It has been a while since I’ve been awake at this time—and even longer since I’ve written here. I forget how much I miss this hour.
November 27, 2012
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This is where I want to be: pulling over to the shoulder of the road, running to catch the sunset with our cameras bouncing up and down against our cold bodies. I want to feel the wind against my cheeks and your arm around my waist, as we stand, breathless, in the middle of nowhere. There, I’ll see the grass teetering sideways as the cars speed by, their headlights locking onto the lonely stretch of California road ahead. You’ll grab my hand, wrapping your numb fingers around mine, and I’ll rest my head against your chest as we watch the sun dip into the mountains in the distance. Later, we’ll pull into a small city on the other side of the valley, and find a cheap, vacant Italian restaurant with a fireplace view and opera music lilting into the lamp-lit streets. It’s like we’ve done this all before. I remember now. All we need is a plan to get us out of here and a ticket to anywhere.
We sat our bags down by two empty couches nearest to the cafe wall. April then disappeared for a few minutes, and I followed after her into a narrow adjoining room with oak walls and taps of local beers up against the bar. ”A chicken pie, please,” she said. ”And a tuna panini. Could we also have a mocha coffee and regular coffee with milk?” The woman at the counter smiled and nodded, “Of course,” and with a slender hand, guided April to the other side of the room where she swiped her credit card.
Back in the next room, April and I took seats at the two couches. We chatted like old friends as we sipped our coffees and waited for our food, even though we’d only met once before—three weeks ago at the train station where she shuttled my luggage and me to the lift leading to the car park. I told her how I was getting along and confided in her all my tedious observations: how nice the fast food restaurants were, how far it seemed you had to walk just to get anywhere worth seeing, how my American accent hung in the air like vinegar. I told her about the time I stumbled, confusedly, into Argos: the store was empty, with the only things inside mothers, small children and students crowded around the sides of the room, hovering over catalogues as thick as my fist. What do you do there? (From what I gleaned by pure observation and an overhead chat with the sole cashier, you write down the items you want from the catalogues, hand them into the cashier, and red-garbed staff at the back of the store disappear in The Mysterious Stockroom and unearth electronics, textiles and toys like it was Christmas Day.) April told me about her work and home renovation, and detailed upcoming events for the local Rotary clubs.
When our meals arrived, we munched away—she on her sandwich, me on my chicken pie (excellent, by the way). She’s been to the U.S. several times before, usually spending holidays tucked away in the Colorado mountains or basking in the East Coast sun. She smiled as she related her experiences abroad to mine. I told her about the essays I’d written in coming to the U.K.: how focused some had been on the idea of minorities in America and how easily that identity slips away here. Here, I’m just American—like I’ve always wanted to be. Not Asian American, not even Asian. Just American. ”It’s funny,” she said. ”How, in some places, one layer can become dominant over the rest, and that changes depending on where you go.” I liked that. Layers of dominance and codominance and recessiveness. It felt genetic almost, even if all the rest was socially constructed. It made me feel like it was a coat I had had since birth and I could slip it on and off when I wanted. I controlled the structure, I designed the makeup, I aligned the pieces. Somewhere, the world stops deciding who and what I am, and somewhere, I’m the one doing the telling.
On the red-eye flight over, I met a woman in her 60s—dark skin with her hair pulled back tightly in a bun. She was going home, she said. Back to London. I think she could tell I was fraught with emotion, leaving home on my second international flight ever, because she looked after me in a grandmotherly sort of way, reminding me to grab my things and eat when the food carts came. “You’re very brave,” she said, “to be here alone.” I didn’t catch her name.
As the plane landed, she fumbled through her bag and pulled open her coin purse. She jostled some change in her hand and leaned in closely over the armrest dividing our seats. “Pence and pounds,” she said, combing through 1 pence, 20 pence, 50 pence in her wrinkled palm and further still began extracting notes from her wallet. “This is what the currency looks like. You’ll get the hang of it. It’s very easy.” I peered at each, trying to memorize the boxy shapes and imprinted figures and thinking that it’d be no use. I’d forget as soon as we deplaned.
When we arrived at the terminal, I lost her. She stayed behind, hanging around the cockpit, as a flight attendant wheeled a wheelchair towards the plane. I thought it must have been for her; she had mentioned a disability. Out of politeness, I didn’t ask what.
The journey over was long and tiring, and though I’d flown overseas once before, I couldn’t remember feeling so achy and drained upon arrival. After hours spent tied up in immigration, I clumsily pushed my trolley of luggage through the airport and onto the train platform at Heathrow. I boarded the train, exited prematurely, and boarded again. I remember thinking it looked something like AirBART the one time I took it after arriving in SFO.
When I reached London Paddington, I left the express train and hopped onto the station, stumbling a bit with my luggage. I felt like I’d seen this place before—in a dream or maybe a movie (Harry Potter?). Men in business suits and women with strollers hurried along the platforms, taking seats at rest areas and pausing every now and then to glance at the large, silver clock or red-lettered schedule above.
The interior of the trains themselves looked much like Amtrak—of that, I was certain, having taken Amtrak many times before. I located the standard car, just past the buffet car, and took a seat upfront, shoving my luggage in an empty compartment above my head. When the train began to move, I looked out the window a bit finding chimneys and brick housing, but eventually turned away and began writing in a small legal notebook I’d brought.
Arriving in Devon county, with all its countryside and nearby beaches, was absolutely breathtaking. I was greeted with a Rotary sign and driven up towards the hills. (Then, I made my first two American mistakes—calling the “lift” an “elevator” and starting for the wrong side of the car.) Now I’m here, and the photo above? The view I see outside my flat each morning.
She was told she walks in beauty, like the night, but the night feels cheap, not beautiful at all. At night, the wind picks up and blows the leaves outside astray. The crags of mountains look like knives protruding from the corpse of the earth. If there is beauty at night, it is kept invisible, yielding itself only when light, man-made, is cast, like the illusion of make-up over a dark blemish. Yet she is beautiful like the night, with black hair, dark, brooding eyes, and a smile she thinks wicked.
On the television, across the dim-lit hall, she watches images float across the fuzzy screen: bright red lips and shimmering dresses, girls with blonde and brown tousled tresses.
So she asks: how can even cloudless climes and starry skies expect to fare when paired with the glow and lure of much greener grasses?
Sometimes, the most difficult thing to do is to say nothing at all, write nothing at all. It’s being full of stories and withholding all of them, shoveling extraneous strands of words into an amorphous deathbed for sentences that didn’t quite fit or were too many. It’s the feeling of knowing a secret—perhaps not precisely what that secret is, but rather, that impulsive, unshakable feeling that you know something that the rest of the world doesn’t. It’s like watching shadows chase one another up the pavement, etching their freeform black shapes into your memory, then watching them turn formless as they melt into the darkness with the disappearance of the sun.
We sat in the car with the rain coming down hard and the engine off. It was late, and the sky was already black. I fumbled with the stereo, watched the soft light of the street lamp come through the fog on the windshield. We sat, silent, with only the faint sound of indie music playing in the background. Our eyes met, and I turned back towards the lonely stretch of road, hands reaching for the steering wheel, wishing we could stay there undiscovered.
I write in spurts. Not only is this how I apparently blog despite attempts to maintain some semblance of consistency, this is also how I write academic papers. I begin, at first, bustling with ideas, ready to slap them onto a page. And then I either open up Tumblr or Club Bing, and 3 hours later, I have one nicely constructed paragraph on which I spent a total of 10 minutes. Moral of the story is that I would probably lead a much more interesting life had I no access to internet. But then I would also not have 25,000 points in Club Bing, and I would seriously be missing out. Life is tough.
Over the past month or so, I’ve gotten into the habit of reading daily poetry—which usually results in me reading days worth of poetry in one sitting to anticipate the many days I will not be reading poetry in the coming future. And because I haven’t written much and lack the time to write something at the moment, but insist on posting something anyway as a form of procrastination, here’s a poem I particularly liked by Charles Barber.
Fairy Book Lines, by Charles Barber
Death be nimble –
life was quick
Efficiency’s a modern trope
To be expected
when bearing death
Or a low-burning illness
slow as memory.
Though death’s old-fashioned
and enters the room
bearing a burning candlestick.
toil and trouble;
Like friends sitting too long
by the hospital bed—
Like the T.V. watching you
with paralyzing glare;
While the night-nurses
in soft-soled shoes
Wheel in the confections
to ensure your misery
Will last a long tomorrow.
The world’s so full
of a number of things
Now never to be savored
Never to fire
a subordinate employee
Destroy a marriage
position an M1A1 tank
On desert children.
Marveling at such achievements
is a sure way
To gladly sacrifice
a number of things
The world has always favored.
Poor old Charlie,
he swallowed a fly;
The fly was drunk
Buzzed here buzzed there
Till a well-seasoned fever
stitched in hues
Of delirium-like gold,
cooked in a broth
Of bacterium stock,
festering with forgotten dreams,
Took hold—took him—took life.
eyes in pain;
its awful gain.
Eyesight’s a form of breathing
Full and rich with freedom.
Now a bag
slides over the head
So long to the world
So long desired:
darkness sucks you down its drain.
Fly away, fly away
over the sea,
Sun-loving sick boy,
for summer is done.
First the pneumonia,
canceling the lung,
Followed by a possible list
of viral, bacterial, parasitical,
And let us not forget fungal.
The slow-covering growth,
so like nature,
Slowly returning the body to earth,
adrift in underground.
“One of the earliest lessons I learned as a child was that if you looked away from something, it might not be there when you looked back.” — John Edgar Wideman
When everything else has left my brain—the memory of your tilted smile, the year Obama was elected to office, the name of every human bone and nerve—what I hope is left is my memory of seeing: the way of seeing with such profuse clarity that the entire world glistens, that every word becomes infused with such intensity; the way I learned to see the world when I turned 21.
I know the day is coming, the day old age robs me of my memory and my heart can do no more than palpitate weakly inside a cage of wrinkled flesh. I know that there will be a day my breathing shortens, when my heels can no longer sustain the weight of my frame and my vision shuts out color.
I shy not at this inevitability because I take comfort in knowing that, vision gone as it may be, I will still see—see in a way that no physical impairment, no hazy shapes or dysfunctional rod or cone, can replace. I will still see the way the city lights poured into the dark, rolling hills of Berkeley at 12 am the night we crept up to the mountain perch with flashlights and blankets. I will see gold and orange houses blaze against a violet sky at sunset and plumes of grey offsetting the jagged outline of treetops. There will be rivers etched into rocks, snaking down a field of wormwood and sagebrush, and wet, brick pavement beneath a pale green arch. In the winter, there will be snow melting into dirty water, and all of this, I will see.
I will see these things because when I turned 21, I learned to see the world this way—a series of specifics and drawn-out details. At 21, I read an essay on the ways of seeing, and I was transfixed. Suddenly, contemplating the Hegelian dialect seemed far less interesting than the physicality of the world around me. Everything became a story, some heart-stopping transition. I wanted to write because writing forced me to pay attention, to examine the tiny movements of hairs on an arm or study the way a leaf crinkled under a boot. The world became better. Is it possible to ever tire of this?
Some days are better than others. Some days, everything around me is brilliant, and writing is easy. Other days, I probe through dust for stories, but only turn up mothballs for sentences.
But I like to write because the world gives me reasons to write. I write to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what it means. In the 1800s, Tennyson wrote of the dilemma faced by artists, writers and musicians: that creating work about the world often inhibits an ability to enjoy it by just living in it. True as that can be, I think writing, for me, is sight re-gifted, a remedy for the dull. I should do it more often.