One evening many years ago at a graduate school party, an elderly and reclusive poet asked me in all seriousness (he had no other mode) if I had ever been in love. I was twenty-three at the time and how was I supposed to answer that? I had been in the kind of love that I had been in. I told him that, yes, I had been in love. He told me that I wouldn’t write anything worth reading until I had my heart broken in the kind of way that would cause a man to go live alone on a Greek island with a dog for a year and speak to no one but the dog. Has something like that ever happened to me? That kind of heartbreak? I chuckled because what are you going to do? At twenty-three I could not write a straight line or consider an honest thought. And so it seems futile to write this testament for you, my daughter. Like me, you will not understand the story until you are well seasoned in trauma and joy. You will not have the eyes for it.
The story is lodged in my mind like a heavy gem. Like a cartoon diamond from the opening credits of a Pink Panther movie. Each facet contains a mirror with another story that reels off another half-truth about what happened. And when I inspect one part, the gem twirls and brings up another reflection of another ghost. Restless spirits chase each other across the hard surface of this dazzling chunk of truth like the clumsy inspector running after his elusive prey. I turn my gaze to a curved slice of the diamond mirror as I fall asleep. I awaken with another real story, another facet turned to the light. I contain, as Whitman said, multitudes. But the multitudes are all me and all of them are half-true.
As I write this now, in a farm house in Connecticut, a large black dog is sleeping at my feet. He is twitching. His sleeping feet are chasing a mysterious shadow into a shadow hole. He grinds his teeth on his dream but never quite catches it. He shakes the darkness from his head with a jingling of tag and collar. He tells me it is time to begin.
I entered the feast house of Popo’s family and was silent. I was too nervous to steal more than a glance at Popo, my intended, sitting in the back of the feast house underneath a line of laundry. She sat behind her mother, a well-known local medicine practitioner (or witch, I suppose) who knew her way around a spell of forgetting. Popo’s mother looked like the sort of squat, fierce person who could give birth to seventeen children and also mix up a curse to make you mind-blind to whatever was going on under your nose. Popo’s father, Adidos, squatted to the left of the central pillar, the seat of importance. He looked bemused. He always looked bemused. As the family patriarch he was the only one who had no idea that his daughter was running around with a mehnwai. Patriarchs are always the last to know.
I noticed one of my t-shirts hanging with the laundry at the back of the feast house. It was from a gay and lesbian film festival in Philadelphia and it read: “We’re Here, We’re Queer, and We’re Going to the Movies.” How had my shirt gotten here? I suppose Popo took it. Neither she nor her family could read the English on the shirt. And even if they could, what would it mean to them? Later, it amused me to see Popo’s father wearing this shirt as he sat, toothless and pot-bellied, on a plastic chair in front of his little concrete house. The house was painted in a bright pink because that is the only color that was available for cheap on the island. Somebody brought in a shipment of bright pink paint and so for a while everyone’s house was pink. Inside this pink house were two rooms. One room had a moldy mattress, a cabinet, a clock, and a collection of luggage with broken zippers. The other room was empty except for dishes and washing basins. Later, the empty room would be where Popo stayed all night with her dead father, wailing.
But that is another piece of the story. Now I am sitting on the unimportant side of the feast house across a small muddy ravine from the pink house. I am uncomfortably cross-legged because I know enough at this point not to dangle my feet over the side of the feast house and offend everyone. I am here to ask to take Popo back to my house. But I cannot speak. I will not say a word to Popo’s father or mother. My job is to sit in silence. For the business of asking, I have brought my adopted Pohnpeian family with me. This family is led by a wavy-haired politician, Illustario, and his thinly mustached wife, Sernina. They brought me here in the back of their pick-up truck with the sakau. It is old sakau with yellow roots and deep green notched stalks that look like thin, gnarled fingers. Without the sakau, we cannot speak with Popo’s father.
As we drove the short distance from Illustario’s to here, there was a buzz on the coconut wireless that sent the message through the jungle: I was about to ask for Popo. Smirking children, serious aunties, and a random collection of shirtless, dirty men began to fill the feast house. They were here to stare at the crazy mehnwai and to drink free sakau.
Some feast houses are concrete. Others, like this one, are made of swamp wood and thatched palm roof. Where the roof had developed holes, the family had slapped on some spare corrugated metal. So when the rain started, as it did most afternoons, the sound had both the warm whoosh of rain on woven palm and the cold harsh ping of rain on metal. Nobody spoke to me except for one of Popo’s six brothers, the one who had been beaten silly with a baseball bat. He had permanent brain damage that made him forever friendly and mumbly.
We entered the feast house with the sakau and a question. First comes the sakau then the question. Nobody will speak until the sakau is pounded and strained through hibiscus bark into a coconut shell cup. The first thick, gray globs of sakau will be offered to Adidos. If he accepts the cup, then we may speak. If he does not accept the cup — well, that almost never happens. Adidos took the cup and signaled that he was willing to listen to us.
Then the speeches began. I said nothing. The groom must not speak during the request. Illustario told a particularly long and recently made-up ancient story about a boy who was bad but then decided to be good. I guess the boy was me. As the speechifying continued, Adidos couldn’t take it anymore and burst out laughing. The whole thing was just too much bother to ask for the youngest of his thirteen living children who was only 22 but had already been married once and had a four-year old child from that marriage. He joked that we could have saved our sakau and had her for two bags of donuts. Then he announced that he had to go to work and left, giving me a cigarette on his way out and chuckling. Popo’s little cousins piled with him into a Japanese minivan and they all went together to spend the night guarding a little store that sold canned meats and cheap underwear.
I loaded Popo into the back of Illustario’s pick-up and we drove off with her. Popo brought along a red plastic basin with one change of clothes and the bra she was proud of owning but never wore. She came to live with me in a press-board and tin house on a hill overlooking what the locals call “Green Bay.” The thin walls of the house were being eaten from within by termite larvae. That is how our marriage began. About a year later, my daughter was born.
Is there a special distance one feels from an absent birth mother? If so, it isn’t the sort of thing that my daughter generally expresses. Mostly she’s just fine. We’re just fine. We have other concerns like school lunches and driving to swim practice and which boy band is currently pasted above her bed.
Her mother is thousands of miles away on an island and we are in Connecticut. At some point she will, I think, need some description of how this came to be.
At what point in your life will this make any sense? How the walls of our house on Green Bay erupted one humid night with thousands of black-winged termites flying out to meet the moon? When will you be ready for this? The termites had been burrowing through the walls, forming a mazy metropolis of white wormy larvae and waiting for the right humid night and full moon to take wing and pour in one dark flurry through the plastic-slatted windows. That was the beginning of my marriage. When will this make sense to you? After you have had your heart broken? After I die?