Author: Emma

Trust the process

Rainy Shibuya, my socks soaked through inside ragged sneakers. The body, more than ever a vessel, more than ever a target of distrust. I don’t like the twinges in my joints and the pangs in my heart; I don’t enjoy seeing my parents age into phantoms. In this weather, central Tokyo doesn’t seem real. The city, more than ever a fantasy, more than ever a house of illusions. I blink and see gems scattered across the pavement. Another half a heartbeat and they resolve into puddles reflecting the watery yellow of the traffic lights.

Trust the process, I think to myself. A mantra as I live out days chained together like plastic beads in a rosary. I ride the trains and observe hairstyles, clothing choices, shoes tapping against the sticky floor. I scroll through online stores. Waves lap ceaselessly at my shores. When I can’t find faith in myself, or the life I lead, or the choices I make, or the world I inhabit, I turn to the process. I have no religion; this is the closest I get. I see the process at work as I weave through crowds. I see it in the raindrop that travels from his tear duct into the burning bush of his brow. It speaks no language and therefore makes no promises. It feels no feelings and therefore holds no grievances.

Sunny Shibuya, my skin red and irritated underneath my clothes. The elastic band of my pants digging into my waist. The mind, one huge pustule. The hands, twitching at the ends of my arms. The process, following me around.

How can the treasure chest of time available to me be both so prized and so pointless? Nothing has meaning, I think, indulgently. I love to hate on everything, especially the usual maxims (truth, ego, despair, morality, amorality, the pursuit of anything). Nihilism is as decent a refuge as any. But I always come back to the process, revealing then the depths of my caprice, because no one as self-absorbed as I could not be steadfastly dedicated to the expectation that some of this will amount to something, that some of us will make it somewhere better than this.

Nighttime Shibuya, aflame with disappointment at my genuflection, at my earnest interest in a life lesson. Forgive me, city of swamp and terrors. It’s not exactly that I want to believe in a higher power, or a cosmic project, or a common destiny. I’ve tried, and I don’t. But I want to trust the process, and I want it to trust me.

What the nightmare knows

Last night, a man with an unspecified weapon followed me around an underground parking garage. Now, don’t panic—it was only a dream. In this dream, I turned away from him; I ran up a flight of gray stairs to a second level, searching for a place to hide among the exposed pillars and the featureless walls. My footsteps echoed on the concrete. His face never appeared, but I could hear him. I knew he could hear me.

I woke not with a start, but with a gradual, druggy reintroduction to the world. A slow fade-in. First, the tepid darkness stepped onto center stage. To the right, the living. To the left, a window. The camera traveled up, to a slender band of dim light taunting me from above the curtain rod. Then to the tangle of sheets trapping my body like an oil slick. My arms and legs were filled with pins and needles. The terror was a fever and it occupied me the way air does a room.

Go back to sleep? No, impossible. When I felt able, I went to the living room and tried to wipe my mind with the antiseptic light of the sunrise. Then I sat down to write, to commit to memory this thing of pain. It helped, though I couldn’t release the notion that a fear this strong would not be forgotten. Some symptom of it must linger, I thought, upset but perversely pleased, too. In the land bracketed by my body, the terror once owned it all; the ruins of its once-mighty civilization would never really be eroded away. Some part of it must leave a twisted mark behind.

But by late afternoon, the thing that was able to terrorize me in the early morning—so fully, so cuttingly—had dissipated entirely. I looked up at the scattered clouds and wondered where it had gone. It disturbed me, as it always has, how quickly I can forget pain, no matter the scale of it.

It disturbed me? Now, don’t panic.

I think about pain regularly—for me, it is a monthly, bodily function. But even the deepest forms of it, I can forget readily. I know this is a coping mechanism without which the human species could not continue to exist. But I hate it, because it makes every other feeling feel counterfeit. It makes life feel like an endless lesson with no true catharsis at its end. I think about gratification, mortification, flagellation, followed again by gratification, then mortification, then flagellation. Each step reoccurring in an infinite choreography. Could I be trapped in a cycle with no center, like an object in orbit with no knowledge of its star, like a dark speck floating in something fleshy and abyssal? I could fall forever and never reach the bottom of the future we’ve made.

I’ll confess. Sometimes I have this difficult feeling that can be imperfectly summarized as: I don’t want anyone to look at me, or think of me, or feel for me. Now, don’t panic—it’s only a feeling. I’ll go on—I want to exist inside a matte black sphere and be unknown. I want to travel the world and never register on any radar, never appear in any image, never disturb any space as I move within it. It’s not precisely invisibility that I want, and it’s not a desire to disappear. I do want to be visible, but rather than acting like an ordinary object in a landscape, the light bouncing off me, I want to be Vantablack. I want to be darker than dark. I want to exist outside this. I want to carry the pain like a souvenir. I want to put my gloved hands in the shadow box and rewrite the ending. I don’t want to be the girl in the nightmare, nor the man. I don’t want to be the weapon he holds, nor the towering blocks of concrete that box her in. I want to be somewhere in the corner, unnoticed. I want to stand with my back to the wall, arms crossed over my chest, and watch it unfold, or not.

Moral of the story

It’s finally warm enough outside that opening the windows is a pleasure. On the lap of the breeze, a trio arrive, fine gossamer against the window pane: light, warmth, and some third thing only circulating air can generate. Brio, maybe. There are three weeks between my birthday and my brother’s and, in that interim time, cool, blue spring becomes honeyed, temperate spring. Dogs nose at the ground. Insects return to their kingdom. I try to extract the big plastic box of summer clothing from the closet and clumsily tip over onto the bed in the process. In that pool of sheets, warmed by rays of light from the westerly path of the sun, I feel a bit like Thumbelina, aimless but not altogether lost, in her green-amber nest of barley.

I am deep in the contractual weeds with a possible new employer. While we trade emails across the ocean, I continue to spend the days freely. I try not to think about the cost of each labor hour in terms of lost salary. I try not to engage in hypotheticals or counterfactuals or any other instruments of speculation. Instead, I do my best to think of these developments with as much neutrality as possible. My life was not a bad life when I was gainfully employed. It was nevertheless the right choice to leave when I left. This sabbatical is not entirely stress-free. It is nevertheless a treasure, a pearl of time that is mine to use as I wish. I repeat these things like a prayer until they stick not on my skin, not on my soul, but some third surface in between.

I read. I don’t read. I write. I don’t write. Right, wrong, and some third thing. When the wind whistles through with the windows open, Strawberry’s windchime—a forest-green bell of cast iron, with a cerulean-blue tongue—cries out in a single clear note, and spring, invisible, blurry, inchoate, comes to distinctive, blushing life, signaling the true end of the frost. How easily noise filters into sound when we tune our ear in its favor.

Nighttime Routine (IV; last entry)

The last drop of violet-colored body oil gurgled loudly down the gunky gullet of her bathroom sink. She chased it with half a bottle of drain cleaner and then sat down, heavily, on the marble-patterned laminate. The temperature inside her felt like it had dropped by a hundred degrees, as though she herself were plummeting down a rockface, into an endless crevasse below. She pictured not-her, falling headfirst through freezing air, blue velvet heels abandoned on the ice. She pressed her closed eyes to the peeling paper of her bathroom cabinet. She counted each full breath.

That night, she dreamed of the products she had made disappear. The slimy, clinical-grade serums, the moisturizers that left a film of sparkle on her hairline, the potions for her persistent frizz, her boxcar scars, the broken veins visible across her neck. They spoke in her dead mother’s voice and told her dark family secrets that she did not remember upon waking but that lingered like grease on her hands. The smell in her apartment made her sick to her stomach as she took apart the instruments of the routine, scattering their remains on a piece of old newspaper. The imitation jade roller was mostly plastic. The Korean towel was easily cut into pieces with safety scissors. The UV light mask was impenetrable, even after significant prodding with a screwdriver; she left it whole, its eye holes staring up at her, its mouth hole aghast. She wrapped up the newspaper and hid the evidence in a corner of her closet.

She was unsure, at first, if by destroying her collection, her hand raised like a sword aflame, she had definitively killed the deal. But when night rolled around and she was still there, alone with her maze of thoughts, her skin a dry pelt over her face, she knew. Her time was hers again. Mind abuzz, hair uncombed, she climbed into the sheets. Her arms and legs felt like sweaty deli meat, which she tried her best to ignore. She could feel her curls matting at the nape of her neck. Something in her groaned like an Eldritch horror of the deep, and she choked it into submission.

(more…)

Nighttime Routine (III)

She took a week off work to search for the devil. (Technically, this was a violation of the PTO policy at her employer, but she knew Herbert in HR and she knew how to cry to him when necessary.) At the bus stop, her sunglasses flashing against the purpling light of the sunset, her arms crossed tightly over a cream-colored baby tee, she bared her teeth at the odious moon, the yellowing grass, the commuters who stared too long. Every gesture in her approximate direction seemed to her a provocation. Every stranger resembled an ex-boyfriend or an intolerable coworker. Her body itched uncontrollably.

Waiting for the devil at the bus stop failed to replicate their initial meeting-at-the-crossroads, so she turned to the digital crumb trail scattered across his Instagram stories. She followed him through a chain of venture capital-funded coworking spaces, then a suburban Walmart converted from an airplane hangar, then a Catholic seminary, where she was imprisoned for a full day and night after being mistaken for Satan’s accomplice (she ultimately escaped from a balconied window, teeth gritted, with the assistance of an undercover doctoral student posing as a nun and a rope of altar cloths knotted together like a rosary). She staked out the local DMV in a strip mall where the devil had an improbable appointment to renew his driver’s license. She hunted him around a tediously vapid nightclub, and then into a grimy alleyway across the street, where he dissolved into a pool of shadow, leaving her there in a cheap party dress, grasping only moonlight.

She finally pinned him down in the back of her city’s worst-rated Starbucks. He had a stickered MacBook balanced precariously on one knee. “Hey cool girl,” he said when he saw her, breezily, with real pleasure, as though they’d planned the rendezvous. He held her gaze as she slid into the seat opposite him.

(more…)

Disconnect me

Utterly perfect blue sky. The clouds have a touch of tangerine to their undersides. The freshness in a breath, the pale light—qualities in the air that never fail to remind me of new life. Springtime, here again.

Angelic blue in the morning. Light filtering in from the long, thin windows of the bedroom. Water boiling noisily for coffee. I disconnect and retreat into my mind, where everything is fallow land. Left uncultivated, this land has grown wildly, weirdly. I lack the awareness—or maybe the courage—necessary to weed it. So I relinquish the need to curate every thought and feeling I have. I give the budding flowers wide berth, out of deference to the dignity of their future beauty. Their tiny petals look cool to the touch. The fruit on the vine is pallid and misshapen but tender with promise. My phone is dead.

I watch an epic-in-the-making in my city’s biggest movie theater. I rest my chin in my hand. I resist the urge to tap a rhythm against the sticky floor. Why can nothing huge and mythic faze me anymore? The noon light shimmers hotly at my back when I raise my hand to knock at the doors of El Dorado—but then I pause. Fist in the air, I lower my hand. I return to the desert of my neighborhood and I wander its sidewalks under the gray sky, the green and ruby lights. A man smoking a cigarette almost runs me over with his bicycle. My mind is experiencing a drought. I find it impossible to be nourished by anything I read. Everything rolls off without absorption, as though the skin of my mind were coated in a layer of repellant. I kick at the rocks and feel something like comfort.

A holy night in spring. The moon is as full as longing is long. The air has a bite that never fails to remind me of my old life. My old life—neurosis like a gold rush, butterflies migrating up from my stomach to clog my veins. When Strawberry met my parents, he said to me: “I understand why you are the way you are now,” and I thought about my years kneeling by the river, panning stubbornly for gold, and forever finding bullets instead, stained brick red with my father’s blood. My old life—something I bury every winter and that will resurrect, without fail, in the breath of the following year in summer, a season of fireflies and vegetation, pain and forgiveness. “I understand why you are the way you are,” he said, and on that tree of knowledge I found the perfect fruit: the peace of closure. Tragic, infuriating but perversely validating, like a lesson learned twenty years too late. Now all that’s all left is for me to understand why I am the way that I am.

There’s no thread to this, I know. I knew before I started, because everything I write lately has this disconnected, restless spirit to it, like a bare path that meanders across a canal, under an overpass, above the clouds, through endless time. I cross swords with myself over and over. I win and I lose. I sit by the water and strum a few dissonant notes with calloused fingers and I hope that you will trust me, and that I will trust myself. Springtime, here again.

Employee of the Month

When I stepped off the train after my last day at my last job, the thought bubbled up from some vial of dark ether: “I would like to go get shit-faced.” This specific urge was new to me, though the feelings that motivated it were not. Endings make me melancholy. They twist my frame of mind into something that can no longer hold my portrait in place. The oily pigments of my painted face run all the way to the edges of the frame, and then drip onto the floor. Richly overdramatic purple, green olive, waxy pink. Pooling there, in a rainbow oil slick, until I can run my hand through—my fingertips, teardrops of wet, glassy pink, green, blue that, when mixed, go plummy, like basalt in the shadow of the sunset—and anoint myself anew.

Inside me, a bubble of glass is slowly growing. It expands until it sits right beneath my skin. I feel the membrane of glass against the membrane of my tissue, both surfaces engaged in gentle, exploratory contact. My cells worm their way around the intruder, probing the hard, transparent surface with their plasma-soaked limbs. Then the bubble breaches the boundaries of my body, painlessly. It now holds me within it, rather than vice versa. The air inside the bubble is both clear and cloudy, and I can see the path of the planets circumscribed around it. They flicker past me: spheres of old gold. Constellations that proceed on predetermined paths, that already know their futures. Saturn winks as he passes, teeth bared slightly in warning; I suppress a shiver of disgust.

My mother, the amateur astrologer, arrives via shooting star. She grabs my hand; she pulls me into her orbit, where she holds court in the cosmic theater. She convicts me, quickly, correctly, of the crime of cynicism, which springs eternally from a cup of bone embedded in my torso, irrigating my flesh like blood. In front of an unfeeling jury of my peers, hands folded against my gray tunic, I admit that my cynicism has been known to overcome me, has been known to erupt from my mouth and onto the inside walls of the bubble of glass. A gasp rises from the audience. “But is it not punishment enough,” I plead, “that I have to live with the thorn-shaped stains, crowning my vision forever?” My cynicism, beading on the glass like raindrops, is bile-green, ocean-blue, and streaked with daggers of red. It distorts the patterns of planets. Like torrid rain streaking against a windshield, it obscures my path forward. “No, it’s not enough,” says my mother, in her powdered wig, pounding her gavel with childlike glee. “You’re a danger to society and a corruptor of your own youth.”

As I am dragged away in heavy chains, I think: “My own—?”

I thought I was done writing about quitting my job. But it turns out that I’m still not done with that process. I feel it sitting in my mind like a stack of paperwork. The pages slip and float to the floor; their edges grow a pelt of dust. I retrieve them, sighing, and rearrange them into a more balanced configuration. No part of this endears me to the necessity of reading these twisted pages. “I don’t think I ever heard the reason you left,” a former colleague tells me over a final lunch. I raise a glass of water to my lips. I’ve rehearsed this answer a hundred times, and I’ve delivered it a hundred more times. I put the glass down a little more heavily than intended. “It was a timing thing,” I say. “Everything is about timing.” She nods, solicitously leaving any follow-up questions unasked. We both understand that I cannot be forthright about a place that we have both chosen—her, to stay; I, to leave.

Sometimes, I imagine how to tell her the truth. It begins with a fairytale about a lonely girl who grew into a confused woman. She was not a princess nor a beast. She was not Ariadne and not the Minotaur. Mundane in her mundanity. She was the granite that built the tower. She was the walls of the labyrinth. She was the on-call family therapist all throughout her childhood and adolescence. At the time, the role felt like a privilege, a natural outgrowth of emotional maturity, proof of preternatural wisdom. But she eventually came to understand that it had been an imposition, a form of deprivation, and that it was very possible—possibly inevitable—for a sensitive child to mistake adultness for a propensity for martyrdom. But old habits are hard to break and throughout her twenties she continued in the role, conducting daily relationship therapy between obstinate Minos and cruel Theseus, between Saturn and the painter, between image and frame, between bull and man, between desire and shadow. The most difficult of these was the duel between red-eyed cynicism and its ideological opposite—which was not quite optimism, nor hope, nor dream, but some union of the three that railed against the walls of the maze, fighting to prove that things could be different.

As she was locked in the cell, the keys jangling as the door closed behind her, she wondered: “That what could be different? That I—could be different? I—?”

From the window cut into the stone, optimism answered: “Yes. That you could be different.” (A muffled cry as, somewhere outside on the grass, optimism choked the air out of cynicism, preventing its rebuttal.)

Then, hope, sensing an opening, softly: “Not to mediate, but to create. Not to be underused, nor underestimated.”

Then, dream, with such purity of tone it induced her to crawl to the window frame as it rang out, like a bell: “To fight,”—she wedged her knee against the stone, scrambling for purchase, for a better view, to peer out into the light—”for the future of something you can’t yet name.”

Nighttime Routine (II)

Her nighttime routine consisted of forty different steps involving fifteen products and five parts of her body. First, she lit a white wax candle. Sweet, pink-petalled freesia swept into the room. Her head swam. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she meditated for ten minutes using a loving kindness app. “I forgive you,” she intoned, under the Benedictine guidance of a honeyed British voice. It was said with a genuine attempt at feeling, with the overwhelming desire to summon a revelation like the ones promised to her in the ads for therapy, and she waited expectantly, shivering in the center of her room in synthetic fleece pajamas. But when the tundra of her mind refused to react, she gave up easily, unsurprised—but bitter, nonetheless, at the notion that meditation wouldn’t work on her dog of a brain.

With a shiver of fear for what new pimple or freshly mottled patch she might encounter on its rolling hills and pockmarked fields, she moved onto her body. She twisted around in the dirty mirror to examine every hairy, blue-veined scrap of skin. She ran a roller of imitation green jade over pads of fat, lips pressed together tightly, eyes averted. She scrubbed at her elbows with an intricately woven towel imported from Korea. She applied a mud mask, then a sheet mask, and then a UV light mask. She cleansed, exfoliated, and moisturized her face. Balms, liquids, creams, gels. Baby blue, Pepto pink, grass green. She flossed and brushed her teeth with something battery-powered. In the warm yellow light, her bubblegum-flavored gingiva shone in her mouth like the gilded edges of an illuminated manuscript. (A decorative glint of blood along her lip line from overexuberant flossing.) She meticulously conditioned every strand of her dyed hair with animal fat before braiding it into a loop that she pinned into place. The clips she used cost fourteen dollars and were shaped and colored like monarch butterflies.

(more…)

Break my mood

Currently living in a mood that feels like rapture. The rapture is joyless but the joylessness is a comfort. The light on the water has changed from sequins to scarlet, from foam to dust. But I have released any need for anything to be different than what it is.

I nick a finger with a knife. I nick the blade against a whetstone. The moon is a disc of gold and it gloats at me, but I have learned how to ignore it. I wet my palate with something persimmon-flavored. In the laboratory, standing goggled and gowned, Igor raises a bony hand from the lever and asks me if the job is done. My hands are gory with something that looks like strawberry puree. “No,” I say, enjoying the feeling of the word.

I listen to the outro of White Ferrari over and over until I can feel, simmering underneath my skin, the urge to cry. But I can let it go if that is my desire and today, desires are all that will lead me. I look at satellite images of Tokyo, the bay awash in clouds. “No,” I say again, and my expression clears like the morning after the rain.

Birthday letter

For your birthday this year, you quit your job. You dropped the reins and let the leather lay flaccid on the grass. You spent a cold morning walking the old city, tears seeding your eyes like pearls. You didn’t respond when your body called out your name. You said: I mean, what for? I cannot look back and retrace my steps across the ocean. You cut those veins and let the footprints fill with blood.

You thought of everything you wanted to write but then, sitting at the keyboard after two months of swimming in a hole of darkness, you raised your hands to the uneven light and found them reduced to lumps of lunch meat. To restore their life would required sacrifice. You said: What do I have left to give? The amphora is already broken.

You spent hours in the red-colored badlands, squatting over artifacts of the distant past. You brushed the dust off their faces with a tenderness that felt pained, jagged, filthy. You scratched out messages with a scalpel. Where did you go? On the pieces of the amphora, a reply, long eroded into sand that shone in the air like scattered light. Once upon a time, there was something whole here, in this place where you hoard nothing but shards.

Magnolia petals on the asphalt, April 1994. For your birthday this year, promise that you will pack up your digger’s tools. Promise that you will cross the desert. Promise you will retreat to the forest, where the ruins of the old city are overgrown with moss, and where the insects have made homes in the hollowed-out traffic lights. There, it is possible to stand in the stream, the fish kissing your knees, their movements a map to a future not yet known to us, and feel clean in a new way, one that the water can neither give nor take away.