Later, in two weeks, I would come back home—almost thirty-eight and I would come back home, in two weeks, after this vacation, before the month's end.
I am thinking it's not funny, and inevitably it makes me laugh. I have been laughing a lot, randomly, often, for almost thirty-eight years. Although I don't know if I laughed much as an infant, before I remember me being me. But I guess I did. I can forge a memory of my first serious fit of laughter when I was ten months old, a laughter that surprised my father and my mother, a laughter that was way too deep for a baby, way too inexplicable, something freed in this tiny body: Poof—a surprise—the world held in that laughter, the promise of the world.
In the early weeks of the trip, before I got sick, I see him: the guide we'd hired for the tour of the island. I think he liked me very much. Nothing predestined him to like me. He was very small, perhaps not even five feet, very mischievous; while I am very tall, five feet eleven; too tall for my size and not completely comfortable with it. I tend to slouch a little to compensate; obviously I never wear heels. I think in the beginning he liked me because I seemed to be listening. I asked questions, a lot of them, and waited for his answers, and listened to them, patiently, with a small elusive smile. The smile wasn't coquetry, it was just a smile; I am not sure how else to look, a smile here or there seems the polite thing to do as I listen. He may have misinterpreted the smile, but upon reflection I think not. I think it was something else, or the sum of a lot of small things. My sister, who has been with me on this trip, believes in dramatic pivotal moments; she is a first-kiss, last-breath type. I veer toward the theory of hydrodynamics: a small angle of helm to create a shift, the sum of small angles to make a turn. It's essentially the same thing, pivotal moments and the sum of small angles, all a matter of perspective, of one's distance toward change.
For the record: I never thought of myself as particularly pretty. I think of myself as me, without a lot of qualifiers. Only the things I'm not completely comfortable with are noticeable to me, such as my size. I don't dislike myself in a mirror, but I detest myself in a picture. I don't mind my own voice, but I hate being recorded and played back. I accept my own smell, as long as I can forget it. I never wear perfumes that are too strong. I'd have to really sniff my own neck to know which one I am wearing, or if I'm wearing one at all. I don't mind the shape of my ears, as long as they're hidden under my hair. I hide the white in my hair because I am not yet used to me as an older person. I lost my big toenail a long time ago; I hide it under an acrylic substitute. I have an obsession with my absent toenail which is always noticeable.
The name of the guide was Ketut (Qi-toot), which means "fourth child." It turns out this small island has come up with an incredibly complex calendar yet a simplistic system to name people. The calendar consists of ten concurrent weeks of one to ten days each; each day out of the two hundred and ten possible permutations is a unique blend of days picked from each different week. While the days of most weeks are arranged in simple recurring cycles, the order in three of the weeks are subject to obscure calculations. By contrast, the fourth child is always Ketut. So days are more unique than people, which, upon thinking it through, makes sense.
Ketut liked to preserve his effects. By that I mean both stylistic effects and effects of surprise—effects in general. For example, I would ask a question and he would answer that he would not answer but rather save his answer for later during the trip. He'd say his answer would only make sense in its context. He would not talk about temples before we actually set foot in one. He would not talk about cremation ceremonies before we attended one. I tempted a joke and said that, strictly speaking, he should not speak about cremation until we could fully experience it. This earned me a short silence and possibly one point on the Ketut Scale. It's very complicated, Ketut said. Very complicated, he repeated. I could not be sure what he was referring to. What was so complicated?
By the end of week one, I'd learn all there was to learn about growing rice and the various stages of the crop. We hiked through a great number of rice terraces. We biked through them. We had lunch overlooking them. We slept in bungalows adjacent to them. Perhaps the proximity of rice in its various stages of growth, and the focus required to not fall into the glossy mud beneath the lush green of the fields, lulled me into a certain breed of anxiety, something unnamed and inherently nostalgic. I had the distinct and very conscious feeling of this being the last time. This is the last time, I'd keep thinking in loops, the last time. If Ketut had been the one thinking or saying it, he would have added his favorite question—do you understand what I mean? A phrase he always added after his most incomprehensible diatribes.
Of course, I know that every time could be the last time. But there has been something circular in this trip, and in that circularity there's also an end, a tip, a bottommost point. That's what has been troubling me in the rice fields.
During one of the hikes, we crossed a group of peasants resting in the shade on the side of a small hut, sheltering a cow. The cow was splendid. Her brown skin looked impossibly tender, like a rug slowly baked under the sun. Of course, I wanted to rest my feet on her. She seemed to be looking at nothing specific, and I took a mental picture of her nebulous eyes. I never take real pictures. I hate the time and distance stolen by the camera from the experience. But I've kept that mental picture. I want to hold onto it. I think I've lost a lot of memories lately. But that one is here with me, dark and warm and liquid. It makes me smaller than I really am, more comfortable with my body, and yet infinitely scared.
In a way, it's always a big surprise to witness people being attracted to me. Perhaps I was more used to it when I was younger, but I believe I was always surprised. I never expected it. Consciousness of my charm is a cumbersome gift. I don't know where to put it or what to do with it—like one too many balls when you try to juggle.
The morning I became aware that Ketut liked me was the morning after the first fever spike. It was the morning when I stayed in bed while everyone else went on a scooter ride along the coast. I remember laying under the bed canopy, not really tired, the back of my neck heavy from restlessness. I remember a ray of sun poking through the blinds. I was feeling lazy and triumphant—a feeling I've always associated with high fever. It is the moment when, confined to bed, I observe with delight the agitation of the outside world: people completing the draining task of carrying themselves around, of doing things, of saying things. That morning I was seeing the rough grain of the bedsheet in the foreground and further out, stuck to the canopy net, a mosquito exhausted pause. I decided to stay there all day, without moving, like the mosquito.
After I made that delectable decision, there was a knock on the door.
I can't be sure whether I said "Come in." Ketut entered with a fancy-looking bottle and stood still behind the canopy.
"Good morning," he said. "They told me you're sick and I brought some miracle water."
The veil of the net made him look like the ghost of a dwarf entering a temple with an offering. I chuckled on the spot.
"It's not funny," he said seriously, and immediately I laughed harder.
He seemed unfazed by my laugh attack, almost satisfied with it, or perhaps just waiting for it to subside, which it didn't. I don't remember how it ended. I must have fallen asleep while laughing—with no transition. I woke up and noticed that the ray of sun had shifted to the other window. Ketut had left the room and placed the bottle on the bedside table. It was the only clue that he had ever been there. I found myself confused and weary and not particularly proud of my behavior. I drank a gulp of the miracle water before collapsing again onto the pillow. And then I remember having this romantic notion that I was never going to leave the island. I would eventually lose my acrylic toenail and would empty myself of my substance through the hole left from the missing nail.
Perhaps this idea of entrapment was born during a visit to one of the temples. Ketut had explained that cremations on this island could take place many years after a person's death. The timing would hinge on the family and clan availability, possessions, and willingness to return the dead to its next life. The dead would be buried and simply laid on the ground pending cremation. That period of time between death and cremation was like taking a break: a restful pause between two lives.
Everyone was scared I'd contracted dengue. We'd have to wait three more days to get testing done and be sure. In the fever, I was humming songs from childhood that my sister recognized. The temperature made her clearer to me, or fuzzier, with various layers of likability. She was less the quiet lake I'd always known; she was something else too—something explorable. My head hurt, which made me like her more. She'd wipe my forehead even if I asked her not to. It's fine, I'd say, although I wanted her to do this. I think my sister was mirroring the hope of becoming her own souvenir.
In the fourth day after the fever broke, I had a rash best described as islands of white in a sea of red. Testing confirmed dengue. A decision had been made to not take me to a local hospital, which may have made things worse. I was carried along in the minivan, occupying the last row all by myself, laying across the seats, watching flies land on the window's curtains. I didn't see the landscape we moved across; I missed the early-morning hike on the volcano; I missed the waterfalls. From this trip I only got to know the rice fields and the temples; the rest would be a dream from the backseats of a minivan. The itch wasn't terrible, and Ketut was considerate. He brought me little green rice cakes filled with shredded coconut and cane syrup. When I got better I started smoking again—Ketut's cigarettes. Ketut and I sat in the shadow of the minivan and lit up. He mentioned smoking was not well-perceived for women on the island. He said it was expected from women of a certain kind. He didn't ask whether I understood what he meant.
Soon the trip would come to an end. My sister's children had to go back to school. I'd have to stay a bit longer to make sure the fever resolved and the disease wouldn't proceed to anything more critical. There'd be very little chance of that happening and no reason to ask anyone to stay behind. I would take care of myself. Ketut would return to his village near the center of the island. Before leaving, he'd visit me one last time. There would be a pause. A moment when he would appear to be looking for words followed by a moment when he would apologize for his poor English and his poor everything. I wouldn't say anything. I'd offer an elusive smile and ask for a cigarette. When we'd be done smoking, he'd say that the world was no bigger than a leaf.
A few days passed and the fever would rise again. Something else I'd remember and I will recount too. I stayed in a bungalow on the north shore where the bathtub was installed over a pond. From the edge of the tub, I'd dangle a yarn with improvised bait and catch a fish that I'd keep releasing. There'd be a small turtle too, which I would feed; her small mouth would nearly touch my fingers with every bite. Also sitting in the tub, I'd write a long letter to my sister slowly, very slowly, describing precisely the feeling of voluptuous fear that would coil itself in me. I would do this with a lot of care. For what am I if not precise and careful and composed?
What I think is that, in that moment, doing those things on the edge of a tub sitting on a pond, I felt like having a giant and wild fit of laughter that would echo across the pond.
And then later in two weeks, I would come back home—almost thirty-eight and I would come back home, in two weeks, after this vacation, before the month's end. I am thinking it's not funny, and inevitably it makes me laugh.
Title image "Rice Terrace" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.