[Story] Remembering Jamal Khashoggi

Author’s Note: Wrote this story in March. Today marks one year since the gruesome murder (and dismemberment) of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

One morning before class, on a misty pink spring morning, I went on Twitter for the first time in forever. Behold then: a trailer for CNN’s Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of Secrets.”

The video automatically played the following snippet of conversation. It blanketed me in a sudden drift of coldness — as though some invisible, icy fingers were slowly wrapping around my body. 

“Why would you bring a bone saw to an interrogation?”

“Any saw could dismember a human being.”

“Why did they bring any saw?”

In the bright daylight, I felt physically sick. Many months after his gruesome death, a morning post-daylight savings time, the story of Jamal Khashoggi made me want to draw my knees up against myself, numbly rock back and forth, and take deep breaths — a muted pressure behind my temples to pray for redemption and the assurance of goodness. I looked into the intelligence gathered on the last moments of his death, and in an attempt at catharsis, I recreated it.

***

He must have drawn a quick, sharp intake of breath when he turned around the corner. He’s here, in this quiet district in Istanbul, picking up papers. Papers that would allow him to marry Cengiz, with her wet lashes brushing against her thin-rimmed glasses. Cengiz who is waiting outside. Cengiz who is Turkish. Turkish whilst he is Saudi.

The consulate is the same as last time. At least, at first glance, it is so. But, he is turning this way and that, entering deeper into this flaxen yellow labyrinth. Towards the heart of it, towards the papers that he has come here to get.

The thought — just briefly, like the caress of whiskers — must have touched his mind. Suggestively. They wouldn’t dare. Of course not. 

When he steps into the room, glancing up at the man who comes to meet him, he knows that those whiskers — ticklish, impossibly so — should have stung him. This man should have been some nice, slow bureaucrat, who might have asked for a photo or offered coffee.

“What are you doing here?” he asks the man-who-has-come-to-meet-him.

He is old now, he cannot run, and there are another five men behind this one and more slinking in the shadows of the door frame. He is already at the heart of the labyrinth, staring into the mouth of the abyss, mid-swallow. He should not have been able to recognize this man, but oh, he does. Though how he wishes that he doesn’t. Because this man-who-has-come, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, is only the teeth. The darkness behind him is the man he has played chess with from across oceans. MbS.

Mutreb speaks, “You are coming back.”

His glasses fog up. He grows suddenly aware of the mechanisms of his body, like a fish out of water with all senses enlarged. His veins powderizing, his windpipe constricting, his skin papery, prickling, poised to be peeled any moment now. Their fragility made apparent by what could only be a revelation of mortality.

“You can’t do that,” he says, keeping his voice steady but there’s a sheen of perspiration on his head. “People are waiting outside.”

The air-conditioning is on full blast. Nobody speaks for a moment.

He watches what could almost be a smile stretch over Mutreb’s face. Blink.

The men are on him. There’s no more dialogue. They are grabbing him by his arms, and he flounders, tripping on the hem of his thawb. Someone grabs him from behind, thick hands closing around his neck. Another palm, sweaty and hot, closes over his face.

He fights for air. Loud gasping. He is buried alive in billowing folds, smothering hands, violent fists, and that steel-like grip around his neck. His world is screaming. He thinks Cengiz ought to hear this cry that is penetrating and shattering the roof of the universe, but when his mouth finally forms the shape of words, he only hears himself from far away. The weak rasp of a drowning man:

“I can’t breathe, I can’t—”

There’s a scuffle like a final tumble.

Panting.

The fans whirl overhead.

***

The story was written back according to this CNN report: ‘I can’t breathe.’ Jamal Khashoggi’s last words disclosed in transcript, source says.

More recently, a detailed transcript of the conversation between Khashoggi and Mutreb has been released by the Daily Sabah, so my rendition is actually inaccurate: Saudi hit squad’s gruesome conversations during Khashoggi’s murder revealed.

May you rest in peace, Jamal,

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Confession: “I Was Born A Writer”

I’m not sure that Morocco or France are my countries… No, my country is language. My country is a library.

Have you ever felt utterly exhilarated just listening to someone talk?

I was in a conference room somewhere in the basement of the Center for European Studies. Leila Slimani was in conversation with my Advanced Fiction Professor Claire Messud.

Every single word that tumbled out of her mouth — matter-of-factly, resolutely, spontaneously — was setting off fireworks in my head. 

I was born a writer, she said. I always knew I was going to be a writer. 

When hard things happened in her life, even before she started writing her first novel, a part of her was always thinking, Now I’m getting closer to my destiny. Every moment, life was giving her material that could be digested and transformed into literature. So you’ve survived, now you can write. Everything is literature. 

When she said the word “destiny,” I was falling through time and space. When I was in first grade, the school project for the holidays was to fill out a 10-page activity sheet on our life ambitions. (Think: when I grow up, I want to be x.) In 2005, my dad was a computer scientist with entrepreneurial zeal and my mom was a homemaker armed with an engineering degree and childhood education diploma. I wonder how I knew even then the destiny of those letters as my seven-year-old self painstakingly penciled the word: w-r-i-t-e-r. My most primordial instinct, before socialization.

Then I lost that sense of destiny.

Sitting there, hearing Leila talk about how we reach the unreachable and the unspeakable with respect and tenderness in art, about the sheer freedom of writing (we can write about anyone from the inside with intimacy, even monsters or people we hate), about how writing is never to judge but simply to reveal how a person is like, gave me vertigo.

I don’t know if I have talent but all I know is that if I wasn’t a writer, I would have been a bitter, angry, jealous person, Leila said in response to my question. In writing, I accomplished myself.

She was the silhouette of a 37-year-old I hoped to grow into, what I had let fall in the march of years, and what I so desperately wanted to believe, believe, believe. And to remember.

I was born to be a writer. I am going to be a writer.

Even if some days I can’t write, even when I’ve never written anything close to a novel, life has an arc, a constellation of dots, a thrumming of strings ONLY IF WE CHOOSE TO SEE. This vision, undercut by my own doubts, has been postponed, danced around in conversations, swept aside and buried when it wasn’t achieved in 21 years of existence.

But these years should neither be proof of my inadequacies nor a tractor demolishing intuition. The life I’m living through and the inner life that’s ever-shifting within me are all pieces and strands that will eventually crystallize. Every moment I’m just a step closer. 

Thank you, Leila, for the sheer imprint of your burning-hot conviction. I’ve never met someone this serenely confident in the meaning of their existence. You’ve delivered my sense of destiny back to me.

Leila Slimani Harvard.jpeg

Here’s an article about Leila from The New Yorker: The Killer-Nanny Novel that Conquered France.

Here’s a short story by Leila, The Confession. Trigger warning: it’s from the perspective of a rapist.

***

Lots of love on a revelatory day,

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[Story] Dog Days Are Over

Author’s Note: Found this buried in my drafts from 2018. Just a random little story on the impressionistic, surreal flicker of a college encounter between a girl and a boy (and dogs). 

Raining Dogs

She met him in the dorm room with a slanted ceiling. It was a mixer of about fifty people, with a makeshift bar (a scruffy-looking bookshelf colonized by dark liquor swimming in bottles), the washed-out glow from two sentry-like lamps, a lack of ventilation that put to sleep the dogs in her mind (a quiet bubble in a sea of noise), and the bright red cups swirling on sweaty hands like neon atoms in the dark.

He had a forgettable but good-looking face and an open, sudden smile. She had glanced up and there he was, a flash of white teeth and unfamiliar eyes.

It felt like it could be the beginning of the Play, which she didn’t know if she wanted to be a part of. Because that was only one day after she thought she had inspected the dust particles gathering on the stage. It felt impossible that any performance would ever start. She didn’t dare to read the opening lines of a new script that she might have to once more figure out. She walked away, cloaked in the memories of gray carpets of non-beginnings, unlived possibilities, and almost-heartbreaks. Her mind yelped, but she told it: Shh.

*

When she saw his name on her phone the next morning, everything was too quiet. In the stillness, she tried to remember how he looked like. She could only draw up hollows and shadows and teeth and eyes, an outline of a feeling, something close to being airborne. The dimness had rubbed his person of the valleys and ridges.

Her fingers tap-danced across the screen. Then the phone made a tiny arc through the air, landing on the cushions. The paws in her mind lifted by a whisker and with the pull of gravity, fell.

**

She didn’t expect a conversation to develop out of that encounter under the slanted ceiling. But, she found herself replying, enveloped in the rhythm of what could be an opening act.

When she made her way towards the T station, three days after the first phone message, she almost thought she might not recognize him in the glaring expanse of broad daylight.

He was wearing a white shirt, and he watched her as she came to him.

He wanted to say something, but she — more alive, less withdrawn than in the dorm-room light, was now full of sharp edges and splatters of colors — started talking. No scripts, no audience, just two people, almost strangers, barely friends, drawing an emotional asymptote on an unknown plane.

So he listened, the boy inside him first raising an eyebrow and, as the night went on, her animated words were punctuated by an undeniable pounding in his ears, like the sound of small palms fervently clapping in an empty auditorium. As she talked, he was nodding, and slipping, and tumbling down into a hole, gaping open. It was exhilarating.

***

She said goodbye to him by a bookstore.

I talk too much, she said, almost helplessly. The And Yet hung in the air between them, like subtitles. Anecdotes poured out, so did the crinkled, dog-eared details she thought she had long forgotten, drab, insipid, self-indulgent, confessional, strange, inconsequential bits and pieces of the arc of her life. And yet he listened. And yet she felt listened to.

Plans were made, a stroke here, penciling a vector there, in the blank space and black lines, a promise of something. And then a lull.

She felt the brief touch of his hands on her lower back. The enfolding of arms. The barest of hugs.

As she walked back to her dorm, she tilted her head to grasp the cacophony of barks in her head. Oh, shut up, she said, but couldn’t stop smiling. Shut up. Shut up.

****

He didn’t text her for five days.

The dogs were wild. They blanketed everything.

When she saw his name on her phone after the gap, everything was too loud.

*****

They stood close to each other like the first time, sat across from each other like the second, but she had the sense that everything was going terribly wrong. Somewhere between the crunched up movie ticket stub in her fist and the silences in the uber, between his distracted eyes and her reluctance to say anything, the tenor of this evening had changed.

They had not seen each other for merely a week, but it keenly felt like a meeting between two strangers. Strangers who knew too much about one another.

Tentatively, they tried to venture into unexplored terrains — Florence, childhoods, pasta — but each time they sought to erect a pole to build anew the tent that could house two souls, the earth turned to quicksand. So they kept scrambling, exerting force at All The Wrong Things, squinting in concentration, not meeting each others’ eyes, building a set like single-minded craftsmen, grasping at their shambling dignity and splintered ends.

The And Yet that had wafted over from the effulgent night a week ago, brimming over with everything said and yet so much unsaid, now crumbled into dust like moth wings between calloused fingers. She stared at him, and he stared at her.

He walked her back to her dorm. He responded to all her questions. He offered to pay for dinner. She laughed at all his jokes. She asked him one question after another. She allowed herself to be hugged. And Yet. And Yet. And Yet.

As she stood on the elevator, alone and watching the blinking lights move up each floor with a steady tick and a lurch, she felt she was leaving him on the ground as she went up higher and higher, back into a life without performance. All the memories of the three encounters were receding in the distance, he was becoming a speck, and the dogs nuzzled her solemn ego, her cool heart, her shredded script, and they were respectfully quiet in her mind in its moment of incredible stillness and clarity.

******

She learns two new lessons about gaps:

Lesson Number One:
There is a gap between the contours of Ideal Type and someone you can actually fall in love with. 

And
Lesson Number Two:
There is a gap between being in Love and loving the idea of falling in Love. 

*******

She knows that nothing in life will last. But, she says a little prayer as she lulls the dogs to sleep: to look at a boy and feel the whole world fade. And then she too can fade into old age, into ashes, into oblivion. With a rose in her hair and the dogs sighing in content.

Path in the Forest

April is tough. And brilliant. ᕦ(ò_óˇ)ᕤ

Easter Egg: Screenplay at the end of the post. 🥚✨

team

()

🌏 Harvard China Forum 💡

April 12th to 14th, Harvard College China Forum happened.

Remember last year when I was the Programming Associate in charge of the Culture Panel (ft. Fang Wenshan 💕)? As the Programming Chair this year, I oversaw how my amazing team put together an entire conference’s worth of content together. China’s growth will be one of the defining stories of our time and perhaps, we have shaped that narrative somehow.

Nothing beats months of brainstorming, invitation-writing, cold-emailing, drafting of panel descriptions and discussion questions, numerous color-coded spreadsheets, coordination of individual speaker logistics (400+ WeChat notifications and overflowing inboxes every day), the introduction of panelists to each other, staying up late at night at the GSD (Graduate School of Design) reviewing design details, and of course, the three forum days when everything came together — like the greatest show, painstakingly and lovingly built, scripted, and performed by numerous hands; like something that seemed to pass too fast but still endures, gathering minds and presenting ideas like cradling two brilliant continental halves of an earthly heart before a thousand people.

The number of speakers:

120+ (including Kevin Rudd, Jin Liqun, Yu Zheng etc.)

Kevin Rudd at Harvard China Forum

With Kevin Rudd, the 26th Prime Minister of Australia, who spoke at our Closing Ceremony ✨

The number of panels: 

11. (Finance, Entertainment, Pharmaceuticals, Technology, Arts, Culture, Philanthropy, International Relations & Development, Music, Philanthropy, and Entrepreneurship)

The number of keynote ceremonies:

3.

 

The number of attendees:

1085.

Thank you to each of you who made this another great year. ❤ I’ve learned so much from this journey that never ceases to amaze me — at what other institution in the world would this be possible? The incredible caliber of speakers, the sheer depth of dialogue, the commitment from everyone involved, and the team that handles this professionally demanding role outside of our busy Harvard lives.

The other day at an IOP (Institute of Politics) dinner, I met another student who asked me intently, “Do you think we should be afraid of China? Like with their One Belt, One Road initiative?” It is moments like this when I’m convinced that there is a great need to bring thinkers from the U.S. and China in dialogue on all fronts, at a place of learning where misunderstandings and stereotypes really do still exist BUT, at least, where people are curious and seek more answers beyond the reign of media and the limits of historical subjectivity.

Blessed to be here and I hope I can keep growing alongside this forum.

(´・ω・`)

paper-writing woes 😪

In the dimly lit DeWolfe common room, I’m curled up on the couch against the floor-to-ceiling windows. I felt timeless. It could be 2AM or 5AM. The hours are collapsing into one other.

In the hours spent typing away, tiny black letters crawl over the blank page on my laptop screen like an ant army, expanding the boundaries, encroaching on the ever-expanding territory of whiteness… My thoughts flowing and flowing, like a stream punctuated by soft, rhythmic punches on the keyboard.

It’s a draft for my History & Literature sophomore essay — 3000 to 4000 words in length, on any topic that has to do with ’empire’ or ‘imperialism.’ My topic of choice? Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (not the movie!!). What does CRA have to do with imperialism? At first glance, not much. After two days of reading, knee-deep in literature, all kinds of thoughts jump around my spinning head: what does the novel tell us about ‘Chineseness’? How can we understand class — in particular, the elite Chinese diasporic subject? How are capitalism and mobility in interplay? In the background, against which all the drama, catfights, and ostentatious displays of wealth are set, there is the postcolonial city-state of Singapore, where I grew up in.

Behind me, tiny filaments of light are seeping through the blinds, painting my bare legs in stripes. Bleary-eyed, I press one finger on a blind and peer out of the window. Gentle, pale sunlight touches my cheek.

I look at the digital clock. It’s 6:28 AM.

Here marks the first time in college I’ve stayed up all night writing an essay. It’s not cool — the big, red pimple on my chin will be a battle scar — but it feels like a college ritual that has finally happened. Here’s what happens when you have three papers due in one weekend.

April is tough, tough, tough!!!

ʕʘ‿ʘʔ

🤖 what have i been reading? 🧟

For the latest paper in one of my courses, “Forbidden Romance in Modern China,” I’ve decided to write a screenplay adapted from the most violent scene in Yu Hua’s Classical Romance 余华的《古典爱情》— it’s a short story that parodies the literary archetype of the Scholar-meets-Maiden romance (think: Peony Pavilion 《牡丹亭》) by subverting it with irrational, absurd violence that recapitulates the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. A climactic moment in the story is when the scholar is in a tavern and discovers that his long-lost beloved is being chopped alive for consumption in an adjacent room.

I decided to re-write that particular scene of monstrosity and bleakness into the format of a screenplay. (Scroll to the bottom of the post for my short 6-page screenplay. Hands down, the most violent thing I’ve ever written.)

How to represent the unrepresentable? How to imply violence? How to avoid explicit gore, yet still create suspense and dread?

As someone who is adamantly and unabashedly terrified of horror and thriller films — the scariest movie I watched until I turned 16 was Spirited Away (imagine your parents turning into pigs?!) —  I decided to approach this academically. I researched the best thriller films (they had dreadful names… Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre… And some that were more normal like Hitchcock’s Psycho.) and read their screenplays to study how they conveyed violence. 

The result? I was shivering in broad daylight and was terrified to turn off the lights at night. (My roommate also happened to be away. T_T)

In the meantime, to relax my English-addled brain, I also fell down the rabbit hole of Chinese novels which are CRAZILY GOOD. The genre of choice has been a mix of mystery and speculative fiction — one that I really liked is about being infinitely suspended in a Matrix-like game that simulates real-life unsolved cases.

Sigh, happily reading while floundering in a sea of deadlines. Now I’m five days away from leaving campus and ending my Sophomore year. Books are time machines!!!

Lots of love,

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[Valentine’s Day Short Story] April, I Arrive on The Shores of Your Love

Author’s Note: Here’s the first short story I wrote in college. It’s from 2017. I workshopped it in the first creative writing workshop I took at Harvard — thank you to Claire Messud and everyone else who gave me their precious feedback. The writing might be kitschy at parts and the style is also rather different from how I write now. But, here’s a story for those yearning for love and also those who are happily in love. Happy Valentine’s Day! x

All illustrations below are by a talented Vietnamese artist I came across on Pinterest tonight, Xuan Loc Xuan, whose artworks somehow tie in astonishingly, effortlessly with the lives of three women. 

Parrot

The bar is closed. Sometime between darkness and dawn. Kento sits behind the counter, surrounded by pyramids of bottles from floor to ceiling and an assembly of shimmering glass. His fingers, bathed in the dusky retro lighting from the lanterns overhead, drums on the mahogany. This is his crystal vestibule. But, right now, his fingers look like they are rubbed with faint streaks of blood. He is almost afraid to touch the book before him. What if he sullies it?

He unbuttons his vest, rubs his hands, and noiselessly mixes the cocktail that gave him his first sip of fame; it has been a while since he last made the Taiko for himself—It’s her favorite drink here, he thinks, as he downs it in a gulp. When his tongue swipes against the residuum of bitter matcha powder on the roof of his mouth, he wonders if this is why she drinks it so religiously. It has been exactly four years and eight months, he thinks, since she first walked in. Wearing sunglasses past midnight. Looking like a lost tori. That night, she sat there in silence staring at the Taiko she ordered. He alone saw the drops that trickled down from under her metal shades into the green swirl. He said nothing.

She came back the next week, and then, the week after. It took him a while to realize that she wasn’t frigidly aloof like those other moneyed Japanese women who frequented the bar. She was just painfully awkward. It took him even longer to realize that she was, in fact, a writer—her unsmiling photo on the back covers, hesitantly staring into readers’ souls from the bestselling racks. Her most recent novel published last year was even getting adapted into a film starring Ume Yuji.

Just yesterday, she asked him, “What is the Taiko to you, Kento-san?”

“Taiko? It’s love. I’m not sure if you’ve fallen in love before, Yuri-chan, but it’s everything. Bitter, sour, sweet, and a burning feeling that then dulls into solitude.”

Her eyes flew to his hands before looking down. A quiet moment passed between them. Then, she took out a book from her handbag. “This book to me is like the Taiko to you. It’s my gift. I hope you read it,” she said. She left without ordering anything.

Now, the Taiko has given him courage and awakened a long-dormant thought. Can it be?

He holds the book, feeling its smooth spine. His curved knuckles rest against the hard wood. April is scrawled across the light brown cover, which has printed creases. It looks like a piece of cardboard, he thinks.

He flips open the cover, his index finger briefly touching her printed name, and begins.

***

on a train

— March 31, 2013 —

She couldn’t help staring at him. She didn’t expect to see him again. An anorexic girl sat a few feet away, giving her the side-eye every so often; on the other end, a tiny kimono-clad grandma with a silver bun primly perched on a seat, orange Daiei grocery bags pooling around her sandaled, flaccid feet; and, sprawled across four seats, two high school boys with brilliantly bleached hair who, considering the hour, must have skipped school. While her usual rush-hour mornings were spent on trains brimming over with men and women in monochrome suits, this was a sparsely occupied carriage with specks of personality.

And there he was: a tousled-haired young man slouching against the white train door—of a small build, but lean instead of stocky. His dark eyes looked like they had been mascaraed—framed by very, very long lashes, she decided—below gently arched brows, resting slightly far apart above a roundish nose. There was a shadow on his left cheek, which turned out to be a dimple on second look. He wore a long-sleeve navy and white striped shirt, a ticket stub sticking out of the cotton pocket on his left chest. He didn’t look too poorly-shaven for a homeless boy. Perhaps, he lied that day?

She wondered how others saw him, a face constructed in delicate strokes, maybe soft and unthreatening, an underlying glint of narcissism in every curve and every line. He knew he was attractive. If so, she did not see him the way they did. He was to her violently tantalizing, appearing out of nowhere each time, searing her sensibilities. Her lips parted a little at the thought of walking up to him. She smacked them and tasted the bitterness; ah, the shimmering warm pink of Marc Jacobs Have We Met? 108. She inhaled sharply.

You are already late for work, she reasoned with herself. You told him off that day, why change your mind? You rarely change your mind. But, she could already feel the gears in her mind eagerly reverting their course. Let them watch.

His eyes darted down from inspecting the ceiling to meet hers. It was a disinterested glance. Bored, almost goading. He flicked his gaze away after a few seconds too long. She wasn’t sure if those seconds held in them any gleam of recognition, but she would know in a moment.

He looked back at her as her stiletto heels clicked across the carriage. She smoothed down her pencil skirt, wiping the sweat that gathered on her palms since she saw him.

“Hi, I’m Etsuko-chan,” she spoke quickly, before this spurt of crazy courage ran out.

“I remember you. But I don’t need a lady friend.”

At work, no intern around his age would have dared to treat her this way. But, right now, this didn’t bother her at all. The words tore out of her rouged lips awkwardly: “I’ve changed my mind.” She was trembling like a loose leaf, autumn-red.

He looked less wary now, the hard set to his mouth softening like the bowed wet edge of the cardboard in that Tuesday’s downpour. Ever since she had lifted the soaked lids of the cardboard box—a box that read “UNWANTED PET” in a Sharpie scrawl—beside the back entrance to her apartment building three days ago, she had been haunted. Angled towards her widening eyes, his striking face was lit by the dusky glow of the streetlamp. The raindrops slid off his cheeks onto the hollow of his collarbone. That day, he was curled up like an umbrella handle.

This face now seemed almost hopeful.

Taking a deep gulp of air, she continued rapidly, stumbling over words, but the invitation tumbled out before his warming gaze, “Have you been—uh, have you found a place yet? If not… if not, you can stay with me.”

“Why?” The question trailed out before them both. He uttered this one word in wonder.

“I don’t know,” she replied in equal wonder, “I don’t know.”

***

Ume ashore

“Cut!” the director, grinning through his grey stubble, yells in a hoarse voice. He sounds strangely choked up. His bloodshot eyes aren’t the only misty pair in the studio. A round of appreciative applause breaks out amongst the set crew.

Ume’s head hurts. This is a bit too much for her, she knows. Every engaging script is like this. They suck you in and then spit you out, rearranging the configuration your soul. It must be almost midnight.

He withdraws his lips from hers, and bows slightly. “Thank you, senpai. I thought you were really good, as usual, ” he says, eyes crinkling. She smiles, but her involuntary raised hand to her lips betrays the fact that somewhere in the middle of that long, passionate kiss she had completely forgotten that the reel was running. She has been exceedingly careful thus far not to let her budding attraction to him spill over the boundaries of their professional relationship, but now that she is no longer attached it is far too easy to indulge in her attraction and let herself fall.

Her assistant’s head pops up from behind one of the cameras, sending her a wink.

As Ume collapses onto her cushioned chair, she kicks off her heels and massages her sore feet. It feels good to forget for a while, no matter how briefly, the scrutinizing eyes, sympathetic looks, or, worse still, veiled messages from that smug harpy Ayane who must have been praying for her breakup since they competed for the same role two years back. When Ume started dating the heir of the Toshiba Group last year, she thought that she had finally found the right man—he might have been balding, but he certainly could be considered good-looking for a wealthy guy. Here was a man who was finally as successful as she was, if not more. Even the newspapers thought so, deeming them the power couple of the entertainment world. She must have been congratulated at least a thousand times. Yet, their perfect match began unraveling once Ume started filming April this year against his objections and the bald pig in turn got caught with some unknown model in the tabloids within a month of her strict filming schedule. What a joke.

Since breaking up publicly two weeks ago, Ume has been trying to figure out why she had felt the strangest tide of relief wash over her when she told Mr. Toshiba, “Let’s end this.” And then, there’s the tricky matter of her feeling a little too much attraction for her younger costar on set. At the first script reading in January, she had taken one look into his gentle eyes, single lidded, almond-shaped and slightly drooping, the white of his eye like fish belly, and felt the tension from her fights with Mr. Toshiba caressed away by softly lapping waves. She liked him immediately then. He may be seven years younger, but there is an almost Buddhist serendipity to his quiet demeanor. Being around him makes her feel light. Yet, the outside world will chew them up if she does anything about her attraction; she can already imagine the headlines in bold font: “Ume Yuji Dating a Toshishita after Losing Toshiba Heir”.

Feigning nonchalance, she turns slowly to glance at him, sitting a few feet away and diligently annotating his script. He seems to sense her gaze, suddenly looking up. Instead of averting her gaze as she usually does, this time she holds his eye. She catches the mild surprise on his face. He arches a brow, and makes a move as if to get up. It breaks the spell and she looks away instantly. What is she thinking being so forward?

Is it the script? The narrative is doing weird things to her. She has never thought about dating a younger man before reading the script and the novel of the same name that it is based on. April has a resounding sense of loneliness that resonated with her even while she was still dating that Toshiba heir. The novel’s last sentence encapsulated what she yearns to feel but has never felt despite dating several men:

Many years later, as she stepped onto the train, Etsuko would always remember that last day of March when she looked into the eyes of solitude and found another, arriving again and again onto the shores of a shared loneliness that can only be love.

Perhaps, Ume is, as much as she is unwilling to acknowledge it, lonely like Etsuko.

Despite how utterly bizarre April is as a love story, Ume has never felt this close to a character before. Her character, Etsuko, is a beautiful and successful twenty-seven-year-old woman. Yet, Etsuko is also broken in some way, always wearing a mask of control that everyone expects of a Todai grad; this nags at Ume the more scenes they shot. After a string of failed relationships with men who are inevitably intimidated by her intelligence and accomplishments, Etsuko adopts a homeless twenty-year-old young man like a pet, settles into what most would definitely consider a taboo pet and owner relationship, discovers genuine companionship and even the possibility of love, but one day finds him missing from home. Everyone tells her that they have never seen a young man with her. Etsuko checks the CCTV tape of her apartment building to try to find out when he left, but realizes as she goes further back that no such person existed in all these months. As she wanders out, Etsuko sees the same cardboard box labeled with “UNWANTED PET” again, opens it to see a cavalier puppy staring back at her, and smiles. What a great story. Ume knew without a shred of doubt that she was going to take up the role the moment she closed the book covers.

Yet, during the January script reading, the director had blithely announced, “Look at the powerful ending! We have a wonderful film in our hands about feminism and about finding oneself, which has been very popular since Hollywood’s Eat, Pray, Love. We might have a good run at the box office.”

She had immediately protested then before the round table, “Kubota-san, I don’t see how that can be the case. I read the book and it’s honestly all about solitude to me. I wonder if the writer-sama might be here to share?”

The writer, Yuri Yoshizawa, had not been there and never did come to the set at any point in the filming. After a month and a half on set, Ume has all but confirmed that the mysterious Yuri Yoshizawa is a recluse, but that is beside the point. Even if Yoshizawa-san were at the script reading to endorse the director’s interpretation, Ume would have still refused to concede that this is what the story is all about.

In that glass-paneled room, crowded with the primary cast and the director, assistant-directors, and assistants of assistants, Ume had asked, “Is Etsuko schizophrenic?” But the director had declared, “No, no, making Hisao up in her head is just a coping mechanism! At last, our dear Etsuko-chan realizes that she needs no man. That’s more important, that’s way more important. We want to leave it open-ended for the audience.” If Ume were Etsuko, she would have wept bitterly when she opened the box only to see a dog. She knows what it’s like to want to fall in love so badly with someone who will love you unconditionally in return. It’s a yearning for someone to share in your loneliness, a yearning that can overcome pride, societal conventions, and render all the petty checklists you have inconsequential. It seems to her that April is a lonely woman’s plea for love. She feels herself echoing this plea wordlessly, with every laden line that she acts from the script. If she doesn’t do something, she might go crazy like Etsuko.

“Hey, Ume-chan,” a voice sounds from above her. Her costar has made his way over to her chair and now looms over her.

She looks up at him searchingly, curiously. So this is how she falls: despite every rational fiber in her body telling her how unwise it is, despite how she knows even if he says yes their relationship will not be fondly looked upon, she is about to exhilaratingly, unwaveringly throw herself onto the path that Etsuko wanted so badly to tread upon.

“Ume-chan? Are you okay? There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you,” he draws a deep breath before speaking, droopy eyes unblinking, and crouches down to her eye level.

She knows her mind is made up in that moment. She inches her face towards him, places a finger on his moving lips, and whispers, “I have something to tell you too.”

“Hmm?”

“I want to ask you out on a date,” she says to him. A pause and then, her bold red lips, still slightly smudged from the prior scene, open and close: “Thoughts?”

As she watches his eyes lit up, Ume finally thinks she can grasp that feeling of arrival that Etsuko mentioned, that marvelous feeling of stepping ashore when your feet expects watery depths but instead finds an assuring foothold of solid earth.

***

April

Yuri gets off at the Yushima station when it’s dark. Outside, there are the few usual men drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes on the curb. She drags her luggage down the steps leading to her favorite bar with some effort. One of the men—half-drunk and pretending not to be—sways to his feet with an outstretched hand and yells slowly, “Blind obasan, d-o y-o-u n-e-e-d h-e-l-p?” By then, she is outside the basement entrance, but she would not have dared to answer anyway. She pushes her sunglasses further up her nose bridge before entering.

Her eyes make out the inside with accustomed ease. There are the same few Mesdames surveying the bar like hawks; they must have been beautiful once, with subtle, artful touches to their eyes and lips and cheeks that remind people constantly of that fact. Poaching rich men? she thinks to herself. She cocks her head as Kento appears behind the bar. The Mesdames’s alert faces melt into what might even be a smile when he slides the drinks to them.

She looks away. Beside the Mesdames sits a lone foreigner—male, in his mid-forties, and white. Definitely American, she knows this from his ill-fitting San Diego Zoo t-shirt inside a boxy blazer and the bowl of fries set before his Budweiser. Next to him is a young couple, too busy making out to drink their glinting Golden Daiquiri originals. And in a dim-lit alcove towards the side of the bar, huddles a group of adults—some sort of bonding gathering after work, probably—slurring “Kanpai!” amid bottles of Black and White, ties and glasses askew.

Kento, who she is here to see, wears a white slim fit tuxedo. His black hair, streaked with silver, is slicked back as usual, adding some color to his outfit, alongside a maroon red tie. He is shaking up a drink, as though cupping a heart in his weathered hands, when she pulls to a stop before him.

“Yuri-chan,” Kento says when he sees her, “you haven’t been here in three weeks.”

She can already feel her body trembling. “Oh,” she manages a reply, her voice humbled, “you’ve noticed.”

“And you are wearing sunglasses again. Like you did on the first day you arrived.” He pauses and then adds quietly, “I notice everything about you.”

Before Kento had opened his mouth, she was positively certain that he would have been taken aback by her book. Yet, here he is telling her that he remembers the first day she came to this bar.

She remembers it too. That night when she first met Kento was also the day her closest friend got married. At the dazzling wedding banquet, Yuri had looked around and felt then as though time had solely left her behind when it was busy transforming every woman she knew from girls to girlfriends to mothers. On the train back home, she caught a glimpse of herself in the window—an expressionless, unremarkable face lit up by the bluish phone screen, blurring with the rolling dark hills that receded into nothingness—and had the strong impulse to be anywhere other than on this train heading back to her empty apartment. She got off at the next station. When she found this bar after a quick Internet search, she had already begun regretting her rash decision. That night, the bar was crowded with a big group of raucous revelers that did nothing to drown her loneliness. She felt lonelier than ever. It was then when she saw the bartender, silent and smiling, like a priest intoning a mass to well-ordered rows of glasses. In the pool of warm light, she saw his dancing hands concocting drinks that swallowed worries without prejudice; his clear-headed sobriety in an inebriated world; and, through her sunglasses, she saw plain as day his brilliant solitude.

“Oh really?” she asks hesitantly, “Did you read April?”

“I did.”

“Then, do you know why I wrote that Etsuko and Hisao met on 31 March?”

Before he can answer, the American man gestures at Kento, taking him away from Yuri’s end of the bar, and requests for a Taiko in a butchered pronunciation. As she watches Kento make the drink, she feels her eyes moisten—fortunately hidden by her sunglasses. Kento is like an artist condensing the human experience into a glass: a few drops of rice wine, some green tea liquor, a spray of matcha powder, ice clinks and then, a sudachi citrus slice sinks into the shades of green, before finally a gold leaf rests with a sigh at the top.

In the past three weeks of self-imposed exile from the bar, Yuri had realized acutely for the first time how intolerable her suburban apartment was. How she had used to spend all her time within those walls for years was now unfathomable. Totoro her pet parrot, who was trained to squawk “I love you” passionately in twenty-four languages, no longer entertained. There were nights when the ceiling seemed to be descending on her and she got to as far as the train station. But, the thought of Kento having read her book and disliking it—disliking her—kept her away from the city. She returned to her dull apartment in Setagaya-ku where even Totoro did not bother to talk to her. In the silence, she allowed her fears to take root and grow.

Kento pushes one of the two glasses towards the waiting American. The other Taiko he places gently before her.

He says, “It’s because we met on March 31st in 2013. Tell me if I’m right.”

Yuri takes off her sunglasses, eyes still fairly red and eye circles a garish greenish-black from weeks of insomnia, and stares at Kento.

“We are also seven years apart in age,” he continues, looking at her so closely that he seems to see into her and past her at Etsuko.

He says, “And I am also as lonely as you are.”

Yuri knows she is crying but she finally doesn’t care.

“So, Yuri-chan, will you accept this from me?” he asks, cupping the Taiko in two hands, sliding it slowly but steadily across the mahogany countertop at where the wooden edge meets her heart.

She remembers the plot that stretched back four years, eight months and three weeks, on the first day of April when she emerged from the bar into a kinder, more hopeful world and felt the wet sunlight on her face; when she locked herself in a dark apartment to write another woman’s life and her own intertwined, wondering if it could say what she would never tell him to his face; when she ventured into the city once a week on a fifty-seven-minute commute past rolling hills to observe another’s solitude, murmuring a soft prayer each time that perhaps he would one day consider sharing it with her. She feels a heaviness as if she had just awakened from a years-old slumber with unspoken words, imagined moments, and fully-written sentences in her body. She finally arrives ashore.

Ashore

In the mood for love:

[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

[Story] On Black Friday Morning, in a Sun-lit Café

[Story] Macau: Casino Lights Dancing

Yuri and kento