw that seemed to have materialized from nowhere and, like Cinderella, was carried away. I never take rickshaws, I don’t like the cry, rickshaw madam rickshaw, and I don’t like the 19th century sensation of being pedaled around by another human being. But the thought of cool air against my burning skin was irresistible. I managed to pay the drivers and stumble down from the seat, much less gracefully than Cinderella. There was no moon and I stood in the courtyard wrapped in perfect blackness.
There were four flights of dark narrow stairs to my rooftop windswept room. It was solitary and exposed and as I slowly made my way towards it, a sense of doom came over me, heavier than the sensation in my belly.
I immediately put on every item of clothing I had with me which created quite a bulk of layers. Long underwear, turtlenecks, pants, a skirt, down jacket, hat, gloves, and as many socks as I could fit. I did not think of what it would be like to take it off. I did not think of the future. I zipped into my sleeping bag and began to shiver violently. My teeth chattered and I was panting. I watched the moon coming through the cutouts in the stucco, putting a pattern of petals against the wall. I tried to control my breath, inhaling long and slow. But I couldn’t hold the rhythm and I felt like I was drowning in breathlessness, panting and shivering so hard the bed knocked against the wall. It was wilder than sex, it sounded like an all night orgasm.
Hours later the infinite number of infinitely small bugs inside me began to move. I started a series of trips three flights down to the toilet. There were no lights on the stairs. I laid quivering in my sleeping bag scanning my body for signs of the strength to make the trip. I went through the process in my head 10 or 20 times before I actually attempted it. Unzip the bag, swing out legs, take off some socks, tie on shoes, grab flashlight, unlatch door, take off down jacket and hat and gloves. The first trip down and back up I saw shadows following me up the stairs. Dark slippery things, I thought they were after my passport or my travelers checks. The receipts to my checks were hidden so carefully I couldn’t even find them and if they wanted my passport, a passport that could not get them across Iran or more than three months at a time in India, they could have it. I saw it tucked under two notebooks and a couple of paperbacks, Gravity’s Rainbow and The Demon Box, on the thin legged wooden table in front of the window looking out over the communal clothesline. The picture on the passport had been taken four years before when I’d lived on Russell Street in Berkeley with a man who intimidated me. I’d snuck out one day, wearing my old blue sweatshirt over a lavender turtleneck and with amethysts in my ears that I later lost in the Grand Canyon. The picture was taken at a place on the corner of Telegraph and Ashby and I kept the photos and the passport a secret. My secret ticket to another life.
The concrete bathroom floor was painted a deep brick red and a pale faint golden bulb swung on a wire from the ceiling. There was an empty coffee tin next to the hole in the floor. On the second trip down I watched an old lover follow me, sniffing like a dog. It made me sad that I had deteriorated so much that he would sniff at me suspiciously. But then I noticed his nose had grown into a huge red veined thing and he wore baggy brown pants. I always thought he would turn into a street person. There were twenty one stairs, three sets of seven. I counted them religiously, the numbers huge and significant, sevens and threes and nines.
I don’t know how many long trips I made, I saw candles flickering on the landings and the orange and red flowers strewn around Hindu shrines thickly coating the stairs. I saw Ganesh the elephant god swinging his trunk in rhythm with the light bulb in the bathroom and lingams mounting the stairs as if on their way to my room, my chaste bed yawning narrowly in wait. Parasites were sending me on an unexpected trip, pitching me onto the edge of a quiet December night in Kathmandu.
I dreamt that I flew home because I was tired of being sick by myself. I walked into my parents house and stared at the large white porcelain sink and a refrigerator whose size surpassed my capacity to imagine the food that must fill it. I said hello to my father and mother and brothers, all of whom were spaced around the house like decorative sculpture. The rooms felt very tight and airless. The next thing I said was that I had to go back because I’d left my things in the roof room at the Peace Guesthouse. The two books I hadn’t finished reading, the pair of pants I was not wearing, the sleeping bag I’d bought on sale in high school, the notebooks which held my words. My father started to talk about Jeff’s kidneys and I listened as I left. I remembered my mother’s face and knew I did not need it. I felt the airlessness of the rooms for a long time but the feeling faded as I flew over water. I only knew the solid real feeling of being ill in the rooftop room of a dirty yellow guesthouse in Kathmandu.
Baptism of Solitude
THE MINUTE YOU enter a Muslim town or village for the first or the twentieth time you believe without thinking that men are the center of everything. They are all you see. But when you see a woman, she is all you notice and each one thereafter who appears, covered head to toe or maybe an alluring bit of wrist is flashed and you can see the bridge of her nose and the slant of deep almond eyes, you have only two things on your mind. Beneath the outrage at such control, such restriction, all you think of is sex, and women are what everyone wants.
I once figured out that I’d spent 131 days of my adult life in Muslim countries on my own without hotel reservations, itineraries, or very much money. I counted the days on a bus ride from Peshawar to Chitral. The woman beside me wrapped in layers of black chiffon like a mummy going to a party, lifted the material to show me her left wrist with a large scar across it. She told me a long lamenting story in Pushto, two words of which I understood, rorh and khawun, brother and husband. I made my own stories while she talked. She’d tried to commit suicide when she discovered that her husband and brother were having sex with each other, when she’d discovered her husband was courting her taller more charming older sister, when her brother discovered she was leaving their family compound to have conversations in a side alley with a man who had never seen her face, when her husband found out another man had followed her home from the market.
From Chitral I hitched a ride on a jeep to Ayun with two brothers. The road was bad and I thought the jug handle ears of the driver would be good handholds. We crossed a bridge made of old boards, through which I could see a mile of empty space and then far far below, the boulders lining a river that from this distance looked thin as dental floss. The boards bounced and trembled as we drove over them. They were only three wide so the driver steered very carefully.
We stopped on a ridge above the swirling waters of the Mastuj River. They smoked a hash cigarette and told me all the reasons I should not be going to Krakel, the village I was heading for. It was late, the roads were bad, it might snow, there was nothing there. It sounded unpromising but I could not bypass a place where there was nothing. Besides the people there were not Muslim, it was very small and it was close to Afghanistan.
Below us a man in dark flapping robes ran along the rocky shoreline of the river, throwing stones at a duck bobbing in the waves. A hundred feet up we could feel the man’s hunger. He was an Afghani refugee who lived in one of the camps down river. He ran to fetch a rifle while the two brothers flung themselves down to the river to help capture the duck. The duck appeared miniature and fragile, fighting its way through choppy December waters. If killed it would simply disappear into the frothing current. I sat on a boulder and watched, hearing the shouts of the men thin and high-pitched spreading out over the valley. The long-barreled musket echoed eerily into vast emptiness of rock and water. I was in a black and white Fellini movie, the camera pulling into a long shot, the waving arms of the men feeble sticks insufficient to withstand the winds whipping down the valley. The duck continued its way down the river and the men gave up, the brothers climbing back to the road with their heads down.
The plaza at Ayun was a flat of dirt ringed by small shops with rotting wooden shutters. Kids with snot dried in their noses and dirty cheeks ran around and around like puppies never tired of the same thing. One tried to open the jeep door and got knuckled on the head by a man who might have been his father. There were no women. Most of the men were sitting in the dark of the dirt floored teahouse. I sat on a stool outside a shop selling dates and the nuts from inside apricot pits. I ate peanuts and read sporadically, waiting for the journey to resume. A boy brought me a glass of tea on a bent metal tray. The children began a game of throwing pebbles into the eyeless sockets of a rusting jeep shell left on the mud roof of one of the buildings.
I sat there for so long the men stopped noticing me. Another man brought me more tea. I felt solid with my boots in the dirt and my back against old wood. Memory dissolved, I could not picture my family, anybody I knew in California, any of my possessions. The sun grew cold and old crows flew spirals above the plaza.
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