After a gap of five years, as I worked on other projects that have done well this year in the Amazon and the Faulkner-Wisdom Novel competitions, I finally picked up this novel, originally titled Tropical Moods. Then over several drafts, I ruthlessly cut 100 pages out of it—one fourth the length, though in actuality about 10% of the words.
UPDATE: My novel A Perfect Day for an Expat Exit has made the finals of the 2012 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition, results announced before 25 September. (I'm adding the revised versions of both the pitch and chapter one, now in first person, past tense.)
Here is my pitch:
Here is my pitch:
A Perfect Day for an Expat Exit (86,700 words)
Having your fate hinged on the erratic behavior of a self-indulgent
American expat who has nothing left to live for cannot be good…
The American expatriate Michael Graver seems to know everybody’s personal secrets. When his own carefully cultivated past begins to unravel, he lashes out at everyone and three people end up dead.
Distraught over catching his wife making love to an ex-boyfriend, Steve Boston arrives on the island of Penang in Southeast Asia. En route to a colonial landmark, the E & O Hotel, Boston comes to the aid of a mysterious woman whose complicated life has been made even messier by her father’s body washing ashore. His death is not only linked to Michael Graver, but also his opium-addicted, anti-American British wife, Amanda.
With nothing left to live for other than an elusive treasure buried by the Japanese at the end of World War Two, Graver gamely manipulates those around him, including Steve Boston who is caught smack in the middle with a gun aimed at his head.
Set on the tropical island of Penang over a period of nine days culminating with the Chinese New Year, A Perfect Day for an Expat Exit revolves around six desperate and lonely people whose quiet lives explode, thanks to one man and his obsession—Michael Graver.A Perfect Day for an Expat Exit is currently a finalist in the 2012 Faulkner-Wisdom novel contest, the first book in a potential series set in Southeast Asia. Two chapters and parts of others have been published as short stories. The second book, The Girl in the Bathtub, is also a finalist in their novel-in-progress category.
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A Perfect Day for an Expat Exit
The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower,
silent like death, dark like a grave.
Wednesday, 10 February
Michael Graver was the first man I had ever met who had killed a man. The fact that he killed two men—on two separate occasions—in front of me did not make that any easier for me to digest. He could’ve just as easily killed me, too, but he chose not to—at least not yet.
Michael Graver was also an expatriate. . . . Having read my share of stories by the likes of Conrad, Kipling and Maugham, I knew that the East had always attracted that strange beast called an expatriate, one of those lonely, alienated men who often have nothing left to live for. Either they were hiding from their troubled past, seeking some self-indulgent pleasure, or searching for a mythical treasure—or perhaps a little of each, as in Michael Graver’s case—thus adding to their array of personal problems from the bad life choices that they’d made. They would then lash out at everyone, including the ones they claimed to love, blaming their circumstances on fate conspiring against them as if it was merely a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . . Inevitably their lives came to a violent or a pathetic end—usually at their own hands.
Michael Graver was no different.
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the way, was how this journey to the East began for me back in Madison, Wisconsin after I caught my wife Patricia in the backseat of her car—our car—with her old boyfriend. One of the bad choices that I made that day was fleeing half way across the planet. The alternative, despite some personal satisfaction, would’ve put me into prison. I only hoped that by coming to Malaysia I did not suffer the same fate as those other long-lost expatriates—a fate that now befell Michael Graver whose very life has begun to unravel before my eyes.
“When living overseas as long as I have,” Graver once said to me from the comforts of his decaying, rent-controlled, reputedly-haunted bungalow, “the question that you always have to ask yourself . . . is today a perfect day for an expat exit?”
One week earlier, while boarding the ferry to Penang, I lagged behind the other passengers—mostly Malays, Chinese, and Indians—overly conscious of the way the others kept looking at me, as if questioning my reasons for coming. Something I had been doing a lot of on my own . . . . Still wary of my exact motives for coming here, I suddenly felt a distinct uneasiness, an urgency that penetrated deep inside me; something I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager in my maddening quest to get laid, to forever rid myself the burden of still being labeled a virgin after high school. Then I realized why I had come. A cat when ready to die goes to a corner and waits. I had come to my own corner of Southeast Asia, or more precisely Patricia’s corner, a tropical island off the west coast of Malaysia.
Death, when I thought about it, did seem logical. Already I left my wife, left my business, left my country . . . . Was that the real reason I had come to Penang? Was that why I was here? Not entirely convinced, I lugged my oversized suitcase to the side railing where I playfully considered the options. Drowning, I quickly concluded, would be the easiest . . . . There was no poison to find. No weapon to procure. No high place to seek out. No special timing involved. Just jump when I was good and ready . . . . A ferry jump also smacked of intrigue. Some young, ambitious detective bucking for a promotion may suggest that perhaps I had been pushed. In any language that would translate into murder. The local press would have a field day. With an American involved—identified from my business card-cum-nametag on my luggage—the international wire service would pick up on the story. Headlines would glare:
AMERICAN BUSINESSMAN DROWNS IN MALAYSIA
POLICE SUSPECT MURDER
Even if the papers toned it down to FOUL PLAY, it would still grab people’s attention; maybe even Patricia’s. Someone might recognize my name or the name of our business and point it out to her. At least here in Malaysia, like those colonial expatriates from long ago, I could die anonymously, buried in an unmarked grave in some overgrown cemetery that people rarely visited, resting in permanent peace . . . . Then again, I didn’t have to die. Just fake my death. Disappear. Change my identity from Steve Boston to someone else, someone already dead. Thus, no divorce proceedings. No lawyers. No past to deal with. Just start from scratch here in Penang as a tropical virgin.
I wiped the perspiration from my forehead as I glanced at some of the seated passengers—an elderly Chinese man, stroking the gray strands of hair sprouting from a chin mole; a stout, turbaned Sikh, shuffling his thick sandaled feet; and a sari-clad woman with a gold ring through her nose, nodding at him respectfully. Sitting in front of them, three school girls in matching turquoise pinafores giggled at two boys snapping chewing gum. An Australian serviceman shot stern looks at the boys, while a pair of laid-back backpackers took it all in. Plenty of potential witnesses, about two hundred—more than enough to confuse the truth.
I could just picture the look on Patricia’s pretty freckled face when she found out where I had fled to: her beloved Penang, her birthplace, where she lived the first six months of her life, the daughter of an American couple who met and copulated while in the Peace Corps. My death would cast a pall on her treasured memories of having been an exchange student here in high school and returning later with her boyfriend Martin. The same Martin I caught her fucking in the backseat of her car—in our car. All Patricia ever seemed to talk about was Penang. But now she would no longer be able to think about her precious Penang without thinking of me.
An old Chinese man munching on sunflowers seeds spat the shells onto the wooden deck. He paused to look at me but then continued adding to the mess that he was creating. The throbbing motion of the ferry as it left the mainland port of Butterworth added to my restlessness. Lost in my jumbled, jet-lagged thoughts, I stared blankly out at the sea. Another passenger bumped into me but kept on going as if I was not there. Patricia used to do the same, treating me as though I were a misplaced chair that was constantly in the way.
I peered over the side of the ferry at the green water churning to white. Pieces of wood, bits of styrofoam and a colorful array of plastic bags were being sucked in by the advancing ferry and spat out. Beige foam covered patches of the sea like icing. Despite its filth, its drifting flotsam, the sea still held a special allure. Admittedly I felt drawn to it, drawn to its eternal patience, its willingness to accept me on my own terms. It would be easy to yield to it. If I concentrated hard enough on the same spot, I could see myself in the water, see my image spiraling downwards, my arms fully extended above my head, my hands reaching, grasping for the surface as I sank deeper and deeper.
Finding a foothold on the railing, I stepped up to get a better look at the sea. The ferry suddenly lurched and I was thrust forward. To keep from being tossed over the side like unwanted trash, I tightened my grip on the ledge, my knuckles turning bone white, and braced myself. Heart thumping, legs shaking, I held onto the railing longer than necessary before I eased myself back down.
Avoiding the gaze of those around me, lest one or all of them had been watching, I noticed an empty seat between two Chinese men. I dragged my suitcase and sat down in muted silence, putting on hold any further speculations on this silly notion of suicide. Really, I was not in the mood. I wasn’t in the mood for much of anything right now other than to get as far away from Patricia as I possibly could, even if it killed me.
Off to the left, Penang Bridge came into view—reputedly the third longest in Asia when it was built. I had seen it before in Patricia’s photos and coffee table books on Penang, mostly while under construction. Midway between the bridge and the ferry, an unusual brightness seared its way through the clouds. The brightness grew in intensity before finally revealing itself in its entirety, a ball so huge and orange I could almost taste it. The sun’s rays created an illuminated path along the sea that stretched toward me like an accusing finger. Entering the path, a red and black freighter transformed itself into a silhouette. The sunlit water around the freighter shimmered in its wake. A double-decker ferry, mustard in color with black smoke billowing from its stack, crept toward us from the opposite shore as it returned to the mainland. The ferry, like the one that I was on, had pedestrians on top and cars and motorcycles below. Thinking photograph, I reached for the camera inside my suitcase. At that same moment the Chinese man sitting next to me spat on the floor. The spit’s sheen against the dull planks held my attention longer than I preferred. I quickly turned away. A glint of gold, however, caught my eye.
The gold was draped around a dark slender ankle. The woman’s foot arched in and out of a black and gray low-heeled shoe. In and out . . . in and out the foot went. It kicked itself free of the shoe, leaving only the toes inside. The leg was crossed, the foot rose, and the shoe dangled precariously from its new height. Up and down . . . up and down the foot went . . . . The shoe, on several occasions, came dangerously close to dropping. But each time, the foot arched, the toes straightened, and the shoe slid back into place, securely hooked. The foot was lowered and the toes slipped out, free at last. All five of them celebrated by curling up and down and wiggling from side to side, soaking up the fresh air. The ankle rotated clockwise, and then counterclockwise. With each movement, the anklet danced merrily around the owner’s ankle.
The smooth curve of the attached leg drew my gaze up the gentle slope of the calf, up and around the bent knee to a white-pleated skirt. The skirt led directly to the thighs, to the hips, to the waist, where it abruptly ended at a navy blue blouse. Midway up the blouse my gaze was blocked when an overweight woman shifted over a seat. I leaned back and forward, and from side to side, but every effort to see around the woman was frustrated by the plumpness of her presence.
Having lost all interest in the photograph, I bided my time until I could see the rest of this woman, if only out of curiosity, her face in particular . . . . While waiting, I retrieved the map of Penang to familiarize myself with the general layout of George Town, specifically the area around the jetty and Fort Cornwallis and also where I planned to stay, The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, a colonial landmark that dated back to 1885.
I looked up just as the woman began to make her way toward the center aisle. She was Indian, as I had surmised from her ankle, yet her smooth light brown hair seemed rather peculiar. For one, it wasn’t black. The hair didn’t appear to be dyed either, but natural, as if she were part Caucasian. The woman, perhaps conscious that she was being watched, glanced my way. She revealed high cheek bones, slender nose, sensuous lips, and dark alluring eyes that were black as obsidian with the right touch of mystery. She epitomized everything that I had read and imagined about the East, except for the color of her hair.
Intrigued, I found myself rising from my seat. I left behind my oversized luggage that was not only bulky but also impractical. I gingerly stepped over the old man’s spit and made my way to the center aisle.
An Indian in his late forties entered the aisle a few rows ahead of me and blocked my view of the woman. He was dressed shabbily in a torn yellow T-shirt, filthy blue sweat pants, and rubber sandals too small for his cracked and callused feet. The other passengers turned and looked at each of us in succession as we passed by: the woman, the Indian, and me.
Upon reaching the front of the ferry, the woman leaned on the front railing and pushed her smooth hair back as she gazed out at the sea. The Indian walked up to her and whispered into her ear. She cringed and shooed him away. Noticing that I was watching them as I approached, the man stepped aside. He lit a cigarette all the while ogling the woman.
Since there was not enough space between them without crowding in, and none on the woman’s right due to some other passengers, I settled for a spot to the left of the Indian, glad to have a decent view of both the woman and also the approaching island—such a contrast to Madison where I was born and bred and bored to death until Patricia came along and ran my life through a clothes wringer and then turned me, rather unceremoniously, into a cuckold.
Despite Penang having its own airport and a bridge linking it to the mainland, the best way to arrive on the island, at least according to Patricia, was by ferry. Only the ferry came directly at the headland, creeping upon it slowly, thus allowing you the full experience of discovering Penang as it unfolded: its tropical ambiance, its colonial-era buildings, and its multiracial cultures. There were a lot more high-rise buildings than I had hoped to see, including an octagonal monstrosity right smack in the center of George Town that dwarfed everything else on the island.
My clothes flapped in the breeze as I glanced at the woman. Perhaps she was part of the Eurasian community I had read about in one of Patricia’s books, a descendent of the Portuguese that had originally settled in Malacca. Or maybe she was a product of mixed parentage, an offspring of a colonial officer and an immigrant from Sri Lanka. Penang was famous for its mixed marriages. As far as I could tell, other than a glance or two in my general direction, if only to keep an eye on the Indian, she hadn’t really noticed me. Who did notice me, of course, was the Indian. The man drew in long and hard on his cigarette, sucking in the last remnants of charred tobacco; he then flicked the cigarette butt over the railing. I followed its arc, lit red by the ash, into the sea. When I looked up, the man’s eyes were fixed on me; his head cocked back into a grin. His face was gaunt, pockmarked, his eyes milky, and his teeth yellow and decaying. In a groggy, drunken fashion he swiveled around and gaped at the other passengers, many of them gathering their belongings and corralling their children, preparing to disembark.
Turning his attention back to me, he said in a hoarse, whispery voice, “I have what you’re looking for.”
I pretended not to understand him and shifted my gaze to the ramshackled piers jutting out from the shore. Corrugated-zinc roofed shacks had been built on top of the pier; below, sampans rotted in the mud and the sewage. The moored sampans and rickety piers were reminiscent of another era. I could easily imagine the coolies unloading incoming cargo from the ships and carrying them on their bent-over backs. And the Chinese, with their long black queues, waiting tirelessly beside their rickshaws for their British Raj passengers. The British were long gone; even their name for Penang—Prince of Wales Island for the future George IV—was dropped in 1957 after Malaya won independence. Remaining behind was the faded elegance of their colonial buildings standing sentinel along the shore. Even these seemed overshadowed by the octagonal Komtar, rising a full-bodied sixty-five stories to the clouds. At its base, and completing its phallic image, was a geodesic dome.
The Indian cleared his throat and spat into the sea. He asked, “You, Englishman?”
I nodded, though I didn’t bother to correct the man as I continued to study the approaching island.
“My name, Raja,” he said. “Your name what? John?”
“Yes,” I replied, glancing at him, reluctant to reveal my real name. For now John was as good as any.
Raja again cleared his throat. He gazed once more at the woman as he headed back to an empty seat, dragging his rubber sandals along the bare planks, not bothering to lift his feet. Just before he sat down, he cast one final glance at her, a look suggesting he not only knew her but was expecting something from her. I wondered what it was.
The woman leaned heavily on the railing, her arm closely guarding a black travel bag strapped around her shoulder. She pushed her hair aside as she glanced in my direction. Noticing that I was watching—perhaps she had been aware all along—she hesitated but then smiled at me. The smile seemed friendly, spontaneous, and maybe even genuine. It took me by surprise.
I attempted to muster a friendly smile of my own, though I was not all that successful. Half of my mind was still on Patricia, on what I had caught her doing in our car. The woman’s dark eyes glistened as if sensing my ambivalence. She turned away.
I kicked myself for blowing it.
Moments later, I watched as she rubbed her shoe against the back of the other leg causing the gold anklet to slide up and down her ankle. Up and down . . . up and down the anklet went . . . . My gaze traveled to her matching gold bangles, gold watch, and gold earrings. No gold wedding band that I could see, though her left hand was partially blocked by the travel bag.
The ferry aligned itself with the jetty. More passengers stirred in their seats; several in back were already advancing eager to get a jump on those still seated. I kept thinking about the woman’s smile, her hair, her anklet, and her restless feet . . . and tried to block out the disjointed thoughts about my life with Patricia back in Madison. I only wanted to think about this woman on the ferry.
More and more passengers came to the front, crowding the area, filling the gap between the woman and me. I inched closer, but too many people were blocking the way. The ferry docked and the remaining passengers rose to their feet.
“Move,” I told myself and the front gate yawned open. I attempted to reach the woman if only to exchange another smile. The surging crowd cut me off. Passengers bumped into me from all sides. I was in their way, blocking their path. I tried to follow the woman through the throng of people, but there were too many people separating us . . . . Then she was gone.
I lost her.
Reluctantly, I retreated back to my seat to retrieve my luggage. Several people gave me annoyed looks for going in the wrong direction, against the flow. Raja smirked at me as if I were no better than him. I kept moving and mumbling “Sorry” as I steered myself out of their way. At the same time, I was scolding myself for not acting when I had the chance; for letting the woman get away. I then reminded myself that this woman was only another passenger on a ferry. Someone from a different country, a different culture, and a different race.
A complete stranger.
Upon reaching the approximate area where I thought I had sat, I had to pause and think, was it here? Or further back? Something crunched underneath my shoe. The shells from the sunflower seeds. I found the row where I had sat, but there was no suitcase. It was no longer where I had left it.
What the . . . ?
I searched under the rows in front and behind and then all around the area. I didn’t see my luggage anywhere. I looked around for help but the ferry was empty except for an old man at the far end sweeping away some debris.
“Where’s my luggage?” I shouted at the man. “Where’s my luggage!”
The man squinted at me. He held up his hand into the shape of a cup and wiggled it from side to side.
“Me no speak English. Me no speak English,” he said, and went back to his sweeping.
I contemplated my predicament and couldn’t help but laugh.
So this is what it’s like starting from scratch.One thing I did know for certain was that I was alive and well on Patricia’s Penang.