Trees of Eden

Looking through the train window, he noticed a blur of fall color. The whirr of branches and leaves pulled in his gaze, and he slipped into a trance of yellow and orange. After several lost minutes, he realized that the sweep of the passing bouquet had stifled his ability to make out any of the individual trees that, collected together, called out to his spellbound eyes. So he leaned forward, picking out one tree on the horizon and tracing it with his eyes as it traveled along the length of the window frame. This way, he could see how the bark was a rugged cream color on one tree and a dark grey on another; how what looked like an old oak had pale green lichen draped over its torso; how a sapling of some species he couldn’t identify had decaying leaves that refused to fall off.

And then he thought that love is like a forest as a train rolls by. He felt regret that there were so many trees in a forest—trees that, had they been in his back yard, would have been affectionately ingrained in his memory. But these trees were not loved, not known. They just sat there, on the side of the tracks, and waited patiently to die—their existence meaning nothing to no-one. Perhaps one day they would be made into paper, and someone would write something down on what was left of them, and maybe, just maybe, that something would be important.

Love was like the trees that nobody came to look at. Love was mere chance; luck. Love was the way you would be forced to focus on one tree because the whole array of colors was too overwhelming for your senses. Love was the way you couldn’t focus on reading Nietzsche because that woman in the pink blouse to your right was telling her friend Carl about how her daughter Samantha had failed her Chemistry test.

There were countless other trees, other people out there that you would never meet; the fact that you chose this one to pay attention to—to love—was meaningless and random and stupid.

Love was like life, and life was like the shadows among the gaps in the trees of a forest that nobody came to look at.

29 October, 2013

 

Nantucket Fast Ferry

It was a pristine morning. The harbor and the docks opened themselves into the ripening bouquet of autumn—when the colors swayed and vibrated between reds, yellows, oranges, greens, and browns. The caffeine smell of early morning issued from the silent hull of the ship while harbor waves treaded delicately. Passengers shuffled onboard and took their seats: the Nantucket Fast Ferry was guaranteed to arrive in Hyannis Port within two hours.

Some minutes passed, and the doors of the ferry closed. Everyone was inside, sitting calmly in the rows of nylon. Next to the front row window sat a man. He was complaining about something, and in the reflection of the window his withered hands trembled, subdued by the cold iron voice of his once bewitching bride, who sat next to him—a sweet looking woman in her early eighties, wearing a pale gray sweater and chic blue foulard. She had on dazzling pearl earrings.

She began to shout as she stood up and Why don’t you quit whining! made the room swell with bitter feeling and Jesus, just STOP it already! words that pounded against his wilted ears. She walked off.

The solitary profile of his once handsome face was barely visible from behind the tall ferry seats, but the hands—they stood out in the light against the tinted windowpane. Slowly, they worked at the muffin and tried to make the pieces drag themselves up to his mouth. They were hands that betrayed themselves—now scraggy and pale but clearly once muscular and commanding. The thin glass veins struggled to lift the wrapping from the baked treat that was his breakfast. It seemed that somewhere behind the back of the chair, a mind was pulsating intense decrees to make even the most basic movements possible. Deliberately, the pieces began to disappear. The ferry pushed off from shore; it would be only two hours until it reached Hyannis, and no more.

His wife came back and, bending over him, forced a coffee into his hand. As it spilled out he gasped and cursed her Well good JOB! in his own emaciated way. Furious, she ripped the cup out of his hand and You can take care of yourself, all right! threw it into the trash bin. What should have been a moment of sympathy—an old shell of what had once been a tall rugged man now unable to even hold his own coffee—deteriorated quickly into GET UP, it isn’t a big DEAL! something pitiful as he looked up at her and with a crack in his voice begged her Please don’t, you’re embarrassing me… for just one moment of understanding, of unconditional love.

Where were his children? They had probably dropped the two of them off at the ferry and fallen back into their own circuit, their own youthful life filled with its own host of first-world problems and just enough good health never to really notice how good it all was. But the circuit would again come round, and in twenty or thirty or some number of years they too would be dropped off on some ferry by their own children and face the cold unforgiving Atlantic, alone.

That was the way of Nantucket—of countless other islands that catered to the wealthy—where fathers’ houses were bought by children at good rates and then updated and redone in ways that were fashionable and modern. The parents then became strangers in their own homes, no longer movers and shakers but now pushed aside to make room for fast-paced dinner parties. Gradually, the children began making more and more money and the parents stopped earning anything, relying on the image of what used to be—the oh-so-important appearances of manifold wealth and importance. Draped over their threadbare bodies rested expensive suits of impeccable cloth—articles from a bygone era when they triumphantly swarmed upon the islands and felt like they were somebody.

Unsure of what else to do, his hands—sufficiently greased from the ferry-bought breakfast—began to search for something to clean themselves with. They looked this way and that, one finger haphazardly prodding the blue blazer lapel before deciding not to further sully the wardrobe. The jacket was as traditional as they come: navy with gold buttons, probably bought at Brooks Brothers some ten years earlier. It hung loose, with pockets of fabric sagging across the shoulders of his frame.

Unable to bear this slow, unproductive effort, his wife shoved some napkins his way. After several seconds, his hands grasped the old crumpled paper, now brown and worn with the refuse of the blueberry muffin. He worked diligently, as if the one thing he had left, the one quantum of control that he still possessed, was his ability to keep his hands clean and civilized.

Finished with their work, they fell back into place at his sides, gone from the light of the windowpane. The ferry continued onward: the engines humming, steady, consistent.

Dusk in Albuquerque

There was a protracted beeping sound. A change.

Things were fast, unusual, cold. Everything felt heavy; it was dark.

He turned around the corner and saw the cars moving   their red tail lights swaying behind them in their turns   down a long wide avenue that stretched out into a vast plain. The line of automobiles swept past him, a rushing sound like wind.

In the brief space between seconds he noticed that all the cars were moving in one direction—like everything had a course and a purpose—and then in that instant he knew that things were good and beautiful, that the end was not the end but rather a path that led toward another beginning that in turn would weave its way forward and into eternity—that very longed-for place where heaven would greet him with a light most divine and pure, most spoken-of and longed-for by so many—by everyone, secretly. He exhaled.

But now the vision was gone, vanished with the brilliant red lights and the endless pale horizon. He reached out from behind the darkness and grasped after the retreating colors and the sounds. He found himself turning a corner.

Suddenly, he was lying on his back in the familiar hospital bed with the small buttons to press and the steel rail to drape his leg over. But he was not in the hospital, no, he was in an even more familiar place: it was his bedroom, the one he’d slept in as a child before they had moved to Jersey so his father could work at IBM. The colors on the walls were clean against the outlines of the Superman and Batman posters, and he smiled. In the foreground stood his mother; she was young, like in the photos, and smiling that same smile with her dark ebullient eyes. She looked beautiful, his mother.

Yet something frightened him because she was so still; she became rigid and mechanical. She was just an image, a giant cut-out of an old photograph—the very same one that was in the foyer of the New York City apartment he’d rented in the 70’s.

It disappeared and in her place was just the brightly painted wall. To the left of the bed stood John and Steve, and he knew exactly where he was. This was where he’d been right before everything had started to move so fast, right before he’d started to die.

“We’ll see you there soon, old friend,” John had said.

“I’ve heard there is no pain, that everything floats off in a wash of color and light,” Steve had said.

And then it all came back to him: how he had been brave and not minded the dying part; how he’d lived a good long life and was prepared to face the ‘next,’ whatever it would be.

The scene blurred back into darkness, and in that moment he felt an excruciating tremor of loneliness. He ran. Sprinting away from the scene, the last moments he could remember, he tried to fight his way back to the normal world where things made sense. You spend your whole life trying to make sense of things and when you finally start to feel at ease with it all it’s taken away from you. It wasn’t fair it wasn’t fair it isn’t fair let me out! he shrieked into the air, colder now than before, like those alpine lakes he’d visited in Montana, the way they would stab you a thousand times and take the air out of your lungs.

Smothered by the cold, he pushed the wave off himself and continued to run. But there was no burning feeling in his legs—they worked tirelessly in an attempt to rush him back into the world that he knew—that spherical object with a molten core, with gravity and respiration and exhaustion, with streets that ran in both directions and led somewhere that didn’t vanish.

They said your life flashes in front of your eyes. But this was not life; this was something else.

There, receding before him—it was his desire to live! He wanted to shout, to call it back, but couldn’t; he pressed with all his might against the ground and shot forward across the maze of street corners with their dark alleyways shifting themselves into a blur until he found himself suddenly in a tide of pedestrians intermixed with carts and rickshaws; behind it all stood the Saigon cathedral. It had been forty years since he had been there, and yet it was so vivid he was right there and could smell the motor oil and hear the rumble of the small engines as they floated by—their expressions determined—to work—to rest—but above all else to live—to live!

Now everything began to evaporate around him as his legs gave up their pounding and slowly he began to feel relaxed. Shadows filtered down across the horizon like a curtain in water, swaying almost lovingly across the sky and falling over his thoughts. He closed his eyes and fell backward.

Suddenly, he felt an urge to look once more at those scenes from his past—to experience one last time the beauty of his now receding life. His eyes burst open, and he searched the horizon for some sign. Above him, hanging in the sky, was projected the image of his childhood friend’s dog, the chihuahua that would visit his family’s house from time to time looking for a treat. The dog, Stella, was grinning a big wide-toothed grin and wearing aviator sunglasses. Smoking a cigar, Stella winked at him; then it all, everything, began to melt into the knowledge that this was his last waking moment and with that—this, his last realization ever—he shuddered as he tried to

 

 

 

 

Sunday in Autumn

There was an uneven sound in the air, and it wavered across the room and into the foyer.

The foyer was mostly dark. Inside there was an antiquated radiator that stood next to a large chest—a blur of green lacquered mahogany heat. Through the depth in the shadows of the foyer were reflected the loud sounds of a September morning. It was as indifferent as any other September morning: it was that time of year when things were busy leaving, inevitably beginning their quarterly end.

Michael peered out between saturated lashes, looked across the grass and the pond and through the mist and noticed the emptiness.

Michael was between the two spaces. September was the month of Michael’s birth, and yesterday afternoon he had celebrated with his friends that were still local—those who hadn’t yet moved on like the flocks of white painted geese searching for the hot swamps of Florida or Alabama. The swamps of Florida and Alabama were quite populous this time of year.

The air filled the room unevenly; it disturbed something. Michael reached for his coffee.

The contrasts of the world, the inconsistencies of life, were most pronounced in the autumn, that time of his former undergraduate life when the good boys from down the road some ways would drive up in their trucks or SUVs, carrying their hopes and aspirations for the year (the closed-in amount of time where they’d be free); when a year’s time seemed insurmountable and it was always unfathomable that it should ever be brought to a close. They drank pints and threw cans hollering about southern traditions and the legends their daddies’d handed down in the dog-gone gone-by days of before.

Now Michael got up and put his orange juice away. He took one last sip before the glass swept across the iron sink, taking its place amongst the clutter of yesterday’s still unwashed dishes.

Some friends had come by for a small party. They mostly just talked about the times they’d shared back in college—that long-lost life, now only ten months past. Michael now trudged along the cement floor of this new life—his nights sharing a room with nobody out in the country, the crickets and the sounds of nature’s reflexive honking his only company. His best friends were scattered, cut up into chunks across the country and in some cases the world and they weren’t moving back anytime soon.

He sat calmly in the sun looking at the still morning light behind the deaf old willow that comprised his yard; one long thread of young green remained—the tree’s last signs of life—dipping into the stale murky pond below.

In many ways Michael was angry. He hated the ways things had insisted on being. He was tired of the old system; he didn’t consciously know it but he wanted more than anything for things to just quit, to cease and be simple like they once were. Not ten months had passed since graduation.

He packed the pipe and watched the smoke as it curled and danced up into the THC horizon; his vision became warm and fuzzy; soon he was smiling.

Michael sat back into his chair and closed his eyes, letting the bright shards of a new Sunday—of a new start—carry him off into the morning.

He awoke to his hunger later, in the early afternoon, as the sun was overhead and coming down over the house in clear, even draughts. He wiped his eyes and yawned.  Getting up slowly, he checked his answering machine and listened to the cold silence. A gray cloud seemed to circle overhead. Michael packed the bowl again. It was a Sunday, and there would be many more like it.

12 September, 2012

Celebration!

Let’s go have a drink  he said. But my stomach was upset and I was on time change and I didn’t care for a drink although this was Istanbul and the cafe was beautiful and oh, what the hell, a drink might calm my coming-from-nowhere anger that arose from every corner of every action that they, my parents, seemed to perform. A drink then.

Father let’s have a drink I said; and son what would you like—it’s your birthday! he responded; and I asked to have what anyone has on their birthday and so I had that, sipped it down. We ordered another.

And it was my birthday and so where would you like to go see today? they asked, and somewhere was the start of an answer; and of course the great, famous mosque was where we would go, so we finished our third drink and began to walk; it was a good city for walking.

I trampled the dead streets beneath my feet; this, my second time here in this spellbinding city, Istanbul. We were in Istanbul, and I had been here once before. But I suppose there’s nothing special about that, because Istanbul is so old and the concierge at our fancy hotel seemed like he’d seen me at least a thousand times over the three thousand years that this city had been headed toward being called Istanbul—seemed like he knew me and Istanbul better than I knew myself, because I myself was meant to enjoy my day of birth—was meant to get my maximal gain out of the whole damn thing. My parents had paid a lot of money for the airplane ticket, and this was their son, was their baby boy who was back from China, for now.

But I hadn’t been born on this day: I’d been born twenty-three years earlier, on a day that called itself today, and in that instant it seemed that this city—the place that had called itself Byzantium then Constantinople and now Istanbul—was waiting for me to arrive all along. So of course we would go to the mosque that was actually a museum because   it was famous and    it meant so much to so many    it meant theworld was connected through a soul    through god     through channels of prayer and     marble and     taxis and      expensive airplane tickets and       cocktails.

We were drunk, wandering amidst the whirr of concrete and stone porticos, the kebab peddlers and ice cream stands, when suddenly that cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum came into view and look at the nuance in the marble she said; my mother was right and I hadn’t noticed it. But I didn’t care for the marble or the historical import it carried—probably it was the alcohol,the drug,the intoxicating liquid that had been promised by many to make me enjoy this day,my birthday. It was the day I was born on:    two decades and two years plus one, now, ago.

Let’s go somewhere else I said,   (did I say?)   as the buzz began to fade we walked across the painted streets, smeared with the colors of old/new stone, mixed with the soft warm fleeting light of stale afternoons that inevitably ran away to some place where there were no mosques ;  then we were on the sidewalk and the cars whipped around the corner moving fast   look at the Bosporus somebody said;   then we too were moving very fast and I could see beautiful women with dark eyes and even darker hair and soon everything was dark outside and it was time for a birthday dinner with wine, the shade of which     white—hectic red—?     didn’t  matter because it was the feeling it gave you that mattered. But I couldn’t focus I     was really drunk now    I kept seeing her, that girl I loved here three years ago,   and I was there then/now but I wanted to be there just         now.

                                                       Let’s have a rest we said  let’s get some sleep let’   s    twenty three,twenty-two+1:

words,numbers     you grew up so fast    they said           I’m not grown yet I

said;                       my mother began to cry on the table;

Lets go somewhere else the world said  lets go back I wished I had said:

‘to three summers ago,’          ‘three suns or moons ago,’

‘just a measure of time

ago.’

                                            lets go back  ‘three measurements ago:’  ‘three lost loves ago;’ I wanted something to measure

            a previous visit

the previous Istanbuls    the previous me’s/I’s.

                             My birthday was

.

 

10 June, 2012

Water and Tea

It was a blur.

It was a blur that reached out onto our restaurant table and wove itself into the napkins and our glasses of tea and water. It was very clear.

It was very clear that this blur that existed in the space between our sips of water and our vocal chords was what I had tasted on many occasions. I wondered if its opacity was mutually transparent.

I smiled. We’d been friends for the year, my year in China. We’d been friends for this, my first year in China—abroad—and we went to meals together once or twice a week. In typical Chinese fashion, we alternated between who treated whom to dinner. This time it was my treat. The last time it had been his.

We were friends for the extent of a year. A year was a long time. We knew each other well, and this was my treat.

I was not merely taking my friend out to eat spicy chicken with noodles (the chicken came on a big plate with flat white noodles); thestakes were higher: I was taking the possibility for interconnectedness between people from disparate cultures out to dinner as well.

I sat there awkwardly and consumed this heavy serving of clarity—that we had had so many dinners like this very one and that our meals had always come with a side order of the same, dull dinner-table conversations. And then I wanted to leave the table, wanted to escape the haze of in-between and its rich hoisin (hoisin? really? was it?) sauce. It was a dark brown; it was a bright red; it was spicy.

It was spicy and it stung my nose and confused me. It was dark and rich and beautiful indescribable and yet here it was, asking me to describe it.

The best I could do was to say that we weren’t friends—that our year together had been spent playing with our forks, gently pushing the food around our plates without really knowing what it was or why we continued eating it. We were posturing at being full.

And then it appeared that we had continued eating it because we believed that eventually the cultural issues would break away and we would find each other truly interesting. So I kept asking him to lunch, or dinner. We continued eating that chicken with wide noodles and the rich hoisin sauce because there was nothing else to do; because we had forgotten how to order anything else; because Will the intercultural interloper was looking for some savory dish of an experience to bring home with him after his year abroad and serve piping hot to my friends and family and potential colleagues. Internationalism was social currency.

I took another bite; the dish was cold. We put our napkins down, said our goodbyes, and went to our separate apartments where we would listen to different music sung in tones that were linguistically comprehensible but emotionally unintelligible.

We walked out, leaving behind the tea in our glasses; it tasted like water but called itself tea.

14 June, 2012

Our Last Night in the Park

We walked through the trees, and the snow, and there was no sound but your breath and the resounding glances we would take deep into each other’s eyes in the darkness among the firm, old oaks. Perhaps they weren’t oaks.

We walked deep into the recesses of the small park, standing between the saplings and trying to find solace from whatever you called ‘reality.’ We stood still like the trees, embracing like long lost lovers who knew that after years of waiting, there could only be this last moment, and then nothing.

We were quiet, sentimental, and your touch was delicate and soft, like the powdered snow that rested on the ground and surrounded our feet. There was only this moment and nothing else: the sweet black of your eyes and your short hair and the way your head warmed my hands.

You whispered that it was our last night together, and I wished secretly that we could somehow be unstuck from time’s cruel forward assault, that we could be light, not carrying any of the weight that our feet did as they trudged among the soft, urban snow.

There was no rustle in the branches, no sound of birds moving to build a nest or tend to their bellies; there was only the movement of our winter jackets as we slowly made each other feel okay again, tenderly changing my grip around your back, wanting to hold you in every way possible. But the snow was fresh and comforting and it hugged our feet and seemed to beckon them into submission: “don’t move,” it breathed.

Then I heard an inevitable car’s honk and realized that it was probably close to 1AM and that you would return to your dormitory soon; I would be left alone, once more. My feet were cold and I needed to blow my nose and so I unzipped my jacket pocket and pulled out the tissue, as white as snow, and blew into it the reality of my body—the warm, contrasting truth that now needed a garbage bin so as not to be considered ‘littering,’ so as not to ruin the idyllic scene that we had made, painted, for ourselves. I walked out of the clearing and over to the bright yellow box and tossed the tissue inside its dark recesses. I came back and you were there waiting but it was different. Your phone rang; it was your roommate.

We left the place where you had hidden your memory, your moment, deep within your heart; that forest that was filled with ancient oaks and resplendent redwoods carved deep into the glistening, radiant moon-filled snow that went up to our knees and kept us there for eternity. For you, the sun never came up, the birds never started their busy day, the cars were nowhere to be found, and the only thing that moved was our pulsing hearts as we stayed there, frozen, wrapped in an unrelenting embrace that was sweet and tender and, never to end.

You told me that nobody had ever made you feel this way, that you were your true self with me. Then you said goodbye.

I kissed you and it felt as though it were a mere stamp upon something inevitable, like a formality added at the last second to fulfill some sort of bureaucratic protocol. There was nothing real in it, because every second that the kiss lasted for was just a reminder that I was so much closer to the kiss’s conclusion—our own sudden, clear-cut consummation.

It ended. It had to, it seems. I looked at you and sensed a disconnect—suddenly, we weren’t inhabiting the same place anymore: you were still in that imaginary forest dreaming about our eternal moment. You were there, back in the warm blanket you’d knitted of knee-deep shimmering snow; but I was standing next to my apartment on the pavement, the materials that had been constructed by the Chinese provincial government in the 1990’s in order to attract the Han Chinese to come and live in this city—this pile of smog and concrete—of crumbling apartment buildings with questionable construction.

She said goodbye, turning the other way faster than I ever expected. She didn’t turn around; she was gone. I wanted to cough: to show her that things weren’t pure and clean like she wanted, imagined, in her delirium. Suddenly, I became angry—knew that she would never feel how I felt and hated her for her ability to transcend this place—this hard concrete hell—and replace it with that pillow of imaginary snow, that same frozen-water-substance that had left its mark on my wet and frozen feet. I shivered.

 

28 February, 2012

Brendan

Though the image was blurred, he liked looking at it. In the frame next to him, a companion stood half-in, half-out. There was what looked like a beautiful tower in the distance. That wasn’t what he liked looking at. What he gazed at was just himself, standing there with what was probably a very well executed partial smile—wholly obscured and cloaked in the fuzz of a poorly taken photograph. Still, he recognized himself.

He’d been wearing blue that day. It was over a month ago, but he never forgot a detail as important as that. He’d visited a landmark with two friends, and one of them had brought a camera. The landmark was a haze of stone in the background, and he’d chosen his blue windbreaker. Under it he’d carefully selected a red t-shirt, he now recalled. It had a miniature gray Nike swoosh right below his left clavicle. He had worn the windbreaker open to highlight the contrast between the two colors. The blue was bold and shiny. The red was bright and dominant. The colors were perfect together.

The day was golden yellow, with no clouds to hide the sun. The sound of the verdure had been almost deafening, with wind blowing through the trees and creating a twofold sound of both rustling and swaying. The windbreaker at times looked like a cape suspended behind him as the droves of colorless air attempted to wrestle it from his bold red torso. It was a chilling wind, but that was then. Currently, he was currently sitting inside his apartment, next to the orange red and sometimes blue warmth that was pouring out of his fireplace. Smoke was drifting up, too.

As he surveyed the photo, he began to feel remorse that the image had been so poorly preserved. He ignored the picture’s obfuscation, which had been brought on by the photographer’s poor balance. Instead he directed his thoughts to the ways in which the red mixed with that deep-set blue; specifically, the fact that it had been his own creation and accomplished just the end it was envisioned for. It was highly visible and even visually striking and he felt proud. He held it up to the light, trying to make out the details in his face. He smiled. He thought for a second about the day, the trip, his friends. Then he continued to examine his image.

His name was Brendan, and though he cared little for names, there was a majestical ring to his own. He liked the way it sounded in the same way that many people take their eggs every which way. He preferred his eggs fried, and hated them poached or hardboiled. But he liked his name every which way. He liked it when his teachers said it, when his friends said it, his parents, the police officer that time he had been pulled over; he liked it when it was said out loud. He liked his name when it was shouted, when it gently fell onto his ear, when it was spoken in reproach, in sadness, in apathy, in all kinds of passion, and in all kinds of indolence. There was just something very nice about those two syllables, and he considered himself very lucky to have been given such a noble, estimable-sounding name.

Perhaps it was luck, but more likely than that, his parents had taken one look at him and decided that he couldn’t possibly be a Bernard or a Stephen. The photograph flickered minutely in the firelight, catching his eye, and in that moment he knew that luck was only the beginning of it. Things came easily. Like his smile. People had told him it was perfect, and, in fact, it was. It wasn’t affected, it wasn’t overbearing, it didn’t dominate his face, didn’t show too many teeth. What it did do was rest gently under his nose while working in concert with his mesmerizing eyes. They were eyes of an unplumbable depth; sparkling and infinite, they seemed to give off light rather than absorb it. They had angel-like flecks that coalesced, when examined closely, into a miniature galaxy. It was as if the entire cosmos was contained in each one. And there were two; that’s two cosmoses.

It was with these eyes that he looked at the clothes he would wear, looked at the camera and tried to gauge when not to blink based on when the picture would be taken. The very same eyes that chose the red shirt and the unzipped windbreaker. They were the eyes of a genius. And now they stared long and piercingly into that flat piece of photo paper. They tried to meet the gaze of the blurry but all-too-recognizable man in the photograph, but there was something getting in the way, blocking the connection. It didn’t matter.

He got lost in it. Curling up by the dancing colorful flames, he held the photograph at several angles to let the light catch it with differing degrees of faintness. He preferred it when there was less light on it. The less light, the more his eyes could fill in the precise contours where the shaky camera work had failed. With a great deal of thought and attention, he began to see himself. The beautiful tower looked on, and his friend remained a blur. Brendan slowly closed his eyes and the world, too, became a blur.

He slept soundly.

 

10 November, 2011

A Table for One

He was the kind of person that could make you have an opinion. I wasn’t very fond of speaking, and it would be nice to think that I made up for it by listening carefully, but that would be stretching the truth. The truth was that I always listened, but only sometimes did I actually pay attention. Most of the time, I would sit and hold someone’s gaze, nodding at the sentence breaks and raising such pointed questions as “really?” or “is that so?” This was like breathing. I was like the perfect moderator, never interjecting my own ideas, but merely recapitulating the appropriate small sentences where they were needed. This kept the other person interested in what they were talking about.

When I did pay attention, I usually didn’t have anything to say. In group discussions with older, more wizened beings, I would play the part of the inexperienced young lad whose role was to look earnestly into the eyes of each person as they ate their own personal plate of opinions. I was the audience, and they the experts. This wasn’t out of chivalry, or absence of ego; rather, I would mentally choke up, not knowing what I could possibly say that hadn’t just been said.

But things were different tonight. His name was Bill; he was being imperious and American to our normally jovial translator. Bill spoke no Chinese, and so his entire trip in China was mediated through this man, who had a convenient English name: Murphy. I think he liked Eddy Murphy’s character in “Shrek,” but then again none of us ever asked him.

Murphy had just finished telling us about China’s system of values; namely, how it was opposite from that found in the West. As a young Chinese man somewhere in his early twenties, he was very proud of his country’s emphasis on community.

“Americans love individual, we Chinese are different. Did you see Beijing Olympics opening ceremony? Entire world was jealous to see so many people moving together,” he said with affection.

Murphy was enjoying himself and especially the large meal that, as a translator for wealthy foreigners, he was privy to from time to time. Back home, he would cook his own meals in a crammed Shanghai apartment, which he told us had cracks in the ceiling and a smell that wouldn’t go away. His face was wide and full when he told us stories about his childhood, his parents, and his time studying English at university. Murphy always smiled such a big smile that it looked like his happiness was written not only on his face, but saturated within every little particle of his flesh and bone, every crevice of miniscule ribosomes and lysosomes and other –somes that I’ve long since forgotten the names of. It was like the parts of his self that nobody—not even himself—especially not himself—ever saw were composed of ingenuous light that danced out from within and gave his personage an unmistakable aura of innocence and joy.

Bill didn’t like that Murphy was enjoying himself at his country’s expense. In his 78 years, he had seen America go through too much to just site there and let a Chinese national tell him about his own country—to let our translator think for one minute that we American individuals were at all impressed with this collectivism.

After Murphy finished speaking, there was a slight pause—a fraction of quiet. Then, with burning immediacy Bill launched into a full offensive: sending in statistics as paratroopers, promptly followed by an army of anecdotes. He spat out his diatribe for thirty straight minutes. Step by step, Bill swallowed up a small part of Murphy—gorging himself on the task of stifling our translator’s abundant glow.

Murphy—gracious, innocent, proud—was deflated. Second languages are no terrain in which to do battle. But it didn’t matter that he hadn’t understood everything, that he didn’t know the meaning of words like “ubiquitous,” or “obstreperous,” because the impact of Bill’s words rested in their cold, mechanical force. For every minute that Bill went on, a sliver of Murphy’s face was replaced by a confused, hollowed-out paleness.

Bill paused to catch his breath. Murphy got up from the table, politely excusing himself. He walked, or fumbled, to get more food. His steps were remarkably light. As he slowly floated from one buffet table to another, you could tell he wasn’t thinking at all about the dishes that lay before him. He stared blankly at one plate, lifted another lid, and then finally realized he would have to choose something. The green beans made it halfway to his plate before they fell to the ground. There was no escape.

He frantically looked down at the spilled green objects and then back up at the table, as if searching for some familiar feeling, some touch of mild embarrassment. But he couldn’t find any of those redeeming notes that could usually be called upon in such situations. It was as if the faint pink flush of everyday embarrassment couldn’t find its way to his cheeks. It had evaporated, gone elsewhere; there was nothing written in his face but void.

His skin seemed unnaturally tight, like it’d been covered with a taught layer of saran-wrap. He placed his plate on the buffet table. It made a soft clink as it shook hands with the metal serving dish. He looked back down at the green beans, perhaps deciding whether he should pick them up, whether or not the act itself would exhume him out of that saran-wrapped entombment. Finding no answer, he scurried to the rest room.

Suddenly, I had an opinion. This was wrong. You just don’t beat someone into the ground like that—especially not someone like Murphy, our translator who probably loved “Shrek.” Trying to show conviction, I threw my napkin onto the table. I’d never felt so passionate before. Bill was right, and to an extent I agreed with him—but he was also wrong. Unlike Bill, I had no figures; no names of successful CEO’s; no information about Nobel Prize winners, or how individuals had shaped our country’s greatest inventions; what I did have was a sense of right and wrong, and that would do.

“You hurt Murphy’s feelings,” I tried to say with visible empathy.

I was polite; I needed to be polite to my boss. I remember looking down at my napkin while I spoke, noticing the wrinkles and the stains left by the kung pao chicken and the Beijing duck. The oil had started to dry.

“Look: he offended me, and he offended our country. I have done nothing but my patriotic duty.” Bill, no longer heated, was relaying his actions as an old man shares his collection of mores and life lessons. His eyes had a look of compassion in them that whispered: “one day, you’ll understand.”

“He’s allowed to feel proud of his country. At least he wasn’t being rude,” I attempted.

Bill thrust his napkin down in front of him. It glistened, the bright oils smeared against its exhausted threads. “Listen, you can’t let people get away with these things. You have to set them straight. They think their countries are so great– so much better than America, and it’s absurd. Murphy’s just another brainwashed idiot who’s going to go on thinking his culture has won—unless people like us give him the facts and shut him up,” he snapped.

I felt for my napkin, trying to collect myself. It felt crisp and I traced my hand slowly along the lines where it had been ironed. “He’s just one person… He’s been so nice to us,” I said as Murphy emerged from the rest room and slowly crept toward the military museum that was our table, toward the soiled napkins and the plates with grease smeared across their porcelain selves, their existence controlled totally by the whims of stomach and expensive appetite.

“Either way, let’s change the subject.” The other two voices at the table– our colleagues– quickly gave their consent.

Murphy returned to the table, plate vacant. He looked down at it, as though he was thinking about something to think about. He didn’t have time to find it, whatever it would have been.

Bill was going back for seconds. He leaned forward, the creases in his old face becoming more pronounced. It was a face of supreme intensity, a face that had lost touch with its former youth. It scared me.

“Listen Murphy,” he seethed, “I was in Germany once and I had to sit through an entire meal with this woman going on and on about how much she disliked America; how our cuisine was disgusting; our companies weren’t elegant like Mercedes and blah blah blah—well, do you know what? I waited patiently and I enjoyed my dinner, and as soon as she was done talking I looked at her hard and told her exactly where she was wrong and exactly what an ignorant European bitch she was. I was almost embarrassed for her: she’d hardly taken a bite of her food because she was so busy going on and on about her beloved country—then all of a sudden I let her have it and she hardly knew what to say because I had the facts and she only had opinion.”

Murphy merely sat there nodding his head slowly, eyes seemingly transfixed by the floor.

“The fact is, Murphy, that you foreigners hate us because, deep down, you envy us. We could devour your country if we wanted to and your culture would be right where it belongs; your esteemed coordination and desire to replicate and not innovate is nothing more than an iron shackle that keeps you all in line and stops you from becoming anything truly great. Because you see, Murphy, there’s nothing great about you. You can translate from Chinese to English but there’s nothing you can do that a computer can’t—you and your whole country, your idea of a ‘Civilization.’

“This isn’t my first time in China, Murphy—this isn’t the first time I’ve heard some pathetic infinitesimal soul try and tell me what ‘success’ means to the Chinese and how we in the West are too caught up with this idea of the ‘self.’ The fact of the matter is that you and your overpopulated country of replicators have no ability to think for yourselves. You manufacture and you steal ideas from other, more creative people, but you never actually invent or do anything remotely singular. No great human accomplishments came from replication– a colony of ants building some huge mound of dirt impresses me about as much as your utterly inane Great Wall—‘great’ only because of its scale. So keep on overpopulating our world and keep on using the sheer weight of collective numbers to feel impressed with yourselves: I think nothing of you. Now if you’ll all excuse me I’m going to bed.”

Murphy shivered for a brief moment, nodding his head at intervals. He said ‘goodnight’ to Bill.  All of a sudden, he reminded me of the way food looked after it had been left out overnight: hard with solidified grease latching on to what just hours before had been appetizing, alive with flavor and aroma. Murphy had become a jaundiced piece of chicken that nobody wanted anymore. He no longer looked confused. His confusion had been replaced with an emaciating sense of self-understanding, like he had understood for the first time that his natural disposition was to be disgusting and inedible.

As Bill rose from the table, he gave me a look of smug delight. The wrinkles in his face no longer looked like scoured granite. They were soft, rejuvenated, as if he had found the fountain of youth and had a small, salubrious drop. I said nothing, I did nothing. The other two voices floated off to some other topic—I believe it was the merger of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America.

I touched Murphy’s back, and he glanced halfway in my direction, his confused eyes darting up to meet mine for the smallest quantum of measurable human time.

We still had four days left on our trip, and Murphy continued to work as our translator. Bill of course knew this would happen. When he first launched into his tirade, he knew that Murphy was contractually obligated to keep taking our company’s money. That might have been what delighted him most in the whole affair.

The opinion I’d been waiting so long for is now just a distant memory. I wonder where Murphy is, whether he has a family, if he still thinks about that day he lost his color and became so small.

 

October 5th, 2011