Category: Life

The best they could, but badly

Often I wish that I had natural singing talent, because I think the chalky, malodorous melancholia which I am prone to writing would be more palatable in the form of lyrics.

When I hear that my last grandparent has died, news that arrives to me thirdhand, I feel a single note rise out of my body. It bubbles out of the skin of my chest and bursts in the air. The note is limp, subdued, like the mewl of a dying hare, its pink-ringed eyes caught between the gasp of curved fangs. After the puncture of realization, the moment evaporates into a glimmer of amethyst and then dust. Gone with no ceremony of feeling, no heraldry of sentiment. I’ve spent years wondering what this knowledge would feel like and now I have final confirmation of what I’ve long suspected: the death can happen long before the death happens. You mourn the death before you know you are mourning the death. Blood is merely blood.

Shattering the surface of the frozen pool, memories float up in crates that I slash open, one by one. A vintage perfume bottle with a crystalline stopper. Snow-white ringlets, permed to surreal perfection. The greenish coolness of a tiled room in the afternoon, all the shades drawn. The periodic table, a multi-colored rectangle shaped like a fortress, which she knew by heart. Ocean waves, lapis in the sun. Everything but the face. I wade in to rescue these things for my small kingdom, knee-deep and shivering from the cold, as vultures circle the pool.

The Red Pool

I stop in the middle of the crosswalk because I want to write about this scene later. I linger for as long as I can, eyes scanning the sky, the ground, the trees. Time is a tyrannical taskmaster, but not incapable of warmth, not incapable of largesse. Today, it shows its capacity for generosity by slowing the movement of the cars cresting the hills that lead to this road, rewarding my devotion with a handful of extra seconds to absorb the setting.

I try to read the day like a poem—which means I nurture the expectation of finding, at the day’s end, a measure of grace. I expect the pleasure of discovery, the joy of meaning. The sensations are all here—the richness of daylight, the tenderness of the breeze, the impossibility of the sky—but the words to fully describe them haven’t yet completed their pilgrimage from a distant, rock-cut cave-by-the-sea into my waiting arms. Standing in the crosswalk, I try to ease their journey here by turning down the static of my mind. I quiet the persistently critical voice that is trying, not entirely successfully, to be helpful. I close the saddest pages of my diary. I turn my eyes, instead, to the runes that are inlaid in the sky in the manner of gemstones spanning a crown. Following forty-eight hours of gray humidity and drowsy rain, bright, puffy clouds have reemerged across the firmament, in huge and cliff-like incarnations. A mountain range of baby blue, each peak gilded in fantastical light. They are saying something to me that I’ll spend my whole life trying to understand.

Writing is scrying with a red pool contained in a rocky, barnacle-crusted bowl. Writing is digging up gnarled roots and inspecting their calloused rinds, tracing the greenish veins that jut out and transform into the pulpy legs of reedy stems and then metamorphosize again into the many gold-ochre eyes of a field of daisies, encountering, in this way, the passage of life from infancy to flowering, and thinking that, though human life has no such parallel, no such clarity in purpose and form, writing is finding that passage. Writing is feeling your way through the tunnel. Writing is flying through the canyon. Writing is feeling empty, then full, then empty, again. Collecting every huge feeling and experiencing it anew—every shred of painful, tedious feeling—but with hope, this time, not because these things could change, but because they won’t, and the wound they leave behind, while so distressing I will stumble and fall, can always be taken to the red pool in the middle of a crosswalk on a stunningly bright day and be lowered into the cooling waters where, if the wound cannot be repaired, then it will, at least, be consoled, soothed, cherished, pacified, and I’ll emerge, if not strong, then strong enough to rise and stagger forward.


(A successor of sorts to: Hypervigilant)

On location, huddled behind a huge and craggy boulder with the wind howling at me to get OUT, I hurriedly sweep the few things scattered around me into a bag, with the exception of a dirt-stained spiral notebook and a cheap ballpoint pen, which I clutch to my chest as though they were treasured relics. My hand seeks the pen with the certainty of a bird charting its course toward home. Fingers crimped around it, I think of the events unfolding around me and, brow furrowed, eyes closed, I put them down on paper. Writing it down is an act of profound intimacy between myself and her, but I try to stay distant. I am cool-headed as I try to relate, to explain, to analyze. But it’s hard, in the middle of reliving a memory, to unglue these two minds of mine. I am caught in the sticky, hazy, jewel-toned marrow between the past and the present. Even as an observer, my emotions participate; they balloon out from my body, even as I restrict myself, physically, to a strict perimeter around the boulder.

In the past, unfolding right before me, she staggers through the desert, hands crudely bound. Sand swirls around her feet and fills her field of vision with rays of rough and chalky bronze. The wind picks up, abruptly, cruelly; it yanks her off her feet and sends her tumbling forward. In the present, stealing glances at her fallen form from behind the boulder, I am clear-eyed. I don’t hear her cries. I don’t step out to rescue her. Instead, I crouch back down to record what’s happening in the fairest possible language. In describing the events, I strike the exact right balance between understanding and condemnation.

She gets back up; she tries, bravely, to resist the desires of the indifferent wind. When she collapses again on the dunes, face and hands rubbed raw, her breath coming in shallow, harsh gasps, her skin purpling under the dusty apricot and gold of the sunset, I don’t interfere. I watch from behind the security of the boulder, my fingers digging into its crevices. Everything will continue on. I can’t change what happened here.


Galatea, Associate Manager

I rub my face with the flat of my hand. Behind my eyes, a fractured kaleidoscope slowly rotates, releasing small shards of multicolored glass that fall onto my lap, radiating light in the dimness of my bedroom. I brush them away. On weekday mornings, I can’t wallow in what I’d rather be doing with my time. For now, all that matters is the eighty-slide deck in front of me: a leviathan of cruelly misaligned bullet points and unruly fonts over which that I have been agonizing for nine weeks. What did people in this industry even do before the advent of PowerPoint?

I am painstakingly shifting a cursor left and right, a million micromovements involving one calloused fingertip against the chrome mousepad. No crusader has ever felt a stronger commitment to the divinity of struggle than I at this moment. PowerPoint leers at me, its red-orange icons twisting in the periphery of my vision. Its torments are numerous and varied. I have spent the last hour of my finite life changing the typeface of select words from normal to bold, obsessing over my selections, begging God for the guidance of infinite wisdom, and then reverting the changes in a fit of pique.

Professional work, a career, a “sector,” a CV like a beaded string, in which each glass bauble represents a new attempt to configure an adult identity, to carve out, from the mottled clay of endless days, the shining form of perfect purpose. When I explain what I do to new acquaintances, I use words like “liaise,” “craft,” and “grow,” stirring these terms into conversations in a lofty tone, generally striving to cultivate the impression that I am a conjuror communing with the deep from within the darkness of a cubicle. In actuality, I spend most of my time neck-deep in the minor intricacies of a slide deck, every wrinkle in my satin blouse illuminated under pitiless white bulbs, while pretending not to notice the tensions flaring around the water cooler as two suited sixty-year-olds, each drawing from a seemingly infinite well of moss-covered grievances, circle each other with toothy grins and vacant eyes, like wary, tail-thumping predators returning for a final showdown on the savanna.

Free from Pygmalion and in search of pure freedom, Galatea steps off her pearly bed and boards the commuter train. She drowns out the sounds of rattling wheels by way of chrome-coated, teardrop-shaped earbuds. Brushing her hair out of her face, she casts her gaze around the subway car and lands on me, a figure clumsily pressed against the door, the strap of my bag digging into my shoulder. She meets my eyes and fixes me with a disdainful look. She can see the churning seas within me and finds my lack of courage, as I sit in my canoe rattled by waves, unable to seize the oar, contemptible. I shrug. I understand her disdain. I even share it. But some of us have relinquished the need to find work meaningful, though we still light a candle, in the dead of night, for our former, and now long-lost, fantasy of the future. That fantasy is a crystalline vision that splintered away to flower in a different universe, leaving behind only a few shards embedded in the mind. But Galatea doesn’t care about the mourning I’ve already done, and the closure I think I feel. She only sees the outcome, and she despairs.

At the office, I glue myself to the PowerPoint with all the joyless energy of a black hole. I click idly, squashing each imaginative, unproductive thought that stirs from the muck of my mind-at-work with methodical, emotionless totality, as though vacuuming up a frothy, bronze-colored galaxy. The dusty glow of the stars, seized in a fist of spacetime, twists, warps, and then vanishes. The light at the back of my brain dims and goes out. Nothing is left in the small, tender place where my dreams used to live. But the best (worst?) thing about dreams is their infinite powers of resurrection. The kaleidoscope doesn’t stop turning. Galatea doesn’t give up. Tomorrow morning, I will wake and, hand groping for my phone lodged somewhere in the sheets, my mind will bump into the revived fantasy in all its cosmic, catastrophic lust for life. Galatea will meet my eyes again on the train and smile, this time, with new faith in my ability to be a vessel for true purpose. “Quit your job,” she’ll mouth at me. “Do anything else.” The sun will flash through the windows as I turn away, heart aflame.

Contrapasso of the butterfly

With a disconcertingly cheerful chime, my phone announces the arrival of a text from Gideon. I shift my attention over to the rectangle of light, underneath the bed covers, that glows like a predatory fish at 20,000 feet. The text is encased in a chest of forest green that appears as soon as I pick up the phone; I open it with a press of the thumb and absorb, rather than read, its message. Its few lines catapult off the screen and fall over me in a dark wave. The words are disfigured, somehow and, in reading, they disfigure me. Gideon has had a panic attack.

It’s not a good time for feelings. At present, I am in the wallowing in the damp, chilly swamp between the moody pool of sleep and the acrid desert of wakefulness. I am refusing to enter the labyrinth of the rest of day which will involve: coffee, news, coffee, e-mail, e-mail, e-mail, coffee, self-loathing break, PowerPoint, e-mail, e-mail. Possibly I have understated the prevalence of email in that list. If I have time for Gideon, it is only in the splinters between one task and another, when my attention will falter and catch on the thorn of my recollection of his message, and I will think of him pacing his bedroom, or forcing himself to eat lunch, or scrolling aimlessly through Instagram, or lying on the couch with his face pressed wetly to the dusty cushions.

His trust in me terrifies me. He’s told me about his panic attack, apparently without any thought to what I could do with the information. In the past, I might have felt perverse pleasure at receiving such personal revelations. A missive handwritten in blood and addressed to me is proof of my success as an advisor, a confidant, a companion. It’s proof of power—power to plunge my hand through a mask of flesh and expression and extract the broken shards of a confession, a secret, a promise. To be trusted with vulnerability is to be well-regarded, respected, cherished as a friend. But reading the text from Gideon now feels like being handed a nail bomb. Its jagged edges pierce the palm of my hand. It escapes my grasp and pinballs relentlessly around the bare corridors of my mind. Its power is obvious and frightening.

He’s had scary thoughts, he says. He’s sought out professional assistance, and it hasn’t helped. I am not surprised, though I am still disheartened. “I am working on it in therapy” is a sentence I cannot parse, even though the phrase is deployed so casually now it’s easy to accept it axiomatically, as a basic truth of our modern world. I think of a therapist as the Virgil to a patient’s Dante; they may record, console, reassure, even guide and reframe, but they cannot change the fundamental principles of the underworld. A guided and annotated voyage through Hell is not a useless exercise, but it is also not useful in the way Gideon, self-aware and self-hating to the end, needs. But then again, what do I know about what he needs? I am still searching for the sequence of words that would unlock his peace of mind, though I know, from the cruelty of experience, that I have never possessed the ability to summon the angel, to hasten the healing, to produce the cure. Each attempt only manages to cause more harm.

I wish I could tell Gideon this: I don’t ever feel life is worth living, either. But it doesn’t matter, because that’s the wrong question. I don’t look at a black and yellow butterfly, shredded on the concrete outside my front door, and wonder if its life was worth it. A butterfly leads a life lacking in fate, purpose, or worth. It flies past the archangel Gabriel and doesn’t recognize him. Its life and ours are different but fundamentally the same, in the way all shapes of the weather emanate from basic properties of the sky. Does that help you to feel less unworthy—the notion itself that “worth” itself it not worthy of consideration?

I know it doesn’t. I know it strikes you as a flimsy, indulgent rhetorical exercise. A cheap square of plywood when what you need is a bridge of solid oak to cross a black gulf. We stand there, together, at its opening, where the dry earth forms a trembling lip that threatens to crumble and then cascade down into nothing. We stare down. We belong to that darkness below but it does not think of us anymore than the ocean thinks of the fish that belong to it. We hold our lives—yours, mine, and the butterfly’s—in the form of palmfuls of red sand, held tightly in the undecorated chalices of our hands. I am trying to convince both you and me to tip the red sand back into the vials in our pockets and experience what we can in this wasteland of occasional beauty. I am trying to summon the courage to touch your arm. To be a comfort to you when I cannot be a comfort to myself. In the end, we will be lost to the mouth of the wind, and whatever dust we leave behind will never tell the complete story.

Panic attack

There are experiences in my life that act like time machines. Specific combinations of color, sound, odor, all churning together into a cyclone of sensation that I breathe in without realizing, like an unwitting sorcerer’s apprentice being experimented on by her master. A cloud of luminous gas resurrecting a previous time. Memory experienced as magic.

For example, while hurrying down a busy sidewalk, I spot a Coca-Cola vending machine, its side emblazoned with a model’s perfected face and upper body, her dimensions altered by the size of the machine into something an order of magnitude larger than life. Instantly, I am plunged back into the meaty middle of a sweltering Mediterranean summer, the crotch of my bathing suit riding up in the back, pellets of sand packed into the slimy layer between my skin and the black Spandex. I’m waiting outside, leaning against the brick wall beside the vending machine, sandaled feet toeing the dirt in the partial shade cast by a bar awning. My mouth is painfully dry. Every thought moves lethargically, like a stunned frog crawling through mulch towards the hazy promise of water. I pass the time by examining the model on the vending machine: her eternal smile, her slicked-back hair. The heat presses down like a huge wet hand curling into a fist around me. I am trapped on a family vacation to the beach, fantasizing about running away, feeling my emotions consuming me, like quicksand, but also growing more and more distant, becoming unrecoverable, irretrievable, jackknifing away when I try to hold on.

It lasts less than a second, but my experience of this memory is vivid, precise, and all-encompassing, grabbing my mind like a glove snatching a ball out of the sky. Inside the dark-eyed capsule of time, I remember what it felt to be living as this girl, in that body, in that mind. It was always dusk in my heart, then. Every part of me was exhausted by the fighting. I could summon neither the crystalline energy of day nor the meditative totality of night. I was a blurry, hazy point in between. I was anxious, ashamed, and impossible to love. I feared going home at the end of the day. I feared entering that starless, moonless vacuum, where nothing good could ever grow, where I—

The model on the vending machine smiles soothingly. The glass bottle of Coca-Cola sweats in her hand.

I blink and everywhere, everything has changed. I am back on the sidewalk, twenty-eight and carrying a canvas bag full of heavy plastic folders, already late for an errand. Cars roar past. I’ve walked past the vending machine and the memory has metabolized itself into a tide, then a froth, of feeling that bubbles around me before subsiding, leaving me untouched though not unharmed.

When I look at my writing from those times, I do have a sense that the girl on the beach didn’t get the chance to grow up and just died an invisible, undignified death. She was a comet crushed by orbiting bodies into shards of pus and plasma. She never knew real life or real release. In her place, I emerged, an adult with a mishappen soul, and I carry her decaying flesh inside me like a second skin. To travel back to her via memory feels as profane as reanimating a corpse. Every vein in my body twists into knots. Is this all I will be able to—

In Tokyo, looking up from where I lazily slide onions around a pan, I see a scrap of the city nightscape in the window: its dark and moody clouds, its red blinking lights. Tall buildings stare back at me. The dimensions of the window alter the dimensions of the city into something an order of magnitude smaller than life. I am transported again, but now I don’t know exactly where I have been taken. My hands are still my hands. My eyes are still my own. I am not remembering the past but the present. I am thinking about what it will be like to remember this moment, these moments, which stretch out in front of me like beads on a rosary. I am imagining myself opening the front door, coming up the stairs, and standing in front of myself in the living room. She doesn’t take my hand. She doesn’t speak gently. I watch her face change as she struggles to find the right words.

Long ago

The bottles in the bar shine like carved gemstones. The wooden stool creaks underneath me as I wait, shifting noticeably from one leg to another. My drink is served by a blonde waitress whose gift, I soon understand, is dispensing gin with a generous touch.

Nights in winter have a lonely, magical quality to them. Bodies passing in the dark. Shuffling home, head low, under blurry yellow lights. The sparkle of an eye disappearing beneath a chunky wool hat. Plumes of breath vanishing into the beryl-blue air. Every year, we are put under the same collective spell and it feels like the cold may last forever.

My buzz is like being deep underwater. Every thought is submerged. Every movement takes twice as long to execute. 24% alcohol hits on the fifth minute like a chorus reaching its climax, and I topple out of my life, out of my body, into a haze colored like fossilized amber, like dusty, veined silver. A sappy love song that I recall from my adolescence bleeds out of the speakers, reactivating an old wound that has scarred over so many times I register the pain not as pain, but as familiar warmth. Between bites flavored like rosemary, I sing along, noticing now the knife-twist of lyrics I failed to understand ten years ago, to devasting, fatal effect.

I know I have changed since then, but not in a way that I can neatly slot into a story of growth. No—I have not always changed for the better, not necessarily. Too often I have changed the way a bone breaks: abruptly, painfully, with no immediate sense of what happened and why. Very few lessons available in the aftermath. The shock of the impact is all that has managed to mark my memories.

I press my glass against my cheek and flutter my eyelashes at nothing in particular, the way I’ve seen the brokenhearted do in the movies.

Walking home, the night sky is like a party held in a stranger’s apartment, five floors above me. I stand and watch its lights flicker above me, listening to the faint, distant music of the stars and the wind. I take a deep breath of cool air, feeling like a drop of water buried deep in the brine pools of the ocean, feeling like a part of something that doesn’t know I exist. I am sober when I reach my front door. I drag my fingers across the metal frame, feeling its chill. I imagine my hand is a butterfly, the kind with dark brown spots that simulate a parade of open eyes. Its wings open and close in time with my heart.

Ambulance ride

In a chain coffee shop on a busy street, sitting in booth seats upholstered in wine-colored imitation velvet, the babble of strangers around us like a shield of white noise, Gideon tells me he’s been thinking about suicide. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but he makes his meaning clear. I realize that the next thing I say will be vitally important. The thought is excruciating. He stares at me expectantly—I choose to say nothing. I don’t engage on the topic beyond a sad smile. Now, I replay that tape of the two of us, seated across from one another with mugs of flavorless coffee in our hands. I reexamine the arrangement of my face, reevaluate my performance: did that smile languish, even briefly, into bitterness?

Gideon is perceptive; he notes my discomfort and lets the conversation flow away naturally. But he is still hurting, and it’s only natural to pick at a wound. Eventually he paddles back to circle that point in the murky water. He peers into it, balancing his body against the edge of the canoe, getting the sleeves of his white t-shirt wet, while I watch from the shore. My feet sink into cold, coppery sand. The long, thin reeds that grow along the bank come up to my neck; stripes of amber gone purple in the twilight, their dry touch swiping across my jugular. When Gideon looks up at me, his expression is gentle, apologetic, almost tender; he must suspect this is not easy to witness. I know he is thinking kinder thoughts toward me than toward himself. But he doesn’t know this isn’t my first rodeo. He doesn’t know a more innocent friend would serve him better here.

Eventually Gideon calls to me, asking, in a tone that manages to be both mild and desperate, if I struggle with mental health myself. I take a breath and speak at length, drawing out words like stitches over skin, keeping my voice light, as balmy as a warm summer evening. I talk about the challenges of my childhood, the idiocy of my early twenties, the mistakes made out of insecurity, fear, and, sometimes, love. But I don’t answer the question. I don’t say “yes” or “no.” Gideon, always focused and attentive, nods, but we both understand that I am holding back. The disclosure of vulnerabilities he desired can’t happen. Some small and starry-eyed part of him slips, stumbles, and falls away. I hear the splash he makes as he makes contact with the water.

Later, I Google “what to say when someone wants to kill themselves” and panic at the thought that I did the wrong thing, again. Did I push him into the hole? Did I help him dig it? Did I chuck a shovel at him from the flatbed of a truck, and then drive away? Emotion wells to the surface then, in tiny, painful bursts, like blood through a pinprick-sized hole in the skin. I bury the feeling without looking it in the face. But it returns to uneasy life, waking me up at four in the morning. In the bruised, poisoned violet half-light of this room, I see Gideon standing there, at my bedside. His eyes are ringed in wet-looking shadows, like the circles of condensation left by shot glasses abandoned on a table.

I imagine driving through the night, my hands steady on the wheel, down a road through the wetlands. The puddles on the asphalt shine like mirrors. Parking on a wide shoulder seeded by raggedy weeds, I unfasten my seatbelt and emerge into the kaleidoscope of my life and its million mysteries. I lean back against the car trunk, warming my hands with my breath. Gideon hands me a paper cup of gas station coffee. We watch the pink-and-blue portal of the dawn sky slide open. He laughs at one of my wry jokes, and I can’t help but smile, with huge and unfeigned joy, even though the childishness of my emotion spoils the punchline. The early morning air is a treasure of light. It tastes like a potion of healing. Like something uncomplicated and pure. Something that grants everlasting permission to dream, as though everything is still only beginning.

Empty mind

New year, new me. New year, new opportunity to stalk my soul down the corridor, across the river, over the mountain, and around my bedroom.

Sliding my pointer finger across my broken phone screen, I feel my skin catch and drag around the point of fracture, like a strip of fabric snagging on a thorn. I pull away from my phone before the jagged edge can draw blood and bring my fingertip in close for inspection. A dirty, gold-tinged half-moon straddling pink flesh, the fingerprint like crop circles or waves in a shallow pool, lazily approaching the shore. The skin remains unbroken, so I return to my scrolling.

I come across job listings littered with words that I recognize and use frequently, and that I still don’t understand, particularly not in this crushingly contemporary context. These are not words in sentences, but hieroglyphs strung alongside each other in a garland. “Best practices” of “brands” that need “cultivation” or “learnings” that pinpoint “space” to “pivot.” I am particularly intrigued by “brand,” because I can’t read the word without its second meaning bubbling up into the froth of my thoughts. To mark, with painful implications.

Living out my small life in a spiraling megacity, I often feel like an 8-bit creature composed mainly of a mouth roaming a spontaneously generated set of white-walled malls, hungrily swallowing products: ordinary products, but also lifestyle-as-product, ethics-as-product, individuality-as-product. Sometimes the marketing is devilishly creative, and the consumption at times satisfying—the equivalent of haute cuisine. But I am pursued by a hangover that seems to locate me no matter where I am, and an incredible, relentless urge to purge my body of the aftereffects of my things, as well as my job, my ambition, my aspirations, my expectations, and to keep only my little and lonely life.

Tow Away Lane

Flying over the nighttime geometry of Tokyo, en route to rejoin my boyfriend across the ocean, I turn my face to the view below, feeling the 20,000-foot chill as intensely as an ice cube in my mouth. My bodily senses are five stallions chomping at the bit, caught in an eternal race across an immense desert under an orange sky, the sand whipping at their legs and eyes—but now, my limbs arranged against the hard cushioned seat, my eyes trained on the moving landscape, I feel them slow from a sprint to a crawl as I redirect my mind toward the splendor of the vista, shrouded in cloud or anointed in light, and the theater of my breath, a three-act show that plays wetly over the cold acrylic airplane windows.

Every thought coursing through my flesh, every belief in my pantheon has been stunned into silence by the sensation of being run off the ground and buoyed into the air, momentarily ceasing their hydraulic crush of me. The end of this pressure is an invitation to abandon, at least for the next eight hours, the threats of the future, and I feel the frisson of a thrill as perfect as a first kiss.

Tokyo Bay is a prism of light. The Atlantic Ocean is a black hole. The snow over Minnesota is a blank page crisscrossed by lines that are indecipherable to my eye though I also harbor the suspicion that they are perfectly legible to those with the right gifts. What meaning is made in the flourishes of a foreign language, the eddies of water, and the flurries of snow, symbols gusting far below me, caught up in the currents that will travel far beyond me?

In Miami, the sky is preternaturally huge and fierce. It exerts a kind of force that communicates intransigence, total command, and the possibility of wildness, like the stare of a monarch framed in the doorway, or a tiger appearing between trees, tail thumping against the bark as it vanishes into the darkness. In the late evening, I sit on the old dock, legs swinging, with the sky looming behind me, its bath of purple tones, scattered clouds, and rays of light dancing over the river. You are not alone here, it seems to be saying, transmitting both comfort and danger. The sky recalls the ancient primacy of the natural gods, the divine personalities of the clouds, the sun, the stars, the firmament, and their roles in birthing, shaping, and consuming the world. “Buildings block the sky in Tokyo,” Strawberry reminds me, when I say that I can’t believe how big the sky is here, and I laugh because he is right, and because his pragmatism presents such advantages versus the blurry fantasy of my sky-as-tiger or sky-as-king. Later, I wonder what else blocks my vision there, at home in Tokyo.

Cloudbursts in Strawberry’s hometown are like something out of a fairy tale. The tension in the air breaks open and the rain pours down, hotly, wetly, heavily, like blood. The weather wields its powers with the clumsiness of a child, but with the grace of an artist. Gemstones sparkle in the air and glance off the water. Under the gray shadow of clouds, Strawberry’s family car hums nervously on the highway. I try to assist by navigating with my phone, zooming into the knot of roads on the map and getting lost, for a moment, in exploration as my finger undoes the strands and follows it into the fields of New England. I graze there, on distant heather in a land unseen, like a lamb, before I am called back by Strawberry asking me about the next exit. He looks younger than ever behind the wheel, like a boy magician handling levers and buttons behind a velvet curtain that opens onto a vast world. The captain of the ark, he leads us down a path littered in raindrops and flower petals.

Anxieties are sticky. They hold fast to my skin, drying down not just to a stain, but to a tattoo. I am praised for my kindness by the people who know me best but I never feel kind. I have never felt kind once in my life. In fact, I feel my own cruelty all the time. It has its own beating heart, embedded right next to mine. I feel it propelling me forward. I feel it holding me back. What’s more likely—that they have misread me, or that I have misread myself? Which would be more painful?