Kathleen Lee



I THOUGHT I was finally getting my period, which did not make me happy. It made me happy to have travelled for four months like a man even though I suspected it was unhealthy. It was a Sunday and I felt tired so I went to read on the roof of the Vajra Hotel. I did not like the Vajra Hotel, or Kathmandu for that matter. It was a hip place and I didn’t know to hang out in hip places. I like dumps, villages, places without beaches or apple pie or buffalo burgers. There was a line of aching low in my belly I was sure were cramps. But nothing happened at the Vajra except I got a headache from falling asleep in the sun.

        In the evening I met friends for dinner at a place famous for its momos—Tibetan dumplings. Afterwards walking back through black alleys, picking my way amongst dogs foraging through heaps of garbage neatly set against the walls, I started to feel the earth move beneath me. It was getting harder and harder to walk and I kept telling myself to get to the bridge then over the bridge, up the short hill on the other side and take the first right and there was the Peace Guesthouse, a dirty yellow thing not reassuring in any way. I stopped in the road. There were three different ways I could get to the bridge from there. That was where I made my first hallucinating decision; I got into a rickshaw that seemed to have materialized from nowhere and, like Cinderella, was carried away. I never take rickshaws, I don’t like the cry, rickshaw madam rickshaw, and I don’t like the 19th century sensation of being pedaled around by another human being. But the thought of cool air against my burning skin was irresistible. I managed to pay the drivers and stumble down from the seat, much less gracefully than Cinderella. There was no moon and I stood in the courtyard wrapped in perfect blackness.

        There were four flights of dark narrow stairs to my rooftop windswept room. It was solitary and exposed and as I slowly made my way towards it, a sense of doom came over me, heavier than the sensation in my belly.

        I immediately put on every item of clothing I had with me which created quite a bulk of layers. Long underwear, turtlenecks, pants, a skirt, downjacket hat gloves and as many socks as I could fit. I did not think of what it would be like to take it off. I did not think of the future. I zipped into my sleeping bag and began to shiver violently. My teeth chattered and I was panting. I watched the moon coming through the cutouts in the stucco, putting a pattern of petals against the wall. I tried to control my breath, inhaling long and slow. But I couldn’t hold the rhythm and I felt like I was drowning in breathlessness, panting and shivering so hard the bed knocked against the wall. It was wilder than sex, it sounded like an all night orgasm. 

        Hours later the infinite number of infinitely small bugs inside me began to move. I started a series of trips three flights down to the toilet. There were no lights on the stairs. I laid quivering in my sleeping bag scanning my body for signs of the strength to make the trip. I went through the process in my head 10 or 20 times before I actually attempted it. Unzip the bag, swing out legs, take off some socks, tie on shoes, grab flashlight, unlatch door, take off down jacket and hat and gloves. The first trip down and back up I saw shadows following me up the stairs. Dark slippery things, I thought they were after my passport or my travellers checks. The receipts to my checks were hidden so carefully I couldn’t even find them and if they wanted my passport, a passport that could not get them across Iran or more than three months at a time in India, they could have it. I saw it tucked under two notebooks and a couple of paperbacks, Gravity’s Rainbow and The Demon Box, on the thin legged wooden table in front of the window looking out over the communal clothesline. The picture on the passport had been taken four years before when I’d lived on Russell Street in Berkeley with a man who intimidated me. I’d snuck out one day, wearing my old blue sweatshirt over a lavender turtleneck and with amethysts in my ears that I later lost in the Grand Canyon. The picture was taken at a place on the corner of Telegraph and Ashby and I kept the photos and the passport a secret. My secret ticket to another life.

        The concrete bathroom floor was painted a deep brick red and a pale faint golden bulb swung on a wire from the ceiling. There was an empty coffee tin next to the hole in the floor. On the second trip down I watched an old lover follow me, sniffing like a dog. It made me sad that I had deteriorated so much that he would sniff at me suspiciously. But then I noticed his nose had grown into a huge red veined thing and he wore baggy brown pants. I always thought he would turn into a street person. There were twenty one stairs, three sets of seven. I counted them religiously, the numbers huge and significant, sevens and threes and nines.

        I don’t know how many long trips I made, I saw candles flickering on the landings and the orange and red flowers strewn around Hindu shrines thickly coating the stairs. I saw Ganesh the elephant god swinging his trunk in rhythm with the light bulb in the bathroom and lingams mounting the stairs as if on their way to my room, my chaste bed yawning narrowly in wait. Parasites were sending me on an unexpected trip, pitching me onto the edge of a quiet December night in Kathmandu.

        I dreamt that I flew home because I was tired of being sick by myself. I walked into my parents house and stared at the large white porcelain sink and a refrigerator whose size surpassed my capacity to imagine the food that must fill it. I said hello to my father and mother and brothers, all of whom were spaced around the house like decorative sculpture. The rooms felt very tight and airless. The next thing I said was that I had to go back because I’d left my things in the roof room at the Peace Guesthouse. The two books I hadn’t finished reading, the pair of pants I was not wearing, the sleeping bag I’d bought on sale in high school, the notebooks which held my words. My father started to talk about Jeff’s kidneys and I listened as I left. I remembered my mother’s face and knew I did not need it. I felt the airlessness of the rooms for a long time but the feeling faded as I flew over water. I only knew the solid real feeling of being ill in the rooftop room of a dirty yellow guesthouse in Kathmandu.



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