Hills

materialism

“Self Improvement is Self Destruction” by Lexy Gaduski (http://lgfoundobjects.blogspot.com/)

She isn’t sure what it is, the colors—Supreme red, the blocky black letters of Balenciaga, the wild marbled swirls of Dries Van Noten—sharpening like psychedelic blotches, the strap on her shoulder suddenly prickly and leaden, an indignant discomfiture that rises like a gorge in her throat until she furrows her brows and realizes with a start that it’s something akin to humiliation.  All the while the slanted-eye lady with a silk scarf wordlessly scans her from head to toe, a deliberate pause here and there.

Whatever it is, she hates the naked appraisal. What she hates more is what collapses within her, as she inadvertently, guiltily adopts that gaze and turns it onto herself. She doesn’t have time to control her drifting thoughts because almost instantaneously she regrets carrying the unnamed bag with the guitar strap she fancies so much. She wonders why she wore that funny pair of horn-rimmed sunglasses she bought on a whim in a shoe store instead of a logoed one. She even feels a spurt of what could be called gloating triumph or conceit—she doesn’t dwell on it—when she catches the glint of approval in the lady’s eyes as they land on her watch. She thinks—

Oh my God.

All her education, upbringing, and higher aspirations are stashed in some locked room. She doesn’t know how she became like this, whoever she is—like observing an unfamiliar reflection in a funhouse mirror, or discovering some other self that has been latent for a while—in this moment of encounter. But, it painfully occurs to her that she has become the kind of person she detests. She remembers the Horatio Alger books she grew up reading and then the Bennett sisters and suddenly of Daisy Buchanan and even briefly of a passage from American Psycho. She goes over the -isms one by one: capitalism, consumerism, materialism. The brand name dropping that she had an instinctive aversion to when immersed in the vulgar mind of Patrick Bateman. The superficiality of the Buchanans. Her favorite heroines and heroes always undaunted and untempted by wealth but devoted to a cultivated mind and character.

She feels sorry for herself, but her feet—she imagines invisible tendrils snaking down and down into an abyss of something frightful but delirious—stay rooted to the glossy floor. For a moment, she looks at the shimmering mess on the racks like a child in a candy store. There’s a whisper of a younger, simpler innocence, but a surge of anxious restlessness overtakes her. She’s on the other side of the hills now but she can’t remember where she wanted to go or how to go back.

*

She’s fishing out a bottle of peach juice from a vending machine when she gets it.

The hills that she has crossed, the path that she is fumbling through, they are all one person’s journey alone—hers. This new world she thought she has entered has no power over her unless she chooses to lose herself in it. There’s no external metric for self-worth, no essentiality of looking outside oneself for another’s evaluation, no actual force other than her own vanity (and perhaps, even greed) pushing herself to excessively covet, compare and subscribe to the material value of things. She lets the temptation of consumption and display roll over the tips of her fingers and tongue and the tightrope across her mind, and then surrenders it.

The past week seems like a dream now that she is back along the train tracks again, rice paddies by her feet and electric lines overhead.

She slowly breathes in through her nostrils and then out through her mouth.

She feels the roiling tumult within her finally quieten and she presses the softness of her belly.

She is, for now, content.

7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

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When she trudges home that night, it’s forty minutes later, after two transits and twelve stations. She is about to turn left, head down the bridge, cross the crossing under a flickering street lamp and follow that path she has walked for twenty-one days when she notices the 7-Eleven store. Undimmed, the fluorescent white from its windows beams steadfast into the night’s dark canopy. The orange, green, white and red stripes wrapping around its boxy edges are cheery, like a loud invitation to wandering souls. A stop for replenishing. A sanctuary for the untethered. Pre-packaged warmth, microwaved sentiment and cold douses of refreshment are for sale.

She pauses. On a night like this, hungry from dieting and exhausted from interaction, in a mood that can only be called ‘sunset’, the too pristine, uncomfortably synthetic, universally bright convenience store she has seen hundreds of times over in three continents suddenly looks welcoming.

The bell rings overhead when she walks in and a male voice intones a greeting. She moves briskly down the aisles. No one else bothers her after that initial welcome. Packets of food stare dully at her. The undemanding isolation of this shopping process ought to comfort her, but she feels a darkness descend. Whatever she has come to find, there is nothing here but the overwhelming urge to leave. She gives the fridge before her a perfunctory flick, chooses a small carton of strawberry milk and strides to the check-out counter.

There are a few prolonged beats of silence after the milk is scanned as she fishes out the coins from her pockets. She heaps the fistful of pennies and dimes onto the small tray, forming a tiny, tumbling glossy hill.

Sorry, sorry, she says, flustered, fingers clumsily picking out the unnecessary coins. Her head is bent in concentration because, after three weeks in this city, she still has trouble telling the coins apart. The cashier’s fingers enter into her vision, swift and practiced.

She’s pulling back her hand when her little finger and his index finger accidentally touch.

When she glances up, the cashier is blushing. He is slender but not skinny, with a buzz cut, a slightly tanned face, cat-like eyes, and an inscrutable countenance behind the practiced smile. Yet, as he blushes, his eyes crinkle and the banal demeanor ripples. She holds back a laugh. A sunrise, suddenly. Arigatō gozaimasu, she says. And unlike the other thirty-five times that she has said it today, she means it.

He stares at her and then, the blush recedes before he nods politely and recites the ritualized thanks, eyes unblinking and his role reassumed.

When the automatic door closes behind her, she eyes herself from torso to toe. She’s dressed in a baggy t-shirt and shorts, with sore feet clad in dusty sandals. Altogether unremarkable. She considers it for a moment and then sips her strawberry milk before turning left.

***

She goes through the same routine with him the next few times she visits the store on different days, at 11:07PM, 8:13PM and 8:30PM. She even feels something close to disappointment (but not quite yet) once at 3:23PM when it’s a glum-looking middle-aged man with an oily forehead who gives her change while cheerlessly smiling and bidding her thank-you. She doesn’t have time to stop by the 7-Eleven in the next three days. Serendipity, she thinks. And then she kills the thought.

On June 24, 2018, at 10:58PM, the local train pulls up at this nondescript station, twenty-seven people disembark and stream out through the gates. One of them feels her bloated stomach from a dinner of kishikatsu, furrows her brows almost imperceptibly and then gravitates towards the brightly-lit convenience store—standing like a beacon in the roiling silence of the night.

She feels his eyes on her the moment she enters the empty store. Did she imagine the swallow in his voice? The staple greeting sounds different to her. Her footsteps grow lighter. She doesn’t bother to think why she loiters at the central aisle in full view of the check-out counter as she blithely scans the fridge. The strawberry milk has grown on her, and she carefully picks one up after scrutinizing the expiry dates.

His lips twitch when he sees her in front of the counter.

After reading aloud the payment amount in his hackneyed intonation, she does not expect him to say anything (the sonata he performs has three movements: he announces the amount he has received from her; there is a lull, followed by a clear statement of the change amount; then, it all culminates in the dramatic thank-you—his unvarying finale).

In silence, she searches her skirt pocket for coins.

Strawberry milk again, he says slowly in English. His voice, stripped of the affected intonation, is unexpectedly boyish.

She freezes for a moment before hiding a smile.

Your English is good, she comments, looking up.

I’m having an English test. Tomorrow. he says, as he respectfully receives her handful of coins.

Daigaku? she casually asks. Her summer program classes take place at a private university a few subway stops down from Kyoto station.

High school, he corrects her in English. He meets her eyes steadily when he says those two words.

She tries to hide her surprise. You’re younger than me, she thinks.

I’m older than you. That’s what she says.

Really? he replies nonchalantly.

He thanks her as usual when she turns to leave, but before she’s out of the door, she hears him speak into the air behind her, Goodnight.

***

She comes back again the next day and the next. Ever since that first off-script conversation they had, a tacit agreement has been reached. He no longer bothers performing his sonata.

Not strawberry milk? he asks when she places a cup of yogurt on the cashier counter. She wishes she could have bought the strawberry milk but she doesn’t have enough coins with her after using them daily at the store. She thinks his English has gotten significantly better since she first remembered his face two weeks ago.

ī e, yōguruto tai, she replies. So has her Japanese.

He watches her empty the handful of coins from a pouch and blinks.

He suddenly bends down behind the counter and surfaces a few seconds later. There’s a dollar in his outstretched, sweaty palm.

You drop this? he says, slightly stumbling over these three words.

She is first confused. No, I didn’t— Oh, she says, oh.

When he gestures at the fridge, she floats there and back, a carton of strawberry milk in her grasp. She doesn’t even remember to check the expiry date.

***

So they keep talking—a few words here, a few words there. She mostly never lingers for too long. He never asks her to stay. Sometimes, there’s another customer and then, he gives her a shrug from behind the counter and she hears herself humming as she crosses the crossing.

Sometimes he tells her about this girl in his class he finds cute, or the Germany World Cup match he streamed on his phone. She would lean against the counter, sipping her strawberry milk.

Once in a while, in that winding two months, she watches a World Cup match with him on his cracked phone screen after he is off-duty, the phone propped up by two boxes of sour gummies between them on an unused countertop. He would pass her candy and recycle the wrappers. She would find herself stepping across the threshold into darkness hours later, the convenience store light a halo behind her silhouette.

***

She tells him that the date of her departure flight is near.

He just tilts his head.

I’ll send you off at the station, he finally says. It’s right beside the store, I can sneak out for a few minutes.

***

On the flight, she wonders what the past two months meant. She wonders about the first feather-like brush, the once-stale sonata, the coins passed between them and the blurry-eyed World Cup matches. She wonders how she ever thought to look up that day, from the isolation and her sunset, to glimpse a human face.

One person wanders, as she did. But two people are always going somewhere. She doesn’t know the route they treaded or the destination they wanted to reach. When he had leaned in beside the gantry to whisper ‘mata ne’, so close as if to kiss her, she had stuffed a carton of strawberry milk in his hands and pivoted on her luggage, darting into the station.

Moments later, he would have seen what she had written on the side of the carton and he would have smiled. He would.

strawberry milk carton

Quirky Snippets of An Untold April

I guess there’s an untold side to every story.

Professor Kishore Mahbubani!

He handed me a Whole Foods bag. I took a peek and saw a glass bottle of red wine vinaigrette resting against some other random-shaped items.

“There’re some salt, olive oil, and chili,” he said, “and chocolates.”

“Okay, I don’t cook, but thank you, Prof.”

I was sweaty and flushed from a run, but it struck me that it was the last day of his sabbatical at Harvard. His daughter’s boyfriend, a bespectacled, blonde man, offered to take the photo for us.

Later, it took me two trips to the Lost and Found counter in Science Center, three awkward conversations with a homeless person, a security guard and a janitorial staff, and more than half an hour before I resigned myself to guiltily abandon the condiments in the Canaday common room kitchen.

That was how my first student job came to a closure—the brown bulging bag, the watery red chili sloshing in my hand, and the almost psychedelic glint from the fluorescent kitchen lighting. They all felt like metaphors for something. I just wasn’t sure what.

***

We were sitting in Lamont.

“I’m going to press confirm?”

“DO IT.”

The laptop screen generated my freshly purchased flight itinerary. $452.80. A trip to Puerto Rico smack in the middle of Reading Period. We would arrive there on the 27th and return to Boston on the 29th, a day before I had a paper due. It sounded crazy. It sounded wonderful.

My phone buzzed with an incoming text. Don’t arrive on the 27th!

We exchanged glances.

It might be the baby back ribs we ate in Annenberg during dinner or the neurotic air in Lamont. We made snap decisions. It took no more than five minutes before we charged another $123.00 to our credit cards. The email with the changed itinerary appeared in the inbox—everything was pushed back by a day. Now, I was going to arrive back in Cambridge groggy-eyed at dawn after a sleepless night in flight, attend a rescheduled class at noon and then miraculously submit a final paper by midnight. I felt sorry for myself, but not sorry enough.

I thought about not going, but that would mean throwing my accomplice for the past hour under the bus. It would also mean that I couldn’t be the kind of person who could both turn up on an island during the weekends and still ace my work. That was a difficult reality to own up to.

At least it was until my mum, absent-mindedly playing poker on the other end of the phone, blithely commented, “Don’t be ridiculous, sweetie.”

It made me feel peaceful when I clicked cancel. I didn’t understand how a person could change her mind so fast. Why did I never know what I wanted only until the very moment after I acted? If I reversed every decision I made, where would I end up? How was any choice better or worse than another? It was all so arbitrary.

***

Two of my roommates and I went running.

We managed to stick together from Canaday to the MAC before dispersing once the river was in sight. One of them ran in her boots.

“I didn’t bring running shoes,” she said. “I asked myself, Would you really exercise in college? Nah.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I ran in heels every P.E. lesson in high school. My feet fit the shape more.”

I told her I was very impressed.

I was soon jogging by myself, down an endless path of asphalt merging with dirt then receding into concrete. The river flowed endlessly, like a long brushstroke, underneath sooty clouds. The ducks sitting on the banks looked almost human, studying the panting creatures in shorts trying to shed their freshman fifteen with an unflappable air. Could ducks get fat? I thought about J. M. Coetzee’s character Elizabeth Costello, who said that everything was an allegory. According to her, a dog could be a vessel for revelation, and each creature a key to all other creatures.

Amongst themselves, did each duck notice if one of them was fatter or skinnier? I saw my roommate standing there in her black, chunky boots at the end of the bridge and then, it no longer mattered.

***

The room was doused in mauve.

Yardfest had ended that evening. I had bobbed my head in the lawn for thirty minutes, grabbed three slices of watermelon, said hi to every effusively enthusiastic person, finished an ice cream cone and went back to my room to complete my draft—a modernist retelling of Song of Everlasting Sorrow—due at midnight.

At 9:34pm, I decided I was going to go to a karaoke outing. With a writing speed that I didn’t know was possible, I finished four pages in an hour and submitted it on Canvas.

I sprinted in heeled boots to the Widener Gates to catch the awaiting Uber. Half an hour later, we were in a karaoke room warm with cigarette smoke, beery exhalations, and some kind of dancing disco lights that painted everyone indigo. I didn’t know where to place my hands.

Then the familiar music I had heard in three continents started playing, Jay Chou started crooning, and my hands grasped a microphone.

Emily! Who is graduating T_T

Lots of love,

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[Story] Why Believe in Fortune Cookies

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She works in a dingy pseudo-Chinese restaurant that dons several hats: a bar, a lounge, and a dance hall harkening back to the eighties. The interior is soaked in shades of reddish-brown timber. An earthy scent weighs on the entire ambiance—the glimmer from the gilded Buddhas and the gaudy frescoes gives it the air of a Chinese burlesque. She half-expects people to burst into song, in cheongsams or cone hats, juggling yellow fortune cookies and mechanically mimicking the paw-wave of the fortune cat. “Exotic Chinese Fare!”

It doesn’t take her long after she first got here to find out that restaurants spinning an identical concept sprout out in this New England city like a sea of bamboo shoots after a spring rain—they run the gamut from homely to inauthentic to tacky to tackier. She doesn’t know what to make of it; perhaps, this sensation of her sphincter contracting and her skin aging is a sign of a run-down, worn-out spirit. Not just that. Sometimes, she catches a glimpse of herself: a stooping, indistinct shape in the glass windows with arms as thin as chicken feet. Tòu míng. She is sprinting in the snowy countryside. Slow down, màn diǎn. Down winding dirt paths that converge with the silken moonlit sky, every step is a frame in a receding reel of seasons. Chūn xià qiū dōng. A girl in pigtails tied with glossy red ribbons inhales to puff up her pudgy cheeks, flushed like a freshly picked apple, takes a quick, bold lick of a fistful of snow and giggles like wind-bells in the breeze. The restaurant window lightly quivers with her unadulterated wonder and the interior seems cheerier to the eye for a while.

Děng děng wǒ, she says to the girl. But the grimy windows can’t bear the weight of her gaze. She stares at her history until it stares her out of her own countenance. The bright-eyed girl cannot stay for long because this world of General Gau’s chicken, fortune cookies, tips, foreign tongues, white ghosts, and imposing ivy-covered Georgian collegiate buildings is not for her. Sometimes, when she closes her eyes, she is still sprinting, but the dark rolling hills and the moonless terrain no longer look familiar and she doesn’t stop to think of where she is going because she just might not know anymore. After a while, these images lock themselves up in a room. What room? She has misplaced the key. A life before now is—is increasingly like a film that she has watched a long time ago, a familiar mélange of etched lines, lilting duets between red-cheeked girls and hardworking boys, a rotating roster of characters, and blurry details. What stands out is the ending. A cheap triumph.

In this city reside smiling students in woolly red sweaters and bleached collars, ambition penetrating through their eyes and gleaming off their slick silver laptops, so young and yet already exuding the scent of privilege and success—Like that son of whats-his-name with those foreign candies. That must have been thirty years ago!but here it’s doused in an entitled sense of smartness. It drips all over the floor she mops, a stain that she can’t unsee. She cannot help but overhear sometimes, the students rattling off English like a hymn to a partial God whose covenant is so complex that even after thirteen years here she cannot pray to speak. That is how she always tells the students apart from the other diners. She will not bear to tell the rosy-cheeked girl licking snow what it is like here. Tell her what? The floor is never clean.

Sometimes, she will look up as the door chimes and see in the contours of a fresh-faced student the face of her xiǎomèi back home. The affection swells and wells up in her hands and eyes and lips and she cannot keep herself from breaking loose from wobbly English to ask them for their order again in halting Chinese. They will crinkle their brows distantly, or in polite confusion, and then she knows what she already feels in her bones—they are all not xiǎomèi and can never be.

It’s a hazy afternoon when business is a trickle that she decides to eat one of those fortune cookies that the restaurant gives to diners with the bill. The slightly sweet, but almost tasteless cookie pokes against the roof of her mouth. She crunches it hard, then pulls out the half-wet strip of paper from between her chapped lips.

She doesn’t understand the words on it at the first quick glance. As she makes out the aphorism, she feels and sees first the grease on the paper, the curled edge of it slightly soggy with her saliva, and the words in tiny print, an almost cruel shade of blue on white.

L-i-f-e i-s f-a-i-r t-o a-l-l.

She watches the white strip paper float, excruciatingly slow, before soundlessly hitting the ground. At the periphery of her vision, the ceiling overhead seems to close in on her. Méi guānxi, méi guānxi, méi guānxi. A frantic motto. The ceiling seems to collapse but it doesn’t. The ceiling doesn’t collapse but she knows as something strong finally begins to crumble.

On Black Friday Morning, in a Sun-lit Café

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BLACK FRIDAY — 10:40AM, Friday

She sits there, her heart a solid thudding of the metronome, an old man’s pace. The café is a startling white, clean like a repurposed showroom. The rows of baked goods behind the open-air counter are a dash of brown-gold, like yolk nestled in egg-white. Patterns crawl across its interior; grey wisps swim on the marble tabletop; black tiles mark out the honeycomb mosaic floor her brown boots are tapping on. The monochrome is artificial to the strained eye. She has been up since midnight and it’s already almost noon.

To her right, another girl is collapsed against the bistro chair with shopping bags pooled at her feet—the little red star of Macy’s peeks at the trio.

“I guess this is the American Black Friday experience,” the guy on her other side says, somewhat in wonder.

She is too tired to make a scintillating comment. Her cleverness has abandoned her in the wake of the sheer exhaustion from staying up beyond 24 hours, the rapidly dwindling adrenaline of battling in the discount-strewn aisles, and the curious, surreal feeling that Thanksgiving night half a day ago seems like a fraying memory several-years-old.

The plate and cup before her are empty except for crumbs and foam on the rim. She remarks, “I’m starving.”

“Still?” the girl on her right laughs. She’s about to say something else when a server stops in front of their table.

“Oh, my food is here,” the guy says, sitting up, as the server places the croissant sandwich on the table and whisks away the number stand.

She might not know now but she will remember and thank this moment to come. This moment as wet sunlight is touching her weary face and a warmth buds unexpectedly, as the realization washes over her that perhaps all she thought she had known about what love means is wrong, as he nudges the sandwich towards her—stubbled face, black-rimmed glasses, blood-shot eyes, incompatible sexuality and all—and tiredly says, “Eat up.”

It dawns on her gently, an idea of what matters in this waiting and searching for someone to like simply and wholeheartedly. She hugs it close to her.

THE DAY BEFORE, THANKSGIVING DAY — 11:40PM, Thursday

She is in the car, listening. Her fingers are numb from the cold. She pulls out striped gloves from her pockets, wears them concentratedly, but cannot block out the la-di-da voices around her.

She knows, in this tiny vehicle weaving through the night, that she is placing something down. As she casts aside old understandings, she is uncertain what to think next. Some new understanding is taking shape in the dark, still nebulous.

She doesn’t know now that she will—in a sun-lit café the next morning after an unbelievable night—finally understand that perhaps reputation means nothing, as do complexion and pretensions, superficial impressions and fleeting interactions, and too much a dosage of self-assurance.

But, there and then, in the car, all she thinks is yes as her phone screen lights up with the message: Black Friday shopping? Like in 15 min?

Her gloved finger starts typing out a reply.