I’ve been here before, trying to quell this underlying feeling of wanting to bolt, to run away, find something new. I’m mostly contented. The threat of violence or starvation or homelessness is not hanging around my door. I love my family. But day to day routines don’t hold much in the way of surprise and that little bit of fear that breeds excitement.
The last time I was away from what was familiar was before I had kids, a couple years before Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese control.
I was with ten other girls who worked in the same department at the airline. We were going to Hong Kong to see the hotels we were selling as part of a vacation package.
Stephanie was my roommate. All I knew about her before this trip was that she had just turned fifty and called in sick on her birthday. I knew that she spoke sweetly to the people who called in to make reservations. I knew that she had a wide, beautiful face, smooth white skin, and happy blue eyes.
The first thing she ever said to me was, “What are you? A baby goat?” It was right after I’d moved to her quad of desks and I was drinking from a pull top water bottle. I think I must’ve smiled at her but I don’t remember.
In Hong Kong, our friendship just happened. We laughed when the elevator alarms sounded because our group exceeded the weight limit. We laughed when she woke up “feeling like she had licked a cat.” We laughed when I said I felt like I’d been eating Science Diet dog food.
I told her I’d grown up in Venezuela, that the multi-national company where my dad worked had transferred him there when I was three. I told her that being in Hong Kong, which is much closer to the equator than Minnesota, I had it in my mind to find an expanse of lush tropical gardens, complete with the traffic of birds and over-sized insects. I was looking for the environment of my childhood. Even when my eyes were focused straight ahead, I was really looking back.
So why didn’t I just go back to Venezuela, my heart even being its exact shape? Why didn’t I leave my husband, my kids, my dogs and cats? Why didn’t I move away from Minnesota, from the this place of crushing winters? I knew I was going to be laid off from my job in five months anyway, the job that took me to Hong Kong.
I didn’t go back because the circumstances that took me there in the first place were gone. People, like land, are not static. I just wanted to relive it. What I was looking for in Hong Kong were the smells and sounds and colors of my youth. I wanted to feel the air again, wet and heavy, clinging to my skin like a blanket. I wanted the sun to dominate and permeate my vision, making the dirtiest, dustiest corners flash with color.
On our last day in Hong Kong, Stephanie and I opted out of joining the rest of the group on a bus tour to Canton. Instead, we took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island in search of flora and fauna.
It was clear as we climbed the steep street that we were on a mountain. But it was a mountain of buildings, stacked and leaning over each other. We saw a church built in the middle of a parking lot. Sacred space, so sacred is the space.
We found a small botanical garden at the top of that road, a meager park with a zoo and a tiny hothouse. Inside the hothouse, looking at the orchids clinging to their tree fern fiber perches, I realized this was the closest I was going to get to Venezuela. But we stayed in that park for a long hour before going in search of the mountainside escalator we’d read about.
It went up in levels, that escalator, each one opening up into a singular community. Steps away from the escalator were households, laundry hanging out of windows, over walls. There was a level comprised of real estate offices. Another was food shops.
We got off the escalator where it opened into a mosque. Duly shedding our shoes, we stepped into a carpeted room. It was poor and plain and a group of children sat around a turbaned man. He attempted conversation with us, practiced kindness. But in reality, it was as if we had walked into a stranger’s house uninvited. It occurred to me that in this crowded city, boundaries were erected through body language. Downcast eyes were doors. Stiff bodies were fences. We left that mosque quickly, our eyes downcast.
As we wound our way back down the mountain, Stephanie tripped on a hidden step, crashed into me, crashed to the pavement. She said, “It feels like my foot isn’t attached to my ankle.” In the cab on the way back to the hotel, all I could think to do was to tell her stories so she wouldn’t pass out.
I told her about the time in Venezuela when my younger brother, Mike, skipped school, took a quaalude, and borrowed a motorcycle. He crashed. The person that found him didn’t know where he lived but knew he went to the American school so he called the school. The school tried calling our house but kept getting a busy signal. I was called out of class. My first thought was “Good. I don’t have to take that marine biology test I didn’t study for.” It happened that my first boyfriend, my ex-boyfriend, was up at the school. He drove me home in his little green Renault. And, while my mother got dressed and waited for my dad, he drove me to the hospital.
There was Mike in a darkened closet of a room, unconscious on a cot. Half of his head had been shaved.
When my mom and dad showed up and made arrangements to have him transferred to a private hospital, I rode in the back of the ambulance with him. While we wove in and out of traffic, Mike’s head rolled from side to side. I would be looking at the side of his face that was scraped black and purple and, suddenly, I would be looking at the smooth, untouched side, the sweet side. The ambulance attendant wouldn’t let me hold his head steady. Mike was in a coma for three days. Then the pressure eased. The bleeding in his brain stopped. He woke up and said he’d been attacked by a chocolate ice cream monster. There were so many things I didn’t know existed.
I looked over at Stephanie, her eyes closed, head leaning against the back window. I was aware of this new forced intimacy between us, her nylon covered legs stretched across my thighs, my hands holding them still. I reached over and rolled down her window, hoping the air would bring her back like my story hadn’t. And I began another story as we headed through the tunnel bridge to Kowloon.
I told her about the time my mother was driving us to the beach. The “us” was me and two friends from college. While driving down the steep mountain road to the coast of Puerto Cabello, my mother had a grand mal seizure. We flagged down a truck full of military men, my arm straight in the air, fingers spread, the same way I flagged down the cab Stephanie and I rode in.
Stephanie started to perk up. She rolled up her window. I relaxed and quit talking. This was familiar. I knew about hospitals in foreign countries.
Back at the hotel, we made the appropriate calls, ordering an ambulance like it was room service. I watched while Stephanie cracked jokes with the three ambulance attendants who grunted and groaned as they lifted her onto a stretcher.
“There are big Viking women in Minnesota, where we come from. Strong. Hardy.” she said. They asked her if she’d been drinking.
The hospital was like a classroom except there were beds instead of desks. Hand written signs were taped up around the room. The “Exit” and “Radiology” signs could have easily been child’s work.
“When I get back home, I’m going to send them pillows.” Stephanie said. She could have just as easily said, “They need pencils.” It was all the same.
I went outside to smoke when they wheeled Stephanie away for x-rays. In the span of a cigarette, I saw two ambulances drive up. Two stretchers were unloaded from the first ambulance. After unloading two more stretchers from the second, the attendants lifted out an old man and carried him inside. It was like a bus service.
I went back inside and found a chair under the taped up sign that said, “Waiting Room.” Seven out of the ten people that came in had head injuries. I knew this because of the blood stained rags and scarves that were tied around their heads. Was this the form domestic violence took? Or was this what happens in a society that is overcrowded, when doors and windows are unexpectedly thrown open?
Stephanie’s foot was, in fact, detached from her ankle. It had been broken in three places. Since we were flying back to Minnesota the next day, where she’d have surgery to reassemble it, they just put it in a thin cast. Then Stephanie could send pillows and pencils and a thank you note to the doctor. She was thoughtful like that.
As I sit here now, intermittently typing and petting Betty, for a second I think I’m petting Harry or Kimball, other dogs I’ve known. The feel of her fur is oily smooth one way and course and choppy the other. It is familiar.
In Hong Kong, I ached to recapture the feeling I knew at seeing the sun glitter silver and gold off the mica speckled rock we found at the base of the mountains that surrounded our house in Valencia, Venezuela. Here, in winter, when I look outside, I see the same shimmering diamonds crossing the snow. It’s as if shimmer and glitter and sheen are not phenomenon but species.
When I was in Hong Kong, I couldn’t see the sameness. I didn’t see that the neon signs arcing out over Nathan Road were the same as the trees that used to arc a tunnel over Summit Avenue, the same, even, as my arms arc away from my body.
I didn’t see that the woman in the jewelry shop who had followed me around, trying so hard to sell me a string of pearls was the same as the little boy in the Andino town of Jajo who had tried so hard to sell a plastic bag full of oranges.
I didn’t see that my friendship with Stephanie was the same kind as I had with Susie, my best friend I had in Venezuela.
Nothing has really been lost. Shapes have just been altered. So I will look more carefully, more expectantly, at what is routine and familiar, to see what surprises are there.