nonfiction by Joanna Robinson


The body on the bed lies limply curled. I note the dress on the body: a long, wrap-around dress of gauzy cotton in muted hues of coral and camel. The dress comes from the dust-whipped market in Kota, Rajasthan. The dress lacks pockets, heft. It hobbles movement, offers no protection. It feels like a negligee, makes the wearer feel negligent and negligible. This dress and any dress unfit a person for the questing life. But snug, western-style blue jeans and the black-and-purple batik top prove too hot for the climate and the locals. Tone it down. Blend in. Lighten up. The dress goes on, the Indians stopped gawking, the sun feels slightly less murderous.

From the dress protrude spindly arms and a gaunt face. The eyes are shut. The dark hair looks flat and dull. The once-olive skin has turned red, a dry paper wrapping pulled taut. The body barely pants, shallowly and rapidly—it’s hard to tell—or doesn’t breath at all. A death-bed scene. But the sight sparks no horror, no surprise, no fear, no wonder. With detachment—because I am detached—I gaze down from the ceiling at my body on the bed.

Thoughts plod to me in sticky slo-mo, as if through thick film, like Petroleum jelly. They emerge from the film one after another: slowly, metrically, unbidden. But how can they reach me up here if my body, which contains my brain, is down there? Am I awake but hallucinating? Unconscious but dreaming? Have I died?

Death is a viable possibility. During my first ten days in India, I suffer two heat strokes. Slow-roasted by the sun, head and belly pound in painful, synchronized beats. I am pulverized, tenderized, separated in my tissues with every slam. The body boils over like a radiator. Then ferocious vomiting—here come my insides: I spurt, invert, an organism evaginating itself in front of its own tear-streaming eyes. The heat strokes panic me. But after a while I stabilize, vow different behaviors in this clime, feel my resolve reforged. Did North Africa explorer Isabelle Eberhardt give up because of recurring malaria or because a tribesman tried to hack off her arm with a saber? (No, she went on to die in a flash flood.) Did Teddy Roosevelt abort his river-mapping venture in the steamy forests of Brazil because of malaria and leg injury? (No, he rallied and finished charting the river, for which Brazil redubbed it “Rio Roosevelt.”) Like Isabelle and Teddy I have no plans to jump continent.

Then comes the incursion of bacillary dysentery. I have deliberately eschewed voluptuous mangos, fresh cucumbers in yoghurt, raw indigo carrots. Passing up street vendors I don’t crunch puri, chew mutton off sticks, sip street tea, or pop oily samosas from the corner stand into my mouth. I decline the neighbor’s rose petal water, the hostess’s honeyed rice balls, the visitor’s gift of shelled nuts from the market. But no one in India lives in a bubble. Eventually curiosity, appetite, endless invitations to meals and tea, and the almost desperately insistent hospitality of Indian hostesses breach my eating protocols. My now brackish intestines slow me down and tire me out. But I have survived dysentery in other lands and will in this one as well. After two months I’ve lost twelve pounds. I feel boneless, meatless, but enjoy the new sensation of traveling light. I consider my dematerialization apt in the land of the Hindus and congratulate myself for my adaptability. It’s been almost two months since the last heat stroke.

Then today things change. Airport snafus grossly delay my arrival in Benares. I land mid-afternoon, helpless for the deadly hour, hatless, waterless, lurching and pitching through the broiling streets of Benares in an open bicycle rickshaw. This time the sun bakes a body already sapped, without reserves, undefended. I slump and moan. The innards convulse. But there’s nothing to throw up, so I rasp and gag in pathetic spasms, screeching hiccups of defeat, aphasic and animalistic. The rickshaw driver casts me perturbed looks, then glares as I try to tell him, “Take me someplace air-conditioned!” I don’t know if I have made any sound, if I have croaked anything intelligible, if I have imposed myself over the chaos of the street. I am one molecule in a melee of rattling cars, buzzing motorbikes, coughing buses, creaking carts, mangy dogs, plodding cows, flapping chickens, swarming flies, the endless crush of pencil-thin people, beggars everywhere—pock-marked, missing limbs, walking skeletons with matted white beards and dirty loin cloths, food stalls, spice shops, urine, animal dung, diesel fumes, driver shouts, claxons, radio music, bells, police whistles, filth, heat, dust, dust, dust. Panic surges from the pit of me. The driver leaps off his bike and dashes into a building. I pinwheel down and teeter in after him. I’m in a dark motel, the kind our mothers call “seedy,” the kind craved by raconteurs as backdrops to riveting stories. I choke on stale heat. Words wedge in a parched throat and my knees buckle like melted wax. Hotel staff get me to a room before I puddle all over the reception area.

The turbaned manager asks if I need a doctor. I hear myself think “yes,” but can voice no sound. The manager races from the room muttering in Hindi. Meanwhile, I feel increasingly weightless; my stalk and leaves and peeling fall away, and now the unprotected pulp of me leaks out. I need to stanch this flow, regroup, seal up. But I can’t. I pull myself across the dusty floor to the bathroom for another round of heat stroke retching. The violence of the heaving conjures images of implosion, stomach propelled through throat, brain bursting. I splash water on myself. I slide back to the bed. Every cell in my body quivers with the “Danger!” signal, tries to shake me into action. But I can do nothing. Last emotion: terror. Next thing I know I’m up here. So it’s hardly far-fetched to conclude that I am dying or have died. Lives in India often end in heat stroke.

And if mine has ended, the finale isn’t pretty. No peaceful, heroic, poignant, or dignified death mine. My wasted body lies on a narrow metal-framed bed. The bed and I form the merest tracing in a bigger bed of dust. I’m practically buried already. My passport and a wad of faded

rupees cover the small rickety night table, new surfaces to be silted over. My unopened backpack sits on the floor already accreting the perennial sediments of India. The door stands wide open, as the manager left it. The window, unglassed, is shuttered—a useless bulwark against 120-degree rays that slice through the slats. The swamp cooler burbles and sputters, but succeeds only in recirculating burning air. It occurs to me that family and friends have no idea where I am. For that matter, I don’t know the name of this squalid place; I don’t know where I am either. At all.

In a normal waking state, I would have fixated with fascination and fright on identifying my exact location. But I’m not in a normal waking state: I am split from my body, my awareness arrives through syrup, and I cannot steer the thoughts that plod one after another. All I do is passively accept them. So now I accept that I am thinking about buffalo burgers.

After that first month in India I spend a month in Kathmandu. I self-doctor by eating rice, bananas, yoghurt, and water buffalo burgers. The burgers smell gamey. Their spongy texture prompts jokes in the ex-pat community. I down many of them in hopes they will replace lost protein, restore my weight, stop me up. It doesn’t work. I can’t hold a thing. The last thing I eat in Kathmandu before boarding the plane to Benares is a buffalo burger.

Thoughts pass from burgers to Madu, playing her sitar on the roof. Worried about my first-week heat strokes, my hosts in Kota arrange for me to stay with Madu and other relatives of theirs in Gujarat, a sea-side state. Gujarat is supposed to be cooler and thus less lethal. But even in Gujarat, I cannot leave the house after 10:00 a.m. or before 8:00 p.m. Afternoon highs sear between 110 and 120 degrees. During the day I sit cross-legged on the tile floor, perfectly still, reading tales of famous swamis, as sweat runs in rivulets down my arms and hands into the pages. Lizards and small birds dart through the unscreened windows. Madu tells me not to worry about cobras. Only one has slithered into a neighborhood home all year, and the woman

beat it to death with a broom. At night Madu and I climb to the roof to sleep. I haul the air mattresses; she brings the sitar.

The shiny, bulbous sitar has seventeen strings. On the lighter gauge strings, Madu turns melodies; on the three heavier strings, she plucks the drone notes—low, repeated tones. The drones anchor the piece in a key center and harmonically enrich the melody. Even when the melody deviates from the original tonality, the drone remains unchanged. The resulting dissonance creates delicious tension. The eventual return of the melody to its initial key center, harmonious with the drone, creates an even more delicious resolution, a euphoric relief. Since childhood I have experienced trance states induced by music. Madu’s ragas do no less to me. The foundational, perpetual hum of the rich low note seizes the body and shifts the mind. Within a few minutes of hearing Madu’s first raga, my waking consciousness gives way to a meditative state—nonverbal, atemporal, blissful. And finally, staring up at a million southern hemisphere stars, my meditative state dissolves to sleep.

After recalling buffalo burgers and Madu playing the sitar, I sluggishly draw a few conclusions. I recognize that my reduced self on the ceiling is not only disconnected from my body, but from all emotion. Memory and verbal functioning appear intact. But emotional intelligence is gone. In ordinary awareness, the memory of specific music is almost as great as the experience of it (which can be said of few things). Yet I feel no joy in remembering Madu’s gorgeous improvisations. Moreover, I feel no terror, anger, woe, excitement, desire, hope, or any other emotion about this amputation from my body. My attached self would have registered seismic emotion for the loss. In my new form I am nonpartisan. I feel nothing. The emotional vacuum explains one thing, though: these endless, crawling thoughts are flat, tinny. Decoupled from feelings, thoughts alone do not match the vigor of waking consciousness.

Also, recollections of buffalo burgers and music make me realize something else. I am recording no new sensory impressions. Memory tells me the burgers smell bad and the music sounds good, just as memory now tells me that the decrepit bathroom reeks and the room crackles with heat. True, I have a bird’s-eye view of my body on the bed. But I can’t pan the room. So apart from my tunnel vision I no longer collect new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, or any other stimuli.

And my intuition is missing as well. I can’t get a fix on what is happening to me. My thoughts unfold analytically, colorlessly comparing and contrasting my current situation with previously known states of consciousness. The emotional void makes me conclude that I am not operating in normal waking consciousness, not floating in a music-induced meditative rhapsody, not dreaming, and probably not hallucinating (at least not if the happy high school experiments with psychedelic substances provide adequate points of comparison). Death remains the most logical explanation for my present condition; I cannot rule it out. Beyond that, my thinking has literally hit a ceiling. To assess new situations, I need intuition. But intuition has vanished. I can count on no flashes of insight, no fundamental sense of what is going on or what may happen next.

The loss of emotional, perceptive, and intuitive intelligences leaves me with a fractional awareness that slow-rolls mechanically through the thick film. I think of Madu’s drone strings: my former self had a drone—a profound, permanent, underlying stream that centered my life. My drone component defined and supported me, as the drone of a sitar, the drone of a bagpipe, or the pedal point of an organ create an identity for the musical piece. Somehow my drone has played out or become inaudible. My consciousness is limited to thinking. I note that thinking, in and of itself, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Nor is death. If my present state signals death, then so far death is not a reward or punishment, not a cosmic merger or an extinction, not much of anything. But probably death, like conception and birth, is not a moment but a process. I will transition backwards, shedding layers of previously accrued states of consciousness until I end up at my pre-birth condition, which is nothingness. But for the nonce I exist as a stream of bland thoughts, which rely heavily on memories.

Memories. My body would someday exist only as a memory to my family. Perhaps for me as well—because as I peer downward, I no longer see my body in sharp focus as I had when it and I first separated. Since I no longer have an imagination, I know that the fuzziness at the edges of the wrap-around dress is real and not imagined. My inert, crimped body is definitely hazier, like a memory that frays on its way to oblivion. My former self would have grown alarmed to see itself blurring. But I am a neutral being now; I wait for the next thoughts.

The next thoughts emerge from the gray film at a slightly quickened pace, loaded with memories. I don’t see anything, but I hear a slow and sonorous thumping. My mother’s heartbeat booms around me—omnidirectional, omnipresent, marching me from latency to actuality. The steady, low-pitched thump beats on, through dissonance and consonance, no matter what else happens in the world. Although less immediate and less constant, I hear the pitch and cadence of my parents’ voices. My father whistles and my mother sings. Swathed in those sounds and the drone of her heart, I float in preconsciousness, which is the state of nothing turning into something.

Then I see my toddler self with my Sicilian grandparents. Grandpa, ever chuckling, cups me in his arms at the kitchen table. “Giovannina, che dici!” he exclaims every few minutes. Josie wags her fingers in time, chanting “funiculí funiculá,” and “bedda bedda.” Since I am only a few years into my life, I lack the language to say that I have never smelled anything as exquisite as these fried cardoons heaped high in front of me. I cannot articulate how much I adore my grandparents. I cannot tell them how their love has already endowed my life. After I smack my cardoons and top off with fig cookies, Josie settles into her rocking chair with me on her lap. I fall asleep on my grandmother’s belly.

Now I see my toddler self at home. I find some mothballs in the closet. Thinking they are candy, I share them with my little brother. I spit most of mine out. But Paul eats a whole box and offers some to our mother. Before racing Paul to the emergency room, she frantically demands to know if I ate any. My mother’s panic petrifies me. I fear a spanking. “No, I didn’t eat any mothballs.” She calls the golf course where my father is playing, leaves me with the neighbor, and rushes to the hospital with Paul. I am mute with dread. The ER doctor pumps the mothballs and seventeen dollar-size pancakes from Paul’s stomach. The pancakes saved him, everyone comes home laughing nervously, my own stomach remains in knots for days.

I am about five. My paternal grandmother sits at her tinkly, upright piano. Plump and jovial, she sways as she ripples “Song of the Bathers” and an arrangement of Liszt’s Liebestraum up and down the keyboard. The music carries me away. I don’t think about how white this grandmother is—white hair, white dentures, white skin. I can’t think at all while the music lasts. Afterwards, I don’t tell anyone that I lost my thoughts.

I am six. My classmates at school torment me for my dark skin, for my brains, for my special library privileges. During a recess game of bombardment, all the kids on the other team smash me with their balls simultaneously. They laugh. I burn. But I would not trade my one brain for all of theirs. At home I run downstairs to the piano. I can read music and play with two hands. I play “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” in A-minor, over and over into trance.

I am seven. My mother speaks to me at the kitchen table as we roll rum balls for a holiday party. She tells me that Christmas is the birthday of god’s son whom god gave to the world as a gift. God is our father, and when we die we go to heaven to be with this god. I realize immediately my mother is making up the story. I know the difference between made-up stories and real stories. She should know that; she is the one who reads them all to me. The made-up stories include nursery rhymes, fairy tales, Aesop’s fables, Dr. Seuss, Charlotte’s Web. The real stories come from National Geographic, the dinosaur books at Dr. Thorne’s office, the insect book, the rock book. No one gives babies as presents. I already have a father. Heaven sounds dull. I wonder why my mother tries to pass off a made-up story as true, and I think her tale bears suspicious similarity to other adult fabrications about the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus–all of which I know about thanks to older cousins. Adults, I reason, lie to children to better control them.

The flow of memories is interrupted by my recognition of the gradual acceleration of my thinking through the thick film. At this rate, my thinking will eventually reach normal speed. As the thoughts pick up pace, vision deteriorates. My body on the bed has become a shadowy lump.

But the vision in my memory only sharpens. Now I’m ten, sitting in my fourth grade school music class. Miss Schutzie, the teacher, shows us a picture from World Book Encyclopedia in which a man in a skirt plays an instrument I’ve never seen. “This is a bagpipe,” she says. Miss Schutzie plays a record of Scottish bagpipe music and explains about the drone notes. The sound of the deep, endless drone, unlike the view of the bagpipe in the photograph, is uncannily familiar. Jimmy Evans, sitting next to me, plays with a loose button on his shirt. But I have closed my eyes and left the classroom.

Then I see myself reading in the aqua armchair. My father walks up and states that he will pay me $1.50 to memorize Luke 2:1-7 and recite it for my paternal grandmother at Christmas. I do it: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…” My paternal grandmother beams. I sense that my grandmother thinks I believe my own recitation. I want to tell her that I don’t, but something tells me I would lose my $1.50. My father happily pays me in the car when we leave.

Now I see my father walking through the front door, just home from a hearing in San Francisco. He totes the latest additions to his mammoth record collection. Benny Goodman. Barbra Streisand. South Pacific. Handel. Tennessee Ernie Ford booms: “I’ve got an ol’ mule and her name is Sal/Fifteen years on the Erie Canal/She’s a good ol’ worker and a good ol’ pal/Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.”

The memories run apace now. Pianos, Sicilian cooking, books, family vacations. My parents take us to Mexican border cities to visit my father’s clients. We have a vacation from brushing our teeth, as my mother shuns the water. My father suggests we use whiskey. My siblings and I deem our father a genius.

I’m thirteen now. My girlfriends and I are smoking at the gas station across the street from Murchison Junior High School, which we call “Murchatraz.” The nicotine spins my head pleasantly. After our cigarettes, we go to choir practice where I sing alto.

More adolescent scenes: I argue with my mother. She criticizes my jeans and waffle-stompers. She wants to see me in dresses, dotted Swiss, puffed sleeves, pastels. Right now, she fulminates because she found a letter I was writing that used language she deems vulgar. She wants to control my words.

Here I am now at piano lesson, sitting at Mrs. Wyss’ brown baby grand. I play Bach’s French Suite in G major. The piece is more powerful than drugs.

By now, my thoughts are speeding through the film, which has dissolved to a thin membrane. I can hardly take in the memory before it is replaced by another and another. Meanwhile I no longer see my body on the bed.

Instead, I see my grandfather picking cucuzza in his garden… My family sings along to Johnny Horton Makes History…My father pays me $30 for each straight-A report card…My siblings and cousins and I listen rapt to Grandpa’s tales of shepherd life in Sicily…my mother and I fight about my ripped blue jeans…I eat slabs of Josie’s anchovy-packed pizza….my parents take us to the opera in San Antonio…my father forces my siblings and me to attend church…my mother and I fight about my friends…I practice Chopin’s Impromptu in A-flat major…my mother and I fight over my headband…I am listening to Leon Russell, Joni Mitchell, B.B. King….my mother and I are fighting about the eighteen National Geographic maps I thumb-tacked over every inch of wall in my room…I pound rock’n’roll on the Kawai baby grand…I meet Italian cousins in Rome…my mother and I are fighting because I have cut classes at school…Grandpa and Josie cheer me on as I put away a third plate of lasagna…I start teaching at my piano teacher’s studio…my mother tries to…everything she does makes me mad…everything I do makes her mad…she will be furious that I died…she will be livid to have to search for my dead body in Benares….she will never forgive me…damn it, why do I care if she gets mad….just thinking about her makes me feel…makes me… angry….

Click. Darkness. My head rushes and every cell in my body trembles in sync with the beautiful sound of my pounding heart. Other sounds reach me: the burp of the swamp cooler, the squawk of chickens, the hoarse cries of the street vendors, tabla music from a passing car radio. For once in my life all noise becomes music. My drone reverberates. Sound reforms me.

I slowly turn on my back, uncurl, and open my eyes. The ceiling is plain–no visions of myself in the upper corner. Relief. Then fear. I’m hardly out of the woods. My head is splitting. It’s sweltering in here. Mom. I have a horrible taste in my mouth. Near-death experience does not prove dualism. My guts are cramping. Go sit under the shower. My drone is too soft. I don’t know if I can walk. Feeling bad has never felt so good. Some think the world is made for fun and frolic/And so do I/And so do I/ Some think it well to be all melancholic/ to pine and sigh/to pine and sigh/ But I, I love to spend my time in singing/ some joyous song, some joyous song/To set the air with music gayly ringing/ Is far from wrong, is far from wrong/Harken! Harken! Music sounds afar. Harken! Harken! Music sounds afar/ Funiculí funiculá Funiculí funiculá / Joy is everywhere Funiculí funiculá! I need a doctor. I should fly to New Delhi as soon as possible. I need an I.V. If I had enough liquid for tears, I would weep.

Penetrating the muddle is a sense of intrigue. I want to ponder what just happened to me. I’m beginning to feel fascinated. But another part of me interrupts. That voice insists that now is not the time for reflection, but for action. I sit up slightly and smooth the wrap-around dress. I call out for help. My voice does not carry; I have to call several times and force the volume. Finally, I hear the sound of footfalls on the stairs.