I’m watching a kindergarten dance recital, hunkering in the back row as gaggles of tiny black-haired dancers prance across the stage and proud moms and pops aim their arsenals of camera equipment.
I'd seen many spectacles like this back in the States, when Lily, my ex, was teaching dance. It was a tough call which was worse – corralling the clueless, giggling herds of kids in tutus, or dealing with the shrill-voiced moms who wanted to know why their little prodigies weren't dancing in the front row. Yuppie Mothers from Hell, Lily called them. Here on the other side of the world, things seem just the same.
I’m in Tainan, Taiwan, a sea town and a city of temples. The auditorium where I’m watching the kids dance is on the ground floor of my hostel; as I passed through the lobby the tiny dancing figures snagged my eye and drifting music snared my memory.
I start to feel creepy lurking there in the shadows, so I head outside into the traffic. An Israeli expat had advised me to avoid the gouging cabbies by hitching rides on the armies of scooters that plow the cities, so I decide to give it a try, flagging down a guy at a stoplight. I point in my book to the characters for Tien Tan temple, and the guy nods and motions me to hop on.
Heaven Temple is a spectacular place, centuries old and now squatting in the shadows of the high rises that have grown up around it. The rooftop is intricately carved with waves of dragons, warriors, gods on horseback, elephants and leopards, tiny helmeted generals, miniature temples carved on top of the temple itself, cresting skyward like a frozen wave.
Passing through the doors I find temples within temples, multiple altars with joss sticks steaming out the thick scent of sandalwood. Upon the altars statue after statue, buddhas, arhats, bodhisattvas, avatars, with beards of real hair and glowing eyes that stare out beyond the centuries. There must be dozens of them, lovingly tended, promising blessings, threatening curses, smelling of incense and knowledge and idolatry.
I'm staring at a pug-faced god, its brows and cheeks pimpled with gold nubs, when I realize through my sensory overload that someone is next to me. It's an old caretaker who seems pleased by my arrival, takes me gently by the hand pointing out the figures carved along the walls, the granite pillars writhing with dragons, the mandalas of tiny gilt buddhas, delicate and complex as a snowflake. And when I think I've surfeited on all this eye-food, he leads me further inward to another altar piled high with gongs, bells, brass kettles, gold candlesticks, fruit and flowers, and then another altar, and another, all the gold and red in the world crammed into these rooms.
The caretaker leads me out to a courtyard where an old woman lights joss sticks and places them into a cast-iron cauldron twice her size, dozens of sticks coughing up a cloud... and as I turn I see the old monk's Vespa resting against the crumbling ancient wall. Too much, all of it.
Outside the temple I wander Pin Manufacturing Street, Shoes Street, Stone Grinding Street, and my favorite, Sesame Street! Then hitch a ride back across town, clinging nervously to the scooter driver; my passage through Tainan's humming traffic both frightens me and makes me feel a bit more like a local.
At the hostel, they're watching a bootlegged Dustin Hoffman movie on the VCR. I remember seeing this movie once with Lily, and as I sit and watch it my thoughts roll to high school sweetheart days, my first real love after an adolescence full of painful firefly puppy loves, furtive sex, masturbatory loneliness. At 16 I had thrown myself into this new place of sweetness, an oasis from my father’s rules and regimens; she became my life and future. At 18 I went off to school and a wide wild vista of new ideas and potential bedmates. The slow avalanche was set in motion. We struggled on for two more years marked by long-distance arguments, fistfight visits, reconciliations and recriminations, locked ourselves into a guilty spiral of codependency.
But we stepped back from the brink each time, unable maybe to picture life without the other. Christmas of my sophomore year I proposed, confusing a diamond ring with a band-aid, and the resulting fall-out only sped the relationship's blessed bitter end.
We lost touch my last two years of college. Sporadic phone calls would end in screaming hang-ups; visits home would end in disinterested and depressing sex. Six weeks before I left for Asia, she had called to tell me a friend had been killed in a car crash, 18-year-old life snuffed out. We'd ended up, as usual, yelling at each other, her bitterness and rage eating through the phone lines. But a few days later she'd called back, tears in her voice, apologetic, explaining that it still hurt too much to talk to me. I was lost and powerless, and she said, sobbed really, "I just didn't want to leave things with us being ugly to each other."
The next morning my roommate, Sam, had come into my room to say my Uncle John was on the phone. "He's got bad news," Sam warned me softly as I blinked awake, and my uncle's voice on the other end was hollow as a mine shaft. Lily had been killed by a drunk driver.
My first thought was, no, you must be wrong, Lily just called to tell me someone else was in a car crash, you've got to have this wrong. "Are you joking with me?" I'd asked the phone, and my uncle's voice down the mine shaft said, "Would I joke about something like this?" I heard the wringer starting up and it pulled my soul into it, sucking juice and awareness from me, squeezing me dry and dazed.
Sam had driven me to the seashore, sat with me in the gravel and chill, listened to my voice ringing out flat as a nickel from the empty shaft. Later I remember sitting on my couch, and the phone had rung again and a weeping voice had called my name... and I thought, “This is it, I've truly gone insane,” because the voice on the phone was hers, and in that split second flash I knew she really wasn't dead, she had survived and wanted to tell me this had all been a terrible mistake. And then I realized the voice was her mother's, and that the first woman I had ever truly loved was dead.
I became a lot older in the weeks that followed, weeping in the embraces of school friends, desperately trying to call my parents who were visiting my kid sister in Japan, and finally coming home for her funeral. I had a photo of Lily and me that was taken freshman year, the two of us smiling and happy in her parents' kitchen, and I took the photo to a frame shop and in a fog told the kid behind the counter I needed a frame to put in someone's casket. "I'll handle this," his boss had said quietly, stepping forward and taking the photo and making by hand a small wooden frame, which he gave to me without letting me pay for it. Across the street I bought flowers for her grave at a florist where I had bought her prom corsages.
There was absolutely no sound as we followed the hearse down the main street in my little hometown, the cop motorcycles zooming silently ahead of us, cars pulled off to the side in respect like I'd done many times before for people I had never known. And after the ceremony I’d told some friends, "I need a drink," and we toasted her with good Scotch and stretched that out into an all-night drunk, bitter and high and mournful.
I realize as I watch the Dustin Hoffman movie that today is exactly three months since Lily died on a Friday the 13th. I remember when she and I used to count anniversaries in a different way.
The temple complex lies more than an hour outside the city, and by the time my cram-packed bus pulls in the sun is beating. The scalding asphalt gives off a smell that mixes with other smells, the thick rich clog of incense, the burn of gunpowder, and my eyes smart from smoke and champa.
The courtyard is carpeted with shreds of red paper and grey wadding, the trash of thousands of firecrackers. There's a man there with a long string of them draped around his bare shoulders and neck, the firecrackers popping one after another in chattergun frenzy, deafening, but the barechested man keeps his eyes closed and sways and dances with the lighted strand, an exploding dragon dance.
There's a dragon there too right above me, a gold mosaic laid into the ceiling tiles, snarling out ferocious with its glistening scales. When I lower my eyes from the mosaic, I see the gathered crowd, old grey-haired men and kerchiefed women, young folks too, all pushing to hear the medium. She is about fifty, dressed in dirty slacks and cheap sandals, and somewhere beyond this world; she beats her flabby arms against the altar and moans, rolls her head around her shoulders and her eyes up in her head, tongue lolling, and the crowd strains to hear her words from the spirit world. Incense roils up here like smog, old priests clang gongs and pound small drums, and from deep in the temple's secret heart someone is passing out totem gods, the figurines passed hand to hand through the sanctuary and into the incense clouds and then into portable shrines.
All around me people are in trances: the gibbering ghost-woman, a shrunken old man shaking and tottering, mumbling with eyes closed, another man flailing himself bloody with strands of barbed wire. In fascination and revulsion I follow the portable shrines back out to the courtyard, where young men stumble and sway drunkenly, deep in trance, fighting off their handlers who try to steady them, almost dropping the shrines but never quite. I rear up to stare into the painted faces of two giant mandarins, each ten feet tall, papier-mache heads above gold robes, bowing and bobbing like Mardi Gras fools. Behind the men in the mandarin getups come more dressed as lion-dogs, snapping and worrying and shaking furry manes, stomping out a dance to the never ending clatter of the gongs. What a way to worship, what a spectacle…
The fat woman has come back out of the temple and bows before the moving shrines, smacking her bloody back with the flat of a long knife. Beside her gibbers and shudders a boy with steel skewers piercing his cheek and tongue. It is terrifying, so far beyond my experience or understanding, being moved to call their god in such a way. The firecrackers burst in nonstop piercing battle, thousands of them sparking and smoking while the tranced-out mediums howl.
Hours later, as I'm leaving, I spot the mandarins again, people around them loading lion-dog costumes and gongs and drums into a trailer. One mandarin pulls off his giant head and stands there smoking a cigarette, laughing at something a friend says. They look ordinary, like the flea-market regulars I had seen back in Taipei hawking army surplus… packing up their boxes of junk after another week’s haggling.
Back in the city toward sunset, in that soft-lit time photographers call "magic hour," I hunt through quiet suburban neighborhoods for a mariner's temple someone had recommended. I run into a funeral procession, a small group headed perhaps toward the same temple. There's a band of three or four musicians blowing nasal-sounding horns and banging cymbals, a bored-looking kid in front holding high a picture of the dead woman. Behind the hired mourners come a couple of family, dressed in brown burlap with pointed hoods. As I stare, the brown-dressed pair stops to kneel, sets fire to ghost money and wails. The paper sparks quickly, ashes spiraling up; the daughter vents her pain in loud sobs. Nobody seems to hear her.
One of the musicians waves me over, inviting me through gestures to snap a picture. Here are the Taiwanese at their most real and vulnerable, caught between the mystic temples and the flea markets. As the girl wails the musician keeps gesturing, keeps smiling, not wanting me to miss the show. The light is perfect for a photograph.
I keep my camera in its bag and find I cannot look directly at anyone. I hear the girl cry and it almost is drifting music.