Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Company I Keep, The Company I Crave

It figures that the day after posting “Running” I twist my ankle.

Right in the middle of a good run, just past the bulldozers widening the bike path, I slipped on a stone. I couldn’t stand for ten minutes or so, and while I sat in the dirt pile by the murky water I wondered what the hell I would do if I couldn’t walk at all. I hobbled back to the school. Into the evening my ankle swelled up like a softball, and the next morning my boss, the great Annie, made me an appointment with a Traditional Chinese doctor. I barely filled out some paperwork (it was entirely in Chinese except for “email”) before I met with the doctor, who pressed parts of the bulge and bones in my feet and told me not to eat “spicy, bananas, ice, beer, vinegar.” Then the woman behind the counter set me up beside a steamer. It was an ancient looking contraption--a murky beaker strapped to a pole, wrapped in a stained cloth. The liquid inside was mud-colored and smelled like wet trees. I sat on a little wooden stool just barely tolerating the burn of the steam, not just on the swollen part of my ankle but all over my foot. The old woman next to me watched with a bemused look on her face while I heaved and winced. In subsequent visits I’ve watched people back away from the steam a little bit or cover their injured body parts with the wash cloths the nurses provide, but I didn’t know any better on my first visit. My only example was that old woman, leaning into the pain.

After that hot experience I sat in a chair waiting to meet with someone who would move the qi around my ankle with massage and traditional topical medicines. The people receiving treatments in front of me were spotted with bruises from a treatment that involves attaching translucent cups, like suction cups, to specific part of their bodies to collect blood there. I had seen my boss's perfectly circular bruises a month or so before and I was nervous. The man who called my name, or something close enough to my name, had a kind face and I relaxed. He very gently took my foot in his hands and read it, pressed certain parts for more information, which he found in the looks of pain or ease on my face. Very tenderly he rubbed an amber salve into my skin that twinkled like menthol and massaged the area around the swelling, up into my calves and around my knees. When he cracked my toes and moved my foot around it popped in strange places. Then he took out a rectangular cloth coated in a dark and thick layer of something cool that smelled like black licorish, wrapped it tightly around my foot, put a brace on my ankle and asked me to come back the next day.

“Suh-fuh” he calls me now, and he smiles whenever I come in. Since Tuesday I keep a little ways away from the steam and I know he will be gentle with me so I am not nervous while I wait for him to fix me. Already my ankle feels a lot better and the swelling has gone down. Sometimes I feel little zings of pain in my knee but when I go in to the doctor that kind man presses it away. And all for 3 USD.

Now I’m sitting on a bench at the park near home. I’ve tucked my dirty hair beneath a sweatshirt (it’s a perfectly chilly day) and I’ve brought a glass of wine to the park with me. After class this morning Max and I stopped by a breakfast place near school and ate sao bing jia dan--scrambled eggs sprinkled with green onion, fried in oil and dropped into a split open, fresh and flakey slice of sesame bread. Max ordered warm soy milk too, which I happily helped him drink. I get nervous after class because the whole afternoon lies before me, so empty of obligation or company. I have a love/hate relationship with Wednesday afternoons too, which are all mine.

Two Wednesdays ago the weather was beautiful and I road my bike all around Da-an, picking up books at the public library and riding through Da-an Park and neighborhoods around Zhongxiao Fuxing I had yet to discover. As the afternoon wore on I started to crave my porch at home. I had overpriced coffee on the second story balcony of a miniature restaurant on Shida, near the street Kiah used to live on. From there I could watch the comings and going of lots of university students in their shiny layers and feux glasses. I am in awe of these Taiwanese--or specifically Taipei--people who attend to every detail when it is all I can do these days to take a shower and find anything at all to wear. In the past few years I have dipped in and out of enjoying and resenting clothes. Nothing in stores or markets fits me quite right and what is stylish here does not suit my body at all. I’d look like a kid dressed as a pumpkin for Halloween if I tried to make Taipei looks work for me, so I’m left with a few stretched out jeans and t-shirts that smell permanently of car exhaust. So, it must have been in a t-shirt and jeans that I sat on that porch sipping coffee and reading the excruciatingly gentle Gilead feeling very lonely.

Parts of that book--when the old Reverend talks about touching his wife’s wet hairline or about the sad miracle of his old age and his son’s youth, made me cry. I wonder how much I cried for my own loneliness, for the fact that I had no one in Taiwan to come to my rescue and a sleeping family and friends on the other side of the world, and how much I cried for the beauty of Reverend John Ames’ recollection of loneliness. I hope I’m capable of empathy like that, not just projection, or--even worse--comparison and contrast. But sometimes the only ways to navigate the distances between people are through strategies of relating as insufficient as those.

I haven’t made many friends in Taiwan. I say that it’s because I’ve always known I was leaving, or because all the people I meet are Kiah’s friends and I feel a strange obligation to know them through her and not through my own experiences of them. Marilynne Robinson, when asked about her private and solitary life, says there is just too much to read to spend a lot of time being social. She also says that there is nothing more human than a novel. Like an egg cracked and dropped on a pan, that idea sends my thoughts in 360 degrees and every one of them solidifies. I'm left with no single response or feeling about that idea. Besides Max, Kiah, and Sam, novels have been my best company in these past eight months or so. There was Reverend John Ames, sitting with me on the balcony of a rickety and rat-infested café in Taiwan, sharing the difference between what he feels and what he wishes he felt (which, as far as I’m concerned, is a most poignant gap very rarely revealed). If it’s between that conversation and the sort I might have with a new aquaintance that goes like, “Where are you from?” or “How long have you been in Taipei?” I choose the former. I don’t think I’m in danger of becoming a recluse. I love to talk and listen and touch and be touched. There is an amount of freedom, though, in feeling that I could live almost anywhere and live through a great many things so long as I had paths to the root of what it might mean to be human.

And there are characters come to life in my own imagination, fleshed out in the stories I’ve written. There’s the anemic, manic and manipulative Garth. There's a nameless narrator with a bad habit of making caricatures out of actual people, surprised by the dimension and unpredictability of a girl named Sal. From Helen’s mind I wrote pages and pages, but my understanding of her is not so clear. I’m only really certain she’s selfish and imaginative and diagnosed with mental disorders (which tells you very little, I realize). And now there’s a middle-aged woman, also selfish but more stuck, trying to refigure her place in a fractured family (I realize that this sounds like a corny query letter…). I’ve abandoned her for awhile and picked up a first-person voice of an American girl in Taipei, privately tutoring two girls from very different Taiwanese families that ultimately challenge and form her cultural understandings (ditto...). We’ll see how this one goes.

We have four months left now. Soon after arriving in Taiwan we talked to Mark, Max’s dad, about visiting in March and it seemed like such a long way away. It’s hard to believe he already came and went. When his mother, Vivian, came I ached a little bit for my parents and when Mark left that same feeling gathered and glowed in my throat. These four months will pass as quickly as the last four did, so I must spend them well. I must appreciate the kindness of the people in this place and commit to memory the particular combinations of rust colors and turquoises and lime greens, the density of the jungle mountains wrapped around the tile-coated city, the wonderful feeling of ordering successfully in Chinese, and the capacity of little children to love and forgive an exasperated teacher. Mark’s presence helped me re-see these things I love, as the company of fresh eyes will. When I walk past the organ stand on Tong-An I forget not to look. Mark held his breath past the same smells that used to gag me. “Used to." Since his visit I’ve realized I don’t smell the tea eggs in Seven-Eleven anymore. Besides my sense of smell, I truly wonder how you--you who I will soon talk to and listen to and laugh with and call to come rescue me on lonely days--will find me changed in four months time, after twelve months away.