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Archive for the ‘Short Fiction’ Category

Note: これは日本で初めての経験だった。それは後で、より複雑になった。

I could not stay in Formosa any longer. My ever-sympathetic employers canceled my visa and withheld my bonus out of spite. That I taught the kids to read a foreign language somehow counted for less than my not teaching them Chinese manners, which I remained willfully ignorant of anyway. This was hardly the whole problem though. My affairs, business and personal, rapidly disintegrated into the Straights. I longed for Susan while she reconnected with her husband in Hsinchu. Clingy Natasha in Taipei bored me with her trendiness. Elsa refused my request to return to New York. After our disasterous week attempting to reconcile in Europe, I lamented and understood. So there was no job, no partner, and no interest in staying much longer. Being homeless in Taiwan had its moments, yet the whole experience drained my spirit after a month. The last night I spent there, I yanked some easy trade out of a club in Da’an. Tired of imposing on my friends and needed to relieve my ambient frustration. I could not be bothered to learn her name. Too much on my mind.

The JAL flight left Chiang-Kai Shek [it has since been renamed, much like the people in this story] with precision. I knew from the interior of the 767 that I would need to raise my game to make it in Tokyo. Economy felt like first-class: wide leather seats, digital media screens, charming stewardesses plying me with udon and sake. I wrote a poem and read a few chapters of Mishima’s Runaway Horses until we landed at Narita. I traded the last of my NTD for JPY and stepped out in to the evening. Out of the tropics now, the chill and the wind recalled the northern latitudes of my familiarly. I pulled a skully over my head and caught the train to Ueno. A challenge had been issued by Japan. Soon learned how hard.

Tokyo’s lights burned into view in a hour’s time. To this day, I will never understand why the world’s largest city placed its largest airport so far away from downtown. I guess the residents needed sleep uninterrupted by descending aircraft. This would never become an issue for me. Rest is the luxury of the secure.

I checked into a private room at the hostel. I don’t mind sharing a bathroom, but could never deal with five snoring Scandinavians that seem to post up in every budget joint in Asia. It came to thirty bucks a night and they did not take cards. I paid for two in cash and they said a day-by-day thing would be cool after that. I took a shower and flipped my gear. Way too charged up to crash at that point. Arriving in Tokyo presented the fulfillment of a dream in some respects. I had to see if Murikami’s work reflected any reality at all. Disturbing how right he is.

In the common room, I drank a Kirin with some knucklehead Aussie who had been pushed out of Korea for stealing a jeep or something. The kid was unhinged, so I asked him for advice. “What place has the most neon?” I inquired. “Try Shinjuku, I guess.” was his reply. Sounded about right.

Rolled out the west side on the Marunouchi line, hungry and restless. Many visitors grow bewildered when they emerge from Shinjuku station into the flashing dreamscape of Edo’s largest transit hub. I suppose the pace and energy overwhelms them. Such people have probably never been to Times Square, to say nothing of Mong Kok. Not suggesting Shinjuku is bush league, far from it. The junction jumped with a pace that any urbanite could appreciate. Time for some action.

I wandered into a crowded lunch counter. Hadn’t had a decent piece of beef since arriving in Asia, so the sizzling skillets I spied from the window dismissed my initial thoughts of sushi. I sat down and asked for a steak and a beer, thinking this would prove a simple exchange. Then a kindly waitress showed me how to work the vending machine, which processed all the orders. Silly me, thinking I would do business with a human. This was Japan after all, land of the automated. My Japanese was poor at the time, but we figured out “rare” after a minute of pidgin. I had been warned about the prices in Japan, but they seemed no more extravagant than those in New York. And after Paris, a steak and a beer for ten bucks seemed like a bargain. Europe – forever slow and expensive.

Satiated and excited, I left the restaurant and perused the backstreets that flowed out from the station. Most of the stores were closed by that time (ten pm), but all the other businesses teemed with Friday night trade. Coffee houses, noodle stalls, even the bakeries blared with aroma and music. I asked a stranger to take my photo on a footbridge so “it would last longer”. I stepped into a dive and sat down next to an attractive girl in a leather jacket. Her boyfriend got cranky after I chatted her up for a minute, but I had no designs on her. Just asking directions. He was a skinhead and probably over thirty. I told him that scene was long over. He told me “Skins have a lot of pride” with some menace. I referenced some Richard Allen books and he calmed down. His girl asked me how long I had been in Japan. I said three hours. They laughed and pointed me north. The direction that defined the day.

I made my way to a faux Irish pub three floors up in a commercial building. The place had nice oak appointments, filled with people of several stripes. Some business dorks in their suits held court on the corner of the bar. The Times Square facade “Today Suntory toasts…” was all I could think of. Older expats ate dinner with their native wives, likely bemused by the Shepard’s pie that sat before them instead of a proper meal. I sat down at the bar with a Super Dry. Asked the guy next to me what was up. Still orienteering, my favorite outdoor activity. Someday I’ll get that merit badge!

He stopped me and said, “You have a central New York accent. Utica? From the Bing myself.”

“The ‘Cuse, actually.” I replied, impressed. No one has ever before or since has identified my origins so exactly on just the nuance in my voice. I thought it was merely neutral North American, yet somehow he parsed it. Now I had a running buddy. For the night at least, I felt content to let him show me the ropes. Again, I needed to raise my game and a guide would prove valuable. Began raising it immediately.

We turned from the bar an surveyed the scene. I suggested we make some new friends. He concurred and asked whom. I shot my eyes toward two twenty somethings who were sitting on the same side of a table in the back, leaving the other side vacant. He nodded. The bar was getting crowded anyway, so the entree was perfect. I strolled over and lit their cigarettes before one could reach the lighter in her purse. Asked for a spare and lit up also. Let the guy from Binghamton, Nate, fetch us all drinks. We exchanged names and became fast friends. A little cordiality shocks people in this day and age.

Misa had the body. Yuri had the face. I let Nate choose, since I was the neophyte. He went with Yuri, which worked out regarding my tastes. Worked out well. Until it didn’t.

Nate suggested we cut out to his spot in Suginami. Said he had a bottle and a DJ set at a club at 2am. The girls were down, so we cut out to the train. Probably was the last of the night. Unlike NYC, the trains stop around one. In Japan you party until midnight or six am. There is no middle ground. That can be taken in a number of ways.

The club in Suginami ended up being a skinny three story affair. Almost no dance floor, but a rooftop where the expats smoked weed and bitched about life in Japan. I demurred on both counts, not about to kill my first impressions of the place with jaded perspectives or drug-induced self-consciousness. I kept the girls company while Nate started up with some trance on the system. I suppose his mix was reasonable, though I am no expert on techno and its many genres. All disco to me.

His bottle proved to be tequila and he insisted we drink it with tonic. I have never since imbibed this concoction, and I do not recommend it. Misa took pity on me and bought me a Grand Turismo while Nate was in the sound booth. I danced with both of them and we kept busy until his set finished. By then the place was thinning out and the trains were starting up again. I got all their digits on paper since with only twelve hours in the country I had no celly. Hopped on the train and switched to the Yamanote line at Shibuya. When you make it back around seven AM, you know it was an enjoyable evening. Usually.

Crashed at the spot in Ueno for a few hours. Came out of the fever dream in a pool, as usual. Washed up and threw on my leather. I had to see the Ginza. It was too late to hit Tsukiji by then, as the fish mongers clear out by ten or so. Besides I grew more interested in investigating whether Osamu Dazai was fronting or not with his investigation of the place. This piece is written in his style and is dedicated to him. Both of us are No Longer Human.

Ginza proved a bit more staid than advertised. Fine buildings and cafes to be sure, yet somehow it lacked the energy and opulence so celebrated in the novels I’d read. Perhaps they reflected the previous century’s dynamism, as opposed to the complacent success of contemporary Japan. All the same, I spied a kaiten sushi joint and decided it was time for some tuna. It occurred to me then that I had burned through all my cash from Taiwan and needed to draw from my New York account. This proved no issue, as Citibank kept me covered. Ginza had a branch in dark blue with the old logo. The hard font invited me in with familiarity. Inside, just like 111th street and Broadway. Shudder.

I tried my card five times. I knew I had a couple of large liquid at the very least, and more besides in equities. The machine still showed me no love. “I cannot perform the requested transaction” it replied in three languages. So there I was. In the most expensive city in the world. In the middle of its most expensive district. And I had just one Soseki in my pocket [Natsume Soseki is a great author who graces the thousand yen note]. I would be homeless again in twenty-four hours. Japan’s challenge like a judo throw. Raise your game. While broke.

It was Saturday, so the bank floor stood locked out. Yet there were two kindly ladies working the lobby who spoke passable English and tried their best to help me. Service in Tokyo is all they say it is. They put me on the phone with New York. A sleepy Puetro Rican (3am there) checked my account in the accent of the D train. He told me I had money, but there must be something wrong with my card. I asked for an immediate replacement. He said I was not a platinum card holder, so it would take a month. He then inquired why I only had one card and one account. I said something offensive I am sure. I thanked the ladies and stumbled back out into the Ginza. Hundred yen udon, not sushi, was the plan now. And I needed one quickly.

The sun descended into the February overcast. I grew anxious and zipped up my leather. Walking past an endless series of shopping malls, I decided to try an experiment. Still rocking the discman and the time. Decided I needed some new beats. Found an HMV and picked up The Lost Tapes [an uneven collection, though superior to God’s Son] and bought it with the same credit card that the bank had fiercely rejected only hours ago. When it went through, I felt relieved that I had some access. Then realized there would still be some essentials that could not be funded this way. For all its advanced technology, Japan (and Asia in general) relies highly on paper currency. When people don’t constantly mug each other you can have it like that. I would need to figure out transportation and accommodation at the very least, both of which appeared cash dependent.Unless I rented a car or stayed in a five-star. My game was not even close to that yet. Someday it would be, but somewhere else. Today it is not even close.

I strolled in another expat bar in the district. Thought someone could help me figure it out. Perhaps myself. The bartender assured me that I could pay with a credit card. I perused the English language magazines until I spied an Canadian reading Pillars of the Earth. Told him I was taking up a collection to build a cathedral. He agreed to let me pick up his tab in exchange for cash. “You’ve sent me on my way!” He exclaimed as I encouraged him to order a double. He had sent me on mine. Thanks brother. Whoever you are.

Retrieving my paper from the night before, I called up Misa at a public phone. I suppose I lost face when I explained my situation. Felt like I had very little anyway. Misa seemed sympathetic and proposed we meet in Ueno park. She wanted to show me the cafe where Mori Ogai held court. I did not see anything special about the place, though I had a similar opinion of The Wild Geese, a work whose concept I liked more than its execution. Possibly the translator’s fault, as it is one of the toughest in the Meiji canon. Relieved when she arrived promptly and everything went smoothly. Further relieved after kissing on the footbridge near the zoo.  She asked me what I wanted to do. As if I had any choice.

I grabbed my stuff from the hostel. Wasn’t much anyway, just some suits from a life once lived and a laptop that probably has some very interesting writing on it. All have been cast into the wilderness by now. Misa showed me how to more efficiently get across the city and onto the Seibu line. Her place was an efficiency in Nakano. Looked like a mansion on a hill to me, by which I mean the English definition of “mansion”. Not the Japanese ワンルームマンション, which is in fact what it was. I suppose it makes for a graceful euphemism when you can call fifteen square meters a “mansion”. Clever Japanese marketing.

The room did not seem small however. Misa made tea on the burner and I perused the bookshelf. I had read all her Harry Potters with Elsa back in New York, so we speculated on the last installments. I took down Snow Country and flipped through the familiar pages. She told me Kawabata seems completely different when rendered into English. This insight would prove defining during my time in Japan.

My job and accommodations would not open up for a week. Misa cared for me in typical Japanese fashion. I took the train with her in the morning and had strolled the entire Yamanote line on foot by the end of the work week. We went out for Yakiniku in her neighborhood. We copied Basho’s Haikus with calligraphy pens I bought in Kyobashi. They were much easier to work than the brushes Susan and I played with in Taiwan. We discussed writing and fashion over tea and shochu. And I held her as we spoke softly in the darkness. Rolled up the futon when day broke. Tokyo itself provided enough experiences for me to return to her each evening with many questions. Misa gave me a full education. I remain grateful for all of them. Except the last. Proved the most critical.

By the time my job started in Numazu, my game seemed sufficently raised. I had a girlfriend with a place just off of Shinjuku. A working knowledge of the subways, the JR lines, and even some of the department store rails. I finally got my sushi, and I had not run over my credit limit. When Misa kissed me good-bye at Shinagawa, I knew I had met the challenge issued by Nippon. As the Shinkansen shot me down the Tokaido, I knew I’d return the capital as soon as I could. Sometimes you hit the ground running. Then you trip.

A week later, I returned to Shinjuku. I had some salary now and all my affairs were in order. Misa met me a yakitori spot off the main drag. The look on her face seemed pained. I asked her what troubled her. The answer was obvious.

“I cannot be with you. You are going to do so well in Japan. You don’t need me any more.” She elaborated.

In protest I returned, “You were very kind to me when I really needed someone. I enjoyed spending time with you. You showed me so much. These are qualities most people don’t have. Now that I am more established I thought we could be together. I could repay your kindness.”

“You can repay my kindness by doing your best in Japan. You will meet someone better than me. Treat her as you would have treated me.” It was all she could offer. That and a final night in her apartment, since I had made no other arrangements. We made love a final time that morning and took the Seibu to Shinjuku. Parted without kissing. I walked south to the Meiji shrine. Paid five hundred yen and wrote her name in characters on a prayer block. Later experience would teach me that she was probably married or a kept woman of a wealthy salary man. I would never know. I growled and wept like the stray dog I was. In the most crowded city in the world, I realized I was completely alone.

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Note: Inspired by “Love Suicides” [1926] 川端の物語をお読みください。それははるかに優れています。

The email arrived in the woman’s inbox. Surprised to see her husband had written her. Two years had passed since he dropped out of sight, leaving her and her daughter to twist in the city. She tracked his ISP and saw it came from a foreign address. He was far away.

“Turn off the computer. I can feel the packets shooting across the web. The ones and zeros flash through my mind and cut through my spirit. Assembling them again causes me endless heartache.”

She turned off the computer, the DSL, and the wireless router. Unplugged them all and tucked them away in the closet. She then removed all the woolen sweaters to avoid any static upsetting the circuitry.

The next day, a text appeared on her cell. The country code was different from where he mailed her from.

“Your mobile phone breaks me apart. The wireless signal rings in my ears and each bar surges through my veins.  Every ASCII character slices me like a razor. Cut your service.”

She removed the battery and snapped the handset in half. Did not bother to recycle it, dropping each piece of the phone in a different trash can. Canceled her number at the provider’s offices.

A week later she returned from shopping and her voice mail flashed red. The caller ID referred to a hospital for the infirm several time zones away. She entered her password and brought up the message. It was the first time she heard his voice in years.

“I cannot bear carrying on across these wires. When they convert my voice to electricity I grow mute. Then my words are rendered digitally and I am paralyzed with anguish. Please unplug the phone, the wires strangle me inside.”

The wife called the phone company and surrendered her service. She unplugged the phone, first from the wall, then the base, then the handset. She cast each piece into the river.

From then on, she only spoke to those who came before her. People who did not come to the house received a note, if they got anything at all. Her daughter shrieked and wailed about not being able to call her friends. Then the letter arrived the following week. The stamp reflected currency she did not recognize. The handwriting was his, though somehow also that of an old man’s.

“I hear the scribblings when you write and when she does her assignments. Each scratch on the paper tears across my soul. I am torn asunder.”

The wife watched from the hallway, remembering when her husband had taught the girl how to write on the wide-ruled horizontal papers with dotted lines. The girl took pencils from her father’s desk and started sketching on the college-ruled spiral bound. The woman quickly snatched the instruments from her hand and snapped them in twain. Threw the pencils in the fireplace. Set them ablaze: the sound of her husbands heart burning. Suddenly, she raised her eyebrows. She snatched every pen and pencil in the house and tossed them in the flames. Wasn’t this the sound of her husband’s heart on fire? The woman smashed the flat screen and scattered the pieces into the street. What about this technology? She threw herself against the sliding glass door until the whole pane cracked with spiderweb creases from her elbows and knees. She wrenched at the curtains until they tore from the rod, cascading around her writhing body. And what about this expression? Nothing is revealed.

The girl ran into the garage. She lept into the car and honked the horn six times. Each blast sounded like “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” The woman rose, entered the car and slammed the open door on the tear stained face of her daughter.  Listen to this sound!

Like a echo of that sound, a voice came over the radio when she put the key in the ignition. Familiar yet aged, her husband whispered out of the speakers. It sounded like a broadcast from across the sea.

“Do not communicate at all. Do not transmit in any fashion. Every syllable murders me, every dispatch stabs my soul. You cannot even let the clocks tick their vicious metrononmety, each advance of the second hand slashes my essence. No expression of any kind can escape into the ether!”

“The pair of you, the pair of you, the pair!” Weeping into her hands, the woman turned the engine over. Then that was the only sound. In this moment and in this world, there can never be silence. Yet the woman and her daughter made no sound. Forever, they discovered the peace he demanded.

He entered the car and died with them before the gas ran out.

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In Taiwan, they called us” waiguoren” – outside country people. I liked that because it sounded like “why go on”. Had no answer at the time.

On the island for a month at that point. Summer would not end. I reached November and the temperature was still in the thirties. I did not sleep more than twenty hours over that stretch. Playing with the kids by day and smoking the world’s most ironic cigarette, “Longlife”, by night-I passed the time in irresolution. When I could not sit still, I rode a bicycle all over Miaoli county until dawn broke over the straights. On the weekends, I towered over everyone on the playground courts and disappeared into the capital. I had come a long way from the Bronx, and the alienation only grew with time. Something I learned to accept. Set me on a path of decadence.

I had made a few contacts by then. The locals I met proved friendly and generous. One, Stephen, brought me along on a family trip to Kenting over the ten/ten holiday. I also befriended expatriates who shared my bewilderment, though sometimes little else. Not mutually exclusive, but there are only so many hours in a day to spend with contemporaries. Decided to split my time. Then it became obvious.

Friday night, I rode into Hsinchu. This was the “big town” in the region. To be fair, it had a great cinema showing Chinese classics and an excellent department store, but it was a far cry from Herald Square, Causeway Bay, or Shinjuku. All down my nose anyway, since wore my NYC bona fides too distinctly on my sleeve  and nothing could measure up. So out of place there, I did not have much else to go with. The vocabulary of the dispossessed afforded all I could speak. Mute to the world around me.

I got off the train listening to the “Streets of Fire” soundtrack. “Tonight is What It Means to be Young” blared ironic and dated, but I was restless and broken hearted no doubt. Let the revels begin. Let the fires be started.

I hailed a cab. Lucky me, it was the best cab in the universe. First, he turned off the meter. We negotiated a price instead by holding up fingers. Then he could not understand my destination, the Royal Hotel, and I did not know its Mandarin name. So we spun around until we found a valet with an understanding of the local landmarks. Then we cruised the strip of beetlenut girls. He got out and bought two beers, one for each of us. I have never before or since enjoyed a taxi ride where the driver openly consumed alcohol while driving me to my destination, and I have taken taxis on four continents. This guy balled out of control.

The girl working the road stand who sold us the beer was a serious babe. That’s how they get those jobs. Long legs, lots of make-up, all done up in a sequined mini-dress, she had it going on. The driver opened the window and jabbered at her in Hokkien, managing to get her to lean into the car. This was likely so I could get a view of the stems, and her ass practically given how short her skirt was. It was a sight to behold, but I had places to go. He kept looking back at me and smiling, asking “Okay?”. By now, the ride had gone from amusing to tedious in rapid fashion. I threw my empty can of Taiwan beer out the window and demanded we move on. For the rest of the ride he made sex gestures and kept lowering her price. I laughed it off. Never paid for streetwalkers, never will. Drunk taxi-driving pimps, however, get a fat tip.

Finally, we reached the hotel. The party was not there, but it served as a meeting place for all the expats. Besides, this crowd was a long way from being classy enough to drink martinis in hotel bars. Case in point, the fifteen of us gathered and we made our way to the convenience store. We stocked up on snacks and liquor, then dripped down towards the office buildings. Even in “autumn” I found it oppressively hot, so I rolled up my sleeves, took off my tie, and undid three buttons. Everyone else was in T-shirts, but I had come from work. I prefer to dress better than those around me anyway. Vanity writ visible.

We posted up at some picnic tables under a pavilion in the nearby science park. I would just call it a corporate facility, but the locals deemed it somehow scientific. Cracked the Absolut and Nori Crackers to start the evening. Amongst us the mean age was thirty, yet the whole scene reminded me of high school. Mixing screwdrivers outdoors, chatting about pop music, sizing each other up sexually. I played along, but wondered if these people could see the world around them. Here we stood, on the most politically divisive bit of real estate in the Pacific and all these dorks could talk about was “Hey Ya!”. You knew the place, now you know the time frame.

The group was a mix of Americans and Commonwealthers. My best friend in the group was Dave, a black banker from London who hilariously hated rice. We had both run from careers in Finance to Formosa, though neither of us would divulge the entire story. We each had a working knowledge of literature and Asia, so the conversation always went smoothly. The other person I liked was Diane, a white South African. I had done a Capetown swing the year before, so she evaluated my interpretations of the place and how amusingly contradictory they were. She had left her husband back there, after some unpleasantness. Whether it was philandering or violence I never inquired. She returned the favor regarding my despair. Did not matter in the end. The three of us were content that we had found the other broken toys.

The rest were nincompoops from no account towns in Canada, New Zealand, and the States. The evening wore on as they all talked about work, gossiped about the other expats, and bitched about Taiwan. They were ill-formed on all three. I decided this party had no life, so I might as well provide it. I held forth, related the peculiar taxi ride over, went on about whatever paramour I had stashed in Taipei, and of course I dropped a few New York stories because I missed the place so much. Got a few laughs and some eye rolls. Remained unphased, since I was listening to the most interesting person there. Arrogance in full flower.

The more we drank, the more boisterous I grew. The heat remained oppressive. We had killed three bottles of vodka by then which turned it up even further. I weighed my options and started flirting with one of the Kiwis. This was both practical as well as sensual. By then the trains has stopped running and I did not know where I would sleep that night. I had her laughing and touching my arm, when one of the Americans stood up. Possibly jealous. More likely just drunk. Could not stand that I was having fun.

“You New Yorkers are really impressed with yourselves! I don’t think you’ve shut up since we got here!” He exclaimed with antipathy. The sweat dripped from his red face and the irritation flashed in his eyes. Probably the most expressive he ever got. Some people need anger to become vital. We call those people assholes.

“Hey man, I thought this was a party. You don’t have to like what I am saying, but why not make up your own instead of complaining!” I returned. Getting cranky now and the girl backed away. I think this is all he really wanted, but he kept going. Naturally, everyone’s entitled to their opinion and everybody’s right. This stands as the fundamental problem with humanity.

“These are my friends here. This is our party. I don’t know who invited you, but you should shut up and go back to Hsinchu or New York or where ever you came from!” He puffed and pouted. The rest of the crew seemed to nod along with the scene, so I took a cue. Hardly the first time someone handed my walking papers when I was being charming. Playing the game means losing sometimes.

“Well, I was enjoying myself though not so much any more. I won’t stay where I am not welcome. I shall take my leave of you!” I retorted, figuring I could still catch a night bus or something.  I walked forty meters into the darkness and took a piss on a fence. The rage surged and I decided this exit was not sufficiently dramatic. If you leave, leave an impression.

I slowly strolled back to the circle. I nodded to Dave, and turned toward my detractor. Wound up and slapped him full in the face. Like the bitch he was and probably still is.

“I am calling you out. What you got to say now? Bring it.” I offered, shoving him into a pillar. He decided to insult a New Yorker, he should know how we usually respond. A hot wire like a third rail is live.

I stepped back and opened my stance. Gestured, offering him a free shot. High school all over again, except he demurred and faded into the background somewhere. Dave pushed me back and questioned me. He said we were still mates, but that I should calm down. I think we guzzled one more beer and the party broke up. In typical fashion, I had made the scene then shut it down. Everyone needs a hobby.

The next evening I kicked it with the Chinese instead. Again, splitting my time between the two. Steven picked me up in his minivan. He was the Taiwanese friend who had taken me on holiday with his kids. One of the most generous and sensitive gentleman I have had the pleasure of knowing. We drove by the water and ate some of the largest shrimps to be found in the Pacific. We watched the waves roll in and out and discussed the arrival of the losers in 1949. I had no idea how savage Chiang had been to the minorities and intellectuals. Given this, I challenged him on his continued support of the Kuomintang. I was solidly DPP at the time, since this was before Chen got stupid with it. Glad he’s twisting now and Ma is behind the wheel, but at the time he was shaking things up and this impressed me. Bravado makes for more dynamic political theater than ideas. As usual, Stephen proved more prescient than I, but he was too smooth rub it in later. The discussion was measured and civilized, unlike the ignorant conversations with the expats the night before. It was night now, but something started to dawn on me.

We cruised to Dr. Tao’s place after dinner. He broke out the blue label and we turned on the game. Nobody paid much attention to it, we were too busy discussing the five kingdoms and ten dynasties period and the development of steel during the Song. When the doctor noticed me admiring his bookshelf, he took down a collection of Tang poets and read a few of the hits. He had apparently won prizes for this as a student, and while I understood almost none of the words his delivery impressed me considerably. Some things transcend mere comprehension.

His wife entered with a tray full of noodles and drinking snacks. She laid it out before us and filled our glasses. She made a little small talk and asked me my opinion of Lee Teng-hui. I said I thought he was a gambler and a bit too impressed with the Japanese. She smiled and agreed, likely out of decorum more than anything else, yet it was pleasant to think I offered some insight. She asked if we wanted anything further and then returned with more ice for our scotch. We had not even asked for it. We toasted the Yankees though they had just come up short in the series. I inquired where I could smoke and she led me to the patio. I lit up and stared into the dark ocean. It came into clear focus then.

“What did you come here for?” I asked myself. “To hang around with losers from Manitoba who watch DVDs and eat pizza on the weekends? Last night was kid’s stuff in the tropical swelter. Tonight, you are sitting on leather sofas, drinking top shelf, and having profound cultural exchanges. Air conditioned too.”

“Yeah, it’s not even a close call.” I resolved. From that moment on, I tried to ingratiate myself with the locals and spurned even the most benign exchanges with the other foreigners. Dave and I tore it up in Taipei once or twice, but that was about it. Before long, I had refined my circle to include the civilized exclusively. Stephen encouraged me and introduced me to people. So generous, he even threw his sister at me. Once she entered the picture, things fired on all cylinders. We lapped around the island: getting down in Taijung, making out in Hualien, yielding on the cliffs in Keelung, etc. Things got weird when she expected me to go native. I am built for speed and not for comfort.

I wanted them to accept me, take me by the hand, show me their world. As usual, this came too easy and I took things a bit too far. Fun while it lasted though. After I cast myself into the east China sea, I applied the same strategy where ever I wandered. It is all about the company you keep.

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Remember when we crashed that gallery opening in Soho? We agreed the visuals were passe and the scene too uptight. You passed me the exacto and gave me that look. I took a few slashes to the canvas while you grabbed a three bottles of Moet, knocking over two dozen flutes in the process. What were they going to do? Chase after us in their stilettos and wingtips? We made our point and celebrated on the ferry until I puked over the side. If we got a ticket, I don’t remember.

Then there was that time some friend of a friend got us into that party on 5th. What a staid and tragic crowd. We tried to turn the party out, and when they weren’t with it, I started to scrap with that yuppie in the boat shoes. I threw a few elbows and knocked out a tooth. You swiped the eightball off the table. We blew it in the park and got it on against a tree. Somehow we never got invited back.

You looked dead sexy when we threw on some business threads to boost uptown! We knew they’d never suspect two well-dressed white folks, who obviously looked like they had plenty of coin. I kept them busy trying on shoes in all the wrong sizes and you layered three designer dresses under your clothes. Then I grabbed a bottle of cologne as we cut to the subway. So charged up, we started making out on the train. The person who sat down after us probably needed some tissues.

I loved running short game on the tourists in midtown. Stumbling around acting wasted, though sometimes we actually were. Bump into anyone taking photos and drop an empty flask. If it shattered, demand twenty dollars for our pain, suffering, and lost alcohol. Easiest to pull on the Japanese, so freaked out they could not wait to hand over the cash and be done with us. Did it ten times a night sometimes. Not sure what we did with the money then, though I am sure it was well spent.

It’s too bad the way things went down with Tyson at the needle exchange. He had a line on some Wall street types looking for runners to deliver product, but he did not want to run the risk. We jumped on that didn’t we? We slid through first few runs smoothly, till that twitchy one started bouncing off the walls of his office. I put my forearm to his throat and you grabbed the payment and the powder. Once he passed 0ut, we made for the stairwell so turned on I had to put you on the railing and tear off your panties. Still made it out and security could not track us since we had fake IDs. He probably never lodged a complaint anyway, the loser.

How about that terrible concert in the park? So many lovebirds nestled on blankets with purses and wallets just hanging out. Not enough of a challenge for us. We stocked up serious and got a room. Got down on the meth and each other until we both were bleeding. That might have been the most intense physical experience of the year. Wonder what that guy’s Visa bill looked like after what we did to the room. That’s what you get for taking a date to a free show!

My favorite was the long shot we pulled on those guys from the foundation! Had them throwing money at our supposed outreach program that we stitched together with vacant rooms off Grand Concourse. Battered women and abused children played by whoever we could find on the Hunt’s Point track. A few hundred in signage and some cut and paste grant writing and we had dope money for weeks. Even took a trip to AC and dropped ten on the dice table. Laughed it off and we took that hooker up to the suite. She did not enough cash to recoup, but the look on her face was priceless. Did you cut her loose or did I? I always forget the details.

Was it my fault we got in over our heads with the Latin Kings? I did pay for the first few packages straight up, then when they offered us ounces on consignment we split to Poughkeepsie. I know you recall waking up to Ramone’s pistol in your face. And I’ll never forget how well you laughed it off and turned the tables long enough for me to choke him out. We worked it off in the end, but there were a few weeks there that I kept looking over my shoulder. I think I am still persona non grata in Queens. No big loss there.

Sorry that they picked you up for trashing that place in Chinatown. I told you to hide in the dumpster, but you just had to give the pigs a piece of your mind. So close to the tombs, they booked you straight away. I could not even pick you up at the precinct, so you enjoyed a week in the short-time club at Riker’s. No doubt you were popular with those ladies. Came out so angry when they sprung you, but after getting down in the taxi back we knew it would be alright. Sometimes things were just meant to be.

Well, it seems I must bust you out once again. They probably won’t give you ROR for this last episode. I know I split when shit got hectic, and then called in the fire trucks. I figured the commotion would give you the chance to escape. Your big mouth always needs to get in the last word as always. That’s why I am on this side of the glass and you dressed in orange once again. But don’t worry baby, as your therapist I can get you released to my care. And we will tear it up like always. As long as your parent’s checks keep clearing…

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Burn Unit

Note: 那年夏天很热。这里面还有我的烧伤。

China does things in threes. At least with your cursory cultural knowledge, this is the strongest connection you can make after four months in the country. Three kingdoms, three gorges, the three river’s dam, triads, etc. This and knowing they eat rice in the south and noodles in the north-the rest you will never understand. Yourself most of all.

That summer, China’s three furnaces set ablaze in historic fashion. And they were the only places you could see her. From February to November, she worked on a luxury cruise ship on the Yangtze, taking entitled Western Tourists from Chongqing to Nanjing with a stop in Wuhan in between. At each port, she had a twelve hour window to get off the ship and come to your hotel, if you could find one. Sometimes less, if her mobile rang. It usually did. Brevity is the soul of longing.

Those three cities know a heat and humidity legendary for centuries. That summer, they went for broke. The heat pushed into the high thirties at night. The air grew so dense you were drenched seconds after leaving the dark, air conditioned rooms. The coolies wandering up and down the hills of Chongqing, usually so vigorous, dawdled with their empty carrying polls. Even the miserly fishmongers gave away their rotting crayfish because ice proved too expensive to replace six times a day.  You too felt drained from even the most petty of errands. Next to finding her, they all seemed petty.

In July, you met in Chongqing. Even she suggested skipping the local delicacies. On earlier visits, this had been your typical excursion. The flavors of the region provided satisfaction for both. She, the native, remembered home. You, the interloper, tasted something new and compelling. The hotpot or the broiled fish served as a pleasant diversion from quick bouts of affection, but the heat proved too intense this time for such firey concoctions. So you just lie beneath the fan and hold her, until the brown dawn cast its miserable demand. Light breaks the sky as you guide her down the stone steps to the moorings. Watch her board as the hands remove the lines. Stand on the pier until you lose the ship in the rising eastern sun. Dry your face. Sweat then tears.

You check out and stumble around Liberation Monument in a restless daze. Go ice skating in the shopping mall, just to support the Chinese need to contradict nature. Also to keep cool. The heat is entering the mid forties and everyone carries a water bottle. You buy a coke and in a minute it is tossed. A hawker hands you a business card, advertising the services of “women as delicate as water”. Amused you keep the flier for a bookmark, though only have eyes for one resident of Sichuan. She must be approaching the gorges by now. The loneliness grows as dense as the heat. Even as you merge with the perspiring masses, surrounded by more humanity than even you expected.

Make your way to the train station. The body heat of the thousands in line combines with the afternoon’s scorch for a oppressive experience. The old ladies fan themselves with newspapers and the migrants smoke indifferently, as always.  You began thinking about Xian, since it would cooler up there. Certainly drier on the tip of the desert. The ticket line moves glacially and you cannot stand what must be fifty degrees in the acrid, packed ticket hall. The smell of sweltering bodies grows too intense. Twelve hours more of this on a hard-sleeper with no climate control no longer appeals to you. There’s no difference where you go anyway, she will not be there. No relief in any direction.

Cut to the adjacent bus station. It is a private outfit, so the lines are shorter and move quickly. In thirty minutes, you are on your way to Chengdu. It will be a shorter trip and not much cooler, but you feel mildly excited to see the Sichuan capital. The city is cleaner than Chongqing and the Japanese kids at the hostel find your nihongo amusing. Spend a few days watching the mask changing acts and admiring tableaux from the three kingdoms period. Leave a stone on Liu Bei’s grave in the museum. Tell the ancient general “Stay down, you do not want to see what is going on up here now. Foreigners running aimlessly over the province. Also, it is forty two degrees outside.”

You need to reach Wuhan in twenty-four hours now. The rail shot proves circuitous and muggy. Make friends with a little boy in the bunk next to you. You play a little Weiqi on his traveling set, and teach him it is called Go in English. He is learning your tongue, so you make up another game called “Go” and run up and down the compartments in a makeshift form of tag. He is at about your skill level in both versions. His parents seem grateful you have amused their son on the long ride, but it was really all you could do to take your mind off of the heat. And her.

The family gets out in Zhongxiang as dawn clears the horizon. You have never heard of the place, but are sure it has ten million residents from the looks of it. You spend the next few hours realizing there is no station for Wuhan. There are three, one for each of the three cities that merged during the ROC period. Once again you validate your insight about threes. This is all you have to work with.

You get out at Wuchang. This station lies to the east, perhaps the furthest of the three from where her boat will dock. Grab another coke and stumble down the major thoroughfares with the sun at your back so you know you are headed west, until it rises too high and you must ask the natives. Many are confused, since they do not orient themselves with a compass. Others are scared of the sweaty shirtless barbarian in sunglasses gesturing and mumbling a toneless “xi ma?” So you ask where the river is, but of course there are three of them and the Mandarin name for the one you want is not “Yangtze”. Eventually, you find the ferry and squat with the migrants on the rusty deck. They are nearly naked as the heat demands all pretense be excused for comfort. You are all just brother vagrants now, so you offer them a cigarette. They giggle at the gesture from the Western ghost.You’d laugh but it is too hot.

You get off the boat and stop at a Western hotel along the banks. The other passengers would not be allowed to do this. This is one advantage you have over your fellow strays from the ferry. In this heat, an hour in the air conditioned lobby seems more valuable to you than their fluent Mandarin. A bright hotel clerk determines where you need to go and even writes down the address in characters. Fully refreshed and with a more distinct goal, you hop on the back of a motorcycle and ten yuan later find yourself at the docks where she will arrive in the evening. All is now right with the world.

You find a two-star a few blocks up from the water. Take a thirty minute shower and bask in the darkness and air conditioning. Watch a documentary on CCTV 9 while the sun descends. Wander back to the docks thirty minutes before the appointed time. Drink a beer in the alley with the other roustabouts watching the sun descend. You and she are texting back and forth as always, aggravating the anticipation. Stare into the blue twilight and brown water to will the ship to port. This does nothing. The river’s horizon remains vacant and longing. All too familiar.

The silhouette of the ship is familiar to you now. It emerges with a cooling breeze, and all the anxiety and discomfort washes into the river. She is the first off the ship. The reunion comes only days from parting, but the distance and longing make it feel like a decade. Kiss as night descends. Run away into the streets of Wuhan. Nothing matters now.

The morning finds you eating steamed buns in a still unmanageable thirty-eight degrees. For some reason she is taking you on a detour into the business district. Given how little time she has, you are flattered and confused. Find yourself at a jewelry counter in the Pacific department store. The swim of heat, wine, and love in the morning after makes you dizzy enough that you do not really comprehend the gesture she tries to make, pointing to various rings. Also a saleswoman is shoving a platinum band many sizes too small onto your index finger. Something has to give.

“I don’t really wear rings or jewelry. How about a watch?”

You will learn later that the word “clock” is a homonym for death in Mandarin. You thought that since she deals with spoiled Americans and snooty French tourists all the time she would accept your cultural insensitivity. You are wrong.

“I just wanted to give you something nice. This is not going to work. You do not understand me, or my country. What are you doing here?”

She sneers and storms from the store. Instead of precious ornaments, she buys you an ice cream that melts instantly, much like your heart in this moment. Actually “burns” serves as a more appropriate verb.

The sun is in full fury when she shows you her back at the pier. You try to explain you did not comprehend the gravity of her kindness. It does little to assuage her. You provide one last protest.

“Well, I am glad I felt this. This whole thing. For a long time, I felt nothing at all. Then this spring, all that ended when I found you. So even if we do not meet in Nanjing, or ever again I know I will remember all this.”

Kiss her indifferent cheek as she whips away and onto the deck. You wander north to the train station in Hankou, drenched in sweat and drained in spirit. It is forty-six degrees and you are broken. The scene in the ticket hall is the same maddening swelter as Chongqing, so you take the sleeper bus and weep your way to Shanghai in sunburned agony. The bed is fifty centimeters too short for you. As usual you do not fit. Nor understand.

A year later you will travel back to Chengdu. You and she will be wed on a Thursday morning. The “ceremony” will take ten minutes. It is performed by a bored secretary. The scorch of the city is similarly indifferent. Neither of you will ever wear rings.

Years later, you return to Chengdu for the third time. You take an airplane, internationally. After twenty hours in the air, you step out into the blazing summer heat and catch a cab to the same government building that performed your nuptials. You sign the papers with a trembling hand. Surrender the keys and try to look stoical. Eye contact for the last time. In the taxi back to the airport, you remember China does things in threes. This knowledge provides no comfort.

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BELOW IS A GUIDE TO SPEAKING TO POTENTIAL CLIENTS:

“Hello, this is [Insert Name] calling from Smith Collins on Wall Street. Can you hear me well?”

This is to acquire your first “yes”. Accumulating “yeses” is the key to any positive agreement. This first one is a gimme. Do not say “Smith Collins Financial”. NEVER say “financial”. This is a stop sign for all sales calls. Follow with:

“Excellent, I have it on file that your are looking for a opportunity to enhance your position. I would like to have my senior analyst give you a call with an idea for equities trading. Are mornings or afternoons better for you?”

This is the close. “Mornings or afternoons?” – this is always the close. If you get a “yes” here or at any point follow with:

“That’s great. I appreciate you having an open mind and interest in new opportunities. I will have my guy give you a ring tomorrow and you will have a look at what we can do for you in the market. Have a great day!”

We all know this never happens on the first pitch. Get ready for objections, like “not interested” and counter with:

“Being interested and being informed are two different things. All I want is an open mind and ninety seconds of your time for my analyst to give you an idea for investment. At the very least you will be informed of what is happening here on the street. Are mornings or afternoons better?”

If yes, make the appointment. If he [do not pitch females] replies with financial concerns, offer:

“That’s odd, I have you down as an active investor. When was the last time you traded stock? [Regardless of answer, continue] I can provide you with the insights and analysis you need to build your wealth. Can we call you in the morning or do you prefer the afternoon?”

Things will get intense now if he stays on the line. When the objections get fiercer provide the following:

“Listen, I know it’s rough out there. However, I have been at Smith Collins for ten years now, and we have beaten the street consistently because of the resources we have. I can show you an investment product and you do not even have to buy. Just watch it and kick yourself for not moving faster as you watch it rise. Can we tell you about it in the morning or the afternoon?”

You probably have not worked here for ten weeks even. Do not worry about this or even if the stock is a solid one. Keep him on the line and close him out. When he tells you he is busy, you say:

“Of course, you are busy. That is the price for being successful. You are successful, right? [Acquire a “yes” and continue] All of my clients are successful, but they always make time for my ideas because they know it will add to their success. That’s all I want to do for you, so can we do it in the AM or the PM?”

When he objects here with “I have a broker” or “I am too tied up financially” you must keep him on the line. Your tone should remain professional, though you should start taking off the gloves. Claim the following:

“I know you have a broker. He probably lives in [insert the city the lead lives in] and tells you to buy blue chips that go nowhere exciting. Most brokers like to watch paint dry and collect their commissions. I am offering you some dynamic information that will make you prosper in directions ways your broker is scared to go. Shall I show them to you in the morning or afternoon?”

If he still objects but stays on, then you know he’s a kicker. Control the conversation. You must start twisting the knife.

“I did not get you number out of the phone book [you did, essentially]. I have you on record as an active, aggressive investor. That’s what you are right? [Acquire a “yes”] Then when I call you up with a solid investment solution you should take the cotton out and listen. Are you ready to hear it in the morning or afternoon?”

Still hemming and hawing? If he won’t commit yet this means his wife is a ball-buster, most likely. Use this to your advantage:

“Can’t make a move without checking with the misses? I thought someone like you was the boss all day long, not just at work. I am not asking for your money now, just your time. You don’t have to ask her permission to take a phone call, at YOUR office during YOUR morning or YOUR afternoon. Which is better?”

If he remains on the phone, it is a point of pride now. Stick and move:

“I’d love it if someone called me up and gave me an opportunity to make some money. The picks my man has move fast, so if you have the balls let him call you up. You have balls, right? [Acquire “yes”] Well, reach down and check. Do you have them in the morning or the afternoon?”

Sometimes you have to let them have it. If he still won’t surrender, drop the following:

“Unbunch you panties and open your ears. I am offering you a unique opportunity to get in on something most guys would kill for. I don’t call pussies. If I have a pussies on my callback list, then I will have words with my assistant. Unpleasant words.   But I am sure you are not, so let me get back to you in the morning. Or is the afternoon best?”

Expect some cursing. Perhaps he’s catching the vapors. Or he’s just a glutton. Feel free to improvise from the following:

“Go ahead call your mom. Call your boyfriend for all I care. I am speaking to you from Wall Street where we make fortunes every day. I thought you’d appreciate my time and attention. I have a dozen other guys I could be showing this to, but I thought you had the capital to make something happen. You have more than two right? [Acquire “yes”, if he asks “two what?” reply “mil” and close] So, take the cock out of your mouth and speak to me. In the morning or afternoon, which is it?”

By now he has hung up or grown cross, but if he wants to fight just go for it. Some of our “best clients” need to be taken in this way. You provide this:

“Now you’re just playing pussy. I do not have time for your shit. I just called to make you rich and you are acting like some kind of fairy.  You need to fucking understand that I am going take my toys and go home if you’re not a man. Now TELL me – morning or afternoon, you fucking faggot!”

You have closed him. Now go to the restroom and weep into your fifty-dollar silk pocket square. This is what your life has been reduced to.

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You do not know how you got on the cross-country team. You do not like running very much. You prefer team sports, and this feels highly individualized. Even in track, you can at least pass the baton. Here, the three mile distance just leaves you alone with your thoughts. Most of which focus on how little you like this. And these people.

Past the baseball diamonds where you’d prefer to be playing, the team gathers under the willow tree waiting for the coach to arrive. The boys tell dirty jokes and false stories about their racing speed and distance endurance. The girls sit on the bleachers, consumed with things that do not interest you because you are fourteen and do not understand them well. You speak to them all though only when necessary to pass information or ask questions. Like how much longer you have to wait or how far you must run. Prefer as little as possible.

The circle of boys grows restless and competitive. Kevin, the ugliest specimen, begins mocking you. You throw it back to him in vocabulary he does not appreciate. Unlike some other team members, you share no classes with him. You are on the college track and he is likely illiterate. Switch to vulgarity to get a point across. You are certain his mother is indeed popular.

Things get heated. They do nearly every day at 3:30. Sometimes just name calling. Sometimes shoving. Today he throws a right cross into your shoulder. You stagger and kick him in the chest. Kevin jumps back and grabs at the tree.  Pulls a switch from the willow. This is his favorite routine – the “Jew Whip”. The other boys, many of whom are Hispanic, watch with amusement. They’ve got numbers so why should they sympathize. You are a minority “in name only”, so to speak. Probably would not stand in the way of his “Spic Stick” – unless he went after one of the Latinas you like. Besides, you chose to be here. Stand alone and take your medicine as he lashes at you. He gets in some decent strikes before the coach arrives. You see no point in informing on him. Code dictates silence.

You plod around the track with little enthusiasm. Kevin and the others lap you, screeching vague comments about your heritage and presumed latent homosexual tendencies. Ironically, one of these boys, Juan, will come out as soon as he reaches college.  For now, he’d rather fit in and call you a “theater fag”.  You’d reject their friendship even if it was offered. It is not.

Striding for miles becomes loathsome work. You think about anything to distract yourself from the monotony of perpetual stepping and rhythmic mouth-breathing. Your classes. The musical auditions. The girls on the team. Dinner plans. Television. Always back to how much further you have to go.

The afternoon practices go on like this. Sometimes the team runs on the canal, past the orchards that irrigate from it. Orange blossoms fill the air.  A sickly sweet citrus flavor hangs heavy in your mouth. Kevin spits at you when he passes. You pick up a rotten specimen. Hurl it and strike him in the back. On the return, he draws a swastika on his hand with a black marker. Tries to slap you in the face. A glancing blow you were not expecting. He says he’s “Dr. Mengele”.  Given his general ignorance, you are impressed with the reference. Tackling him, you say you are “Moshe Dayan”. This does not register. Perhaps his unfamiliarity is intentional. You doubt this.

Your father encourages you on the weekends. He gives you a pep talk as you jog together around the neighborhood. He lets you win when you race, feigning fatigue in the final stretch. Sundays, he takes you to Hebrew school where you play touch football with the seven other Jewish kids in town. You enjoy this immensely, not least of all because you are more athletic than the others. However, there is no touch football in the high school pantheon. And you have been barred from playing the real thing. Not that you’d find the circumstances on that team much different. The freshman team’s two-a-days look even worse than your thirty miles a week.

The night before a race the team eats pasta en mass. Kevin stares daggers at you, clutching his Styrofoam bowl behind you in the buffet line. The red sauce is thin and pathetic. Your teammates sit with each other and discuss their Christian youth group’s activities. Smile and nod in bemusement. Coach chastises you for drinking soda. Claims the carbon dioxide will enter your bloodstream and reduce the amount of oxygen your body can absorb. Suppose he means well, but you doubt his authority on the respiratory system. The whole scene only alienates you further.  Wish a few kids good luck and cut out as soon as convenient. No one notices.

Dad drives you to the meet, three miles on a hilly course on a bright Saturday morning. You still feel groggy at the starting line, having woken up less than hour ago. Unguarded, Kevin trips you after the gun goes off. Dust off and let the crowd of runners pass in different uniforms as you regain your footing and resume your pace. You do not know why you even bother. Pride and irritation thrust you down the track before you can really consider surrender. Never your style.

Squinting and sleepy, you resolve to get this over with as soon as possible. Stumble a bit when you reach the first of three hills. The nylon uniform feels scratchy and sticks to your chest as you sweat. Wish you could run bare-chested, though you remain too bashful to throw off your jersey. The annoyance only drives you to run faster. The sooner you finish, the sooner you can take it off.

Up the second hill, you start to pass stragglers. You keep your eyes down, seeing only the incline in front of you. You pass Juan, whose strides are shorter than yours. Give him a glance and keep going, smirking as he struggles. Crossing over the summit and down into the valley, you increase your pace. One more up and down and you can go home. For the first and only time in your brief career, you clear your mind of all thoughts and focus on the finish.

You do not even notice Kevin as you sprint up the final hill. He tries to push you halfheartedly, already fatigued from the race. One stutter-step and you are yards ahead of him, willing your legs to push faster up the final stretch. On the descent, you skip and leap to take full advantage of gravity. Your knees strain but respond, oblivious to all but completion. You are the first freshman to cross the line.

You vomit in the woods from the exertion. Your coach congratulates you on achieving a personal best time. This gives you much less satisfaction than the Camel straight you light up that evening. Visiting town ten years later, you will put one out on Kevin’s face at a party. He will be too drunk to notice or remember you.

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