Kandy, Sri Lanka
Mage muna perehera yanewade? That is the first Sinhalese phrase I mastered. My host sister taught it to me when we walked around the vibrant streets of Kandy in Sri Lanka. Me, appropriately dressed in my long skirt and loose-fitting top, would still receive endless stares from people passing by, especially the men. They’d stare at my white face shamelessly and I’d grind my teeth wanting to fight back. Then I would say it, Mage muna perehera yanewade? This loosely translates to, does my face have a parade marching on it? It is the Brooklyn equivalent of take a picture, it lasts longer. I’d say it with proper cadence and enunciation shocking them with my utterances. Then they would stop. But they never really stopped. Not for the whole two years I was there.
Pilikuttuwa, Sri Lanka
I never had so many people in my house before. I only had one chair and an old coconut filled mattress which I converted to a futon on the floor. No one, besides my neighbors ever came to my place. It would have been inappropriate, but today was a full house. We all stood. I felt faint and had to catch my balance, nearly falling on the cow dung floor.
“What would you like me to do?” The police officer asked in English.
He can speak English, I thought. What a relief. For years, I spoke like a two-year-old sloppily spewing out simple Sinhalese phrases. How fortuitous to have a police man who was fluent in my native tongue. I just spent the last hour awkwardly explaining to my villagers what happened—what was the Sinhalese word for masturbate? I must have missed that one in training.
But I had to tell them something. They all stopped along the dirt road to see why I was screaming. One by one, they surrounded me, and I stood there in the blazing heat, with puddles of sweat pouring down my face. I took out my right hand and mimicked the motions. I explained that this young man lurked in the bushes near the orphanage—hissing Sudu (Whitey) and when I looked up, he pulled open his white sarong—took out his erect penis and vigorously masturbated in front of me.
Back in New York City I might not have looked twice at his member. Growing up in Brooklyn and an avid D train late night taker—being flashed or nearly groped—was not that unusual. The subway was one of the main reasons I left New York to begin with. I wanted more space—less touching.
Yet here, in a country so covered up, where women wrapped themselves in saris like mummies, it felt out of place. I was given strict instructions not to wear shorts or tank tops—anything revealing. I wondered around my village in floral jumpsuits and lose fitting frocks to blend in. But I never really blended in. I was more like a novelty. At night, it I would retreat to the protection of my small house—but drunken villagers would rasp on my door with unwanted advances.
By the time this young man fondled himself in front of me, I was so tightly wound—I simply could not let it go.
After college I was offered a job in advertising. Almost handed to me on a silver platter, the kind of luck and privilege that happened to other people but not to me. At twenty-two, I was not ready for a real job and did not want to live in New York City. I knew if I took that job I’d be tethered to the Big Apple. I needed to find someplace else to go, somewhere new but where? When I found out my aunt had moved to Atlanta, Georgia, it clicked. The Olympics were going to be there. Friends from college were loving their easy lifestyle and I had a car. Freedom. No more tokens. No more car alarms. I was headed south.
I packed up my Toyota and took two full days to drive to Atlanta. I sang from poorly-made mixed tapes and stopped in Roanoke, Virginia to refuel. I made it all the way there, but got lost in the cul de sacs and had to have my uncle guide me home. I lived with my mother’s sister and husband for about a month when it became clear I needed to find my own place.
I loved everything about my pristine apartment in Atlanta. The one I rented the fall after college graduation. My friends thought I was crazy, moving alone, without a job. But I was determined to have a better quality of life. While my friends lived in cramped, walk-up buildings in New York I was in a highly coveted complex. Everything was new—virgin. As the youngest, it was a rare privilege to be the one to break anything in. I drove a white car and had white furniture, a white down comforter—every new freshly built space was just for me.
I grew up in a creaky Victorian home—spending my youth slipping down the wooden stairs in my floppy socks and dreaming of carpeting, of a softer life. My apartment in Buckhead had it all. Free parking. Swimming pool—even our own private park, filled with stone hedges with etched Shakespearean quotes for inspiration. I was going to find good in everything.
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
It was my own version of paradise—but I knew it would never be home. It didn’t feel like real life. I might have left New York, but that edge never left me, and I began to find southern ways less appealing. The racist comments, the homogeny. Plus, there was nothing really keeping me here. I never did get a job working for the Olympics and settled in as a server wearing starched blue shirts and khaki pants. I never even dry cleaned anything before working at Houlihan’s.
As hard as I worked, my waitressing job was enough to pay the bills, but I got tired of the double shifts and decided to get a “real” job. I wanted to work in advertising but the only jobs I could get were receptionists, a job I had done ad nauseum and knew I needed something more.
Eventually, through a connection, I found a job doing public relations for a private Jewish school. This translated to a carved-out section of an office with a DOS computer and the sweet smiles of privileged children. One of my responsibilities was to stand outside every morning and hold the doors open for the carpools. I’d stand in the sunshine, say good morning, open the doors to Mercedes and BMW’s, and send the little tykes on their way. This freaked me out every time. These kids got dropped off in luxury cars and when I was their age I had to walk to school. Alone. I had to navigate my way in the world in a way these children could not imagine. I learned which blocks to walk so as to avoid getting jumped and which bodega had the best deals on ring dings and O’Henry bars—the likes of which I’d eat on the way home with the milk chocolate melting in my hand. I knew what it was like to go to school with people who didn’t look like me, or share my beliefs but this diversity, this hodge podge of students helped me understand and decipher the world around me. But opening these doors, this action, this job, felt like such a betrayal to my own solid public-school upbringing. So much so that I began to look for a new one.
A few months later, I was bored at work. I finished the newsletter I was working on early and decided to call the Peace Corps to see if they were offering any meetings. The idea was put in my head by my mother. A chance to see the world and still beef up my resume. They were having one that night. I went and saw all these nice people—laughing and speaking in their country’s languages. They felt like home. Like people I knew, and I signed up the next day. To my surprise, I actually got in.
Pilikuttuwa, Sri Lanka
Ruvini, the tomboy who lived two doors down came over with her little brother to bring me lunch. They were still in their white school uniforms and brought me a large green banana leaf filled with a mountain of white rice, dahl, green beans and one chunk of chicken in a curry sauce.
“Elana sister lunch,” she said. Obviously proud of her English word. Somehow their uniforms manage to stay clean.
Ende! (come) Ende!
I motioned with my hands to come sit down. They shyly came into my home. The young boy had a bucket filled with water for me. “Water” he said in perfect English and smiled again. I have no access to water in the small house I rented and with the drought my neighbors no longer allowed me to use theirs. I was so grateful for the small bucket they gave me. That meant, I did not have to walk in the heat to the well and could boil it and drink it later.
Brooklyn, New York
“Loni, you want something to drink?” My mom calls from her bedroom.
Living at home at twenty-six was not working out as planned. I just had to make it through the summer, then I’d pack my bags again and head to Vermont for graduate school. But living with my parents—in such small quarters—was starting to get to me.
“No, I ‘m good,” I reply.
I think I’m going to go for a walk. I slip on my navy-blue Birkenstocks and head north on Seventh Avenue. I grab the cream tote with the Sinhalese letters decals and get ready to hit Prospect Park. Still strange to hear the sounds of cars honking and car alarms going off. I cross the street when a woman starts talking to me.
“Nope, they are Sinhalese letters,” I said.
“Oh, they look similar,” she continued.
“Yeah, I think they look like a series of noses actually.” She smiles.
“I just got back from there and . . . ” I said softly. I have to stop myself from the usual diatribe about returning from the Peace Corps—I know it will only end awkwardly. “I just got back and miss it.” I said sternly.
“Welcome home,” she said.
New Yorkers are nicer than I remember.
Pilikuttuwa, Sri Lanka
“Elana Aka—English class today?” Ruvini asked.
“Yes, indeed, 4 p.m. at the temple,” I answered. I smiled at this precious little girl with the short brown hair. She is all of ten and one of my closest companions. She is the only girl who rides a bicycle besides me. I think I will leave her mine when I go back to the States.
I needed to prepare lessons. All I did today was sweep dirt and ride my bike to town for breakfast. This drought was debilitating, and I knew I needed to rest before teaching the villagers.
Ruvini and her brother picked me up for the long walk to the well to bathe, carefully balancing my sarong so as not to reveal any inappropriate flesh while bathing. Throwing the metallic bucket into the well and pouring it over my head. Usually, 25 buckets would do the trick.
“Where’s your razor?” asked the boy.
Then I pulled out my pink Daisy and began shaving my legs.
Even after bathing, I am burning up. I remembered I still had some Crystal Light left by the kitchen that was only half drunken—it was completely covered with ants, like a brown lid resting on top of the pink water. Parched, I grabbed my tea strainer and poured the liquid over it, leaving the ants in the filter and chugged the insect infested punch down my throat—like a bad tequila shot. I needed some comforts of home that day. After I drank it and looked at the pile of ants, I almost begin to gag. It was as if I was drinking poison.
It was in that same spot in the middle of my house where the police officer stood. Another officer had been there a year earlier when my villagers broke through my tiled roof unlocked my bag and took all my savings. I wished that was why he was here. A petty crime. But this was far worse. This young man didn’t even live in our village. What brought him to our community that day? Did he know that a foreigner was living there? Did he come here looking for me?
To this day, I will never know, what misfortune brought him there.
“What do you want me to do with him?” The officer asked again.
I sat down in my viscose frock—dizzy from what transpired.
The officer patiently waited for my response.
“Take him away,” I said, stone-cold. At twenty-six, I knew the consequences of my words and what would happen to this boy once he got to the prison. I knew that kind, English speaking man of the law would beat the crap out of him for disrespecting a foreigner. I knew it and I told him to do it anyway—without a single drop of remorse. I could have let it go. I was there for peace, after all.
But I had changed. Too many advances. Too many men with red beetle teeth leering at me. This teenager would have to pay. What happened to me? When did I become so vengeful?
I laid it all out. The packs of toothpaste, tampons, wet ones by the boatloads. There is a foldable spork that I purchased at Eastern Mountain Sports—insect repellent. The toiletries make a small mountain in my room. I wish there was no limit on what we could bring with us. I wanted to grab it all, but I knew I couldn’t. Every nail polish, feminine product, loofah sponge. I was a woman of comfort and I didn’t know how I could survive without them.
Some nights, I’d wake in a sweat. I dreamt I was sleeping on a pile of snakes or suffocating in a room filled with bugs. Was I making a mistake going to the Peace Corps? Shouldn’t I just find a husband and move to the suburbs? Isn’t that what nice Jewish women did?
I wasn’t even that nice. Pretty nice, but not that nice. I wasn’t religious either or one to volunteer often, but I did dole out turkey on Thanksgiving to the homeless, and help old ladies across the street.
But this kind of commitment. Two years. Three months training. Now that was something entirely different.
Yet, I was determined. I thought I would live like Walden. Write at night. Build wells during the day. I would come back from this experience ready to conquer life. My path was limitless.
Pilikuttuwa, Sri Lanka
When my villagers saw me on the road, they said what they usually said.
“Where’s your bicycle?”
“Why are you walking?”
But then I told them as best I could what happened. What this man had done to me. The villagers began to chime in. Screaming at this boy. Laughing at his digressions. Sweat droplets began pouring down my forehead staining my blouse. The heat was getting to me. If only it would rain. If only everything could be washed away.
A few weeks prior, I was sitting in my house sipping ginger tea. The wind picked up speed and the rustling from the coconut trees began to bristle like a large rake over our tiled roofs. I don’t know why I went outside. I knew better. People had died from coconuts falling on their heads. But I wanted to feel the breeze, to breathe the air. I felt like I was suffocating inside for so long. I wore my long lime green frock, the one we laughed about at the post office when I realized the fabric, I chose was the same as their curtain. Like a The Sound of Music, only it was accidental.
I was only going to the corner. To check on Ruvini—now that she was sick—when I saw him. At first, I mistook him for one of our villagers. He resembled one of the kids from my youth group, so I didn’t flinch when he got closer. His brown hair was brushed over his face. He was swerving in on his bike when he approached me. I was just seconds from their house when he grabbed me.
He smiled when he did it, his hand reaching deeper into me. I stood, still not comprehending what was actually happening. Then the thick wind smacked my face and brought me to reality.
I pushed him away and screamed in English. “Fuck!! Get the fuck away from me!”
He just smiled and swerved away until he was finally a dot in the dust. I ran back to my house, never getting a chance to exhale. I couldn’t call anyone or tell anyone, so I just sat there in my dusty house seeing his sinister grin and wishing I had just stayed home. I wanted to shower to scour him off of me, but that would mean walking to the well and no one would bathe in a storm. So, I bottled it up and tried to forget him. I did not call the officer this time.
Brooklyn, New York
“Some guy named Garry is on the phone,” my mother yells from the kitchen.
“Gar- Ret” I say sharply and put down the glass, twisting my hand around the beige telephone cord.
“G-unit—what the hell is up?”
“Oh, ya know, misery in Missouri—life with the Carney crew ain’t what it used to be. What about you, city girl? How’s the adjustment going?”
Adjustment, hmm. Not quite there, I must admit. I had only returned from the Peace Corps a few months ago and while life appeared normal, there were subtle cues that perhaps I was in limbo. While the rest of the city walked around in basic black, I sported wide legged pants with embroidered flowers purchased in India, and a fake noise ring to accessorize. These clothes would be a big hit in the months to follow at the hippie grad school I was to attend in Vermont, but for Brooklyn—back in the day, I kinda stood out.
“I think I’m getting closer, but those parties are tough,” I sighed.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. People are always like, dude, you were in the Peace Corps. That’s so cool, what was it like. When I start telling ‘em, they walk away.”
“I know, right! They really don’t want to know. I usually smile and say it was great.
Pilikuttuwa, Sri Lanka
The other boy looked nothing like him. His skin was much darker. His hair long like a rock star—he would be vengeance. He would not get away with it, not this time. I thought that somewhere that night, the young man on the bicycle who touched me would be at home, eating rice and curry and enjoying sweet tea while this boy, the one who touched himself, might spend the night in prison. Because of me. Because of what I didn’t say. Because I had left Atlanta to change the world.
The officer took him away, his long mullet facing the ground. He seemed so harmless now. I didn’t sleep for weeks—fearing his return—his vengeance, but I never saw either boy again. And after that day, no one ever bothered me again. My two years were finally up. I was ready to go home.
Brooklyn, New York
But I couldn’t go home even if I wanted to. My childhood house was sold while I was volunteering abroad. The large room with the frayed brown carpeting was gone. Most of my designer clothes and keepsakes, too. Just a few items remained stacked in warped cardboard boxes. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to the old building. Silly as that seems, I needed to say goodbye. To compensate, my father built a small loft bed above my mother’s work station where I could sleep: I climbed up the wooden ladder and rested above her beige computer and bank statements. It was a place to lay my head, but it was in no way a home.
“Yeah, Gar, they asked me at the party last week, how was your time there? I just smiled. Peace Corps, yeah it was great,” I said.
I pour myself a new glass of water. I place a picture of me and Ruvini in a silver frame and put it in the living room. She would die a few months later as would my memories of what happened in my village. I stopped telling people I was in the Peace Corps—it was easier that way. No one ever really wanted to know what happened anyway.
Elana Rabinowitz is an ESL teacher and a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and Narratively. Samples of her work are available at https://elanarabinowitz.