The Age of Ambition

When I was growing up I would lie awake at night until it got very quiet and then go outside.  We lived on a hill that looked down on a canyon where the coyotes lived, and they would howl not only when the moon was out, but also straight up at the dark sky.

The night would smell crisp, like you could reach out and snap it, and the darkness rolled over the hills like a living, breathing thing.  On the other side of that darkness was something, and the night, like a tarp, would shudder from something moving very rapidly on the other side of it.  It felt full and crystalline, like just one false movement would spark the air and set the whole valley aflame.

Then I would go back inside and have dreams of immense power. My mind went straight into that darkness – there was never any light – and reached for something, but it was always just beyond my grasp. It was living and breathing, but it was just beyond me and my mind reached fruitlessly into that darkness and tried, and tried again, because it was just this side of a complete thought, and without knowing what that thought was I knew that was what I was looking for.

It was infinite, and every time I reached, I was disappointed but for some reason I had the power to reach even higher, soaring with infinite strength and hope. That search took me so far beyond my conception of the world that I felt like I had tasted infinity – and it was bittersweet, because I would never reach it, and when I woke up my arms and legs were swollen and my back was crawling stridently and I would have an erection the size of a flag pole, and I woke up vowing to prove myself.

For Alex

Though the night vise turns the light to pinpricks, and the black loam smothers, suffocating earth, as yet.

Though she never wakes from her slumber, though her tiny heart fluttering clutches tightly to her mother, before she takes a final breath, a shudder – as yet.

Though the evil of unwelcome night plunge their greedy hands, again, into pristine and blameless flesh.  As yet.

What it means to live is to have had life, and life is to have conquered for a blink in the span of universal time, struggling even if for a breath, a gesture, a kick, against the apathy of death.

Lay to rest now darling.

For Alex Crain, 1 lb 4 oz.

Invading the Walled Riad by Moonlight

From the Story of Nyam

The king of the barbarians burst into the city, the first of them.

As he caught his breath under the canopy of the massive tree, he saw his breath expel tufts into the air.  His leathers creaked as he lowered his guard and placed his sword on his shoulder, taking in the courtyard.

His breath grew more silent, drowned out by the rain.  He watched it flash in the pools under the slow-burning lamps.  It echoed in the courtyard, the chatter of the water bouncing up from marble floor.  Its rhythm was soothing.

The groundskeeper had long since abandoned the upkeep of the tree.  There were no leaves on the ground, but its branches had been deflected by the wall and grew straight up.  There were too many lawn chairs for one keeper to handle, and most were stacked on top of each other.  There were three tables with chairs around them.  On one of them was a curvaceous silver teapot.  He stared at it.

Above the courtyard, there were many rooms but only one light was actually on.  The grand quarters above the center of the courtyard had a large door and overhanging eaves, and on top of it, you could make out the faint outlines of a roof.

But he could still see the dedication that had once gone into it.  There must have been an army of attendants here, just to clean the pool and fountains.  There must have been a singular mind brought here to carve the arabesques and work on the flowery capitals.  A mind of dedication.

This is how the city-dwellers lived.  They had luxuries that he could not even give word to.  These were not luxuries of gold and silver.  Gems and metals were peripheral.  These luxuries were grandiloquent, vast.  Luxuries of attendants, of time, of believing in a world that would exist tomorrow, of believing that enough so that they would lug stone across hundreds of miles to built courtyards like this one, so that they would summon artisans to carve and musicians to play for them and that they would do things like have tea in a courtyard, not believing that the tales of the barbarians sweeping the land were true.  Or, as it occurred to him then, perhaps taking the time to have tea even despite knowing that someone like him would storm in, followed by an army of others.

He recalled the tales of treasures and opulence.  It occurred to him now that he would not find gold here.  This was a different kind of treasure, one that could not be taken.

He was still there, rooted, as the others rushed past him, bloodthirsty and savage.

One of them picked up the teapot.  He shouted for them to stop.

The Breakup

It’s always ugly. 

They both knew it was over.

But, he couldn’t just let it go like this.  His ego shattered, time wasted, a part of his life – gone.

In her life, ultimately, it was as if he hadn’t existed.  He needed something, a piece of her.  Or better yet, to leave his mark.

So he made her cry.  He said savage things, half-true, ugly accusations.  He made blame rain down on her, drench her, cover her.  He called up bittersweet memories, detonating horrific and cloying images in front of their eyes.

He conjured up anything he could to manipulate her into feeling regret – and perhaps guilt – that perhaps it really was her fault.  That perhaps he really was the noble one, the one who would have wanted to keep trying when she didn’t.

An hour-long tirade, and he did everything he could to permanently embed himself into her memories.

She must be made to cry.  If she cried, then she was feeling regret and guilt.  If she felt regret, then he had succeeded.  Then he could leave, having made his mark.  And then, perhaps, he could perversely remain in her heart as a permanent burr, a tattoo.

She cried.

I’ve won, he thought.

They said goodbye.  She closed the door.

What he didn’t know was that her tears were not tears of regret.

They were tears of ablution, to purge herself of the guilt of not feeling very guilty or sorry at all.

Have Always Wanted One of These. To Exist.

The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.

To explain — since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation — every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.

Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.

And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

– Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

This is the Ending of the Most Beautiful Love Poem Ever Written.

 

Even now
The night is full of silver straws of rain,
And I will send my soul to see your body
This last poor time.  I stand beside your bed;
Your shadowed head lies leaving a bright space
Upon the pillow empty, your sorrowful arm
Holds from your side and clasps not anything.
There is no covering upon you.

Even now
I think your feet seek mine to comfort them.
There is some dream about you even now
Which I’ll not hear at waking.  Weep not at dawn,
Though day brings wearily your daily loss
And all the light is hateful.  Now is it time
To bring my soul away.

Even now
I mind that I went round with men and women,
And underneath their brows, deep in their eyes,
I saw their souls, which go slipping aside
In swarms before the pleasure of my mind;
The world was like a flight of birds, shadow or flame
Which I saw pass above the engraven hills.
Yet was there never one like to my girl.

Even now
Death I take up as consolation.
Nay, were I free as the condor with his wings
Or old kings throned on violet ivory,
Night would not come without beds of green floss
And never a bed without my bright darling.
It is most fit that you strike now, black guards,
And let this fountain out before the dawn.

Even now
I know that I have savoured the hot taste of life
Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast.
Just for a small and a forgotten time
I have had full in my eyes from off my girl
The whitest pouring of eternal light.
The heavy knife.  As to a gala day.

Black Marigolds, Chauras
1st Century.

The Most Important Thing (The End)

Ten years!  Ten years passed, and I thought I had left everything behind, embalming all these memories, leaving well enough alone.

But on the plane, I picked up a newspaper.  The second page had a picture of you in it.

I could only half make out the text, so I asked a stewardess what it meant.

This person, she pointed out, was taking over her father’s company.  Her father’s company owned buildings and hotels and offices, a huge portfolio of the same buildings where we had once laughed and played.  Your father’s company, now your company, was a subsidiary of one of Korea’s biggest global conglomerates.

As the plane descended into the city, time and space warped and swept through me again.

I knew enough about Korean corporate culture and succession, that for this, you had to have been groomed.  But starting when?  From a young age?  Had you grown up with chauffeurs and maids, attending school on scholarships?

Those men you got into cars with, had they been drivers in jackets, these men with whom I had accused you of cheating?  Had you been thinking of this fate, all laid out for you, when you first disappeared and you reappeared again, that night we drank with Yong and Moon and Katherine?

Had you been thinking of its consequences, of this fate, every time you bit your lip or creased your eyebrows when I asked you what you were going to do after graduating?

You had to have been thinking of these things every time I asked you about what your family did and you played dumb, saying it had something to do with real estate.

Whenever I asked you where your house was, you refused, saying that it was scandalous for me to know, and whenever I said let’s meet at one of those department stores managed by your father, you started talking about that one very bad experience of customer service, making faces, saying that it had just been bad, so bad, that you would never go there again.

 

But surely, you had considered this life, spread out before you like a banquet, that night in Chuncheon where having drunk profusely, we stood under that full moon huge above the mountains, as if ready to be plucked right out and eaten piece by piece, where the dark valley spread out before us, gaping and vast, over a frozen river that clink clinked and echoed throughout when we threw rocks down on it, where the snow whispering under us was the only other sound.

It was that night we talked until the words themselves changed meaning, forming stars streaming across a new perfect world, when we discovered that we had been looking in exactly the same direction.

That night we covered each other with down and rolled together, and when I touched your face you curled up beside me, because it was so, so cold, and there was the landscape of your neck, alabaster sheen, and we moved together in the stillness, with slight sounds, like lotus leaves dropping slowly from the ceiling, and I laid you down on the bed, light lapping over your body as I held your thighs until they opened and something broke between us and we flowed and cried and laughed, and then we held each other and were brushed with dark fingers, fronds of a plant that grows only in the night.

That night of my mistake, that night when I hesitated, when right before the dawn shot over the hills, you looked at me soberly, from the other side of the fog, directly into my eyes, with your own eyes full of fear and watery courage and said with vicious calm:

Tell me to come with you.

You looked directly into my eyes and whispered, tell me, tell me that.

And I didn’t.


What is love? 

Courage, you said.

The Most Important Thing (Part III)

We had our first fight because I doubted you, because Sam told me that he saw you getting in a car with a man.  You looked at me, shocked, before walking away.

But even then, which was in the middle of Myeongdong on a snow-lined street, as I held an umbrella up against the icy rain, the fog allowed us to forget moments like those quickly, in light of the coming end – which we still never addressed.  We never spoke of it again.

Sometimes the mood grew somber, and you looked into the distance with a slight smile on your face.  You were full of that grace that took nothing for granted, not desiring more than was given, knowing that there were no words that could be said.

You would nod to show that the thought had been considered, but that you would ignore it yet again.  That you would rather not say anything, and you forgot it quickly, letting a giggle or laugh escape, as if your joy were held in delicate vases to be released like strokes of pure delight.

It was in that fog that I learned the first trail of clues that would lead me back to you, years later, when you asked me what I was going to do after graduating, and I said I hadn’t figured it out yet, and you looked at me ponderously, growing quiet.

When I asked you the same question, you pursed your lips and wracked your eyebrows, stuttering out a ‘you know, I don’t know’.  I couldn’t have known it then, but now that answer makes so much sense.

It was in that fog, thick enough to provide a sense of calm, that I climbed to the top of the hill next to school one afternoon.  The air got finer and more attenuated, as I climbed over paths strewn with branches and sunken wooden steps, passing the hiking clubs in their red caps and vests and socks pulled up to the knees.

At the peak I looked out over Shillim, the neighborhood throbbed by the surging wildlife of the city, and felt a moment of peace and asked myself over and over, what if it were all lost?

What do we do when it ends?  And even when confronted by the truth, I could not even comprehend the question.

And so I ignored it, because I could not imagine anything beyond the vastness in every second of every minute.  I could not imagine the future or the past.  I felt no needs, no extraneous desires, and felt a strange sense of settling, an inevitability that I was defenseless against.

And that was what caused me to make my biggest mistake, by not ever answering the question, even when despite the fog you decided that it should be faced, and you broached it for the first and last time, and I hesitated.


During the last waning days, through that last trip to Chuncheon where we rolled in the snow and looked at the full moon rising above the valley, and through the last frantic trips to the beerhouses and bars and food courts and malls, our lives grew taut like we were dancing on the faultlines at the end of the world.

The fog carried us mercilessly right up to the end, because we didn’t know what to do or expect.

It carried us right up to the airport as I was leaving, when I said over and over that I would come back after graduating, when you walked me to the gate and pressed a note in my hand and said not to read it until I got on the plane.

There, as I passed through the sliding door my heart broke into pieces as I waved goodbye, and under the screen I saw your red sneakers stand there, and they stood in place for a while before they turned and slowly walked away.

It was in the remnants of that fog, as I ascended above it on the plane that I took out the note.

It had three characters on it.  I had already known what it would say, because it could only say one thing, and it was dated three months previously.


Then I returned to the States and stayed in my room for three straight weeks, because you wouldn’t pick up your phone, and I debated whether to quit the semester and return for you, which I would have done at the slightest sign, and I ran over and over in my head what had happened and what I had done that made you cut me out of your life.

You had decided something without me.

I played through all the images of our relationship, and I held ambivalently on to those memories, saying that if ever there had existed love then it must be made to stay.

I clutched them, although they increasingly fluttered dimly on my chest, and the days cast jaundiced light on it changing it day by day, because it had grown into a life of its own and did not need me any longer to sustain it, and I knew that its fate was to flicker silently to death.

As the weeks went on, the fog completely lifted, and the memories shuddered through me, fading as I watched, terrifyingly receding, as I sought the faintest smell and slightest gesture that would make you come back, come flooding back.

In darkness I closed my eyes, convulsing at the memories of your smile, a cold breath sweeping through me, leaving me pitted and hollow, and I waited in that darkness, for wisdom to alight drop by drop with awful grace.

Outside my window, I watched a sole leaf hang to a branch, as the weather turned cold and bitter. The wind battered it, but it kept crazily holding on.  It did not fall, though everything around it had changed.

Then the weather grew warmer and let it be.  There was budding growth, and it was fresh but the smell of newness was layered underfoot by its opposite – the smell of festering, a shriveled and ugly death. No longer was there any wind, but no longer were there other leaves, and no longer did it recognize the sun nor the love of its tree. It was alone, and alone it fell.


In the middle of the next semester as it turned to spring again, I had a dream.

A dream where I heard you before I sensed you, a warm laugh, a laugh that filled the caverns where I stayed, and I sensed you before I saw you, a sweet, full thing in that dark, dark night.

The light crept into my eyes, and I saw that it was as if a war had been fought, with debris scattered everywhere.  The wind that had battered the roofs and windows the day before had died down, and tree branches were scattered all over the ground.

The wind had left clairvoyance in its wake.  The air was chilly and cool, and the aching memories and pain that had been so agonizing just the day before, were muted now.

On the ground was a photograph of us, quaint, yellowed and bent.  It was nostalgia bordering on pain but it was not quite pain, it was now merely a memory, not an actual vital thing, because it was no longer part of me.

It was now possible for me to let it go, though I knew that it would stay.  The memory was benign, innocuous, replaced or wrought over with a brush, that same brush that had wrought all this, this battlefield, this life.  Then I saw you in the distance and smiled, while you approached, and we rounded each other, and it was brittle, it was sweet. Things had passed that prevented us from embracing.  But your face was a glow, at peace, and you looked at me intently.

The Most Important Thing (Part II)

After the first time, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I wouldn’t see you again.  My thoughts had been transparent, with no desire nor emotions attached to them, neither of the past nor future, just of facts, with no plans nor ends in mind, and right after I thought of you, I saw you walking through the door, like I had known everything would happen right before it actually did.

In the beginning, we talked politely about classes and about Katherine, and I got your phone number.  I made up excuses to text you questions about homework, even if I already knew the answers.

Then we started having coffee, then meals at the cafeteria, and I walked you across campus to your classes.

Then you started coming out to the bars with us.  The fog descended slowly, hiding the details which were so important but which we did not face.  There was a specter beyond that fog.  And all of a sudden it made you reconsider and stay away, choosing not to answer our phone calls.

I suspected I knew what it was.

One day in late October you changed your mind.  We were drinking deep in Yongsan on the wooden benches of a pavilion bar, where we had to take off our shoes and climb into an attic lit by paper lamps, and you showed up out of nowhere, while Yong and Jisun and I were drinking, and I took your bag and wordlessly you sat down next to me.

You had on thick pink socks.  You leaned over the table to talk to Katherine and I caught a scent of you, a whiff of meadows and delicate undergrowth, and we drank all night until the rice wine flooded our heads and the walls slurred and the ashtray sprouted legs and crawled across the table.


In that fog we scorched paths and passages, on the backs of taxicabs and subway seats.  We hiked up to the tower on Namsan past the ramparts, and even though you were in heels you never lost your poise.

There we downed beers bought with leftover bills and looked out over the inferno of the city, and you spread your arms all over it and said that you wanted to show it to me, all of it, and I felt a huge hunger that pressed against my spine, ravenous, like we were looking over a cliff.

It was in that fog, avoiding always that unavoidable question, we downed Cabernet in taxis and left our keys in their back seats, and swung our hands through Gangnam through the hordes of students exiting their academies, past the newsstands and shoeshine kiosks closing shop, and the old ladies unfurling their hotcake tents and grilling chestnuts and caramel over open flames.  I asked you questions about what is this or that.  In your limpid eyes I saw you see things as I saw them, for the first time.

In that life, long ago, a life I’ve left behind, the ground was always littered with the brochures of a thousand nightclubs, and above, the signs for the plastic surgeons were monumental, as far as the eye could see.

We sat in the coffee shops guessing who had work done on their faces, and I would lose you in the bookstores at Gyobo and Central City, finding you hunched over textbooks, your brows furrowed, and I would take you to the English section and tell you stories of all the books that you should read.

Then we booked private karaoke rooms and ducked into the wan, smoky dins of internet cafes, and joined your friends at cowboy-themed and prison bars and dives furnished in perestroika chic, then stumbled out of block parties into parks at midnight drinking soju out of paper cups, and pushed each other on old, yellow swings.

The fog made it easy to continuously speak around the inevitable question looming just beyond it, but its urgency made me blurt out that I loved you.  The first time, you were surprised, and you looked straight ahead and nodded solemnly.  Then every time after that you smiled and pushed my head away.

Hand in hand we devoured the city, hopping through construction zones over steel floorplates laid under the frozen cranes, and stood reverently in front of Gwanghwamun, and the Palace Hotel, at the Trade Tower, and in front of Parliament, where the heaving masses of cars and bikes were grand on the boulevard, energy that filled us everywhere we went.

We wandered among the Shinchon shops, and its rows of hats and scarves and socks, and through Dongdaemun’s endless floors and bins and tents, and its doorknob alleys and wire coil lanes, watching the buyers quickly load their trucks with shirts and blankets before daybreak.

That was where in those rows of accessories shops selling gloves and hats and socks, I bought a scarf for you and wrapped it around your neck, in your space, and you lowered your head every time I brought it around.  You smelled like bouquets, and I held the scarf in both hands, and at that moment you looked up at me with the look of strawberry fields and burning clouds and lights spilling from pillows stacked against unwelcome night, and you said my name for the first time, because you had been calling me the formal ‘you’, ‘you’, or not at all, as if you had been afraid at what it might evoke.


Whenever I waited for you, for you to emerge out of that infernal, anonymous city, whether in the residential alleys and the concrete walls that lined them, neighborhoods that were just dark and isolated enough to hear scooters sputtering in the distance, or whether it was in the lobbies of hotels under grandiloquent chandeliers, in the gentle din of conversation and silverware, I always felt you like a pulse before you came.

In that fog we entered the secret gardens of Gyeongbok palace, where the gravel crunched beneath our feet as we walked between the empty pavilions, when you first asked me what I thought love is?

And I said it is, when you can give everything you have and not regret it, or something like that, something convoluted.  You nodded and said, ‘that’s about right’.

Then I asked, ‘why, what do you think it is’, and you said, ‘it is courage’, and that answer was so deft.

All I heard afterwards was the wind blow over the wall and through the shrubbery, and the soil under the plants make little sounds as time ran over them, and I saw the lake where all the streams leading into it had been frozen solid.

We woke up every day with massive cravings, and we gorged on banana milk and porridge, chicken stewed in ginseng broth, spicy rice cakes and sweet brisket, pork loin smothered in red pepper paste, toast with ham and powdered sugar over mayonnaise, curry omelets and tempura eggs, and yogurt drinks and liquor made from pomegranates, eating because our appetites were bottomless, and because we were rushing hand in hand to those frontiers of vast possibility, but always in the distance there was consequence, the end, approaching – but not yet, not just yet.

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