excerpt from >SHE
She sleeps in a little later today. Past the phase of jet lag where she gets up at 4am and roams Kaohsiung’s streets for cafeterias that are half-opened, the garage door lifted partially, a woman throwing a bucket of soapy water on the sidewalk, and then stands by. She pulls back the drapes and looks down, driving on the street at least a car or two the size of dice. And right outside the entrance to her apartment are…what she can only guess…paparazzi? A couple consecutive camera flashes. A person in a trench coat walks a small dog.
Across the street is the art museum and park, beyond which is a narrow neighborhood at the foot of Shoushan. People speaking English call it Monkey Mountain. The sun has just illuminated its long straight ridgeline, headless on broad shoulders.
She has a week to recover from this illness---the weakness and fatigue, sinus pressure, sore throat---classic bad cold---because the following Monday she starts work, first as a chaperone for the Seniors trip to an indigenous village in the mountains. The Taiwanese students she teaches in English are now going out to teach English to indigenous students. Tom, her boss and the superintendent, saying, “If people know English then they have a real chance to compete in their country’s own economy.” She is obviously a missionary of some sort. Until then, she will sleep.
Laying on silvery grey sheets she’d bought at Hanshin Mall, expensive, the first ones she saw (the school would reimburse her), as there is nothing in the apartment yet, not a single knife. The American school furnished the apartment with surfaces only. A shiney mahogany kitchen table with four chairs, two new bed mattresses still wrapped in plastic. An additional room with a desk, but which is also half tatami, elevated. Brandon lays there in the afternoon reading a book he holds up to a single stream of sunlight, following it as it moves across the room like a compass swinging overhead doing his calculations. He rarely tells her what he’s thinking while reading, or what the reading is about. Usually a quick bio of the author is all she gets. How much smarter she’d be if only he’d just list quickly the greatest hits of the wisdom its got to offer. “Why won’t you teach me what you’re learning?” she complains. “I tell you everything when I’m reading something!”
“What am I learning?” he asks back.
The sofa is too firm to lay on one’s side, so in bed she finishes watching Clouds of Sils Maria, a movie she’ll fall asleep to. It’s about a recurring cloud formation above a river in the Swiss Alps. And three women. Two of whom are actresses playing actresses and one actress playing a personal assistant. It’s like a play about youth and old age; to be dull and repulsive in old age and to be wicked in youth, written by a man of course. In the middle of the movie, she has a thought. A good one! But forgets to write it down…
“It’s been happening a lot,” she says, “I’m failing to do my job.”
Even after replacing her lost notebook, not because she gave up on finding the other one but because in the meantime she still has to live with herself!
It probably wasn't a good thought, though she’ll never know now and so, just like that, she can forgive herself. In the late morning, when she has some energy, she’ll go to the cafe to read Lispector’s The Complete Stories and work on her latest book, which is…what again?
She really hates being the person who shows up sick to another country. She has never been sick traveling—40 countries over the last two decades! The weak American, whose casual anxiety pre-trip trips her immune system. She thinks leaving the U.S. is akin to an alcoholic going through detox: tempting death while attempting to save your life.
Had she been anxious about leaving this particular summer, for some reason? She and Brandon were planning on moving to Japan after Taiwan, indefinitely. Were they prepared? On Craigslist, they found a small minka to rent in Kure, right outside Hiroshima on the Inland Sea. The pictures online showed a window, and this window was missing a chunk of glass big enough to allow for the smallest fawn to raid the home. The chunk had been missing long enough to allow some crawling ivy root to grow through, casting a hook around the door knob, to grow-pull itself inside.
On the plane, they had sat in the middle row. The turbulence always begins over the Sea of Japan. Each time Brandon saying, “It’s my ancestors; they’re mad my family emigrated.” The turbulence lasting for an hour, during which she wondered, “Is it worth dying to get here? To get anywhere?” Her and Brandon held hands in preparation.
Walking through the airport, she had passed the temperature checks and she could feel she was getting worse the longer the terminal stretched on.
“Sickness is betrayal,” she thinks. And remembers her own father’s death to AIDS, to alcoholism. As a gay midwesterner, he had been shoved in the closet and having outgrown the cage had fallen after taking a couple steps towards the kitchen to replenish his drink… Fallen.
And now, the first couple of days in Taiwan have passed into a week.
On Monday she’ll head to school and meet a group of seniors and learn to play chaperone on their senior project for a week in an indigenous village at the elementary school. Up into the mountains where she hasn’t been. The Bunun tribe is known for their improvised polyphonic singing. She imagines each singer listening to all the others, and then finding their way together, melodiously.
“You don’t have to do anything!” Tom says. “We’ll just feel so much better knowing someone is there with them.”
Tom, the Superintendent of the American School, is back to work after cancer, having taken the past year off for treatment in Maine, where he’ll move again permanently after he retires next year. “I just have a couple more projects here to oversee,” he says, “They haven’t finished building the sports complex yet!”
Still sick, she lays in bed. She is reading Clarice Lispector’s The Complete Stories from New Directions. She saw a different cover for it at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. A profile of Lispector laying down, looking up, eyes wide, lipstick thick. Wait, no! She had yelled in front of the entire shelf of books. She turned the book over. The back cover was the same image except faded, so that the blurbs were pronounced and her image scenic. She recognized this photo of Lispector. It was a well-known photo of the author sitting upright on her couch in front of a typewriter, writing. She hadn’t been laying down. Here, on the cover, these male editors made it look like she was about to be fucked, mouth parted in desire. Turn her brain on its side and she’s docile, she can be pet! Will purrrrr!
When in reality, it was the look of a woman, mid-sentence, focusing on her story. Every introduction of Lispector written by a man focuses on her “glamour.” She is disgusted to think like this, that they had framed her favorite writer in a way she now has to defend by using sexist terms! Flushing out their intentions, giving voice to them, imprinting their desires to be read out loud by other women. They are so spiteful, she thinks. We look so pretty when we’re angry!
She feels molested all alone in her bed. Looking at the covers, not of books but her bed sheets. Now, reading in bed seems disgusting...
“What they want!” she screams.
Heading back to the apartment, she admires a lady’s umbrella at the bus stop. It is sun resistant. Closing, it sounds like a young tree being stripped of its bark. She’d grabbed from the reception desk her umbrella, “Kaohsiung American School” curled around a red dragon, which is also curled up, head to its tail. She’s been borrowing umbrellas wherever she goes. Outside her apartment building is an umbrella stand.
Some paparazzi show up. A growing number begin gathering around a black sedan. But they seem unhurried, not the frenzy she imagines of paparazzi. They are moving in slow motion. She cannot see inside the sedan.
Considering her allergy to the sun, she thinks about purchasing a sun resistant umbrella, but then becomes occupied with her admiration for all sorts of things. “You can’t really admire an object,” she thinks. An object doesn’t exhibit behaviors, is not capable of accomplishments. While walking, she searches for 12 NT in her tote bag to pay for the bus. She peers over the train tracks, as far down Mingcheng as she can see. The monsoon rainforests. They are thick at the road's end. Monkey Mountain rises up, its low and even ridgeline. She has yet to hike it. Her love for monkeys makes her scared of them. Because what she loves about them might not exist. She is afraid they are more human than her. Like being around someone who knows you’ve lied! She hears they grab women’s purses, because they dangle nonchalantly off one shoulder. That night she will go to the temple, there, at the end of that road and up against Monkey Mountain. Located a couple staircases up the mountain but barely. The sun will set, and she will see in blues. Scanning the roof of the temple, there will be a gap between roof slates and sky. The gap will be dark, but moving slightly, appearing as continuous and gelatinous, separating then reconvening. Her eyes will adjust to nightfall and she will see they are monkeys, all in a row, maybe a hundred of them, and they will all be facing her she thinks, since it is too dark to see their faces she will imagine they are staring right at her, and they have her cornered, as she will be in the courtyard of the temple, the temple that is many stories tall, curled around her like the trunk of a 5,000 year-old tree. She will ask herself, “Why aren’t humans attacked more? Why doesn’t our awfulness make animals more awful too?”
Two 205s pass her in the opposite direction. Eventually the buses space back apart.
No children, she thinks, hoping she isn’t spoiling the time she has left. Left? What did she mean! Perhaps she’ll never be able to conceive. This is true. But most true things are only obscure. She is supposed to be able to make decisions about her life, know what she wants. It is a horrible way to live. It felt like shopping for a fire.
Another 205 goes by in the opposite direction.
Her head hurts, slightly. Ten hours was too long to sleep last night. And scanning the rest of her body for discomfort…Usually pain is in her pelvic, anywhere from her bladder down to her outer vagina. She’ll never be able to write about that. Too typical, too literary. Too…Antigone. A woman whose vagina aches sometimes for no apparent reason. Plus she is superstitious and thinks if she thinks too much about it she’ll call the pain forth.
Her friends will be married in two hours on a beach in Oregon.
Oh, that horrible introduction to Clarice Lispector’s The Complete Stories! That editor man was the worst! “Why had no other woman developed their writing skills?” he wrote in the introduction.
Had a doctor ever really helped her?
One naturopath in Seattle gave her gallon jugs of liquid vitamins, usually prescribed for people post stomach surgery after a section of their guts had been removed and they couldn’t eat much, less absorb nutrients.
She’d already asked herself all these question…Oh, she shouldn’t have gone into that health food store! The name was not translated on the green neon sign above the entrance. She calls it the health store. And yet, what was she thinking buying the little rose soap at the last minute at the register? Something on the sign outside caught her attention...she is too embarrassed to repeat it now.
She will start writing stories, fiction. No, more nonfiction. The “I” so erect in place of truth. Which spills and splinters instead of the plastic “I,” roving, incapable of dying. Instead she will narrate her life and be able to process the truth.
She can only love people by observing them. If she loves them by loving them she will be misled about their nature.
A mother loves by keeping the loved thing alive so she thus lives in her love. But once the loved thing lives, the mother still sees it as a thing capable of dying, and so becomes distant in her true love.
She was once a mother like this. In the shallow ocean off the coast of Panama. She was snorkeling, broke off from her group, following instead a local. Underwater he broke apart a rock. Hiding inside of a cluster of ocean debris was an octo-squid in black alarm, the ink dispersing turned purple, circled the feared thing who thought to bring color to her love. It did not escape the muscular hands of the diver, who passed this octo-squid to her, shoving it her way like a doctor having caught a baby slick in its juice of new life, thrusting it towards the mother’s chest, as if she might refuse it at first. The doctor after delivery like “Take it! It’s yours!”
He thrusted it at her again.
She accepted the creature and once in her arms it embraced her back, straightening its tentacles, the very ends unfurled only to curl back around her arm, her rib cage, her outer thigh, her collarbone. It was gentle, small in her arms. The actual body only as large as an eggplant. Its love was a belief in security, evolving it to be multi-limbed and ambidextrous. This kind of love was one fluid move, exercising its total expansion and compression, love was reflexive and not love at all. It stayed with her and didn’t try to escape. Without the rock it had only her to protect it.
She swam with it underwater, as if she was walking around the park with her pram pointing to plants and naming them flowers.
Being its mother made the ocean her home now too. She didn’t want to leave it, and when she came up for air it was resentfully, not because she missed in any way the land or sky, her former life, but her entire existence was now love; which was revealed to be geophysiological. The boat she’d come out on demanded to leave. No one else had reason to stay. She emerged from the water wrapped in what appeared to be seaweed, slimy emeralds. And when she had to separate from her baby she peeled it off her body and held it as far from her as possible, still holding it, waiting for its tentacles to straighten again, unfurl from her body, which it did, incrementally, the suction cups one by one snapping off her skin.
Free, she let go of its body, and it sank.
It sank a little before disappearing, as if swept away in a current.
Now she was standing very still on the sidewalk, so still the ants thought she had died and began circling her sandals.
Clouds of Sils Maria. Directed by Olivier Assayas, with performances by Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz. Les Films du Losange, Filmcoopi Zürich, 2014.
Lispector, Clarice. The Complete Stories. Edited by Benjamin Moser, Translated by Katrina Dodson. New Directions, NYC, 2015.