reflex reflux

R E F L E X + R E F L U X

With my inner wrist, I wiped the last dregs of vomit from my lips. The sickness was finally gone. Inside that toilet bowl was Bali, my dysentery, was Singapore, our sorrow, yesterday’s night out. I flushed, and washed my mouth, felt healthy. Sam was swinging his head to a song and cleaning his camera lenses, at a hostel lounge table. A nasi goreng breakfast could be heard frying and stirred in the kitchen, a muffled sizzle and a flash of stove fire burning nearby, ready to refill our insides. I asked Sam what he was playing on the portable speakers.


Without answering, he let the grainy synth loop over an ostentatious beat: The worst is all the lovely weather.

I wish that we could talk about it,” he hummed, as he replayed the song from the beginning, “but there, that’s the problem.”


We ate and left.


. . .


We were on Gili T, one of three pirate islands off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia. There was no government here, not even a post office—only a shoreline of bars and businesses, and on the other end of the island, another shoreline of resorts and golf courses—only a few hostels and local homes in between, some hidden surprise. Until then, we mostly lingered around the island’s sandy circumference, the length of about an hour’s walk; less, if you hurry.


On the eastern shore, midday sunlight cut through the sapphire blue of a crystalline sea. The rays caused sparks, while white foam cooled their tops, floating up to the air with the crack of a wave when it landed on shore. The spot of land across from us was the second Gili island, but it didn’t ask for our attention. It seemed beautiful, sure, close, but you couldn’t swim there on account of the dangerous current separating our islands, not to mention the sharp hidden coral underneath that had cut up a boy sometime yesterday. So it was only beautiful from afar, and no one stayed there.


I poked Sam awake with the spine of my notebook, and asked him to read my poem about the beach right here, under us.


He rubbed his eyes between readings. “What does Elysium mean?”


“This place,” I told him. “This is Elysium.”


He handed my notebook back to me. “Flowing,” he said. “Your style is flowing.”


“You don’t think it’s repetitive? You don’t think it’s cliché?”


He shook his head. Then rubbed his temples. It was bright. We were sober.


He fell back to fall asleep, but I kept him awake, handed the notebook back to him and grabbed his SLR film camera. I asked him to write a few lines, let me take some pictures. It didn’t have to be a poem, I said, just whatever came to mind.


Sam said, “I don’t know what to write about.”


I quoted our boy Jack, from the back of my notebook: “Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion.”


“Gili is the jewel?” he asked.


I nodded my head.


As I saw the beach through his camera’s viewfinder, Sam penned the following lines:


Tan green blue white green Blue. One slice, one breath. Smiles, laughs—Splash. Ice cream cone mountain tops. Clouds, cotton candy. French? Dutch? Music light display, LCD Sounds. Float. Stuck. Suspended something on the tip of nothing. Pale skin and trinket salesmen. Paradise and struggle in one breath. Give in enjoy. Give up. Almost perfect in so far from perfect. Long legs. Short tempers. Timeless days. Pray or fail, just hope.


“Pretty and punchy,” I said, rereading his words, “like your photography.”


. . .


We circled the island, leaving the eastern bars and businesses; came to a group of dancing gypsies lit around a bonfire; shuffled our way to the west-side of the island, where distant Bali and its volcanic breasts fumed with clouds and an afternoon sky played the backdrop to the beach. Some nice quiet sand squeaked as we lay down our bottoms on it.


“I forgot there are women who wear make-up,” Sam said, turning around and seeing a flock of khaki wearing machos and linen dressed ladies gathered behind us. They must have been judging us, the way they ignored us, their phones out, blocking their view.


A fisherman and his son traversed a sandbar at a distance, in the water. Their slow footsteps never lifted from it. They drifted across the horizon, marking a trail behind them, leaving ripples, right where the Sun met the line that divides the heaven and the earth, with a kiss.


“Samuel,” I said, turning to him, noticing he was seeing out of his third eye, his film camera. “Sam, how can we hold on to this moment?”


He mumbled something. I repeated the question.


“What do you mean?” he said, taking the shot and landing a bullseye.

I thought about it, thought about it. About the Sun. About the fisherman. “This moment. This right here. You, me, us…” I turned to him. “This bubble in space time!” I laughed. He laughed. I continued. “This will be over soon, and there is nothing we can do about it. Not a damn. It absolutely hurts! I have this precious thing right here, almost in my hands, and I know it will all blow away one day.”


Sam looked at me with his brows raised and eyes on red fire, less so blinking, but mostly confused and concerned, fishing for the right words to put together. I knew he understood me, when he ignored my words and put his camera up to his face again, looking at the colors of an old Java sea and the early evening sky reflected upon it. Nothing is timeless, time everything.


“The only right response,” I told him, clicking my pen in my pocket, “to hush up and a snap. Where are we going, man, this is all silly, and none of it will stick! Conversations, sunsets, photographs. I never want to leave this place, but we’ve been here three days already, and we’ll probably leave tomorrow, or in another three, but why, why can’t we stay forever, here, in this place. Are you listening? I’m saying I could live this moment for the rest of eternity, and you—silence.”


Sam snapped another photo. The Kodachrome reel inside his camera rolled. He scanned the horizon for another shot.


“That’s fine,” he said, from the corner of his mouth. “It’s all fine. Talk. Act. Write. Shoot. You are you, and I am me. Moments pass. We live. And everything keeps coming, keeps coming, keeps coming till the day it stops. You already know how I feel about life. If it ended today, or a life time from now, what would be the difference? What’s sixty years to one night in the face of so called ‘eternity’? Just breathe.”


“Keeps coming, keeps coming!” I sung. “Like that song you keep playing. What’s the name?”


“It’s LCD Soundsystem.”


“Why play it over and over?”


“I can’t stop thinking about that chapter with Poor Rosie in the Dharma Bums,” he said. “Poor Rosie who said ‘This is my last night on earth,’ then bled her wrists with the shattered glass of a skylight, before flying down six flights of stairs. That’s why I keep playing it. But what’s the difference?


“If only she had listened,” I said. “Words were said after her passing. But, for what, you ask? Because it’s powerful. If only she had listened before she was gone; that’s what I’m getting at, Sam, don’t you see? You want to keep quiet, but I…” I couldn’t confess just yet, so instead I read him a verse, flipping to the page in my notebook where I had recorded my response to Poor Rosie, when I learned about her suicide. “The unexamined life is not worth living / and neither is the unfulfilled life / but a death preceded by either would be / the most unexamined and / unfulfilling part of it all.”


The day was finishing, and Sam didn’t seem to get what I wanted to say—that to do oneself in was unnatural, most of all when feeling unexamined, unsure, unfulfilled, or empty, the opposite of which made you feel alive—but there, that’s the problem. And still, I didn’t want it to end, this longing and yet having, this wanting after constant refilling, inhaling and exhaling, all at once, or in reverse, or neither. I wanted to let out a cry to the early evening. I did! The seagulls cawed in kind. Sam hummed from his chest.


“There you go,” he said, the camera still up, pausing, thinking before speaking, a salty breeze passing by green. “Don’t hold it in, let it out, and don’t be upset. Trying to hold on to a moment is like trying to catch water with a fishnet: you think you have it, the net drags, but when you pull it up, nothing. At best,” he said, pointing the camera at me, “you find a fish or two, and learn to be grateful for your dinner.” He took my picture.


. . .


We headed back to our hostel, continuing along the same circumference, this time past some local kids kicking around a pinched soccer ball, cracking up and sweeping up dust and sand with their heels and laughter. What seems bad at first is deeply good at last; what seems pretty up top is profoundly dark inside: the sunlight over the ocean: the one deflated soccer ball on an island, and therefore special: a song with a happy title, but a sad refrain revealed too late: or perhaps the beer pong tournament at our hostel, which we entered, but lost, miserably.


Sitting sideline, waiting for the hostel folks to crawl to the pubs, I started feeling the acid reflux of the night before return. I didn’t want to run to the restroom just yet, because Sam showed up with a pair of beers and two shots, so I held it in.


“What does SLR stand for?” I asked him, taking a sip.


“Single-lens reflex,” he replied, knocking back a shot. “It’s how the mirror and prism system works. The ‘reflex’ is the mirror’s reflection, or what you see through the viewfinder.”


I remembered the restroom that morning, and continued holding in the new burn. I would wake up sick again, most likely. I asked, “Bringing your camera out?”


“Gili T,” he said, not answering my silly question, slurring. “Gili Trawangan, my jewel center of interest, hah!” Then, putting an arm around me, he said, “I will hate to leave this beautiful place too, Juan, you aren’t alone in that. Do you think tonight will be our last?” He pulled his arm back before I could reply. He clutched his empty glass, looking at the exit, looking at nothing.


“It doesn’t have to be,” I said, knocking back his shoulder with mine. “We can pretend it’s our first. I love you, man, please don’t leave without me. Imma use the restroom.”


. . .

Around midnight the crawl wound up at a half-Irish bar, half-outdoor dance club built with metal-siding, and skinny aluminum columns—a church of orgy within, many threesomes and foursomes parading their sex and sweat under disco light and rainbows—with a DJ booth and an local islander up on it, the gear there worth more than the entire venue’s construction budget. This could have been a backyard, fast paced men and women in a state of exaggeration, perspiration. I felt around for Sam, who had disappeared sometime between the hostel and now, poking my head in and out of circles of dancers, until a can of beer touched the side of my cheek, and I knew.


“Sam,” I shouted. Looking past him I saw a famous pair of tranquil eyes, our long lost friend, her long lost legs: “Lucy of Vancouver! It’s been so long.”


“How’ve you boys been?” she asked. “I thought for sure after the Pineapple hostel in Sanur we would never meet again.” She raised her forty oz bottle. “Did you really think you could get away from me?”


“We weren’t running away from you, Lucy,” I said. “How did you find us?”


She took a long drag from her bottle. “Two bearded, inseparable Americans on a spirit journey? Not hard to find.”


After a sip, and pulling a bit of her blonde locks back behind her ear, Lucy pulled Sam aside to catch up. The two of them wandered off to the beach, I could see, past the crowd and the dancers and the drinkers and the drunks, the shot takers and the beats breakers, out beyond the desperation and the noise, where the leftovers of our pub crawl tried to follow suit, find a mate. But life skipped. I couldn’t finish my beer, my stomach gurgling like it had done earlier that morning. At least Sam wasn’t depressed tonight; though the boy worried me that he might cut short our trip; he wouldn’t, I trusted; he wouldn’t disappear; I just needed to find a way into his mind, and pull him out of that bottomless pit; I needed to hope he would be ok, and that I would be ok. And just then the song he and I had been listening to all day, by the late great LCD Soundsystem, a band that had disbanded—never to return—came on over the loudspeakers, with their 2007 hit single: “Someone Great.”


And a rush of impressions trailed off with it. You’re smaller than my wife imagined / surprised you were human / there shouldn’t be this ring of silence / but what are the options?


When someone great is gone. When someone great is gone. When someone great is gone. When someone great is gone. When someone great is gone. When someone great is gone. When someone great is gone. When someone great is gone.


I couldn’t understand how happy and drunk with glee my peers were, hands up and foam spraying from the top of their beers, downing liquors high in spirit, while such a sad, sad song played loudly over us; no one paid attention to the lyrics, I figured, or that’s the key to bliss, ignorance, melancholy, beauty from pain, something like that, left and right, and there she was: under a sharp spot light, my wife for the night, light shining down over her strawberry braids, her gem stone eyes, her red brick face, and one hundred and one freckles. She put a finger to her lips as I walked up.


“Evelyn,” she said, grabbing my left hand. “Do you play the piano?”


“Why do you ask?” I said.


“You have piano hands,” she said. “I used to play.”


“I’m a poet,” I said, looking at her gems. She swayed, she laughed.


“Why don’t you…” she said, beaming, when I asked if I could kiss her.


When I tried, she stepped aside, saying, “Wait. Will you write a poem about me?”


“Depends,” I said, darting for her mouth again, missing.


“On what?” She grinned, swayed.


“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” I said, swaying with her. “Where are you from?”


“Holland. Grew up a Muslim. Yourself?”


“Grew up in Texas,” I said. “Grew up an Argentine.”


“Maxima, our queen, is beautiful,” she said. “She married our silly king.”


“Silly,” I said. “But have you seen the sunset here? I can’t describe it.”


“No,” she said. “But I did see something very pretty today. Can I show you?”


I pressed her to me so she could hear my yes over the music. She smiled, but under her breath seemed ready to cough something. She ran to the restroom. When she came back, I asked her, “How do you say pretty in Dutch?”




I told her, “You’re lekker.”


“Zeker,” she said.


“Let us marry our nights, or else end it.”


“Not yet,” she said, glowing. “Not yet.” Our lips met, they met. “Let me say goodbye to my friends.”


We were staying at the same hostel, we realized, when it started to rain. The pretty thing she wanted to show me was on the way. It was the mosque next door, with its ceramic mosaic entrance, which I thought was locked and closed, but was in fact open, when the loudspeakers woke up.


“This,” she said. “This. It happens every morning, it is called the Adnan, the daily prayer. But I… cannot help it… to want to hear it. It is the same thing, but new, every day. I stopped believing years ago, but the part of me that once believed is always with me. Oops. There, it is over. It does not last long, see? Let’s go.”


How long can I make this last, I wondered.


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