“Oh it’s a long, long time/from May to December”
The evening of September 10th, 2001, I lay on my back in the dark. I was on a secluded beach, barely 1/2 a mile long, on Tioman Island, Malaysia. The island is a two-hour speedboat ride due east off the southeastern tip of peninsular Malaysia. Take a few moments if you will, to locate the country on a map somewhere and see if you see the island. It’s shaped like a bowling pin.
OK? Let’s continue then.
Tioman is so far away from any city center that sure enough, as I had suspected, I was able to gaze up into the heavens, as I had many times and many years before when I served my country in the United States Peace Corps in Kenya. A lot of good memories flowed within and through me as I looked again at our glorious home called the Milky Way, and I could see where we on Earth are positioned within this galaxy, and I could remember again what tiny place I occupied in this universe of ours. I stared deep into that inky blue sky, savoring what might be my last chance to find such a remote place for a long time. The tide was out, and the waves provided the background music, while the salt air moved in and out of my body. I thought a lot about how good my life was, that I had a loving wife and beautiful daughter and that I could share good and bad times with them through my journey on earth. My view of the night sky was relatively unobstructed, as the waning moon would not come out until I was deeply sequestered in sleep in my air conditioned “chalet” that lie just 10 meters behind me as I gazed up. What was really exciting about that night was the anticipation of seeing a shooting star again. Our home, Earth, is showered daily with bits of ancient rock that find their way to our outer atmosphere, then, in a beautiful brief moment, they penetrate the atmosphere and tumble burning until they are vaporized. If you are good at using your peripheral vision, you can catch a star for the fraction of a second that it takes to burn up. If you are very lucky, you might even get a single second burn-up, or, for the very luckiest, a two-second show. A unique thing about this is that you are probably the only person on earth who gets this show at this particular moment, as if it’s a special gift, just for you…
That evening, though, I wasn’t alone. I had just finished the second of a two-day vacation there, with my good friends Julie and Ali Hassan (not their real names), and their good friends, another married couple Pesha and Abudu (not their real names, either), a nice young pair in their own right. At 39, I am a good 6 years older than Ali, who is the oldest of the four. They are all UK educated Malays with respectable jobs (Ali works for the Ministry of Education and I met him here in Hakodate Japan. Julie is a teacher. Pesha works for the formula 1 circuit in Malaysia and Abudu is a uni professor turned advertising man). They are, by Malaysian standards, upper middle class, though their income compared to US or Japanese standards, is quite small. I invited them to this special show on the beach, because, as Abudu had said…what are we gonna do without TV?!?! He said this in a half joking matter, but all of them are children of the media age, more than I. Ali loves his Playstation 2, and I brought him a popular game unavailable in Malaysia, but easy to get here in Japan.
The night sky induced a state of semi-dreaminess in the five of us as we lay there. A long silence was split by Pesha, who asked where the moon was. I said that it would be coming out later in the night. In a surprised voice, she said to me “how do you know that?” and my answer, after thinking back to my Kenya experience, was “I just know.”
I didn’t really realize how much Kenya was in me. One thing I learned there was the pulsation of the moon. I pretty much know whether the moon is waxing or waning. I pretty much know it’s cycle of rising later as it wanes and earlier as it waxes. I love seeing the crescent of the new moon, too. It reminds me a lot of the small ornament on top of the Witu village Mosque. Seeing the crescent is one of the most magical parts of moon watching, almost as if being present at the birth of a new child. Living in that darkness in Kenya made me appreciate the short life that we all have, and makes me live each day as if it might be the last. Work hard, play hard, love hard…the human condition.
After being on our backs in that inky, milky darkness in a half dream state for about 30 minutes of the greatest of all TV shows, the four of them decided to turn in for the night. Our trip back to Kuala Lumpur the next day would consist of a two-hour boat ride back to the mainland, followed by a six-plus hour bus ride, so they wanted to get their beauty sleep. I, however, took pleasure that I could be in solitude with the Milky Way for a few minutes longer, free of all the stresses of everyday life, and the eventuality of returning back to Japan to work. I took my time, hoping to glance a passing satellite, and follow it on its lonely journey across the face of the sky..but no luck. A few airplanes whispered across at 35,000 feet, and their blinking red and white lights heralded their passing, transporting people and families from one experience to the next through the secret night. I looked up again at the Milky Way splotched like a faint cloud behind most of the other distant specs of light dotting the sky. I looked at Pink-brown Venus, our next door neighbor, the brightest light in that night sky. It was so peaceful and beautiful. There I was again: standing tangent to the earth, waiting to leave the gravitational pull and drift into and through that vast expanse of gas and dust from which we all have come and must return. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget my time in Kenya…or those brief 48 hours on Tioman, where I got to see a Kodomo dragon slink away into the bush, a truly giant, and disappearing, species of lizard unique to the region.
“But the days grow short, when you reach September”
The next day, September 11th was different. It consisted of a two-hour ride on a larger boat. I shot some video of my four friends, and they made fun of me and we all had a good laugh. We ate cookies and chips and drank our bottled water. We waved at a few ships of the Singapore Navy resting at Tioman before pursuing, in conjunction with the Malaysian Navy, the South China Sea pirates, who roamed the area southeast of Tioman. We watched as we passed by islets tinier than the 6 mile by 2 mile Tioman. I dreamed of building a secluded house with a giant NO TRESSPASSING sign on one of the tiny drops of rock outcropping and establishing the Republic of Larry, population 3, and 3 cats. It was a nice fantasy. We arrived at the jetty town and waited another two hours for the bus. I did some quick email to people, bought some little gifts and said farewell to Tioman. During the sleepless six hour bus ride back to KL, I played a game that Ali had beamed me through his Palmtop, a game called “helicopter rescue”.
“When the autumn weather/turns the leaves to flame/ One hasn’t got time/for the waiting game”
In the game, I was the daring helicopter pilot, rescuing good guys who were jailed up and guarded by bad guys and their rockets, missles, tanks, planes and all sorts of bad guy things. I could advance to the next round by rescuing at least 9 of my 12 compatriots. I had six hours to play the game on the bus. There were so many maneuvers to learn in those six hours. The copter rising from the ground, fast forward, slow forward, hover, slow backward, fast backward, shoot straight, drop a bomb while hovering, safe takeoff, safe landing. I would lose a guy if they shot down my helicopter, or if I landed in the improper position. There was a line in the game that I could pass which was the safe zone. The enemy planes couldn’t shoot me if I were past that line. My little stick guys would rush out of the copter and into the headquarters building if I landed safely in my safe zone. I could only help four at a time, and had to return through hostile territory to help the others to safety. I worked my way up to being able to rescue 12 guys in each of three rounds before my three helicopter lives were used up. In six hours, I managed a score of over 1000 points.
At one point during the game, we stopped to rest for thirty minutes at a roadside rest stop. Malaysia has better than Interstate quality roads these days. They are 4 lane divided highways with large shoulders that band up and down the western side of the peninsula. The rest area was full of Chinese Restaurants and background music of Malaysian Pop Bands played REALLY LOUD. The bands were trying their best to imitate American pop bands, I suppose, and they pretty much sounded like them, only they sung in Bahasa Malaysia, the Malay language or in Chinese. I bought a mask from Sarawak, which is on the Island of Borneo across the South China Sea. There had been some ethic killings on Sarawak recently. People getting decapitated and whatnot nonsense. It’s a cheap tourist mask, to be sure, but I like the colors and patterns, and I’m collecting masks now that I bought one on my trip to Bali, the Hindu enclave in the world’s largest Muslim nation, in 1999. That was it for the bus ride. We got back to KL, said goodbye to Petra and Abudu, who disappeared back into the city of 2 million, and took the subway to a taxi and back to Julie and Ali’s. I showered off all that salt water, and dressed for my looming airplane ride: brown slacks and a long sleeve button down greenish shirt. Airplanes get cool and dry on long routes, and I was scheduled for a six and a half hour redeye commencing from 1:20AM on the 12th.
“The days dwindle down/to a precious few”
My bags packed and my body and mind refreshed, we went to an outdoor restaurant in the late evening. It consisted of stalls selling Indian, Iranian and Malay specialties. There were about 40 tables under a covered area. The menu signs were all in English, my favorite one said “we guarantee you fast service, no matter how long it takes!” Most of the signs, though, I couldn’t read as they were in Arabic. Most likely passages from the Koran, I assumed. I had some tandoori chicken and butter chicken with a scrumptious bit of roti bread, round, fat and very nice, to sop up all that buttery oil and curry. To top it all off, I had a mango lassi served, incredibly, in one of those two and a half liter beer steins you see if you drink in a beer hall anywhere in Germany. There was no way I could finish it. At the table next to us were two guys, one a Malay and the other, his friend, looked of Chinese extraction. It was gratifying to see, really, that Malaysia is a multi-linugal, multi-cultural society where freedom of religion is a very important part of the country, despite the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in some of the poorer northern parts of the peninsula. They were chatting in English to each other on this sultry night. Julie , Ali and I were all a bit tired from our trip to Tioman. Then, the Malay guy’s cellphone rang, most folks here have Nokias…they are everywhere and they are all manufactured here these days, along with most computers and hi tech stuff. We tried to ignore him as he talked, but he kept saying something about how first one plane hit, then another hit in the other building. Anyway, we were finished eating that delicious food, so I paid and we left…I had a cab to catch to the airport, which was still another hours’ drive away from where we were.
We drove over to Julie’s aunt and uncle’s house. They lived in a luxurious apartment in a part of KL where all the embassies are. The richest and most sumptuous part of town. Needless to say, Julie’s uncle is a very successful businessman. I was surprised, because I had met her aunt a week earlier, though I didn’t know it at first. The aunt had given me a ride to the Petronas towers, the second tallest towers in the world (China now has the tallest tower, in Shanghai, I think), which contains a gigantic, American style, American class shopping mall, all of six floors and possibly over 150 shops, including a 12 theater cineplex where I saw Kubrick/Speilberg’s A.I. for 3 US bucks. A.I. is set in a fictional futuristic New York City. The reason I didn’t recognize the aunt at first was that her head was uncovered. She wasn’t wearing the head covering that most devout Moslem Women wear in Malaysia, probably because she wasn’t out in public and maybe hadn’t expected us. She had beautiful long black hair, with heavy accents of gray, for she was, after all, somewhere in her early 60’s. Seemed a pity to keep that beautiful head of hair covered up, but that was her belief. I wondered why Julie never wore one, but her generation is obviously more liberal in its tolerance system. As we came in to the apartment, they led us to sit down and switched on the TV. They put CNN on. That’s when I saw first one plane hit, then another hit in the other building. Within 5 minutes, it was time for me to get into the cab for the drive to the airport. I stood outside with Julie, Ali, the aunt and uncle. My body was shaking. It was about midnight in KL, exactly 12 hours later than the real, non-A.I. N.Y.C. I shook Julie’s uncle’s hand, it was warm and firm. The aunt let me shake her hand, too. I said goodbye to Ali and tried to shake Julie’s hand, but she gave me a hug instead. I almost forgot to wave goodbye as the cab pulled away, because my body was still shaking. I tried to fix their four faces in my mind as I left. They were smiling, and I was smiling, or I imagine I was smiling, I can’t remember.
As I drove to KL International Airport, I couldn’t think of anything. We drove by the two towers, the Petronas towers. They were standing, the second tallest buildings in the world, the tallest twin towers in the world, encircled on several floors with beautiful lights, which nevertheless paled in comparison to Tioman’s magical milky way light show, but still, beautiful for their manmade attempt to recreate nature’s profound glory. The darkened highway was empty and we zoomed at 120kph, past Mosques silhouetted against the night sky, past neon signs in Chinese, Malay and English, with the occasional Tamil sign here and there, for there is also an Indian minority here. Just inside the lobby of the airport, again, were huge televisions, all tuned to CNN, and all surrounded by people watching first one plane hit, then the other hit the other building. I went to the toilet, which was situated next to a small prayer room for Muslims. My stomach was suddenly not so good. My appetite was gone. Later at the departure gate, I stood in line with the other Japanese returning to Nagoya. Next to our gate, we had to pass by a bunch of white South Africans heading back to Cape Town. Everyone boarding both flights was getting patted down in a newly meticulous search. First the arms, then the back torso and back legs, then the front torso and finally the front legs. I was asked to open all of my bags that I was carrying on the plane. I had to open a box of three clay cups I had bought for my family in the Petronas Towers mall a few days earlier. I had to unzip every pocket in my camera case, and pull out my video camera and show them that my telephoto lens was a telephoto lens. Then, as I entered the plane, I had to show my passport again, with its gold embossed cover, eagle with the thirteen olive leaves in one claw and thirteen arrows in the other claw, inky blue on the cover, like the night sky of Tioman. “Passport” above the eagle and “United States of America” in italics underneath the eagle. Then we, me and a plane full of Japanese and the sprinkling of Malays (the pilots, too, Malay as this was Malaysian Airlines) went shaking, or singing, up into the milky way obscured sky, turned to the northeast, I could see out of the left window seat near the rear of the plane those two towers again, such tall towers they were, twin towers, among the tallest in the world. Then, those two towers had passed away.
“And these few precious days/I’ll spend with you. These precious days I’ll spend with you.”
*Quoted lyrics from “September Song” Weill and M. Anderson
This morning I had a (one day late) 15-minute zoom-enabled 30th Anniversary “breakfast/lunch” with my lovely, cheery, and ever-energetic wife. Me in the UAE and she in Japan. Thousands of km apart…
To be honest, the sadness of the pandemic and the rush to open things 17 months before there’s a chance of a vaccine… just a bit too much for me.
I don’t usually wear my heart on my sleeve, but it’s aching right now.
Never mind the small apartment,
Or the vermin infestation.
Those things mattered little or not at all.
He did not care - for such trifles.
Ignoring. Ignored. Ignorant.
No. The time came when Mr. Wonderful was obliged to find his way through to the
Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri: The Gateway to the next world!
Rather than walk, or drive, or take the train, or commute
Everyday, he chose just a single trip to Missouri.
My guess is, it was in the unmarked white panel van,
Adorned with nothing at all, parked facing away from outside the crematorium.
In fact, it’s not a guess.
Nothing about Mr. Wonderful was left to guesswork: only the appearance of the
Sadness that kept pulling him away from me, from us.
By most accounts, his Art spoke for him.
Unrepentantly unpracticed scribbles labelled “Green Eyes”, “The Red Lady”, “Self-Portrait”.
Throwaway-able: one and all. “Professional Art”, Greg, his neighbor, said.
Really, though, “Self-Portrait” expressed it well enough: a head with an
Empty face. Greg and Jane and Brian, all explained it:
Mr. Wonderful was charming, but ultimately you would notice,
As always, him holding something away. His face: Expressionless-in-Practice.
Isolating. Isolated. Isolation.
Not once could he face it, face us; so my brother and I, we helped push him.
St. Louis, Missouri - pushed his expressionless body through The Gateway to his next world.