Quick Impressions from One Month in South India

When it rains, the tall, thin palm trees blur into the horizon. At five in the morning, the single florescent rod in the hostel room flickers on, so abruptly I mistake it for lightning. An ant crawls across my laptop screen. Mosquitos bite my little toe, buttocks, chest, and wrists. A cat with eyes so yellow I’m half-convinced it’s not a cat at all, but some supernatural creation, roams the hostel grounds, scaling the wall in a single, fluid leap. A white cow, ears like a puppy dog, trots languidly beside the road. “It belongs to the city,” Manasa says, patting its side with a tenderness both casual and profound. Pastel pink walls in the office of a politician, the paint peeling and migrating onto the door frame. A baby like a tiny God, his eyes lined with black, a burgundy dot smudged on his forehead. Hundreds of dragonflies in the air above the fruit, vegetable, and flower market.

I learn how to scrub laundry against a stone, how to take showers with a bucket, and how to eat with my right hand. Looking shyly back at the girls that stare. Bat swarms in the purple evening. Machetes. Motorcycles. Pools of urine. Sellers of diamonds, silver, and pearls. Cane sugar, sweet corn, coconuts. A rat half the size of my forearm, jumping in a bucket on the roadside. The auto-rickshaw, that bedazzled contraption with the horse power of a souped-up go-cart, which I ride every day for ten rupees per kilometer. Inside: glossy photographs of 80’s Bollywood actors in opaque, squareish sunglasses, baby blue, glittery images of Ganesha, decals with Saibaba, Bob Marley, and “Jesus saves.” Bhavani covers the tips of my fingers in lumps of black, muddy henna. The smell is fruity and earthy, red-orange when dry–a human caressing of the sunset–and it alters the look and feel of my hand, my body, entirely.

The temple and its combined odors of incense, manure, and blossoms. Mounted ceiling fans rotating over the framed family portrait of Shiva, Parvati, and their infant with the elephant head. Barefoot, in the half-dark of a twilight sweating through the open windows, I walk through the rooms: a ceremonial fire burning, a pair of shirtless Brahmin building a small mountain of chrysanthemums. The lap of a cobra, a mechanical drum, a handful of fragrant lemon rice. A shrine hidden by thick magenta curtains, plunged in lime green lighting, a pewter bowl filled with camphor, a man singing along to an electronic recording of a Telugu mantra. Two miniature orange buses with license plates from Tamil Nadu. Durga lying in oleander, her face black, eyes spots of ochre, and along her tarred neck, a garland of raw, whole carrots. On the road immediately outside the temple, a dead cat lies splayed, blood and brain matter emerging from a wound along its face.


The perfect plum sits in the palm of the hand like a flushed cloud
during sunrise, or a bowling ball of decadent purple hardwood.
Sliced into half-moons, the meat, fibrous and dense like pork,
starts a deep red, lightening into a blend of rose, orange, and bronze,
before finally pooling into a core of soft blonde. The skin pulls off easily
with teeth, thin as lily petals but firm, and its taste fills the mouth
with brine that recalls the sea, with the final promise of sweetness.

The perfect boy drags me into the intimacy of a dark place, and his hips move
over me like the revving of a engine running on blood. In a blazing corner
of my mind, a rifle goes off. The shot strikes Eve in the heart and returns
her, instantly, to dust. Later, he tells me I touched him as though begging.
Both too tender and too calloused, this body, both too ashamed and too
proud; how to describe the violet shadow that’s beaded over me, like sweat, seeds
of pearl, the reminder that summer’s heat will make maggots of chopped plums?

Biking Across the Pacific Ocean

Every morning, from Monday through Friday, I stagger along on a borrowed bicycle through the pale green pearl of the rice paddies. The commute to school takes me past the local bait and tackle, a Yamaha dealer, and a luminous river that leads into the largest lake in Japan. Before this month, the last time I rode a bicycle I was fourteen, and though I am older now I am just as ungainly, and more distracted than ever.

Danger tracks me, as always, through the trees, in the moonlight, but her manner here feels unusually, charitably benevolent. I pass her on my bicycle, resting on her haunches by the red gates of the neighborhood Shinto (神道) shrine, and yell out, foolishly, daringly: Can I assume I am immortal until proven wrong? She rolls her eyes but it’s a lenient gesture, like she understands, and forgives, the cockiness of girls like me. In a parallel universe half a degree away, she knows, I collide with a chrome Honda, slide off the slim country road and tumble, head over heels, through the fragrant grass. The clouds, massive and supernatural, continue to cast their shadows of dark lilac over the water.

Adult life–or, rather, the expectation of living a convincing adult life–arouses the bitterest courage in me; like all emotions revealed when dislodged by weakness, it starts behind clenched teeth, moves to the soul, and erupts there. Self-assurance still doesn’t come easily to me. I don’t know how it’s possible to be simultaneously so afraid and so determined to never be afraid. Was there a young adult seminar on this topic that I missed? “Fear, fearlessness, and the twenty-two-year-old who isn’t a child anymore“?

Thank goodness for this landscape, its green-blues, and especially for the mountains. Even while inside the classroom, I think of them constantly, and their vision in my mind expands and pools behind my eyes, thick as slick gore. During a field trip to a Buddhist monastery, we practice zazen (座禅) and I imagine the mountains emerging, painlessly, from my chest, ribbed and gray-gold, and my breath traveling, zig-zag, over them. Where these images come from, I cannot say, but somehow they don’t belong to me, and never did.

Maybe the imagination isn’t some proliferation of my jellied neocortex, but a thousand-armed body, loaned to me only temporarily, accompanying me everywhere, and eternally sick of my shit. I hound after it until it sighs: God, what do you want now, Emma? Well. I want a great many things, but right now I want you to open that hand that houses my memory of that night. You know which one. When the rain chopped through my teflon jacket, soaking everything–from scalp, to nape, to the elastic band of my underwear–until the coral-red fever of my own breath and the smoke of his eyes on me were all I could feel, and we were both lit only by the bloodless duo of Venus and the moon shredded by clouds and the sudden flashes of snowy cranes in flight.

Recently, I was passed at an intersection by a young man in sportswear and muddied white-orange sneakers. His forearms were resting atop the handlebars, neatly folded, his hands cupping his elbows. His weight was shifted forward in a way that seemed to elevate him a foot off the asphalt, like an angel, exiled to Japanese suburbia. I can still picture his total stillness, broken only by the circular movements of his exposed calves, pushing against the pedals in a constant, gentle motion.

The Lost Paradise of the Eleusinian Mystery

I watch the night approach us through the sliding glass doors. Thinned into bloodied violet, it descends with the same preternatural inevitability as a vow of love. Inside my body, a similar sun, no less red, is setting.

There’s a tender (soft/sore) intimacy to the emergency room, in its small dimensions bathed in desert tones. Dun, milk-white, olive-yellow, carmine. Emotion has receded into my hands, but I don’t have any physical contact with the world; I feel as though I am interacting with shadows, or mirages. Only tiny images remain: the burst blood vessels in her eyes.

She is at the age now where Death comes with us everywhere: I watch him, through the rear view mirror, sweat jeweling over his brow, leaning against the palm trees. His smile is more apologetic, and comforting, than I would have anticipated. In the heat shimmer of early summer, the distance between us is like the space between me and God. Natural, and unnatural, in equal measure.

The closer she sways towards the edge the more fiercely I believe she will live forever. I won’t pretend to understand the logic of this. It is something I have long since chalked up to the useless beliefs of suicidal women and their failed daughters.

Symphonie Fantastique (10 Minute Pseudo-Sonnets)

Every three hundred years a wolf is born
half hologram, limned in that breed of light
that is searing, and shameless, and adorned
with blood; a wolf with hands, and nails, and bite.

The king’s daughters wasted the finest days
of youth in the hunt, training bionic
eyes and moon faces from castle to highway,
but they caught not a stitch of furred onyx.

Sebas, the youngest, and our heroine,
knew the proof of value lay in killing,
but she loved that wolf, the adrenaline
in preternatural night. Not willing

to expose to malice something so rare —
She lived obscuring its scent in the air.

Nelumbo, goddess of cybernetics
is at her laptop, furrowing her brow.
She’s lambasting the Internet critics
who poison the good-natured Wikihow.

Meanwhile, in the data stream, binary
code is working to mediate between
the heirs of the digital dynasty.
The cyberspace sea, blue and bottle green,

cries out in glum mourning at their quarrel.
Why fight like this when information lies
at their fingertips, tactile as coral?
Nelumbo answers: humans agonize

as easily, tenderly, as they love.
Been this way since from the ship left the dove.

Body natural, body politic, body electric

Five hundred million years ago nature could only dream
of the kind of life that you are. Back then love existed in
dissolution. Smokestacks of ozone. Topaz trilobites squatted

in prayer. A generation of gods later, you appear. In hands,
and a voice wanton as deserts in spate. In eyes that own
all that they touch. A personal punishment for the planet

that bred original sin. My dearest killing blow, you are so
far but it’s inconsequential: I notice you imbued in
the deepest sinews of atoms. A presence as permanent

as this flesh is delicate. Did you know the full moon sweats
in terror at your beauty? To adore you is to challenge
every single eternal, universal falsehood. Every syndrome

of creation. I don’t wonder, anymore, if cloud forests long
for dust storms. I know they do, and I know you do. Please
know there is strength here that could devour the divine.

More things in heaven and earth

On the bus I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The day moves
like silk through the windows, in vertical sheets cast in graphite
and indigo. My mind has leapt from my body; it floats
above and around me, in gentle circular motions, like a great

white shark, aglow, bloodied. The angel of the ocean. The
Shakespearean recipe: “Love-in-idleness,” plummy and dripping,
applied to the eyelids,  and — moon as my witness — a man wakes
flooded in infatuation. How fatuous. And how delectable, how tempting,

to wield love like this: Cupid pricked by his own arrow. My mind, taking
this opportunity to be unkind, precipitates down to my ear and says:
you’re more yourself than ever, but love still riddles you like stigmata.
I sigh and reply: love, or the lack thereof, you mean?

While in line at the CVS, in matted hair and rose pink sneakers,
I think of the honeybees. They have been gone for months, bred now in
Valhalla’s scalloped terrains, but we still talk to each other as they did.
In tones, and memories, rather than honesty. Would you tell me

what you’re feeling? Not since Eve have there been eyes so evasive. There’s
a stillness to you, like a blistered chunk of flint, of basalt, a year
with no spring, the ribbed shadow between moon and tide. The
particular pain of a ghost’s homecoming, a figure tender and trembling

but exiled forever. The debt of the heart: a payment to emotion,
who in my dreams arrives as a jean-jacketed millennial
Mephistopheles. You liar, he says, from the stoop of my rental home.
He’s looking for the soul I promised him, but chose, instead, to leave with you.

Jesus in his twenties


My magnificently talented friend Hannah Connolly (here’s her art blog and portfolio website) made this illustration for my story Jesus in his twenties. You can read it here — I thought it might be nice to put it up in downloadable format.

If you’d rather read it here, click through to see more:

Continued reading >

Existential crisis of the butterfly

At the supermarket I wander through the narrow aisles in my cornflower blue work blouse, stopping every so often to stare intently at packages. I pick them up from off the shelves, and turn them over in my hands, trying to read the nutritional information on their backs. Each time I wade into the the mystery of the characters on the labels it is as though I am circling the center of a lake in a rowboat without oars; if I am lucky, I can pick out stray characters, like meat (肉) or sea (海), but mostly I am at a loss, mute as a beached mermaid. I end up buying five dollars worth of bottled green tea (お茶) and the cashier bows so low to me my heart rises into my throat; I am sure I have never done, and will never do, anything half so grand so as to deserve this reverence.

I walk back to the house, plastic shopping bag around one wrist, submerged in drifting air from a season the Japanese call the plum rain, feeling, not for the first time, like an actress in my own life. There’s a darkness inside me even here, in a neighborhood peopled by roses, but it’s comforting, and it tethers me, not to home, nor reality, but to truthfulness, to fidelity to the woman I am in other places, at other times.

The house I’m staying at is old, but pleasantly so, and I find I am not bothered by even the sound of rats in the walls, or the tiny moths that hover like stars in the living room. I have always been good at enduring inconvenience cheerfully, but as I grow older I think I’m becoming more mature about it; I’m not haunted by the need to congratulate myself for suffering anymore.

My morning commute to the office includes a fifteen minute walk to the subway station through a residential area. It’s a neighborhood I might see in a dream during a fever: sinuous, narrow roads lit by a blue sun enclosed in fog like satin. It’s always raining; the air tastes like an elixir of immortality. On days like these are gods from myths born. I find myself thinking of the future, with fear, but also with a warm-hued optimism that beats in my breast, hanging there like a single pearl.

The front and back passenger cars of the subway train are separated from an unmanned control cabin by a door embedded in a panel of glass; if I can, I like to stand by it, and look at the soft, tactile buttons, the electrical panels intricate as honeycomb, the off-white phone near the floor. When the train moves the tunnel falls behind in smooth, lush waves. For me, tunnels are not so much a location as an emotion, dusky but intimate somehow, like an evening in late, sensual spring, a period of violet darkness marking the rhythm of the lives of sacred flowering trees. There’s a fish-eyed other-worldliness there too: the walls around me, punctuated by occasional gold fluorescent lamps, temporarily illuminating my reflection in the dark glass. I imagine the veil thinning, from opaque, impenetrable to translucent, vulnerable. I imagine stepping through it, with zero resistance, easily, like rainwater seeping from soil under the slightest pressure. The objects, and people, on the other side vary from hour to hour, desire to desire; right now, for instance, I’m seeing mountains, and forests, and ghosts, in rain jackets.

Sensory details braided, manifold, into my psyche: a tiny store called Takahashi Fruits, a man, presumably Takahashi, in green overalls with one strap hanging off his shoulder, a pained, bitter expression on his face. A fire station, purple-pink hydrangeas, a young blind man in Shinjuku Station being guided to the exit by a stranger, telling him「助かりました」(you saved me). Peaches encased in protective netting, priced at five hundred yen each. The cashiers I see working the 2 AM shift at the 7/11, whose names, printed in hiragana on tags, I try to memorize with a desperation I don’t know how to explain. The garden of a long-dead emperor, a hotel room in a suburb outside Tokyo. The windows of the train, where on a few summer afternoons I can see the sun start to descend at the same time the moon makes its appearance at the opposite end of the sky. My mother’s voice saying: Ser feliz es triunfar. To be happy is to triumph.


When I fell in love with you I lost my appetite for seven days.
My arms and legs ached, dully, tenderly. Along my throat, and beside my breasts,
lymph, oval-shaped, milky white, swelled like new peaches: Emotion, a pathology, pathos of.
The needs of a body silenced by the greed of the soul; my senses so changed
just walking to the convenience store in the suburbs I smelled the sea.

You’ve never even touched me. What would I do if you did —
Every nerve ending would dissolve into blossom.
The little death darkening my blood to hematite.
The largeness of love, the demands it places on pride,
would either cure or impoverish me permanently.
I don’t know if I could survive that fire.

This feeling has never been gentle to me, and fear lies
like a fragile gem in my skeleton: too tremulous
to touch, a breath away from rupturing
into a cloud of gold. The mortality of love,
its half-life a night in Pyrrhic, pellucid springtime,
is a lesson I have learned over and over again,
but never managed to commit to memory.

What does it even matter. Oh, it is not as though
I would dare think of forever. But I do
still remember the Yamanote line at six in the morning,
the train hanging suspended by a single thread
as I put my hand on your shoulder. The purity of
that instant like heroin. Like Mount Sinai.
My heart so changed when the doors opened there was lavender filling the air.