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Lions Roar : November 2016
What better environment for producing someone who loudly announced he believed in nothing? Kristin, however, had never given up on magic. She was five years younger than I—twenty-three to my twenty-eight—and she had a powerful belief in herself (or some parts of herself ), matched only by her conviction that life would reward that faith. One time, she’d come to my office, on the twenty-fifth floor of Rockefeller Center, and I’d pulled out a backgammon set. I was one throw from victory, and the only way she could defeat me was by throwing a double six. She closed her eyes, she shook the dice again and again between her hot palms, she muttered something nonsensical, and then she sent the dice clattering across the board. One stopped rolling, and disclosed a six. The other came at last to rest: another six. NOW, AS WE TRIED TO FOLLOW the runic instructions to the Astrologer—what true sage would allow himself to be listed in a Lonely Planet guide, I wondered?—we found ourselves pass- ing through empty courtyards and along a scribble of narrow lanes. We were directed toward a golden temple, and then through another maze of darkened backstreets, and then led out into an open space where a ladder brought us up to a second- floor redoubt. When the Royal Astrologer greeted us with a business card listing his doctorate and his work for NASA, my every doubt was confirmed. Still, I was sure I could get a good story out of this, so we agreed on neither the priciest of his readings, nor the cheapest. We padded off to while away the hours before he could give us his verdicts, and settled into one of those Kathmandu cafés that might have doubled as Ali Baba’s cave. Nepal in those days was budget time-travel to all the revolu- tions we were too young to have experienced firsthand. Pillows and cushions were scattered across the floor of this (as of many a) café, and a swirl of peasant-skirt bedspreads turned the space into a kind of magic tent. A creaky cassette of “The Golden Road of Unlimited Devotion” unspooled blearily on the sound system, and any number of mushroom enchiladas and “secret recipe” lasagnas on the menu promised transport of a more mysterious kind. Travel, for me, had always been a testing of the waters. Every journey is a leap of faith, of course, a venture, ideally, into the unknown. But for me a large part of the point of encountering the Other was to see what and how much to believe in. Every stranger approaching me with a smile posed a challenge of trust—and asked, silently, how much I could be trusted, too. Something was at stake in nearly every transaction, I felt, and it was as essential as whether you believed the world made sense or not. Kristin and I had met when she, a former student of my father’s, had read a cover story I’d written on the Colombian drug trade. She dreamed of being a writer, though for now, just out of college, she was working as a temp in a succession of Manhattan offices, deploying her capacity for typing at a furious speed. I had similar dreams, though for the time being I was cranking out long articles every week on world affairs for Time magazine, drawn from the reports of colleagues in the field. The explosion of demonstrations that was convulsing apartheid-stricken South Africa, the maneuverings preceding the Mexican election, the gas leak in Bhopal: I covered them all with the assurance of one who had never seen the places I was describing. In the warm summer evenings, the two of us met often in the gardens of tiny cafés in the East Village, and she showed me the story she’d just written about Desirée, an Indonesian bride arriv- ing in America. I told her of the book I was going to write on Asia. We swapped our latest discoveries from James Salter or Don De Lillo, and she told me of her girlhood adventures growing up in India and Japan and Spain (her father a spy under deepest cover). BY THE TIME WE HEADED out into the streets again, dusk was beginning to fall over the Nepali capital, turning it into fairy- tale enchantment once more. Oil lamps and flickering candles came on in the disheveled storefronts and faces peered out at us, almost invisible save for their eyes. We slipped and lurched across the uneven, potholed paths, the silhouetted spires of temples all around us. The noise and the crowds of the big city seemed to fade away, and we were in a medieval kingdom at its prime. As we climbed the stairs back to the Royal Astrologer’s chamber, we might have been stumbling into an emergency room after an earthquake. Half of Nepal was there, so it seemed, shivering in the near-dark as everyone waited for his or her fortune. A family won- dering when to take its newborn to the temple, and how to name him; a nervous couple thinking about auspicious marriage dates. Quite often, a sudden thump at the door announced an urgent messenger—from the palace perhaps? The Royal Astrologer handed out futures as easily as a doctor might, and the people who left his room were seldom the same as when they came in. Finally, he summoned us closer and pored over the charts he’d drawn up from our times and places of birth. “So,” he said, turning to Kristin—she craned forward, taut with attention—“generally, I have found that you have a special talent.” She braced herself. “This gift you have is for social work.” I’d never seen my friend look so crushed. “Does it say anything about creative work, an imaginative life?” He looked again at the circle with all the partitions and said, “Your talent is for social work.” She didn’t say a word at first. “Nothing about writing, then?” He shook his head. When it came to my turn, I worried it might prove awkward once he confirmed my future as a ground-breaking writer after what he’d said to my friend. “So,” he said, looking down, “generally I have found that your strength is dilgence.” “Diligence?” LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2016 38