I wish I had a suntan

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Girls – Lust For Life

On the top of Penang Hill, the mountain in the middle of the island, everyone piles out of the cable car. I take my position among the other sightseers along the initial bit of railing and look out over Georgetown. Following the road from the state mosque with my finger, I locate my condo. My apartment faces the other way, out to the sea, so even if my roommates were on the balcony waving I wouldn’t be able to see them.

I hike up my pants and head down the narrow paved path, veering left at random. A sign tells me the canopy walk is closed. An Arabic family asks me to take a picture, and I oblige. The man is in jeans and sunglasses. The child has a Ralph Lauren polo on. The woman is covered head to toe (she wears socks) in thick, flowing black. I can barely see her eyes through the slit. He could get remarried and not have to change any family pictures as long as the new wife was roughly the same height, I think, handing back the camera.

I like to take pictures of signs. Tourists like to take pictures of me. They whiz by on neon green golf carts, video cameras pointed intrusively at me for disconcertingly long periods. Fucking tourists, I think. Then again, I’m up here taking pictures too, aren’t I?

I take a steep path under the canopy, now with planks of wood nailed in front of its entrance, and end up at something called the Nature Lodge. I recognize it as the location of a weekend Drama retreat in high school. Over to the side is where Jacqui found one bar of service if she cocked her head just right. The red-floored space under the rooms is where we first planned an improv group that resulted in one performance during chapel. (In one skit I was only allowed to say the line “Ho ho ho.” I did well to escape expulsion from my conservative religious school.)

When my ankles hurt, I turn and head back. Apparently it is a good time to leave; they pack the cable car until I cannot shift my shoulders. A middle-aged gentleman gives up his seat for an old Chinese man, who initially tries to refuse but ends up taking it. This pleases me.

I take a different road and drive halfway up the mountain to a massive Buddhist temple I saw from the top. As I pull in front, a parking attendant yanks his thumb toward a side path with “more parking” spray painted along the wall. I turn around. I’m not sure how I feel about living in a world where temples are tourist attractions. I drive further up the hill to a giant statue, incense wafting over the landing area. I buy two “wishing ribbons.” One reads: “Booming Business.” It’s for my roommate because he’s starting his own online business soon and excessively Asian things like this are funny to him. The other reads: “Being Coupled & Paired.” It’s for me because I’ve got the biggest, stupidest puppy-dog crush on this girl and sometimes it’s ok to be earnest.

Back at the bottom I find a hawker stall to sit, drink tea and smoke cigs. The man serving coconuts next to my table keeps saying “ping” when shouting drink orders across the 10 or so tables, so I ask him what language it is. “Oh, it’s Chinese.” “Mandarin?” “Yes, yes. Mandarin. How long have you been here?” When I start speaking Malay I give myself away. “Oh, six months.” I wave my hand like it’s no time at all. It’s easier than explaining growing up here off and on and then leaving and then coming back, especially in bilingual conversations.

I walk across the street and into a narrow stair passage flanked on both sides by souvenir shops selling gloriously awful t-shirts and other nicknacks. I’ve been here before, I think. As an elementary kid we’d come here on an outing and Kevin and I had found a small pond with turtles. It had felt like we were the first to ever discover them. We’d sat watching and feeding them green leafy vegetables for hours. I brush a wind-chime absentmindedly and the man in the store says, “Yes? Can I help you? Special price for you!” “Turtles?” I ask. “Up,” he says dismissively, going back to his newspaper before the word is even out of his mouth.

Near the top I find the turtles. They’re grimy, piled on top of each other in the sun. The ‘pond’ is an inch deep, less in parts. It smells. I turn and drive home.

I still don’t understand my childhood, but I’m starting to piece together where it happened.

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