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Diana Cage

I want to rent a boat. There's a man at the lake that rents them. Do you want to come with me?" The Canadian girl from the room next to me hovered breathlessly over me and my table full of beer bottles. She had round, blue eyes and expectant, arched brows set in a pretty, if plain, face.

"He had a bunch of paddle boats, I'm hoping there are some left. I don't really want to take a canoe because I hurt my shoulder playing badminton." She spoke without pausing for breath; the words all tumbled out at once like an ejaculation. While she spoke she gesticulated with her hands and acted out parts of her sentence. When she got to the part about hurting her shoulder she cocked her head to one side and rubbed her right shoulder with her left hand.

I was immediately attracted to her. Her puppyishness made her hard to resist.

"Sure, I'll go" I nodded and got up from the table gathering up my sunglasses and book. It was late afternoon. There were probably three or four hours of light left. Perfect for floating around on the water, if you like that kind of thing. I had been at the hotel nearly two weeks. Most of the other guests were new. There was a German couple in the front room. They fought every night before bed. Trekking can wreak disaster on couples when one is weaker. Altitude sickness, the various rebellions of the body to extreme conditions, these things can make climbing unbearable and the physical misery of constantly being cold and tired magnifies your mental exhaustion. The woman wanted to stay a few weeks and rest. The man wanted to go on.

The walls of this particular guesthouse appeared to be solid cinderbloscks all the way to the ceiling, but after a few days of overhearing every word said by my neighbors, I discovered that the walls had open vents at the very top over which someone had pasted posters of Mt. Everest. The vents provided perfect acoustics for eavesdropping, whether you were interested or not. At night, when we were all alone in our rooms, we had the least privacy. I heard strangers crying, singing, laughing and occasionally I heard the groans and gasps of couples having sex.

I had tried trekking at first and hated it. I loved walking through the mountain trails and climbing the smaller peaks, taking in the breathtaking views. But the major treks were too popular with competitive, athletic Australian and American guys. They took it all very seriously. I hated them and I hated the way they turned everything into a sport. I had run into the same type of traveler on other trips and realized I was happier when I avoided them. So I stayed on low ground and wrote letters home to my girlfriend everyday. The closest peak, a one-day trek, was Sarangot. I scaled it one morning just to say I had seen it and stop everyone from asking me why I hadn't gone. I took the steep route to make the climb go faster. Bruno teased me about missing the point. "I don't think you are much for trekking." He said to me.

Kristi led the way to the lake and I trundled along after her. Her gait was light, almost a skip, and she swung her arms as she walked. She chatted to me in spurts about how to scare off the street dogs or where you could get real coffee. She was very thin, more like an adolescent than a woman. She had string bean arms and that dirty blond hair that eventually goes dark. I guessed her age to be 23, much closer to my own than the drunks and perverts I usually spent my time with. I imagined her surveying the haggard, inebriated guesthouse residents for a boating companion and figuring that I, at least, had all of my teeth.

The way to the lake was blocked by huge, stubborn baheeshi, which I guessed were probably yaks or something. They stood around drinking from mud and excrement filled craters in the road. We navigated around them and eventually reached a sort of dock. There were three or four men standing around.

"Do you have any paddleboats?" Kristi asked. She looked around at the boats. Most were made from hollowed tree trunks and a few were rafts that looked as if they should be carrying shipwreck survivors. One of the guys shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

She tried again, "You know, the kind where you use you feet? Like that." She pointed to something floating in the middle of the lake. This got her a look of comprehension and the same man led us to a boat a few feet away. It was a fiberglass two-seater paddleboat, like the kind you can get in Golden Gate Park. It was huge and white and had most notably, a large plastic duck head attached to the front end. The duck's eyes were large and vacant and the mouth, or bill, I suppose, was turned up at the ends. It appeared to be snarling, an attack duck.

"No fucking way, Kristi." I said, but it was too late. Kristi was handing over the money.

"Come on, this will be great. It's just like Disneyland." She started pushing it into the water. We both climbed in. The sky was cloudy and low. The light on the water was colorless. We both wore thick sweaters and Nepali style scarves. The scarves were scratchy yak hair but the guys that sold them in Katmandu swore they were cashmere. The way you wore them was draped over your head and around your shoulders, with one end pulled across your nose and mouth. They were warm and also served to keep the black exhaust from the tuk-tuks and taxis out of your lungs.

After a few minutes of pumping the boat's foot-pedals we discovered drifting was just as fruitful. There was nowhere to get to anyway, just a lakeful of gray water and a bunch of mountains.

"So, how long have you been in Nepal, Kristi?"

"Eight months. I'm on a yearlong study abroad program. I go home in April." She seemed proud of this. Earlier she had told me she went to some Ivy League school, but now I couldn't remember which one.

"Eight months? Jesus Christ." There is no way I could stay here for eight months, I thought. "I guess you get used to it."

"What about you? How long have you been here?" She asked.

"Just a few weeks. I am trying to decide if I want to cross into India or just fly to Thailand. I think I'm not cut out for the cold."

"Oh, when are you gonna go home?"

"I'm not sure, when my money runs out, I guess. I kinda just wanted to get away from home for a while."

"Yeah, I know what you mean." But I don't think she really did.

"Do you want to smoke some hash?" I had brought a little along. Hashish was available everywhere. Men smoked it in the streets, like tobacco. Bruno had given a small lump of it to me the first night I met him. I think he intended to get me high so I'd go to bed with him. He screwed up by getting me so high that I couldn't do anything but stare at the fire and drool. He shouldn't have bothered; I would have gone to bed with him anyway.

"That's a great idea. This lake is so peaceful and beautiful." Kristi looked around grinning, admiring everything. "God, I love it here." She said to me.

I took out the lump of hash and warmed it in my hands until I could roll it into a cylinder. I held a lighter to it and inhaled the thin stream of smoke as it curled off the end. I handed it to Kristi and she did the same. We passed it back and forth between us a couple of times until it got boring and then stubbed it out. She leaned back in her seat and propped her feet on the duck head. "This is so perfect. Mmm -- I love getting high." Kristi loved everything as far as I could tell.

I slipped into daydreaming, too relaxed and distracted by the noise in my head to make up conversation. I became self-aware and then self-critical, my usual progression. I totally overreacted. I'm fucking hopeless. I'll never be happy. I'm such a fuck-up. This static hangs over my head when I haven't drunk enough to quiet it. It follows me around like horny men in bars. My presence was corrupting the child next to me. I felt diseased. I felt, most of all, lonely. I pictured my girlfriend Aiden, at home, wearing jeans and a faggy tight Tee shirt that clung to her muscular arms. I pictured her cropped hair that made the checkers at Safeway call her sir. I thought about how much I needed her.

"What are you crying for?" Kristi sat up and looked at me like maybe she had done something wrong.

I sniffed and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. "Oh, I was just overcome by how beautiful everything is."

She relaxed and sank back down into the seat. "Oh, yeah, everything is really pretty here. I love these mountains and this lake. Look at that little island! Let's head over there." She reached behind and angled the rudder so that we changed direction slightly.

There was a small island in our way. A temple strung with Christmas lights stood in the center. There were small stone statues of the Buddha in the yard. Monks milled about. We floated towards them in our attack duck, like a vicious Saturday morning cartoon. The monks watched our approach with serious faces. We were ridiculous.

Dear Aiden,

Hello love, I still miss you terribly. I am in Pokhara now. I arrived here yesterday by bus. I am staying at a guesthouse run by three feminists, Nepali feminists! I like it here so far. I have met a few friends. It's much warmer here than Kathmandu. You can even take your shoes off. Next time I decide to go somewhere, please remind me I hate the cold. I need tropical beaches, sun, water. Excess never seems as excessive when the weather is nice. As long as you do your drinking and whatnot outside it seems practically wholesome. I wish you were here with me. For the first time I don't enjoy being alone

Behind the guesthouse there was a monastery that held meditation between four and six. There was also a teaching session in the morning between nine and eleven. The monk who held the teaching sessions was originally from Santa Cruz, so he was particularly popular with western visitors. Just before nine a.m. and four p.m. most of the residents obediently marched up the hill to get their share of enlightenment. I liked having everyone else gone. It was my favorite time to read and write.

I parked myself at one of the tables and spread out paper and books in front of me. I ordered a beer and some popcorn from the owner's son. Bruno came upstairs to find me so we could share a beer and talk. He sat down across from me and helped himself to my bowl of burnt popcorn. He had a Kathmandu Times with him. His graying brown hair was bed headed and his eyes were heavy. He looked relaxed. He was probably stoned. He had deeply tanned skin. The lines around his eyes were deep grooves; they crinkled up when he smiled. His clothes were loose and bulky--masculine travel clothes.

"Do you have cigarettes?" I handed him the pack. When he leaned towards me I smelled whisky on his breath. I found it kind of sexy. He smoked non-stop. I couldn't keep up with him. He lit a cigarette and tossed the pack back on the table. He ran a hand over my lap and in between my legs just for a second. I clenched his hand between my thighs before he pulled it away. Are you wearing those faggot underwear again? Bruno asked me. The first night I fell into bed with him I was wearing a pair of Aiden's men's briefs that I had packed. Bruno called me a faggot. He laughed, but I think he was actually creeped out a little bit. I always felt sexy in men's underwear. Aiden was always trying to get me to wear them at home, but mostly I went for cute panties.

"Who are you writing to?" He looked at my letter and took a sip of my beer.

"To my girlfriend."

"Oh, your girlfriend. Tell him hello for me." I had shown Bruno a photo of Aiden that I had with me when I first met him. "She looks like a guy," he said. Since then he had given her masculine pronouns.

Bruno took a drag from his cigarette.

"I'll tell her all about you when I go home. I never keep secrets from her." I tried to sound haughty but it came out like a whine. I thought about how I would tell Aiden this part of the story. Yeah, I had one affair with a middle aged French guy. He was really smart and funny but a terrible lover. He always got off about one minute before I did and then told me to finish myself. Who knows what I was thinking? I was in Nepal; the pickings were pretty slim.

"You'll tell him about making love with me?" Bruno looked doubtful.

"I tell her everything." Maybe that's the problem, I thought. Maybe all this honesty and openness and well adjusted, let's talk it out, bullshit has me so bored I can't stand it.

"If you were my girlfriend, and you told me something like that, I would leave you." Bruno said this without irony.

"Hey look at this." He pointed to an article in the paper. The Times was written in English but the language was so stilted and formal sounding that even the most gruesome details had a comic effect. A man-eating tiger was apparently roaming the streets of Kathmandu devouring children. Several people had seen the tiger but no one was able to stop it. The authorities were warning people to keep children inside at night. Predation seemed to be a recurring theme of this trip.

Bruno got up and walked over to the balcony stopping for a second to lay his hand on my neck. Suddenly the intimate touch felt strange outside of bed. I stiffened involuntarily. He took it as a hint and pulled his hand away. The just touched place felt naked. I looked out at the lake tried to follow his eyes, wondering what drew his attention. There was nothing there. Just the same old water.

I spent a couple of days in Baktapur before I came here. The city is so beautiful, very medieval. The Palace Square is very impressive. Temples and temples and temples. It's the most intact city I have visited so far. A German development crew took interest in it in the 1970's so it's in fantastic shape. Bertolucci filmed Little Buddha there. I am sure he must have cleaned it up a great deal; it's funny how you can do that. Clean up an entire city. What I mean is, it's a city, not a set, but if you have enough money you can pay all the ugly old residents to go away and import more beautiful forms of them straight from California.

"Do you want to go out on the lake?" Bruno looked back at me casually.

"I went last night with the Canadian girl. It was okay. She wanted a paddleboat. There was just one. It had a big scary looking duck head built on the front end. I felt like we were going to attack the temple. I think the monks thought so too."

"That was you? I saw it from the balcony. I was laughing." He sat back down next to me. I was relieved. For a moment I thought he might leave. He wasn't a good-looking man, much older than me and given even more to excess. He was not a great lover either, but we had developed an easy camaraderie that I depended on. I liked spending time with him. He kept me from feeling lonely.

I am going to take a short trek to tatopani soon. Tatopani means hot water. Tato means hot and pani means water. It's a hot spring. Sounds nice, huh? It's just a four-day trip. I think I will do it on my way out of Pokhara and then go back to Boudanath afterwards. It's really too bad you aren't here with me. Describing these things to you just doesn't do them justice. I want you to see everything I see and know it when I do. Sometimes I think this travelling solo bit is bullshit. Maybe next time we should go together. I am only spending one day in Bangkok, just over night before I catch the flight to Los Angeles. I'll scope it out. We could go there together? Thai food, mmmm, and the baht has dropped in value so it will be very cheap. Think about it. Could you take some time off from work?

"Do you miss him?" He pointed at my letter.

"Yes." I shrugged.

He walked back to me and lifted up my hair to kiss my neck. The close proximity of our bodies turned me on a little. If I get married do I have to give up having lovers? When I met Aiden, I fell into her, into her life. I took it on as my own. I became friends with her friends. She was so great, so sexy. She was strong but needed me to take care of her. She needed me to protect her from the rest of the world. She was always angry. She picked fights with bewildered idiots at coffeeshops who, like most people, were immediately wary of butch women. I felt like I had a duty to make her feel wanted. She absorbed it, all of my attention. She sucked it all up and kept wanting more. I told her that butches always broke my heart and she said "Why? We are all such marshmallows." "That's precisiely why," I explained to her. "You are all so weak, and you take it out on me."

We started fighting all the time. She was jealous of everyone. She picked fights with me about things I didn't even think made sense. She accused me of not being able to be in a real relationship. She had some strict idea of what a relationship was that I never truly grasped. I doted on her. I did the most ridiculous things to appease her. I cooked and wore lingerie and played girl but it never fit me. It took me a year to realize we both wanted to be on top.

The week before I left, she broke my antique Windsor chair. Delicate spindles lay in a pile on the floor like pickup sticks. After the chair, I said no more breaking things. During our last argument she smashed her hand through the kitchen window. I drove her to SF General and held her good hand while the doctor picked shards of glass out of the other one. As she stitched up the cuts the doctor politely explained to the two of us that the trauma happens not when you put your hand through the window, but when you pull it back out. She suggested that next time Aiden leave her hand outside the glass while I smash the bits out around it.

"Let's go take a nap." I said to Bruno.

We closed out as much of the daylight as possible and crawled under the blankets in Bruno's room. It was warm enough to be naked if you had another body next to you. With the curtains closed we could have been anywhere.

"Mmmm. Come down here." Bruno pulled me down on top of him. "It's too cold in this damn country." We snuggled up against each other. His skin was warm and hairless. His body was very slight. He wasn't very much bigger than me. He grabbed fistfuls of my hair and tugged at it. "What do you think your girlfriend is doing right now?"

"Now? Sleeping. It's like four in the morning there."

"So that Canadian girl you went boating with, she's pretty isn't she?" He nuzzled the space between my breasts and kissed each nipple lightly.

"Bruno, do you just travel around looking for young girls to seduce or what?" I wasn't sure if he was baiting me. "She's alright, kinda skinny." I tried for sophisticated nonchalance.

"I like skinny girls." He was baiting me, for sure.

"I think you like all girls." We were playing a game of who cared less. But I would win. I always cared less.

Leaving home made the problems in your life seem small. I never got along well with people who didn't travel. They took themselves too seriously. At home in San Francisco, I was surrounded by girls who wouldn't shop for clothes in the women's section, who were sometimes too nervous to use the women's bathroom in department stores for fear of being mistaken for boys and chased out by old ladies with handbags. I resented them for wanting to be boys. I resented them for thinking boys were better. I felt old and out of touch. I felt like I had gotten off a train in the eighties and never got back on. The young dykes--the 19 and 20 year olds--were a whole different creature than me. I wanted them to act like I did. I knew it was silly and stupid. I even knew it was exactly what Aiden had been doing to me. It all had a way of wearing me down.

Before I left, Aiden and I talked constantly about what seemed to be rampant gender dysphoria in our tiny community. About how all the dykes were taking hormones and having their breasts removed. After the breasts are gone the anchor shaped scars remain forever. A good doctor will ensure that nipple sensation remains after the operation. But a cheaper doctor, the kind most of us can afford, isn't as skilled.

We used to joke that she was the last butch lesbian left in San Francisco, and that when she left she should make sure to put out the lights.

There is a lake here. My guesthouse has a balcony that looks out over it. I sit up there and write my letters to you. I love being surrounded by these mountains and this water. I am further from town than most of the other lodges. I like it that way. There is always the option of walking 10 minutes into town but it is so nice to stay here in the quiet. Last night a girl from the hotel wanted to rent a paddleboat. The only one left had a huge duck head built on the front. We laughed but took it anyway. The duck had a very mean look to it. Whoever built it must have been disturbed. There is a temple in the middle of the lake. It looks very beautiful and peaceful. We paddled up to it in our attack duck. I think the monks found us very strange.

"Bruno, have you ever been in love?"

"Of course, many times" He reached for a cigarette and offered one to me as well. I took it leaned back against the wall.

"How come you never got married?" He had a son. He showed the picture to me the first night. A cute kid. His mother was Peruvian. He had thick black hair and shiny eyes. He looked a lot like Bruno.

"There was one girl I would have married. She was beautiful. I was so in love. I was really young, maybe twenty. We traveled in India together. In Bombay she left me. I was crushed. I stayed in Bombay. I had no money at all. I used to sing in the streets and people would bring me food."

"You're kidding, right?" Singing in the streets of Bombay sounded exceptionally horrible to me. Singing in the streets anywhere sounded horrible.

"No, it really happened like that." He looked at me very seriously. I think I offended him. "That's how people used to do things. Bombay was different then." We both sat back and smoked our cigarettes. Bruno dug through the pack beside his bed. "Shit, I need to buy some more condoms. I have only three left. He held them up. I had like, thirty, when I started this trip." He also dug out a portable tapeplayer and switched it on. The voice of Brian Ferry drifted out of one of the tiny speakers.

"I love Roxy Music, don't you?" He asked.

"I think Brian Ferry is Britain's answer to Julio Iglesias."

We looked at each other in a manner that said "increasingly unenthralled".

Bruno set all three condoms on the nighttable next to the bed.

I looked down at the foil wrappers. "How optimistic of you." I said.

Later, in the evening we sat up on the balcony and had dinner. Dal Bhat, Nepali rice and lentils. We drank beer. It was chilly and gray until the sun was completely gone. Then it was cold and black. A mist floated off the lake and clung to my skin and hair. I pulled my scarf around me and huddled in my chair. It was New Years Eve. Someone turned on the colored lights that hung along the walls. It looked very festive.

Every bar in town was throwing a party. Strains of "The Macarena" and The Spice Girls could be heard blasting from places up the road. A small group of people gathered around tables to talk and drink watery Nepali beer. A Serbian woman named Nathalie dominated the conversation. She worked for the UN. She spoke French, German and English just like Bruno. When she couldn't think of a clever way to say something in English, she addressed Bruno intimately in French and then translated his reply for the group. She told him how much she loved the wine from the region in France where he lived.

She had just come from two weeks in an ashram where they slept on cement slabs and prayed fourteen hours a day. She felt very cleansed, she said and stared at me as if she knew how dirty I was.

"You could really feel the benefit," said Nathalie. "At the end of the day you were tired, but so alive." She wore glasses and had good skin and hair like a poodle. Before the ashram she had done some past life regressions with a psychic. "They were very healing," she explained.

She told a story about her difficult coworker at the UN. They had many arguments. In her past life regression she learned that during the Middle Ages, this coworker was her mother.

The coworker had become pregnant by a man that didn't love her. When the baby was born, she took it by its little feet and threw it from a cliff. This was why she hated Nathalie so much. She felt guilty for throwing her off a cliff. According to the psychic, they were destined to repeat their difficult relationship until they could resolve the feelings of guilt and neglect. "I could see it so clearly, it was like a movie was playing in my mind. How could she do that to a little baby?" Nathalie asked us.

"I'm going to bed," I said but no one heard me. I got up and stalked off to my room. In bed I pulled the blankets up around my shoulders and turned on my Walkman. Aiden had made me a tape of all of La Incoranazione Di Poppea, my favorite opera, for long busrides. I put my headphones on and lit a cigarette and buried myself in thoughts of home.

"You're going to sleep?" Bruno was at my window. I must have drifted off because I hadn't heard his approach.

I slipped my headphones off. "Yes, that woman made me tired."

"Oh, yeah, I know what you mean. I'll probably go to bed soon too. See you tomorrow." He blew me a kiss and disappeared.

Tomorrow, tomorrow. I need to make some plans. I thought. I always hang out too long in these expat towns getting drunk with old men at the bar. A scene from some other trip played out in my head. Christmas? Or was it Easter. Another holiday with a big group of travelers. We took acid and sat around the courtyard. When it got chilly we brought blankets outside and wrapped ourselves in them. We sat in lawn chairs with blankets around us like old ladies at the home. Old ladies on acid.

My tape ended and I got up to turn out the light. I heard a giggle, a feminine voice.

"I have to go. It's so late."

"You don't want to stay? You can sleep here."

No, I can't I have to go back to my hotel." Another giggle and then something in French. Intimate wet sounds, the sounds of kissing. The cinder block PA system delivered their movements to me with disturbing clarity. I wonder if that's what we sounded like.

Dear Aiden,

How was your New Year's? I stayed at the guesthouse and got drunk with some trekkers. The bars in town were too noisy. This crazy Serbian bitch wouldn't stop talking about her past life regressions. She told me that when you have a difficult relationship with someone, you are destined to repeat that relationship in different forms until you can work out all the problems. Do you think that's what the deal is with you and me? Maybe you were my mom and you threw me off a cliff five hundred years ago or maybe I was your evil landlord, or maybe I was your lazy, disenchanted, unfaithful lover. Who knows? I'm taking a bus back to Kathmandu tomorrow and from there heading to the border. I'm going to cross into India and fly back to the states from Delhi. I'll probably be home by the end of February. I've been thinking about us so much on this trip. I love and miss you. See you soon.

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