Visit to Makon

— Bo Hwang

After a winter of droughts, my childhood friend—my only kind of sweetheart—moves back to Makon. The city we grew up in; the city we all left. She’s there now, in a house with twelve women, only one her age, a high school teacher from another island, the rest are medical students.

“Seven balconies,” she boasts. “You can see the hospital.”

She found the place only a few days after arriving. A small bedroom (Room No. 3) on the fourth floor, the top floor. “There’s space between the cabinet and bed frame to lay down a sleeping mat,” she says.

I buy tickets for spring. I tell my friends that I am going, visiting one of my oldest and dearest. A glorious excuse to return.

They don’t remember who she is.

“Fran, from Makon,” I tell them again. “We met when we were six, best of friends through our becoming years. I visited her two summers ago in New York.”

“Oh yes, her. You don’t talk about her much,” they say.

Once, while we were still in university, Fran flew out to see me. She was worn thin, we both were, hadn’t been thick in years. It was her spring break, but not mine, and while I was in class, she waited in my apartment, refusing to see the city, its novelties.

“You’re bored of a place you’ve never been?” I asked.

It didn’t move her. She was uninterested, tired of being in her own country.

Even then, when she was most vulnerable to the idea of returning to Makon, we both agreed she wouldn’t go.

“We can never go back,” I said softly, offering her a mantra, an antidote for keeping memory at bay. Even now, I hold those words close to my body, low, against the liver.

She agreed, but she was worried. “Do you know what it would take for me to be here?” she asked. “A betrayal.”

“What if no place is good enough for you,” I said.

The day I arrive, a man in a blue poncho meets me at the airport. He tries to take me to the car, but I insist, and together we walk to the vendors underneath the second floor KFC, where I buy a SIM card. In his box-car van, I take the battery out of my phone and switch chips. Outside, you cannot contain the green of the place, it jungles out, bleeding into the sky, the city. I stretch my body across the middle row of seats and sleep.

Large leaves fan me awake. We are driving through a desert. The air is loud and wild, shredding through the body of a car smaller and sleeker than the one I am asleep in. I roll the windows up. Children are in the back. Black hair, gray eyes. Small, ageless bodies. They see right through me, a body that bore them, this charade. Cloudy gas fills the car, and I try to roll the windows back down, but the buttons don’t give. I resort to banging on the glass. The kids—they might be mine—sit silent and still.

When I wake, I open the windows. There are no buttons here, only plastic latches that unlock easily enough. With a small push, the window panes slide open. We are still two hours away, but no longer in the capital, and the air is safe to breathe.

There aren’t quite seven balconies, now that I’ve seen the place. There is one true balcony, with tiling and wooden rails, the others are cement ledges, edges of roof.

In general, the house makes little distinction between inside and outside, so much so that the outdoor stairs are tile, matching the inside floors, while the single, spiral stairwell is a black, rusted metal. White floors turn into gray roofs. The top floor is the most porous, the rooftop a small concrete courtyard connecting the outdoor kitchen, an extra bathroom, a laundry room, and the indoor living room.

Fran serves fruit and water on a plastic tray. We are sitting on the floor of the one true balcony, overlooking the main gate.

“I forgot about these,” I hold up the shallow amber glasses. They refract light softly. They make no rainbows.

Fran takes a mangosteen, turns it on its head and holds it to my face. It smells sweet, at the top of its ripe. She pins the fruit firm between her palms, and cracks open the husk with the heels of her hands. It gently breaks open.

You can hear motorcycles sputtering and roaring, close and far away. Crows rest on the telephone wires. They shimmer blue in the sun.

“Would you want to go?” she asks.

“To the beach?” And sleep in bungalows, walls thin enough to hear the ocean thundering? Sit underneath mangroves in the mornings, when the water is far out, and watch crabs flash across the sand? “How would we get there?” I say instead.

“We could take a bus.”

“For five hours?” I tuck my feet underneath my sit bones.

“Why not?” Fran stands up and leans against the rail, swaying on the balls of her feet. Her clothes hang loose over her body, shirt falling straight over her hips and pants following suit. She is easy, and I am easy with her.

“No need to go anywhere,” I say.

I hold my two indexes up to the light. The warm light bleeds through the tips of my fingers: a reminder of how in time, this too will dissolve away.

“I had this dream, on the drive over,” I begin.

Our parents were not from Makon, they had moved there, as part of a dream, an international vision that swept up many countries in believing the new, interconnected world was building itself towards peace and progress. They were optimists, teachers, and mercenaries, who had followed a call. No one came on behalf of their government, but they all answered to its aspirations. They adopted a new country, fashioned a life and community enriched by cultural exchange and funded by trade. They raised families.

But memory outlasts ambition. Unable to make their myths larger than their nostalgia, they returned to the countries they had come from. Fran, unlike most of us, was born in Makon. She came from a family of teachers, lovers of history and music. And they stayed longer than most.

There are two families we still know in the city, the Warakas and the Idjajas (they had papers.) Most of their children returned after university elsewhere. Even still, Bing, who took over his father’s textile factory, did so reluctantly. The rest of his siblings had managed to make something of themselves in other countries. His brother, a dermatologist in Japan; his sister, a surgeon in America.

We meet Bing at a new Korean place, though he says it’s old, having been open for a few years now. “More and more Korean spots have opened,” he tells us. Other kinds of restaurants, too, Japanese and Indian and Italian. And the usual, more Starbucks, Burger Kings, Dominoes.

Bing knows the server, and we’re taken towards the back, where we can smoke inside. Bing shares his slim cigarettes with me, showing me how to pop the apple flavor bubble at the top of the filter after it’s lit. He’s trying to quit, hoping the skinnier, fruitier smoke will slow him down.

“Is Leonard still coming?” Fran asks.

“He’s on his way.” Bing says. They are business partners now, Bing and Leonard. A farce and a dream.

Fran tells Bing about her teaching job. Her visa is pending, but she is getting paid.

“Is that what you want to do?” he asks.

“Not necessarily.”

“You don’t need to be here,” Bing says. A question, more than a judgement. He ashes his cigarette.

She shakes her head.

Fran was none of the things that made it wrong to stay. She was not loud; she didn’t bring teaching material. She had not come for opportunity. If anything, Fran was modest, and so disinterested in ambition, that remaking herself was more trouble than gain.

When Leonard arrives, he’s the one that orders. They bring out the tiny dishes, and we do the rounds, updating each other on siblings and families and work. We share anything we know about anyone we used to know. It’s a spring of showers, weddings, and babies, pending doctorates and promotions. Also, droughts and coups and secessions. All over, countries are reverting to old stories, looking back to an earlier, better time. Another dream.

“How long do you think she’ll stay?” Bing asks me when Fran and Leonard are in the restrooms.

“Two years tops, maybe three.” I say. You needed ambition to stay in someone else’s country, even if that country is home. “Did you ever wish you stayed in the West?”

“At first, more than anything. But after university, and that year trying to find work—too expensive, too cold—it’s good I came back. It’s easier for me here.” Bing sinks further into his chair. He has burned through his entire pack of cigarettes. “You wouldn’t come back, would you?”

I shake my head. “There’s nothing here for me.”

What will you do if your visa doesn’t come through?

I’ll find meaning in a small thing.

You couldn’t in New York.

Here, I don’t even need meaning.

You’re right. Though, anything can have meaning.

No, you can’t make it up.

That’s what you just said.

I didn’t say that.

From afar, we appear the same, two bodies sitting on a cement roof, one knee up, the other down, backs bent too far over. We are framed by trees, neighboring roofs, with their own set of tarps and laundry lines. Smoke billows up and around us, coming from the open fire grills on the street below. Hospital buildings and cell towers peak in the distance.

You’ll be happy?

No, probably not.

I don’t mean happy in a real way.

What, out of sheer delusion?

Something like that.

I’m here aren’t I?

In the afternoon, when it begins, we sweep the house. Fran pulls the clothes off the rope lines and plastic racks and piles them atop the floor mattress in the laundry room. Most of the house is away, leaving Sara, the high school teacher, and me, to split the floors, closing every window. We sneak our hands through the mosquito screens, pull the glass doors shut, and lock them into the sill. We leave the sliding doors open, the balcony roof reaching far enough to give good cover. Sometimes this is a mistake, considering the water does not always fall down straight. Soft thunder, or the rattling of sills—these are the signs to rush over and slide the doors shut.

We are, of course, today, too late. By the time we do, every floor is pooling with water, the rain sheeting in slanted, from balcony to living room, roof to hallway. Even the doors that were closed, water has glided underneath on the tile, finding its way along the grout. We fly about with buckets and towels and rags, attending to the puddles and plugging up spaces between the doors and floor.

Fran is glowing. This is the kind of interruption she longs for. Bent over a bucket, on her knees, Fran wrings out every drop the rags will give, rags made of old t-shirts cut into perfect squares, rags she throws right back down to lap up yet more water.

I am on the opposite side of the floor, also on my knees, forgoing the bucket completely, simply using the rag to shove the water back outside. I’m annoyed, which in the end is just silly. We kept the doors open because we liked the rain. But only at a distance and when it behaved responsibly. I feel a moment of guilt, throwing the water back outside, where it belongs.

Sara asks for help. The second-floor couch is wet. The third-floor carpet is sopping. All together we lift up the waterlogged carpet, stamp and pat out what we can, then set it further inside on top of a few plastic chairs. Sara strips the futon cushions and leans them again the stairwell. We bring out every fan in the house, pointing their faces down towards the soggy cushions, the dripping carpet.

By the time we sit down, the sound of rain is replaced by the whirring of fans.

Sara brings out two pieces of chocolate-raspberry fudge cake, the sauce made from frozen raspberries, hand-delivered from the capital. Fran refuses the cake, on behalf of both of us. Sara offers, twice more, and only then do we thank her profusely and eat the cake.

“What will you do now that school is out?” Fran asks.

Probably visit her mom, then go on vacation. Mostly, Sara is relieved that the school year is over, that she no longer has to make the drive. She can feel the city smoke hollowing out her throat.

“I wear a mask, but it only helps so much.”

“How long is the drive?” I ask.

“Forty-five minutes. But a car would take twice as long. At least on the motorbike, I can take backroads.”

Sara thinks this is her last year in Makon. Her mother is getting old, and her younger sister has moved to a neighboring town, newly wed. Even though Sara hasn’t lived at home for over five years, and has a good job here, in Makon, it is her responsibility to take care of their mother. She is the oldest, and she still hasn’t married.

Before dark, we brainstorm ways Fran might prolong her stay. Sara suggests moving to the capital. It might be easier to get a work visa. But Fran hates the capital, we all do.

“Enroll at a university, and stay under a student visa,” I offer.

“How would I pay for it?”

“If you found someone,” Sara teases.

“I still wouldn’t be a citizen.”

“But you could stay,” I say. An ending I want for her.

Do you think it could happen? my friends will ask once I return. Oh, I don’t think so. She couldn’t. She doesn’t even want to get married, let alone in the next year, let alone to stay.

She bought a motorbike this week, I will tell them. Show them a picture of the small, red scooter. It has wide footrests, a blue helmet hanging on the left handle. I can see Fran bowing her head into the shell of the helmet, her velvet hair streaming down her back. She’d sling a leg over the seat of the bike, riding off, carving along wet streets, avoiding potholes and other craters. She’d buy a mask, and maybe a pair of gloves.

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