By: S.B Goncarova
I know the language of the rain, she says.
The gull beats her rain-stained wings as she hovers over the line between land and sea. She looks down into the water, searching for a fixed-point, but instead sees across timelines. Pasts, futures, and presents mix together like subsurface bubbles as the ocean folds into itself and spills onto the sand. At the shoreline, the vast energy of the tides transforms into the sound of waves burnishing the shore; of molecular bonds of water breaking and reforming around gaseous beads of air; of the effervescent crackle of lines of seafoam as they dissipate back into breath. Our lives and those of others connect across oceans via threads of invisible light; meteoroid fragments collide into the atmosphere; silent explosions suspended somewhere between us and the stars of galaxies known and unknown. There is no fixed point in the water as there is no fixed point in the clouds. The depths of space constantly fold and unfold, the leaves like origami breaking free from a seed, sensing the warmth of a sun that it cannot yet see.
I know the language of the rain, she says. I hear the voices of the trees, the song of the stars and the calling of the moon.
Listen to the poet recite ‘The language of the rain”:
How do I paint the sound of the wind that
floods my ears as I fly by on the motorbike
through rice fields still flooded
from last week’s downpour?
A murmuration of swallows chasing me
as I in turn, chase the sun behind the mountains,
the colors of the sky too radiant for paint.
But perhaps a dye would do?
Dropped on paper left out in the rain
colors too subtle for names
spread across the page like root systems.
And with a piece of bamboo carved into a pen
and the rich-black tattoo ink
that the monks on the mountain use
made from char of back-burned rice fields
I write out my prayers across the horizon
prayers for grace; for guidance
And with a big-fat dry brush
I pull the ink down
Down down to reveal lost landscapes
as rainfall reveals the mountain’s crumbling shape
and becomes rich-black soil of the valley floor.
The prayers are washed away
and float up like lanterns into the all-knowing night
and I forget what I called you
and what you called me,
how the back of your neck smelled when I’d kiss it,
how wrapping your arms around me
made the world fall away.
All I do remember
Is that I gave my heart fully and shouldn’t have.
And then, the harvest moon floats over from your house
the same size as that quartz stone I once found in the lining of my coat
that matches the negative space of my hand
when I put it in my pocket.
And on the moon is tied a string
and on the string a scroll
and it says:
Dinner at Tho’s
Dinner at Tho’s
After eating at her restaurant nearly everyday for a few weeks now, Tho and I begin to chat lightly like maybe possibly we could be friends someday. Yesterday she showed me her nails after coming back from the beauty salon across the street, and I coo over how glitzy the designs are. Not sure where the craze to put glitter and rhinestones on finger and toenails comes from. But she could coat her nails in squirrel poo and still those elegant hands and wrists would give her away as the Disney princess she is.
And tonight she sits down on the step next to my table while I’m writing and tells me that her father passed away this morning. And I think I must have not heard her correctly. How is she still standing? How is she working this restaurant as she is, without missing a beat?
I look into her eyes and she says: “He is eighty,” and then her eyes turn red and swell, and I’m sure now that I did not mishear. She shows me pictures on her phone, of his frail body on his hospital bed, tethered to breathing equipment. There is a smile on his face, like he is having a pleasant dream. What is he dreaming I wonder. Where is he now?
But still she runs the place like today is any other day, and I am in awe of her fortitude. And in the space of an instant my mind swirls, transporting me in time to that day in the future when I am in her place, and I see myself at the side of the hospital bed, looking down at my own father’s body, gripping onto the safety rail so vehemently it’s as if I can somehow stop him from passing with sheer force of will. A biblical flood of guilt gushes forth. Guilt for my leaving home, guilt for staying away.
This time last year I was an indentured servant, building stone walls, too wounded to think I was worth being paid for my time, and foolishly believing that I had found my tribe, wanting only to be accepted and to prove my worth in working hard. And promises were made that if I worked hard enough I’d get a cabin of my own to call home. A home. Of my own. An idea which I savored with relish after escaping an 8-year marriage in which I was made to feel that the world would be better off if I didn’t exist in it.
Throughout that winter I worked like a dog building stone walls, somehow surviving on one meal a day and a dream to build my father that little round stone house to retire to when he ever does decide to retire. Thoreau-style in the woods out in the middle of nowhere, New England. Where he can find peace in the simple ways of doing things—just like in the stories he always tells of life in the old country. Like chilling one bottle of goat milk in the well and keeping another out on the windowsill to make salad dressing for the evening meal. And brewing homemade birch beer “birzu sulu” under the sink.
But promises were broken, and more promises were made, and situations became poisonous and only too late did I realize just how vulnerable I had let myself become. This tribe was not my tribe but was simply a couple of people taking advantage of me in every way they could for their own personal benefit. They had no intention of honoring those promises. I had to find myself a way out. Which I did, eeking my way across the globe, ending up in Hoi An, Vietnam, where I am, more than a year later, still on the search for home. It’s easy here. I can study martial arts and write everyday and be able to take care of myself. But, if I stay here in Vietnam and choose to make it my home, the plan of building my father his Hagrid Hut, that promise of creating that idyllic existence and taking care of him in his twilight years—will inevitably be broken. He’ll never come here to visit, let alone stay with me. South-East Asia is too far out of his comfort zone.
And there’s no way I can afford the DC area. Not when a windowless, one-bedroom goes for two grand a month and a chicken sandwich can set you back 15 dollars.
And yet guilt pours forth for not making more of an effort to connect. We act like two stubborn goldfish in two goldfish bowls looking in opposite directions because somehow that’s easier than looking at each other. Allowing the past determine how we act in the present and dictate how we will continue to act like in the future. As if the rules of engagement between us are written in stone and we have no choice but to abide by them.
Both of us are masters at building stone walls.
A regular I recognize breezes into the restaurant. A western man, my father’s age. His hair looks like it hasn’t been washed or cut since God was a boy, and his clothes look like a flannel bed sheets crumpled in a corner. He looks so fragile it’s a wonder how he walks around without his bones breaking in two. I’ve seen him a few times before here, sometimes we take our lunch at the same time, but we always sit at opposite corners of the cafe. He never smiles, never makes eye contact, but come to think of it, neither do I. But this is more common than not between expats— By avoiding eye contact we avoid facing the discomfort of acknowledging that the periphery of our lives indeed do overlap, whether we like to admit it or not.
After ordering, he nonchalantly picks up a guitar and plays some gorgeous melodies I’ve never heard before, but have the hallmarks of Albaniz or Roderigo. In-between bites, he plays Bach, the first movement of a cello suite I remember from my younger days. I noticed the guitar in the corner yesterday, and thought it was a strange thing to just have randomly laying around. But he must keep it here to get in some practice time while he eats. Here a lifetime of daily devotion to mastering the craft of music, casually shared with strangers, like a well-loved novel intentionally left on a park bench somewhere.
The diners at Tho’s are engaged in varying shades of listening; some solely interested in their dinner, some scouring their phones for some morsel of fiendish delight. I perch myself outside on the covered patio, so I can survey both the restaurant and the street. Floral-mask-wearing ninjas fly down the street on motorbikes at supersonic speeds. Neighbors are involved in the nightly ritual of arranging motorbikes into a line and threading a thick chain through the spokes of the wheels, securing them for the night. Roaring down the street, an elderly man balances 15 ft lengths of 4” plastic plumbing pipes on his shoulder, while simultaneously smoking an unfiltered cigarette.
Overly blond, impossibly tan tourists numbly pedal their one-speed push bikes, looking somewhere between bored and bewildered. The owner of the beauty salon across the street paces in front of her store with her two-year old daughter in tow. And in a sewing studio carved out of the alley between the beauty parlor and Rosie’s place, a man my age churns out hotel bed-covers on an industrial-strength sewing machine the same make as the one my mother’s mother worked on in the garment district with her four sisters during the war.
All our lives overlap in the space of this moment, gossamer textures of existence, sewn together.
On the flat-screen hanging in the corner in the back of Tho’s, a documentary about premature babies plays in the background. Her kids sit at the bar, following the subtitles to try to soak up some English. A father in a plastic shower cap holds his infant daughter at his shoulder, walking her up and down the hospital corridor, patting her back. I marvel at how a first-time father instinctively knows to pat her back to comfort her.
Standing by a hospital bed, not unlike the picture Tho showed me on her phone, I notice, I see my future self. My future self from the timeline where I do nothing to repair my relationship with my father. The timeline that will become this timeline if it stays on its present course.
And I despair at how much work is to be done if we are ever to be able to breach these thick walls between us. How much pain we will go through. Is it worth it? Is it possible, even? Is it too late to start?
“We always have a choice.” she answers from her side of the TV, still grabbing on to the rail of the hospital bed, her eyes red and swollen. “You choose whether or not the pain is worth knowing that at the end of his life, or at the end of yours, that you did everything you could to heal this rift between you. We have a limited number of days before we are separated from this plane of existence. You choose whether or not you want to use the time given you not connecting with those you love.
“You’ve spent your entire life thinking you aren’t lovable so you never stay in one place long enough for anyone to get to know you. But you know what? That’s all made up in your head. It isn’t truth, even though you believe it is. Look at yourself. Look how this belief you hold onto has crippled you. If your belief doesn’t serve you, if it’s been ruining your life up to now like it has, you need to let that shit go.“
Tho shuts off the TV, shoos the kids out the back to go get ready for bed. School comes early tomorrow— each of the kids go to separate schools in the town, and she drives them each by motorbike. Traffic in Old Town at that time of morning is more densely packed that a can of amorous sardines. She shuts the rest of the lights in the restaurant and closes down the shutters, then she walks me out and locks the doors. I tell her to try to get some sleep, even though I know it will be hard. I don’t know if she understands my words, but I trust that she understands the sentiment behind them. Waiting for a lull in traffic to cross the street back to Rosie’s, I smile and wave at the beauty salon owner still pacing with her baby. And just as I think it’s all clear and step out into the street, a baby-pink-floral-masked motorcycle ninja flies by, going at least 45, balancing a 50-lb bag of rice between her legs, and another on her back, the rims of her wheels centimeters away from cleaving off my toes, without a flinch, or a sideways scowl, even, disappearing into the night.