There’s No Reason to Get Romantic
. . . Suddenly my grandmother appears unfamiliar, in the same way a word becomes strange, unknowable, the more times you repeat it. I stare at her and see, like a black-and-white movie reel unwinding, that long-ago procession through town on horseback, my grandmother in Tibetan bridal dress, her hair entwined in an intricate headpiece of turquoise, coral and pearls. And then back even further, I see her as a girl of thirteen astride a yak, leaving Tibet with her family for the unknown world beyond, on the lookout for bandits, awakened in the night by the battling ghosts of Tibetan and Chinese soldiers.
My grandmother crossed the mountains, my mother the ocean—I want to know where my journey is. If I leave behind climbing the Golden Gate Bridge at night and camping on the beach and weekly trips to Berkeley to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where will I go? But then why should I go, why is it that my mother and grandmother are always wanting me to be something I am not? I stand by the door for a few more minutes, watching my grandmother slowly, gently count her beads of bone, and wonder if it’s really possible that I’m related by blood to this tiny woman murmuring in a language I do not know.
Downstairs in my room, I peer into the mirror, looking for my grandmother. But aside from the semi-flat nose, the dark, dark eyes I’ve so often wished were blue, the black hair I’ve wanted to dye blond, she eludes me. Quickly, before I can change my mind, I run to the bathroom and pull out the dye I’ve kept for so long.
“What on earth were you thinking?” my mother hisses after dinner, pushing me towards the sink to do the dishes. “It looks awful, and at least you could have waited until your grandmother left.”
“God Mom, you act like I shaved my head,” I say, filling the dish tub with hot water. “I only dyed the roots, and besides, it seems to bother you a lot more than her.” To my complete surprise, my grandmother had smiled as I sat down at the table, and simply said, “Oh, just see what she’s done to her hair,” before launching into a story about the strange dream she had during her afternoon nap.
“Shut up. You shut up.” My mother’s putting the leftovers into the fridge.
“Why don’t you say it louder so she can hear you?” I ask in my trumpet voice. My grandmother’s in the other room watching the evening news. “There’s nothing to hide. We’re all one big family, right?”
In a flash, my mother crosses the linoleum and smacks me across the face.
My grandmother enters the kitchen, smiling innocently, and says, “Shall we have some dessert? My doctor says that I must eat at least one serving of fruit each day.”
I want to throw the hot water at both of them, but I don’t move, hoping my grandmother will notice the welt on my cheek.
“Let’s have some of those wikis, shall we?” my grandmother says, crossing to the fruit bowl. “We don’t get these in Sitla, you know.”
“KIWIS!” I shout. “They’re KIWIS! Don’t you know anything? Don’t either of you know anything?!” They stare at me like I’m from outer space, my grandmother holding a kiwi in each hand, my mother clenching and unclenching her fists.
I whip the dishcloth across the room and rush downstairs. Without taking off my clothes, I crawl into bed and for a long time stare at the ceiling, remembering how I used to fantasize about killing myself. The problem was that I wouldn’t be around for the satisfaction of watching my mother and grandmother grieve, and this obstacle was enough to keep me from actually trying anything. Maybe there was the possibility of being reincarnated, as my grandmother believes, but I’d have lost so much merit by killing myself that I’d probably have come back as an ant or a tree stump.
At last I drift off to sleep. I dream that I’m a scribe in the middle of a huge complex of stone buildings and walkways, an ancient monastic city trembling with the voices and cries of thousands of red-robed Tibetan monks. Far, far above, at the top of a great pyramid, surveying the realm, sits a golden female Buddha on a blue lotus throne. I hunch over my Tibetan script, hoping not to be noticed, but I’m given an assignment: It’s now my job to dive deep down into the murky waters of the realm and bring things to the surface. Because I have no choice, I dive. I wriggle past the worn busts of my mother and father, slowing for a moment but then quickly reversing towards the light. Surfacing, I learn that I’ve been sentenced to death, that my heart will be cut out on the sacrificial stone at the top of the pyramid. But there’s no human sacrifice in Tibet, I think, and there aren’t even any pyramids. However, again I am summoned, and because I have no choice, I begin the long climb up the narrow, steep stairs to my death. When at last I reach the top, I see a dark-haired woman lounging on a dais, smiling and humming to herself. Well, there’s no reason not to try, I think.
“Excuse me,” I begin in a quiet, soft voice. “Is there any possibility of a reprieve?”
“Sure,” says the woman casually, matter-of-factly. “Wait there in the back.” She points behind her with her thumb to a vast grassy area punctuated by white columns so tall they seem to be holding up the cloudless blue sky. I stretch out on the ground, noticing the warm breeze, people lolling on the grass picnicking, and I’m amazed that a place like this exists...