The Old Garden: “I Was a Salmon Swimming Upstream” (Part 6/28)

The Old Garden: “I Was a Salmon Swimming Upstream” (Part 6/28)

September 10, 2009

Previously: “No More Reed Fields, No More Peanut Fields”

I got up late in the afternoon. I tried to taste each dish they laid out in front of me, but the seasoning was too strong, unfamiliar. They were all cautious, gently probing to see whether I felt comfortable. I was not able to give them long, detailed answers, just yes or no. Is it tasty? Yes. Are you tired? No.

I talked to my younger brother, who had immigrated to the United States. It was a long phone call, him talking about his family and his business, while I just listened. My aunt, out of the blue, wanted to talk about the possibility of my getting married soon, emphasizing that it was my mother’s dying wish to see me paired with someone suitable. I didn’t have to come up with an answer, thanks to my sister’s intervention. The first day out of prison I was in a stupor, like someone suffering from chronic fatigue. I kept seeing myself as if from a distance. When I tried to open a door, I had to tell myself, you’re about to open the door. Only then could I do it.

For three days and nights, I stayed at my sister’s house, going back and forth between the living room and my nephew’s room. My sister and her husband decided that I needed a full physical examination after observing my odd sluggish behavior. Except for the first day, I wasn’t able to sleep for more than a couple of hours each night. When the time to rise approached, I became anxious and stood out on the terrace for a long time. Looking into a mirror in the bathroom, I found a strange man gazing back. With my nephew’s help, I went out to the neighborhood stores or to the public bathhouse, but I didn’t even think about going out the door by myself.

They packed my underwear and toiletries. I was admitted to a university hospital. They paid for a deluxe single room with an attached bathroom. The small room was furnished with a single bed with my name tag on the headboard, two chairs, one love seat, a television, and a small refrigerator. I walked in there and thought I had returned to my prison cell. Finally I was comfortable and relieved to be alone. I followed all the rules, obeyed the nurses without question. I was an exemplary patient; I found it so easy to do as I was told and stick to the schedule, to skip a meal or take medicine or follow someone to somewhere else in the hospital. I had no major illness, doctors told me, but my eyes had deteriorated a great deal and my gums were in even worse condition. Because of gum disease that was now almost impossible to get rid of, my molars were no longer anchored in place. One doctor told me the possible causes were stress and malnutrition. A neuropsychiatrist thought I was about to have a nervous breakdown, common for those who spent years imprisoned. I would be insomniac, claustrophobic, and unwilling to talk or make physical contact with others. If I was lucky this should last only about three or four months and then the symptoms should disappear, but there was a possibility the condition would last for more than a year. I was getting old, but I did not want to lose my mind; I took the prescribed medicine every day, twice a day.

About a week into my hospital stay, my nephew called just before lunch hour. He was in the neighborhood with his mother and asked me to join them for lunch. Without asking for permission from the nurse in charge, I changed into my own clothes and left the hospital. I walked down to the street without any incident. People passed me by and none of them seemed to stare at me.

I came to a crossroads. Without thinking, I took the one in the middle. I was on the university campus, and the road I took was the central avenue from the main gate to a cluster of school buildings. I took a few steps and realized I was headed in the wrong direction, but I could not turn around. Students going to their classes clogged the street. I was a salmon swimming upstream. I bumped shoulders with them, blocked one student’s way while trying to avoid running into another. I became too conspicuous. Some kids glanced at me, others avoided me and walked around. I saw the main gate and told myself this ordeal would be over once I got there. I took one step at a time, deliberately and slowly. I became nauseous and couldn’t stop sweating. Beyond the main gate was a grand avenue full of traffic. Cars whizzed by, leaving dusty fumes behind. I thought every bus and truck was about to run over me. Holding on to a tree, I stood on the sidewalk for a while, then collapsed. My stomach was queasy and I spat onto the ground. I took a few more steps, then took a rest, counting the roadside trees one at a time. Finally, I got to a busy neighborhood full of restaurants, but I couldn’t even attempt to look for the one where I was supposed to be. I sat on the steps of an overpass and waited for my nephew to find me.

Continued: “I Owned Nothing in this World”

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