Under Light Flowers, E. W. Farnsworth
Under light flowers high against the Singaporean sky, Karen and I searched among the teeming masses for two school friends. We had called their cell phones earlier with no joy. It was a good thing they finally found us at the restaurant. Our soufflé was ready and the Chablis had just been poured.
We had all been shopping. They had bags full of new clothes. I had bought only a necklace, and Karen had found a pair of earrings. While Mary seemed exhausted, Phyllis was still on fire to paint the town.
Phyllis was excited. She exclaimed, “We’ve only this last night before we fly home. I want to move around. It’s a long, boring flight even with the on board movies. In flight, there’ll be time enough for us to sleep. Who’s game to rumble with me until late?”
Karen rolled her eyes and shook her head. Mary squeezed her eyes shut, twisting her face into a mask of pain. Phyllis shrugged and gave me her crooked smile. A classic red head, she was unrepentant and incorrigible.
I decided to take Phyllis’s challenge though I had my doubts. The last thing I wanted was Phyllis getting lost or worse on our last night. Besides, the city had a curfew and no crime because the cane was the penalty for the least infraction. What could go wrong?
I smiled and said, “All right, I’ll go, but we won’t get roaring drunk this time. We’ll see the lights and watch the people. It’s a beautiful evening.” Mary was relieved she would not be going. Karen was alarmed but needed rest. I gave Karen a look, and she became resigned to our parting. She held out her hand to Phyllis.
Phyllis gaily gave Karen her three bags to carry to our hotel suite. That way she and I could walk hands free.
After we finished our soufflés, Mary and Karen walked back to our hotel. Phyllis and I walked in the opposite direction through the crowd of evening strollers. We walked arm in arm except where the press of people made us break with each other and go in single file.
The night lights of a cosmopolitan Asian city have a life of their own. My eyes dazzled as I tried to take everything in at once. Phyllis was always pointing at storefront displays. She gabbled incessantly, which was her way of reinforcing what she saw and how she associated the sights with her experiences.
“We’re leaving, and I’ve only just begun to know this city,” she said.
I nodded. “Time flew. Our studies were so taxing, we had little time to see the sights.”
“I’m glad we took the opportunity to take that overnight cruise into the Straight during the last break. We saw the ships in passage and the city shining like a multi-faceted jewel.”
We had to part and I let her go first through a maze of pedestrians on the walk.
When we came back together, I replied, “I wasn’t aware you could notice anything, you were so drunk.”
She smiled ruefully. “I do notice things though I seem oblivious.”
I had been unkind. I decided to change the subject. “How did your exams turn out?”
“I did as well as I expected. Let’s not talk about grades tonight. I’m already wondering whether a year abroad was the right decision for me. Now I’ve got to settle back into a senior year after being half the world away from campus. Everything will have changed.”
I knew she had suffered much during the year, including the loss of her grandmother, whose funeral she could not attend on account of the cost. She said at the time it almost broke her heart to be so far away.
“We’ve all changed, Phyllis.” While we reflected on this verity, the people passed in their colorful evening clothing, their faces shining in the lights. “I’m already thinking about coming back to Singapore to teach.”
She seemed startled at this idea. “Why would you want to do that?”
I looked out over the crowd at the buildings and said, “I’ve only begun to know this place. My Chinese language instructor told me she could find me a place teaching English as a second language. It wouldn’t pay much, but it would be enough.”
“I don’t want to teach. I want to do international business. If I ever come here again, I’ll be wearing a five-hundred-dollar business suit. I’ll be living on expense account.”
She said this proudly. She lived with different dreams than I.
I told her, “You’re concentrating on business courses, I’ve heard.” Phyllis had been obsessed about financial accounting and business management. She stood a little taller as I reminded her of her goals.
“And you don’t know any Asian language?”
“Right again. Who cares? The only language that matters anymore is accounting. That is the lingua franca of world business.” She was being a little defensive now.
“Listen to the conversation of the other people walking this evening. I’ve already heard Chinese, English, Japanese, French and Korean as we’ve walked along.”
She squinted and I could tell she was trying to hear what I was talking about. She was not, I thought, interested in the cultural aspects of her surroundings. What was she thinking? I decided to ask her.
“So Phyllis, what are you experiencing on this walk. Tell me.”
“I’m walking in a sea of people. I’m being bombarded by sights, smells and sounds. When I recall this night, I’ll think of pungent smells of orange peels and cooking smells, all the lights and people jostling us on the streets.”
As if to punctuate her thought, a couple of women pressed past us brusquely on the outside, not on the store side but the street side. Talking a patois, mostly Chinese, they shunted around us, still arm in arm.
“See what I mean?” She asked me. “I don’t know about you, but I’m unsettled by having been touched by so many strangers. Aren’t you bothered by all the human contact?”
I thought for a moment. Then I replied, “Not really. I hadn’t noticed it until you asked. I’ve been to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. I guess I’m used to the jostling. I like the energy in a crowd like this one.”
Phyllis said, “It’s not the energy I mind, it’s the contact. Aren’t you worried about catching a disease?”
I shook my head. “Is that why you drink so much more than the rest of us—because you think drinking is anesthetic?”
She laughed. “No. I drink because my mind is going at light speed. I need to slow it down and get it focused. I guess I also want to keep the demons at bay.”
I frowned. “Demons? What do you mean by that?”
“Since we arrived here, I’ve been having frightening visions.”
She paused to let the idea invade my mind.
I replied, “All right. So give me the flavor of these visions.”
“You remember when my grandmother died?”
I nodded. “Yes. That was so tragic for you. You were close, as I recall.”
“She meant the world to me, and now she’s gone.”
“What does she have to do with the demons?”
Another pair of Asian women brushed by us speaking Vietnamese and waving their hands. Phyllis cocked her head and watched them as they ploughed through the crowd in front of us.
“I can’t be sure, but I think her ghost is one of the demons I’ve been seeing.” She got a faraway look in her eyes. I thought I would see her eyes well up with tears. Instead, she braced herself as if her vision was happening as she spoke of it.
“My grandmother would do things for me my mother never thought of doing. She’d comb my hair one hundred times at night so it would get a luster. The way her hand stroked my arm when I felt afraid always calmed me down.”
I was going to interject my own experiences, but I held back because she rushed on to contradict what she had just said.
“One day I found a giant wasp nest built under the eaves of our house. She examined the nest for a long while. Then she told me to go inside while she took care of it. She fetched a long stick and tied a rag around one end of it. She doused the rag with kerosene. Looking out the window, I could see her strike a match and set the rag on fire. She raised the flaming rag to the wasp nest and burned it. Ever since I’ve dreamed of those wasps coming in a swarm.”
“Are the wasps the demons you envision?”
She hesitated before she answered. I suggested, “Perhaps we should cross the street now. A policeman is about to stop the traffic, so we can cross.”
I led her quickly across the street with the crowd that took advantage of the opportunity. The policeman’s hands with their white gloves had stopped the traffic. We had no sooner reached the opposite side of the street than the traffic started again going both ways. We turned back in the direction of our hotel.
Phyllis now spoke as if she were looking inward. “I don’t know why but the demon I see is my grandmother. I know because she waves a flaming stick at me. I feel the flames inside me even as I speak of it.”
I shuddered. “Do you still feel guilty about not going to her funeral?”
She said, “No. I’m over that. In fact, I’m glad I didn’t return. I don’t know what I’d be dreaming if I had.” Phyllis reached down for my hand and took it. We now walked hand in hand.
“Why do you think you’re getting these nightmares?”
“I suppose I should say, ‘I wish I knew,’ but I won’t. I’d just like them to go away.”
I did not know what to tell her. Her hand was moist and gripped me hard for support. She continued, now looking outward toward the lights.
“My grandmother liked to read. She also liked to tell me stories. One story in particular sticks out in my memory. It was the story of a man who everyone thought was a saint. Yet when he died, his dead body gave off such a stench that everyone thought he must have been exceedingly evil inside. Does that make any sense to you?”
I knew a story like that from The Brothers Karamazov, but I simply asked, “What do you think?”
She walked a few paces before she said, “I think my grandmother’s soul turned inside out in my imagination after she passed. She returns each night to thrust her blazing wand into my soul. That’s why I have such trouble falling asleep. It’s why I leave the lights on all night long.”
I took a deep breath. “It might be a good idea for you to seek psychological counseling on this. I don’t have a clue what’s happened, but you’ll need help coming to grips with it, whatever it is.”
She nodded. “Have you ever lost anyone who meant the world to you?”
“I lost my mother when I was fourteen.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“So was I. I’ve come to live with not having her around. It hurts sometimes. At other times, I feel warm when I think of her. When you spoke of your grandmother combing your hair, I thought of my mother. She used to comb my hair, and all my cares went away. I have an idea, though. Why don’t we go back to the hotel. I’ll comb your hair. You can then comb mine. Maybe that will help us both.”
Phyllis liked that idea. She released my hand and took my arm in hers. We walked all the way to the hotel just taking in our surroundings.
We arrived at our suite to find Karen and Mary already in their beds fast asleep. We got ready for bed. Then I combed Phyllis’s hair one hundred strokes. She relaxed as I combed. I heard her neck pop when she moved her head. She arched her back and sat up very straight. It was clear she was becoming relaxed.
Then it was her turn to comb my hair. It had been many years since I had that simple service performed by anyone else. Phyllis was expert as she combed, and I melted under her strokes. By the time she was finished, I was wholly relaxed and ready for bed.
I went to bed and turned out the bed light. I noticed that Phyllis went to bed and kept her bed light on. Awakening not long after I fell asleep, I saw Phyllis standing by her window looking down on the city lights. I walked up beside her and watched with her. She put her arm around me and laid her head on my shoulder. I felt her tremble. She began to weep.
I did not know what to do except remain where I was looking down on the city. When she had cried enough, she whispered, “Thank you.”
I whispered, “Do you think you can get to sleep now?”
She nodded. I took her hand and led her to her bed. I tucked her in and asked whether she wanted me to leave the bed light on. She nodded.
I went to my bed and slept until the alarm woke all four of us. Then we were suddenly in motion in the ritual of departure. Without incident, we managed to make our flight, which departed only two hours late.
I sat next to Karen, who wanted to know how my walk with Phyllis went the night before.
“We walked the length of the business district. Then we crossed the street and walked back to the hotel. We saw what you’d expect. A crowd in the night pressing from all sides, touching as they passed. Sounds and smells of Singapore. We didn’t stop to eat or drink. We just talked.”
“What did you talk about?” she asked perfunctorily.
“Oh, the usual things. School ending. What’s next? That sort of thing.”
“So Mary and I didn’t miss much, I guess.”
I nodded. “No, you did the right thing. You were both exhausted. I could see it in your faces. You were sound asleep when we returned. We decided not to awaken you.”
“Thank goodness, you didn’t do that. Did you sleep well?”
“As well as can be expected in a hotel bed.”
“I know what you mean. Do you think you’ll be going back to Singapore after graduation?”
“I’m seriously considering going back to teach English.”
“I probably won’t ever come back. I’m glad I came, though. It gave me distance from the campus. I’ve grown. I’m not the same as I was when I left the States.” Karen was always sensible. “We’ve all been through a lot.”
“I agree.” Yet I saw sitting by the window the same Karen who sat in the seat beside me when we flew the other way over the Pacific. I looked across the aisle and saw by the opposite window Mary looking down as if she could see the ocean. Next to her sat Phyllis, earplugs in her ears, lost in the onboard movie she was watching.
I looked up at the master monitor and saw in the movie the lights of New York City in the night as seen from above. They were not the same as the lights of Singapore as seen from the pavement. Yet it was not the panoply of individual lights I now recalled. I envisioned instead, as if above me, the flowers the Singaporean lights comprised.
E. W. Farnsworth lives and writes obsessively about the human condition in sunny Arizona!
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Tags: E.W. Farnsworth, friendship