rest in peace, pt ii – pomatophobia

// preface

The past three years of my life was a matter of symptoms, occasionally peaking out to say hello, like little demons.
This year was a matter of diagnoses, like waging war.

Here is “rest in peace”, a 2-part series of selected memories, depicting my struggle against insomnia.

Read pt. i first, here.


// part ii – pomatophobia

“How long can you hold your breath underwater? How much can your body take before you lose your mind?”

On average, it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours for me to fall asleep. Some nights, I don’t sleep.

And by the sound of it, neither does the hive of horny geckos living under our floorboards.

We have all sorts of alarm clocks here, like stray cats and dogs, dysentery, and 5-inch behemoth cockroaches that manage to find their way into our mosquito net.

Bangkok summer nights are unforgiving. And sticky.

I roll over on our thinly-padded concrete mattress and look at Tony. He is asleep. I glance over at Daa’s bed and hear his labored breathing. Out.

I am envious, but happy for them.

Today, I make it my resolve to fight for my sleep. Maybe I can cheat my way to the Fall. Trick myself into sleep.

“I’m gonna count to ten. And once I get to ten, you will fall asleep.”

One.

You can feel it already, the tiredness descending on you like a thick blanket.

Two.

Your breathing is slowing down.

You can hear your heart beat but it’s getting slower and slower.

Everything is slow motion.

Three.

Now your eyes are getting heavy.

Your heart is beating slower still, but you can’t tell anymore.

Four.

Your mind is getting numb.

Everything is… fuzzy. And really, really soft.

Thoughts gently come and go, like a slideshow that you didn’t make. So you just watch.

Five.

Your eyes are getting very heavy.

So, so heavy…

You aren’t even thinking of what you’re seeing anymore, so you close them.

It is dark.

Six.

Everything is fuzzy.

You hear some noise in the background. But you pay no mind because you are hypnotized.

Seven.

Your head is so numb that it feels like you are floating.

Your mind drifts and drifts…

Eight.

You are flying now, even though you feel like sinking.

Fuzzy.

Time is slowing down but it is okay because so are you.

You are sinking – so, so heavy, like lead weights, that you cannot move anymore.

Nine.

Muffled sounds echo in the background like they’re coming from far, far away… but you pay no mind because you are here, just floating.

All you need to do is lie down and let yourself drift,

on and on,

until,

– I snap awake, startled by the sound of coughing.

I am drenched with sweat.

I hear loud choking from Daa’s corner of the room. After a brief fit, he turns his body over to his side and resumes sleeping.

Everything is loud now. Stray cats. Mating geckos.

Dammit.

I take a deep breath, and start over.

One.

After a couple of tries, I get the hang of it. I don’t even know if it works but I figure that as long as I pretend that it works, it works.

I have no bed, I have no air conditioning, but I found sleep medicine. Placebo or not, I’ll take it.

Meds don’t turn off alarm clocks though and we discover a new one – Daa’s coughing.

“Must be sleep apnea”, Tony figures after a week of consecutive nights of coughing fits.

So every night, we prayed for Daa’s breathing. I don’t think it worked but I found my first doorway to compassion for the man.

A few more weeks of trauma and sleepless nights, and we are back home.

My trip to Thailand messes me up in all sorts of ways.

Like, the sort of way that you don’t realize how bad it is –
until you are 8,000 miles away,
14 hours behind,
and 2 months out,

from the carnage.

Weeks pass and you realize it’s not just the jet lag.
Months pass and you realize being home doesn’t stop the pain, because you don’t know what home means anymore.

One night, I cannot sleep.

And the sting only intensifies throughout the night, to the point where it’s not just my heart anymore. My body tenses up as I feel something pierce my insides and now I’m thinking about knives.

Everything is sharp.

I check my phone and scroll through my contacts to see who I can call.

No one.

Wait, no. Evelyn.
But… it’s late. She’s probably asleep by now.

What about Jeremy? And Erin?
They’re probably too busy. They’re always too busy anyways.

Chris Tomlin.
But my heart only beats faster, so I yank out my earphones, lock my phone, and it is dark again.

No one is here. I am alone.

Wait, that’s not true.

I look over at Tony’s bed and he is asleep already.
I am envious, but happy for him.

I shouldn’t wake him up. He’s tired.

No one.
Knives.

My body is shaking at this point.

I glance over at Tony’s bed again and that’s when I see Him. Only, He’s not the Laughing Man. He is a silent man, with pale skin where his mouth should be.

Standing alone in the corner. Looking at me.

I scramble for my phone and find Evelyn’s number but right before I call, I freeze.

She’s sleeping. She’s tired. Don’t wake her up.

Wait what, don’t be ridiculous. Just call her.

I continue staring at the screen.
Until it dims and shuts off, and it is dark again.

This is a different breed of paralysis.

I look back at the Man with No Mouth.
He cannot laugh at me but he still mocks me.

“Help me”, I scream silently, as the Man in the corner continues to stare at me.

Unable to speak. Unable to communicate.

Alone.

Knives.

“I… I – I need help.”

Tony fixes his eyes on me, I avert my gaze.

“What’s wrong, buddy?”

“I… couldn’t sleep last night”, I tell him with shaky breath and explain what happened. I feel a chill wash over me as I realize that it wasn’t so much what happened last night that was so haunting, but that what happened last night was how I’ve been feeling every single day.

Alone. Paralyzed. Mouthless.

“You know that whole River thing?”

He nods.

“Well, last night was like a whirlpool. Or like a black hole. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape. After a certain point, the gravity is too strong.”

“Like quicksand.”

“Yeah.”

Our conversation sways towards the topic of finding me help, like the no-joke, professional kind of help. Usually, I am skeptical but after last night, I am willing to try anything.

“What about sleeping?”

“I don’t know, man. Alcohol usually makes me drowsy but that hasn’t but working lately.”

“Have you tried medication?”

I think about it for a minute. I don’t like the idea of becoming dependent on pills.

“Remember Thailand?”

“What about it?”

“That counting thing I did.”

“Oh yeah… Think it’ll work?”

“You know, I didn’t just make that up. That was actually one of my earliest memories. My mom used to count us to sleep.”

I pause.

“It doesn’t have to work.”

“As long as you pretend it works…”

I nod.

It does not take long for me to suffer relapse. Just three nights later, the Man with No Mouth pays another visit.

After a week or so, I figure my life is just a game of survival now – trying to navigate through a labyrinth of black holes. One wrong move was a step into quicksand, triggering a dark episode of isolation and spiraling in slow motion.

Everyday is warfare, and all I am equipped with is 1-hour combat training sessions once a week.

Treatment begins, and I am medicated with sugar pills. Some use Ambien, or a glass of wine, but my weapon of choice is memory. A fuzzy one.

But the wonderful thing is that it works, or at least I believe that it does. After a couple of tries, I get the hang of it.

Meds don’t turn off alarm clocks though and I discover a new one.

One night, I decide to take a shot and begin the counting process.

One.

“You can already feel the tiredness descending on you, like a blanket.”

I keep counting and everything gets very fuzzy.

I get to around Eight or Nine, the part where you are flying in space but sinking at the same time.

Sounds are muffled, time is slowing down, and everything is so, so heavy.

I drift and drift, readying myself for the Fall, when suddenly the sounds are not so muffled anymore and I snap awake to the sound of coughing.

Air.

My body rolls over, drenched with sweat.

Without thinking, I blurt out, “Daa??”

Being tired is one thing. Being tired of being tired is something else entirely.

Everyday is warfare and I decide that survival is not the only game I want to play. So I run away.

Tony asks me right as I’m about to leave, “Hey man, where you going?”

“Far away.”

“How far?”

“Like 100 miles far. San Diego.”

He thinks about it for a minute.

“Can I come?”

I smile and a piece of my heart melts.

There is much caffeine, heart-to-heart storytelling, and stupid fun. Before the day is over, I already get the feeling that this is my favorite day of the semester.

Two pounds of burritos and two hours of freestyle rapping later, we get home and I accidentally step into quicksand.

I feel myself sinking slowly into a black hole of isolation.

Everything is sharp.

Oh no.
No, not this again.

I close my eyes and start counting.

One.

“The tiredness is descending on you…”

But my heart continues to beat faster. I can’t breathe.

What do I do.

Remember your combat training.

I glance at a piece of paper titled “Grounding Techniques” on my desk.

Okay. We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna get out of here.

“God?”, I say out loud.
“I don’t know if you’re there but I’m gonna tell you about my day, okay?”

I start muttering under my shaky breath. Waves threaten to swallow me in their ebb and flow and I struggle to stay afloat. I fight to stay alive, and I fight for the will to keep fighting, with memory as my weapon of choice.

I end up whispering to God – or myself, I don’t know – for the next hour straight, occasionally pausing to ask myself, “Am I going crazy?”

I fall asleep that night.

And while I may have been totally crazy, this was a victory.

Because finally, for the first time in far too long,

I opened my mouth.

After a while, swimming through black holes becomes a thing I can somewhat get the hang of. Combat training gets more interesting, because I’m learning to fight for things other than waking up, showing up to social functions, and eating.

The Man with No Mouth stops showing up at night.

If depression is a storm, I had looked into its eye and seen it pass.

For once, life was more than struggling to keep my head afloat.
For once, I was not drowning.

Before I know it, I’m hearing my therapist’s last words. My combat training is complete and her job is done, at least for now.

I pick up a habit of opening my mouth before going to bed each night. Some nights, I talk with Tony, or I text Evelyn. Other nights, I whisper to God, or myself, like a crazy person.

Sleep isn’t a thing I need to fight for anymore. I remember the peacefulness of floating on my back and allowing the lazy river’s current carry me to my dreams. I remember looking up in the sky and wondering if I’m floating in water or floating in space.

The River is not such a terrifying place anymore.
I can sleep soundly, and the Dark Things decide that this just will not do.

One night, I am floating on my back and gazing at the stars, when they swim up to me and tilt my body to its side.

One.

But I am drifting off so I do not notice.

Half my mouth and nose is submerged.

Two.

My heart beats faster and faster.

My lungs are filling up.

Three.

But I pay no mind. I am hypnotized.

Four.

The current picks up and the sound of rushing water crescendos, as does my heart beat.

Five.

Wake up, my body attempts to warn me.

Six.

But I’m trained to tune out voices now. All sounds are muffled at this point.

Everything is fuzzy.

Seven.

Drifting on and on,

my head is so numb that it feels like I am flying,

Eight.

yet sinking,

in slow motion,

Nine.

because everything is so, so heavy,

like lead weights,

that I cannot breathe anymore,

closer and closer,

until,

– I snap awake to the sound of coughing.

Air.

My body rolls over, drenched.

Today, I opened my journal and wrote with shaky hands,

“How long can you hold your breath underwater? How much can your body take before you lose your mind?

I’m starting to believe that my body and my soul have a much closer relationship than I had previously assumed. They should be working in sync to each other, but some connection, some cable between the two has snapped inside me.

My mind wakes up before my body does and I see things no one should ever see. Like when the anesthetics fail to kick in, and glitch during surgery.

Now, parts of my body that aren’t ever supposed fall asleep are doing just that.

My body is suffering from a severe drought of rest, and I’m starting to wonder how much more it can take before I lose my mind, too.

That perhaps, this insomnia is not just a beast of the flesh.”

– I put my pen down.

Tony is already asleep and I am envious, yet happy for him.

I turn off the alarm app and throw my phone across the room.
I look over at the box of Ambien sitting on my nightstand for a good minute or two, then throw the box across the room, too.

I turn my body to its side and put a pillow behind my back to keep myself from rolling over during the night.

I start counting.

One.

You can already feel the tiredness descending on you, like a blanket…

 

 

// pt ii – pomatophobia

**Tony and Evelyn are real person(s), given aliases for storytelling and privacy purposes.

rest in peace, pt i – the dark things

// preface –

The past three years of my life was a matter of symptoms, occasionally peaking out to say hello, like little demons.
This year was a matter of diagnoses, like waging war.

Here is “rest in peace”, a 2-part series of selected memories, depicting my struggle against insomnia.


// part i – the dark things

“How long can you hold your breath underwater? How much can your body take before you lose your mind?”

Every morning, I open my day by opening my journal.
Today, I opened my journal and wrote with shaky hands,

“No more dreams.”

– as a prayer to God.

I wake up.

Or at least my eyes do. And my ears.

I hear silky, alto harmonies and reverb-coated church music, gently serenading my awakening. My vision clears and I can see my messy room. Tony must have left while I was napping.

I reach over to pause the music but I can’t. My arm feels like a lead weight. A jarring, high-voltage sound wave of static electrifies my eardrums and my entire skull feels its shock.

…What?

I feel my heart rate accelerate, gradually surpassing the peaceful tempo of Chris Tomlin’s church music.

One.

Okay. Just breathe.

I try again, this time with my other arm, but it, too, is weighed down by a thousand-ton anchor. Head-crushing electricity and earsplitting static runs its current through my cranium.

Two.

Shit.

My heart rate continues to escalate, and so does my panic.

I try thrusting my body upright, but the harder I try, the stronger the electricity, the louder the static.

Three.

I feel a chill wash over my limp body, as if someone else is in the room to confirm and give voice to my fears.

Yes. You’re trapped.

Four.

“Help.”
Only my lips don’t move. I feel something covering my mouth. More static.

Then, He starts laughing at me.

I hear it coming from Tony’s bed.

But, you’re not Tony.
And you’re definitely not Chris Tomlin either.

Five.

“Help me”, I scream silently, as the man in the corner continues to laugh at me.

Just give up. You can’t move anyways, so it’s not worth wasting the energy.

Six.

The window next to my bed begins to shatter. Now there is a woman, too, and she is shrieking.

I need to get out.

I struggle with all the strength I can muster, and then some – desperately trying to force my way through the quicksand, through the static.

Seven.

Finally, I feel my right shoulder twitch, breaking the surface, breaking paralysis.

Eight.

But only for a split second. And then it’s back under again.

The more you struggle, the faster you’ll sink.

I ignore the voice and continue swimming.

The Laughing Man gets louder and louder, and so does the Shrieking Woman.

Nine.

All the while, Chris Tomlin continues to hum softly in the background, serving as a haunting soundtrack for this lucid nightmare.

My shoulder twitches again.

The noise is getting so loud, I think the throbbing just might tear my head open.

Until,

Ten.

Air. I can breathe.

Eleven.
Twelve.
Thirteen

My body rolls over.

I scramble through my blankets for my phone and dial Tony’s number.

On average, it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours for me to fall asleep. Some nights, I don’t sleep.

I have a friend who can almost will himself into falling asleep. As if he just needs to flip a switch in his system and wait for it to close all its programs and shut down.

My nights are not quite the same. My nights are more like a long boat ride along a dark river with lots of fog.

I row and row for a little while, until I reach a certain point, and then I stop. I somehow know that at this point, I have to give up my oars, so I throw them overboard.

Eventually, I approach a bottleneck in the river and there stands a lone figure keeping watch over the choke point. Like a sentinel of sleep.

He, or it, motions for me to disembark my boat and swim the remainder of the journey.

I continue my nightly pilgrimage floating on my back and allowing the current of the lazy river carry me onwards. It is quiet and serene as I gaze at the starry night above me.

For some time, I drift on and on and the stars get brighter and brighter. At certain moments, my mind is so numbed that I cannot tell if I am floating in water or floating in space.

The current picks up and the sound of rushing water crescendos, but I pay no mind. I am hypnotized.

Time slows down as the rapids flow faster.

My body drifts, and my mind follows,

closer and closer,

until,

I fall.

I think the world is ending for some reason.
Why is everyone running?

Oh. Zombies.

All my friends are here.

Oh shit, we gotta go. Zombies are coming.

“Guys, we gotta run.”

Oh good, Evelyn is here. She’s the most optimistic person you could possibly have around in a zombie apocalypse.

We run as fast as we can but that’s a lot slower than I remember. My legs feel weighed down, like lead weights.

I turn around to see if Evelyn is struggling too but she’s not. She’s a zombie now.

“Evelyn, NO!”

She opens her jaw of gnashing teeth and takes a full bite straight into my skull.

I jolt awake.

Static. Cranium-shattering, electrifying static.

One.

No. No, not this again.
A chill runs through my limp body.

Two.

Okay, just calm down. First things first.

Breathe. Make sure you can breathe.

Inhale.

Three.

Exhale. Okay.

My eyes dart around to check the corners of the room. To see if he’s there.

Four.

But I hear no laughing. Tony isn’t here either.

Okay, just try moving your arm. Just a bit.

Static.

Five.

GODDAMMIT!

Okay. Inhale. Try again.
Just one twitch.

Static.

Six.

Just keep swimming… up,
through the static, through the quicksand,
towards the surface.

Just.

One.

Seven.

Twitch!!

Okay.

Exhale.

We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna get out of here.

Eight.

The static is unbearable.

I’m so close to the surface I can see everything but my vision is distorted by the ripples. And everything sounds muffled. My ears are still submerged.

Inhale.

Nine.

Okay, just gotta will my body into motion.
Just gotta… find that “switch”.

I focus harder and the static thickens. It intensifies, as if it knows I’m trying to escape its grasp.

“Just. Move.”

I feel my head starting to split open.

When finally,

Ten.

Air.

My body rolls over, now dampened by sweat.

Exhale.

After a while, I start developing this fear of falling asleep. Night time is not what it used to be.

I try negotiating with the Sentinel, asking if I can keep my boat for the journey, but it is no use. His word is ironclad. And besides, that’s just not how it works. If I want to go on, I have to surrender. It’s the only way.

So each night, I would lay my body down and float on my back in the black river, exposing myself to whatever lurked beneath the surface.

It seemed like the Dark Things would come when I was most vulnerable. In that strange, twilight-zone limbo between waking and sleeping, or vice versa.

Some nights, I would be this close to the Fall, and they would jolt me awake with that awful static, but only for a split second. Like a tease, reminding me of my powerlessness of being a sleeper.

I’ve seen things that people are not supposed to ever see.
Like when the anesthetics fail to kick in, and glitch during surgery.

People aren’t supposed to wake up during surgery.
People aren’t supposed to hear creepy laughing men when they wake up.
People aren’t supposed to wake up before their bodies do.

Even if I make it to the Fall, the Dark Things follow me into my dreams.

I know this feeling well –
trying to reverse time and beat the sunset,
trying to savor our last moments together,
trying to prolong this sleepover,

just one more night, just one more memory.

We are literally counting down her last minutes, sitting around the house in tense anticipation.

Last words, last group photos… last.

Then, at the end of the day, a van would pick her up and take her to the airport.

I derp around the room, unsure of how to spend my last day with her. Unsure of how to say goodbye.

For a moment, the anxiety subsides and it is pure emotion. I think about not being able to see Evelyn and start sobbing so hard that my squinty eyes swell up, and then, I really cannot see her now.

Well, this just will not do, I think to myself and leave the house. I need to at least be able to see her face when we part ways. When we hug.

My vision returns to me but I really, really need to use the bathroom now. I walk around town because apparently, the house doesn’t have toilets.

I pee and pee.
…And pee.

Good Lord.

After taking the longest pee ever recorded, I sense that it is time.

I’ve been gone for far too long.

I book it out of the store and sprint back to the house. I dodge pedestrians and cars with a panic within me that weighs me down so, so heavily. Like lead weights.

Evelyn must be gone by now. I missed it.

I sprint faster anyways, trying to reverse time.

I finally make it back and she is still there. A wave of relief washes over my heavy body. I catch my breath and tell myself to chill.

I’m back. We’re okay.
Just gotta sit tight and wait for her to finish taking group photos.

Alright.
Just like you rehearsed.

Just gotta hand her the letter.

Say the thing, and hug her.

You can do this.

When all of the sudden,

I wake up.

I want to cry, but I cannot.

Oh God. Why did you have to do it?

It was a sweet moment, seeing Evelyn again. It was a bitter moment, parting ways again.

We smiled. Too tired of asking “why does it have to be this way?” Too tired to put up a fight. So just we smiled. It was almost amusing, like the darkest of comedies.

It was a sweet moment, seeing her again. It was a bitter moment, parting ways again. It was forged from real memories and now, backdropped for dreams.

Little did I know that a third flavor would be added. An unwelcome aftertaste.

She kissed me. Subtly at first, not-so-subtly the second time. We were just hugging.

We felt like outlaws, indulging in our rebellious and secretive romance.

I kissed her back. I had to.
We knew what we were doing to each other. We were drinking poison. But it was so intoxicating. Exhilarating.

It was a sweet moment. It was a bitter moment.

“You and I are each other’s greatest mistakes.”

We knew this would not last. Yet we embraced it fully.
How much could we savor our forbidden romance before the inevitable came?

As I turned to leave her embrace, she pulled me back for another kiss, this time on the lips. I felt the rush, my nerves reawakening, only to crash seconds later like a short-circuited caffeine high.

I was taken aback. Not because it was bad, but because it was familiar. The taste of her lips. It was not her’s. Because this tasted like the lips of another lover I had lost long ago. Because that kiss was the only one I’ve ever known.

An unwelcome aftertaste, if you will. Forged from real memories, backdropped for dreams.

I wake up.

I want to cry, but I cannot.

It was a sweet moment. It was a bitter moment.

Today, I opened my journal and wrote with shaky hands,

“No more dreams.”

– as a prayer to the Lord.

I wrote it with a smudge of sadness, as I pride myself as a dreamer, someone with an unstoppable imagination. But sometimes, the things we imagine can find their way into our lives and haunt us, like monsters.

After you have enough dreams like this, you begin to question what’s real and what’s made up by your subconscious.

It’s… not good for me. It’s unhealthy. And I need it to stop.

But what real choice do I have if I am asleep?

 

 

– to be continued.

// part i – the dark things

Disclaimer: Tony and Evelyn are real person(s), given aliases for storytelling and privacy purposes.

mister deludo

There once was a man named Mr. Deludo who kept a monster hidden in his basement.

No one really knows where the Monster came from.

But then again, no one had been able to get a good read on Mr. Deludo as of late. Mr. Deludo was a family man but even his closest friends and neighbors started to suspect that something was dangerously wrong at home.

Some of the townsfolk noticed him making frequent late-night strolls to the local graveyard.

Each time he came home, he would be startled to see his wife sitting in the living room, waiting for him.

“Oh hiya, honey.
Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

After a while, people suspected that the Monster must have followed him home after one of his cemetery visitations.

For some time, no one knew about the Monster, not even Mr. Deludo himself. But each and every night, he woke up while the world was sleeping to go downstairs and feed the Monster.

By morning, Mr. Deludo would remember none of it and resume his normal life. His eyes drooped from restless nights as he drove his two children to school on the way to work each day.

Weeks passed and the neighbors caught on. They could hear the Monster’s rumbling at night, when the air was still enough. But whenever they tried to bring it up, Mr. Deludo would simply deny it, because even he did not know the truth.

This went on for months and months and the Monster continued to grow and grow.

Eventually, the Monster grew so big that Mr. Deludo could not deny it any longer that something was lurking beneath the floorboards.

One day, his wife caught him in the act of his nightly clandestine activities.

“Oh hiya, honey. Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

“We need to talk.”

Mrs. Deludo sobbed as she blubbered her way through the messy and tear-soaked intervention.

“How could you do this to us??
Think about the family… Think of our children.”

And Mr. Deludo sobbed with her, as he finally confronted the harrowing truth about himself.

“You have to get rid of the Monster.”
Mrs. Deludo managed to mumble through the tissues.

“And no more walks to the graveyard.”

The next day, Mr. Deludo bought a gun.

At this point, the Monster had already grown so big and so strong that Mr. Deludo wondered if a gun would get the job done. Not to mention that the Monster was cunning, perhaps more deceiving than its master.

None of that really mattered though because each night, Mr. Deludo still found himself helplessly opening the door to the basement and feeding the Monster.

He knew what he was doing and he knew what he was doing was wrong, but he simply could not help it. Because though he hated the awful beast, he had grown a strange affinity for it.

So he fed the Monster, night after night.
Like a slave to his own conscience.

A week had gone by, then two, and the Monster grew bigger still. Excuses were running out and so was his time.

“You need to kill the Monster.”
Mrs. Deludo demanded.

“If you kill me, I’ll kill your wife and kids.”
The Monster counterattacked.

Mr. Deludo’s heart was torn and any more of this agony, he felt his life would split into two.

Finally, Mrs. Deludo could take it no longer. Her patience had burned out and she issued her ultimatum, threatening to leave the house and take the kids with her.

“Kill the Monster!”
She screamed in crazed desperation.

“I.. I- I can’t.”

A look of horror spread across her tear-stained face.

“You what??”

“I just.. can’t.”

More blubbering.

“It’s either us”, she said, grasping their two kids in her trembling arms, “or the Monster.”

That night, Mr. Deludo loaded his gun and went downstairs into the basement.

The Monster died a long and stubborn death. Multiple gunshots pierced the night and echoed throughout all of town, and when the bullets ran out, Mr. Deludo resorted to makeshift means of murder. The townsfolk shuddered at the sounds of Mr. Deludo’s deranged screaming, the Monster’s wailing, and the thought that they couldn’t always differentiate between the two.

Until finally, the house was silent again.
The neighbors went to bed, knowing that the belated deed of riddance was done.

Mr. Deludo carried the Monster’s still-twitching body out of his empty house and walked over to the local graveyard.

He strolled through the rows and rows of gravestones he knew so well, until he reached the cemetery’s edge. His pace slowed as he walked down the final row, grasping the Monster in his trembling arms.

Finally, he stopped and stood in front of three tombstones with the names of his wife and two kids engraved in them.

The Monster breathed its last.

It was the longest walk home that night.

As he trudged back home, Mr. Deludo replayed the murder scene over and over in his mind. But it was not the piercing gunshots, nor the Monster’s howling, nor even his own screams that still rang in his ears, but the ensuing silence.

It was too quiet.

When he got back home, he closed the door behind him was startled to hear the voice of his wife echoing from the living room.

“Oh hiya, honey.
Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

 

help[less]

I always knew it would come to this.
From the start, our relationship was on a timer.

Last week, my therapist and I began asking the question –
“Do I need therapy anymore?”

So we dug into the soil of memory. We dug and dug, until we got lost in the labyrinth of tunnels. We found pieces of my childhood, fossilized stories of family.

I saw my dad’s face, though it was blurry like a faded polaroid.
I could never see too clearly in class and I didn’t get glasses until the 8th grade. But it mattered not. I had to pay attention, just in case I missed something. Just in case I messed up.

My dad was a sensei.
And, I, his apprentice. Being lectured and trained to survive the “real world”.

But I never learned much anyways.
I was always too slow.

I saw my mother’s face.
It was hazy from the sheer speed she traveled at, trying to take care of all of our family’s needs. All but her own.

She was everywhere and she was nowhere.

I’d catch a cold and her motherly instincts would kick into overdrive. There would never be a shortage of warm fluids and freshly-cut fruit. Her love language tasted like rice porridge and Korean pears.

My mom was a superhero.

Then I’d recover, but she kept cooking porridge and buying fruit. Taking care of needs that were not there.

She couldn’t switch off.

I never really figured out how to talk to them, or hold a friendship.
But they taught me a lot of things. And took care of me.

She sat across the room from me but we were always in the same group. She essentially saved me from flunking the first test, so naturally, I hung out with her.

Eventually, we developed a rhythm of meeting up after school every Monday by the blue lunch tables.
Then every Wednesday.
Then every Thursday.

Then almost every day.

I told my parents I had to see a tutor. A new after-school program. They bought it.

She was someone special to me.

Some days, we’d actually talk about english homework.

Other days, we’d talk about life, when life was not school and writing essays. We’d talk about things that made us feel alive, when studying made us feel empty, like robots. We’d talk about things we actually nerded out over, when it wasn’t chemistry and calculus.

In a hollow, ruthlessly competitive environment that seemed to value numbers more than people, I felt that someone actually cared about me. Saw me for who I was beyond my grades.

In a place so cold and lifeless, she made me feel understood. Known.

Warm.

“I’m not sure where to begin.”

“Well, why did you pick up the phone and call in the first place?”

“Because.. I needed help. Professional help. I needed someone to save me.”

“From what?”

“From destroying myself.”

“Mm. Tell me more about that.”

“Well.. I went to Thailand last summer on a mission trip. Little did I know I would meet my long-lost childhood tormentor. When I came back, the demons followed me home.”

“Which ones?”

“The ones that ridicule me. The ones that tell me I’m not enough. And call me B̂ā.”

B̂ā?”

“Means ‘stupid’ in Thai. Or ‘mentally retarded’, to be more specific.”

“He did all that to you?”

I nodded grimly at her.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Every day, he would teach us his way doing things around the house. Like how to wash the dishes. Or laundry. Things like that. And whenever I messed up, he would beat me with his words.”

“My goodness.. That must have been so painful.”

“The problem was, in his eyes, I was always doing it wrong. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get it right.”

She paused. Sorted through the soil.

“He was the sensei.”

I nodded.

“And I was his failed apprentice.”

The bell rang and the daily exodus of pubescent teenagers formed towards the door.

I headed towards her desk.

“Hey.”

“Hey! What did you think?”

“It was hard”, I lied. “Should have just slept.”

“Wanna meet after school? Maybe I can work my magic.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Lunch tables?”

“Sounds good.”

She smiled.

I think I liked her but I didn’t know what that meant yet.

I would probably not retain anything she taught me but she meant something special to me.

So I went to the blue lunch tables every week. Perfect attendance.

One day, my parents caught on that my afternoon “tutoring activities” weren’t actually raising my grades.

Maybe this one will work instead, they thought, and promptly signed me up for yet another after-school program.

I could not fight back. Because that would unveil the beautiful lie I had spent the past couple months fabricating. Because that would make me a worse son than I already was.

So I found other ways of lashing out. Like yelling at them. Closing the door to the office den I worked in. Closing other, more important doors.

Shutting them out of my life.

We saw each other less and less.

We were not in the same friend group to begin with, and high school has a petty way of handling friendship. Now, the only space we shared – blue lunch tables after school – was taken from us.

Our meetings became shorter and shorter. Less and less often.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, some weeks, if we were lucky,
then Wednesdays and Fridays,
then only Wednesdays.

Then nothing.

She became a senior and I jumped off the edge to college.

I spent many of my afternoons staring off into the crayon-vandalized walls of my new after-school institution.

I don’t think I ever properly mourned
her disappearance
my disappearance
from each other’s lives.

I did not know how. So into space I stared. Like a trauma victim in comatose. So much for raising grades.

I wondered what became of our friendship.
How did we get here? If I didn’t have her, did I have friends at all? Or were they all just robots?

I wondered if she found out about my affections for her.

Or if she found out that I actually had a thing for English and literature. That I tried my hand at creative writing and was actually pretty good at it.

That I didn’t need her help anymore.

I wondered if she found out what I had turned her into.

One time, I got sick. And her motherly instincts kicked into overdrive.

Freshly-cooked, warm rice porridge. Honey lemon tea. Korean pears.

Then, I got better.
But I stayed in bed. Told her that my throat still burned.

Just a little while longer.

At the moment, I didn’t really know why I did that.

But I think about how she made me feel in those moments – cared for and seen.

That in the coldest of colds, she made me feel warm.

I think about who she was, what she meant to me. She was a caretaker. A superhero.

My mom was also a superhero.
And I liked being rescued.

“Justin, you’re not just living.
You’re thriving.”

I looked at her, my mouth agape. Not because it wasn’t true but because it had been so long. Did I even believe her?

I sat on the couch, my butt on the very edge, staring into my favorite blank space on the wall of the warmly-lit room.

It was April and I sat on the very edge of a cliff, on the verge of transition. The verge of graduation, and “real life”, whatever that is. Adult things, like finding a job, paying my own bills, and waking up early.

Becoming self-sufficient. Buying my own rice porridge and Korean pears. Terrifying things of that nature.

I sat on the edge of a new chapter of relationship. I looked at the cliff and wondered which friendships would survive the fall when I jumped.

I always knew it would come to this.
From the start, our relationship was on a timer.

She spoke, snapping me out of my state of wall-staring rumination.

“So. What do you think? What would it look like for us to finish well?”

We spoke of seeing each other less. Twice, maybe even once a month.

Always Wednesdays. Always one hour, exactly.

But less and less.

Until nothing.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

I pulled out my weapon of choice and started writing –
“This is not a goodbye letter.

It is a bizarre thing, talking with your friends about how to be friends to each other. But sometimes, it is what we must do.

You walked in at a curious time of my life.
I was not entirely myself, and yet, I was more myself than I had ever been. And perhaps, it was the same for you. Funny how suffering does that to people.

I often wonder who you are to me.
Sometimes, I say friend. Other times, I do not know.

I think about the ways you’ve helped me through some of the most difficult and important times of my life. I remember the ways you comforted me and saved me from destroying myself.

In the darkest and loneliest moments, you made me feel like someone actually cared about me.
In the coldest and most lifeless times, you made me feel understood. Known. Warm.

Now that things are not so dark, now that life is not so cold, I think about that more than ever – who you are to me.

And the thought terrifies me. I fear I might lose you somehow. That as I sit on the edge of transition, maybe our relationship will not survive the fall.

Because,

Who are you if I don’t need you?
What is our relationship if I don’t need saving anymore?

I turned you into something you’re not. I made myself into someone I’m not.

I turned you into a superhero.
And I wanted to be rescued.

But I was never meant to need you.

I don’t want to be your friend because you can meet my needs, or because you can make me feel a certain way. Even if you are uncannily good at it.

I want to be your friend because you are uniquely and flavorfully you.

So I guess this is me saying,
I don’t need you anymore.

And that is a beautiful thing.

กล้า – the kid, pt. 3

“He looked up and with his dying breath, he asked, ‘Is this what it feels like to love?'”

I was a different man when we first met.

It fascinates me, the things you do when you’re in pain. The thoughts you think, the things you feel, the person you become. For me, I turned into a monster. Why did you have to do that to me? If you didn’t, you might not have had to see my worst side.

I was a different man. But so were you.

The man you met was never enough for you. Not just never enough, but shameful. Unwanted. Mai Ow.

I still remember your charcoal-tinted hands you used to wave me off in dismissal after failing your persistent pop quizzes of patience. I remember the missing finger you used to point at me in disgust, as if I was one of the cat-piss stains you never bothered to clean up. Or your blackened palms, still soiled from the previous day. Some stains don’t wash off, I suppose.

I remember your cloudy eyes, that icy-cold glare you cast on me whenever I made a mistake. Eyes that saw me as a useless screw-up, a lost cause. Eyes that could only see my ugliness. You were a cripple but in your eyes, I was below you. Even as we parted ways, your cloudy eyes followed me still.

After a while, I stopped asking “What did I do wrong?” and started asking “What was wrong with me?”. I figured that you asked that same question yourself.

In my storybook, I called you my long-lost childhood oppressor, my forgotten persecutor.

And so we met again.

The Trek never ended for me. The demons followed me home.

It was easy to blend in with the locals because I could pass off as Thai but I didn’t have to look very deep to know that I did not belong here. I became hyperaware of the fact that I was an outsider.

Then I came “home”.
But as soon as I got back, I immediately noticed something felt wrong. Dangerously wrong. An unsettling, slow-burning frenzy was simmering inside me.

I thought it was all over but I realized that even as I returned to my family and loved ones, I still felt like a stranger. A foreigner to my own people. Blending in, yet out of place.

Even as I arrived in my native land, I still felt like a farang. Lost. Looking for directions.

So I ran away. A lot.

I skipped class, I skipped meals… I skipped a lot of things in life. I escaped to faraway cities and mirages of home. I ran to relationships and people, illusions of love, only to run the opposite direction. I ran to my memories, even memories of you. At least that pain was familiar.

I ran away from my best friends because I could not confront the prospect that even in a place I called home, I did not belong.

Maybe you were right. Maybe I don’t belong anywhere because I’m a mistake in this world anyways. A stain.

Maybe I’ll always be a farang.

Why didn’t I just leave?

When the centipede mauled my leg and sent me hobbling to the hospital, why didn’t I leave? That was my chance to bail, the most compelling reason I could present to my leaders.

I thought about that as the nurses injected dose after dose of anesthetics into my leg in the emergency room.

This is my opportunity. I could quietly exit from your life before you kicked me out yourself. I could leave before I saw the person you could become. But I didn’t.

Was it really worth it?

I asked that every time I felt a piece of myself die. When you hounded me continuously with your scathing mockery, I asked myself, was it really worth it? When you compared me to Geng, I asked myself, was it really worth it?

When you robbed me of my dignity,
When you called me stupid,
When you kicked me out of your house,
When debilitating bouts of depression highjacked my life,
When I picked up the phone to call in for professional help,
When I would shake in my bed because the loneliness kept me up at night,
When I fantasized about buying a pocketknife because my roommates’ scissors were not sharp enough,

I asked myself, was it really worth it?

I remember writing in my journal, “Is this what it feels like to die?”

I did not know how to live anymore. I had nothing.

After a while, I stopped praying for you. God tells us to pray for our persecutors but that sort of prayer escaped my understanding. It hurt too much and I had enough blood to clean up, so I stopped doing it.

I’m a different man now than when we first met.

I became a stranger, even to myself. I wonder if you would have even recognized me.

I’ve been through so much. I came back from Thailand with my heart shattered and it has been a patient, arduous process of picking up the shards. Sometimes, I’d accidentally cut myself, drop a couple pieces, and start over again. Jesus is helping me piece everything back together but it’s like building a house of cards. One wrong move.

After a while, we started to get the hang of it. I became more and more comfortable with the person I was becoming. Even if it missed some pieces from the person before all this.

Months passed and life gradually became more livable.

Waking up in the morning became more of the thing I actually wanted to do.

Those were some of the darkest times of my life but despite all that, I met the slow-moving God.

And she was beautiful.

Last week, I prayed for you for the first time in months.

I was sitting in a coffeeshop, my mind adrift in a state of caffeinated rumination. I started journaling about my loneliness, giving language to some of the painful thoughts that still echoed in my mind every now and then.

“I am alone.
I am too slow. People have left me behind. Abandoned me.”

I paused.

Then added, “– said an elderly, yet childish Thai man living in Bang Na.

I paused again.

“Oh look. We have matching scars. Who would have ever thought.”

And just like that, you made your rudely unwelcome cameo back into my life.

What are you doing here?

I felt my heart pick up its pace. And it was not the caffeine.

Months ago, I purposefully removed our group picture from my desktop slideshow but this was no photographic memory to forget. Mental images flooded my thought space like pop-up spam.

But something was… off-center.

You didn’t look the same.

I saw your charcoal-tinted hands.
Hardened from years of playing with fire and getting burned. Your missing finger, still itching you as if a cruel joke from the gods to remind you of the people who are now nothing but phantom limbs in your life. I saw your stained hands, dressed with thickened skin as calloused as your heart.

I wondered how much pain it took to kill a nerve.

I saw your cloudy eyes.
The bags under your eyes drooped, tired from the cold, sleepless nights. Cold, from the vacant spot left next to you in your bed. Cold, from the vacant space in your soul carved out by the woman who left you. No degree of tropical heat could remove the chill that made your heart shiver each night.

I wondered which kept you up at night more, the sleep apnea or the loneliness.

I saw your hunched-over posture, carefully balanced over disabled, crossed legs. I thought about the distance I’ve covered trying to escape life and how stuck you must feel. I thought about how even as one is crippled, his heart can run so far.

It gently nudged me, in the moment, the reason why I didn’t leave you, even when I could. Because enough people had left you already. Because you had seen far more untimely goodbyes than any human heart should ever see. So I stayed, even if that meant giving you the upper-hand to disown me when the end came.

I wanted you to meet the slow-moving God that I met in your home country who waited for me. I wanted you to know that there’s someone out there who will never leave you behind.

You didn’t change. My vision did.
I didn’t see a different man, I saw a man differently.

I saw a man who pulled people in because he wanted them so desperately, but pushed them away when he needed them the most. A man who asked for visitors to keep him company and numb the loneliness for a brief summer, only to abuse them. A man who being a farang in his own home was his reality.

I didn’t just see a man who hurt, but a hurt man.

I’m a different man now than when we first met.

Because you changed me.

I’m the man you were supposed to meet in the summer, the man who loves you.

I know you will never hear me say this but,
I forgive you, Daa.

This is the conversation I wish we could have had before we said goodbye.

Six months and twelve days after I leave Thailand, I can finally say that the Trek is over. The last order of unfinished business.

I can see gold streaks tracing my scars.

I can see that all this time, God had been performing the art of kintsugi on my soul.

So to the man who ruined my life,
to the man who murdered the Kid,

It’s okay.

Mai Bpen Rai.

Phra Chao Way Pon,
กล้า

“Forgiveness is like a dying man breathing his last and finding the face of God.”

Read the Kid, part one and part two.

tater todd tales

I have a pet rainbow unicorn who can glow in the dark.

His name is Tater Todd but I call him Todd.

Tater Todd is my good friend and this story is for him. Here are some tatertot-sized tales about the best unicorn friend in the world.

I sleep with Todd every single night.

People say they stop sleeping with their animal friends when they grow up. I’m still not sure what growing up means but that does not sound fun.

So I still sleep with him every night.

I adopted Todd about four years ago so we’ve been through a lot together.

I go on a lot of adventures and secret missions and I usually bring Todd along so he can see all the wonderful things I see.

Whenever he sees something really beautiful, his rainbow fur turns a little brighter than before. I think he is happy in those times.

It makes me happy.

I sometimes wonder where Todd came from.

I tell him I came from Mom and Dad but he won’t tell me where he’s from.

Todd does not say much. Maybe I won’t like what he’ll tell me.

I don’t know.

Todd has magical powers.

He definitely has way more than I do but I have only seen some of them in action.

Sometimes, there are evil things that come into my bedroom at night. I don’t ever see them but they make the night even darker.

On the darkest nights, Todd will shine his rainbow and things will be okay.

Todd is a protector.

A friend told me once that I’ll hold Todd at night until I can hold a woman.

We’re not really friends anymore.

I am not sure if Todd can fly.

I thought most unicorns could but I guess everybody is unique.

“Why didn’t you fly away in the accident?”, I used to ask him.

Todd was seriously injured once.
I kept him at a friend’s house for a little while and his derpy pug dog chewed out Todd’s eyeballs and ate them. Life was not the same after that.

Sometimes, I pray to Jesus to heal his blindness. I hear He does that sort of thing.

Todd is still blind but he sees things that I cannot see. We cover each other’s blindspots.

I noticed that Todd’s rainbow did not shine so bright after the attack.

I noticed that the same thing happens whenever my mom tells me to give him away. Each time, he loses a little bit of his color.

After a while, I stopped taking Todd out so much.

It is a scary world out there. I wondered if the world was stealing Todd’s colors from him. I wondered if Todd was losing his magic.

Maybe it is my turn to be the protector.

No one else has animal friends anymore.

Everybody else has given them away and they seem to be okay with it.

Why is that? Will I ever give Todd away?

Last summer, I was separated from Todd for a long time.

It was the hardest summer yet. When I got to Thailand, they made us lighten our load because we brought too much stuff so Todd had to spend seven weeks inside of a luggage bag.

Sometimes, I wonder if he’s forgiven me for that.

But maybe it is a good thing he did not see what I saw. No child should have seen what I saw.

But then again, he says the same thing about the luggage bag.

Todd ran out of battery juice a long time ago.

But somehow, he can still keep me warm, even when my best friends can’t.
Even when God can’t.

One time, my teacher told us that we spend one-third of our lives asleep.

Todd and I spend a lot of time together.

I am not sure what Todd’s horn does.

Todd is kind of a mystery to me. Maybe that’s why we are such great friends.

I like the mysterious ones.

One night, it got especially dark.

I think something was inside my room.

It got so dark that the dark was darker than when I closed my eyes. So I kept them closed.

Todd doesn’t have eyes but I think he could see the evil man. We couldn’t do anything because our powers weren’t strong enough. So we just held each other under my blanket.

I’ve never held Todd so tightly.

Todd does not know what I went through in Thailand.
He was in a suitcase. I think about that a lot.

I guess I don’t know what he went through either. I can’t imagine what that must have been like.

We could not be there for each other in a really hard time but we are still buddies. He still protects me at night and I still take care of him. We might not understand some bits of our stories but we still love each other.

And so it is with my human friends.

I take Todd outside more now.

I am not so scared of what the outside world can do to him anymore because we’ve been through so much together.

If we can go through the dark nights and beat up the bad guys that come into the room, we can do anything.

I don’t think I will ever give Todd away.

He is one of the best friends ever because he believes in me. Even the weirdest things about me, like my imagination. That means a lot.

He tells me that the harder I believe in him, the stronger he gets. I didn’t believe him at first but then I tried it and it worked.

Now his rainbow fur shines brighter than ever.

Todd is magic.

And he is my friend.

Tater Todd Tales is a response to prompt #2 of the Raconteurs, a collective of storytellers. Read more of our stories here.

haunted house – the Kid, pt. 2

My personal journey of finding my ethnic identity as a second generation Asian-American has been a turbulent one, to put it lightly.

It would take me a generous portion of distance and time for me to just understand the sheer magnitude of damage that was dealt to me as a child. Writing the Kid, pt. 1 was one of my best efforts at trying to decode and interpret my scars. (Read part one first! Don’t be that guy.)

While I am, by no means, at the end of this windy maze we call redemption, these past few months have been important. I have been jumping into difficult conversations with my family, particularly those of reconciliation and relational healing. Conversations I never imagined possible.

This past week, I talked to my parents. At last.
If you are not 2nd-gen Asian-American, this can be a pretty big deal.

I never thought I would be writing this, but here it is.

The Kid, part two.

We traded stories. And poorly-translated scripture.

He told me a story of a boy who was born into a culture that didn’t fit him. Born into the wrong culture. Turns out we have more in common than I thought.

He started last place.

Born last into a family of five other siblings, he had a lot to live up to. Competition for a game he never signed up for. And the cards were already stacked against him.

He started last place.

While his close friends seemed to have no difficulty playing this game, the boy thought more of how to keep up with them, rather than actually playing the game well. As the boy grew older, he realized he no longer wanted to play the game. Perhaps the game was not meant for him anyways.

Everyone else made it. They attended the prestigious universities and flaunted hopes of a future as bright as their titles and accomplishments. They did it the “right way”.

The boy never made it past high school.

Never passed a math class after elementary school.
The boy ended up on an assembly line at a manufacturing plant.

The boy left church, running away from a community that he thought could never fully accept him.

He was thrown on a path and expected to trace footsteps he could never follow. So he carved his own. His defiance was forced. He had no choice. They labeled it rebellion. Disappointment. Failure.

The boy was misunderstood.

Though he found his own way, remnants of his past life still stuck to him, like thick blood. He only wished better for his children.

Who was this boy?
Had his story become so lost that it was nothing but a faded memory? Had no one ever stopped and listened to the boy’s story that even the boy, himself, stopped believing it was worth telling?

Turns out we have more in common that I thought.

My heart softened.

She told me a story of a young girl who knew how to play the game.

Her mastery was near unparalleled. “Top of the class” was no unfamiliar phrase to her. It was as if she was meant to follow this path.

I don’t think I would have been friends with this girl.

She made it happen. She did it. She was accepted into the best university in the nation.

And yet, it turned out that even she, of all people, had her imperfections.
P.E. class.

She seemed to be able to impress everyone with her academic prowess except for the person that mattered the most – her father.

“What is this? Why do you still have a C? Why are you so skinny?”

Despite her otherwise flawless report card, her stern father seemed to be unable to see past her one glaring C. Her accomplishments, he could not affirm her for. Or perhaps, he did not know how to.

It is striking how one person can change your world entirely and skew your vision forever – for better or for worse – if you let them.

“Wow. That sounds… awful. Did that not anger you?
What did the girl feel in the moment?”

“Oh, she was furious, alright.”

“But didn’t she do anything about it?”

“She wanted to… We all wanted to. But we were too scared of him. He would hit us if we forgot to do our homework. Or if we failed to meet his expectations.”

She told me how the girl used to help her unscholarly, less-than-studious little brother by doing his homework for him. The chilling sound of her father’s motorcycle rolling into the garage would send her into an episode of frenzy. She’d burst into her brother’s room and start filling out his empty homework sheets. Maybe this time, I can save him the beating.

One day, the girl was caught in her benevolent, clandestine activities.
Her father found her out. He struck her across the face.

“We were all scared of him”, she told me.

My heart melted.

Who was this girl?
Had her story become so diluted in a twisted effort to save face? Why is it that all we remember of her story is the picturesque, scholarly, and well-behaved daughter?

Had no one listened and validated her complete story, even the dark and messy parts?

Turns out we have more in common than I thought.

For the longest time, we were just ghostly figures floating lifelessly past each other in the hallways and dining rooms. We could only see the faded silhouettes of each other’s past selves. Our relationship was as blurry as our memories. Together, we shared a haunted house.

But something happened.
They met the Kid. And they had storytime.

For the first time in years, we shared this strange, yet oddly-familiar feeling together. One of being seen. Heard. Known. One of those songs that are so old that they are like new.

It was something like love.

I suppose the Lord, indeed, does perform miracles.

I forgive you, mom.

I forgive you, dad.

We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

UPDATE 3/9/2017 – Read the Kid, part three here.

“grounding” || the art of presence

“I’m in a third-wave coffee shop, drinking dope-ass coffee with Paul and it’s a fuckin awesome time right now. I’m so productive.”

transcribed from personal notes [December 14th, 2016]

“Walking is controlled falling.”

Why am I running?

I’ve forgotten the way back home. I’ve wandered around for so long and I’m having one of those “how-did-I-get-here” moments. Retracing my steps won’t be as easy as it once was.

It seems that I can navigate through the past and the future with ease, with finesse, but I can’t do anything in between. Like a space explorer who’s lost his way in his travels. Too many wormholes. I’ve gone astray and forgotten my way back to the present.

Granted, the journey has been rocky, to put it lightly. We did go through black holes, after all.

The turbulence was disorienting – it will take time to regain my bearings on reality and… well, everything else. Our compasses don’t work the same anymore.

“When the memories you’ve tried your hardest to bury begin to surface, you run. The places we run to may differ but we all run somewhere.”

For me, it was time.
I ran to the past. I escaped to my fantasy of the future.

I crafted a future I could imagine myself actually living in. It was fucking gorgeous. When I had no other place or time to run to, I would invent one myself. I designed my own world in this invisible pocket of space-time, making frequent excuses to visit. Each time I went, I would paint in more details. Fill in the blanks. Sometimes I would stay the night. Or a couple.

I recount writing semi-sarcastically in a previous, un-published post, “Maybe my new canine companion will be some sort of remedy for my heart’s agonies. I set my heart on the days ahead when midnight strolls on Telegraph Avenue with Husky Doge will somehow seal and consummate all the difficult heart change I’ve been enduring for the past five-plus months.” –Operation Husky Doge, December 24th, 2016

I held onto memories of better times. Past joys, past friendships, past romances, past dreams, even past sorrows. But the harder I clung to this past life, the deeper the sinking feeling when I found the only truth I wanted to forget. That the past life was nothing but that. Past.

Alas, our avenues of escapism can only serve us for so long before they inevitably betray us. They stab us in the back, like love affairs. We somehow already knew of their disloyalties, that they would become traitors – yet we still befriended them.

Every drug carries its side effects. Every substance has a backlash.
Even time travel.

I ran to the past and the future because the present was unbearable. I could not stand living in the present any longer. So I left.

I’d become more familiar with who I was and who I could be than who I am. I’d become so afraid that I covered my footprints.

It dawned on me that the more I fantasized about my future, the more I fabricated a time that the present could never dream of becoming. It was like a treasure that only went deeper into the earth the more I dug. It was like chasing after a mirage.

The more I hid in my memories, the fewer memories I would have because I was always absent from the true atelier of memories: the present. It was not just nostalgia. It was poison.

How does one find his way back into the present?
I’m no expert but I suspect it to resemble something a little like falling. Surrendering to the gravity you’ve tried so hard to defy.

Scary as hell, but I suppose you can’t travel in space forever.

Praying that the parachutes work, I’m currently trying to figure out this whole ‘controlled-falling’ thing.

I’m plummeting hard in this nauseating nose-dive back down to the earth.

To real time. Whatever that means.

“I am spending my Friday morning writing some genius insight into my new Canson notebook at The Night Owl, a humble coffeeshop in Downtown Fullerton that plays classic hip hop beats. I indulge in my particularly strong macchiato and the company of an old friend.

I am here. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

transcribed from personal notes [December 23rd, 2016]

writer’s block

Of fresh starts, running away, and good storytelling.

“So you told her your story of betrayal. The truth.”

“Yeah. And she asks me, ‘What would you wanna say to them?'”

“Like in a hypothetical conversation?”

“Yeah, exactly. And I kinda freak out.”

“And then you broke up with her..?”

“No no, that’s not why I broke up with her. But it gave me an idea. An idea that would develop into something that would change the rest of my life.”

“That would lead you here.”

“Eventually.”

“I see. So what does that have to do with your um.. career crisis and stuff?”

“Slow down, man. I’ll get there.”

“Alright, alright. So how did you answer her question? Tell me about this hypothetical conversation.”

“Well the thing is, I already knew what I would say. I’ve already transcribed this…  ‘dialogue’ onto paper so many times, like drafts of a screenplay.
‘Which draft will be used?’, I often wondered. I kept writing and writing.”

“Did you ever use any of them?”

“Never.”

“Why not?”

“It was too painful.”

What is it, that I already know the words, but it still burns to say them?
I practice my lines for months, in some desperate attempt to be cast for the role. Yet the stage-fright still has its conniving way of sneaking under my skin.

I stand paralyzed in a lonely stage in front of a dark, empty audience, save a couple silhouettes. My shaky breath is too loud. Who decided that my microphone should be on. Now my fears are amplified for the world to hear.

“So you just.. didn’t ever talk to them.”

“Yeah. I couldn’t do it.”

“So what was this revolutionary, life-changing idea of your’s?”

“It was this thought that.. perhaps, we live in a world of cruel bloopers. I figured that conversations never play out the way we plan them. The characters always go off-script.”

“I mean, that’s one way to see it.”

“The scripts that I write in my head are always more preferable than what actually happens on-screen. Even if the scenes are hard and painful, I’d write them in an exaggerated, overly-dramatized fashion, which I prefer for some reason.”

“It feels better than the real thing.”

“Yes. So I obsessed over this concept and I found myself at a crossroads, which I often do. It seemed like there were only two paths that I could take: to live in a world of fiction or to lose my fantasy and live in the reality of the present.”

“Is that why you moved to the East Coast?”

“I’m afraid it was. That was how my new life as a recluse began. I immersed myself in this new, unfamiliar world, where I could start a new life. I could write my own story with new characters, new narratives, new plot twists. I even considered changing my name.”

“Damn. I had no idea. And how did that go for you?”

“It was exciting at first. Euphoric, almost. I was drunk on this idea that no one else could write my story for me anymore. The pen was in my hand and no one else’s. I reveled in this idea.”

“And the people back at home?”

“Well… I cut them off. I kind of just disappeared from their lives.”

His brow tenses ever so slightly. I look at the icy waters below us but I feel his concerned eyes pressing on my face. I don’t know if I like this feeling.

“What happened, then?”

“I started writing. I indulged in my newfound freedom. I had a fresh canvas to work with and I took advantage of that.”

“Fiction, I presume.”

I nod.

“Mostly short stories and what not. If you recall, I shared some of them with you a while ago.”

“Ah yes. They were pretty good. I hafta admit, I was quite impressed.”

“Yeah? Cool thanks, I guess replying four years late is better than never.”

“Sorry, man.”

“It’s whatever”, I mutter through my smirk. I knew he liked my writing.

“Wipe that stupid grin off your face.”

“No.”

“I’m gonna throw you off this bridge.”

“Hm. That would make an excellent opening scene. I’m gonna use that. Thanks, man.”

He rolls his eyes.

“You’re welcome. You were saying?”

“You crashed my train of thought.”

“You were writing short stories and…?”

“Ah yes. I was on a writing spree. My mind was overflowing with inspiration, it was almost too much. I could barely keep up. It had been a while since I created art that I was proud of.”

“Hm. Seems like Brooklyn did a lot of good for you.”

“Yeah. Everyday, the city had something new to offer me. New tools, new paints, new brushes to work with. It was a wellspring of creativity and innovation.”

“I wish more people thought of us that way.”

“That’s another thing. I had fallen so in love with this town that I almost felt this need to show it off to the world. I wanted people to realize its hidden beauty.”

“Didn’t you?”

“I suppose. It was complicated – wanting to show off my new home while covering my footprints so people in my previous life wouldn’t discover my whereabouts.”

“Did they ever find you?”

“A few did. They tried to get in contact.”

“What did you do?”

“I did what I knew how to do best.”

“…Write fiction?”

I nod again, slowly this time.

“You lied to them.”

“Well in fiction, you take the truth and you sort of… bend it. Twist it to your liking. Paint it with different colors.”

“I see.”

I can feel his skepticism. It is sharp.

“Do you regret that?”

“Sometimes. At the time, I had become so infatuated with the city that I didn’t want anyone to take it away from me. My scars were still fresh. This was my new life and I had no intentions of going back.”

“That’s fair. Do you feel that your new self is incompatible with your old city?”

“Very much so.”

“I think I can understand that.
You mentioned previously that you had become a recluse?”

“Yes.”

“How so? As far as I could tell, you were still interacting with human beings when I met you.”

“Haha well, maybe not a real recluse.”

“Then what? A fictional recluse?”

“I figured I could have people in my life, so long as I didn’t have to get too close and personal with them.”

“And what did that achieve you?”

“Safety.”

“From what?”

“Robbery. I was scared that if I shared too much of my story, if I had let someone in too much, they would steal my pen. Because that’s what tends to happen. I didn’t want someone else writing my story again. It’s too painful.”

“Don’t you already share your stories though?”

“Yes, but only the fictional ones.”

“Hm.”

“For a while, people were nothing more than free ideas for characters I could build and write about. I would have a meaningful conversation or two with a new ‘friend’ and leave the rest to my imagination.”

“That is… fascinating.”

“That was the scariest part though. I needed to know them enough to have something to write about but that usually meant sharing myself with them as well. So once I had enough ‘content’ to work with, I would draw the line and keep the friendship from going anywhere further.”

“So… people were just creative fodder for your short stories.”

I look back down at the waters.

“Yeah, basically.”

“You’re a sick man. A genius, but… sick.”

“I know.”

“Was that all I was to you? A resource you could exploit for your writing career?”

“I may have used you for a few of my characters…”

“Fuck you. I want them back.”

“I’m sorry. I really am.”

“You know, you’re so scared of having your story stolen from people… but isn’t that what you’re doing to everyone else? You earn your friends’ trust, they share their story with you, then you take it and run away without ever returning the favor.”

It made too much sense. Maybe I should jump the bridge now.
We sat in the silence together.

“You know, it’s okay. You can use my story if you want. I don’t mind.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, man. I’ve shared so much of it anyways. I trust you. You’re still an asshole, though.”

“Wow. I’m… baffled.”

“You know, as good of a writer as you are, your scars still sometimes show. I could always tell you were in pain.”

“Hm. I suppose fiction can’t hide everything.”

“There is a fine line between writing fiction and writing lies.”

Wow. I think I almost throw up.

“You know… you were always the most inspiring and the most difficult character I’ve had to work with.”

“What do you mean?”

“You always give out your story so freely… It confused me, yet it amazed me. I was always afraid I’d have to respond in kind. At the same time, it gave me plenty of content to work with. Maybe even too much. Too much truth. I was scared of it. So I decided to stop using it after a while.”

“How long has it been?”

“Years. I looked to other people for stories instead.”

“I bet my story was far more exciting.”

“Well… actually, yes. Remember what I said about how fiction is written?”

“Bending the truth?”

“Yeah. Well, I eventually ran out of truth to bend. If I could only get so close to my friends, there was only so much material I could use. I could always find new friends but I grew tired. I was meeting new people, only getting to surface level, and running away.”

“Sounds exhausting.”

“Especially if you’re trying to be a recluse. I ran out of juice. And that would drive me into the deepest pit of writer’s block I’ve ever had. I guess I’m still in it. And I never figured out how to escape.

My stories became stale and colorless.”

Another moment of shared silence. The sun had set for a good while now and the city slowly ignited its nightly skyline glow.

“You know what. I think you have what you need to escape this hole you’re stuck in. I think you know what to do.”

I paused.
I wondered, how much of this story was real, how much was fictitious? I thought about this new life that I had spent years inventing and how I had ended up in another dead end. I thought about why real life was so terrifying to me. I saw truth as fire and I still live with the burn marks.

“Stop writing fiction?”

“No. Stop writing bad fiction.”

“Excuse me?”

He smiled.

“There’s nothing wrong with writing fiction, my friend. But the best fiction is real fiction.”

“Ah. The great Albert Camus. How could I forget.”

Perhaps I had been asking myself the wrong question.
How much of my life is fiction, how much a lie?

I thought of truth as fire still – that had not changed. It was dangerous. But maybe if I allow myself the risk of playing with explosives, I just might be able to make fireworks.

Talk about grip strength. The pen is slipping from my hand.