Philosophy is nostalgia for the idea of home.
We are placed in a guest house on campus, a sort of rotting cottage out of a folk tale, hidden in a world of its own behind a ten-foot wall of bamboo and flowering bushes. I sprawl on the bed, staring at the water stains on the ceiling, sweating. I’ve never experienced jet lag this intense. It feels like a sort of nesting doll arrangement: dire thirst gently cupped inside an idiotic stupor, then wrapped in a headache. And yet I can’t fall asleep. My thoughts are like a line of ants marching up the wall, and then like a lone mosquito circling, circling. Kill me, I say to my wife around three am, please, just kill me.
It gets better, just wait, she says.
But the thing is that it never gets any better, just keeps on going, day after day, even after classes start, until everything seems to be happening inside a kind of perpetual dream, on a college campus in Taiwan lit by the intense white light of the equator, the air suffused with the fragrance of jasmine and garbage.
I am here to teach American literature to students in the Department of Foreign Languages, but most of my effort goes into pretending to be a normally functioning professor who can follow a syllabus. I am in class, telling my students something about the novel we are reading, and then I realize I’m not talking anymore, I’m dreaming. And then I slip back into the moment and I realize I’m not dreaming anymore, I’m talking, and the students are listening and nodding. But the words are glittering with something else, some bit of the dream logic. Nobody can see it or hear it, but I can feel it, shimmering.
At the cottage that night, rain slaps the tile roof. Flashes of lightning whiten the darkened windows. I wait till my wife’s breathing slows, then climb out of bed and sit in the living room with an old collection of film reviews by Pauline Kael that I found on a table in the English section of the library. Such passionate opinions about movies lost and forgotten, hardly worth seeing in the first place—plus the mystery of its presence here, halfway across the world. I thought it would help me get to sleep, but now I can’t stop turning pages. The strange wasteful beauty of being alive comes rushing back to me like an overheard conversation.
The Paris, the Regency, the Thalia. I would go after school just to feel myself growing more complicated in the dark, the films happening in front of me like dreams. Once, at Theater 80, I watched a blind man in dark glasses watch Now Voyager, his German Shephard in the seat beside him.
The windows blue. I open the door to the passage that leads to the kitchen, step down into a foot of water and start sloshing my way to the other side to make coffee. The corridor always floods, but at least the water’s warm. I stop and look out the window at the little pond in back, where a flock of luminous white egrets do a strange rhythmic high step. Standing there, fingertips pressed to the glass, it feels as if I am finally being born after a lifetime of delay. All I have to do is listen, but with my eyes.
I’ve written so little over half a lifetime—that’s why I can’t sleep. I’ve written so little because I’m frightened of getting it wrong; I erase and put something new and then erase again. But now I’m so tired that just moving pen over paper takes everything I have; I can’t worry about whether the sentences are true or not. It’s like I’m using all my strength to hold open a heavy metal door so the children can escape the building before it falls in on itself.
In the afternoon, I walk across campus in heat so intense it feels as if my body is dissolving into sunlight, and as I go I practice the Mandarin for I want to renew this loan. A stray dog follows me for a while, its pink tongue hanging out like a bit of dripping wax, and it isn’t until I step inside the library and feel the darkness on my skin that I realize I’ve forgotten every word. The only thing left is the book in my hand, heavy and damp, so at the checkout counter I push it over and say I’m returning it now, because I remember how to say that. It’s a melancholy moment—I’m certain this means I’ll never find Pauline Kael again—but through some linguistic mix-up I still don't understand, the librarian gives me another four weeks. And behind her, a little green lizard slips up the wall like a raindrop in reverse.
The gate out of campus is a turnstile with big silver prongs. I rotate through and wander the streets, the torrent of motor scooters, the old man making soup on a brazier in the middle of the sidewalk, the guy drying homemade noodles on the roof of his car. On a terrace wall: two white radishes and a pair of red baby shoes. Everywhere, a stream of Chinese characters, words that are pictures and therefore not words but things. I follow from block to block, reading the story of the city, and then I pause in a little appliances store, the shelves lined with electric fans. None of them are on, but they make me feel cooler.
In the front passenger seat of the taxi cab, talking with the driver on the way to the train station. I tell him we’re going to see friends in Kaohsiung, which is completely untrue but comes from a recent dialogue in our Mandarin textbook. I don’t feel at all odd running through a script, because what’s the alternative? Silence? Crosscultural failure? And then it occurs to me that I actually do this quite a lot, replacing my real life with whatever I know how to say. And I do it in English too, my native language, have done it all my life, because I worry about what people are willing to listen to.
When we get home, the house is full of leaves, heaps of them everywhere, as if someone has thrown open the doors and windows—small, brown, teardrop shaped. I get the broom and sweep up, but there are more the next day, and the next. We search the garden for the source, but nothing matches, so I take a handful to show someone at work, a linguistics professor from Hong Kong with a wonderful British accent. Oh, those, he says, chuckling. Those are termite wings.
A couple of days later, the ceiling of my study crashes to the floor.
Writing in the heat, half asleep, eyes almost closed, I suddenly notice the sound of the piano next door, the same piece played over and over, ragged and trembling and unbearably lovely in its search for an arc, a shape. Our neighbor is a piano teacher and she has pupils all day, but I’ve never listened before—never realized that I was already listening.
And then, for some reason, I remember how I read Oliver Twist for the first time in a large print edition that was falling apart, and how much I liked jumping over the missing parts as if they were missing planks on a bridge. And how I’ve always loved the kind of crumbly paperbacks you find in beach houses, where you throw away the pages as you read them. There’s no going back because the bridge is disappearing behind you.
That night, I lie in bed, listening to the storm passing over us: the rain in the trees, the thunder so loud it seems to be igniting inside me, exploding outward against my skin. And then the lightning whitens the room again, and I watch the geckos chasing each other over the ceiling.
If I really love a book, I don’t read the ending, because what I like most is starting over.
Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of a memoir, Criminals: My Family's Life on Both Sides of the Law, as well as two novels. His work has appeared in the The Paris Review, Tin House, The Oxford American, and elsewhere, and has won Pushcart and O. Henry awards. In 2012-2013, he was a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan, teaching American literature. His Web site is www.robertanthonysiegel.com.