We can use the simple present perfect to say that a finished action or event is connected with the present in some way. If we say that something has happened, we are thinking about the past and the present at the same time…
If we are talking about the past, we usually use past tense even for things which are still true and situations which still exist.
Michael Swan, Practical English Usage.
I think I made him up, conjured him out of loneliness and boredom. For why not call the child by its name, I can be honest if nothing else. I am desperately lonely, no point in denial any longer. The truth becomes more apparent every day, like my real hair color coming up through the roots.
My Angel. My Boon. Old Dragon. Toad.
I have to let you go now, you are released.
In my renovated teenage room, devoid of all marks of disaster, in the historyless Ikea oak chest my mother picked, a faded peeled sticker curls fetus-like into a tiny cylinder: Kiet Boonpan, #126774 B, Lard Yao men’s prison, Moo 3, Samut Prakan.
The missionaries typed it out and stuck it on their books and he was never ashamed of it. The books were lined preciesly and proudly on his desk, references to be consulted at any given moment: Know Your Own IQ, Letter Writing. The latter was an Indian book, later responsible for many email openings, “I trust you are all keeping in the best of health” and so on. Even that very first one, which said, surprisingly, “It has been three weeks I had the privilege of your company”, and ended with “but tell me in all honesty Karen, what to you think about me?”. I was but one week in Cambodia then, sick with a fierce stomach flue, and I laughingly told the girl I was with, a tough sinewy reefer rolling machine of an Israeli, that I thought I was in trouble… I sent a good humoured reply, pointing out our time measurement differences and telling him I thought of him as a great guy, a friend. There was a whiff of thrilling warning, but I was still craving a marble bodied Japanese guy I stayed with on the beach, and I was away in another parallel universe, and safe in the self absorbed, oblivious backpacker world of spaghetti straps and tanning and welcomed diarrhea-induced weightloss and socializing and cheap beer and circumventing amputee beggars and trips to the Killing Fields and the S21 torture chambers and sunburnt college dudes bragging rounds with A.K47s and fruit selling children, black againsit the scorching white sand, offering to come to the hotel room which in my sedated, slow to realize mind was but a curiosity, something that happened to me alone and stemmed out of nowhere, and I pushed it out of my mind.
I conjure him up like an imaginary friend, like my own invisible playmates years ago, the prebuscent lovers putting me to sleep with guilt and waking me with remorse and embarrassment, a secret world where teenage prostitute from the paper disappeared behind train stations with older men – to do what exactly? - Tween infatuation with boys that I watched from a distance, transfixed, as they roamed about in their world of shoving and laughter. Or the neighborhood boy I claimed was my Patrick Swaizy lookalike boyfriend, I could do that because no one ever got around to my side of town, and one time I followed him while he shopped with his mother, tingling with the thrill and the dread of pursuing an impulse, shaking with the certainty that he had noticed, and waited while they went into the bank, only to see his knowing smirk when they emerged. I kept following, hunched a little, until they disappeared in their home.
I can bring up anybody and anything just like that into my memory, or they appear and I shove them back under the murky dark surface – there are many things I would rather not think about, a constant layer of darkness under the usual embarrassments and guilty pleasures of my youth. In films when someone’s life rolls backwards on scratchy old homemade movies it’s always picnics and sandcastles, kisses and balloons, and although I was not denied that, this is never what surfaced from the swamp.
Kiet Boonpan transformed, taking on animated features like a storybook character, someone every kid should know: Bilbo, Peter Pan, the Grinch. All harmless and and comforting. I grind my teeth slightly whenever I think of him, like I did over my dogs, hugging them tight when they squirmed and struggled to cut loose, turning them over and pinning them down on the carpet, only letting go when they whimpered.
I miss him desperately in this windswept town. I miss him like my other half, like an amputated limb, a gaping space where my heart should be. Yet I escaped him. I couldn’t bear his sheer reality; worse: couldn’t bear the sheer humiliation of truly loving him, bared to the world like this. Pathetic, an aging child, a sickly little girl who turned out all wrong, went back to acting fine again, and relapsed, just like we predicted on the basis of obvious signs. For that is what I am now, an ageless, sexless thing, always smiling, willing to help (but not too much), worried perpetually over exams and commitments and general lack of purpose and future while I live my parasitic existence with its late mornings and days and half days off because I am feeling empty, or too full with food, or oversensitive, or jittery. I am slightly comic even when I get angry, slightly cheerful when I am upset, perceiving both as embarrassingly adult, something to be avoided, concealed along any other womanly traits I may have unwittingly developed in over thirty years of living.
Welcome to my world. Sounds like a chick lit title or a blog name doesn’t it, the funny-sad thirty-year-old. Thirty-one tomorrow. But I am not quirky and special and lovable at all, not in the individualistic way hailed nowadays anyway (“Be yourself, be what you are, just be” or something in this vein a lanky model would mutter while spread out on various urban surfaces). In a P.C. way of reference maybe, the way no one would want to be. But then again I am not under anyone’s lens anymore.
I’m not sure how I got here. This party house full of laughing young people. This town with half its population under 35 year of age. Well under, they should add in those publications that boast this as well as the fact that it is the bicycle capital of the country, if not the entire world. This country of cheerful, blonde, tanned, colorfully dressed tall beings who barely glance as I shift along ancient brick walls, my arms laden with ingredients for another wholesome, cheap meal, inevitably topped off with some binge or another. How did that happen? Better than this time last year though, but still carried downstream by forces beyond my comprehension.
One minute I communicate in pidgin and the next my jargon shifts completely and I give them what they want to hear, reconstructing myself as my new parental figures would supposedly like to see me. Who the hell operates this machine, or is it sheer chance that brings me to yet another location where I attempt again to reflect what is around me as precisely as I can, and I am gaining weight, devouring everything around, indiscriminately, secretly. Triple breakfasts, nights in front of plastic surgery reality shows with weed smoke curling incessantly around me. I must be suffering from some kind of distress. A distress always so separate from those annoying or worrying things I complain or fret loudly about. Who cares about passive smoking anyway, as though that will ruin my life, as though loneliness won’t eat me away from within long before any kind of cancer does. Drama queen. More and more coursework, however pointless, and a thesis that has null chances of being finished before the deadline shouldn’t make such a difference, or should they? My degree won’t be recognized at home, I think. They always think they are better than everyone, a kind of inferiority complex gone awry. And my folks are footing the bill. As soon as I’m not working I feel totally dysfunctional, hell, I felt dysfunctional even before that, I always knew I was employed by sheer chance and that in all truth I am incapable of taking care of myself. I am nothing without my parents, no matter what I post on my resume I wouldn’t last a month. And I am not a kid; hell I should be having a kid if I had anyone to have it with. Instead I am here playing at a second adolescence, so vain when young people are surprised at my age, exclaiming that I look so much younger. “Well maybe I do, but ultimately I’m not”, I say levelheadedly, keeping it real, while I’m all giddy inside, feeding on the cheap compliment. But within my husk I am transported from the cluttered communal space to the beaches of Sihanoukville with the sexpats and the dope fiends, the desperate gangs of street kids blistering in the fierce sun, and my own last pulsations of youth evaporating through my tanning pores, sickly-sweet un-urgent pricks of 20’s desperation.
Nor is my problem missing the Old Toad, although I do, I miss him so much that he becomes the epitome of loss. There are days when he is a ghost beside me, a phantom presence. But I get much more sympathy and feel much more normal confessing a love halted by circumstance, a tear-eyed acknowledgement that life is not a romance novel. I am happy but I I miss my baby, therefore I am lonely, goes the simple story the Erasmus students nod compassionately to. If the truth raises its ugly head I suffocate it with food and fret about my bulkiness as though this is the only thing keeping love, life, at bay.
I can email the nicest, most sympathetic people carrying on about unrecruited love against all odds and so forth. But I never do. Choose isolation. Perhaps the only choice available. Acting out, a term Angela used to refer to anything from hitchhiking to quitting a course to cutting to giving indiscriminate head, has been narrowed down to constant munching, telegraphic ranting and some localized complaining. I haven’t cried, or came, or called someone on the phone, or hugged anybody, in a very long while. In the last years the only person with whom I did any of the above is the Toad, and he has gone back into the hole. But even that is a myth, an exaggeration. I had sex with another, and a colleague haling from my present location has seen me cry a couple times, which makes her sudden disconnection even more of a betrayal. The problem was that he was for me not a man, but an Angel at first, Old Dragon later and Toad at the end. I had never called him a man, and even now calling him my boyfriend seems strange, unfitting. He is so much more than that, and his role as a boyfriend is so inadequately fulfilled.
“Sometimes I put on a certain shirt or pair of panties, and all of a sudden memories flood me, vivid like time travel. I am walking, eating and sleeping in another dimension shared with him. And not just with him – bits of me are scattered everywhere”.
Words I wrote a couple weeks ago. Rubbish. Self-deluding demagogy. I am full of selfish wants and desires, trying to make myself look more human, more worthy than I’ll ever be. My needs were always simple, but I ignored them: good looks, popularity, power, sexual satisfaction. Money as a tool, security, avoiding excessive labor. I have been sedating myself, but I was jolted awake by U. So afraid of what I had seen I crawled even deeper into the misunderstood, bleak existence I carved out for myself, a place where I could never be like the others and the only love was the awry misplaced kind.
It isn’t him that I miss. I can and will go back and recall countless lonely, bitter, yes, bad- to-awful moments. It’s me that I long for. My disengagement begun then and continued since. There were no internal objections. My escape from introspection and self-understanding took on increasingly circumventing routes. I have lost myself, and my self is still in some mildewed hotel room with a flickering TV and a sleeping exhausted ink-blotched lover. My self is swimming against strong current sucked into the drainage under the new jungle road on a muggy day. My self is asleep in his arms after fighting and crying openly like a baby. My self is walking alone, always alone and always walking no matter where I am, this time on the margins of the jungle along the steep hillsides that curve down to the choppy ocean, wildly driven pickups swerving close, craving escape, plotting my departure. My self is back suddenly, bleary-eyed and sour-breathed from three day of nonstop border crossings in airtight vehicles on potholed roads and into the swarming glittering megalopolis and back out again from the rat infested alleys to the comforting safety of my lover where I can finally collapse into sleep without even removing my stained clothes and the grime lining my nostrils. My self is afraid for days, certain escape is impossible, yet achieves it with the ease of uttering a departure wish. My self is even being assisted: he sews rips in the cheap baggage, his inconspicuous proud in his ability for help squeezing my heart like a fist.
Each time I undid my final goodbye to him a veil lifted and I could see colors again, could breathe freely. I knew I was not only postponing the inevitable but destroying the present and possibly the future, but I could not heed my own warning. Could not confront the loss.
I somehow knew that if I waited long enough my life will resume itself from the onset in a perfect circle. I did not want to remember. I knew that one day I inevitably would. Just like my poor insomniac father tosses and turns in his life story, certain he must write it all down in order to make it all valid, worth the pain and confusion which is often even worse, because at least pain is solid, something to hold on to.
I guess I had better start from the beginning then, if I am doing what my father should have been doing now, if triviality didn’t intervene for the umpteenth time in the form of occupancy in that lodge where he shuts himself yearly, conducting his writing ceremony. He resumes his duties then, the nedless trail of paperwork and favor-seekers at the city hospital where he runs a chronically understaffed and budget-cutted unglamourous ward, where old people shuffle painfully on their walkers and motherly, loyal staff are delighted with my appearance me and discreetly overlook my various states.
My father and mother are the ones who brought me into this world. Obvious, but I have never credited them with my existence as far as I can remember. Early years were spent trying to please; later ones expired over self-hating indulgence. I failed miserably not just at my own goals but became a glorious disaster, pushing the limits of my young existence, I was merciless towards myself and to a lesser extent towards others. I ended up flat on my back in a deep dark hole, sinking as low as was permitted. Whatever esteem may have saved me I owed more to sheer luck, chance, or God, than my own warped glorifications of addiction, promiscuity and madness.
I can start this story with the child throwing a knife on the hard ground after a funeral, or with the same child some years before lying in bed naked and face down, arms outstretched upwards, facing the wall like she was commanded to. I can start with the seventeen year old, jaded and fucked-up and –over, worn out and doped-up, throwing a tantrum upon discovery of an approaching death. Or the sedated fifteen year old high with some dirty old man or another. Or the sixteen, or was it eighteen year old, reading a poem about prostitution to her father, who took it badly, yet she had thought no such thing had ever happened, and yet it had, and was about to happen again. Each time worse than the previous one, if only because the times add up, closing in deeper. I can start with something cheerful like drawing or playing the guitar, but I know that throughout my childhood and early adolescence I was mostly haunted, abused and ridiculed – something in me just begged for it I suppose, or did I have the misfortune to be surrounded by particularly menacing adults and children? I wanted to protect myself against cruelty and vulgarity, and the best way was not just assimilation, something which put me in an even more vulnerable position than my previous cluelessness, but an outward and inward exaggeration of the aggression. It didn’t take long before I decided to take on my worse enemy – myself. My body was starved, and later mutilated, my sexuality tortured, my innocence trampled on with glee, and many taboos broken. If I could as uncaring and opaque as my torturers, no one and nothing could hurt me. Even my tantrums and bouts of crying were partially fake, camouflaging bleaker, darker emotions. I could easily go back and retrace countless awful moments, mostly at least partially self inflicted, and graphically narrate them, but at the bottom line, do they matter? A shameful confessional of this sort might make me miss the entire point: how I emerged, shaken but intact.
So maybe, at the end of it all, I don’t have a story to tell. I have not been redeemed. I have just gotten better. Some would say much better, but my biggest fear is that the scales could turn any time. I just know (for it has been drilled it into my head beyond knowing, into primal instinct, into truth) that as soon as I let go of my fears and inhibitions some terrible disaster would strike. Hubris costs dearly, but happiness is tenfold dangerous. If I have never been happy, surely I am safe. Irony is another tool to keep harm at bay. As long as I don’t take myself too seriously…
I don’t want to be “I”. I want to escape from Iself. But how can I do it, when every narrative leads straight inwards? I can tell another’s story, my own in the third person. Perhaps I should. It would ultimately still be my own.
The truth is simple. There would never be one person, let alone a man, a lover, who will redeem me. Life has shown me that there were people who helped me. A is an example of one of them. But ultimately, sex between a 24-year old and a 17 year old is wrong. The difference may not be as eyecatching as between a 15 year old and a 36 year old, or a 17 year old and a 47 year old (I am slow to wake up to the realization that both were probably even older, and again, does it matter?), and yet it is wrong. Especially the kind of 17 year old I was, out of touch with reality. He gave me acid definitely more than once too. A rock concert I had spent with my face buried in the grass while his friends’ girlfriends scolded at me. That Independence Day when we had walked the entire length of Tel Aviv in near-dehydration back to the playground under his sister’s flat, tripping, watched by appalled young mothers. Younger than I am now. I think now it is wrong to have sex in front of someone else, and while we never did purposefully we fumbled through uncoordinated stoned intercourse next to his cousin the marijuana addict, who slept his life away. But A cared about me. Tried to rid me of the horrible creature chasing after me, a despicable junkie I had hooked up with a few months later, who wouldn’t let me go. Only thing is, A saw him as a joke, a non-threat, while I was petrified. I had to coax A into calling him several times telling him to back off, perhaps even coming round to his house once, but the creature hang back in the shadows long after my contact with A had ceased, tormenting me occasionally with a menacing call even as late as in my late twenties. Each time I was more terrified as years passed and my life straightened itself out. I don’t know what I would do if he contacted again. I pray to God he won’t (a sure sign he will, Grandma would say, but would that be just to close her mouth to Satan? I don’t know, I know Satan was something I had to live with on a daily basis as a child, but I would never imagine that I would hook up with him permanently).
I have to remind myself, argue with the rising panic clutching a cold hand around my heart, that ultimately (although I came for help to my boss, the most ruthless man I knew at the time) I spoke up to the creature, after he disregarded my brother’s command not to call anymore. I was so afraid of my parents picking up the phone and hear his unmistakable voice. I reminded him how in my early twenties I had sent the police around to his place. At least that’s what the policeman said they would do, whether or not that transpired is another story. I was always getting mixed up with the police in the early days, although I had never been arrested, mostly due to sheer luck. I was so foolish and reckless and oblivious, I put myself in such jeopardizing situations that in comparison with them tripping with A. or sex with the aging TV presenter, unprotected of course, were actually havens of safety and relief. I enforced a chaotic, destructive life on myself, under the motto “you can handle anything”. I wanted to be unfazed no matter what, and so when reality finally caught up with me and begun to breath down my neck I slipped into a growing panic and even delusions of paranoia. I think now justification of paranoia is often underestimated. I think it stems from concrete and valid fears, but catches like a forest fire to devour everything.
Some months ago A. called my father, who was extremely reserved and suspicious until he later remember that this was the guy that I had justly claimed to have saved my life, for I would most probably have been dead by my twenty-first birthday if it weren’t for him. He left his email address; my father in a protective gesture that squeezes my throat and dampens my eyes refused to give him mine. But I did not resume contact with A, who is now living in Canada.
I am getting so tired writing this, although I have just risen after a night spent battling with sleep. I feel emptied, I feel as if this stream of thought and memory will never stop, flashing randomly as if on shuffle mode, and I will be exposed to this flood until I fail, until I fall. I have never tried to push myself forward. These days the idea of purging one’s body from food, detoxifying from poisons, is encouraged but I have never had the stamina to engage in that, I am too dependent on the distraction of binging and obsessing, on choosing the right nourishment, on the predictable cycle of it all and the small and big so-called sins, when the real sins tormenting me, my own and others’ left flickering in the crannies of my consciousness.
See, none of us know about tragedy. Authors make educated guesses at it, bounce perilously off its thin membrane. We read reportages of it from other world parts or the darker parts of our own world and shudder, afraid of acknowledging our luck, because we know that luck it is and because we know luck would fail us if we reveled in it like idiot celebrity-icons, destined to be admired until an imminent, inescapable crush.
Just like the happily ended movie never transpires, for us, tragedy’s aftermath never unfolds. But Boon was different, already after his terrible tragedy. He had already been in hell, not only as described by most people but purged through the real fire of loss, losing money, health, freedom, family and honor - and escaping back to purgatory, where he now resides. Funnily it is located in most people’s idea of paradise. After I have kissed him, was delivered the apple from his mouth, unable to break from its thirsting, quenching sweetness, I saw paradise break around me into shreds of reality that had nothing to do with the brochure-like surrounding of white sands and feathery palms.
The masses stream into the metropolises, famished and huddled, shaking while they sweat pollution out of their pores, dirty though they try to lather and bathe in the infested waterways, their clothes ragged, their feet blistered, scorching heat melting the plastic soles of their sandals on the cemented ground. Even before they resort to begging they already look like beggars. Long before they lose their minds they appear the disheveled wild-eyed part. The other poor, the not-as-poor, the strugglers in their polyester suits cramped on spluttering busses look on, blessing Buddha and the Spirits for their luck. But they do not dwell on their good fortune. Like me they are certain inevitable tragedy will ensue if they ever do.
We sit on the grass near the Northeastern station, across from the jammed, honking, steaming freeway, which is packed to the brim at this twilight hour. A scrawny man with torn shreds of cloth hanging from his body emerges from the darkening margins, pleading. I don’t understand and Boon won’t acknowledge. When he finally drifts away I express regret, as I often do, of not having given anything away. Boon is adamant: “don’t you know they are so dangerous? There are so many, crazy, they come from the East. There they have no work. They think they can make money here, but they have nothing. Now he cannot even go back”. In his pocket, Boon has a 20 dollar bill that I gave him, and that is all that he owns but the clothes on his back and a few notebooks. I am terrified he would the money, but I don’t say anything. He has no work, and I am leaving northwest to the border. He is going east, to try to get another job on the island. We have just spent twelve hours on a bus from the gateway province to the south. We rise and brush off dried grass and cigarette butts, walk slowly to the neon mayhem where we wait among sultry tiny doll-like girls wearing the latest fake brands and monks lying around their orange sacks and parasols, rough looking farmers and dangerous looking soldiers in camouflage and screaming babies on young hips. We pass the beggar. He is bending over an emaciated woman cradling a baby and restraining a wild-haired toddler by tagging on a huge, adult-sized T-shirt hanging from its tiny body.
“I cannot leave from you”.
Tears are in his eyes. His hands shake. I tell him to sit. I have just walked with him to his bus and bid an emotional farewell in the exhaust fumes, returned to sit at the Formica table in the cantine, waiting for my midnight bus to the Burmese border. In giddy, guilty relief I pulled out my notebook and wrote “I have just said goodbye to Boon” when he appeared, beads of sweat on his brow and upper leave. “You can leave me”, he says, “but I cannot leave from you. I will wait with you, OK?”. His voice breaks, eyes wide like a child’s.
I gesture, smile, quietly reassure, alien in this part I am playing, but also familiar to it, although I have never played it before. I the foreigner. I with the money in pocket. I with a couple of thousands tucked away in travelers’ checks, with an international credit card and with a family who will back me up should these fail. I with the suburban home I once considered a broken home. I with the useless degree which got me a job I can call a career even if I wouldn’t like to. I with a shameful past which is quite distant now, who spends as much money as he has to last him through his job search if she wishes on fake tan from Boots, clothes to fit a hip young traveler, an expensive bag to give porters should I choose to trek in the Himalayas on a whim – a ticket to Katmandu should only set me back a couple of hundred dollars – I with a yet-unexpired return ticket, good teeth cared for by the dentist and orthodontist, good vision thanks to corrective laser surgery, three foolish tattoos I could have done without, some scars I try to hide, a few computer skills, some language knowledge, a moderately sad life story, but nothing so shocking anymore – well, depends how you tell it. I sit there and I play the part and I reassure. When he says he wants to come with me, for the first and only time expressing this kind of weakness [I somehow knew it was coming, this is why I had felt so responsible from the start (don’t be ridiculous, he’s a big boy, Matt would say; a tough ex-con, I would add, smiling knowingly, not giving discounts)]. I am totally calm because I know how to deal with yet another crisis. And I find this analogy, this metaphor, I can’t write for shit but literature always saves me, and I say: “you could come with me, of course he is welcome to, but what will happen after I cross and renew my visa, I will go to the North, and what will happen then? I might end up in Laos and then in China, and where will you go, you don’t even have a passport, I can pay for you now Angel, but you are like a car without gas [and he perks up, cars are something he knows something about] and you can’t keep on going and going”.
“Right now I gave you money to get started again”, I say. “You have a chance, your friend just offered you a job and you said you would take it”. I speak slowly, evenly, my tone pleasant and measured, not unlike a hypnotist. “Don’t let your friend down. You know this is low season now, how hard it is to get a job, don’t miss out on this chance”. And I can see the acceptance in the way that his body settles, his shoulders become limp, and I want to raise my voice until it breaks and weep and shut the hell up, I am fooling him and myself, a terrible fear wells up inside of me while I am calmly explicating. This is terrible, an outright lie. But I order more food to swallow on top of the panic. We have been eating more and more, buying food every hour or so, going from stall to stall, trying all the vendors in the Southern town we stayed in, the sharp tastes diffusing our fears, sweetness covering spice, meat covering fruit, pastries and fluorescent bubble tea and roti and icecream and sticky rice and durian and fried chicken and curries and sweet eggs and salty eggs and noodle soup and duck in heavy brown sauce and Burmese delicacies, until even he has acquired a bulk around his boyish abdomen.
And all of a sudden, I was in my thirties. I had managed to circumvent my thirtieth birthday by spending it with a man, like in the old days. An aging Japanese teacher who lived with his mother and gave private lessons to sleep-deprived junior high school kids and meek housewives. When he was not handing out labored, meticulous explanations of English grammar in Japanese, he mostly hang around the foreign English teachers, performing all sorts of kindnesses. I soon found him tedious, but there were a few weeks spent cruising the striking countryside in his small Suzuki jeep, stopping at emerald crater lakes and maple leaf forests burning in ochre and orange, at the steep white cliffs collapsing to the see, spotting deer and fox and bear. I sent CVs and passport photos and cover letters from the only internet café in town, sitting in private booths made for porn and gambling while my money trickled away, and finally got a contract mailed to me, signed it and left. I had 10 days till the start of my job and wanted to go even further North, to parts hardly anyone reached, but we ended up in traffic jams between the sites around the two main commercial cities. We slept in our first love hotel and it was cozy and immaculate place despite having no windows and displaying sex toys behind a glass vitrine that glowed through the night. We made passionless but satisfying love. I yearned for Boon and managed to swallow my panic down sufficiently to fall asleep: it was past midnight, I was thirty already, and in a week, after visiting Kyoto and Tokyo, I was to start working and living in a place no one seemed to have heard of.
I started my new job. I lived in a small, plastic shoebox with an entrance and a balcony large enough to could step on, but not sit down in. I taught and smiled and planned lessons and drove a tiny company car to classes of sad screaming kids I learned to control in their native language. I took weekend trips to Tokyo, slept the hours there and back, wandered streets, learned the rail and underground systems, washed in the streams of pedestrians, browsed endless shops selling commodities I could never imagine, afford, or care for. Ueno, Akihabara, Shinjuku, Ginza, Ikebukuro, Harajuko, Yokohama, Shibuya. Friends wrote with news of new jobs and relationships, prospective weddings and babies. Even acquaintances with whom I exchanged email addresses as a polite form of departure put me on their mailing lists and informed me of their plans to fly to Minnesota to meet their partner’s parents and so forth. Each time I clicked open such a message I huddled a little, preparing for the sting of disappointment in myself, savoring hurt like a chosen candy.
On September 4th I was pointlessly scrolling through my list of unanswered messages when I suddenly jerked: it was the Old Toad’s birthday. I hurried to the Call Shop, but he was unreachable apart from a seductively purring woman on the voicemail service. I ended up in the Toko across the street, searching for food – all the fried strange snacks typically found and discarded in a road stop in the middle of the night when you stumble off the bus into the stinking toilet. Typical vegetables, cans of drinks I had completely forgotten were instantly familiar. Other customers were Asian and African immigrants, they belonged to communities, minorities. Was there no one in the world who felt like me? I bought some chilly peanuts and ate them slowly under an moss covered church, a site I would have typically liked to point out to someone, even my parents even, and thought how I will never be able to boast of this place as “my town”. I had grown out of thinking things and places belonged to me just because I lived in them. The iron sky hung low and imposing, damp and chill closing in, and it seemed that everyone in town was hurrying to snuggle in a warm circle of light with family or friends. I had felt even lonelier than in Japan, if loneliness can be quantified, as though all the endless walks and hotel rooms had finally come to a close.
He would say the most banal clichés, but coming from him I had to admire them, because he arrived at them himself, like some long-forgotten source of wisdom left for him to discover. “Eat to live, don’t live to eat”, for example. He liked to introduce them with a reference “like the book says”. Whatever book it was I have no idea.
“Are you sure?!”, J wrinkled her pert little nose in disbelief. We were seated near the bar at Dickens, the only Gaijin bar in town. She passed the passport photo, taken by a Burmese border crossing official when we had crossed to Victoria point, in which Boon was fiercely frowning at the uniformed man. Connie took a look and smiled her vacant pretty smile, unimpressed one way or another. “He is tiny, isn’t he?”, Jas exclaimed in her ringing received pronunciation. “I mean”, she continued cheerily, like that time she exclaimed about the good fortune conditions of the homeless forced to pass the winter under uniform blue polyathalen covers in Ueno park, “he looks just like one of those people, those immigrants, you wouldn’t look at again. So…. rough”.
I sort of shook it off with smiles and my usual careful politeness that appears before I am sure whether I am angry – a condition more likely to be hidden that not – or upset or humiliated. “Connie doesn’t think he’s weird, do you Connie. Doesn’t he seem normal to you?”. My voice was measured.
“Yep, a normal guy”, she produced her verdict. “In the Phillippines we have a lot that look like him”.
“See?” I pushed on, and that was the end of that. Within a few moments they were busy getting drunk and ordering food. “Japanese sausage”, said Connie in disgust, lifting a limp, thin grayish one off her assorted meats plate. I laughed drunkenly. She had a marriage of convenience to a semi-impotent Japanese twice her age.
I was too afraid for too long, and I couldn’t be afraid any longer. It was like I was surrounded by layers of reality. I never trusted my eyes. A smile could become a menace, and I was always aware of the skull lurking underneath, like the skeleton hidden in one of the central pages of “Our Body” in my grandparents glass book shelf.
I try and struggle so much that I keep ending in the same painful loop, unable to disentangle myself. I have real and imaginary disputes, crisis. Alone against the world, aloof among groups of friends and couples, I try to carry my pain as inconspicuously & lightly as I can. And I am always Ì in my conversations with others, because I am so hungry for companionship I can barely stop and listen, watch, pay attention when others talk about themselves. I am so chatty, so responsive, I barely let them finish what they want to so, and although I am genuinely interested, it is to see how I fare in comparison.
My nightmarish existence is proving unreliable, things really do work, to a point, the demons are internal. I am almost always positively surprised, the disappointments, hurts and even negative shocks are never undue. I am supposed to keep this mocking diary that no one will ever read but I can also write the story of an island, my island.