from Paradise, Attained by Touch
When he was three, my son asked me to juggle, and I had to admit that I couldn’t. I pointed out that I could, on the other hand, catch – one ball at a time, but it was juggling he wanted, so I had to learn.
I found a book on the art that came with three juggle-objects in a mesh bag. I read and practiced: for weeks, a thousand misses, a thousand times bending over, a thousand times crawling under the couch, a thousand curses, a thousand times watching my hands like drowning men who couldn’t grasp the rope;
but slowly, somewhere in my brain, the ropes grew, and came together. My arms and elbows, my wrists, my shoulders and neck, my eyes, my nose, my lower back, my legs—
all of me learned to be my hands.
— for thirty seconds at my best, the floating trefoil of polystyrene-filled, polyester sacks.
And then I called in my son and showed him. He clapped with joy, and all the effort was worth the sight of it. I thought, in my vanity: “This is good parenting: your child asks you to juggle, you buy a book, and you learn.”
Then, rather rashly for a toddler, he demanded I try four. My immediate retort was that he should try himself to do two, or even one!
Years have passed, and we have only once or twice revisited the matter.
Once, after lifting an armoire in Yokohama, I threw out my back. My wife and in-laws carried me to the car and we drove to a doctor of chi, a Chinese man they knew, currently in their debt.
Years ago, during the war, he had been a surgeon in Hanoi: my mother-in-law told me this to chasten me (as if the back pain were not enough). I’m American, you see, and my father fought the communists in Vietnam. Now this man whose hands had touched the children mangled by our bombs would heal the consequences of my over-reaching . . . something to that effect, I guess; an artful bit of moral origami.
Their Tokyo apartment was small. The doctor’s wife was making dinner, his six-year-old daughter was watching a cartoon. They laid me out on the living-room floor, and after everyone had conferred over my body (including the six-year-old daughter during a commercial break), the doctor set to work.
It hurt like hell nonstop for thirty minutes, and then the pain was entirely gone. During this time, the doctor would ask a question now and then in Japanese; my wife would translate into English; I would respond through clinched teeth in English, and she would translate (taking her sweet time, it seemed to me) back into Japanese.
I imagined the doctor putting my answers into a Chinese box, in a clearing in the autumn woods, near a tree with two remaining leaves that were really his hands; which, when we entered the apartment, I had noticed were long and stained with nicotine.
Later, I was told in the most solemn tones that the doctor had stopped touching me halfway through the treatment; had simply waved his hands vigorously for several minutes above my back before continuing the massage.
In sum, I believed he had never stopped touching me; they saw with their own eyes that he had. They believed he had exorcised my pain; I only knew that my pain was gone.
The doctor of chi knew what he knew; minus the usual fee, waived on this occasion to repay a small portion of his debt.
A guy in the bus station was spitting at everyone’s feet. On the bus, he decided to sit down next to me.
He started talking about himself: nothing important, but a lot of fragmented and inconsistent boasting was involved. He wasn’t talking, really, so much as killing time. And it was fine, because it killed my time, too.
But after a while I stopped listening at all and noticed an old woman a few rows ahead on the left, behind the driver. Sometimes she’d turn to look out the windows on the right, and I’d get her profile, which was very noble and even beautiful, although she was old. It was dark already, but I could see her by the glow of the reading lights.
The guy talked—he didn’t seem to care that I wasn’t listening—and I had a waking dream: I was an old man, and I was living in a seaside cottage with the old woman. Somehow the sea made us young, and we both had amazing profiles. And I sat on the beach most of the day, and I carved scrimshaw out of everything that came into my hands.
The road was long and winding, and it hummed in my intestines. My waking dream took a different turn: the old woman was the spitting-guy’s mother. She was his mother and he was fresh out of prison and going home, and she was already there but getting no closer, like the moon when we drive.
The spitting-guy took out his wallet and shoved an old photo in my face. He said it was his girlfriend waiting for him in Portland. It was an old-style Polaroid, folded and mangled, with a white border and perforated edges. Parts of it hadn’t been swabbed properly, so there were rust-colored streaks in the corners. It had a date clearly printed on the bottom—“April 1950”—but the guy still said it was his girlfriend, and she was in Portland. He couldn’t have been born earlier than 1980 himself, but I didn’t bother challenging his assertion.
The young woman in the photo was wearing a white dress. A tousle-haired mop leaned on the fence behind her. She was pretty, and I thought for a second about her being my wife, and our living together by the sea.
Typically, my waking dreams involve the sea.
Robert Lunday lives in Bastrop, Texas. He is the author of Mad Flights (Ashland Poetry Press, 2002) and has just completed a memoir, Fayettenam, about growing up military during the Vietnam War era and his soldier-father’s later, still-unsolved disappearance. (7/2009)