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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

House hunting

©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 wasn’t 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 salty breeze.

    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 I’d 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 me.

    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 their advice.

   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 I’ve taken to foreign lands.

    First 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” doesn’t translate at all. Forget the geographic limitations entirely. How big could the island of Oahu be?

   The  dank dark basement on a steep Kalihi hillside covered with houses was perfect for growing mushrooms. The previous tenant, unless the landlady just wasn’t 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 Gulliver–like 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 wouldn’t teach her to drive.  Even before I met her I told her I would teach her. You can see how I get into trouble.

   We  chatted as I tried to think of a polite way to high tail it out of this creepy place. It didn’t 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 hadn’t 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. “Couldn’t you have given them away?”

    “No, no, no. How could I pass the devil on to someone else? The friend who gave them to me was just ignorant. I’m sure she didn’t mean me any harm.” She shook her head, exonerating that innocent instrument of the devil.

    Maybe  the devil made me do it, but I couldn’t resist saying, “I thought that everything God created was precious in His eyes, so aren’t frogs okay?”

    Up 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 haven’t seen Jesus for twenty-two years, not since I was born again. Move in. I’ll 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? I’d never get any painting done and besides, wasn’t 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.

   Knowing  how difficult finding a place to live could be, I did more than just run an ad. Although I really wasn’t interested in sharing a house, I called anything that looked remotely interesting.

   The  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 lady’s bisexual. You interested?” A few snappy responses sailed through my mind. “Aren’t you supposed to pay me for that” and “but I haven’t 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…

   The  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 inexpensive—more of a caretaker situation. He’d 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 wasn’t very often because then he wouldn’t look so good in the dresses. I heard him take a breath before he said, “I have to think about this. I’ll call you back,” but he never did. He hung up before I could tell him that I didn’t care if he wore dresses.

   There  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 don’t feel comfortable with that arrangement.” He told me he was an artist. Maybe a kindred spirit, I thought, and told him I’d like to come take a look.

    The  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.

   That’s  one of my sons.”

    It’s  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 wasn’t the problem.

   I understand that it’s really difficult to say over the phone, “I’m looking for a housemate who isn’t 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 she’s his angel. And my other son is a drunken parasite who I’ve 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.

   Yesterday 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 bells? NO.

    There  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. I’d 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, that’s because I haven’t built another bedroom yet. I tend to crash anywhere. I don’t 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 didn’t seem to be anything sexual going on. This guy just didn’t seem to be firing on all pistons. He certainly couldn’t count. If this dump had three living rooms, I had three heads. Although if did, I’m not sure he would have noticed—at least, not right away.

    I’m  a carpenter. I can build a partition anywhere you want if it’ll make you more comfortable.”
     He  was trying to please. I told him I had a few more places to look at and trudged up those hundred, count ‘em hundred, unlit stairs, trying to imagine what the physical act of carting my life down them would be like. Sisyphus, do you need a girlfriend?
    Two  evenings later the carpenter called. “You were my favorite person who came to see the house. When can you move in?” I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I told him that I had decided I’d rather live with a woman.

    You  would be fine here with me. I’m quiet. You’d like it here. I really like talking to you. In fact, I want to tell you a secret.”

    Oh  God, what now,” I thought. I’d just about had my fill of strangers' secrets.

     I’m  actually an inventor. I’ve come up with a gasless engine. I brought it over to the University of Hawaii and now they’re sending people to kill me. I’m going to put them out of business. They know it and they want to get rid of me, so I’m very careful who I tell. So when can you move in?”

    I really don’t think I’d be comfortable living with a man,” I hedged.

    If  we’re not going to live together, could I call you? I’m not very comfortable with most people. Could we be friends?”

    My patience snapped. “I do have friends who are very bright but completely inept socially.”

    Great!” he said with more enthusiasm than I’d heard from him before. “I’ll fit right in!”

     I thought about the time I had gotten an obscene phone call at five o’clock 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 jungle—real 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 wildly.

    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. I’m 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, don’t follow your instincts for adventure unless you’re packing raw meat and a cannon.

   Is  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 and flute player 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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