Category: Life

Hypervigilant

In the ruins poking over the horizon—sandy yellow, blurred at the edges, pink marble monuments glazed by the greenish sun—lies everything I have ever wanted. I stand on a distant dune, kitted out in a broad-brimmed hat, khaki overalls, and combat boots. I’m waiting for my opportunity to approach. The air is alive with heat, light, and whorls of dust.

Sand turns to worn cobblestone under my feet. The monoliths are tall and rectangular, providing some shelter from the elements in the form of long, cascading shadows. But they are afraid of my encroaching presence and recede from me as I walk by, no matter how slow and careful my steps. I observe one at its base, noting the irregular pattern of its pink-gray stone. But out of respect for its discomfort, I restrain myself from laying a hand on its cool surface. In response, I feel it release an icy breath of relief onto my retreating back.

I don’t begrudge the monoliths their distrust. They have ample reason to fear my visits. At first there are only a few broken monoliths scattered among them, but, as I press forward, I see they have grown in number. They lie in perfect halves, snapped apart cleanly, like toothpicks. Stepping over them feels profoundly wrong—like committing a crime in paradise. Sweat runs down my spine in thin, snaking lines.

There isn’t a whole monolith to be seen anywhere by the time I make it to the swimming pool at the center of the ruins. The broken monoliths here are nothing but piles of rubble, the dusty rose of the stone reduced to the color of spilled brain matter. The pool, lobular and ordinary, its sides bounded in unfinished concrete, is clear and glassy in the light. Palm fronds litter its surface. I shed my clothes and submerge myself, hissing in pain as my bare skin, scraped raw by sand and wind, makes contact with the water. At first, I swim cautiously, crossing sign posts in my mind as each stroke gets me closer to the deep end of the pool.

I almost have my hand on the concrete edge, terror and exhilaration catching in my throat, when I feel her launch herself from the bottom. A sleeve of bubbles, a torrent of force, churning underneath my shadow. I feel her anger before the grip of her hand, grabbing my wrist with her thumb and forefinger. Her nails dig in, drawing blood. I manage to heave in half a breath before she drags me down.

“Does it help,” she hisses in my ear, “to write out hundreds of words of stilted preamble? Does it delay the inevitable?”

(more…)

The shores of memory

We half-walk, half-shuffle through brown sand littered with shell fragments, on a clean but otherwise unremarkable beach bracketed on one side by the churning gray waters of the ocean and on the other by a geometric mass of steel, concrete, and weather-worn plastic that, in the pink-purple clarity of the sunset, looks less like a charming coastal town and more like a recently unearthed, life-size time capsule from the 80’s. Gold and aquamarine Ozymandias. I finger the rust on the fence as I wait to cross the road.

The convenience store, the perfect site for data collection on types of local demand, sells rice crackers, cooler-sized blocks of ice, baggies of pineapple chunks bobbing in their juice, and five kinds of flavored vodka. I wander the aisles in flip-flops and a khaki dress, my salt-encrusted hair escaping from its clam-shell clasp to swim down my back in a wave vaguely redolent of seaweed, potato chips, and canned beer. Outside, trucks roll past, down the seaside road that connects us to Tokyo, and Tokyo to the distant, isolated, snow-covered north.

I return to the shore empty-handed. I pretend to nap, my head in Strawberry’s lap and my eyes facing the froth of the tide, as he makes conversation with our friends and acquaintances. We will spend six hours idle here, traveling from the tent on the beach to the tidy Seven-Eleven fifty meters away only to relieve ourselves, or to replenish our stock of ice and chips. The day moves forward, not dully, but with no feeling behind its ticking seconds, like a bloated episode of television. The crash of the waves is methodical, meditative, and evokes nothing but itself. Perfect to drown out any persistent thought, or to soften the burn of any blistering memory. The temperature of the air is neither warm nor cool, but still not entirely comfortable. I keep awkwardly shifting my position, fracturing any possibility of real rest. My mouth tastes like the artificial vanilla of cheap soft-serve. My thighs are wet, cold, and clammy to the touch, like refrigerated meat in its Styrofoam package, sitting in a shallow bath of blood.

The older I get, the more closely I parody the paranoia of my father, the melancholia of my mother. I say “parody” because it feels intentional and ironic, and sometimes gratifying and clever. But, to be honest, it can also feel uncontrolled, inevitable, and painful. Less like performance and more like fate. Regardless, it is one thing above all else to slowly transform into one’s parents, and that is “annoyingly self-inflicted,” the way continuing a nicotine addiction is both a choice and not a choice. I cannot help but to grow into my mother’s hands and my father’s legs, which sit on me oddly, like parts cobbled together in the style of Frankenstein. I cannot help but manifest their bad habits, absorbed during the porous days of childhood and released now like ancient volcanic vapors. The marks of genetic destiny are obvious even in baby photos in which I lie, swaddled in white linen, already in possession of the family frown. Sometimes I think I own nothing of my own. Even lying on the beach, sand between my toes, Strawberry’s hand on my head, his thumb weeding pebbles from my hair, feels like a borrowed dream, an echo from a past that I didn’t live.

I feel the shadows of my family most acutely at the beach, where I spent so many summers with them in my pampered infancy, and frenetic childhood, and grumpy, scary adolescence, and frightened adulthood. It means I am always dying to visit the ocean and then, once there, totally unable to understand its appeal. Nostalgia exerts a special kind of pressure, strong enough to compel the strangest behavior—I’ve seen it induce people to even bear children, as though shaping and clay-firing a vessel of innocence could restore to life the memory of their own.

But I feel no comfort from nostalgia; its most immediate side-effect, once satiated, is only sadness, felt as the prickly chill of lost time, escaping from the mind as inexorably as air-conditioned inhalation from a cracked-open car window rushing down the highway. (I remember my pimply arms piled parallel to the sticky rubber gap between window and seat, like a spectator to my own life.) This—nostalgia’s brew of sadness—means I am a moody beach-goer. I get up, pad a few steps away from the tent, away from the water, to stare at the concrete blocks that divide the sand from the road. I can see a row of flowers, buried up to their necks in the strip of soil around the Seven-Eleven. The heat is vanishing, from terror to shimmer to nothing. I hold my hand over my eyes like a visor as I scan the clouds for a reason to leave, or a reason to stay.

Wait and see

As children, we beg for attention, fight to be the favorite, scream at every injustice, and generally lead a daily existence that doubles as a constant plea for love. As adults, we feel the same needs, but shame precludes us from petitioning freely. Instead, we brush down our hair, choke down emotions, and play mind games. We read between the lines, scanning faces and phrases as though interpreting runes, and silently, bitterly pick at every hurt feeling with all the teenage pathos of a sad guitar coaxed into tears.

I have always been a little wary of keenly intelligent, emotionally mature people, a prejudicial tendency I have continued to dutifully preserve even if it embarrasses me deeply. First, I envy them. Second, I fear their probable skill at masking and shaping feelings, which I assume must be some part of success in adulthood. I don’t like to be honest with an avatar of sharply-dressed, polite, smart ambition, as I cannot hide adequately in front of one. They are infinitely better than me at the purposeful dance of adult conversation, and I know that, when I miss a step, they will see through the veil, into the big, sad eyes of a girl who didn’t quite grow up, who never got past the need to plea for love.

When you carry a fully developed cerebral cortex, but not an entirely matured heart, the most serious consequence is you make bad choices at bad times. As reliably as the chosen victim of a storybook prophecy, I choose all the wrong times to be unsympathetic, unkind, unforgiving. Other times, when I should be cutting, biting, on the attack rather than the defensive, I lapse instead into unwitting obedience. I never realize the mistake immediately. Weeks, months, or years later, something will trigger, realization will strike, an alarm will go off in my mind, and the noise will radiate backward into the past, bouncing off the walls of the house of Mnemosyne. In an inner chamber, a younger Emma will wake up in a cold sweat, sheets pooled around her like ripples from a stone chucked into water by a hand from the faraway future. A lesson in the form of a sermon and a prayer, sung in our twinned voices and forgotten immediately.

It’s dangerous to attribute the actions of others to malice, and those of your own to righteousness. It’s dangerous to spend too long intellectualizing your choices. A fallen angel at the center of my own vision of the cosmos, but unavoidably, an unfriendly demon, a non-playable character, a gaping maw, or a puddle of fetid blood, from another’s point of view. Come on now, Emma. I’m throwing a pebble at you. Listen to yourself—an angel, a demon. How could it be that black and white? How could it be that theatrical, that biblical? The truth is much less complex, and so much more boring. You will never be the best, nor the worst. Never totally pure nor totally filthy.

Bury the instinct to think of the world as a stage, and you as its protagonist. To want both love and power. To constantly succumb to self-pity for having neither in the condition that you desire. To punish yourself so harshly for the wrongdoings you forgive readily in others. To want to love and to hate yourself, both at once. To be unable to do either. Open your eyes. In the house of Mnemosyne, a little girl runs through the hall, a heart-shaped barrette nestled in her curls, and disappears around the corner.

Next of kin

I try, I do try, to forget her, because too much time has elapsed to force a reunion, because the distance is too vast to casually cross, because I am certain her feelings for me oscillate within a narrow range bounded by disdain and hate, because no pretense at rekindling feelings would be sufficient to deceive her, because she has grown into a person so different from the one I knew, because I question if I ever knew her at all. Most uncomfortable is the realization that I likely didn’t ever understand her on the level she deserved. We met during my blue period, when I was insecure, superficial, selfish, and motivated only by insecurity, superficiality, and selfishness. In my current phase of life, at least, I am aware of my deficiencies, even if I can’t fully cure them, and I can curtail them when they threaten to knock out the power to my better impulses. If we met today, I promise I would be a better friend to you. If we met today, I promise I would empathize more honestly, share more fully, and forgive more completely.

“Just forget it,” I think, as thoughts of her approach like a stalker at the window, silhouetted in lamplight, lifting a kitchen knife into my line of eyesight. She stares at me through darkness, through dirty, milky glass. I turn contemptuously from the girl-as-specter, as though the force of my disdain—sometimes so cool, so imperious, so lofty—alone could disarm her. “Just forget it,” when the pain refuses to pass, when it lodges like a gallstone in sticky tissue, when it accumulates like microplastic in fetal blood, when it won’t be evicted by any means.

In the map of our lost relationship, a forest of deepest green circumscribes a lake of clearest blue, and beyond the trees, there’s a grassy hill, bare of any flowers. I leave the lake, the edge of my skirt bunched up in my hand, trailing water onto the rocky shore. The old-growth trees offer imperfect, gentle shelter from the light of the setting sun, which falls through the branches and onto moss and leaves in dark-toned splashes of violet, magenta, yellow, silver, blood. I part from the protection of the forest and find myself at the bottom of the hill, holding my breath. The breeze moves through and heightens every splintered sensation. I don’t know what may come from cresting that hill. I don’t know what I will see from the height offered by that vantage point. It’s so hard to avoid the fear, here. But I do try. So I turn around: back through the trees, back across the shore, back into the cool depths of the lake. A hundred steps back until I feel the water cover me in consolation and return me to my familiar fiefdom of night-blooming flowers, icy sidewalks, incomplete declarations, and yellowed sketches taped to the refrigerator, which feel as painful, as crucial, as close to my heart as the profoundest regret.

Didn’t mean it when I said it

On a Friday night, on the 100th floor of a glitzy hotel, I am standing in front of an elevator in cheap kitten heels and an ill-fitting black blazer, posed in front of double-doors that open with a chime.

Outside, the June evening is approaching visual perfection, which it will possess for three minutes before the sun sets: the full moon, its face shining as though with perspiration, a mountain range of huge, bulbous pink clouds, the clear sky, depthless, shiny, perfect blue. In a trance, I watch the vista evolve in increments: the clouds shifting from rose to wine, then to deepening gray, as the sun puckers like a kiss and flickers out. Below, Tokyo sighs in relief. Dark magic can begin now, in earnest.

I’m working in hospitality for the day, directing passenger traffic in and out of the elevators and towards the bar lounge, the front desk, the conference rooms, and the outdoor viewing platform. The men are in navy tuxedos and the women in sparkling jewelry and soft, skin-tight dresses in champagne, camel, chocolate, and cherry-red colors. Their eyes skate over me as smoothly as a dropped needle sliding against the grooves of a record. The fact that they don’t spare me a single true glance as I indicate the way to their seats is a comfort. It gives me time to inspect their straight-backed posture, and arching walk, and floral perfume, and sparse, lilting conversation, which I do with all the stealthy ardor of a hard-boiled detective. Tonight, I am one of the millions holding up the walkways that scaffold the lives of the uber-rich; it’s a world I normally see only at a distance, through a gauzy veil. Now, for a few hours, I can observe it through a magnifying glass.

There’s something about this world that feels profoundly childlike—naïve, dumbly sweet—and also malevolent. Like a honeyed dream with a layer of creepy white noise. Something about how a girl holds herself, arms crossed tightly over her chest, her expression both closed and pained, like scabbed over wound. Something about how a man looks out over hundreds of miles of electric lights and jumping taxis and takes a small sip of his forty-dollar drink. I totter on my heels, feeling drunk. A silent television is playing a loop of orange-red NASDAQ tickers; the news anchor makes exaggerated faces as the numbers drop precipitously.

I think of a playground I visited with Strawberry, during an evening of similar weather, but diametrically opposed feelings. I was free to roam, then, and I ran on the sand in worn sneakers, no claims to my time or emotions. I yelped as I slid down the slide. We sat on the swings; the tang of the unvarnished iron cables and railing clung to the skin of my hands, sour and bloody.

Time She Stopped

The days are hot and the air, impossibly wet. The tropical humidity feels as encompassing as a full-body slap of churning, green seawater. Retreating indoors to escape the onset of summer weather, she nonetheless feels its attraction acting on her like a physical need. At noon, she looks out with sleepy eyes from her window into the depths of the green and yellow backyard: a quick glance, but long with desire.

The world is a drawer of patterned cherry wood with tidy, detailed carvings etched into its borders. She believes she can reach blindly into it, giggling at the childlike pleasure, and withdraw an endless series of palm-sized prizes, all worthy of her touch and attention, all arriving fortuitously, like symbolic totems suggestive of grander life plans, precisely at the right time for her to capitalize on their message. She is bright and full of potential. She thinks that this fact entitles her to something.

She’s not picky; she’ll settle for success, joy, or love. She needs only one of these to justify the roiling boil of days lived at high-speed, at high tempo, at high cost. She just needs to pass one exam, to run one race, to finish one creative project, to get one chance to hold her head high, to feel the blood-red, rushing pulse of trust in herself, radiating from her body in the resonant wave that could finally still the anxious, anticipatory trembling she’s been feeling—somewhere between her skin and muscle, somewhere between her eyes and brain—ever since her earliest memories as an ocean-sized dream cocooned in the protoplasmic shape of a quiet and flighty child.

Turning back to her desk, she flips idly to the end of the chapter she’s reading, trying to gauge how many pages are left before she can allow herself to abandon the book for the day and wander outside. Even her hobbies now are dogged by pressures of completion, of success measured in achievements like “read Thomas Pynchon”. Her heart circumnavigates the globe as she reads. Outside, the shadows lengthen, and she watches as darkness descends like something winged and betaloned: a lengthy glance, but short on patience.

Cult of Hecate

It feels like the first day of real summer weather. The sky is cloudless, luminous, and impenetrable. A shell of forget-me-not blue sheltering me from the shards of glass threatening my mind. On darker days, the shards dig in, like cloves embedded in an orange, but now, my face upturned to the leaves trembling in the breeze, I have a feeling that sunshine could purify me of any poison, even if only for about fifteen minutes. Not a cure-all, mind you, but a brief holiday from my own pessimism, vanity, selfishness, and the various terrors that parasite my heart like fuzzy mold on soapy bathroom tile.

The light feels both healthy and decadent to experience, both impossibly sweet and nutritionally whole, like angel food cake with the properties of boiled spinach. Gold crystals of nectar and ambrosia littering the ground. I forget to be annoyed at minor things, to hate the way I look, to complain internally in a long-running monologue that spools out behind me, dragging my step and stooping my shoulders like a spurned witch’s spell. I forget to live life in the obsessive first-person.

Can I get over myself long enough to care about anything else? In this economy? In this society? The fear is, if I stop keeping myself in hyperfocus, I’ll lose my footing. I’ll fall into a bog. There, I will be slowly preserved in acid, emerging forty years later as a saggy, pickled apparition, eyes half-lidded as I flip through the same three Netflix categories in a room crowded with stained and out-of-fashion box-store furniture. I’ll have let the world swallow me whole, with nothing to show for it. Another cog in the machine. Another brick in the wall. Another chord in a forgotten song. Another view on a video. Another poster on an endless feed. I won’t even have been happy.

Around me, the breath of life. The sunlight like an arrow. The greens look greener than usual; the blues, bluer. Earthly vegetation has an alien quality to me: its veiny undersides, its gooey resin, its mottled textures. I am only at home in a city environment: its hot concrete, its predictable signage, its belching vehicles. Even when I fantasize about a quiet life in the mountains, I can’t go longer than a minute before cutting off the dream at the head without a gasp of compassion. I trawl for a piercing, poisonous canned line: Where will you get Claritin, in your cottagecore fantasy?

So I resign myself to the inevitable, in which I reply to emails and spend thirty minutes trying to copy text from a hardcoded PDF from a plastic desk chair, every day until I die. I insulate myself in nihilism like a tottering old woman in a huge fur coat, and then enjoy the indulgent pain of self-awareness like a pack of cigarettes hidden in a deep pocket. Take a long drag and bemoan your privileged life. Get addicted to Internet doomscrolling, just like your ancestors wanted. Fight the impulse to feel better. Go for a walk, observe plant life growing magnificently in polluted air, achieving that radical, unthinking hopefulness that you deny yourself with all the bleak glee of a deprived parishioner, and then return home, draw all the curtains, and wait, bitterly, darkly, for the end of all things.

Adrift in the Tokyo Reverie

Lavender Nikes, star-patterned navy blue leggings, and a puffy pink snow jacket. She is no older than five, and her mother is pointing at images of food items in a picture book, pausing each time to let her daughter identify and name them aloud. “Tamago!” she yelps, looking up for approval, and her immediate joy at her mother’s answering nod is so entirely pure and so hopelessly unabashed I have to look away.

Tall, like an overgrown weed. He stops me as I am exiting the subway to tell me his full name and that I am exactly his type. I am wearing a baggy, black-and-white sweater with a skull on the shoulder, ill-fitting jeans, and ragged sneakers. Not exactly the peak of archetypal feminine allure. There’s a nonzero chance that this is a scheme to entrap me in one of Tokyo’s many cults, but there’s a charmingly boyish breathlessness to how he waits for my answer, eyes shining anxiously, as though with tears. I briefly consider pretending I don’t speak Japanese but he doesn’t strike me as a creep or a threat (though “conman” is still, I remind myself, a distinct possibility), so I level with him.

“I’m already seeing someone,” I say, keeping my tone light, friendly, patient, without any hint of reprimand, like a kindergarten teacher explaining a moral lesson to a child.

An almost immediate rejoinder: “Then, how about being friends?”

I have to smile at how expeditiously he is managing the encounter, zooming from romantic hero to self-imposed friend zone without missing a beat. He doesn’t appear disappointed in my rejection, which is equal parts suspicious and funny. I ask him to tell me more about himself; this expression of interest in him seems to put him on the backfoot, but his answers are surprisingly bashful, earnest, and descriptive, eroding my distrust. His name is Yuta, and he is a college student who likes to surf. I tell him where I am from, in the vaguest terms possible, though not my own name.

Yuta, if you are not, in fact, a scam artist, I hope you are doing well today. Actually, even if you are a scam artist, I wish you well. I wish you the best of luck in love and life.

My mind is a wave breaking against the shore of my body. Sitting in a coffee shop, hands shaky around a mottled ceramic cup, I think about living out numbered days, one foot in front of tragedy until it finally catches up. I look out the window and spot myself, walking down the street. I am physically unassuming: short, small. My hair is long and unruly. It’s almost spring, and warm enough that I have traded my cable sweater for a soft plaid shirt inherited from my brother. I am looking up and forward, eyes distant but focused, as though I could discover some cosmic truth hidden in the sparse clouds on the horizon. But when it comes to this life, the less I know, the better.

Playlist for Twisted Psyches

A modern girl, she wakes with a tension headache from too much screen time. She checks her email, toothbrush jammed in her mouth, scraping distractedly against her gums. Eyes held away from her face in the mirror, towards the reflective gem of her phone screen, the bright primary colors of her inbox glowing, she jumps with sudden fear. A tersely worded message from a credit reporting agency has arrived, urging her to check her current credit rating or face the crippling fate of certain identity theft. It takes several attempts to log into the agency portal, her thumbs pushing hard against the glass screen as though she could brute-force it, heist movie-style. When she discovers the email is just a cheap ploy to get her eyeballs on the agency’s American Express offers, she throws her phone onto the couch, betrayal transmuted into stinging chemicals flooding her bloodstream. As if she had been warmly invited to a neighbor’s home, only to find, once at the threshold, that the invitation is a pretense to sell her Tupperware, or Girl Scout cookies, or a shovelware game involving glistening 3D jewels that will parasite on her phone memory, or a rectangle of hard silver plastic with a 20.99% APR .

Onto social media, that paradise of lethargy. Her eyes glaze over as she scrolls. She wants to stop, but to stop would mean leaving the insulated warmth of the algorithm. If the algorithm had a scent, it would be expertly blended, tranquilizing lavender, evoking a high-end salon, the satin inside of a wealthy woman’s handbag, a field of delicate cosmos flowers in a high-definition, framed print. Everything about the experience is designed for maximum minimum-effort comfort; its bedroom covers of achingly sweet songs, its pastel-colored infographics, its pithy parade of funny, lovable tweets. It feels good to be cushioned by the soft waves of gentle, non-threatening information. The chambers of the algorithm are inviting, and she moves among them in a daze.

Even when she is shown something sharp-edged, like a news photograph from a war zone, or a video of a stray dog limping along a road, the algorithm quickly moves to soften the blow, to anaesthetize the sting of the cut. This is how she can go from a clip of a woman frosting a cake in rainbow colors, to a partially censored shot of a bleeding child, mid-scream, to a sunny video of a musician in a suburban backyard, strumming a ukulele. Her fingertips travel across their faces, almost like a caress, as she passes them by.

It’s not that she’s unaware of the world. If anything, she knows it too well. She is a sewer rat swimming in blood, head held just a fraction above the current. The knowledge shimmers ruby-red just outside her field of vision. If she dives down into it, in comes a deluge that quickly overwhelms: headline after headline, bold lettering on a black background. The regular news is bad enough—murder in a parking lot, the moon full above, armed robbery gone wrong, yellow tape hastily slapped on the brick walls. But beyond the gridlines of the daily periodical, beyond the guidelines of the law, lies another world that the modern girl knows perfectly well how to access. Clicking on a few buttons opens a portal to it: a world of gore, hounds, and wild terror like a fast-moving river. Traveling through this hidden world is like walking an endless open field filled with deep, invisible holes, like miles of pockmarked flesh. Breathing quickly and shallowly as the sky coldly observes the creatures moving below, so dark the air rests over the body as thickly as velvet and as unsettingly as a stranger’s presence.

From a young age, the modern girl has seen content on the Internet that she should never have seen. In this, she is one pinprick among millions: a generation of half-formed brains in fully formed bodies roaming a desert of horrors. Shrill calls to 9-11, bootleg crime scene photos, forums for the suicidal, personal recollections of prolonged drug abuse that end suddenly one day in 2013, followed only by a reply gone answered (“does anyone know what happened to her?”). A feed of content that, like a medieval painting of the underworld, is red, yellow, orange, black. A hundred-thousand faces contorted into identical expressions of pain.

So many have judged the modern girl for her cynicism, her outward bitterness. They don’t know her nihilism is not a product of apathy, but of repeated exposure to unreasonable, inexplicable, unjustified, and deeply unfair pain, and to, particularly, her observance of this pain colliding against the high iron wall of generalized public indifference. She has watched, again and again, as the victims, bloodied wrists banging against the locked door and shuttered windows, are forced to withdraw back into the field, to fall back into its pits, again and again. There’s nothing as cruel as the way we live, so exhausted by the end of the day by the stupidities of what we do to earn money that we can do nothing but make excuses, skirt around the discomfort, and play endless cellphone games.

The cracks in her schedule—the thirty seconds that she sits on the toilet, or the occasional foray into the flesh realm, as she crosses the street or commutes on the train—are hurriedly filled with the off-white drywall plaster of posts, videos, and 500-word newsletters. She has to avoid even a second of introspection. When she looks up, she sees others doing the same. Another young woman, eyes hidden by the shadow cast by her woolen beanie, licks her dry lips as her pointer finger slides across the glittering diamond-face of her phone. The modern girl watches her, waiting for the traffic lights to change.