The Light Man

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Muschu Island, Papua New Guinea – September 1995

It’s okay to wander off on your own here. The pandemonium of the mainland is nonexistent. So I do. Down the beach, away from Maya and Phil, who are lost in word communion. A tree branch hangs out over the water, as welcoming as the crook of a protective arm. I shimmy up its length, curl up on my side, and peer into the rising tide. A soft breeze blows. The branch sways so gently. I surrender to its comforting embrace. Cradle of daydreams.

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It’s not how long someone is in your life, but how profoundly their light illuminates. Out of the maelstrom of color and sound, the mass of tribes at the Goroka Show, Phil materialized. Camera in hand. He drifted towards us, his steps as ethereal as a phantom’s. Maya and I laughed when he asked if we were part of the group of expat high school students. Maya was twenty-one, and I was twenty-six. Both of us would turn one year older in PNG, in just a couple of days. If all went well. He threw his head back and laughed. There is no place like PNG.

Where are you from?

Michigan.

Me, too. Which part?

Midland.

I gasped. No way! I grew up in Auburn, but my family lives in Midland. I spent as much time as possible there when I was growing up.

I don’t believe you.

The Tridge, the Boulevard Lounge, Dow Gardens. My first job was at the Sweet Onion.

Woah. I’ve never met anyone from Midland outside of Midland.

Me, neither.

Phil is a biologist, conducting research on elephantiasis in a village in the Sepik region.

I giggled at yet another synchronicity. We’re going to the Upper Sepik after this, after we drive back to Madang.

You drove that highway? Are you insane? He scribbled his phone number on a piece of paper. You’re staying at Ralf’s in Wewak, right? Ask Ralf to call me when you get there and I’ll come into town. And be careful driving back to Madang! He shook his head and vanished into the crowd again.

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The island chief and his wife bring us a dinner of fish and sweet potatoes. Phil chats with the chief in Pidgin for a few moments and then the couple disappears into the jungle again. The village is on the other side of the island. Malaria has struck. A woman is dying. She is taking fansidar, a nasty drug. Chloroquine rarely works anymore. The disease has mutated. Phil’s had malaria twice. I walk to the edge of the veranda and look towards the wall of green. A hush has fallen. The empty space before the final gasp.

After sunset, we hang a mosquito net over a corner of the veranda and settle ourselves in. Bathe in the glow of a single lantern. Phil steps into his room, and reappears with his guitar and a joint. The joint is passed around, sucked into oblivion. Phil strums the guitar, plays a few chords. The darkness gathers around the mosquito net. In the distance, over the sea, a single point of radiance.

Phil speaks. A night fisherman. They believe in UFOs here. They say it’s the Light Man. I believe in werewolves and vampires. He launches into a tale about his travels in the Carpathian Mountains of Poland. A village where he was the only foreigner. Everyone watched him with feral eyes.

I really want to visit Poland. I still have family in those very mountains.

He bows his head. Of course.

Random chords become rhythm. He plays a song that I know. One from my parents’ generation.

I love Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Do you know Helplessly Hoping?

Yes. Sing it with me, Julie.

I stiffen. I’ve never sung in front of people. My voice is terrible. I shake my head.

C’mon. Sing with me.

A long exhalation. My fragile little self dissipates. No one is going to hurt me here. Words pour out. Immaculate. My heart breaks free and soars. He enters the harmony. Our voices intertwine, transmit deep into the shadows. I venture into dangerous lands, but cower at the thought of exposing my spirit to anyone. It’s only love. It won’t kill me to open up to it.

The last chords of the song resonate into the night. Phil’s eyes blaze. You are one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met.

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9-23-95 (from my journal, written sometime during that evening)
This is my paradise. I’m surrounded by palms, stars, and sand. I am restless in my peace. I am empty in my joy. And right now, I’m the freest I have ever been. Yet I’m stifled. This island is the perfect ending. I look like a grungy dork and I feel beautiful. I am tired and I feel alive. My ass is kicked and I’m victorious. Gentle storm in my soul. Rocky sand between my toes. Phil is the universe at this semi-microcosmic level. He is a gift to us. Saying yes, wonderful girls, I hear you.

Remnants of storm. My dreams are swept away with the waves. A savage itch on my backside. A quick look reveals a dense constellation of mosquito bites across both buttocks. I parade this masterpiece in front of Maya and Phil. Their eyes widen.

Phil reaches into his backpack and hands me a tiny bottle of Chloroquine. You must have slept too close to the net. They will bite through it. If you feel a fever at night, take these immediately and get to a doctor.

Okay, I say. But I know I won’t get sick. Never before have I felt so clean. Oh, but the itch.

We consume a breakfast of rolls and Nescafe. I grip the coffee cup to keep from scratching. Maya and Phil enter into conversation. I’m not ready for words. I’ve got to go.

Sunbeam smiles in reply. Then go, Julie.

As I approach the beach, I hear, Hey! I turn around. Phil has aimed his camera my way. Stick your butt in the sea. The salt water will help the itch. I burst into laughter and dash away,  across the storm-swollen sand and into the waves.

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**Not long after our departure, Phil sent us a long, poetic letter written in his ornate script. Dispatches from his hut in the jungle. From Papua New Guinea to Guam. We each received a personalized mixtape of music and spoken word. Hidden messages to be deciphered within. He had a lot of time on his hands between drawing blood and scrutinizing scrota. In the days before email and social media, such thoughtfulness was more common, but even so, I was deeply touched. He had made the effort to uncover my essence. Maya kept the letter.

We all moved back to America a few months later. Different cities and new lives. I spoke to Phil a couple of times on the phone. He was overjoyed with his new life in San Francisco. He was a big fan of the internet. I had just bought my first computer. Do you know that you can look people up? He told me. Find people you’ve lost touch with. The last time I heard from him, in the form of a letter, he announced that he was getting married. I smiled to myself as I read it. May you be happy forever, my friend. As with all of my male friends who get married, I sent him a note of congratulations and then let him go. People have a tendency to drift away when they enter a relationship and very few spouses have the ability to comprehend platonic friendships with the opposite sex.

Every once in a while, I search for him online. Just to see how he’s doing. He has an original last name, so it shouldn’t be difficult. He has not turned up. It is an ominous absence. I’ve been able to track down almost everyone I’ve searched for. The ones I haven’t been able to find, I later learn that they’ve passed on. Wherever you are, Light Man, may you shine forever.

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I have waded into the vast ocean of Instagram: @j.d.riso. There you will find images from recent travels, Prague, the Loire Valley of France, and even the occasional bunny rabbit photo.