John Martin

laughing through grad school
(academic stuff) (hints of life beyond
school and work)
(Flying Moose videos, photos, stories, etc.) (observations)
Kathmandu

Young Pauline squints a single tear, and pulls spoon from the task at hand. She dreams ice cream, smooth and painless— a sensation almost delicious. She never dreamed this flavor before, a twist around the soft palpations of his heart. It is cold and wonderful in a world where such luxuries are unknown.

He feels her body cold against him now—firm tones ringing empty chords. Pulled in further, he shivers at her vastness, unaware of its depth. Her space engulfs, surrounds. But Pauline never rolls in her sleep at night. She turns in dangerous revolutions of blue. Stars are distant and clear.

The walls are old brick orange. Terra Cotta textures gray in the moon's reflection. A pack of dogs yaps through the street below. They yap after a chase, like post-coital conversation, an event noiselessly begun. Growls and shrieks marked the climax. Tonight, a rat has died.

Stephen was followed two nights before. Silent padding behind his steps announced a hunt. He stopped abruptly in a dark whirl and directly approached the lead. There was something mutual in their eyes, dim glints staring each other, unsounded. It was a night for walking alone, respected.

• • •

Pauline grew up in France, loving her Mother, as a daughter should. Honoring her Father's hand from as great a distance as the walls allowed, she bused to Kathmandu that morning, depleted from New Delhi. Fifteen days of volunteer work was all her soul could sustain. The nuns warned her and tried to comfort. Seven souls she knew would die, had, despite this world's most earnest prayers. She learned the beauty of the terminally ill, offered a drop of her blood, and was drained so thoroughly that her eyes reflected a false frailty, a voracious emptiness that she feared would never be replenished.

Stephen saw her immediately at the bus station through the hot dieseled dust and the crowd's empty eyes. His face hollowed behind his beard, ribs stuck out obscene on his frame, and his legs were grotesquely pumped from a 25 day trek around the Annapurna Himal and Pokhara. His eyes were clear—as the moon on the mountain; his body was thin as the air at 17, 000 feet with ice crystals underfoot. As an excuse, Stephen and Pauline shared a rickshaw to the old section of Kathmandu—where travelers stay. Then walked out of that tourist-rate district and found a dirty room with a broken bed for 100 rupees—$2.00. Their respective trips had worn them down, and they divided the bed for a nap. They did not intend to love that night, but dreamt themselves into an embrace so tight it was gluttony. He, overflowing of mountain and moon and the silence of cool air, found her heart a hot black hole. For Pauline, Stephen turned lover so smooth and easy, it was like cool silk pajamas to wear his heart, and she slid into him faster than his senses could react. It was ice cream, melting softly on the tongue.

• • •

Pauline woke to cooking smoke, kerosene, low-grade olive oil, and spices as familiar as the chatter of the three families in the courtyard below their window. The morning smells and sounds of Kathmandu brought her back to New Delhi for a moment, but she turned instead to face Stephen. She watched him breathe, his exhalations hitting her face. His breath was stale, and this was key. It was rank; rank and ripe; the smells of death and of birth; smells perfumed and neutralized in France, in America—smells hidden and covered, ignored, masked and minimized. She drew his breath into her lungs until his eyes opened and found her.

• • •

Breakfast—muesli and curd, with fresh, warm papaya juice—gives them energy to blur the void of mid-morning crowds. They walk to Pashupatinath. Outside the Hindu temple, a corpse is being carried to the pyre beside the Bagmati River. Stephen stops to watch the daughters wail; to watch her husband pull them back; to watch her brothers sprinkle kerosene. When the pyre is lit, Pauline turns away interested in a quilt of small dusty burlap bags of paint, filled and haloed with the purity of finely ground pigment. The vendor smiles a toothy brown grin, and nods a greeting.

Two teenage boys wade the river beneath the pyre, raking for jewelry where the half-burned corpses are dumped. It seems wrong to Stephen. A middle aged American couple laugh as they videotape the funeral. Stephen notices and tenses. Pauline pulls at him but he seems rooted. She pulls harder and he turns from the camera.

The temple itself is closed to non-Hindus. Somehow, this makes them both happy. They find food on the street; Pauline buys two cucumber slices slathered with a hot chili sauce. Even days before, Stephen would not have purchased food from the street. He watches the old woman wash dust off the slices. She dips them into a bucket of questionable water, brushes flies off chili sauce and smears it on with fingers dried on her thick hair. Pauline laughs at his silence and takes the slices. Six rupees, about ten cents. She menaces in his face with a smile and bites the fruit as a dare. Stephen does not back down and his mouth is consumed. The chili sears his lips, tongue and throat. Tears well up and streak brown through the grey dust that coats his face. Perspiration beads on his brow, on his eyelids, and nose. Lemon Fanta costs about a quarter, for an antique crown-topped bottle. He pulls the change from his pocket, quickly. The soda is warm in this city and too sweet, but nice.

There is a hill to the north. They climb. The top flattens into a cow field of some sort of horned bovine, and seven boys who play soccer barefoot. They avoid well. Stephen pulls Pauline to the side, to a spot clear of cows and boys, and produces a hacky-sack. He'd promised to teach her. She laughs again—always laughs. The music is good to him. The boys drop soccer and gather around. Pauline's laugh drew them, he thinks and kicks the footbag to the youngest boy who jumps away to avoid it. The older boys laugh. One picks up the bag and rolls it in his fingers, "Chügli!" he exclaims and kicks it to himself a half-dozen times. The other boys beam with pride at their leader. A dog comes to watch, curious. The young boy sees it first and yells. The footbag is forgotten, dropped. The boys chase the dog, hurling stones. They disappear. Pauline turns away at the yelps against flesh. Stephen loves her for it. He wants to hold her, thinks he probably could.

At the bottom of the hill, Pauline finds a local bus—a panel van with no windows. People pile in. There are no seats. It's a truck. She presses against him, and he against her—that part is good. And twenty others press around them. That is less good. There is no movement once they are all in. Someone's hand grabs her butt, and she growls loudly. Steven turns his head to catch her eye and the eye behind her. The eye looks down. The hand moves away. They make the two-hour walk in ten slow, stuffy minutes.

In the city center, they find what purports to be a Mexican restaurant, with chapati tortillas, vegetable burritos of sorts, and Coke. Pauline is smiling again. Stephen forces himself to look away. They both do.

In the evening, Stephen drags her to the Western edge of the city, to Swayanabath—the Monkey Temple. A hundred stone steps climb a hill to watch the sunset beneath the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha. This is his thing, she thinks, space, the sky. His fascination is on the Macro level, on clarity. Tonight, the light over the mountains sings. Hues cry for words that cannot exist in this world. It happens every evening, though most people pay no attention and miss it. In photography, it is called the magic hour; people look better, things look richer; life is bright.

His heart gives out to her in this light. She was not especially beautiful before, but simply fit. When he looks now, the glow off her face kills him. He searches for a sign in her eyes and loses himself. She turns away, to the sun, nestling back into him. The moment drains him, behind her, arms wrapped across her chest, her breasts resting on his forearms. There is a contentedness shared here. He leans into her—pressing her into the west-facing fence, curling in the curve of her jeans. The light fades; denim smoke soaks up the blood of a valley evening; sun saturations bleed and dry, then midnight voids against Western mountains. She walks him down the hundred steps, nearly holding him up. A hundred monkeys skip and skid down the handrail to the trees below for the night. One bounces off her shoulder on the way down. She laughs a shriek, but Stephen is oblivious to the assault. He burns and she cools.

And now, in their $2.00 room on Freak Street, wrapped naked above their sleeping bags, she drinks his heat, while he dreams infinity.