hardwood floors

I slept on hardwood floors with my two cats and a blanket. This was one of our regular arguments, before I could acknowledge that we weren’t right for each other. We had broken up before then, and this time we reconnected in Washington D.C. with high hopes and good intentions. The times in D.C. would lead us to where I found myself now, in Boston, on the floor of our small studio apartment. 

I left an internship as an Editorial Assistant to make the move to a brand new city. I think we drove their together, and before we knew it, we had two cats. This was the start of our life. We would start our mornings together, with coffee and tea, and we would end our nights eating dinner on the floor. I would get creative with our dishes, but not too creative. I never truly had a knack for cooking, but I could make dishes without consulting recipes. This was something she could never do. 

Our fight was probably not even that big, but there were times when she’d throw something at me, an object, and I would try to get away from the situation. The space in the apartment hardly seemed big enough to support both of us, and then she would take out her anger on the cats. I didn’t think they did anything except be cats. They were playful, they climbed our pants legs when we got dressed, and they made fabrics less fabric-y and more raggedy. 

Our biggest cat, Gnocchi, would dash out of the apartment door as soon as we returned from outside. Then we would have to chase him, and he was not an easy catch. But again, they were nothing except cats. Young ones, playful and frolicky. 

In the beginning, I didn’t have a job. Having left the internship at Akashic Books, I also didn’t have much experience. So I found myself in the predicament of many recently-graduated, college-educated kids at that time, jobless and with no prospects. Luckily, I didn’t have many loans. I owed $4,000 at the time, but as I write this I owe nothing. Not to the loans at least. 

So in the mornings, I applied for jobs and within a week I had an appointment with a temp agency. This place was soulless, but at one point they offered me work at a gig at MIT where I basically just gave people name-tags for the event. Any less meaningful work I could not imagine. Then I landed an interview as a Global Cash Specialist. Here, I would process transactions for Brown Brothers Harriman, and now I was in Investment Banking doing a job that is probably extinct by now since a good programmer could have easily supplanted my duties. This was the job I had when we broke up. I made $14 an hour.

I think that she just didn’t believe in us fully, and when she drank, she believed in us less. So most of the times, when we argued it was because of liquor involved. And I have never really craved liquor, it has no appeal to me, but I didn’t know that then. So I drank when people around me drank, but now I know, and am confident to say I just don’t care for alcoholic beverages. Not like I care for Haribo gummy bears and Chewy Nerds. 

So, back to the floor, it was hard and cold. The blanket hardly provided any comfort, and I woke up groggy the next morning. I carried these emotions to work with me, and eventually we were enemies under the same roof. I didn’t want to take the train back home with her, I wanted to take the one after. I didn’t want to respond to her text messages, but I don’t think she wanted to text me either. I couldn’t really talk to people, but I talked to my friends about what we were going through and they urged me to leave. But I didn’t. 

This is where I discovered, or rather experienced, first-hand the battered partner syndrome. Like when someone treats you bad, but the feeling of love convinces you that this is not permanent, that they will be kind to you. Well, she was really bad at this point. 

One day, she left. And I don’t know where she went, but I remember leaving too. I had my things packed in some vehicle, and I left a bag of her favorite chips on the table. I think I wanted her to know that I cared, or to feel that I wasn’t that horrible after all. But the feeling is much like dying, you don’t really know how the person reacts afterward. 

I learned to live alone in Boston. I eventually became full-time at the Boston banking job and started earning $40K a year, but then I left. And since then, I’ve carried this story with me – of how things ended, and I didn’t know how to start telling it. But in all the time that we spent together in that apartment, and all the memories we formed, what I remember was trying to go to sleep that night on that floor with my two cats beside me. The tears streaming down my face, and The Smiths playing on my headphones. While she slept in the bed, on the other side of that door, and we accepted that we were never meant to be. 

Today, I carry the pain of the past. It’s ok though. Oddly, its my own pain and that feels good. Forming my own accountability is hard though. I know there are so many things I did wrong, but who cares. I am writing the story, and I can tell it how I feel. 

sudoku

I was 13 years old when my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. At the time, she was a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service, and I was a middle school student at Frederick Douglass Academy IV in Brooklyn, NY. We lived in Harlem, but we would commute to the neighborhood where she worked, and every morning we would get up at 0500, brush our teeth, get dressed, and head down to our car. I would continue sleeping in the car, but mom would drive to work, and my sister, currently in high school at Bushwick High School, would ride shotgun in the front seat.

We did this every day. In the freezing cold, in hail, in thunder, and on bright sunny days. Then one day, we didn’t do it anymore. My world changed, and that morning drive in the Mitsubishi Montero Sport became a train ride on the A and then a transfer to the J train. Each morning and afternoon, I made my way to school and back home. Oftentimes, it would turn into homework or reading time. I must have passed over a million strange faces in all of those hours, but I realize that from a young age I have found the most comfort in solitude. Even on a crowded subway train, I realized that I was alone, unknown. A person with my own identity, my own freedom, and at 13 years old, freedom is welcome.

I grabbed the Metro tabloid every morning and stuffed it in my backpack. I read classified ads, saw movie announcements, a printout of what’s on tv, and I read stories of tragedy; houses that went up in flames, people who saw their last sunrise, and thievery. I was always intrigued by the Obituary column. It mostly chronicled people’s accomplishments while in life, and I wondered why certain things were deemed noteworthy while others were not. I thought, in my obituary, I want them to write down my favorite food, my favorite book. So that people can try them, and then they can say, man, he had some good taste. Or, I never knew he loved pizza so much, let’s go eat a slice in his honor. Instead, they’ll know where I studied, where I worked, and basically how I spent my time.

On the train is where I first learned how to play Sudoku. There really isn’t much to explain here, but it became the sole reason why I grabbed the metro tabloid. After a while, I was less interested in happenings of the world and more interested in organizing these numbers in such a manner that they don’t come into conflict with any other one of their type. And that is essentially the premise of Sudoku, 9 numbers, 9 identities. If I am a 1, I should stand in such a way that if I look up/down or sideways, I shouldn’t see another 1. And there shouldn’t be another 1 in the same room as I. But there really is no competition in this game, so I wonder why it was invented.

Why can’t you have a room full of 1s and 2s, and why must they be ignorant of the other’s existence? It’s a curious thing, but in the midst of my mother’s diagnosis, it was this concept that caught my attention. I wonder sometimes how I was able to cope with all of the changes, what did I do right, what did I do wrong? But I don’t really think there is an answer. The tendency to look inward and solve simple problems in the midst of large problems is the simplest, most effective manner to live life. If you’re stuck in a bad situation, try and figure out something about the world. Perhaps that’s why these games were made, because life was unpleasant at a point. You didn’t have entertainment shows, basketball games, video games. You had life. Sometimes pain, sometimes betrayal, sometimes sickness, and long commutes.

he is gone again

“You’re not really here, are you?” 

I keep searching for you, but I can’t find you. I opened up that door when I first passed it, and there was a wall of bricks directly behind it. The other door led to the edge of a cliff. I was afraid that the last door would open to an ocean that would flood the whole containment, so I left that door closed. It was leaking from the upper rail, and the knocks I made felt like thuds against the moisture-seeping oak. 

Where could you be hiding at this time? Why aren’t you answering me? I have the feeling that you’re listening, perhaps even observing me as I meander curiously in search of you. 

“I’m not going to hurt you. I only want to see you and talk to you.” This seems hopeless, but I continue anyway, “I want to know that you’re alive.”

Now I am beginning to feel scared. What if he is actually hurt? What if he feels trapped and scared? He’s been evasive for a while now. But how was I supposed to reach through to him? Every time I tried to talk, he’d put his head down and cry incessant tears. Tears that he’d catch to save them in jars. He labeled them with the memory of his latest regret.

The room with the jars, I remember now how scary it was. Endless rows of glass with their little aluminum caps. Their bodies labeled, “my first break-up,” “the day my father left,” “the lies my mother told.” Some were vague and buried deep underneath the rest of them. “The thing that happened when I was 7.” 

“Dad? I’m really starting to get worried about you. Could you please come out?” I called to him, feeling a bit hopeless, but knowing that this was probably just his latest episode. That’s what people called his behavior, episodes, as if his life was a tv show.

Growing up with him felt like the best at times. He was so strong, so motivated, so curious. A conversation with him could take any turn, and I loved that so much. As a kid, it was my favorite thing, that he didn’t talk like an adult to me. He talked like another child, imagining always. But there was something that still made him feel so distant, so inaccessible, that even though he said the words “I love you” and it was hard to doubt his meaning, you’d wonder exactly how he meant it. Or what it meant to him. Did he understand that love, above all other things, meant being there for those you love? That it didn’t mean the endless games of hide-and-seek which to him were more like a magician’s disappearing act. 

He could vanish in an instant. He’d go off to some other world, some other planet, and he would come back weeks later, not having aged a bit, with a bit of soil from Mars. Everyone in the neighborhood pointed this out, the Mars soil he’d found came from the side of the road by riverside drive. He’d travel everywhere on foot, but supposedly he’d known those who came from afar to pick him up. I can’t say I was used to his disappearance, but I was comfortable speaking in his language. And maybe that’s why he still talked to me after years of silence toward everyone else.

“Dad, do you know what we call a wingless lizard who lacks the gills of a hammer-headed shark?” I said the question almost to myself this time.

“A lizard.” He responded from underneath the floorboard. 

the bus driver

It’s quiet. On these winter nights, it feels like the entire city is asleep. Save for a few cabs drifting through the streets like downstream washaway, there really isn’t much going on. 

I’m looking up at the windows of buildings. Some of the lights are still on. I guess people are awake, their tv-screens glow like little microwaves. I wonder what’s going on up there, what’s keeping them awake.

Oh, here comes the bus. I think it’s the last one for the night. So empty, but thank god it stops. I don’t feel like walking. I guess it’s just me and the bus driver. 

“Late night, huh?” I say to him. Why did I say that? What response did I expect from him? 

“Mhmm.” 

I swear I had my wallet in my right pocket, but it’s not there. It’s not in the left one either. Oh, shit, yeah my backpack. Here it is. I grab my metrocard and swipe. 

“Sir, does this bus stop on 147th street? I’m going there now, will it leave me there?” I ask him.

“Yep. Goes straight down St. Nicholas. Since it’s just you, I’ll stop when we get there. Otherwise, I won’t be making any stops.” 

“Thank you sir.”

I stand beside him and hold onto the rail. There is something about the bus driver, but I can’t tell what it is. How many hours must he be into his shift? Could you imagine being a bus driver? I sometimes wonder how people end up in places where they end up. 

“Sir, do you like being a bus driver?” I ask. 

The question seemed to catch him off guard a little bit. 

“What do you mean if I like it? It’s what I get paid to do.” He responds.

“Well, what would you do if the money didn’t matter?” 

“I think I would be a mechanic. I’ve always loved working with cars. I understand them. When I was home I was a mechanic. I come to America, bus driver. Every thing is different here, not many opportunities.” He says.

“Then why did you come here? Where is home for you?”

“Hong Kong,” he says, “and because of money. I need money to send to my family from home. My wife, my kids, my parents, they all need money so I have to drive the bus.” 

“hmm…” 

A man journies this far, leaves everything behind, to drive the bus to pay for everything behind. We make sacrifices, but when do we know the purpose, the real why? 

“Why don’t you be a mechanic here then? At least you could still make money and send home, and be happy.” 

“Happy? You have a lot to learn, kid. Nobody is happy. Nobody that has to work to support family is happy. But family, you love them and this is what you do.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen your family?” 

“4 years.”

“4 years, and you haven’t seen your kids, your wife?” 

“Yep.”

“How come? How could it be so long?”

“Tickets are expensive. It could cost $2,000 for me to go see them, and I spend 2 days in travel time so I can only see them for a little bit. Here is your stop.”

I turned around to leave. 4 years. And $2,000 is all he needs to see his family. Who could agree to that? 

two strangers

“Excuse me, what book are you reading?”
She looks up from the page and removes one earbud. “Did you say something?”
“Oh, yes. Your book.” He points down at it. “I was asking what’s the title.”
“Umm,” she flips the book over to see the title, “it’s called After The Quake. Did you recognize the author or something?”
“No, not really. I just couldn’t help but notice you smiling at the book as you read it.” He responds.
“Oh!” She lets out a chuckle, “the man in the story, his wife left him. She said living with him is like living with a chunk of air.”
He laughs, “Wow, that’s a little bit harsh. Don’t you think?”
“Is it?” She takes off the other earbud. “Well, I guess I’ve just never heard anyone described as a chunk of air before.”

The train comes to a stop. Some people get off, and some people get on. A massive exhale, and then the doors shut. An older lady, heavyset and carrying a purse, struggles to make her way to a seat in the middle of the crowded train. As she moves between the two strangers, the woman with the book gets up to offer her the seat. They trade places, and the train accelerates, causing everyone to tense up a little to maintain balance.

“Are you going to read the book?” She asks, now standing beside the woman with the book plopped open.
“I don’t know; it sounds a little too depressing for me, so I don’t know. A book about a breakup? I’ve read too many stories like that, and they kind of just leave me sad.”
“It’s not entirely about the breakup. It’s not even about the breakup, and there are more short stories in this book. This is just one of them.” She explained.
“What are the other stories like?”
“I don’t know. I’ve only read parts of this one so far.”
“What if the other stories also about breakups?” He asked.
She smiled. “I guess you’d have to read them to find out. You can’t just avoid a story because it’s probably going to be about something that makes you sad. The stories in this book all have to do with the Kobe Earthquake in Japan in 1995.”
“So people die too?”
“I guess,” she said.
They both turned quiet as the train slowed to a stop. The woman stores the book in her linen tote.
“This is you, huh?” He asks.
“Yeah.”
“You’re very interesting.”
She looks at him again. “Oh, stop. It was nice talking to you too. I hope you get to where you’re going safely.”

Before he could say a word, the woman was dragged by the current of bodies exiting the train.

He thought about her for a while. What was her life like? Would he ever see her again? Then he put on his earbuds. The sounds of Joy Division drowned out the noise from the train, and his gaze centered on the old lady who had taken the woman’s seat. He watched as her eyes drooped like heavy curtains, indecisive they seemed, whether to stay here or there.