Sarah Van Bonn


Shiva, Brigid McGivern

Once upon a time was the beginning of the end. I flew to Southeast Asia. A beautiful man in a skirt drove me expertly through menacing traffic past staggering statues to a serene interior that swallowed me and began the act of forgetting on my behalf. I set when the sun set and rose when the sun rose, bottomlessly hungry. I was tired when I arrived, but not from the journey.

I was often thirsty too, in that southy, eastish part of Asia, because liquid worked differently there. I finally learned what rice looks like before it is born. I wore a sunhat and stood with my hands on my hips. I took a boat to a smaller island, where I found a scorpion in the bathroom. A boy came to smash its head in. He was almost a man, and fearless. He climbed a palm tree and hacked off its dead parts with a machete he’d carried up it in his teeth. A part of me loved a part of him. Every land is an island: some large, some small.

It rained and then it didn’t. The swimming pool bounced. My body had started slowly breaking down. A white woman from Western Europe complained about the way her eggs were cooked. I didn’t like her tone. I was surprised how my body looked when the clothes came off it. Breaking down meant food refused to stick to it.

When I turned my gaze around, I saw the plants were distinct. The landscape was distinct. Finally, I’ve made it to a different type of distinction, I thought. How many more will I be able to collect? Why do I so want to?

I rode a bicycle. It wasn’t easy to do on sand, but weightlessness made the heat more bearable. I rode it on the road’s left-hand side, which wasn’t hard because no perspective was fixed anymore, now that I was there. I started to catch glimpses of myself, under all the layers that had begun peeling back as my body was breaking down and the rest of me too. Who is that? I wondered. The northern beaches of the island were hot and rocky, shallow for many meters, never cooling past the temperature of a hot bath.

I felt far away, for once.

I thought long and hard about the positions of the setting sun and the emerging constellations and realized that I don’t understand solar orbiting, geometrically. Do you know the word “antipodes”? Do you know that feeling when the water has almost drained out of the basin, that final transition, where it gurgles as it breaks, when the state of things jumps all at once from full to no longer full? Do you know the stories people tell about the stars?

I traveled again over land and sea and air. All the rides were bumpy. I arrived in history’s most-bombed country, more peaceful than anywhere I’d known, even than the deep woods, even the dark caves, even the under the water, eyes closed, breath held, carried by current. I could see the movement, not just of water but of time, of stillness. I wanted to watch the river for longer, for longest.

Instead, I went to cities that were much like the cities I’ve known except in the ways they were different. I got happily lost in a series of narrow passages that weren’t designed for me. I cried at an informational plaque about the life cycles of silkworms. The waterways felt cleansing even though they were dirty. Soon, it was the king’s birthday. His birthdays were always referred to as “an auspicious occasion” by informational plaques. There were so many of these plaques that I wondered if it was always his birthday. I did not cry to see them.

I didn’t miss seltzer water or television. I sometimes worried about mosquitoes. Residents of the city did aerobic exercise in a park. They danced together to an upbeat remix of a famous downbeat song from the 1990s, versions of which were played often in public places. I danced too, though I didn’t understand the MC’s instructions. The night air was extra dark next to the bright of the temples.

I knew who I wanted to be, which was someone like me but different. Like the cities. Had I changed? Not yet, except that remembering how to change is a type of changing. Silk is made from worm cocoons.

On the plane home, I sat next to a handsome Hong Kong-based Israeli American named Tal who asked if I was Jewish. The way he said my name gave me pleasure-shivers. Hearing it, I almost wanted the weight of a religion behind me, to feel so many centuries shaping my bones, which I suppose they’ve done anyway, to all of our bones, because that is how history works. Together Tal and I watched the sun set, not once but twice. He told me there is a part of Hong Kong they call “the dark side.”

The plane ride back was the end of the beginning of the end. What comes after? I thought they might not let me into my country given how sick I’d become. I hadn’t told Tal, but when I got home, it was impossible not to tell. I couldn’t hide. I became bedridden.

Something was living inside of me. It had nestled in and made the-way-things-were impossible to re-attain. I took drugs to kill my inhabitant. They worked and I got better when the year became new again. But the wiring inside me had all been crossed, or was it now new too, differently colored threads, leading different places?

I was far still, but from what? From where I’d been; where I’d be going. Farther away meant closer than ever. Now I remember, because I’m no longer there.

Sarah Van Bonn is a world-wandering freelance writer based mainly in NYC when she’s not on the road. She’s so far authored one book (published June 2015 by Skyhorse Publishing) and many smaller pieces, with work in/on WNPR, the Rumpus, South Asia Journal, Proximity Magazine, and various elsewheres.