The Most Important Thing

“…but straightway there came a flood of moonlight and a gust of cold wind, and I found myself crossing a frozen lake, and my arms were empty. The wave of grief that swept through me woke me up, and I was sitting at my desk in the newspaper office in San Francisco, and I noticed by the clock that I had been asleep less than two minutes. And what was of more consequence, I was twenty-nine years old.”

My Platonic Sweetheart, Mark Twain

Part I

J—-,

On an Airbus A380 from Los Angeles I opened the newspaper, and there you were in it.

So after my meetings yesterday, I looked for you.  I don’t mean a real search – I mean I looked for you in every face and gesture and incidental place, mining the city and my memories to see what was still true.  I looked for you in alleyways and subway steps and the streets I still recognized, in tiles and textures and gestures.

The city has changed.  But the architecture of the place, its soul, still evoked a lot of memories.  After all my meetings, I took a cab down to Rodeo Street, the epicenter of Gangnam, and stood in front of the CGV movie theater.  It was where I had first met you.

The wind was a Siberian blast, the kind of wind that makes your eyes water and wonder if your face is bleeding.  The vast boulevard was awash in cars dotted by lamps as they sped under them.  The couriers flew past on their bikes, and girls in short skirts and tiaras clutched themselves as they got out of the cars that crawled slowly up the pavement.  Then they waited for other cars to pick them up.

Couples clattered by, all boots and heels, and the drunk people stumbled down the sidewalk arm in arm, holding each other up, under the enormous canopy of signs and lights, staggering in their verticality, going straight up and down that street with endless corridors and alleyways that once meant for us a possibility to quell an endless appetite.

It was a current we rode without knowing exactly where we were being taken nor how long it would take, but which now looked to me terrifying in its speed, its forgetfulness.

In that time and place, how has time passed for you?  How did you measure it?  Was it in weeks or years, was it in graduations and accomplishments, promotions, relationships?

Do we have obligations to our memories?  Do we have an obligation to keep them sacrosanct, to not destroy them?

How do you remember it?

This is how I remember it.


 

Ten years ago I came here as an exchange student.

One month into school, I met you.  My first memory of you was on that street.  It was fall and becoming brisk and the leaves were turning, and when I walked through school entire beds of them would lift up off the ground and sweep in waves between my arms and legs.

The first round of tests had just ended, and I was out with my new friends, Sam and Moon and Katherine, when I first saw you.  It was night, just like every other night in the city, when possibility hung in place, strung on the air of the night electric.

You held a bag in front of your legs, and you smiled and bent in slightly to talk to Katherine, who was your friend.  You turned to me, smiling politely, then looked away and bit your lip.

When she asked you to stay, you wavered, and I became aware of your eyebrows, so sibilantly shaped, and your ears, framed by a tantalizing glimpse of neck.

I can’t say that it was love at first sight, but I thought of you in the following weeks as the mind does when returning to thoughts that are familiar.  I knew you went to our school too, and I wondered if I might see you there.

I played the scene in front of the theater several times over the next few weeks until a shape began emerging: the vivid way you took up space, like you were aligned with something essential, a willow that would always spring back to its proper shape.

It suffused you.  Like you were driven by a sense of small suffering, something that pinched you just enough day after day to make you vivid, graceful.

Or maybe I’m just projecting.  At this point, my memories are what happened, because as far as I know, no one else is keeping them.

I remember – how all the departments of the school met at the student hall and commissary above the field, like spokes, and in between classes everyone passed through it.  It was rowdy and overwhelming and all the guys stood outside smoking under the trees.

Then when it got colder, they moved inside, and the break rooms were smoky and arid.

The one thing that I had learned how to do was use the vending machine to buy hot chocolate.  My Korean was broken and reading anything was stressful.  When the campus missionaries came up to me, I would just sit there and nod until they left.  When the professors called out instructions, I would turn and watch what everyone else was doing, first.

But between my classes I would perform this small ritual, putting a coin in the machine and pressing the red button, this one thing I could do confidently.

Maybe because these things have a tendency to descend on the open mind, it was in the commissary that I saw you again.  You nodded your head, hello, and I spilled hot chocolate on myself.

Fare Forward.

Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death” — that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.

Dry Salvages, T.S. Eliot

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.

the Ending is Also Pretty Amazing..

Now I’m hunched over a typewriter
I guess you’d call that paintin’ in a cave
And there’s a word I can’t remember
And a feeling I cannot escape
And now my ashtray’s overflowing
I’m still staring at a clean white page
Oh, and morning’s at my window
And she is sending me to bed again

Another Travelin’ Song, Bright Eyes

Anger of a Boy

No, his mom said, with a note of finality.

He was furious at the image of her saying it, the intransigence with which she said it.  He yelled and screamed, but her face was resolute and tight.

I hate you!  He said.

Later, when he was much older, he would come to know that she was not angry with him, as he had assumed.

But for now he slunk downstairs, quietly so she wouldn’t hear.  As he passed her room, he saw her through the crack in the door.

She sat at the edge of her bed.  The bed was high, so her legs dangled off the edge of it, as a child’s would.  Rounding her back, she was slumped over, clutching a book in her hands.  In the defenselessness of that look, she looked vulnerable, both a young girl, and an old woman.

His eyes welled up as he descended the stairs.

.

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Aeschylus

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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I Have This Tattooed In My Heart.

Laugh out the meager penance of their days
Who dare not share with us the breath released,
The substance drilled and spent beyond repair
For golden, or the shadow of gold hair.

Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile
Blamed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height
The imagination spans beyond despair,
Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.

For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen, Hart Crane

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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