There are some people who are not entirely human. There is something foreign in
their nature that is more primary--not primitive, not simple--but operating on a level
that is different. That is, they are instinctual, moving through life without the normal
constraints much as a raccoon forages at night.
Susa was like a raccoon--eyes that were more than human and clever hands. She was
constantly collecting things that were shiny, with no real purpose or beauty. She was
fascinated by baubles and small luxury soaps.
We fought many times and I once hung up on her forty times. Each time she called
back and persisted in her sadness. Exhausted, I relented and, once more, we struck
up our strange alliance. We had fought because she had gone beyond the line I had
drawn. Realize that I am not a very giving or generous person. I like my things to be
the way they are. I expect a measure of decency and maintain it. I do not really think
beyond my routine because I know I have put a lot of thought in constructing this
routine. I know the shortest way between two points. I admire harmony, and my
image of harmony is perhaps a little narrow and trite: I think of a lovely woman with
upswept hair in a white dress. Her hands, in white gloves, are clasped in front of
her. She opens her mouth and, with her perfect pitch, utters a low and vibrant note:
she is singing up and down a scale without a mistake, never stopping to breathe. I
concentrate on this image whenever I am upset or overwhelmed by too many things.
Whenever Susa stayed with me, this image preserved me.
When Susa came into my life, she came as a small dark animal coming out of the
rain, snuffling and upsetting all the small and ordered objects that I had placed on my
sill--all my blue glass, my dish of dried roses, my tea bowls. She stole things. She
stole things from public places-- brass squirrels, tableware, dishes, postcards,
clothing from second hand stores. And she brought them to show to me as if I had
forgotten how lovely they were. I would often tell her in a very tight voice that
stealing would land her in trouble. Trouble. She would be hurt but I do not ever think
she understood why it was morally wrong. Still, she never stole from me. Things
would be borrowed without my asking. I would find my favorite linen bundled on
her bed or her various boyfriends might be wearing my socks and sweaters. I am a
somewhat large woman. Susa is slight, dark browed. All her men are also slight,
I would have almost written Susa off as stupid because she was so stubborn in her
refusal to understand generalities. When I said that she could not step into the house
with boots, she did it again, and our floor was covered with a trail of mud. I told her
twice and pointed out the mud. Then she understood for a while. It took the tactile to
make her understand anything. When I told her that our heater needed to be aired an
entire day before we could be in the house, she agreed but as soon as my back was
turned, she turned it on low and succeeded in giving us both a very bad headache.
She rode her mountain bike barefoot through the woods and was bitten by a tick.
She came down with Spotted Rocky Mountain fever and was delirious for weeks. A
year later she developed a case of bulimia and would only eat capers on rye bread,
grapefruit sliced paper-thin. At such times, I felt as if I were dealing with a child and
not a thirty-two-year-old woman--a woman who is five years older than me
although I have been told that we appear the same age. Maybe it is because I am
younger that she does not believe me. Perhaps that is the mind of a true craftsman: to
believe nothing until it has been tested again and again. Still, it also meant that she
had no faith in the logic of my rules. Perhaps she thought they were arbitrary, a
means of control, my own magic. In that sense, Susa was stupid. In other ways, she
was clear--so very clear it frightened you. Her ideas were unshakeable and
innovative. She was known as a top-notch chair designer and metal worker and one
could see her works in galleries and two small museums. Susa was clever. Susa had
an eye for beauty, was always looking for it and finding it in the strangest places.
Agates with human eyes embedded in them. Twigs that had been pulled awry by
wind. A green persimmon from a neighbor's tree. A scrap of paper folded this way,
then that--now a bird, then a flower, now two wings coming out of a box. So that
was not it. It was as though Susa had a blind spot when it came to human decency. I
wish to rephrase myself: it was not decency that she was lacking but a sense of
For instance, Susa would dress in a slatternly fashion for her appointments. She
darkened her cleavage with an eye pencil, then blended. She colored in her brows and
lined her eyes with the same pencil. Later, she would come crying to me that
someone had touched her or said something obscene. Her eyes would be darkened
with a real unhappiness.
"Susa," I said,"you've unbuttoned almost all the buttons on your shirt. What do you
mean by that?"
She replied that it made her look good. She wanted to look good, not cold, because
she liked men--and women--to admire her. Well, then, I said, and the conversation
ended pretty much where our conversations always end: out on the blinding white
ice. But these conversations are how I am often unwillingly brought into the role of
her defender. It is her dark eyes, mute, that force me to confront those who scorn or
ignore her, those who demand that she pay impossible bills. Some would say that I
am bailing her out of trouble and that Susa is a sinking ship. They would say that
what I am doing is futile. I call it damage control. At times, I even play her agent or
soothe misunderstandings that arise between her and her ever-changing friends.
Sometimes, I forget who I am, in my hurry to change from one role to the next. I
sometimes wonder what my life would be without her flurry. I would be a still,
calm lake. My skin would be patterned with clouds. I would stare at the sky through
the water, never flinching. I would like this quiet glide of light and shadow. I would
not tire of it.
There is still one thing that I have never mentioned to Susa. The story may not seem
mysterious. But it baffled me for a number of years.
Once I bought a motorcycle from Susa. It was a deep beautiful blue, the sort of blue
that hums in your head long after you have seen it. It is the sort of blue that you want
for your heart, a line of jealous blue. She called her motorcycle Sasha and wanted
me to buy it because she could not bear to have a stranger buy it. She was broke as
well. When I pointed out to her that I was now living on the other side of the
country, she promised me that she would ship it to me immediately. Having
received my money, Susa then told me that she had lost the registration papers. They
had been stolen from her office in a recent flurry of thefts. According to her
officemate, there had been no flurry of thefts, nothing gone. Months later, the bike
had still not been shipped. She told me she would find the papers or make them
anew. A year later, Sasha finally arrived, still without papers, although I had pleaded
with her again and again to send them. Now I had a motorcycle but no proof. A
month afterwards, I was assigned for a two year contract in Bangkok. Having no
place to store her, I gave Sasha to my uncle, telling him to call Susa. When he called
her, she told him that she had no time to go to the registration bureau herself. So my
uncle went and got the papers. On each sheet, he carefully marked the place for her
signature with a small red x. But Susa returned them unsigned. In fact, when he
called her, she told him to go to hell. In the end, my uncle spent two hundred dollars
of his own money to legally transfer the ownership of the bike, which, apparently,
refused to start up after a month. That was the end of Sasha; he traded her in. But,
meanwhile, Susa called me to tell me that she was coming for a visit. I had no time
and told her very gently that there was nothing to see in this country: only smog and
highrises. I also had two trips abroad: I would not be there for more than two days. I
told her to go somewhere beautiful or save the money. But she came. She never
mentioned the bike during her entire stay. The fight we had at the end of her trip had
nothing to do with Sasha and my uncle. I only found out about Sasha two years later,
from his son.
I have puzzled over this situation for a long time. I did not know what to make of her
spending thousands of dollars to come visit me--her last stash of money--and yet not
mentioning what she had done to my uncle. I did not know what to make of her
unwavering loyalty to me--a loyalty that was incomprehensibly strong and
unbreakable no matter what I said to keep her at bay. I want her to understand that I
have other friendships and that I consider these friends to be extensions of myself.
She is not to harm them. And yet she believes her love renders her impervious to my
dissapproval. She also says that I love her as deeply but am incapable of saying this
because of who I am.
It was only recently that I could resolve these contradictions. I will try to explain how
I began to understand her: many people are disguised as fully human. But after a
while, I could detect Susa's scent: it was rank, like dog, only sweeter, more dusty,
mingled with the acridity of skunk and smoke. It was not a human odor at all. All
her clothes had that same heavy sweetness. I could always tell when she had tried on
my clothes in my absence. I could never wash the scent out. It persisted. I began to
smell it in my sleep, on my towels, on my sheets. Then I understood that she had
found me and clung to me because I was all that she knew. She did not understand
logic or explanations or papers or anything that pertained to our daily cares and
duties. She never listened to my uncle's words. She heard his impatience and then
she balked. Nor did she ever listen to me.
She only understood the one tone of love that my voice can take in the evenings as I
sit out looking at the beach. The cold night air hurts my throat so I pitch my voice
lower, softer, and she leans forward, listening, not understanding but leaning into this
voice that is suddenly rich and betrays me at every turn, measured inflections that
speak of a depth and warmth I do not have and still want. She closes her eyes as if
my voice is a hand stroking her head and tries to hold herself perfectly still and
poised. Having forgotten her coat, she shivers slightly. To her, the nights here are
unbelievably cold. The sudden drop in temperature leaves her baffled every evening
and I explain it to her each time as if I too have just learned of it.