The Festival of
A new position falls into the hands of one who, living, dreams. I bought this notebook in the airport when we arrived in Puchai, and, instead of keeping a journal—which always feels lonely and pointless to me—I've decided to write you a letter. IT WILL COME TRUE.
Ulla and I are in the Central Dakhong Railway Station, waiting for the 12:13 train to Mai Mor. The station is rumbling and hot and cavernous and painted floor-to-ceiling in volcanic orange. Ulla has wandered off in search of a bathroom and I'm sitting on a bench, guarding our bags. And—where are you?
For some reason I imagine you lying on your back in a field, sipping from a can of beer, surrounded by animals: ducks and snakes and wolves and cats and hummingbirds and rabbits. Maybe even a cow, standing in the shade of some nearby trees. They're all just kind of hanging around, ignoring each other. Even the ones that are natural enemies.
Then you sit up and make a circle with your thumb and forefinger and look up at the sky, and you can see me through it.
Our flight from Newark was seventeen hours and twenty-three minutes, non-stop. Ulla took a pill and was unconscious for most of the trip. I spent my time playing solitaire and drinking tiny bottles of Boodles gin mixed with Puchalicious-brand tamarind soda. After a while, I put away the cards and opened up our Pocket Adventure: Puchai! guidebook. I'd meant to read it before we left, but had never quite gotten around to it.
From the introduction:
"The Kingdom of Winks" is a phrase that conjures many images: Saffron-robed monks and tantalizing bar-girls—sun-drenched beaches and moss-encrusted mountains—the exotic nightclubs of Dakhong and the picturesque rice farms of Hattanai Province—world-class hotels and soft-adventure experiences in the jungle. Puchai may be miniscule in size, but irregardless, this charming country offers a myriad of cultural and sensual contrasts for the visitor on holiday. Whatever you seek, Puchai's scintillating blend of age-old tradition and modern amenities makes for the most unique holiday available to date. Truly, this land of contradictions—by turns zestful and tranquil, resplendent and subtle, soulful and hedonistic—never fails to delight your senses… and/or your spirit.
The Puchanese are a mischievous and happy-go-lucky people who are sure to greet you with a wide smile and their trademark "wink" of the eye. Puchai isn't known as "The Kingdom of Winks" for nothin'! Winking back at them is a sure-fire way of saying, "I like you, too. Thank you for welcoming me to your country. I'm really excited to be here, and I look forward to experiencing everything it has to offer!"
I put the guidebook down and rested my forehead against the window, barely able to keep my eyes open. The sun was rising and I watched the clouds—thin and feathery and edged with pink and gold—slowly creep across the purplish sky, coming together as if to form characters in some forgotten language. And then, like a film reel stuck on a frame, their motion abruptly ceased. My heart hammered in my chest when I saw that they'd taken the shape of six enormous letters.
My own surname, written across the sky in fire.
The airplane's engines had come to a complete stop, and we were hanging silently in mid-air. I continued staring out at my name, now grasping its meaning: the plane was about to crash, and in a few moments I would be dead, along with everyone on board.
I glanced around at the other passengers—wondering if each of them saw their own name in the clouds—then squeezed my eyes shut. I was hoping to see highlights from my life flashing by in rapid succession, but all I saw was empty blackness. And then, as if you were sitting in the seat behind me, murmuring the words into my ear—I heard your voice.
I opened my eyes with a start. Ulla was awake now, shrieking wildly. Turning to her, I grabbed her wrists and said, "Don't panic. Everything's going to be all right." My voice had shot up an entire octave, wobbly and sharp, and it seemed obvious that I was lying—that everything was not, in fact, going to be all right. Ulla's palms were damp and sticky and her shirt was stained dark brown, as if she was already covered in blood. I looked into her face and said: "Goodbye."
Ulla stared at me with a mixture of confusion and alarm. Several other passengers were watching us closely. She glanced around at them, then leaned in close. "Are you okay, Boyd?"
I looked out the window. The sky was clear, the engines were humming, and the plane was moving steadily through the air. "Weren't you just screaming?"
"I screamed because you were flailing around in your sleep and spilling soda all over the place," said Ulla, taking my pillow and rubbing it in her lap.
I searched the sky one more time. "I saw—I mean, I thought that we were going to…" I felt my eyelid give a little twitch as the passengers around us began to whisper to one another. "Never mind," I said, pressing my hand to my eye.
Ulla patted my arm. "Just a bad dream."
Our plane was now making its descent into the soupy yellow smog that hung above the city of Dakhong. I saw that we were passing over a railroad junction, and instinctively I lifted both my feet off the floor—either for good luck, or to ward off disaster. I forget which it is.
A driver hired by Mai Mor College was waiting for us at the gate, holding a paper plate with "MR. + MRS. DARROW" scrawled across it. His rendition of my name was reminiscent of the DARROW in the sky—it almost looked like the same handwriting—and the similarity made my stomach tighten.
Ulla and I changed dollars for prik at the airport, and then we were driven to the train station in a pini-mini—a small, noisy, three-wheeled vehicle that looks like a cross between a rickshaw and a Vespa. We rode through the industrial outskirts and entered the traffic-clogged streets of downtown Dakhong, inching past a succession of skyscrapers, markets, exotica clubs, shantytowns, and temples (which are known as mâdans, Ulla informed me—she finished reading the guidebook weeks ago). Blue-black fumes poured out of the tailpipe of the pini-mini, and by the time we reached the train station, I felt another one of my out-of-body experiences coming on.
After some difficulty, we managed to purchase two one-way tickets to the town of Mai Mor. I'd wanted to spend a few days looking around Dakhong, but Ulla is eager to settle in before she starts her new job. She's been hired by Mai Mor College's Faculty of Theatre Drama to help organize and stage-manage the big talent show (the Expo Taang) that's held in conjunction with the town's annual "Festival of Taang Lôke Kwaam Banterng Sumitchanani." My own job prospects are sketchy, although Ulla's new boss—Mrs. Haraporn Leekanchanakoth-Young—suggested in her letters that I might be able to work at the English-language school run by her husband. I'm anxious to start earning some prik: I owe Ulla nine hundred and eighty-three dollars for my plane ticket here.
I'll bet I can guess what you're wondering at this point, Hap: What are Ulla and I doing here? Why Puchai?
There are a lot of reasons. One reason we left New York was because Ulla had harbored romantic ideas about moving to a foreign land ever since her junior year abroad in Luxembourg. Another reason was that—apart from my freelance job designing brochures for the Department of Public Health and Mental Hygiene—I didn't have much going on back in the city, and I thought that a change of scenery might do me good.
And another reason I wanted to leave home, if you really want to know, was the White Sikh.
I call the White Sikh "the White Sikh" because he's a white man who is a follower of the Sikh faith. I also call him the White Sikh because I don't like saying his actual name—Shawn Talbot-Singh—aloud. He was Ulla's boss at Gelder & Ventry, and, not too long ago, I learned that Ulla and this Sikh—a married man in his mid-40s, with three young children—had been meeting up in the stairwell during their lunch break for a daily make-out session.
After this revelation, Ulla and I went into a tailspin that lasted for several weeks, though we never broke up for more than an hour at a time. When I had to go to the Catskills for Maury's wedding in January, Ulla decided to join me at the last minute, and we ended up having an unexpectedly fun time together—it was as if our problems vaporized as soon as we left the city limits. On the drive home, Ulla informed me that she'd heard about a job opportunity in Puchai, and was seriously thinking about applying. We discussed it for a while, and after a stretch of tense silence, she asked me if I'd like to go with her.
You said: Let's do it.
Over the years, I've gotten used to hearing your voice in my head—prodding and cajoling me, as if you were looking over my shoulder, judging every decision I make. Usually I'm pretty good at ignoring you. This time, though, an idea occurred to me: as an experiment, I'd try doing exactly what you told me to do, and see if my life improved. The thought of traveling to some small random foreign destination with Ulla terrified me for a lot of reasons. But maybe that was why I had to go. Things couldn't get much worse.
I forced my lips to move before my brain could second-guess itself. "All right," I told Ulla. "Let's do it."
Half an hour later, I asked: "Where's Puchai?"
Still waiting for the train. I don't feel very well right now, probably due to the sleep deprivation, carbon monoxide inhalation, and gin consumption, along with the fact that I haven't eaten anything for several hours. There's a food stall near our bench where a man is frying batches of something in a silver skillet—they look like oversized hush puppies. A woman in a dress stitched from sackcloth is standing next to him. She has a large pink basket balanced on her head, and she's yelling "Fae-dong! Fae-dong!" at the top of her lungs, as though calling to a dog, or a small child. I've been watching her and thinking about buying some of whatever she's selling. It seems like a daunting task, and I'm tempted to just sit here and starve for a while longer—but I can hear you saying: You're hungry. You have money. She has food. How complicated could it be?
Wish me luck.
Before approaching the snack-sellers, I skimmed our Puchanese Language Dictionary (which is just a hand-bound stack of mimeographed pages that Ulla bought from a kid at the airport). The English-language section didn't follow the traditional rules of alphabetization as far as I could tell, but I figured out how to say "one" (tûan-nâa) and "please" (gà-roó-na).
I turned to Ulla and said, "Tûan-nâa fae-dong gà-roó-na. One bag of deep-fried food, please."
Ulla flipped through the Pocket Adventure guide. "There must be a list of phrases in here. Let me see if it says how to order something."
"That's okay," I said. "I'm just going to go for it."
As I approached the woman, I saw that she was delicately picking her nose with one hand and holding her other hand in front of her face—to shield her actions from public view, I guess—while effortlessly balancing the basket on her head. Once I'd reached her, I cleared my throat and said, "Hello."
The woman spun around, removed her finger from her nose, and let out a startled, high-pitched gasp.
I pointed to her basket. "Um… tûan-nâa… fae-dong… gà-roó-na?"
Grimacing, she stepped backwards, clutching her goods protectively. "Gà-roó-na?"
"Yes, please. Tûan-nâa. Gà-roó-na. Thank you." I gave her a big, friendly wink.
The woman watched me wordlessly, straining her neck forward, then said something to the man behind the fryer. He laughed and made a suggestive movement with his hips. "Fae-dong gà-roó-na?" he repeated, smirking.
I took out my wallet, thumbed through my fresh wad of prik, and randomly selected a rumpled bill with an image of laughing peasants flying kites. I wasn't sure how much it was worth, but it was small and yellow and undistinguished-looking. I thrust it towards them and said, with confidence, "Tûan-nâa fae-dong!"
The man snatched the money from me, held it up to the light, then broke into a broad, toothless grin. I smiled back and nodded serenely. He brought his hands to his forehead, bowed, then reached into his smock and counted out my change: sixteen light-blue bills and nine small coins.
The woman took a step towards me, put her hands on my shoulders, and, with a shy smile, pulled me down until our faces were at the same height. It felt as if we were about to share some kind of intimate moment, and I found myself wishing that I'd taken the time to read more about the local customs. And then—in one deft motion—she removed the basket from her head and placed it onto mine. I reached up reflexively and steadied it as the woman fell to her knees, pressing her chin to the floor.
"Wait, no—I don't want to buy the whole thing." I tried to lift the basket off my head, but it was surprisingly heavy and began to slide out of my hands, so I re-balanced it and said, "Listen, I'm sorry, but there's been a misunderstanding." I turned to the man, who was sorting the money in his apron. When I caught his eye he looked down and puffed out his cheeks. "No," I said quietly. "No, no, no." The woman was rocking back and forth on the ground, murmuring to herself. I suddenly felt dizzy, and knew that I had to go sit down.
As I walked back towards Ulla, I carefully balanced the basket on my head and avoided making eye contact with any passersby. Ulla was reading the guidebook and listening to my Walkman, and for a moment I considered ditching the basket somewhere—but then she looked up, and it was too late.
I lowered myself into a squatting position, gingerly placed the basket on the bench, and said: "Tûan-nâa fae-dong gà-roó-na?"
The interior of this train is a mishmash of different styles: ornate brass luggage racks, Modernist plastic seats, turn-of-the-century light fixtures, and orange leatherette walls printed with a subtle Op art pattern. It's like an old World's Fair prototype for the Locomotive of Tomorrow. When I climbed on board, struggling with my basket, the passengers gawked at me as though I held a baby dolphin in my arms.
After consulting the dictionary, Ulla determined that I should've used the word tiân—which is defined as "one [single discrete groupings]"—as opposed to tûan-nâa, which means "one [entirety of groupings]." Also, I should've said bpròh ("please") instead of gà-roó-na, which apparently means: "to please [bringing satisfy with touch, eating, feelings]."
"So," I said, "according to you, I told that woman: 'I want to pleasure your entire basket'?"
Ulla was quiet for a moment, then asked how much money I'd given them. I reluctantly told her, and, after doing some calculations, she informed me that I'd paid about $67—approximately one-fifth their annual income. The light-blue bills that they'd given to me as change were worth about twelve cents apiece.
I opened one of the bags, plucked out a snack, and popped it into my mouth. It was crunchy on the outside, with a moist center that tasted like walnuts and garlic, but also like French fries and mint. It was delicious. I immediately ate another, and, after some prodding, Ulla tried one. We went through the whole bag in about a minute.
When we were finished, Ulla asked, "What are these things called again?"
"Fae-dongs." I belched, and tasted a strange new flavor rising up from the back of my throat. "Let's remember that name."