Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, page 1
Take Me Home, Country Roads
Words and music by John Denver, Bill Danoff, and Taffy Nivert
Copyright © 1971; Renewed 1999 Cherry Lane Music Publishing Company, Inc. (ASCAP), Dimensional Music Of 1091 (ASCAP), Anna Kate Deutschendorf, Zachary Deutschendorf, and Jesse Belle Denver for the U.S.A.
All Rights for Dimensional Music Of 1091, Anna Kate Deutschendorf and Zachary
Deutschendorf Administered by Cherry Lane Music Publishing Company, Inc. (ASCAP)
All Rights for Jesse Belle Denver Administered by WB Music Corp. (ASCAP)
All Rights for the World excluding the United States Administered by Cherry Lane Music
Publishing Company, Inc.
International copyright secured. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright© 2009 by Susan Jane Gilman
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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Also by Susan Jane Gilman
Kiss My Tiara
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress
my Beloved, my fellow traveler, my North Star
THIS IS A TRUE STORY, recounted as accurately as possible and corroborated by notes I took at the time and by others who were present. However, given the sensitive nature of what unfolded and the conditions under which many of the people in this story continue to live, I have changed the names of almost everyone unless given their permission. I have also altered distinguishing characteristics of several people—most notably of my friend “Claire Van Houten” and her family—to the extent of rendering them unrecognizable. It is my intention to protect their identity and privacy.
I’ve also spelled some Mandarin words the way they sounded to me at the time rather than as they’re actually written.
Except for these alterations, this remains a work of nonfiction. All these events happened, and the people are real. God knows, I couldn’t make this up.
—Susan Jane Gilman
To become wise, one must wish to have certain experiences and run, as it were, into their gaping jaws. This is, of course, very dangerous; many a “wise man” has been swallowed.
Two Air Signs are fun to watch, like trapeze artists at the circus… Since Librans can never make up their minds, and Geminis are continually changing theirs, it’s hard to know what to predict will happen in an association between them.
—Linda Goodman’sLove Signs
NO ONE ELSE seemed concerned when our plane took a nosedive. We banked sharply to the left, then plunged toward what looked like a tongue depressor, a tiny spit of land jutting into a titanium sea.
Our tray tables in their upright positions, our carry-ons stashed in the overhead bins, the plastic seat frames rattled violently. Below us, the earth went haywire. And yet the flight attendants remained placid at their stations. One of them was even leafing through—was that a golf magazine? The other picked at her cuticles. The plane continued plummeting. I gripped the armrests. Dear God, we are all about to die with a splat! Across the aisle from me, a businessman tossed his newspaper aside and yawned.
The cabin rang with the high-pitched whistle of deceleration. “Wow, check it out.” Claire leaned across me. Beyond the little oblong window, gargantuan mountains rose up wildly in the twilight; a phalanx of apartment buildings suddenly appeared. High-rises seemed to be lining the runway, providing some sort of sadistic buffer between our 747 and the peaks. They were so close, I thought I could see light fixtures silhouetted in their windows, clotheslines jiggling on their balconies. On the other side of the plane was the bay. If we didn’t land precisely, we’d careen into either the mountains or the sea.
“It’s like Scylla and Charybdis down there,” Claire laughed, spooling the cord from her headphones around her Walkman. She had majored in philosophy, so she tended to view the world through a prism of Greek mythology and nineteenth-century German depressives. The cabin began filling with the smell of sewage, jet fuel, rotting fish. Seeing my distress, she squeezed my arm. “Oh, sweetie. Relax. It’s all part of the adventure.”
There was a screaming roar; my heart went staccato in my chest. I flashed miserably on my teary-eyed parents, on my little brother back in Manhattan listening to all the record albums I’d left behind. A ribbon of asphalt swelled beneath the plane. I shut my eyes and braced myself for impact. The fuselage seemed to tear through a membrane. Everything convulsed, then shuddered, then released with an ear-splitting squeal.
We stopped. For an instant, there was silence.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot said cheerily over the loudspeaker, “welcome to Kai Tak Airport.” The passengers applauded politely. I’d never heard people applaud a landing before—though to be fair, this was only the third time in my life I’d ever been on an airplane. As we taxied toward the gate, I exhaled and imagined that they were really clapping for Claire and me. Our arrival was momentous. It was unbelievable to me that we’d actually pulled it off. We were now truly here, on the other side of the earth. All that remained was for us to step out onto the glistening tarmac and into the gloriousness of our lives.
In 1986, my classmate Claire Van Houten and I decided to backpack around the world for a year. Neither of us had ever traveled independently before or been to a country where we couldn’t speak the language. The farthest west I’d ever been, in fact, was Cleveland. Nonetheless, the two of us became convinced that we should not only embark on an epic journey, but begin someplace incredibly daunting and remote where none of our friends had ever set foot before. And so we decided to kick off our adventure in the People’s Republic of China. At that point, Communist China had been open to independent backpackers for about all of ten minutes.
The summer after our graduation from college, we’d purchased around-the-world airline tickets, which began with a flight from New York to Hong Kong that September. By slowly plane-hopping around the waistline of the planet, we’d figured we’d circumnavigate the globe in exactly a year, returning just in time for my student loans to come due.
We had no idea, of course, of how complicated the world could be, or of our place in it, or of just how much trouble we were in for. We didn’t even comprehend what it would feel like to lug water purifiers, sleeping bags, and leaden pairs of hiking boots around the globe. All we’d thought was: Hey, let’s be Odysseus. Let’s be Byron. Let’s be Don Quixote, Huck Finn, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one—except with lip gloss. Let’s conquer the fucki
As we alighted from the gangway, Claire pirouetted. “Oh my God! We’re in Hong Kong! Can you be-lieve it?”
We each gave a trilling, girlish squeal—no doubt exactly as Odysseus would’ve done—and sashayed through passport control. We hadn’t even reached the baggage claim, however, before I got a massive nosebleed.
Blood pooled in my left nostril, dripping down my face. A sweet, meaty taste filled the back of my throat. Although I’d been sure to stuff a half-pound bag of M&M’s, my diaphragm, and my 913-page astrology guide, Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, into my carry-on, it hadn’t dawned on me to pack Kleenex. I found a crumpled, lint-ridden United Airlines cocktail napkin and stuck it up my nose.
“Ow.” Claire winced as she drew closer. “That looks nasty. Here.”
She guided me like a blind person across the concourse to the ladies’ room. Thousands of women had passed through it during the day; streamers of wet toilet paper lay matted across the floor. Claire eased me down onto a dry spot near the sinks. Leaning my head back, I almost choked on my own blood.
She rummaged through her purse, pulling out the split of champagne we’d bought at the duty-free shop back in San Francisco, her Mason Pearson hairbrush, a paperback copy of The Genealogy of Morals. Claire was perhaps the first person to insist on bringing the complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche on a backpacking trip. But she hadn’t thought to pack tissues, either—which was ironic because we’d otherwise prepared for this voyage as if it were the invasion of Normandy. The bags we’d checked were laden with no less than fourteen Berlitz phrase books, two different types of malaria pills, earplugs, first aid kits, inflatable pillows, sarongs, flip-flops, bug spray, Kwell, anti-diarrhea medicine, canteens, condoms, six Penguin literary paperback classics by authors ranging from Cervantes to Virginia Woolf, and enough tampons to last us a year.
“Stay here,” she instructed, pivoting around. Even when she was exhausted, Claire moved with the discipline of the ballerina she’d once been, her feet turned out, her carriage erect, her chin elevated. With her long neck and aristocratic features, she looked like a Dutch Renaissance Madonna—albeit one in a polo shirt and pleated khakis from L.L. Bean. She had an air of certainty about her, a regal loveliness. Me, I was all breasts and flyaway brown hair and enormous, mismatched rhinestone earrings; half the time, I flounced around in black ripped-neck sweatshirts with my bra strap showing. I’d cleaned up my act for traveling, but just barely.
The ladies’ room door fwooshed open and shut. An announcement crackled over the PA in English, then Cantonese. Women came in to pee and stepped around me with annoyance. I felt foolish, wildly disoriented. We’d left New York over a day ago; we’d crossed the international dateline. It was eight a.m. back home, nine p.m. here. Time had collapsed in on itself like a soufflé.
Claire returned, dragging both our backpacks. “Fuck, we overpacked,” she said.
Gingerly I stood up. My reflection in the mirror was a catastrophe. The lower half of my face was caked with dried blood. It looked like a Ming vase that had been smashed, then glued back together. Claire handed me a fistful of napkins from the airport snack bar, and I cleaned myself up as best I could.
Now, if you’ve never really traveled before, and you’ve just flown over thirty-one hours in economy class—two rows up from the smoking section—to a foreign city in an upside-down, day-is-night hallucinatory time zone—and you’re filthy: your mouth feels encrusted with airplane pretzels and you haven’t showered in over a day—and you both have splitting headaches from dehydration and from watching endless loops of The Goonies and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on the minuscule screens throughout the airplane—and at least one of you has just had a massive nosebleed—and as soon as you step outside the airport, a wall of tropical humidity hits you that makes you feel as if you’re standing behind the exhaust pipe of a city bus—then as a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to take a room at a Holiday Inn for a couple of days to get acclimated.
But Claire and I would have none of this. We were determined to check ourselves directly into a shit-hole.
“I want us to be travelers, not pampered little tourists,” she’d declared during our many phone calls that summer. “No air-conditioned buses, no idiotic tour guides, no Hilton hotels.”
“Absolutely,” I’d agreed, twirling the phone cord around my knuckles. “The whole point of this trip is to experience the real world. Stay off the beaten path entirely. Stay only in local places, eat local food. Be totally hard core and authentic.”
All our lives, Claire and I had been ambitious, straight-A students who built dioramas of Aztec villages for extra credit in social studies; who recited Robert Frost poems for our parents’ unsuspecting dinner guests; who took AP French in high school and edited the yearbooks and wrote honors theses in college. It wasn’t enough for us to merely navigate the world on our own. Oh no. We had to prove to everyone, in the process, just how expertly and imaginatively we could do it too. Like everything else in our lives, we seemed to believe our trip was something we’d be getting graded on.
In 1986, there were no regular commercial flights between the United States and Beijing. Independent travelers had to enter China through Hong Kong. We’d purchased an obscure budget guidebook, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, published by a bunch of hippies calling themselves Lonely Planet. They recommended staying in Hong Kong’s Kowloon section at a place called Chungking Mansions. This was not only a great base for backpackers, they said, but a good source for information about obtaining Chinese visas and arranging transport across the border.
So that’s where we decided to go. Chungking Mansions. Just the name alone appealed to our sense of adventure and romance.
“It sounds sort of gothic, doesn’t it?” Claire said as we slid into the taxi with our backpacks. “Like some sort of abandoned plantation with vines growing over it?”
“Wild peacocks roaming the verandah,” I suggested.
She laughed, nodding. “Shutters banging in the wind.”
Until our precipitous landing at Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong had been an abstraction to me. Despite my education, my conception of the world at that point was about as sophisticated as a kiddie ride at a theme park. Other nations were a blur to me of strange alphabets, kitschy costumes, tiresome folk songs, and snow globes. Mostly I assumed that what made a country foreign was the degree of its deviation from the standard of America. If a country had skyscrapers, refrigerators, and televisions, I figured it was pretty much the same as the United States. If it had houses, diets, or skirts made entirely of foliage, it wasn’t.
My concepts of places were nothing less than bad poems: clichés lazily cobbled together. Hong Kong, to me, was simply an abstraction—the home of cheap novelty key rings, yo-yos, see-through pencil cases. I somehow imagined we’d be sleeping in a rice paddy.
Yet when I showed our driver the address, he gunned the cab onto a wide concrete access ramp looping down into a tunnel, a serpentine of white tiles and sodium lights sucking us back and forth beneath the bay. We emerged onto a chaotic intersection that looked like a compression of Times Square, the streets claustrophobic jumbles of high-rise buildings with enormous electric billboards for Toshiba, Aiwa, Kent cigarettes. Neon signs flashed “Pearls,” “Watches,” “Lucky Peking Duck.” Whole roast pigs dangled by their ankles like lanterns in the restaurants. Buses, old cars, and motor scooters ground out bluish-black plumes of exhaust; crowds elbowed each other at crosswalks. Honking trucks, mirrored bunting: The streets had a whorish, carnival quality that defied nighttime or any semblance of order.
The driver lurched onto a huge main road with three lanes of traffic running in each direction, then came to an abrupt stop in front of an arcade full of lurid discount stores. “Okay.” He pointed to the meter. “Two hundred twenty dollar.”
Claire and I looked out the window. “What?” I leaned forward and pointed to our guidebook. “Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road.”
Claire rolled down the window and poked her head out. “Shit,” she said after a moment. “He’s right.”
We paid him with our strange-looking Hong Kong dollars, and his cab screeched away, leaving us with our backpacks on the edge of the gutter. A sign above the arcade read: “Chungking Mansions, 36-44 Nathan Road, Kowloon.” It looked nothing like a tropical villa and everything like the Port Authority Bus Terminal back in New York City. Inside was a warren of convenience stores selling cheap electronics and knock-off designer handbags. Music blared, a drum machine punching out a bass line. Young Asian and African men in grease-stained T-shirts slithered out of a newsstand drinking beer out of brown paper bags. In an instant, they descended upon us. “You want wristwatch? For you, special price. You want guest house, come on. I show you.” The stench of sweat, urine, and frying pork was dizzying. Already, we were drenched in perspiration. The tropical air was broth. My traveler’s checks and passport were strapped beneath my clothes in a money belt. It felt like a damp tourniquet, but I kept checking to make sure it was still there.
“Okay, clearly, this is not the Chungking Mansions in the guidebook,” I panted.
We were the only Westerners on the entire block, as well as the only women. With our bulging backpacks and our deer-in-the-headlights faces, we might as well have had giant bull’s-eyes painted on our chests.
A Western couple emerged from the arcade.
“Excuse me.” I flagged them down. “Do you know where Chungking Mansions is?”
They looked at me as if I were mentally retarded. “Right here,” the girl sniffed, pointing to the elevators.
Reluctantly Claire and I hoisted up our packs and trundled inside. Above a bank of decrepit steel elevators were plastic slats listing restaurants, massage parlors, and guesthouses in no particular order. Chungking Mansions wasn’t a hotel at all, but a warehouse for transients.
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