Category: Life

Gambler’s Fallacy

Autumn, again. The screendoor is flecked with sticky, translucent clusters of moth eggs. I discover, in the leg of a pair of work pants as I collect the laundry hanging outside, a suzumebachi (sparrow hornet; sometimes called “Asian giant hornet”). It approaches me full of determination, like a bullet, as though following a straight line forward, carved there by true purpose. Its eyes are dark and almond-shaped, like mine.

I sit by the window, face propped up by my fist, elbow against my knee, legs crossed in the swivel chair. There’s something about early November—the hours of moody cloudiness, the damp, chilled air, bare branches, numb toes—that makes it easier than usual to cross that splintered threshold that separates controlled consciousness from sloppy daydream.

My resume-certified qualities—ability to multitask, attention to detail, power of concentration—disappear promptly into a bed of red, brown, and yellow leaves. I slide away from connected, cogent thoughts and fall through a crack in my mind into a frigid, empty room. I can remain there for hours, more object than body but with shades of both, like a pink slab of deli meat on a styrofoam tray. Time passes like water dripping, pus oozing, oil spreading over the limpid surface of the ocean. When I snap back, it’s three in the afternoon and a dog and a crow are locked into an escalating duet, and a woman unknown to me is standing by the plum tree outside.

At five thirty, I collect my backpack, into which I stuff my thoughts and desires, and descend the elevator into a dark evening lit only by passing hazard lights. A couple of men smoke languidly by the convenience store. Fatigue taps me on the shoulder, but I don’t turn around. I cross the road, pulling my orange coat tight against me. Autumn, again.

The Path of Atalanta

I have this feeling of walking through dense gray mist, dimly aware that the cliff’s crumbling edge lies close ahead. If I avoid the fall, it’s only luck that saves me. If I keep walking, it’s only because, try as I might, I can’t configure a different choice. Time is a blazing arrow that moves in a single direction. It won’t bend. It won’t compromise. It drags you forward like a bagged body. What could be mistaken for courage is nothing but inertia. What could be mistaken for strength is nothing but streaks of blood, pooling in the chalky, pockmarked terrain of the cliffside.

I hear the repeated ding of a morning alarm, and then the warning blaring of car horns, the muted shuffling of papers, the gurgle of the water cooler, the unspooling of toilet paper, the uptempo tread of commuters, the notification bell from my cellphone. I put on whatever is trending and let it pass through me like an undigested meal. All the while, the mist from the cliff follows me like a tiny cloud. A gray shroud.

When we go to bed, it’s still there. I reach to feel its texture between my fingers. The mist isn’t inert. It bulges around me with a mind of its own. Its touch on me—cool, indifferent—reminds me of picking up and squeezing a cold peach at the supermarket, probing its flesh for ripeness.

Unable to sleep, my thumbs press against the screen of my phone, bringing it back to alarmingly bright, gold-toned life. Strawberry stirs, so I carefully arrange a pillow between us to shield him. At 2am, the night feels contemptuous, unfriendly. A hostile, imperious guardian with my best interest at heart, but zero tact in communicating its concerns. It glowers through the windows. “You’re doing this, again?” it asks darkly, as I navigate to my browser, resenting every second. But soon enough, I know, it will have come to accept the inevitability of the situation. The bitter night and the choking mist will crowd around my shoulders and dive down, headfirst, into the torrent with me.

I catch up on the latest Twitter drama—banal, petty, a waste of time for everyone involved. Sometimes, it skirts too close to a real pain point, and we all flinch at the near collision of online garbage and authentic emotion. Thankfully, an Internet Samaritan arrives with a hilariously chosen meme to ward off the sting of reality. I check the news—sad, and even sadder when it ends up referencing the Twitter drama. Content, which springs eternal from the font of the fanged Big Five, yanks me into a vortex that manages to both torment and satisfy. Ads pop up. Pleas to subscribe. Wide-open mouths on a clickbait thumbnail. Canned laughter. Trolls in the comments. I scroll and am fed more nutritionally void content.

I reflect, and find that even my reflections on this process have nothing substantive to offer. “The Internet is bad? Cold take,” I think to myself, self-pityingly. It’s too one-note, so I redirect towards the emotionally and artistically fulfilling parts of the Internet, which do exist, and which can be as rewarding as impeccably timed crescendos, perfectly peeled fruit. I read the latest pages of a webcomic, the most recent update from a blog, an ancient entry from a delightfully odd web-only novel. I find a directory of online journals styled after Geocities. Acid green, deep purple, low-res, rotating gifs, blinking HTML marquee. For an instant, the web is an oasis, cherished, fertile, its flowers and insects living in unrestricted abundance.

But I go forward, only to then double-back. Back to social media, where the longer I scroll, the less alive I feel. The night and the mist, sensing my agitation, jostle newly for my attention. Each promises a different remedy. One seeks to triumph over fear through moonlit clarity. Look at the beast in the eyes, the night says, voice like the arc of a sword swung through the air. The mist swirls around the crescent of my ear and mutters, joylessly: The path is easiest to walk when you can’t see where it goes.

“Wait. ‘The path,’ meaning what, exactly?” I whisper. “Like, life? My life, or the concept of it, or what?”

The mist shrugs. These apparitions speak only in riddles.

Time is a blazing arrow that moves in a single direction. It drags you forward like a bagged body. What could be mistaken for courage is nothing but inertia. The mist morphs into foggy memory, tenuous but real, finally resolving into the vision of my mother, at forty-five, kneeling against the floor as she cards through her drawer of silk scarves, a thousand stashed underneath her bed, all heavy with the blended odor of cigarette smoke and Chanel No. 5. I sit on the mattress, legs dangling, watching cool-toned daylight, bracketed by the window blinds, slowly enter the room.

Red Messenger

I dream of you, oddly, profoundly. I dream of you so often I wonder if you’ve hired a master of the occult to open up my head like a music box and fill it to the brim with locks of your hair. Wind the key and my mind plays a slow, sombre version of your favorite tune.

In my dream, you lie with me in a dark field in a country with no name. To be fair: Not precisely you, but the “idea of you.” The idea of you has no hair, no hands, and no eyes that I can remember upon waking. The idea of you is a messily blurred body and a scratched-out face. But the idea of you can take on a shape like a fully grown stallion and easily outcompete all opponents on the track, finishing the race with no ounce of visible effort, gleaming like the reflection of the pale moon. The idea of you is fearless before the Sunday morning derby crowds that rise to celebrate you. From the stands, I sob with terrifying, newly discovered emotion.

In the real world, the world of the living, you move around like a blood cell. Fast, energetic, determined, accomplished, self-assured. A vessel of purpose. I wish I had your single-mindedness. I wish I had your verve. You swim so easily through the crowded channels of the green, gray, blue world. I watch you from faraway, from my vantage point in a high tower. I see you refracted through social media; a professional face, front-lit, with an ironed collar beneath. I see you in the colorful stories that come back to me from our mutual friends. I read your turn-of-phrase in a thick book on the library shelf. I heed the advice you gave me years ago. Your eyes roll at me from the big screen of a matinee showing of your favorite film. I go through my inbox and find a years-old email from your old address. I see your features on a stranger’s face. I look at the sky at dusk—purple, pink, black, rose-red—and think that only you would have known the word to describe this color. I click through photographs on a forgotten hard drive and notice you smiling shyly in the background. I have to avert my eyes. Do you ever see me, in memory, in mood-altering dream? We understand each other, you and I. Don’t we? Didn’t we?

What a joy companionship is; what a liability, when it is lost. A bonfire dwindling to nothing, rendering the dark of the forest full and all-encompassing. A delicately crafted glass vial of poison, imbibed at the tragic end of a play. When I tell the story of my life, I can’t bear to completely omit you, but I am careful to limit the extent of your role. I don’t think I could take questions without releasing a torrent of intolerable feelings. Fossilized in a previous stage of life, I am a scarab, legs folded underneath me, buried deep in sand, and the moon, red and full, rises with no knowledge of me.

Coalsack Nebula

Dear Tokyo in the rain, お久しぶりです。(It’s been a while.) Here you are: your veiled blue of a sky papered in clouds and smog. The slight chill of the air feels as restorative, as I step off the crowded bus, as a cool drink of water. Silently, my fellow commuters and I pop open our clear plastic umbrellas. I feel it then: that druggy, half-present feeling of being halfway between work and home. As resonant and resolute as rain itself. You know the feeling. The mind wanders somewhere secret, while the body is securely in transit. Stasis of the physical form, while the mind parachutes out from 20,000 feet. It’s how I imagine comets: swinging around a corner of space with periodic cosmic regularity, their rocky bodies tearing through space on a prescribed route, while their hearts dream of the void beyond.

The walk from the bus stop to my doorstep takes fifteen minutes and cuts through a tunnel, into a shopping street, up a hill, down a hill, and past a ludicrously pricy dentist. I hear the call and response of the station announcements and the answering thunder of footsteps boarding a train. I hear a cheery, high-pitched supermarket jingle. I hear a deliveryman call out good evening in a loud, spirited voice. I hear a neighbor cough throatily from beyond a mossy wall. Meanwhile, the current of my own thoughts blooms and fades in a constant cycle.

The sky darkens to a deep lilac. Rainwater seeps through the sole of my right shoe. Last month, I superglued these old sneakers in a final attempt to prolong their usability, but I must face the reality that they are at the end of their lives. When I flipped them over to apply the glue, I saw, for the first time, that the chevron indents that patterned the bottoms had almost entirely rubbed off, leaving behind a smooth, frictionless surface. After nearly two years of living in the shadow of c-19, I notice that something similar has happened to my feelings about the future. Even when circumstances were dire and hopes burning at their lowest, my future used to feel patterned, textured, nuanced, possible. Now, I think of the future as something like the flat, imposing line of the horizon of each night, followed by day, followed by night. A perpetual rainy walk in which I approach home, but never reach it.

I described a similar sensation in March 2020 like so: “The future immediately twisted into nothing as the present eats itself.” Those were the early days of c-19. Not much in my life has changed in this time, but something fundamental about that sentence rings less true in 2021. Now, I feel that I have to flip the terms. The present has twisted into nothing, as the future eats itself.

Wayfinding

The day after receiving my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I lay in bed, body weight pressed against the white sheets, finishing up an ethnography set in Egypt and India. Even with all the shades drawn, the heat still manages to enter; it muscles in, hungrily sharing the bed with me.

The cicadas, thumb-sized green gems that hang in the trees like ornaments, buzz unceasingly. At this point in the summer, their cries are not an unwelcome distraction, but part of the background noise of a season I proclaim to hate every year, but that I always come to earnestly love. A three-month period of cloudless blue skies and bright red moods. As I read, the flourescent bars that illuminate the neighborhood school grounds begin to flicker intermittently. Their amber-yellow light bleeds in through the folds where my blue curtains nearly converge, but fail to touch.

On the last page, the story takes a dark turn; the author narrates how a friend is lost, presumably forever, in a country at war. I can’t help but feel that this conclusion is left somewhat ambiguous. Not open to interpretation, necessarily, but unresolved. After contemplating for a few moments, silent in my room filled with warmth, light, and insect sounds, a greenhouse of sensation, I roll over, slip off the bed, and flip open my laptop. I navigate to Google and plug in the friend’s name repeatedly, in combination with a grab bag of search terms, on my way to discovering his true fate. “Author,” “friend,” “death,” “what happened” “?”

The search turns up nothing. Another search yields nothing. My immediate confusion at this is derived, not from the lack of obtainable information, but from the search engine’s inability to find what I assume must exist. A daughter of the World Wide Web, my first impulse is to trust that anything can be found by carefully selecting search terms, rearranging their order in the sequence, and clicking through web pages diligently, like a pilgrim organizing relics, in wait of a miracle.

I retreat from the keyboard. I open the curtains and find that the sun has set; the evening sky splashes onto my eyes like a gentle wave. I spot the bicycle belonging to the child next door: seafoam green wheels, a white basket. Its wheel is positioned in the direction of my window, inclining the frame towards me as though in greeting.

There’s mountains of information inaccessible to me. There’s kingdoms of knowledge locked away. Maybe it’s better like that. Not all information benefits from availability. A young man died suddenly, and it’s not possible to learn how, or when, or where, or why. A stranger, I think of him on his last day, threading the needle of his final hours. Walking forward until the path twisted, and then closed off before him.

Mt. Epiphany (II)

I’m not prepared to answer questions about my life, our lives, or life in general. I’ve stopped trying to fit anything into any predictive model, gilded frame, convenient pattern, or conventional explanation. I have always been opposed to self-delusion of any kind, even if comes under the guise of rationality, even if it’s only the embrace of delusion that makes life bearable. I’m at the point now where that trait is enduring its most severe test.

Every day I wake to more bad news. Imagine rising on a battlefield, half-screaming, the jeweled hilt of a Templar’s sword sliding out of your sweaty grip, to find the fight has already ended, and the ground is a fetid, marshy carpet of the dead. The contorted bodies radiating a shy, silvery light in the red haze of the morning sun. Imagine a sleeping child on a raised, protected marble altar while, just below, blood makes thin channels through the packed dirt, trickling patiently toward the center of the Earth. Dreaming in complete, perfect serenity, thumb in mouth, while the the world decomposes in record time.

I don’t try to understand pain anymore. I don’t try to process my reaction to it. I let it drip from me like pus from a wound. I don’t sanctify it. I don’t rationalize it. I don’t try to understand beauty, either. Beauty, which some call reason enough to live, now feels like weak, flabbergastingly trivial artifice. Looking up at the night sky, the constellations seem comically ill-made to me, a scraggly spread of stars arranged like a hobbyist gardener’s first vegetable patch. Looking out at the mountains, the trees are like individual threads in a cheaply made dun-brown carpet, dull, cloudy light squeaking through their stripped branches and blurring the view beyond. Looking at myself, captured on video, my posture sloped like a melting ice cream cone, my face and eyes are distant, murky, and unrecognizable.

My cynicism has reached dizzying heights, but as I peer into the scrying mirror that is self-reflection, looking into that hinterland for the signs and symbols of sadness that were the totems of my childhood, I find that I am denied even the bittersweet comfort of pathologizing the cynicism that has warped all chance of continued, permanent happiness. I’m not depressed. I am a vain and incompetent fighter, a girl who both grew up too fast and never grew up, a consumer of processed goods, an American citizen, a screaming child. I’m at peace with myself, as long as I can be honest about what I am, though I am profoundly unhopeful about the state of the world and the possibilities of my life within it. An upbeat song with bleak lyrics. To sleep, but not to dream. A sunset in a grove once teeming with fireflies, the vista fractured by telephone poles. Hitting play on a reversed timelapse and watching as the rose retracts into itself and the orange, blue, gold, pink stars blink out of life. Paying for healthcare during the leisurely death of the future.

Truth is the daughter

Dirty rain overflows the drainage ditch that bisects the neighborhood. Sewage, rank, richly odorous, rushes through outflow pipes, spraying into the air like sputtering pyrotechnics and forming huge fecal pools in a river christened two months ago with an undulating blush-pink film of flowers.

Then, early summer enters like an outrageously costumed actor bursting out from beneath a center-stage trapdoor. I eat the first kakigouri of the season: chunky ice crystals marinating in a sickly sweet syrup of condensed milk and artificial vanilla flavor. My head pounds from the resulting sugar rush. My mood depends so much on the current physiology of my body. Mind and matter are inextricably linked, to the point that I feel my consciousness most strongly in the thrum of my blood, the cables of flesh that are my limbs, the pulpy mass within my abdomen, the wet tails of my eyes extending via interlocking nerves into my brain, that limp, damp ball of gray unleavened dough. I don’t understand my mind and body as separate entities, but as clay lumps forced together so tightly they become indistinguishable. Maybe the most accurate way I envision myself is by thinking of a ladleful of primordial soup: clumps of hydrogen and carbon glimmering on the surface like streaks of fat, sulfurous smoke rising from the top. No body, no mind. Just a puddle of crushed compounds stringing together spaghetti strands of tortured thoughts that slither out, tadpole-like, after days of bubbling percolation.

The sunlight streams in from every direction, but I walk along the riverfront numbly, unsteadily, as though swimming through fog that fills my mind like a sea of synthetic liquid glue. For the fourth time in as many years, I am leaving one workplace and joining another. It’s not unusual to experience many transitions in a short period of time, and in general I do not fear change. The gig economy is all I’ve ever known. Its shifting sands have been shifting and sighing underneath me all my life. But I start to wonder if the changes I make are symptomatic of an inability to make the final choice, to stick the landing on the final twist of the “life’s purpose” knife. What salvation is available to those of us unable to pick a profession, choose a hobby, maintain a consistent group of friends, or keep a stable self-image? I think the notion of meaning in life is a fiction, but I have dog-eared those pages too many times to coyly play off its effect on me. What to do when you know something is false, but you cling to it more fanatically than the truth?

Mt. Epiphany

The garden facing the windows is a miniaturized paradise of pockmarked cobblestones, potted greenery, and dried, scattered leaves the color of crushed cinnabar, desert sand, and fresh cherries. Red, chocolate brown, deep, dark green, and the ravishingly navy blue of a darkening sky. A backwards glance at fall in windy spring. I nurse a cup of black coffee, rolling it idly between my hands like a hunk of moldable clay.

Desires cycle through my mind like pebbles in my shoe. They stick to my dreams like pink gum smeared onto the underside of an ancient desk of pale and splinter-prone wood. Desires follow me through different rooms. I end one life stage and enter another. I exit one crossroad only to arrive at another crossroad.

Along with April, a new semester comes in with the unrelenting tide. I leave my basement office and find a hearty midday spread outside like a boundless picnic blanket, saturated in green, pallid gold, and cornflower blue. The light outside is far-reaching, balmy, clear, free of haze, dust, or cloud. Students leave their classrooms and filter into the cafeteria, carrying stacks of books in their arms. Head down as I pick through the crowds, I think of the shards of the future they harbor–glittering faintly, gem-like–in their eyes.

A small student band has gathered behind a building to play a cheerful, summery tune composed of pan flute and several guitars. Something about the song, buoyant, clear, brings me out of a stupor and into a new dream, sparking tears from my eyes.

この世、あの世

In the gray light of very early evening, the cherry blossoms along the river glow like clusters of tiny moons. A brisk, unseasonably cold wind hums pleasantly through the street. Its voice mingles with the rumbling of cars and the pitter-patter of soft rain, generating a misty, muffled soundscape that feels like standing with toes in the ocean. A half-dozen private security guards stand, in plastic raincoats, at each intersection. One holds a posterboard encouraging would-be flower-gazers to return home.

We walk to Tokyo Tower, a smaller Eiffel Tower-style monument painted in vivid neon red-orange, now surpassed in popularity by many taller, newer, more glamorous buildings. A few people wander idly around the entrance, but I don’t see anyone cross the silver cylinders of the ticket turnstile. Tokyo Tower weeps soundlessly. A vermillion has-been, tucked into a nondescript office district, nestled inconsequentially into the dense sprawl. It’s east to be lost here. Tokyo is formed, like an insect’s gem-colored, segmented eye, into a million corners, blind alleys, broken-down storefronts, rooms seeking tenants, concrete bridges, glittering skyscapers, bustling avenues, cavernous sewers, and secretive, dark-doored basement bars. Anonymity is a staple of identity. Living alone, you can go years yearning for company, without knowing that, just around the corner, not twenty feet away, a man makes the most delicious coffee and the most engaging conversation in all of Tokyo.

A few subway stops from Tokyo Tower, we ascend three flights of stairs to a temple complex. A elderly cat sits on a step, so completely still I am not initially sure if it’s a real animal. A wounded koi fish, gouged flesh protruding like foam from a cut along its back, swims briskly through dark water freckled with lily pads. The temple is located dizzingly high above the road below; I look down the steep steeps, lined in stone lanterns, my pulse shooting through my body in a flood of vertigo. Below us, Tokyo unfolds, the ultimate in urban ugliness. Reinforced concrete, glass, asphalt, and steel: the four twisting strands of its DNA. Daylight seems to bring out the absolute worst in the city’s features: heat-exuding four-laned roads, frantic intersections, blocky, glass-walled department stores, squareish buildings clothed in endless banner ads.

A paradise of commerce, a den of inaccessible subculture, a froth of traditional symbolism, 90’s holdovers, and cyberpunk aspirations. It’s strange to think that Tokyo is where I will have spent the bulk of my twenties. It’s not my home, per se, but it is where I cycle through sleep, dream, wakefulness, and where I live out the days from within my catalog of moods. Each day starts out the same way. I open my eyes in a four-story apartment building at the base of a concrete hill, located by the hip of a canal that snakes through the city before draining into the glassy waters of Tokyo Bay. I open the curtains onto my skinny street, where even small cars manage to skim my sleeves as they inch past. Chunky telephone cables thread the air above, like strands loosed from a tapestry. Crows hop from roof to roof. A few hours after dawn, they swoop down, yelling as vociferously as roosters, their pebble-like eyes catching and scattering the light like cheap rhinestones. When I leave the apartment, I notice where the flowers have fallen and gathered on the dimples in the sidewalk, in depressions leading to the storm drains. Their tiny pink thumbprints studding, for a few more days, Tokyo’s vast, intricate urban body. As the hours pass, the edges of their petals yellow, like old newsprint.

Eggs of Leda

I brush out my braid and rip apart the plastic packaging of a pregnancy test. Plum blossoms grow in scattered patterns of pinky purple along the dark, twisted, mottled branches of the tree outside. I sweat, in chalice-shaped patches, onto the torso and sleeves of my polyester shirt. The dye on the test runs suggestively flame-red, but the oracular square that contains my fate is empty. The relief feels like passion; it overwhelms my mind, bowls me over, saturates my mouth and chest like a fistful of sugar cubes. No part of me wants motherhood, or the maroon-tinted, lab-made prediction of motherhood, or the dreamy possibility of it — not even a little bit. Why? All the usual reasons apply here, plus a few of my own, informed by troubled relationships to family, body, and self. Do I want to be convinced otherwise? Not at this time. I don’t object to feeling differently in the future, but I will resist every attempt to reject my present views simply because they don’t align with the desires of others.

Is it wrong to say that I like life (mostly), but I wouldn’t wish it on another? Living a human life is as pleasurable as a blood draw; distressing, eye-averting, but when the results arrive I read them avidly, contemplatively. Every year, I open another red envelope and receive another revelation. Sometimes, the revelations are howlingly sad. Other times, they are like a splash of coral-pink flowers growing along the split between sidewalk and gutter. Neither type of missive is enough to cancel out the other, but they have allowed me to acquire a range of tastes: bitter disappointment, cloying joy and love, rancid terror, chalky grief. Life is something I have come to tolerate. Via exposure therapy, the tolerance might one day morph into hesitant affection.

My geneaology is freckled with cancerous seeds of indulgent, paralyzing melancholy, and I know perfectly well that I’ve grown into that worldview, the way a daughter might inherit her mother’s body, clothes, and mood. I’ve grown into a woman who is cheerfully sad. Don’t think I haven’t considered how that affects my choices. After all, the only comfort in overthinking is the chance to indulge in the power of honest self-reflection, self-flagellation.

Did I have a bad childhood? Did I read too many maudlin books at too young an age? Was I seduced by nihilism before the age of reason? No, yes, maybe. Don’t I want to feel the total, all-encompassing, love-with-abandon that a mother feels for her offspring? Not necessarily. Aren’t I afraid of being alone in my old age? Of course. Can’t I admit to that fear without fearing judgment? Don’t I want to experience all life has to offer? Definitely not. Life has a lot of evil to offer. Good fortune is rare, but pain is everywhere. There are many belief systems that twist that pain into something worth beholding, like rending an old rag into ribbons, and that idolize pain as necessary, prized, intrinsic to meaning. I understand why these beliefs exist, even if I don’t share them. All I know is that pain is everywhere. In the water, on land, and in the recesses of my body, clotted into flesh and bloody discharge. I can’t protect anyone from it.