Kyoto Journal, Vol. 56, pp. 10-11. 2004.

"Opening a Durian"

I first spotted a real live durian in an Asian supermarket in Queens. The big spiny green pod was as alien-looking as anything I'd ever encountered -- and as familiar. It looked as wild and free as I knew in my deepest heart I was -- and as powerful and formidable. It evoked the primordial in me, the primal --that which I'd long thought important not so much to know, as to feel; not even so much to feel, as to be. It gave me a forbidden whiff of the inscrutable wisdom and mystery of the East that I'd always connected with attaining that level of being. It was big, heavy, and covered with sharp thorns. I managed to lift one into my shopping basket without injuring myself. The Chinese check-out girl grabbed the thing warily by the stem to weigh it, then wrapped it thickly in a newspaper before lowering it into a shopping bag.

I lugged it down into the subway for the long ride back into Manhattan. Seated there in the crowded train, I opened the shopping bag for a peak at my strange purchase. I reached in, unwrapped the newspaper and lifted it gingerly out. Its wonderful strangeness mesmerized me -- and was redolent of what I'd sought in ecstatic trance dancing, kung fu, yoga and zen.

When I looked up, it seemed every eye in the train was on me. I thought of the townspeople in "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" lugging home their pods. I re-wrapped my prize carefully in the Chinese newspaper and put it back in the bag. I knew I was in for an adventure.

The durian sat uneventfully on my kitchen counter for days before it dawned on me it wasn't going to change color or get soft. I dug out the biggest knife I had -- a real whopper of a blade. Wielding it like a machete, I hacked through the tough prickly husk.

Inside, I discovered natural fissures. Using the big knife as a crowbar, I pried into one. A neat compartment opened up containing pale-yellow custard-like flesh wrapped thickly around a seed. It was delicious beyond description. I ate my fill, then put the rest in the refrigerator for later.

Every year from then on, whenever durian season rolled around, I brought home a succession of durians. In my kitchen, I took a secret pride in my skill at hacking the difficult fruits open and considered myself an expert at the operation. When my girlfriend, Shuyuan, was present, I acted the protagonist of some C-grade movie. "White Man Subdues Killer Rhinoceros."

Actually, the internal fissures I'd discovered with the first durian did the bulk of the work. Once I hacked the outer husk open, the cheap melodrama was over. I laid aside the crude blade and pried at the fissures, one by one, to open the fruit the rest of the way.

What was bizarre about these internal divides was that, for the life of me, I couldn't locate them on the outside of the fruit before I opened it. They were there -- that was for sure -- but only in the sense that something which hasn't happened yet exists -- as a potential, an inevitability even, but not an actuality. They manifested themselves inside the fruit, not on its outside. This was one of the great mysteries, for me, of the durian.

It occurred to me eventually that I might force one of the invisible fissures to show itself on the outside if I applied enough pressure. I got down on my knees, put the durian on the kitchen counter, and dug my fingertips in between the big thorns. I pulled in the opposite directions with all my might. Nothing happened.

I turned the spiny hulk over and repeated the operation on a different surface. No luck. I kept turning and turning the durian until -- finally -- I caused a little crack to appear. I'd forced a fissure. I dug my fingers in until they were sore and bleeding and I pulled and pulled with all my might. Shuyuan ran for the camera. The durian opened. She got my courageous melodrama on film. "With Bare Hands, Seminole Indian Chief Wrestles Open Mouth of Giant Alligator."

I never hacked open another durian. From that day on, I only opened a durian by forcing its natural seams with my bare hands. If I couldn't open the durian that way, I left it for the next day, figuring it wasn't quite ripe yet. I felt myself a master at opening the durian.

Shuyuan and I married and moved to Taiwan. Durian season rolled around and in the marketplace I saw something I'd never seen in New York City. Some of the riper fruits on the stand had begun to open by themselves. The fruitmonger tried to get me to buy one of these but I turned up my nose at it, figuring it was already too far gone. I selected, instead, one whose outer husk was intact. When I got home I only had time to set it on the kitchen counter. I had to rush off and do something.

In the morning I woke up to an apartment smelling deliciously of durian. When I came in the kitchen, I found a small crack had appeared all on its own in the durian's husk.

I applied the smallest pressure. The fruit yielded. A more scrumptious durian I never tasted.

All these years I had been so full of myself and my own skill in opening the durian that it never occurred to me to let the durian open itself. The higher art was not in doing but in not doing -- letting the thing happen on its own in the way it happens best.

When I came home with my next durian, I set it in the kitchen and waited. Day after day, I waited. Every time I went into the kitchen, I found myself inspecting the durian. No sign of a crack.

Returning home one evening, I unlocked the apartment door. "Do you smell the durian?" Shuyuan said with a big smile.

The whole living room was filled with the smell of durian. We hurried into the kitchen. A big beautiful crack had formed while we were away. It extended the length of the spiny green husk, and revealed a narrow sliver of yellow custard inside. Eagerly my fingers grabbed the edges and eased the fruit open.

Never did a durian taste so delicious. The fruit had fully ripened. My appetite for it had too.