Wednesday, December 12, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 42 - Chapter One

I am in the open ward at St. Mary’s hospital on the island side of the old colony of Hong Kong. I am in this tattered, sprawling open ward for people brought in suddenly – and also, it seems, for charity cases, but non-charity cases too – a place in this overcrowded enclave where you can get a bed quickly and where a doctor, the latest in a series of doctors, allopathic and otherwise, thought I should be.

My new wife was in this same place recently. The rows of beds here must hold 60 or 70 people. For her it was an overdose of hashish, for which I was blamed because the marriage is so flimsy. My bed is almost exactly where hers had been. Across from me there are very old, shrinking people peeking out from their sheets. Chinese people. I am the only foreign devil here – a term not used much in other Chinese cities but still in use here because of the way the colonial British, even at this late date, presume to carry themselves.

When my wife was here it was more interesting across the way. In a bed there, then, was a pale, delicate starlet who, like my wife, had overdosed. The starlet was looking at the ceiling, ignoring the visit of a suave boyfriend, who like the leading men in so many Hong Kong and Taiwan movies, except those that entailed magic, knew how to show his appeal and authority by the way he could half stand and half lean as he watched the irony of life unfold around him. The Hong Kong equivalent of men in French movies who wear their sports jackets draped over their shoulders like shawls. It radiates sophistication and cool, to wear a jacket that way with a half smile on your face, as it does in Hong Kong to lean with confidence and detachment, whether against a table or the back of chair or the head of a hospital bed – with some sad, lovely girl in your view.

But I have no one to look at but the shriveled men and women peeking out of their sheets. And no one seems to know exactly why I am here. I have a low grade fever, have had it for weeks, which my last doctor – a former combat surgeon in a Seventh Day Adventist hospital – said was such a dire sign that, without tests, he put me on an arduous treatment for typhoid. But the nurses here at old St. Mary’s say low grade does not count, so it looks like I am not sick, though the doctor making rounds, a modest grandfatherly Chinese man, wants to look for cancer. I am in a dark haze, unable to collect my thoughts. The one thing no one has said is that all these are physical signs of my deep depression. I do not even know the word. Looking back later it seemed I had all the symptoms, except serious plotting for suicide, and maybe that was because it was so hard for me to pull together coherent thoughts, much less act on them.

I do not know the word “depression.” But I know these mysterious dark times, which can come just as everything is working out, and just as everything is falling apart. These book contracts I carry that define me give me no safety – have nothing anymore to do with me. No more than does my history.

I live nowhere permanently. A few exciting years in Bangkok, a few cloudy years in Beirut, a few in the Balkans, a few in Singapore and now Hong Kong, where I have been before, which I already knew was a two-week city, like Beirut – an artistically barren place where everyone is after money and there are no green parks. In between these times – times of fireworks, times I remember now as being so mysterious as to let in joy – between these foreign times always a few years in New York City, which I think of as my home – sometimes the East Village, sometimes the West Village, sometimes the Upper West Side, anywhere in Manhattan except my forebears’ East Side places. And I am puzzled each time in New York when I head off to adventure in all these thrilling foreign zones (not counting Beirut and Hong Kong), puzzled that I have to push myself through heavy darkness that pours down, each time with no warning that I can catch, and nearly paralyzes me.

And it got worse, for it was never so dark and hopeless as in the time just before I began to look not at these foreign places but at the places of my origin that I had edited out and replaced with foreign places, often war zone places, that I thought could bring definition and safety.

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