What happened in Bombay, India during my year abroad was that instead of sending me back home, I was shuffled around until I lived with six different families and one couple I latched onto as a last resort. One exchange student had what I will call a “psychotic break” and was sent back to Pennsylvania. I insisted on staying put.
One of the families I ditched took me to Delhi, where they had a second home. I wanted to go to the Taj Mahal, so I split. A.J. Albany said, “Children are fearless, their courage boundless.” No longer a child at fifteen, my unsupervised recklessness turned to what is best described as feral. I was acting in cookie commercials and making about 2,000 rupees per day (about $180). I was studying Kathak Kumar (classic Indian court dancing) with a well-known dance instructor, Gopi Krishna. I got into cars with the Bollywood actors who plucked me off the street in Bombay and I was getting smashed and having unprotected sex with a lecherous Englishman who followed me around when I was in Goa.
From Delhi, I packed a bag and hired a wagon pulled by camels to drive me from Delhi to the Taj Mahal in Agra. We arrived just as the sun was rising in the gold, hazy light and it was the most magnificent thing I’d ever seen: a giant white marble tomb dedicated to one of the king’s wives with it’s reflection in a luminescent pool of water before the entrance.
My memory is hazy around Agra. I must have stayed in some hotel and been drunk most the time and then taken a train back to Bombay where I met up with the creepy Englishman just as my year abroad was ending. I’ve never been good at endings but I was sixteen and the gig was up, much to the relief of the Rotarians in Bombay, India. I was also the last student they would accept from California for many years to come.
The goodbyes all a blur, I do remember the plane ride home because there were some white people who looked like chattering Barbies in stiff shirts with rictus grins and pink cheeks. They were pasty dough people. I was between skins again, neither Indian nor American; I was foreign to myself, completely unrecognizable. A pale stewardess offered me wine, which I drank until I passed out.
When I landed in Sydney Australia, a white woman hugged me. It was my Mom.
“What happened to you?” She said. Her American drawl sounded country-hick compared to the English Indian accent I’d grown accustomed to. I couldn’t explain or even talk. I was like Sisyphus with his boulder: I didn’t cry, throw a tantrum or drop the rock. I held steady, frozen and overwhelmed on my cliff. And, I stayed that way for a long time.
Australia had been Mom’s idea. She wanted see a Sam Shepard play in the Opera House in Sydney, ride horses and snorkel by the Great Barrier reef in North Queensland, but I don’t recall doing any of that. What I remember about Australia was being sick. Crawling to the toilet. Inconclusive blood work. Protracted silences.
I can only imagine the disappointment that Mom felt, when I had left a bouncy, popular ding-a-ling and returned a quiet, troubled stranger. She didn’t understand why I was preoccupied with capitalism’s evil, why I gave homeless people all my clothes or why I’d shaved my head.
She was convinced she’d made a mistake, but I know it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had what Susan Sontag referred to in Against Interpretation as “A dialectic of freedom that carries with it a new knowledge of the self.” My problem was the new self was unrecognizable to my peers, friends, relatives and town.
I was shaken, thrown down and told to “Get a job.” So, I did.
My one advocate, the Rotarian counselor for the exchange students in Eureka, John McCadden, died suddenly of a heart attack and I attended his funeral. I’d have to return to EHS and finish out my senior year. There was no way out-yet.
Twenty-four years later, it’s Christmas and my elegant friend said, “We didn’t know how do deal with you.” We were in a rathole bar in Eureka, sharing some memories about highschool and concerns about our parents growing older; we are growing older.
There was talk of how I’d left cheerleading and my gorgeous, Mormon, James Dean-esque boyfriend (who cross-dressed and loved Bowie as much as I did) behind. After India, I favored the most creative, charismatic guy in our school.
When Mom insisted that I return to EHS, I found my tribe: the kids who were alienated due to their interests, intelligence or sexuality. I befriended bisexuals, the Boy George impersonators, the madonna doppelganger, the ultra 80’s new wave fashion kings, the seated punk row rockers and the twin puppeteers. I took Shakespeare class, speech and drama and discovered Cat Stevens, Talking Heads and Thomas Dolby and all of it saved my ass.
“You made me uncomfortable. You wanted to talk about deep things,” one friend said about the transformation. I still do that, I thought.
One afternoon, I found my pictures from India cut up in little slivers on the kitchen counter after school. My step dad yelled at me a lot. My paternal Dad hired a counselor to shake the India out of me, but I folded my arms and stared into space during sessions.
That’s when I started running away, just like I’d done in Bombay. I moved into my Algebra teacher’s house and tried to blend in but ultimately I found shelter at my boyfriend’s house where there was an interest in art, music and other cultures. They harbored me for years until I had to exit their nest.
Now it’s Christmas in Humboldt and the rain’s been falling monsoon-style, the moon is a glowing tangerine in a clear icy sky and there’s crab to eat later- a local tradition. My Dad is ill so my tennis racket will stay in the garage this time. My friend, D and I talk about going to India or Beijing over hot chai as we plan to create new memories in other cities. He was another treasured friend who intervened during multiple nose dives and kept me laughing and reading. We all toasted to our friend who lives in Portland and a glass broke.
R said, “I saw you after high school. Your hair was fire engine red and shaved like a waffle iron and you said that art could change the world.”
Twenty-four years later, I still believe that.
*pictures to come-scanner problems*