Once Upon An Occidental Time

                   I worked in Southeast Asia for two years, three months, nine days.
                   I roamed alone in my small house, with a maid, teaching school in my lawless country of monsoons
                   and barefoot people. A frangipani tree, where dragonflies zigzagged in sexual heat, shaded my bed.
                   Five yards off existed a dirt road worked by sun-tempered hawkers of onions and gasping fish.
                   Tricycle rickshaws polished their tires on the smooth stones of potholes.
                   Most days, with life staying outrageous, I knew I was happy.
                   Some days I got depressed, when nothing condescended to happen. It seemed that my future had
                   attained a kind of smouldering zenith. I could not see beyond the tops of the coconut trees across
                   the road. Paradise had many puzzling faces. But it was exciting too, just being there. It's impossible
                   to explicate. Maybe it's like catching a fishbone in your throat, as painful then as it convinces you that
                   you are alive. The moment is not lost in a muddy flood. Then the sharpness is dislodged in swallowing
                   banana and again you are okay .

                  I thought there was nothing I wanted more than to come home.
                  From Asia I sent my salary to my wife and two little girls, keeping only enough for my rent, the maid,
                  and those weekends when I rode a tricycle to town to quaff icy beers and to gawk at the street life.
                  A few times, I jumped on a bus to the beach, watched the sun set. Sometimes I stayed overnight,
                  in a thatched hut, mesmerized by the kerosene lights of fishing junks twinkling on the inky liquid.
                  God, life was cheap.

                  Finally, my wife found me a teaching job in a town 50 miles from her.
                  So passed the glory of the world. Before I knew it I was flying over the Pacific. I really had no choice,
                  I guess. And now the cramped high-tech miracle is landing, plowing through overcast, its wheels
                  pulverizing the runway.
                  Yuck, I think.
                  My attitude is already unfair. After all, I am home. I should be blistering with happiness. I am stunned.
                  From the carousel I drag my suitcases outside and, zipping up my down jacket, watch for BlueBerry,
                  our car. I see them. Annie and Erin are waving. Then Susan jumps out, shining her tremendous smile;
                  flushed and a little shy too, when we kiss.
                  "Hi, Daddy!" Annie says.
                  "Hi, kids! Boy, they look great. Look at those tans!"
                  "They're at the pool everyday," Susan says.
                   We are zooming on the highway.
                  It has eight lanes. Overhead a jet slowly passes, a bloated screaming silver baloney.
                  "Yeah, Grandma takes us."
                  "Uh-huh," Erin says, "It's summer here."
                  I remember, opening my collar.
                  "Pretty hot," Susan says, "Oregon's got these summers. Better than San Francisco, huh?
                  How's your Mom?"
                  "Okay. You never know about her."
                  Susan used to get nervous driving on the highway and now, as always, she has her eyes riveted ahead.
                  Her face, a bit sallow under the overcast, seems suspended within absolute concentration. I look gently
                  at her small hands, with the delicate bones of a bird, squeezing the steering wheel. She coughs, clearing
                  her throat. She glances at me, smiling.
                  Our two girls, little legs resting up on the seat, listen intently to the choked silence between us.
                  A big balloon tied to the ground advertising a mall opening catches their attention as we pass, then I feel
                  their eyes drop back on me.
                  "Is Daddy staying home now?" Annie asks.
                  Susan coughs.
                  "Why don't you ask him yuourself, Annie?"
                  "Are you, Daddy?" Her little eyes snap wide like soulful mirrors and I notice that Erin furrowes her
                  smooth puppy brows as if a neophyte considering a broken conundrum in Zen.
                  God, how do I answer that?
                  I want to. I want to want to, to be happy now, here with them, not to ever go away again no matter
                  how much we need the money and the only job I can find is ten thousand miles away where I thought
                  I had lost them forever.
                  I want to look out from our house when we get there and feel that I am in my paradise and when I
                  touch them I want to feel they are the angels for whom I yearn and will gladly die for.
                  I want to be the Good Knight that plays in their hearts.
                  I wish for that, like a poet wishes for sublime realities.
                  I feel too stunned by the change of place. I smell pine, I see the highway twist to the left, I sense Susan's
                  fingers tighten on the wheel, and for a moment I remember myself back in the tropics, dreaming of them
                  and waking up and being so far away, with only the clinking of rain to keep me company and the sound
                  of my maid sweeping in the next room. Maybe I am too excited to be coherent.
                  "Yep, I'm gonna be with my Subby and Mudpie - and the Mama Bird!"
                  "Im NOT Subby! I'm Annie! Hmmmph!" Annie pouts, instantly six years old again.
                  "And I'm Erin! Not Mudpie! Do you understand that, Daddy?"
                  "How long, Daddy?" Annie instantly asks.
                  "Forever," I say.
                  "Yippie - ," she says softly.
                  Susan hunches her shoulders, up tightly and down, as if to lift a weight onto the easy slope of her neck,
                  then to release it. This is one action I have seen before many times whose mark I can not know in its
                  depth for I have begun to realize that I know nothing.

                  In this moment I do not know even what I am feeling.
                  Yet in the time before and I hope the time after, I will love my family. I feel a void, my imagination
                  in transition, emptying of hermit crabs and raspy tongueings of waves. I feel dangerously reckless.
                  I remember the two identical toys I bought at the Pattaya airport, take it out of the backpack, and
                  give it to the girls. First, they puzzle over it, then there is nothing else to do and they jiggle it. The little
                  painted rooster dips up and down, pecking the pan on which it is nailed, biting the painted corn.
                  Annie's chuckle reminds me of Susan's. But the rooster seems too simple for Erin, who is four, who
                  shakes it.
                  "No, Erin, just gently," I say.
                  "Yeah, Erin," Annie singsongs, "You're too Rough."
                  "Be quiet!" Erin erupts, just dropping it. "I hate it."

                  Soon the Tualatin turn-off appears and at the top of the hill we wait for the light to change.
                  "Are we home already, huh, huh? Already!"
                  "In a minute," Susan says.
                  We pass neat lawns and trees that are precisely etched into the air.
                  Our house sits at the end of a cul-de-sac. Little friends of the girls call to them as we turn and Susan
                  depresses the button on a gadjet so the garage door swings up. She parks BlueBerry with infinite
                  concentration and the girls run for their friends. I go fast to the trunk to get my suitcases, as something
                  seems to be rushing me. They are heavy and I feel awkward, when Susan points to the sign on the door
                  from the garage into the house.
                  "Welcome Home, Daddy. We Love You." With red and blue hearts drawn by the girls themselves.
                  They are big hearts, contained within kindergarden lines and filled in, zig zaggedly, in crayon.
                  "Welcome home, Honey." Susan kisses me.
                  I embrace her, my arms sink in a wife's soft whiteness, and I hear the girls' voices in competition with
                  their friends.
                  I feel my small heart beating.
                  "Our Daddy's back!" which Erin echoes.
                  They run over, followed by their friends.
                  "Hi, Angela. Kids - ," I forget the names.
                  "Hi. I bet you're glad to be back from that awful place."
                  "Uh-huh, yeah, he is," Annie answers, animatedly, shaking her head.
                  "It's great," I say. "I gotta go unpack."
                  "Mom, can we play?" Annie asks.
                  "In the cul-de-sac, where I can see you," Susan says, and with that they scramble off, Erin struggling
                  to keep up when the shadow of a humongos cloud engulfs her. I watch them this moment that has
                  come after years and my love runs with them into light and shade, brushes past my girls' cheeks and
                  bruised knees.
                  I know nothing.
                  I drive the logic that I came to assume was right growing up in Super Power Land, the logic of science,
                  of prime time commentators and correct morality. Words that turn to ash with the page on which they
                  are written, with the restless mind that forgets them when a mosquito bites.
                  I strain to enjoy the scene.
                  Annie abruptly turns round to me, waving.

                  With my suitcase I follow Susan into the house, past the girls' rooms and bathroom to our bedroom
                  next to which is my den. She has newly vacuumed it, dusted the book shelves, sharpened the pencils.
                  The curtains of the window are drawn open over our backyard to the lawn and trees and the swing
                  set of the girls. I see the flowers, roses and some yellow things, growing in a line by the redwood fence.
                  On my white desk is a bottle of wine, a medium priced Cabernet, tied with a red ribbon and a note.
                  "I've missed you so much," Susan says.
                  When I kiss her again, I notice, somehow for the first time, the smell of the sun on her skin.
                  I stare at her skin and at her eyes, then hold her very close so she says, "Oww, I can't breath."

                  She watches me as I lay the suitcases down in the bedroom and open them.
                  Uncomfortable, I start looking through my old clothes. Safari shorts, shirts, swimming trunks, malaria
                  pills, rolls of undeveloped film. My chest tightens, too much oxygen begins to smoke in my brain.
                  "Are you happy you're back?" she asks.
                  "Of course," I say, "It was really lucky you found this job. I know you worked hard, looking."
                  "I did. I made so many phone calls."
                  "Yeah. I still can't believe I got the job without an interview."
                  "I know, it's almost a miracle."
                  What's a miracle is - , I start thinking, and stop it because I feel the danger. But the thing that has grown
                  is there, arguing with double power, unstoppable, frightening. It flings itself against my skull, not caring
                  when it lacerates brain, that it blinds me and burns away my home, and laughs.
                  I hold up a shirt, a favorite, notice the bruise in the shoulder, the material faded from many washings and
                  the acidity of sweat, caress the cloth between my fingers.
                  Still, I think, there is the smell of the sun I left, a peculiar tang as of olives and breeze.
                  Suddenly, I look up and meet the wall, down again to the dresser on which are a Chinese jewel box,
                  a small bowl with a rose, and the family portrait taken just before I left for Asia. I am wearing a jacket
                  with a necktie, shoulder to shoulder with Susan, with the girls before us.
                  I am not smiling because pictures make me uneasy and I am bad in them, although I have a nice smile
                  when I do not care, when I forget. It is deeper than vanity.
                  "What's wrong?" Susan says.
                  I ignore the question, pretending not to hear though she stands about seven feet behind me.
                  I know I am plunging in a black hole of self-indulgent memory. My fingers groping past other shirts find
                  shells I picked up my last time on the beach. There exists a cowrie, a spiralled cone, and a scallop with
                  precision ridges. They are composed of calcium, I know. I spy tiny crystals of salt and on an impulse I
                  taste it.

                  "Daddy! Daddy!"
                  Annie and Erin run in and they jump on me and hug me, wrapping me in their little arms and they kiss me,
                  or try to, in their little kids' way, not really knowing how to kiss, and I feel the cool of their tiny lips brush
                  on my cheeks and little licks of their tongue, as if they were tasting a tentative succulent sweet.
                  They swarm over me and I topple backwards onto the shaggy carpet and they are laughing and Susan is
                  watching and she begins to laugh too, full of delight at the scene, and my thoughts waver darkly and Annie
                  screams, "Play Baby-Baby with me!", as she jumps for the bed with Ein, of course, right behind her.
                  "Now, Daddy, don't tickle me," Annie says, lying flat on the bed, her arm up against me, "I don't want it!"
                  Which, of course, she does, this is a game we play whenever I am home and, spontaneously, I plunge to
                  her ribs and start tickling and she rolls over, hysterical, "No - no - no -!", and starts to kick so I hold onto
                  her ankles, tickling the soles of her feet, until she is laughing so hard she starts to choke, while Erin plays
                  at trying to get me away from her sister, grabing my arm, shouting and whispering alternately,
                  "Don't tickle Annie, Daddy, Don't - ", and, "Tickle me, tickle me, too -."
                  And I do.
                  Susan moves to the chair next to the dresser, sits down demurely, and enjoys.
                  But I wonder if she can see me, figure me out as I flounder. I am drowning and the motion of my hands
                  in this playing game seems to me those of a man trying to brush away an impossible life, and I see what
                  is happening, luminescently, but can do nothing.
                  The weight of knowing I must be happy yet still being crushed by a sense of loss, seeping through the
                  walls in crystals of darkness.
                  Did I love someone else? The maid?
                  No. No. It's too simple to blame a woman. But it was possible to do anything. To disappear, to kill.
                  To live like a king.
                  I pick up Annie and play "Baby-Baby" with her, rocking her exaggeratedly, swinging her almost violently
                  right and left, then let her drop to the bed-quilt. She rises up bubbling with delight.
                  "One more time! One more time!"
                  I hold her in my arms again. My flesh. Always she will be this old to me. This unclouded face of weightless
                  youngness, when her knees are knobby and the modest house in which she scampers seems to her high
                  and palatial, when the mystery of love is the breath she takes.
                  I rock her a few times and then, suddenly overcome, I embrace her, crushing her against me, folding my
                  head over her wild-eyed face.
                  This is suffocating and she starts to yell,
                  "I can't breath! Mommy - !"
                  It is a long moment, after which I release my hold and rock her again, coming back to our playing,
                  cranking up her giggling anew, round and round, past Erin and Susan, while the earth spins, I surmise,
                  in the opposed direction, towards the next day and growing up and old age, resignation, and forgetting
                  what was uncluttered and free.
                  I refuse.
                  Let silence come here. Inside, I feel the despise of years forward. I become now what I have always
                  been. I step out of the ancient cocoon. In the mirror I recognize myself.
                  I know nothing, yet I want more.
                  What is wrong with that, where is the sin, except the pain?
                  Gently, instead of dropping Annie to the bed, I set her down and I understand, in the occidental brain
                  that is part of me, that a large part of my life is dying. Yet I can not change. I step into the labyrinthe I
                  found in the center of the sun.
                  "No, no, throw me Down - !"
                  She looks up into my face and then becomes silent. She seems a little frightened as she turns to her
                  "Why is Daddy crying?"
                  And there is no immediate answer from Susan to soften the puzzle. But I think she knows. I want to
                  shout out that this is only a dream from which we will awake, the result of an infected meal in a faraway
                  restaurant. But the warm wet on my cheek does not vanish and I can hear like a roaring the stunned
                  wordlessness of my little girls and wonderful wife.
                  It is only in childhood that love is forever real.

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