Death, Sex, and Cool
Recently I met someone with an unusual name: "Lancelot" (pseudonym). The meeting was pleasant and fortuitous but also a challenge because I had known someone named "Lancelot" decades ago. My encounter with the previous Lancelot wounded me. Think of open flesh dripping blood. I've got that inside, somewhere. I can't reach it so I can't fix it. For that reason I relegated the memory to a locked chamber. Meeting someone new with the same unusual name penetrated my sturdiest locks. I posted about this previously, here.
When I met that previous Lancelot, I was young, I was unguided, I made a terrible mistake, and I've been paying for it ever since.
I was in my twenties. I had never mattered to anyone, except my Uncle John. I am dyslexic and that had always been understood as my being retarded, defective, obstreperous, comic relief, a burden, and simply incapable of white-collar work. There was no one to say, "There are coping skills you can practice to alleviate the impact of the dyslexia. You should do so because even though you think you are retarded, you actually do have a fine mind and can contribute to society. You should go to graduate school, work on your writing, and become a college teacher. That's a job you can do well. Just be careful of the politics, because you do have a tendency to speak your mind, and coming from where you come from, you do not see things as those in power see them."
I've still got the diaries I kept in those days. I've been re-reading them. The years that I spent in Peace Corps Nepal were eventful. I almost died twice.
First near death: hypothermia. Eric saved my life.
Second near death: erysipelas. Fever of 105 Fahrenheit, the most extreme pain I had felt to date, my leg swelling up to twice its normal size, all in a remote village with no electricity, running water, or way to contact the outside world. I could sense my ancestors coming for me. I put my hand over the center of infection and prayed, "Jesus heal me," and I am here to tell the story.
Another big life event occurred while I was in Nepal. My brother Michael Goska died at age 34. My brother Phil, a husband and father, had been killed on my 17th birthday. Michael was also a husband and father. His death occurred only eight years after Phil's.
I lost my sister Antoinette in 2015, and my brother Joe in 2018, and both deaths wreck me to this day. I don't see myself ever recovering from Antoinette's death, or from the sadness I feel over Joe's death. Losing a sibling is hard.
Losing Mike while I was in Nepal was – as described in my diaries – a dystopic phantasmagoria.
I think cool was the most prized attribute for Peace Corps Volunteers. Not compassion. Not service. Not effectiveness. Cool. Compassion, service, and effectiveness were admired – if combined with cool.
Many of the Peace Corps volunteers I knew were young, fresh graduates from Ivy League and other renowned universities. Your lover leaves the country and you never will see him again? Be cool. You poop out a giant roundworm? Be cool. A "host country national" crawls into your window one night and rapes, beats, or robs you? You win points for being cool; you lose points for showing vulnerability.
She was painfully thin, quiet, and shy. The rumor was that if she complained at all, or made any noise about her rape, Peace Corps would rescind her "readjustment allowance." I don't know if that is true, but I have no real reason to doubt it. I saw Peace Corps administrators put cool above compassion too many times. And I've read too many articles like this one: "'Targeted, Bullied, and Terrorized': How the Peace Corps Fails Rape Victims … former volunteers and employees say that the global volunteer program is failing to protect and support those who have been sexually assaulted or raped while on duty."
Peace Corps culture's emphasis on cool over compassion was not communicated only in callousness towards rape survivors. That emphasis was communicated in tiny little gestures about tiny little aspects of everyday life.
There was this cheap, bottled, fruit-flavored drink I used to buy, "squash." "Squash," as an Indian Subcontinent word for fruit drink, is left over from the British raj. I bought and drank this sugary, vaguely fruity syrup because it lessened the smoky taste, and enhanced the appeal, of lukewarm, boiled water.
J, one of the coolest Peace Corps Volunteers, came to my place one day, saw the empty squash bottles, and sneered. "You sure like squash." He said this with complete contempt, and judgment.
Drinking squash was not cool. Coffee, cool. Tea, cool. Boiled water, cool. Raksi, Nepali moonshine, cool. Fruit juice: not cool.
Dave was a very cool Peace Corps Volunteer. I casually mentioned to him, just in the course of lighthearted banter, that I missed peanut m&ms and that when I got back to the states, I looked forward to eating them. Dave looked at me as if I were a sinner in need of flagellation. "I have different priorities than you. You value m&ms. I value the work I am doing in this beautiful country, far from Western corruption," Dave said. Rumor had it that Dave was not above consuming the occasional acid tab. Drugs, no matter how Western, were very cool. Peanut m&ms were not cool.
In the first week of service, we were all just meeting each other, just getting to know each other. We would spend most of our time in-country in remote villages where no one else spoke English. No electricity, no running water, no roads. We walked to our posts, packs on our backs. We'd spend our first three months in-country training together, and then see each other only during conferences or vacations that occurred periodically throughout the year.
So we fed on each other, ravenously. We told each other the stories of our lives.
It was during one of these sessions that I was asked what college I had attended.
Again, I was among Ivy League graduates, and graduates of other elite institutions.
I named my college. It was a 130-year-old teacher's college. It was well known for taking first-generation Americans, including many African Americans and other poor and minority students, and giving them the teaching degree that would earn them a place in the middle class. It was not a prestigious school; it was a blue-collar school. My oldest brother, Joe, had received a full scholarship to a "Public Ivy." I lacked Joe's intellectual chops. I was hamstrung by my learning disabilities and abuse-engendered shyness. But I had finished at this humble college in the allotted four years. I had finished magna cum laude. I had finished in spite of being homeless my senior year. There had been a particularly bad beating at home the beginning of that year, and I ran out into the night with nothing. With that nothing, sleeping on floors, in woods, and in public places, eating from dumpsters, I had managed to pay tuition and score straight A grades.
I named my school. My humble college.
"Danusha graduated from the best high school in the state of New Jersey," J said, as soon as I named my college. There was no hesitation, and no apology. I was put in my place among the Peace Corps elite.
I was so not cool.
One day I was in the Peace Corps office. I was told that Dr. Theresa, the Peace Corps doctor, wanted to talk to me. I picked up the phone and she told me that my brother Mike was dead. I began to cry.
Rose, another Peace Corps volunteer, picked up the phone I had thrown down and began to critique my crying to Dr. Theresa. I was crying too much and too loudly. I was standing right next to Rose as she lambasted my lack of cool.
I flew home to the States, for a grief leave. Of course by the time I got back Mike had been eulogized and buried. Mike was my mother's favorite; I was the pregnancy she would have aborted were she not Catholic. She told me as much. She said some harsh things that hurt me a lot. She also tried, in her uniquely wacko way, to be kind. She handed me a pair of second-hand jeans she had bought at the Pompton Lakes Salvation Army, and said, "Here, take these jeans back to Nepal with you."
"I can't, mom," I said. "They want us to wear Nepali clothes."
"Wear the goddamn jeans! Wear them on the plane!"
I took the jeans and found two hundred dollars stuffed in the pocket. My mother insisted, absurdly, that whoever had donated the jeans to the Salvation Army had left the money in the pocket.
Nepal is halfway round the world from NJ. I'd have to break my return flight somewhere; I stopped in the UK.
I had met Dr Fox in Nepal, where he was volunteering his time, without pay, in a provincial hospital. He was, in short, a humanitarian, like a Peace Corps Volunteer. He had since returned back to the UK and was working in a hospital in Wales.
He wasn't prepared to do or to say what one does or says to someone who is in deep grief. I don't know why and perhaps he didn't know why, either. One night I cooked him dinner – pasta primavera. He looked me in the eye as I ate and said, "You eat too much." One plate of pasta primavera. Too much, and not cool.
This visit, just after my brother's death, was the end of our relationship. That dark, emphatic line taught me a truth I'd see proven again and again throughout my life: people reject you when you are in pain.
I flew back to Nepal. D, P, and M, friends, invited me on a road trip to India.
Before we left, there was a party. There were always parties. I thought of M as my best friend in country. She was, like me, a tall, smart, outspoken woman. Except she was taller, smarter, more outspoken, Ivy League, and unburdened by my cognitive glitches and working class and ethnically incorrect roots. And, unlike me, she was a classic beauty.
At the party, M got drunker than I had ever seen her. M told me that two nights before she had had slept with Dan, whom my diary describes as "Tall, lithe, gorgeous, dreamlike." I wish I had recorded Dan's last name. I'd love to Google him and find out if he is still lithe and dreamlike. M flirted with Dan but also with a different D, whom my diary describes as "burly," and with a Mike, not my brother Mike, but a "cool, Italian, macho" Mike.
She alternated sitting in various men's laps and making out with them and coming over to me and saying, "Women don't need men!" or "I'm gonna take a guy home tonight, I don't know who yet, I'm gonna fuck him, I'm gonna enjoy it, but from now on for the rest of my life I’m only gonna sleep with women," and "All men are rapists."
As far as I knew, M was in a committed relationship with J, a man I thought of a as friend, a man whose feelings I cared about. J, for his part, had been "womanizing," as reported by P and D. "If it's not in the same zip code, it doesn't matter." J was not in our zip code. It didn't matter. All part of cool.
J, by – allegedly – cheating on M, had been cool.
M, by flirting with all the men at one party, was being cool.
I had lived the zip code rule myself. Years before this party, B used to be my boyfriend. B slept with a host-country-national prostitute. He later told me he had slept with this prostitute. He told me he had to do it because if he went back to the states without being able to tell friends that he had sampled the local women he would never be able to live it down. He told me he paid her with a piece of cloth, in order that she might sew a new garment for herself. A piece of cloth was the standard payment.
I responded by sleeping with another man when apart from B. What I didn't realize was that B, whom I thought was at least a day's travel away, had decided to pay me a surprise visit. B entered the house where I was upstairs on a mattress on a floor with another man. B never revealed any hurt to me – saying "I'm hurt" to a woman would not be cool. An acquaintance, Steve, told me how hurt B was. I learned the hard way that the zip code policy was bogus.
But the B event was years before. Other parties. Other men. Other drugs. Other dances.
This party, the one I'm telling you about, was just after my brother Mike died.
I was sitting on the floor, observing, feeling alienated and blank.
A fellow volunteer offered me drugs. I declined. "C'mon, Danush, it's good stuff. Have some fun!"
I've never been into drugs. I said that my brother just died and I didn't want to do drugs during this period of mourning.
The vol looked at me with total contempt. He let me know that I was not cool.
Eventually M, close to passing out, came and sat next to me, giggling, hugging me and kissing me all over my face and hair, and said, "I love you! I love you! You are so you!"
So many people were not talking about Mike, I was close to a mental breakdown. I had to say to M, the woman I relied on as my best bud, whose friendship I thought of as my last anchor, "Why did I have to go home to the states?"
"You really don't know?"
"Just answer my question."
"Your brother died, Danush."
And that was all that was said.
Eric came over and kissed me. M said, "Eric, you're an asshole. All men are assholes."
I loved Eric, but this was not the night I wanted him to kiss me, or at least not in this way.
M disappeared for a while and then came back. "He was frantic, wild, pushing really hard. He scared me," she said, of burly D, the man at the party she had selected. "So I told him to come, and he did."
M abandoned our road trip to India. She decided she needed to travel to J's post and tell J in person that it was over between them.
I was left with D and P, both guys. One day, during one of those interminable train rides over Indian rails, I reminisced about my folks back home in the states. I mentioned my Aunt Rose and Uncle Rudy, favorite relatives who had one foot in the Old Country and one foot, just barely, in America. Uncle Rudy used to claim that Archduke Ferdinand was his godfather by proxy. I have no idea if that is true, or if one can even be a godfather by proxy. But I loved to hear Uncle Rudy talk about it. Uncle Rudy conjured embroidered aprons, whip-fast cimbalom tunes, steaming dill soup, and horse-drawn carriages into any New Jersey living room he visited. I mentioned to D that Aunt Rose and Uncle Rudy lived in Garfield, New Jersey. I cherished Garfield because it was home to these two great characters.
D kind of huffed.
"What?" I asked.
"Garfield? It's just a grimy, working class town."
Having Bohunk relatives in Garfield, NJ. Not cool.
I just googled the guy M chose that night, the guy who, in my diary, I described as "burly." The guy M ordered to come, because he was pushing too hard and scaring her.
In his Facebook photo, he is now bald, with a fringe of white hair. He posts photos of his meals and his vacations. His meals are exotic, as are his vacations. He is married, with adult kids.
When I was at my post, I never heard so much as a plane fly overhead. This scratch in a Himalayan hillside, not even a village, at seven thousand feet, was frequently shrouded in mist and fog. I wore wool in August. I loved teaching, but school rarely functioned. My house was so remote that the loudest thing I heard on any given day was the water running in the brook and the wagtail bird that patrolled that stream. In the evenings Sarada Madam and I would gather around her fire and she would pick lice out of my hair. There was no remedy for the fleas that constantly crawled on me under many layers of clothing. Pockets of pus pocked my legs: infected flea bites. After my visit to the US for Mike's death, an exterminator had to fumigate the room I had stayed in.
Other volunteers, more remote than I, lost body parts in-country. Once they finally got to a doctor, either walking, sometimes on broken limbs, or carried by porters, their malfunctioning part had to be removed. A couple of dear folks did lose their hold on sanity, and had to be "psycho-vacked." Some found so little food they had to be evacuated because their weight dropped below safe levels.
During those few occasions per year when we volunteers gathered together, we had long talks about saving the world, we drew up ambitious plans, we sent off grant applications to bring outhouses or stock animals to our villages, and then we partied very hard.
I loved almost every PCV I ever met. They were exciting, sexy, smart, idealistic, and good-looking.
But reading my diary pages about Mike's death, and how my Peace Corps family reacted to me, stuns me. I don't know how I survived.
I had nightmare after nightmare. The plot was always the same. The nightmares began with Mike alive. Slowly but insistently, he worked to convince me that he was dead. In one dream, he made me bury him.
I can't help but note the irony. We were all idealists, ostensibly working on saving the world. Extending a word of compassion to a fellow in grief was apparently not part of our mission.
My brother Mike Goska was over six feet tall.
He was a carrot top.
He had freckles.
He had strong facial features and a fiery personality. He looked a bit like Burt Lancaster.
He was a high school athlete and a sci-fi fan.
Cops used to harass him and his friends so he made a human shaped dummy, and, in the woods with his friends, with cops watching from a distance, beat the dummy till "blood" (paint) came out.
When there was no money to buy shoes for me, and I was going around barefoot, he carried me on his shoulders over the broken glass near the candle factory.
When there was no money to buy food, and we were subsisting on government surplus white rice and government surplus margarine, he squatted down before me, told me that there was a fire inside me, and I had to eat this slop to stay alive.
When the kids across the street gave me a hard time, he phoned their father and threatened to beat the crap out of him.
He was an arrogant, argumentative atheist till he became an arrogant, argumentative Baptist. He was studying to be a minister when he died.
He loved his daughter so much he stayed alive, his body wasted and in pain, just long enough to hold her in his arms.
My brother Mike was cool.
This blog post aroused many questions.
Was I cool? Did I show compassion to others?
How can I claim to be Christian and talk about having had sex with men before marriage?
Is it helpful or harmful to read, think, write and contemplate about the past?
Does it help or hurt to think about Lancelot-related emotional trauma?
I hope to answer these in a subsequent blog post.