Category: Life

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.

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.”

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.

Monday (through Friday) blues

The air smells like wet dog. From across the platform, I hear the screaming of a child I cannot see. I adjust the straps of my backpack and swallow repeatedly, trying to get the taste of something bitter and phlegmy out of my mouth. A bird swoops down low in the slate-colored sky. Its freedom is an intolerable affront. I imagine the fat of its gamey flesh melting over coals.

At work, I try to be closer to myself. In the bathroom mirror, I loosen a few strands of hair from the shellacked crown of my head, out of a desire to retain some part of the lacy, frizzy, misshapen quality of young, dumb identity. I try to protect my small and insignificant interests. I don’t smile back, even tepidly, at the people who have gone out of their way to hurt me. Instead, I sit perfectly still, swallowed up by the pylons of an office chair, and stew in the filthy miasma of my feelings. I stare at the keyboard as though it were within my power to write a prayer that could save me. Pain comes to a roiling boil and blasts my mind apart. What’s left behind is a pillar of cold, dark smoke.

In the desert of a dream, I scavenge for something I have lost in the sand. Fleeing the forest, my face wet with rain, I fall to my knees in the dew-dotted grass. Every passing glance, a sign. Every mark on the land, a symbol. Every rash on my body, a sigil.

We need the document by the end of the day, he says. I trek across a cool blue expanse of light to produce 100,000 words that no one will read and that will eventually decay into digital dust in a distant server-on-a-lake. Still, I persevere. I make the tiny, dead things I do bigger than they are. Responding to an unnecessarily cruel message with the right tone—a balance of frosty imperiousness and fatherly mercy, because I seek to forgive, I always want to forgive—takes on the importance of a holy mission. I close my eyes and dress myself in chainmail. Then I open my eyes to find an email chain dressing me down for a lack of confidence in internal meetings.

These are the rules, he says. I count to five slowly in my mind. This is the way things are, he says, and there are rewards in store for you. But rewarded—for what? If I answer that, I crumble. I truly don’t want the prize of his recognition. What do I want, then? The heights of this profession are not heights I want to reach. Every step is injurious to my self-respect. Every step takes me farther away from myself. From across the platform, I see her standing there, with my crudely made-up face and bloodshot eyes, holding out a trembling hand that I would have to leap across the tracks to reach. But what if I tried? What if I could know what destiny is available to me? What destiny for a determined but misguided paladin of the heartless 2030s, what fragment of fate reserved for an oversensitive career girl with zero ambition but every desire to sacrifice everything, if only it could mean something?

The age of defeat

At a party last night, a woman I don’t know well asked me if I was happy, and I refused, cheerfully, to answer. When she pressed the issue, something rose in me—so defiantly that I felt that reaction internally, like a bruising within my body. My veins twisted into coils of black. I fought to keep a pleasant, neutral expression on my face as her voice lost the rhythm of language and morphed instead into throbbing sound. I walked home, the autumn wind slicing through my clothes, and heard her question ringing repeatedly through the darkness, like an approaching ambulance.

Just a question—Are you happy?—but there was a presumption of intimacy to it that repelled me. That night, trying and failing to sleep, my mind rolled out of bed to void its contents into a bucket, where my feelings surged against the walls, unanchored from artifice, whipping up into clear, bubbling foam. My mind climbed a rockface, its red-and-blue palms slick, and then flung itself off a cliff older than time itself. I woke up jackknifed in the sheets, tear tracks like tattoos, a returnee from a voyage that I couldn’t remember except in shreds of souvenirs. One of these was a child’s hand, with the three-word question from the night before scrawled across the pinkish skin of the tiny palm. I sat down to write about the dream, and found that I couldn’t let myself do it.

Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?

Sometimes I go weeks without writing because something else occupies my thoughts. I mean that literally: When I visit the door to my mind, I find a column of dark stone blocking the entry so entirely that no light and no sound can pass through. The column often takes a specific shape—my shape. I fiddle with the pen, head casting a shadow over the table, and when I look up I see my double standing there, arms crossed tightly over her chest. Her expression, as she stares down at me, is an uncomfortable tangle of conflictive emotion. She understands me better than anyone, but the greater intimacy has afforded her too close a look at my ugliness. I hear her voice as though from a distance, saying, in a tone reserved for iterant daughters: Stop that. Stop pretending. Write what you want to write. Write about your despair.

“My despair?” I say, slowly, trying to buy time.

“Yes, your despair,” she replies, sullenly, knowing everything about my every attempt at charade. “I know you’re afraid to scare people. But I won’t let you write about anything else until you do this.”

My despair. She is light enough for me to carry through the city, cradled in my arms like an infant animal. She is tender to the touch, like a pustule. The setting sun glazes the pavement in apricot and red. She settles in. My despair is warm and soft and smells like blood. I slow my steps so as to not startle her. I fall behind the crowds, letting the comfort of distant voices lapse into silence. When my despair turns her face up to me, she looks at me with eyes I recognize.

“I’m trying to write about my happiness,” I say to my double, in a feeble attempt to extricate myself from this effort.

“Keep going,” she insists.

At the boundary between the city and the forest, I pause to feed my despair. I let her tear at my breast. I don’t relish the pain, but indulge in it as welcome punishment. Angels land there soundlessly, at this place of limits, where feeling frays into air. When they try to separate me from my despair, I resist them. I step back forcefully when they reach for me, telling me in even, reasonable tones that my despair will change me into a person no one will tolerate.

“You don’t get it,” I say, rubbing the tip of my sneaker into the ground as though it were a lit cigarette. “I am that person already.”

“No,” they insist. Their faces are masks of cool, distant indignation. Behind me, my despair cries out for attention. “You’re happy, and everyone loves you.”

“Yes,” I say, “That’s true.” I pause. A flicker of realization. So this is what the double was getting at. “But it’s only one truth,” I continue. “The other truth is that I am happy and I am loved, and I still have my despair. These things are all related. Do you understand?”

“No,” they say, frowning deeply. We stare at each other in the uneasy silence of adversaries who could have been kind to one another in different circumstances. An impasse between the messengers of God and I. They sigh and throw up their luminous hands, casting rings of light over the undernourished grass. I watch them retreat to the heavens, where it is possible to live rapturously, with the perfect knowledge of pure and righteous life. They can’t see that here, in this dominion of the wretched, all feelings must coexist with despair, in the same world, and in the same person. Are you happy? Happiness and despair are connected, like the systems of a body. Are you happy? Do you despair? Both questions tie me to life with sacred thread. Both feelings are proof.

“Proof of what?” My despair asks, licking her wounded paw in the shadow of the trees. Her human tongue comes away with traces of human blood.

I am not afraid. I squint up at the sky, where the doors have closed against me. My despair sidles up to me, her claws leaving imprints on the soil shaped like a child’s hand.

“Proof of a heart,” I say.

Deathbed baptism

In the moody, saturated, purple-hued world of my dream, I come across his presence. A cross-legged figure, hand resting over a deer’s bowed head, in a glen filled with fragrant, twilight-blooming flowers. He may be one of the lesser stars, but, as he turns his attention toward me, I am reminded that he is a star nonetheless. If I recognize him immediately it’s not because I remember his face, but because I will never forget how he made me feel.

I apologize for my mind, too malformed to attach healthily. I apologize for both wanting and fearing closure. I apologize for a stream-of-consciousness that sought to drown you in its waters, and seeks you still. I know I fixated on every accidental glance and stray word. I know I overinterpreted runes, panting in the crowded hallways with terror and heady exhilaration, as though every encounter between us were executed by a horned deity to whom I would soon owe everything. I know I changed like the tides. I know I left without saying goodbye. I know I cannot possibly have the temerity now to expect you to have stayed in the same place that I left you, your feet buried in black sand, your hands awash in chilly saltwater. I didn’t cultivate these grounds but still somehow want them to have stayed holy in my absence.

In my dream, you have the cool distance of a saint depicted in a pebbled mosaic. You are wary of me. Eyes of pewter, you raise one hand above the head of the penitent. You are someone distant and unknowable but fundamental to the faith. There was a time I followed you everywhere, do you remember? Like a child, or a dog, or a disciple. For years, you spoke to me as though via cipher. Your thoughts were as inaccessible as a drop of rain suspended in the cloudy air above a forest. Foolishly, I took you and your secrecy as a challenge. I thought I could learn you through intensive study and with concerted effort, the way one learns a language. I thought another person’s vulnerability was something you could work for and eventually earn. It took me years to understand that you weren’t particularly secretive or unknowable. You just weren’t interested in sharing anything with me.

It disturbs me to dream so often of you, a man who I only knew as a boy. There’s something profane about it. There’s something about it that fills me with so much shame. I can hardly bear to even write about it. Only the strength of the immediate feelings after I wake propels me forward, toward the cool glow of the computer, toward the dislocation of my heart. The dream fills me as though I were a pitcher, and I pour out over the dusty keyboard, my mind streaming in red and irregular ribbons over the keys. But when the swell of that emotion recedes, leaving only its watery imprint on the sand, the shame remains. Why do I long so strongly? Why do I revisit the memory like it owes me something? Is it a violation of some kind to be changed, to be unable to forget, to dream so much—of someone who was never mine?