KR OnlineFiction

One More Night Behind the Walls

On the afternoon of the 1983 New Year’s Eve party, my father pulled me aside and told me to make sure my mother didn’t leave alone. If she seemed like she might go, I was to delay her and come find him, or one of Diego’s parents, or the Voniekels, or Yuki’s mom. “Any of us,” he said. “Find someone.”

I nodded.

My mother was showering at the time, but my father still whispered as if she might hear. We were downstairs in the covered patio outside their bedroom. Our house was compact and artful, designed by the famous architect who lived across from us and who drove a silver Rolls Royce.

“David, you understand how dangerous it is?” he said. My father’s hair was fine and blond, and his skin was very pink the whole time we lived in Sri Lanka. His face was sort of froggish; maybe it was his glasses, but really also his mouth.

“If she tries to go,” I said, “I’ll find you.”

Always a melancholy drunk, my mother had developed a habit of simply leaving the parties alone and walking home, despite the curfew. Although only nine, I was her confidant and best friend, so I was often the last person to see her. It was difficult at the time, but I’m grateful for those nights now, since they’re really the only memories I have of her.

• •

Some say the grown-ups used the war as an excuse to let go, but I think it’s more like the war forced them together, and that’s what made them go off the rails. The closeness did it. It’s all a big laugh, now—for those of us who still talk to each other. Like the time they got so drunk at Hong Cao’s tenth birthday party that one of the dads fainted and peed himself while trying to inflate balloons, or the time Diego’s mom decided to set off fireworks in the middle of the night and some of their palm trees caught fire. We kids sat on the small balcony off Diego’s room watching the treetops burn while downstairs the adults roared that indecipherable party roar, Mona’s mom’s honking laughter occasionally breaking through. The fires were beautiful as I remember, bright orange flames swaying in the night sky.

Our parents were either diplomats or with the UN, WHO, the World Bank, or something similar. Every day after school—all of us attended Overseas Children’s School (OCS)—we descended on the Colombo Swimming Club en masse. Our whole lives in Sri Lanka transpired in spaces surrounded by tall white walls and guarded by men with machine guns: our houses, OCS, the swimming club.

My father was a civil engineer with the UNDP who specialized in updating sewage treatment facilities. No one would ever ask a follow-up question after he explained his area of interest. But it was important! They wanted to get cholera out of the tap water, reduce pollution. “Poop is everywhere!” he used to say. “People are pooping all the time. If you can’t deal with it, you’ve got big problems.”

My mother would nod soberly and then wink at me and grimace, as if fighting off laughter, which would make me giggle. Then my father would be furious at her.

Whenever he was angry, and he was often angry, the veins in his neck showed, and his frog lips would be set tight. The anger always burned off fast. He’d get mad at me because I hated curry and only wanted buttermilk pancakes and pizza and McDonald’s and a lot of other things that didn’t exist in Sri Lanka. We didn’t have a television, either. No Nintendo, no Toys “R” Us. When we arrived there’d only been Coca-Cola and Fanta, but then Sprite arrived.

• •

A lot of us lived in UN houses with the blue emblems outside, but Diego’s was the grandest of the UN houses. He also had better toys than I, and he had a sexy sixteen-year-old sister. Even at nine I wanted to be close to Priscilla. Something about her skin and face, and her legs—I wanted to touch them, but even touching wouldn’t be close enough.

Diego’s mom, Isabel, was also very popular, and my mother would tell me how much she adored Isabel, even though my father was “always hanging around her, laughing and looking—his eyes hide nothing.”

When she said that, I thought of the time Priscilla brought the children a huge wedge of cake. She was the only person who could move between the children’s zone upstairs and the adults’ zone downstairs, and she considered it unfair that we had no cake. Setting a tray on the floor with a slab of cake—she’d jammed a dozen forks into the top of it—she told us to eat quickly. We attacked frantically, like those puppies shoving in toward their one food bowl.

Our faces were smeared in chocolate frosting when Bruce’s mother barged in. “Oh my god!” she yelled. “Bruce! Who brought this up here?”

Good old Bruce just shook his head—although I doubt he could have spoken with all that cake in his mouth.

Priscilla stood up—she was the only one of us who’d managed to eat without making a mess of her face—and said, “I brought it, and I would do it again!”

“Whose child are you?” the woman said.

“I am no one’s child!” Priscilla said, her eyes gleaming. I couldn’t tell if she was furious or about to burst out laughing. Either way, I wanted to kiss her, and I had never in my life wanted to kiss anyone.

• •

Two weeks after we arrived in Sri Lanka, my parents came upstairs to my room one night and the three of us stood in silence and looked out at the fires. We weren’t up that high, so we could see only the tops of the flames, but we could hear people yelling and sporadic gunfire.

The following day we went to the US embassy to hide behind their huge wall. On the way there we saw many burnt cars and homes, and I vividly remember a row of bodies lined up shoulder to shoulder beside the road. They didn’t call it a civil war for several months.

I didn’t understand the cause of the war. But I knew that Singhalese people were killing Tamils. Later, I gathered that Tamils started blowing themselves up and killing Singhalese people that way.

Later still, I learned that my father had hidden a Tamil colleague in the trunk of our car and taken him two hours south to that man’s family. My father drove the whole way with his United Nations laissez-passer pressed against the window.

After the war started, the foreigners really hunkered down at the swimming club. Every day there’d be hundreds of us, far more than the club could comfortably accommodate.

Our parents would sit in the shade drinking gins and tonic while we made mayhem in the pool. The club offered lessons in karate, tennis, and swimming. We even used their tiny sad library, and sometimes stayed for “movie night”—they’d play videos of outdated British farces full of hoary sexual puns on the old TV upstairs while dozens of children from around the world dozed on the floor.

Then the swimming club decided they should throw a New Year’s Eve party for the members. They probably figured we’d have other plans. But no one had any plans. That was the party where Priscilla died. And nothing was really the same after that.

• •

Those two weeks before the war began we would walk to places in the city, but after that night when the city burned, we took the car or we didn’t go. No more walking. The only time I walked anywhere after that was the night of the Voniekels’ anniversary party. My mother and I were in their study, and she abruptly said she was leaving. It was late, hours past my bedtime, so I asked if I could go with her.

The streetlights were too far apart, so each made its own tiny island of light within the darkness, and we entered and left the light as we went. Giant moths fluttered clumsily around the lamps, which buzzed a dull yellow. Even at night you could smell the smoldering vegetation, a smell that permeated the whole island. During the day the traffic was intense, but at night, especially during those early days of the war, the streets were frighteningly empty.

Rounding the corner at Bagatelle Road, my mom had to pee, so she hid behind a pair of burnt cars. I hid, too, while her pee hissed in the shadow of the other car. The car beside me stank like burnt plastic. There was this pile of black molten plastic by my foot and a messy pile of black sticks next to it, and for some reason I reached out and picked up the longest stick. I must have known in some way that it wasn’t a stick, but I held it up for my mother to see. She’d finished and was standing, and then seeing it, she said, “Drop it!! David! Drop it!”

I dropped it.

My mother leaned over to look at it. “Fuck!” she said and put a hand over her mouth. “Davy, sweetie.”

 

I felt dizzy with embarrassment and sick to my stomach, because now I knew what I’d known before but had not fully known. I started crying, and my mother hugged me and said, “Hey, sweetie, it’s OK.”

“Where are the other bones?” I asked. Maybe it was a mistake and the person had just lost this one bone, somehow, like I had been losing my teeth.

My mother let go of me and sighed, looked down at it. I could see that there were more bones in the pile, like it was a mixture of bones and debris. “OK,” she said. “I guess we should pick it up now.”

“Mom, no . . . please.”

“David. If this were yours, would you want us to leave it in the dirt?”

“I wouldn’t care,” I said. I almost pointed out that there were more, but I didn’t want to make the situation worse.

“We need to bury it.”

That’s when a motorcycle with three people on it puttered down the road, slowly entering and exiting the puddles of light. None of the people were wearing helmets. The two passengers, a woman and a man, stared at us as they passed. It was dangerous to be out and we needed to move along. “Do you want me to carry it?” I said.

My mother sighed, frowning.

I bent down and picked it up again. My hand was already stained black by the soot.

• •

When we arrived at the New Year’s Eve party, there were already scores of children roving through the swimming club. The pool was frothy with squawking kids, those underwater lights glowing eerily. Someone was trying to get a game of Marco Polo going, but it was useless.

Diego and I wandered in the direction of the swings, but that whole area was swarmed, so we went to the short wall facing the ocean. Beyond that—the only wall short enough to see over—were the train tracks, and past them a giant pile of jagged boulders, against which the waves thudded, spraying mist into the air. The first few bats had loosed themselves and were dashing around, sloppy and bewildered.

Diego had said his family was stopping at LEGOLAND in Copenhagen on their way to Mexico for home leave in a couple months. Tonight, I floated the idea that maybe I could give him all of my savings, and he could score some LEGOs for me. We stood out by the wall, listening to the waves and discussing how he would choose what to buy for me.
Part of the issue was neither of us knew what new LEGOs were available. We had to guess. We were trying to pinpoint what he could use as an organizing philosophy for selecting on my behalf when he stopped, gestured with his eyes, and said, “Your mom.”

Sure enough, she was wandering over by the swings looking for me. I sighed.

“How much money do you think you could give me?” he said.

“I think I have like six hundred rupees.”

He shrugged. “That sounds like a lot. I’ll have to ask my mom.”

“Yeah, I know. It would be great, though. I’d even give you some.” I hoped it’d work out. Otherwise it’d be at least a year until I got any new toys.

Parting ways, we did our secret handshake, which involved tapping elbows, a high five, a low five, plus a little shimmy at the end. Although it probably looked pretty dumb to everyone else, I only remember being embarrassed by the joy it stirred in me and how I’d try to quash it right away and act cool.

I jogged over to my mother, who was asking the mean Italian kids where I was.

Spotting me, she waved them off and we fell in together, walking across grass and then turning onto the tennis courts. She’d brought me a bottle of Fanta, and she had one, too, but hers was yellow because it was wine. She did that sometimes so she’d have fewer trips back for refills. We ambled, looking for a comfortable place to sit away from the masses.

On the far side of the tennis courts, the lights were off in the small library, which only held children’s books. It looked promising. But my mom peered in the window and grimaced, as though it looked bad in there. “Not now,” she whispered quietly and shooed me back toward the courts.

Lying on the warm concrete, we stared at the sky, bats darting around. My mother lit a cigarette. It was still too early for her to try to walk home, but I was paying attention.

She’d recently finished her PhD in philosophy, and she sometimes said things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Looking back, I think she wanted to push against the barriers of politeness, and maybe I was more game than most of the adults.

She blew a cloud of blue smoke out into the night sky and asked if I remembered the tear gas day, and I said I did.

The previous month there’d been a situation at the Indian Embassy next door, and tear gas had poured over the wall, disrupting a members-only tennis tournament. My mother had skipped the tournament, joined up with the nonjoiners at the bar. Diego and I had been at karate. We’d heard about it from my father, who had participated in the tournament.

“What does tear gas feel like?” I asked her.

“I don’t know.” She had another drag, exhaled. “Probably an onion.”

“Yuck. But even worse, I bet.”

“David, you don’t even realize how much you like onions. They’re everywhere, just like poop—or your father’s sewers.”

“That’s gross,” I said. Two of the bats almost collided in midair. They were nearly invisible against the darkness, but you could hear them and that made them easier to see.

“Really, you eat onions all the time.” She sat up, so I sat up too. “The sewers are everywhere too. There’s probably a pipe under this tennis court, sneaking poop out into the ocean without your father’s permission.”

“But not pizza, there aren’t any onions—”

“Oh yes there are! The red sauce! They’re just chopped up small so you can’t see them. McDonald’s cheeseburgers have onions too.”

We both stood up.

“Pancakes?” I said.

“Probably, I don’t know how to make pancakes.”

I thought about it. “If I can’t see the onions, then I don’t mind. But I don’t want to know about them.”

“I’m the same about the sewers, among other things.”

My mother flicked her cigarette away and suggested a game of imaginary tennis. We went to opposite sides of the net and stood back.

She served an imaginary ball to me with her imaginary racket, saying “Toc!” I whacked it back to her at maximum speed, also saying “Toc!” She stared in disbelief at the hole the ball had blown in the wall behind her.

“David, you could hurt someone like that,” she said.

Then she had a sip of her Fanta and served again. This time I returned with a backhand cross, and she jogged slowly across the court, popped the ball back my way. I hit it back, but more calmly this time, and now we had a nice volley going. We kept hitting the ball back and forth. Sometimes she paused to drink from her yellow Fanta, and sometimes I paused to look out on the ocean. On the horizon you could sometimes see the flickering lights of the distant cargo ships, steaming down the horizon past the southern point of Asia and to another world. During the day you couldn’t see them.

Eventually, she hit the imaginary ball up into the sky really hard. “Oh no,” she said, peering up, “I think it’s gone.”

I looked up.

“It punctured the sky over there,” she said, pointing. “Did you know that’s how stars are made?”

“Tennis balls?”

She nodded. “People hit them hard and they pierce the sky, letting in a little light.”

I went and got my Fanta and we met at center court, across the net from one another. We clinked bottles, drank. After a pause she said, “Please pardon the grownup subject, but I’ve realized no one gets divorced here.”

I shrugged. Divorce was confusing, just like the war, and taxes, and plumbing. Upshot was: divorce happens when parents are mad at each other, and afterward they live in different houses. I didn’t like that she was talking about it.

“I guess they all wait until they’re home between missions,” she said. “But out here we’re all stuck.”

“Maybe being stuck is good?”

She nodded. “If everyone in America had to go on diplomatic mission, we could really do something about the divorce rate.”

“But the swimming club would be even more full,” I pointed out.

She laughed. “You’re the best, D.” She tossed her invisible tennis racket through the library’s window and made the sound of glass crashing. The lights were on now, and I could see grownups inside. They were probably in there before, I realized. And that was why we hadn’t entered.

“Do you think they’d have root beer in Sri Lanka if enough Americans came?”

She sighed. “I’ve got some bad news, David. Root beer is disgusting.”

“Mom, it’s incredible.”

“Actually you haven’t had it in a year, so you don’t remember that it tastes like slug guts and pickled onions.”

I nodded and glanced at the sky. All the bats were gone, or maybe they were just dodging the stars so I couldn’t see them. I wanted to ask about this plan to have Diego spend my life’s savings on LEGOs, but knew I should wait for a better opportunity.

“I need to get some more Fanta,” my mother said, shaking her empty bottle.

When we got to the bar, the man just laughed warmly, or maybe bitterly, and filled her Fanta bottle with wine. The place was loud and smoky and teeming with roaring grownups. I was as tall as most of the women’s boobs, so I just looked at everyone’s feet, or their hands, or at the faces of adults who weren’t looking in my direction. They seemed so fake, it was crazy! Why be so fake? It seemed like just one more way of keeping important things buried or hidden. I could understand why my mother so often needed a break from this.

• •

When I turned back, my mom was gone. I had thought she was the woman in the light-blue dress beside the bar, but a different woman was wearing the same color.

I ran toward the front of a main building and looked for her. I knew I was supposed to find my father or someone, but I was worried that I’d be too late—it’d take too long. This party was huge. Instead, I went out front, past the pair of small brass cannons, always buffed to a high gloss, their muzzles stopped with black concrete corks, as if to prevent anyone from loading them and firing a ball into the club’s roundabout.

Because of the size of this party, there were even people in the roundabout: kids climbing the trees, some grownups below. I’d been bitten by some black ants near those trees and wouldn’t ever play there again.

I jogged between the trees and the adults and then up the short driveway to the gate, where three guards stood with their black machine guns. They looked at me, perplexed, and one of them said something I didn’t understand.

“My mother—did a woman come up?” I sputtered, and their faces said nothing. “Did she leave?”

“No woman,” the man who’d spoken before said.

I pointed at the gate. “She went out? Walking.” I made my fingers like a walking person.

The man turned and said something to the others in Singhalese. They grinned and looked away, and then he turned back. “No woman here!” he said. “Go back, go back! Have fun!”

I scanned the club’s front door. From up there I could see over to the tennis courts and even into the upstairs windows in the main building. It was usually empty up there, but tonight the crowd had flowed up, as well. I ran back to the building, between the brass cannons, and into the thickness of the party, frantically scanning for any grown-up—anyone I recognized well enough to talk to. I recognized almost every single face, but none were someone I could talk to about this.

Moving as quickly as possible, I threaded through the building and out back, past the bar, and to the patio up above the pool. The whole way I was groaning and trying not to cry, scanning the faces, but I couldn’t see far.

So I climbed onto a chair and then stepped onto a table outside the main building. One of the grown-ups at the table smacked me on the shin, but I ignored him, so he yanked on my shirt—I would have kicked him in the face if I hadn’t been so busy scanning the crowd for my mother, or anyone.

Then I saw Priscilla coming down the stairs, all the way back across the entrance hall of the swimming club—back toward the cannons. She was walking carefully down the stairs holding a glass of wine, and my father was beside her.

I screamed out to him, “Daaaaaaaaad!!”

It wasn’t loud enough to hear over the chatter, so I screamed it again as loud and high pitched as my lungs allowed. This time Priscilla must have heard me, because she turned and saw me up there, maybe saw the panic on my face, and she turned sharply back toward my father like she was alarmed. In the turning, she tripped—or maybe it was because she was drunk, or maybe it was something else—and she fell down the remaining stairs, face first, tumbling. Really, she didn’t fall that far, so it shouldn’t have—it doesn’t make sense.

I climbed down and barged through the crowd. Before long, people were screaming, and I arrived to find my father bent over her, and her bare legs were there, and he was trying to stop the bleeding. I didn’t see. But I did see. I mean, I remember her legs and the blood coming from a gash in her neck, which was twisted in the wrong way, and the blood was still pulsing out, but it doesn’t seem like it could have looked like that—nothing about what I remember makes sense.

And then my father picked her up and carried her outside, through the cannons, and the blood was pouring out of her neck where her wineglass had broken. It’s one of those things you’ll see for the rest of your life, even though it can’t possibly be real.

Could I really have screamed loud enough that she turned? The whole thing feels suspicious. But I also remember turning away from the sight of him carrying her, and everyone was standing back like they were making room for her blood, as if to stand on the blood was to stand on the person. I’m sure of that memory, even though I wish I weren’t. But yes, I did see that.

Maybe the rest has been tilted by my cruel mind, twisted to make me feel worse.

For years I thought about her legs and wondered about the fact that she’d been wearing that short skirt. If there had been a kids’ room that night, she wouldn’t have made sense with us. But maybe my father was just upstairs at the same time as she was, like a coincidence, or he saw she was drunk and wanted to get her to her parents. I used to worry that he’d done something to her upstairs, but now I know better. The world is even more awful: if something had happened up there, she’d have been walking downstairs alone. Probably he just wanted to be near her sexy youth, and nothing happened.

No matter what occurred up there, I yelled, and she turned.

Will you believe that my mother never showed up that night? She slept at the swimming club, somewhere. We had no idea. That was the story, anyway.

Except I do know—and I knew.

My father was gone with Priscilla to the hospital, so I looked for my mother. Looked everywhere. Ran and looked and ran and looked, while all the people shuffled out past the men mopping up the blood.

At some point, I climbed on a lawn chair and peered in the dark window of the library. The door was locked and the lights out, but I decided to look. And there she was, asleep on the floor. On her side, barefoot, but still wearing her dress. Even though it was shadowy, I could see that the man beside her was totally naked. He was on his back, and I remember the sparse hair across his chest, how it narrowed as it moved down his stomach to his shrunken penis nestled in its dark forest. There was less hair than on my father’s chest. I hated the sight of that man like that. It was disgusting, and I wanted to hit him with something, maybe a baseball bat. But I didn’t really recognize him, not quite, and I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to think about it any more than I had to.

I considered trying to wake them up, but then I’d really have to think about what I’d seen. Then I’d really remember it. And she might try to walk home.

So I went back to the main building and told one of the managers that my parents were gone. He looked at me in a cold way—the trauma of the war was just getting started, but I realized that some of the Sri Lankan grown-ups were beginning to wear it in their gaze.

The man said that they had two rooms upstairs. Already there were three children and one adult sleeping there, but I could stay in the room with the children.

So I went up. It turned out Diego had been left behind in the chaos, and he was sitting on one of the beds looking out the window, maybe watching the entrance.

I approached slowly and, whispering, asked if I could sleep there too. He nodded, still looking out the window. I could see that he’d been crying. I climbed into his bed and pulled the covers over me, closed my eyes. With my eyes closed, I saw the dark puddle downstairs, and the way the blood leaked out of Priscilla when my father carried her. I thought about the dark library with all the Asterix books in it, and the bats up in the sky, and the swimming pool earlier. How frightening it had been with so many people, how they blocked out the underwater lights with their bodies so the center of the pool was black. And I thought about Diego’s mountain of toys, and that time I saw his sister rolling on the floor laughing with one of her friends. I remembered the moths bouncing off the streetlights. Diego was still sitting up by the window. Resting with Diego’s foot warm against my arm, I listened to the waves pounding against those dark rocks out past the train tracks.

• •

Decades later I learned that Diego landed a cushy post at the Mexican consulate in Houston. So he’s fine. And I’m glad he’s OK. I haven’t talked to him since they left after Priscilla died, but I do think about him.

Three years after that party at the swimming club, not long after we returned to the States, my mother died of breast cancer. Her diagnosis came before our furniture had even made it off the ship. The only clear memories I have of her in America are of her in the hospital and the final weeks when she was at home but not really there.

My father never remarried, but he did date some very nice women, and one I didn’t like that much. I guess he was still pretty messed up; you can still see it in the photos from that time—it’s like my mother said: his eyes hide nothing. So none of the relationships took. When I was in my senior year at Wesleyan, he leapt from an eighth-floor window into the atrium of the World Bank headquarters—where he was then employed—but he hit a landing halfway down that broke his fall, and he survived.

My dad doesn’t have a bad temper anymore, not at all. And he’s pretty happy, I think, in his way. He doesn’t work anymore, but paints still lifes of fruit, and he reads lots of mystery novels. He’s got this small condo in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and is always hanging out in some coffee shop owned by “Miss Betty Beatrice,” who I gather is a witchy old Texan.

The rest of us are OK, I think. The kids, I mean. The truth is I’d give anything to have one more night back there behind the walls. Diego’s got his career, and I’m an architect, which is perfect for me: I get to imagine people’s homes for them, to think about the things they can’t imagine. They don’t know what’s inside their walls, but I do.

I love the work of Geoffrey Bawa, the architect who lived across from us, behind his own tall wall. Conversing with clients, I often talk about Bawa’s influence on my work, but maybe it’s just something to say. I tell them Bawa used to play chess with my father, and I was there when the war started, and—despite all those walls—I saw things. The grown-ups hoped the walls would protect us, but the violence snuck in.

When I say this to people, they sometimes ask what I mean. If they ask, I tell them Bawa understood that the division between “inside” and “outside” isn’t always clear. He liked spaces that confused those categories—like the covered patio behind our house.

But Bawa had secrets. He kept young men as lovers, supposedly went through them like tissues. He’s dead but people still don’t talk about it. Maybe it’s better if you can choose what parts of yourself are visible and what parts are buried out under the tennis courts.

That night with the bone, I carried it all the way home, and it was hot in my hand. We didn’t have a garden, just that patio and a small pond full of lilies and these skinny trees up against our wall. But there was a little space back there, a patch of earth. My mother dug the hole with her hands, sweating. Little insects swarmed around her, and some got stuck in the sweat on her neck. Once the hole was big enough, I laid the bone inside and she rinsed her hands in the dirty pond.

Standing there with her dripping hands, she looked at me, and I was surprised to see tears shimmering in her eyes. Through all of her maudlin evenings, I’d never seen her cry.

“Should I put the dirt back in?” I said.

She just sat down on the edge of the pond and lit a cigarette. I knew we’d never tell my father about this. To this day he doesn’t know.

When I was done filling in the hole, she kissed me on the head, dropped her cigarette into the pond, and said, “You and I will never be alone no matter what happens.” Such a strange thing to say. For months that phrase bounced around inside my head.

I rinsed my hands, just like she’d done. Then she crouched low beside me, and I climbed onto her back like a monkey and clutched her neck, resting my head against her shoulder, pretending to be asleep as she carried me up to my room.