Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Revenge of Uluwatu

We heard of Uluwatu from a Canadian, at the beach in Parengtretis, Java. Most of the good places we visited, we heard of from other travellers. The exhaustion and heat of Jogjakarta was replaced by the air conditioning of the bus which dropped us off at Parengtretis. Cooling at the beach helped temper our return to the heat. We were sitting on the dark sand, enjoying the sea breeze, when a man approached us with a hash joint. He was the Canadian who told us about Uluwatu. He first came to warn us about the rip tides in the ocean. He was concerned, good enough to ask when he saw us swimming. “Know the rips?” He explained that seven different currents in the Java Sea converged at Parengtretis, nobody swam there. The rip tides were like undertow, travelled parallel to the shore before returning out to sea. The strategy, he said, if one did get caught, was to let the current take you out to sea, body surf back to shore. We felt only the cooling water when we waded around after that, too wary to swim. We were grateful to him. He recounted stories of people wandering into the ocean at Parengtretis, never to be seen again. Most were stoned on the mushroom soup and omelettes which were cooked at the crude restaurants behind us. Psilocybin mushrooms grew in buffalo dung around Parengtretis. The children sold them in the street in a conical palm leaf for pennies. The restaurants were full of western travellers talking, listening to music. Some sat motionless, staring out to sea. The only western dishes the locals knew how to cook for the visitors were omelettes and soup. The Canadian from near Ottawa had hung out with some surfers in Australia, joined them for their trip to Uluwatu. They had spent the night there at full moon. He recommended it, but said he wouldn’t do it alone. We went on to Legian Beach, in Bali, where we found a comfortable losmen, settled in. The day of the full moon approached. I had spent too many cold, wet winter days in Canada to run around checking out every sight which the travel guides had recommended. I was content to read on the porch of the losmen or swing in the hammock beneath the green papaya trees. For meals we walked to the restaurants. Our furthest trips were to the beach where everyone went to watch the sunset. The beach at Cuta and Legian is miles long. It is wide, the jungle doesn’t impede sight by hanging over the water, the sand is fine. The dangerous surf rumbles in white, foaming lines. It is common knowledge that frequent drownings are kept quiet because it’s bad for the tourist trade. People regularly drown in the sea even near the part of the beach marked ‘safe’ in five different languages. The French had a direct flight from Paris to Denpasar which enabled them to leave France one day, arrive in Bali the next. Unfortunately they behaved like the other tourists. When the day of the full moon came I went to Uluwatu alone. I was the one caught up in this romantic adventure, Joyce wanted the relaxed comfort of the losmen. Uluwatu is forty kilometres south of Denpasar on the easternmost edge of the round bulge at the bottom of Bali. The trip, by bus, bimo, motorbike and horse cart, took most of the day. The temple of Uluwatu stands on high cliffs overlooking the ocean. It is the ruin of an ancient stone structure, the holy site of several different religions. In the past, many people threw themselves into the sea from the five hundred foot cliffs during a religious rampage which swept down from Java. The temple looks down on a small strip of sand which is the beach used only by expert surfers. In high tides and treacherous currents they paddle over razor sharp coral reefs, homes of poisonous sea snakes, to the waves. From the centre of the old temple there is a three sided view of the coastline: pale blue, giant waves roll in sets, in slow motion. The cliffs are carved into jagged walls by the sea and the weather. When I left Legian Beach, that morning, Joyce had been smoking a joint of Afghan hash with Rosalyn and Sally, Australian women, who believed in the power of black magic. It was practised everywhere in Java. Rosalyn stayed with a Javanese family on vacation. She said the son, the guy she was with, could butt out a cigarette on his arm without leaving a burn. Sally told us of a tourist couple who had everything stolen from their losmen room while they slept. She said they were put under a spell by the thieves. I had equipped myself lightly after hearing this, carrying only a small pack with a hatchet, a canteen full of well water and a groundsheet. I was drawn to the ocean from the hot, dry ruins of the temple. At the road beneath the temple an old man sat carving. Grey stone parapets surrounded him upon which were perched families of monkeys. An old one with a crushed left hand jumped onto a nearby wall, stared at me. I yelled at him but he just blinked. The old man smiled, handed me a fist sized rock from a pile beside him, made a throwing motion. I threatened the monkey. His face registered surprise as he retreated. The old man produced a book which was signed by visitors, a box for the admission price. He warned me about “the monkey people” when I told him that I had come to stay the night, asked him how to get to the beach. I reached an agreed price with a local boy, both of us sweating. I followed him through parched fields fenced by hedges of cacti and bamboo barricades. I clambered awkwardly over mounds of earth, trying to control my swinging pack, keeping my sarong free of branches. An open valley appeared before us, a jagged crevasse had penetrated the land. Women were descending into it, in a line, baskets on their heads. I paid the boy, sat in the shade, sipped water from my canteen, the cold Fantas I bought at the temple, long gone. I watched the women move gracefully up and down the trail. The vessels on their heads never wavered, all of the impact absorbed by their rolling hips. I followed them to the bottom of the crevasse where they turned off. I kept going straight ahead. The Java Sea was rolling in loud, spectacular breakers into the small beach where a group of western women and a photographer stood. They looked out to sea, turned to follow the photographer up the trail. Publicity pictures for the surfers. They greeted me on the way past, impressed to hear that I was staying at Uluwatu, alone, under the full moon. They warned me about the rock throwing monkeys. The spectacle of the booming surf held me. I sipped from my canteen in the blazing, windy, stereophonic roar. The power of the sea put the world into perspective. I returned up the trail before sunset to watch it from the top of the cliffs and heard the last of the surfers’ motor bikes leave. I thought I was alone. Below me, bobbing lights appeared and small fishing boats braved high tides near the cliffs. I laid with my head on my pack, staring at the stars and the moon. The moonlight looked impossible to capture in a painting or a photograph. I felt the first stab of pain in my abdomen at the same time that a rock landed beside me. The monkey people. I realized that I was surrounded and the rain of rocks began. One hit me at the same time that I vomited. An uncontrollable attack of diahorrea overcame me. The rocks came faster, liquid poured from both ends of me. I staggered toward the road holding my fouled sarong, cursing the rock throwing monkeys and the well water. The night heard my spasms and loud retches. Having been in Asia for more than six months, I felt acclimatised, adjusted, immune, cocky. I had drunk the well water without putting a chlorine tablet into it. The band of monkeys were fast moving shadows, small stones were hitting me. In desperation, I jettisoned the pack. The rocks stopped. When I looked back, the monkeys had fallen upon it, one was brandishing my hatchet, another drinking from my canteen. I staggered down the road, each step causing a squirt, a belch, a knee trembling retch. At dawn, I endured the giggles of women and schoolchildren when I crouched by the side of the road, stinking, dehydrated, desperate. A young Balinese with a two fifty Honda drove me back to the losmen in Legian. Joyce paid the guy an outrageous price. I showered and collapsed in bed.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Neighbour

I first noticed her while I was waiting for Yvonne. It was a throwback to the Hitchcock movie. Me and the rear window. Mine was the only house which looked over her back yard. When the tree by my kitchen window was full of leaves, I could only get glimpses until I cut the right branches. It was risky, but I had developed strong arms and the tree was close to the window. I started to use escort services when I arrived back from Iraq and couldn’t use my legs. I didn’t want a commitment of any kind. A whole year of hospitalization, only to find that they couldn’t cure the paralysis in my legs. There was a long period of rehabilitation after that. I was treated as a hero at first, felt like an object of pity, later. The reality was that I went to Iraq to boost my income and career. Some of my photographs won prizes. My impetuous nature, my thirst for adventure, my selfishness, they were all part of it. But when I returned, the benefits soon wore thin. I didn’t feel that I’d accomplished anything. The people around me had never seen war. They only knew the old me. My wife and young kids treated me like I was sick, friends hid their smugness and pity behind their concern. When it became unbearable, I made plans. Something had happened to me while I was an embedded photographer in Iraq, which I would never wish on anyone, but which didn’t make me feel the least bit suicidal. A descent into the bottomless pool of self pity wasn’t an option. The misunderstanding of my well meaning friends and family caused me to make the escape. I had been changed. I didn’t care anymore. I had been through too many operations, too many hours of physio punctuated by hours of doing nothing. I couldn’t deal with all the ties of my old life. It wasn’t worth trying to explain and I didn’t care what anyone else thought. If there is a god, may he or she forgive me. I played the role while I was recovering then I ran. Who’s going to suspect a man in a wheelchair of acquiring a new identity? It was easy. Only one person in the world knew my new name and where I was. She was a lesbian mother of two who lived in Vancouver. We met in university, kept in touch over the years. She was no threat. She knew as little about my former life as I knew about hers. Money was no object for me because of the insurance. The network had me well covered. I disappeared to an east coast city one day. Every so often, another story appeared in the media about my depressed state at the time of my disappearance. My wife moved in with a former mayor. She and the kids looked happy in media pictures. The first man I saw with the neighbour turned out to be her husband. When they sat out on their backyard deck around supper time, they seemed to have that intimacy. She touched him when she gave him a glass. Sometimes they argued, other times they’d sit reading while their barbeque smoked in the background. They seemed comfortable with each other for most of that early spring. I watched from my kitchen window the night of the party in her backyard. I drank tequila while I watched the couples till they departed. The guy must have been a close friend of them both. She kissed him goodnight before her husband, disappeared into the house. The guys talked, then the husband produced a hand held video camera, left it with his friend, disappeared into the house. By this time, I had my powerful binoculars focussed on the small screen in the camera which the buddy was watching on the deck. He sat with his back to me, as fixed on the images as I was. We witnessed the marital coupling from several angles. The husband made surreptitious smiles into the screen. When it was over, the bedroom lights went out. The buddy took the camera with him into the house. Lights in another part of the house went on and off. All was dark. I started drinking in a local bar but the other drinkers there were even more patronising and depressing than my real family so I joined some wheelchair racing enthusiasts. The athletics became too hard for me in a short time. I wanted to be comfortable, not driven. I didn’t really have anything to prove. I just wanted to take it easy, pay attention to the things I liked. I became content staying at home, playing my guitar and reading. I used the tv and computer, but usually when Yvonne wasn’t coming over, I read or played my music. The next time I saw the neighbour, she was sitting on her deck, sipping a coffee. She had discarded her robe, exposed her body in a skimpy bikini. I studied her closely with the binoculars. I noticed a mound in her backyard, just below the deck. She had planted a peony bush on it. The edges of the mound were visible, at first, but she kept it watered. Soon it blended in with the rest of the lawn. Her husband was never seen again. Cops interviewed her, the story of her husband’s disappearance was in all the media, for a short time. It was the man I’d first seen her with. His name was Norman. She shed tears for the press, played the role of the grieving widow-distraught spouse, in public. I knew, from watching her, that she smiled a lot, to herself, when she was alone, watering the peony. She was slim with short blonde hair, long legs and a pretty face. I came to appreciate her figure when I saw her from my kitchen window, on summer mornings. I had hours to inspect her body, through my binoculars. She stretched, drank coffee on her deck. She often wore a robe which she discarded when she sat down. I was blessed when the hand held rocket hit the truck in the middle of Baghdad. Blessed because when the shrapnel hit my spine, it didn’t affect my genitals. I could still function sexually. In fact, I was hornier than ever. Yvonne had no inhibitions with me. I paid her good money to dress up and take off her different costumes. It was a kind of visual foreplay. After I saw the neighbour, I insisted that Yvonne and I do it in the kitchen. She didn’t notice the neighbour, didn’t notice me looking out the window, while she was busy. The buddy showed up some months later. He had been around at first, offering the grieving widow the obligatory shoulder to cry on. She wasn’t a widow officially, but there was no sign of her husband. The buddy must have run into her somewhere a few months later. I watched Yvonne dance around the kitchen, strip to the music. The neighbour and the buddy sat together, on her deck, drinking something out of tall glasses. Yvonne left after supper. I watched them kiss on the deck, disappear into the house. Lights went on and off in her bedroom. All was dark. My neighbour sat on her deck again in late summer with two mounds in the back yard below her. On the second mound, which was barely visible, she had planted a rose bush. Often on summer mornings she sat on the chaise lounge, read, drank coffee, smiled to herself. On hot days I could see rivulets of sweat through my binoculars. They trickled from her neck down between her full, bikini’d breasts. Yvonne began talking about retiring near the end of the summer. Usually we didn’t talk. I didn’t get turned on by it and I was paying. Yvonne didn’t take offence. Instead, she told me about customers who liked to talk and liked to hear her talk while she satisfied their sexual desires. I would be sad to see her go. The neighbour cleaned up her deck for the winter with three mounds in the backyard. There were blowing leaves gathering on them. The third one sported a hydrangea bush which looked like it had always been there. I wasn’t surprised that the detective who talked to her, on the deck, with a notebook in one hand, a badge in the other, had disappeared. He showed up at later that night, had a few drinks with her, stayed out on the deck for a smoke. Her bedroom lights went on, he finished his cigarette, disappeared into the house. Her lights went out. All was dark. By this time, I assumed that my neighbour was having sex with, killing and burying the men in her life. I thought about calling the cops, but I didn’t want any publicity. It would be a big story. The black widow. The seductress-murderer. There was always the anonymous tipline. But every time I went to make the call, I was battered by questions: Was she doing anything that was more shocking than what I had seen in a war? Was it any of my business? Was it a connection, even so tenuous, to my former life? Did my neighbour’s men get what they deserved? Did she? Did I? Did the Iraqis and the Americans? The questions stopped me, then became unimportant when Yvonne retired to start her own agency. They remained in the back of my mind but they were impossible for me to answer. My finger was poised above the phone several times, but the questions stopped me. I had contributed to Yvonne’s nest egg. I didn’t regret it. She introduced me to Rita, brought her around one day. I got specials for free: Rita and I got along well. It was even easier for me than with Yvonne because Rita already knew what I liked. I figured my neighbour would probably get caught on her own. There was nothing to watch in her backyard during the winter. Boredom started me back into photography again. Slowly but surely, I got ready for the spring. I wasn’t sure what for, but I would be ready in the spring. But in the spring, she was gone. A new family had moved in. I watched the mother teach her children about the three bushes in their back yard as they came to life in the warm sunshine. They watered them carefully, fussed over them, pruned them. In the spring, the peonies bloomed, the rose blossomed all summer and the hydrangea put on an impressive show in the fall. The framed picture of the yard, deck, three bushes, hangs on my kitchen wall.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Me

I was of a young age when I was born. Lack of experience and physical inabilities forced me to spend most of the first few years on my back, with a few moments on my front. Various big people coo cooed, picked me up, put me down, held me, changed me, fed me and kissed me goodnight. I was the centre of attention for a while. When winter ended, I explored the world around me. My mother wondered at my insight. I crawled, poked, investigated the various rooms of our cardboard box. I deduced that summer was near when a flower bloomed outside of our cardboard door and an extremely hot thing, above us, in the sky, burnt the bejesus out of our box. I was drawn to the sound of traffic, as soon as I could stand. There was no turning back when it came to me and traffic. I rushed straight for it, as fast as my little legs could carry me. I was saved from certain disaster, many times, by strangers. Several rainy springs, my mother gathered all twelve of us children together, to collect cardboard, for a new box. Waterproof cardboard was hard to come by. For a long time, I thought the furry fellow, who kept licking me, wagging his tail, was my father. It was Rex the dog. Big people kept him happy with food and water, like me. The only apparent difference seemed to be that they made Rex defecate outside before they disposed of it, whereas I could go right in my pants. I went to school by following the herd of my brothers and sisters when I was of an age to do so. The teachers taught and the students, of which there were many thousands, learned. What we learned is another matter. Children followed marriage. They seemed to pop up regularly, in various rooms of my home. I was, by this time, the proud owner of a wooden packing case. The appearance of new children always coincided with my wife gaining, then, losing, a great amount of weight around the belly area. Often, when the family gathered, in the packing case, we had a karaoke night. None of us could carry a note. Neighbours sent complaints our way, but, in the main, our karaoke nights were successful. We all knew ‘Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog’, by heart, each member of the family sang it lustily. Perhaps the neighbours wouldn’t have complained so much if we sang some other songs, as well. Now that I am old, I grow young again. The others grow old and young again at their own pace. The passage of years winnows things down to bare essentials. It’s normal to return to childhood as you grow old because as the years go by, more and more, you don’t care as a child doesn’t care. If all goes well, I’ll be of an old age, when I die.