Desire Vs. the Volcano
Sexual desire: It can make your limbs tremble, your breath come in short gasps, your knees wobble and your heart pound. It may, if you’re in a certain fortunate category, cause your clothes to be passionately torn off or your hips lustily gripped. It can also lead to more aggressive acts.
Although in my experience, desire often has gentler effects as well. In fact those effects are sometimes so gentle that one might overlook their source, or completely miss their connection to desire. For example, one might find oneself climbing a volcano on a rainy evening in an unfamiliar locale without understanding precisely why.
I knew Gina at the southern college I attended. She was a year ahead of me, and after her graduation she wound up hanging around campus for most of the next autumn, trying to finish her thesis. She was feminist and intellectual and Korean-American, all things which charmed me pretty much on first impression. And she could throw a Frisbee disc like a champ — a talent which would charm me under any circumstances at all. We were both extreme night owls, so many nights around 1 a.m. Gina would quit working on her thesis in the campus computer lab and come by my dorm room, knowing I was awake. And then we would talk for an hour or two, choosing topics more or less at random.
Of course I had a crush on Gina, a moderately powerful one. But she never gave me a single indication that she and I would ever do anything together but talk. So that was all I proposed to her: talking. (Feminist, remember.) During one early-morning visit to my place, Gina even fell asleep right on my bed — this is in a single dormitory room, mind you. So on that occasion I simply curled up on the floor and slept a few fitful hours before leaving for class in the morning. Even without more happening, I found it just wonderful to visit with this beautiful woman for an hour or two each night, while everyone else we knew was asleep. And then one night Gina’s visits to my room came to an abrupt end: Her 1 a.m. knock on my door was answered by my new girlfriend, who had just started sleeping over. I always regretted that. Although I guess Gina finished her thesis soon afterward and then left town for points west.
Five years later I was traveling to Vietnam via Hong Kong, and I heard from a mutual acquaintance that Gina had managed to settle herself in that island colony. I guess she’d left literary theory behind and had gone to work in investment banking; it happens. My layover in Hong Kong would be just five hours or so. But knowing Gina was nearby, I decided to make the necessary effort. I stashed my luggage in an airport locker and took a taxi up the side of mountainous (and volcanic) Hong Kong Island.
So that was how I found myself walking around a steeply sloping residential neighborhood at night, in the rain, while lost and unable to speak Cantonese. It was an epic quest: I was trekking through the vast Central Hong Kong district known as “the Mid-Levels,” and I was following a road which honored a British civil servant named “Hercules.” Of course the taxi driver I’d hired couldn’t find the address Gina had given me. So eventually he just dropped me on a random corner and left me to try to decipher the numbering of Hong Kong street addresses all by myself.
But despite all that, I was still desperately excited to see Gina again. Mostly because of the thrill I derived from being in her presence — a thrill which had a frankly sexual charge to it. But all I was going to do here was pay Gina a brief visit. And maybe, if I was lucky, we would have a conversation. I knew that Gina was living here in Hong Kong with her boyfriend, an entrepreneur who traveled regularly and who might have been away that evening. But I didn’t care about that. This was how strongly motivated I was simply by the chance to be in Gina’s presence again.
And eventually it did all work out. After about an hour of wandering in the rain and dark, I did find Gina’s building and apartment. She was home. Her boyfriend (fiancé, maybe?) was not around, for the moment at least. So Gina greeted me and offered me tea and a spot on the couch. And then we started having one of those conversations — exactly the kind of conversation you might expect from two people who were seeing each other for the first time in five years, under moderately exceptional circumstances…after not being acquainted all that closely to begin with.
My visit with Gina was swell. No, it was beyond swell: It was thrilling. Inspiring. Even though she and I spent a full hour talking about basically nothing: whom she was working for, why I was traveling — small talk. Nevertheless it was thrilling for me just to be in Gina’s presence again. She was still beautiful and uncommonly forthright and mostly heedless of her own attractiveness, even though now she worked for an investment bank rather than a women’s shelter.
Then Gina’s fiancé Thomas returned home. And I wound up spending another hour in that apartment having a full conversation with him. He was an independently interesting guy, trying to set up franchises of exam-prep schools across the Pacific Rim; he’d just flown in himself that evening, from Taiwan.
Soon my two-hour visit was up and it was time for me to catch a taxi back to the airport. I was fully satisfied with the visit, even if it turned out that I never saw Gina again.
Now, would I have gone to such great lengths to visit Gina if there hadn’t been that sexual element (on my side, anyway) to our acquaintance? It’s a good question. I do enjoy visiting my friends under unusual circumstances. So I guess I don’t really know the answer. But the lesson of my visit with Gina is that desire can lead you to do some extraordinary things…even things which have nothing to do with sex or intimacy. In my view, the pull of desire exists on a level even deeper than sex: It works not just by direct physical contact but also by…mere presence, I guess. Presence is what Gina had. And her presence was all that I sought, trudging up and down those rain-slick volcanic hillsides in the dark, hoping to catch just a glimpse of the girl I’d once known, all the way on the other side of the world from where we’d started.