Blossoms and Ashes: Human +1, Part 2

Human +1

My shoes are off and I’m seated at a low standing table on a raised bench with aching knees smoldering underneath. There are framed impressions of red hand prints covering the walls—they’re the hands of sumo wrestlers who have come to eat chicken wings At Fry Bo in Gokiso. I’m with two of Franny’s film director friends and we’re drunk. The college kids around us are also drunk. The grandma who owns the restaurant is wrapped in an orange kimono and pegged with wooden sandals, and she might also be drunk. She sees me fussing with a chicken wing and begins to tell me off in Japanese. Franny’s friend George begins to laugh and says, “She says you’re too apprehensive and must treat the wing more like your girlfriend.”

“That’s a pretty weird thing to say,” I say.

She grabs a wing from my plate and holds one end in front of my mouth. She says bite it and I do. She turns the wing around and says to George, tell this silly man to put the whole wing in his mouth and slurp it clean. George tells me what she wants me to do and I do as I am told with most of the restaurant watching and laughing as I do. She does one more with me and together we throw the empty bones down on my plate like we’re rolling dice on a concrete stoop.

“Sake,” I say, and everyone laughs. My new grandmother yells for sake and then leaves us.

George is about my size, late 40s, kind-faced and gentle. Ryan’s a bit larger, African American, hairline as even as a fence line. He shaves every day and looks up from the sink to a set of grey eyes. He says to me, “Some people wait for years and never receive a Japanese grandma, but you got yours in your first week.”

            “The ignorant shall always win your treasure,” I say.

            “Sounds like a proverb,” George says.

            “I just made it up.”

            The sake arrives and we fill our plates with the chilled liquid and drink. I love the feeling I have right now. Despite not sleeping the past three nights, I’m great. Being somewhere else has me on a high. Being drunk with English speakers in a foreign land reminds me of my traveling days and I don’t want to stop.

            “What are you writing right now?” George asks.

            “How do you know I write?”

            “Franny says you’re published.”

            “I’m not writing right now,” I say, feeling that George is ruining my reprieve from worry. “I’ve been blocked up the past year.”

            “I hate that,” Ryan says. “When I get writer’s block I get depressed. Then I’m stuck in a vicious uncreative loop.”

            “I know what you mean,” I say. “Better than you know.” I add, inaudibly.

            A university student approaches our table and in English he asks if he can speak to us for a few minutes. He begins to tell us that he went to college in Georgetown and Cambridge. How he’s back in Japan to become a doctor. He tells us how much he loves the States and how thankful he is for letting him practice English with us. I find the whole exchange remarkable. He speaks to us with a reverence I don’t feel we at all deserve. That being said, and despite his over use of respect, I can’t help but to reciprocate respect for him in exchange because his journey abroad must have been a difficult one. He asks for a picture with us and then departs to rejoin his friends.

            “That happens a lot,” Ryan says, slurping down another hot wing.

            “Strangers asking you to speak English?”

            “Yeah, It’s pretty cool but can get a bit tiring.”

            George switches the subject.

            “What’s up with your brother, something felt off at the hospital today.”

            “He had a seizure a couple days back,” I say.

            “shit,” Ryan says.

            “Since you guys are his friends and I know how hard it is to get the truth in terms of his condition, I’ll let you know that I heard from the doctor that his case is terminal and the cancer has spread throughout his entire body. He’s tanking.”

            Grandma approaches with another tokkuri of sake and fresh plates. It doesn’t escape her that the mood of the table has changed. She sets down our sake and silently departs.

            “It’s bad luck to say bad things out loud because they might come true,” George says.

“I know it feels wrong, like it’s lying, but try and get used to it.”

            “I get it,” I say. “There’s a ton of shit I’ve said to myself that’s come true only because I said it.”

            “Like what?”

            “You’re a piece of shit. You’re a bad writer. You’re a fraud—entertaining that kind of poison gives it legs. In short, I get how rejecting the assertion that you’re going to die is essential to focus on healing.”

            “But, do you believe that?” Ryan asks.

            “I can entertain it, but in terms of myself, I doubt I could ever keep things civil with myself for that long—I’m always at my own throat.”

            George laughs. “For having writers block you sure have entertaining stuff to say.”

            “We’re all drunk,” I say. “It’s an illusion.”

            “Your brother’s the same way,” George continues.

            “Man, he can be the funniest guy in the room with enough energy to go all night,” Ryan says.

            “But sometimes, he could be the angriest drunk at the bar,” George adds.

            Ryan looks slightly surprised George went there, but I seize the chance to ask.

            “Was he up and down a lot, like you never knew which Fran you were going to get?”

            “I’d say so,” George says. “But, usually, once he was intoxicated, he’d perk up. He could be cruel though, but he could also be passionately gregarious, it really all depended on the day.”

            “He’s a man of excess,” Ryan added. “But, the fucker can act and hold a room.”

            “Excellent actor, carries his lines well, knows how to act outside the spotlight. His joy and confidence on stage makes other actors feel comfortable. He was guilty of stealing scenes early on, but he learned quickly,” George adds. “Very much meant for the stage; film was touch and go for him, but he got a high acting on stage.”

            There’s a pause and Ryan has a look in his eye like he knows why I’m asking about Franny.

“Your brother’s definitely bi-polar, he even told me so,” Ryan says.

            “I’ve heard that too, but I’ve never spoken with him about it,” I say.

            “He has his secrets doesn’t he?” George says.

            “More than any of us can know.”

            “You must yourself though? Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” George says.

            I’m not taken aback by George’s assertiveness; in fact, he’s giving me an excuse to talk about myself, which when drunk, I love to do.  But, for some unknown reason I can’t tell them the most obvious, that I’m bi-polar too. The words form a brick in my mouth and all I can say is that it runs in my family.

            “My brother’s schizophrenic,” George says.

            “My father used to disappear for days at a time,” Ryan says. “Turns out he’d go for these massive walks around Minneapolis and stay in motels. He later said, once he got on lithium, that he was trying to out run the bug.”

            I think about the bug and want more sake and another cigarette.

            “Is he better now?” I ask.

            “He killed himself a few years back when I was away at college,” he says.

            “I’m sorry,” I say.

            “Don’t be, I’m only direct about it because it’s not an illness to tiptoe around,” he says, examining my body language.

            “Some bad baggage comes our way,” George says.  

“What do you mean, George?” Ryan asks.

“Well, look, two of us are directors and all three of us are writers. Franny’s an actor and writer. We’ve all come clean about our family history, so it’s more or less obvious we have our own beef with mental illness. Countless other creative people I know have the bug as you say. It’s hard to not think that creativity and mental illness are linked, like you can’t have one without the other.”

            “Creating stories is the process of unpacking, that is, if we’re to continue using the baggage metaphor,” I say.

            “I like it,” says George.

            “And the craft is in the details of how you re-fold it and put it away,” says Ryan.

            “I can drink to that,” I say.

            We polish off another tokkuri of sake and order another. It arrives and we make a toast, this time to mental illness. It feels stupid though, or maybe I just feel dumb for not talking about my diagnosis. Maybe it’s because I feel so good right now, so confident and inspired to go wherever and stay up as long as I want. I rarely feel this good, rarely do I have energy like this. I feel like I’m a normal human being for once, but a smidgen more so, like a human +1. It’s hard to admit I’m supposedly bi-polar at a time like this. Not when I feel invincible.

            “Are you alright?” George asks me.

            “I’m great, why?” I ask.

            “Nothing, you just seem a bit agitated.”

            “I’m just feeling the alcohol,” I say.

            “Do you want to go to Fran’s favorite bar after this?”

            “Yeah, I would,” I say.

***

            I’ve vomited already, but luckily brought a travel tooth brush and toothpaste in my bag. I look in the mirror and see a sick clown struggling to keep the show going. I’m at an ex-pat bar called the Black Rock. It’s very much in the English Pub style, but adorned with Australian flags, photos of the Aussie rugby team, and several posters of Crocodile Dundee. I splash my face with water but the room is still moving. Eventually, I find my footing and rejoin the crowd.

            I’m at a table with a group of directors, actors, postgrad students, and random English speakers who come here to take a break from the Japan outside. They all know my brother for better or worse. No better than George.

            “I remember when Franny first moved here and picked up his first acting gig as Captain Morgan. It was perfect for him because he got paid to dress like a pirate and drink. He’d walk into bars with a group of models, pose for pictures with people and take shots with them. It was always mayhem.”

            “Until he fell down a flight of stairs and broke his leg,” Meikko says. She’s American born, but grew up in both worlds. Her hair is dyed platinum blond, she’s nearly as tall as me, and an illustrator here in Nagoya. She’s married to Ryan, but older than him. It’s impossible to decipher how old she is, but I’m guessing early 40s.

            “He went to go pee,” she laughs, “and his peg leg went out from under him and he ate it down the stairs.”

            “He broke his leg,” George cut in, “which was terrible. A couple of days after the incident though Franny showed up at the bar on crutches and wanted to continue playing Captain Morgan. He tried to convince the reps he could act the part while sitting down, but they didn’t go for it and neither did Midori.”

            “I remember,” Ryan reminisces, “the time he showed up to the bar with a pair of Japanese newlyweds wearing Western wedding garb. White dress, veil, tuxedo, the whole nine yards. He’d just gotten a job as a western wedding officiator and had such a good time with these newlyweds he invited them, and their friends back to the bar. The bar owner here, Al was trying to get out early that night, but instead hosted a wedding party all by himself. He made a killing that night, but told Fran off for it. Franny just smiled at him and said he wanted half the profit. Fucking priceless.”

             They continue laughing and telling stories about Fran and I’m trying my hardest to concentrate, but I cant. I excuse myself to have a cigarette and walk out into the warm night air and neon lights. I’m not seeing double, which is good. I look at my phone to catch up on some messages.

            “Hey brother, I’m with your friend Dana. We’ve been going to Goth bars and talking about Super Hero movies. Anyway, you’re cats are fed and in good hands, enjoy Japan and get a hand job, I mean Kimono for me lol.” [Message from Kimono Greg]

“Hey dumb ass, how’re things going? How’s your brother doing? Your other brother is losing his shit because Ronda bought a horse out from under him for Kayleigh. Their relationship is so fucked up, no way I’d be involved with your brother now, not after seeing how ugly those two are. WOW. Poor Kayleigh. Anyway, I’ve been worried about you. I know you’re a world away, but you seem distant. I know the situation with Shannon, on top of everything else is a lot, but you can pull through it. Just get back to me when you can… Asshole ;)” [Message from Margo]

“Are you ignoring me? I still care about you and I’m worried. You’ve never been the type to stay silent, it’s actually one of the things I like about you. Where are you? Are you okay?” [Message from Shannon)

“You’ll never guess what Ronda did but it’s totally cool I’m doing great. How’s our brother?” [Message from Liam]

“Ifffffds foundnnd tt .” [Text message from Franny]

“Your brother tried to smoke in the bathroom again and when we took the rest of his cigarettes away he had to be retrained because he was so upset. I know you have a night off, but can you come here whenever you’re finished with George and Ryan? Thank you, brother.”  [Text message from Midori]

I have to sober up and get to the hospital. I text Midori and let her know I’ll be there when I can. George comes outside and stands next to me with his hands in his pocket. Scores of evening pedestrians holding smart phones flow past us like we’re two reeds in a digital river. I see a stream of taxis roll past and they look like a fleet of ’89 Toyota Corollas. The buildings make me think of the 1980s too.

“There’s so much about this city that’s hyper modern, but built beside a bed of ‘80s ruble,” I say.

“And by ‘80s ruble you mean a blanket of well-maintained structures built in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.”

“Yeah, I guess so, didn’t mean to sound rude.”

“I see it too. Buildings with an excessive amount of glass didn’t arrive until the 2000s.”

“So many of the structures here are white, I guess that’s what’s different.”

“Uniformity plays a different role here than in the States.”

I ponder George’s words while he reloads.

“I’m sorry about your brother,” he says.

“Me too,” I say.

“He not a bad guy, by the way,” George says. “I know some of our stories make him sound like a fuck up, but he’s a good friend. He’s practically a legend in Nagoya. Every ex-pat here knows him, and every repatriated traveler who called Nagoya home knew Franny. He was just that electric.”

Was, is the sad bit,” I say.

“I’m sorry.”

“Please, don’t be. But, yes I don’t see him surviving this too much longer.”

“The one thing about Franny,” George says, “is he was always reckless. The chain smoking, the drinking at all hours, he lived like he didn’t want to sometimes. And now that he’s sick it’s the same, like he’s punishing himself. I just wish I knew why?”

“It’s a routine for him,” I say. “A constant intake of shit he believes he needs to feel good.”

“And it’s going to kill him,” he says.

“It already has.”

“It’s good you’re here for him—I know Nagoya makes him feel lonely sometimes.”

“I wanted to see his life here, I felt like I owed him that much,” I say.

“Why owe him anything?”

“Because he never thought anyone in the family cared about him enough to visit.”

“Is that true?”

“Most of the people in my immediate family are so wrapped up in their own bullshit they miss some of the more important features of life—empathy being one of them. Fran’s far from perfect but he can at least be honest to himself about his flaws.”

“Franny can be an asshole but he cares about people and is good at making people feel a part of something. He can tap into a strangers’ interests within minutes and find common ground. He’s so intelligent. That said, I don’t totally agree with you. Fran can maybe be privately honest about his flaws, but publicly he did little to change them.”

“I guess I’ve built him up a bit,” I say.

“You’re his little brother and he’s been away, what else would you do?”

“Did he at least look like he was trying to gain control over himself?” I ask.

“More like he was at war with control,” George says. “Sometimes he’d get down because he couldn’t control himself, and other times he tipped the needle so far in the other direction it was as if he was trying to break the meter. There’s no other way to put it, Franny’s either a man distressed or a man possessed.”

“I’m sure it drove him crazy never knowing calm,” I say.

“That’s what the heroin was for,” George says. “Yes, he told me.”

“I’m not surprised,” I say. “I just feel so badly for him, that this was his life.”

“What Japan?”

“No, the whole thing. From 0 to 56. His life as it is.”

“You don’t have to go back in you know, I’ll say you’re sick.”

“I feel sick,” I say.

I say goodbye and begin my walk towards the subway station when I hear Ryan asking me to hold up. He ran to catch up and is breathing heavily.

“I just wanted to say I don’t talk about what I have either,” he says. “I also wanted to properly say goodbye and that you’re always welcome here. Lastly, I’m not sure what you’re trying to write, but write about this, about the Fry Bo in Gokiso, about the bar and your brother’s friends. About him dying, man.”

I thank him and take the stairs down to the Sakura-dōri Line, beginning to feel a glimmer of a story form in my mind.  

***

The station is like the others, a maze with clues to solve the mystery home. Each tile is clean, each light is on, all passengers are aboard, but I’m the only one on the platform. It’s an eerie feeling for this is the first time outside the apartment I’ve felt alone in this city. I sit down on a bench and consider what Ryan said. He figured me out, which tells me others have too. More importantly though, he gave me a road map to find my way out of the blockade I’ve made for myself. I don’t feel so unique and it’s a relief. My problems don’t feel unequivocal to what others have experienced. Ryan let me know I’m just caught up right now, and I have to distance myself, while at the same time engage with my life and reckon with it. Joy overtakes me, but it’s mixed with a feeling of loss. My eyes begin to fill with tears. It’s the first time I’ve had someone say they understand me in a long time and it’s meaningful. My train arrives and I board, a leaf.

  I contemplate if I’ve been thinking about things the wrong way, but I let it pass; I want music instead of the voices in my head. I put my headphones on and get lost in The Cure, Just Like Heaven. I’m sitting across from a young couple holding hands. The feeling I have is a reprieve from the self-inflicted violence I wage on myself every day. Robert Smith is telling me to just believe in something even if it goes wrong and to love on something even if it’ll leave. The sentiment is nice, but it scares me. I push the bad thoughts out of my head and try to breath all the way in and out. I realize I haven’t been breathing the past few days, maybe even longer. I miss a lot of things about myself, probably the things Shannon misses to, and the things my friends have held onto. I breath in and out. In and out. Let it pass.

I want to sleep tonight, but I know I can’t. I’ll be up watching my brother’s chest push up and down like a broken hand is trying to punch through it. I’ll be there when he calls for a rescue. I’ll tell him everything’s fine and he’s not alone. I’ll repeat the words, Just Like Heaven, and he’ll know what I’m talking about and the thought of The Cure will calm him. There’s something about the baseline, how it bumbles about like a pink basketball full of hope; something about how it expresses positive tension, which is such a unique feeling to have squeezing you, unique because it’s void of anxiety and so there’s nothing negative to dye the feeling black. He’ll be dying, but also not at the same time because he won’t be thinking about it.

I’m going to try and not think about Fran dying, and not think about mom dying too, and not think about my other brother, Liam’s endless war with his ex, Ronda and how it makes his daughter want to die, or of all the things I could have done differently to protect Shannon from wanting to die. Even on a personal level, I’ll forgive myself for being in my 20s, for being a teenager with a flaming brick and a syringe in his hands, a child holding a candle that keeps blowing out. I’ll try and forgive my past selves even though my old identities strive to deface my present. I must forget them. —I switch to the Higashiyama Line and my cynical self is left to keep traveling on the Sakura-dōri. I feel like several metals of dishonor have been unpinned from my shirt. Let it pass.

Though I know that things are only going to get worse, I know it for certain and so I have a chance to prepare. I’ll go see Franny and have a talk with him because there are not many opportunities left and I should make the most of them. Like I said, I’ll keep holding his hand as many times as he needs and play music for him as often as necessary to make him feel better. I can make the most of what time I have left here and hope it’s enough. All the while, I’ll try and heal a bit before the dying begins. I mean that in the best possible way, but death can’t come soon enough. I’m drunk though, and all these good ideas won’t feel applicable in the morning when the anxiety returns. Until then, I’ll just shut up and listen to The Cure.

Tigers in the Thicket

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Screeching bottle rockets and hot ribbons from Roman candles ignited the orange night sky. He fell into me and swiped for my wallet. It was a poor attempt, frankly, a drunken attempt, and I expected it. His friends fixed their eyes on mine, worried, watching eagerly for my reaction. I was fine and he was light; I picked him up and set him down like a spilled drink. They yelled at him in Hindi—I imagined they said something like, “Dude, you’re an idiot.” However, it could have been anything. It was the early hours of the new year, at the foot of the Gateway to India, Mumbai.

I had already been in India for a fortnight, entering the country via Chennai, in the Southeast. Nearly every Western traveler that’s been to India has a story to tell about their first day, and it often sounds like a watered-down act stolen from the script of Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom. My memory of Chennai is sadly no different.

I traveled to India via Bangkok with a Kiwi. If you’ve ever traveled with a Kiwi you know that many make travel decisions as if they’re unaware that danger exists in the world. Their optimism of survival and thirst to enter spaces commonly observed to be dangerous often appears to the American traveler as an eagerness to satisfy some absurd dare. “A boundless naivety,” an Irish traveler once said to me in reference to this phenomenon (bear in mind, I never once saw him off our hostel’s sectional couch). On the flip side, the American’s self-proclaimed gift of “common sense” can easily appear as ignorant, fearful, and an utter waste of a “sweet as” overseas experience. In short, my travel partner, Joe gladly drank holy water from the hands of a Hindu priest and got sick; and I barely slept on the nights we bunked in shared hostel quarters and was usually grouchy except for when I was drunk. We balanced each other out.

 

Joe was nearly deported on our arrival into India. New Zealand is one of the few countries that hasn’t manufactured a terrorist, so India said Joe could sign for a travel visa upon arrival. However, the head of customs in Chennai—a short, bald man with pop bottle-lensed glasses—swore by his gold tooth that he had never heard of such a thing. We were called into his small green and blue office, and he hoisted a massive purple ledger out of his desk drawer. Taped on the wall behind him was a document titled Countries Allowed for Visa upon Arrival Thank You. Norway was crossed out with a thick black marker because of the domestic attack in Oslo the July before. New Zealand was not crossed out. I pointed out the list to Joe. He asked the customs agent to look behind him, but he refused. I couldn’t get over the blatancy of the bribe that laid in wait. Norway. Crossed out. Brilliant.

The bribe worked, but the transaction that we hoped was now closed remained a theme for the duration of the trip. We were in the country but eager to get immediately out of Chennai. In hindsight, I think it was our knee-jerk reaction to reject the cultural shift we were adjusting to. The experience in the airport and the game of bumper cars we played on the way to the train station only hardened our opinion that we needed to flee to Bangalore, as if Chennai were an island we could easily row away from. It was 1 am.

There were several hundred people sleeping on the stone floor of the Victorian-era station, so I cannot say what it looked like. However, the outer walls were constructed of red and white brick and the pillars that reached to the iron girded ceiling were thin and flaking. One painted brick per occupant, but no ticket window to be found. We ran from train to train until we found the one to Bangalore. We hopped on with no tickets. The ticket master said that we could stay on the train if we were willing to pay a penalty. We were already aware of the penalty. I spent the night looking out the train window thinking of all the tigers laying in the thicket that weren’t there. The transaction.

 

As the years have gone by, I’ve wondered what India was like. In my emotional memory banks tigers laid waiting in the thickets, but in actuality there were only failed attempts of connection lost amongst the weeds of meaning. The journal I kept of our journey still conjures many feelings inside me, but few memories outside the text. I’m the unreliable narrator of my own past. At times, it reads like a Victorian-era boy’s adventure novel and at others like a gothic phantasmagoria riddled with episodes of anxiety, estrangement and monsters. It also contains the popular features of an exotic Indian adventure: colorful spice markets, a straight-razor shave, performing as an extra in a Bollywood film, cow’s making cud of garbage, getting lost in a slum, chased by dogs, vehicular decapitation, and yes, bribery and endless haggling for tuk-tuk rides. All very strange. Very other. But more importantly, all elements that when reduced down to their core are based on my failure to find any greater meaning from my transactional relationships. Giving, buying, haggling and bribery did the opposite of breach the cultural divide, but harden the preconceptions that defined its walls. In the absence of such connections, I began to create an image of India and its people that I had heard and read about before—applying the clichés, constructing a universe less foreign made the cultural transition more palatable. The real penalty.

However, this is not a story about a Westerner making good on his original cultural and perceptual miscues; this is a story about real and imagined barriers and how the lines between the real and imagined get blurred when trying to make sense of things, on both ends.

 

Lenny, the cook and barman of the small café connected to our accommodation in Cavelossim Beach, Goa, spent Christmas getting hammered after work and slept on the faux-marble floor of the café. Joe and I were the first downstairs for breakfast and found Lenny on the floor.

“I got drunk for Christmas,” was the first thing out of his mouth.

“So did we,” Joe said. “But no worries, mate, get yourself sorted; we’ll be on the patio.”

We let Lenny pull his hair into place and reset his swollen eyes while, in the meantime, we talked about our plans after Goa. Lenny came with coffee and an apology, where we told him it wasn’t necessary.

“All I do is work,” he said.

That night, after Joe and I investigated our share of old Portuguese churches from the worn cobbled footpaths of Panaji, and met the brown waters of the Arabian Sea in the afternoon, we went back to Lenny’s. He was still there, same swollen eyes, but in a new shirt. He joined us for a cigarette after our dinner of pomfret.

“How did you like the fish?” he asked.

“It was amazing. Very delicate and rich.”

“Delicate is the right word,” he said.

He put his face into his hands and sighed.

“I’m so tired,” he said. “I’m sorry about this morning. I haven’t been to mass in six years, and I went last night and then couldn’t stop drinking.”

“I know the feeling,” I said.

I learned that most from the area are Catholic. I learned that there are still Portuguese held up in their private plantations. I learned that Lenny had a daughter two hours north of us who he didn’t get to see on Christmas. I learned that my good time, at least partially, was at Lenny’s expense.

We make choices based on the limitations of our circumstances, and Lenny’s hangover was not my fault, but I couldn’t help but feel involved. I paid next to nothing for an amazing meal. Lenny got a fraction of it and spent the holiday with us instead of his daughter. The idea of her seemed to keep him going and that at least was something no one could take from him. Even if, everything else was fair game.

 

In Jodhpur, the goats wore pajamas and many young Western tourists wore some article of Indian textile to blend in. We went to the market to buy supplies. We were no longer in the South, and the nights were cold. I found a scarf I liked and prepared myself for the purchase war. I had one hundred Rupee in one pocket and two hundred in the other. It was all part of the game. I asked about the scarf and the merchant tried to tie it around my neck. I said, “No, how much?” and he gave me an inflated price. From there we flashed looks, strange smiles, counter offers and re-counter offers. It can be fun or ugly, depending. I enjoyed it; I felt like I was connecting with the culture. But haggling is a dialogue of financial inequality, so it was really just fun for me.

I wouldn’t accept his price and tried to talk him down another 50 Rupee. A young man, running the booth next to us was with a group of other young Indians and he began to laugh at me.

“You realize, you’re refusing to pay half an American dollar,” he said.

I became defensive.

“If I let everyone take me for extra, it adds up.”

“But you get to leave,” he said.

My embarrassment quickly turned to shame and I paid the agreed amount. That was the most alone I felt in India and the last time on the trip I enjoyed haggling.

We slept in a two-story hotel at the foot of the Mehrangarh Fort. The owner was the best chess player I’ve ever lost to. She pitied me for my poor performance. She told me so and that was okay. We were on the patio. It was dusk. A loud group of young women from London sat close by. They wore shalwar kameez, and dupatta over their head, and it annoyed us.

“I hope they’re having a good time,” Joe said.

“Just subtly soaking up some culture,” I said.

“Just trying to integrate here,” he said.

We stopped ourselves and laughed—seriously, what Westerner really has the moral high ground over another Westerner when it comes to negotiating the obscure footholds up India’s cultural wall? The sun had set and the temperature dropped. I tied my Indian scarf tighter around my neck, and the girls put on their down-feathered parkas and fleece/Gortex jackets. Our hostess stared at them and then looked back at us.

“Too cold to be Indian now,” she smiled. “Time to go inside.”

I asked Joe what he thought about it.

“Just because you put on another woman’s dupatta, doesn’t mean you’ve seen what she’s seen.,” he said, being cheeky.

“And, another man’s scarf,” I said, running my hand over my own Indian artifact. We smoked cigarettes until late and listened to the dogs wage war across the blue city.

 

Jodhpur was the turning point. As we traveled north, news came that a winter storm had crossed over the Himalayas, and Delhi would freeze. I didn’t understand what that meant.

 

In Delhi, a social storm developed in tandem with the freezing temperatures and meant that everyone was cold and upset. Bus rides tripled their travel time. Indian time expanded from “Give or take a couple hours” to “Don’t plan ahead because who knows?” An icy fog consumed the Taj Mahal so we wrapped ourselves in thin wool blankets and disappeared into the smoky marble. On the frozen highway up to Delhi, we saw a man get run over and killed in front of our bus. Two days before, a girl was beaten and gang-raped on a Delhi bus and died. Riots burned there and cases of death by exposure loomed on the homepage of the BBC India news website. Delhi was frozen but on fire and we were headed straight for it. Or, this is at least the scenario I prefer to remember.

My past transactions had taught me that these were Indian issues and not mine, but I could walk as deep into them as I pleased and leave anytime. Delhi was going to provide me with a good story. That was then. Now, if I try and recall the more basic details of our stay a new set of events surface, all disappointingly mundane. In truth, the people of Delhi had a lot going on during that span, but from our vantage point, life there appeared quite ordinary. Merchants were selling and we were buying. Drivers were driving and we were riding. Restaurants were cooking and we were eating.

I’ve come to the embarrassing realization that I was disappointed that I wasn’t even given the opportunity to be rebuffed in my attempt to infiltrate the city’s woes. Rereading my journal, I believe that’s why I focused so much on the death we witnessed in my Delhi entries; to prop up the frail-bodied narrative of our Fear and Loathing-esque stay in Delhi, which was utter fantasy. Life was ordinary. We walked the streets—like visible ghosts—not participating, not shying away, just not knowing the city well enough to seek out it’s darkest recesses—the tigers in the thicket. There were many transactions and exchanges of currency, but no stories to steal to make up for the bribe in Chennai.

 

We arrived into Amritsar and to the Sri Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara of Sikhism. It was zero degrees when we entered and a guard with a two-foot beard and a six-foot spear walked us quietly into a dark room with eight cots and gave us a sign of respect before leaving. I was apprehensive to leave my backpack on my bed but I had to just let it go; I was honestly too tired to care about my stuff anymore. We were asked to remove our shoes and socks when we entered the inner sanctum of the temple. The pool was still. Thin leaflets of ice floated by the unrobed men bathing in the frigid holy water.

“You know, in the last 500 years,” Joe said, “this place has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times. Enemies knocked down the temple, filled the pool with trash and bodies. But it’s always rebuilt.”

There wasn’t much to say to that and neither one of us felt like talking much more so we kept walking around the fiery golden ember in the middle of the pool and listened to the music coming from the temple play on and on over the compound’s loud speakers. The marble footpath surrounding the pool was slick and cold as ice, but I let my feet go numb to match the resolve of the men in the pool. I respected them immensely.

When it was time to eat we entered a mess hall full of worshipers both eating together on the floor and waiting patiently with their plates in front of them. It’s a meal that never ends. Joe and I waited with them and we ate together in silence. At the end of our meal we walked outside and to the rear of the kitchens and saw men stirring massive cauldrons full of lentils and others turning out roti from hot earthen ovens. We washed dishes in silence next to other men washing dishes in silence. But, it wasn’t for more than one meal before we realized that the silence was mutually self-imposed and a smile or nod easily broke the divide. I didn’t find peace in Amritsar, but it came as a welcomed reprieve and readjustment at a juncture in the trip when I was losing faith in myself. When it was time to leave, I left my scarf on my cot.

 

In Mumbai, my body collided with a young Indian man trying to swipe my wallet. He had every right to. If I could turn India into a booby-trapped wildland of lawlessness, inequality and exotica, he surely had the right to view me as a big dollar sign and the repository of some ill-conceived plan to literally grab the wealth away from me and make it his own. It was another transaction, but instead of exchanging money, we declared our cultural misconceptions to each other. The sad part was we couldn’t surpass the language barrier to iron it out and correct our false assumptions. We just stood there and smiled at each other like it wasn’t all our fault because we were just playing our bit parts in a much larger game. It was a new year, but the same tired story persisted—the story we tell ourselves to know where we are and who we are not.