Ignoring the Risk, Fung Wah, Coda
Ignoring the Risk
The last time I saw Corbett, he was on Broadway...at the entrance ramp to 240 West in Asheville.
But the first time I saw Corbett was on Canal Street in New York City. He took the Fung Wah bus and arrived in the dark. He was wispy in spite of a patchy, studded army jacket and two septum piercings that looked like double-pointed knitting needles, and his scowl was betrayed by the unfledged curiosity in his eyes.
I took him to Times Square that night, and the punk-rock Leo turned his gaunt face to the nourishment of the flashing lights, and I got to see the self-proclaimed Vicious Monk become mesmerized by glittering commercial paradise.
My first email to Corbett had gone something like, “So, New York's gaining a Nebraskan. If you're anything like your kid sister, I guess I should pour tomato juice into a PBR and protect my crotch.”
And he was charmed because he was a lot like Jamie, only sober and gentle in ways that she could barely manage even while asleep. In all of the time I spent with Jamie, she never even mentioned she had a brother...until he needed something, and she couldn't deal with it.
Of course, Corbett wanted to move to New York City for its wonders and adventures, but the truth is, he needed New York City...for the healthcare and social services.
Two weeks into our correspondence, he wrote, “Been on Disability since time-out-of-mind. Can't work around equipment that might draw sacred blood.”
“So, you're a unicorn?” I replied, joking to allay any fear of judgment, but landing closer to the truth than I had intended.
Corbett and I volleyed emails back and forth about books and history and divinity for weeks until he randomly returned to my question. “Leave it to you to call me unicorn. Most call me vampire.” He explained that his health concerns began at circumcision. “Bloodbath. Severe Factor IX Hemophilia. They call it Christmas disease. Not as festive as it sounds.”
I came of age when Salt-N-Pepa were urging everyone to talk about sex, baby, in a time when us school kids were making quilt squares for what has become the world's largest community art project. The Keith Haring '90s. The Ryan White '90s.
So my frame of reference for hemophilia was the conversation about AIDS. I knew it was a major risk factor for contracting HIV, perhaps the only one that didn't raise a scathing eyebrow. But I was woefully unprepared for the spontaneous internal bleeding, the bone fusions and joint replacements, the emotional and psychological implications of the disease, especially in a case as severe as Corbett's.
So when he first told me about his regular clotting factor infusions and occasional blood transfusions on the phone about a week before the Fung Wah, I asked, rather stupidly, “Aren't you scared?”
“Scared? Of what? There's nothing to be afraid of anymore.” And I knew we were no longer living in the Arthur Ashe/Elizabeth Glaser era, so we went back to talking about ancient Japan and Charlie Kaufman movies, and then Corbett got on that bus.
For four nights, he crashed on my couch, but on the fifth, Corbett collapsed on my living room floor. When I tried to help him up, he pushed me away.
Searching my face for a sign of mercy, he blurted out, “What I should have told you last week was that after they drop the Fat Man and Little Boy in your thirteen year-old lap, there's not much left to be afraid of.” And somehow, I knew what he meant: like in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, they dropped bombs on him decades ago. HIV. Hepatitis C. And now, there wasn't much left to fear.
For the next four months, I wore a silver band on my left hand so that nurses wouldn't kick me out of his hospital room at night. I brought him the tallboy cans of egg nog he liked on my way home from support group meetings at the Gay Men's Health Crisis. I scheduled and attended his medical and housing appointments. I crashed on my couch on the occasions that he was released into my care.
He grew weak, and I grew weary. We never spoke of Kierkegaard or kung fu flicks anymore. Instead, we both silently wondered: had he mentioned the Fat Man and Little Boy a week sooner, where would we be now?
Jamie stopped returning our calls. The curiosity in Corbett's eyes was gone, and one day Corbett was gone, too. He limped out the door—angry for the umpteenth time—and slammed it shut. Assuming he'd be back after a while as he always was, I let him go.
The next time I saw Corbett, he was standing on Broadway in Asheville in the rain holding a sign, and I just...I was visiting friends for the weekend, completely unprepared to confront what I thought I'd left behind in New York, and so ignoring the risk, I just kept going.
Legend has it that "Fung Wah," as in the name of the bus Corbett took to New York City, is Chinese for “magnificent wind,” a hopelessly poetic, Harlequin-romantic phrase that somehow simultaneously alludes to both boutique, granola luxury and gaudy, Trumpian superlative in just one diminutive breath.
Magnificent wind. What a lofty, dubious name for, arguably, the least dignified mode of long distance transportation known to modern cosmopolitan life. To call their bus service grossly economical would not place quite enough emphasis on the gross part, but tickets really were so cheap that even if more aptly named, college kids, artists, and others would still have lined up on Canal Street to ride the Egregious Fart bus between Chinatowns in New York and Boston and eventually elsewhere.
So fubar was the Fung Wah that it came as no surprise when the company lost its licensing in 2013, leaving the preservation of its legacy to stories like these and, of course, to Urban Dictionary, where Fung Wah is canonized as both a bus “known to burst into flames” and any noun or adjective that qualifies as “extremely unsafe, hazardous, or generally unfit for use.”
Reflecting on the story about Corbett in light of this knowledge might lead you to assume that the magnificent wind that swept him into my life blew my world apart, but it just so happens that when I met him at that bus stop in January of 2007, I was already in a state of flaming Fung Wah of my own.
My mother was striving to see her seventh year of life with cancer. My sister was in month seven of another difficult pregnancy. My relationship with my father was entering its twenty-seventh contentious year, and after losing both my boyfriend and my job in the summer of 2006, I had spiraled into the worst depression I have ever known, complete with debilitating insomnia that landed me in the hospital. Twice.
When Corbett’s lengthy, stilted messages started wafting into my inbox that November, usually in the weird hours between blegh:00pm and glurph:00am, the task of writing back to him became a soothing reprieve from compulsively applying for stupid corporate jobs I would never get and losing my grip one sleepless night after another.
Have you ever had insomnia? I don't mean that cute little “Oh, I had trouble falling asleep last night” kind of insomnia, or the “I pulled an all-nighter in college once or twice” kind of insomnia. I’m talking about the kind of insomnia that changes who you are and what you are and why you are. The kind of insomnia that turns the elastic concept of time into a rigid, shrinking tomb inside which you are sure that your mind and your soul will die. Insomnia that makes you forget not just what day it is, but what a day even is. When each taunting sunset feels like a threat. Each heckling sunrise: a defeat.
Insomnia that turns company into strangers and solitude to a curse. Insomnia that turns everyone into a doctor with prescriptions like Why don’t you just relax? or This herbal tea blend, like, totally works for that. Insomnia that chases Benzos with Pepto-Bismol and punishes just one glass of wine with dry heaves and a two-day migraine. The kind of insomnia that has time for all of that between manic surges of baking enthusiasm and crochet inspiration.
The is-that-a-pulsating-brain-on-the-sidewalk-or-maybe-just-a-plastic-grocery-bag-either-way- don’t-let-the-dog-get-too-close-to-it insomnia. Have you ever. Been awake. For five. days. straight?
Because that’s approximately where I was on my fifth day awake, lolling somewhere in the cognitive space between wakefulness and sleep known as hypnagogia. For lucid dreamers and avid meditators, this transitional state of mind is a lush playground, but just like a kid hanging upside down by a shoelace from some fancy jungle gym, I was trapped and helpless in a nightmare. But no kind teacher was going to come to my rescue. My only option was to hope that I’d fall soon.
I only remember two moments from That Fifth Day, two snapshot-glimpses, two riddles of blurry space between reality, memory, dream, and prophecy that, even right now, appear in my mind and feel in my bones like the kind of shame and embarrassment a movie director must feel watching their own film school-freshman shorts about tripping on acid.
The first is the view from my bed that morning and every morning: mounded, wrinkled sheets and blankets, the rest of the room wrecked with months of morbidity--dirty laundry, piled ashtrays and pill bottles--and a muted television playing Terrence Malick's Badlands. Again. Meek sunlight reflecting off the Board of Education windows across the street, bending from the sky to burn through my layers of smoke and dust, landing on a paper airplane? Yes, a paper airplane, folded and thrown by the kid sitting on the desk in the third row, Shawn Price. Heh. We were on milk squad together in Ms. Behrend’s third grade class and somehow, by Mr. Pendorff's senior English with Dante Owens, Anita Salvo, Malik, and Robbie, who were playing Spades at the foot of my bed, I’d know that Shawn’s aunt locked him in a bathroom after school, but he pronounced it “awnt.” Freddie drawing a cartoon of that one girl, Maralin, who never stopped talking, none of whom I’d even thought of in almost ten years. Why was my. twelfth grade English class. in my bedroom. semi-waiting on me, not humble Mr. Pendorff, to ask if anyone had actually read Fences or any great works of American literature because, gosh, he was just so hungry to teach us something.
In spite of my broken-down condition, I was cognizant enough to be confused, although I admit I only remember being pretty sure that most of this was a hallucination. Sure, I had an undergraduate English degree, but I was just an unemployed office administrator who hadn’t brushed her hair in a really long time, so based on that alone, it was completely reasonable for me to wonder how and why I had gone from languishing in my miserable bed in miserable Brooklyn--in-miserable-somnia--to teaching one of my own high school classes in my pajamas from, what can I even call it, my...desk-bed?
Just hearing myself say all of that summons an inner sizzle of a crashing, burning bus, that familiar Fung Wah feeling, but I cannot tell you what happened next because the only other memory I have of That Fifth Day--the other glimpsy, riddly snapshot--crystallized many hours later when the only light left was Badlands (again) and the glowing computer screen at the foot of my bed where Robbie was sitting and playing Spades nine years ago that morning. I sat to perform the futile email-checking ritual in case of an employment offer miracle, and that's when I saw the message from Hunter College with the subject, "Application Status: Received." Had I even applied for a job there?
I'll never know, but according to the automatically generated message I was staring at, in the intervening hours between my hallucination that morning and what felt like waking up a moment or so ago, I had filled out the forms, written an essay, reached out to old professors for recommendations, ordered my official transcripts, paid all of the fees, and applied to graduate school.
And that...that is how I became a teacher.
By leaving so abruptly, Corbett left me with a lot of baggage. And yeah, I was carrying plenty of burdens in my pockets, but I mean, Corbett left all of his earthly possessions in my coat closet. I was so angry and overwhelmed at that time that I couldn't even look at the stuff long enough to throw it all away, so I shoved it into a giant box, taped it shut, and draped a blanket over it.
But then I schlepped the box across the city when I moved from Brooklyn to Queens, and the damn thing was somewhere in the U-Haul when I came back to North Carolina to teach. The box of Corbett's stuff was in my basement in Weaverville when I fell in love with Old Goat, and it moved with us to Hound Mountain, our home in Candler. The box was tucked away and forgotten in the crawlspace under the stairs while Old Goat and I unpacked our own boxes and burdens, and then I got an email from Jamie.
It was only the second time I'd heard from her since before Corbett stormed out of my Brooklyn apartment years earlier. The first time was to tell me that he had died, and now, she wanted his stuff.
When I dug it out from the deepest layer of my useless crap, the box I’d been carrying around for most of a decade seemed smaller than I remembered, and when I caught myself handling each parcel and bundle it contained like a sacred relic, I realized that I wasn’t angry anymore. I found Corbett's pouches filled with crystals and charms. I flipped through his accordion file of postcards and magazine clippings. I thumbed through his collection of journals, each with only one handwritten poem on the first page. I emptied the knapsack he packed so tightly with unread novels and found one last book wedged at the bottom. It had large, sturdy covers and a glossy, white jacket like a children's book, and printed on the expensive paper pages within were photographs of naked, pre-pubescent girls.
Remembering the unfledged curiosity in Corbett’s eyes, the emotional and psychological implications of his diseases, the effects of dropping of those bombs in his thirteen year-old lap, I still could not reconcile his possession of this book nor the fact that for years, I’d been carrying and keeping it for him. Old Goat lit a bonfire, and I watched Corbett’s book burn until a gust of wind blew away the last weary scrap of spine fabric.
I didn’t respond to Jamie’s email, and I didn’t let this new blast of anger linger. I just kept going. This time, I wasn't alone. I had Old Goat.
If I told you that I fell in love with this man at first sight, it would be a lie because even before I turned around to get a look at the stranger sitting behind me, I was in love with the fiery, reckless sizzles he sent burning up my spine. I knew Old Goat was made of magic even though he arrived in the dark with curious eyes and the pockets of his army jacket packed with secret burdens.
Just like on the Fung Wah, once onboard the magnificent, dubious wind of love, we cannot take it for granted that everything will go as planned, that we won’t get injured or diverted along the way, so like the legions of passengers who lined up to ride the Chinatown bus, Old Goat and I risked life and limb to reach our destination--a peaceful, steady life together.
But somehow, that's pretty much exactly where we ended up: on the lush playground of peace of mind. Old Goat had a salaried position at a local farm; I was doing...what I do. We had our cozy home, our dogs, and our friends. For a while, life was kind of a breeze. Until a few weeks ago.
Old Goat decided it was time to move on from back-breaking physical labor to help a friend expand his thriving local business, and when he woke up to start his new job three Tuesdays ago, there was a message waiting for him. "Sorry, bro." The business had closed down abruptly over the holiday weekend. And just like that, all of our plans had blown off the table and sailed away like paper planes, and none of the flimsy, flaky explanations could bring us back to our breeze.
It's no secret that Asheville’s tourist economy is an unforgiving place for people with intellect, skill, and experience, but no college degree. Wages are low, and opportunities are slim across the board. After almost ten years of struggling here, Old Goat understands the limitations of his opportunities all too well, but he wants to use his hands and his mind to do something meaningful. He wants to--and can do--better than ten bucks an hour as an expendable pair of hands, but that’s about all he can do here.
So, three weeks ago, we realized that if we want to see the curiosity in Old Goat’s eyes become innovations we see in the world, we’re going to have to leave Hound Mountain.
Did you know that some of the best engineering schools and jobs right now are around Philadelphia? Which is where Old Goat grew up, which is where his fondest memories are, which is where we visited last summer and felt a gust of canny, wholesome comfort.
Stories to come.