What if doing the Hokey Pokey and turning yourself around really IS what it’s all about?
Telling stories over a cocktail in a loungey bar? It’s no wonder I try to drop into The Moth Story Slam whenever I find myself back in LA. It’s just too bad that the synchronicity of such events is not simply like catching lightning in a bottle, but chasing down that damn firefly and all you got is some narrow-necked empty Corona. The last one I went to was Summer 2014, and the theme was “Altered,” which you’d think would lead to some crazy stories, being LA and all, but in fact resulted in far too many “and what altered was my perspective on life” kind of stories. Here’s my attempt at some kind of story, although it’d never make it on stage as a story of “real life,” since it’s embellished with more than a little bit of dramatic license. I’ll leave it to you to figure out to what extent the story is “altered” as such, but that’s a going a bit meta for the theme, so I’ll stop the prologue here and just begin with…
I should have known better when the conversation during the first date involved stories of her psychiatrist and the medication she was using.
Normally, that would be a deal-breaker, but then again, I was already breaking my own rules about deal-breaking with such a date. Rule number one: Don’t date a local girl. Rule number two: Don’t date anyone “younger.” Yet, there I was, walking down the shopping streets of Ximen in Taiwan, with a college girl who went from friendly tour guide to something more– so seamlessly but so quickly that the result was a heady rush usually expected from cheap wine.
As a consultant for design engineering, Taiwan had great opportunity– one of the five largest and growing economies in Asia, with decades of dealing with Western counterparts while remaining decades behind in infrastructure. And while my company had many positions available for a whole team of consultants, I had never been placed in a company so deliberately with such a lack of support. While there was more than a simple curb-side drop-off on my arrival to my furnished, temporary apartment, it wasn’t *much* more than that.
But no matter. Within a few weeks, I had found for myself a routine for work, a new gym, and familiar faces at my regular coffee shop. In fact, seeing my favorite barista recognizing me and knowing my order made me smile the most. What was it that some famous guy said? Something about somewhere everybody knowing your name? Well, hers was Love. Really, it was PengWen, but her “Western name” was Love.
Coffee orders evolved to conversation, then to a connection. “Oh!” she almost yelled with the laugh, “You know Doraemon?” Of course I recognized the blue cartoon cat in the pin on her apron. He’s a robot cat from the future with a doorway to another dimension in his stomach. “Isn’t that just hilarious?” she said, knowing it was so, in that ironic psuedo-hipstery kind of way. Exactly.
Why, yes, I would need someone to show me around the city. And why, yes, we did share the same likes and dislikes of food. And movies. And music. And the moon. “Daylight is so harsh. And so bright? What is up with that. The moon is so much more mysterious. You can rest in the moonlight.” The night was filled with more conversation, too, and later, kisses. And later, more. Maybe the mention of the medication at some point days ago didn’t seem so important, not when we also talked of family, her life, her school major, graphic design. There was also her plan to move to the States. And after all, I didn’t want a girlfriend. That was against the rules. She didn’t want a boyfriend, either. That wouldn’t be according to the plan.
I told her those rules. She told me those plans. Semi-regularly. We were meeting nearly every weekend. We were Skype chatting every night. She wouldn’t end Skype until we had both got ready for bed, and I would lay my head on the pillow with her face in the laptop beside me on the bed. She refused to go to sleep first, since I was so “old,” I obviously should be the one more sleepy, despite it being 1 am already for the both of us. “You logout first.” “No, you logout first.”
Good Lord. I was dating someone. A local girl. I didn’t want to do the math to find out she was 12 years younger. It would be just one more reason to not do this. But there was a bigger reason telling me the opposite. I think I was falling in love. Months were passing, and my worry about the relationship went from “should this be happening?” to “when should I tell her?” Our conversations were growing deeper. Her graduation was approaching. There was a threshold coming.
Also coming to Taiwan’s skies was a “supermoon.” I would secretly plan that it would provide an excuse for a nighttime hike, holding hands and kissing under clear skies and giant moonlight. Instead of Skyping, though, I saw a Facebook message from Love. She apologized for becoming my friend, that this friendship was not what she thought it was. She wanted to make it quick; she wrote that she had no “good” friends, was not a good person, and was ending all her relationships.
Once upon a time, in the first couple of weeks when first lived alone in my own apartment, I looked at the pile of dishes in the sink and decided I would rather just buy a whole new set, dumping all those in front of me into the trash instead.
I tried to parse the message; nuance and playfulness are hard to communicate through a second language, after all. But the words dind’t change no matter how I looked at them. All my replies were being “seen” but not answered. That night, I went to sleep on the bed with the laptop closed on the far side of me and stared at the equally blank ceiling.
The next two days, my feet carried me through the city and back home again. My hands did the CAD drawings and emails they were supposed to. My mouth idly ate some food for me. My eyes watched the world as if it were some strange foreign film.
Well, if there was one thing I was good at, it was goodbyes. The final word between me and Love would not be the question mark and crooked head sticker sent to elicit a response from social media. I prepared a multiparagraph missive so I could rehearse as best I could my understanding of her feelings, my guess at my own failings, and my attempt to hold her to higher standard, to not give her the easy out. At least we would always have Starbucks.
She left the coffeeshop at the end of her shift more promptly then she usually would have. Her head almost buried in a high collar ill-suited for Taiwan’s heat, and her attention buried even more into the private world allowed by her muffler-style headphones, she almost didn’t see me. Or maybe she chose not to. I had to step in front of her to give her whatever it was that I remembered from my rehearsal.
After dutifully giving her time to react, she explained, still without really seeing me, that she was drunk that night, but it helped her to say the things that needed to be said. It was a decision she had to do for herself, she said. That it was completely selfish and rude and it confirmed she was not a good woman but it had to be done. For her future.
“Yeah, well. You’re right, then– You are selfish. But in a relationship you don’t get to be selfish. It’s not a lightswitch you hit as you exit a room. That’s not the way it works.”
“I’m almost done clearing my friends,” she said without a shrug, “I just don’t have friends basically.”
And, “You know, I’m not a cold-hearted person. This is the worst thing ever, but I have to do what must be done. 加油, Jiayou… good luck to you.”
I grabbed her by both shoulders, turning her out of her walk. “No, I can’t accept that. I don’t like the sound of what you’re saying. Are … are you going to hurt yourself?” I searched her eyes, trying to peer into the bottom of the pool. The strangest fact was that there was nothing strange there. They were completely normal, clear pools after all.
“I have never made those kinds of plans,” she said.
But nothing more came out of either of us. Eventually, “what would you have me do?” she asked simply.
I let go. Shaking my head, in order to keep the rest of my body from shaking, I didn’t know what else to say. “You need to do this? Fine. You’ve already said this was a selfish choice. I will still be your friend even if you don’t want it. You can message me when you’re ready, then.”
She put her headphones back on, faint strains of Adele’s Chasing Pavements wafting by, and continued on her way.
That night was the supermoon, the night my heart was broken.
Later, we did in fact get in touch with each other again. She was waning herself off her medication and was suffering extreme paranoia, apparently, and talked a bit about that journey. There was a brief, new phase of relationship, but by then, however, even coming back to friends was too arduous a journey, and it would never be what it once was. The next break-up turned out much more mutual, and much more natural.
As it turns out, these days, I much prefer the daylight.
Words, where are you?
Ah, there you are.
Verbs, you seem so apatethic.
Adjectives, you’re languishing.
Interjections, you’re such blobs.
I know it’s been a while.
I’ve kind of ignored you
Haven’t spent time with you
But thinking of you doesn’t count,
Not if thinking of never becomes working with.
There’s so much more we can do together!
To explore the world
To plumb the depths of understanding
To light the world with art.
Words, what do you say?
If you don’t try to blog every day, suddenly you look up and realize it’s been a week or more since you posted anything. I’m still writing for a few projects, it’s just that they are not bloggable, I suppose. That, and I’m packing everything I own into 8 boxes or fewer in order to move countries. There is that, too.
I am preparing to leave Taiwan for my next adventure in Shanghai.
One of the signature dishes in Taiwan, and one of the first that was shared with me by a local Taiwanese friend, is Sanbeiji, 三杯雞, literally 3-Cup Chicken. It takes its name as the sauce is basically 1 part soy sauce, 1 part saké, and 1 part oil– just braise the chicken and sauce it, topping it all with a ton of fresh basil. That’s basically about it, super quick and easy and thus a favorite for college students who want to not eat at the 7-11 or Family Mart that day. I’ve found it’s best with a few other ingredients to help it along, too.
1 lb. chicken pieces, thickly sliced
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin (or saké with 2 tsp. sugar)
1/4 cup sesame oil
1 tbsp. fresh ginger, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 cup fresh basil, roughly chopped
4 scallions, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced
1. Sear the chicken in a dry pan until you can move the chicken without it sticking.
2. Combine the sauces together then add to the pan, stirring with the chicken.
3. Cover and stew the chicken for about 8 – 10 minutes.
4. Uncover and add the ginger, garlic, basil, and scallions. Crack some black pepper over everything.
5. Continue cooking until the sauces is reduced, another 10 – 12 minutes or more. In the last few minutes, add the tomatoes for brightness and sweetness but don’t overcook them.
6. Serve the chicken and basil over white rice, removing from the stew. If desired, use a flour rou or continue reducing the sauce to thicken it and top the chicken.
So on my way out the door, here’s one more, 3-Cup, for the road…
*The picture comes from a review at TimeOutShanghai.com, a Taiwanese restaurant that has whole garlic roasted with their Sanbeiji
What is the speed of thought?
How much stuff can run through a brain in any given split-second? Say, for instance, in the space of the glance that Jason Kane chanced to give Husky? That moment was small, less than the glitch you’d see if it were some video that skipped a frame, the same moment Jason’s hand was about to grip the doorknob on his way out of Penny.’s apartment.
With just a dart of the eyes, the dog was seen and was also seen as more than just “dog.” Husky, in his wolf-like frame and mismatched eyes, was also the pride and joy of Penny. The reason for the compliment when Jason first met her. The companion on his morning jogs once he moved in, the source of warmth on cold New York winters during movie night at home.
A pain in the ass because he was always so rude to everyone, barking even at the neighbors, but never to Jason.
“That’s because you’re so much alike,” Penny would say.
“Wait. ‘A pain in the ass?'”
Penny would just smirk and shrug. Husky would pant and bark approvingly.
Once, Jason was staring out the sliding glass door to the balcony. He tapped the handle of the door, and his feet bounced restlessly, too. The kind of rapid leg movement you might see from a teenager in the middle of math class. Penny laughed at him and asked if he needed to go outside for a walk.
Not too long after that, Penny caught Jason in a more melancholy mood. He was resting his head in her lap as she sat on the end of the couch near the end table. ESPN was on but he wasn’t really watching it. She was more engrossed in her reading of something from Paul Auster. For some reason, it allowed them to talk about books.
Jason remembered the one story he really liked as a kid. It was one about a boy who lived in a small towns in some rural mountain area. One day, he took in a wounded owl, a baby that was still this wild thing but needed care. So he did care for it, loved it, and had a variety of adventures with it appropriate for any such fifth grade-level novel. And of course, came that ending. The one where the owl finally left. Despite the love and the life he shared with the boy, it was just … an owl after all.
Penny put down the book and turned her full attention to Jason’s head, continuing to brushing back his hair lightly. He still looked at the brightly flashing moveable type swirling over the figures scrambling on the field, and still wasn’t really paying attention.
“That story really resonated with me somehow. One of those you really like because it’s so cool but you also really hate because you can’t get it out of your head. I guess the best praise I could give it was that, at the time, I really wanted to be like those in the story. Who wouldn’t want to own a wild owl, you know?”
Husky barked, and both laughed.
Husky barked again, and Jason took a second glance as his hand reached the doorknob. With his other hand, he shifted the duffel bag strap to adjust the heavy weight.
“Sorry, boy,” Jason told the dog. “I just realized. That story with the boy and the owl? It really affected me more than I ever thought. Now that I think about it, I *did* become like those in the story. Over and over again. But the thing is, turns out, I’m actually the owl.”
With time for another heartbeat or two of infinite thoughts, Jason finally broke his pause, turned the knob, and walked out the door.