Saturday, July 29, 2017

Every Hotel is Haunted by Something

I was never too clear about the ‘cultural exchange’ aspect of the fellowship. My counterpart was from Brunei and we were both in Thailand to teach English. We shared an office and lived in the same apartment building. We talked every day at work, between classes, but outside work, I never heard from her. Yet we were here together. That was part of the fellowship, but it seemed incidental to me that it should be this way and after the first month, I ceased to think much about why we were here together.

When Ramadan was ending, my counterpart mentioned an Eid celebration at the Bruneian Embassy in Bangkok. It sounded like an interesting experience and I told her I’d be interested in checking it out, although I wasn’t sure if she was inviting me or just telling me about it. She told me she’d let the Embassy know we were coming, Gina, too. I thanked her and went back to work.

Ramadan was during the summer break and, without classes, I didn’t see my counterpart much. The break passed and I went to Bangkok to go to the dentist. I didn’t think about going back and there was never any further mention of the dinner.

When we came back for the next semester. I asked how the break had been for her and if she’d made it up to Bangkok for the dinner. She told me that she had gone to Bangkok, but hadn’t gone to the Embassy because her family had come to visit at the same time. I told her I was still interested in going to the Bruneian Embassy if there was ever another event. She thought for a second and said that the sultan’s birthday would be next week; after that there probably wouldn’t be anything else until after we left. I felt conflicted hearing this. I had just volunteered to go to Bangkok to be on a panel for scholarship interviews for the weekend. This meant, I would have to turn around and go back the next weekend. With classes just starting, this meant a lot of strain around a time when I knew I’d prefer to be at home relaxing. I gave a vague answer and waited to see how things would work out, expecting that, again, the plans would just be an idea, nothing to be pursued.

The next Friday, immediately following classes, we were all together on a flight to Bangkok. The afternoon was rainy and the flight had been delayed. I knew the traffic in Bangkok would be bad and I wondered how we would have enough time to get in from the airport, check into the hotel, change and make it back across town. Bangkok traffic is like the traffic in LA. On Fridays, it’s especially bad: cars parked with their engines off, motorcycles trying to ease through any place they can, like water flowing around pebbles. The previous weekend, I’d sat in an Uber for nearly two hours. It had only taken 5 minutes to exhaust my minimal Thai with the driver and I’d stared out the window at nothing the entire trip as I was not familiar enough with Uber decorum to know if I could take out a book and read.

Our flight landed toward the back of the airport and had a long walk to get out. I didn’t know what had become of my counterpart, but she had another hotel to go to anyway. Gina and I trotted out of the airport, eyeing every clock we passed, like something that could potentially swoop down and attack.

We passed the desks where the ground transportation salesman lie in wait. As always, ignoring my brisk step and my confident, I-know-where-I’m-going air, a woman practically jumped out at me. “Hello! Where are you going?” I wasn’t sure if I should return the greeting, tell her where I was going or explain that I didn’t need to book a taxi that would just be stuck in traffic. I mumbled ‘no thanks’ and tried to smile, but I doubt it was very convincing. I felt like I’d been sort of rude, but then I had to remember that she’d been a little presumptuous to me, as well.

Since I’d left my apartment in Surat Thani, I’d been steeped in air conditioning.: air conditioning in the cab to the airport, in the airport, on the flight and in the terminal in Bangkok After hours of 62 degree air, going outside, felt like walking into something mid-convection, like an oven or a furnace. Only there was nothing. The heat was tumbling through the air like it’d recently blown through a structure fire and still had wisps of flame tucked among the currents like autumn leaves. Only my sweat prevented me from combustion.

The bus was packed and we had to stand. Luckily, years of experience have taught me to never bring any luggage anywhere for any reason and to second guess anything more than a change of underwear and a book (one usually tucked into the other and carried underarm). On my back I carried my suit, a few oranges, a book and my toothbrush. Everyone else on the bus had large hard-plastic rolling suitcases. Every time the bus braked, a silver suitcase about the size and weight of one of those hotel refrigerators, kept rolling over my foot and slamming against my leg. The suitcase’s owner was oblivious and didn’t even seem to be holding on to the suitcase’s handle despite the constant motion of the bus—probably confident that my foot would stop the suitcase before it got too far.

When we’d boarded the bus, part of a family had squeezed past us, while the other half had stayed near the front of the bus. At every stop they yelled “not here! don’t get off here!” to each other in a Chinese dialect. They continually passed their children through the cordon formed by Gina and I; this was accomplished by grabbing the child’s outstretched hand and pulling him or her through us, like we were a stubborn birth canal. Trying to get out of the way, I often only made it worse. The child would be pulled right into one side of my leg and the suitcase full of bowling balls would simultaneously bang into the other side. The family talked like they passed children, yelling at my head like it was a wall to be yelled through. I memorized their word for ‘don’t get off here!’ and considered preemptively yelling it at each stop, just to avoid having it blasted at the side of my head, but I was worried I’d get the tone wrong and curse someone’s grandma or something. Luckily, the bus only went three stops before it drained all it’s passengers into the complex Metro network. I didn’t stay to hear the family yell ‘Here! Get off here!’ but grabbed Gina’s hand and pulled her through the suitcases and passengers unsure of where to get off, trying out the birth canal trick myself. It actually worked very well.

The streets were gridlocked, smoldering with the embers of taillights. The exhaust had risen to the Skytrain platform where people tried to tunnel through the mass of humanity before them to reach a train or a ticket window. Tickets must be paid for in coins and without a hefty sack, there was no way I had enough change for Gina and I. I went to the window, waited in line and changed the largest bill I had. I came back, waited in line at the machine and when I reached it, began hurriedly dumping coins into the slot. One ticket popped out and I started in on the next one. Behind me, I could feel a line forming and simultaneously becoming impatient with my two-ticket purchase. I continued feeding the coins in. The hand I held them with was gradually rising with the reduction in weight correspondingly, the number of coins left to be inserted on the display dropped. I got to 10, to 5, to 4, 3, 2, and then there was nothing left. I still had a few coins but these were the worthless 2-baht coins which, for some reason, the machines hadn’t been calibrated to take. I could feel the breeze of the line’s collective sigh of impatience on my neck. It was fetid with office air conditioners and dental work. I swore and turned to the girl waiting behind me. Did she have a single baht coin? I would give her a 2-baht coin in exchange. She handed me a 5 and I dumped all my 2 coins into her hand despite her protests. The reluctant machine spat out the second ticket and we were on our way.

I thought I had the address of the hotel in an email, but I only knew the metro stop it was near. Coming down from the platform with only half an hour before we had to be at the Bruneian Embassy, I was beginning to feel frantic. Gina calmly suggested I should ask someone where the hotel was. I asked a motorcycle taxi driver and he shrugged. I used this as evidence that no one knew where the place was, so it was pointless to ask anyone else; the only way we’d find the hotel was by angrily ducking in and out of sidestreets and swearing. Gina wasn’t too interested in trying my method and suggested we ask a guard standing by a parking garage. He looked at the name of the hotel on my phone, shrugged and used his own phone to look it up on a map. We thanked him and, after assuring ourselves we were going in the right direction, we took off down the street, darting and swearing the whole way to make up for lost time.

The hotel was about three blocks down a long dead-ended side street. I practically jogged toward it continually swearing by this time, knowing we were already late, not knowing where my counterpart was and we were still in our sweaty airplane clothes. We had to change and find our way to the Embassy which was, with no traffic, would’ve been about 30 minutes away. On a night like this, an hour was probably a better estimate. The hotel loomed up. I was about to swear at it for being so far down the street, but it was so beautiful I had to stop and admire the entryway for a minute. The facade of the place looked like something out of the Great Gatsby and the foyer even further established this roaring 20s, art nouveau theme. It was authentic, too. The place was legitimately old enough to reasonably look this way. I glanced around the lobby with admiration but was soon back to swearing when I noticed there was no attendant around. We rang the bell and still no one came. I tried to use the time to collect myself; no one wants to be the harassed Arthur Miller character who comes into a hotel roaring about service, still glistening with sweat and frenzy. I tried to humble myself, but the swearing was coming out of my ears like steam escaping a kettle.

Someone finally came up and asked if we wanted to check in. He looked as harassed as I felt and made so bold as to glance at the clock with a disapproving look when I told him yes, we were hoping to check in. I felt like telling him I’d listed my check-in time as 6 pm when I’d made my reservation. Sure it was 8 now, but it’s not like I told them I would be there at noon. Some people you just can’t argue with. This guy looked way too disinterested in the world to bother arguing with. I held my tongue, but when he gave me a job application of a check-in form to fill out I wrote quickly and sloppily, without regard for the little boxes meant to contain my name, passport number, occupation and all kinds of other superfluous information. When I finished it, he looked at it, all but rolled his eyes, heaved a weighty sigh and then gave me the total. 1016 baht. I give him 1050, which seemed to greatly fluster him. As he struggled to count out the change, I told him I could give him four baht so he could give me an even 30 back. He looked up at me as if I were some familiar inanimate object that had suddenly learned the power of speech, a practiced look which combined disbelief with horror. Without saying a word (but never lowering his eyebrows) he continued fumbling around in his drawer for the exact change.

There was no elevator, which normally wouldn’t be a problem; the old wide and low staircase had a sort of Gothic appeal to it and if I’d had more time, I would’ve loved to climb it slowly imaging all kinds of things. It was the kind of staircase we should have been led up by a man in a cloak with a dripping candelabrum in his steady but wizened hand. The irritable and taciturn guy at the desk would fit the role perfectly. Our room was the standard box with a faded tile floor, a metal frame bed and an old fan to stir the mildewed air. Gina had gotten dressed in the lobby bathroom while I’d been checking in, but I still needed to change. She brushed her hair and put on lipstick while I jerked my sweaty clothes off only to put clean clothes over my damp skin. I knew I was just going to get sweaty again. There was neither time nor reason for a shower.

The hurried way we both tried to doll ourselves up in front of that old hotel mirror was like a scene out of a spy movie. I almost hoped someone could see us in order to wonder what sort of shady deal we were up to. Gina pursed her lips at the mirror; I tied my tie and blotted my forehead with a handkerchief, still swearing, but beginning to laugh at myself a little. In five minutes, we were running back down the stairs, trying to get the internet to come back on my phone so we could find the Embassy. “Forget it,” I said, after watching that ouroboros spin around for a minute with no change. “We don’t have time” and we ran back out into the night once again, not entirely sure where we were going.

The train wasn’t as crowded and we only had a few stops to go. In about 15 minutes, we were getting off at the Ekkamai station. Blindly, I chose a street, declared it to be the right one and began walking, taking those great lunging steps you see people making in the airport when they suddenly realize they might miss their flight, something like pulling yourself through the city on cross-country skis. Invariably, you look like such a jerk walking like this no one makes any effort to get out of your way.

Miraculously, I’d guessed the street correctly, a nearly impossible task along Sukhumvit where every direction looks like a mirrored reflection of the opposite way, which is due, mostly, to the ubiquity of 7-11s, which, in Southeast Asia, are much more aggressively marketed than their docile North American counterparts. I’ve seen as many as seven of them on a single block.

The Bruneian Embassy was down an alley and off a sidestreet. When we came powerwalking up, I expected the guard to draw his weapon or at least raise a forbidding palm to us and yell ‘halt!” like in the movies. He was well-disposed to us, however, and, through gestures, invited us in. I’d forgotten that I was wearing a jacket and tie and that Gina was in a dress with lipstick. Our spy camouflage was working very well. I called my counterpart, taking out my phone in that harassed way guys in ties and suit jackets always take out phones. I expected that she was already inside, but when she answered, I could tell from the disappointment in her voice that she was still in traffic somewhere. She told us she didn’t know when she’d make it, but that we should just go in. “Just go in?” I repeated, thinking ‘this isn’t my embassy; I don’t know any of these people, or expect them to know me. This is going to be really awkward.’ But I agreed and hung up. I nodded to the guard and he escorted us in. I had my passport out, ready to present it to someone, but no one else was there to ask for it. We crossed an open courtyard and were shown into a building. Through the glass, I could see what looked like a room of dining dignitaries. A small room. I’d been expecting something larger where we might have been able to sink into the background but there were only about four tables and, at the entry, I noticed no one was in western dress. The men wore white and golden shalwar kameezes; the women were all in brightly colored—usually floral patterned—abayas. Even if there’d been 1,000 people in the room, we would’ve stuck out like sore thumbs. We were now in that tense scene in the movie where the spies have been found out. On the threshold of the room, the conversation stopped, hung there like something raised just out of reach. “Salaam alaikum.” I tried. The room, in particular the male voices called out “wa alaikum salaam” in response and everyone went back to eating. We were safe.

The guard left us stranded in the doorway and a woman fluttered up to us. I expected her to give us a polite but firm ‘may I help you?’ through which it would be implicitly stated that we were in the wrong place, but she brought her hands together in a tent and then they leaped apart in apparent joy at our arrival. I glanced around the room to the expectant faces and made a few nods, not entirely sure what was called for when you show up late and sweaty to the Bruneian Embassy for the Sultan’s Birthday Dinner. I explained that my counterpart was stuck in traffic, but the woman who had welcomed us barely seemed concerned by this. I apologized that we were also late—but glancing at a clock I saw that we’d managed to get from the hotel to the Embassy in 30 minutes, which must’ve been some kind of record in a suit jacket. Even at night, the temperature in Bangkok is in the mid-80s and we’d probably walked a total of 12 blocks.

We were seated at an intimate table where the others all had their names and titles on little cards. I introduced myself and immediately, everyone began to ply me with questions. Where did I teach? How were my students? Had we lived abroad before this? Where? What did we think of Thailand? Of Surat Thani? I enjoy talking with diplomats; they’re usually adept at asking interesting questions and it’s easy to steer the conversation to geography. Soon we were talking about places they’d been posted in Canada and Malaysia. When I told them I was from Michigan, I was astounded to hear that the Bruneian Mission in Ottawa had asked the man across from me to drive around Detroit when he came into the states. He hadn’t been able to take the Ambassador Bridge because they were afraid something would happen to him entering the US in such a nefarious place. I had no idea what to say to that. I’d never considered the possibility that diplomats wouldn’t be allowed to travel to certain places in the States for safety reasons. I assured him it wasn’t as bad as he’d been led to think, but then I told that joke about the cops rear-ending an out-of-state car at a four-way stop in Detroit and yelling ‘what the hell you’d stop for?’ Everyone laughed, but it was the kind of laugh that comes when a danger has already passed and there’s still a faint note of nervousness.

I was hungrier than I’d realized and came back from the buffet with an awkwardly large pile of rice and vegetables. I tried to balance my eating with conversation. Each polite bite I meant to take turned into a frenzy of plate scraping and rice grains falling off my fork on the way to my mouth. Luckily, everyone was too polite to pay much attention, to the credit of my tablemates, it’s difficult not to at least glance out of the corner of your eye when you hear such uninhibited gobbling.

We talked and ate for about an hour before my counterpart arrived; by then, I felt totally comfortable with the people at the table and we were conversing like old friends. I had a third plate of food so my counterpart didn’t have to eat alone and the conversation steered toward Brunei and the culture around holidays. Although we were in the Embassy for the sultan’s birthday, his name was never mentioned. It wasn’t until the end, when we were taking pictures and someone insisted we stand underneath the portraits of the sultan and queen, that I remembered the occasion for the dinner.

Gina and I walked out of the Embassy with all the fuss that accompanies a departure from your grandmother’s house. People stood in the doorway, insisting on taxis or sharing rides which we all politely declined and walked back out through the gates framed in golden spotlights.

Back on the Bangkok streets, we carried the glow of people who have been somewhere important and are now returning home, tired, but more upright when they set out, ties flapping carelessly, handbags languorously held, carrying on a continual murmuring conversation about the events of the night and slouched down slightly in the empty train car watching the dark frames of the city tic past the windows.

Arriving back at the hotel, we found the place much more opulent, now that we had time to enjoy it. The climb to our room was long and tiresome, but in the old building, it was like roaming the hallways and staircases of a castle at night. I felt like I needed a sconce to light my way and that there should’ve been at least one of those portraits on the wall with the eyes that follow you. After we’d been down to the pool, returning to our room, midnight was striking and I continually expected to see some perennial apparition waltzing just above the marble floor, but there was no one but us. The place oozed quiet. The entire hotel seemed empty. Even the front desk in the lobby was continually unmanned. After showering and getting into bed, I could hear all the emptiness of the building rushing up and down the stairs and swelling in the rooms and I felt safe and comfortable in the turret above the rest of the empty castle. After all the noise and haste of the evening, it was the ideal place to be: a little portal into the 19th century and way up on the top floor, no one, not even the silent wispy ghosts of the place would find us. I lie there, looking at the patterns on the dark ceiling thinking:‘no one would think to look way up here.’ 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Parking on an Empty Street

Mikey didn’t trust the Volvo to make it to Portland and back, so he left it parked in the Western Addition and took a Greyhound. “Use it if you want,” he told me and I hoped to. About a month before, I had been looking at grad schools and I found one way up north in a place called Arcata. The program looked good and I applied to it just before the deadline. It wouldn’t be long before I’d be hearing back and I wanted to see Arcata before I made a decision. I’d never been anywhere near that part of California.

Mikey’s Volvo was one of those cars you never expected to start, but it always did. The paint job was a Michigan gray, factory smoke on a cloudy winter day. The windows were filmy with neglect and residual cigarette smoke. The interior always seethed this cold morning fug which was strangely sweet and was like nothing I’d ever smelled, like fruit and wax and paint. A smell made up of natural and artificial components which fit together nicely. An odor that was nostalgic the first time it was smelled. There was a rack on the top, I kept this in mind ducking into the car late in the morning on my day off. I always hit my head on that rack. I threw a handful of cds in the passenger’s seat to listen to. Some of them roadtrip cds I hadn’t listened to in nearly a year.

I didn’t know where to take a left onto Van Ness, so I crossed into the Tenderloin and took a bunch of lefts so I didn’t have to do a U-turn. The traffic out of town and over the bridge was light. I looked over and saw Angel Island and Marin gloaming ahead like something I was going to run into. The bridge stabbed into the straw-colored bulk of Marin and the Volvo hit the rising road like a wall but kept moving. I had the window down and the eucalyptus and dried grass and sand were all blowing through the car, like a light current blowing through beds of kelp, my hair standing on end and swaying against the ceiling of the car. The warning light came on in the dash and I turned on the fan to pull the heat off the engine. The light went off. At the crest of the hill, the traffic and I went into that tunnel with the rainbow painted above it, in which at least one car always honks. It came from behind. A tentative beep from something like a Volkswagen, some personable and brightly-colored car.

After Marin, the 101 widens out through Santa Rosa and becomes like any great American highway; a gray ribbon incessantly tying stores, people, parking lots and the horizon together. It’s warmer up here, the coast moves out and the road drifts east into that strange desert of hills, cattle and chaparral that makes up the bulk of California. The heat, the dryness and the large reflective parking lots push the highway back west toward the water The towns get smaller until they’re insubstantial islands of gas stations and fast food places, just a few rooftops poking out from the jagged green horizon and a sign The temperate pine forests come down from the mountains and crowd the highway. The forest bends the highway into hairpin curves around tattered red tree trunks with the circumference of subway tunnels. The world tips on its side, the horizontal is framed by the vertical. All movement is upwards. It’s enough to carry you off. The car lumbers ahead, but it feels like your hair is on end and the blood is rushing to your head, vertiginously.

A space has been cleared, like a blight has attacked the forest. The gray light overhead is intense. The grass is wet, profuse and downtrodden. The gas stations that appear in these clearings look like humble franchises still owned by a local, someone living behind the place with a first name everyone knows, who sells the pies his neighbor bakes in chunky cling-wrapped slices next to the register. Even standing still, the redwoods dominate the landscape and drag the heavy light of the place back into the forest, exuding fog so thick it looks like suspended rain. The silence is intensified by the non-sound of falling pine needles everywhere and at once.

After crossing into Humboldt County, I stopped often. Despite the hour, the haze gave the place an early morning drive-to-work look and I needed a bad gas station coffee to go with the foggy drive for aesthetic purposes of imaging myself in an old pickup, metal lunch box in the seat next to me and a continuous flow of Maxwell House from a dented thermos. I still had the heat fan going in the car. It wasn’t cold, but I scooped up my beanie from the seat and screwed it on over my hair for effect.

The highway continued to twist in and out of the forest. The lanes peeled away until there were only two: wending their way between elephantine tree trunks, like alleys scuttling between skyscrapers. Every mile or so, there was another place to pull over. Frequently, these were occupied by a lone traveler, head craned 90-degrees back, looking for the tops of the endless trees, blinking against the falling drizzle. Tilted at an angle like that, your hat falls off your head. So you’re standing there, looking up, hat in hand, but looking more bewildered than deferential, squinting, mouth open, catching the rain in a smoky-mouthed howl.

Eureka is the first time you see water. Unlike the mist-drenched forest towns the 101 passes through, Eureka is a salt-scabbed port town. The water suspended in the air, is less diaphanous, milkier, reeks of kelp and dead shellfish and bumps through the seaside streets with the clang of buoys rocking in high tide. Shadows loom and disappear without connecting to form. Everything along the waterfront is warehoused and chainlinked. No windows. The neon sign of a bar drifts through the afternoon like stale cigarette smoke and gulls stab at sodden McDonald’s bags in empty parking lots.

I found the mystery of the town depressing. In the empty streets I felt like the archetypal stranger in a small town. I imagined blinds being lowered, shutters slammed shut, locks turning in doors, but everything was already closed. Each building was a painted children’s block, dropped down in a marsh, adorned with decorative doors and windows but, ultimately solid and sunken in its foundation. Only the highway passing through town seemed to carry any traffic, walking back in the neighborhoods, the movement of distant cars looked strangely furtive, like they were all sneaking away.

Outside Eureka, the bay opened up like a lake placed too close to the ocean and had drained into it. At low tide, it was a pan of cracked mud, miles wide. Disused railroad tracks ran its length like a frame.

North of the bay, Arcata had three or four exits on the highway. I got off at the first one, drove a few blocks west and, finding myself in a quiet neighborhood, pulled over and parked the car. I sat there for a minute with my hands still on the steering wheel, listening to the plinking sounds of the car settling after the long drive. I’d rolled the window up, but a wet, reedy smell permeated the car: the smell of the emptied bay, the smell of gulls digging up crabs in the mud: an evening smell. I opened the door and it came rushing into the car. The lonesome feeling it dredged up was so intense, a bright child’s toy rake abandoned on the sidewalk, persuaded me to move it into the grass. I did so reverently, with both hands.

I took my empty backpack out of the car, locked the door and tried to decide on a direction to walk. Every street had the same look, even when there porch lights on. Nothing enticed me forward. It had been years since I’d moved to a place where I didn’t know anyone and now, faced with the prospect of doing it again, here, there was only a dolorous resignation. I couldn’t imagine being able to fit a single component of my life into this place. In the hills behind the town, a milk-white mist was curdling above the redwoods and floating, like soap bubbles on water, down toward the ocean. I lit a cigarette and watched it for a while, leaning against the car, afraid to leave the familiarity of its warm hood behind.

When I finished smoking, I walked north, without knowing where I was going. The sidewalks were quiet. I didn’t see anyone out. Droplets of water were suspended in the air like dew strung along spiderwebs at dawn. My exhalations disturbed these droplets, flung them further across the wet medium of the twilit sky. I focused on the veil of wet, gray air like a veil before my eyes and avoided looking past it into the background of monotonous single family homes and the moldy, bumper-stickered vans on tires so flat they look melted. My footsteps echoed. There was no one around. The mist had come down from the mountains and claimed the town.

I crossed the highway, walking over a bridge toward a campus painted the color of American cheese which dominated the right bank of the town. The windows of the library shone dimly against the twilight, glistening orange-gray. The automatic doors slide open on a tableau of campus life: scattered backpacks and their backs, thermoses with university logos, abandoned piles of books, most people dressed like they’d just rolled out of bed and a non-student, in a nest of papers at one of the computer terminals, typing carefully with both index fingers like he was pointing out each letter to someone before typing it. I waded through the scene, thinking I would find something to read, but the ripe, vaguely vinegary smell of construction paper became more profound the further I walked into the library. Somehow the smell reinforced the unfamiliarity of the place. I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on reading. It was getting late. I turned and went back out.

I considered walking around campus a little more, but there didn’t seem to be any point. In the falling darkness there wouldn’t be much left to see but the shape of the place, the buildings, the grid of the wet streets, solitary lampposts washing the curbs in light. A jogger passed me, leaving an audible trail of panting breaths. The bridge back over the highway, fenced and unlit, felt impossibly remote from the cars passing beneath, like the lights of San Francisco seen from Alcatraz, reflecting far enough into the water to almost touch the barred windows.

It took me a while to find the Volvo, tucked back as it was into a corner of the town. Since I’d left, someone had parked in front of me. There was so much room on the street, but this other car had sought out the companionship of mine. When I opened the door, I hit my head on the overhead rack. I dropped into the seat clutching the area just above my temple and clenching my teeth against the sudden pain, but the familiar sour smell of the car revived me. The car started, miraculously. I drove off and left the car that had joined mine alone.

I found the highway easily, it ran the length of the town. The temperature had dropped, but I kept the window rolled down so I could rest my elbow on the door. The ocean salts and the mountain pines both found neutral territory on the highway and the car filled and emptied like a sieve with a wild smell like something you’d notice in a burrow or a nest. The lights of Eureka melted into the bay, flooded, now, with high tide.

I only stopped once on the way home when I pulled over on the empty highway to pee after finishing the cold coffee in the thermos. Even with the car there idling next to me, the immense darkness of the place was overwhelming. The wavering starlight shone brightly on the wet highway, like the wake stirred up by a boat trolling the open ocean. I stood there in the dark, listening to the moisture bead and fall from the redwood needles, before nodding at the whole scene, getting back into the car and driving non-stop to the city.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Feast of the Epiphany

It was dark when we got in. We’d taken a bus from Skopje, but the border crossing was easy. In the dark we passed from one Macedonia to another. I must’ve been asleep. I remember all the other imposing borders with their massive awnings spread over the sky sheltering lambent coal beds of brakelights, ten lanes of traffic waiting to pass, but I don’t remember seeing anything like this coming into Greece. In my memory, we just continued down the road and one country became another as gently as a hill begins to level out and you suddenly find yourself in the shadow of the summit you’d only recently climbed.

In Thessaloniki, we took a bus through town, passing chunks of ruins in the moonlight like the melting remnants of ice age glaciers with only another day in the sun before they would be gone forever. I used the button to request a stop. Digital Greek characters flashed above the driver and we walked out onto a street the wispy Mediterranean trees had curled over, shutting out half of the streetlights. At a newsstand, I stopped to ask directions. The man took the scrap of paper from my hand and read the name written hastily in Roman script. I had a difficult time listening to his directions thinking how many American newselllers would be able to read something hastily penned in Greek. At least the numbers were the same.

We found the place and tried Nina’s apartment buzzer, but weren’t sure it was right. The name written under the number was blurred. The voice on the intercom sounded like someone was answering, from far away in the wind. I called into the speaker and my own ghostly voice came back—like it’d traveled up, through the building and, finding no recipient had fallen back, whispered and vague.

We walked around the corner to an idealized restaurant—like something projected straight from someone’s happy memory. It was small but warm, suffused with a golden light. Patrons were constantly getting up, holding on to their wine glasses like balloons, and moving to new seats, laughing and talking the whole way. Waiters drew themselves up in the jovial importance of the situation. Their job was not to deliver food, or even help with pairings, but to ensure the bright mood of the place. Each was an MC, a tamada of the Caucasus tradition, calling on speech makers and plopping wet glasses of raki or coffee in front of comfortable diners without spilling a drop on the cream-colored tablecloth.

Gina went in and got a wifi code from someone. I stayed on the sidewalk, afraid to walk into the scene and spoil it. It was almost better outside. It was cold. I could feel the frozen concrete through the soles of my boots. On the other side of the window, people had taken their jackets off. I watched Gina walk through the scene like she belonged in it: a comfortable person in a comfortable place. She came out with the code on a dense napkin, the ink had swollen around the letters and numbers. “They spoke some English,” she explained and began to dial Nina’s number.

Nina lived in an aerie on the roof, like something you’d house a large machine in, except it had a bathroom and a sink. We slept spooled in blankets on the tile floor at the foot of her twin bed, blocking the way to the bathroom; there was no where else. Nina got back into bed after letting us in and we talked in the darkness. I asked about Thessaloniki. “Oh, there are buildings, the sea, ruins” she told me from the sursurations of her blankets. The room was night-soaked, the color, the light, it was like sleeping on a forest floor with the cold stars guttering overhead. I didn’t sleep; I watched the inky darkness blanch, the night become morning in the ceiling.

It was freezing when I got up. I burned my fingers on the cold water in the sink making instant coffee. No one else wanted any. It was too strong. I forgot to warm the frozen cup and the coffee was immediately cooled into something unpalatable. Nina went to work and Gina and I went out.

There was no snow, but a jagged wind was blowing across a sky the color of late-winter ice. The cold night spent on the floor was in my nose and sinuses like a screwdriver. The more coffee I drank, the farther I seemed to jam it down into my throat.

It was the Feast of the Epiphany and everything was closed, but no one was out doing anything. We asked at a cafe. “Things are just closed,” the barista explained. We went down to the white marble docks on the sea and ran around trying to warm up. A man sold us something hot, thick and cinnamoned like oatmeal water.

In the center of town, a few places were open; we got a simit bread ring or its Greek equivalent at the train station and bought a ticket to Sofia for the next day.

It felt like it had been getting dark all day, so it was something of a relief when, around 4, the gray began to clot and spread in the clouds. Despite the holiday, I hadn’t heard any church bells, or maybe I’d confused them with the dull tocsin of the lighthouses.

We met Nina downtown and she took us to a squat that was clean and looked nothing like a squat except for the big squatters’ rights symbol hanging on the front of the place, painted on dropcloth. Inside, people were swing dancing around the creaky wooden floor of what had probably once been a living room. ‘The perfect communism,’ I thought. ‘Give us your homes so we can dance.’ I got a raki at the bar and sat down next to Gina and a pack of cards that I began to shuffle around. Nina sat down and explained why she was in Greece.

The boy had some abbreviated Greek name, like Nick or Theo. They’d spent a summer some place near a lake, meeting in dark, open places, nestled in reeds or field grass and talking.

Nina’s story had so much residual warmth in it, I moved closer, repeatedly kicking my frozen feet against the wooden floor. Listening more intently and swishing the raki around in my mouth.

At the end of the summer, Nick had gone back to Greece and Nina followed, but things weren’t going well. She was immured at night in her wind-stricken tower and during the day, she struggled to keep her English students from canceling classes. Mostly, she was alone. Nick wouldn’t even answer his phone if his mom was around. The mom was dominating and would have nothing less than a Greek Orthodox girl for her son. She couldn’t ever know about Nina. Nick’s dad was a metropolitan or something. Occasionally, Nick would come in the night, but he’d leave soon after without much reassurance that things were ever going to change.

I finished my raki and gave my opinion trying hard to look Nina honestly in the eyes. If it was only Nick that kept her here; she might consider going home. It couldn’t possibly be any colder in Poland, I joked.

“Yes it could,” she said. We left it at that and I went to buy rakis for everyone.

On the way home from the squat, we got lost looking for the aerie. I kept thinking I saw the ideal restaurant from the night before, but it turns out, all restaurants in Thessaloniki were like this, which was lovely, but made it very easy to get lost among them.

It took us so long to find our way back, we only had a couple hours of sleep before we had to catch our train. It didn’t matter, I couldn’t sleep in that apartment, anyway.