2020:published in the journal Under the Gum Tree
Trotting downhill, toward the Star Ferry terminal, a pungent smell drew me to a nothing-special corner shrine made of concrete. It would never be listed in The Lonely Planet. It was hung with red lanterns and banners. Additionally, fifteen or twenty coils of incense the size of birdcages dangled from the ceiling. The bottom end of each was burning. The smoke could have choked an ox. I breathed in anyway, breathed in the burnt intimacy. I didn’t know much about intimacy. Sex, sure. Before leaving for Hong Kong, I undertook regular affirmations, “I am having a wonderful travel affair.” In the 80s, affirmations were to be chanted in the present tense, three times per affirmation, staring straight into the mirror.
Inside the temple, I watched everyday Chinese people shake bundles of incense in front of their foreheads and then place the slim grouping of sticks upright in sand-filled troughs before altars bedecked with red candles, idols, and strings of electric lights. Red. Made me wish I had their faith. Unsure of my welcome, I left for the sweaty street. Countless, crushing people demonstrated identifiable purpose, an after-office squash to catch a train or bus or ferry so like my routine this past year in Tokyo, no ferries, loving Japan but hating everything about teaching English except the salary that would afford me these next two months with nothing but my backpack and Asia. A friend planned to come with me. Then her boyfriend wanted her stateside.
On the sidewalk, the thronging Chinese bought plastic shoes, household goods, leafy green vegetables, whole fish. Some large animal’s organs. Cow? A goose minus its head, body split to display glistening innards. The long neck flopped.
“Gross,” I said to no one. It was one, big, lonely planet.
An escape from the street presented itself as a café painted a quiet green. Under the ceiling fans, older men in black pajamas sat in pairs at wooden tables, invariably in the same position: one leg tucked under the bottom, the other dangling not quite to the floor. Each pair concentrated on a game of Go, black and white boards, black and white stones. I took to a table, to be ignored for some time. Eventually, the waiter, unbidden, placed within reach a chilled schooner of tan-colored liquid. It tasted like sweet, milky rice. The men continued their game. The ceiling fans rotated.
A gush of rain drew me to the open window. The pavement was so hot that the water hissed, hitting it. Though I did not go on to have a wonderful affair, the affair I did have was the best I could do. When my two months ended, I returned to the orderly numbness of myself in Tokyo. For my next vacation, I visited my father in the States, He took an opportunity to explain why he always had to have a girlfriend outside his primary relationship. He said, “I need some place to flee.” More than fifty years old and still, the man could not handle intimacy. That was not going to be me.
I returned to Japan. Three months later, three more months of a life that appeared antithetical to a Western concept of progress, I spent a week feeling as if my brain was un-bending. Finally, I woke from a dream, a thousand fractured images of sexual abuse. I told my acupuncturist, “I don’t want it to be my father.”
He said, “Whatever it is, it’s already been.”
A different day—there were a lot of seemingly random days, during that time—I sat on the grass in my favorite park, Ki-chi-jo-ji, sat in the weak sun that was stealing looks through the cherry blossoms. Had it been a more organized day, would I have found this new affirmation: “All I need is amply provided for, and I am safe.”
It was my father.
I was safe.
People always want to know, how old were you? Did your mother know? From the time I woke from that dream, it would be seven years of dark nights and ultimate faith before incest became merely the data of my childhood, before the hiss of that downpour began to reveal the abundance of its possibility. I soared: a decent job that I actually liked; my first not-just-screwing relationship, one that lead to marriage. Two children, now teens. A house. Everything normal girls expected. When I stood at the window of the green-walled café, the rain bouncing off the street could only smell as fulsome as two months of freedom. I could have continued teaching English, spending two months of every year in a different Asian country, hoping for the best affair I was capable of. Could die alone. A third question people ask: how did you get through it? They mean the abuse. I hear: the years after surviving it.
There is an old story. A disciple goes to the Buddha, asking for the secret to happiness. The Buddha asks, “Did you eat today?”
“Did you wash your bowl?”
“Did you do a good job?”