Saturday, June 01, 2013

The River of Recurrent Shame

I learned how to milk a virtual cow from a very young age.

There was an exhibit at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo that I used to frequent on field trips, across from the pettable beast pen, tucked away in a foul-smelling, unpasteurized little nook they called Dairy World. The only real reason for visiting Dairy World if you were a kid was this kind of prosthetic cow that resided there. You could always pop in and find the cow unattended - it was by far the lamest object in the zoo - and its udder compartment was usually full. You'd yank on the udders and a funky liquid that wasn't quite water but certainly wasn't milk would come spurting out, sometimes into the aluminum bucket provided, but more often than not all over the one kid in class who was even dorkier than you.

The problem with Georgian cows is that many of them happen to be alive, so they move around and stuff, and their udders aren't plastic and sanitized on a bimonthly basis, but are in fact made of flesh, are rather oddly shaped and floppy and slippery and bulbous and tumescent, among many other disgusting-sounding descriptors. Georgian cows tend to be particular about who is milking them, especially when your milking technique is something you've only ever practiced on yourself and a virtual cow somewhere in Omaha, Nebraska. Nothing in my years of training could have prepared me for the real thing. During my tenure as host son, I only milked the host cow once, and having milked everything there was to milk out of the experience, once was plenty enough for me.

It was part of my host mom's last-ditch propaganda campaign to keep me in the family. I'd kept deliberately mum to mom about my plans because I secretly wanted to put myself up for host adoption, to see another side of Georgia, to bear witness to another version of host familial dysfunction. But my host mom wanted to own me for another semester, another year, probably for the rest of my natural life. So, at her behest, the whole village was coming together to show me all the authentic, down-home, rural-type experiences that I could get in Jgali but nowhere else in Georgia, and certainly nowhere in the more civilized world. Milking Jurga, the family cow, was first on the bucket list. So to speak.

The extended host family had come out to watch. I plopped down on a stool and fumbled around Jurga's undercarriage. Her tail started swishing around, symptomatic of bovine anxiety disorder. She groaned and stomped a hoof. She mooed a deranged Transcaucasian moo. Panicking, I grabbed onto the nearest flap of flesh I could find and yanked. Nothing came out.

"She's not working," I said.
"You're pulling the wrong thing."
"Jesus," I said to myself in English, "how many things can there be?"
I brailled my way to another flap of flesh and started yanking anew.
"Nothing's happening," I said.
"You've got to pull very hard," said my host mom.
"I don't want to hurt Jurga."
"You can't hurt Jurga."

Yank and yank as I might, I came to the conclusion that Jurga was all tapped out for the day. I shrugged and threw up my hands. My host mom booted me out of the way and went to work. Torrents of milk blistered the inside of the bucket.

"See? Like that."
I scooted back in.
"Like this?"
"... no, not like that."

After dinner, I came down with strep throat and was laid up in bed for the rest of the week. My host mom made me wear a a damp hunk of cloth around my neck. By the end of the week, I still had strep throat and I also had a big red rash around my neck. I kept getting worse until I got better.

The twilight of summer. Time to brace ourselves for winter. I came home one evening and found the neighbor dude, Ruslani, chopping wood in the front lawn. He called me over.

"Gaumarjos Kitis," he said. "You want to put in some work?"
"Sure."

He handed me a cigarette. I thanked him and lit the cigarette and smoked it as I did some back stretches.  Then I lined myself up, raised the ax, and brought it down upon the log. Clunk. The log bounced off the chopping block and went rolling down the sidewalk.

"No," said Ruslani. "Not like that. Like this."

Effortlessly, he split a log in two and handed me back the ax.

"Like this?" I said.
Clunk. Roll, roll, roll.
"... no, not like that."

My host family's primary export was hazelnuts. Harvesting hazelnuts was a job a six-year-old could do, so it was also a job I could do. It involved grabbing a hazelnut tree by the neck and throttling it until nuts came raining down, then finger-skinning the nuts one by one and popping them into a bucket. I'd challenge my host brother to hazelnut harvesting competitions and he'd always kick my ass by a couple of buckets or so. But it was a job I could do.

There were weird little translucent spiders that lived in the hazelnut skins. They'd fly into a panic upon being outed and vanish imperceptibly into your pants. You'd wake up in the middle of the night itching all over, creepy bumps on your thighs.

We worked all summer long. By the end of the summer, I'd scratched my body raw, but we'd filled the entire guest room full of hazelnuts, a hundred kilos of the damned things piled across the floor.

"We're going to be rich," I said to my host mom.
"Twenty tetri a kilo," she nodded.
"Why that's ... twenty lari," I said. "Why that's ... twelve bucks."

One evening, my host mom knocked on my door and told me that we were going somewhere. I had nothing to do and nowhere to go. We walked down the path between the hazelnut trees, past Jurga's barn and her thirty-foot leaning tower of shit, kept going until we'd reached the fence at the end of our backyard. My host mom opened the gate and we clambered down a steep hill. And there - still, I suppose, technically in our backyard - was a river.

"This is ours," she said.
"Cool."
"If you stay with us, you can swim here every day."
"Every day?"
"Until it gets cold. Then you can't swim anymore."
"Sounds good."
"All of this is ours," she said, sweeping her hand over the water.
"All of it?"
"All of it."
"Wonderful."
"So you will stay?"
"Maybe," I said.
"That's a yes, right?"
"That's a maybe."

It was a very Lion King moment. Everything the light touches, Simba, and so on.

"I'm so happy that you're going to stay," she said. "I hope you like swimming."
"Are you kidding? Who doesn't love swimming?"

I'd never learned how to swim. I've never once swum in my life.

It's not that I'm afraid of the water, more that I do not trust it. I feel the same way about water that I do about flying, or joining the military, or joining a cult, or getting a desk job, or going to church, or ingesting anonymous drugs handed to me by strangers at a Flaming Lips show. I suppose it's the thought of giving myself over to something so vast and powerful and beyond my control, something so potentially lethal or mind-destroying or just plain time-consuming and dull that frightens me, moreso than any specific fear of water per se.

Or perhaps it is something about the water, after all. I have buoyancy issues. The first step towards swimming is floating, or so I've been told, and I have never, ever - not even for an instant - been able to float. I have always sunk to the bottom of everything: of the pool, of the sea, of the hottub, of the bathtub. I am genuinely perplexed whenever I find myself sitting on the periphery of water - on the beach, on the dock of the bay, on a lawnchair sufficiently far removed from the Comfort Inn pool - and watching other human beings of all shapes and sizes gallivant around in the water like a pride of sea lions, so effortlessly that it's like breathing to them. I can't do that. I know full well from experience that, even with little orange inflatable floaties strapped to all four limbs, I'd be receiving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in no time. I don't know how people do it. Float.

In 7th grade, I remember how horrified I was to discover that there was a mandatory swimming component to my P.E. class. I tried to get out of it, citing the heart murmur that I no longer had, the one that had gotten me out of weightlifting. No such luck. Instead, while the rest of the kids swam laps, I ran them: I jogged through the water from one end of the pool to the other, which isn't as easy as it sounds. A "safety buddy" was appointed to swim alongside me and watch me run, to make sure I didn't drown in the shallow end of the pool, while all the other kids hung out at the deep end. Naturally, this did wonders for my popularity. And I was already ever-so-popular in 7th grade.

I don't know. Perhaps it does have something to do with fear, after all. Once upon a time, I very nearly drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. I must have been four or five years old, still a plump little butterbean, and like Melville, my hypos got the best of me and I decided that I'd see a little bit of the watery part of the world. I was not aware at that age of the phenomenon they call the undertow, and within seconds I had completely vanished. My parents - because they were and are good ones, after all - noticed immediately that I was gone. They were and are also very smart parents, well-versed in the classics, and they used Archimedes' principle to deduce - from the heaving waves that came rolling in after my fat ass had plummeted to the bottom of the sea - that I was buried somewhere in the Atlantic, probably drowning. My dad sifted through sea anemones and jellyfishes, discarded bags of Utz® brand crab cakes and crushed cans of Schlitz®, until he finally grabbed hold of a fat little cankle. He snatched me up "like a lobster" (his words) and smacked me instinctively across the ass - and so my ass was saved for the time being, one of many such fortunate little twists of fate that have conspired to keep me alive long enough to write the words I am currently writing. 

All of this is to say that, while it wasn't such a bad thing to discover a river in my own backyard, it certainly wasn't much of a selling point, either.

Ours was not a mighty river, but it was very easy on the eyes, beached as it was with the smooth, white stones peculiar to our part of Georgia. The water was pure and clear and full of fish. Our little elbow of the river was especially tame, tailor-made for human frolicking, with craggy outcroppings of sedimentary rock that served nicely as diving boards, and natural whirlpools that, I imagined, would be quite fun to wade around in with one's best girl. Strung across the river was the ricketiest footbridge I have ever seen in my life - built, perhaps, by the set designers of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom - a bridge that farmers and their cattle often used in their daily commute. In idle moments, I wondered what it was like to be crushed by a cow.

One hot afternoon, my host dad, host brother, and I went down to the river. It was crowded. We removed our shirts. I was pleasantly reminded of how skinny I had become. Those nearby laughed at how pale I was. My host brother kicked off his shoes and scaled up the nearest crag. He stood there, twenty feet up, nervously sucking in his breath. He glanced at me for reassurance and I gave him the double thumbs-up. He plugged his nose and dove. He splashed into the water and came up a few seconds later, giggling. He invited me to dive in, too. I quickly lit a cigarette and, smoking my cigarette, gestured that I was smoking a cigarette. He shrugged and swam over to meet his friends. 

Dato, my host dad, possessed a weird kind of aquatic grace. He raised one arm and rolled his portly little body into the river, swimming against the current with long, slow strokes. I found a nearby rock with a built-in ass groove and sat there at edge of the river and smoked. I knew that I would be outed soon enough.

The pretty girls from down the way swam over to flirt with me. I smiled and chatted with them without quite flirting back, because I never flirted back, because I was terrified of being tied down to the village forever. They invited me to come swim with them. I gestured at the cigarette, which had already extinguished itself by then. One of the girls plucked the cigarette away from me and flicked it across the rocks. Come swim, she said. I don't know how, I murmured.

"You don't know how to swim?" Disbelief. "Why?"
"Because," I said, "I am a moron."

This set them to giggling, but it wasn't the right sort of giggling. It was as though I had cuckolded myself somehow. They swam to the opposite side of the river, and before long, everyone in the village knew: the foreigner didn't know how to swim.

It was all Dato could do to get me into the water.

"Come in," he said. "I'll teach you!"
"I'm really bad," I said. "Really, very bad."
"It doesn't matter. I'll teach you!"

If there was anyone in the village I trusted, it was Dato. So I dipped my toes into the water, then tottered unevenly across the rocks at the bottom of the river, slipping every so often and splashing down on my ass, shuddering at how cold it was, already disturbed at the swallowing capacity of two feet of water.

"Come out here," called Dato. "It's not deep."

Depth is a very relative thing. There are people who think Dan Brown is deep. When it comes to water, I'm one of those people. I'm a little under six feet tall, so it stands to reason that it would take some effort for me to drown myself in the four feet of water I was stumble-wading my way into, but I knew myself well enough to know that it might not take any effort at all.

Dato explained that the first thing I had to do was float. And that is how I learned the Georgian word for float. Learning a verb, however, is not the same thing as knowing how to perform the action. I knew lots of Georgian verbs by then, and I wasn't very good at any of them: to milk a cow, to chop wood, to flirt ...

Already shaking, I summoned something like courage and allowed my feet to lose contact with the rocks beneath me. I began to sink. I panicked. I slipped my way back up to verticality. Dato laughed, but not cruelly. I tried again, and again, and again, and eventually, I did manage (by flailing all four limbs) to suspend myself midstream, with my head above water.

"Good," said Dato. "Very good. Now you have to stick your face underwater. Like this."

He plunged to the bottom and stayed there for several seconds, then bubbled back up to the surface. It looked easy enough. And it was.

But it was not. Not for me.

It was the strangest sensation I'd felt in a long time. I stared at the thin skin of the water, one foot under my nose, the tiny layer of atoms that divided water from air, and I knew that it was the easiest thing in the world to cross that barrier. But I could not do it. Physically. I could not bring myself to let go. I dipped slowly downward and my nostrils filled with water. I came back up coughing.

"It's water," said Dato. "You can't breathe down there."
"I know," I said. "Wait a minute. I've got this."

I plugged my nose and dipped. And this time, I somehow gulped the water into my mouth. I came back up and coughed violently and felt like crying.

"Try it like this," said Dato, slowing things down, showing me step by step.
"Like this?" I said, when he'd come back up.
I sunk below for a millisecond, came up hacking, very nearly puked.
"No," he said, "... not like that."

I made my way over to the grassy bank at the other side of the river and I held onto the weeds behind my back while I half-floated in the water. This, I realized, was as far as I was going to get with my life aquatic. A small grey fish flitted over and started eating the gunk between my toes. I'd paid twenty bucks for a cleaning fish pedicure, once upon a time in North Korea. True story.

I took no more swimming lessons after that. The men in my host family gave up on me, and I was relieved that they did. I often went down to the river and sat in three feet of water, wore my faux-Dylan shades and smoked cigarettes and let the fish clean my feet. But I did not swim.

One day, my host brother took me crab hunting. This, I thought, was something I could do, and something I would enjoy doing. Hunting. Killing. Cracking the hard outer shell of nature and feasting upon the meat. Like a man. We set off one evening in our flip-flops with a couple of white PVC buckets.

But when we found where they were hiding - under some muddy rocks along the shore of somebody else's creek - and it came time to kill them, I couldn't do that, either.

"What do we do?" I asked my host brother.
"Crush them with a rock!"
"Like this?" I said, and took aim with a pebble, hoping to snipe one from afar.
"No," he said, shaking his head, "not like that! Like this!"
He handed me a boulder and gestured for me to bring it down with all my might upon a single-parent crab family of five.
But I couldn't.

My host brother shook his head. Of all the embarrassing things I'd never been able to do, this was by far the most despicable. It put him in a foul mood, and he no longer cared about crab hunting. He picked one of the crabs up and it pinched him on the palm, so he chucked it into a bush and we went home with two empty PVC buckets between us.

One afternoon I woke up and wandered out to the living room and saw that nobody was home. I checked all the rooms of the house to make sure, then I went out to the backyard and snooped around: everyone was gone. Unprecedented. I popped over to Ruslani's house and asked him what the hell was going on.

"Your family is in Sachino for two days," he said.
"Two days?" I pondered.

I went back up to my room and removed my shirt and my pants. In my boxers, then, I went to the living room and locked the door, just in case. Then I cracked open the fridge to see what could be eaten. Somebody had bought a bunch of eggs. They'd been holding out on me. I hadn't had eggs in months. I cracked a couple in a pan and fried them sunny side up. When they were gone, I threw in four more and scrambled them. I sat around in my underwear watching Al-Jazeera, getting up every other Syrian bombing or so to fry up some more eggs. By mid-afternoon, I had devoured a full dozen. Cool Hand Keith.

Later on, I swiped a bunch of music from my computer, went back to the living room and pumped it up on the stereo. I sat there smoking cigarettes and drinking Nescafé and drumming on the bulge of my belly, feeling like the Lord of All Creation. It was the happiest I'd been in months. As evening came on, there was a knock on the living room door.

It was Dato.

"Gaumarjos Kitis," he said. Long live Keith.
"Gaumarjos," I said, shielding my bosom. "Aüüüfgh! It's hot today!"
"Yes," said Dato, not letting on that anything was out of the ordinary. "Very hot."

I went to my room and put on some clothes. I decided to lay low for a while, read a book. Then there was a knock at my bedroom door.

"Kiti," whispered Dato, "come out to the living room when you get a chance. It's important."

He was sitting at the table with a two-liter Pepsi bottle filled to the top with an ominously clear liquid.

"Do you want to drink with me?"
"Sure," I said.
"They are coming back tomorrow," he said, and I nodded.
"You can't tell my wife," he said. "I will get in trouble if I make you drink."
"I won't tell anyone."
I sat down. He poured me a shot, then poured himself one.
"Do you want to invite Hooha over?" I asked.
"No," said Dato, shaking his head, "because Hooha will talk."

We drank our first shot to family, the second one to friendship, the third one to women, and I lost track of all the ones after that.

Dato was never one to get sloppy and loose-lipped while drunk, and he was almost always drunk. So I was surprised, round about dusk, when a wistful crinkle formed under his eyes, adding a tinge of melancholy to his customarily impish grin, and he glanced around the living room and said, in a low voice, "I built all of this."

I took in the room, trying to see it the way I'd seen it the first time.

"All of it?"
"Everything," he said. "The floor, the ceiling, the walls. I put the tiles on the walls. I built the table we're drinking at and the chairs we're sitting on. I built this house."
"You're very talented," I said, lacking the vocabulary to say anything more meaningful.
"I built the whole thing with my hands. I built the bathroom. It's a very nice bathroom, I think."
I nodded. It was a nice bathroom, the kind of place you'd be happy to defecate in, even in the West.
"I did the plumbing, the electricity, the lighting," he said, "I did the painting and the carpentry and I built all the furniture. I built everything with my hands."
"Gaumarjos Datos," I said, and we drank another shot.

He stared into the bottom of his empty glass for a moment, then he poured us both a fresh one.

"And the farm in the backyard," he said, "the vegetables and the spices. The cucumbers and the beans and the hot peppers you like. I planted them myself and I harvest them. We do everything with our hands. I think it is not like this in America."

I shook my head.
"Not for most people," I said. "For most people, everything is done at the supermarket."

He nodded.

"Here, we must do everything with our hands," he said. "I do everything with my hands."
He held them up for me, to make sure that I had understood.

"You are different," he said.
"I know. My hands are stupid."
"No," he said. "Not stupid."
"I can't build, I can't farm, I can't cook," I said. "I can't swim, I can't chop wood, I can't hunt, I can't kill, and I can't do anything with my hands."
"That is okay," he said, "you are a different kind of person. You don't need your hands."
I laughed a bit.
"I'm serious," he said. "You work with your mind."
"Well, I don't know if I would say that my mind actually works - "
"You teach. You learn languages. You travel all over the world," he said. "You teach my son English. He hates English, but you teach him things. He learns from you. Now his English is better. He really admires you a lot."

At this point, I was blushing - blushing drunk, blushing flattered - and biting my lower lip.

"You teach my daughter English, and German, and Chinese," he said. "All these languages, and for this, she will have a much better life. We are very glad that you are here."
"Well," I said, "I'm glad to be here."
"And in your free time, you read and you write. And I don't know any English, but I think you are probably good at these things. I know that about you."
"Maybe," I said. "I don't know that about me yet."
"I work with my hands. You work with your mind," he said. "But we are men. And we are not so different, I think, you and me."

We stopped toasting after that and just drank. By the time ten o'clock rolled around, it was clear that I would have to use my hands to get Dato safely to bed. And there was nothing, at that point, that could save my mind from itself but sleep.

I went back to my room and floated over to the bed and pushed open the window and leaned over the ledge and looked up at the stars and the stars were bright and clear and Orion's Belt looked like the kind of belt a dude named Orion might wear and you could see why the estranged host parents of humanity's youth were so taken by the constellations and the stories they told and I thought to myself I've got to get out of here before it becomes impossible for me to get myself out of here.

1 comment:

Kelsey Petti said...

I somehow found my way to your blog through the peacecorpswiki website. So you don't know me, and I don't know you.

I've read several of your posts, picking and choosing which ones to read and which ones to skip over (or save for another day). You're clever and entertaining and interesting. I want to know where you are now. Not in a creepy "I want to find you" way. Definitely not in that way. But after reading several of your (looong) posts, I feel somewhat vested in this "story." I want to know what happens to Keith. Where is Keith?

Anyway, maybe you'll see this or maybe not.

Hopefully wherever you are you're happy!