Monday, September 27, 2010

On intimacy

Ever since the metro has reached my house, I’ve given up driving. Rather, I drive -- just not more than twice a week. This saving on time-fuel-energy has been happening for three weeks now. In the bargain, on the commute to work and back, I get to read – non-fiction, even; makes me feel cool. Recently, standing and swaying, till I got off where I get off, I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s sequel to Eat, Pray, Love. To ensure you get to read this one teensy part of a book you may not pick up, I negotiated and made-stay the middle-part binding of a paperback just to copy-type these 1,175 words. This is possibly then my favourite passage from Committed.


"Here’s something you wouldn’t necessarily expect of Bali: The place is bloody loud. I once lived in a Manhattan apartment facing 14th Street, and that place was not nearly as loud as this rural Balinese village. There were nights in Bali when the two of us would be simultaneously awakened by the sound of dogs fighting, or roosters arguing, or an enthusiastic ceremonial procession. Other times, we were pulled out of sleep by the weather, which could behave with startling drama. We always slept with the windows open, and there were nights when the wind blew so hard that we would wake to find ourselves all twisted up in the fabric of our mosquito netting, like seaweed trapped in a sailboat’s rigging. Then we would untangle each other and lie in the hot darkness, talking.

One of my favorite passages in literature is from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In it, Calvino described an imaginary town called Eufemia, where the merchants of all nations gather at every solstice and every equinox to exchange goods. But these merchants do not come together merely to trade spices or jewels or livestock or textiles. Rather, they come to this town to exchange with each other – to literally in personal intimacies. They way it works, Calvino wrote, is that men gather around the desert bonfires at night, and each man offers up a word, like “sister,” or “wolf,” or “buried treasure.” Then all the other men take turns telling their own personal stories of sisters, of wolves, of buried treasures. And in the months to come, long after the merchants leave Eufemia, when they ride their camels alone across the desert or sail the long route to China, each man combats his boredom by dredging through old memories. And that’s when the men discover that their memories really have been traded – that, as Calvino wrote, “their sister had been exchanged for another’s sister, their wolf for another’s wolf.”

This is what intimacy does to us over time. That’s what a long marriage can do. It causes us to inherit and trade each other’s stories. This, in part, is how we become annexes of each other, trellises on which each other’s biography can grow. Felipe’s private history becomes a piece of my memory; my life gets woven into the material of his. Recalling that imaginary story-trading of Eufemia, and thinking of the tiny narrative stitches that comprise human intimacy, I would sometimes – at three o’clock in the morning on a sleepless night in Bali – feed Felipe a specific word, just to see what memories I could summon out of him. At my cue, at the word I had offered up to him, Felipe would lie there beside me in the dark telling me his scattered stories of sisters, of buried treasures, of wolves, and also more – of beaches, birds, feet, princes, competitions…

I remember one hot, damp night when I woke up after a motorcycle without a muffler had blasted past our window, and I sensed that Felipe was also awake. Once more, I selected a word at random.

“Please tell me a story about fish,” I requested.

Felipe thought for a long while.

Then he took his time in the moonlit room to recount a memory of going fishing with his father on overnight trips when he was just a little kid back in Brazil. They would head off to some wild river together, just the child and the man, and they would camp there for days – barefoot and shirtless the whole time, living on what they caught. Felipe wasn’t as smart as his older brother Gildo (everyone agreed on this), and he wasn’t as charming as his big sister Lily (everyone agreed on that, too), but her was known in the family to be the best helper and so he was the only one who ever go to go on the fishing trips alone with his father, even though he was very small.

Felipe’s main job on those expeditions was to help his dad set the nets across the river. It was all about strategy. His dad wouldn’t talk too much during the day (too busy focusing on the fishing), but every night over the open fire, he would lay out his plan – man to man – for the next day about where they would fish. Felipe’s father would ask his six-year-old son, “Did you see that tree about a mile up the river that’s halfway submerged? What do you think about us going there tomorrow, to investigate?” and Felipe squat there by the fire, all alert and serious, listening manfully, focusing on the plan, nodding his approval.

Felipe’s father was not an ambitious guy, not a great thinker, not a captain of industry. Truthfully, he was not very industrious at all. But he was a fearless swimmer. He would clench his big hunting knife in his teeth and swim across those wide rivers, checking his nets and traps while he left his little boy alone on the back on the bank. It was both terrifying and thrilling for Felipe to watch his father strip down to his shorts, bite that knife, and fight his way across the swift current – knowing all the while that if his father was swept away, he himself would be abandoned there in the middle of nowhere.

But his father was never swept away. He was too strong. In the nighttime heat of our bedroom in Bali, under our damp and billowing mosquito nets, Felipe showed me what a strong swimmer his dad had been. He imitated his father’s beautiful stroke, lying there on his back in the humid air, swimming, his arms faint and ghostly. Across all these lost decades, Felipe could still replicate the exact sound that his father’s arms made as they sliced through the fast dark waters: “Shush-a, shush-a, shush-a…

And now that memory -- that sound – swam through me too. I even felt as though I could remember it, despite having never met Felipe’s father, who died years ago. In fact, there are probably only about four people alive in the world who remember Felipe’s father at all anymore, and only one of them – until the moment Felipe shared this story with me – recalled exactly how that man had looked and sounded when he used to swim across wild Brazilian rivers in the middle years of the last century. But now I felt that I could remember it, too, in a strange and personal way.

This is intimacy: the trading of stories in the dark.

This act, the act of quiet nighttime talking, illustrates for me more than anything else the curious alchemy of companionship. Because when Felipe described his father’s swimming stroke, I took that watery image and I stitched it carefully into the hem of my own life, and now I will carry that around with me forever. As long as I live, and even long after Felipe has gone, his childhood memory, his father, his river, his Brazil – all of this, too, has somehow become me."


Shush-a, shush-a...; resonates in the depths of my heart, I tell you.

1 comment:

The Mystic said...

I wanna read both the parts! HighDryBad doesn't have decent bookstores :(