wounded animal complex – a lament

// preface –

In light of recent – and not so recent – traumas, here is my personal piece of lament. Birthed from a place of anguish and hopelessness, this is an attempt to make sense of the pain.

This is the tale of a loved one I had to euthanize. The one I watched grow up.

This is the sad story I’ve decided to stop writing.

 

wounded animal complex

// part i –

I can’t believe my own life sometimes.

And neither can my friends.

“This has never happened to anyone of us before…”

We’re walking through the thick Bangkok summer heat, trudging our way to Victoria’s small shack in the neighboring swamp. It felt nice, taking a break from our grueling day-to-day scene. Change of swamp scenery for once. Visit a friend. You know.

“Sa wat dee krop!”, we bow and greet Yaai Noi, who is squatting on the creaky floorboards of her less-than-humble abode. She is Victoria’s host for the summer.

We chat and laugh with the sparse, broken Thai that we have, and Yaai insists that we sit down and make ourselves at home.

So we try. There’s only one chair, so I take the floor and sit cross-legged. Yaai’s hospitality is remarkable; she points the only fan she has towards us.

The heaviness of this strenuous summer is suspended and the air is filled with laughter and good energy – but only for a moment,

until an 8-inch long, black centipede crawls into my pants.

At first, I do not see it because it is so fast but within a second, my body somehow still registers that something is wrong. Dangerously wrong.

Without thinking, my hand immediately shoots for my left leg. My body is in defense mode, doing all the thinking for me and it has only one thought in mind, “Stop the danger from going further up my pants.”

Finally, my brain catches up.

“OH FUCK –”

The beast – feeling my hand smash over him – likewise panics, turns on its survival mode and bites down, hard. I feel its pincers sink deep into my flesh.

Searing, acid pain.
I can hardly speak.

“WHAT IS IT?”, my friends look at me, concerned and confused.

“I… don’t.. know…
…poison……”

“Is it a spider?!”

“…No……”

“Is it… a snake??”

“…noooooo……”

It takes a second bite. I feel the poison, surging into me.

I am determined now, to kill this thing. Whatever it takes to keep it from crawling up.

I squeeze with a strength I did not know I had. I’m not sure which is worse, feeling the venom burn my insides, or feeling the thing squirm in my pants.

I am squeezing so hard I can barely breathe.

“…Is it dead..?”

I catch my breath. Afraid to let go.

“I.. don’t know…”, I manage between breaths.

At this point, I’d been squeezing so hard that I can kind of make out its texture and details through my pants.

Not a spider. It’s too long.
Not a snake. I can feel legs.

Oh no.

“I have spare pants”, Victoria hastily offers. “You can change in the bathroom and get rid of it!”

I think about it. I’m pretty sure I squeezed it to death. But if I didn’t, it could escape my grip and crawl up.

This is life or death, I think to myself.

“…Okay.”

I get ready. Just have to hobble a couple more feet over and close the curtain. This is the moment your whole life has been leading up to. This is your greatest battle.

I stand up slowly, and of course,
it escapes my grip.

But apparently, there is this thing called mercy, and the gods decide that today is not my day of reckoning.

It crawls down, instead of up.

It is only until now that I actually see what it is, and my fears are confirmed. It shoots out of my pants and snakes its way to safety.

I had never seen a centipede in real life until that point. And if I had, then they were just lame, fake-ass wannabes. This was the real thing. Despite all that squeezing, I didn’t even put a dent into it.

Next thing I know, I’m being carried to a hospital and rushed into the emergency room on a gurney.

Apparently, I’m on a six-week Christian mission trip or something.

But now, I’m staring at cold ceiling lights while doctors shoot antitoxins and morphine into my leg,
and I’m screaming at God,

“Why am I here?”

I can’t believe my own life sometimes.

I’d only been in Thailand for three weeks, but this trip had unfolded itself in such dramatic, storybook fashion.

That summer, I met my supervillain.
And he came in a form of a grumpy old grandpa.
We called him Daa.

When I wasn’t out visiting Yaai’s and dodging demon centipedes, life was slow at home, taking care of my host Daa and doing chores with him.

I knew that from the beginning – he wasn’t the nicest person – but as the days dragged on, I knew there was something else. He had something against me.

For the summer, he adopted me under his care and everyday, taught me to run errands. Cleaning, cooking, and the sort.

I was slow to learn and he figured that out pretty quick. Getting a “good job” from him was seldom, getting him to yell at you came easy.

Within a week, I became his favorite target to yell at.
Which is tolerable, until he sets you up for impossible tasks. Until he sets you up for failure.

Within two weeks, I became an object of humiliation.
Anytime I messed up, he not only yelled at me, he would ride me mockery and shame me. He turned my incompetency into a laughing stock. Within two weeks, I learned how to say “mental” in Thai.

Within three weeks, I became an object of scorn.
He was on the lookout for my mistakes. Just so he could punish me. Any small thing he could yell at me for. He was out to get me. Within three weeks, I learned that I could be punished for scooping rice “the wrong way”.

Somehow, he had gotten underneath my skin and found my deepest childhood wounds. Somehow, he turned cooking dinner and doing laundry into a test to prove my own worth.

Within four weeks, I was starting to believe the messages he gave me.

“Maybe he’s right. Maybe I can’t do anything right.
Maybe… whatever I do, I always will end up disappointing him.

Maybe he deserves to punish me.”

So I let him.

We were wounded animals – creatures of matching scars – trapped in a cycle of wounding. Our insecurities fed into each other. We unlocked each other’s worst sides.

We were the perfect duo.

“We’ve never had this happen to an intern before…”, the staff would tell me.

I became that guy.
Always getting attacked by monster centipedes and grumpy grandpas. Always getting hurt.

I came home from Thailand in pieces, not knowing how to live life in its wake.

He was my worst enemy.

There is a phenomenon that I like to call the Wounded Animal Complex.

“Say you beat a dog once on a Wednesday night.
The dog winces and whimpers, maybe even bites back.

Say you beat the dog, every Wednesday night.
Then, the dog will eventually expect it as a part of its weekly routine. At some point, the dog will stop fighting back.

You beat the dog every Wednesday night, the dog will start believing that being hurt is a part of normal life.”

This type of thing doesn’t just wear off on its own. Being in Thailand began to feel like I was just waking up for my daily beating. This is my life.

It took three months, 8,000 miles, and another human being with a license for me to realize, “Oh, that was abuse.”

Oh. I’m depressed.

I’m not okay.

It is not that depression is so terrible because you feel sad, but because you feel nothing. The world loses its color, and everything is grayscale.

The first time I felt like I saw color in my life after Thailand was our Thailand trip reunion. For once, I was with the people who understood. People who were there and saw what had happened.

Minus the grumpy grandpas.

I am cooking, cutting vegetables for our pad khra pao moo. Classic Thai street food. It is my first time cooking since living with Daa.

But it is as if his eyes are still watching me.

Don’t mess up.

I stop. Take a look around me and breathe. Just my own head.
I keep cutting.

Don’t mess up.

I ignore him, and continue chopping away,
slicing and slicing,
scooping the chopped greens into a bowl with the knife,
slicing some more,
being careful not to make mistakes,

– until I really do mess up
and accidentally cut through two of my fingers.

Oops.

I rush to the bathroom, seeing vivid colors for the first time since Thailand. Deep, dark red – gushing out of my hand and into the sink.

But only for a moment, before I black out.

And just like that, I’m on my way to the hospital again.
I’m sobbing in the backseat on the drive there, feeling all sorts of things. Mostly shock, thinking that I had died. But also, just feeling stupid. Maybe a bit mental.

Of course, this would happen. Today of all days. On our reunion.
And of course, it would happen to me.

It’s like I’m a magnet for crisis situations.
I had come back from Thailand for some months now, but now, I really am in pieces.

The next day, my friends leave,
and my life becomes grayscale again,
with the occasional dark red.

“I’m never healed really. I’m some sort of walking wound.”

I’m counting up the months I’ve left from Thailand, because sometimes, time digs a greater rift of separation than distance does. Sometimes, 8,000 miles is not enough.

It’s around the 3-month mark – I’ve already lost most of my friendships and quit all my leadership responsibilities on campus. I don’t know how to live my life before Thailand anymore.

Month 4 comes, and I barely pass the two classes I’m enrolled in. I figure I need to do something to sort my life in order, because there is little to look forward to.

Graduation comes in another semester, and I’ll lose the few friendships I have left. We will all go our separate ways. Then, I’ll really have nothing to look forward to.

Then, the idea of Oakland comes to mind – a dream I had long given up on years ago. I think of moving far, far away into an exciting new land. Starting a new life.

And the idea excites me, because if I have a life here, it’s been crumbling, at best. And coming home to a place that no longer feels like home is one of most unsettling feelings.
So maybe finding a new home will do… something.

Maybe sometimes, 8,000 miles is not enough.

Month 6 comes, and I discover something that injects color into my life.

Dreaming.

Inventing something to look forward to when there is none.

So I feed this idea of starting a new life like I feed a dog. I nurture it and watch it grow, painting detail to it as I go. Where I’ll live, which coffeeshop I’ll work at, what non-profit I’ll volunteer at on the weekends.

I watch wide-eyed as this fantasy grows, until it is bigger than me and takes a life of his own. I start to develop an affinity for it. The more I feed him, the more comfort he gives me. The more hope he gives me.

Year one comes, and I’m filling out applications. Doing interviews.

As my dream grows and matures, so does my anxiety.
What if it’s not real? What if it is?

My care for the animal intensifies and I become increasingly possessive of him. I’m sensitive to anything that may threaten his safety. He is all I have.

Month 13, my insomnia is full-fledged and I literally cannot dream now. I am keenly aware of the other creatures that have birthed in this process. And these animals are not so kind.

Month 14. I think I am losing my sanity from the scarcity of sleep I’ve had in the last few months. I don’t know what is a dream, what is real.

Month 15.
A job offer.

I sleep like a baby that night.

// part ii –

I can’t believe my life sometimes, because I’m living my dreams.

Month 17, I move to Oakland.

I end up in a year-long internship with a missions organization. It’s been 17 months, so I figure I give this Christian missions thing another chance.

Weeks of job-searching later, I find another part-time that helps with the bills and I’m doing the adulting thing now. Living outside of home, hustling my own money, etc.

My ass is broke as hell,
I’m so lonely it hurts,
I haven’t the slightest clue what I’m doing,

but I’m here.

This is the return. I’m back on my feet. This is my life now.

I have never been so sad, yet regretted so little.

Maybe things will be better now.
Maybe this time will be better.

It’s not quite a cafe job, but boba is close enough for a first job so I take what I can get. Rent is coming up and I just need something for the time being.

So each day, I take 12th street deep into the heart of Chinatown to make tea drinks, eager to receive my first paycheck. It’s not quite minimum wage, but I take what I can get.

This is the first time I’ve worked in a kitchen setting in a long time. Say, something like 17 months.

It is also the first time I’ve worked with knives in a while, and the fingers on my left hand twitch involuntarily several times a day. As if some glitchy defense mechanism is kicking in after being buried away and dormant for so long. When it wakes, it is a tad over–caffeinated. Even the thought of scissors causes my hand to recoil.

Get away. There is danger.

Flinch.

“Shut up. It’s not the same thing.”

I spend my mental energy – the little I have left from communicating in broken Mandarin – forcing my fingers to sit still while I cut fruits and vegetables.

Most days, the job is grueling.
There are roughly 80 menu items to memorize and my boss does not properly train me. She just sort of expects me to know. I also do not know how to speak Cantonese, but she just sort of expects me to know.

And I am slow to learn, so when I mess up, she yells at me.

I know that she is a loud woman, so maybe she isn’t mad at me. But most days, I cannot tell.

I work harder and harder, because I just want to do a good job. I just want to do it right.

Don’t mess up.

Flinch.

“Shut up, it’s… not the same thing.”

One day, a customer walks in and orders in Cantonese. I apologize and tell her I can only speak English. The expression on her face changes, as if she is displeased, but she orders anyways.

I start making her drink,
being careful to add the right toppings,
being careful not to make any mistakes,
until I really do mess up and put in the wrong type of tea.

She loses it.
“What is wrong with your brain? Why can’t you speak Cantonese!?”

My boss takes her side, and proceeds to yell at me.

So much yelling.

Within three weeks, I learn how to say mental in Cantonese. Within three weeks, I become an object of humiliation.

Every day, I clock in and accept that this is my life now.
Every night, I go to bed wondering why my centipede bite is itching so much.

Maybe some scars don’t heal so easily.
Maybe 8,000 miles and 18 months is not enough.

Every now and then, I start to wonder if the dark fantasies and creatures I invent in my mind are actually real. But there is no time for such ponderings nowadays.

My life is going at 100 miles per hour.
I’m living the dream, or something. Doing the Christian mission thing, making boba drinks on the side, starting my new life.

It isn’t until my friends visit me – friends from Thailand – that my life finally slows down. There were only a few of us, but I guess you could call this a reunion.

We’re driving 20 on the freeway –
weaving through afternoon traffic,
taking our time as we catch up on life,

– but someone else is going 60 and decides he cannot miss the freeway exit, today of all days.

My life halts instantly.

In the 2 seconds of chaos and thrashing, I ask God, “Is this it?”

I snap out of it, and my body does all the thinking for me. My hands grab the steering wheel, my foot slams the breaks, and keep us from rolling back into traffic.

My mind catches up.
“Oh fuck.”

It is almost a complete T-bone, driver’s side. I get out of the car, my body shaking.

I’m not 2 months into moving to Oakland, and I almost die.

My life is going at 100 miles per hour, and it is when my Thailand friends come visit that life slows down to a violent, abrupt stop. Today of all days.

So I guess you could call this a reunion.

The car is totaled.

On the outside, it looks kind of okay but on the inside, it is damaged beyond repair.

At this point, this is how I feel about my life. Okay on the outside, damaged beyond repair on the inside.

I take a day off work and spend the little time I have with my Thailand friends before they leave. I am determined to have at least a few hours of quality time without some crisis rudely interrupting us.

Now that things feel 0 miles an hour, everything else catches up to me and when it does, it hits me hard like a T-bone collision.
I spill out my guts to them. Snot, tears, and all.

It hits me, why I’ve been coming home from work each day, hating myself. It hits me, why it seems the world has lost some of its color lately.

It takes a life-threatening car crash and other human beings who were with me in Thailand for me to realize, “Oh. I’m not okay.”

Oh. This is about… him.

Somehow, an older Chinese woman yelling at me while I’m making boba drinks rubs salt in past wounds. So naturally, I let her. Because, I just want to do a good job. I just want to do it right. I just want him to see.

No, this is not the same thing. No, this is not abuse, but it still is not good for me.

My friends leave the next day, I make it my resolve to fight for color in my life.

I quit my boba job.

“Not this time.”

I think I have some sort of Wounded Animal Complex.

I keep getting hurt all the time. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m sensitive or if things actually keep hurting me.

But it seems that all the terribly-timed misfortunes and random crisis situations always happen to me.

“Say you beat a dog once on a Wednesday night.
The dog winces and whimpers, maybe even bites back.

Say you beat the dog every Wednesday night.
Then, the dog will eventually expect it as a part of its weekly routine. At some point, the dog will stop fighting back.

You beat the dog every Wednesday night, the dog will start believing that being hurt is a part of normal life.

You beat the dog every Wednesday night, the dog will start believing that being hurt is a part of who he is.”

I look up from my journal.

No. This can’t be right.
It’s… not the same thing.

That was 18 months ago.

I start scribbling out the page, hoping it would make what I wrote less true, but my hand stops.

It’s not the same thing.

…Is it?

“I’m never healed really. I’m some sort of walking wound.”

For two months, I don’t drive a car.
I’ve only just gotten accustomed to cooking with knives. One step at a time.

I have all my limbs, but I feel like I’m in pieces again. Back to square one. No car, no job, no friends. But I make it my resolve to fight for color, to keep moving.

By now, I know all the coffeeshops in Oakland from all the resumes I’ve sent out. Slowly, my labor pays off and I’m getting calls for interviews.

Month 19 comes, and I get a job offer. Barista position.

Month 20 comes, and I have a car now. Insurance covered.

Life gradually picks up to a solid 70 miles per hour. Things are going okay, even if I am afraid to admit it.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it isn’t the same thing.

What a curious feeling it is to hope again.

Wednesday Night.

I’m walking down my street to my car, on my way to church.

It’s 6:45 in the evening,
still plenty of sunlight to burn,
still angry drivers zooming past on Foothill Ave,
still kids playing in the neighborhood.

I walk past a row of parallel-parked cars, looking for my own as I hastily scoop a couple spoonfuls of dinner from my tupperware into my mouth. I don’t make it 100 feet outside of my apartment when one of the parked cars opens up its doors and out comes some four or five guys, quickly approaching me.

The first one looks straight at me and mumbles something to me. I hesitate. Before I have time to think, he lunges straight for my legs and pulls. I’m on the ground now, and the other guys rush.

The beating begins.

They target my head, 4-5 of them throwing their fists and kicking. When you are about to die, your body does all the thinking for you. Arms up. Cover the face. Fetal position. Smallest target possible.

I hear them yelling to each other to hurry up, and yelling at me to mock me. So much yelling. I don’t even notice my phone missing from my pocket.

My mind catches up.
fuck…

But I cannot fight back, or they might hit harder. I can’t afford to move my arms away.

When there are five of them, all you can do is wait, and hope it ends.

I notice that my keys are now gone.
It’s been about a minute. They’re struggling to snatch my wallet, but at this point I want them to because two minutes just might kill me. At this point, I also want to yell at them to hurry up. Just take the damn thing.

Finally, they wrench it out my pocket.

They throw a last couple kicks before hopping back into their car, and take off.

Apparently, I’m doing a Christian mission thing. Apparently, I’m out here in Oakland starting a new life.

But now, I’m lying on the ground with my own blood on the sidewalk and I’m screaming at God,

“Why am I here?”

I can’t believe my own life sometimes.
And neither can my mind, so it replays the scene. Over and over again.

“Did you recognize the guys?”

“No.”

“You’ve never seen them before.”

“No.”

“So they just jumped you for no reason.”

“Yeah.”

The nurse looks away.

“Wow, that sucks… but I mean, welcome to Oakland.”

Thanks, man.

Cold ceiling lights. That sterile smell. Metallic carts being rolled around.

Here, once again.

They tell me that there are no fractures in the skull, no swelling, nothing broken.
On the outside.

I walk out the building with a bag of analgesics in my hand.

On the way home, my roommate tells me –
“In the year plus of living here in Oakland, we’ve never had anything like this happen to us… and in the 3-4 months that you’re here, you’re the one who gets mugged. It’s just crazy…”

Later that week, my internship staff tells me –
“In all the years we’ve been working here, we’ve never had anything like this happen to us. At least not this bad.. and not to an intern…”

One day, a neighbor who I’ve never talked to before, but witnessed the attack, tells me –
“I’ve been living on this street for six years and I’ve never seen anything like that happen… This is a pretty good neighborhood.”

Of course. Of course it had to be me.

Because wounded animals are easy prey.

I can’t believe my life sometimes.
And neither can my mind, so it replays the scene. Over and over again.

“Wednesday night.”

Truth is a slowly-sinking dagger you cannot stop from reaching your heart.

It is now month 21.

A little girl who lives next door says hi to me one day and asks, “Are you the guy who got mugged?”

I don’t know what to say.
“Yes. I am.”

I am that guy.

It seems that all the color I spent the last couple months trying to fight for is draining from my vision again. Life is slow, dragging along at an agonizing 5 miles per hour. My emotional capacity is near nothing, so I drop some commitments. After a few weeks, I drop some more.

I kind of want to do.. nothing.

Each day, I look out the window for a few minutes before going outside. I give an extra glance before crossing the street. I check every white sedan parallel-parked that I pass by on the sidewalk.

When I’m not calling credit card companies or standing in line at the DMV, I spend time staring into space at the park or local coffeeshop, unsure of how to live life now. Unsure of how to pray after you almost get beaten to death.

Unsure if I even want to pray. I don’t think I want to talk to God.

Some days, the silence is unbearable so I fill the void with more noise. TV shows. YouTube. Anything.

Month 22 comes, and things are still grayscale. I don’t know when I’m going to have an emotional breakdown. Going outside is like walking in a minefield of triggers. Thinking too much is very much the same.

My staff encourages me to take time off work and get away for a bit. Take a personal retreat, get away from Oakland.

The idea is appealing, yet unnerving at the same time. But I’m not sure why. Do I really want to go there?

I book a trip anyways. Three nights.

Month 23.

I’m driving up the Pacific Northwest Coast, snaking through Redwood Forests, trying to escape from everything. I glance over at my phone every now and then, watching the bars on my phone drop slowly.

I feel a similar sinking feeling somewhere deep inside of me.
Fingers on my left hand twitch.

Shut up.

I turn my music up.

A few hours of driving later and I’m in the middle of nowhere. Spotify offline only lasts so long when you forget to download enough playlists. I soon realize what is making me so uneasy.

Silence.

I get to the campgrounds, check in, and cook a quick dinner. I haven’t even finished unpacking myself, and I’m already cringing. Already holding my left hand and clutching my itchy centipede bite. Already grimacing and holding onto all my scars.

I go back outside because I’m not quite ready yet. I don’t want to go there yet. I’m not quite ready to confront what’s actually inside of me.

I’m not quite ready for the silence, because in silence, I can hear everything.

Perhaps, this was not the escape that I was envisioning. I’m not just in the middle of nowhere.

The next day, I figure that there is little use in trying to run away. I already did that. Here I am.

Out here, there is nothing to fill the void with. No Netflix. No YouTube. No one to turn to. Except God.

I pace around my cabin for a good hour,
biding my time and preparing myself,
until finally, I pick up the pen.

“You know what I’m feeling right now?

I feel like there were a lot of things that didn’t have to happen.

Things that cause unnecessary emotional stress and needless pain,
Things awfully timed,
Things unfolding in the worst way possible,
Things beyond my control that I could not prevent,
Things that no matter how much I prayed against,

still happened.

None of this had to be this way.
But they are now. And I got hurt.

You know what I’m feeling right now?
I feel like all those things that happened, You could have stopped,
but You chose not to.

That perhaps, the demons are out to get me
and You’re letting them.

I was afraid to come here, out in the middle of nowhere. In the middle of my nothingness. I’m scared of what I might find there. I’m scared of what lurks in my own darkness.

As much as it hurts to say, I kind of hate my life. This “dream life” I’ve created is not anything I had hoped it to be. As much as it hurts to say, all it’s been is a continuation of the series of unfortunate events in my life.

I may not be suicidal, but in many ways, I’ve already given up.

Because this is how I think of myself.

I keep separate clocks for the six different traumatic events I’ve experienced in the last two years. This is my obsession.

I am that guy.
And there’s nothing I can do about it.

And if that is true, is life really worth living?
What is there to look forward to, other than more trauma? Other than the next event?

I know this is about him.
The monster living inside of me, two years in the making.

I don’t want to admit that I had fed him and let him grow bigger than me. That he’s eaten me alive, consumed me.

At last, I fed him my heart.
I have forgotten who I am, without my scars.

If you don’t show up now, God,
I don’t know who you are.

I need you to set me free.
I need you to save me from who I think I am.

I need you to kill the Wounded Animal.”

.

wounded animal complex

4 dollar day

I can feel the ground trembling beneath my feet when I walk to work each day.

Chinatown is a loud place.

I quietly pass through, keeping my head tilted down as I weave between pedestrians and rowdy vegetable sellers.

My boss is a loud woman.

“Yelling” in half-Cantonese as she takes orders, and half-Mandarin as she gives me orders.

I’ve been getting quieter and quieter at work lately. Mixing up ingredients, forgetting a topping, confusing one tone for another.

Overall, making more mistakes. Overall, getting scolded more.

“I’m sorry.”

I leave work feeling let down, having let down someone.

I walk out the door and head towards a shady parking lot tucked in beneath an underpass. I see the guy.

“How much?”

“Mm… 4 dollars.”

Parking usually costs 3 dollars a day but I’m starting to suspect the guy sort of just makes up his mind on the spot, depending on his mood.

I take out my meager tip money earnings of the day and hand it all to him.

I can feel the ground trembling beneath my feet.

On this side of town, the BART runs underground so I figure it must be the trains. It’s funny because normally, people would complain about the disturbance it causes. But this is the city, so no one complains.

Life on the surface is loud enough as it is.

I move briskly, weaving my way through the Chinatown labyrinthine and picking up syllables and words here and there. Catching fragments of meaning in passing.

One of the telltale signs that I’m emotionally shutting down is silence. I won’t always respond to you, even if I hear you loud and clear.

I keep my head down and work harder.

I have to get good.

I’m starting to understand a little more Cantonese now, enough to use context clues to fill in the blanks. There is just enough overlap with Mandarin to make close guesses, but also enough overlap to make embarrassing mistakes. Confusing one tone for another, and such.

“Sorry about that. I can make another drink for you.”

I only get 3 dollars in tips today. Seems about right.

I pray to the parking gods as I work my way through Chinatown and back to the underpass.

“How much?”

“Mm… 3 dollars.”

Whew. Close one.

I am Taiwanese. Or, a child of Taiwanese immigrants. Taiwanese-American? Something in between.

Traditional Taiwanese folk are a hearty and rambunctious bunch, so family gatherings are loud and rowdy. Sometimes, it’s real easy for me to just keep quiet and slip into the blurry peripherals of family photos.

I’m not like them,
yet I am,
just enough, to blend in.

I weave my way through the Chinatown labyrinthine, being careful not to get in the way of elderly Chinese people and their grocery shopping spree. Keeping my head tilted down, I quietly pass through and get to work.

I’ve been kinda sorta getting better at my job. I still don’t know how to make half the menu but hey.

I’m getting the hang of this customer service thing. You know, like making small talk and faking smiles. That sort of thing.

When my boss yells at me,
I am able to piece together the syllables, the words, the fragments of meaning,
to make the right drinks,
to do the job well,
to understand that yelling doesn’t necessarily mean she’s mad at me,

– at least most of the time.

If culture is a labyrinthine, I’m starting to draft a rough sketch of something that resembles a map.

Parking usually costs 3 dollars a day. But today was a 4 dollar day.

I can feel the ground trembling beneath my feet.

I could tell it was building up throughout the day,
no, throughout the week,
that something inside me was shutting down.

“I’m sorry I don’t speak Cantonese. I can take your order in Mandarin or English.”

So I get quieter and quieter.

I’m not responding to everything she’s saying. I keep my head tilted down, and work harder.

But she is very particular this day, because depending on her mood, she adjusts her expectations of me.

Today was a 4 dollar day.

The yelling grows louder and louder, only this time, she is definitely mad. This isn’t just yelling, this is scolding.

And the scolding leads to other things,
like mixing up ingredients,
forgetting a topping,
confusing one tone for another,

– overall, making more mistakes.

Which only leads to more scolding, and more mistakes, and more scolding. I get quieter and quieter, trying to shrink and retreat inside of myself where no one can hurt me and I can’t hear them yelling at me.

Then finally, a customer loses her temper and I set off her age-old, well-rehearsed tirade.

“I order green tea, not black tea, okay? Is there something wrong with your brain?
My god, why can’t you speak Cantonese??”

I am Taiwanese.

But there is enough overlap, I guess, to make some mistakes.

And my boss turns on me, takes her side, and shames me publicly.

“What’s wrong with you. Why can’t you get it right.”

Something inside me snaps. Shut down.

“I’m sorry.”

I leave work feeling let down, having let down a people group. Once again.

5PM comes and I walk out the door without saying goodbye.

I’m moving quickly, weaving in between Chinese grandmas and my inner demons, making my way home.

I’m adjusting to the fast pace of the city, but if I stop myself,
just for 2 minutes, just enough time for one red light,
I can feel something trembling beneath the surface,

screaming from within.

Chinatown is a loud place.

I quickly change out of my work clothes and into my regular clothes. I am breathing heavily.

It’s been about a month and I kinda sorta know my way around now. I know which sidewalks are less crowded, where to find the cheapest parking, and where to sit during lunch break without getting penalized for loitering.

If culture is a labyrinthine,
there have been days when I could draft a rough sketch of a map,
and there have been days when I felt hopelessly lost.

There have been days when I could hold a decent conversation in Mandarin, and there have been days when I worked in silence.

And though I am Taiwanese, there is enough overlap to make some mistakes, on both sides.

It’s been about a month now.

I finish changing and collect my things. I put my working clothes in my locker, one last time, and my boss hands me my final paycheck (which in Chinatown, is wad of cash).

She tells me to be careful on the road, take care of myself, eat more food because I’m too skinny, and thanks me for working at her shop.

“Thank you. Bye bye.”

I think I mess up the tones a bit, but close enough.

She’s not an evil woman.

She’s just… her. She grew up learning and living the labyrinthine, then plunged into another completely different one. Just like my parents.

I grew up trying to learn both, and only got half-good at each.

“Wait!”, she stops me. “Here’s something for you – ” 

She reaches in her purse, digs around for a few seconds, and hands me a red envelope.

“新年快乐!”, she says in Mandarin, with a smile.

She messes up the tones a little bit, but close enough.

You’re not an evil woman. But I can’t work for you.

So I leave the job.

No dramatic plot twists, no life-defining lessons learned. Just a sobering acceptance that we haven’t changed all that much and this isn’t going to work out between us.

Maybe our relationship would be best kept from at a distance.

I forgive her, and spend my evening commute trying to figure out how to forgive myself for letting them down yet again.

I’m walking through the loud and rowdy streets of Chinatown, weaving between grandmas and vegetables. I make my way to the shady parking lot tucked beneath the underpass.

“How much?”

“Mmm… 3 dollars.”

// originally published on the raconteur collective.

langston presley – the genius who almost was

“I just wanna be somebody.”

I just wanna be… a rockstar. No, too ambitious. Maybe a low-key SoundCloud artist that only true hiphop heads know.

15 – 20k followers.
Mmm… 5 – 10k.

If only somebody would notice. Look my way.
I am so close, yet so far. Talented, but not quite enough.

I walk across the platform to the edge, past the yellow paint and caution signs. I stare into the gaping darkness ahead of me. I think of jumping. Just fantasize the idea.

Where am I going?

I am here, just waiting. Too much waiting.
So close.

Then the wind picks up and I hear a distant howling in the tunnel in front of me. It picks up and the howling becomes metallic, growing louder and louder, closer and closer, and the wind blows my overgrown hair aside.

I close my eyes, and jump on.

Post-grad life is riding a crowded subway train that only goes one way, and the lights are turned off. The passengers hardly talk to each other, and when they do, they somehow convince each other that everything is fine, even though we are all begging the same question – “Where are we going?”

When does it stop?

I lean my forehead against the glass and watch the florescent signs flash past me. The train sways side to side and groans.

I just wanna be somebody.
I just wanna be… a renowned short-story writer with at least one Ted Talk under his belt. Or Moth StorySlam winner.

No, too ambitious. Maybe an underground Medium blogger with 10k followers. Mmm… 5k.

So close, yet so far.

But what about low-key, hip SoundCloud producer?
School taught me few things, but multitasking was not one of them. I have tunnel vision, like subway conductors.

I just wanna be a writer,
but also a musician,
that I’m afraid that I will be neither.

That I will be nobody.

I jump off the train.

The light is blinding, so I squint as I step out into the arid LA-summer heat and frantic, fast-pace LA pedestrian traffic. Even the pedestrians have sidewalk-rage here.

I am weaving, and from the clamor of sirens, angry drivers, and stereos attached to bikes, he calls out to me.

“Young man! How you doin’ today?”

I slam the brakes, and look in his direction. Middle-aged, clothed in tatters, cigarette in mouth.

“Doin’ alright. How bout yourself?”

I shake his hand; his skin is wrinkled and cracked.

“Alright. Can’t complain, ya know?
About to buy me some more cigarettes.”

“Fosho.”

“Whatchu up to? You a working man or what?

“I uh – I just graduated”, I deflect.

“Ah graduated, hah! You got plans?”

I did at some point, but I don’t know anymore.

“Yeah uh, I wanna be… a writer. I think.”

“Writer! Okay, I write stuff, too.”

“Oh yeah? Like what?”

“Oh, just whatever inspires me. You just have to channel that inner-energy, you know, that inner…”

He puts his head over his heart. Gives an ugly face, like when musicians play jazz.

“…of ribbiting passion and…”  – he contorts his face again – “…You feel me?”

“Uhh… yeah. Sure, man.”

“Here, I wanna show you something. You got a pen on you? You know, true writers keep a pen on them at all times.”

I feel around in my bag and pull it out.

“You got paper?”

I feel around again and hand him my journal.

“Haha shit, you are a writer!”

“You got time?”

I glance at my phone. I think about the overpriced espresso drink with my name on it, waiting for me just 6 blocks away.

I shrug.

“Yeah. I got time.”

“Give me a topic.”

“What?”

“Just give me a topic, it can be anything.”

“Uhm… outer space.”

“Space! Mkay, I can do that.”

He scribbles away, transcribing his thoughts as they come, pausing ever-so-often to mutter ideas out loud.

“Orion belt… cycle of.. captivated, eye-boggling wonders, because – execute patriotic… new found life.”

Sounds promising. He stops and puts down his pen.

“See, take a look.”

I read his piece. It almost makes sense.

Almost.

“See I’m a writer, but really, it’s all just in here.”

He puts his hand on my chest now.

“You a writer, too. And true writers already have it inside… that ribbiting passion… that nature of ribbiting..”

“…Riveting?”

“Here, gimme the pen.”

More scribbling and muttering. I can’t stop staring at him, like he’s some mix between mad scientist and mystical pokemon creature. He finishes another paragraph-long sentence.

“Check this: Black holes!! – who knows, can say?”, he recites to me proudly. “Bottom line it is, amazing with motomic essentials – and this part is important, listen here – motomic essentials that brings nature into a *reality*.”

What the hell is motomic essentials?, I’m wondering.

But instead, I just say, “Whoa…”

So close to making sense, yet so far. I don’t know whether to disagree with him or simply be fascinated by him.

“And that’s the thing – nature to a reality…”

He picks up the pen and he is off again.
The more he writes, the deeper we descend into his mind.

“Reality factual… brings out of a.. beehive – no, not a think, not a thought… however a working grade.. of a solution… yeah, solution. That’s it.”

This goes on for another 30 minutes. I get tired of standing but I cannot leave now because there’s something curious about this man. Like there’s some hidden treasure inside and I want to be the one to find it.

Like despite his clear lack of coherent thought, deep down inside, he just might actually be a writer. And I, his audience, am hooked. I am captivated.

I am… ribbited.

He looks up from my journal and shouts, “HEY BENNY!”

Benny looks over at us and quickly looks away.

“AY! Benny!! How you doin’?!”

Benny, who has a lady friend walking closely beside him, looks clearly embarrassed and walks faster.

“Let’s go say hi to my friend”, he says enthusiastically.

He takes my journal and pen, and I follow behind.

“Hey Benny, come over here! I’m doin’ a writing class right now. Come on!”

Benny gives him a glare and says through clenched teeth, “Not now, man…”

“Ahh okay. Benny on a date, I’ll teach him later haha… Where was I…?”

“Motomic essentials??”

“Ah yes, of course, motomic essentials – ”

He picks up the pen and our lesson continues.

“Inside that space that journey… above that footprint in the sky.. is unknown, however…”

He mutters, writes, puts down the pen, picks it back up, mutters some more, and I lean in to try to catch everything. Our elbows touching, I catch a whiff of alcohol from my teacher’s breath. I lean closer anyways.

On and on he goes, often taking detours in thought, like weaving through LA traffic, as if his mind is one long run-on sentence. He talks just like he writes – mostly illegible, but full of resolve and conviction. Things I haven’t had much of in the recent post-grad wake.

Though he holds wild notions and his mind seems fragmented, like broken liquor bottles, he speaks with unapologetic passion that even incarceration, addiction, and homelessness could not shake. And I have an ear for that kind of passion.

So I let him ramble. I figure I can’t do much for the man right now, but I can listen to him and say, “I believe you.”

“You went to college, yeah? You show this to a college professor, and damn, they’re gonna flip. Ha! They won’t be ready. This – ”

he points to my journal.

“– This is gonna change the world.”

I feel like a parent, looking down at a child’s sloppy crayon drawing.

“Yeah, man. I think so, too.”

30 minutes stretches to an hour and one hour quickly bends into two. I figure out by now that if I let him, two hours can easily turn into four. So I gently hint to him that I should probably get going.

“It’s been an honor, man. Thanks for sharing all that. Oh, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Ah yes, gimme that pen again, let me sign it.”

In elaborate cursive lettering, he graces my journal with his insignia.

“Langston. Langston Presley.”

“Justin. Justin Lee.”

We shake hands, and closing words quickly turns into more writing, a personal dedication, another signature, and a P.S. note. Some final ribbiting thoughts.

We finally part ways.

I’m walking the six blocks towards my 4.5 star coffeeshop, but my mind is already buzzed and racing. As I walk, this feeling of longing looms in and though it is not my own, it is close enough to tickle some nerves.

This feeling of “so close, yet so far”. Like I just listened to an almost-professor teach an almost-lecture with knowledge that was almost-groundbreaking.

“Cappuccino, please.”

“Can I get a name for the order?”

“Lang- …Langston.”

Langston Presley. I like saying it.. just the sound of it has a certain flair to it.

As if he is half-way one legend,
half-way another,
that he is neither.

So close, yet so far.
But something happened and his mind was shattered. Now, nobody bothers to look his way, and notice his potential. Or what used to be his potential. 0 followers.

I sit down with my drink and it’s hard to down. But I don’t think that it’s necessarily guilt – just this awareness that just a few blocks away is Skid Row, and it’s probably teemed with other almost-Whitney’s and almost-Hemingway’s.

I feel my muscle memory reminding me to open my laptop, check my SoundCloud, and work on my music.

But instead, I pick up my pen and write in my journal –

“Langston Presley, the genius who almost was.”

 

The following piece is what Langston wrote in my journal the day I met him

1983 the ineact (pirates of silicon valley) <–2–10–> They sometimes call when pieces never look the fit, however it work. No this is not a blessing, not of …

The orion belt next to a wirlwind on a cycle of captivated eye bogling wonders because we only understand the things seen not the things that can write and execute patriotic newfound (history) life. Expessions with minds that understand what science presents in a sum that brings enlightenment to a need from long ago problem with a thumbs up of loss.

“(Black holes)” who knows, can (or) say? Bottom line it is, amazing with motomic essentials that brings nature to a reality. Reality factual brings out of a beehive not a think not a thought however a working grade of a solution. Why (definition?) (a thought is only a sentence you tell yourself)(Does that work?) No. Look it up nothing is faulty with imagination than what brings us the conclusion and the ribbiting facts of what is inside that 1) black hole.

2) that persons mind (behavior) 3) does this count, thought, know thing thoughts are back to this a (thoughts definition) means a sentence you tell yourself. Inside that space that journey above that footprint the sky is unknown however a place that presents a high grade of what brings the galaxy of inlightment, wonders, to a new found glory that gives one space to fly, passionately, to roll with a rythym that brings ideas to a place that is not normal however inventions like persay the internet. my friend what is above in that start is life. bringing us to now. Just go.

Placed by this person who will execute a tale that illuminates immaculately introducing a new found journey of ribbiting history Justin. In space your future is not a thought it defines passion. I see you now glory by capturing the ride the pen or keyboard introduces to you, 

Looking forward to your journey.

-Langston Presley 

9/24/17 / Just do write it

In the shadows of one there is redemption, a new found “glory of life”
know this is the journey only you can bring a nature of production working the your stage into passionate equal rights to all.

-Langston Presley 

First fact.

On Hollywood and Normandie – Look at that wall.

the anniversary effect

It still feels like summer.

 

I’m walking down Marine at Balboa Island, savoring new flavors with old friends. Frozen bananas with other confused postgrads.

It is October, but it still feels like summer.

A new season, but still tinged with things of the past. The air is light and brisk, filled with small talks and old inside jokes.

Spirits are merry and things feel almost “just right”,
when all of the sudden, a small party of pigeons flies out of nowhere and swooshes right in front of our party of friends.

I freeze in my steps.
The muscles in my body clench, and my heart races, as if trying to outrun danger.

Time glitches, and for that moment, 2 seconds become 2 minutes, 2 minutes become 8,261 miles, and now, the pigeons are already long gone.

What.

“Hey catch up, dude! We’re gonna check out this shop!”

My head snaps back to the present, and I realize that I am alone,
standing in the middle of the sidewalk.

It still feels like summer.

We are standing outside the shop, the small talk and inside jokes continue, but all I can think about are pigeons.

I thought things like this only happened in movies.

“I need to go.”
Take my mind off things.

I get to my friend’s apartment. It’s been almost a year since the last time I stayed the night here. I turn on Netflix and pick my poison – Stranger Things Season 2, which, while we’re on the topic of trauma victims, couldn’t have been more fitting.

Episode 3 or 4 finishes – I’m all Netflix-drunk now and headed for the bathroom. My friend is already asleep so I sneak out with toothbrush in hand.

I open the bathroom door, turn on the lights, and it happens again.

I freeze.

My momentum dies completely, like a car running through caltrops. My left hand tenses up, my heart races to outrun danger, and two seconds feels like two minutes, because the earth just stopped spinning.

It’s only two seconds,
but time is glitching and I’m sucked deep into a memory I’ve thought a lot about, but not in a long time,
when I was staring down at the same white sink bowl, but it was filled with a pool of my own blood,
draining dark red from a finger I almost cut off by accident,
draining colors from my vision and looking at my fading reflection before everything got quiet and dark,
and i wake up next to a car escorting me to the hospital.

Another second passes,
and memory becomes feelings instead of visuals,
and the feeling of the times was sickening to the point where I wanted to cut myself again and create another little “accident”,
because I was alive but life was draining and draining away from me
and everything in life had lost its colors,
except maybe dark red.

Another second passes,
and the sink is empty now. My finger is still attached.

Time resumes at its ordinary tempo,
but now I am brushing my teeth
very, very slowly.

I thought that stuff like this only happens in movies, but now I’m not so sure, so I google away and find some theories and best guesses, which is basically all what the study of psychology is anyways. I have my own suspicions, which PsychologyToday – and even Teen Vogue – more or less confirms, so I decide, “Okay, maybe this is a thing.”

It just might make sense.

It just might make sense of why earlier today, I was hanging out with friends when a flock of pigeons glitched me back in time –

and all of the sudden, I’m thinking about street vendors, and honking tuk tuks,
walking the busy streets of Bangkok, tasting familiar flavors with new friends,
the air is thick with humidity, small talk, and future inside jokes,
and a new friend grasps onto my arm when pigeons fly by because she has a paralyzing fear of birds.

Another second passed,
and the memory became emotion instead of visuals, and the feeling of the times was sickening to the point where
I wanted to throw up from street food poisoning and an abusive relationship I felt trapped in,
and my will to live was draining and draining away from me,
like dark red funneling into a whirlpool down a white sink bowl.

Another second passed,
and my friends are telling me to catch up,
but I cannot because for the rest of the day, my mind is stuck in a memory, thinking about pigeons.

It just might make some sense of why,
it’s already October but it still feels like summer.

I’m brushing my teeth slowly and thinking about how pigeons, bathroom sink bowls, and a character in Stranger Things I can very loosely relate to all acted as triggers within a span of the last 24 hours, and I think I get it now.

It’s about that time of the year.

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 and 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.