- The Path Taken
She stared down the length of the platform waiting for the train to pull in. A few construction workers milled around and a painter was putting some finishing touches on a wall. The station was scheduled to open in a week and looked already complete. Everyone just seemed to be looking busy, avoiding some boss, or avoiding some major job that would be a hassle that no one really wanted to do on a Friday. As long as the train ran and nothing really fell apart on the first day, this job was done as far as the construction workers were concerned.
I held the camera balanced on my shoulder, the fulcrum comfortably on a foam pad. I looked through the viewfinder to line up the shot, but it was nothing too out of the ordinary. I’d filmed scenes like this tons of times. I shoot her giving her spiel about the new train line as the train pulls into the station, we’ll get on, get some footage and more spiel on the train, then back here to get some shots I’ll wander around, trying to get the coolest new shit for stock footage. No problem.
She tested the microphone with a few quick words, but a station worker or someone in a high visibility vest who seemed to be in the know yelled that the train would be delayed 5 minutes. We both sighed almost simultaneously.
She looked dead into the camera, and I looked at her through the video finder. Hey, she said quietly into the microphone she pushed up to her lips. Yeah? I replied through the microphone I was wearing for communication with the control back at the station. What the fuck is this shit? I laughed. No idea I whispered. Through our mics and earpieces, we could talk with no one else hearing, though we definitely looked weird- especially when we laughed.
What got you into this? The station, the door? I joked to reply, she was cute and I was flirty, fuck it I was single and I think she was. There was a rumor she was fucking one of the anchors, but I don’t know if it was true. Na, she replied laughing, what got you into being a cameraman. Oh, well it seemed interesting, I never wanted a day job. I wanted something with a little adventure, so I went to college for production. Directing is actually a bit boring to me, and no matter what jobs I’ve done around the station, I keep coming back to this. What can I say, I like it. Never a dull day, or well until the train is delayed. She laughed again. You never wanted to be a reporter? Oh god no. I laughed, no offense you do a great job and make it look easy, but I’m not an in-front-of-the-camera kind of person. As odd as it is to say as a cameraman, I’m camera shy. She laughed again, then sighed. I wanted to be one for a while. I thought I’d be a bit famous and make a nice salary. It seemed like a path that was well-worn and easy, well not easy per se, not hard, or not as hard as others. It wasn’t like being a movie star, something that with a bit of perseverance and willingness to go weird places and do weird things, she gestured with her head at the train tracks behind much to my amusement, it was an achievable like. Honestly, though, I think I just took the path of least resistance and I’m having second doubts. I just don’t really like it. She shrugged and looked straight into the camera. But I have no ambition for this or anything else really, so I guess it’s better than working in a steel mill.
Or carrying a heavy-ass camera all day. I said smiling.
Yeah, I’d be in better shape though.
In the distance, a train horn sounded. She looked down the track, then back to me. She strained her shoulders and put on her professional face. I wished I could offer some wisdom, but I honestly had none.
Well, I guess I must keep at it, she said with a smile that was so genuine if she could do it on command she’d be the most famous news reporter in the country.
Yep, I said smiling too. I cued the video and got ready to film.
- The Piano Upstairs
My upstairs neighbors seem to have a piano- or maybe an incredible sound system that perfectly mimics the sound of a piano. Whoever is tickling the ivories is supremely talented, the crisp notes float down on the summer breeze past my open windows, and bass notes reverberate through the cement walls of the old building.
From the sound of voices and footfalls, it seemed that a fun party was going down. I smiled at the thought and drank my beer to beat the humidity and revel, if vicariously, in their merriment. It is midweek, a Wednesday night, but midsummer, so I’d imagine a good number of people are on vacation.
For what seemed to be a festive occasion the piano seems oddly melancholy. Something of a jazz standard seemed to be the tune, but it is played far sadder than I would expect. Nostalgia maybe is the feeling that seems to round out the chords and hang pregnant in the rests. I want to say it is a total miss-match with the vibe of the party, but oddly enough it doesn’t seem to be. Clouds are rolling in and the trees are swaying with increasing gusts, and something sad seemed to be blowing in.
The song seems to be more of a memory than something happening in real-time. It is as if the player is remembering this night years from now, when gray hair cascades down where color once delighted, and loves once the spark of passion, now long lost. Stars crossed, then uncrossed and traveled akimbo across the wide firmament. The moment seemed to be reflected upon rather than lived.
I sipped my beer and listened with my eyes closed. I felt the mix of memory, nostalgia, and melancholy wash over me, feeling the slow dance of time step in rhythm with each note, and life click its metronomic beat. Whoever was playing was vibrating the strings of my soul, and playing in the key of my affections.
A solitary tear escaped my closed eyes, invisible to all in the dim lamp light of my apartment, unremarked if not for the sting of cold on my cheek as it sojourned from duct to floor. I let myself be washed away in the receding time of memory, splashed in each sound wave coming from the floor above. I was the old man dreaming the young man, and the young man dreaming the old.
Time came together as the song crescendoed to a finale. Above the player resolved the final chords in far more of a whimper than an exaltation. Again the sounds of the city rose to my ears, leaving the piano to become the memory it was to begin with. I returned to my present, feet on my windowsill, beer in hand. I blinked open my eyes, then cursed even the dim light that then assaulted them. The night continued without the beauty that moved me so. And again a single tear made the solitary journey from my moist eyes to the desert of the floor.
- Lost Space Dirt
The odd shape of the station hung half in shadow, half in brilliant light. The rotation that gave gravity, or its odd approximation kept the parts illuminated and in shadow always changing, I once heard back in the old Apollo days they called it a barbeque roll.
I’d shot up from Earth this morning, a process I’ve always hated no matter how many times I’ve done it. Headquarters told me that there were shipment problems up here and it was my ass if they weren’t sorted. I’d hopped the first hypersonic up to the LEO transit station. Business on Astrolineas Argentinas, but it was still a rough ass ride. I was able to time the transfer well and got out here by the afternoon, or whatever timezone this fucking place is.
I sat with my coffee trying to find out where the fuck to begin. I’d read the files on the ship, but nothing seemed to be right. We had a contract to deliver living soil from the Argentinian Pampa to the lunar base, something so simple I was surprised it wasn’t automated like most everything else. Some regulations it seemed, disease and bacteria quarantine and quality reviews.
It had all been impounded here on Collins Station, then seemingly lost, or misplaced, or whatever the fuck euphemism they’d called it. After we docked I dropped by the agriculture sector to see what the problem was, but apparently, it should be in the import and export sector, but a drop by there only revealed that you really don’t need to be as smart as they say to work up here.
My buddy jokes that even the janitors here have PhDs, though almost every encounter I’ve ever had this side of the troposphere seemed to prove that wrong. How the fuck do you lose a one-ton shipping container?
I sighed and got up to refill my sparkling water bottle. This was the only shit that could settle my space sick stomach. The meds never quite work and give me the worst fucking case of cotton mouth. I thought the coffee might give me a little caffeine buzz and round things out but to no avail.
I walked over to a window on the other side of the torus. I looked back at the blue coin floating in the immense sea of black. All this, this technology, this progress, this incredible achievement, and humans still find ways to fill our days with mundane, pointless shit. When the original astronauts came out here did they really imagine their tardy equivalents would be up here looking for lost dirt? So much changes, so much stays the same.
I looked in my backpack for my phone, I thought I’d give a progress update to the office. Rummaging around I felt something bizarre. I pulled out a lemon muffin that my girlfriend must have packed me as a snack. I smiled. It seems that we’ve kept love and care as well in this modern age.
I guess that’s something to the cold glass and the limitless void beyond.
- Mahim Junction Around 6 pm
Set me up just to turn me loose, I think that’s what the song said, though I don’t really remember. The lyrics were washed out in the blast of wind, my earbuds were no match for the local train headed into the city. I hung out the doors and bathed in the humid air of early evening.
I can still feel the kiss of the wind, and the kiss of the girl who waited for me smoking outside the station gate. I can see the pinks and purples reflected in the bay, and a glimpse of the big bridge when we crossed the creek before my station. I remember an old man in a bar telling me that’s how you know you’ve reached one of the stations on either side of the creek, just wait for the smell and you know you’re there.
I can feel my shoe catch the concrete as I hopped off the still-moving train. I can remember trying to time it perfectly. If the train was going too fast my clumsy ass could end up going face-first into the platform, too slow and the whole experience was for not. I’d watch the first few people go and listen to the whine of the electric motor winding down. Then I’d throw caution to the wind. Sometimes I’d stumble, but when I caught it right it was perfection.
I can see the crowds, I can feel the hustle and shoving. I can smell the cologne and the sweat. I can see the pan spit being launched in crimson blobs towards the walls. I remember walking down through the ticket office, stuffed with people only begrudgingly in lines, all cheek to jowl and ass to crotch all pushing to get to the office window to get their ticket. I’d walk past the polished obsidian plaque that memorialized in gold and sadness the bombing that once turned this place of humdrum and quotidian commuting into a hell of shrapnel and blood.
Then in the mass of people and vendors, I saw a beauty that could silence the cacophony of taxi horns and overloud conversation. She stood in her colorful kurta, weight shifted on one leg, cigarette in her hand, held in front of her face in a provocative way. She’d lock eyes with me, smile, and take a drag.
I’d walk up and she’d give me shit for being late. Blame the Western Railway, I’d say laconically, failing to hide the smile that crossed my face every time our eyes met. Around me, the chaos fell into harmony, in her eyes the very fulcrum of the universe balanced and the orbit of the heavens fell into perfect synchronicity.
It’s been years, but those brown eyes still float at the edge of my consciousness, and the memory of her smile still brings a mirrored reaction to the corners of my mouth. Of my memories of that place, of that time, of the world and I at that point, it isn’t the food, nor the sights, nor the fucking Taj Mahal, it’s her memory that comes to my mind when I harken back to those days.
- The Tortoise and the Peach
The ink on the silk showed a tortoise, green and withered. It stood reaching its neck out towards a low-hanging peach. The tree above was a galaxy of pinks; flowers in resplendent bloom, branches heavy with fruit. The tree and the tortoise are on a bend in some sort of cosmic river, portrayed in vast absence, with only a few strokes of ink to show its eddies and current.
The scroll was 700 years old, hanging in perfect climate control, behind glass in a stately room of the museum. It was surrounded by paintings from the same general era, though it was the oldest. The rest had sages, or bamboo, or the odd emperor at leisure. This one, though, off in the corner, had a tortoise and a peach tree.
The bilingual card next to the painting gave the artist as ‘unknown’ and condemned the work in gentle, if condescending terms. The brush strokes and artistry were superb, it conceded, offering that the hand that painted it was the finest from that era that survives to the present. The subject matter, though, was trite at best. The peach tree, symbolizing immortality, and the tortoise, symbolizing longevity, weren’t often painted together. Together they seemed redundant, belaboring the point, saying out loud what should be said in whisper and metaphor.
It seemed to hint, if not openly say, that the only reason it was hung in the museum at all was that it was one of the very few silk scrolls that survive to this day. I had never been in a prestigious collection, to begin with, judging from the previous owners’ stamps, so perhaps it was never important enough to be destroyed when its famous owner came into some sort of trouble.
Being seen as a joke, albeit a well-painted one, seemed to relegate it to dusty trunks and obscurity, and preserve it in anonymity till the museum got it a few decades ago.
I looked around and realized that I was the only person looking at it, or even interested in it. I hung off to the side at one point, even taking a seat on a bench leaving it wide open for a glance or gaze, but everyone seemed to walk right past it. The bright colors of its roommates seemed to draw the eye, though they were presented in chronological order, seeming to indicate to the curious that it was the oldest. That alone should provoke some interest- but it hung, forgotten, save my meager eyes.
When waves of museum-goers ebbed I got as close to the glass as I could to inspect the painting. The window in front of my nose fogged as I stared at the tortoise’s face. It seems to smile as it reached for the peach. Not an elated grin, but a sly one. It seemed to be in on a joke everyone missed, it knew something we didn’t. I laughed too, in the empty gallery, that this fine work of delicate ink and ancient silk waited hundreds of years to deliver the punchline to a random passerby from the future. The artist painted a goofy turtle slowly reaching over the years and centuries to reach artistic immortality, on a painting that was slowly reaching over the years and centuries, closer to immortality than any other in the museum.
Laughing and mirroring the smile of the fair tortoise, I swore it winked at me.
- Wind Storms
The wind gusted and the trees shook. Far away, a man once said when big trees fall the earth trembles. He used it as a shitty excuse for a race riot, but standing in the forest in a windstorm, I think he undersold it.
The wind was gusting above one hundred and I realized that the situation was growing tense. I turned back but faced down stinging specks of dirt kicked up by the breeze.
I laughed bitterly as I trudged, leaning into the wind, fighting for every step, gritting my teeth. This is the second time I’ve fucked up like this. Once, years before, I was living in Taipei when a typhoon hit. Or not just a typhoon, it should be said, but a category five super typhoon. It was one of the most powerful typhoons of the first two decades of the 21st century, a real motherfucker of a storm. To make matters more serious it hit Taipei straight on.
Now I was staying at my girlfriend of the time’s apartment. Her apartment was nicer than mine, and she was worried about the typhoon. That and I figured if we were locked inside we’d drink a bunch of beer and fuck a couple of times. Seemed like the best way to pass the storm.
It went according to plan and we drank beer in our birthday suits to the sounds of the building going through a huge car wash. Some gusts sounded particularly strong, some a bit menacing, but it was a bit of a letdown. It was my first typhoon and I expected better.
As the night wore on she went to sleep and I stayed up watching youtube and keeping tabs on a weather site showing the giant swirling mass cruising slowly over the island. The mountains around Taipei caused the storm to slow down, and it took its sweet time to pass over us.
We’d run out of beer and I noticed that the sound of the wind had died down dramatically. I looked at the map and the eye was straight above me. The storm was moving slowly, and there was a convenience store just a block away. I figured that Taipei, in its incredible efficiency, would still have open convenience stores.
Like an Idiot, I threw on my coat and went out. The air pressure was unbelievably low, and the wind was gusting, but it seemed ok. I walked to the store, which was open, and grabbed a sixer. Feeling lucky and curious, I walked across the street to a park and sat down on a bench to watch the sky churning above. I hoped I could see up through the eye wall and see an enormous cloud atrium soaring up into the heavens. I couldn’t see shit honestly, just a cloudy sky and the intense swaying of trees.
After a beer, I headed for home and got the weather lesson of a lifetime. Somewhere I’d learned the backside of the eyewall was the most powerful part of a typhoon. That factoid had, however, been lost, and I sauntered home blissfully ignorant. I crossed a wide street and the eyewall hit. In what seemed like an instant the wind went from the low double digits in miles per hour to around 200. I was lifted off the ground and only regained my balance by sheer luck- never losing the beer in the process. I fought my way over to the next building, which fortunately was my girlfriend’s.
I went inside, drenched, and downed the beers shaking, glad to be alive and unhurt.
Back on the trail hemispheres away I trudged forward, muttering ‘not this shit again’ and feeling the conspicuous absence of beer in my hands.
- The Great Pasta Salad Debate
“I could be wrong, but I think pasta salad is the vilest culinary invention of mankind. It’s perverse, repugnant, disgusting shit. Who the fuck decided it was a good idea to eat pasta cold? What lunatic asylum lunch buffet was it originally made for?”
“It’s a midwestern thing,” I said trying to hold back my laughter. “For us, it’s a side dish in the summer. Something we have with burgers and brats and illegal firework displays. What you had was the classy kind too, we usually just got a plastic tub of the stuff from the supermarket and dove in with an array of plastic spoons. I love the stuff- both for the taste and the sweet memories it evokes.”
“Sweet memories? What could that vile, human-grade cat food that stands as an affront to all that is good and decent in the world Evoque in your memory?”
“Well, the summers of childhood I guess. An outdoor cookout was a special kind of thing. The hard, bitter days of winter are behind, though paradoxically on the horizon, but the days are long and warm. There is community, family, friendship. The smell of the grill, the childhood trials of eating off cheap plastic plates with cheaper plastic sporks.”
“A combined spoon and fork.”
“Oh shit, I love those! KFC in Hong Kong gives you one so you can eat your rice and your fried chicken. Though the thought of an innocent spork being defiled by being submerged in that pasta salad shit makes me sad. “
“Well sad sporks aside, it was a part of the best part of the year. I love those times as a kid, a high schooler too. Hell, I’m sure I’d love it now as an adult, most of the parties weren’t exactly short on beer. Midwesterners might not have the best cuisine, but the large supply of cheap beer is damn near guaranteed.”
“That does sound nice, though I am hesitant to associate myself with something that includes such shitty food.”
“There’s corn on the cob cooked over a grill.”
“See now with something that good why do you waste your time and plate space with that other nonsense.“
“Well if you set out a good spread, you should cater to all tastes. The US is a diverse place, people have different tastes, and to some of us, probably found in the highest concentration in the Midwest, pasta salad is a favorite.”
“Weirdos, but I guess I’ll give you my portion, I’ll trade you for the corn.”
“I didn’t say I liked it that much, but we’ll see.”
“You don’t even like corn that much, come on, admit you like that slop more than fresh, crisp corn.”
“You are causing a war inside my prairie soul. It’s a place famous for both. I guess it would depend on how fresh the corn was, in season, there’s nothing better, out of season, gimme the pasta salad, cold with extra mayo.”
“Christ almighty that’s gross”.
“Or just gross.”
- Bands on Ice
I guess that’s always something that’s been in the background, though I don’t think of it much.
Yeah, not literally, like background music in hallways and whatnot or muzak in all the elevators I ride in, though come to think of it I haven’t heard music in an elevator in a long time.
When most people wear headphones it’s more of an annoyance than anything else. I think it declined as headphones came into the mainstream.
Yeah, maybe, that seems to follow. You never know, correlation not implying causation and whatnot, maybe someone studied it. No matter, that’s not the ‘background’ relating to music I was talking about. I mean in the background of my life. I’ve always been into it, always tried to have good taste and explore more genres, fuck I listen to a new album every day.
That seems to be pretty central to your daily life.
You’d think. As a kid, I played the saxophone, clarinet, and violin too. School band, band with friends too.
Ska, though I’m a bit cringed to admit it.
Could be worse.
Could also be better. Despite that, though, I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘music guy.’ You know? Like I think I could be a literature guy or a politics guy, a history guy for sure. But I invest as much time into music as all of those if not more, I just never considered myself really fitting the music guy vibe. Not sure why though.
Couldn’t tell you. I guess we all probably have some hidden facets of our personality that don’t shine through, no matter how passionate we might be behind closed doors or on our own.
Really? Never took you for a sports guy.
I guess I’ve always liked it. Fast-paced, fun. Never got into any other sport though and I’m not Canadian so I guess I was the only person I knew who really was interested. I kept it on the DL and never lost the habit. Even when I have friends that are into it. It’s just my solo thing. I watch the games alone and never really like it any other way.
Wow. Interesting. Never would have taken you as a hockey guy, though I like the sound of having something that you keep to yourself. The deeper layers of the onion if you will. What’s your team?
Winnipeg Jets. I liked the Nordiques and Whalers as a kid- I had an old Sega genesis NHL game, they were my favorite teams by far. When I got into the sport and started watching it I almost swore it off when I found They’d been moved. When they brought back the Jets I became a fan as I am a fan of righting historical wrongs. If they bring back the Whalers or the Nordiques, though, I’m going with them.
Wow, well then yeah I guess music is that way for me.
Glad to know you better, maybe we can hit a concert or a hockey game sometime. Though we haven’t been those guys before, there’s no rule that says we can’t be those guys in the future. Fuck it, we are who we want to be.
Fuck yeah, man. Fuck yeah.
- Door Banging Haircut
“We almost made it. Another few hours and we would have been out of this fucking place.”
The banging was insistent at the door. They’d finally been found.
Jooyoung rolled over and looked at Sanghoon, “it’s ok,” she said. I kinda guessed this would happen. Sanghoon looked at the door, the ring of light around it illuminating the dark apartment. Outside the neons of the bars still glowed. It was 3:45. They had planned to make a run for Incheon Airport in the morning. Seems their pursuers knew how to dangle hope in front of them- then rip it away.
The banging at the door was now followed by shouts but the man outside. They doubted it was one man, but one would probably be enough anyway. He was threatening to knock down the door, though they’d picked this place because the door looked extra sturdy. It was a bluff, but they were cornered either way.
Jooyoung put her hand on Sanghoon’s chest. “It will be ok. We knew this might happen, I’m not sure what we will do, but I think we can find a solution.”
There was the fire escape equipment, but it would be a risk. Someone would see them, even at this hour. They’d joked about it, but repelling down the side of the building was supposed to be for emergencies only. They’d seen the equipment in the apartments they’d stayed in over the years but never learned how to actually use it.
The banging was a steady tattoo on the door. The threats were unambiguous. It was a surprise the neighbors hadn’t called the cops, surprising the guy hadn’t hurt his hand by now either.
“Hey,” Jooyoung said with a smile. “Let me give you a haircut. I was meaning to do it before we go to the airport. I thought if we looked nice it might help us get through customs easier.”
With that racket outside. Sanghoon motioned towards the door with his head.
“I have steady hands no matter what.” Jooyoung laughed.
They got up and went to the bathroom. Jooyoung switched on the old yellow bulb, while Sanghoon got a chair from their small table. He placed it down in front of the mirror and sink and sat down. Jooyoung rummaged around in her toiletries bag and grabbed a pair of scissors.
They both laughed as she set to work. Snipping in time with the ever more insistent banging on the door. Their eyes met in the mirror as she moved around his head. The scissors were deftly maneuvered in her right hand, while her left stayed in gentle, loving contact with his head, moving it around as necessary.
A second person was knocking on the door by the time she finished. They both smiled at her handiwork. Sanghoon turned on the shower and they both hopped in to wash off the hair. They made love, moans drowned out by the row outside.
They dressed and opened the window. They looked outside, the coast looked clear, this was their only chance. They both looked back at the door, which seemed to vibrate with the banging. They looked into each other eyes, clipped in the harness, and jumped out to repel. The banging faded as they dropped, the ropes held, and they were down quick enough to prevent too big of a crowd from forming. They jumped in the first taxi, and no one seemed to chase them.
They laughed all the way to the airport, holding each other, and admiring the haircut in the rearview mirror.
- Concrete Canyonlands
I descended the stairs, down from the high platform level of the train station. The trains let you off at least ten stories up and the city below seemed almost melow in the purple hues of the setting sun. As I descended I began to be immersed in the chaos below, now lit by the neons and advertisements.
I passed out of the fair gates onto the elevated walkways that connect all manners of buildings to this station. For blocks in any direction you could walk, still several stories above the streets, free from the grim and bustle of the city below. Only pushy people up here.
I stopped to grab an iced coffee to quench my thirst in this city of eternal summer. While I waited I looked down at the traffic clogged on the street below. It’s one of the arterial streets, clogged night and day, and in the decades since this train was built, a kingdom of perpetual shadow.
A nice girl handed me my drink and my gaze turned to the buildings all around me. I had descended from roof level to mid-level and saw shops on every floor staring back at me. Each building had to contain dozens. Everything from electronics to toupees to handjobs could probably be procured in these odd structures, each with its own direct entrance from the high walkway, some sort of passage that had been retrofitted when the station complex was built. Most of them led you straight into some confusing warren, often directly into an unmarked and crowded stairwell. A baptism by fire, an instant confusion to the uninitiated.
I looked up, trying to gasp for some fresh air in this denser layer of the atmosphere. The smells of the city, meer whiffs up on platform level with the winds to scatter them, are overwhelming down here. My eyes, too, yeared to glimpse stars. My pupils were tainted by the garish advertisements and the stars are far too hidden by the column of lights the city throws up. They stare down, though we below are watched unknowingly.
The coffee hit the spot. The bitter cold quenched something deep within my restless soul. Despite the chaos, grit, and grime I fucking loved this city. Something about it spoke to me.
I’ve long felt that all cities were an affront to humanity- some aberration in the recent history of a nomadic bipedal primate. They were born of the vulgar notion, alien until unfortunately concocted, of property. From the initial to the modern, all are an anathema to our very humanity. Perhaps, then, the more dehumanizing the city the more it speaks to me. In for a penny in for a pound so to speak. If cities are against our very humanity, let us not try to bullshit our way to happiness with artificial facsimiles of nature. Let’s recognize cities as what they are, depriving us of nature and let them deprive us to their extreme.
I smiled at the thought. I’m sure the great rift valley was nice, but give me this canyon on concrete with a forest of columns holding up the train above. Let this be my savanna, and let me roam it in freedom.
- Juan Miguel’s Big Day
The moment the subway doors opened was the moment it all fell apart for Juan Miguel. Not that he knew it, but later he’d put everything together, check dates and times, and realize that at the exact moment the doors opened at Malabia Station at 10:17 am Tuesday February 8th, 2022 his life went to total shit.
More specifically his wife, mid blowjob, convinced his boss, who’s cock his wife had in her mouth, to fire him and run away to his vacation home in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Now old Juan Miguel’s wife never blew him in a way that would inspire him to upend his life, but he guessed she really brought her ‘A’ game on his boss. In that moment, perhaps inspired by his current circumstances, or perhaps seeing it as the culmination of a variety of things, his boss agreed. Juan Miguel was fired by the time he reached the office, and they were on the ferry to Montevideo with the entire contents of all bank accounts and retirement funds Juan Miguel had.
That night he sat alone in their apartment, reading and re-reading the note his wife had left on the dining room table. Between shots of every booze they had in their liquor cabinet he tried to make sense of what the words on the page were trying to say.
To wit, she’d grown tired of him in the first six months of the quarantine, then resentful in the second six months, then vengeful. She’d decided to start fucking his boss just to get some feelings out, but, discovering how rich and easily manipulated his boss was, and decided to milk him for all the luxuries and material comforts he could provide. A parting gift had to be given, as a final coup de gras, just for shits and giggles if nothing else. The empiness of a bank account and no job to refill the coffers.
“Fucking bitch.” He said to a tumbler glass about a woman whom he still deeply loved.
They’d be in some fancy house, with a pool and beach access, while he sat in this crummy apartment sweating in the summer heat. He didn’t care what tomorrow brought if it came at all. He didn’t need to stop drinking, it’s not like he had work or anyone’s feelings to take into account.
He wondered what he had done so wrong during the quarantine. She’d never said anything. He would have done anything to fix things. Maybe this was just an excuse, this was some seriously fucked up behavior after all. If he really had done something to warrant it, he thought he’d at least be able to guess at what it might have been.
He racked his brain going through as many days as he could remember and couldn’t remember much at all. Routines and mild forms of entertainment. Maybe it was a slow burn as opposed to something sudden and terrible. Maybe he had neglected her, or just ignored one too many pet peeves. Maybe he was just a shit husband to start with, or going back further, a shit person from day one when the jizz of his dad’s ball sack met his mother’s egg.
Or maybe just one day the subway doors open and everything goes to shit.
- Idi Fucking Amin
“My mom was wild back in the day, she claims to have fucked Idi Amin.”
“What? Seriously? Idi Fucking Amin, like the crazy dictator?”
“So she claims, obviously I can’t verify it. I mean I don’t think I can ask Idi Amin, pretty sure he’s dead. I guess I’ve always just taken it at face value. She’s full of crazy stories, half of which I’m sure are bullshit. Fuck, she’s pushing sixty and she still has her little herem of hangers on, all dudes in their twenties that hang around her hoping to get thrown a bone of affection.”
“Sure, yeah, she’s a trippy lady. Honestly she doesn’t look sixty if that’s any defense for those guys. She gives off that vibe of someone who was really hot back in the day, and despite aging gracefully, is bitter her beauty faded.”
“Absolutely, nailed it.”
“But I gotta know the Idi Amin story. I mean people have stories, but not stories like that. How the fuck would you even think to make that up if its all bullshit?”
“I know, that’s sort of why I think it might be true. I guess the story isn’t that complicated. She was pretty hippy back in the day, a real granola girl. She decided to backpack from the Cape to Cairo like some patchouli scented Cecil Rhodes. In the end she ended up hanging a left at the sudanese border and going over to Morocco via the coast of West Africa, and up past Senegal. I know she chilled in Dakar for a while, and she hung out in one other place too, Lagos I think. She claims to have seen Fela Kuti in concert there, which again might be bullshit. At least concerts involve more people than fucking, well usually. With my mom you never know.”
“Knowing Fela Kuti, from what I know, he did play concerts, but he also loved his ladies, so maybe she got down over there too. Perhaps the two activities were combined”
“Amin, Kuti, por que no los dos, right?”
“You never know, but back to Uganda.”
“Yeah, so she was in Kampala I guess and she went to a party at some snazzy ass hotel there. Something with a roof top or a pool, or a rooftop pool, she was wearing her bikini I’m sure. Well the old president dropped by to sip on a cocktail, and I’m sure peruse the available tail, and well my mom stood out to the guy.”
“Well he was fairly handsome from the pictures I’ve seen, and if you find power sexy, a dictator is going to really get you going. That and let’s be serious, if he wanted you, I’m not sure you really had the chance to say no. Not if you knew what was good for you. Maybe she was down, maybe she wasn’t and decided to remember it as something other than what it really was. Either way she said he seduced her, whatever that means, and she went back to the presidential palace with him in the presidential limo and well, did the deed.”
“Wow, just wow.”
“I know. Let’s be honest he was a super fucked up dude, but I guess there is always something to be said about touching history, even if the history is bad and the touching part is really touching.”
“I guess. What a story to tell your daughter too.”
“Shit, that’s not even the worst she’s told me, let’s just say that she has strong preferences and opinions on anal lube, and don’t ask me how I know that.”
“Oh, ok. Maybe the Idi Amin story isn’t so bad afterall.”
“Comparatively, I guess.”
- Busker Economics
A busker we passed was playing a jolly tune on an old guitar. His style of playing had a beat, a rhythm that made it sound like he had a bass backing him up. It was some good stuff, folksy but in the best sort of way. It was an odd contrast to the gray sky that seemed to hover ten feet off the deck, and the general gloom of the other pedestrians that passed by the musician.
She wanted to stop and listen so we dropped a bill in his hat and I dipped off to the store on the corner to buy us two beers to sip on while the busker strummed out more tunes. He smiled and nodded as the sound of our cans opening lined up with the down beat of his new song, this one equally as happy as the last.
“Strange,” she said leaning over to me. “He’s playing an odd soundtrack for a day like today. You think he knows?”
“Not everyone is as hooked on the news as you, but if he doesn’t I’m sure he will soon. I just hope it isn’t when he’s counting his earnings only to find they are worth less.”
“Less? Not just less, much less, way less. And that’s not the half of it.”
“I know, I know. I read the same story you read, but let’s be honest most people will feel that piece of news most acutely in their pocket books and on their store receipts. Fuck I noticed the store was already changing prices on everything. Luckily for us they hadn’t made it to the beer cooler yet.”
“It must be such a mind fuck for most people, the curriency has never floated, never ever, right?”
“It’s been pegged to the dollar for as long as I’ve been checking and that’s a better part of a decade and it had been pegged for at least a few decades before that, so yeah, sure, 40, 50 years maybe. Long fucking time.”
“Yeah long fucking time. This is going to be huge. Fuck all this shit is all worthless now. How the fuck is it even going to work.”
“Well technically it isn’t worthless yet. It quickly will be worthless, though. But after the shock where normal goods are insanely expensive, rents are super low, but salaries are too, everything will adjust, there will be newer, higher value bills and things will be back to normalish. Shit still has value, just the numbers we associate with it are going to change, perhaps drastically. It’s gonna be weird and hard on a lot of people.”
“It’s going to be chaos and you know it. You make it sound like this process is going to be a hard week or two and by month’s end we’ll be sipping beers with new crisp bills in our pockets and everything will be hunky dory. Shit its gonna be serious and fuck maybe even violent.”
I nodded, she was right, but I guess I was trying to play it down to combat her, and my, rising anxiety.
“I guess today is the last day, or,”
“The calm before the storm.”
She looked up at the darkening sky, pregnant with rain and possibilities. “Literally.”
- Butterfly Dreams
“I dream in floating cities that I’ll never visit and it bums the hell out of me.” Her breath fogged the window as she looked out at the rainy cityscape on the other side. “These dreams, they’re so vivid, so lifelike, I could swear they are memories of places I’ve been. Honestly they almost feel realer than the places I’ve actually been. I’ve been to Italy three times and I swear that I could describe any of the floating cities better than Rome or Milan or Venice.”
“That’s pretty far out, but I guess not too crazy. You just had the dreams recently. You haven’t been to Italy for what, couple years?”
“True, I guess, on a certain level.” She sighed. “It’s not like that though. Maybe Italy is formed in my mind as something whose appearance and reality I just had to accept prima facie. No way I could really manipulate it and make it my own, it’s Italy, it’s a real place, real people live there.”
“Not that you’d know from all the fucking tourists.”
“Agreed. Why the fuck I went there in August I’ll never know. But take this, we were on an airplane what two weeks ago, right?”
“Before we took off, while we were waiting in the terminal. I watched the plants depart, taxi and take off. Here’s the thing: before we went I had this dream. There was a giant silver space station orbiting what I presume to be Earth. It was a giant space station, I was sitting at a huge window watching the whole agglomeration silently orbit. One part of the station looked like a hollowed out cylinder with thick sides covered in long rectangular windows. At one point a spaceship emerged from inside, the cylinder must have been some sort of spaceport or something. I watched the ship guide from the window lit shade into brilliant sunlight. It was incredible to see it gather speed and head out into the silent void. I watched it depart, inspecting everything about it, its white hull, the red stripes that decorated the livery in a beautiful way.”
“That sounds like a fucking awesome dream.”
“It was. Incredible stuff. Here’s the kicker, I remember it better than sitting in the airport. I couldn’t tell you what the planes looked like other than ‘generic jet,’ and I know what the airline’s paint jobs look like, but I couldn’t tell you how many of each company was represented at the gates. That spaceship, though, I could describe in minute detail. It’s freeky. It’s freaky and weird that my dreams are more real than what should be reality.”
I was the one that sighed this time. “I mean, I guess it’s not too out there. It’s not everyday you watch the departure of a spaceship from a station in orbit. I would call that even more memorable, real or imagined. I wouldn’t think too much about it, but if they are half as realistic feeling as you say I’d enjoy it, it sounds like quite the fucking experience.”
“I guess,” she said, still facing the window. She blew on the cool glass forming a cloud of condensation. She took her pointer finger and drew a simple butterfly. It looked happy with eyes on the end of its antennae and a smile at the top of the thorax.
“Am I the butterfly dreaming the person or the person dreaming the butterfly?” she muttered to herself as the rain continued unabated.
- New Area, New Beer
I stood under the bridge and listened to the train pass over. The squeak of the wheels echoed down the dark street and the lights of the passing windows illuminated the scene in rapid, strobe flashes.
The express sped off into the dark and I was left under the dim orange glow of ancient street lights. I walked away from the bridge, through the neighborhood. The night had closed in, swaddling all life in stifling blankets. The only souls about were of the lost variety, mine chief amongst them.
I walked past a convenience store, the only place open that I could see. Its bright lights blazed, a lighthouse of capitalism, a flame for consumer moths to find irresistible in the night. I walked in, found the beer coolers in the back, and picked out the largest can of the cheapest beer they had. I paid a bored cashier who barely registered that I was there in the first place. If I wasn’t trying to lay low I could have just walked out, the fucker would have been none the wiser.
I continued my sojourn through the neighborhood, sipping my beer, and succeeding admirably at my goal of killing time. I found a park with a stream running through it, it was an oasis of nature amongst the boulders of man made non-sense.
I grabbed a seat on a bench and watched the water bubble by. The stream seemed to have a pretty fast current for such a small size. I wondered if it was real, or some simulacrum made to give the residents the illusion of nature. They all know it’s fake, but the power of the shared illusion is too powerful. We all just shut off the part of our brain that points out the exceedingly obvious and does its best to enjoy what it can.
I sighed at the folly of the whole enterprise. This is supposed to be one of the nicest places on earth, if this is what civilization is supposed to be, we massively fucked up somewhere along the way.
The beer was nice, I was startled by how good a value it was for the price. I checked out the label, I’d have to remember the name. It looked unfamiliar. It was a head scratcher. I’d lived four train stops away from here for years. I passed it at least twice a day on my way to and from work. How could the beer be so different just a few neighborhoods over? The convenience store is the same chain I always use for fucks sake. Why does this one get the good hooch?
It made me wonder, as I dipped into the latter half of the can, just how many other areas I’d sped over on that train. I passed them and assumed they had their charm, sure, but nothing too markedly different from where I live. None of these places are the cool or hip areas of the city. Nothing more than middle class bedroom areas. Nice, good schools, nice places to walk, convenient yet quiet at night.
But fuck this one has way better beer. What delights might the others hold? I shrugged as I finished the can. I gave it a shake, a sort of ritual I seem to have picked up somewhere. I checked my watch. The misses would be finishing her dinner with the friend who lives around here somewhere. She wanted to meet me at the station so we could go out to a bar and gossip about her friend. They’d been friends since high school and she always liked to dish after. I wasn’t so much of a fan, but it seemed to make her horny after so I never complain.
It estimated I could stop by the store, grab another beer, get to the station in time to meet her, with just enough left to give her a taste. I stood up, stretched, and looked at the stream again. Nice try fucker, we both know you’re fake as fuck.
“Well that’s a bummer.” She smiled as she walked towards the door, pausing at the threshold to look back at me. “I know you weren’t planning on having to stay in the apartment all day, but really, it will be a huge help, if only in a normal way. I’ll buy you dinner Friday, I swear, after I get through this nightmare week, I’ll be in the mood to party and you’re always particularly good for that. Especially when someone else is paying for your drinks.”
She smiled again, this time with an obvious, exaggerated wink. She walked out the door and I was left alone with the sound of the falling rain outside. It patted against the windows in soft and hard bursts. I looked out the window. You’d think it was dusk fading to night, but it was just the deep gray clouds hugging the city and drenching us in their intense tears.
It’s odd to be left alone in someone else’s apartment, even one you’ve visited before. It feels like something is missing, and the request to ‘make yourself at home’ can never really be fulfilled. Maybe it could be, but it would be weird. I’d almost feel like I’m defiling the place, even if it was just sitting cross legged on the sofa with my bare feet sitting on the knit surface of the couch.
I looked around the room. Something mischievous, from a dark dim era of my life made me want to snoop around. Maybe, my old high school self spoke through the fog of the years, something funny or weird could be found. maybe some weird sex toy or some cringy, tear stained letter from an ex.
No, I’m way too old for that shit. I just spun around and looked for the best place to sit and read my book while I waited for the repair man. The apartment was lovingly decorated, if in a unique style. There were a large number of plastic plants, I started counting, but got weirded out when I hit double digits. She had good taste in light, though, I must give her that. Her lamps all gave out a soft yellow glow, and there were fairly lights all around that gave the place a cool air.
I sat down in an overstuffed dark blue chair that was much less comfortable than it looked. I shifted around trying to find a comfy spot, and sort of found one leaning at a weird angle. I’m not sure why I didn’t just move to one of the other places to sit, but I just rigidly sat there reading and rereading the same page as my mind wondered.
The doorbell scared the absolute shit out of me. I was lost in a day dream, and it was way louder than I would expect a doorbell to be. I got up, shaken as shit, and went over to the door. I looked out the peephole and a man who certainly looked like a refrigerator repairman was standing there. I opened it without much thought.
He looked at me and narrowed his eyes. He looked down at his phone, then back up at me. “Ms. Liz Choudry?”
“No, a friend watching her place, she’s at work.”
“Right. Thought I was in the wrong place. Confused me there.” He was gruff and terse, I liked him off the bat. He looked at me again, motioning a bit with his head, and my spacecadet ass finally let him in.
I took him to the kitchen and he asked about the problem. I mumbled through saying it wasn’t working, but I didn’t know much else. I think Liz had forgotten to tell me, or if she did, I’d forgotten what she’d said.
He stuck his hand in the fridge and felt the temp. Then he looked in the freezer. He gave an “Ah.” I stood watching. I’ve never been sure what to do when a repair guy was over. I don’t want to seem like I’m supervising, nor do I want to seem like I’m ignoring them. I just kinda stand there and stay quiet, which is probably the worst thing to do honestly.
“Got a hair dryer?” He asked.
“The freezer is iced up and it’s fucking up the temperature sensors, if you melt the ice with a hair dryer I’ll be fine. I’ll do it for you if you have the equipment.”
I assumed she had one, though I wasn’t sure where. I didn’t really feel like rooting through her panties to find it, but I also knew she was busy today so I didn’t want to bother her unless necessary.
“I’m sure she does, most girls do, I guess.” It came out far more sexist than I intended, but I rolled with it. I went into the bathroom, seemed to be the logical place, and under the sink was a fucking hulk of a hair dryer.
I took it over to the repairman and he too was impressed. “Fuck, does this lady have a shit load of hair or something?”
“No, not that I’ve ever noticed. Maybe it gets extra wet?”
“How would hair get ‘extra’ wet?” The repairman looked at me like I’m an idiot.
“Yeah, not sure.”
He blasted the ice, which promptly melted. I toweled up the now liquid water, and the guy checked the temperature again. “Good,” he said. “Give it a few hours, if it isn’t back to normal, call me again.” He said, speaking like a doctor giving a prescription.
He started walking to the door. Do I owe you anything? I asked, unsure.
“Nope, the lady paid. Have a good one, remember to call if it doesn’t get cold.” He showed himself out and I was again alone in the apartment. I heard the fridge running as I grabbed the hairdryer. I put it back in the bathroom and was deafened by the sound of the rain against the windows.
- The Journey of the Atom
The atoms assembled and became a Burger King tray. Black, plastic, with sides meant to hold the food in. Scratches developed over time, and the plastic faded. The Burger King was renovated and the tray was tossed for a newer design. It was taken to an incinerator and vaporized.
The atoms were ripped asunder but decided sticking together was better than meeting new people. They gathered in raindrops, and flew thousands of miles through the azure sky. They soared together with others in big puffy clouds, watching airliners streak by.
They rained down in the most unlikely of places, the parchest dry desert. They were absorbed by a seed and became part of the vascular structure of a cactus. They helped it grow, soaking in its nutrients and feeling the spikes poke out.
The sun bore down and the nights were cold. The occasional storm, not unlike the one that landed them here in the first place, swelled the cells they were part of till it felt like they would burst. The cactus swooned under the deluge. But the sun returned when the gray skies passed away and the water became new strength for the cactus.
Flowers bloomed after the storms and a few atoms were lost to seeds that fell with the fruit. The juices within danced in a symphony of different enzymes and became pungent and unique- the atoms flowed in new combinations, exotic and effervescent.
Unfortunately for the atoms, the fluid and tissue they found themselves to be a part of was the psychedelic part of the cactus. A man came by, picked the cactus, and put it into a large garbage bag. The slimy, slick black plastic reminded the atoms of their time as plastic, they felt a familiar discomfort against their valences.
The cactus had a long ride and was then exchanged for some green paper. A teenager took it home and hit it amongst socks. The smell of detergent was overwhelming and unknown to the atoms, they had forgotten the smells of man out in the sands and wind of the desert.
The cactus met its disintegration in a blender set on ‘frappe.’ Orange flavored sugar water was added to the mix and it was drunk down. The atoms flowed past a gagging throat and down an esophagus that was contracting in upwards ripples in protest of, and abhorrence to, the liquid the atoms were a part of. They landed in a churning stomach and soon were fighting with the acids that floated around dissolving all bonds of connection.
The owner of the stomach, though, was the unlucky one. He drank the mixture alone, out of pure ignorance rather than some sort of courage. He headed off to meet friends at a fast food place, unaware that in addition to extremely powerful dissociative hallucinations, the cactus often caused projectile vomiting.
Sittin in a plasticy booth under unforgiving fluorescent lights the poor highschool student’s entire sense of reality cracked as the faces of the girls he and his friends were trying to impress began to melt. Try as me might to follow his buddies commands of ‘keep it together dude’ the sudden weight of understanding that the universe is experience itself subjectively through both him and the lettuce on the hamburgers set to the spirling technicolor visualization of neon fractals that seem to be both infinitesimally small and stretch to the horizons of infinity his eyes couldn’t shut out, he projectile vomited on the tray across from his seat.
The atoms were briefly airborne before they felt their electrons rubbing up against something fairmilar. Bonds were again established and a sense of home swallowed them up. They were again a burger king tray. And all was well with the universe, save the part of it that was still puking while muttering how spoons are god made manifest.
- Cinnamon Scented Pisser
If I remember correctly, I was in a cinnamon scented bathroom when I realized I was really fucked. I laughed at the urinal, cackling like some maniac- luckily I had the shitter to myself, elsewise I could have had my ass committed.
To be honest, it wasn’t that I was totally fucked, or even partially fucked at that particular moment. That moment was pretty great to be honest. I was in a nice bar with good beer and a stunning view of the sun setting over the Patagonian Andes. More it was the sinking feeling that the course of my life was starting to move beyond my control. I had become caught in a current that was bearing me straight and true into a tempest. I knew it was coming, I knew that ‘fucked’ would be my fate in no time, but the die seemed to be cast.
I laughed in that menical way knowing that I had gotten myself into this shit storm entirely knowing that it would be a shit storm. No one had hoodwinked me, no one had sold me some silky line of shit that I’d bought and ended up down the river sans a paddle. No. The exact contrary. I knew at every step of the way, in each decision both micro and macro that this was a bad idea, and I’d walked, with a shit eating smirk, straight into a shitty situation.
I’d been living in Patagonia for the last bit and had come to love the mountains. The endless sky and the glorious pinks and purples on the mountain side that greeted me in the morning and shared a beer with me when the sun retreated west. The cool, crisp air suited me- much to my surprise. Small town life had long seemed to me to be roughly akin to drowning in molasses. I’d never even considered it, but pandemics change the variables on life’s equations and I gave it a gamble.
As much as I’d come to enjoy my moments here, I, like an idiot, decided to leave my job, give up my abode and set my feet upon the road of adventure. Now this was one of my great loves, and something that I’m sure I’d come to view as a great idea years hence when the struggles had been fought and the whole event could be viewed with the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia, but in that moment I couldn’t help but laugh.
Maybe it was because the shitter smelled like Big Red, or maybe it was because I knew that I was potentially giving up a good deal for the chance to ride the adrelinan pony for another lap, I can’t really be sure. Either way it’s moments like that when life seems to spin around you, when the events seem to be out of control, when everything that seemed like a halfway decent idea is cast in new light and seems batshit crazy. All I could do was shake the drops off my cock, flush and wash my hands. If I’ve scheduled my ass a pony ride, might as well saddle up, spur that son of bitch on and ride.
- The Accent
It’s a real sham, fuck I’d say it’s a damn shame if I was inclined to speak in such a manner. I just can’t get over the way he sings with his accent. It just sounds like he can’t fucking speak the language properly. Perhaps it plays in honkey tonks, maybe it got him a record deal in Nashville or pussy in Lubeck, but Christmas songs aren’t the place for a fucking twang.
Dude, mellow out, can I point out that I’m the only native English speaker here, and it doesn’t bother me.
I thought you hated Southern accents.
I absolutely do, but the guys got a good set of pipes. I will agree it sounds distinct enough to be recognizable as a strong twang, but I guess I don’t really chafe at it. I’m also super blazed after that last joint and this mulled wine is making me feel fine, so I don’t really have many fucks to give.
More like mullet wine given the tunes
It’s just this. I don’t give a fuck about accents. When I talk everyone knows I’m a woman from my voice, and they can probably place me as foreign, though most people think I’m British, which is kinda annoying, but I guess I sort of am. That whole colonialism thing. If I sang, though, I’d try to minimize it as much as possible, where possible. But I have no doubt it’d still shine through.
So like this guy.
No, that’s the thing. It sounds affected. Yes, to preempt you I get that as a Hong Konger my received-esque pronunciation is also an affectation to a degree. This cocksucker, though, is turning up the twant for what exactly? This isn’t some bar with cowboy hats and line dancing. This is fucking Oh Holy Night. It’s a classic, and while I’m cool with taking your twist on shit and singing it your way, you have to have some respect for the source material.
It really doesn’t bother you. Some of those words don’t just stick out in a bizarre way?
I mean yes, sort of. I hear them. They do sound weird. I’ll even give you that the way he sounds does sound like he doesn’t know how to quite articulate his words in a native manner, which is odd as he is totally a native English speaker. And if it’s an affectation, whatever. I also don’t get why you’d do that. I don’t see the appeal of turning up the twang, but I’m also just some jerkoff, so maybe it plays real well in certain areas, particularly the twangy regions.
So you agree it is weird.
Yeah sure. A bit off, but nothing that really chaps my ass.
Well considered my tush in need of balm.
Remind me to make sure you don’t confuse my lip balm with ass balm. First cause its peppermint which might be weird on the booty, perhaps nice, but more likely a bit too spicy for a sensitive area. Second, cause, you know, after it touches your ass, not sure I want it to touch my lips.
As some one who kisses you I concur.
Glad we finally agree on something.
- Messy Orchids
It’s a messy process, you see? I know it looks like a cluster fuck, shit, I guess it is a cluster fuck in a lot of ways, but that’s just the process. It’s like the old ‘you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet.’ I know you don’t like eggs, I swear you’re the only person I know who doesn’t like eggs, what is it? The smell? Sometimes the texture can be a little off, I’ll grant you that. What? Where was I? Yeah. Messy process, like the omelets you neither like nor eat.
You see I was in a similar situation once, a gang of friends, we lived up in Keelung. Maybe the rain got to us, not sure really. But we formed two cliques, just like those parties back home in the states you’re so worried about. Two groups, but we both worked for this cooperative. We were breeding high end orchids for the export market. Beautiful flowers, but delicate as a mother fucker. The climate up the mountain from the city was perfect, but it did require some regulation. That, there, was the rub. We couldn’t make up our minds about how much to just let the green houses live, windows open to the mountain air, or the hermetically seal that son of a bitch and be all scientific.
Now I get you the stakes aren’t the same as the fucking American government, but shit we were broke as fuck and we’d invested a shit load of money in those orchids, and there was money to be made if we did it right. We couldn’t work out what to do and just like those corrupt cunts in D.C. we had our leaders and our coalitions. The two CEOs were like our presidential candidates and the rest of us allied with the one we agreed with. I was the lowest on the totem pole botanist wise, but I was at least a botanist so I got some credit there.
Like your dems and reps the coalitions held and we more or less voted on things. It was a real hippy outfit and it was run as a total democracy. The founder, who’d retired at that point, was Basque and he’d said that it was common in their lands to run companies that way. I loved it, until we really got into the drag out fights. And I really hated it when the coalitions shifted- just like it’s doing now back in the motherland.
Yeah, the green house issue, right. So right before it we’d elected a new guy to be our leader, he was one of the more slick guys, a digital marketer, not a horticulturist or botanist. Fuck not even a hobby gardner. He thought we should seal up the greenhouse to make more money. Not to help the plants, not to breed more beautiful flowers, but because the sealed nature meant we could sell them for more money.
Problem was he’d been elected by a coalition that was really not down, but the opposition had members that were. The stable groups became totally unhinged. Alliances shifted, everything went tits up and ass over teakettle. That’s like what America’s going through now- and yes of course the stakes are bigger, that’s why it’s so crazy. But like our little orchid company, it will settle down eventually.
Oh and me? I was an open to nature kid of guy, but I’d never been with the slick fucker to start with. I just kind sat back and bred my specimens. I rode out the storm by not giving a fuck, and perhaps that’s the true lesson there. When shit gets weird, focus on appreciating and perpetuating beauty in the world and let the motherfuckers go fuck themselves.
“Yeah I guess I should have known it would happen. I asked for it anyway. Or,” he paused, “I asked for something that I didn’t understand, or thought I understood but in retrospect didn’t, then got what I should have anticipated in the first place.“
“That sounds rather complicated for a haircut.”
“It wasn’t a haircut, per say, more of a hair amputation.”
“How do you amputate something that grows back? Wouldn’t that be considered shedding?”
“No, well the problem was that only some of it was growing back and only in some areas. My hair had been thinning since I was a senior in highschool. I was able to hide it for most of college, but by graduation the writing was on the wall. I could still keep some people fooled, but that number was decreasing precipitously.”
“But the number of people who cared about the thickness of your hair was stable, I’d imagine, hovering around zero. Not to be mean, but I’d bet the farm not many people care about the hair of others.”
“I’d be inclined to agree. Problem was there was one person who was very interested in the decline of my hair thickness- me. Unfortunately that’s one asshole I have to deal with daily. It began to become the entirety of how I saw myself.”
“That’s crazy man, you’re jacked as shit, a real meat castle, I was with you on the beach when women damn near swooned at the sight of you.”
“That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I can’t really argue with you there. The ladies, or the subsect of ladies who like muscly guys do seem to take an extra interest in me. Problem was, again, that voice that turned my thoughts to my hair at the exclusion of all beneath.”
“So you went to the barber and said off with it.”
“And it didn’t go as expected?”
“Well, I guess as expected to some degree. It was an old school barber place. One of those places that really takes good care of you, the straight razor shave, shoulder rub after. The closest thing to a day of beauty most men with our shared fragile sense of masculinity would grant themselves. It was a Turkish guy, apparently one who has won a ton of awards and was flown over here with his family by the shop owner to ply his trade.”
“Flown from Turkey to Seoul to shave people? Fuck, that’s a new one on me.”
“Not if you saw this guy, fucking Maradona of barbaring. It was incredible. Best shave I’ve ever had, the massage at the end was fantastic too. The head shave, though, was wild. He buzzed me down, then rubbed vaseline on my head. Shaved using that shit as the shaving cream, then mother fucking buffed my dome with a towel like it was a fucking car bumper.”
“I did notice you have a certain chrome-like shine.”
“I know it’s wild. So I thought I knew what to expect, just not exactly that.”
“Shaved but not buffed to a shine.”
“Exactly, though, not gonna lie. I think I like it that way. Let’s say I was pleasantly surprised.”
- The Windows Were Down And The Sun Was Warm
The windows were down and the sun was warm in his memory. I could see the smile trying to grow out of the corners of his mouth when I asked him about her. The one that got away he called her, though time had blunted the loss into a fuzzy nostalgia that he kept in a safety deposit box deep in his soul.
They’d met in elementary school, they’d sat next to each other on the first day of 7th grade when she transferred to the school. She’d come from a farm town a few hours outside of his hometown. They became fast friends, never moving seats all year as the other kids moved around with their ever changing alliances and battles.
High school came and they went to a party together. It was out in a field, he joked about her agrarian childhood and she opened up to him. They told stories to each other they’d hidden from all others. The fire’s glow and the gentle light of a waxing moon bore witness to their first kiss.
They were in love. School dances and first experiences. They laughed through their first real hook up, but made a quick study of each other’s bodies. Soul mates was the term they threw around in their private conversations. They were bonded by fate, kissed by sweet karma that their souls found each other. He read Sidhartha and the Mahabharata and was convinced they were souls that kept getting reincarnated, turning down nirvana and moksha just to spend another lifetime together. Their love would span yet a few more lifetimes, their attachment to each other just too strong.
The summer after high school came, and with it the memory he always savored. They borrowed her dad’s car and went on a road trip. They lied that others were going with them. They camped out west in stands of fir and pine, and washed off post sex in the foaming waters of frigid waterfalls. They drove far enough up north to lay together in one glorious moment under the northern lights when the universe seemed to hold its breath and soak in the moment.
Reality called, and she went off to college back east and he followed his scholarship to a university campus among the Rose of Sharon in the Far East. Their letters crossed continents and oceans, but with increasing rarity. When he was able to get home the next summer they sheepishly told each other they’d found another.
They’d bump into each other when holidays brought them back to their hometown, but her parents returned to her hometown and they lost track of each other. Nowadays after the years have cut creases on faces and turned hair white he only knows details. Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest was where she ended up, a million miles from the condo in the sky his corporate presidency bought him on a verdant bay named for an old British warship.
I knocked back a few pints with him on the beach below that fancy condo building. He’s eyes scanned the water, watching the ships leave this fragrant harbor, to cross the seas to meet millions of girls who got away. I asked if he’d ever book a ticket, the fights were direct from here to there. No, he would demur, the beauty of memories is they are in the past, ever sweetened by the passage of years, but frozen when they were young and beautiful.
His eyes, though, scanned the pinks and purples of the sky, lost in a distant thought of a girl who simply got away.
- Old Soldiers Never Die, Unfortuantly
“I guess you do have to wonder, I can’t imagine a time that was more crucial, more impactful than those years. I have to wonder who he could have become if not for the war. If that draft notice had gotten lost in the mail, or if he’d been assigned some job other than rifleman.”
She shrugged. “It does seem like an enormous waste. A promising kid, what was he 18 when he went? What the fuck do you know about anything at that age, and you’re just dropped into a world of shit and asked to do the worst things we as humans can do to eachother.”
“Fuck, for shooting someone the used to give people the chair back in that day. Imagine the cognitive dissonance. You get a medal over there for shooting someone, over here the death penalty. Imagine how that screws with your sense of right and wrong, and with only 18 years of life experience and education to make sense of it.”
“A man who lived to seventy,” she shook her head, “whose life was ruined at 18. What’s that 52 years of trying and failing to pick up the pieces. What a fucking shame.”
“I would have loved to have known him before the war. I would have loved to see that kid, my mom said he was riot, clever, fun. She told me that he once read a short story from a Playboy to her when they were teenagers. She claims it’s the hardest she has laughed in her whole life.”
“And then he came home.”
“She claimed ‘he’ didn’t. The physical form, yes. But her brother was lost in a jungle on the other side of the world. All for some fucking idea he didn’t understand. He just wanted to do what he was told was right. He suffered 50 odd years for trying to be a good guy. What fucking bullshit.”
“What was he like when you were a kid?”
“Quiet. I could never really talk to him. I remember he lit candles at our church every day. I guess that was his job of sorts. I don’t think it paid anything, but he wore an outfit like a priest in training and lit the candles. I remember watching the flame dance as his shaky hands tried to set the wicks alight.”
“Did you ask him about the war?”
“No. God no. I remember I had a project for history class where we had to interview a veteran about their experience. I asked my mom if I could talk to him and she freaked out. I was young and didn’t really get it.”
“Yeah, I can get why she didn’t want you to.”
“I get it now, then it was just confusing. I remember once visiting him after he moved to the boat he lived on for the last few years. He and my mom had a fight. I don’t know over what. He came over to me and said “I’m a good guy, I promise” over and over. I tried to tell him I’d never thought otherwise but I’m not sure it really got through to him.”
“Was he a good guy, really?”
“Good as they come. And it seemed the better they come the harder they fall, it’s just a shame he had to fall so far for so long.”
- Sill Ibis
The bouncing melody lulled me into a kind of half sleep. A sort of strange half reality state where my lucidity slipped and I was lost in an all encompassing thought about the difference between wearing and not wearing shoes.
I woke up with a start, thinking I heard something outside. I got up from the couch and walked over towards the open window. The record player was still playing. It could have been the same song or another, they all had blurred together in my half sleep state.
As I got closer to the window I noticed a bird perched on the sill. It was backlit by the late afternoon sun glowing on the cream colored buildings across the street. It was beautiful, a warm tan color with black wings. It was an ibis, I think. It honked in an odd way I’d never quite heard before.
It seemed to inspect me as I moved towards it, but it didn’t flinch or seemed threatened by my presence. With each step I anticipated the whoosh of wings. I wondered what I would do if it took flight into the apartment, as opposed to back to the firmament from which it descended.
I came within an arm’s reach and it still seemed fixed. It moved its head to keep its left eye fixed on me, and it bent down to peck at the wooden frame, but was otherwise unmoved, or perhaps uninterested in my existence.
I stood shoulder to wing with the ibis and looked out at the street. The shops seemed to be doing a lazy trade, caught in the doldrums between the lunch time and after work tempests. The ibis’s gaze seemed to follow mine as I inspected the street’s entire length, and it seemed to likewise have little to no interest in the affairs of man.
It was larger than most bird’s I could remember, and it was far larger than any bird I’d ever had in my close proximity. It tilted it’s head left and right every few seconds, but smoother than a chicken would. It shifted its weight and took a few small steps in a circle.
The thought crossed my mind that I could grab this bird. I’m not sure what I would do with it, and I’m sure it would freak the fuck out. Pretty sure if you are going to be holding a pissed, thrashing ibis, it’s best to go into the situation with a clear goal and a solid plan of action.
I decided against it and decided to let the bird make the first move. Down the street a car honked and we both looked, then looked at each other as if looking for some explanation from our counterpart.
I laughed and the bird squawked in a way that I thought sounded like a laugh. I was amazed that it seemed to respond to me, though it could have just been startled by the noise I was making. On the record player a new song began with a strong guitar solo. The ibis looked inside and held the spinning 45 in its gaze. When the vocals began it looked at me, and held my countenance in its black eyes, unblinking, as the singer crooned.
After a few moments it honked and spread its wings. I stood back, giving it the whole window to spread out. It looked over at me one more time, then bent its legs and with a fluid motion jumped forward and flapped its wings. It caught the wind, banked hard down the street, dropped down a few floors to gain momentum, then pulled up, flapped hard, and soared off above the city.
Below the song played on, and I tried to understand what the fuck just happened.
- On the outskirts of Manila
She laid on the bed thinking. I was rolling us a joint, sitting on the floor. We weren’t really that far apart, my bed was just a mattress on the floor. It wasn’t bad or cheap, my room was built like a traditional Japanese house so you were supposed to sleep on the floor I suppose. Or well, it was as traditional Japanese as a room built in the ‘80s in Taipei could be.
As I was wrapping the paper up, struggling to be honest, I heard her roll over behind me. “Are you from the city or those American suburbs I saw on TV?”
I laughed, both at her comment and at the satisfaction of actually rolling a nice joint in spite of my ineptitude. “I’m from the City more or less.”
“More or less? She posed.
“Well I’m from what’s called a Streetcar suburb. Around 100 years ago almost all American cities had extensive networks of trams, which we called trollies or streetcars. Almost every city, including mine tore them out, which is a shame and knida why public transport in the US sucks. Anyways the neighborhoods right out the very center of the city were called streetcar suburbs. They were built for people to take the tram into the central city, then commute out to a small house with a cute little yard. The trams are long gone, but the streetcar suburbs remain, now they are part of the city center, but still retain their suburban flair, though not like the huge suburbs that you see on TV. Those came much later and were all built for cars. So where I am is a bit of the city, a bit of the suburbs.”
“Best of both works.” she intoned.
I laughed again, licking the joint closed. “Yeah you could say that, or when I lived there we always saw it as the benefits of neither with the problems of both.”
She laughed. I laughed too and held the joint over my shoulder for her to get started. She declined telling me to light it, ‘rollers privilege’ she called it. I wanted to protest, but she was the kind sort, so I knew my protests would be gently rebuffed. I shrugged and grabbed the lighter. Holding the joint with my lips I returned the question. Are you from the part of Manila with enormous traffic jams?
She laughed over the sound of the lighter’s flint. “Every part of Manila has traffic, Manila is basically one giant traffic jam. But I actually live a bit on the outskirts, where the city begins to fade into the lush paradise north of the city.
Isn’t there a huge volcano there? I asked as I passed the joint to her.
She took a mighty puff. “Several.” she said, exhaling with a wry smile. A smile that seemed to smirk at the danger the volcanos pose. What, no volcanoes in Kansas?
“We don’t have hills, much less the kind that spew fire.” She laughed, I did too. The subtle buzz of the ganja began to seep into my system.
“Na, where I live, baring some apocalyptic eruption it’s safe, the main concern is typhoons, but my house is safe from those, well maybe a tree goes wild and does some damage, but otherwise its ok. Honestly Manila, the central part you visited, is kinda pain in the ass to visit. The crowds, the traffic, all that. I don’t really go that often- maybe to Quezon city or a big mall closer in, but not really. The north part of the city has everything except a major airport and we’re sort of getting one of those, so except going to the main airport and the odd other errand I keep to my part of town.”
She handed back the joint and I was briefly adrift in her eyes before I remembered I needed to make my body move. I took two big hits and cocked my head.
“It’s weird.” I trailed off. “We come from such different biomes.”
She laughed. “Biomes? The difference between Kansas City and Manila comes down to biomes? I think there are a couple more differences than that.”
“Oh for sure, no doubt. I’d say we’d run out of weed long before we got through all of them.” She laughed and I couldn’t help but smile. “But at a base,” I continued, “the biomes are super different. You’ve never been in a blizzard and I’ve never lived in the shadow of a volcano.”
She looked at me and cocked her head. “Dude, we’re in Taipei, Yangmingshan? Fuck you’re surrounded by volcanoes!”
“Oh shit yeah.” The realization hit me and we both laughed. In our peels of laughter I looked down at the joint as if to show it was the weed talking. She laughed even harder, curling up and rocking from side to side. I handed her back the joint.
She grabbed it and smiled, trying to suppress her giggles. “That’s the American education system for you.” I smiled back, again adrift in the brown ocular seas, “Yeah, tax money hard at work.”
- The Fettered Hummingbird
She brushed her thumb across her lips like Jean Paul Belmondo in a bout de souffle, then looked out the window. Outside a hummingbird was busy doing something with a flowering tree.
“So busy,” she said to no one in particular.
It was a lazy Saturday that now seemed to stretch on, but would be a blip in a week or two. We sat drinking our coffee while our cabin’s power was out. The day was chilly, but sunny. We had kicked around going for a walk or a hike or hitting a happy hour, but everything seemed to require a miniscule amount of energy we just didn’t seem to have. The lack of electricity seemed to extend to our very mitochondria.
“I just,” she paused, “I just can’t seem to get myself together today. Just something,” she gesticulated, “something seems to be blocking me. It’s like some huge, invisible rope has me bound, loose enough to wiggle, but not enough to free myself.”
“That sounds unpleasant.” I said vacantly, it came out sterner than the more neutral tone I was going for.
“Not entirely, the difference between swaddling cloth and a straight jacket could be a matter of opinion. Or context even. I guess it just depends on how you decide to see your fetters.”
“What have you decided about yours, more straight jacket or swaddle?”
“Not really sure, definitely far from prison chains or a noose, fuck the thought is too heavy.” She paused. “More like backpack straps, something to be carried, something that weighs you down, but nothing too severe. It is a burden, but not an impossible one.”
“Interesting.” Which was my go to phrase to remark that someone had articulated an idea, but I didn’t have, or didn’t want to make, a comment on it.
“Something like that.”
“Any idea of the cause?”
A pause hung in the air, outside the hummingbird smacked itself against various flowers. She shrugged, “I’m sure I could figure it out if I tried, but even that seems to require powers of action I just don’t seem to have. That’s the most pernicious type of chain, the kind you wrap around yourself.”
I didn’t have anything to say so I let the comment float with the dust in the sunbeams coming through the windows.
“I didn’t,” she continued after a few moments. “Well, I’m not sure if this is connected, but I didn’t dream last night.”
“I’m not sure I see the connection.”
“I usually dream. I always see it as a screen saver while my mind organizes itself. I used to defragment my computer when I was a kid and after a while the screensaver would come on. Remember the days of the cool screensaver? People used to go out and by that shit specifically. As a kid I read in a book that when you sleep your mind organizes all the data you took in that day, so I guess I just put those two things together. When I don’t dream I feel that my mind didn’t organize itself, I feel out of sorts all day. Even when I otherwise sleep well. I’ve never really understood it.”
She paused again for a few moments. “I’m not really sure if there is a connection, but I guess it’s as good of an explanation as any.”
She looked at me and I shrugged. “Fuck if I know” I said, again in a stronger tone than I wanted.
Outside the hummingbird ran into one of the eaves of our cabin, then flew away confused.
- Your Mother Should Know
The book crackled as it burned. I never thought I’d be one to burn books, but I never thought I’d live through a siege. The night was cold and I needed to stay warm. I’m sure the book contained some gem of knowledge, maybe the life’s work of some brilliant person. Now it would keep me from freezing in this shell of a building.
I looked up through the holes in what was once an apartment building. The snow fell lightly, dropping lazily from passing clouds. In between the flurries I saw a wealth of stars I never knew hung over the city. The power was off, intentionally or otherwise, and without light pollution the celestial firmament shown down on this city veiled in wrath and tears.
I cleaned my rifle, just to be safe, even though I was a ways back from the front. I would have to venture out onto the streets later to get to my barracks and I was in no need to be caught with a jammed rifle. I whistled a Beatles song I used to like years ago when I was in highschool. I don’t know why it came to mind, but it’s haunting melody echoed off the broken concrete.
The peace of the night betrayed the savagery that was always a moment away. The enemy was one who loved psychological tricks- allow a moment of peace a bit longer than usual, then end it with a spectacularly heavy barrage. That peace, as deceptive and fleeting as it was, was to be savored.
I took off my helmet and adjusted the uniform of scraps I’d cobbled together to fend off the cold. I sighed, weary, and leaned against a wall that still stood. The city is ruined, lives ruined, but there is no recourse except to continue. An occupation would be worse, surprising that something is worse than this, but it no doubt would be.
So we all sit, cold, hungry, tired, knowing more violence will descend from the sky, but carry on if for lack of alternatives. To even imagine something else is a waste of time. It won’t put food in your belly, nor keep bullets out of your ass. When you reach a point where buring a book is just what is done without second thought, you know you’re really fucked.
I decided to try to catch one of the big, wet snowflakes on my tongue. Who knows what pollution it might be laced with, but I doubt I’ll have the luxury of it killing me in thirty years. I laughed as I moved my head, tongue hanging out, in an unsuccessful exercise.
My laughter was silenced when the first whistles of incoming shells pierced the night. From the now all too familiar sound patterns I knew every part of the city was going to be hit, no targeted attack, just a general deluge meant to demoralize the populace. One could be headed for me, but there was nothing to be done.
As the explosion reports ripped through the air and concussive waves shook the ground I hummed the Beatles song again, closing my eyes and thinking of days when all of this would have been impossible.
- The Lawyer
There was a knock at the door, something I wasn’t expecting at this hour- or any hour really. My simple apartment was not the sort of place people visited. It was nothing special, nothing more than a kitchen/hallway, a bathroom, and the one main room which fulfilled all other functions, if only sort of. I’d always felt it weird to invite people over to a place that only had a bed as furniture. Luckily most of my friends had similar apartments, efficient, but spartan. Luckily Tokyo has more than enough bars for our megre social gatherings.
The knock took me totally off guard, a guard significantly down due to the five now empty cans of beer in the recycling. Something awoke in me, a pure fear from my youth in one of the American neighborhoods the tour books overhear specifically recommend you avoid. I tiptoed to the peep hole as quietly as possible, not wanting to alert whoever was outside that I was looking.
“I can see you’re looking through the peephole, its two way, you should probably get that replaced.” came a deep voice in English from the otherside of the door. I couldn’t hear any specific accent, other than broadly North American.
“Who the fuck is it?”
“You don’t know me, but I know you and you need to let me in to discuss an important matter.”
“Yeah, na, not opening my door to a fucking stranger, so unless you have something else you can go ahead a fuck off.”
“Listen pal, I don’t want to talk to you any more than you want to talk to me, but open the fucking door its about our mutual friend John Murphy, he needs us to cooperate, but that can’t happen talking through a fucking door.“
I did know a John Murphy, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more than one John Murphy in Tokyo, hell they’re probably a couple. I wouldn’t say we were friends, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he chose me to help him out in a jam. I had a bit of a reputation in our general group of acquaintances for a certain degree of experience in getting people out of trouble. Knowing a lot of reckless people with substance abuse problems will do that to you.
I opened the door but kept the chain secure. I peered out and saw a man in a nice suit with matching overcoat. He had a nice briefcase and what looked like an expensive watch. He was white and middle aged, clean cut to the t. He even had one of those metal bars connecting the sides of his collar under his tie. He saw me looking. “So are you going to let me in?”
I guess it seemed worth the gamble. I looked over at the kitchen and saw a wok I could use if push came to shove. I think there was a fish deboning knife in one of the drawers too, though that’s some gnarly shit to contemplate.
I closed the door, pulled off the chain, and let him in. He took off his shoes and I realized I didn’t have any slippers to offer him. He shrugged and walked straight to the main room in his socks.
I offered him a beer so I could drink one too. He demurred with a shake of his hand. “So, I bet you’re wondering who the fuck I am. I’m a lawyer for your buddy Johnny. Seems he’s fucked up and he needs your help. “
“What’d he do?”
“Oh nothing serious, there was a disagreement with the proprietor of a bar over a bill. Seems he got confused in a, shall we call it, seedier establishment. One of those places you drink with pretty girls, blah blah blah not important. Seems he underestimated what his bill would be, got a bit of sticker shock, had words with the bartender, threw fists with the boss, and now, well.”
“In the slammer?”
“Oh fuck no, the bar is owned by the Yakuza. He fucking wishes he was in the slammer, fuck, na, I’m the English speaking representative of this collection of Japanese businessmen here to see if you are willing to help him.”
“I thought you were his lawyer.”
“I am, in a way. I’m a lawyer, and I’m trying to help him so, roundabout, ipso facto, I’m his lawyer. Let’s not split hairs.”
“What sort of help does he need, and why me?”
“Well that second part I don’t know, but the first part is simple, Ten million yen and he’s free.”
“Ten million yen? Are you fucking kidding me? Where the fuck am I going to get that much money? Does he think I have that kind of scratch?”
“Yeah, not sure, he gave a few names, when I pulled up to this apartment complex I knew you probably didn’t have that kind of money, but fuck I was already here, though I’d ask.” He shrugged.
“I mean I’d like to help, but man, I don’t have anywhere near that kind of money, no one I know does, even collectively.“
“That’s the pickle, right? They’d probably negotiate a bit, but not down to what you can pay. Sorry to put this sort of burden on you, the fact you’d even consider it makes you a good friend in my book. I wouldn’t pay either, hell I wouldn’t have let me in and offered me beer, I think you’re morally excused.” He made the sign of the cross like a priest and stood up.
“Is he,” I paused, “is he going to be ok?”
“What do you mean by ok?”
“Are they gonna,” I looked around for some reason and whispered, “kill him?”
“Oh fuck no! Seriously, this is Japan mother fucker, there aren’t murders here. What the fuck, no, they’ll rough him up and make him make back the money, they’ll give him a humiliating job, might even pimp him out, but kill, fuck no. Honestly, he’ll be fine, or well, maybe fucked up a little but he’ll live, might even have a good story to tell out of it, who knows.“
He started walking to leave, returning his socked feet to his leather dress shoes. He opened the door, then turned to me. “A bit of advice, in exchange for your hospitality. Always have enough money to pay your bar bill.”
He smiled then left, leaving me alone again in my small apartment. The silence washed the room clean of his presence. Numb I turned to grab another beer. Fuck hitting the bars tonight, I said to the white humm of the fridge.
- Beer Bucket
The band struck up a tune I didn’t know, but was happy to hear it for the first time. I was just coming out of the bathroom and, disoriented by the dropping of the beat, I temporarily forgot what I was supposed to do. I remembered my mission was to piss and get another round, the first now successful I found my way to accomplishing the second.
I found a bar directly below the raised stage. It was an odd placement for a bar, but as long as they have beer I’m not going to complain. I stood in the short line while the thumping baseline reverberated my very soul. The singer sang in a falsetto, the tweeters on the amps above my head must have been working overtime.
My turn at the bar went well, I shouted above the beautiful dim for a six pack of beer. The barman nodded and held up fingers for an amount of currency, which I handed over in excess, with him returning the change. He disappeared into the dark area behind the bar, illuminated only by a neon Jager sign. I looked into the red glowing eyes of the deer, losing myself to the song and the hypnotic appeal of the glowing noble gas.
The barman returned with a metallic bucket full of ice and longneck bottle. He pushed my new purchase to the side and started with the guy behind me in line. I inspected the bucket, which I assumed was meant to look like an old timey wash tin, but its lack of handles made me think that it was a less than stellar replica. The lack of handles and the cold condensation on the exterior made me rack my brain on how best to carry it through the crowd. In a moment of impulse I threw it on my head like a woman in a far away culture bringing a water jug back from a distant well.
I thought the bar man might give me some guff or at least a stern look of ‘if you drop it you won’t get free replacements so don’t be a dipship and endup covering the bar in broken glass’ but he didn’t pay me any mind. I strode off with my bucket upon my head, one hand on the side for added stability, and a huge smile on my face. I bounced with the still raging tune, weaving through a crowd that seemed to pay no heed to the guy with a bucket on his head. Perhaps they’d see everything, to the point of finding even the somewhat out of the ordinary hopelessly gauche, or they just didn’t give a shit about some stranger. I hope it’s the latter.
I arrived back at my group, and was greeted by smiles ranging from bemused, to happy, to ‘fucking lunatic.’ I genuflected, presenting them with the beers, which I watched be taken from below. I reached up and grabbed the last bottle, and with a move that worked better than I expected, slid the bucket straight from my head to the table they were sitting around. I opened the beer with a wet, cold opener that had been chilling with the beers. I took a victory sip. It might not be much, but when you’re drunk a successful drink and piss run is always something to be enjoyed while in progress, celebrated when successfully completed, and always done in extravagance.
- Obliteration Dance
Lost in the swaying grass of the endless plains a banner unfurled in the cold breeze. I watched in fear, in awe of the assembly before me. The Great Emperor had given the word and horses had made a quick gallop to this spot deep in the vast wastes of this land. The fearless autocrat has raised the red flag of war, and I may be the only outsider to witness it- and be allowed to live.
To reinforce my sinking suspicion, some war prisoners of the enemy were quickly beheaded, sacrificed to the gods of war, sending the assembled warriors into a frenzy. My blood curtled at their calls and my mount pranced nervously. I tapped its strong side in an attempt to calm the beast, and calm myself.
The Great Emperor rose to speak on the grand stage and the assembly fell pin drop silent. I watched from a far as he powerfully strode forward. He stood strong in his sturdy build, glittering in his fine garb. He began to sing in a loud bass profundo voice, as was the way the emperor addressed the public. From my limited understanding of the court dialect, he was reciting a war poem his grandfather, the Supreme Conqueror wrote on the occasion of massacring, to the man, the capital of a former rival, now an enslaved province.
I watched the soldiers assembled, heads bowed, but not understanding a word the Emperor sang, his lyrics were far too archaic, though they knew it should be received with severe reverence. Horses kicked and snorted, and the banners flapped against the cold sky.
The Emperor finished singing the poem and fell silent. Again only the wind, vulgarly ignoring the solemnity of the occasion, could be heard. The Emperor placed his hands on his hips and tilted his head back. In a voice that seemed far too loud for a human to produce he screamed “Obliterate all” in the vernacular. The army assembled responded in a feverish exalt, with horses rearing from the deafening roar.
My handler leaned over to me. “See this, take leave of here and go tell your people: while today you aren’t our enemy, should that fate ever befall you, this is what awaits.” The guards grabbed the reigns of my horse and began to lead me away, back towards my homeland, bearing news and warnings.
As we crested the hill I looked back to see a cloud of churned earth rising from the zealot band, whipped into a furious dance. I pitied the enemy, and hoped my people would never fall afoul of them. I’m sure my witnessing this here was meant to scare us into tributary status, one I would wholly recommend. My people, despite our island ramparts and our fleet, could never outlast the pure bloodthirsty will of these men. Any one who witnessed such a gathering would understand just how devastating this army would be to anyone who dared oppose them, if not by imperial command, then out of pure spite.
One of the guards guiding me noticed me looking back, “Face forward,” he commanded, “Save your awe and fear, you will need an ample supply of both when we come for you.”
- Melting Ice
She passed me her smoke as we watched the ice melt. Few other things to do on a rainy, cold winter day. The hours of the day seemed to march by, unremarked if not of the click of the living room clock. We’d decided to de-ice our fridge, something we’d been putting off for a time when it was empty. Now the fridge was bare so we watched as droplets rolled off the white ice into a red serving dish I’d put under the iceberg.
My mind had been wandering when she handed me the smoke. Something about today reminded me of a grey day years before when I lived in Seoul. I watched a similar day roll on, similarly bored, still smoking the occasional cig, but alone. For some reason today the cig tasted more like the ones I used to smoke back then than her current brand.
I accidentally timed an exhale at the same moment she sighed. We looked at each other and laughed vacantly. “What the fuck is up with today?” she said to no one in particular, though I was the only one there to hear it.
“Yeah, smoking a cig watching ice melt is a new level of boredom, a doldrum that I’ve never tried to sail through before.”
She nodded and I handed her back the smoke. Silence again reigned in our small kingdom. I shifted my weight on the uncomfortable floor. I opened my mouth to tell her about how this reminded me of that day in Seoul but she beat me to the punch. “This reminds me of some time, though I don’t know when or where. Just a feeling that is familiar, if indistinct. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I kinda want to wallow in it.”
“Wallow in it?”
“Yeah, it’s a sort of numbness that I don’t often get. Sometimes I like these sort of boring days, and the annoyment that comes with them, as mildly unpleasant as it is. It’s not unique, that’s not what I want to say, but it’s different, a conscious numb.”
“As opposed to an unconscious numb?”
“Not unconscious, no. But how we live now, fuck, it feels unconscious most of the time. It feels like a life on autopilot, with a flashing new thing to keep your mind fixed on whenever a moment of pain or introspection crops up. This,” she gestured towards the melting ice, “this is a real feeling, something deeper, not inspired by the machinations of some algorithm or anything like that. It’s real, and I like it. Call me crazy.”
“I won’t, I get you. This feeling is an old friend for me too, if not so welcome a guest. It’s definitely better than feeling nothing, that’s for sure.”
She passed me the cig and a chunk of ice fell like a glacial calv with a hollow thunk. “Seems the day is just getting interesting.” She commented, and the drum of the rain punctuated our laughter.
- The Photographer and The Man in Seat 34H
“I know he’s a tyrant, but it will serve you well, my friend, to shut the fuck up about it. It will serve no one well if you decide to talk about it, and it will end badly for you if you speak about the situation with the wrong person. A lot of these little tin pot outfits avoid jailing foreigners, the bad press just isn’t worth it. The deportation plane is the less painful solution. This outfit,” he gestured out the window at the rugged land below, “this is not one of those places.”
He wore a tan suit that was straight out of the 70’s, and looked like it last fit him about that time. He had the window seat and I the aisle; we’d struck up a conversion on the flight. He was flying home from some business abroad, I on my way into the country for my first assignment there. When he heard I was a photographer he’d decided to split the remainder of his third small bottle of whiskey with me and give me some advice.
“The country is a rough place, and it would also serve you well to never show that in your photos. All pictures will be screened when you leave the country, they’ll check your laptop and phones and cameras and what not. They know you’re a photographer, they will check. And don’t try to hide something or email something to your boss, they won’t take kindly to that.”
I tried to protest, feebly, that it was my duty of sorts to portray the country accurately.
He smiled paternally. I’d guess from his demeanor he was a good father, the kind that seems hard on the outside but that his children know is a complete pushover who spoils their mother and would never say a word in anger to anyone he loves. “My friend, there is no ‘accurate’ or ‘real’ here. Reality is controlled by those who call the shots. We must ignore the evidence of our eyes if we wish to keep them in our heads. It is distasteful of course, but if you wish to survive here, it will be a taste you acquire. Reality is redefined daily and it is something we must adapt to.”
“Why do the people put up with that?” I said, feeling a need to rid myself of all such questions before the wheels touched the sizzling tarmac at the airport.
He shrugged gently. “A variety of factors, I could never tell you the motivations of any of my fellow men, but I would guess the benefits of apathy are too high and the cost of resistance far, far too dear. Perhaps it is our fate to suffer so, we make due to survive.”
I was deflated. My hopes of giving a window into this walled off nation faded as we began our descent and the reality of just what a place this was began to set in. The man saw the dejection on my face and gently slapped me on the knee.
“Do not despair my friend, there is still a story to be told here, one that will slide past the censors and tell the real story. It will take artistry, subtlety, a keen eye and a steady hand. You will have to walk a razor’s edge, but it is walkable should you choose to tread that path. Your viewers will see through the lines if you make it so they care to look, and the censors will be blind to it if you don’t give them reason to suspect. I’m sure you will be up to the task, the story of this nation should be told, and we will appreciate it being told.”
I looked into his deep brown eyes and thanked him.
He smiled. “Either way my friend, you are welcome to eat at my house and my wife is the finest cook in the world. If nothing else, your mouth will delight in such sweet cuisine.” He laughed uproariously, danger be damned.
- The Photographer
She finished her coffee and looked across the quay. The water of the bay was calm, the sound of small waves lapping gently on the embankment washed over her ears. The cafe table was in the perfect position, or so she guessed. She looked down at the telephoto lens and top of the line camera sitting in a bag at her feet. Now all she had to do was wait.
The task was the same and it was never a surprise. Even the waiters at the cafe were in on it, she tipped them well. Once a week a navy ship passed through the bay on its way out to sea, she needed to get as many pictures as possible every time. Sometimes it was something small, a destroyer or something like that. Once it was an aircraft carrier that the navy wasn’t even supposed to have completed yet. Another time it was a submarine, black and sleak in the water. Usually, though, it was what her identification guide called a guided missile cruiser.
The waiter brought her another coffee and she checked her watch. Late. Strange. These sailors were usually the punctual type. She guessed it was something to do with tides or spy satellites flying over. Maybe it was just a crew rotation or the skipper liked to sail after breakfast. Who knows, hell who cares. She liked the idle speculation, though, it passed the time and added an interesting dimension to what was, all things considered, an exceptionally boring job.
Sit at a cafe until a ship shows up, take as many pictures as possible as it sails past. Develop the film and try to identify the ship, though if she couldn’t that was cool too, then give it to her contact.
Contact. She snorted at the thought. She was just a photographer from up the street. A local, a third party national as the customer had said. Not from the same country as the navy ship, nor of whoever the guy was. He’d shown up one day and asked her to do it. He offered more than double what she usually made in a month- just for one morning a week. She’d been nervous, she even went to the local police box and asked the officer on duty if it was illegal. He was helpful if not all that interested. He dutifully called his superiors who said it was absolutely legal to photograph any ship in the bay at any time- if a foreign navy didn’t like it they could sail elsewhere.
It seemed like a slam dunk, she smiled. The ship appeared as if summoned by her felicity. It was sleek and gun metal grey. A large white ‘65’ was painted on the side. She grabbed her camera and began to snap it. She started at the bow, holding down the button to capture every inch of the ship as it passed the spot.
She was busy getting as many shots as she could when someone tapped her on the shoulder. She ignored it, engrossed in her work, until she felt something cold and metal press up against her head. She jumped, startled, turning her head to look straight down the barrel of a menacing looking handgun. She looked up to see a man who looked like he meant business. She looked over and saw they’d grabbed the waiter too, he squirmed with a gun to his head.
Hand over the camera and hands up. The man said in a strong foreign accent. She complied and the man grabbed the camera. His associate let the waiter go and took the camera. The man looked deep into her eyes.
You need to come with us, he said, we have some questions.
- 18 Chips and What Do You Get?
A man once sang about 18 tons and souls owed to company stores. Watching the city below I could viscerally feel his pain. He in his miner get up, me in the sweat stained clothes I wear under my clean suit. He had his coal mine, I have my semiconductor factory.
Below the city was bustling. The station was a huge interchange between two lines, and people from all corners came here to live life, or just change trains on the way home like me. I yawned, bored by the cityscape, bored by life- or maybe just too tired to really think. Another twelve hour day. Only one day off every two weeks. What the fuck kind of life is this?
I lived and worked an hour apart too. How the fuck was that supposed to work out? Changing trains at the busiest interchange in the fucking city too. Some planning there, but with unemployment this high I should be happy I have anything, right?
I watched a few trains come and go, waiting for the crowds to thin from super dense crush load to just normal crush load. The evening was warm and the elevated station had a good breeze. I could smell some street food cooking below, my stomach reminded me that I was alive and needed sustenance, but I bid it wait, food would be at home.
The lights of the city were a blur on the half hour ride home. The walk from the station was pleasant enough, another bland collection of streets near a station, nothing special. My apartment was another bland box in a collection of bland boxes, stacked in a way that could only get a control freak hard. If there is such a thing as negative aesthetic beauty, this is it. At least I have a house in a bad housing market, right? Just be sure to pay the exorbitant rent on time or you’ll be out on your ass mother fucker.
The apartment was dark, and I didn’t bother with the lights. I opened the fridge and the room took on the white glow of the bulb within. I saw my pale arms, forever denied sunlight during my day long shift in a windowless plant. The appendages reached into the cold to grab the entire contents of the fridge- two beers first, then some left over rice. I sat down in the dark and played some music on my phone. I cracked a beer and began to eat the cold rice, no need to warm it up, it’s gonna be a shitty meal either way.
The rhythm soothed but only so much. A news notification flashed and I saw the time. Fuck. Six hours till I need to wake up again for more of this shit. I shook my head. Fuck this shit.
I set the cold takeout food container on the table and watched the lights of the apartment complex come in the window of my sorry room. I cracked the second beer and took it down. If this is really what it’s like to be lucky in this economy, I think I might prefer to be fucked.
- The Coffee Kiosk
She parted her hair in the mirror finish of the window, dodging the look of the eleventh fucking guy so far today. Her hangover was splitting her head in two and moving her hair seemed to make it slightly better. Fucking placebo, she remonstrated herself. She seemed presentable, clothes clean, hair nice, fucking normal enough for fucking work.
She fished a crumpled soft pack out of her purse. Two left. A wave of relief spread through her that almost made her light headed. She needed to burn down a smoke to steel herself before the daily bullshit enema that was her job. She lit her bent smoke and walked away from the hustle and bustle of the subway station. She was only walking in the general direction of her office, taking a side street and wandering into the back streets. Normally it was only about a two minute walk from work to the station, straight along a main road, but she wanted to savor the smoke, so a wandering long way it was.
Why the fuck did she get so blasted last night? What the fuck? she said audibly, blowing out a cloud of smoke to articulate her reflexive frustration. A hangover was bad enough, but the bullshit of work too. It was almost too much. She’d considered calling in sick. She never took a day off, they’d believe it, no problem. But no, she’d thought that it would wear off as the buzz of the coffee came on and the booze leached out of her bloodstream. The train ride wasn’t long enough, the fear remained. She was, in her estimation, worse off than when she made that decision. Now she was wandering a back street trying to work up the courage to actually go into work in this state.
She rounded a corner and saw a coffee stall poking out of the front of a building. A bored looking man in his 50s was manning the place, and above his greying head was a large menu that listed one item “coffee” along with a cheap price. Sweet manna from heaven, she thought, fucking jackpot.
She walked up and startled the man. She apologized and he demurred, there are almost never any customers at this hour he explained, but no matter. She asked if coffee was really the only thing for sale and he confirmed. He sold standard drip coffee; he could add cream or sugar if she wanted, but he’d have to check that he still had cream. No matter, she told him, she took it black.
The man flipped a switch on one of three small drip coffee makers. It’ll take a minute, he apologized, adding that he hoped she wasn’t in a hurry. She shrugged, she kind of was, but she’d already ordered. Too late now, she thought. She was too hungover to really work up much of a care.
The man sat back down in his chair and resumed working on the sudoku in his newspaper. She leaned her weight on one foot and looked around the street. The coffee maker gurgled and the smell of coffee beans wafted from the small stand.
I’m really sorry but, she paused gathering her thoughts and the attendant looked up at her, your stand is a bit, uh, unusual.
I’ve been told that. The man replied nonplussed. But really, it’s a simple stand on a quiet street. I have a few customers, enough to pay my bills and I sell a simple product at a reasonable price. Perhaps compared with coffee stands in general, yes, it’s a bit odd, but contextually, he waved his hand slowly as if conducting the street scene, it is actually perfectly normal.
She stood pensive. I guess it is, she replied, still too hungover to really consider the situation. Existence was absurd at the moment, gauging how absurd this place was visavis everywhere else required more brain cells than she could muster.
A puff of steam rose out of the coffee maker and the man stood up and poured the black liquid into a completely plain takeout coffee mug. She paid in exact change and turned to walk away.
Excuse me, ma’am, if it isn’t too much of a bother, please try the coffee to make sure it is to your satisfaction. Please, he added meekly, if you have any constructive criticism of the taste, tell me so that I might improve my brew.
She looked at him with an eyebrow reaching high. I take my coffee very seriously, he replied to her silence. She shook her head in a mixture of disbelief, confusion, and mental haze. This was way too much for a hungover morning. Still, she took a sip, the coffee was hot, but not too hot, and the flavor was orgasmic. It was the best coffee she’d ever had, and the best by such a margin that it almost tasted like a new drink, some sort of super coffee.
Oh, god. She said after her first sip. She looked at the man, who gave her a kind smile. I’m glad to see you enjoy your cup, I hope you drink it to the lees and each sip is enjoyable as the first. He bowed slightly, then sat down, returning to his sudoku. She stood confused by the entire situation. She thought, if only for a second, that she was still passed out, or maybe she fell and hit her head and this was some sort of weird coma dream. She walked down the street, now heading towards the office, nursing the coffee that seemed to eliminate her hangover in a few wondrous sips.
What the fuck. She said out loud when she entered her office’s elevator. That was fucking weird.
The door opened into her office and its awful, antiseptic and copy toner smell filled her lungs. Dread coursed through her veins. She took a sip and a step forward. Fuck you office, she said under her breath, this fucking magical coffee is gonna get me through.
- The Knotty Table
She felt the wood of the table and seemed to be entranced by the patterns in the grain. Her eyes followed her hand, tracing the swirls that spoke of the tree’s life. When her fingers found a knot that sat dark and ominous under the clearcoat she sucked in a quick breath. She held her fingers over it, as if it were a magnet or a tiny black hole that sucked her in and held her fingers fast.
She looked over at me with a look of concern. “Do you know what would have caused this knot to form in the tree this was made from?” I honestly had no idea, and I told her so. She returned her gaze to the table and ran her fingers over the knot again.
“It’s a bit of a shame,” she said, still looking at the table. “To survive years in the forest- frosts, fires, parasites, everything, just to get cut down and made into a table. It’s a beautiful table, but I would imagine the tree was much more beautiful. This table is only a reflection, no a shadow of that beauty.”
I looked over at her, at a loss of what to reply. “I guess.” I stammered out “It could be worse. I guess seeing the materials you were made of become something beautiful is far from the worst fate. Who knows, the tree could have fallen down naturally and was so beautiful someone hauled it out of the forest and carved the table. Or shit, it could have been a tree on an industrial plantation that was too knotty to be made into whatever the plantation was growing them for. Fuck it could have been grown on a plantation that grew knotty trees to be cut down and made into bougie, overpriced furniture.”
“Oh god I hope not, that’s far too jaded a thought for me to entertain, as possible as it might be.”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“I guess there’s really no way to know. I doubt the store knew, I don’t think tables come with descriptions of their provenance.”
“If they did they’d probably be half bullshit anyway. Something like this was hewn from a happy tree that swayed majestically in the warm, gentle summer breeze.”
“Fuck it would probably end up being some bullshit marketing scheme, somehting to charge a premium. Fuck that.”
“I think,” she paused, “I think I’ll just make up a plausible story and pretend it’s real. Nothing too wild, no Bob Ross-esque happy trees, but just a slightly extraordinary story. A tree that survived longer than the others in its grove because it was too knotty to be cut down. Generations sat and enjoyed its pleasant shade. A storm came, a true tempest, fuck a full blown tornado, and despite the tree’s hours of valiant struggle, fighting till the very end, it was felled by the biblical winds. The locals, heartbroken to lose the tree but grateful for the shade and comfort it provided, carved this table to keep the tree around and remember the halcyon days spent in its leafy grotto.”
“Wow. That’s incredible.”
“You like it, it seems fitting, a bit grandiose, but fitting.”
“One,” I paused, “Small problem.”
“I bought that table at Ikea. And I’m pretty sure it’s fake; the top is just vinyl made to look like wood.”
- A lost Llama, an Odd Onion
Somewhere up above, high in the snows, a lost llama was starting to feel cold, starting to feel the fear that it might not really know the way back down. It was beginning to understand, viscerally, that wondering off might have been a huge mistake.
Down below, in the valley of mankind, I saw the llama’s photo on a poster advertising its status as ‘lost.’ I snorted in agreement. Aren’t we all. I thought as I passed the poster into the humid warmth of the supermarket.
As one aisle turned to another, similarly save the category of item on the identical white shelves, the image of the llama never left my mind. It started to lead my search for food sideways, initiating a process of remembering and forgetting what I was supposed to get.
Somewhere around the sweet potatoes I looked up from selecting future meals and tried to get a hold of my mind. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and willed myself to stop thinking about some fucking llama on a hillside. Fuck it was probably dead and being eaten, and I, I must find my own meals.
Exhaling, I opened my eyes to see a woman perusing onions on the other side of the produce display. She had thick eyebrows and large dark eyes. I averted my gaze and returned to the sweet potatoes when I voice, husky and friendly piped up.
Excuse me, is this onion still good? I looked up and met her smiling eyes. She held an onion out toward me. I moved my head a bit to inspect it. She, for her part, spun it in her hand so I could inspect it from every angle. It had an odd looking spot on one side. I narrowed my eyes and tried to give it a good look. I shrugged and honestly told her I had no idea.
Is that weird looking spot soft? I probed, grasping at straws.
She gave a little mock toss before actually tossing it to me. I caught it and gave it a feel. It felt normal, or what I guess is normal for an onion. The spot felt the same as the rest of the bulb. I told her so and tossed it back to her.
She caught it adeptly and rolled it around in her hand. She copied my shrug and smiled at me. I guess it’s only 14 pesos, worth the risk, right? She said with a laugh.
I guess, yeah, sure. Better than it going to waste in the bin, I guess.
Absolutely. She replied squaring her shoulders as if taking a moral stand on the utility of weird looking onions. She gave a quick thanks and pushed her car away, off into the odd maze that is my supermarket.
I stood for a moment lost in the memory of the conversation, before following her path with my eyes only to find a supermarket ticking in its usual pattern, without a trace of the woman or the odd looking onion. For a moment I wondered if that interaction ever happened at all.
I went back to picking sweet potatoes and remembered the lost llama. Fuck not that shit again.
- Licensed Sturgeon
The glow of the fish tanks was the only real light in front of the restaurant. A bored looking sturgeon watched the pedestrians pass by, its prehistoric eyes revealing nothing of its inner life. Of all the tanks filled with various aquatic life, only the sturgeon was not on death row. The others were merely displayed out in the open so that discerning customers could choose that night’s fare. The sturgeon, though, was not for sale.
Staring at its black eyes I wondered if it was even edible. It was the only fish I could really stare at though. The others just depressed me. Something as beautiful as a squid or as intelligent as an octopus just waiting to be ordered off a menu. I’m no vegetarian, and I’ve eaten both squid and octopus, but seeing them there just waiting was unnerving. The sturgeon, on the other hand, brought me no melancholy.
I heard from a friend who had eaten there that it was the boss’s pet of sorts. Perhaps not a pet per say, but a good luck charm. The owner loved caviar and had bought it hoping it would lay some everyday- a sort of high class chicken. It, however, never laid a single egg. The owner never figured out if it wasn’t the right kind of sturgeon- or even if it was female. But business had really turned up around the time he bought it, so reading the proverbial tea leaves he decided the odd looking creature had brought good luck, if not fancy snacks.
I was trying to map out its odd exoskeleton-like exterior when she walked up. She startled me and asked if I was making friends. “Sure” I shrugged noncommittally, honestly not really understanding what she meant until my brain spun up to speed a few moments later.
“Sorry I’m late.” She smiled, knowing I wouldn’t really care, beyond that she probably knew that I had no idea what time it was and didn’t even realize she was late at all. “Your friend keeping you good company.” She nodded at the black fish.
“This guy. Yeah, I guess, he’s a bit quiet, but fucking facinating.” I couldn’t tell if she knew I was high, but I guessed the whole ‘staring at a sturgeon’ probably gave it away. She was originally against my occasional toking of the devil’s lettuce, but had moved enough towards apathy that I could get away with it from time to time.
“I brought you a beer.” She said happily, fishing a can out of her bag. I was grateful, suddenly aware of a powerful thirst. I cracked it and it sprayed, having been given a thorough shake in her bag on the way over here. Some foam even landed on the glass window in front of the sturgeon tank.
“Trying to share some with your friend?” She laughed.
“I guess. So what’s the plan? Other than chilling outside of a seafood restaurant and splitting a single can of beer.”
“Splitting? Na, you can have that warm can all to yourself. I thought we could go to a bar I know down by the riverside. It’s nice, they have cheap pints and the weather’s nice tonight.”
I looked up at the sky, having not considered the weather even in the slightest. She laughed at my sudden awareness of climatic conditions. “It is really nice tonight. I didn’t notice. “
“Too engrossed in conversation with the fish?”
“Something like that. “
She sighed. “You’re cute. But let’s move, I’m craving an ice cold pint. They even have frosty mugs. I’ve been jonesing for one all goddamn day.”
I heard myself say ‘right’ as I spun towards the river. I caught one last look at the sturgeon staring silently out at me. It moved its fins ever so slightly to maintain its place in the center of its tank- otherwise it showed no emotion. It just continued to gaze out at the passersby.
- A Tube’s Perspective
A toothpaste tube sits calmly on a bathroom shelf. Its white and blue form crumpled just so. Not that the contortions bother the tube, it is flexible in its very nature. Just as walking with their great necks extended doesn’t phase giraffes, the uneven distribution and odd bend leaves the tube completely nonplussed.
The tube relaxes, slowly fulfilling its obvious purpose in existence, slowly dispensing toothpaste until it is cast into the vast sanitary system of a city, either to be recycled somehow or sit for time immemorial under the weight of modern society’s detritus.
As peaceful and straightforward as its existence may be, and often is for most of its brethren, this toothpaste tube is the volta upon which a family turns. The father, a drunk, was in a rage. Someone had pushed the toothpaste out of the tube in a manner he didn’t like.
He was a particular man, one with strong opinions about the mundane minutiae of his family’s existence- and things had to go his way. He bought the family its groceries- not out of some modern notion of equality in his relationship with the family’s mother, no, he was an avowed if publicly silent misogynist. Instead he bought the domestic supplies to ensure that each product was the brand and type he wanted. No one else’s opinion was even remotely considered. He brought in the money, he figured with his deranged logic, he should decide how it was spent.
The objects of the family’s domestic space weren’t just chosen in type and brand, no, use was heavily regulated too. Toilet paper was to be hung just so, clothes arranged in closets in a particular way. Inspections were frequent, punishments for infractions severe. The BAC of the father often was a deciding factor in the severity, violence rising in logarithmic proportion.
This night, though, perhaps the most important of the toothpaste tube’s existence, one of the children, the eldest son, had squeezed the tube from the top, not in a slow wave motion from the back as the father demanded. The father had noticed and lost his cool. He had drank more than usual and the punishment was greater than ever- he broke a porcelain plate over his son’s face.
The toothpaste tube, it seemed, was not just a container for dental hygiene products, but the straw that broke a camel’s back. The mother had endured, but could endure no longer. Seeing the fruit of her womb receive a plate to the face snapped her from the torpor her husband had beaten her into. She dialed the police and the family’s long night of terror began to break into dawn.
The toothpaste tube’s color matched well with the cherries and berries of the police lights that flashed through the bathroom window. It again relaxed and awaited further fulfillment of its simple purpose.
I guess, he paused, I guess it was just the mixture- that sublime combination when the booze and the smoke and the night blend together in such divine alchemy that love flows out from every pore with the beads of summer heat induced sweat. When we discussed the future it all seemed so rosy, so movie perfect. I know I was naive, but if you were there you’d have done it too.
I don’t know.
Yeah, you aren’t me I guess. You’ve felt more love, been more wanted. I never got that- and in that moment I felt loved. Even when I knew it was probably bullshit. Even when I knew deep down it’d never work. I just wanted to sit there, across from a beautiful woman and bask in the glow of love.
But you didn’t think she loved you, right?
Totally. She loved the idea of me, just not the real thing. But in that moment, if only in that unique moment, the ideal and the real were merged. And I, well, I liked the way it felt. It felt beautiful, warm, conspiratorial.
Yeah. As if, in a world of totalitarian sadness, we’d formed a secret resistance, dedicated to our happiness.
Joyful freedom fighters. We’d cracked the code, achieved a sort of liberation. For her, the social pressure to marry was lifted, for me the fear of never being loved dissipated. The way, fuck, the way she looked at me through those long eyelashes, wine glass in her hand, black dress worn just right. Fuck, behind her was a window with the city’s skyline framed perfectly. It was incredible.
But we didn’t really love each other. Or if we did, in our own fucked up way, it was not the foundation on which to build a sort of happy life.
A miserable one maybe.
For sure, but why would we do that?
Chasing the dragon of that moment, maybe? A lack of alternatives could be a reason too.
We had alternatives, and as wonderful as that dragon was, it was too obviously ephemerial to be chased.
Do you regret saying yes? It had to be embarrassing when it all fell apart.
I guess, well, yeah of course, if I look at it objectively- but in that moment, sitting in the heat of that night with those eyes and that smile, I couldn’t have said no. I’m not one for believing in fate, but if I have one, that moment is proof of it.
Yudhisthira at the dice table.
- Smoke Break
The drone of the guitar hummed in my ears . I couldn’t quite get the sound out of my head, even after the band stopped and quiet returned to the basement bar. A soothing jazz track was playing over the speakers to the few people in attendance, and a murmur of conversation was starting to rise from those present. I decided to grab a smoke and a beer from the convenience store down the street. I motioned with my cigarette pack to the people I knew, and they, along with the bartender, smiled in acknowledgement as I strode towards the door. I felt bad. I wouldn’t be getting my drink from the man behind the counter, he’d always been kind in the past, but economics trumped kindness, and I made up for it in my mind thinking I’d buy one from him when the next band fired up.
I opened the door of the bar to the stairway up to street level. The humidity of the night hit me as a sudden damp wave. The summer day had stretched its fingers long into the night and I was huffing and puffing when I reached the top of the stairs.
The usually busy side street was quiet, save a few people from downstairs grabbing a smoke and a few people walking around for various unknown purposes. The main street a block away was still a buzz of life and traffic, but it seems the evening had dried up the flow down this way. I grabbed the soft pack of parliaments out my shirt pocket, my preferred place to keep smokes when I wore this shirt, and pulled a smoke out. I lit it with the lighter from my shorts pocket and nodded to the other smokers as I turned down the street towards the convenience store.
The block was short and I tried to look as nonchalant as I could, hoping to avoid the judgement of the other smokers, who I’d guess barely noticed me at all anyways. I took leisurely puffs before finding myself right outside the store and remembering that I was planning on saving the smoke for after I bought the beer.
I shrugged and took another puff. Too late now I guess.
In the back of my mind I remembered that there was another convenience store around the corner or down the block. One night there’d been a huge show here and this close store ran out of beer. A rare sight, one that filled me with a sort of silly joy at the depths of cheap debauchery we were engaged in. I’d walked around with some other thirsty folks, one of whom claimed to know the way. We took a circuitous route, the sort only a bunch of hammered people lost in conversation would take, but found a place, stocked up, and took another though similar weird route back.
I looked around the empty streets, took a puff and picked one of the side roads that looked right. I took a slow walk, knowing that my destination was close and that the whole point was killing time while I finished the smoke. Older apartment buildings seemed to be the preferred edifice in this area and they all seemed to be teeming with life. Lights were on, the flicker of TVs could be seen, laundry was molding on balconies. I remember the first time I passed this way everything was dark and we tried, and failed, to keep quiet for the neighbors. Seeing now that it was mostly families, a tinge of guilt passed through me.
I arrived at an intersection and was almost going to take a blind guess when I saw a convenience store logo with an arrow on one of the lamp posts. I followed its straightforward directions to the convenience store and finished my smoke as I came up to the door. A few teenagers were hanging out on the steps, phones in hand. I put my smoke in the public ashtray and went inside to grab a beer.
Emerging from the ice bath that was the store, cold beer in hand, I grabbed my pack of smokes again. I put fire to paper, took a drag, and cracked the beer. I smiled at the warm night and the cold beer, the contrast between the two, accentuated by the nicotine.
I took my time walking back to the bar, it seems this walk was the real highlight of the night.
- Just Sign
I looked down at the pen in my left hand, blinking hard to keep the cigarette smoke out of my eyes.
“Just sign it.” He said, insistently. “There is no other way, the die is cast per say.”
I looked over at his fake smile, the icing on the shit cake of his fake sincerity. I exhaled deeply, and put the pen down.
“I’m sorry,” I paused, “‘there is no other way.’ It is a bit dramatic, and inaccurate it seems. You and I both know there is nothing you can do, the law, it seems, is on my side.” He raised his hand in objection. “Save your breath my friend. You can object, you can strong arm, but I’m afraid my mind is made up. You’ll just have to build your fancy, ugly building elsewhere. This street has survived more or less intact for 130 years, I ain’t gonna be part of changing it. I know the shit you pulled with everyone else, I also know the redevelopment laws require, and the buyouts only take effect if 100 percent of the occupants agree.”
“You know we have teams of lawyers.”
“I’m sure, but the law is fairly clear.”
“Do you think that matters?”
“If you are asking if I think what is written in and required by the law is important, then obviously yes, of course, only shitbags like you think otherwise.“
“You’re making a mistake.”
“Maybe,” I paused to put out my smoke. “Probably. Who cares? Fuck, honestly I get a huge kick out of watching people like you squirm. Some high powered lawyer, some big name real estate company owned by a real live fucking billionaire, all thwarted by some nobody used book seller. It’s on you, though, honestly. You want to build in a historic district with a strong local culture. “
“You are screwing all the other shop owners out of a lot of money.”
I searched my shirt pocket for my cigarette pack. “Not as much as you’re trying to screw them out of. This is prime mother fucking land. You came up with some bullshit about how they would lose it without compensation to scare them. Fucking prick you are.”
“You’ll never win.”
“It seems that’s a bet I’m willing to take, a bet for,” I searched through the papers for the amount, “Fifty large. Even that’s a low ball.”
He got up and picked up his austentatious camel hair jacket. “We’re done here, but make no mistake this isn’t over.”
“Oh I’m sure it never will be. You people are like herpes, luckily like herpes you are manageable. Speaking of, get that lip of yours checked out buddy.” He reached up instinctively before he realized I was fucking with him.
“Oh and if you want, we’re having a half priced sale on real estate law books. Perhaps you could pick up one, they’re illuminating. “
He stormed out, backlit by my gleaming smile. I lit another smoke and enjoyed this short lived, if enormously gratifying victory. Fuck him and his lot, I’ll eat a fucking pinecone before I sign some shit like this.
- The Youth Pastor
He had the fake plastic smile of a real bogus mother fucker. That sort of ‘I’m bat shit’ or maybe even ‘I’m a total sociopath’ look about his ultra blue eyes and too blonde hair. When he said he was a youth pastor I knew I was on the money.
He gave the name of some mega church I had to google in the shitter when I got up to take a piss. He’d invited himself to my table in the coffee shop and decided it was my soul that needed saving that day. I don’t know why, I’ve always attracted weirdos like him. Call it a talent, call it a curse.
After combatting his ideas with the knowledge far too many years in Catholic schools taught me, I sighed exasperated. He smiled with energy I would otherwise attribute to cocaine, but without the haze and almost too much of the self assuredness. “I’m not getting up until I put you on the path to salvation my friend.” He said to my great annoyance.
I responded with a “Cool beans” stood up and headed for the door. He followed me out and began to walk with me down the street. I’ve never been the confrontational type, but this guy was pushing my buttons. He kept up his lines of bullshit about this and that Jesus crap.
I turned, looked him dead in his freaky eyes, and positioned myself six inches from his face. “Why did you fuck my wife?”
“You heard me mother fucker. Why did you fuck my wife?” I upped the volume this time and a passerby turned to look.
He looked around as terror washed over his goody goody face.
“You must be confused.”
“Oh so you fuck my wife and talk shit, how fucking dumb do you think I am?”
“I really, I don’t know. I didn’t know you had a wife and I’d never,”
“Oh so you think that bullshit excuse would work? I have no problem fucking her, the only qualm you have is that she’s my wife. You’re a real piece of shit, man. And to think you claim to be a man of God.”
“I am a man of God.”
“Yeah, sure, a man of Oh! God! Harder!”
“No, no.” He murmured panicking. I’d guessed he’d never had this level of public embarrassment. He turned and fled, like the coward he is.
I smiled seeing his form recede into the crowd, looking back to see if I was following him.
I guess it was crazy to make up such a story, but not half as crazy as the shit he was spouting. He followed me out of the cafe anyways, crazy asshole.
I wonder what his version of events will be, if he’ll even admit it happened. I’d guess I’d be in his bullshit prayers either way. Fucker.
- Covid Romance
You’re such a good listener. Most of the guys I talk to here just want to bullshit and bullshit about themselves. I mean I get it. Zoom dates are weird as fuck, but seriously it’s covid, everything is weird as fuck now. Really though it’s so nice just to have somebody just let me talk. I feel like you’ve helped me lift a major weight off my shoulders.
What? I don’t understand, you’re breaking up. It says bad connection.
Whatever, seriously, this quarantine has been getting to me and no social life? What the fuck? How are we supposed to survive this? Thanks again for agreeing for our first date, or hangout, or whatever this shit would be called is a Zoom drink sesh. I’m taking this covid shit pretty seriously. I mean you’re cuter than your pics, at least from this video and I’m down to meet up, you know maybe soon. Hell after these drinks we might have to meet up today. Fuck it, I’ve been fucking locked up too fucking long.
You’re picture is all blurry now, fucking all pixels, and I seriously can’t hear you? Just when I said you’re cute I can’t see you any more, your phone must be fucked.
Anyways. I’ve been going stir crazy. Working from home is sweet, no make up or trying to look cute, just fucking sweat pants and my hair up in a fucking pony tail. I will say it was kinda nice to get dolled up for this. I hope you think my outfit is cute. Your smile is nice b-t-dubs, I can see it again, finally the picture is working. It’s weird I miss work and I don’t. I miss seeing the cool people, but let’s be honest there were like a couple cool people. And they were office cool, not real life cool, but its better than my roomates and their fucking cat.
What did you say? I’m cute too? Thanks, but seriosuly this connection is fucked, you sound like a fucking robot. Maybe it’s time you upgrade that phone, what Iphone do you have? What? Don’t tell me you have android. What? I can’t make it out.
Whatever. But Seriously. I’m in my fucking twenties, this is suposed to be prime fucking time. We should be at a bar making out on the dance floor, not fucking a fucking zoom date. Honestly with the way you are just letting me talk, we’d probably be in a cab to my place right now.
Oh you just messaged. No I can’t really hear you. What, you’ve been trying to talk? L-O-L dude, I can’t hear shit. Like some weird sounds maybe but no questions. What were you trying to say? No I still can’t hear you.
As I was saying I think this is going great. Best one of these I’ve had, and trust me I’ve tried to make this zoom date shit work. Fuck, that’s what it is with most guys, fucking work. I get it. TInder used to be about straight hookups, but with this Covid shit I want to make sure you aren’t some weird fucker who, like, doesn’t wear a mask or shit like that. I’m still down to meet up but, what? WTF lost connection,
Message: Dude get a new phone LOL, or better yet just come over. Fuck covid, let’s have a real drink (Wink Emoji)
- Leh, D-Day
It might have been the altitude, it might have been the whiskey the night before, either way my headache was splitting. The sun was just a touch too bright, despite my sunglasses best efforts. I rubbed my temples and tried to breath in the cool mountain air that sat in thin wisps upon the rooftop, rustling the curtains that were hung about for effect.
The butter tea was helping, if only as a placebo. I tried to focus, listening to the man on the sitar in the corner play his morning jams for we cafe goers. This sort of scene with the music and the overpriced tea would never be my scene. Hell, I’ve lived under the shadow of the surrounding peaks for the last two years and I only vaguely knew this place even existed. When my contact asked to meet me here I honestly asked ‘why?’
He was an Indian army contact and I was his link to good old Uncle Sam. What he was doing wasn’t strictly treason towards Mother India, but I’d guess she’d think he’s cheating on her. When he walked up he always managed to take a perfectly normal looking situation and make it look shifty. He was a shitty informant in general, but most of the Border Security forces never venture far from the actual lines of control, and even as close as we are, beggars can’t be choosers.
He sat down and I slid him the tea I’d ordered him, that was now probably colder than expected. I had hoped my sunglasses would hide my hungover eyes, but his greeting ‘You look like Hell’ proved otherwise. I told him he didn’t look so great himself.
“I need you to get a message to your bosses.” He said ignoring the tea and leaning in close.
“Everything you tell me goes to them,” I said with I’m sure more condescension than I intended.
“No, this is urgent, they need to know, I don’t want anything in return for this, this is for India’s sake too.”
“The Chinese, they are going to invade.”
“What? How the fuck do you know that?”
“One of my patrols got lost in a sudden snow storm, they blow in all the time up there. When they came out of it they were on a hillside inside the Chinese side, in the clearing they saw a huge army, gigantic, stretching in all directions. A massed invasion force if there’d ever been one.“
“No way, first they commies wouldn’t do that, a giant force all in one area would be way too easy for everyone to spot from space, It’d be dumb, and they wouldn’t do something that stupid. And on the off chance they had, we’ve have seen it. Your men must have been seeing shit. They were just in a snowstorm in the fucking stratosphere practically, they were probably hallucinating.“
“They must have thought the clouds would hide them from your satellites and maybe it did. But it didn’t hide them from my men.” He took a white envelope out of his jacket and slid it over to me. He nodded for me to look inside. I took a look and saw, in full color, a massive Chinese army seeming poised to strike imminently. Wide eyed I looked up at him. “Fuck.”
“Go. Now. Send the message. I’ll pay for the tea.” I got up and was in a sprint back to my apartment by the time I hit the streets. When I turned the corner of my street a couple minutes later I heard the high, distant roar and deep boom of supersonic missiles passing overhead.
Years later, standing in front of the war monument in Delhi I always imagined my informant talking time to sip his tea after I left. Closing his eyes and enjoying each sip of the now cold tea, savoring the spice with the pluck of the sitar- before going off to fight a battle he knew would cost him his life. I wish I could have told him his information was what caused the US to intervene in time and for this monument to be built to a victory not a defeat. Somehow, though, I’ve always guessed that after he calmly settled the bill and walked out into the missile trail clouded sky, he already knew.
- Never My love
She took another drag on her cigarette. The soft pack was on the table, crumpled from a night out in her back pocket. She smiled as the smoke coursed through her lungs. She exhaled and grabbed her beer. She seemed to contemplate it for a second, swirling the liquid around the bottle a few times.
“You know…” she trailed off with a laugh.” You know I really like the smell of my sweaty socks.”
“What?” I asked with a chuckle.
“I like the smell. Especially if I’ve worn them all day. I’ll be sitting on the couch after I take my shoes and the smell works its way up to my nostrils.” She motioned with her hands, wafting the imagined smell up like she was smelling a boiling pot of soup. “I just love it.”
“Really.” She laughed in the cutest way. “Really.” Her tone of voice was rich from her huge smile. “It’s just one of those things. Everyone has them, it’s part of the beautiful experience of being human.”
“The smell of your sweaty-ass socks is part of the beauty of the human experience?”
“You don’t think so?”
“I’m more a music/picasso kind of guy, but I guess to each their own.”
“I’m sure you have those weird sorts of likes, everyone does. We just usually keep them to ourselves.” She took a swig of beer. “We’ve been dating a while now, you eat my pussy almost daily, I’ve swallowed your cum, I just think it’s time we really got to know each other.”
We both laughed. The room was warm with our love. I moved over to the couch and she reclined into my lap. I looked down at her goofy grin, my love for her only held in my heart by liquid tension.
“So getting to know each other is going to the deepest parts of our souls, our deepest secrets, fears, wants, and, as the case might be, our love for our own brand of sweaty feet.”
She laughed. “Yeah, that’s true depth for me. So spill the beans, what’s your secret.”
“I think you know them, I’m pretty boring.”
“For someone whose medium is bullshit, you’re not doing a very good job of it at the moment.”
“Ok,” I paused and ran my hand through her hair. “I hate toilet paper.”
My comment hung in the air with the cigarette smoke.
“I fucking hate that shit, its gross and you use your hands when you wipe, it’s nasty. Also, kinda related, I only figured out how to wipe my ass sitting down in college.”
“Now that’s the good shit, how did that come about?”
“My friends were discussing it. I had this professor, right? He always talked about how everyone has little habits that we never show anyone or talk to anyone about. Like what part of our body we wash first, or how we brush our teeth, or how we wipe our ass.”
“This is what I’m talking about too, this is the deep shit.” She sat up, sitting cross-legged, looking into the wells of my eyes intently, still with her huge grin.
“Well I was discussing this with some friends in the dorm, and I mentioned the fact that some people wipe their ass standing up, some sitting down. One friend looks at us and asks ‘Who the fuck wipes their ass standing up?’ and my other buddy asks ‘How do you wipe your ass sitting down.’”
“Way. Well the room seemed to be more of the sitting down school of ass wiping, but I was with my buddy. Unlike him I knew that wiping sitting was a thing, I just hadn’t worked out the mechanics per se.”
“All this while you attended your prestigious-ass French school for nerds.”
“So smart enough to get in there, but that wiping your ass, that just wasn’t your subject?” She laughed and grabbed my hand.
“Well I know what you got in butt related subjects.”
“Oh very funny.” Her sarcasm was undercut by her wry smile and hearty laugh. “But back to this wiping, you wipe sitting down now right?”
“Well when I do wipe, yes.”
“When you do wipe? The fuck? I’m pretty sure I’ve offered to toss that salad, and now I know why you said no.” She eyed me sideways while she took a pull from her beer.
“No, no I keep it clean. It’s just that I don’t like toilet paper.”
“You mentioned that.”
“So I usually shit before I take a shower, like most people? I don’t know it’s never come up.”
“Yeah, I’d say that’s normal.”
“Well what I guess isn’t normal, or maybe it is, not sure is that I use the shower head as a sort of bidet.”
“You also brush your teeth with water from the shower head.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know that sounds super gross, but I angle it such that no shit could get on the shower head.”
“So you think. Wow, that’s a bit of an over share?”
“What the fuck. I thought that’s what we were doing here Miss I-love-my-stanky-ass-feet. “
“I’m just giving you shit, it is super weird, but I guess I asked for it. I appreciate your candor, but,”
“Well I plan to spend my life with you. I really do, you’re amazing, inability to wipe your ass sitting down notwithstanding.”
“I can now. One day after talking to my buddies I smoked a big joint, went to the shitter and figured it out.”
“How’d the joint help?”
“It gets the brain juices flowing, and makes me super awkward and clumsy.”
“Or more awkward and clumsy than you usually are.”
“Yes, and I figured if I can do it high, I can pretty much do it always, and turns out I can.”
“You just choose not to.”
“Not if I can avoid it.”
“Well as I was saying, I love you, I want to spend my life with you, which will involve us living together but I think in light of what you told me, I need to make a demand clear right here, right now.”
My heart quickened, I leaned forward concerned. She leaned in too, grabbing my face with one hand and holding my eyes in a strong gaze.
“Let’s have separate showers.” She erupted with laughter as I bowed my head.
“I thought you were going to be serious.” I said, head hung in mild embarrassment.
“Oh. Oh I am. Make no damn mistake. Oh wait you take showers here all the time, have you used my shower head to clean your shitty ass?”
I looked at her. “No comment.”
Her hands pushed me backwards and she sprung towards me, pushing me down on the couch.
“You dirty bastard. I love you, but fuck you. But I love you. But fuck you. And you’re sanitizing that fucking shower head as soon as we wake up tomorrow!” She was laughing and began to tickle me. “This is your punishment!” She cried over my peals of tickle induced laughter.
Our love filled the room to the brim, and flowed out on waves of laughter and playful obscenities over the predawn city.
- Chopin on the Ones and Twos
I watched a fire truck blow past in its cacophonous haste. I wondered where it was off to, someone or some place having a shit day no doubt. I remember once looking out over a grim industrial Chinese city wrapped in the dense orange nighttime pollution only possible in the depths of a winter on the banks of the Yellow river. I realized that the city lost in the haze beyond was full of millions of people, some having the best day of their lives, some their worst. And I just sat on a rooftop wrapped in my scarf and the cold wind, alone with my thoughts, having a mediocre day.
Today I was also having a mediocre day. The grey of winter had come here, though the temperature was much warmer, if still chilly. I noticed her come into the room, her socked feet making a slight whooshing sound as she moved. I turned to see she’d brought me a cup of coffee, which she handed off with a smile. She moved to fill the other half of the window and carefully pulled a smoke from the soft pack on the sill. She lit it, took a drag and let her gaze sweep past the life moving a few floors below.
“Shitty day, right?” she exhaled smoke as she spoke.
“Not the best.”
She grunted her feelings and concentrated on smoking. Pausing between drags to hold the cigarette up and look at the smoke rising.
“Do you like piano music?”
“In general?” I asked, trying not to sound confused. She liked to ask questions out of the blue. I always found it interesting, but sometimes they were so vague or odd that I had to ask clarification questions- questions she found annoying. To her it was a simple question, I guess our minds operate on different wavelengths.
“Yeah, like Chopin, or Debussy, or I don’t know Mozart maybe? Not their symphonies, just the songs for piano.”
“I guess, if I’m going for classical, which I’ll be honest is fairly rare, I usually go for the full symphony. Some real booming sound, deep harmonics. Fuck cannons if they’ve got ‘em.”
“For sure, not music for today, though. Can I put on some Chopin I was thinking of earlier?”
With my blessing of sorts she walked over to the bookcase and took out a record I’d never seen before.
“Is that new?”
“Na, it’s been here forever, don’t think I’ve ever played it, it came for that big box my mom gave us.”
She put the vinyl on the turntable and started the rotations. Our breaths both seemed to pause as the needle dropped and the first pops came through the speakers.
A few gentle, delicate notes began to fill the room. She returned to our lookout at the window and ashed her smoke. We looked out the window as the sound of ivories being tickled filled our small apartment.
Outside life went on, completely unaware of the beautiful melancholy just a few floors up.
- The Song I Saved For You
“When I was a kid there was this song I fucking hated, but I think I’ve been saving it for you.”
“Wow. That is both the most and least romantic statement I’ve heard in a long time.”
“Ok, yeah, that wasn’t the best way of putting it. When I was a kid we had school plays, or not really plays, more just a series of songs with a thin narrative thread that connected them. I was cast as the male lead. As my luck would have it, my teachers cast a girl I fucking hated. I didn’t really have a reason to hate her, and I don’t think anyone knew I hated her. In retrospect I have no idea why I did, something just rubbed me the wrong way about her. I’m sure my depth of personal reflection was rather shallow at the time, so I’m sure it was something like she took my eraser and didn’t return it and I saw it as a crime in the league of treason or regicide.”
“You didn’t know what regicide was when you were a kid.”
“Weirdly enough I did. I was both a huge dork and there was a simpsons joke that involved it. That’s not important though. In the play I had to hold this girl’s hand and I really didn’t want to do it. Midwesterners we’re really handsy people to start with and again, fucking hated this girl. The idea of the whole school and parents and whatnot looking at me doing this was too much. I was seriously pissed that I was put in this situation. “
“The stresses of kids in the developed world.”
“I know, right? I know it’s silly, but I swear I’m going somewhere with this. So one day I was waiting to practice this bullshit and I was sitting in the Church that is attached to my grade school, it was really pretty actually, the lights were off but sunlight was hitting the stained glass windows in a really cool way. The windows were oddly abstract for a decidedly straitlaced group of parishioners and I always thought they were cool. Getting lost in their trippy kaleidoscope is probably a pretty telling foreshadowing of the huge stoner I’d become like six years later. But I was sitting there, alone, or atleast sitting by myself and I was ruminating on how much bullshit the situation was. I think the part that pissed me off is that no one asked me if I wanted to do it. I could have politely declined, which I would have done, and it wouldn’t have been a big deal. Everyone just thrust this shit one me and I was expected to sing and dance on command. I think this is one of the first times I remember really feeling like an independent person- one who was capable of making decisions for myself and wanting, really wanting, those decisions to be respected.”
“That song was popular at the time though and it was stuck in my head through the whole situation. I guess I could probably figure out exactly when this story took place by looking when it was popular. Whatever year it was the song was huge and because of my mental association between this situation and that song I, consequently, hated the song. I think I was vocal of my hatred of the song, and consequently my siblings blasted it every time it came on the radio or MTV, which we watched religiously after school before my parents got home and made us turn it off.”
“Oddly enough sitting in that pew, in the colorful light of the window, song playing on repeat in my stressed mind, I realized the lyrics were actually really sweet. They were a loving, even poignant description of someone in love. Now jaded old me sees it as a picture of love that is roughly on the level of an elementary school student’s understanding of love, that’s probably why I liked it.”
“In my anger that day I decided I’d hate the song up until I met someone who made me feel the feelings the singer described in the song. And, well, I seem to have met you, and well, I guess I feel the adult version of what the singer is describing.”
“Wow, that is weird. I guess it’s complementary. And well if you get nothing out of our relationship, at least you can say I help you stop hating some random ‘90’s song you haven’t heard nor thought about in 20 years. I guess that’s something.”
“Better than what most couples get out of each other.”
- The Wonder Years
“I wonder,” she took a drag from her smoke, “I wonder if it’s too late for me.”
I wanted to say something, something encouraging, some overused idiom or trite saying that would make her feel better, but in the moment, I was tongue tied.
“I know,” she went on, “I know you don’t know my life. How could you? We are from two different worlds. Not that people from your world don’t know my life, fuck I heard there are more hookers in New York than here, but just you, specifically you, don’t.”
“I know, no idea.”
She shook her head and ashed her smoke on the pigeon poop covered window ledge. We sat listening in the drone of the countless ac units looking down into the warren that forms this building complex.
I was down and out, living in a weird bed sized apartment in the sketchiest place in Hong Kong- ChungKing mansions. This highrise complex is the only real sketchy place in the city, full of illegal doctors, money changers, pimps, whores, cheap accommodations, drug dealers, sketchy people of every stripe imaginable, crammed together in a highrise complex. My room was one windowed room of what was once one apartment- now 8 rooms that share 2 bathrooms, and a 9th, with its own tiny bathroom, mine, the master suite I called it. My whole place was roughly the side of a double bed, which took up the entire space, and which you had to climb over to get to the bathroom, which itself was the size of a toilet and about a foot extra with a faucet facing the toilet halfway up the wall with a shower head attached. A few of the rooms were for people like me, the rest were for hookers. I spent every night listening to them fake orgasms for the minutes long comfort of cheap men.
I befriended her when she heard me speaking English. She was from the Philippines and seemed to not have come here of her own accord. She didn’t have a passport anymore, someone had taken it long ago, and she’d overstayed her visa by years. I offered to help, but she just shrugged it off. She sent money to her family, and claimed there were worse fates, though I’d disagree.
She sat on my bed in blue running shorts and a white tank top smoking cigarettes out my window. Her room was a windowless cell, so she was happy I was cool with sharing. I also let her shower in my bathroom too, I wasn’t paying for the water so I didn’t care. She’d just got out and we were aring the steam out of the ever humid room. The lack of ac meant that all I had was a small oscillating fan to try to beat the heat and suck in something fresh from the center of the building complex, which in practice meant breathing in the warm air from those lucky enough to have an ac unit.
She combed her hair and lit a smoke in relative silence, just a subtle ASMR of her movements. She posed her existential question then fell silent. When she finished the smoke, one of my parliament 100s which she loved, she turned to me. She looked me up and down. “Wanna fuck?”
I looked at her stunned, I stuttered, confused. “You don’t have to, I know, I didn’t expect anything for the shower and the smokes, I just, I”
She smiled at my confusion. “No, I know you’re just being nice, or you’re lonely, probably a mix of both.”
I laughed, she had me pegged.
“No,” she changed her posture to sit more upright, “I fuck every day, guys I don’t like, guys that are disgusing, and,” she laughed, “I haven’t had sex with anyone cute in a really long time. I always hoped I’d get at least one cute customer, every once and awhile maybe. Never though, not even once. I don’t know if you’re good in bed, but you’re cute in your own way.” She laughed, “Not my normal type, but definitely cute. And”, she paused and thought, “When I was in your shower I felt horny. I haven’t felt horny in forever. I was worried I’d never feel it again. I thought about masturbating, I used to do it in the shower when I was younger, but I remembered I had a more fun option.”
I was stunned, I looked at her, I couldn’t tell if she was fucking with me or not.
“I know its hot in here, so maybe you don’t want to get all sweaty, and maybe you don’t want to fuck a hooker, but I never let the guys kiss me and I always use a condom. I’m on the pill so you can go without one if you want, maybe to set you apart. But I’d understand if you don’t want to fuck a chungking mansions girl raw. But, maybe if you’re down. We both have the rest of the evening free.” She grinned, “We can even go to dinner after.”
“Are you kidding or serious?”
“What do you think?”
“I’m asking cause I’m not sure.”
She took a deep breath and pierced me with her eyes, “100% serious.”
“Oh, ok.” I bobbed my head pretending to think, but unable to hide my smile. She laughed when she saw I was pretending to even consider rejecting her offer.
“If you don’t want to, we don’t have to,” I posed.
“I can see you’re already getting hard.
“Shit.” I laughed. “But I can, you know, back down.”
“Take off your clothes.”
There are moments when life the tides of life wash you out deep into the sea of the unknown. Fighting the currents gets you spun- sometimes it’s best to relax and see where the eddies and currents take you.
She laughed as my shirt, then her tank top hit the same spot on the wall.
“I’m not sure,” she said. Her eyes passed over the grey day outside. The fall had run roughshod over the city, and the rains had been unceasing. Her breath fogged the window as she looked out, as if searching for something in particular, searching for Waldo in the window she’d looked out of every day for eight months.
“I’m not sure,” she continued after a sigh. “I really want to think that this whole quarantine isn’t getting to me, isn’t bothering me. I feel,” she paused again searching the street scene for answers, “I feel spoiled to complain. I have a home, a job that is still paying, I have food.”
“You have me to go get you said food.”
She turned, clearly not vibing my humor, “Yes that too. I have company, useful company too. But,” she paused to watch a truck trundle down the street, “I just feel something. Something I can’t really explain, or I could but it wouldn’t be right.”
“Well it’s something in me, I guess you need a back story. You know Orchids?”
“Yeah, when I was a kid we used to go to this park near my house and they had orchids. I think it was something like ‘native flowers of Hong Kong’ or something like that. I was always fascinated by them- something beautiful, they captivated me, I would stand in my rollerblades and pads just watching them be. People thought I was too scared to skate, but I really just couldn’t get over the flowers. But the blooms would quickly fade and I’d return to skating with my buddies.”
“Typical day in the like of a Hong Konger circa 1998.”
“Something like that. But years later I went to the same park when I was an angsty teenager. I’d take the shitty pot I’d bought and see if I could get a 7/11 to sell me a beer.”
“Mixed results, but one day I was sitting reading a collection of Bukowski poems.”
“Na, English. One of his poems was about how he has a bluebird in his heart. Something special he hides away from the world, only for him to see, only for him to take out on lonely nights. When I read it, I couldn’t really imagine it, cause I’d never seen a bluebird. I looked it up later, they don’t live in Asia, and they would never survive in Hong Kong even if they did. Our Birds never really held that spirit of delicate beauty, no one is ever going to write a poem about having a seagull in their heart. That orchid, though, did. I decided then I’d have an orchid in my heart, delicate, beautiful”.
“But wilts easily.”
“Exactly, something for my eyes and heart only. And, well, during this quarantine I keep thinking of that orchid and wondering if being cooped up is causing it to wilt. If some of the petals are starting to brown at the edges. I guess that makes me worried. As selfish as worrying about a pretend flower sounds coming from I who am fed and housed and employed.”
“Na, I think a lot of us are feeling that.”
“I guess I’m just looking. Looking how to water it, give it life and sunshine. And I’m not sure how.” Her voice trailed off as she watched another truck passby, splashing the empty sidewalks as it went past.
- Lean/Hyperart/90’s Rock
A sappy hit from the ‘90s played over the tinny speakers. The strong guitars reverberated in, the oddest basement I’ve ever been in. Not that I’ve been in many airport basements in general but even if I had, I’m sure this would standout as a particularly weird one.
My cup of lean and this song took me back, far from this dingy, built as-cheaply-as-possible purgatory. It seems the same taste was on my lips when I first tasted the metallic taste of my own blood, getting my ass kicked. I was too fucked up at a party and a fight broke out. The sweet numbness of the lean had spread its web over my reaction time and I just stood in the middle of it oblivious. One of the participants, a rival of a buddy of mine assumed, not absurdly, that I was in on the action. A crashing blow from his hand sent me to the floor with a busted lip. Honestly, the lean probably helped. I was totally relaxed when the fist met my face and I dropped with no resistance at all. I didn’t even spill my drink. I remember tasting something new. I don’t think I really knew the taste of blood yet. I put my hand to my face and saw red. Seeing that I was on the floor, lean in hand, with a freshly busted lip, I started laughing. High, I laughed maniacally. The post scuffle yelling was bouncing off the walls of the stucco living room of my buddy’s house. The rumblers even broke their verbal tussle to look at the high kid laughing, mouth and hand full of blood. Under the heat of their stares I took a pull of my lean, swallowing blood with the sweet drink. I heard a ‘Fucking Weirdo’ come from somewhere as I looked down and saw the drops of blood mixing with the purple of the drink, dyeing it a deeper shade of violet, much to my amusement.
Now in this hell I doubt has ever been celebrated, even on the day of its inauguration, I again sip my lean, though this time without blood in it. I’m still the high kid, though now in an airport basement trying to get to the right terminal to return to my life, there, her, and the greater numbness that has become a fixture of my day to day. I wonder what ever happened to those brawlers in their Northface jackets and knockoff polos. If their khaki pants still fit or if they’ve put on some pounds. If they still drink coors light or if they now have some obscene tastes in craft brews. I remember wandering out to the back porch after the scuffle died down and I got, wavering, to my feet. One of the girls at the party came out to check on me. She told me she thought I was out here crying, and was disappointed to see me doing work on a fresh cup of lean looking up at the stars trying to find a constellation lost in the light pollution. I apologized for disappointing, smiling with my bloody lip. She laughed and looked at me behind her long lashes. Even in the overly yellow glow of the security light her eyes called to me. I, though, had too much of the lean sparkle and took her affection with a bashful haziness that she seemed to find enduring. A few years later we fucked. I remember her legs, smooth and tan, and her telling me to cum anywhere on her, as long as it wasn’t inside her. I think she mentioned something about seeing me in a fight years before, we laughed, though I’m pretty sure we remembered it differently.
I saw she’s married, looks like a happy life. Better than waiting for this fucking bullshit, cheap as possible basement train at a shit airport in a shit town. The lean here, though, is good. And I guess hearing that song again is good. I’m sure I’ll be stuck in my fucking head for the who flight back, and I’ll hate it by the time I’m humming it in the customs line.
For now, though, I’d swear no song could possibly go better with this moment.
- Seoul, Fall, Rain
The drops fell hard, the gift of angry clouds. The streets quickly began to flood. I watched from the safety of my apartment as the bike lane turned to a small river. The wakes bikers kicked up lapped against the curb. I took in the dreary scene and drank my coffee in contemplative solitude.
The clouds reminded me of a day years ago. I was living in Seoul at the time, just moved there in fact. I’d moved in the middle of October, so this memory was probably towards the end of that month or the start of the next. The excitement of living in a new place, and such a cool one at that, was burning in my heart. The weather, though, was quickly moving towards winter.
My walk to work was 13 minutes. I once inadvertently timed it to a Fela Kuti song. I started the song as I exited my apartment building and noticed the strange coincidence as it finished as I walked into my job. That 13 minutes started walking down my small lane, across and to the left down a smallish street, a right on a more more major street, down a hill, under an overpass to the pedestrian side of the overpass, onto a walkway on a bridge over a small river, down back on to city streets, across a triangle junction and into a pedestrian area full of buildings.
When the weather was good it was a great walk. Even in Winter, the morning cold was an odd mix of invigorating and bitter. Snow was great, just for the laugh, but the bridge got icy was fuck. The river below froze over in the winter, though I never dared to cross that way. The rain, though, could get a bit rough. There was little cover on the city streets part, and zero on the bridge. Cars would splash by too- I was soaked from hairline to shoe tip on a couple of occasions.
The grey pale of the sky takes me back to the first such walk. I was on my way to work, again in mid fall, just after I arrived. The rain was driving and inescapable. As if by miraculous circumstances my phone, on shuffle, chose to play a song called ‘Rain’ by my hometown’s own Tech N9ne. The intersection of these two events made me audibly laugh. Perhaps it was just laughing at the universe, perhaps it was laughing in the face of the lashing waves of rain. I walked to work alive in my soaked clothes, almost enjoying the cold wind as it turned me to a popsicle. I sloshed with glee in my shoes, now oceanic in nature, over the waves of water kicked up by passing cars.
I kept the song on repeat the whole way. The connection was far too strange, far too perfect to let it play just once. Who knows what the next song could have been anyways, no need to test fate unnecessarily.
Now in the dry of my apartment watching warm summer rains, as opposed to fighting through their antipodal cousins, I am transported back. Though dry I could almost feel the damp and smell the rain. The memory is seared into me. I couldn’t tell you what day it was, or what I did the rest of the day in any detail beyond ‘worked.’ I couldn’t tell you much at all about the weeks before or after. But that moment, that 13 minute walk, lives in my mind as if it was this very morning.
And when again the fates play that song on shuffle or it comes up some way, I am incapable of being anywhere other than that moment- blissfully walking in the rain on a grey fall day in Seoul.
- Tub Lizard
There is a monitor lizard in my bathtub and I’m not entirely sure how it got there. I’m fairly sure they aren’t indignious to Argentina, though I could be wrong there. I’m not sure if it’s dangerous, but I could be wrong there too. I guess the other question, one more pressing than if its indignious though significantly less pressing than how dangerous it is, is how it got into the bathtub. Well not literally. If it was in the bathroom it wouldn’t be tough to climb into the tub. Or maybe, not sure how good they are at climbing. I took them for quite the nimbal species, but my knowledge of monitor lizards is limited to knowing they exist and that one is currently in my bathtub.
That ‘how’ of its arrival is really a conundrum. It’s not really the type of thing that could crawl under a door. The gap there is pretty tight even for significantly smaller creatures, this big mother fucker is far too big. I’m not sure if their hands are dexterous to operate a door handle. If they are then I need to prepare for it leaving the bathroom, but I don’t think it could get out. The outside door was locked and I’m sure the thing didn’t have a key.
I messaged my girlfriend to see if she saw it this morning before she went on her run and/or she let a large lizard into the bathroom. I have a ‘why’ ready if she answers the second question in the affirmative. She said she didn’t see it, but that she hadn’t gone in the bathroom. I took a piss last night before going to bed and there was no large lizard in the bathroom. I’m certain I would have noticed that- or at least I hope I would have noticed it.
I guess that means that between last night and now a large lizard got into my apartment and is now boredly wagging its tongue at the faucet in my bathtub. It fills the tub pretty well. It seems to be almost the perfect size for my tub, which is interesting I guess. I checked the apartment for holes that it could have got through, but I’m drawing a blank.
I guess the real issue isn’t why or how it got here but what to do about it. I return to the bathroom, opening the door tentatively. The lizard looks over at me and sticks out its tongue in an uninterested ‘you again’ gesture. It returns its gaze to the faucet, clearly not threatened or interested in me at all. I walk over and it remains perfectly still. I turn on the shower to see if I can get a reaction out of it. Under the deluge of artificial rain it seems to relax even further and lays prone, spreading its stubby legs akimbo and closing its eyes. It lets out a loud ‘Grooock’ and seems to be content with the water.
Maybe it was thirsty, maybe it just likes the water. Either way I think it’s staying put. I guess it’s not bothering anyone for the moment. I shrug and go grab a coffee. I yell back to see if it wants one too, but all that responds is the sound of the shower.
- Melancholy Buttons
The buttons stared back at me melancholically. I’m not sure what their fucking problem is, but clearly something is on their mind. Perhaps just a reflection of the observer- casting my own weariness upon their polished faces.
I sighed. Seems that, again, my mind was wandering down some strange rabbit hole. Down to some place deep within a pit of loneliness. I shook it off, not out of courage or strength, no, something far more cowardly than that. I walked the few steps over to the kitchen counter and grabbed the French press. It was heavy in my hands and heaving with coffee. I hoped in that bitter brew I would find some respite from this grey day. The cloud deck was low and the gloom indomitable. Coffee, though, and the caffeine within, is my portable sunshine.
I sipped on the cup a few times, drawing in air with the fluid in loud, austentatious breaths. I’m not sure it cooled the steaming liquid all that much, but it seemed necessary, if only in a perfunctory sense. I returned to my chair and the gaze of the buttons on my computer. With the stroke of a few of the more apathetic looking keys I brought the inanimate machine to vivid life. A spectrum of color beyond the perception abilities of my feeble eyes dazzled upon the screen and into its warm embrace I slipped.
The tentacles of this machine, with its lights and colors and endorphins is tough to resist. It’s alway there, alway ready to keep you company. The weather can be beautiful or hideous, the viewer the same, the machine cares not. It exists to entertain, amongst other things I’m told. The tentacles of its appeal are long and hold fast once attached. Excuses are given, it’s a shitty day, or I just use it a bit, but we’re not fooling anyone. This is blow without the comedown, whiskey’s warm embrace without the hangover, drugs without ODs.
And yet, in full knowledge of that, I put on my headphones and sink into my chair. I give in, hell I don’t even put up a fight. I let the numbness creep in from cornea straight to brain stem. Let it rain, fuck let it bibically flood, fuck it, fuck it all, zero shits are given. Leave me here, with this my shiny fix, keep the power on and the data flowing, the rest is just too much.
Too much for a rainy day anyways- or at least too much for me.
Just this, bad posture and caffeine buzz, mellow tunes and some interesting videos of someone eating street food in Singapore. I’ll happily ignore the rest. Keep the itches scratched and the feeds checked. Let the day, the month, the life pass. Perhaps it’s better this way anyway.
Until Kingdom Come, or needing to shit, whichever comes first, I’ll be here. Of all addictions this is an ok one right? Like coffee or sweets, no rotten teeth either. I could learn something too. If all else fails, I’ll learn that addiction really is all it’s cracked up to be, and hopefully I’ll just stay strung out.
- Spacy Far Out Tunes
The radio was playing the weirdest shit. Some strange tunes that seem to repeat. I swear they only have 3 songs, albeit long ones, that keep playing on repeat. Everytime I hear the cycle repeat I look at the radio increasingly more perplexed.
An hour later when she came home I relayed the story to her raised eyebrow. She shrugged it off and assumed the pot had got to me and I was hearing things, that or it was some band that had a sound and the radio was playing their discography.
She looked at the radio after putting away the groceries. “Yeah,” she said after hearing the song that poured out into the empty room, “I think you might be on to something. Those last two songs seem really similar, perhaps not the same, but very close.”
“I’m telling you,” I said, preparing to roll a joint- which I figured would either solve the problem or make it so I didn’t care.
We smoked with our ears fixed on the speakers and the sound that they emitted, trying to see if we were losing our minds or if they really were playing the same songs. “Maybe the DJ passed out or something like that. Maybe they quit and left the station on repeat mode.” She said with a hint of worry. “Maybe they made a playlist that would run while they went to take a shit or something, but they had to really drop anchor and the playlist just repeats ‘till they get back.”
Suddenly a commercial burst in mid song. We both flinched as the spacy, mellow mood was shattered by a preposterously upbeat commercial for a car dealership. We looked at each other with quizzical looks, minds full of confusion. At the end, the commercial started again from the top. She looked at me and mouthed what the fuck. I just nodded.
When the commercial ended its second run, the original song picked up exactly where it had left off. I tried to think as clearly as I could, trying to reason what was going on. I passed her the joint and asked to verify that she too had heard those loud, overly enthusiastic commercials. She nodded taking the joint, “Yeah I’m glad you asked,” she articulated in a slow thoughtful voice, “I had the same thought. But if you think it happened and I think it happened, it must have happened.” She shifted her gaze from the radio to me. Our eyes met for a second until she closed hers when she took a toke. She always closed her eyes when she took a big rip, it was something endearing I really liked about her. “Maybe we should call the station,” she said blowing out a mighty cloud. “Can we?” I asked in honest confusion.
We googled the radio station, but nothing came up. Not even a wikipedia page showing that such a station ever existed. “What the fuck?” we both muttered under our breath. “Do we have a phone book?” I wondered out loud, “maybe there’s a number in there.” “Fuck, who even has one of those anymore” she answered seriously.
The radio still played as we returned our gaze to the speakers. We sat there for a moment, minds trying to piece together the situation, to explain the inexplicable. Then we looked at each other and burst out laughing. Of all the weird shit that could happen to all the weird people, this happened to us.
- The Strums
I heard her strum from the next room. I heard the drone strings hum their tune under the melody she picked out. It seemed to be a melancholy song, almost nostalgic- a tango played on a sitar. I liked the tune. It sounded like Gardel and Shankar had a jam session. I stood up and went over to the doorway. I stood and looked down at her. She sat on a cushion, eyes closed, enraptured in the ecstasy of her playing. Her hands moved nimbly down the fretboard through the vast tapestry of strings and picked out every note with surgical precision and playful artistry.
She opened her eyes when she noticed my presence. Her brown eyes looked deep into mine as her hands continued to play as if autonomous. She bit her lower lip out of what I hoped was desire for me, but was probably more for mental fortitude as she forced her fingers to the very edge of their ability. She turned her gaze from me, focusing it intensely, towards the sitar and played the last few bars of her jam with the power of a death metal solo.
She exhaled deeply as she relaxed her hands. “That was beautiful.” I whispered as if in a church after the end of an organ solo.
“Thanks.” She replied breathlessly. “I really got into a good groove there. I wish I could do that more often,” she added bashfully.
“Na, you always play so well. I’m really jealous, or perhaps the feeling would be in awe, of what you can do.”
She looked at me with her eyes wider than usual and smiled. “Even if you’re lying, thanks for the compliment.” She paused and looked at the sitar. She ran her hand along the neck producing faint buzzes from some of the strings. She laughed. “I guess I’m glad I put in all those hours as a kid after all.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I was a kid I had to play this damn thing. My parents made me. I fucking hated it. It was hard,” she paused and took a breath, “I think I read it’s one of the hardest instruments to learn. I spent hours learning to play it and I was bad. I mean really fucking bad.”
I laughed at the thought of a small version of her making strange sounds on a sitar that was twice her size.
She smiled when I told her my mental image. “That’s not far off actually. I was terrible and every day it just seemed to be worse. My teacher seemed convinced I was impossible to teach, but my parents weren’t impossible to milk for tuition so he kept me as a student. The years went by and every damn day my parents made me practice. And you know what? You get huge weird calluses on your fingers from this damn thing. But,” her voice trailed off, “but one day it all seemed to click and here I am. I can jam like Ravi mother fucking Shankar.
I laughed, “Yes you can, though I’d say you’re better.”
She laughed, “ Now I really know you’re lying. Well that and you don’t know shit about the sitar.”
“Now that’s the pure truth right there,” I replied.
- A Bar in the Rain
The whiskey rolled down my throat in a very pleasing way. I savored the taste and thought about how its soothing flavor would spread from my stomach to the tips of my every extremity. I leaned forward on the bar stool and put the highball glass to my head. The outside of the cup was wet with condensation and cool from the leftovers of the ice. I listened to the tapping of the rain on the tin roof. The drizzle was turning into a storm and the cacophony was crescendoing into a symphony. The people around the bar looked at the roof and shook their heads as they raised their voices to be heard over the rain. Some enterprising person asked if the jukebox had a volume knob.
I looked out the windows and watched as the waves of rain soaked the street outside. This was a dry area and the earth soaked up the rain with abandon. Soon the creek behind the bar would be a torrent.
Once upon a time, long before I found myself in this shitty bar in this shitty town I was a teacher. One of the stories I taught the students was about a desert toad. The toad hibernates the majority of its life, having dug itself a fancy hole in the desert to stay safe from marauding predators. When it rains, however, it comes out, lays eggs in puddles, then buries itself again. Rinse and repeat everytime it rains. I felt this area might have those toads, and this might be the rainstorm they have been awaiting.
As for me I’m still hibernating. Been a few years now, in bars like this one, where the whiskey is cheap and goes down smooth, slowly wearing down the sharp edges of that which ails me.
The door opened and I felt a blast of damp cool air blowing in from the wind whipped street. In walked a man with a less than serene look on his face. He didn’t seem to take notice of anyone else in the bar and walked straight to the barman. He gruffly ordered a triple wild turkey neat. My type of man I thought. The bartender poured and I called for what he was having.
The man stared straight ahead as my drink was filled. I nodded to the barman in thanks and he poured himself one nervously. I cheersed him when his glass was full and turned, glass raised, to the man who came in out of the storm.
“Cheers, man, I like your drink.”
“I don’t give a fuck what you think.” He said without breaking his straight ahead stare. I shrugged, not the worst thing I’ve been told in a bar, I cheersed the barman again for good luck and took a pull.
The man drained his cup and threw a wad of bills on the bar. The bar man called out a thanks. The man turned towards the tables at the back and drew a huge handgun from his belt. He had somehow kept this hand cannon hidden in the back of his pants under his jacket. He took four or five steps forward and leveled the gun at a man sitting at a table with two what I assumed to be hookers.
“Depends who the fuck is ask-” The last word was cut off with the sharp percussive sounds of .357 rounds being fired in a confined space. The man was thrown from his chair by the force of the impact and landed on his side. Blood flowed from his multiple very open wounds.
The man loudly informed us that we hadn’t seen shit, turned and walked out the door.
The bar man came over, refilled my glass, told me it was on the house, poured at least twice as much in his glass, and we touched glasses with shaking hands.
- The Weird Squid
The record spoke of octofish as it spun at 45 revolutions per minute. I looked at the album cover on the floor. It was a man with a carp for a face and a top hat. I cocked my head at the beautiful strange melodies. Each tune flowing out of the speakers was more demented and genius than the last.
Fast and bulbous I’m told about this or that.
She walked in the room and asked what the fuck I was listening to. I looked up at her. Her hair was in a ponytail and she had her glasses on. She was also not wearing pants which seemed to add to the absurdity of the music somehow. Her shirt was a white baseball jersey with “Carp” written on the front. My eyes widened and I looked from her to the album cover then back to here.
“Where did you get that shirt?”
She looked down and fanned out the bottom of the jersey, which after I had thoroughly examined it with my eyes, was discovered to not be buttoned up right. “I got it in Japan. I think it was the city’s baseball team. I liked it because it seemed like a strange word to be written on a shirt. In cursive too. That and the other jersey said ‘Swallows’ and yeah I know it’s a bird, but come on. I can’t walk around with a swallows shirt on. I’m no prude, but I don’t really want to advertise either.”
“Again, what the fuck is this music, and why is it so loud, I can feel the floor vibrating with the beat, or I think that’s the beat, whatever vibration is coming out of the speakers is shaking the floor.”
“It’s a trippy album from the ‘60s.”
“Trippy, no shit.”
“Sit and smoke a bowl with me. It’s wild once you get into it. It sounds like some crazy cacophony, but it’s actually amazing. The creativity is through the roof. Every one of those odd sounds is precise and planned. That and it was all made on 60’s technology, reel to reel and 8 track recorders. It’s fantastic.”
“Not gonna lie this sounds really fucking weird.”
“Oh for sure, but weird in all the right ways. Like a trip that goes a little too deep, but not so deep that it’s bad, just really fucking strange. It usually feels weird, a bit uncomfortable, perhaps even scary to a small degree, but upon reflection after the trip is over, it’s always my favorite part. This record is like that. I actually have a hit or two in my desk if you wanna drop some and see how the two line up. I was planning on doing it in the next few days, and I guess there’s no time like the present.”
She looked at me with her hand on her hip. Her face started stern, then turned to a smile. “You’re fucking weird, almost as weird as this fucking record. And no, I’m not dropping acid with you at noon on a Tuesday, I have shit to do today. But you do you. She laughed again. I would say turn it down, but I’m gonna go to the supermarket, so fuck, rock out dude. I will take you up on that bowl when I get home.”
“Shit dude, I think you’re the one that needs to be safe when tripping.”
- The Sidewalk
We sauntered down the sidewalk, doing our best to dodge puddles. The rain had come and decided to stick around. By day three it had well overstayed its welcome. Its first showers had cleaned the city and nourished the trees, now it just filled storm drains and turned side streets into shallow canals. Our usual walk to the supermarket became a trek through the delta of some great mysterious murky river.
She held my arm and we both tried to fit under the umbrella. It was far too small, it leaked too, which is a pretty major design flaw as far as umbrellas go. We maneuvered down the narrow sidewalk avoiding other umbrellas and the tsunamis kicked up by passing buses. Whenever I looked over at her, though, she had a relaxed smile- beatific as if we were relaxing at the beach.
My glasses fogged when we entered the supermarket. I put one of the plastic umbrella condoms on the wet fabric and grabbed a basket. With them both hooked on my arm I took off my glasses to try to wipe the fog away with my shirt. When I replaced my specs and got my bearings I could just make out the top of her head amongst the tables and displays of fruits both exotic and mundane.
She had a bag and was squeezing grapefruit. She looked at each one intensely, as if she could xray them and see the exact ripeness hidden within the orange skin. She chose one, then another, dropping them in a bag that looked unable to bear that much weight. She smiled when she looked up and saw me. I smiled back and grabbed a bag for some plantains.
The basket grew heavy with the spectrum of fruit in plastic bags. She furrowed her brow at the scene. She didn’t like seeing all those plastic bags, particularly surrounding her fruit. Not for some pseudo scientific reasoning or even strongly environmental one, she just thought they looked better in something like burlap. She said that’s what she always imagined they were put in straight from the tree or bush, and she thought it matched their colorful aesthetic better. I’ll bring some mini burlap bags next time I said with a laugh. She smiled wide. I swear they’d look better that way.
We looked at the meat counter. There she would insist on as many plastic bags as the butcher would give us. She liked her meat in sterile conditions, I joked about using the burlap bags and she physically shuddered.
Milk was added to the steak and fruit. A six pack of Okinawan beer soon joined after a discussion of what country or subdivision we wanted to drink that day. Some orange chocolates rounded out the purchase. We paid at the register with exact change, which was always her preferred way of doing it. She always left the store with an extra spring in her step if she pulled it off.
We stepped back out into the rain with our goods, and began our journey with smiles that made the rain seem to fall with the beats of our hearts.
- The Balcony
The rain falling down past our balcony has always fascinated me. The sounds, the smell, the sheer oddity of being outside during a rainstorm, safe from every drop. Anytime it would rain, I would go out and sit. Maybe I’d take a coffee, maybe a tall glass of sparkling water, sometimes just alone with only my thoughts to quench my soul. She’d sometimes come out too. We’d sit together in silence- or our voices were silent. We were surrounded by a symphony that long predates us or even our species or the island we’re on.
One day in late summer a sunny Saturday had turned into a solid storm that sat atop the city for a few hours. It seemed to have lost its way across the island and decided to stay here until it decided somewhere better to go. We were being lazy, which was rather typical for us on those sort of days. The rain was the convenient excuse to stay within the confines of our nest- though any excuse would have done. Too hot, too cold, too rainy, too outside. Our weekends were often like this- to the point I worried she was hiding a mild case of agoraphobia.
On this day, as the rain had settled into a steady pour, I excused myself to sit on the balcony under the grey sky. I watched the tendrils fall from the crevasse and levels of the building, and I admired the way the tree leaves dance in the bombardment. Down below I saw pedestrians with umbrellas and some without, a few walking with dignified abandon, most with furious jogs to dry spaces.
She brought out two coffees, warm and black for her, iced and black for me. She sat down at our little wooden table with matching chairs that I had pulled away from the edge to keep our small collection of miniature cacti from drowning in the downpour. She looked at me and slid me the glass without a word. She settled into her chair as best she could against the hardwood and looked out. She was wearing her glasses- she must have been reading inside, they fogged when she brought her coffee cup to her face.
The steady drone of the rain was broken with her sigh. “I’m not sure” she said cryptically, not facing me, instead her gaze was locked on the rain beyond our little sanctuary. “I just,” she paused, not sure.
“All this..” she waved her hand showing ‘all this’ was directed at the world beyond. “”All this shit. Humanity, man, our civilization-if it’s even still worthy of that term. Or..” she trailed off, “Or I’ve been misusing that world for awhile now.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I was reading the news. It’s all so bleak, relentlessly so. I know it’s the way they sell ads and fund their sites but fuck man. Just all of it, everyday. So many solvable problems left not only not solved but,” she sighed.
“Maybe it’s the rain.”
“Na I like the rain. It’s comforting,” adding after a beat, “calming.”
“The trees like it too I’m sure.”
She grunted and nodded.
“Let’s stay in today, I’m not sure I can deal with the world’s bullshit today.”
I laughed, “Na, I really wanted to go out in this.” sarcasm dripping from my lips, I gestured to further my point.
“Sorry to deprive you.”
“No worries,” I laughed exhaustedly. “Just make another pot of coffee and we’ll call it even.”
She smiled and shook her head. And the sounds of the rain washed over us.
- The After
She looked up at the ceiling as the record spun. We’d made it to the second side, but only just. Now as the last few tracks played out, the smoke from her cigarillo climbed languidly towards the ceiling. The lights from the city beyond the glass panes made shapes up where the smoke stopped rising. We both watched them in silence. She laid with her head propped up on two pillows. She’s quite strict about this. Always two, and an ashtray on her bare stomach. I always thought it was a bit brave to ash a smoke with such little margin for error, but her long fingers always seem to guide the cigarette to the center of the circle and with a gentle, delft flick, deposit the ash in a neat pile.
She listened to the tune, one of her favorites for sexual getdowns. She had picked this album at some point in her past, a soundtrack she found resulted in the best sex. I can’t blame her, it seemed to work well. She was an avid music enthusiast and her record shelves took up the long wall of our living room. When she said that this was the best record for sex, I’m sure she’d done a detailed study and this was the best. I never doubted it- she never gave me reason too. She said what really separates this one from the other good choices, of which she said there are many, and several better than good, was the ‘b’ side. People, she claimed, were always forgetting the b side of sex. They hop in the shower or go to sleep, not her. She likes to lay and relax, a soft smile on her lips and a cigarette in her hand. I’d taken to the habit as well, sometimes we’d cuddle, others just enjoy the presence of the other. We rarely talked, just listened to the b side of the 45, maybe another if the comfort was truly in fine fashion.
Today, though, she was uncharacteristically chatty- in that she talked a bit. She arched her back and stretched. “What was that fruit we had in Malaysia?” she asked when her body returned to its neutral pose. I arched my brows and moved my bottom lip up, something she said I often do when given a question I don’t know how to answer. Seeing my expression she laughed.
“You’re gonna have to be a bit more specific than that.” We’d gone to Malaysia last year and visited my buddy on Borneo, he’s a botanist doing his PhD research there. He’s an expert in tropical fruit cultivars, so he’d had us try more than I could count, all unique, weird, and delicious.
“The banana one.”
“No. The ice cream one.”
“Oh yeah the purple one. I’m not sure its name, I think it might be called an ice cream banana.”
“We should get some of those.”
I looked at her, then past her to the windows where the late fall of the Korean peninsula was quickly fading into a bitter winter.
“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.” I laughed.
She shrugged, “Yeah. I guess we’ll have to go back. Or, she laughed, I’ll just have to mix banana milk and ice cream and imagine.”
I laughed. Usually she wasn’t talkative. Maybe she was in a good mood, maybe I was just lucky. I looked over. She sat naked, hair in a messy ponytail, eyes closed, lost in the music. I’d never seen a more beautiful woman in my life.
- Stereo Headphones
She looked at the cherry on the end of the joint. Over on the table, the record player was playing a Turtles album. The smoke hung in the air languidly, and she exhaled with a calm release.
“Turn it up,” she asked in almost a whisper.
I got up in my nudity and turned the dial up a few notches.
She smiled at my naked form, I smiled through my own awkwardness. She took another toke and let it out in a similar calm breath. I returned to the bed and found my way under the covers. I found her body between the cotton layers, wrapped in the soft fabric. It felt so warm and welcoming next to her in the gentle heat of the room, despite the winter blowing outside the glazed windows.
“Listen to that,” she commanded calmly. “Do you hear that?”
“The speakers are playing two different parts of the song.”
“Yeah, it’s in stereo”.
“No shit”, she said with a knowing, if mildly condescending smile. “They don’t really do that so much anymore. Music is still in stereo, but that strong contrast between the two sides isn’t as popular anymore.”
“I think the technology was new,” I said with a shrug, “I think it was the cool new thing, everyone wanted to do it, though I think you had to have a special record player for it, so they sold both versions of the album.”
“Stereo and Mono.”
“Ah.” She took another drag as I scowled, I guess beautiful women are exempted from the puff puff pass rule. “I miss it though,” she went on, “I really like it, they should totally bring it back.”
“Don’t you agree?”
“Well, sort of.”
“Wow,” she laughed with smoke coming out of her mouth, “nice diplomatic non-answer there.” She passed me the joint and I took a pull. I held the joint in my hand and the smoke in my lungs. I puffed out my cheeks before breathing out. She smiled at my showmanship, perhaps she liked it, perhaps she was just baked.
“What do you really think though?” she continued.
“Well I like it too, and I’m totally down to see it come back to the level it was.”
“Nice,” she added.
“But,” she interjected.
“But I think it was kinda a ‘60s thing. It was the style of that time, we could go retro, but it won’t be the same, it won’t have the new, cutting-edge feel, any song now that used that style would be an imitation, no matter how well or lovingly done.”
“The era is over is what you are saying.”
“Yeah, and it’s cool to bring stuff back, but it won’t be the same. It will be just a button on a computer, not the loving work of some engineer with the latest and greatest equipment.”
“Perhaps then the past should stay the past.”
“Well, they left us a glorious legacy and some solid tunes.”
“Damn right” she said nodding her head in agreement.
- Acid Ficus
I got these off a fig tree.
Figs, off a fig tree? No shit, I’d have never guessed.
Alright wiseass, can the shit, this isn’t just any fig tree. It’s a special fig tree.
Special like its figs are poisonous?
No. It’s a specific fig tree in Sri Lanka.
Na hear me out. You know the Bodhi tree right?
The one Ole’ Siddhartha sat under ’till he got his, and everybody else’s, shit all figured out.
If by that you mean the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, then yes.
That tree’s in India chief.
I know asshole, or to be really accurate, it was. The original is dead, sort of.
How can a tree be ‘sort of’ dead?
Well a cutting of it survived, and is still alive today on the spot that the Buddha sat, but there is an even older cutting that is in Sri Lanka. That, my friend is where I got these figs.
No shit, figs from a sacred tree?
Not only sacred, the oldest tree continuously tended by the hands of man. Someone brought it from India to Sri Lanka and it has grown and thrived through 2000 years worth of generations, each making sure it is going strong for the next. It’s huge nowadays. It mean fuck, it’s 2000 years old. Tress grow slow as fuck, but that’s a fuck load of time.
So how did you get the figs? Stole them and as such are currently wanted by the Sri Lankan po-po?
Not at all, my buddy is studying the tree. He’s an expert, they check it pretty regularly to make sure it’s doing ok.
It is getting up there, after all.
Well for a tree, not really. It’ll out live us baring something catastrophic. But while my buddy was there doing his tests and what not, it bore fruit. One of the caretakers gave him some with a wink and a nod not to tell anyone about it. So my buddy gave me five of the fruits, dried of course, for flavor and shelf life. But here’s where I got creative.
You planted it and now it’s growing a direct descendant of one of the most famous trees in the world?
Better than that. Remember that vial of acid I got from the guy in the chemistry department?
You mean the shit that is some of, if not the purest acid on earth, made by the hands of not some guy in the chemistry department, but a tenured professor in chemistry? Yes, I do. I’ve had it too, it’s not exactly a light dose, that’s some balls to the walls shit. I had one hit and I was fucking interplanetary. Shit, I should have spoken to some guy from the astrophysics department before that expedition.
Well here’s the thing, I busted out my eye dropper and put two hits of Acid on each fig.
Shit indeed. I’m gonna plant a tree of wisdom in your mind mother fucker.
Oh god damn, well then, let’s get all enlightened and shit.
Hell yeah, all aboard the nirvana express.
- The Smoke
The smoke rose from my cigarette as I tried to move, unsuccessfully. Whatever was in those mushrooms was working, or wasn’t working depending on your perspective. I smiled at the thought, odd how success and failure is relative. I was sitting sideways in the chair, my body forming an ‘M’ with the armrests under my knees and neck. I smiled again at the thought, the so-called ‘proper way’ of sitting in a chair was relative.
The effort it took to ash my cigarette was monumental and I put the thing out to avoid the whole process again. Far too much work, far too few fucks given. I smiled at the thought that this could be a cure for smoking, or something like that. They say psychedelics have a lot of potential, if quitting smoking because moving is extremely difficult is one of them, I don’t know.
My buddy is a grad student in botany and always has the hookups for weird plants and fungi to eat. Some cacti he’s given me have been rocket ship rides to the center of some weird places, some mushrooms seem to just glide along with the tunes I bump. I smile at the fleeting thought of calling them ‘funky fungi.’ This was, in no uncertain terms, a non funky fungi. Well it was a fungi, just very, very not funky. It had come with words of warning that, all things considered, I probably should have heeded. I shrugged at the thought, or I thought I shrugged, not sure how in control of my body I am or how well my thoughts are translated into actions. The cigarette ashing incident for example.
He handed me the red caps with a laugh. I held them in my hand and they looked fake- or perhaps what the prop department would send down for magic mushrooms. Far too colorful, too fake. He mentioned rather emphatically that this would get weird. He said when he had tried the first generation of this strain he had foamed at the mouth, with the second he had been locked in some weird repetitive motion loop. He dropped his laptop on accident, then continued to pick it up and drop it. His horrified girlfriend sat in shock, then bemusement, then horror as the thing was slowly and steadily smashed by continued dropping. My worried face piqued his scientist sense of humor. He said the experiment was a double success, he found out what the mushroom does and he found out how many times his computer can be dropped before its case loses structural integrity. “28” he said laughing more. This third round was mellow, though, or at least it was for him and his girlfriend who I’m sure took a lot of convincing to participate.
They had been mellow, or are mellow, again depending on your perspective. I’d actually thought they were a bust at first- maybe in his efforts to breed out the negatives, my buddy had bred out all the fun too. When I was three puffs into my smoke, though, they hit me like a fucking freight train. Perhaps it was the mixture with the nicotine, I’ll have to tell my friend about that for his experiments. If I can ever stand up again. I smiled at the thought. Looks like the experiment was a success.
- Eyelashes and Sunsets
The piano sounded so lovely in the wafting into the air above the open air bar. The player was hitting the keys just soft enough, just syncopated enough to perfectly match the feeling of the scene. I always forget that a piano is a percussion instrument, it always felt separate, it’s own category.
She felt the same way. One could put her in categories, woman, 20 something, Hong Konger, but they all never seem to fit, or they fit but don’t tell the whole story. For me she’s always been a category unto herself. A one-off creation. And like the smooth movement of the black and white keys, and their syncopated rhythm; her gentle smile and the flutter of her eyelashes match the bar perfectly.
Outside the austral spring sun was just casting its salmon glow over the city. The jetliners sparkled as they lifted off above the city and banked out over the river, on to places afar.
She sipped her beer, amber and biter. She grimaced a bit from the sour hops, then relished the taste. Pleasure pain.
A waitress came around and we ordered a second round. Another IPA for her, and another lager for me.
She finished her beer and routed around in her purse. She pulled out her phone and opened the app to request songs for the bar. The system had a list of all the songs the guy on the piano knew. She scrolled through them, with those eyelashes playing beautifully again. I hoped she’d scroll for hours so I could simply behold her.
When I was in highschool in Madrid I used to go to the Reina Sofia and look at the Picassos. I could spend hours with the paintings. They held my eye, I never wanted to look away. I felt every second I could see some new line, some new contour that opened up a new world of color and beauty.
Now amongst the salmons and pinks of the sky her eyelashes hold me the same way. Each blink sets the drawn circles held within at a new angle, refreshing the beauty each time and allowing me to see them anew. Each blink brought a new world of beauty.
She selected a Coltrane song, and the piano man started into it. She smiled at the pleasant surprise that her song was picked right away. A huge smile cut across her face like the jets cutting through the stratosphere above. Her smile warmed me to my core, and the Coltrane set the rhythm of my heart to her frequency and I cranked the dial to max volume.
We sat there until dusk blanketed the city, though for me she stood far above, with the southern cross, bathing those of us below in celestial light.
- Rabid Rabbits
“Right,” he said hands on his hips, legs in a power stance. “This is the last of this bullshit, this is the last of the shit I’m putting up with.”
“Really…” I trailed off.
“Yes. This has gone on long enough, I’ve drawn a line in the sand and this has gone over it. You still have that soft pack?”
I fished the dregs of a soft pack of cowboy killers out of my jean pocket. I shook them in my hand. Three left. I tossed him one and put one between my lips. He held his palm open, I tossed him the lighter. The orange flame illuminated his face as he took a deep drag. He tossed it back to me and I repeated the process. The nicotine had a calming effect on the both of us.
“Why is this the stick that broke the camel’s back? This seems,” I was lost for words and gesticulated with my hands, “Minor? Petty, perhaps?”
“Not at all man.” He exhaled a cloud of smoke. “I know what minor is and this is far the fuck from it. Lightyears away.”
“A parsec or two?”
“A baker’s dozen. It’s just.” He trailed off, looked down and took another drag of his smoke. “She does this shit all the time. But we’ll discuss that in a moment, let’s get some Tallboys.”
A four pack of cold cans purchased, we headed to the riverside. The echo of our beers cracking reverberated in the underpass. We strode through the empty streets like kings. He walked with purpose, I along for the ride and here for the beer.
The brown river surged by in the dark, its depths illuminated but the park lights and the yellow lights from the bridges that crossed it every kilometer or so.
Half a can down and a new pack started, I ventured a question. “Why this? Of all the shit she’s pulled, why is this what’s driving you to kick her to the curb.”
“Well honestly.” He took a big pull. “She kicked herself to the curb. We had an argument, or basically the same argument. She’s always on my nuts about doing shit I love. It’s not that she’s on my ass for this, not for the beer or the occasional smoke. She gets on me for going on Rugby trips or running. I’m tired of the same arguments, I’m tired of her shit.”
“Has it been like this for a while?”
“Since day fucking one man, I was just in denial about it. We’ve never been all that compatible. I guess we got going, that ass didn’t quit and when she was cool it was nice. That and,” he took another healthy drag, “I just really don’t want to deal with the whole dating scene again. I mean it isn’t hard, I don’t want to deal with it.”
“So she’s out?”
“She moved out, I’m living solo these days. The apartment is pretty lonely, but I guess I’ll move on, and probably move out.”
“Well you’ve always got me.”
“Some consolation that is, you little piece of shit.”
“Thanks asshole, and you’re welcome for the cigs”.
- Dr Flutterby
“I guess since butterfly therapist isn’t actually a real job, I’ll have to keep being a graphic designer instead.” She said with a nervous laugh. “I guess it’s really second best, though maybe- I mean I guess I could be a butterfly scientist. But I was never all that good at science. I like the idea of it. I even went to a science camp, but once it got past the meer love of nature I was lost.”
“I was once told,” I intoned with the best air I could, “that the tough part is that biology is actually chemistry, that chemistry is actually physics, physics is actually math and math is hard.”
She laughed. “Exactly! That was my point. I wanted to breed flowers and see what cool colors we could get. To look at stuff under a microscope. I didn’t need to know what elements made them up or how those elements were atoms in some structure.”
“I guess you would have been great a few hundred years ago.” I shrugged smiling.
“Absolutely. Problem is most universities don’t offer degrees in 18th century biology. Not a lot of research grants to discover things we already discovered either.”
“Can’t imagine there are, though if there are grants for medieval fashion history, 18th century biology isn’t really that much of a stretch.”
“True, true. Either Way my second love was drawing, so graphic designer it was.”
“Not a painter or something like that?”
She grinned and gave me a ‘ you really are clueless aren’t you, bless your heart’ look. “Na, I actually wanted a chance to make money. I guess I could have been an illustrator, but cartoons and comics were never my thing. That and the pretentious bullshit you have to put up with when you deal with artists. Good god almighty, fuck that. No way I could go to gallery openings and deal with those fucks all the time.”
“Yeah, everytime I talk to someone like that I come away with the profound feeling that either they’re an idiot, or that they understand the absurd nature of life so well that they can marinade in it and come out employed and cool.”
“Agreed, well marinated is a weird way of putting it, but agreed in principle if not word choice.” She laughed and I blushed.
“So what do you graphically design?” I asked trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to parry the awkward into the interesting.
She smiled at my odd word choice. “Website logos mostly. Someone, well more precisely someone rich, comes up with the idea for an app or a website or something that they’ll work on for three weeks then lose interest, they make the beginnings of the website, come to the conclusion it will all be a failure out the gate if it doesn’t have a cool logo, they hire me.
And you give them the cool logo.”
She paused, “Well, sort of, actually. Usually they are in the beginning stages of losing interest by the time I’m finished. So I get paid, it gets put up on a website that no one visits and is quickly forgotten about.”
“That’s sort of depressing.”
“Well, yes, I guess, but until butterfly therapy pays the bills, it’ll work.”
- The Golden City
The fan oscillated slowly, as if in no hurry to cool the room. The humidity was so thick it could have been cut with a knife. I sat with a quickly warming beer trying to decide how best to beat the heat. I slowly glanced around the room, my head seeming to imitate the fan as I scanned the room for some form of relief. The aircon was out, it broke yesterday, and if I kept the fridge door open I fear it might go the same way. I found nothing in my scans that could bring relief. I briefly considered fucking the woman in the bedroom again, but we tried that this morning, hoping the exercise would cause us to be cooler at the end, but it didn’t work at all. Not the worst experiment to try, though. I doubt she’d be down now, she was restlessly napping trying to pass the heat of the day unconscious.
This house was designed to be naturally cool. I specifically talked about that with the architect. We had this trendy fucker built. I personally went over the details with the designers. The idea was the airy spaces and high ceilings would disperse the heat and allow natural wind to pass through. Sweet gems of lies about lower aircon costs and more natural light were whispered like sweet nothings in my ears. It was a tropical house for a tropical city, or so I was told. Turns out that a heatwave was too much, or the talent of the architect was too little. The glass of the house was positioned just wrong and turned this mother fucker into a solar oven. Even on cool days it boils, and on one of the hottest days in the last 10 years it’s cooking lunch without the aid of the stove. And of course the air conditioner blew out, it was working overtime all the time to keep this industrial chic bitch even moderately cool.
I heard her rustle in the next room and walk towards the kitchen. I’m glad she didn’t blame me for the solar oven we built to raise a family in. I was in charge of the design, and she has thankfully never blamed me for what is probably my fault. I heard the faucet pour water into a glass. She walked into the living room and looked at me. Her hair was forlorn and her clothes were wet with sweat.
“This sucks.” She said with resignation and precision.
“Fuck that architect man.”
“Let’s move when the heatwave breaks. I know this place looks good and it was supposed to be our dream house, but na.”
“Well it was a type of dream, just not the good kind.”
She laughed, “Move into your nightmare house today.”
“We could market it as a hell house.”
“Na, that would be cooler than this bitch is.”
“It might be a cold day in hell when we find a person to buy our rather hip solar oven.”
“Na, we’ll buy a new aircon, crank it, and tell them it’s naturally cooled.”
“I think I heard that line before.”
“Yep, and it will be exactly as true as before.”
I laughed and she sat down next to me in front of the fan. We sweated together in the tropical heat.
Nostalgia is a strong drug. I sat with my feet up on the balcony railing, thoroughly reclined in my chair. The city below sat quiet and empty on the damp night. Maybe it was something about the weather or the clothing combination, hoodie and shorts, that took me back.
As the cool of this evening nipped at my cheeks I couldn’t help but remember walking with a girl on far distant days. Back when the fall of another hemisphere nipped, and I still rejected it, wearing shorts far out of season. She wore a hoodie and a skirt, four legs combined, all braving the cold, damp air to impress each other.
It was an era when I would fall so in love with girls I’d get dizzy. My constitution wasn’t made for such a rush. Their smiles were hits of a drug that nothing has ever come close to replicating. No rush would ever compare- something that I am ok with, if only after years of resignation.
The wind picks up shaking more leaves off the trees. I watch them fall down from their heights, past my fourth floor balcony, out of sight, down onto the street below. I remember how her hair used to blow in the breeze, how it would glisten in the sun. How she could turn, as if oriented by an internal compass, to place her head between me and the afternoon sun, backlighting her face. It would glow resplendently, made glorious by that smile. Something Hollywood often tries to recreate, but in my eye will never be equaled.
Perhaps it is the bullshit of the years, or the slow smudging of memories we do to fit them to our perceptions of ourselves. Maybe she only smiled once and it was for one of the ducks in the park. Perhaps the solar alignment was chance or happenstance. What’s the harm, though, from the perspective of this balcony.
Of all the lies we tell ourselves, or memories we remember in ways that we wish, this is one I will never renounce. I guess I could just email her and ask, but I think it’s best if I just let sleeping dogs lie, and remember her beautiful smile all those years ago.
If I ever do email her it will only be to tell her that as much as her smile was beautiful then, I’m sure age has given it a refined edge, rendering it more beautiful with each passing day, just as it has my memory of those halcyon days.
I sighed, warmed by the memory. I couldn’t help but feel a smile cross my face, not as beautiful as hers then or now, but my own nevertheless. The chill of the damp night stands no chance against the furnace of sweet memories. Those dripping with the honey of youth, and encased in the amber of joy.
I watched another leaf, green but a few weeks ago, drop from the heights, past my line of sight, and into the damp beyond below.
- Within Without
It was the kind of evening that catches up with you all the sudden. The day had passed slowly, lazy puffs of clouds floating over the city like white castles in the sky. I turned pages in the used book and sipped on coffee and all the sudden the sun dipped behind the buildings in the western suburbs and the sky turned a vibrant purple.
I checked my phone when I got up to turn on the balcony light. No messages, but a time of nearly six in the evening. ‘Shit’ escaped my lips before I could catch myself. Not sure why I’d catch myself though, I was alone in the apartment. I stretched and looked out at the balcony. The astroturf had lost its shimmer in the fading light and my coffee cup had attracted a fly.
I watched as it buzzed around the cup, then on to the plate with its crumbs and the book. I wondered why everything was so dark, then I realized I was still wearing my sunglasses. I laughed and traded them clumsily for my normal glasses. The apartment was slightly less dark, but still far from bright.
I went over to the lamp in the corner. It was an odd stainless steel affair. It had a thin metal tube rising from the disk shaped base and as it rose it curved like a giant letter c, at the top there was a very round and polished bell-like light fixture. I went over and stepped on the button to turn it on. With a click the room was filled with warm yellow light and I saw my reflection in the mirror of the balcony sliding glass door. I stood shoeless with a pair of dark blue cloth shorts. My shirt was a loose linen button up that I realized I had worn with the buttons buttoned wrong all day. One side seemed higher dude to the button mishap, and the fact I’d only buttoned it three quarters of the way made it look even more disheveled. My hair was wind tousled and my beard untrimmed.
Jesus I know its a weekend day but I look like a fucking trainwreck. I’m stone cold sober too.
I laughed and the reverberations filled the empty apartment, giving temporary life to the sofa and the bed. I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a cold can of beer from the fridge. If I’m gonna look like a drunk, I might as well have a drink.
The cold fiz of the beer was nice on my tongue. After a day of coffee and water it was nice to have a bit of a change. I stood in the kitchen in silence, with only my heartbeat and the dripping of the faucet to mark the time and add life to the sillness. I sighed and wondered what to do with the rapidly approaching night. The idea almost overwhelmed me in and of itself. Even the thought of going to the supermarket to get the ingredients for dinner seemed a chore.
Maybe I’ll just make four or five sandwiches and call that a meal.
I returned to the main room and crossed past the metal lamp and returned to my perch on the balcony. I played some Coltrane on my phone and threw in my headphones. I slouched in my chair as I slouched in life and watched as the night slowly but surely enveloped the city in is embrase only to be cursed with a sea of blinking lights.
- Swim Out Past the Breakers
I guess this is never where I’d imagine I’d spend a Thanksgiving, though I’m sure I could do worse. How, I’m not sure, but shit can always get worse. Scoring in such a shit hole of a house is depressing enough on the best of occasions, but with their faux, half assed Thanksgiving meal- as if they are something more than a tweaker couple- would be hilarious if I wasn’t jonesing so bad.
I met this dealer four months ago in a bar. I’d been knocking back some beers with a buddy when he informed us he had some blow. I got his number and asked if he had some smack. I think I said something about ‘taking the edge off.’ As the weeks passed my habit grew in inverse proportion to the amount of control I had over my life. My life spiraled in the aftermath of the accident that left my family in tatters and me in a distant city alone with my pain.
I guessed this town would get the better of me eventually. Too many of my vices hanging around, too few positive outlets. I’ve wondered in the vanshingly few sober moments I’ve had in the last month if the accident was just an excuse, if on some demented level I relished it as the perfect excuse to let the vices take hold and pull me down. I used the crunch of twisted metal on the side of the road that took my parents as the impetus to finally drop the pretense of giving a fuck. Looking back when I cooked up that first hit I might just have been excited- oh fate how you delivered a blessing when that driver crossed the line, now I can give in.
This, though, might be too much. Seeing these people trying to have a semblance of reality in a wrecked house, trashed from basement to rafters was just a bridge too far. Not that I could do anything from my spot on the soiled carpet, leaned against the wall, drool falling down my chin.
I smiled at the thought of these fools. Meth heads I think. Thinking of this sad display of faux domesticity as actual life, actually romantic. They claimed to be acting on the traditions of families I sure long ago forsook them, and creating memories that won’t survive the next high.
To think, though, that as much as I wrap myself in my self pity and misery, I’m one of these fuckers. My apartment is bare, my job has long forgotten me, no friend comes calling. And now I sit here observing them as I observe all life, high, distant, full of whimsical detachment mixed with spite.
Happy Thanksgiving they say as they decide to smoke meth for dessert. I nod and they laugh. He’s so high they laugh, he’s feeling no pain. Dude you wanna smoke with us later? It’ll wake you up.
Na man, if this ain’t rock bottom, I’m not sure what is. When I sober up I’m taking the train to the beach. I’m gonna swim out to where the waves break and turn back. Then, in the cold November waves as the sun turns the sky pink, I’ll decide if I want to swim back.
And if I do, I sure as shit ain’t coming back here.
- Livin’ Free, You Can’t See
“I guess,” she paused to think, “I guess I should have zigged when I zagged, you know, life wise. “
“What the fuck does that mean?” I articulated with little puffs of smoke between laughs.
“Well,” she paused and motioned for me to pass the joint. She took a puff and thought for a moment exploring the patterns of light the lamp was throwing on the ceiling. “I was given an opportunity, right out of university, or college as you call it. It was a job in one of the top conglomerates in the country. This is the sort of job everyone dreams of, it’s the reason you try to get into a top university. This is the sort of company that either hires you right out of college or never at all, and” – she paused to take a toke- “once you’re in you are in for life. You’ll move straight up the corporate ladder to at least upper middle management.”
I laughed at the term upper middle management, she smiled at my giggles, then joined, both of us giggling at the silliness of how those business terms sound.
She took another drag to gather her thoughts. “So it’s a sweet gig, well paid too. Well, probably not hourly if you think about it. The hours are insane.”
“Is the work hard?” I interrupted.
Blowing out a puff of smoke, “Sort of depends.”
“Explain and puff puff pass dude.”
“Oh shit yeah.” She passed the joint and continued. “Depends on the time period, in this company it was feast or famine. Some jobs you worked an insane amount, others you just sat at your desk for 12 hours a day answered a couple emails.”
“Well since they only promote from within, they think they’ll need you later on, but maybe the guy above you hasn’t been promoted yet or too many people are delaying their retirement so it clogs the pipes so to speak.”
She laughed at her own joke, I laughed too and passed back the joint, which she took with an excited smile.
“My first job I did jack shit all day. Actually I napped most of the day.”
“Yeah, we had after work drinking every day after work, which is important for your career, seriously, if you want to make it to the top you can sleep your way there or drink your way there. I wasn’t down the first, and I’m great at the second, so you know, I went with it. “
“I have it on good authority and a bit of personal research you’re good at the first one too.”
She laughed and raised an eyebrow. “Well if you keep talking your research grant might be suddenly and perminated terminated.”
I laughed and mimed zipping my mouth shut.
She laughed. “Getting back through to the zigging and zagging. I had this great job, after I got promoted a few times I worked my ass off but I’m not afraid of hard work. I’ve always been a hard worker so it didn’t really bother me. The money was great too, the social position wasn’t anything to sneeze at either.” She laughed, earlier she had told me she found sneezing inherently funny, just something about the fact we all do it and how weird it is when you think about it tickles her, and honestly she was surprised it doesn’t tickle more people. “It was a great gig, but one day- oh you need to know I was the captain of my highschools taekwondo team, didn’t include that detail, should have- my boss grabbed my ass. So normally I should have zigged and ignored it, rolled with the punches, accepted that, while it is a despicable part of office culture, it was something that I alone couldn’t fix and trying to do so wouldn’t get me anywhere but the back of the line at the unemployment office. But,”
She drew out the words and I joined in creating a near harmony that made us both giggle.
“But I zagged.”
“I broke his nose and knocked out four teeth.”
“Yeah and gave him a black eye, and a mild concussion.”
“Yeah serious zag. Cost me my job, but not gonna lie, if you’re gonna zag you should really zag and I really, really zagged. And I don’t want to creepy you out or make you think I’m weird or something, but it was great kicking that guys ass. Not gonna lie, 10 out of 10 on that experience, five stars. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
“So I shouldn’t grab your ass.”
“Well,” she laughed, for the moment your research grant covers extensive research into me and grabbing my ass is covered, but don’t push it. Maybe ask first.”
We both laughed as I made a quick mental note to never, under any circumstances to grab her ass.
- Steamed Totoro
So if you could eat a totoro would you?
Not sure, they look a little fatty for my taste, but I wouldn’t be sure. What do you think they are, red meat?
Blue meat maybe.
They are from Japan, perhaps they taste like fish.
But really, if somehow, out in the wilds of Japan, they found a Totoro. Or I should say an abundance of them, totoros, or totori, or totoroei or whatever, would you be down to eat one?
They look so friendly, and pretty sure they’re sentient, or if not sentient then the closest to sentient you can get without being truly self aware. Not sure I’d be down to kill them.
What if there was an overpopulation? Cull the herd so to speak.
Well we don’t really do that with higher order species. Though I guess that’s more ‘cause none of the really intelligent species are found in abundance any more. That said, if there were an overpopulation of chimps or bonobos I don’t think we’d cull them. So no.
What if one got hit by a bullet train?
The Shinkansen, the bullet trains in Japan, what if a Totoro was crossing the tracks and got hit.
Jesus. I’m no physicist nor a Totoro biologist, but I’m pretty sure there’d be nothing left. You know how fast those motherfucking trains go? I mean we could simulate it with a cow, or maybe a yak would be more accurate, but I’m sure it’d damage the train and the Japanese Railway authorities wouldn’t be crazy about the idea.
I’d imagine the Yak would feel the same way. That said, just say we found one, it’s dead, it’s still edible, would you eat it. Same goes if we found one of the Dragons that are said to live in the hills of Hong Kong, or the Loch Ness monster.
So you’re asking if I’d eat Nessie?
Yeah, or some such mythical creature, Nessie, Totoro.
I’d say no, but if it got good reviews I could be persuaded. I must say though, while I might not, I’m sure motherfuckers would line up to eat that motherfucker.
For sure, think of all the ways we overuse shit on this earth. Anything cool that is discovered is eaten to excess once popular. Watch if they discover some weird fruit in the Amazon, it will be in every trendy breakfast cafe within a few years and either extinct in a few more years or being grown on enormous plantations in the destroyed ruins of the forests it once called home.
Touche. So then I guess if you were at some bougie coffee shop, having boozy brunch, some Saturday morning and they had fried totoro with a side of dragon infused tea and Nessie chips would you, you personally order it.
Well, I’m a consumer whore like that so I’d guess so, would you?
Man shit, I’d eat it day one. If I found that mother fucker by the railway tracks I’d build a fire and roast his ass on the spot.
I appreciate your moral clarity on the issue.
Glad I can please.
- The Park, Sunset
I left the burning heat and felt the blast of cold air as I passed through the sliding glass doors of the 7/11. A chime sounded to alert the bored looking cashier of my entrance, though she seemed not to notice. I’d imagine if I heard it all day, 5 days a week, I’d tune it out too. I walked through the shelves of purchasable items, glancing at the snacks wondering if I should get some. I found the cooler in the back doing its job in mechanical efficiency with only a hum to remind me that it was on. I studied the numerous beers, checking price against my taste, double checking it with what I knew of hers. I opened the door and took out a six pack of Japanese beer. It was a beautiful dusk and I wanted something special. It was on sale too and I think it was her second favorite from that fair archipelago.
I grabbed a pack of spicy seaweed sheets on my way to the counter and forked over the amount requested rounded up. I was given my change in pictures of the recently dead king and I headed back for the door. I again felt the temperature change as I left the store. I wandered out into the recently converted pedestrian street which was full of people and planted with juvenile trees. It had the feeling of a place that will be great when those trees grow and bloom, but today feels a bit too new. The problem, though, is that trees run on their own timescale, at it’s longer than ours. I paused wistfully and wondered amongst the purples and golds of the fading evening’s sky if I’ll get to see this street in all its glory. I shrugged to no one and headed down towards the park in hope that I do.
I crossed into the park which was built to commemorate a centenary and won awards for it’s contemporary design. It was beautiful and felt like an oasis in the sweaty, heaving city. It was full of people relaxing, almost as if exhaling for the first time all day as the heat broke. The sun now was racing towards the horizon and shadows were long enough for smiles to return, sweat to thin out, and for mosquitos to begin their evening rush hour.
I wandered in no particular hurry, the climax of the sunset was still a while off and she was with friends. I would be missed, though not in a major way. I’m sure the cargo of beer and snacks that were hurting my hands with their cold were far more important, and it was their arrival that was anticipated.
I found the group lounging amongst some trees, on a spot picked to watch the fiery gas ball drop behind the skyscrapers and buildings. I was met with smiles all around, the largest of which was hers. I, with much difficulty, opened the plastic packaging around the condensation covered beers and distributed them. Tabs were cracked and cheers toasted. Her gaze, though, I held a moment longer and realized that no beer had refreshed me as her eyes, and no sunset had ever held even half the beauty of her countenance.
Now it was my turn to smile, contented, as I joined them on the spot to watch the sun continues its march, enjoying this moment, fleeting and beautiful.
- The Rodent
A rat died under my bed and I feel very conflicted about it. Or maybe it was a mouse. I’m not sure. Either way it sloughed off its mortal coil under my bed.
I woke up from my nap and smelled something weird. Usually my bedroom smells either like sweat or Sophun. Not today, though. The smell was unique and unpleasant. I was hoping it was just something wafting in the window, or a neighbor’s plumbing backing up. Neither are entirely implausible, but the smell wasn’t quite right. I got up to take a shower and I came back. The smell was a stark contrast to the soapy aroma emanating from my skin.
I looked under the bed and it was there. Motionless, slumped on its side. I had seen it yesterday on our balcony. I was reading, sipping on a BeerLao when I noticed it out there. It had been hanging around the past week or so. If Sophun would have seen it she would have freaked, but I let it be. My policy with members of rodentia is to let them do their thing as long as it doesn’t interfere with me. Honestly we probably have equal claim to this apartment as far as nature is concerned.
Yesterday it looked lethargic. Actually I thought it was dead until it got up and scurried off.
At some point in the last, maybe, 12 odd hours it expired directly under my bed.
I’m not sure whether to feel disgusted or honored. Maybe it liked that spot the most and it was a comforting place to die. Maybe it was just happenstance. Part of me, despite the inconvenience of being the accidental undertaker, appreciated it. I hope its last minutes were painless and peaceful.
I brushed it out from under the bed with a broom. It left a train of liquid. It reminded me of the bible. Jesus was said to have bled out blood and water when pieced by the legionnaire’s spear.
I scooped it into a whiskey bottle box I found and put it outside the apartment door. I hope a cat gets to it. Circle of life and whatnot.
I found some neon blue toilet bowl cleaner that advertised that it “Kills 99.88% of bacteria. Amongst other promises written in the curvy Khmer script. I squirted entirely too much on the floor and squeegeed it up.
I took another shower because it felt like the thing to do. I put on a fresh pair of shorts and sat by the window. I thought of Sophun. Her newspaper and reading classes sat in the sun on the table. She is so beautiful with those glasses on.
The rodent laid in state outside the door in a whiskey box, and I sat in solitude staring out the window.
There but by the grace of God go I.
- The Promise of Freedom
Cui Jian played over the tinny speakers and the Goddess of Democracy seemed to smile at Mao- the Great Helmsman himself, looking down indifferently at the square. The students were so full of hope then, so optimistic. The death of Hu had brought them to this stage, but the promise of liberalization, the promise of freedom had kept them. He felt proud, he felt alive, he felt hope.
The bowl of noodles was the best he could afford on his salary, and the warmest thing he could eat on this freezing day. He’d gone to the train station again, the same result- still banned from travel. It was 2018, almost 30 years after that spring on the square. Now there was no hope, just these noodles to keep out the cold. He hadn’t even tried for the new bullet trains, he guessed they’d be less strict on the cheaper old trains- that they’d move the best workers to the sleek new station and maybe he could just slip through at the old station, on the train, back to Beijing. Just to visit, to see the place which burned in his memory as it burned that June.
The streets he swept in Xi’an’s historic quarter were full of tourists from all over China, but mostly the prosperous East coast. He’d see them with their selfie sticks and material comforts, every day breaking his heart. Not because he didn’t have a nice phone or was living in a tiny room that was cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and didn’t have running water; no, all of that was an enormous step up from the labor camp. Re-education, he’d snort at the name, funny how those empty suits in Zhongnanhai pronounce ‘torture though slavery’ as ‘reeducation through labor.’ No, it was heartbreaking to see how the young tourists didn’t care about their country.
His parents had been Redguards, beating teachers for the mercurial love of a madman and his cronies. His generation had risen up to see the backside of the next generation of cronies, stubborn old men more concerned with losing face than killing civilians. This generation was just concerned with taking the right selfie and their number of online friends. Some shit that is, he thought, firing up a cigarette to wash down his dinner. He looked down at the white pack of smoke, he always smoked Zhongnanhais, named for the former imperial pleasure garden where the tyrants lived and ruled the country. He loved lighting one on fire, just as he would love to light up the real thing.
He watched the snow fall gently. As a kid he’d learned a poem about snow falling, but it, along with his other lessons, had faded from his mind. Not much use for a degree when he swept the streets. He thought for a minute, he might be the best educated street sweeper in all of China. No, he paused, there are too many of use who have asked too many questions and have been relegated to this humble profession.
He asked for the bill at the counter near the door. The city walls loomed beautifully out in the snow storm. He wondered if they could talk the stories they’d tell. The turbulent life of this city, the senseless bloodshed, the crushed hope, the lonely street sweepers they’d seen. Then he looked down at his change, the crumpled pictures of the Great Helmsman, he snorted, if only you could see this XiaoDongDong I’d love to see the look on your face.
He smiled as he stepped outside, his mind still on Mao, na, he thought, you’re too busy to see this, you’re burning in hell with Deng and all the others.
The rain was heavy but the music in my headphones was bumping. A storm had blown up sometime in the predawn hours and seemed to just stick to the buildings and swirl above us. The city was power washed all morning, and seemed unable to do anything but grin and bare it.
All over town people hunkered down in their apartments or cozy cafes. All bemoaning the loss of a weekend day to the whims of the weather gods. The lazy hours punctuated with the occasional glance up at the sky, followed by an annoyed mumble. Something about how it only seems to rain on the weekends. Then watches are checked, clocks watched, all wondering exactly when is ‘too early to start drinking.’ As the day wears on it seems to become more flexible, and soon the dreariness will give way to a bacchanal, 24 hours of pent up feeling and boredom will be sweated out on dancefloors and forgotten piece by piece with each shot.
I have always been a contrarian. I can never just seem to like what others do, or dislike their pet peeves. As such, I’m always down to be outdoorsy in the rain. I put on a polkadot raincoat and headed out into the city to find avocados.
Why avocados? The local supermarket hasn’t stocked them in a week and I’d like some for lunch.
The raindrops were a gentle massage on my back as I hunched over in the rain. Busses and cars went on their way, but I had the sidewalk to myself. I crossed a few streets to the subway station.
The heat from the tunnels hit me as I reached the top of the stairs. I descended into the humid complex. I was dripping from rain, the ceiling was too. I went down to the platform below. The trains were delayed, the weekend was always a bit slower and the station was mostly empty anyways. The city had seemed to decide that today was just not worth the effort. Home was preferable and walking to the subway, no matter how close it was to your house, was just not worth it.
I stood at the very back of the train, creating a small puddle of rain with the drops that rolled down off my jacket. The puddle shifted with the movement of the train. Down here, safe from the rain, it seemed strange to be soaked.
There was only one other person near me. He was an older man, dressed in construction clothes. His overalls had paint flakes, his hands had seen work. He was a sturdy man. I’d trust him to build a house for me. His mud boots were atypical for a man of his profession. Perhaps I’m stereotyping- but pink, polkadot My Little Pony boots, don’t really suit a burly lumberjack-build construction man.
Or perhaps they do, perhaps I’m the odd one for thinking otherwise. He looked up and saw my polkadot raincoat. He smiled and tugged at his shirt, seeming he liked my jacket. I smiled too, it might have been the only sunlight the city saw that day.
- Voice Cracks and Ball Sacks
“My voice cracked!” She exclaimed. “I didn’t even know girl’s voices could crack, and it was when I was singing, Jesus this is a disaster. It will be all over the internet by now. Fuck me.”
“Like actually fuck you? Or just.” I paused, my joke didn’t land, at all. She was fuming. Usually she was a cool customer, nothing ever got under her flawless skin, nothing bothered that brilliant mind of hers. This, as it turns out, was her achilles heel. This seemed to really bother her. She paced her apartment like a caged animal, going over the moment again and again, pounding whiskey from a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 I had bought duty free at Taoyuan airport- and had been saving for a special occasion. Special occasion, the beginnings of a wry smile began to cross my face, but I quickly suppressed it, a smile would be disastrous for me. I knew ass was off the table for that night, or at least I guessed it will be, but I didn’t want to blow future chances too.
She took a pull, grimaced and let out a half roar. “God Fucking Damnit!” She articulated, punching out every sound. I knew telling her to calm down would only pour gas on her flames. “Need anything?” I asked, almost begging for an excuse to run to the convenience store. She paused and glared. I gave my sweetest, helpful look. “You’re nice,” her response laced with barely suppressed anger. “I know I’m a ball of fury at the moment, but this whiskey and your kind ear are helping, but maybe,” she thought, “Maybe something else would help.” She paused and took another pull with her eyes shut tight. They burst open as she screamed out the burn. “Fuck!” She yelled. “God damn it, fuck this so much! “
“Chocolate? How ‘bout I get you some chocolate. Or ice cream, or tater chips? Call your shot, my treat.”
She took a deep breath and hung her head. I got up and gave her a hug. She put her head on my shoulder and the flood gates broke. She poured angry, bitter tears on my shoulder, tears turned quickly to sobs, and she began to go limp in my arms. I guided her weakening body towards the couch. She collapsed in a heap of snot and tears. She grabbed a pillow and held it tight to her chest. I heard a burp and I immediately knew where this was heading. I sprinted to the kitchen and grabbed a trash can, ran back to the couch, sliding in like I was stealing third base,- just in time to have the hand that was holding the trash can covered in whiskey vomit.
Fuck me, I thought, but kept a straight face and said “its ok” on repeat, holding her hair out of the way with my non-vomit covered hand. Years later she would tell me it was the sweetest thing anyone had done for her, a brief kindness in a life of constant demands from others and mountain high expectations placed on her shoulders from all around. For me, though, she was a friend who had a rough day, who had pounded too much Turkey and was puking her brains out. “We’ve all been there,” I told her then, I know she’d have done the same. The smile she gave me that day was worth the vomit covered hand. But that was still in the future, and in the moment, I just really wanted to wash my hand.
- Electric Therobo Solo
The odd instrument sat in the corner looking exotic and at least slightly ominous. I stared at it with my head tilted, almost subconsciously looking like a confused cat. I took another puff on the roach and tried to figure out what the fuck it was. It looked like two guitars had been slapped together and stuck in the bottom with a cord.
She came out of the bathroom and I asked about the weird instrument. An electric Therobo she commented quickly. She explained that she was in a band, a guitar, a bass, a therobo, drums, a singer, the standard line up. They were all the rage, she insisted- she seemed confused I hadn’t heard of one, I was confused she had. I asked if she could strum out some tunes. She smiled and explained she needed some new strings. I made a joke that I had left my Sitar at home. Her face lit up, oh she exclaimed, my band was looking to add a sitar, you’d be perfect. I again cocked my head to the side, na, I’m kidding I enunciate slowly, I think my sarcasm was lost on her, seems that my sense of humor wasn’t playing well, but she smiled at me and set the world right.
She set about rolling a new joint, her oversized t-shirt hanging off her left shoulder. I loved that look on girls. I think I first saw it revealing the beautiful shoulder of the cheerleader chick on Saved by the Bell when I was a kid and have been a fan ever since. She looked beautiful in her dressed down state. Her hair looked best in a sloppy ponytail, whisps playing around her face as she looked down, concentrating on her work. Her shorts, too, were loose enough to be comfortable, I’d suppose, but tight enough to show off the beautiful curve of her ass.
I told a few funny stories and she laughed, she looked up from her joint rolling to smile and laugh, every time she’d big her lip after and my mind would turn to mush. She finished rolling and held the joint up to lick one last time. This time she locked eyes with me and ran her tongue up the length of the joint. It was insanely sexy and I laughed for lack of a better response, I guess high and awkward results in laughs in such moments. She laughed too, simultaneously showing her sexy side, and her ability to laugh at herself. I’ve been told she is said to be one of the most beautiful women alive, and this is the moment I see that proved true, though I think it was exclusively for me. How lucky I was to behold such a sight. I couldn’t help but smile.
She started to light the joint but said “oh” and her eyes got big. We need a soundtrack for this jeezy she exclaimed hopping up, unlit joint still between her lips. She hopped over to the record shelf, any requests she called back to me, something smooth, but a little funky, just like you she said with a laugh. She picked an original “A-ha” album, not sure if that’s a complement towards me or not. I cocked my head again and laughed as “Take on me” came from the speakers. She danced a little to the opening lines and motioned for me to throw her the lighter. She caught it with more skill than she usually does, pumped her fist with a laugh and lit the joint. She laughed, I did too, and the sound of our peels of laughter, along with 80s music seeped out through the windows, out into the winter winds outside.
- Eyes Closed Everyday
She looked around the room, seeming to be bored, perhaps mildly curious. Her eyes focused on the bookshelves. I had a collection of books in ratty shape stuffed into the two shelves. Various books I’d bought cheap and used and read, letting them slosh around my backpack as I wandered around the city in my off hours. She cocked her head, as she always did, trying to focus on the titles. After a moment she stood up and walked over to check them out. I was still dealing with the cold peanut butter straight from the fridge, and its persistent ability to rip the bread I had bought. So much for the high class product at the local bakery.
She approached the bookcase carefully, as if inspecting some exhibit in an anthropology museum. Using one finger she moved a few volumes around and investigated further. She picked up an old, well worn book with a neon sticker with $1.50 written in faded ink. She looked it over, almost as if she’d never seen a book quite like it before. She opened to a random page and read a few lines. She then flipped back to the cover and checked the words, as if to try and understand what the excerpt she’d read had to do with the title.
“What’s this book?” She called.
“Which one?” I couldn’t see which book she had.
“My system. Is it a, um,”
“Yeah, you play chess?”
“Only sometimes and never well. I bought that my freshman year of highschool. I joined the chess club out of a lack of friends and a strong conviction that playing chess would make me smarter. And I think it was to butter up the latin teacher- latin was a huge pain in the ass, it was rumored that kids in the chess club got better grades.”
She laughed. “Sounds like the nerd win-win.”
“Yeah, it didn’t last. I went to one chess tournament, did ok, but not great. Then my buddy smoked me up and the girl I like revealed she wanted to get down as much as I did.”
“So you left the chess club? “
“Yep, but I still went by and played sometimes, I think it was one weekday after school I’d drop by. I think I was killing time between work and school. Something like that. The guys were nice too, cool as far as I was concerned.”
“Why do you have the book here? Why bring it over the ocean.”
“Well, you know Tom? We play together when we meet up. I found it in my parent’s house last time I was home and brought it here. I bought it way back in the day after the best kid in the chess club recommended it and I serendipitously saw it at a used book store in KC I used to go to. I think it was cheap too.”
“Really?” I laughed. “Looks like I got a good deal. Never really read through it though, it’s not exactly a page turner. I think if you really understood it you’d be lights out at chess. I lack the discipline, or maybe the desire, or probably both. That probably doomed my chess career.”
“Well luckily you picked up skills with girls in that era too, and I can tell you which I prefer you’re good at.” She laughed and looked at me seductively.
I forgot all about the peanut butter and the bread and went over to her. She dropped the book and I remembered why I stopped playing chess in the first place.
- Right Before The Salmon Goes Bad, But It’s Still Good
The door chime dinging out its happy tune as I entered the 7/11. 2 am on a rainy night and I feel at home here. In the aisles of random products, and isle in the storm for me. I yawned absentmindedly and went for the beer fridge. The glass was fogged from the ambient humidity that came in in waves when the door opened. It was a warm rainy night, easily my favorite night time weather.
I wonder if there is any place where it rains every night? I mused to my blurry reflection on the glass fridge door.
I opened the door and the cold steam billowed out. I chose a tall boy of my prefered brand of cheap beer. Over the speaker a muzak jazz song played ambivalently. It had a vaguely disco beat to it. The beer can was cold in my hand as I moved on to the snack aisle. Ever since my childhood potato chips have been a guilty pleasure. Not the expensive kind, quite the opposite, I usually choose the cheapest local brand I can get, preferable in a weird flavor that is only available in that country. As a kid potato chips were the closest to a vice my strict catholic parents would allow, and then only on a very limited number of Fridays. To this day my Dad is only allowed to eat them on such occasions. I, however, love a good late night beer and potato chip run. I don’t need to wake up till noon tomorrow, so I can pass out at 4 and still get my 8 hours. Till then I’ll enjoy these chips and beer, and the rain that soaks the city.
I walked over towards the cashier. He was in his 40’s, watching a comedy program on his phone. He laughed quietly along with the jokes- though I’m not sure why he stifles his laughter, this store has to be empty most of the night. Only a few stragglers like me, maybe a parent with a sick kid, a couple needing condoms, something like that. No members of that group are going to begrudge him a few chuckles. I approached and he seemed startled that I was there. I swear I could knock over the stores in this country without even trying. Either he forgot I was here, or he never noticed in the first place. I put my refreshments on the counter and he lazily scanned them. He said the price, I gave a note, he gave change and our transaction was complete. I said my usual “Thank you” in the most polite way I know, grabbed my beer and the chips and headed for the door. It opened to the symphony of the door ding again and was hit with a blast of warm, wet air. I stood just out the door, under the eve, safe from the storm and cracked my beer. I cheersed the night and took a pull. I put the beer down on the window ledge, inside I could see the cashier again laughing at his show. I opened the chip bag wide and took a few. Seaweed and salt, delicious. I stood there and ate the whole bag. Watching a city that never sleeps doze a for a bit to the rhythm of the falling rain. The apartment buildings around me had a few lights on, and I wondered what for. I wondered what their reason was, I snorted at the thought of asking what’s their excuse. I drank more beer. You’re never really lonely if you have your own company, and that night I was perfectly content with the chips and the beer and the rain, and my own galaxy of thoughts to explore.
- Chorizo Spatula
I absentmindedly checked the news. I scrolled through the stories with a bit of disdain, or perhaps nothing that strong, just a mere case of the ‘I don’t give a fucks.’ The stories meant nothing to me, and the grabby headlines bothered me. Their attempts, often successful, to grab my attention only increased my scorn.
I sighed and looked out from the balcony. The evening was settling fast and the cool it brings was arriving quickly. I stood up and went inside. I was greeted with the smell of chorizos cooking in our skillet. She stood there, watching them sizzle in their own grease. One hand was on her hip the other holding a spatula at the ready, tense as if it might need to snap into action. She rolled a few of the sausages and watched their skins show their brown color in progressively darkening shades.
“Hey,” I called out tentatively. She didn’t turn, only asked if I wanted a choripan, though, she apologized, it would be on sandwich bread. “Sure,” I responded, checking my watch. Too early for dinner. Perhaps the sun setting earlier had thrown her, though she almost never cooks, the kitchen has been my domain the entire time we’ve lived together.
“What’s with the tube steaks? “
“It’s midwestern for sausage, chorizos in this case. Why are you cooking them? Not that I’m complaining though, I guess you don’t really need a reason for good food.“
“I was hungry for some reason, super fucking hungry. I saw we had some and I instantly knew I needed some chorizo in my mouth.” She turned with a wry grin.
“Oh I see. But those are the little ones.”
“Let’s just say it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been craving a sausage and it turned out smaller than I expected.”
“Guess it will just take more than one to satisfy your craving.”
“Just like normal.” She said before erupting in laughter. We both enjoyed a lot of dirty banter in the confines of our small, chorizo scented apartment. I walked over and inspected her handywork. For someone who claims an utter lack of cooking know how, she was frying up a mean chorizo. She even had the bread prepared with mayo, and had chimichurri on standby for topping the sausage itself.
“Damn dude, that looks amazing.”
“Don’t worry there’s plenty for you too. We can both have a little snack, then we’ll have a late dinner. Maybe,” she smiled, poking the sausages with the spatula, “we might want to have something healthy, salad or something.”
I laughed. “After this healthy super food, why would you say that?”
She laughed. “Honestly I half thought of toasting the bread in the grease from the sausages, too much?”
“Shit girl I’m a gringo you had me at cooking something in sausage grease.”
“Sometimes dating a gringo has its benefits. Now our combined cardiologist bills are gonna be killer one day, but let’s enjoy today.”
“Hell yeah.” I said with a smile. “The benefit of dating you is simple really,”
“Your craving for sausage.”
She swung the spatula at me playfully, “Go sit your dirty minded ass down, gringo.”
The late winter sun set, ending our two hour ration of sunlight for the day. I looked down over the factory and cranes, and the men who were in the cold operating them. Prisoners, I was told, criminals, though I perish the thought of what crime would condemn them to this frozen hell. I always thought working outside would be better than any jail cell, but here quickly disproves that idea. The wind alone would make the stoutest amongst them cry out for solitary confinement.
This combined mine and alloy processing plant was commissioned 50 years ago and has been manned by a crew of overseers, mainly engineers with a scattering of police and prison guards, and thousands of convicts working, slaving, in the hellish conditions. There are no walls nor fences, let them run the warden once told me, the bears need food.
I got a job here knowing nothing and needing the money. Everyone knows the economy sucks, though no one talks about it. Or perhaps talks about it to be sure everyone knows we blame it on the enemies of the motherland, whoever they happen to be this time. I was told that this would help my career too, it would show I’m a good, hard worker, willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Sacrifice, that is, my dignity and integrity with every passing moment I stay silent and push the buttons that send men into hell.
I guess I’m not all that culpable. I just monitor the electrical systems, not that many prisoners work in my department, though the ones that do have a very dangerous gig. I do however power the entire operation, a fact not lost on the chief. He told me, in a moment of grit and intimidation, that if I ever get the notion to turn all moralistic and cut the power to free the men we’d all just freeze to death. I’d be a mass murderer, he said. Strange when your only resistance makes you into a worse person.
So every day in the darkness of the winter that seems eternal I ride the armored bus from our guarded quarters on the bay, shielded by mountains from the camp. Through the winding roads to a bluff above the valley of the shadow of painful death.
From my monitor I see just the grid, but in the control room I hear the radio traffic. I hear the reports- the dispassionate calculus of lives being spent like pocket change. Production behind, what will be the cost, 15 men, worth the quarter bonus, I was going to get the wife a new car. And so on the altar of another man’s mild success the whole person of another is sacrificed.
The question is, when I return will I get the wife a new car and keep silent? Or do I speak and join the men below. Not returning is not an option. The question is how- slave or slave driver? I know which one I will choose. How I will live with myself after, though, I don’t know.
The ice tinkled in the glass, cracking as the room temperature whiskey filled the glass. I looked down at the faux crystal placed in front of me. I knew it was a drink filled with expectations more than spirit. Across the table wearing a suit that the rich buy to confirm the idea that money can’t buy taste and a smile was an old friend of my parents. Or more an acquaintance. I wasn’t sure. They’d brought me here on their latest charm offensive to get me to stay in the dreary shithole that they called home.
Outside sprinklers watered golf courses as lawn mowers cut the grass to exact levels. Earlier he had told me that they flew in special grasses to make the course ‘world class,’ a relative term here I would imagine. Odd that one would cut and slice the prairie just to plant grass.
The premise of this meeting was this: this man had money and he liked to hire people who went to my old highschool, or actually our mutual old highschool. He didn’t care what we studied at university, he’d give us all the training we’d need. He offered me a good salary that I am supposed to be grateful for and then never leave this shit hole.
The glazed windows kept out the summer sunshine. A world away in the apartment I had rented the tropical South-East Asian sun streamed in. It made the apartment steamy, even with a fan and an air conditioner, though I’ll admit the latter was of the asmatic variety. I can still see her laying in my arms, feel the touch of her skin and the warmth in her smile.
I’d be working in wealth management he said, then quickly enquired about the whiskey in a simple midwestern way. People here often pretend they forget to ask the only question they actually care about, it’s endearing and as much as I am hoping a big tornado comes and wipes away this god forsaken city, I do like this cultural mannerism. I confirm the whiskey is good. I’m a createn, but so is he, so I guess it’s ok. I enquire what ‘wealth management’ is other than what the name seems to obviously imply. That’s just it, he says, there is nothing else to it. I would pitch rich people life insurance, treasury bills, mutual funds, the usual to help those who have enough money to never worry about it.
The ice in the glass began to melt. I remember how I once took an ice cube and ran it down her back. She tried to look sexy, but ended up laughing and saying it was too cold. It was amazing, human. Proof that the bullshit romantic movies feed you is ridiculous, but real life, real emotion is far superior.
I drained the glass and looked him in the face. His smile was kind, if simple, and his tan was nice, if fake; and whoever did his teeth really had a gift. I apologised. I explained the lay of the land, that this was just a ploy by my smiley, simple, though not tan parents. I had a job and an apartment on the other side of the world. While I would make more in two months here than I would in a year, it wasn’t worth it.
He smiled and offered me another whiskey. He appreciated my honesty, and was a bit disappointed ‘I’d be a hell of an employee’ he said emphatically. I drained my glass and stood up, thanking him for his time. I claimed to be sure he was a busy man, though I was actually quite sure he wasn’t and I headed for the door. At the precipice he shook my hand and added “Look me up whenever you move back, we’ll talk then.” With the same fucking smile everyone here has when I say I’m moving away.
“Thanks, but don’t hold your breath bud.”
- The Summit
We stood on the precipice, our footsteps behind us and our path before us. On the rim of the mountain, the valley spread out before us, a magnificent tapestry of color in the early twilight. Our journey had been steeper and more arduous than we had thought; it took us far longer than we thought to reach this ledge.
The trail was said to be well marked, but the trailhead was foreboding. Within the first few steps we knew that it was anything but well marked and well maintained. Our progress slowed, our footfalls heavier under the burdens we bore. Despite the opposition of numerous brambles and thickets we slowly made progress. Up we went until the cathedral of trees broke into the staircase of boulders that marked our final phase.
Fate had ordained the hardest part would stand between us and the summit. We trudged through the boulder field, tired, thirsty, blistered, but dogged. With each glimpse of our destination our hearts swelled and surged- our footing never sure, grew confidant. Behind us the dark brooding past seemed to be ready to swallow us up, but our gaze was fixed forward.
Loose scree slipped under us as boulders gave way to vertigo inducing grade. Now backs were bent and hands were used to hold fast to the Earth, defying the consistent grip of gravity. We ignored the pain, the fear, and with jaws set and hearts free we walked up. The summit seemed almost fixed, but the path behind revealed the journey and gave meaning to every scratch and ache.
We hit a cloud bank that enveloped us in a fog of ignorance. We could not see our path nor where to go. We set our feet true towards the summit, for the mountain itself told us the way. The clouds were thick, foreboding, often we heard a voice from within and from without telling us to turn back, the summit was too treacherous, the journey not worth the risk. We knew though, there was no turning back, that the path down the otherside was our only journey home, the only path we could take from here.
At last, in glorious, resplendent sunshine our heads emerged from the clouds. We walked on now in the brilliant sunshine until finally our hands found no further handholds. I, in a moment of tension and trepidation looked over the ledge to the summit. In that moment the sun shone down as it did on the first day and my soul was gifted the spirit of liberation. I pulled myself along with my companions and together we took in the world at our feet- spread out in green and blue and puffs of white.
I inhaled the sweet perfume of success, took in the setting sun, but looked down. For the summit has been reached, but that proved only the start of another journey to a land beyond. Down below the scree, the boulders , beyond the forests and roads lay but the future.
I took a minute to pause, the journey never ends, but the struggle does lead to triumph.
- Pocket Full of Something or Other
My thoughts couldn’t help but return to her as the jet engines began to spool up. As the captain of this lumbering jet advanced the throttles the engines nimbly responded, increasing their thrust output and pushing us down the runway, their blades spinning, air heating and screaming out the back. For me in the comfort of my window seat I listened to the dull whine and thought of her. This plane takes me away from her, back to the apartment I call mine and the loneliness I also call mine.
The scenes of Taoyuan airport begin to speed by as we pick up momentum. Part of me, though, was on the airport express train headed back into the city. She’s probably almost to Taipei Station by now.
It was heartbreaking parting ways with her- with my heart left broken at the security line. I’m tired of goodbyes, I’m tired of not seeing her everyday when I wake up. These quick visits spoil me. I think of days, hopefully down the pipe for us, where this will be a sweet memory. Something I view as cute almost, lovelorn and broken hearted sitting in a secret screaming down a runway.
Now, though, as the wings flex under the increasing force of lift, it feels anything but cute or romantic. It just plain hurts. The person I want to be with is here and I am lifting off for another place. Another airport will receive me, customs officers will process my passport and check my bag. I will be belched out into an arrivals area where she isn’t. Take a similar airport train to a central station, but not the one she took. I will go into an apartment, but not one where she calls home, and a bed we can’t share.
But one day, I repeat to myself as the wheels begin to feel light and the captain sees he’s reached his takeoff speed. He pulls back on the yoke and we lift into the air. My hear though, remains, and only that which is left of a person without such a vital piece, lifts up into the clouds.
Below me the the hills and mountains of that beautiful island undulate into the clouds, looking green and beautiful on this spring morning. I look down with growing regret, regret I left her here, regret I left at all, regret I’m on this plane. Hope, though, fills the space my heart once was. Hope that one day a plane will return me to this airport, or some other. And there, in the arrival hall, dressed in a smile she will be waiting. For that day I hope, though this plane is going the exact opposite way. Hope though, as is the case with all of my fellow humans, shall be the pilot light for the fires of my soul.
The good news is that one day I did walk out into an airport, or well actually it was a land border crossing, and she was waiting when I arrived. I wore my best smile, and she hers. We embraced and returned the pieces of each other’s hearts we’d held safe until this moment. Since then we haven’t spent a day apart.
- Learn to Phish, as God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
“Who is this?”
“Phish. They are an American band, they have been together since I was a kid, fuck, maybe even older than that. My buddy’s older brother was into them. We used to listen to his tapes, if that tells you how long ago this was. I kinda lost interest and got into harder music, punk and that lot, then discovered pussy and pot and got way into reggae, then it turned funky, then blues, then I realized phish has a little bit of everything, so I came back to where I was when I was a kid.”
“Sounds kinda cute, I like the story,” she said.”I wish I had a band like that. I just went through the phases, usually pop or boy bands, then maybe some ballads if I was heartbroken or sad. Oh and I had a brief and very regrettable emo phase.”
“What? An Emo phase? No way? What provoked this?”
“Oh well, life I guess? Growing up in one of the richest countries with everything provided for, none of the hardships my parents faced, definitely none that my grandparents faced, yet anxious and angry. The older generations didn’t understand, school was stressful, the university entrance exam was part of a bullshit system blah blah blah, you know the usual whiny teanager shit.”
“But Emo, did you dress the part?” I smiled at the thought.
“Well as much as I could, make up was out of the question, it was really banned at school and my parents would have killed me. I had a uniform too, so no real expression there, but I adopted the perma frown and tried to get some black clothes. It was a big shift, I was into bubblegum J-pop before that. I think my parents thought I was crazy. “
“Or just going through a phase.”
“Well that part is true, I was. That was all it was, and I think all sides knew that. Or well all sides except me, I was emo for life for a few months there. “
“How old were you?”
“Oh 16 or so, something like that. Old enough to have a single cigarette and tell people you smoke, and old enough to try to buy beer. I’d drink some to look cool, all the while suppressing a gag cause how gross I thought it was. Actually towards the end I would just drink fruit juice and claim I put booze in it.”
“No way that worked.”
“Totally did. At the time I thought I was the slickest kid in the group, and everyone thought I was super cool for having cocktails when all they had was a beer or two to split. Looking back on it though, I kinda think everyone else was faking too, we were all pretending so much that all I needed was the illusion. The act alone was sufficient.”
“Perhaps, I think we all think that way in retrospect.”
“I think it shows that we really were just kids, just playing pretend. Just like we did with costumes in Kindergarten, now with fake booze in high school. “
“And delusions of grandeur as adults.”
“Here’s to that,” she said with a smile. “Perhaps we’ll look back at our 20’s though, with the benefit of hindsight, and see it as silly and childish as we see our emo highschool days. “
“Oh I hope so, that will be a great laugh.”
- Oh What The Future Might Hold
Her coffee cup steamed a spot on the window. The samba played in the background, it reminded her of her home island across the Andes and the Pacific. She shifted from left to right with the rhythm, the coffee sloshing accordingly.
The Earth rotated and cars commuted.
She wondered what this great adventure would hold. The first day in a new apartment was always a moment of pause for such considerations. The gray sky and drizzle of a winter wasn’t exactly what she imagined.
August in South America is winter. Strange the planet we live on she mused.
The coffee warmed spot remained on the window as she lifted the cup to her mouth. She sipped the bitter liquid and releshed its warmth. Maybe she would have to switch to mate. When in Rome, eh?
Was it pronounced mate like Aussie for friend, or mat-eh like her boyfriend had told her?
Guess she’d find out at the market later.
It was strange to look down at a foreign place that was to become home. The shops that were a blur when they moved into the apartment from the hostel passed unremarked, but will soon become staples.
The local bar that will hold so many memories is down there amongst the puddles and the taxis, bread shops to be discovered, bus stops to be deciphered.
For now though, the samba still played, and the coffee still fogged the window.
These first days are tough to remember actually. Unfortunately the brain fills in the details learned later. It will seem like we always knew the good bread shop was the one around the corner, the one across the street’s bread was all air bubbles and no taste.
Our mind will know that the lady at the market two blocks down has always dreamed of going to Asia and gives discounts to Asians.
None of that is know now, but when our scattered brains weave the tapestry of recollection it will be included.
Strange how memories seem so linear, but details seem to be filled in non-canonically.
For now, though, she can live in a moment, breath air and sip coffee that will be remembered, all wrong in detail, but the sweet feel of excitement will not fade.
She opened the door to the terrace. She stuck her hand out and felt the rain drops. The cool drops still felt good, a refreshing waterfall after a hike. The smell of the wet city filled her nostrils, mixed with the coffee and released more endorphins.
Each moment of the memory, this calm before the storm of figuring out this teeming city was sweet.
No city will be discovered in the confines of the apartment though. Adventure awaited, breadshops to be judged, bus lines to be decoded.
She finished her coffee in one gulp and grabbed her umbrella. Yellow. She smiled at the memory of her highschool protest days. She opened the door, checked she had her key, and set off into the world memories are made of.
- Like Riding a Wire Fence
Fences always appear smaller ’till you try and jump them, then as if by magic, they seem to grow. Bythis point, though, you’ve committed, so growth or not, this is not a time for bullshit, up and over is the only choice. The fence around Plaza Vicente Lopez was no exception to this.
Since the late ‘90’s the parks in the City of Buenos Aires all have large iron fences separating their soft green grasses from the concrete of the rest of the city. I was told this was the final act of the last non-elected mayor of the city. It seems that for a large part of the city’s history, due to constitutional quandaries and military interventions, the mayor of Bs As was appointed by the President of the Republic. In ’94, though, as part of a larger series of compromises to definitively move the country away from the horrors its last dictatorship, the constitution was reformed and Bs As got to elect its own mayor. As a last grasp of this old system and ostensibly to fight crime, the city’s parks were ensconced behind black, tall ornate iron fences. Thus they have remained, empty in the nights, closed at 10 or 11. All done for public safety and to deny the homeless a soft spot to lay their heads.
Many nights like this, when I’m restless or pissed or just in need of fresh air I look at the towering trees, the grass and the ancient sprawling ombú tree and wanted their company. Trees have always been something I have held in reverence. No doubt some of those trees are the oldest inhabitants of this area, having seen more seasons than any person could, all the while reaching up into the blue skies and fresh air, almost in a slow race with the ever growing apartments that surround the park. And that ombú in the middle. That big fucker has to be hundreds of years old. I wouldn’t be surprised if in its sapling days this was still rural pampa near the banks of the Rio de la Plata. In its life it watched the arrival of the Spanish, their houses slowly climbing up the small hill it once commanded, escaping the disease and filth of the area of the city they had already built and subsequently fucked up. They arrived and build fancy homes. They began to fill in the river banks, then came the horse trams and gas lights, then cars and airport landing patterns above. Then large houses gave way to apartment blocks and the Rio flowed even further away- no longer down the hill a few hundred meters away, now down the hill across a road, then railway tracks and maintenance buildings and classification yards, then on to rows of shipping containers and the homes of people clinging to the city, drowning in poverty, across to docks and cranes on the now distant banks. Meanwhile, the tree’s pampa had been reduced, surrounded by streets, then sculpted with the style of the times. Playgrounds added and finally fenced to keep out the riff raff, and -apparently- at least one lonely son of the United States.
But tonight, I need the comfort that the old mother tree can offer, so fences can kiss my gringo ass. Luckily I’d hopped fences as a kid in my neighborhood in gringolandia, and more than a couple times running from cops drunk in high school. I’ve never been good at it. I’m not the once-in-a single-bound type, and no one will ever accuse me of being graceful. With a few tries to get the physics right, a plethora of various profane and impolie words and of course a fucked up ankle at the end I was up and over and limping through the deserted park towards the big old fucker.
I looked around and it seems no one saw me, or if they did they didn’t care. Let’s be serious, I don’t look homeless nor like an addict. At worst people might think i’m going in here to smoke a doobie or have a sketchy blowjob. Shoot up at worse, but even that possibility is a stretch. Nevertheless, I didn’t dick around, I made a b-line for the shadows and tried my best- the best a typsy possibly drunk person can, all the while stifling the laughter I tend to get after doing something like this. The mixture of euphoria and addreline always gives me the giggles, a serious impediment when I was trying to be sketchy in high school. Now I just laughed under my breath, no one here to hear really, and if they did it would just confirm the high hypothesis.
I made my way to the foot of the old ombú. It’s enormous branches came down to the earth and towered up to the sky. I was always shitty at climbing trees, and it would be horrifying to me the very thought of damaging- or I guess I should say hurting this tree. Nothing shitter than living since a Habsburg ruled this area only to be fucked up by some careless asshole. But I had seen some teenagers climb up one night when I was running in the park, and I assumed their ascent route was safe and non damaging. And even better for my clumsy, totally un-sure footed ass, it was easy. Though honestly I only climbed up a little. I sat amongst the leaves on a very firm branch that didn’t even move with my weight. I doubted I could be seen here in the sanctuary of this arbor cathedral, and it was exactly what I wanted. I straddled the branch and leaned my back against the trunk. As my fortune would continue to have, there was a perfect notch in the tree where another branch turned off that held the beer filled backpack perfectly. I placed it, reached in and cracked a cold one. I leaned back and sighed “Nice” a lot louder than I thought I would.
- Duces Wild and Wild Duces
We grabbed each others’ hands and started to run. It was one of those ecstatic moments you can’t quite recreate and you think only happen in movies. We laughed and ran towards the end of the pier. The beer flowed through our veins and the late afternoon sun kissed our faces. Before us laid the glittering blue of the Taiwan Strait. We raced, but never stopped holding hands. Around us families shared cotton candy and old people puttered around killing time. We reached the end of the pier where a railing kept us from dropping into the waters below.
We laughed catching our breath and she pulled two very shaken beers from her purse. “I guess we both won,” she said, “looks like we both get one.” I laughed between huffs. All those years of smoking do a number to your lungs. I grabbed the beer and held it while I caught my breath. “Out of shape much?” She laughed between huffs of her own. “I thought you played soccer in highschool.” I laughed, “Yeah starting left bench for the all state team.” We laughed and cracked the beers to a geyser of foam. Nearby old people looked on in a mixture of amusement and disdain. We tinked the silver cans of Taiwan Classic and took a pull. They were still ice cold from the selven and it felt good after that run.
We stared out at the water. Off in the distance, a cargo boat slowly steamed across the horizon, further out, what looked like a navy ship sat keeping the commies on their side of the strait. The afternoon was bright and my heart was full. We’d planned to come for the sunset, but it wouldn’t be for hours, the yellow orb was still high in the sky baking the pier in heat, this area was subtropical, but from the weather you’d swear there was nothing ‘sub’ about it. I’d already sweat through my shirt, though she looked dry. Girls have a way of staying fresh and beautiful in all climates. I was a sweaty, out of shape, ex-smoker gringo- I was screwed running in this weather.
In my thirst I drained three quarters of the beer before I realized how fast I was downing it. It was the perfect refreshment for a day like today. I saw her shake her can, I know she’d downed the same amount. She looked over at me, her sunglasses sparkled in the sunshine. I saw myself reflected in the mirror finish. I guess that’s what she saw, though less distorted. My hair was tousled by the wind, her’s still perfect in the bun she tied before we ran. I laughed when she did it, and now I smiled at the memory. She smiled back and I grabbed her hand.
“Another beer?” I asked. “Of course, I’m dying of thirst out here.” We laughed again and turned back towards the land, leaving our outpost over the gentle waves. The sun warmed my back as we walked. The old folks had cast aside their stares, just like how we dropped the cans into the color coded recycling bins.
The leaves falling seem to be the only thing expected this fall. Even for fall it is unseasonably cold- add that to the list of unexpected events. It seems this year has decided to get real weird, just to keep us on our toes, or maybe to remind us how very sweet our mundane, normal lives were.
They were nice, now that they have been stripped of us. She sighed and took a drag on her smoke. She poked a few of the big brown leaves that had fallen onto the astroturf of our balcony. She held in the smoke longer than usual, then puffed out her cheeks and blew out a narrow stream of grey-white smoke.
“I just wanted a normal year, or well, I guess that’s not true, I wanted a cool year. One for the books. This year is memorable, no doubt, and I guess it was selfish to want something more than the mountain of good times I usually have, but,” she trailed off and took another drag. In the time the smoke entered her avioli a silence descended over the balcony. The background noise that would usually hum, reminding us of the civilization we lived ensconced within was gone, ground to nothing in the still of quarantine.
While she pondered or lost herself in the nicotine laced thoughts I spoke up. “No one would have expected this shitshow of a year. If, on New Years on that pretty beach we would have predicted it, the crowd would have thought we were crazy. If we would have wished for a normal year we would have been seen as falsely modest or lame somehow. Perhaps, though, something good will come from all this,” I waved my hand at the still city, “and all that going on worldwide.” I gesticulated more widely and left my comment to float away on the gentle breeze.
She looked over at me and smiled. “You sure are hopeful, I like that, I wish I could be the same way, I really do. Something, though, keeps me from it. Some deep foreboding, the distinct inclination that this is the start of something bad rather than the beginning of some new area. The hippies with their egregiously wrong star maps and ridiculous beliefs in astrology thought that a new age of Aquarius was dawning. Instead it was the age of Watergate and the Khmer Rouge. Now is shit better now, decades down the road, hell yeah, but it was a hard march for a whole bunch of people. A hard march that never needed to happen. “
I nodded with an affirmative grunt.
“I hope, I hope to hell things get better after this, but I don’t know. Its so strange to know history is happening and you’re dead smack in the middle with no fucking idea how its going to turn out. This could be the best it is for a decade or we could be days away from freedom for scores of the oppressed. Strange to be where we are, on this balcony, in the middle of the maelstrom.”
“Well, batten down the hatches, ‘cause no matter the wind nor waves, I fully intend to ride this storm to clear seas beyond.”
“Aye, aye captain. Full steam ahead.”
- Waiting for White Christmas
It’s a strange thing a company going under. I guess the signs are all there. The warning signs of thing going bad- layoffs, ‘strategic downsizing’ and other euphemisms. I went through it more than a few times in my day. It’s easy when you’re a youth, it’s another story when you have a family.
The first time I got the rug pulled out from me was much, much worse. I’d taken a job with Howard Johnson in what was then called Saigon, South Vietnam. They signed the Paris Peace Accords in ‘73, and I thought that meant peace, or some approximation of it. Howard Johnson offered me a mountain of cash to help manage a hotel over there. I caught some shit for going over after all those years of doing my best not to get drafted, but the money was good and I was broke.
The first year was ok, the war seemed distant- it seemed the commies might just keep their promises and peace might finally come to this war torn country. By March ‘75 it was another story. At night I sat with a crate of 33 beer, a big bag of weed and my speakers on full blast to keep out the noise of the shells falling.
Just like a business, those in charge just ask the rank and file to give more-fight harder, rage against the dying light. Here, though, those boys on the line didn’t lose just lose their jobs. Their only severance was a name in a leger, perhaps on a stone, but more often listed as ‘know only to God.’
The city was chaos with refugees. Masses pouring in infront of a rapidly approaching enemy. The money becomes worthless, fear is the only currency here. ‘Hope’ goes from alive in the hearts of many, to the hearts of optimists, to something only propaganda posters talk about.
I looked out from the deserted hotel, in the pre monsoon heat the city teemed, soon to be tamed by the iron discipline taught by Uncle Ho. For this moment, though, the legacy in rock and roll, mini skirts and war babies left by that awful war was still in full swing. It was surreal.
One lazy day of empty rooms rolled into another that sizzling April, the days only punctuated by explosion and bad news. It came while I was swimming in the pool. I would get loaded and go for a swim where once the officers and VIPs and their leading ladies- or ladies by the hour once froliced. I kept a radio near the pool. At first it was just for the tunes- rock and roll while I killed the hours in the Republic of Not-to-be. The party was now just for one, the sound system a simple transistor number from Japan. When the song finally played the vast pool echoed for only one set of ears.
The radio played a version I’d never heard before. It wasn’t Bing Crosby, some other version but the message was loud and clear.
I sat in the embassy still smelling like chlorine, now mixed with sweat and fear. Every christmas since then I can smell that scent, when that song plays I remember what the feeling of the whole house collapsing feels like.
- Typhoon Laundromat
The dryer spun, and I stared, both I would imagine absentmindedly. I was doing my laundry on this odd rainy day. The forecast said we were due for a typhoon, so I grabbed what clothes I needed washed and hit the laundromat. Now I know that shouldn’t be a priority when faced with calamity- food and fresh water should take precedence. This is Taipei, though, so I know everything will be fine, my dirty ass, not a similar story.
I broke my staring contest with the swirling clothes and headed to the convenience store next door for a beer. I tried to say under the awnings the whole way, staying dry despite the heavy downpour. The windows were steamed at the 7/11, hiding the contents of the store in a fuzzy translucence.
I was hit with a blast of cool dry air when the automatic doors opened. A ding sounded when I crossed the threshold. I was alone in the store, save a bored worker watching the weather report on the TV above the checkout counter. It showed a massive swirling mass of clouds bearing down on the island, the first bands of which seemed to be hitting us. The worker seemed nonplussed, as if typhoons were something so routine to her life they weren’t worth noticing. That or she was just pleased to be at work, getting paid, but wholly without customers. Save me of course, though if she even noticed my presence, she didn’t acknowledge it.
I walked over the drink coolers. Row upon row of all manner of beverages were cooling in the glass fronted industrial fridges. I grabbed a Taiwan beer and headed to the checkout. The Tallboy was cold in my hand, too cold really, so I was happy to put it down on the counter. The woman worker seemed almost startled to see me there, perhaps she’d been lost in the weather report, or forgot that I was there entirely. She scanned my beer and the price appeared on the screen. I motioned with my subway card and she pushed some button. The flat card reader lit up with blue LED lights and I put my card on it. It flashed red for a brief moment, then green. She gave me a quick ‘thanks,’ I returned it, cracked the beer and headed for the door.
The doors opened again, and I felt as though I was borne upon waves of air conditioned air out into the tempest. The wind was picking up, but I was still able to seek shelter under the awning. I could make it home under the same awning to my apartment around the corner, keeping the laundry dry. Hopefully that is. I peered in the laundromat and saw my dryer still had 15 minutes to go. Quickly overwhelmed with the smell of dryer sheets and detergent, I picked a spot on the wall between the 7/11 and the laundromat and stood watching the storm soak the world only a foot inform of me. The cool wall felt good on my sweaty back, and the cold beer felt even better on my stomach. I smiled at the thought of having the day off tomorrow. No where to go, just inside, relaxing, might even get a second day out of the deal. Then it will be the weekend. I smiled and took a pull of the beer at the thought.
Few things better than an unexpected long weekend. Now typhoons are awful and destructive, but in every cloud- even the most gigantic and terrifying clouds, there is a silver lining. Might even get a rainbow out of this big mother fucker too. I took another pull and smiled.
- Constricted and Constrained
When she handed me the notebook her nervous expression betrayed her inner feelings. Looking back on it I can only imagine the terror she felt. I’m sure she felt, quite correctly, that if she was caught giving me the notebook she would have been in some serious trouble. Luckily it looked innocent enough. A student handing a professor a spiral bound notebook isn’t exactly a revolutionary act. She even took the step of writing “English” on the cover in both English and Chinese. One look at the interior, written in firm characters, saw a story in Chinese.
She had told me during the class break she had some work to give me. I assumed it was some assignment that she had forgotten to do that I was blanking on. The downside of teaching several huge lectures is it can sometimes be hard to keep them straight when you’re on the spot. After class she waited until all the other students had left. I had erased the board and was finishing the coffee in my thermos. She came up to me and in a low voice said here it is. I looked in the notebook and noticed it was full, every page front and back with thousands of simplified characters.
“Teacher” she trailed off, but made eye contact with a ferocity I was not used to. “Can you read this.” She was speaking english which seemed the wrong language for the conversation.
“Um,” I flipped through the notebook, “It’s in simplified characters. I looked up at her. In Mandarin repeated myself. “I..”
She cut me off “Teacher please speak English.”
I raised an eyebrow almost instinctively. “ I can read traditional Chinese well, but simplified, I can if I have access to the internet or a dictionary to figure out the characters I don’t know.” My voice sounded sterner than I wanted.
“Can you please read this and rewrite it in English. It is very important.”
I looked at her. Her eyes were wide and afraid, burning with some unknown passion.
“This is a few hundred pages, it would take months to translate. I can read it, sure, but if you really wanted it translated well, you should contact someone far more skilled than I.” Again my voice sounded hard, professorial, but not the right tone for the moment.
“Teacher, I can’t trust this to anyone. I need to give to,” she paused, “someone I trust. I trust you. Please, help me.”
My mind raced. I had no idea what could be in the notebook, but I’m guessing it’s something that would get both of us in trouble.
“What sort of things are written in here?” I probed.
“About my life, about,” she paused “about China.”
“What about your life and China. Is this a biography and a travel guide?” My tone was wrong again, but she seemed unfazed.
“Biography yes, travel guide no.”
“Now let’s say I flew on an airplane with this notebook and the security guard saw it, would that be bad?”
“Maybe.” She looked at the door almost instinctively. We were alone but she didn’t seem comforted.
I cut to the chase, “Could the information in this notebook get me in trouble.”
“Yes. It could.”
“Could it get you in trouble?”
“I think it already has. I can’t be sure though.”
“What is this about?” I spoke emphatically as I felt my heart rate increase.
“The People’s Government.”
I paused and looked down at the notebook and made a decision that I’ve thought about every day since then.
I looked up at her and saw tears welling in her eyes. “Please” she said.
I put the notebook between the two textbooks on my dest and slid them into my bag. I kept looking at my bag arranging things.
“ You never gave me this notebook, you’ve never spoken to me outside of listening to my lectures, we never had this conversation. Is that clear?”
“Thank you,” she began to say.
I looked at her, I wanted to be tough, but empathy overwhelmed my soul. “Good luck.”
- The Days of Rain
The drops beat a tattoo on the window pane. I rolled over on the bed and felt the distinct lack of a person where they should usually be one. I sat up and looked around the cool room. The white walls had taken on the grey of the clouds that squatted over the city and sprinkled those of us below.
Where the fuck did she go?
I got out of bed and my feet recoiled at the icy touch of the floor. My whole body seemed to embody the chill and I instantly longed for the warmth of the sheets. I walked into the kitchenette where the fluorescent bulb provided a pure white light. A green sticky note was hanging on the shelf above the sink. Her strong line writing marked out the letters, each written as if by brushstroke.
“We’re out of coffee and forgot to buy breakfast. I ran to the market or maybe I’ll just go to the coffee shop and pick something up, not sure. Be back soon either way. “
I could read the indecision in the phrasing. I wonder which she decided. I’d have to be extra nice upon her return. No way I’d want to go out in this rain. In fact, this is the sort of errand I always had to run. She’d roll over and ask me to make coffee. I’d go to the fridge and discover its shelves bare. Then I guess I’d volunteer to go get more- or I’d know it needed to be done and I’d do it. This sort of errand was not usual.
I cocked my head as I looked again at the note. Come to think of it, I think it’s the first time she’s done something like this.
I wonder what’s gotten into her. Not that I’m complaining, it’s fucking fantastic I don’t have to fight this weather. But I wonder why she went, especially today. If it was nice out maybe, but not on a day like today.
The spiral of my thoughts trailed off and I looked around the dark, empty apartment. I shrugged and walked back into the main room. I looked at the mess of sheets on the bed. I yearned to return to its womb, but I guess if she came home to find me there, soaking and cold while I was warm, she’d be righteously pissed. I know I’d kind of be.
Good thing I woke up. I thought snorting.
I walked over to the closet and got some sweats and a shirt. I found my glasses too.
After a few minutes thumbing through news stories on my phone I heard her footfalls on the stairs. Strange, in a whole apartment building full of people I knew her steps from the lobby on up.
I could hear her working her key in the lock then she burst into the room with ruddy cheeks. She wore leggings and her rain boots. Her running jacket was zipped up tight and she immediately hung up her umbrella.
“Thanks for running to the store. “
She just smiled. “No problem, I felt I need to be more responsible.”
“Oh nothing,” she smiled again. “I have something to show you.”
“Yeah?” My ears perked up, causing my waking mind to snap to awareness.
“Yeah go in the bathroom, it’s on the counter.”
I tilted my head. “What?”
“Just do it,” she said with a smile.
I walked in, and saw something, on the shelf- a pregnancy test.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I picked it up and looked at it. Negative.
In confusion I turned around. She was standing with a huge smile. “Got you good mother fucker.” She laughed straight from her belly.
“Funny” I said, my heart in my ears.
She came over and gave me a kiss on my cheek. “Good morning sweety.”
Yeah, it is morning for sure.
- Of Lost Sons
“Ah, I’m stuffed.” She leaned back in her chair, arching her back and stretching her legs. Her hands rested on her stomach. She stared up at the ceiling for a second and drew a large breath. She looked over at me and cocked her head. “I think for the first time in my life I’m too full for a cigarette. “
I was still finishing the last slice of the pizza. She had ordered her favorite- potato wedge. I worked my way down the slice, munching the austensibly cheese pizza base and the baked potato wedge on top. It was a lot to handle for me, and I’m a walking dumpster. She, on the other had and taken down her half like a pro, she barely spoke, seemingly barely even came up for air.
Outside the snow reflected the orange sky. I’ve always been confused when cloudy nights in winter glow orange, I’ve always assumed its the lights of the city- streetlights, car lights, buildings, all together glowing orange against the puffy dark clouds above.
She closed her eyes for a few seconds. I paused for a moment with her, my mouth full of potato.” I guess, I am just fuller, more full,” she thought for a second, “whatever, grammar, than I think I’ve ever been.”
I laughed covering my mouth incase any bits flew out. “Yeah I’m feeling your pain.”
“Then stop eating.”
“Na I’m a lifetime member of the clean plate club. “
“What? What club is that?”
I laughed again. “Yeah na, it’s a joke parents in the States make. Or well my parents did, I can’t speak for the rest really. The clean plate club means you finish all your food.”
“Ah,” she rubbed her stomach.” So the club dues require you finish all meals. “She smiled at me, I tried to smile back, still working on the mouthful of starches I was chewing.
I swallowed. “Yeah, and as a member in good standing, I don’t want to be put on probation or, god forbid, be suspended. “
“Or expelled” she said with a heavy happiness.
“Egad” I replied before taking a bit of the crust.
Her eyes wondered, I guess lost in thought. “I like that idea. The clean plate club, I like the sound of it, it sounds nice. I guess it could lead to overeating, but I like the idea of making it an honor to not waste food.” She trailed off and stretched. She looked out the window but her eyes seem to be focused on a spot far further than the building next. Suddenly she turned to me and asked “ Do you think I can be a member?” She smiled and I almost laughed the crust right out of my mouth.
“Well,” I assumed an air of competence, “There are fairly strict requirements, rights of passage and sharing of procedures. And the sacred, secret handshake of course.”
“Of course, clearly” she interjected, smile reached record width.
“Yes, well, as a member in good standing, a nearly lifetime club associate, and if my dad’s waistline is any indication, I’m probably a legacy too- I am in a position to recommend you, and your work this evening with the pizza is exemplary. Now there is the matter of the induction fee, but I’m sure that’s no problem for you.”
“Oh fees? Do I get some sort of certificate, or better,” she sat up, “some sort of uniform like the boy scouts with badges for things you eat like a burger badge for clearing a big ass burger or something, or a soup badge for drinking a gallon of soup.”
“A gallon?” I asked, “That seems excessive.”
“Well honestly I don’t remember how much is in a gallon, but provided it won’t kill you, or won’t kill everyone, we need to thin the ranks a bit am I right? Let’s do it.”
I laughed so hard I thought I was going to puke. The very concept was beautifully absurd, just like her. “Yeah,” I continued after regaining my composure. “I don’t think my parents really developed the idea that far, but I like your spunk, you’ve got club president written all over you, though the ‘thinning the herd’ idea is a bit scary, but let’s hope you’ll moderate in office.”
She laughed and I finished the pizza as she grabbed beers from the fridge. “Is there a clean cup club for drinking?”
“There is now.” I said with a laugh.
- Midnight Bus
The outside of the bus is green, in a very local style. Buenos Aires has an esthetic from the glory days of Tango. Days when those nostalgic songs poured out of clubs around the city and trams ran over cobble stones. Lovers held each other on sweltering summer nights, sharing mate in mornings when the great vault of the austral sky hung impossibly high. Or nights like this when the winds of the approaching winter roll off the Andes and sweep across the city on their way to peter out in the doldrums of the South Atlantic.
The green bus with its retro paint job rolls up to the stop. It’s a fancy stop on a high density line, though the bus takes off on its own path after here. I hop on and tell the driver my destination. The doors close, three sets of them. With a jolt we begin our journey in earnest across the city. I make my way back to a seat in the raised section of the bus between the second and third door.
The busses here ply their routes 24 hours per day. A never ending cycle of busses running their paths across the teeming capital. The bus passes Plaza Italia and heads on to a wide, empty road. For the next several blocks you can still see the tram tracks in the road. They have been without trains for decades, yet somehow through what must be many repavings they have been left alone- silent monuments to a different time.
I look around the bus, at the interior reflected by the windows. The seats are mostly full, and there are a few standing passengers. I can’t help but wonder what they are all doing riding this bus at this hour- any 24 hour public transport must inspire the same question in all riders.
I boarded in a bar district. Most people who got on are in a similar frame of mine as I. The bar district is a bit on the yuppy side, so the revelers are not exactly getting wasted on box wine, though some like I could have had their fair of street beers or cheap bottles at parties.
Others range in age from teenagers to old people. Some look like they are dressed for work, perhaps some shift that ends late. Others seem to be perfectly normal- they’d look the same at this hour or at 3 pm. I watch this odd room travel down the road in fits and starts as it halts at stop after stop and accelerates to the next.
The 24 hour busses are one of my favorite parts of Buenos Aires. There is something special about these vehicles carrying people from destination to destination across the darkened city. Some must ply routes that are far from safe, others connecting one high class area to another, most though are like this one, a bit of both in the long arc it cuts across the city.
One feeling I always get in big cities is the overwhelming yet fascinating feeling that everyone has a life as rich and complex as mine. The Germans call it ‘sonder.’ In moments like these you feel it acutely. A bus of people all starting at different places and ending at different places. All probably just want to get home, some to lonely apartments, some to bustling houses, some will sleep in the arms of lovers, some alone, some in the arms of temporary lovers both free and paid for.
On these nights, between the booze, the green, and the community of the bus I feel part of humanity, and on nights of sadness which seem to never be strangers, it is greatly comforting. I’ve wanted to spend a whole night riding various buses just picking up the feelings and seeing the city glow in the night.
But they don’t allow beers on busses, well sometimes they do, but it’s a risk and, well, some experiences are best experienced in tipsy moderation and with cold beers saved for the end of the night.
- The Clouds Roll
In the distance white clouds cascade down the mountain. From the alpine valleys above on Yangmingshan heights, where the clouds are sweetened with the scent of flowers growing gently in the sun. From there, enriched with the moisture from the choppy waves of the Strait, they amass like some great horde and roll down into the sea of buildings in the city below.
I sat at a cafe along the banks of a river looking back at Taipei from one of the last open areas left in the crowded city. For some reason this area has stayed open, and farmed. I was told the families that own it refuse to sell. Others said it was in a flood plain and the cost of Typhoon proofing it was far too high.
Either way the sun still shone down, and the play of the clouds and the mountains looked like the brush strokes of some ancient master.
Bikes zoomed by and she turned to me, ice cream in hand. She prooffered me the spoon. The favor was Dulce de Leche, it reminded me of Latin America and the beat of cumbia played in my head, though Mandopop played over the speakers.
The cafe stood oddly by itself along the bike path. I really liked visiting it. It felt like a little country store from my youth in Kansas- if you add mountains nearby, a crowd of Taiwanese people and a bike trail in front, and a solid Mandopop soundtrack.
In my mind, the city seemed to be blanketed in the golden satin of the late afternoon sun and seemed in a drowsy peace. I looked over at her, she sat upright with excellent posture. Her hair was in a ponytail- which was rare, she usually kept her hair down, only raising it when she was hot or working out. She wore a black t-shirt that fit her perfectly, and she ate the ice cream lost in thought. Her eyes seemed to scan the cemented banks of the river, remarking but not judging any aspect of the scene before us.
“This is wonderful.” I remarked to both her and the world at large. She grunted in accord with the spoon in her mouth.
“Thank you for sharing this with me.” I continued. She turned to me and the sun caught her face. She glowed brilliantly in the light, her hair playing on her face and a smile dancing about her mouth.
“Well, you did say there was ice cream and beer involved,” she laughed, “anytime you want to come here, I’m down. She took another spoonful and seemed to think for a second. She took the spoon out of her mouth and spoke with a mouthful of ice cream “Well,” She raised her hand to cover her mouth while she laughed “well maybe not when it’s pissing down rain. Barring then, I’m down. “
Our laughs rolled over the field and up to the clouds on the mountain, where our happiness melted in the sunlight and left us contented there in the cafe beside the river, where we remained as our love grew and the universe turned.
- Who hears Maracas?
“I swear to god mother fucker if you are playing mariachi music I’m gonna be pissed. “
“I hear fucking maracas and I know this is one fo your weird pranks. I get it we’re tripping, you wanna screw with my head so you play maracas or mariachi or some shit like that.” He spun around looking for the source. “I bet you have a waterproof speaker.”
“I swear” I said, sunglassed eyes lost in the vault of the azure austral sky. “The only thing I hear is the sound of this fucking hot tub. Now I guess to some who hear musicality in the grind and whine of machines might see this as music or rythmic, but I swear to fucking god that I don’t hear maracas or marachi or any other music for that matter. “
“Well first off there is no god. “
“Not talking about heavy shit now, I’m in a good spot in my trip, it was a euphemism.”
“Whatever. I know you’re up to something that fucking weird towel on your head is clearly part of the plot. “
I had a towel folded to look like sheep horns- it’s popular in South Korea. “No connection dude, I just like the style.” I got lost in the closed eye visuals for an amount of time, it was whimsical. I guess words were escaping me as a wave of psychedelia broke over the shore of my psyche and I floated out with the tide. The cloudless sky seemed enormous and full of patterns. I felt like I was above the city suspended in the vault with the water of the tub washing down as rain on the city.
As the wave subsided I returned to look around at the white foam on the churning cauldron of the hot tub. He was still looking around muttering. “Are you still looking for something? “
“Fucking maracas man! I’m sure I hear them, they are playing the rhythm of a Steely Dan song.”
Whoa he’s in deep. We’re on the rooftop of my building, someone could come up here to cook on the communal grills and would be horrified and confused to find two babbling, bat shit crazy gringos arguing about maracas. “Dude, Imma need you to drop the maraca shit. I get that you hear them it’s either the drugs or the sound of the hot tub machine, or the drugs warping the sound of the machine.” I paused and listened to the hum, it was constant and deep, if there was a such a thing as a bass kazoo I’d imagine it would be something like this. I told him as much.
“A bass fucking cazoo, now whose the one who’s in too deep. What the fuck would that be anyways.”
“They might exist.”
“They might, and I will grant you that it is possible that the machine might sound like one, as they are probably hypothetical we can imagine them sounding like anything, even a hot tub.” I could hear the mania in his voice, this was some good shit, but it hit him speedy. Or maybe the hot water was stirring up his blood. Weird images floated along with that though and I looked back up at the sky to clear my mind.
“Either way, kazoos notwithstanding. I still hear maracas!”
“Fuck dude, chill.” Was the best I could muster, even though I could swear I could just hear the faint rhythm of a maraca somewhere in the city below.
- The Ship that Rocked (Out through the In Door)
The ship rocked in the heavy seas, and I puked my brains out into a swaying toilet. It seemed the entire world was adrift in some apocalyptic cosmic storm. The ship seemed to be a meer toy, utterly powerless in the raw face of nature’s rage.
I’d signed up to travel by cargo ship, something I’d long wanted to do. It was about the same as plane fare, and the trip from Santiago de Chile to Singapore was going to take three months with all the stops. It seemed, though, like an adventure I should try to take while I could. There was something dark and foreboding about the open ocean that always called to my midwestern soul. Something about the vast rolling waves that seemed both utterly pedestrian and completely alien.
Now anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of the seas would tell you that storms are a thing, though one I assumed were avoided. I guessed the ship would use all the modern technology that we have to see them from far off, skirt their edges at worse, and sail for fair seas and following winds.
Turns out, though, they crop up fast and wild, and sometimes out of economic thriftiness are just endured to expedite delivery. Thus into the tempest we charged with our containers and hatches battened and our loins girded. Now in the depths of the fury we are tossed like ragdolls.
And I, the son of the plains, am hopeless. Any shred of equilibrium is impossible and my brain is none too pleased. The puking, I would imagine, is its way of expressing protest, its urgent calls to bring a swift end to this nonsense and return to a more normal, stable orientation.
That, though, is not possible so I hurl ’till it’s nothing but dry heaves. I crawled, for want of enough stability to walk, from the bathroom into my cabin. My windows faced forward, I hoped looking out them would help calm things. A trash can was in my sweaty grip in case the plan failed. We hit a huge wave, riding its crest up, then skiing down the backside. Over the speaker the captain bellowed a ‘Whoo Hoooo, mother fuckers that was a bigun, we got a few more coming, no danger though, nothing this old girl can’t take. Hold on, man your stations and enjoy the ride.’ He put on a Led Zeppelin album and somehow made the volume of every speaker louder than should be possible. Above the lashing rain and creaking ship Robert Plants’ voice soared.
The rollercoaster of insanity rose on another wave and my stomach accompanied it, all to the rhythm of a guitar solo. We dropped again and I dry heaved, now crying from the effort and the sheer mother fucking terror. If only I could enjoy this like the captain seems to be. Instead I will endure, in some form or other, this insanity.
I gripped my trashcan and stared straight forward, watching the churning ocean, feeling my churning stomach, and remembering that flying was also an option. I wanted adventure, I got it, with a rocking soundtrack to boot.