The Retired Warrior

He is sitting in the park.

The memories of shells and mortar explosions, firefights in the mud, blown-off fingers, ugly faces of abject terror in the face of the angels of death – these are all gone now.

He liked taking walks in this park, looking up at the gently undulating buildings, looking at their mix of easy, geometric shapes.

Nothing flew in the air.  He liked it that way.  The sky was always the same color of blue.

He liked it that way.

He spent hours following the outlines of the buildings, which were spaced apart at predictable intervals, and there were no alleyways or long shadows where assassins might be hiding.  The park burst with colors.  He liked it here.  On sunny days, it gave him hope.

They called it sterile.  And he liked that.

But, sometimes, just sometimes, he would get an itch.  Just once, he thought, he’d like to go berserk again, to be dropped in that frenzy of primary fear and violence, the attenuated consciousness of just his breath and pounding heart the only thing he could sense as he unleashed on those around him.

No, he told himself, no.  I like this.  I like this park, he told himself.

Young in LA (Part II)

Mia: Maybe I’m not good enough!

Sebastian: Yes, you are.

Mia: Maybe I’m not!  It’s like a pipe dream.

Sebastian: This is the dream!  It’s conflict and it’s compromise and it’s very, very exciting!

La La Land

During the days, you’ll strive and sweat and cry.  During the nights, you’ll look out the window of your apartment or car and see the indigo darkness draped over the hills, the street lamps glowing in adagio.  They’ll look like souls huddled in fervent prayer.  Your dreams.

But here’s the thing.  The dreams dreamed in the City of Dreams, are tricky.  The City of Dreams is an illusion, a mirage in the desert.

What you dreamed of at 22, will come true.

And having what you once wanted, you’ll look back, your youth spent.  You’ll think back on the City of Dreams, the feeling of being young and hungry, and every so often a desert wind will evoke false memories of bittersweet paths taken if not for a single gesture, word, or action, and you’ll wonder where the time went. 

And you’ll wonder if what you got, was what you really wanted.

Or if you’d be happier young, having nothing but dreams again.

Nightmare

I used to have this recurring nightmare that haunted me ever since I can remember.

First, a normal dream, its web of sights and feelings with no logical storyline.  Usually bright, carefree.

Then I would feel it coming, a creeping terror.  A slow, syrupy feeling of suffocation, ringing in my ears, something locking down my limbs.  Darkness invading the edges of my vision, a nameless horror.

By flailing and thrashing for my life, I could eventually wake up.

But the waking was agonizingly slow.  By the time I did, I was covered in sweat, panting, my sleep wrecked for the night.

The worst part is that I could feel it starting, but be powerless to stop it.  The darkness would wrap up my limbs, make me unable to move, and I would be powerless in its grasp unless I flailed in a soundless scream.

At some point, I had enough.  Maybe I was around 10.

I knew it was a dream, after all.  Perhaps I could face the fear.  And so I tried.  When the darkness started to cloud my vision, I relaxed.  But its grasp grew tighter.  And when I waited, the creature began to appear.  A dark, demon-like dwarf.  I never saw its face.  I only saw its heathen movements at the edges of my vision, moving faster than a child, a little beast.

When it began to appear, I kicked and punched violently, even as I felt the pins and needles in my arms and legs and stomach.  As I felt like I was being gored by the darkness itself.  Without any reason or logic or name.

As I grew older, in my teens, I decided to try something different.  When the dwarf came, I decided to fight it.  Only I didn’t really fight it.  I picked it up and heaved it as hard as I could, as you would pick up and heave a cockroach, resolve accompanied by a full-body scream that blocked out any sensation of actually touching the little demon.

First it was here, now it was there.  Then I ran.  Straight into the wall of dark, nameless, fathomless syrup that I would have to kick and thrash against in order to wake up, knowing all the while that the dwarf would be coming back.

I never found out where this nameless, faceless terror came from.  And why.

As I entered my teenage years, exhausted with this particular nightmare, I decided to try something different.

I knew it was a nightmare after all.  And so instead of flailing and thrashing for my life, what if I just saw where it took me?  Instead of fighting it, what if I did nothing?

It worked.  When the darkness came, after a momentary tightness, it faded, as smoke would.  Expecting a fight, and getting none, it was as if the darkness just decided something wasn’t worth it.  Although I would never know why; of course, the darkness was without rhyme or reason.

And it continued to work.  When the dreams came, I just paid it no attention.

During these years, something else was happening; I became disinterested.  This transition to adulthood, and young adulthood, was accompanied by a lot of realizations about my limits.  I gave up on certain dreams.

Maybe in shutting down parts of myself, the bright, clear edges of youth faded.  And with that, maybe the vivid, crystal-clear and fathomless, reasonless darkness, also faded too.

And when I entered college, that’s when the dreams almost stopped altogether.  There were isolated moments of terror, here and there, but I didn’t even have to fight it, or even give up, anymore.

The terror came, and my mind’s eye looked at it, grew disinterested, and looked away.  Although I could feel the creature there too, beyond the darkness.

The last time I felt the creature, it felt almost sad.  Like it was waiting for me, but I refused to come.

The dreams faded altogether once I started my first job.  Because when I started working, I didn’t have time for anything else.  For recollection, for deep reflection.  I worked.  I started traveling for work, all around the globe.  I woke up in hotel rooms and sometimes had a moment of terror – but because I didn’t know where I was.  I was fully conscious.

I went back to sleep with a smile on my face because I knew I was free of the demon dwarf and the smothering darkness.  I had left them behind.  I traveled everywhere, for nearly a decade.  To Bali, to Dubai, to London, Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai.  To Tokyo, Merida, to Panama.  I met with clients.  I left my previous life behind.  I lived out of hotel rooms, I became deep friends with other career itinerants from a home base in Hong Kong.

But one day I grew tired.  Endless traveling is a great career perk in your 20s.  Less when you’re thinking of starting a family.  I began a period of reflection, perhaps for the first time in a very, very long time.

What dreams had I left behind?  Who had I become?  I hadn’t kept any journals, and I had completed purged my emails and letters multiple times, mostly for heartbreak-related reasons, so it was hard to find a compass.

I began spending some time in cafes and restaurants, eating by myself.  Reflecting.  Thinking.

And then I saw it, in a dark corner of a vegetarian restaurant right around closing time.  This vegetarian shop, on the 2nd floor on Henderson Road, was staffed entirely by deaf workers.  It was a completely silent shop, except for the sounds of other diners, clattering dishware and the beep-beep of credit and Octopus cards making payment.

I was the last diner in the shop when I saw that little bastard.  The demon dwarf, who had terrorized my dreams and childhood.  I couldn’t believe it.  Would you?

In a dark corner, next to where the shop had stacked extra chairs, it was sitting there calmly, eating a meal.  By now I was over my fear of it.  I was more curious, for various reasons.

It was a memory of my past, my past that I’d been trying to find.

Maybe it meant something that the creature would come find me.  I had never allowed it to get close to me.  I had never said anything to it.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so afraid, maybe it was trying to tell me something.  Or remind me of something.

After finishing my sweet and sour fried mushrooms, I approached it.  It didn’t have a face.  It had a top of the head, in a shape, that was its whole head.  It was more of a pitch dark shape in reality.  A shadow.

“Why were you always chasing me.”

It got up.

“Well now you’ll have to chase me now, m*****f****r!”  It bolted, scurrying away into the space under the chairs.

I ducked, looking for it.  But it was gone.

The Desert Blues and Santa Anas

San Gabriel Valley

Where I grew up, I saw a lot of broken men.  These men, who I saw in dusty strip malls and old cars, shielding their eyes against the searing, red desert sun.  Men, who in their previous lives, had dreams of glory and big degrees that were now just paper.  Men, burdened with regrets, debts, broken relationships, dashed expectations.

They were concave men, men who took up negative space in the way they slouched.  It looked like they were just one big sigh.

Sometimes I would catch the glance of these defeated men.  They would look at me with a wide-eyed, open stare on the border between hope and pleading.

I would scowl and glare.  First, I was annoyed, but mostly, I was scared that I saw myself in them.

Waves of Indifference

Manhattan Beach

This was a while ago during a year of heartbreak.

During that year, I spent a lot of time in the water.  I took a board out and sat in the middle of the sea, watching waves and getting battered by them in all sorts of conditions.

I went when it was completely flat and would bob on the water, and I went when it was choppy and would fall off every few seconds, and I went in early morning and at dusk and in 40 degree water until my fingers turned into claws, and I surfed with the dolphins and sea lions and red tide and the jellyfish.

I would sit there and look into the horizon for the one who was far away – who had gone away, and sometimes the sun would come out and break into a million pieces on the water, like an emerald hacienda, and sometimes the fog would be so thick that you couldn’t see the waves coming in except as darker fog in the distance, and you couldn’t tell where the water started and the sky began, and it felt like you were somewhere high in the clouds and angels were around you, as the water lapped gently at your board.

Sometimes it was bright, and the waves crested with white plumes, and other times when it was cloudy the waves when they opened up looked like giant maws full of death and destruction, and they closed on your head like thundering bombs.

Being heartbroken made me susceptible to faulty logic, and I reasoned that the more of these impossible waves I caught, the more worthy I was, and I would stay even during choppy conditions until I had satisfied my quota, and then would walk back in thinking I had passed a test.

I would surf in the messiest and unrelenting of conditions, waves coming in bruised and sickening colors, crashing and surging, white plumes cresting above them as they peaked, before thundering with complete and utter indifference.

Sometimes I would get caught by a rogue wave that unfurled above and smashed me into the sand, and withdrew with such force I was sucked into the water again.  Flailing in the freezing water, so cold my breath was drawn out, in these times I could think of only one thing, which was that there was no malice in the water, nothing that cared enough to hate.  The only feeling that the water was a force of nature, above and beyond anything in human experience and in the face of which we are just a speck of dust.  Only by its endless grace are we allowed to enter it, fish it, surf it.

I was looking for answers out there, but there were none.  The waves were apathetic.  And I didn’t solve any problems.  They were just made insignificant.

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.

Endings

Of all the streets that blur in to the sunset,
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time

Limits, Jorge Luis Borges

It turned out, the stories you told yourself spanned several lives, the tram that you would take to the terminus, the fried fish you were going to eat by the bayside, on a sunny day, the stairs you were saving for a more inspired time.  You haven’t seen the museum exhibits, you didn’t read your meditations under the gnarled baobab, you didn’t say hi to the stranger working behind the counter at the fresh fruit stand.

And those ice cream flavors that made your mouth water – still just pastel hues and the sweet smell of butter, nothing more.  There, you were going to take your daughter on a clear day, there, you were going to take the ferry on a free day, ultimately an imaginary day free of the crush of life’s minutiae, a day that does not exist.

It has crowded you, it has covered the stuff of life, the underlying strata on which kids and babies joy.  For you, the bell rang sooner, the tram arrived and has already left.

I Am A Thief

It was on the 55th floor of the Fortune Apartment.  Units D and C faced each other, and my balcony looked into the maid’s room of the unit across from me.

Two maids bunked there, and occasionally when I took my evening tea outside, I saw them winding down after a 12-hour day, supine in exhaustion.  Maids in Hong Kong have six day weeks, 12 hour days (sometimes longer), and responsibilities ranging from food preparation to childcare, to everything in between depending on the vagaries of their employer.  All this, while having no private space to themselves except the shoebox closets beyond a slide-out door, that fit only a single bed and a bag of luggage, or two.  Sometimes households with kids employed two maids, and so they have to bunk.

The lives of the real hustlers in Hong Kong are fascinating.  The bankers who work 18-20 hour days.  The maids who worked for them, with the same hours.  The 60-year olds who worked 12 hour days collecting the trash, via stairwell, floor by floor, in 30+ level buildings.  The older storekeeps who close up their shops at 9 or 10pm, long after the regular office workers have gone home.  Hong Kong was and is and will be, a city imbued with a Southern Chinese ethic of immigrant hustle.

Try to imagine that life.  To do it every day for years without breaking down, because every Sunday you get to send your paycheck via wire back to the Philippines or Indonesia.

The only way to sustain that kind of life is with patterns of work and relief.  For young bankers, probably related to alcohol and parties and weekend getaways.  For the maids, though, what?

One night, I noticed one of the maids, she had this big open smile, this smile of pure delight as she looked down at her phone.  It looked like her fatigue fell away in a moment of release – a small, private moment that is yours alone, where after serving someone else for the majority of your life, you return to a small space that reminds you of who you are.  However small.

I quickly went back into my apartment.  It felt like I had stolen something.

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Young in LA (Part I)

Paradise

I was young in LA once.  I lived by the beach and lived a lifestyle that was as close to stereotypes as stereotypes go.  It was a paradise by any other measure.

There was an easy grace, a rhythm, to my life then.  I woke up to the sound of waves crashing the beach, and salted mist coming in through the windows.  I loved 10 am, which was when the full heat of the day hadn’t started yet; it was just warmth at first, and the breeze was delightfully mixed with both the coolness that had penetrated the earth during the night, and warm air, just beginning to rise from the asphalt.  It felt of the earth.

Gentle breezes blew through the window, making the drapes flit lightly, and the smell of the restaurant below – waffles, omelettes, burgers, and pancakes – was heaven.  The smell of barbecues came in every weekend, and neighbours would invite us over for extra burgers or mojitos.  We lived without shoes, and walked down to the beach to play volleyball or surf.

The homes along the beach rest on narrow plots of land overlooking the sea, and flashed their popsicle painted colours, periwinkle to lavender, as we rode our bikes by them.  We swerved next to skateboarders and frisbees and people walking their dogs.  Everyone had mild drawls and burnished skin.

I would lay with her when the moon was mellow and the water was high, and we would wake up to the sound of idle gulls outside and leaves brushing each other, like the sound of our skin. 

But at times, all of it – the sand and sun and our young love – filled me with nostalgia for a place that I felt like I would never know.  Every day the world was bright.  I was young and it should have made me happy with hope, but I had a creeping feeling I was being blinded.

To me, it felt like a land of waiting, a land you reach at the end of a journey, facing the water and its foaming, dark secrets.  The sea stretched on forever in one direction.  Was there something on the other side?

Surfing, I would paddle out past the line and look back at the homes.  From out on the water, they looked narrow and huddled against something.  Then at night, the crash of the surf began to sound like it was reiterating something, a hypnotic message.

I felt like a fugitive.  A feeling that there was something left undone, like I had left a light on somewhere and fled.  I was hoping the sea would help me forget, but it was never silent, and the town itself had a finality about it, like it was the end of the world. 

And I felt like if I stayed, I would have grown complacent and old and in my young mind, that was equivalent to death.  This was not my place.  At least, not yet. 

 

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