Sunday, July 26, 2015
Sunday, June 10, 2012
We are entering white water, nothing seems right, we don't know where we are, the water is green, no white.
—Claimed to be the last words transmitted from Flight 19 before it disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle
It was about time they played a familiar tune. I began singing along to keep from drowsing, but soon realized I didn’t know any of the lyrics. Undecided then whether to hum or whistle, whistle or hum, I tried flipping a coin in my mind and settled on faking the words as I went along.
Memory is like this, I crooned, like a song we think we know-oh-oh…
There was no end to this fog. I considered yawning and reached for the cup of coffee I suddenly remembered mid-gesture was already empty but had to shake anyway to confirm before being able to refocus on the road.
The driver in front simply had a busted taillight, though connecting that faint demon glow to the other good taillight, to the car, to the person in it, proved to be a protracted and convoluted mental transaction. I yawned and tapped the brakes to keep up the delicate sensation of being alone in the universe, reduced now to this dark, winding mountain road somewhere in western Massachusetts. As the frequency modulated musicians faded into their final notes, I switched off the radio to preserve this timeless state of being I’d entered into from commercial interruption. Watching another dark mile vanish from my rearview mirror, I was spooked by a sudden urge to let go of the wheel.
The fog infected everything with a dangerous yet dreamlike delirium.
As the convertible continued to burrow through the night, I knew it was only a matter of time before my interior narrator would begin drawing discouraging conclusions from dull observations again. The time was 2:51 am. You’ve been on the road for over four hours. It’ll probably turn out to be for nothing. I leaned over for a look at myself in the rearview mirror and saw the familiar print of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist reflected over my shoulder on the bathroom wall. The man replied, “Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar.” The wince seemed to precede the philtrum nick. “Really? This is what you’re telling me?” I exploded suddenly beside myself with fury. “So that’s life, then: things as they are?”
It was pointless giving this narrator a piece of my mind when I, by a preponderance of the evidence, was in no way to be mistaken for the projection. The mirrorself, smug, made no move to rebuttal as I finished taking off the beard with more mindfulness. Slapping on some aftershave, I resolved to put in for some time off as the sharp, alcoholic sting sang arias through every tired cell in my body. The string of sixty- to seventy-hour workweeks that had culminated in a disappointing compensation review had pushed my mid-life cliché to crisis and left me with barely enough energy in the evenings to nurse a few drinks before falling asleep in front of the television. Cultivating such life-denying distractions only granted a very limited sort of access to a certain lowest common denominator level of happiness that was nevertheless spoiled by a sad awareness that what I ended up watching most nights were widely acknowledged cultural abortions requiring very little thought.
You were so tense you had to conserve all your energy just to withstand it.
I honestly couldn’t make up my mind on where to go. The real problem was that I’d kept thinking in terms of stepping into an entirely new life, the one I was actually meant for, rather than in terms of taking a short break from this one, and two weeks was really not enough time for all that. It was barely enough to de-stress a tick or two before returning to work with a few anecdotes you’d polished to entertain colleagues while waiting for elevator doors to slide open or meetings to reach quorum. Maybe the sense that I needed something a little more meaningful had led me to procrastinate, but before I knew it, I was officially on vacation without having booked a flight or a room anywhere.
I’d gone home, nursed a couple of drinks, and proceeded to fall asleep in front of the television somewhere towards the end of an episode of The Real World, where the girl with the angel wings inked into her shoulder blades seemed to want to communicate something urgent to me, personally, on the other side of the screen, before I vanished into a fractured unconsciousness, or a fade to black from her side. It must’ve been around 2am when it hit me that I was actually on vacation, free to do what I wanted. Not a bad feeling at all.
The mind's major journey now is to find its way back through a depth of surfaces to a childlike wonder where vacationing becomes an impenetrable state of mind.
After finishing a full pot of coffee the next day over a leisurely brunch with a typographically complex newspaper, I’d tidied up around the apartment to my Korean language CDs. If you had driven more carefully, you wouldn’t have had that accident, I repeated in the third conditional. This was the grammatical structure that allowed one to think about unreal situations in the past. With the laundry folded and dishes stacked away, I was about to power down the laptop, but then decided instead to turn my attention to the long-neglected novel figuring that if I wasn’t going on vacation, I might as well work.
I’d fixed myself a Hendrick’s gin martini (which gave the scent of a scene: so he asks my character, Grant, you like ‘em wet or dry? I like ‘em wet, I reply, trying to approximate his peculiar Midwestern patois, and then wait a beat before pretending to be telling him a side-handed secret: like my women, I whisper. He pretends gross feminist offense. With a twist, please, I specify, returning to my normal voice. I wonder if he’s ever messed with anyone’s drink. I consider how much he would need to mess with mine for me to send it back. Penis-stirring, I confirm silently to myself) while waiting for the manuscript to print. Then I took both out onto the balcony where I spread open the parasol and sank into the now shaded but still warm pages, pausing over paragraphs to make notes to myself in the margins. It wasn’t until I reached the end that I even noticed the trembling in my body. The temperature had dropped unseasonably, unreasonably, and furthermore, unkindly, as if the early August sky could somehow recall the bitterness of being born in winter, and dimming, lazily announced the first few stars of a night’s midsummer dream. I scratched at phantom bug bites, the body’s memory with mosquitoes. The day had been one long blur of a sentence whose period had nevertheless come. I’d kept shivering, staring up at the darkening sky until it’d dawned on me that the stars had been there all along.
Reading about my narrator waiting for a mysterious woman in a Brooklyn café made me remember that teenager putting up posters in a bus depot in Cameroon. A few chapters later, I remembered the night it occurred to me that it should occur to my character that suicide was really for the young at heart. My thoughts and memories responded to each scene as if they had originated in me, only I couldn’t remember writing them out. The actual sentences felt foreign, and page after page, I could only recall what stirred behind the written words like indistinct shadows in a cave. I thought about working the idea of someone else with access to my memories abandoning a novel for me to finish into the present novel somehow.
I got up from the chaise, stretched, and went inside to attempt the perfection of another martini. As I twisted the lemon zest, watching the citrusy spray settle over the chilled surface of the drink, I had what might pass for some as an out-of-body experience. All of a sudden, here was this moving, acting “I” who tasted the drink and topped it off with more gin, who put everything away, wiped down the counter, and pulled on a sweater before returning to the balcony to find half the pages had blown off the side table. And with that, he was gone. Gone with the wind. Honestly, kid, who gives a fuck? I heard him paraphrase just before disappearing into some Bermuda triangle of the mind. I drank my drink, pulled myself together, and wearily gathered what pages hadn’t blown into the abandoned lot below.
Something about the lonely rattle of a rickety shopping cart just then (reminded me of that indefatigable voice imploring passers by to help feed the homeless, help feed the hungry, again and again as I’m waiting for the longest red light to change on the corner of 31st and 7th on my way in to work until this one time as the signals switch and the halting hand blinks into a man supposedly in motion, I think I hear him say to help feed the homeless to the hungry), influenced by the strange effects of an orange supermoon poised low between two buildings, sirens blaring in the distance, and a woman’s laughter floating up from the patio bar around the corner, conspired in me, and I suddenly saw myself flinging the rest of the pages clear off the balcony. As I watched the white, serene sheets flutter through the early evening air down past the windows of my neighbors on the lower floors, the silence in my head came to resemble the flurry of snow in a thoroughly shaken paperweight. It was liberating, in its own way, like tearing a thousand losing lottery tickets into a million confetti-like, if celebratory, pieces. Call it my private party contribution to an abandoned lot already so littered with construction debris, cigarette butts, broken beer bottles, and the excrement of half the neighborhood dogs.
This is the story of your life, reminded the narrator.
I lay in bed that night thinking about this story and how it wanted to end. Maybe the story just needed to be put out of its misery, but this led to thoughts about life in general, and I fell asleep with a profound sense that I really was well past the point where I needed to know what the plot was about.
The next morning, I’d forced myself to sit at the desk for a few hours marking up newly printed manuscript pages in red ink, getting up only for bathroom breaks and bourbon, forgetting to eat, and then another few hours deciphering the elaborate system of strikethroughs and additions scrawled between lines and spilling into the margins with arrows and footnotes referencing other footnotes on the backs of pages, and made still further changes as I incorporated these handwritten edits electronically into a revised document that any critic could tell still lacked a definitive engine, some fundamental mechanism driving the plot.
I turned on the radio, already tuned to a local classical station, and fixed myself a Woodford Reserve Manhattan as I had just before pissed out what would probably prove to be the last of the gin, thinking Chopin certainly knew how to waltz up and down those keys.
I stepped out onto the balcony to clear my head only to be blindsided by yet another vision of the endless telescoping of days. Construction debris, check. Cigarette butts, plenty. Broken beer bottles, you betcha. Dog shit. I could smell it from here. But curiously not a single page in sight, a fact that I would come to puzzle over sporadically throughout the remainder of the week.
Eventually, I settled on moving forward a chapter a day, but over the next few days, the work progressed very mechanically (better your work than your sex life), with rhythms imported no doubt from what I could no longer kid myself, almost seven years later, as being just a day job. I reached the last page only to find myself exactly where I left off over a year ago, right back where I went wrong, with no real idea what the story was about or where it wanted to go. Using the last page to catch my fingernail clippings, I coolly considered killing off a character or two. Naturally, one would have to be the narrator.
You would hope that so much thinking and writing would lead somewhere.
Maybe mining the raw material was behind me, and maybe all that was really left was to refine it for a shape and structure that the material itself would suggest—naturally, magically, or otherwise; I was open to suggestions—but the lifeless lines remained silent, and left me feeling far from equal to the task. Anything good demanded a certain level of sustained concentration, and I knew beforehand that writing in this mode, living in this mode, bit by bit through the years, would only produce inferior results.
A belief in your dreams demands disbelieving in the facts that surround you.
The following few days, I guess I’d fallen into something of a funk, with all the torturous thoughts that accompany this overriding sensation of nonexistence symptomatic of writer’s block. I locked myself up in the apartment so that my only contact with the outside world were the guys who brought ethnic food to my door. What are you doing with your life? they’d ask in various fake accents and disguises, counting out my change as I calculated in my mind how much cash I could come up with on short notice, and how long it might last me in a country like Thailand or Mexico or wherever the food happened to be from.
One night, I even found myself chatting up an absent Amber, seeing the whole twenty-minute conversation play out in my head, concrete and inevitable, like a scene just before I’d write it down. I thought about calling her in California, but just touching the receiver somehow transmitted the somber, freighted realities of our relationship, and I lost all nerve as they sank in.
I didn’t open my mail, didn’t watch television, didn’t connect online. I did nothing to remind me that there was even a world out there that I was very actively ignoring. I thought about everything that I could be doing but wasn’t, choosing instead to pass the time looking through old shoeboxes of memories, rereading unsent love letters, doing pushups and sit-ups, testing how long I could hold my breath under water in the bathtub, rearranging the furniture. I imagined what I would do if I were stranded on an island, if I won the lottery, if I met the next love of my life. I compiled mental lists of other people’s secrets, other people’s joys, other people’s sorrows. I could lay in bed for hours before thinking of a good reason to get up. I’d spent most of my time lying down, and if not in bed, then on the yoga mat, or in the tub, or on the couch. And when I wasn’t horizontal, I found myself pacing round and around, with my thoughts racing in similarly fervent, if futilely fashioned, circles. I started drinking before breakfast, or whenever my first meal happened to be that day.
Then last night, I dreamed something horrible, only all the horror was underneath, and what made it worse was that it was the only dream I remembered having all year, maybe more. These days, when I slept, I seemed to lose consciousness for only a matter of seconds, not enough time to reach the REM stage of dream production, but sure enough, the night would have passed, and in the morning I would wake up feeling fully restored with the will to face yet another day.
In this particular dream then, Eli was running after random pages and shouting out random lines from my unfinished manuscript, which the wind scattered up and down a deserted shore. He performed football tackles and moonwalks in the sand. He waved at us, at Amber and I, playing cards on an immaculate beach blanket. Eli shouted something that got lost in the wind. “What?” we shouted back simultaneously, as if calling for the punch line of a joke we’d heard too many times mistold. “This is the story of your life!” he shouted goofy and giddy with glee. Amber’s eyes flashed a conspiratorial smile over her cards before she fanned them out on the blanket to reveal a royal flush.
It was a few moments later, before I even realized we’d been playing poker, that I woke up in a cold sweat feeling like her hand had changed my fate somehow, forever and for the worse, and that the only person who could set things right again was Eli.
The first time I called him earlier in the day, there wasn’t an answer. I called again a few hours later and left a message. Then I tried his cell, which was no longer in service. Another hour later, I called and someone picked up.
“Hi, Eli,” I said, strangely relieved. “It’s Grant.”
After all these years, it left me wondering whether we’d parted friends when he hung up.
I tried the number again and again, but no answer. I kept getting the machine each and every time until I realized that calling wasn’t going to accomplish anything.
So here I am. Listening to Hotel California on the radio. The one song I recognized all night—one that somehow always manages to put me in a weird place.
We are all just prisoners here of our own device.
Billboards began to reappear as the road straightened out past the mountains. Picture Your Ad Here. I rolled up the windows and turned on the heat to the highest setting. Then fumbling with the buttons and knobs on the radio, I imagined ringing his buzzer, him turning on one light after another to reach the door still groggy and speechless, but starting to smile. Holy shit! I swerve in the nick of time to avoid a woman in a faded yellow nightgown hovering over the middle of the road, her feet clearing several inches off the ground, and the last thing I see before passing out is a trail of sparks in the rearview mirror.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
The tow truck driver made me think of a hard-living Santa Claus, the way he might dress on the other 364 days of the year, smoking a cheap, nauseating cigar. After he unhitched my car at the garage, I decided to check in at the motel down the road, a cheerless little place I could tell, even in the dark, hadn’t seen much recent business. Several dozen keys on identical chains hung from nails behind the front desk, where someone was sleeping slouched way down in a cushionless, wooden chair. I debated the best way to wake the teenager behind the reservations desk, when she woke on her own with a sudden start.
“Hey, that’s my pig!”
She seemed to wait for me to say something in response.
“Hi, I need a room. Just something basic. I’m alone.”
I’d cycled through the stations twice, giving the content on each channel no more than a few seconds to interest me. A car exploded, a man offered another man a cigarette, a woman smiled into a thousand rooms like mine, the lessons of Christ were preached, a vacuum was dragged across the carpet, I was told what to want, a gun was fired, the credits rolled past. I didn’t quite know what to make of this flickering screen of miscellaneous humanity, but couldn’t help from feeling a little disappointed as I turned it off. I cracked open another bottle of something from the minibar, allowed myself briefly to contemplate my own death, then read a few pages from Finnegans Wake, chosen at random, to help me fall asleep.
Monday, January 17, 2011
I drove the remaining distance to Eli’s loft in North Adams. The building, once a textile mill whose dyes drained into the Hoosic River, had been converted and divvied up into ten large artist studios. Eli’s was the corner unit in the back of the building with windows facing south and west.
I knocked, listened, then knocked even louder. It was silent on the other side of the door. I tried the handle. It was unlocked. I let myself in and locked the door behind me, an urban habit that was probably unnecessary out here.
A very clear impression of the last time I’d stepped foot in the studio suddenly caught up with me. It must’ve been in the fall leading up to the divorce, mid-Octoberish judging from the foliage that scattered in the mind’s winds, when we were still keeping up the charade that nothing had changed between us. Eli’s response to the awkward stretches of silence was to focus our attention on his new dog, a Maltese that responded to Romeo. He couldn’t get Romeo to sit, shake, beg, play dead, or any of the other tricks he’d claimed the dog knew, and all of a sudden, I realized things would never be the same again. The moment quickly lost all urgency as I started preparing what I would say to leave. “Bang,” he repeated again, and again Romeo cocked his head like Eli was crazy. In the end, I told him how sorry I was for them both and left it at that.
They both pretended not to have heard, but they heard, and in hearing, knew exactly what I meant.
The place looked more or less the way I remembered it, minus what Amber took with her to California. It was an absence made more acute by memory. Over by the large south-facing windows, I perused the surface of a few dusty canvases leaning against the wall, all portraits of Amber in what seemed to be exercises in abstract styles. I didn’t know how long I stood there staring into this one oversized canvas of her face. It was very true and realistic, but at the same time, my mind was reluctant to recognize her. As my gaze traveled over the sunken landscapes of her cheeks, the receding seas of her eyes, and that wilderness of hair, I became aware of how much he had really loved her.
“Hello?” I called out suddenly.
But no one was there.
Monday, December 13, 2010
The next morning, using the term loosely, I shower, shave, and put on the white linen suit hanging in the closet, which it turns out is not such a bad look for me. I survey the sea outside my window, flipping through the aquamarine postcards of my past—Cancun, Ko Phi Phi, Bali, Kaanapali, the Amalfi coast, Mikonos—and begin to feel a little nostalgic for home.
I pass another hotel guest in the hall who greets me in Spanish, though clearly not her native tongue. I take the elevator down to the lobby and find the restaurant where brunch is being served. The maitre’d seeing me, bows impressively, and says konichiwa without the least trace of an accent. I consider setting him straight, to say that I am not Japanese per se, but Korean-American. Not that it matters here.
“Konichiwa to you too, hermano.”
He shows me to an empty table by the window, and out of habit, I start scanning the scenery for clues as to where I might be. There’s nothing in any of these advertisements, street names, or passers-by but a vague suggestion of somewhere cosmopolitan.
It dawns on me that there isn’t a wait staff, just people bussing recently vacated tables. After another few glances out the window, I casually make my way to the buffet spread in back. I pile on the bacon and pick at it in line for a made-to-order omelet. There is freshly squeezed carrot juice sitting out for the taking and a barista brewing artistic lattes.
After brunch, I decide to pick up a pair of sunglasses and a guidebook in the hotel gift shop after confirming that there is a credit card in the wallet. Signing the receipt, I think, Today I’m Grant Koo, which seems not such a bad name for me really.
This being my first time in Barcelona, I decide to go out and do the tourist thing. I figure you can’t go through life watching pay-per-view, emptying the minibar, and ordering room service. There’s a limit after all to the amount of time you can measure by the growth of your beard.
I consult the guidebook and make my way to Parc Güell where there’s a winding road near the entrance to the top of a vista point overlooking the city. Butterflies flutter by, et cetera. I admit it’s nice. A couple of musicians are playing Brazilian bossa nova at the base of the tower while their dog lazes next to the open guitar case for donations registering every coin. I climb the tower, and of the half dozen or so different languages I encounter on the way up, English, the US varietal in particular, is easily the brassiest. Everyone seems to be from somewhere else, and I’d almost feel like I fit in except that, as usual, I’m the only one without a camera. I stand off to the side, trying to stay out of other people’s shots, but inevitably my image will get circulated, globally if unnoticed, in the backgrounds of other people’s memories.
I descend into the city, order tapas and wine in a crowded restaurant near the massive unfinished basilica I had wondered about at the top of the park, ramble through the gothic quarter avoiding the pickpockets and prostitutes, and emerge on a tree-lined promenade teeming with caged birds and flower stalls, sidewalk sketch artists and living statues, but most of all fellow tourists, for a late dinner at Els Quatre Gats before heading back to the hotel.
The day had taken its toll, and I fall asleep to the hallucinatory architecture of Gaudi’s reptilian dreams sheathed in Mediterranean mosaics.
The quote unquote next night, it is the fairy-tale domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral projected onto the backs of my eyelids; the night after that it is the clot of red bicycles on any given corner in Beijing; and the night after that the dust and light settling over a residential street in Mexico City after a soccer match.
I’ve been away for what feels like a thousand and one Arabian nights.
The last time I tried contacting people back home turned out to be an impressively poor pantomime of the past with clearly no place for me in any of their futures. It’s no good, began the persistent lesson unlearned, if no one believes the one thing you can’t explain.
I’ve had my fill of shows, museums, and restaurants, of lounging under parasols with books, of engaging strangers at bars in stray bits of conversation, and of stumbling through the red light districts.
I’ve climbed the Egyptian pyramids at Giza, rafted down the Amazon, dined alone in the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center.
Once, inspired by the spirit of experiment, I managed to hop on the rail and pee on the bulletproof glass protecting the Mona Lisa. Not that I have anything against the Renaissance or women or even the French for that matter. I made it halfway out the Louvre, and paid my dues with a night in jail. The next morning, in a comfortable little bed and breakfast just outside Baghdad, there was no mention on Al-Jazeera of anyone giving da Vinci’s masterpiece a golden shower.
Oh, yes…there is a rather cosmopolitan air about me.
The next night, for lack of a better term, I fall asleep to the mad cacophony of jungle birds, the death and forgiveness along an endless desert road, the press of bodies in the bazaars of Kolkata.
The morning begins with a bewildering explosion of awareness as I jerk my body out of bed. The very presence of this person sleeping next to me seems a direct violation of some “immutable” law of physics, or maybe metaphysics, neither of which I claim to make heads or tails of.
It is startling when she stirs. She mumbles something in her sleep and rolls onto her side, revealing tiny angel wings tattooed under her shoulder blades. It isn’t until she quiets down that I remember to breathe.
I peek past the curtains, noting almost immediately the change in scenery, and though I suppose that’s only to be expected, it seems ominous somehow.
I’ve gotten so used to this bizarre string of holidays with nothing in between that I consider quietly collecting my things for the day, as if it were all just a matter of tiptoeing out on this inexplicable aberration before it has the chance to develop into its own puzzling pattern.
She rolls gently onto her other side.
I freeze, and for a moment, let my mind go zen. I hear the non-sound of a hypothetical tree falling in a forest I’m not in.
In the end, I realize my decision to stay is arbitrary. It’s not even avoiding the cliché of sneaking out on a woman before she awakes. I just want to see what happens next. That’s when it occurs to me, in afterthought, that she and I might have something more than waking up in the same bed in common.
I look around as if to identify an external source for the high-pitched tone in my head, and conclude that there’s really no telling whose room we’re in.
She was very good-looking though, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. Like maybe in a toothpaste or airline ad. I find the recollection I’m stuck with of joining a cult in Kolkata last night unfortunate, but not unfair since being free to choose our memories makes as little sense as being free to choose our own futures.
More than likely, she’ll turn out to be like everyone else, bullied along by the natural flow of history, and accumulating and spending in ways that have nothing to do with me. I try to imagine myself into what she might remember of last night, knowing how impossible decent conversations were with anyone who thinks you’re crazy.
I turned on the TV, lowering the volume to barely audible. It seemed the most natural thing to do given the circumstances. I stared at the television screen and thought about how things would go when she awoke.
“Good morning,” she says with deliberate sleepiness.
“Yes,” I agree. Turning off the television uncovers a silence.
“What time is it?” she asks, finally.
“Almost one,” I say.
We look at each other.
“Did you sleep alright?” I ask, not at all sure what the circumstances called for, but figuring that a little politeness couldn’t hurt.
She nods appreciatively.
“It’s dark,” she comments.
“I’ll open the curtains.”
Sunlight floods the room.
We observe each other in the sunlight.
“Are you hungry?” I ask.
She shakes her head, and takes in the room as if seeing it for the first time.
“I’m a little thirsty though.”
“Let’s see what’s in the fridge,” I say, jumping to my feet. There were two bottled waters, a can of cola, a can of ginger ale, and an orange soda.
I stretch to hand her the bottle, and watch with interest as she breaks the safety seal, untwists the cap, and lifts the bottle to her lips. She empties the bottle in a single swig, not taking her eyes off me. She puts the cap back on the empty bottle, gasping for air, and all of a sudden, she seems on the verge of tears.
“I don’t understand,” she confesses, “what’s happening.”
I suggested a walk along the Han River for some air. It’s brisk, briny and good. I picked up a bag of butter roasted squid and a couple of beers from one of the stalls.
“I’m sorry about the crying earlier. I just felt like I was losing my mind back there.”
“Happens to everyone.”
“I must be homesick.”
Some women in matching track suits jogged by. A young couple in high school uniforms walked past us in the opposite direction holding hands. Another guy my age sat on a bench absorbed in the opening pages of a thick book. Everyone seemed engaged in activities that presumed tomorrow would be a continuation, a build, of today.
“Where are we again?” she asks.
“How long have you been on, um, ‘vacation’?”
“I’m guessing several years.”
“At least,” I say laying the false modesty on thick, which she doesn’t find amusing, and to be honest, neither do I.
We both thought our separate thoughts as the sun continued to shine.
“I woke up in Vegas once, and rented a car,” I suddenly remembered. “I was only about five hours from home then.”
“How was it?”
“There was a lot of confusion and strange looks. People hadn’t changed a day,” I shrugged, negotiating a sad little smile. My younger brother, who had to cancel a date, sulked all through the impromptu family dinner I’d arranged. No one could understand why I was being so emotional. My dad pulled me aside and asked if I were on drugs. The memory was beginning to crowd out more and more of the present. I hardly even noticed the way she was looking at me. “I guess the difference in context sort of put a strain on the conversations.”
She stopped suddenly, and leaned in for a kiss.
Not bad, I thought.
She pulled away and smiled.
“Don’t ask what that was about.”
We tossed the empty bottles and bag into a nearby trash can and continued on in silence.
It being her first time in Seoul, she agreed to let me show her around. Our first stop was a trendy little sushi place tucked away in the back streets of Apgujeong. The waiter who came to take our orders, spotted us for tourists and amiably began practicing his English, but the whole time it was like we were in on a secret that excluded him. I smiled. She smiled. I admit it’s nice.
After lunch, we headed to the tower at the top of Namsan Park. We took a subway to the cable cars because it was faster than a cab at that hour. She claimed she couldn’t remember the last time she’d made an effort to save time.
The way we held hands in the subway made me think of the high school couple we’d seen earlier in the day. Sadness was coming for us all, but it was easy to ignore for the time being. After all, we were just another ordinary couple waiting for their stop to arrive. Nothing sad about that.
I arranged at the ticket counter to have the cable car to ourselves. The gingko trees were going gold towards the top, less with the memory of autumn, it seemed, than in anticipation of winter. She didn’t like it when I tried rocking the gondola, but it all ended in laughter and a second kiss.
We looked down on the city from the top of the tower, and fell into a conversation about the views from other cities we’ve seen: the Empire State Building, the Petronas Towers, the London Eye, the Jin Mao Building, the tower at Parc Güell...
“I’ve been there,” she says remembering. “I’d like to go back someday. There was something about the mood that place put me in.”
Something about the mood that place put me in.
My mind reeled with déjà vu. For a moment I had the sensation that I wasn’t merely repeating the same day in different cities, but that I was repeating the same moment, here, again and again, with her, and in repeating this eternal moment, I was repeating with it the exact same sequence of memories of other days, other cities, other existences, over and over and over again, here and now.
“Did you happen to stay at the Princess Hotel?”
“That’s right! How did you know?”
“I think we may have passed each other in the hall.”
“Buenos dias,” she smiled in recognition.
After a walk through the palaces and secret gardens at the northern end of the city, we strolled around the art galleries and alleyways of Insadong, crossing the main thoroughfare into the neon-lit backstreets packed with people flowing in and out of restaurants, bars and karaoke rooms. We chose a crowded barbeque place, and ordered a bottle of soju.
“Do you remember anything at all about last night?” she repeated louder to be heard over the din of competing voices.
“I don’t think either of us remember a ‘last night’ happening.”
We clinked glasses using both hands, and downed the ice cold soju. I refilled our shot glasses.
“I was in Kolkata,” I added. “You?”
“Here’s to cities by the sea.”
Pretty soon we were out of soju, and neither of us wanted to be the one to say that tonight could very well be our last night.
“Yeo-gi-yo!” I yawped, adding as an aside that that’s how they do it around here.
“What does that mean?” she said giggling.
“‘I’m here!’” I shrugged, distancing myself from the culture. “Patrons scream it all the time, and no one considers it rude. You should try it.”
Dinner passed pleasantly with that second bottle of soju. The conversation grew increasingly animated as we toasted each other, and then life, and then memories of the future, and then chance connections, et cetera, until we could no longer stand the anticipation, and took a cab back to the hotel.
Afterwards, we lay awake for as long as we could, and settled on our final words.
“I’m glad I met you,” she said.
“Same here,” I said.
“Maybe our paths will cross again?” she asked.
“I’ll be sure to look for you,” I answered.
She let her eyes flutter closed for the night. I listened to her breathing grow slow and quiet. Sleep would have to come eventually. You couldn’t avoid sleep, but forgetting—that was another matter. I looked at her one last time before closing my eyes too, and serenely surrendered all worries of what tomorrow might or might not bring.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Consciousness clicked on with a sputter and immediately, though clumsily at first, began fishing the surrounding sensory data streams: the sound of a voice, an intense light, an urgent rapping. The bits of information were incessant, with no two details seeming bound by any sort of relevance. At a certain point, consciousness had become a self-conscious “I” that could say to itself that it was awoken by a knuckle rapping against the driver side window, perhaps with a practiced nonchalance. I tried lowering it and found the car battery had died.
“License and registration,” he repeated in a louder voice, his visibly annoyed features peering down through the open top from behind a flashlight. He tapped the badge on his chest to make me understand.
I reached into the glove compartment as slow and deliberate as possible and handed him the documents over the window. He studied me for a long moment before reviewing my license.
“You hurt?” he asked, as if it just occurred to him.
I touched my head. No blood. “No, I’m fine.”
“OK. Stay in the vehicle,” he warned and walked back to his unmarked car.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
So in this dream, it’s always the same. The one-armed man is holding up a sign with my name on it, and it’s not until we’re within striking distance that I remember that the limb is prosthetic. He responds to my eyes and smiles. Taking my bags, he asks about the flight, about my plans in the city, about what it is I do, all without any real curiosity. I observe that his lips do not move as he switches from one topic to the next, unoffended by my knowing silence. I slip into the backseat of the stretch limo and am struck all over again by how much larger it looks once you’re inside. A faint trace of jasmine perfumes the uncirculated air, referring me back to a sadness on the other side of the world.
“Narcissus romancing the waves,” he says, as if in response to a question I never asked.
As usual, there is an uncorked bottle of champagne on ice and a violin rubbing off the notes of its sad sonata through concealed speakers. But when the chauffeur slams down the trunk, there is suddenly something false, something not quite right about the reverberating air, as if the sound effects studio of my unconscious had misplaced the correct audio file and made do with dubbing in the sound of a heavy body hitting the floor in a long, narrow corridor instead. When I hear that dull thud is when I realize for the first time that I have no idea where it is I’m supposed to be going. I’m further into the dream than I’ve ever been. The chauffeur climbs into the driver’s seat and asks, a little too innocently, where to. I’m terrified by the thought that I’ve somehow missed my chance to awake. He smiles, knowingly, as if I were the figment inside his recurrent dream, and repeats his question secretly amused. I’m at a loss. I can’t think of a single legitimate address. I turn the pockets of my mind inside out, and finally give him Anna’s address because it’s the only one I can recall, but of course my lips reflected in the rearview mirror haven’t moved at all. The chauffeur laughs to himself and tries to start the engine which is having trouble turning over. Again, there’s something about the sound that is just not right.
It’s a windy Sunday morning when I finally get out of bed. I’d been weaving this rustle and roar into the narrative of the dream, shrugging off the details that threatened to hold significance. I notice a discrepancy between the time displayed on my cell phone and the clock, and realize that the hour or so I’d just wasted lying awake in bed has been given back to me. Spring ahead, fall back. I step quietly through the penthouse adjusting all the clocks, put on a large pot of coffee, and watch it brew. I pour a cup carelessly, and end up scalding my hand. I manage to suppress the cry of pain. I look around the penthouse at the people sleeping on sofas and under tables, and have to admit that the parties have been getting lamer. Fewer people bother to show, and those that do tend not to get invited to better parties. I finish dressing, grab the letter, and make my exit. No one stirs.
A couple of teenaged girls saw past the cowboy hat and sunglasses, whispered to each other, and giggled on by. I dropped the letter in the mailbox and whistled for a cab. As one screeched to a halt, I turned to see the two girls standing on the corner smoking cigarettes, observing me. The more attractive of the two waved shyly. Another time, another place, I thought, and got in.
The penthouse had cleared out by the time I got back. I stepped onto the balcony and re-lit a half-smoked joint that had been wedged into a gap in the brim of the ashtray, agonized again by whether everything in the letter had been made perfectly unambiguous. I was able by then to recite all six pages. Even after I confirmed for the fifth time that the letter was flawless, guarding against every possible misconstrual, it still troubled me, this not knowing how it would be received.
At a quarter past ten the next morning, the phone rang. It was another windy day, and I’d been lying in bed remembering all sorts of things about the one-armed chauffeur.
“Hi. It’s me.” I hadn’t heard her voice in over a year, but recognized it immediately. Just as she’d expected.
“How are you?”
I didn’t know where to begin. So much had happened. So many mistakes made when all I ever did was go with the flow. My mind returned to the letter I’d sent yesterday. It was probably still sitting in the perfect darkness of the mailbox along with all the other yet to be delivered correspondence. It was still sinking in that she’d been thinking of me independently of all the thinking I’d distilled into those six pages.
“Failing better,” I replied, referencing an old joke between us. I laughed alone. “And you?”
“Getting married,” she said stiffly.
“I see,” was all I could manage.
“I wanted you to hear it from me first.”
And just like that, all the ambiguities of the year that divided us congealed. It’d really happened in exactly the way I’d always worried it had, irrevocably.
“You know. I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else. That’s all. I think I owed you that much.”
“Thanks for the courtesy, kiddo, but you don’t owe me anything.” I never hated my voice more than I did just then. I was a fool, and she would know it the minute she opened my letter if she didn’t already. But for now, as humiliating as it would be later on, I continued to act casually, as if the letter had never existed.
After we’d hung up, I continued to think of ways to prevent the letter from reaching her hands, but setting the mailbox on fire or assaulting a postal worker were both considered felonies, and I wasn’t so interested in spending any more time behind bars.
A sharp signal of dread shot from cell to cell until I felt completely overpowered, paralyzed by voices intoning things in a language only I could understand.
…the reasons why you got to where you wanted were the reasons why you did not want it once you got there even though it was not until you got there that you recognized what it was you really wanted some time well after you could no longer have it revealing the precise moment where loss began and you ended up with an intimate understanding of the tragic nature of loss as the release of true value…
I cupped my ears and thought about what it would be like to not exist.
“You’re such a fucking cliché,” I heard her say. It still hurt all the same a whole year after she’d said it.
The next day, I took a cab to the Lower East Side, and got off around the corner from where she lived. A fat, sweaty man jogged by in a well-worn t-shirt with my face stretched and faded on it. He looked at me without making the connection. I glanced up and down the street, but no mail carrier, and no Anna. I checked into The Rivington across the street from her building, asking for a low floor facing the street. The person behind the front desk asked if I had any bags since I’d paid for the rest of the week in advance. I shook my head. When he handed me a key card for my room, I noticed that his other hand was in a cast and experienced a moment of déjà vu. I gave him another few seconds to recognize me, but he showed no indication that he would. I shook my head again, but only after he looked away.
The room was elegant, expensive, and small, but the view was all that really mattered to me. An hour passed by the window, but still no Anna, and no mail carrier. I hadn’t expected the letter to arrive the very next day, but I wanted to give myself a chance to familiarize myself with the routines of these two people, their comings and goings. I thought of calling Santa to bring over a bottle of Jameson’s, a box of cigars, and maybe my acoustic guitar or a deck of cards to pass the time, but thought better of it. It was his day off after all. Besides, I wasn’t too keen on getting him involved in another shenanigan. That night in jail we shared for a little public lewdness wasn’t exactly the bonding experience I’d tried to sell him on. As things stood, I doubted he would be sticking around past the holidays.
The room grew dim. Night would continue to fall just a little bit earlier for the rest of the year. I turned on the TV and ordered room service. The porter brought up a bottle of bourbon and a pack of Nat Sherman’s with my dinner. A porterhouse steak, medium rare. I sent him away with a generous tip.
But I lost my appetite a third of the way into it. Idle channel surfing had landed me on one of those whatever-happened-to celebrity documentaries on cable. I’d forgotten it was on tonight. My thumb grazed the power button on the remote, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the set. I felt a great cleaving of myself and my self on TV, of truth and fiction, of thought and action. The narrator summarized the arc of the band’s celebrity in the first five minutes accompanied by a mad montage of clips from concerts, interviews and magazine covers that mocked memory. This was my story in the hands of the media—clear, cogent, persuasively presented, and as destructively distortive as could be. They showed the clip of me getting friendly with a couple of young groupies. That sort of stuff happened all the time with everyone in show business, but usually wasn’t publicized unless you pissed off someone in the media. The program cut to commercial with the dramatically voiced question, “But where are they now?”
I watched an ad for erectile dysfunction, hoping everyone else had the integrity to decline the interview requests.
I punched the power button, unwilling to find out, and considered flinging the remote across the room, but the fact of the matter was I was just not that upset. I set the knife and fork down, calmly, and considered lighting a cigarette. I didn’t particularly want one just then, but it was something to do. As I brought the cupped flame to the cigarette dangling from my lips, Anna’s light came on.
She unburdened herself of her equipment. She had probably just come in from a photo shoot. She had cropped her hair short and wore a tan, aboriginal looking dress with a knit shawl. I checked the time. It was a little past nine. She drew her blinds, leaving me to pass an uneventful night by the window, measuring out my longing in cigarettes and bourbon shots long after her lights went out.
She left the next morning at 8:30 wearing jeans and a light, collarless leather jacket. The equipment seemed too much for her, but maybe it was more unwieldy than heavy. She disappeared around the corner, no doubt heading for the subway station on East Houston. Like me, she’d spent the night alone. The difference, I assumed, was that she got some sleep. Where was this alleged fiancé?
The mail carrier arrived shortly after 11:00, as he did the day before. I decided to venture out since the letter’s arrival was a distinct possibility today. I treated this like any other errand. Like picking up dry cleaning, one of many acts I’d begun performing myself lately.
This would be easy as long as no one recognized me. I even still had the keys to everything. I donned my cowboy hat and sunglasses, and checked myself in the mirror before leaving the room.
A whole week had passed and still no letter. I’d lost faith in God and the US postal system. I didn’t see the point of waiting out another week. I checked out of the hotel, flipped through Anna’s mail one last time, and got into a cab back to the penthouse. It was time for a shower. A whole week was pushing it.
In the cab ride home, I was annoyed at myself for knowing all the random, incidental information I collected from flipping through her mail. So what that she subscribed to new agey magazines or that her mother had absurdly neat penmanship and had apparently moved to someplace called King’s Ransom, Tennessee? So what that her fiance’s name was Daniel, and that he was currently staying at the Four Seasons in Indonesia?
Santa was standing by the phone going through what, judging from his expression, could easily have been about two dozen messages on the machine. He looked up when I entered and grimaced.
“You’ve got to work on that smile of yours.”
“Where’ve you been?”
“Stakeout at the Rivington,” I whispered conspiratorily.
Santa cocked his head dismissively, and started going over everything I’d missed, including an afternoon set at Webster Hall, during the week of my unexplained absence. He must’ve decided it was just another one of my convoluted jokes. He chided me for my irresponsibility. Weren’t we trying to play Webster Hall for months? He ran down the short list of venues in the coming weeks, but I’d stopped paying much attention to the details, distracted by the letter I’d written, which was sitting on top of a small stack of letters bound in a blue rubber band on the table in the foyer.
“Naturally,” I assured him, responding more to the sudden rise in tone of his voice. “Just don’t call me on it.”
“I’m trying to salvage what’s left of your career here, man. The least you could do is show up when I land you a gig.”
He shook his head and pushed a button on the machine which announced that a message had been deleted.
“Look Santa, I’ll make the next one. You have my word. I don’t care where or when it is. Just no weddings, okay? And definitely, definitely not Anna’s.”
The name released a silence in each of us.
“You already knew?”
His turn to nod. We synchronized out sighs.
“You’ll get through this.”
He looked undecided about something.
“I’m gonna go. I’ll call you in the morning.”
“And take a shower. You stink,” he smiled sadly and closed the door behind him.
I listened to his footfalls fade. The elevator dinged, slid open and slid shut. I was alone. I removed the blue rubber band from the stack of mail, and examined the letter stamped undeliverable. I’d forgotten to affix a stamp. I tore up the letter and disposed of it in the trash bin, deciding to take Santa’s advice for once to wash away the sordid week.
I took the BMW out to the recording studios in Jersey the next day. I might as well enjoy it before they took that away too. It was a nice enough day to put the top down, but when I got on the bridge, I had to roll up the windows and blast the heater to stay comfortable. It no longer amused me to test the machine’s limits of speed. I’d gotten the idea into my head one empty night of pushing the hand of the speedometer as far around as possible, just to see if the machine could really handle it. And when it did, I tested how fast I could circle Manhattan, criss-cross the bridges over the East River, hit the Hamptons and back. That small thrill inspired a B-side single that was never released. A lot of things stopped interesting me. Now I stay within 10 mph of the posted speed limit. I took the upper level for a view of the clouds retreating over the cliffs of the Palisades, and didn’t attempt to break my record of thirty-seven seconds to the other side. Lesser automotive machines zoomed past on my left.
I pulled into the parking lot and lit up a joint. The world slowly loosened its grip on my mind, sublimating everything into music. I wanted consciousness to evolve and stay like this forever. I put up the top and pulled my Fender out of the trunk. Inside, framed headshots of dead legends lined the corridor from Morrison to Cobain. There was still space on the walls for future suicides. I wasn’t the first person to have asked Paul to take down the mirror at the end of the hall.
I revisited my entire approach to the song I’d been tinkering with for the past couple of months. I felt I had discovered the missing ingredient at the Rivington. Maybe the week wasn’t an entire waste after all. What the music lacked, and the lyrics overcompensated for, was a mood of losing things with an equanimity that bordered on indifference, but the missing spice, the flavor that tied everything together and set the palette on fire, was the wanting to care.
We ordered some Korean at the end of a four hour stretch. Paul looked at the wooden chopsticks apprehensively.
“Go ahead. Use your fingers. We’re all friends here.” It was just us two and Romeo, his Maltese.
“What the hell is this? Tentacles?”
“Squid. Try it. It’s spicy. You like spicy.”
We continued eating in silence, and finished the first bottle of soju before he broached the subject.
“So what’s with all this moody shit? You decide to be an artist all of a sudden?”
I snorted and refilled our empty shot glasses.
“I’m not saying I don’t like it, but you’re killing your career here, and no one can understand why.”
I dipped another tentacle into the vinegary red pepper paste and chewed on it thoughtfully.
“Maybe you’re thinking, Man, I’m not cut out for this shit. Everyone thinks that. Ain’t that right, dawg?”
Romeo sat up on his hind legs, and started pumping his paws. “That’s right, dawg. Churning the butter,” he smiled, allowing the tone of his voice to rise and fall playfully as he spoke.
I smiled in spite of myself. “Don’t give him any though. It’s not good for him.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he agreed. “Anyway, what the hell was I saying?”
I knocked back another shot which made him snap his fingers.
“Not cut out for this? That’s horseshit is what it is. I should know. I see you. You work harder than anyone I know. And I’ve been in this biz since you were his size,” he said indicating Romeo with his thumb.
“Did you see the thing on cable last week? About the band?”
His uncomfortable silence confirmed he had, and put an end to the conversation. I despised him a little for trying to save me from myself.
“I was just saying.”
He reached for another tentacle with his chopsticks. It got away from him and fell to the floor. Romeo stopped begging and made a lunge for it, but I’d covered it with my foot before he could get to it. He sniffed at my foot and started begging again. I ignored him as Paul and I finished our meal, absorbed in our own separate thoughts.
On my way out, I stopped in front of the mirror in the hall of suicides, vaguely remembering the sound of a body hitting the floor. I stared at my reflection for a long time wondering where you had to be in your mind to make taking your own life make sense. I lit my cigarette, and my reflection lit his. Nothing mattered. Nothing was the matter. The matter was that nothing mattered. The nothing that mattered was a matter of life and death. We exhaled a sigh of blue smoke that seemed to mix and mingle along the cold surface of the mirror. No. If I were to do it, it would’ve got done a long time ago.