June 19, 2010

First Memory – Kat – Peace Corps – Sri Lanka 1997

My first memory of Kat is on a flight halfway across the Pacific going towards Bangkok, and then eventually to Sri Lanka. In this mental snapshot, she has a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, laughing as she talks to 3 or 4 other Peace Corps volunteers. Her voice carries well in the confined space. Her tone invites others to look on, add to, and gravitate towards her.

She never dominates the conversation, but often enough (as I will come to learn) she becomes the epicenter. Strangers drift into her gravitational field and are trapped. Part of the allure is the way she looks: long legs, shoulder-length blond hair, gorgeous smile. But don’t get the wrong idea; it’s not only men who orbit around her. Women, children, stray dogs … everyone seems caught in her glow. Over the years I’ve determined that her body language is the key. She has a way of handling herself that is warm, inviting. Five minutes in a bar, and she assembles an entourage without saying a word.

Thinking of her on the plane, I realize that, of course, it can’t be accurate. Even way back in ’97, there’s no smoking on flights. At least, I don’t think there was. It’s very possible the hundreds of images I have of Kat in this exact same pose have merged into a single, generic picture applicable for any time any place. She might not have been drinking and smoking when I first saw her, but I still remember her that way.

My first conversation with Kat is a couple of days later on an early November morning, trapped inside a Buddhist compound. Over the two insane days of travel to finally arrive here, neither of us has spoken to each other. It’s early enough that no one else is up or about, and I sit next to her on matching lawn chairs and stare at the palm and date trees. We are imprisoned. PC Admin goes to great lengths to “protect” the volunteers for the initial week, and both she and I are antsy to climb over the surrounding walls and experience more of the country we’ll be living in for the next 2 years. I don’t remember what we say…it’s like a video with the sound turned off. I doubt if our words hold any great weight. However, somehow, whatever we say forms an immediate connection.

From right then, we become friends of such intensity that the rumors can’t help but start; endlessly it seems. At any one point in time over the next years: We’re brother and sister. We’re married. We’re divorced. We’re friends with benefits. I’m gay. She’s gay. We’re conjoined twins. Those who come to know us realize it’s none of these things. It’s something far more complex.

I actually have no clear idea why Kat means so much to me. Over a decade later, I care for her with a ferocity that surprises. One might suggest that our adventures in Peace Corps bonded us. That could be true. This blog will eventually be filled with detailed accounts of many of those adventures (and beyond!). Yet … well, I think my friendship with Kat transcends a few wacky times. It runs much deeper.

We meet serendipitously on a tiny island just south of India on a morning in November 1997. We share about ten minutes. Somehow this evolves into 13 years of intense friendship. She’s unpredictable, generous, obsessive-compulsive, funny, beautiful, caring, weird, rash, forgiving, intelligent, and most probably mentally unstable. How could I not find something to love in all of that? We have so much in common.

June 16, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – Lenny (Part 1) – Sri Lanka 1997

Lenny’s shocked expression conveys his absolute motionlessness; his broad feet are rooted to the stone kitchen floor. A 50lb bag of rice rests on his shoulder. He stares, and I can only stare back, a handful of my dinner poised in front of my mouth. “Hello,” I offer, in English.

His skin color is a mixture of chocolate and ash. His black hair hangs in greasy tangles. At barely 5’2” tall, wearing ripped shorts and no shirt and judging from his angled ribs and thin arms, you’d never guess he’s so strong. Yet, he stands without effort as if the bag is weightless.

He speaks to me.

Now, I’ve been living with my Sri Lankan host family for barely a full day and my Sinhalese is nonexistent. I can almost say yes, no and please, but that doesn’t matter – Lenny’s voice is a murmur. It’s a string of sounds so low and garbled, I can’t understand a word no matter what language he’s speaking.

“Again?” I offer, hoping my inflection and confused look will translate. Some of the rice and lentils I’m holding seeps through my fingers.

Lenny keeps nonstop talking.

“I’m sorry,” I say slowly, not sure what I’m sorry about. Maybe because I’m a stranger in his house. Or that I’m American and all I know is English. Or just maybe that I’m tired, hot, and have to eat my dinner with my fingers.

A big, toothy (though somewhat toothless in sections) grin spreads across his face. He slings the rice bag with a thud on top a stack of 5 others in the corner of the kitchen. That smile stays. He walks up to me, his eyes a bit wide, and places his hand on my shoulder. “Hari lasinay,” he says, and still I can hardly hear him even though he’s less than a foot away. His breath smells of mint and tea, and I have no clue as to what he means.

“Thanks.”

He laughs. And it’s then that he gets his name. I mean, it’s then that I give him the title Lenny because I’ll never learn his real name. My host sister spends the next week introducing every member of their large extended family, except for Lenny. It takes the week for me to realize that he’s not a family member. He’s their servant. But before that realization, right now, I can tell by the way he is standing and the uncontrolled laughter erupting in a flurry of noise, tongue, and spittle that he’s mentally impaired. He’s a few cards short of a full deck, as my father would say.

It takes some time, but I do eventually learn my host family’s name for him, which loosely translates into “retarded.” Sri Lankan social interaction is a weird mixture of rudeness and an inability to contradict, so they label him without a second thought nor with a hint of guilt. And he accepts it. But for me, he becomes Lenny – stolen from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It was either that or call him Retard.

Peace Corps Moment – Lenny (Part 2) – Sri Lanka 1997

In a few weeks, Lenny and I fall into a pattern. I lounge around the small villa and Lenny works his typical 12-hour day in the blistering heat. During my second week, I thought it might be fun to help move some rice bags, but that sends my host mother in a panic to usher me back inside. A few days later, I sneak out to help him move cinder blocks from one corner of the yard to another; my skin glows lobster red after just an hour in the sun and I retreat to a cold shower. After that, I resign myself simply to watch.

It’s not like I have nothing else to do. My host sister escorts me around the village to meet people I can’t understand or to drink gallons of tea I really don’t like. I also sleep a lot. There are certain real responsibilities, too. Like studying my Sinhalese or preparing lesson plans to teach English beginning in January, but I can’t seem to focus on those necessities. So mostly during the day I watch Lenny out of an intense curiosity of his lifestyle and a somewhat frantic boredom with mine.

Lenny sleeps on a wooden bench in the back courtyard, wrapped in burlap to keep the cloud of mosquitoes off. Each day he gets a single meal of a large bowl of rice and curry. Every night he sits in the back corner of the den on a low stool with his bony knees jutting upwards as he watches television with the rest of the family. Every morning, at 5 o’clock, he washes himself at the outside well which is beside my bedroom window. Sometimes, if it’s an especially crisp morning and there’s a chill in the air right before the heat of the day, he sings. Under my mosquito net I listen. The song sounds religious. He’s not a good singer but, unlike when talking, his voice booms.

I grow accustomed to Lenny’s total lack of coordination. His movement looks as if he’s always about to stumble forward. It’s not uncommon to see him walk straight into something. Yet, a large part of the problem is me. Lenny’s bumbling becomes especially pronounced whenever I’m around. His eyes glaze over and often I catch him staring at me, while I’m staring at him. I suppose he’s fascinated with who I am and my sudden appearance in his life.

Often during these weeks, I wonder if maybe I might help him. What exactly I could do is a mystery. It’s not like I could send him someplace. Or give him a lot of money. There is a certain childlike necessity of this man; I don’t think he could survive alone. Yet at the same time, in many ways, he seems trapped.

Near the end of my 2nd month, I watch him in a tireless struggle to remove a tree stump from the front yard. What’s left of an oak is at least five feet in diameter, and the work is intense: digging with a long iron pike to isolate the roots in the clay soil and then hacking at them with a small hand axe. Lenny is methodically working counterclockwise around the stump and after three days he isn’t even halfway done. It’s mid-afternoon and I’m sitting in the shade drinking glass of tea made by my host mother. Three heaping spoonfuls of sugar only makes me more sleepy.

And there is Lenny, sweating and grunting and determined to single handedly get that damn stump out of the earth. I don’t want my thoughts to drift in that direction, and I deliberately try to stop them, but in the end … I do feel pity for him.

It’s with this thought that an intense prickling pain overwhelms my ankles and toes. I’m barefoot and have absentmindedly rested my toes atop a nest of red ants. Fire ants are what we would call them in the South. Their attack is well coordinated as they swarm first and then simultaneously bite and sting. It’s like acid needles stabbing your skin.

I jump, spilling tea all over, and slap my feet with a yelp, hopping from foot to foot, swiping to get the goddamn demons off of me; I flop around like a dervish. It’s takes a minute, but I’m finally rid of them.

I pause to catch my breath and there is Lenny, motionless, staring at me.

Of course. All these days, wrapped in my concern and sympathy, I’ve neglected a few realities. Lenny can buy a Coke without having to resort to elaborate hand signals. Lenny can withstand the 110-degree heat without feeling dizzy and sick. Lenny doesn’t get so sunburned that he is restricted to bed for two days. And Lenny knows better than to step in a pile of red ants.

His laughter echoes across the yard.

June 15, 2010

The Beginning ... or End, Depending On How You Look At It -- 1989

When I walk through the door, I know everything has changed. I’m standing in the front hall of our new house with the smell of fresh paint and carpet permeating the empty rooms, still awaiting all the furniture yet to be delivered. And in this case, new means new. Newly built from the ground up – squeeze into this new community with a dozen other new houses on what used to be a compact woodland with rabbits and birds and an old deer-crossing sign that once meant something. No more. All the trees are razed. The slight undulation of the landscape has been scraped flat. A single looping road was carved out and now 6 months later houses line up looking almost identical but not quite: that one has a different bay window, that one has double front doors, ours has an attached garage.

This is more my wife’s new house than mine. She has pushed for it relentlessly. Even though we agreed to move out-of-state in a year or two. Even though we have finally emerge from under a mountain of debt from the previous 2 years. She wants this house and I eventually say yes, because after years of marriage that’s who I am.

A mere 2 months previously, while waiting for the new house to be completed, we’re quickly approaching limbo – can’t move into our new house, must move out of the rental. I suggest a 2-week trip to England. I am all excited and stumble over my words as I fan out the brochures and talk about how much fun we could have in London. I rush through a lot of ideas in a short period of time, tapping into a slowly simmering desire to get up and out and away. Then, I stand by silently as she says, “I’m afraid to fly over water.” I’m puzzled, because a year earlier we had flown to the Virgin Islands on a packaged trip that was boredom by the beach and shopping in tourist traps. Yet, I still don’t say anything. Instead, temporarily homeless, we decide on a road trip to visit her family in Alabama, Oklahoma, Colorado. It’s not a bad trip. In fact, moments on the highway or hiking through a national park make it a good trip. And this is bad, because when our new house is finally finished and we return and I walk through the door, the realization causes a sickening churn in my stomach.

Faced with actual ownership of property, I realize that I don’t want to live in this new house, in this new neighborhood, surrounded by open fields that will eventually turn into more new houses and neighborhoods.

I want to be on the road. I want to be lost in the back alleys of London. Or backpacking in Guatemala rainforests. Or hanging out on a beach in Australia. Or anyplace else, but not in this new 2-story, modern, clean, empty house in claustrophobic Dover, Delaware, population 22,000 (give or take a few drunken Air Force personnel).

The moment boils down to one simple thought: I want everything I own to fit into 2 suitcases.

This is in direct opposition to what she wants. Something’s gotta change. So … I do.

2 postmortems:
  1. When I finally asked a year later, I find out the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t count as water.
  2. She dumps the house on me in the divorce.