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Dancing with a Mirthful Muse: journeys and perceptions
"House hunting" was first published in Honolulu Magazine, June 2000 Go to www.surdut.blogspot for the confluence of art, nature, politics
©Beth Surdut 2000
I lived in a house in by the ocean.
It was the kind of place that people dream about when they think of living in Hawaii. The
sound of the waves was ceaselessly comforting, the privacy of mornings out on the lanai
were as precious as the jasmine scented nights spent identifying the constellations. Each
day I would pick fresh gardenias, white and creamy, from one of the two bushes flanking
the front door, and place the flowers in a turquoise glass bowl by the bed. Some days the
scent was so strong I wasnt sure where my night dreams ended and the day began as
the sun poured through the long rectangular skylight over the bed.
Orchids bloomed along the dark wood wall of
the indoor gardens. Outside the kitchen, irregularly shaped blue flagstones formed a floor
for the round table where scrabble was played at night amidst yellow oncidium orchids and red anthurium. From there a pathway led past the
Ming trees surrounding the shower to a Zen garden attached to the bedroom. A cozy stuffed
chair waited by the sliding glass doors where the pale pink curtains billowed out in the
The owners of this piece of paradise were artists,
well known in the islands, though transplanted from cold mainland places years before they
became my friends. For thirty years they had reveled in this place by the sea, swimming
nude in the protected cove and floating on their backs looking at the Koolau mountains.
The details of their lives were painted everywhere. It was hard to believe that one of my
friends was now dead.
His wife brought him home from the hospital to die, saying
finally, Honey, I never thought Id see you like this, stroking his head
as her daughter and I silently wept beside the bed. Soon after, elegant and legally blind,
the widow moved into a white monolith for elderly people on the hillside and blessed me
with this haven until someone with enough money came along to buy the house and displace
More than one friend suggested I chain
myself to the railing on the deck and refuse to leave no matter what. I should have taken
In mourning for the loss of the house, I went to
Indonesia for awhile. When I returned, I embarked via the mainstream and alternative
newspapers on a journey stranger than any Ive taken to foreign lands.
there was a communication problem. My ad stated: Artist seeks cottage in
private jungle setting between Kaneohe and Punaluu. For some people
cottage apparently translates as basement. Jungle setting is the
concrete slab leading up to the basement. Private doesnt translate at
all. Forget the geographic limitations entirely. How big could the island of Oahu be?
dank dark basement on a steep Kalihi hillside covered with houses was perfect for growing
mushrooms. The previous tenant, unless the landlady just wasnt fessing up to a
really unfortunate design decision, had glued gold stippled mirrored squares along one
wall in a misguided effort to make the room seem larger. I towered Gulliverlike over
my potential landlady, a petite Japanese woman who had retired from government work. On
the telephone she had confided in me that her husband wouldnt teach her to drive. Even before I met her I told her I would teach
her. You can see how I get into trouble.
chatted as I tried to think of a polite way to high tail it out of this creepy place. It
didnt get better. I told her that I was an artist and had been a religious studies
major in college.
Bless you,she said. A friend once gave me a set of dishes with frogs painted on them. Well! I smashed every single one of them! She looked at m expectantly. I could tell by her posture that we were supposed to be sharing some sort of insider information, but I hadnt a clue as to what she was talking about.
Frogs, she shuddered, an abomination in the
eyes of the Lord!
Did you have to smash them? I asked her.
Couldnt you have given them away?
no, no. How could I pass the devil on to someone else? The friend who gave them
to me was just ignorant. Im sure she didnt mean me any harm. She shook
her head, exonerating that innocent instrument of the devil.
the devil made me do it, but I couldnt resist saying, I thought that
everything God created was precious in His eyes, so arent frogs okay?
to that moment she had been wrapped up in her remembrances of Satan deferred. Now she came
close to me, looked up into my eyes and said, Praise be! I think I see Jesus in your
eyes. I havent seen Jesus for twenty-two years, not since I was born again. Move in.
Ill drop the rent fifty dollars. She stared up at me, taking my hand in her
left one and patting me with her right.
Suppose she wanted to see Jesus every day?
Id never get any painting done and besides, wasnt it worth at least double the
discount? I can still smell the mold in that basement, still see the zeal in her eyes. I
felt bad for never going back and teaching her how to drive.
how difficult finding a place to live could be, I did more than just run an ad. Although I
really wasnt interested in sharing a house, I called anything that looked remotely
ad read: Liberal couple, horse farm, North Shore, seeks female roommate. There
was an unmistakable surfer dude accent from the male voice on the other end of the line.
After telling me how much he liked getting high, which was sentence number three, he said,
Uh, my old ladys bisexual. You interested? A few snappy responses sailed
through my mind. Arent you supposed to pay me for that and but I
havent met her yet seemed appropriate to the moment, but instead I just said,
No thank you and hung up the phone. Silly me, I thought liberal meant they
voted for Clinton
next situation sounded promising. The caller was a male dress designer who had inherited a
house from his auntie. It was in the right neighborhood, not too far from my studio and
very inexpensivemore of a caretaker situation. Hed moved back to the island
from LA and found the big house on two acres too much to take care of by himself. Besides,
he was kind of lonesome, was having a hard time finding people to relate to and maybe we
could be friends if I promised not to make fun of him because he liked to wear the dresses
he designed, just around the house, and never went out except to buy groceries which
wasnt very often because then he wouldnt look so good in the dresses. I heard
him take a breath before he said, I have to think about this. Ill call you
back, but he never did. He hung up before I could tell him that I didnt care
if he wore dresses.
was another ad for a house to share in a banana patch. When I called, the man who placed
the ad said, I want to be very up front with you. The bathroom is in a completely
separate building. A lot of women dont feel comfortable with that arrangement.
He told me he was an artist. Maybe a kindred spirit, I thought, and told him Id like
to come take a look.
main house was surrounded by an acre of bananas. As he showed me the old Hawaiian- style
home, we talked about the art business and ballroom dancing. A man lurched through the
living room and into a bedroom.
one of my sons.
not all that unusual to have a separate bath house, so maybe the warning sirens should
have gone off when my prospective roomie said he wanted to be up front. He did want that,
but believe me, the bathroom wasnt the problem.
understand that its really difficult to say over the phone,
Im looking for a housemate who isnt fazed by my manic depressive son
who, on a good day, falls to his knees clutching a picture of Geena Davis to his breast,
swearing shes his angel. And my other son is a drunken parasite who Ive been
trying to get to move out for a year, but has a bad back so all he does is smoke
cigarettes and occasionally grunt. But, the bathroom? I admired his ceramic glazes
and said, You know, there are support
groups for this, as I backed out the door.
I saw a bumper sticker that read My family is more dysfunctional than yours. I
thought about buying it for him.
Time was running out when the call came.
I have a house to share on the water in Kaneohe. It has three living rooms, plenty
of space. I know an artist would love it. Ding, ding, ding. Did I hear the warning
were close to a hundred stairs down to the flood zone. Not another house in the
neighborhood was down at sea level. Amidst the expensive homes up on stilts or
cantilevered off the hillside was this shack. Id gotten this far, so I presented
myself at the door and was given the grand tour.
There seems to be only one bedroom and the one
bath is connected to it, I said as non-confrontationally as I could.
Oh, thats because I havent built another
bedroom yet. I tend to crash anywhere. I dont really need a bedroom, he told
me, digging his hands deeper into his pockets and staring at the floor.
You mean I might walk out here one night and
trip over you? I wanted to know. There didnt seem to be anything sexual going
on. This guy just didnt seem to be firing on all pistons. He certainly couldnt
count. If this dump had three living rooms, I had three heads. Although if did, Im
not sure he would have noticedat least, not right away.
Im a carpenter. I can build a partition
anywhere you want if itll make you more comfortable.
You would be fine here with me. Im quiet.
Youd like it here. I really like talking to you. In fact, I want to tell you a
Oh God, what now, I thought. Id
just about had my fill of strangers' secrets.
Im actually an inventor. Ive come
up with a gasless engine. I brought it over to the University of Hawaii and now
theyre sending people to kill me. Im going to put them out of business. They
know it and they want to get rid of me, so Im very careful who I tell. So when can
you move in?
I really dont think Id be
comfortable living with a man, I hedged.
If were not going to live together, could
I call you? Im not very comfortable with most people. Could we be friends?
patience snapped. I do have friends who are very bright but completely inept
Great! he said with more enthusiasm than
Id heard from him before. Ill fit right in!
I thought about the time I had
gotten an obscene phone call at five oclock in the morning. I was so tired that I
actually tried to reason with the perverted stranger on the other end of the phone line.
Then I realized what I was doing and hung up muttering to myself about my foolhardiness.
It was time to cut the cord.
I answered another ad for a place in the
junglereal jungle. The prospective tenants were gathered together in the back of a
flatbed truck and driven up a precipitous muddy road. Perhaps it was part of a silent
interview process, this hell-bent charge up the hill that caused the truck to fishtail
We were treated to a very rustic setting of beautiful wild pink ginger and palms, Dobermans, Rottweilers, and a landlord who had a real back-to-the-land philosophy that included disguising the living quarters to look exactly like vine-covered rotting foundations. Fooled me. Im sure my cat would have loved the slavering dogs. I was particularly attracted to the guns and ammo that would keep us all safe. If you have ever wondered where that bridge over the Likelike Highway goes, dont follow your instincts for adventure unless youre packing raw meat and a cannon.
there a happy ending to this odyssey? I found a peaceful home with green finches and
Brazilian cardinals singing in the lychee tree in the back yard. I have learned numerous
mango recipes to accommodate the harvest from the two trees in the front yard, though the
avocado bore very little fruit. The sunsets seen from the lower terrace are often
spectacular. When the time comes to leave, as it always seems to in this gypsy life, I
will miss this place.
Buffalobeth goes to Bali and is mistaken for the head of a country.
BENAZIR AND CHER
Beth Surdut 1999
Now that Benazir Bhutto is no longer in power in Pakistan, I feel my place in the world has suffered. During one of my trips to Indonesia, Bhutto's picture graced the newspapers regularly-- a lovely woman with dark liquid eyes and an elegant head. Somehow even the tiniest village knew what she looked like.
One late afternoon my driver and I were returning from a long trip to a temple on the other side of the island of Bali. He told me he was going to take a short cut to avoid traffic. As our jeep bumped and swayed down a deserted dusty road, we came upon a throng of people dressed in white. They massed across the road as my driver cursed their existence in a variety of languages.
It was a full moon festival, a religious celebration, a slowly moving phalanx of friendly humanity that smiled as our car kept pace with them. People walked on either side of us, chatting, staring at me, holding babies up for a look. Suddenly, I heard loud cries of "Benazir! Benazir!" and the crowd parted to let us drive on, but not too quickly. My driver, more impatient than I to get home, had told the nearest person that not only did I look like Benazir Bhutto, but that I was Benazir Bhutto. Surely, I thought, these people know that I am not the head of a country. I sat up a little straighter as my newfound fans waved and called my name.
It was not the first time I had been told I resembled her. I wonder if anyone has told her she looks like me? I remember being flattered by the connection. In total, she had better credentials than her previous counterpart, Cher. Benazir hadn't slept with Greg Allman either, which I considered a definite plus. Probably hadn't undergone much cosmetic surgery. Though I did like some of Cher's movies.
Have you got the picture yet? It is not only the physical resemblance that people see. When some stranger traps me in a conversation about Cher's life, her mother, why she chose that name for her daughter, I know that I have metamorphosed into a woman I am not. I have an urge to check my tush for tattoos that I didn't have minutes before the conversation began. How did I feel as a witch of Eastwick? And let's not forget the money. Maybe it's okay to be Cher after all. She seems gutsy.
It does seem that fame and money are a package deal, a chance for security in the insecure path of creativity. Do I want to inspire that love-hate fantasy adoration that comes with being so well known? I have no interest in people intruding on my life, having tabloid lies written about every little lurid detail. There are so many reasons I chose to be an artist. I think about all the people that will see the stained glass windows I designed, or the fabrics and paintings, and that makes it easy to part with the work. It is my immortality.
Back home again in Hawaii, after being ignored by the maitre'd of a restaurant that catered to the famous and infamous, I considered renting a limo and going there dressed as Bhutto. My friends could be the entourage: We'd pull up in one of those ridiculous long white cars. I'd extend my leg gracefully and emerge with the assistance of my devoted staff. Then I reconsidered, figuring some crazed assassin would pick that same night to make a political statement to the world. I think after all I would rather be killed for who I really am.
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