[ToC]

 

THE UNCOVERING

Ira Sukrungruang

 

 

Something is stuck, a disintegrating image of two boys on a teeter totter—one up, one down—both of them looking at me—the viewer of this image—with disdain, as if I was responsible for the disruption of their fun, or worse yet, I am the bringer of all woe in the world that has yet to happen.

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It was 1982, and a lunar eclipse bloodied the moon and a musician moonwalked across the stage with one glittering hand.

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This image in my head is of a photo that melted in my hands.

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Those boys, those looks—the creases and waves of consternation etched deep in the forehead, the narrowing of the mouth—those looks, frozen, ignites a strong sense of betrayal, which is like stripping the self of skin and making the rawness of the body visible.

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Jonathan Swift: "I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed."

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Tip: Don't store photos in a basement.

 

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One of the boys is me.

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The other boy, whose name I have forgotten, was my best friend at the time, and my father would take me to my best friend's house and we'd do best friend things, like play cops and robbers, sing and dance to Thriller, read about planets and solar systems, ride a teeter-totter for hours.

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In a basement a photo can mold, can be nibbled by insects or rats, and if the photo is near a stack wood or a rubber hose, both may contain traces of sulfur, it can trigger a slow deterioration—a fading, a yellowing.

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Two yellow boys on a teeter-totter—one going up, the other going down.

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In the photo, before it went way, was a yellow sky and yellowing grass and a yellow wooden fence behind us.

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Basements, also, flood.

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I am frozen at the highest point in my life.   

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Our fathers sat in the kitchen, drinking beers—though I don't think my father drank because he was not a drinker and would turn the color of a sun-scorched beet when imbibing in even a sip of alcohol—and comparing Buddha pendants most Thai men wore around their necks.

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My father wore three large Buddha pendants.

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The more Buddhas you wore the wealthier you seemed to be.                                    

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We weren't rich, my father a textile factory worker, but he enjoyed the illusion of wealth.

 

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When my father walked he clinked.

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I had one Buddha and it was small because I was small and sometimes I imagined the Buddha around my neck pressing against my chest bone, trying to burrow into me or chase something out.

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My best friend did not have a Buddha, or I don't remember if he had one or not, because he being my best friend had nothing to do with Buddha.

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But his father had hundreds of Buddhas and he would line them up on a kitchen table and look at them through a loupe, which I found fascinating—how one eye squints to keep the loupe attached, how under the gaze of a loupe imperfections are made clear.

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I am imperfect.

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Polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer, is the best way to protect photos from aging and is used in thermal underwear, packaging tape, and rope.

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My best friend—in photo, in memory—is perfect.

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Polypropylene cannot protect against a flooding basement.

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One day, after a quick summer storm, water poured into the basement through the circuit box, and underneath the box was an album of photos.

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What floated in the pond of the basement was one picture, a leaf in a current.

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If you've never seen a flood through a circuit box, imagine an amusement park ride where you plummet fifty feet into a pool of water and then someone throws in a plugged toaster.

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What is not in the photo: that moment a boy does a bad thing without thought and that bad thing still makes him shiver with guilt, a feeling he can't tolerate because it makes his inside shake, his fingers lose feeling, his head blur.

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What is not in the photo: when my best friend and I hid behind the bar in his basement, half empty bottles of liquor on shelves, the plush of the a red carpet on our skins, and my best friend squeezed in my cheeks into a pucker and I did his, and we made each other sing Billie Jean or Beat It with our mouths in tiny little Os and how we laughed so hard his father screamed from the kitchen for us to shut up because we were disrupting the talk of Buddhas.

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I've seen those faces before, those grimaces.

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It lay wet between my fingers—that photo—and already the water was doing what water does to paper—distorting, destroying, disappearing.

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Also not in the picture: I pushed my best friend down the stairs.

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Edgar Allan Poe: "There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust." 

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Oh Buddha, what had I done?

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Sometimes when I look at the moon, I sense a change take hold of me, and it isn't anything like lycanthropy, but it is a taking, this feeling of being pulled or pushed.

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Blame it on the moon, even though I don't remember whether the moon was out or whether it was night or day or what my best friend and I were doing before the push.

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I'm not sure what came first, the stairs or the teeter-totter, but I stopped seeing my best friend not because I pushed him down the stairs, but because my best friend's father was an angry man.

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Once, at temple, my best friend's father came roaring out of a small room, red-faced, Buddhas clinking and swaying on his chest, screaming at the women gathered in the hallway after afternoon prayers, saying they were inconsiderate rich bitches, yapping and yapping, while he was trying to pray in peace, and would they get the hell out of here so he could reconvene with Buddha.

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I was scared of my best friend's father.

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My best friend's father wore ten Buddha's around his neck.

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He was a factory worker, too.

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He had a twitch that reminded me of zombies.

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He drank a lot of beer.

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This is a not an excuse.

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He let me sip his beer once.

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None of those ten Buddhas stilled his hand when he punished my best friend.

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What I remember: my best friend's face from the bottom of the stairs.

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The flood took a lot, destroyed a lot, which I have since replaced or forgotten about.

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I can't forget this.

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Water is type of cleansing.

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When my father came to the stairs and saw my best friend at the bottom of it, he said, "What have you done?"

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I don't remember what I said.

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My best friend's father came with a loupe still in his eye.

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He said my best friend must've tripped, and then returned to the kitchen table of a hundred Buddhas.

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I don't remember much of my best friend now, why I even called him my best friend, except for that sin, except for a photo that used to exist, and the trick that photos can sometimes do of opening a door you have shut for a long time and keeping that door open—forever open—even when the photo became mush in my hands.

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I want to say I am not capable of pushing someone down the stairs.

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This would be a lie.

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We are all capable.

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Perhaps when my best friend looked up at me, he saw his father.

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Perhaps when I look back at me, I saw his father, too.

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Allison Croggon: "We are all mistaken sometimes; sometimes we do wrong things, things that have bad consequences. But it does not mean we are evil, or that we cannot be trusted ever afterward." 

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But the self has a way of holding on, has a way of remembering, even thirty-four years later, of a sin caused by a boy with a small Buddha around his neck, and the quick, thoughtless push of a best friend down a set of stairs.

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My best friend—unharmed—did not cry.

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I—harmed—cried/am crying/will continue to cry.

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In a couple months, I will have a son named after the tree Buddha meditated under, and I worry about this world he will be born into.

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I want to say to him, when he is ready: You can inflict hurt and will hurt in a way you will not expect, and then you will shoulder feelings of guilt and shame for the rest of your days, and there is nothing you can do but look at your hands and see their capabilities.

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Perhaps, I won't mention any of this to him.

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Perhaps, there is nothing I can say.

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I do not wear a Buddha around my neck anymore.

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I wet-vacuumed the concrete floors, cleared out everything that was destroyed, all those boxes of photos, all those boxes of things, and I wonder what other moments have I ridded myself of, what other guilts and joys and pains, and whether I am better without them or am somehow incomplete, undone, fractured.

 

 

 

 

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"The Uncovering" was inspired by Kazim Ali's book, Bright Felon. I remember being entranced by the language of this book, the resistance of genre, but more importantly, what really struck me, was the shape and look of the book--these short sections that seemed to glide down the page. Each section contained its own breath, its own identity. I went into the essay with that in mind, letting each line lead to the next, breaking form and narrative familiarity.