(or how I came to be drenched in a thunderstorm one Monday night)
“You’re making me look like a villain,” he says, as a tricycle driver turns to stare at us walking on the rain-sluiced asphalt—me, shivering in my drenched black dress and strappy sandals, while he keeps dry under the purple umbrella I gave him, its color almost neon under the orange streetlamps. “I should hold a placard proclaiming, ‘Nag-iinarte lang siya!’”
In the courtyard of Shwedagon Paya, after we had prayed at the Sunday shrine and poured water from silver cups onto the statue of Garuda, while walking barefoot around the gilded stupa surrounded by spotlights and glinting against the dull indigo sky, a young man held my arm to keep me from slipping on the marble tiles wet with rain.
“Andami mong alam,” I tell him. “Who cares if I’m walking in the rain?”
“You’ll get sick,” he says.
“I’ll take a bath later.”
“Use your umbrella already.”
He moves to shelter me. I wave my hand.
When I was traveling in Myanmar, the young man would call me five times a day, and with the little English he knew, would ask me where I was, what I was doing, and if everything was okay. “Mingalarbar!” he would greet me. It was the first word of Burmese that I learned, and the only one I remember still, aside from the phrase for “thank you.”
Two hours before we left the restaurant and a hundred minutes before the rain started to pour, I stared dumbly at the man across from me at the table, his eyes and fingers stuck to his phone, again. “Wait,” he said, answering emails. “Wait,” he said, replying to Facebook chats. “Wait,” he said, looking up something on the internet. “How much longer and why should I?” I didn’t ask. Instead, I took a book from my bag and pretended that I was dining here alone.
At five in the morning, when I arrived in the overnight bus to Yangon from Bagan, I found the young man already at the transport terminal, waiting for me. It was raining. Across the potholed tarmac he led me to a cab, which drove us to a restaurant, where he treated me to a breakfast of noodles and coffee. He wouldn’t let me pay for anything that day, or the days before that. “I want you to be happy here in my country,” he said. “Are you happy?”
“What are you reading?” he asked.
I held up my book, and he reached across the table and took it from my hand.
“Stolen Air,” he read. “I like the title. The cover art, too”—a discordant, discoidal scrawl, mad lines that look like they were drawn by a five-year old in a fit of tantrums.
“Yes, they suit his poetry well. Osip Mandelstam. He’s my favorite poet. He wrote his best poems and died in a Siberian gulag, where he was exiled by Stalin. No other poet I’ve read expresses anguish and despair with such particularity, and transforms them into something terribly beautiful, and sometimes, bizarrely, tinged with hope.”
“Of course. If he practically lived in an arctic tundra—”
“You know how I found out about him? I follow this blog, called The Floating Library. Its owner used to post excerpts of prose and poetry that struck him from books he was reading, including Stolen Air. I like that blog very much and still go visit it, though it hasn’t been updated in years.”
“The author killed himself.”
Whenever he asked me how I felt, I told the young man that I was happy, though I didn’t feel like it. Around him, I acted like a smitten colegiala, just to be Someone Else, which was the point of going to this Somewhere Else. I bought a longyi and wore it, walking slowly—unaccustomed as I was to donning ankle-length skirts—like a nice Burmese girl. When walking, he enjoyed being ahead with his longer tread and turning back to look at me, blowing smoke from his cigarette and teasing, “Hurry up, woman!” Outwardly I giggled and inwardly I snarled. I pretended to see in him someone he was not.
I refused to look at him. I bit my lip to suppress a cry. I wondered, again, why I stayed, why I still saw him, if I was only wasting my time. I opened my journal and read Timothy Steele’s “Sapphics Against Anger” thrice.