by JC Lee
My lover was going to leave me. I knew this, though I wouldn’t have said it then. The truth was, he’d been preparing to leave since the day we’d met, since the day he put his head between my legs and made love to me. In a letter to him I had used that word, love, and he had said something about how, having just written a book on the subject, on the end of love, he was no longer sure he could say the word himself, that he didn’t know where he might find it again, or with whom. The Philosopher King, I called him. That first summer he lived in Italy, in a room on a hill above a lake. He was writing another book and sent me letters about his days—lectures on Indian economics and the French filmmaker who documented war, dinners to which he wore the jacket he’d gotten married in, the South American novelist with whom he visited a pair of nesting swans on the shore. Send me a self-portrait, I said. He sent a photograph of himself sitting before an old, stone wall. He would take me to Italy the following summer, he said, and sent me a picture of the street in Rome where Ovid had lived.
Now you know the beginning, and while you don’t yet know the end, you can see it coming. In between, the Philosopher King began to miss his wife, and so I bought a ticket to India. A place as far from Italy, as far from the city where he had grown up and where he had lived with her, as far from the place we live now, as I could get. In Frankfurt, it was raining. Out on the wet tarmac, men hoisted suitcases onto a conveyor belt that disappeared into the airplane’s hold, and I did not think about the city where I had grown up, the places to which I had travelled before I had met him. It occurred to me then that I no longer heard my native language, the words with which I think about things, the language inside of which I know.
Is it any surprise I should fall in love with a man who sings murder ballads?
When I awoke in India, the morning was shrill with auto rickshaws, horns blaring, small engines straining to gather speed. My hotel room was two single beds pushed together and netted in a white sheet, a small desk and chair, two hangers for my clothes. I dressed and walked to the school where I would study yoga and where the woman working in the office did not say anything about the pieces of me that were missing. She had a long black braid and an easy smile and didn’t mention the hole in the center of me, like looking through a tire strung on a chain, or the arm and leg that wavered like smoke. Instead, she wrote my name on a small card along with the hour I was to arrive the following morning, and every morning after that, and handed it to me.
Back home, friends made offerings in my name. Glasses of beer and baskets of fries, chicken wings with seasoned salt, and “Dig Lazarus Dig!!!” on the jukebox. It would take ten days to fashion a new body. Small, it would be just the size of a hand, but I would be able to travel in it, to pay my dues. At the end of my journey, after the cudgels and noose and razors and burning oil, after hanging from a tree and falling into a pit, after hunger and thirst and a thousand miles walking across hot coals, I would be released into the world again, clean. Which is to say, having forgotten.
In the beginning, the Philosopher King and I filled our letters with sex and food, stories of the meals we ate while apart, what we would do to one another when we were together again. I’ll put one hand on your round red heart, he wrote, the other down your panties. He described roast lamb in Rome, rice and almond gelato, while I recounted barbeque, pickles and cherry jam, sugar and butter corn. But the truth is, I hardly ate that summer, for though I had rented a plot in the community garden down the street, I neglected the plants, and the tomatoes, un-watered for weeks, languished in the heat—except for a jar of mayonnaise and a couple bottles of beer, my refrigerator was empty.
Before he left for Italy, the Philosopher King sang me a cannibal’s hymn and sat me in a chair. His apartment was windowed, a tree in the front yard that cast shadows on the floor, and there were books on shelves, a long wooden table, a stereo and a bed, three cats and a water dish with a motor that gurgled. He played an album of cover songs and after, fed me prosciutto and a dense, ripe cheese, then sautéed butter beans in garlic and olive oil, asked me if I liked hot pepper. At first, the Philosopher King asked me questions like these, the questions of a lover. He showed me a photograph of himself standing on a balcony in New York, a dark haired boy, a junky. Behind him, the city’s terraced buildings stacked against a white sky.
In September, the Philosopher King would grill a leg of lamb, roast Brussels sprouts with bacon and figs, and I would bake a pie. He’d stand at the bottom of a rickety set of stairs, fork in one hand, the shady yard behind him a patchwork of grass and dirt, smoke rising into the air. The Philosopher King complained about his kitchen, that it was too small, and it was true, bottles of olive oil and boxes of tea stacked on the back of the stove, cans of tomatoes and coconut milk had to be kept in the cupboard above the washing machine. On the refrigerator, he had tacked a map of Italy, pictures of his cats and a postcard of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children. When we ate together, he sat with his back to his books, alphabetized by author’s name—cruel Artaud, Daudet, mad with syphilis, memoirist of pain. The Philosopher King cooked the lamb rare, blood pooling on the plates, and I offered him my hand, which he kissed and then, taking my fingers into his mouth one by one, bit down.
In India, I woke before dawn and walked to the school, the sound of women sweeping, the flaring call of a bird whose name I never learned. Dogs followed me, sniffing my hand for food, and I thought the Indians loved them, as they love the cows. In the practice room, it was quiet except for the sound of breathing, the voice of the teacher admonishing her students, and the air smelled like sweat, like cum. A woman, her feet tucked behind her head, her hands in prayer, a man standing on his head. All around, creation huffed and sighed, birds and insects and gods; a crocodile slapped the floor, a rooster crowed without sound.
That first morning at the shala, my head was born. On the floor, beneath portraits of the guru and his wife, plastic garlands strung across the frames, I lay and looked up. On the second day, my neck and shoulders slipped down out of my skull and my spine unrolled like beads on a string. On the third my heart arrived, cold and tight as a chicken gizzard. Still, there it was. On the fourth day, my back and belly like so much meat on a slab, and the corset of my ribs, the last one on the left having broken and healed badly, and on the fifth my navel. Pop. On the sixth morning my hips, the right side aching, and by the end of the day, the dark places of which the Philosopher King was so fond. It took two more days to form my elbows and hands, my knees and feet, two by two, cartilage and bone. On the tenth day hunger and thirst, what straps the body together like ligament, what makes it move.
Let me tell you what I ate in India. Curried okra and bread warm from the griddle, threaded with fenugreek leaves. From a cart on the corner where the rickshaw drivers waited, pani-poori, which the vendor punctured with his thumb and filled with onions and coriander in a lemony broth, then served to me in a tin cup. At the café down the street, mango and papaya sprinkled with mint, crepes with chocolate, omelets with garam masala and pots of strong coffee. For lunch, roasted cashews and a soda that I bought at the stall on the corner, and late night, fig candy and chai from the bakery.
Now, the Philosopher King’s letters came sporadically. It was hot in the mid-western town where he was teaching, and there was nothing to eat. Exhausted by the heat, one night he had purchased dinner out of a vending machine. His correspondence was like that now, a few quarters plunked down for a bag of peanuts, sentences that said things, but not much else. More news from nowhere.
On the third day, R. appeared. With her bright face and easy smile, she could have come from any mid-western town, but she was from the west and had been a soldier in the desert, and to her, India in any season would have seemed unaccountably lush. Compared to the city where she had been stationed, where jeeps stirred the dust and dust choked the trees, especially so. In India, R. said, she could breathe. From that day on, R. and I ate together on the roof, where a man served us sambar redolent of tomatoes and peppers, and spongy idlis with coconut chutney. Soon, I would come to see that R. moved through the world like a woman who had raised her own mother, a woman who had sent men to war. The commander, we called her.
Afternoons, I took an auto rickshaw to the market. The driver let me off on a street with stores selling cheap silk and carts piled high with mangos, pomegranates split open like red flowers, like hearts. Coin sellers, hawking worn currency, called out to me—Madam, madam. Wires cut the sky above the old stone building. Inside, where men shelled beans and stacked finger-long okra and glossy purple eggplants into great pyramids, where women fanned bunches of coriander and betel leaves, the stalls were cool. Cauliflower, white and brainy, sat beside baskets of turmeric and ginger, pale bumpy bitter melons. Incense sellers gestured toward piles of electric blue pink yellow powder, and bees hovered over grainy bars of jaggery. As we pressed down the thoroughfare, shoulder to back to breast, the air thick with spices and sweat, a hand reached out and touched me tenderly, without regard. In the central corridor, in stalls devoted entirely to flowers, men sat among heaps of jasmine and blazing orange marigolds, dark red roses and fragrant geranium leaves, stringing garlands that would be carried into temples and offered to gods with shining black faces.
R. hired a car to take us to the temple on the hill, its mustard colored gopuram dedicated to Chamundeswara, the goddess who drove a serpent out of the city, who sleeps in a fig tree and haunts crematory grounds, who rides a corpse. The temple doors were strung with chain-link fence to keep out the monkeys, and pilgrims stood in a long line carrying offerings, coconut shells filled with jasmine and marigolds. Inside, the temple’s statues were relegated to dark corners; devotees dropped coins into a wide bowl, passed their fingers through the temple flame. Leaving, R. followed close behind me, turning away the men who approached with small wooden statues, cartoon pictures of Krishna, and we walked down the hill, where I purchased a red rose and a piece of folded paper and gave it to the monk tending Nandi, Shiva’s black bull. R. stood at the bottom of the stairs, yellow flowers dropping onto the sidewalk at her feet, and the monk tucked my offering into the statue’s stone garland.
Later, we ate thali lunch—tin plates set with bowls of curried cauliflower and potato, roasted eggplant, squash and peppers, lime pickle and curd—R. with her back to the wall. In the desert, R. had seen men’s bodies blown apart, she had seen dead women in the street, and so she was not afraid to ask me about the fingers missing from my left hand, the shoulder worn half away. I told her about the Philosopher King and his wife, about his books and his bed, standing in the kitchen eating cherries and arguing about Wittgenstein, the arithmetic of whether what can be known is equal to what can be said. If the Philosopher King did not keep me, I told R., if he did not take me from where I lived and into the place from which he had come, I feared I would disappear.
After he returned from Italy, I drove south to find the Philosopher King near the sea. In Georgia, at a gas station where flies banged against the windows and the attendant eyed me drowsily, I bought a can of beans and a bag of potato chips, then drove to the coast and took a ferry to the island where I would camp for the night. The park ranger showed me a short film and told me to check my shoes in the morning for scorpions, then sent me off on a bicycle to ride through a forest of live oak and palmetto, arriving finally at the beach, a dull expanse of sand unbothered by dunes. For most of the afternoon I was alone, the sun bearing down, the sky blank. The island was a preserve, and yet it seemed as if nothing lived there, as if the sea and earth and air were empty, the trees and grasses set down like props to form a scene. Then, as if conjured, two girls appeared by the water’s edge, clinging to one another and giggling, running in and out of the surf, their voices summoning life into the day. Just as I entered the water, a furrow of dark shapes appeared beyond the surf, humps rising and rolling and then disappearing again, and the girls called out. It occurred to me that we were alone, the girls and I, that we could call for help but that no one would come, and this knowledge filled me with calm, but then, I saw that the shapes were dolphins and turned to wave to the girls, but they were gone.
That summer beneath the streets of Geneva, scientists discovered the Higgs boson, a field of particles known not by what it is so much as what it leaves behind. The sea in which we swim.
The Philosopher King and I came to a beach where the water had no color, where a boy reeled in a tiny shark and held it up for his girlfriend to see, its gills opening and closing like window blinds. Running into the water my ankle gave way, but the Philosopher King held me up. You saved me, I said, laughing. White clouds stuck in the sky, the water so clear we could see our feet disappearing into the sand. Does what the Philosopher King said to me then matter? Later, driving north, we would stop at a beach where the water was opaque as stone. The Philosopher King would rent us a room in a cheap motel. You’ve got a heart and I’ve got a key. In the morning I washed my face and stripped the bed and left a twenty for the maid.
Walking back to the hotel, I passed a park rimmed in pink bougainvillea and cemetery trees, where ants marched over discarded plastic bottles. Ants, the Garuda Purana tells me, carry the souls of thieves, as do vultures and rats and, I am surprised to learn, the beautiful peacock: thievery, in the old texts, is a sin well accounted. Gluttons, I learn, are reborn as tigers, while men who abandon their wives return as geese and liars become stutterers, those who listen to them, deaf.
At the hotel, I sat at a small desk and wrote about three women trapped in a house in Cleveland. An essay on captivity. Chained to a bed, beaten and raped, it took ten years for one of the women to break through the front door and call for help. In a courtyard behind the hotel, a boy cried for his mother—Amma amma—and I slept, drifting in and out of his pleas. What, I wonder, does a woman who wishes to be rescued become?
The rains came twice each day, in the morning and again in the afternoon. Walking past a school where girls marched and where, at the ladies’ college next door, young women could learn typing or sewing, I sought cover beneath a flame tree on the corner, one day beside a woman in a chocolate colored sari, another next to a man and two children on a motorcycle. In the yard next door, a crow hopped around, waiting for the man who fed it rice. When first I’d thought about coming to India, I phoned the school to ask about visiting during the monsoon. It is very beautiful, a man told me on the phone. We love the monsoon.
Dear Saturn, yours is “an apt temperament for artists and martyrs, those who court ‘the purity and beauty of a failure.’” This is Susan Sontag writing about Walter Benjamin, that melancholic collector of books. Quoting him (Benjamin is quoting Kafka), you can see how Sontag admires him, even as she uses Benjamin’s words against him. While we were together, you were writing a book about Ulysses S. Grant, a man haunted by a persistent sense of inadequacy, burdened by debt and easily bored, a man who had loved horses as a boy. A book (your words) on ruin.
Is it unfair of me to give you many names?
In your book on love, you call your cats by name but refer to the women—your wife, your lovers—by their initials. Or rather, as if writing about them, as if revealing them could be done discreetly, you invent an initial for each of the women you have loved. Had you written a novel, I might say you wanted to make your story seem real, but you call it a gentleman’s gesture—as if no one would know who she was, your wife. How did you choose the initial you gave her, I often wondered; was it the first letter of an endearment, a pet name, or did you pick it like a number out of a hat, a letter that could stand for anything, or nothing. Dear Pluto, out there spinning in the cold.
When I return from India, I’ll forsake the name by which you call me, not because I want to return to the woman I was before we met, but because I want to be called by a name you don’t know, to hear the word catch in your mouth. Friends will lurch along the extra syllables and you, a man of manners, will address letters to me Dear ________. Still, you won’t say it aloud.
From Italy, you sent me the manuscript of your book on love. The lyric, you wrote, is the lover’s mode. Perhaps reading you was my first error.
In Talakad, the temples had disappeared into the sand. A few miles out of the city, the floodplain was a patchwork of mud and rice, cattle drifting across the land, pale green herons bobbing on skies hung on the water. Our bus came to a stop on a bridge over a wide river, a truck blocking the way—someone would have to back up—while the drivers argued, a field of orange marigolds blooming near the shore. Finally, the truck backed off the bridge and we drove on to a town where the doors were painted blue and men sat in the shade, watching us pass. It was midday, and hot, and the streets were empty. Two boys on bicycles followed us, circling and laughing. At the entrance to the temple was a statue of Shiva, his foot hung with a yellow sign: Do not touch.
We walked through the sand, beneath a canopy where drifts swallowed the trees and old women sat holding out their hands—the avenue of forgotten women, I called it. A man followed us, walking as we walked, stopping as we stopped to watch the dig, people pushing wheelbarrows and carrying bowls filled with sand, until we descended the stairs to a temple at the bottom of what looked like an empty swimming pool, cement walls erected to hold back the sand, and where a talkative, potbellied monk tended the altar. His daughter lived in Los Angeles, which he liked very much, and he’d visited her there. The monk invited me to pass my finger through the temple flame, to press red powder to my forehead, a puja I did not understand. The ceilings were low, and as I turned to leave, the monk called out to me.
On the road leaving the temple, we passed blue altars devoted to Krishna, a shrine at the base of a tree where pictures of snakes—twinned and coiled, hooded cobras rising to strike—were set in frames like family portraits, and I thought of Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail. Dear Philosopher King, you were so familiar to me, and yet it was as if I had never met anyone like you before. You would tell me our alchemy was all wrong, that we were too alike to be drawn to one another, and yet we were. Sometimes, it seemed as if my desire for you was all I had. Would I recognize myself in your first book, I asked you, the book in which you describe not particular women but types. Maybe, you said.
Down by the river, we found a cart selling roasted corn rubbed with lime and chili, another where a man turned the wheel of what looked like an old sewing machine, a sugar cane press, pouring the juice over ice. People sat at picnic tables eating and talking, crows fluttering in the dark pines above. At the water’s edge, boys took off their shirts and pushed one another into the water to swim against the current. Downstream, an old tin shack stood half-submerged, the river spilling through its single door. The women and girls stayed close to the shore, wading into the water in their saris, the brightly colored fabric floating around them like flowers.
R. shook her head then reached over and rubbed her thumb against my forehead, wiping the red powder away.
In traditional Indian architecture, a man tells me, the door of a house should be small to regulate the flow of good and evil, and because to enter through a small door one must bow, must humble oneself, before coming in. But if the door faces an inauspicious direction, or if it is cluttered or ugly, then the house’s inhabitants will live a life of disappointment, lovers will fight and their friends grow tiresome, the food they cook will taste lousy. But a woman tells me that the door is the mouth of a house and so it should be large and inviting. Simhadwaram, she calls it, the lion’s gate.
By late October, the tree outside the Philosopher King’s apartment had lost its leaves and we could see the cemetery across the street. The city was gone. He came out of the kitchen carrying a plate of ribs—the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth and the long serratus muscle which, when roasted, would turn dark and sweet. I had made a tart of fresh figs and pine nuts, candied ginger pressed into the crust. We sat at the table and the Philosopher King talked about the lilacs that grew outside of Grant’s window and which he said the old president had smelled as he was dying.
The Philosopher King often talked about death, but then, he was prone to contemplating disappearance. At the turn of the year I would arrive at his apartment to find him sleeping late into the morning, the blinds drawn. He would stand in the kitchen, drowsy and smiling, muttering about an appointment he had missed, and I would take him to the hospital where the doctors found his lungs wet with pneumonia. Until then I had rarely prayed, and mostly for myself. But when I left the Philosopher King’s room that day, I sat in the hospital chapel and, offering the usual things, asked God to spare his life. As if he were a thing to be handed over, I promised not to be so selfish, to give him back to his wife. Above the altar was a stained glass window that looked like a scene from the Garden of Eden, a tangle of fruit and leaves, and I remembered how the first time we had met the Philosopher King had read a chapter from his book about the end of his marriage, his despair at being cast out of the garden. It was early spring and he stood at a lectern before a window, the clouds pushing across the sky. So I suppose you could say his words, tender and full of longing for his wife, were what I loved first. At an all-night diner across the street, I ordered grilled cheese sandwiches and fries, and we ate them in the ICU, the Philosopher King’s pulse unrolling on the monitor above his bed like a vine. How embarrassed we were to find ourselves in such a place, our faces reflected in the dark window.
But all of that came later. Now, the Philosopher King set the ribs in a pot and checked the temperature of the oven and chopped a bunch of greens, then called me to the kitchen.
Evenings, I walked the path of misery, down the hill past a tour bus and two small cows with big eyes, their hind legs stained with shit. At the entrance to a neighborhood of tin shacks, the gods’ faces were painted lavender; shiny roosters rooted through garbage, while two women tended an iron pot suspended over a small fire, and a beautiful black goat stood in a doorway, looking in. Children rode their bicycles across a bridge over a small creek, a tributary of the Vaitarani River, its banks littered with bones.
“What can be said at all can be said clearly,” Wittgenstein tells us, and so “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Dear Wittgenstein, yours is a man’s point of view: must I remind you that a woman’s work, by which I mean the thing a woman learns to do, is to hear what is not said clearly, what is not said at all.
The truth is, I never read your first book.
Soon after the New Year, I began to notice small disappearances. We had been eating spring rolls, tender rice paper stretched across a belly of noodles and shrimp, when the Philosopher King told me he missed his wife. We fought outside the restaurant, the sidewalk littered with pizza boxes, black garbage bags stacked on the curb. It was snowing. The next morning, my ankle gave way as I got out of bed and I saw that my left foot was missing. There wasn’t any pain, and so I made my way to the kitchen to boil water for coffee and slide a few slices of bread under the broiler for toast.
Perhaps because I had been lonely when I met the Philosopher King, he could have told me anything—that he would never love me as he loved his wife, that he would leave me to return to her one day—and it wouldn’t have mattered. If before I had met him I had mashed potatoes with cream and butter, roasted whole chickens and baked apple pies, put up pickles and blueberry jam, if I had wandered into the garden in the evenings and looked out at the street, these were the rituals of a dying woman, a woman who wanted nothing. Desire, says the Rig Veda, is the first seed.
The week your wife came to visit, my red dress arrived in the mail. Like many things—a bright pink scarf, lace panties—I bought it to wear for you. When I asked what you would do in my place, you said you supposed you would practice bramacharya, restraint. A friend took me away for the weekend, and because the tunnels leading out of the city were closed, it took us hours to get to the hotel. The redbuds were blooming against winter’s devastation, the hills broken down. My friend and I slept in a blue room and swam in the pool, then drank in the empty bar. A few red tulips were blooming in front of the hotel. They’re so pretty, my friend said, but they never last.
You said that sometimes you wanted to treat people like junk: to use them and put them down. You meant me. I suppose I wanted to believe that lovers always end up hating one another. Still, I am deeply embarrassed to think that when you looked at me you saw someone so small. But I remember Christmas in Denver, the snow falling outside the restaurant, the food a bland mish-mash of cuisines, my mother confused by pills, my brother rigid with rage. The next day, we were to go snowshoeing, but the windshield wipers on the car didn’t work and we had to turn around and drive home, the city a boulevard of strip malls and shuttered stores, the sky desolate as a morning coming down. At the hotel that night, you sat in bed while I went up to the roof and got in the heated pool and made myself come.
To be born a woman, says the Garuda Purana is penury for bad deeds. What, I wonder, did I do to deserve you?
Some call the place where I stayed that summer, with its ruby stalls selling cheap silk and knock-off computer parts, the City of Justice. But I’m not so sure. On the weekends, the palace was lit up like a birthday cake, like Las Vegas rising out of the desert, and in Yama’s great hall, a confection of carved arches painted blue, of marble floors where souls feasted and danced, Chitragupta, accountant of the dead, kept a tally of the good and the wicked. While some were left to float around in bodies of light, others, weighted to the earth, could only look on—at the dancing and food, at the fruits and sweets, yogurt and ghee—from afar. They could not eat.
In a quiet neighborhood down the street, a man sold cakes and cookies dusted in sugar. A pastry chef before coming to India, he had baked almond cookies and lemon squares, coconut pie and a chocolate cake, a piece of which I bought for fifty rupees, while R. ordered pie. We sat, paper plates on our laps, and tried to remember the lives we had left behind.
You know I went to India to unravel myself from you. And because I wanted to write about the color orange, thinking I would find it everywhere: in the temples and the markets, in the saris, in the food and flowers and sky. But as it turned out, I saw mostly blues and greens and pinks, because the women in the south favor skirts in these colors, but also because it was monsoon season and the leaves of the flame trees were new, and frangipani blossoms fell onto the streets. When I visited a tiger reserve a few hours outside of the city, I saw wide parks and monkeys congregated on the roadsides, but I never saw the famed Bengal. You were writing an essay about tigers then, a meditation on extinction and idolatry, on the disappearance of the real. We’d gone to see a movie in which a boy and a tiger are trapped together on a boat, and I had laughed at your feelings of betrayal: the digital tiger, pacing and growling and swiping its enormous paw, little more than a sophisticated cartoon. From the window of a rattling truck, I sent you a photograph of a print in the mud. Then the driver killed the engine and pointed to a clump of barking deer, circled up and stamping their hooves, and told us a tiger was hunting from the bush. We waited, our binoculars trained on the deer, cell phones clicking, until someone ordered the truck on, and we left, never having seen the tiger, never really sure it had been there at all.
When a friend asked me what I wanted from my trip to India, I said I wanted to let you go. That while I was away, I hoped the color of my feelings would soften. That wasn’t what I wanted at all, of course, but I said it anyway, the way you say a thing hoping one day it will be true. At the reserve, I didn’t see a tiger, but I did see peacocks wandering in the parks. Maybe I just wanted to give you the things you asked for, whether I could see them or not, whether or not they were real. Still, no one had ever touched me the way you did. Call it what you will.
It was on a bus out of town that I saw the butcher shops, stalls where carcasses hung from hooks, the meat mottled with fat, where men stood with cleavers in hand, separating back from belly from hip, hacking apart tendon and joint. Beneath the shade of a tree, a goat tethered to a pole.
Abbatoir, a friend said to me. Such a pretty word.
In a small clinic, I sat in the waiting room while a man described the pain in his foot. A friend had told me the doctor could help with the ache in my hip. On the drive to the clinic, the doctor asked me about my work, was I married and did I like India, while the man in the passenger’s seat looked impassively ahead. And what do you think of the food, the doctor asked. I told him I liked it very much, an answer that pleased the passenger, who turned and smiled.
The man with the bad foot was escorted from the waiting room, and soon after I was taken to another room and told to undress and lay on a low wooden table. The doctor entered and tucked his dhoti into his waistband, then kneeled beside me and anointed my temples and throat with oil, my wrists and the backs of my knees, my feet and the place where my heart should be. He poured oil onto my scalp and worked his fingers through my hair, scrubbed and twisted, pulled at my earlobes and tilted my head from side to side to massage my neck. He rubbed the stiff muscle between my shoulder blades, kneaded the fat of my hips and the flesh around the broken place in my spine and then, turning me over, pressed his fingers into my belly and groin. Your knee, he said. He turned me over again, this time lifting my feet and pulling my shoulders up and away from the table into Dhanurasana, the bow pose. But it was when, holding me like this, the doctor leaned over and pressed his forehead into mine, pulling my head back, that I saw his eyes were closed, and I began to weep.
After, the doctor brought out a wooden box in which he kept the scrolls his father had given him, on which were written treatments for all manner of ailments, of the body and mind, the spirit and psyche. The doctor took out his cell phone and showed me pictures of his father’s house and the town on the coast where he had grown up, pictures of his wife and his children, of patients smiling, and finally a photo of the man who had been sitting in the passenger’s seat on the drive to the clinic, only now his eyes were closed and a leech hung from his cheek. The doctor disappeared and returned with a jar, in which the leech, sleeping now, floated in water. The man was very ill, the doctor said, but now—had I not seen this—the man was well.
On my last day in India, R. and I took a rickshaw into town to visit the statue of a saint. Like so many such monuments, the bronze figure was fenced off in the center of a traffic circle, busses and motorcycles circumnavigating clockwise to get from one part of town to another. Off the main drag, we ate thali in a restaurant where men carried steel pots from table to table, spooning rice and vegetables onto banana leaves and bringing us chapatis and chutneys, cups of strong tea. Now, even R. ate with her hands, the yellow rice sticking to her fingers, and we laughed, glad to be going home.
On the ride back to the hotel, it occurred to me that I had already known R., that before we had met in India she had watched out for me, and it was then that I remembered the evening, soon after we had met, when we passed the scene of an accident, a crowd gathered around a motorcycle and the driver’s broken body. Turning away, I had asked R. if the man was dead. Yes, she said. Perhaps I had been R.’s lover, or her sister or wife; perhaps I had followed her into war. Who was to say, in this place where I had walked for a thousand days and where I could see in the distance the life I had once lived, that I had not been hers and she mine. Who was to say what love was.
A few days after it ended between us, I drove to the sea. It was my birthday and I awoke early to a mackerel sky. I could tell you how it felt that morning, looking out the hotel window at a big Cyprus, my body restored to me, my hands and feet and hair, my teeth and tongue, my ribs and buttocks and knees; but really, I was no longer sure of the words for such things. Neither hungry nor thirsty, even the sea was ugly to me. On one side, the day that had come before, and on the other, another day exactly the same. The Philosopher King would not take me with him.
To get there, I had driven over a bridge that had terrified me since childhood and that appears, still, in my dreams. The bridge I had been nearly unable to cross the week before the Philosopher King returned from Italy, so afraid I had considered pulling the car over and waiting for someone to retrieve me. That I was able to go on was mostly a matter there being no breakdown lane, and so, I told myself, I had no choice but to go on, the sea shimmering, the black backed gulls calling to me from high on the bridge’s lamps.
At the sea the weekend before the Philosopher King returned from Italy, I read the book he had written while he and his wife lived together, his book about suffering. A book of great intelligence, it seemed to me, remarkable for its ambition if unwieldy, ranging widely and, on occasion, unraveling, a thing impossible to hold completely in the mind. Not like his book on love, which is elegant and controlled, the work of a mature writer, which is not to say wise but refined, the kind of book one cannot help but admire, even as it risks less than it should, even if it is, finally, afraid. Looking at a picture I took of myself that weekend, lying on the beach and holding the Philosopher King’s book in my hand, I’m struck by how young I appear, how sexual and sure, yet if I look closely, I can see a small hole in my left wrist, the smudge of something just beginning to wear away.
Released again into the world, the ancient texts say, the soul forgets the pain of its travels in the underworld, but the lessons learned there remain imprinted in the form of conscience. Dear Philosopher King, I too have used people and put them down, as if they were junk, as if they were my ticket out. Still, India was mostly greens and blues—it was, after all, the monsoon—and as the man said before I arrived, it was beautiful. I remember everything: your refrigerator with its map of Italy, the expensive cheeses wrapped in plastic, the jars of jam, a carton of milk for the old cat, your books and table and bed and how you missed your wife, the way you hurt me just as I asked you to. But mostly, I remember the peacocks in India, those silly, vain birds with eyes on their feathers, wandering in wide parks. And yes, love, flame trees lined the streets.