My wife, Nancy, has a childhood friend. Let me call him F. They grew up together on an island in the south, a beach resort town with weather beaten clapboard houses cheek by jowl with “open only for the season” inns. In that town F. had two strikes against him. He was Jewish and he was gay. It was not surprising that he would become an ex-patriot. Nor was it surprising that when he chose to live in another country, it would be on an island. Old habits die hard.
The year Nancy announced that we were going to Bhutan, she said, “There is no way we’re going to the Far East and not include a detour to visit F.”
I could understand that. They had known each other for 56 years. That is how we ended up spending four days with F. on an island in southeast Asia where, to the locals, a Jew and a Christian were about as different as 1% and 2% milk. As for being gay, well, come on in and sit right down.
F. lived from day to day, he told us. He made a bit of money working for a pharmaceutical company. But now he was working for no one.
“My father told me I should have been a chemist because I could turn money into shit,” he said with a shrug. “The truth is I never thought I’d live past fifty.”
We were sitting in a garden next to his rented four room house in a tiny, hard scrabble village near the ocean.
“There was nothing here,” he said. The sweep of his hand intended to take in the tiny plot of the garden barely grazed my wine glass.
It was dark, except for the yellow, blue and aquamarine lamps that had been set up around the edge of the garden that pasteled the trees, already as high as the two-story bungalow, so that they looked like splayed crayons in a coloring box.
“I planted all this myself,” he said contentedly. “Everything grows in this climate. Night blooming jasmine. Bird of paradise. Papyrus. Lotus. Things I don’t even know the name of that the gardener put in. This place is a paradise.”
A large rhododendron plant behind him twitched as tiny tree frogs leaped from one leaf to another. They chirped as they leaped, like tiny parachutists leaving the plane.
“We have cobras, you know.”
He added it as an afterthought.
“My friend killed one a year ago. It was in the corner of the garden. It was hissing like a gas pipe.”
F. looked liked a laughing Buddha, one with a Groucho Marx mustache and a bald head. He sat with his legs crossed under him as he spoke. Every now and then he ran his hand over the top of his shiny pate and looked at Nancy sheepishly, as if the loss of hair was his own fault.
“I remember the day your mother’s cat died,” he said after a sip of wine.
“I’d forgotten that,” said Nancy. “What happened.”
“She was walking along the shore across the street from my house. She looked kind of odd. I asked her if everything was alright.”
“The cat died,” she said.
I told her I was sorry. I asked her when it happened.
“Last night,” she said.
“Did you bury it in the back?”
“No,” she said. “It’s still on the sofa.”
“Can you imagine that?” he told us. “It was still on the sofa. I couldn’t get over it. I asked her if she wanted me to bury it for her.”
“What did she say?” Nancy asked.
“She shook her head and said she’d tend to it tomorrow.”
That evening, after dinner, F. took us to a gay bar to meet his friends.