Fear to Forget & Fear to Forgive: Or an Attempt at Writing a Travel Essay
June/July 2015, Singapore, Singapore
Last night’s lightning culled memories, dormant a while now, of my fear of the dark, though it wasn’t the complete dark that terrified me but the thick weight of an unseen presence, the dark against the dark, illuminated suddenly (as in movies) by the shake and explosion of a torrential lightning storm. Except last night’s downpour was one I’ve rarely experienced, it being a tropical storm of the Equator and not the Southwestern desert. Rain fell as if off the end of a river, slammed the metal-covered walkway beneath the apartment window, and I imagined that false sense of shelter creased and folded. Wind threw rain against the window as if to shatter it. I was groggy, much too stuck in dreamland to get up and, I don’t know what, hide or sit on the couch in the front room? I worried about the laundry I’d just washed, left piled on the window seat. I’d have to dry it again, carefully pick out glass bits. Still, I did nothing, only listened through my dreams to the hard blasts cracking the night. The rainy season, it seemed, was early in Singapore, though I’d need to Google it to be completely sure.
Before this sedated storm sleep experience I’d broken from a fever developed after a late Saturday night out guzzling beers and smoking cigarettes in the Geylang district, which is closer to the east end of the island; there, low rising colonial buildings were lit fluorescent along narrow streets, and the district maintains its scandalous reputation of having been the red-light district. I’m left to imagine, or Google, having spent the majority of the get-together in the courtyard and apartment of a gated condominium. Only later, inebriated in a cab, did I realize where I was, or had been, and happily pointed out to my wife that many of the hawker centers were lively, serving soups, noodles, and whatever else in case we wanted to eat. But it was near 4 a.m. and navigating a new social space at that hour was out of the question. You know, fuck it, we could (and would) get McDelivery at some point the following afternoon.
The gathering consisted of my wife (a beautiful woman from the American South, or its doormat, Tennessee), a man from London, a man from Belfast, a man from the Yorke Peninsula of Australia (“The Leg” of Australia as it’s known), a friend (now friend) of a friend most recently from Seattle, and another woman from New Delhi. International unity. Mostly. What’s significant about this, aside from everyone’s hometown origins, was each of the ways we’d come to navigate Singapore and its culture based on our personal pasts, historical international relationships, and time spent in the city-state. The obvious historical conflict of territory was between the man from London and the man from Belfast. England and Ireland. One doesn’t, or shouldn’t, need to think too hard to realize those complexities and historical relationships, the recent elections in Ireland for independence from Britain, for example. To further add to complexity of territory, the woman from New Delhi discussed Kashmir and insisted it “belonged” to India, Pakistan had no claim to it, though some argued that Kashmir belonged to itself, and neither India nor Pakistan (like Bangladesh and its violent fight for independence). However, my first thought was Led Zeppelin, and how surprisingly easy the song is to play on guitar (once I’d figured out the tuning) and what “belonged” means. It’s instances such as these that I feel I know little of the world, sometimes nothing. There are people that can recite facts and dates, create a historical timeline, win fucking trivia. But a timeline and facts aren’t knowledge per se. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to discuss this with first-year composition students. Facts are facts: information not synthesized that’s easy to manipulate and faulty without context. They are simply things that have been done, as John D’Agata explains somewhere in the intro to The Next American Essay, if I’m remembering correctly. I don’t know many facts off the cuff, am horrible at trivia. These conversations happened all around me, each person aware that each conversation had the potential to get out of hand because none of it makes sense and, perhaps, no one really knows a goddamned fucking thing.
While I moaned words through the confines of lucid dreaming and lightning flashed around the cracks of the window’s large blind, my wife got out of bed to piss, drink water, and close the small window above the shower so the downpour might not enter the apartment. She, too, once we discussed the storm a day or two later, expressed her fear of sitting on the toilet and reaching to shut the window once she finished—old wives’ tales, as she called them, of being electrocuted through water in the house whether it be shower, toilet, sink, or rain entering the home. She returned to bed as water seeped in under the front door and we slept late into the afternoon.
We all live with fear, the U.S., it seems, as a nation, more so than any other. I’ve spent the majority of my life within its confines; an Indigenous ward in an occupied land. We’re afraid of Black people, Muslims, Mexicans, China, Russia, North Korea, the Middle East, Africa, Cuba, greasy food and being fat, being too skinny, being wrong, being right or righteous, being accused of being politically incorrect or correct, of teenagers (especially Black teenagers, teenagers of color), of bees or the lack of bees, of not enough people liking our status updates, of reading and critical thought, of not reading enough or of what we read, of thinking for ourselves, of understanding. There, it seems, is something to fear in everything. Gluten is to be feared, whatever the hell it actually is. Sometimes we fear with reason, sometimes without, perhaps mostly without, but largely because “we” reveal in ignorance. Wear it like a badge. We’re proud of the things we don’t know. It releases us from being complicit, from responsibility, from acknowledgement and empathy, from following the teachings or the beliefs of our religions, values and mores, etc. Love thy neighbor? Nah, fuck that. They’re a thug, a slut, a heathen, a hippie, a Democrat/Republican, a Northerner/Southerner, a this or that _________ of this or that __________. Once we begin to categorize humans we can begin to compartmentalize them as well.
I’m filled with fear. Filled this very moment, typing this essay in a National University of Singapore Starbucks that has a wall of windows overlooking a manicured lawn and trees, dorms and other buildings towering the perimeter. Today it’s overcast, humid, and hot. The group behind me is loud and distracting, talking over one another about their research, credentials, the use of libraries around the world, and which are the best: Chicago, Oxford, Shanghai. Smaller libraries are more focused, but access to an unlimited number of texts is better. I have no library. My personal library, my symbol of intellectual prowess and girth, is thousands of miles away. So, the knowledge and reference base from which I’m writing is simply my own, what’s in front of me or easily accessible on the Internet (though I’m reluctant to search for anything to supplement this writing), and what’s buried and half exposed in my memory. I’ve been reading from a Kindle, though I never use the highlight feature because it’s unnatural to me. And, anyway, I’ve been reading novels to pass the time between teaching and working on a fiction collection that I slowly want to abandon for more honest and worthwhile endeavors. This excuse has resulted from frustration and the idea that fiction is entertainment, not a noble a pursuit of truth like essays or journalism. But I know, or sense rather, that I’m completely wrong. My fear is what-I-know-that-I-don’t-know and also what-I-do-know—my experience, my history. Without my books, my library, I have nothing to hide behind.
This isn’t the first time that either my wife or I have been to Singapore and Southeast Asia. Three years ago she received the same six-week teaching/writing residency and we spent three months traveling to Bali, North and Central Vietnam, and Cambodia. We’d only dated two months. We wrote, read, fought, fell in and out of love, and nearly broke from one another, for good reason, once we returned traumatized and brokenhearted to the States. I’d fallen in love with her well before I’d actually met her (in that dangerous and romantic way, in that old way): a photo on social media at some event in Arizona where she was visiting ASU’s campus from NYC made me think that the possibility of our worlds colliding imminent. At the time, I was living unhappily in Philadelphia with a (mostly present) fiancée whom I was growing to resent and falling out of love with, a painful memory and sentence to write, one I’ve not written until this moment (the resonance of the event still a glacier flipping in my chest). I can’t place the exact date or even build a timeline around when I saw the photo of my now-wife. It must have been prior to, or after, the two months I spent at the MacDowell Colony, where I eviscerated the fiction collection I’d written post-MFA, and where I also began to compose and collect poetry derived from scraps I’d been writing since my English BA in 2003. Alone in my cabin, I had a couple breakdowns, panic attacks, and eventually made peace with the absolute darkness of the New Hampshire woods by smoking cigarettes and drinking Irish whiskey late into the night, scrawling things I deemed poems. I had developed this magical, fucked-up process of rising early and hung over to work on fiction while alternating days of running two to three miles and lifting at the gym in town just before dinner, after which I’d converse and imbibe with other artists, then work on “poems” late into the night, drunk. I repeated this process with daily two-hour naps. At some point my fiancée visited me, and I felt like I still loved her, but the remaining days in that cabin, and the ones after my return to Philly would drain it all out of me. I was figuring out how to depart, where to depart to, and what to do. Phoenix. I’d return to a city I’d grown to detest and to a job as an electrician working ten- to twelve-hour days, six days a week that would waste me.
I’ve been typing away at this damned thing for two days now, filled with anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. I want painkillers, my demonic synthetics of old: Xanax, Valium, Percocet, Oxycodone, Soma. That good, good shit. But it’s only a notion. My wife has Xanax stashed somewhere in the apartment, pills she was prescribed for flight anxiety, the long haul to get here. I take comfort in the fact that I haven’t searched them out, though it’s crossed my mind once or twice. In reality, I fear their smallness and potency, the hot breath pressing me down. I’m sitting next to my wife as she works on her writing in the same Starbucks, though it’s quieter than the time with the library talkers and sunny outside. Last night, after I finished teaching my portion of an evening creative writing workshop, my wife and I went out to a pub for dinner and a couple drinks. We chatted idly for a while. Our waiter described his brief holiday in KL (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) where, he said, it’s less overrun with Aussies and Americans, and the street food is more “hygienic,” less dodgy than Vietnam or Thailand, though the street food is quite fantastic in those places as well. After he left us, my wife and I immediately made plans to spend a couple nights in KL for the following week. Alone, we shifted our conversation to what each of us was working on, the challenges and frustrations of writing, and the attributes of the Arsenal and Chelsea players on the television over the bar. I rooted for Arsenal because I’m quite fond of Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, and Per Mertesacker. Ultimately, they’d lose 2-1. Two Chelsea players (extremely talented) who I dislike scored the winning goals: Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. We talked of this essay, forgiveness and trauma, and how to approach the problems with each, or rather each of our own experiences with forgiveness and trauma. Now, my wife knows nearly everything about my childhood, my past, my addictions, abuse, anger, and struggles. And I know of her past and her losses. Though to say “everything” is to imply that there is nothing left to learn from one another. Of course, that isn’t true. We’ve been married close to four months, together nearly four years, and each time we dig into our psyches and pasts we uncover more doubts, goals, dreams, and fears.
The storms have ceased, the cooler muggy post-rain reprieve has arrived with them, and we’ve booked our trip to Kuala Lumpur. It’s hardly an hour away by plane. Another hour or so cab ride and we’re in the city, in the Bukit Bintang neighborhood, the streets web-like and congested, traffic laws for the most part optional. It’s got a bustle all its own. Moto riders weave through traffic, taxis honk and swerve for position, there’s construction to expand the MRT, and it’s Ramadan (it never occurred, or had been taught to me, that Malaysia is a Muslim country). Restaurants prepare buffets and food stalls pop up along the streets and alleyways, ready for those who will break fast after sunset. It smells of cooking meat, fresh fruit, body odor, exhaust, sewer, and garbage. Our hotel is down the street from the high-end fashion mall, The Pavilion, and a block away from Jalan Alor, a street for street food, which, as we learn upon arrival around one or two in the afternoon, comes alive after 6 p.m. We find one of the few open places with fans, order dim sum, a couple beers, and a large bottle of water. The food, along with the humid heat, makes for a nap, and so we do.
The following days and evenings lead us to delicious food, malls, narrow colonial streets packed with fakes (Prada, Fendi, Beats, Gucci), 7-Eleven after 7-Eleven, prostitutes who ignore us for the most part, and a helipad that turns into a bar at sunset. There, we take in the far-reaching panoramic view of KL. It’s electric, literally, the lights far-spread, the Petronas Towers like some futuristic, fantastic castle. The towers are filled with offices, a mall, and a bar/restaurant, all of which seem to take away from the mystical visage, but who am I kidding? It was fucking amazing to all take in.
The experience and distance from one’s “real life” that’s had while traveling never alleviates pain and trauma. It will have its moments of being a harsh and brutal reminder. My wife and I are continually aware of this idea. The three months we spent in Southeast Asia in 2012 were, as she’s expressed to me, a traumatic experience, no thanks to my verbal assaults, inability to control my emotions, and substance abuse. For three months, we shared amazing experiences visiting Hanoi, Halong Bay, Huế, Hội An, Angkor Wat, Bali, and Singapore. But we were trapped. Neither one of us had the funds to change all the fights we’d booked. We—or she, rather—could only survive the long days to our final departure. I struggled to be free of the pain and anger that consumed me, the memories of physical and sexual abuse flooding my every dream. I didn’t have a modicum of control over what was destroying most everything around me, myself in particular. The stress and exhaustion of travel abroad would culminate in a huge fight after our return to Arizona during the height of the unbearable desert summer after we’d already struggled so many days and months to stay together. We’d drink too much, scream at one another, I’d push her to the floor like a coward after she backed me into a corner. I’d run away into the hot Phoenix night, she’d call me on my cell, and we’d scream more. I’d return, we’d remind one another of our love, and we’d sleep. Come morning it wouldn’t matter. I couldn’t—didn’t know how to—apologize to her or acknowledge the fear and harm that I’d caused her. I was unable to get beyond my frustration, sadness, and confusion. I’d shake my head at her and drive away. She’d return to Tennessee to be with family and I’d fly to Philadelphia, rent a small SUV, and drive the few meaningless possessions I left in U-Haul storage back to Arizona. It’d take me five or six days because I didn’t want to drive at night and I’d get black out drunk in every town where I sought out hotels with or near bars. At times, when the road was clear, I’d shut my eyes and let go of the steering wheel. Only once did the vehicle drift, vibrating over the perforations along the road’s shoulder, and I nearly lost control. I stopped at a gas station in Oklahoma and vomited in the putrid wet bathroom from hangover, anxiety, and panic. I called a therapist I found on the Internet who specialized in childhood trauma and told him of everything that happened in SEA and after: my pushing the woman I loved, my inability to cope, and my suicidal thoughts. I needed to make it two more days and call or text him every day until I arrived back to Phoenix.
Fear, and my desire to immerse myself in building my online world literature course for the early modern period, and the need to tackle my professional writer/editor responsibilities have stalled my writing of this essay. It’s been over two weeks since I’ve added anything. I’m all guilt, trapped by memory. In that time, and after the conversation that my wife and I had at the pub in Singapore regarding our previous time spent here, we’ve travelled through Phú Quốc, Vietnam (an island that probably belongs to Cambodia but was given to the Vietnamese by the French), Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and presently Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’ve read a couple nonfiction books, a novel, and poems online. During this time my younger sister has traveled to Peru from Arizona for some healing with Ayahuasca. I’ve been with an uneasy mind. She is a significant source of my self-hatred, my inability to forgive, my inability to forget, and my short temper—what I can’t seem to get to or say.
I was an angry and erratic child, often morose and cruel to my younger sister, who suffered the consequences of my own suffering and rage, as well as her own. Beyond the typical sibling rivalry I was violent, scared, and sleepless. Unfortunately, we suffered through many similar experiences of abuse, not from our parents (though there are other issues and essays there), but from babysitters and extended family. Our futures were fucked, as were we.
It’s impossible to go into any detail. I’ve been advised not to by many a therapist. I’ve been advised to move forward. Closing in on my thirty-fifth birthday, it’s still difficult. I haven’t spoken with my sister for over a year and but a stilted handful of times in previous years. She’s been going through a dark time, the specifics of which are unknown to me, to even my parents with whom she still lives. I can’t help but feel partly—hell, mostly—responsible.
About threes years ago my sister and I had a falling out in Philadelphia. She and my parents were visiting me. My fiancée had recently purchased a house with a roof that had been half-assedly repaired. Tropical storm Irene was drowning and wrecking the East Coast. The ceiling and walls had blistered with rainwater prior to my family’s visit. I had to cut an access hole into the attic space to locate the spot where the water showered in. I spent weeks tearing off and rebuilding the roof of the three-story rowhouse from two thirty-five foot extension ladders. It was slow, frustrating work. At some point, as storms came and went, my fiancée traveled to Mexico for work and a small earthquake shook Philadelphia while I was standing at the peak of the roof. I thought wind had captured the 60’x60’ blue tarp and that it was going to damage the decking and shingles. As the earth shook the house I scrambled across the roof securing the tarp, oblivious to what was happening, thinking that exhaustion and hunger were the cause of the instability I felt.
My family stayed a week. I completed the roof repair with the help and moral support of my father. But everything felt wrong, tense, and humid. Irene hit Philadelphia during their first night. Water poured again into the third floor. I was forced to don my rain gear and harness and ascend the roof to reposition the tarp. Rain blew from every direction, the clouds dense and circling. Green lightening lit the sky and I felt both an ending and a beginning.
The visit coincided with my sister’s birthday. My fiancée had pulled strings to get us all a table at some small, well-renowned Italian restaurant. But as we walked through Rittenhouse Square in Center City, my sister turned and yelled at me, accusing me of never having her back, of thinking her less than or lacking, of being a monster. She hated me. I was supposed to protect her and was never able to.
Once, when we were kids she told me that she knew I’d abuse my children and probably hit my wife.
I’ve never been fully able to forgive myself or my abusers, and especially the abusers of my sister. I was forced to watch and participate. I was, I felt, the victim and the assailant. When I pushed my wife, it was confirmation, for me, of my sister’s accusation. I’ve always been no good and on my way to being wholly, completely no good. I can’t ever forget or forgive. Anyone or myself. No amount of reassurance has ever been enough. But I’m still alive and filled with hatred, anger, and sadness. I’m also happy and comfortable with the thought that a couple of the people who harmed my sister and myself are suffering, are in pain. I don’t forgive them. I want them be present in their pain, to live long, excruciating lives. And as my sister struggles, I struggle. I am present in my pain, hoping to live a long and excruciating life.
The first time I ever travelled abroad, I flew to Prague for a month-long writing workshop. There, I learned how my name was actually pronounced, the j not zha, but a yawn. Bo-yawn, not, Bo-zhan. I also learned from two Czech people what it might mean and that it was Croatian, Slavic. One: the fighter or the frightened one. Two: son of thunder. Both appropriate. I’m violent and scared. Preemptive. A product of imperial U.S. cultural values. Also, I am, or have been, an electrician. I was twenty-eight when I learned this, the only knowledge of my name was that my parents chose it as they watched some ski jumper during the 1980 winter Olympics held in Lake Placid. In Prague, I met Arnošt Lustig and Ivan Klíma (the latter on my birthday), two writers who’ve shaped my writing. Both survived the Holocaust, Russian and German occupation, and exile. Good over evil. In a way, it’s what I want. Good over evil. Knowledge over ignorance. Empathy over judgment. I want to learn from and write about these things and believe that it will be enough. It’ll be enough.