Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hustle: Delhi in Two Days

The Hustle: Delhi in Two Days
For the Previous Entry, Please See "The Hustle: China" 
(more photos to come)

Our second day in Delhi, I found my feet again.  I threatened our auto driver.  I also lied through my teeth, “I’m a lawyer from New York City, and I don’t want you to take us around Delhi for ‘The Backdoor Tour of Delhi’; I don’t want you to go South to go North; I want you to go straight and take the second exit at the roundabout, and if you don’t go straight to our hotel for the rate on this rate-sheet, we’re not paying you.”  

A day earlier, my company and I had shamefully returned to our cold, air conditioned hotel lobby sporting a layer of sweat that stuck our clothes firmly onto our bodies.  “We cannot be in Delhi and hide in our hotel all day,” I had hissed.
“No, no we can’t.”  My company’s forehead was lined with beads of sweat.
“Do you want to go out there?”
“No, no I don’t.”
“What are we going to do?  We need to look at the map, but don’t open it in front of the tour guide promoter or else he’s doing to hassle us into buying a tour again.”

15 minutes earlier
“Sir!  Sir!  Listen to me, sir, if you do not listen to me and take a lift, you will end up in a very poor and bad area.  There are many beggars here.  The people will throw shit at your feet!”   -- unknown man #1.

Our first trip out of the hotel had lasted 10 minutes.  We had walked the wrong direction trying to find Connaught Market and ended up bright eyed and confused with our maps in our hands, and my Company being exhaustingly over-friendly, attracted hustler after hustler who followed us for blocks, incessantly trying to get us to come to his shop, sit in his auto, or buy his goods.  As I had angrily muttered under my breath, “D---, stop it [talking]”, the men had left me alone and focused on the more welcoming of the pair.  When I had protested aloud, I had been given the hand and told, “Ma’am, please.”  Fortunately, we had managed to make one full circle and found our way back to the hotel, dejected, unworldly, and thoroughly intimidated by the hectic fray of life that lived on top of itself and in layers, wedged into every crevice of every space beyond the guarded gates.

So there we were, back at our hotel, thoroughly failing as tourists and avoiding the tourism desk (Before our educational 10 minute exploration into the slums, I had asked the hotel concierge for the direction to Connaught Market. It was the concierge who directed us to the tourism office inside the hotel, who then tried to direct us to take a tour with the hotel that involved cramming an entire week of visiting India into a single day for a fee an order of magnitude above market value).

We stood near the elevators, hiding, looking at ours maps.  We had taken a left instead of a right, and we were going to fix that error and go back out there, and most importantly of all, we were going to make it to Connaught Market regardless of the number of men I would have to wave off (and even if this meant my Company would be silenced and muzzled).  I was militant, and my Company knew better than to argue, so we stood there practicing breathing in and out deeply, gave ourselves a pep talk, and fiercely walked out the door.  The guards watched us and smiled.  Inside they were saying, “Those poor, foreign fools.  How long shall we bet before they come back again?”

The humid air hit us immediately, the cold of the air conditioning clung to us as a nauseating cold sweat.  By the time we got to the corner intersection, approximately 100 yards away from the hotel gate, we were approached by pedicab drivers and autos.  The ones who recognized us were thrilled: “Clearly, the tourists have realized they cannot reach their destination by foot.  There are too many barriers between here and Connaught Market - a dozen conversations, poverty, a family on the street with a pet monkey, and beggars.”

“Sir, sir!  A ride sir?  Where are you from?  America?  Hello!” - unknown pedicab driver #10
And on the main street, walking stride by stride alongside us, “Hello, sir, I am not selling you anything.  Where are you from?”  - unknown man #2
“Sir, are you lost?  Would you like me to direct you to a tourist company.  There is a very good one I know of.  The others will overcharge you.” - unknown man #3

We barely made it a block past our hotel when we were finally approached by a man who did not want to sell us anything, but instead, offered a kind gesture that we were - indeed - on the right path and just needed to continue walking about 400 meters to the roundabout ahead.  He explained he always wanted to travel to America and wished us a fine visit to Delhi.  After he left our company, we were met by less welcoming escorts, including one man insisting that he show my Company his wound, which attracted the attention of another man, who insisted that he could direct us to a nicer spot, which then attracted the attention of an auto driver, who insisted he could take us to the market easily.  For several blocks, my Company ignored the driver and the other man and kept looking back at the beggar, and then without warning, he suddenly shouted louder than all three other men surrounding us, “No, I don’t want to see your wound!  You need to be taken to a hospital or a doctor!  You need someone who knows what they’re doing to take you!  I have no idea what I’m doing!  I can’t help you!”  The traffic screamed at us.  We had made it to the intersection of the roundabout.  We turned from both our escorts and realizing we were across the street from the market, we measured our success at leaving our hotel and getting close enough to our destination; not knowing how to cross the traffic, we promptly returned toward the hotel, stopping by a nearby bar where we ordered four drinks each.

In Lodhi Gardens, I craved a cold lime soda.  The redness of the old mosque gave away the green parrots that rested against it, and couples sat around benches or strolled along the park gardens in the evening heat.  Earlier that day, our second day in Delhi, we had met up with the rest of our India travel group, L-- and I---, and we were escorted by a friend of I---’s, M---, who lived in Delhi.  Suddenly the impossible streets tucked themselves away into a background that M--- waved off with her hand or scolded in Hindi.  After M--- had arrived, we had filled ourselves with a South Indian meal at noon and had taken the auto, which we avoided so vehemently the day before, to the Park.

We climbed through the old mosques and gazed at the beautifully deteriorating paintings inside them.  In the darkened silhouettes of openings that served as lookout windows, we saw feathered or furry visitors of the old tomb sites and the buried royal family.   The planted flowers which lined the pathway to Sheesh Gumbad danced wild with the green landscape.  

A stroll through the gardens reminded us of our thirst, and our group left the remains of sultans and dynasties to head toward a tea shop, where we satisfied the romantic heat with lime sodas and lassi.  The city had unraveled itself into a sense-mirage of silks and pashmina, cinnamon and cumin, jasmine and lotus soaps.  

Wandering through the hip, young alleyways with the busy restaurants and cafes of the neighborhood, I felt under dressed: the young Indian men and women were far more fashionable with their Seven jeans, Converses and Gucci bags.  No one said hello to us.  No one paid attention to us.  I looked across the street from our cafe, and I realized the Delhi of the previous day was still there, but that somehow we had crossed an invisible barrier that allowed us access to the other sides of Delhi, the highly educated, the young and rich, the traveled, the old money.  There was still an entire family sleeping and cooking on the street, but somehow, we were now apart of this other world which operated on top of or alongside or beneath everything else which we had experienced the day before.   We weren’t sure which one to believe, but we saved the digestion of all this for another night; for now, we were busy being inundated by colors and smells.

M---, I--- and L--- left my Company and me at a well-known restaurant in the area called The Big Chill which played Rihanna on the radio, and we talked about politics and inevitably ended with my yelling, “It’s my turn to talk now!”.  At the close of the evening, we flagged an auto to bring us home.  After some negotiating on our end (we demanded to see the taxi fare rate sheet and to have the man turn on the meter, which he at first said was “broken” until we stepped out of the auto which was when the odometer was suddenly, mysteriously “fixed”), we finally decided to get in. This is when I threatened the man.  When we arrived at our hotel, security demanded to see the man’s rate sheet to make sure he did not overcharge us.  I turned to the guard and said, “Don’t worry, we have it handled.”  Feeling guilty, my Company gave the driver a 50% tip, and in India, this would not be his last time doing so.

Monday, August 26, 2013

China: The Hustle

The Hustle: China
For the Previous Entry, Please See Intro –
Next entry, “The Hustle: Delhi”
1.       Seeing History in the Present: Levity
There’s something about China that I’ve never seen anywhere else.  Here’s an image: it is 9pm at night and dinner has been consumed.  The streets have a loud rumble to them, and part of it is the buses and the cars that drive through traffic like traffic laws had never been written; part of it is the music from the elderly practicing their dance forms and exercising outside their homes on the sidewalks, in parking lots, on public spaces, on private spaces; and part of it is the children running around on the streets and the sidewalks and around the homes and in the parks; but most of it is this energy that’s made when every single person in the city is out - whether it’s in Beijing or Luoyang or Xi’an.  It’s as if they’d been hiding in their homes all afternoon to avoid the thick, humid heat and the swarms of people (all millions and tens of millions of them) to come out at night and really get on with things, like playing poker on the corner with a couple of beers, a few packs of cigarettes, and bowls upon bowls of salty peanuts.  

On the streets of the cities and in the town center, every single person is out to make a living and they want you to know it, from the moment you wake up in the morning to see little old ladies selling meat filled bao zi for breakfast until the deep evening, when children’s toys are being played and squeaked into the night sky: “San quai qian!  Liang ge san quai qian!”  There’s audio tapes of the hustle when the hustle needs a rest, “Four buns for 1 yuan!  Come and get some nice, hot buns!”

My company and I joined the hustle.  After arriving in Beijing, we immediately set on an aggressive itinerary through the July heat, my company explaining that he has not arrived in China to “sit in the hotel room.”   This involved:
(1)   A Hustle up to the Great Wall where we stood nearly packed with other tourists at Ba Da Ling, mainly Chinese, to scale a multi-thousand mile wall and manage to cover about 400 meters in 2 hours standing nearly jam-packed-still with a million Chinese tourists;
(2)   A “let’s get ourselves lost so we can understand Beijing” Hustle;  A shortened version of the conversation is:
            “Can you please look at the map?”
“No.  It’s raining, and this is how I explore new countries.  I get myself lost and then find my way so I know my directional sense.” right, that’s a lot of logic there.
            Silence.  45 minutes later, we realize we have gone into a large circle, and we’ve only covered one “block” on the map.  Beijing is the size of a small planet.
            “Beijing is huge.  It looks like the first ring circle is as large as San Francisco.” [there are 8 ring roads, or concentric circles]
“Yes, that’s correct.”
            “I should look at the map.”
“I believe so.”
            “Are you ready to kill me?”
“I’ve been considering it for some time now.”        

(3)   A Hustle through the Forbidden City where photographs were taken every 3 feet:
            “We will never get through this place at this rate.”
                        “You need to be more patient.  I’ve never been to China before.”
“I’m serious.  If you take a photograph and spend that much time to set up, we will never get through this.”
Three hours later.
            “You were right.  I think we should hurry up.”

(4) A long, dragged-out walk from the lively, music-playing, Karaoke singing, shopping Hutong District near Bei Nan Hai, that ended in a 45 minute silent shuffle back to our hotel, where I had my eyes on putting one foot in front of the other for fear of feet mutinies, and where my company saw a variety of interesting things: a small child behind the counter of his dad’s lamb skewer shop while the dad slept on a bench, construction work inside a new building at midnight, a Chinese Hell’s Angels ride, and a group of people haphazardly trying to fix a telephone pole (we think).

Nothing, though, prepared us for the professionally organized Hustle in Luoyang during day 5 of our trip, orchestrated by my aunt, Da Yi, who sent us up and out of our hotels at 7am to go on a tour van with my forcibly sent cousin and two other random families, a very nice Chinese family from Xi’an and a confused Swiss family who appeared to have confused their trip to Boudreaux with one to Luoyang.  The main focus points of the trip involved visiting two sites, very far from one another, ShaoLing Shi and Long Men Grottoes, all in one day and to get us back by 6pm for dinner, or else my Da Yi would make sure that this tour group guide and his driver would never get another customer again, and did that tour guide know it.  This involved being timed to the 20 minutes, which involved being shuffled from the van to the tickets, and from the tickets to the sites, and ultimately which involved walking at a pace that made my hips sore and my quads ache all in the July, 100% humidity heat and 100% squished onto the millions of other (literally, millions) tourists’ bodies.

Here now, we come to one of the highlights of the Luoyang Hustle.  It is about 90 degrees, and all 12 of us are stuck in a van meant to take 9.  Suddenly, the van slows to a stop on a dusty road, and we look up to see that there is a long line of traffic...of tourist vans and buses. At this point, our driver shuffles us all outside into a tourist trap of a building that sells some kind of pots and art work with all sorts of hidden White Man Taxes, no air conditioning, a very questionable “bathroom”, and a lot of indoor smoking and the sound of spitting.

My company and I walk through the tourist trap with little interest in our heat delirium and leave with the other families, who hop back into the van, aka the Microwavable Death Box.  

In the Microwavable Death Box, my company loses his composure, “Fuck this!  It is so fucking hot, and we’re expected to sit in traffic in the middle of nowhere!  Why is there traffic in the middle of nowhere?  That’s it, I’m going to go hide in that bamboo forest.”  The two of us exit the Microwavable Death Box and hide in a bamboo forest on some old lady’s back yard with the excited and unfriendly dogs, and the confused old lady staring out her window and shaking her finger at us.  It is in this moment that the Swiss lady, stuck in the very back row of the Microwavable Death Box with her two young sons, looks out the window and sees Tweedle-dee-dee and Tweedle-dee-dum hiding in a random bamboo forest on some old lady’s back yard, trying to escape the heat.  It is in this moment that we see her smile, no, laugh, for the first time all day since 7am when the van picked them up from their hotel and dragged us all up a mountain in Shaolin Shi and hauled us through the temples and into the crowds and then back on the van again to go to the Longmen Grottoes only to stop at a tourist trap of a shop for 45 minutes.  In the July heat.  In the 100% humidity.  Breathing on top of one another and inhaling the thick air of each other.

It is a brief moment of levity before our driver comes back, and we are forced into the van again with a shout, the door closed, and we being carried on to our next site.
2.       Remembering History in the Past: Weight

The July tourism in China feels like riding the rush-hour bus in Beijing, but we had a few moments - a rare glimpse of quiet, enough quiet to think a bit and reflect - where the enormity of everything we were surrounded by - the enormous Buddha statues, all hundreds of thousands of them, carved deeply in the caves that stretched along the river in Luoyang, the temples and the discipline of the martial artists in Shaoling Shi, the beauty of the Great Wall as it weaved west from Ba Da Ling, the gold plated roofs of the Forbidden City - nearly made everything else bearable.  The awe came in from the enormity of it all, the audacity, and absolute disregard for human limits to make something so absolutely grand and terrible all at once.  If beauty and cruelty could be in bed together, you’d find the bed in the World Heritage Office.  It was as if the everyday life of the average Chinese citizen during the Tang, Qin, Song – or any of other dynasties through and including Mao until China’s Open Door Policy – were dedicated to building a temple for this life or building an afterlife for the emperor or building a revolution for the People, a hustle from generation to generation to worship, build, and die.
Grieving an ancient world monument isn’t a great way to understand a history.  But then again, neither is the absolute worship of it.  It’s as if all the symbolism of power and slavery is placed in one, breath-taking view for people to travel across the world to see, “Hey!  Look at how many people died making this!  Isn’t this country great?!”  To stand in absolute awe at the creation of absolute power – to be seen from the moon, for the purpose of the immortality of a dynasty and its art, woven into a history of one hustle to another hustle. 
We saw the incarnation of that spirit in the streets of Beijing, in the parking lots in Luoyang, in the martial arts academies of Shaolin Shi, the activity and desire to build for worship, to build for building, to make something withstand time to give a name to the history of a people.  Two thousand years ago, a wall was built to symbolize the seriousness of the Hustle.  Today, cities and skyscrapers are erected with the same moving fervor to show the world the Hustle hasn’t died, and instead of a defense made of stones, China has a defense made of economic activity.

Ironically now, with a rising disposable income, China’s citizens can travel from afar to look at the greatness, the sheer volume, the audacity and terror of its own history, woven along the thousands of miles of the wall, along the faces of the caves, from one temple to another temple, from one dynastic clay army to another gold plated palace, built by the bones and with the spirit of both a breathtaking and unimaginably cruel art – and inherit the Hustle.

Monday, August 12, 2013

India, a Dream in Pieces

Introduction: India, A Dream in Pieces
Ganga sat hunched with hollow cheeks, the flies landing and going, and the ripple of the water reflecting the thick air. 

Ganga laid motionless, waiting for the air to speak, and the air did not speak.

Ganga cried, and the flies hovered, on sunken cheeks.  And then the air spoke and rain came with a flood of wind, and it rained and rained and rained.

“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams...No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone...” – Joseph Conrad
India comes to me in pieces.
We arrived late into the night and early in the evening, our hotel arranging a pick up at the Indira Ghandi International Airport.  We ditched the smell of China and arrived to the smell of India, a smell hot of tarmac, onions and spices, and human sewage: cooking and public defecation are common problems outside the airport.  The sticky, humid night heat with Delhi’s scent hit us as we found our taxi waiting to take us to our hotel in central Delhi.  Our driver was a tall, quiet man who gave us brief descriptions of each landmark and asked us politely of our travels.

We drove by the President’s house with his 314 rooms; we drove by the five-star Taj Resort where diplomats stay during visits; we drove through three military check points and saw in the dark the men with guns standing guard along the streets; we drove past dozens of sleeping bodies big and small, young and old, sprawled out along the sidewalk and under trees; and we arrived at our hotel, The Metropolitan, and was greeted by a security guard carrying a semi-automatic who checked the hood and bottom of our taxi before allowing us in.  It was 3:30 in the morning.
The air conditioning froze us as our bodies adjusted from the dead-of-summer, monsoon heat in Delhi, and we walked into the brightly lit hotel reception with full-staff, even at 3:30 am.  Our hotel room was lavishly garnished, and when we turned on the shower, the water came out smelling of blood: iron in the faucets. 
Iron in the faucets: If I could harness all the energy of the entire place, all the hustle with the desperation to make a living, and if I could take all that frenzy with the traffic and the people and the noise, and the sellers and the barterers, and the rich and the poor, and the corrupt and the innocent, the heat sticking to every single part of your body, and every single, “Sir/Madam!  Where are you free?” or “I give it to you for 500 rupees, a real bargain” and you ask for it for 200 and you settle on 350 knowing you had paid too much, if I could harness all that, I could light up the Himalayas.
Opening our hotel door to enter the streets of Delhi felt like descending into a jungle in which we did not belong but was a place we stumbled into, and every new street we turned into, we were descending, stumbling into the center of it, and all the while, we were wearing big bright signs that said, “We don’t belong here!”

We would spend 3 nights and 2 days in Delhi and the next five nights and five-and-a-half days in Leh, up in the Indu-Himalayas, close to the stars and the sun and the moon.  We would walk through those days in Delhi with our feet dragging heavier and heavier, our bodies sinking into the ground along the make-shift shanties along the street corners, alongside the children playing naked and sleeping on the streets with the flies as we return to our too-cold hotel in the dead of monsoon summer.  But in Leh, in Leh where the air is thin and the sky is close to the earth, we felt a lightness, a floating, and we did everything we could to keep the ground from falling beneath us.  It was there in Leh that the heaviness was stripped from us, the veneer of grandeur built on top of slums hidden in a nightmare we forgot something distant, and we listened to our conscious breathing up in the mountains, and we were dizzy with the beautiful of it all.

We were dizzy with the beauty of it all.  We were dizzied by the grotesqueness of it all. 

We spun and we spun, and the contradictions around us spun itself into our minds and followed us even when we closed our doors, hush now, away from the outside, away from the chaos, to enjoy the splendor of all our own hypocrisies which we saw right outside our window (the children sleeping on the streets and the men with flies in their eyes) lying in bed with all the contradictions that India was happy to show us, laid bare the essence of the humanness, the worldliness, the deceit we were surrounded by and the truth of how none of it made any sense.

I will, one word at a time – in 4 pieces about India and 4 pieces about China – try to tell the stories of these trips from the past weeks which have spun themselves during my waking days and sleeping nights. 

I dream of India.  I hope I can do Her justice, those few days we met Her, I hope we do Her justice.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

If the Wet Air Remembered Something

If the wet air remembered something, the dry lost it.  I felt it the first time around.  It made me feel I would never see you again, but you when your voice appeared I cringed.  Was that the feeling?  I couldn’t remember you when I was with you, but when you left, your memory never left me.  The shadow followed me on early mornings when I woke up and it overflowed me until the afternoon when I was ready for dusk to tuck me into night.  Goodnight. 

Dear Love:
                I have not visited for a long time now.  I have been hiding, afraid.  Afraid, but not to see you but to forget you, to hide with you.  The other feelings knocked and touched my hand, and they stayed at the door, close by and watching. 
                The canyons dropped low, and there was no water, only a rushing dry.
                The dry came through the winter.
                And in the rush, we felt no rest, rest. 
                Let me show you to lay your head down, rest.

If we were part of something, we didn’t think of it.  If we had known something, we walked by it.  I remember the sounds of cars and the edges of the street, the sidewalk, the color of the ground, but the sky I will always remember as grey.

If the wet air remembered something.

If the darkened clouds told me something, I would listen, but I carried on.  I rode by you and by the forested wood, and I saw the hedgerow and the horses breathing deep into the autumn air, where the leaves were the brightest yellow and orange that yellow and orange could be.  I smiled in the grey.

Deep down into the well was a memory that fed on the moss along the walls.  Little things that grew and clung, never seeing the sun.  I miss them all.

I carried my things close to me.  I heard the sounds of birds around me.  I heard your voice, laughing.  I’ll raise my drink to you, and I’ll remember your face on Bethnal Green Road.  I’ll remember your face in East Dulwich.  I’ll remember your face on Walworth and Old Street, on Whitechapel and Holborn.  So many faces, so many voices, and my memory hid in the well, fed on the moss along the walls. 

I bought a ticket.  I left my life.  I wanted to see the sun. 

Dear Friend:
                My heart slipped along the sides of the well, and I reached to you, and in the dark I gasped, “Will there be sun?”
                You replied, “Look above you.  The sun was always there.  You can’t see it, but it’s always there.”
                And I shook my head and said back, “If you were to lie to me, would I ever know?”
                And you said, “No, but would there be a difference?”
                It was not your fault but mine.

We felt the nightmares of inertia.  We did big things.  We wanted to be big things.  We left.  In the darkest places, in the darkest moments, we saw we weren’t just moving, but we were dancing.

I danced in the cold.
I danced in the rain.
I danced, heart bleeding, danced.

I laid down, my head pounding, the rain thudding against the window, which changed for the silent wet of every day, and I rose.  I walked to the door, and down the steps into the rose garden, and out the gate, and I stood in the rain, and I smelled the wet street with the wet sounds of the cars thudding nearby, waiting, the taxi cabs and walking people with umbrellas on the London mews.

You came to me in the damp air, the rain whispering, “forget, forget”, and I saw your face, and I felt all the longing the sordid memory of obligation, and I said, “You don’t belong here.  Go now.  This isn’t your time.  Your time has gone.”

You left but the shadow of a thought.  I returned to the sun, and the rain was washed to a past. 

If you came closer. 
If you came around here.
You would see the memory still lives in the moss, in the well, in the dark, and on rainy days, I think of you. 

Thames, dear, Thames. 

London, dear, London.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dear Aldo, a Vignette

From the series, “Unedited, Love Stories”

The summer came unexpectedly in late May, brought by a series of downpours late in the evenings that woke Lila up with a shiver, coldly.  It began as a wet summer.  It was the wettest she would remember, and sitting inside her home, with the lights off, Lila still shivered while the summer passed by, hour after hour. 

Lila had been writing letters every day.  It began with a brief memory, maybe when the summer started or maybe before then. She marked the first day of her letter writing as the first day she remembered when the memory came to her, an out-of-place feeling which prompted her to say, “You don’t belong here.  This is now, and you were then.  Go back to then, and leave me alone.” 

The feeling was indirect, and Lila was shapely.  She touched and smelled.  She held onto hard things, defining the smoothness of their corners and the sharpness of their edges.  This was – a sitting cloud – it weighed, but it didn’t move.  Unable to hold her cloud, Lila began writing letters.

How long ago was it?  How long did it last?  The month held thirty days and the days held twenty-four hours, and each hour that passed in each month, Lila thought about the name, “Aldo”.  “Aldo,” she said to her desk.  Her desk looked back, a sitting cloud.  “Aldo left some time ago,” she murmured again and then closed her eyes.  Aldo’s face came to her in a shadow, and Lila crinkled her nose.  When her mind decided against giving Aldo a shape, Lila stood up and poured herself a glass of milk.

Aldo had a lively face, a face unlike the forgetfulness that lurked into Lila’s evenings, and Aldo had once said to Lila, “Why don’t we take a ride together?”  Just like that, a careless request with a shrug, to which Lila had smiled and replied, “Okay.  I just need to be home before dinner.”

Lila saw stars when she had sat hanging in the car, upside-down on the side of the road, the seat belt cutting deep into her skin right along the fat leaving a permanent mark on her belly that would always remind her why she hated stars.  She had felt Aldo next to her.  Poor Aldo.  Poor, poor Aldo.  He had creeped onto her, a big heap of leftovers.  She had sat for hours later, unable to scrub him off her.

“I’m having a dinner party tonight,” she had said to him the day before.  “My girlfriends are coming over, and I have to make a pie.  I can’t stay out for long.”  She had paused.  Aldo had looked at her and turned his eyes down to the grass. 

After a minute of grass watching, Aldo had replied, “We’ll be back in time.  I just need to show you something I found a few weeks ago.  You might like it.  We could take a short walk after I park the car at the visitor’s site.  It won’t be long.”  Aldo’s down-turned eyes had turned upward to smile at her.  His freckles spread along his nose and under his eye lids.  In a minute, she had replied by opening the door to his car and strapping herself in, stiff with excitement.  Twenty minutes later, she was seeing stars, and Aldo would be plastered across the window and onto her, all one million little pieces of him, like the million little stars she kept seeing.  

The night was  clear.  Lila walked out the door and smelled the left-over rain, little drops of it reflecting onto her, blurring her nightgown with the color of the air.  There was a softness in the touch, a slight warmth of the nervousness, the sweat of indecision and conviction.  Two weeks before The Day, Lila had grabbed Aldo’s hand and kissed him.  He stood still, and his eyes had widened at her sudden approach, but with her mouth firmly planted on his, she had felt his hands soften and tighten all at once.  Upside-down, she had reached to grab hold of his hand, and all she had felt was warm wet. 

It was humid out when Lila walked out her door.  There was warmness in the air, and the smell of the rain choked her as the stars lingered and poked themselves through the departing clouds.  She sat like a meditating hunched cloud, watching the stars: humid and wet, blood and nerves, kiss and hand.  There was no more sharpness and edge between the things, no discernible shape of the cloud, but the thing she could still see were the stars, just like the stars Lila saw with Aldo, dead alongside her with her eyes closed or opened. 

Lila abandoned the step on her house and went back indoors, closing the door firmly behind her.  She returned to her letter.  “Dear Aldo,” they had all begun with.   This one was no different.  Some letters were finished, some were left without ending.  Lila took care to put each one in an envelope, seal it tight with a stamp, and send it out without shape or form.  “Dear Aldo,” this one began like the others, “sitting cloud.  Heart, oh, heart.”  With those few words, Lila put her pen down.

She stepped to bed and closed her eyes with the window still open.  She heard silence and dark, but she could still see the stars.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Woman in the Mirror

First published in Cigale Literary Magazine, Summer 2012

Her scarf lay along the desk which contained three books and held a large, oval mirror. The days passed and various things would place themselves in front of her mirror: a vase of flowers, her day’s left-over work, a laptop, an occasional sweater, and now and then, on mornings when she could afford the minutes, she’d sit in front of her mirror and check the reflection that stared back at her. Sometimes the reflection blinked, sometimes it smiled, sometimes it frowned, but most the time, it looked back at her with a stern resignation of indifference. 

One morning, she sat in front of her mirror brushing her hair before the day began. Suddenly, she caught sight of something moving very quickly, a sight that disturbed the image of familiarity in the mirror, softly, undeniably, as if the glass suddenly quivered, and she lost focus of the images nearest her. She looked closer into the mirror. Nothing. She turned around and searched her room. Her gaze was returned by her bed, which stood neatly made and serious, as if shrugging and saying, “It wasn’t us. There’s nothing over here.”

The next morning, as she sat at her usual throne, the disturbance appeared once more. As before, it was a sudden flicker, a momentary movement, as if the entire distance and image of the light and the glass and the objects of the reflection shook, disappeared and reappeared again, like waves lapping on the shore. She rubbed her eyes and pressed her face to the mirror, so close that the tip of her nose touched the hard surface and her breath warmed the cold glass. When the condensation from her breathing disappeared, she caught the shadow of something dark moving behind her. She could hear her breathing –which slowed and then hastened again– and her heart beats matched the panic in her breath. Was there something in her room she had not noticed before? She looked back in the mirror. Nothing. She turned around. Again, nothing. Everything placed in order as before. Her ears heard static, and she realized it was nothing but the blood flowing from her fluttered heart to her terrified brain. She put on her coat and ran out of her room, shutting the door loudly behind her. She did not turn around.

That night, she returned to her house and quietly walked up the stairs and looked at her bedroom door. She wanted to knock, as if to ask, “Whatever is in there, you, you who keeps appearing in my mirror! Leave this room. I need some sleep tonight, and I deserve to stay in my own bed, don’t you think?” Instead, she placed her head near the door to listen for sounds. The silence of the other side was only interrupted by the steady beating of the pulse in her own ears, pressed and wedged against the wood. Slowly, she opened the door and peered in. A dark bed, desk, and mirror greeted her. She turned on her light. Everything was as it had been before. Nothing was unusual. 

Before bed, she sat in front of her mirror again, brushing her air. It was then that the image came to her directly. It stared at her, violently made a face of horror, placed its hand over its mouth as if to scream, and nothing came out. The image was clear, and out of terror of the foreign thing, she picked the mirror up and slammed it against the hardwood floor of her room. The thick glass fell with a scream and broke into seven distinct pieces, lying neatly on her floor, the pieces next to one another. She slowly inched herself up, her hands holding the wall behind her and looked down. This time, the image in the mirror was real. It was undeniable. She put her hand to her mouth. The image put its hand to its mouth. She touched her nose. The image touched its nose. She smiled. The image smiled back. And as she gazed at it again with an eye of resignation, the image of herself gazed back at its form with the same resignation, identity to identity, self to self.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Water in a Bowl

From the ongoing works, “Untitled, Love Stories”

“You might be my soul mate, but I’m looking for someone here on earth.” Her words remained motionless.  Even after the expressions began to fade, he recalled touching the water in the bowl, look at her while she spoke, his fingers brushing against the taut surface of the water, trembling. 

The glass sat hunched on the table. 

What was divine was the idea – the thought that entered him in the night and left him during the days, from his hands, the actualization of a piece of something he could not determine the origin but knew right then that he needed to find its form.  It was lost.  It was lost in time and in memory, the folded layers of it, prying into the present, hoping for creation, the process of finding what is lost, building it, and giving it a name, which is, in fact, just recreation.  Over and over.  Water in a bowl. 

Her words reached him in those startling moments earliest in the day.  It was then that he could put an image to her face again.  Her expressions escaped him, and startled that he had forgotten her so quickly, he searched for the allowances that forgetfulness gave him: a soft smile, a deep longing, a tear, “someone here on earth” (For the optimists, the greatest achievement has been to keep heaven beyond earth, to put it outside and away, so as to say, “This is not all of it.  Have hope.  Live with your head burrowed in the sand and your heart facing the skies.  Carry on.”  For the other type of optimist, it was the myth which tethered and chained the spirit to a rock that sank beneath the river of inaction, anxiety, and most dangerously of all, ambivalence.  To those others, they wanted to shout, “Be free!  There is nothing but chaos!”). 

He looked at the water in the bowl.  It was motionless.  He sighed on it and watched the surface tease, relax and then tremor again, looking up at the moon, then at the stars, then at the sun, and finally at the grey clouds which turned into night.  De profundis clamavi. 

That night he dreamed that he was falling through the ceiling of his room, and as the walls swallowed him, he grabbed onto the tapestries that clung to his windows, light things he hadn’t noticed before.  And as he grabbed onto them, the tapestries wrapped themselves around him, and he fell, slowly falling through the walls, while the tapestries began to dance on him, touching his hands, feet and neck, brushing his collapsed torso and sliding along his body (a rock fell in the pile of ashes, and as the rock hit the ash, the ash kicked up into a dance, rising.  The ash always rises; the rock always falls), until suddenly, as he was falling, her image rose above him entangled in the tapestries.  He clasped at her.

That morning, he woke with the feeling that suddenly, he had lost a thing infinitely loving, infinitely touching, and never once a thing he could call his own.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Light Dark

Light Dark
Draft 1 May 11, 2012
Thanks to Charlotte, Natalie and dad for the translation help.

Lux, a light without shadow, without
the shaping of
something, Light, creeping into
this window and along the drapes
shapes, draping, lighting the edges, soft
leicht, fluttering so much those edges begin to lift themselves.
Light and upward, qīng qīng dè.

A moving inside a movement, the songs which are sung silently,
a brightness, la canciό es ligera and soft
drifted into the room, and stumbled upon her sleeping face.
An angel, światły, drifting into a silent motion of
timeless and timed, images drifting in and out, while the
dreams tangoed with the licht. 

Lux, a light without umbre, and umbre,
a thing without form, a weightlessness made from
weight, clinging onto body, holding edges,
kissing it, forming the arms of cień, embracing –
but light, only light spreading into the space is nothing but form,
without movement, a movement without shape,
and the shadow brings movement into the movement.

Yīnyíng dancing with the licht,
A thing which is another,
A thing which cannot be without the other,
A movement that happens in stillness,
Like all movement, just in empty stillness,
Escapes into tenebrae, into the dreams, the spaces
that happen in the sleeping.

Another glass of wine, sweet darling,
Take me to the dreams, sweet sunshine,
Circled by the arms of shadows,
And the kisses of the light. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Revisiting Old Places

Originally Posted on Look Mum No Hands RT Blog:
By Pan Pan, Photos by Bill Kurtz

I like revisiting old places.  Part of it stems from a childhood fear I had of losing memories.  When I was young, I used to think of all the memories I would lose through forgetfulness, one little moment after another, slipping away with each year.

It was a long time ago that I was on the beaches of Connecticut, near Milford, the summer cold and wet.  It was a long time ago, then, that I was collecting sea shells out on that beach with my friend, putting the little yellow and white pieces in an old plastic bag and taking them home with me to be relocated into my bathroom as decoration.  I wrote in my diary after the cold beach day that afternoon, “Today, I collected sea shells on the beach.”
Two days later, I looked at that date.  Two days have passed.
A week later, the same.
Now, fourteen years later, I still remember the day I went to Milford and the beach and walked along the wet sand when the sun was hiding behind clouds while I found sea shells.

What is it about old places that stir new memories, memories that were lodged, forgotten, hidden?  I am sometimes scared of old time, the things that were meant to be forgotten relived and revived.
* * * * *
For a long time after, I was scared of passing time.  I was scared of the directionality of it, the irreversibility.  But as I slowly come to understand time more, the more years I log on in this wonderful little life, the more I realize that time is an old friend.  Yes, it’s with time that painful episodes of my life can be forgotten, released, forgiven.  It’s with time that things which were unclear come into focus.  And so those lost memories which I desperately tried to salvage in every possible way, I took a breath, I let go.
* * * * *

I returned to my hometown in Connecticut after London before planning my next move back to London and the subsequent nebulous steps.  Before returning to this small, suburban town, I had lived in two of the world’s largest and most developed cities – inhaled the exhaust and smoke from the dirtied streets, stayed up at night fighting the throbbing beats of the taxi cabs waiting on the streets, listened to plenty night activities commencing outside my window while I tried to sleep in preparation for a morning ride as the sun came up (the only silent time during the days in the city).

I left Connecticut being told that I was to make something of myself.  But it was after leaving the ivory towers of education that I slowly began a different type of education, an education that required more silence than speaking, that was more inward than outward, that reversed the very values I had worked on for over twenty years.  It was, as if – I would like to say – my entire internal axis were slowly tilting to something different.  And in this spirit of irony, it is in returning to my small town in Cheshire, Connecticut that I solidify these beliefs, which took four countries and three large cities to reveal.  It’s with this that I invoke T.S. Eliot’s words (roughly) that I’ve “returned to where I started and recognized the place for the first time”.
* * * * *

I’d like to share a few of my favorite lessons from my short return to home:
Lesson Number 1: Ride your bike with old and new friends along known roads.
Lesson Number 2: Eat your vegetables, and thank your mom.
Lesson Number 3: Reread your old diary, and try not to hate your old self too much, especially when you write things like, “My life is over.  I got a 95% on the exam and not 100%, and I didn’t win my mile race in track.”
Lesson Number 4: Look at old photos of old heartbreaks, and point, and then laugh.  Laugh very hard.  Harder.  Then say a prayer to whatever religion you worship, “Thank you [insert deity] for saving me from that [choose one (or two): dimwit/numchuck/jdflaksdjfa/horror]”.
Lesson Number 5: Look at your old bookshelf and wonder why it was ever useful to take a class entitled, “Man and Nature in Ming Dynasty Poetry”.  Alternatively, wonder why the class, “Europe in the Age of Total War 1914-1945” shows up on your transcript while you have no memory of it.  Then look through your old photos of first semester senior year and realize that a few nights a week that semester, you felt it was appropriate to go to a local night club called, “Toads Place”.
Lesson Number 6: Remember your old aspirations and dreams (“I’m going to be a theoretical physicist and discover the 7th dimension!”), and smile, realizing that the best things in your life were in front of you all along.  Then go and have some of mom and dad’s Edy’s extra creamy cookie ice cream in the freezer.
Lesson Number 7: Recognize fully (and make anthropological and psychological notes as well as New Year’s Resolutions and self-improvement techniques) on how you relapse into your fifteen year-old self within a matter of weeks.  Look through your old closet and wonder why you ever bothered to try that hard because the older you get, the more you realize, “You just gotta do you, baby”.
* * * * *
Reprise, Lesson Number 1: Ride your bike with old and new friends along known roads.
Note the changes.  Some roads have been repaved and some forests cleared, and in the place of elms, oaks and pines, are new homes.  They’re fresh and neat.  And while I have memories of what the old farms looked like, or that golf course, I realize my memory fades and tricks me.  The road is longer, the hill is shorter.  The winds blew in different directions, and they still do so.

I began cycling in a wonderful community in New Haven, and it was this community that embraced me when I came back after being away for over three years.  I began riding with them again, some friends I had known for years (Matthew, Anna, Erica, David K., Yale Cycling) and some friends who were new (Bill, Dominique, David S., Augustine).  Was it the same?  Of course not.  I showed up on the first group ride of my life in an old water polo jacket and sneakers, my shoe laces getting caught on the toe-cage pedals sometime around mile thirty on the fifty-five mile ride.  In my mind, there were six distinct, large “climbs” on the group ride, and I had barely made it over the last three (someone’s hand was probably pushing my saddle up).  When I came back this year, I was wearing a different kit (“What is ‘mum’?” was a question that I frequently got), and I realized that the “climbs” suddenly disappeared, that a hilly ride suddenly became very flat.

But my old friends were the same, and we remembered the same jokes.  And I was reminded of stories that I had forgotten, memory after memory, laugh after laugh.
* * * * *
New Year’s Eve, I was approached by New Haven’s Neptune and persuaded by a group of my close cycling friends (whose photos are below) to do the “greatest” thing they could think of for New Year’s: jump into the Atlantic Ocean after a morning’s bike ride in the dead of winter in the north east of North America for an event called, “The Polar Bear Plunge”.  Compared to previous New Years (which included hazy memories of bottles of wine and champagne being consumed – that’s plural, “bottles” – and one spectacular memory of running around and bopping along and jumping up and down on the 34th floor of my roommate’s office building for a New Year’s Eve party in New York City, which could not have ended well, but thank GOD for the food at the party which probably helped curb my three-day-hang-over into a two-day-hang-over, lying in bed and moaning, “Oh my god, it hurts and feels so sick and I swear if this headache goes away I will never ever ever do this to my body again or touch alcohol or ever stay up until seven in the morning oh my god, I think I’m going to vomit…again?!”), this was something new.

But there’s something strangely alluring about the thought of the absolute insane.  As if it takes something you would never really consider doing on a normal day to really be able to shake yourself of all those things that bind you.  In other words, I wanted to let go.

So after the early morning’s ride through the area I had first learned how to get on a bike, I rode to Lighthouse Point in New Haven and lined up with a few hundred other people who wanted to jump into the Atlantic Ocean in the dead of winter in the northeast of North America (though each for his or her own reasons).  My friends lined up with me.  It’s a funny thing about doing crazy things: when you’re with a few hundred other insane people doing the same thing, the act suddenly seems less obtrusive, as if obviously it made so much sense to jump into the Atlantic Ocean in the dead of winter in the northeast of North America, look, that hairy bald guy holding a beer next to me is doing it too!  Standing there on the beach with my towel, I craved a glass of whiskey.

Luckily, my friends were with me, and those who came on the ride without an extra swim suit stood by the rest of us and held our towels (and our sanity).  And as New Haven’s Neptune blew the siren, we all plunged into the water, like humans returning to some prehistoric self (look whales, we’re coming back!).

I will not try to pretend the water was not freezing.  I will not try to pretend that I gleefully ran in further, splashing the salt water around me.  I will not try to pretend I didn’t swear loudly as I stepped onto rocks and felt the ice water hitting my lungs, or that I didn’t immediately turn to my friend, scream, grab her hand and run back.  Yes, I was cold.  Yes, I ran back immediately and needed some help going on land again.  Yes, I swore like I had a vocabulary consisting of four words they teach you not to say in grade school.  But yes, I had the best New Year’s I had ever had, and more importantly, yes, I let go.
* * * * *
It was a long time ago that I was on the beaches of Connecticut, near Milford, the summer cold and wet.  It was a long time ago, then, that I was collecting sea shells out on that beach with my friend, putting the little yellow and white pieces in an old plastic bag and taking them home with me to be relocated into my bathroom as decoration.  It was this New Year’s that I ran into the same ocean, along beaches nearby.  That was exactly one month, fourteen days ago.  In another month, it will be exactly two months, fourteen days.  Time will go by.  Time will disappear.  Time will reappear.  But sad, sad time, I’ll have to let you go.