Dubious Nirvana

PhuBai 36s

I went back and did it again this time trying to remember for the record – we, traveling near the big construction machines with the boy, my friend egging on the salesman and ….

It is dangerous enough being a soldier in a war zone yet we spent nearly everyday stoned. Maybe it is a way to defy death while trying to live fully in uncertain circumstance. The war is denied. The outcome is meaningless to us anyway. Our own futures do not exist, so the moment is everything.

We are children of wealth and privilege on a two day pass tramping heedlessly through an ancient culture steeped in traditions and sacred practice. Unaware, we dance our comic, insensible dance of the naiveté. But only on the surface leaving nothing lasting behind. Even the enemy soldiers must have wondered at our foolishness. On this particular day we wander in this insular fog of inbred consumer culture and chemicals, exploring the neighborhood of a rural Asian town where we seek temporary distraction, as a child might with a new toy. Though we wear the fatigue uniforms of the latest occupying army, we carry no weapons (only officers are issued sidearms).

Construction machines are working in the block where a Burger King is today. Then it was a large muddy lot with soot belching machinery and construction laborers moving around in ways we could not comprehend. I want to take pictures for a friend back at home but I have forgotten my camera. We decide to walk to a nearby motor pool garage. My friend, Dean, knew someone there who he wanted to see. We push aside the large doors. Inside it is a geometric cave, high ceilinged, empty. Not just one large empty space but rooms all connected, without a trace of human occupation. Inviting exploration I want to go inside and see more, but Dean, not finding his friend, wants to leave. I think of taking a picture but I have forgotten my camera. Outside we see a woman washing clothes near the street corner. She is bent over a tub scrubbing. She does not speak to us or even pauses in her work to look at us. But her young son seems captivated by our foreign presence.

I failed to pay her any attention the first time. She is so ordinary and drab, her black peasant pants and buttoned white shirt, straight black hair pulled back and tied. But I am here this time just to notice and remember more, so I carefully study her face in profile as she works. I take a few mental photos. In the medium shot she appears fatigued and worn but in the closeup I discern the pores in her skin, her complexion is soft, feminine. Both conditions being equally present yet moving in opposite directions like slow trains of time passing on parallel tracks. The boy addresses her and they talk briefly. She apparently acquiesces to his request, allowing him to follow along with us. I like to believe that though a common language is lacking, she perceives our guileless and agreeable stoner demeanor and finds us harmless, though unconventional companions for the boy.

There is a lightly forested public square beyond the construction site. We leave the street corner and skirt the park, the boy tagging along. The three of us wander around this peaceful public space. The boy in tan shorts is shirtless and shoeless. His exposed skin is tanned deep brown and his hair is cut close. At times he walks apart from us bouncing a flimsy stick on the ground. We both like him and agree that he is cool, somehow charmed and special. He is mostly just a kid though, with his kid distractions and capricious variability. So there seems about him an air of vulnerability. I suppose this is universal about children but I realize some risk is necessary to allow him (or any boy) to fulfill his potential.

A local man approaches us and converses in very good English. He is dressed in western clothes like a salesman back home would wear. Shirt, tie and jacket, but ill fit, worn and a bit too large on his skinny body. He carries a briefcase. He speaks enthusiastically about an American movie he had seen called Johnny Guitar. Dean keeps asking him if he can get us drugs and he repeatedly denies it. Instead he talks about this movie which he thinks we surely have seen. I doubt that this movie is real. Finally we are ready to go and he opens his briefcase. It is full of glass jars each containing a selection of black market drugs. Dean is immediately drawn to the largest jar holding pink marshmallow like balls slowly floating inside. The man tries to dissuade him but Dean is insistent and finally the man relents and sells him one.

With the transaction complete, we begin down a twin pathed dirt road heading away from town. Dean is a few paces ahead of me and the boy. I notice a pink cloud rising above Dean’s head. It spreads until its vapor looks like a wordless comic strip balloon. With a display of great competence, Dean turns his face skyward and magically inhales the cloud into his mouth, just like a movie running backward. It is an impressive display of his talent and competence involving drug consumption. He has shown similar aptitude before, as if he possesses an innate working proficiency around recreational substances no matter how unique or exotic. He always is a natural master when recreational drugs are involved.

Dean is soon excessively happy and energized. It seems as if this is the first time he has known joy. We walk until we find an old chiseled granite block just off the roadway and Dean climbs on top of it and sits lotus style while talking in happy incomprehensible gibberish. “Call me The Buddha.” is one phrase I understand. While talking he fidgets with his lighter, flicking it open and closed, until he lights it as if he is going to fire off a joint but he has nothing there to light. Instead he holds the flame near his mouth and moves the lighter back and forth. He continues smiling while the flame curls around his upper lip. I panic thinking he is surely burning himself but he gives no indication of pain. I look to see if his lip is swelling but I cannot see anything. It seems he is proving to us his attainment of some higher level of existence and his no longer being in our physical world.

Whatever Dean is doing I know I can watch this display no more. I must have flagged down a ride for I remember being on the back of a motorcycle. It is just become night and the driver stops along this rural road to rest and he lays the bike on it’s side. We are far away from any traffic, artificial light or noise. The driver lights a cigarette, squats near the front of his reclined motorcycle and smokes silently. I just now notice that this is an unusually long motorcycle, almost twice the length of a normal bike. Old and beat, painted black where it is not chipped, dented or rusted. It may be a French Automoto. Though I have a curiosity about this detail and I have no intention of returning to find out.

When he finishes his cigarette I ask to drive. It is dark now. He is doubtful but conciliatory about it, though showing concern about my cycling skills. I go to lift the bike and find it is heavier then I had expected. I feel awkward and out of practice but once going I can adequately manage the machine. The headlight proves quite inadequate giving very poor illumination ahead. Yet I am able to adapt, at least psychologically, to this lack of forward vision which demands endless compensatory adjustment to passed events. Moving forward into darkness impels a necessary attitude of optimism and self confidence. I find that as this technique is successfully gained it produces a thrilling compulsion to go even faster.

Upon my return from that initial deployment, I had consciously decided to isolate that experience from the rest of my life. Though I have been home for many years, I am still not insulated from that time and place. Like the first, these subsequent hypnopompic visits are not of my control, though they have been arriving with less frequency. Another like this may be my final excursion. If so, I will try and take good notes and maybe remember my camera.

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