It was a very hot May night and I was on a folding metal bed that was wide enough to hold me if I did not stretch my arms and just long enough to accommodate my not too tall a frame. The Old Man had unscrambled the rather dangerous metal contraption refusing any help, every step making me scared that he would bleed from the rusty pinch from cheap metal hinges that seemed like a hundred years old.
It wasn’t the Old Man’s fault. Time closes in on everything. Even space. Especially space.
The old have a daily ordered life. They sit on a certain chair just so every day and reach for that bottle of brown digestive medicine on the shelf standing on a certain square of a mosaic tile by stretching their hand just so after dinner. When that certain square tile is occupied in an unexpected fashion in a sudden, unprepared way, they will tell you nothing about the discomfort of the sudden intrusion but will but try to get around the new obstacle in various unobtrusive ways.
The next day, the same surprise at the same intrusion in the same time and space will take place as the same need for the digestive medicine arises. Again, they will tell you nothing about the discomfort of the sudden intrusion and will try to get around the still new obstacle in various unobtrusive ways.
And so the cycle will continue until short term memory becomes somewhat long term.
That May, a long time ago now, everything about my presence was an intrusion. I had intruded on the space and the space had intruded on me not so unobtrusively at a very painful time.
I suspected that the fifty-year-old roll of cotton wool in front of the dressing table next to the bed contraption might agree. In fact, it might spring to life at nightfall and make some derisive comment to the bunch of thirty-year-old safety pins lying on the carved, wooden tray (from that trip to Darjeeling thirty four years ago) about the shiny, oversized, impertinent, upstart suitcases lying in the middle of the room showing off the newfangled bar codes as in some Enid Blyton novel from second grade when the toys had their party after the girl went to sleep.
But this was no Bedtime Story.
Being that he was the Old Man, I had to let him take care of me. I was homeless and he wanted to protect me now as he did (or did not) when he was younger.
As will happen with wild animals that lived in ordered captivity a long time and went down the rabbit hole like Alice, only to emerge on the other side not in wonderland but in the old chaotic wilderness, I had lost the adaptability to survive.
Yet, this old place wasn’t the wilderness red in tooth and claw with its own tenor of sound and fury one could learn to survive in with time. Rather, it was the cultivated wilderness of the rainforest in the botanical gardens (if you’ve seen one in the tropics) where bloody dying animals could lie in plain sight while other animals scuttle past going about their daily business.
It turns out that evolution with time is a strange gift. It relieves you of the sensory burdens of disturbing sights and smells and covers the unseemly with invisibility cloaks to compartmentalize life experiences of others in civilization’s enchanted forest.
The ceiling fan, it turns out, was one of the evolutionary traits that I myself had either evolved beyond or fallen behind on because of my own life experiences.
It was one of the hottest months of the year. As the whole house became quiet I heard nothing but the unfamiliar flap-flapping of the ceiling fan.
I could not breathe. The flat nylon strings of the cot bit into my back, the narrow cotton sheets tied up my feet, I felt too hot and too cold at the same time. No one used comforters in the wilderness in the summer while in my temperature controlled captivity that had been a choice.
I tried to turn and the metal joints screeched.
Everyone had gone to sleep but the Old Man. In the wilderness, it was always the case that the Old Man took up the most dangerous jobs. Or had to be made to think that he did. That night he insisted on sleeping on the deathly contraption himself. So we whispered back and forth across the sleeping old woman across the two beds in the room, taking care not to wake anyone.
I remembered enough about the laws of the land to know that when women in the wilderness wanted men (old or young) not to do something, even for their own good, they were never given the real reason. For true explanations rarely worked with real men. So instead of saying that the Old Man could not handle sleeping on the metal contraption at his age, I said that the metal bed was actually better, because.
And yet, the ceiling fan kept going flap, flap, flap, flap, flap. Although I was not directly under it, it kept sending these little sheets of solid air that slapped my nose and circled the room. One after the next after the next came the sheets stopping my breath until I was being suffocated in an orderly rhythm.
So I got up from the cot when the old man was asleep and cleared the shoes in the other room to lie down on the floor. I was a bit scared of the cockroaches that lived in the shoe-heap in the back that was rarely disturbed who might resent my sudden intrusion into their space as well. I wondered if any of them would remember me as the legitimate inhabitant of the wilderness from the days of old.
[The wilderness was like those beaches with the very fine, white sand where the waters are warm enough to dip your feet in. When you stand a long time on the shore and think you’ve made a footprint simply because you’ve been standing there a long time the big wave comes in and closes in on everything. It brings in more and more and more, seemingly endless sand and covers everything to make space for new shells and rocks and seaweed that make their mark for a while. If you stand on your one space for too long you feel the sands shifting under your feet in the water and then you lose your balance.]
I dozed off eventually (maybe watching a scuttling cockroach) but in the morning, only the little boy was surprised at the unexpected spectacle on the floor. The other animals stepped over me and I got up before the old man had seen me.
It turns out that breathing with a ceiling fan on throughout the night is an acquired respiratory reflex and I had lost it by being away a long time.