The meeting was a good one, and the movement’s prospects were pleasing – Leka, every inch a king at six-eight, had drawn enthusiastic crowds on a recent visit to his homeland. I left in the company of a woman who was no more Albanian than I. Her name was Marina Boyadjieva, and she was Bulgarian, and an enthusiastic supporter of the Bulgarian pretender, Simeon I. We went to a bar in the neighborhood for slivovitz, and then we took the subway into Manhattan and ate at a restaurant in the Village. (The owners were Albanians, with monarchist sympathies; the menu, like that of most Albanian-owned establishments in New York, was Italian.)
We hit it off. She was a few years younger than I, having been born two months before JFK’s assassination. This made her the right age biologically, but it didn’t give us much of a common frame of reference. She was, after all, only nine years old when I got frozen. She hadn’t been born during most of my life, and I hadn’t been around during most of hers.
But that was only a problem for two people planning to spend their lives together. It didn’t matter if you had short-term goals, like taking her back to her apartment, getting her clothes off, and screwing her brains out.
The first part was easy enough. She lived alone in an L-shaped studio in the east Twenties, where she made a pot of coffee and turned the radio to a golden oldies station. (Oldies for Marina; I was hearing most of them for the first time.) We sat side by side on her sofa, and I kissed her, and things were off to a nice start.
But that was as far as they went. After some pleasant moments she disengaged herself and said it was a shame we had to stop. And she told me that we would have to go slow, and take plenty of time to get to know each other, and eventually, if we were serious about our relationship, we would go together for blood tests. And then, after we got the results, we could go to bed together. But in the meantime it was good to know that we were indeed physically attracted to one another.
Cold comfort, I’d call it. “I’ll call you,” I assured her, and, riding home on the subway, I decided I wouldn’t. Because I didn’t want to go to bed with this woman if I had to court her for six months first and then pass a blood test. Why not go whole hog and get our DNA comparison-tested so we’d know how our children would do in school?
If that was what dating in the nineties amounted to, I figured the hell with it. Still, a man has needs, whether he’s thirty-nine or sixty-four, and it occurred to me that there were ways to satisfy them that didn’t involve months of chatting up some sweet young thing who didn’t have a clue who Hubert Humphrey was. There were, after all, women who did that sort of thing for a living. The ones on the street were about as inviting as the town pump during a cholera epidemic, but there were others, higher up on the food chain, who ran ads and took credit cards.
For some reason I didn’t seem to be interested. If love seemed like too much trouble, a commercial transaction was too cut and dried. It just didn’t seem as though it would be any fun.
And then, just to complicate things, there was Minna.
There we were, sharing the same apartment, taking turns using the bathroom, eating meals together, and just sitting around talking. She was out during business hours – she’d recently started working for a magazine publisher, in the advertising and sales promotion department, a natural choice for someone with a Ph.D. in Lithuanian history. But she was home the rest of the time, and I was aware of her presence even while she slept.
I didn’t know what we were to each other. I was simultaneously a man her own age and a guy old enough to be her father, and I’d actually been her father, or the closest thing to it, for a bunch of years.
And yet I wasn’t her father, and never had been. I was a guy who had rescued her from stultifying captivity and brought her home to a real childhood, and she’d spent it having fantasies of growing up to marry the handsome prince.
And what kind of fantasies had I been having? Was I unconsciously waiting for Minna to grow up so I could put the moves on her? How would I have felt when she began to blossom as a teenager? How would I have reacted when she started going out with boys? Would I have been calm and cool about it? Or overprotective? Or downright jealous?
No way to know. I wasn’t around for those years.
But I was around now. How did I feel about her?
Well, I loved her, of course. She was the only person left in my life and, until my meeting with the Chief, the only person I’d told about my personal Ice Age. And you could make the case that she’d awaited my homecoming with devotion not seen since Penelope sat around waiting for Ulysses. True, she’d gone through a marriage and divorce in my absence, which Penelope hadn’t done in the version I read. But she’d kept my apartment there with my books on the shelves and my clothes still hanging in the closets, and that’s devotion enough in this day and age.
I was attracted to her, I knew that much. And it was pretty clear the attraction wasn’t a one-way street.
But was it a dead end?
Suppose I made a pass at her. If she deflected it, however gently, things would be forever changed between us. We might be able to go on living together, although I wasn’t too sure about that. But we would never be as easy with one another as we were now.
And if she didn’t turn me down? If this was indeed what she’d been waiting for since I walked in the door? Then what?
You could, in Lorenz Hart’s words, make two lovers of friends, although it didn’t always work out as well as you might have hoped. But what happened when you tried to make two lovers of relatives?
Because we were family, Minna and I. Our roles might have changed, and what had been an ersatz father-daughter relationship may have been transformed into an ersatz brother-sister relationship, but in either case we were related, we were family members, and how on earth could we be lovers as well?
And we didn’t. And most of the time I didn’t even think about it. I was busy all the time, and she was out of the house a lot, and when we were together we had no end of things to talk about. So we never had to talk about this yen we had for each other, but it was always there, hanging in the air between us. It was, I suppose, the thing we didn’t talk about.
I don’t know how much it had to do with my continuing celibacy, and I doubt it had anything at all to do with resisting the allure of the pubescent professionals Suk would have introduced me to. Whatever age I was, they were too young to tempt me.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if the situation at home had something to do with my going to Burma. I couldn’t just hang around the house all day, lusting after my roommate. Why do that when I could travel halfway around the world and kill the last best hope of the Burmese people?
They were polite at the airport in Rangoon, but surprisingly thorough. The customs agent examined my passport, compared my face to my photograph, and assured himself that my visa had all the right things stamped on it. He went through my day pack, even uncapping my toothpaste and shaving cream. I don’t know what he expected to find in there.
There was an Englishman who’d flown in on the same flight from Bangkok, and he went through the line just ahead of me. He studied a map while I had my turn, and refolded it while I zipped up my pack. “Next time through,” he said to me, “I intend to pack one of those dummy cans they sell in novelty shops in Piccadilly. It looks like shaving soap, but when you open it out pops a great green snake.”
“You’d give the fellow a heart attack,” I said. “What do you suppose he was looking for, anyway? I know there are all kinds of things you can’t take out of Burma, but what is there that anyone would want to smuggle in?”
“Drugs,” he said.
“Isn’t that coals to Newcastle? I thought most of the world’s opium came out of the Golden Triangle.”
“I wouldn’t say they were rational about it,” he said. “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to bring drugs in. The people here haven’t any money, so what kind of market would they be? They can barely manage a couple of kyat a day for betel nut. My sense is they’re fearful of moral corruption. That’s why they sealed this place off all those years, and now that they want the tourists they’re terrified of what we might bring in with our luggage. Well, it’s Western ideas that they’ve every reason to fear, and there’s no way to catch them up in a Customs queue. I say, do you want to share a taxi into town? I’m booked at the Strand, but I could drop you anywhere along the way.”
The car was a blue Toyota, the driver a slim Burmese with an outgrown brush cut who seemed to understand English but didn’t offer any of his own. He stowed us in the back seat and our bags in the trunk and bent over the wheel.
“Sun’s out,” my companion said, “and it’ll be a scorcher in a couple of hours. First time in Burma? Business or pleasure?”
“Pleasure,” I said. “Though if I happen to run into any business opportunities-”
“You won’t turn a blind eye to them. What’s your line?”
“Import-export,” I said. “It’s my uncle’s firm, and he told me to keep my eyes open. But I’m really here as a tourist.”
“ Rangoon, Mandalay, and the ancient city of Bagan, right?”
“The usual places, I suppose.”
“Well, the natural sights to be seeing. And it’s not as though they’ll let you go anywhere you want. Certain regions are off-limits. They’ll bend the rules for an organized tour group, but the man on his own who wants to stray from the beaten path won’t find it easy.”
At the roadside, an enormous billboard loomed, its Burmese legend helpfully rendered in English as well. LOVE YOUR MOTHERLAND, it counseled. RESPECT THE LAW.
“The gospel according to SLORC,” he said. “Inspiring, don’t you think?”
“It’s longer in Burmese,” I remarked. “I suppose English is a more concise language.”
“It takes fewer words to get your point across than French or Spanish. I don’t know how it compares with Burmese.” He leaned forward, a barrel-chested man in his forties, his black hair gone snow white at the temples. “Of course,” he said, “there might be more to the Burmese message.”
“How do you mean?”
“They may not have translated all of it. It might say something like ‘Love your motherland and respect the law or we’ll lock you up and throw away the key.’” I chuckled, and he said, “I asked your line and didn’t tell you mine. I’m an agronomist, trying to sell the Burmese on the idea of putting more into the soil so they can get more out of it. Human waste only goes so far.”
“Is that what they use?”
“If you get close enough to the Irriwaddy, you’ll swear it doesn’t all go on the fields. Name’s Harry Spurgeon.”
“And you’re an American. What part of the States?”
“ New York.”
“Never got there myself. Spent some time on the West Coast – Portland and Seattle. Vancouver, but that’s not the States. And I got to Kansas City once. Now, there’s a town. Ah, another uplifting homily from SLORC.”