What’s not in the picture is what I couldn’t bear to see. I didn’t crop it later, I didn’t edit out his image. I just moved my camera to the right and snapped.
We Americans like our gadgets in vibrant colors. My toaster is a shiny teal. My friend’s stove is fire-engine red. We like our bumpers painted even if we grumble when they get scratched. We like our celebrities suffused in soft light. That way, they never age. We like our bathrooms large and shiny. We joke, but we call our toilets thrones.
Frankly, we usually like our strangers to be shiny, pretty, and in vibrant color too.
Walking through Népliget, I am not alone. The first cool day in Budapest in more than a week, the city was promenading, licking ice cream cones, playing table tennis, posing for selfies. Old, young, beautiful, ugly, fat, thin, we all wanted that breeze on our face.
What I couldn’t unsee, what I couldn’t take a picture of because it would be too rude, too invasive, too salacious, too too was an adult-sized pram and in it, an adult-sized man. Homemade from a metal container, the pram’s bed was a human-sized sardine can. Unpainted, it was what is was: worn and dull metal. The wheels were the wheels of a ten speed. The handles were maybe from an old shopping cart. It was brilliant and ugly and real.
I looked and didn’t look. I refused to gawk, although how could I know? Maybe I was. I reddened. I smiled. The women smiled back. The man laid there unaware, his body not well covered. His knees were knobby and his legs curved inward like a runway model’s thighs. He had longish brown hair parted on the side. Someone had taken the time to make sure his part was straight and the bangs brushed from his brow. His nose was aquiline and pronounced because he was so emaciated. His almond eyes were brown and not lit from within. I wondered if he were day dreaming and enjoying the sun on his face. I hoped this was true.
Let’s face it, we might venture a private utterance of grotesque—incongruous to a shocking degree. I thought it. I looked and didn’t look at this man stowed, albeit in loving comfort, into a tin can. But look harder. This scene wasn’t shiny and packaged for tourist consumption. What I saw were women bonded together as kin telling stories and making one another laugh. Women who cared for a fellow human. Women who pushed his carriage from where ever they lived to enjoy a summer day in this tree-lined park. In another life, this man might have been a prince.
These women in polyester dresses and comfortable sandals played cards next to the man in the pram. We all felt the breeze. They were truth in beauty.
My short story, When He is in the Room, is published in this year’s Gold Man Review. Buy here.
I tell John—not his Karen tribe name, of course—that I live in Los Angeles, California. He asks for me to point to it on the worn and dirty map hung on the wall of the wooden house he built himself. He was proud of his home on stilts, trunks he had cut down as a boy, a symbol of burgeoning manhood. No electricity, no plumbing but a panoramic view over the endless jungled mountains of northern Thailand.
I point to Los Angeles on the map. I yell Hollywood. He looks at me blankly. I am embarrassed, but he doesn’t see that. I don’t know why I yell when I am pantomiming in different languages, a prejudiced vestige in my reptilian brain.
“Alec, Alec,” he says, “pin it.” And I do.
I become another pin on John’s map of visitors who help with his 100-year-old rice farm. There are pins in Italy, in France, in Germany, in China, in Australia. I am the one pin in the United States. I represent all of us. I hope I do okay.
“Alec, Alec,” He shows me how to use a manual plough. The tangled roots, lifetimes old, have a particular direction in mind. One different from John’s path. I push, my shoulders pressing into the hot metal bar, my feet slipping in the mud. Those roots are stronger than me. Getaway plough. I nearly ruin a terraced paddy.
I end up standing knee deep in a paddy pulling the mud into the swampy water. This is only the first step in the year long process of rice farming. “Alec, good.” He gives me a thumb’s up. He catches an eel in the water. He kills it by whacking it on a rock. “Lunch,” he says. He’s taken to teasing me, so I am never sure.
Cooked over an open fire, we eat it for lunch over rice. Rice his family and village handpicked, rice his family and village hand threshed, rice his family and village stored and sold for their survival.
On Venice Beach, I can get my name written on a grain of rice. I never do, it’s ten dollars.
She looks happy, doesn’t she? She goes between pretending to be Elizabeth Bennet and Aero, her avatar in Skyrim. Next time we bicker about which footpath to take, I expect she’ll say, “Fuck you, Mr. Darcy,” and hit me with her imaginary sword that’s 27 fire power. She’s got some bad temper.
She can’t be bothered with the topographical maps or even the compass. She was sorely disappointed that I bought one made of plastic. She wanted one straight out of Pullman’s The Golden Compass—all brass and steampunk. She tells me she wants to feel her way west like true explorers do—she sees herself as Aero jumping over cliffs and forging rivers, meeting strangers and completing quests to save a village, stumbling into caves and finding magic treasure. I think she’s delusional in her view of the world.
She loves staying above the pubs between those daily 15 miles, but she complains they don’t serve red wine. I listen to her vacillate between the lamb stew and the salad. And when she chooses the lamb stew, she complains about how she’s aging into a very wide woman.
I know behind that temper and fantastical thinking there is a woman who worries no one truly loves her. I see her darkness and her hurt in all the spaces in between.
She’s laughing now on that stile, telling me to hurry up and that she gets final say on the photo.
I’m going to ask her to marry me at the end of the Dales Way.
I hope she says yes.