Some remnants of the bridge lie scattered further up the gorge. I crane my neck, keeping just enough away from the edge that Vanessa doesn't feel the need to voice her concern.
"You want some water?"
She is seated on a rock behind me, taking in the shade and the cool greens. She has traveled all over the world (most of it without me) but this is her first time in Sri Lanka. It is also the first time in Sri Lanka that I can assume she isn't utterly repulsed by the experience.
"No, I'm good. I wonder what happened, or when…"
"You mean the bridge? Probably blown away by a storm, I guess."
"Yeah...wasn't a very strong one. Bits of it used to fall off every time we crossed."
"Did you come here a lot, back then?" Vanessa asks, smiling.
"To Kelaniya? No. Just once."
The other side of the gorge is flocked with vegetation, a dark, shadowy gravel path snaking through it. Hidden there is a tree, ancient and lonesome, contorted into a shape that has no name, it's heights lost in the murk of the canopy. A stray branch skewers out from the core of the tree like a gnarled witch-finger.
My eyes wander the length of the branch as if searching for the end of a sentence.
I get my phone out of my pocket.
"Hey, come look at this."
Vanessa walks over to me, sipping from her water bottle. I scroll through my gallery until I find the image, which had been hidden away with some random music files in an old four gigabyte USB.
"We were standing right there, on that exact spot," I say, pointing. "It was a day just like this."
Cool, clear-skyed. Only the bridge had still been there, decaying as it was, and so had Bendy.
"That T-shirt looks huge on you," Vanessa says, chuckling. "And as always, you're the only one wearing shorts."
"And I forgot the mosquito repellent. Got dengue not long after."
Funny how such a great experience can be linked to such a bad one.
"How old were you here?"
"Nineteen. This was the day before my flight to the States for college. Far as I know, it's the last picture taken of me before I left."
I stare down at the picture, and looking at it in tandem with the thick, tropical smells of the forest and the hiss of a stream somewhere close by and the kind of birdsong you wouldn't hear anywhere else but here, I feel suddenly warped by nostalgia.
But I also get the feeling that staring back at me is an image full of ghosts.
"I've told you about these guys, right?"
There was Ravi, Daniel, Mohammed and me, each of us looking high and stupid and leaning against one another for support in the shade of the tree.
The photo was taken from the bridge by another hiker. I can't recall which one of us was the owner of the camera used to take it.
Bendy is harder to make out in the photo, obscured in shadow. For some reason, I abstain from pointing him out until Vanessa notices. Truth be told, until I went through the USB, I'd forgotten all about him.
As for the others, it wasn't that I'd forgotten...which made it somehow worse. The fact that I'd done little to nothing to compensate for the distance between us, until that distance curdled into something absolute. Something unalterable.
I'm not saying that rediscovering the photo was what prompted my return to Sri Lanka after twelve years, at which point the country has descended to hell. Only that, up until that point, any intention of returning hadn't ever crossed my mind.
Not the death of my mother, nor my grandfather a few years later.
Not the death of Ravi, either.
He was the one awkwardly posing closest to the tree, with the chubby oval face, wearing the gray T-shirt with the old Adidas logo on it. The clown in our group, the guy who'd gotten his heart broken too many times to count and had no qualms about opening up about such things to us (even if we never asked him to.) The guy who took all the barbs, all the hurtful lampoonery of his failures in stride.
Ravi was goofy, self-deprecating and filter-less. We'd known each other since second grade, and he encouraged the same characteristics in me.
The first time we slept together, Vanessa confided that not many guys she met could be as honest about themselves as I often was.
Somewhere down the sealed passage of time, back when things like love and sex were these monolithic urges we'd built up so much in our heads yet understood very little about, I remembered a drunken Ravi telling me something along the lines of: You've got to open up, man. Don't keep things bottled up, especially if it's someone you have strong feelings for. Be honest. If she likes you, she likes you, and if not then...whatever.
A few years in the States and a thought or two like that was all I could ever spare for Ravi. Never a phone call, an email, a postcard...
In the early summer of 2018, eight years after my departure, Ravi died of heart failure in his parents' home in Colombo. I would later learn that he'd been evicted of his own home weeks prior because he'd been unable to keep up with the rent. He was twenty-seven.
I was made aware of his passing through an email sent to me by Mohammed, with whom I hadn't done any better a job of keeping contact with.
It was short, casual, concluding with:
The funeral is in two days. We're having a small gathering next week, all of us. See you there?
My childhood friend's funeral came and went, and so did the gathering, the email left without reply. It was the last one I ever got from Mohammed. He himself passed away two and a half years later.
In the photo, Mohammed stands next to Ravi, with a full beard, the sleeves of his green shirt rolled up to the elbows. He wore nice shoes, an expensive watch.
You could characterize him as the spoiled one, though in another sense, being private school students in a country such as ours, I suppose we were all spoiled in some way or the other.
For Mohammed though, it was to the point that he had little to no academic inclination at all, his father the owner of a thriving import business.
I remember him for his arrogance, his pragmatism, as well as the countless movie tickets he paid for on my behalf. I remember laughing with him a lot at the expense of others, sometimes even at the expense of myself. I remember getting into a fist fight with him once over something that touched a nerve at the wrong time. I remember him kicking the shit out of me, and I remember him buying me a cold beer afterwards (how I don't know since we were both underage at the time) and pressing it against the bruises on my sides and face.
The memory of that moment between us was something I learned to cherish far too late.
After learning of his death, I rummaged through my old contacts and phoned his mother. It was a brief, awkward conversation in which she told me his struggle with diabetes had caused the complications with Covid-19 that led to his death and that, by that point, the pandemic had begun to sink the business as well (which Mohammed had taken over from his father.) She regretted not being able to convince her son to forego the business and migrate abroad, and congratulated me offhandedly for having "saved myself."
I ended the call soon after. It's a conversation I've since done my best to forget ever happened.
Coming back to Sri Lanka after twelve years, my girlfriend pregnant with our first child, I couldn't quite articulate my expectations for this trip.
What awaited me here, in my motherland, was gradual, crippling depression.
I saw vehicles queued up for miles behind filling stations, and throngs of people frying in the sun, waiting in vain for their gas cylinders, for their daily provisions. Protesters swarmed the streets, watched by police, crying out in anger, crying out in pain.
This is what I saw when I came back home, and I was numb, horrified.
And with regard to Vanessa, who hadn't expressed much enthusiasm toward the visit in the first place, I was...for lack of a better word, humiliated.
The only family we've visited in our time here—and the only family I plan to visit—is my uncle on my mother's side, who lives in Colombo.
It used to be my second home, that house, my sanctuary whenever my parents decided to turn our own house into a warzone.
But now I am a stranger to them. That evening, they looked at me the same way they looked at Vanessa; like they'd never seen me before.
They spoke to me about things like the gas shortage and the constant power cuts in a dejected, futile tone, as if implying that there was little chance I'd grasp a word they were saying.
How could I possibly understand?
From my earliest childhood, my uncle had done his best to mould his own sense of patriotism into me. There were times when he encouraged me to become a politician when I grew up because, as he saw it, that was the sole position of influence one could ever have.
He barely spoke to me during the course of our visit. I got down on my knees, touched his feet in worship, and we bid farewell, having never felt welcomed in the first place.
I was an alien in my own country.
There was nothing for me here, no one. My mother was dead, my father long removed from my life, and the only real friends I had were all gone—and my bridge to them lies decimated before me.
Daniel exists somewhere in Sri Lanka, but all my attempts to get in touch with him have failed.
He stands last in the photo, his expression ambiguous, hands stuffed into his pockets. Unlike the rest of us, who all have our arms over each other's shoulders, Daniel simply leans against me, the dispassionate pretty boy.
If there was one thing he was more infatuated with than girls, it was the image he projected onto them. It would take just one lighthearted comment about his hair to get him to hate you for a week.
For the longest time, Daniel was insistent on becoming a fashion designer—always sketching, always with his nose in a magazine—and we all believed him. He was the kind of guy who didn't waste words on false affirmations; if he said he'd show up bald to the party tomorrow then he'd show up bald to the party tomorrow, if he said he'd break up with the hottest girl in class before lunch then he'd go do just that.
So if he said he was going to build the next great fashion empire and name it after himself, even if he was drunk out of his mind as he proclaimed it we believed him. That's what he would do, and no one would stop him.
No one except his own mother and father.
They derided his ambitions as "homosexual" and "unacceptable."
Sing, they said to him. Show us your ability and we'll put you on TV, they said. He was the crown jewel of the school choir, after all.
Eventually, they wore him down. Verbal and physical abuse, he revealed to me in a moment of honesty.
That's when Daniel found music, like they'd wanted, but he wasn't about to go on TV.
Not long after finding music, he quit the choir. Sketches of women's couture were replaced by scribblings of song lyrics, fashion magazines by emo and folk CDs.
He loved hearing voices laid bare on the recording, the instrumentation sparse and skeletal. He asked to come over to my place to test out his material, and if I'd play the guitar for him while he did.
I've come to admire Daniel a great deal all these years later. Even when his path got derailed, he forged ahead on the new on his own terms. He did things his way.
And he wanted me there with him. Maybe even needed me.
I suppose at this point I'll tell you about Bendy. For most who lay eyes on this photo, he'll be the one seen the last, and like everyone else in this picture, he is no longer there where he used to be.
The monkey couldn't have been dead for more than a few hours when we came upon him, his small limbs hanging limp above the ground, tail hovering over my shoulder, back arched over the crooked tree branch. Hence the name Daniel and I gave him: Bendy. We named him for his death pose. And we named the tree after him as well; at the bottom right of the image, in small yet bold yellow font, it says, Bendy's Tree.
Daniel liked it as an album title. He insisted that the two of us were going to make music together, and maybe if you'd questioned me about it the day this photo was taken, I would've told you the same thing, little to no thought spared about my leaving the very next day, never to see any of them again.
All that remains now is the tree.
In the span of twelve years, Bendy has decayed and shriveled and all evidence of him as long since evaporated.
As I examine this photo now, all this time later, I see him as this specter of death looming over us, a specter of loss.
This is the last picture taken of me in my homeland. I will not take any during the course of this visit.