Stickman Readers' Submissions December 1st, 2015

What A Shame, Her Mind is Fried!

I went to sleep early, something I don't usually do. This resulted in me waking up in the wee hours of the morning. Disoriented, I wasn't sure if it was late at night or "O' Dark-Thirty" in the morning?

It was actually 2:30am.

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Oh well, I decided to go down to the kitchen and start my day with a nice, aromatic hot cup of coffee. My girlfriend and daughter were still asleep and the house was quiet, so I savored the luxury of sipping my coffee in peace.

I live in Asia. Consequently, after the wake-up coffee, the next normal task is to cook fresh rice. It's almost a sacrilege to have no ready-to-eat-rice 24/7 in Asia.

Most Americans, British, Germans, and other Europeans don't think twice about substituting potatoes, bread, or pasta for rice. Vacationing foreigners often find it odd to see Asians eating rice along with spaghetti, noodles, potatoes, and bread; thinking that it's redundant, a double helping of that "fat-producing" starchy food group. Honestly, though, how many young Asians do you see sporting "love handles"or a "spare tire"?

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Ex-Pats quickly find out that the surest way to host a disastrous dinner party is to forget to include that all-important, Asian comfort food called rice. In short order, their Asian guests get visibly nervous; planning an excuse-laden, hasty, but polite exit, when they don't see rice on the banquet table (of course, positioned next to the mashed potatoes, pasta, and bread)!

Asians have a visceral connection to rice.

It's not merely the physical discomfort of hunger pangs that will panic most Asians, it's the emotional stress and accompanying social stigma of poverty that's directly connected with not enough rice to eat. In many parts of Asia, poor people eat the less expensive corn meal; preparing it to appear like rice because they can't afford to buy "real" rice.

Personally, I actually like corn meal too.

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But needless to say, any "meal" without rice is considered just a "snack" in Asia. If Asians don't have rice with each and every meal, no matter what else is being served with the main course, it's almost like they get, what we call in the U.S., the "Chinese Food Syndrome": You pig out at a Chinese restaurant, then about an hour later, you're complaining of hunger again!

I'm still a stubborn "traditionalist" when it comes to cooking rice. I don't use an automatic rice cooker. Using the water-to-the-first-line of my middle finger method, I've never made a bad pot of rice.

Besides, most rice cooker models, no matter how expensive, fail to function much earlier than their warranty date; probably due to the spikes in electricity endemic to most Asian countries. Cooking with propane, wood, or charcoal doesn't leave you at the mercy of your electricity, and by proxy, to that damn rice cooker.

Why not utilize the warranty you say? Well, with all warranty programs here, your sick device is sent to a land "far, far away" to be resuscitated. After convincing the store manager that you didn't abuse the rice cooker and void the warranty (I guess rice cooker abuse is a hot issue here?), the process takes, on average, at least 3 months! Go figure? Frustrated and impatient, most customers end up buying another stupid rice cooker!

Ok, "rice cooking rants" are over.

Coffee and rice done, I did some tidying up of the kitchen. Taking the full, small plastic trash bags, I opened my front door and headed toward my trash bins near the property's front gate. It was about 3:30am and still pitch black outside.

Surprised but not alarmed, I noticed a dark, shadowy figure sitting in the far corner of my front porch. He (or she) was sitting on a section of the empty plant ledge that outlined the tiled porch's perimeter. The people in my compound will sometimes use my front porch for private phone calls or "texting/chat sessions," especially when their homes are filled with visiting relatives. Without looking directly at the sitting figure, I simply said, "Hello. It's okay. Continue with your chatting," and walked silently to my trash bins.

Depositing my trash and securing the receptacle lids, I turned around towards my house. The faint lights from my living room provided just enough backlight for me to see the person on my porch more clearly.

Oh my God! It was an ex-ex-ex girlfriend whom I hadn't seen or heard from in ages! Quickly, I shuffled to my front door, opened it, reached in, and switched on my porch light.

What I saw made my jaw drop.

This once beautiful Asian sweetheart now looked like a forlorn homeless person. Gone was the luxurious brown butt-length hair, manicured nails, and subdued make-up that used to frame her angelic face. Her face, arms, and hands were sun burnt, almost black; not the luscious mocha color I remembered. She had cut her hair down to crew-cut length. (Much later I learned that she had sold her hair to local wig makers.)

She had sunken eyes and was rail thin. Her once stunning figure now resembled a boy more than a woman.

Dirty and disheveled, she was wearing an old, filthy T-shirt peppered with small tears and moth holes. Her jeans looked four sizes too large and rolled up to calf length. Flip-flops that were held together with masking tape looked painfully small for her scarred, muddy feet.

I slowly walked toward her and put out my hand.

She sprinted the last four steps between us, grabbed my hand, pulled me closer, and tightly wrapped her arms around me as if she thought I would soon vaporize and disappear – like the rest of her hallucinations.

Sometime during this bear hug she realized that, yes, I was real and nuzzled her face into my right shoulder, and began to softly cry and shake uncontrollably. She struggled with the violent convulsions and the "stutter/gulp" breathing cycle that usually accompanies tears of deep sadness. The muffled crying was heartbreaking; sounding like an exhausted, abandoned, and starving baby that was too weak to protest with anything louder than a whimper.

I tolerated the stench of her clothes and hair, and the gritty oil of her skin; and kissed her forehead, while gently rubbing and patting her back. She always liked that. It had an instant calming effect. Eventually, she stopped shaking and sobbing just long enough to look me straight in the eyes for a second or two.

I don't know what she saw in my eyes, but all I saw in her's was a combination of utter confusion and a desperate kind of pleading that instantly tore my heart apart.

Now I wanted to cry.

When I first met her at a party years ago, it was her mesmerizing eyes that intrigued me the most. They were so beautiful; so full of life, joy, and playfulness. When you added the "angel wings" smile, the knock-out body, a sharp intellect, and a sense of humor befitting a salty sailor, it's no surprise that, like me, many were hooked from the start.

When I saw her that first time, I made it a point to consciously prevent stumbling over myself and looking like the next fool in line. She was surrounded by a group of admirers; mostly fat, rich old foreigners and young, poor-but-handsome backpackers.

I maneuvered close enough to listen to her voice, but far enough to plausibly be "nonchalant" about all the fuss. With all the attention she was already getting, it would have been insane to appear like just another "buzzing gnat vying for attention." And of course, at first chance, annoying gnats usually get swiftly swatted down, no?

I had already planned my strategy to get her away from the others and alone with me.

What did I do? The only thing that I believed would instantly separate me from the herd: I waved at her, made eye contact, winked, blew her a kiss, and walked away with as much swag I could comfortably display.

And just as I predicted, less than a minute later she detached herself from the group and walked to where I had stationed myself in a foyer leading to the restrooms. She smiled and pointed to the female restroom, pointed at me, pointed to my feet, and while flashing the cutest, sexiest "pouty face," gave me the "please" gesture (hands together as if praying).

The meaning was simple: "Please stay here until I get back from the restroom, ok?" Go figure? Of course, I waited!

Back then, just as now, when she returned I offered my hand; and without hesitation, she took it. That started a romance that lasted for almost one and a half years.

But from the start I had a nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right, just slightly askew. Soon after we began living together, she would always find an excuse that could neither be proved, nor disproved, to be away from home for a few days to a week EVERY month.

Then our expensive gadgets started to slowly disappear.

At first, I believed our streak of "bad luck" was just the result of partying too hard or simple drunken stupidity (e.g., forgetting our cel phones at a bar, getting my freshly-ATM-fed wallet stolen, getting her handbag, containing her tablet, my iPad, and jewelry, stolen, etc.). But finally I realized the truth: She was stealing from me.

Why? In my mind, the most common/obvious reasons were that she had another lover, or could be a drug addict, or both? In time I found out it was BOTH.

She and her boyfriend were orchestrating the theft of our belongings. She would then sell or pawn the items to pay for their expensive, daily crystal meth habit. She had duped the other guy in believing that she had a job abroad and could only fly back once a month!

In a way, I envied the other guy. I thought that his drug habit probably took some of the pain away; or merely kept him from experiencing it. In other words, if he was perpetually stoned, he probably didn't feel the hurt and betrayal like I did.

When she pulled another "Houdini Escape Artist Act" on me, I decided that I'd had enough of the games, lies, cheating, and stealing.

I ended the relationship by packing up all her things into two heavy duty, XXL black garbage bags and posted them on the porch like sentries guarding my front door. Upon her return, I didn't let her in the house and said,"Darling, you must leave now. Do not come back. Don't contact me. Hope you have a better life and find whatever you are looking for."

She showed no outward reaction.

I guess SHE KNEW that I KNEW everything now. Without making a scene, she stoically hoisted the black trash bags into a waiting tricycle taxi (Philippines: Trike, Thailand: Tuk-Tuk). She never waived goodbye, or even bothered to look back.

And as I watched the Trike disappear into the night, I heaved a deep, melancholy sigh.

Even though my mind knew I had done the right thing, my heart was screaming at me to go chase after her. "MARINE! MAINTAIN!," I told myself.

For once, reason trumped emotion. I simply kept reminding myself that the whole situation with her was a lost cause. She wouldn't, or maybe couldn't, change. From a very early age, she had learned how to easily use men to get whatever she needed or wanted. She was an expert at manipulating others with her charm. Feeling no remorse, she never batted an eye when she purposefully (and literally) screwed people over and over again. And I was not about to do that "lie, cheat, steal cycle" all over again. Nope. No freakin' way, buddy!

That was over three and a half years ago.

But now, out of the blue and in the worst condition I could ever imagine, she appears on my door step. Why? What did she want? It was obvious she was tired, hungry, dirty, and desperately needed someone to talk to. Awwww shit! In spite of all the complications that could possibly arise, I knew that I had to do the right thing.

While in her embrace, I slipped my right hand under her left arm; placing my hand on her heart. Then I touched her right shoulder with my left hand. Tapping her heart and keeping in contact with her arms, I gently eased out of her hug until we were holding hands, face to face, and staring at each other again.

"What happened to you, Darling?," I asked. (I already knew). And all I got back was a blank stare.

Unfortunately, while working on the Psych wards of many civilian and military hospitals, I've seen this catatonic state too many times before. It was zombie-like, interspersed with jerky, uncontrollable eye and neck movements from chronic hallucinations. The patients were unresponsive to most verbal and physical stimuli and were always heavily medicated.

In her case, the condition was the result of a longtime crystal methamphetamine addiction. And sadly, when the money runs dry – and it always does with drug abusers and alcoholics; her physical/mental health was further degraded by the sexual abuse by all the drug dealers, pimps, and johns who traded their drugs, alcohol, or money for whatever they wanted to do to her body. She was now over-jacked and tripping out of her skull!

"What a shame. What a shame, indeed! Her mind is fried!," I said to myself.

Leading her by the hand like a little lost child, we tip-toed past the bedrooms where my daughter and girlfriend were still sleeping. Entering the second bathroom, I positioned her under the shower. In my somewhat paternal, "Big-Boy Marine" voice, I commanded her to "Stay put. Do not move!" Then I snuck into my bedroom, grabbed some clean clothes, a pair of new flip-flops, and a fresh towel.

Ironically, or maybe due to some unconscious Freudian behavior, I still kept the clothes she forgot in her "quick-getaway-bag" from years ago. They were clean, pressed and in a plastic shopping bag, hidden under some blankets in my closet. It was a miracle that the "krinkle, krinkle, krinkle" sounds of me grabbing the bag didn't wake up my girlfriend!

Semi-lucid, she immediately stripped down and turned on the hot water heater. I could barely look at her now. She looked like a tortured, malnourished war prisoner! There was purple bruising on each upper bicep, a tell-tale sign of someone forcibly squeezing, shaking, or pinning her down by her arms. There were multiple cigarette burns on her torso. Either she had practiced self-mutilation, or was deliberately burned by another person. I felt sad…so, so sad.

And for the second time this night, I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.

Before closing the bathroom door, I saw her frantically putting shampoo and conditioner in her hair – repeatedly. Then she began slow dancing under the shower. She still knew how to move her hips, undulating to some imaginary, sexy music. "Uh-oh," I thought. I hope she doesn't start singing like she used to! I inched the door open and waived my hands to get her attention. Snapping her out of her "Aqua-Erotic Reverie," I motioned her to keep quiet by making the"shooshing" gesture (vertical index finger touching the lips).

Luckily, she understood, remained non-vocal, and continued to happily enjoy all the fragrant bath soaps in the plastic holder hanging from the shower head.

I have to admit, it was nice seeing her smile again.

While she was finishing her 35 minute shower and getting dressed, I cooked a small pot of rice and fished out a half-dozen Tupperware containers from the fridge. They were filled with the day's leftovers and restaurant take-out. It was a nice variety of Asian dishes.

Warming up the meals, my mind was flooded with memories of all the happy times in the past when we would eat together. Many times, we would cook at home, get "Shit-Slinging drunk," and laugh our way through the meals. Then I reminded myself that sooner or later, I had to face reality; the SOONER, the BETTER.

Trying to bolster my resolve, I thought, "Yeah, those really WERE fun times. But remember how it ended up? Keep things in perspective. Best thing to do right now is to be kind. Just be a good Marine and MAINTAIN!"

I was almost done setting the table when I felt her body against my back and her arms around my waist. She smelled absolutely delicious! Closing my eyes, I could distinctly pick out the sensual smell of floral shampoo, conditioner, papaya soap, and scented body lotion. Imagine that? These were the same products that my girlfriend would use, but somehow it all smelled exquisitely better on her! Stifling a laugh, I remembered how I would always tell my friends that, "She emits pheromones that attract any male within 100 kilometers!"

Damn, it was hard to remember what the Hell I was doing just seconds before! Oh yeah, the food thing…

We sat down close to each other.

I knew she was starving, but as always, she started all our meals with her little personal ritual: Before eating, she would touch my leg and feed me a sample of her food first. It was a cute, affectionate habit that immediately made me smile.

I said that I was not hungry and that she really should eat now. Then she began eating….and eating….and eating! My God!, there was enough food on the table to satisfy at least three people comfortably, but she finished it ALL; including two mountains of rice! After a couple of tall glasses of Coca-Cola, she sat back with a look of pure contentment.

She was rubbing my legs and playing "footsie" under the table when I saw that her eyelids were getting heavy.

When she began yawning, I knew that this unexpected, exciting, nostalgic, romantic, and TOTALLY STUPID reunion must come to an end – Pronto. I was already pushing my luck thus far with all the stealthy activity. There was no way she was staying overnight!

Again, we tip-toed past the bedrooms and carefully opened the front door. We were walking to the front gate when, for the first time all night, she finally said something. It was a gravel-voiced "I love you. I wasn't ready to love you back, way back then 'cause I hated myself so much."

She continued on.

"It took me a long time to realize that you were the only person in my whole life who really cared. But I know you have a new life now and I wanted you to know that…." She stopped talking when the tears began to trickle from her eyes, down her face, pool at her nostrils, and carve their way to each corner of her mouth.

Those eyes. Those pleading, beautiful eyes! Like a an idiot, I began to cry too.

Shit! Shit, shit, shit! This wasn't the way I wanted to say goodbye – forever. I thought I could keep it together (MAINTAIN) long enough to do the macho thing: Tell her it's too late to make amends. "You took me for granted and played me for a fool, Bitch! Too bad, so sad. Now, be on your way, girl!"

But the truth is that I kissed and hugged her for a very, very long time; until we both stopped crying and just stood there, clinging to each other like lone survivors of a shipwreck; not wanting to, but understanding that we HAD TO, let each other go – for good this time.

Looking into her eyes, I KNEW that SHE KNEW now.

I helped her into a Trike. And against her feeble protests, I stuffed some money into her trembling hands. She mustered up enough courage to fake a brave smile and waived goodbye; always keeping eye contact. The Trike grumbled to life and began to slowly move away and down my street.

And as the Trike disappeared into the night, I experienced that familiar melancholy, heavy sigh again…

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