Was it? Was the sky full of birds the day my daddy died, like the burlesque dancer's daughter in John Murillo's poem? Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,
I went out on a boat in a coral-coloured dress, bowed at the feet of a monk, also in orange, and sobbed at what was left of my daddy in a silver, traditionally Thai-style bowl. A lamentation. Ash and bones, ash and bones. Never makes sense the way I want it to, can never — can never share how I feel the way I been wanting to.
Just bones and dust, bones and tears and strangers' stares. His wife who threw me out of the house back in 2020, made him visit me in secret in a separate house during the last months of his life. How could I have known? Hadn't seen her since before he died except once when she walked right past me, making a point of my non-existence. This was the first time I saw her since he died.
Blasphemous like always, in a swimsuit that was black and glaring, strutting down the boardwalk like she was on the catwalk. Someone had to fetch her a sarong so she could sit like us in front of the monk. Dark glasses, pursed lips. She's the best at playing pretend, playing, playing, playing. I think this bloody legal battle that's been dragging on at her command is playing.
But back to the coral, back to the sky. We headed out far at sea. My younger brother and I sat on the wooden decking with our feet leaning out over the edge of the boat. We were both silent as tears streamed down our faces. I remember the wind whipping my face and how beautiful the islands still are, weaving in and out. How we used to sit on a boat just like this one with our dad. Our electric dad, our harsh dad, our funny dad, our relentless dad.
Were there birds then? Was the sky full of birds the day my daddy died?
I wouldn't know. Wasn't there, couldn't get there, banished by the rules of vaccinations and covid. Had to get the shot that killed him just so I could leave the country. It was all too late. My brothers managed to get by his side but he was already gone. I knew it when I got the first call.
Nine days. Nine days is what it took. And I still want to know about the birds.
He loved birds, you see. Had flocks of them in our garden, all different species, not just birds but geese and ducks and guinea fowl. His favourite was one called Nunu, which would sit on his lap by the lake. Every sunset, every dusk. Even when I had been exiled from the house that he and my mother built together when they were my age, their loose twenties, I could sneak through trees and bushes to get there, climb over a dirty wall.
I didn't think about the birds until after we had thrown him off the boat. The monk told us: Don't look back. When you let him go into the water, you can't look back. Otherwise, his memory gets caught and he can't pass into the next life. And if you look back, then his ashes — what was left of him — might stick to your hair or your eyelashes. He can't pass into the next life.
Tell me then. Have you thrown your parent over a boat and not looked back? Buddhism can be cold like that.
Fuck the beloved Western Zen shit: Go through a five day funeral, wash the limp, dead body of someone you love, smell the odour and then turn up the heat yourself as you watch them burn. Maybe then, we can talk about detachment. Carry them over in an urn.
Later, his business partner said that the bones sunk right away. Sometimes they linger on top of the water, he said, but your dad went down immediately. He's gone.
Don't we know it?
On the deck of the boat, we cruised around for a while. After a brief storm, a ray of light came out, like in the Bible or an old fable or something like that — the type of shit that makes people say: Look, that's him. That ray of light is your dad and he's watching over you.
I don't buy it. I've tried it even now, when I look out of the window and the sunset hurts and I try to see him. I try to feel his presence but I just can't grasp it. I don't think I am ready to see, to acknowledge beauty yet without him.
And the bones. Were the bones in the bowl my dad? It is a conundrum that won't compute. How? How can it be, I find myself asking incessantly. Not out of desperation (though sometimes), but pure confusion. I still don't believe it, don't want to believe it. And so the sunset isn't him either.
Someone was playing songs on a speaker. There was David Bowie and the Eagles, our mutual favourite Eric Clapton. But I've always loved Eric Clapton because my dad loved Eric Clapton.
When I was a little girl, I remember him waiting at the bottom of our mahogany stairs while he sang Wonderful Tonight, calling for all of us to come down and get in the car so we could go out to dinner. Probably our family favourite, like Giorgio's or La Gondola. Le Coq D'Or or the Oriental if it was fancy.
And then she asks me
"Do I look all right?"
And I say, "Yes, you look wonderful tonight"
That's what he would say. It's what he said when we went out for dinner for the last time, riding through the night shotgun in the blue sports Mini. We went to a place for the first time, a place we'd never tried before. I didn't know it was the last time.
I've got long blonde hair now just like in the song, but he is gone.
And that's when I remembered the birds. The post-storm weather was muted and the water, sky and islands took on their cool tones. Pastel blue, a grey stone lilac. Dark green. I heard Eric then drifting over the scenery, distant almost. But so close, so close to my heart. I looked up to see a sky full of black birds, flapping their wings, meandering in their lines pushing the whole cohort forward. They lingered over the boat, pausing with us, leading us on.
The sky was full of birds the day I let my daddy go, down into the depths of the Andaman Sea. Dark jewel blue, so deep and wide that the next time I saw a sky full of birds, it was spring and I was in Canada.
And the great lakes here too are so blue and so deep. And it was so beautiful that I cried right there on the bench, cried hard and quietly instinctively as though I was trying to squash something down into my chest. Keep it there. Don't break.
I can't know for sure, will never know for sure, but the sky might well have been full of birds the day my daddy died.
When I left my parents’ house, I never looked back. By which
I mean I made like a god and disappeared. As when I left
the sparrows. And the copulating swans. As when someday
I’ll leave this city. Its every flailing, its every animal song.
Daddy, I miss you. I'm trying so hard not to look back but I can't stop looking back.
Life gets distilled into singular moments. Sometimes I feel like I’ll never stop wanting all the things and people and places that I’ve wanted.
When I question why I’m here, sometimes I think it’s just to make a good story. I know I always have to be prepared to walk away. And it’s not hard to know that the simple things are ultimately what matter, but it’s difficult to get off the ride.
It’s a carnival. It’s lonely out here. Oftentimes, I live inside my head too much. Reality’s stark; my imagination is lean. I’ve always been a magnet for happening.
The life I want is the one I have, but how can I be sure?
Beauty is painful. My entire life gets lost in it: muddled and blended til all I know is the whirr of an aeroplane and that wherever I rest my head tonight might be the closest I’ll ever get to home. Which is to say that I was restless.
When people call me strong, what they’re really saying is: you’re on your own.
One summer I was picked out of a crowd. Still can’t quite say why. And all the places I come back to are just reminders of the things I have lost.
Sometimes I feel so alone that I can almost grasp the freedom and desperation in the potential of being anybody. How long does it take to disappear? Forty minutes with some hair dye, the rate at which no one can find you. And that, for me, is easy.
I know when I look at the stars at night that I’m staring at moments that have passed. Endings raise the hair on my skin like fear and cold air.
If you don’t know me, you’d think that I wear all this well. Transient shit.
Last summer I was in San Francisco. I yelled Solange as we cruised down Highway One, watched the fearless boys bullet down the hills (and I love them so).
I sang in Dolores Park with my Morpho and that blue butterfly, let my heart ache its way over Twin Peaks. I always know what will hurt me most later. And so a certain savour.
When I lie on the couch in a hoodie watching basketball, I’m indulging in a normal thing. I kinda feel most like the me I could’ve been, in another life, but I got this one.
I’m not afraid to say that love is the only thing that really healed me. People who experience it unconditionally and on a regular basis don’t know it as a feeling but rather a default state of being.
Still. I can’t waste time resenting the hand I got dealt. I’m lucky in many ways, I know, but mostly I didn’t come this far not to be happy.
I know that happiness will have a different look about it. It won’t be the flavour by which society persuades you.
I also know that the most I have to give will be invisible, and it will be given to you. Someone like that.
I try to tell myself to find ways to be happy with what I have now, that if this is all there ever is…
In another language, you could call it gratitude. In another language it’s called survival. The point of survival is to move forward.
It's okay, you know? I'm starting to think that I can really do whatever I want. I can take my time; the cities will wait. I won't die if I'm not in New York or LA in an instant. I won't die if I leave Rio de Janeiro.
I could go back to Asia and open a noodle shop or a coffee shop. I could go to Bangkok and open a photo studio, or move to Korea. Learn another language and assimilate into a new culture, one that I've always wanted to know if it was lost inside of me, waiting to be coaxed out. I think I could live cheaply enough to focus on making art and take jobs on the side in design and curation.
Or I can push. I can say: I want to be a founder. I want to move along a landscape somewhere. I wanna make something for the teens and really go for it. I need to stop thinking that thirty is a death sentence in a professional capacity. When I look back over the past year, I do think it's kind of crazy how much I've been able to grow professionally. And it's not like I have some earth shaking career, but I think for a nomad girl in a pandemic, I've done okay. I feel humbled that my eye and my mind have been able to open doors above my expected station based on time or experience.
The important thing is not to be so hasty. It's a lesson I'm learning right now because I'm physically trapped; I literally can't just get on a flight and rock up somewhere. I don't know precisely when I'm leaving or when a new plan will form but when I walk along the calcadao, I tell myself that's fine.
The cities will wait. Everything will wait.
Whatever you want but don't have now, you will have or get something in its place. I want to eviscerate all the straight lines, the linear paths that we glue our noses to from the get-go. If it hadn't been you, it would be him. If it hadn't been that city, it would be another.
I love a good cycle, but I don't even see life like that necessarily. I just see it as the roots of a tree, twisting and turning, growing outward in myriad directions. Let's say I do want LA, and I feel a burning passion that I must be on the West Coast now. I don't make it to the West Coast, but it will wait. And it will be different, a different configuration, but it will wait.
I didn't make it to New York, but New York will certainly wait. It is different every time we rendezvous. And the truth is that my opportunities in all these places are better, for all the pain and strife I have gone through.
I like to imagine most the in-between, the preparatory moments. The man in his bedroom, mid-afternoon, writing a hopeful inscription inside the sleeve of a book. Her, bounding up to the post office to send a letter across an ocean. Putting on makeup and fixing her hair before sauntering out. When you cut extra keys because you’re anticipating the future, a contingency pair of contact lenses incase of a night out when you don’t come home. Tidying your apartment for no one, but maybe someone. All the things we do quietly, like washing our hair and shaving our legs, selecting something in the grocery aisle — waiting for something more exciting to happen.
I try to take myself as who I am today, in this chapter, because I understand that my life unfolds over sand dunes and not mountaintops. It is always shifting beneath my feet, sometimes on the up, other times on the down or even the sides. There is no mountaintop. A mountaintop implies stasis anyway, yet the process of becoming never ends. The knot of wanting, the web of betterment... they never untangle.
There are no destinations. Just open road, some good views, and the shedding of multiple skins until the last one.