“Oh, for goodness sake, darling,” says Lita. “Look at you. My eldest boy. For God’s sake…” She holds his large frame close to her. It’s as though a world war has intervened since the last time they were together. In the window light I see that Frank is deeply tanned, but his six-foot-five body is emaciated. His eyes are piercing blue-green. His skin is rough and healthy and…smelling real bad.
We pound questions into him. What happened? How did everything fall apart when he came home? Frankie says…nothing. He seems to be in shock. Lita hugs him, talks to him, as it gradually sinks in that something radical is wrong with Frankie. “William, he’s cold as charity. Pour a nice warm bath. We’ll find some clothes. Darling, you need to warm up. You need a good scrub. You need…”
He speaks. Very softly, he’s speaking in Thai. “Mi ahan?” — Do you have something to eat?
“Chai, bai ser dai,” I say.
“You pour the bath,” I say to Lita, “and I’ll go to Wendy’s and get a couple of burgers. Then I’ll wash out the bath and he can have a second one.”
As I scurry to Wendy’s, I suddenly wonder if he’s speaking the language of the last place where his life had been sane, level, comprehensible. Before the family broke up, grew up, and he went into the shifting sands of the music world. And I know this is going to be a long haul for all of us. No more skipping the light fantastic around the world. This is reality. Responsibility. Facing consequences. I start looking at Coronado in a new way. This, I guess, is where I am going to grow up.
I get back, and Frankie’s in a pair of my jeans, a white T-shirt, with a big white towel wrapped around his head. As soon as the cheeseburgers come out, he wolfs them down, as though they’re his first real meal for weeks. Lita and I look at each other. We know what we feel: guilt.
Frank is suddenly tired. He falls asleep right on the sofa. We arrange for a cot to be brought up. When we wake him, it’s with difficulty. He reaches out and touches his mother’s hair, as though he’s trying to believe it’s real. That she’s here. When he falls asleep on the camp bed, it is right out, with deep, large breaths, like this is the first unguarded night he can remember.
We look at him. Guilt falls like a guillotine. We see it in each other’s eyes. How could we have let this poor boy suffer this life so long? We’re all shattered. We know we should have done something, ended our overseas odyssey years earlier. Not retreated to “Well, he’s a grown boy” and “He has the whole family around him.” We should have believed what we didn’t want to believe before the rot set in. Something more, whether because of drugs or perhaps childhood fevers, has been wrong with Frankie. We tried to minimize it to make room for our life. This kind of guilt there’s no medicine for.
The irony is that we have been spending much of the last few years looking at, documenting suffering on the Thai-Cambodia border, and inside Cambodia, and in the Sudan and other parts of North Africa. Emaciated bodies, kids suffering brain damage from malnutrition or the trauma of war or both. None of that’s new or unfamiliar to us. We’ve recorded shattered lives, Lita with her children’s anthropology kits, me with my stories, trying to get people to understand how deep the trauma can go, particularly in young people. We’ve seen babies implode from the sheer stress of their first year on this planet, teenagers stuck in time warps, unable to return to the present because of the horrors they’ve seen or contributed to. And yet here, under our very noses, a grown son regressing to an almost wild state — in California. Richest, most civilized place on earth.
It’s several days later, eating a brunch at La Avenida, that Frankie starts speaking. He’s still wearing a turban. Nothing will make him show his exposed, shaven head to the world. At first we think it’s because of his shame at having it shorn by the deputies (they said it was because it was so matted and dirty it posed a health hazard). But even this early on, we realize there’s something much closer to home involved in wearing the turban, something about protecting his poor wounded head, his threatened mind.
As usual Frank is ravenous. His six-foot-five frame is down to 140 pounds. He’s just finished his second big orange juice in silence when, like a logjam that suddenly clears itself, words start tumbling out, as if he were picking up a conversation we’d been having five minutes or five years ago. The words are half Thai, half English, sprinkled from a bilingual dictionary being shaken at the spine.
“Hai kofai lon, mai mee aim kap… I know, I know, I know… Hey, we got ways, kin ahan gang kai krap?… Small world… Hey, Dunc! Yeah, buddy, I worked on submarines… cold? I’ll show you cold… The dihedral square on the hypotenuse and time-space elements in jazz…” Word-salads race out as if he wanted to get them away before they evaporated inside his head.
All I can think to do is encourage him. I talk back to him as though he’s just said something perfectly reasonable.
“That’s a sentence,” he says. “Subject, verb, object. A sentence.”
Two yuppie couples about Frank’s age, dressed in summer whites, start giggling. They’re looking at Frank, astonished, undisguised — they can’t control themselves. Their laughs snort out. They’re waiting for the next act. In a flash, Lita has turned and whips them with her tongue. “How dare you make fun of my son. Can’t you see he has a condition that could hit any one of you? He had fevers, temperatures — 108 — as a baby. He has had some kind of trauma. He is a brilliant musician, but this neurological condition has hit him. This could happen to you just as easily. Don’t you have any compassion? Or do you believe in some fascist world order where only the perfect, the beautiful, like you, have a right to exist?”