On Homes: three fragments

(CW depression, violence, death, class)

***

I'm coming out of a time of death this summer. Three people quite close to me died within the span of a few weeks. One elderly, one untimely, and one my age, a friend from another lifetime. It's hard to summarize them, to type them out as if they were facts, cold, succinct, linear. But that's really the way these deaths felt to me. An onset, a quick downward slide, a slough. I found myself getting into some new habits this July and August: sleeping late, returning no calls, burying my head in trying to support other people, binge-reading whatever escapist fiction I came across, book after book after book. I lost myself in other people's stories. Outside, the global North heaved on its sociopolitical fault lines daily, and the seismic pain and tragedy shook me even further down into my deep-dug pit. 

 

In the months that my partner’s mother was dying, and in the weeks after she died, I listened to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s album ‘async’ on repeat. This was the album that helped me cry. 'async' is measured and stately and inventive, full of tenderness and beauty. The transformations and reoccurrences of its opening chorale move me. The album weaves in and out of sadness, contextualizing and resituating its pained core chorale in nostalgia, interest, meditation, cogitation, and inevitability. Each track slowly rewrites its world at the pulse of a heartbeat, in warm contrapuntal synths, piano, muted triangles, organ, col legno battuto strings, shamisen, close-miced organic field recordings, moaning feedback, and speaking voices in numerous layers of language. I also read On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and On Grief and Grieving by the same, and A Death in the Family by James Agee, and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I read these because I wanted to be prepared: Weston’s world was revolving around his mother, and I was revolving around him, watching, listening, teaching myself to curl into this painful internal posture. With each update on her diagnosis, the first thing I heard was the shout of a terrified instinct in the back of my mind. Every minute of every day, this sad selfish instinct said that it wasn’t Diana that we were losing, but Weston himself; that it was not his mother, but him.

 

Weston's family home is small and square, tucked back from the rural neighborhood street in a rich, nearly overgrown jungle of a postage-stamp lawn. The air in the upstate of South Carolina is muggy and green in August, slow-moving summer air that encases you, fills up your skin and lungs with rich hot damp, leaves you soft and sleepy and redolent with chlorophyll and cicada's rumbling buzz. In the South, and especially when a Southerner dies, people come around simply to sit. They show up one by one, or in twos or threes together, bringing food or flowers or nothing at all, and sit themselves down in the sitting room or in the shade of the sitting porch and settle in. They settle in for a long, slow conversation that winds around lazily until it weaves in the comings and goings of all the people you know in common, what they've been up to since you've seen them last, how they've been doing, their successes and struggles. The talk folds together the stories of others, never directly interrogating, never too much self-revelation or divulging. The lives of others seem a welcome respite from the life in this quiet house, the life which has for months been revolving around a slowly dying person, the life which has been slow and sticky and dark as molasses. Dust has settled deep into the corners here, particularly in those tucked-away places they don't tend to go anymore: her private bathroom with its claw foot tub and its stock of essential oils and soothing lotions, her office stacked neatly with document binders and family annals, her fastidiously organized sewing desk, her glassed bookcase with thick, optimistic tomes on medicine and self-healing. The life in this house, I felt, had for months been slowly circling in ever-tighter, ever-slower curls, until with her final breaths, the life had stopped, or perhaps had suspended, in medias res, with no thought or anticipation or thought of restarting. I felt my own vitality in that house. And my femininity. The house had lost its matriarch, its unshakable lodestar, its sole female tenant for over 50 years, and in unsatisfying return, it had received me: too young, cheery, unfamiliar, a temporary visitor.

***

These months away from the world left me an awkwardly insulated player. I discovered this when I played in a string trio for a event recently with some truly wonderful and creative musicians: I barely recognized myself on the instrument, throwing my fingers down uncomfortably, uneven microseconds away from the pulse, getting lost in the length of the bow. 

 

The trio job was on the rooftop terrace above the Time Warner Center. It's a deconstructivist corner pavilion that looks south and west and north: over the streets of Manhattan and the shipyards on the Hudson, along Jersey City and the mansions tucked into the cliffs of the Palisades, and -- most shockingly -- out to the blurred hilly horizon beyond. From that height, not only do the cars and people seem toylike and small down in the fretworked streets of Manhattan, but the city itself shows its tight geographic limits. These days, I rarely see my city from vantage points much higher than street level. This sweeping view of Manhattan provokes in me a dizzying cognitive dissonance, a pleasant conceptual seasickness. My endless city is not endless. From this height, in the particular perspective, an unencumbered evening sunlight slices golden and uninterrupted across the horizon towards sunset. 

 

The smiling door guard told me conspiratorially that residences in this building start at $16,000 per month. The family who had contracted us kept their apartment in the building year-round, though they lived in another country and used this apartment as a vacation home. I thought of this when I was walking along the rooftop terrace of the Time Warner Center in the hour before the event was to begin, leaning between the giant pots of hibiscus flowers, balancing my body recklessly over the terrace wall, looking west and south and north, sliding my gaze from the fervid glowing life-filled grid to the soft slate hills on the horizon. The terrace was full of staff, both event staff and personal staff for the family hosting. They bustled about with silver balloons, candles in glass jars, drinks and flowers and napkins. The staff talked to one another constantly: in the corridors in passing, on cell phones, on walkie-talkies. I remembered my own upbringing in a staffed household as the daughter of expats, remembered the walks to school and vacations with my beloved nanny and the lavish parties catered from our own kitchen by our chef. These days, I am mostly on the help side. My working context can involve entering a lot of luxury spaces, galas and dinner parties and gilded halls. My work these days almost always entails creating a conspicuously classed experience for others. It's not always a situation so extreme or so unusual that I take notice. Today I certainly do. 

 

I thought of this life of beauty and excess.  

***

 

Growing up in downtown Jakarta in the '90s, an American so far from the United States, I longed for the violin. I have no idea how the seed of classical music planted itself in my young psyche: my parents' musical tastes were --  and still are -- unquestionably cool. My dad grew up DJing for his family's bar and cabaret, the best clubs in the Last Frontier; my mom came to Alaska in tow of her grandmother, a bottle-blonde jazz-and-blues bar singer with sex in her voice and a backup band in her traveling van. Somehow, I latched on to the violin and somehow, I haven't let it go.

 

There is a restaurant on Broadway in the Upper West Side called Five Napkin Burger. I don't love burgers, but I love that name. It's a description, an injunction, a challenge. It turns sloppiness into a selling point, messiness into an event. The acrid, sour, tantalizing smell of burgers inevitably brings me back to my earliest brushes with global capitalism and cosmopolitan franchising. The smell of a burger joint is, to me, the unmistakable smell of America: it is the smell of the A&W store at Pondok Indah mall in Jakarta, American restaurants in Singapore, cookouts and Coke and cakes with frosting colors so garish you can taste them at the Embassy and the American Club. Five Napkin Burger knows this. It knows the meaty excess of ground beef and ketchup, the decadence of hot animal juices spilling down, soaking five whole napkins. It knows that Americans will smell their burger, feel their blood rise and crave the mess, crave drips of fat and sauce on their hands, then wipe it all away with pride.  

 

When I was fifteen and back in the Alaskan neighborhood public school system, I wrote an essay for a writing class about my childhood in Jakarta. It was a long and dense three pages, in a small font, single-spaced. I’ve lost trace of it, through all the updates and moves between house and city and country that have followed. I think about this essay all the time, trying to fully reconstruct it mentally. The essay’s first line was awful, straight out of a bad memoir: “For a time in my earliest years, fear held my heart as much as joy.” I think it picked up somewhat after that, though, bringing in the hot equatorial sun bleaching the color from my thin hair by our pool, and the crackles of static I felt when I went down the hot plastic slide in my wet swimsuit. Then, it moved inside to the cool marble and teak interiors of our colonial mansion that had been built for the Dutch spice traders centuries ago. I remember that I used my upstairs-downstairs childhood as a lived metaphor for the political insurrection that was to follow. This was not out of a young writer’s conceit but because that was, in fact, what it was. The essay followed my child’s perspective of the mob violence around the ‘98 election and our evacuation from the country, running down backstreets of our city, in a state of emergency, flooding in the middle of a tropical thunderstorm.

 

When I wrote this essay, I had no way of knowing that I would be in a startlingly similar situation not even a year later while studying for what I thought would be a year in Thailand, evacuated from my high school in downtown Bangkok to the near countryside due to violent post-election mobs in the streets where I walked, bombs threatened to be thrown over my school’s concrete walls, a form of house arrest imposed on me to prevent politically motivated kidnapping. At the time, an insecure new student at an Alaskan neighborhood high school, I read this lost essay on my childhood aloud to my writing class in a state of sheer adolescent terror. It was so long that the bell rang for the next class, but I kept reading. Almost everyone in the class stayed to listen, and because of that, I believe, I became a writer. This was my first personal essay, and I still privately think of it as my best. I hope I read it again someday.