1 Whims, Cells and Grams
She used to tell me how Pythagoras rallied against suicide. That it’d diminish the number of souls available in the… the universe? Did she say it like that? Wholly mathematical, either way. She used to say how some obscure strand of philosophy contends that you are free to take your own life because life is, after all, meaningless. Rather than having to justify killing yourself, you’d have to justify living by giving that life meaning. She used to say, “I wonder how I will die.”
All my meaning is gone. All I’m left with is a car full of pop tarts and morphine under a glaring blue sky at a gas station three thousand miles from home. My insides a mess. No meaning. Not anymore. Trace back those three thousand miles, 163 sunsets, and I had a choice. If only I had stayed put – made a different choice – there wouldn’t have been any meaning to lose. Me lost out here, this whole sad scene is a rotten flower with a single root – when you pull at it you’ll see that it all goes back to that one choice of staying in my seat or getting up.
Then, three thousand miles ago, a low, golden sun dipped the air into a hazy, graspable… sliceable substance, turned the river and skyscrapers that crowd its banks into golden mirrors.
Three thousand miles ago, right now, it makes melancholy swamp my system, knowing that this moment will last really just one moment and no longer than that. Knowing that summer is at its end and with it the heat, the short skirts, the students sitting in the park and the children playing in the streets. The saccharine, green smell of summer rain. We will have to wait another nine months for all this to return.
Three thousand miles ago, that black bile of melancholia was – is – seeping through my veins. A humor that scientists now call serotonin – or lack thereof. You need to have seen that black bile to be able to see all other colors. The ever happy ones, they are the color blind.
I’m surrounded by the colorblind. Zombies. While this moment seems so painfully unique, so now to me, the other passengers remain ignorant and hold their gaze fixed on their mobile phones and books, people going about their lives unseeing, being in the past, the future, or alternate worlds altogether – like you right this instant. Yes, I mean you – never in the Now. Everyone in this carriage except this one girl, sitting exactly opposite of me, her eyes full of empty pain, staring vacantly at no particular spot in the thick auburn air. While all the others seem to be absent in their phones, in their books, in the lives they don’t have, she seems absent in a completely different way; within herself.
Hers is not the naive, sentimental melancholy that I feel with the realization of the ephemereality of this moment. Hers is hurt. A skin-numbing, stomach-twisting hurt. So silent, so passive, so gotten-used-to.
And my right hand moves to the blind face of the watch on my wrist, saying 12:37.
Do you have that sometimes? That you fall in love with a complete stranger on the street? That you feel the person passing by is more than just another stranger among all the others? That, if only given the chance, there’d be a whole different world full of connection and understanding and maybe even – silly, I know, but… love? And every single time they just pass by and remain strangers. You’re just too slow to react. And in any case – how should you react? Go after that stranger, scare the shit out of them, get arrested?
Maybe you don’t know what I am talking about. Maybe it’s just me.
I lead a dozen alternate lives with a dozen stranger-lovers. Their faces of potentialities buried under thick memory snow. They resurface with avalanches, or warmer climates.
Maybe it is just my body confusing things. Dopamine flooding my brain and assigning it to this girl instead of the light and the moment it creates. You know how they say you should take your first date on a roller coaster ride, or something else exciting because their bodies – stupid bodies – associate their increased heart rate with you. Except: what if roller coasters make them puke? What if they’re afraid of heights and speed? That would… kind of suck, wouldn’t it.
Maybe my body is just confusing things.
And then the moment comes to an end just how I have foreseen – loathed it. The shadows of the bridge piers first take only small, regular slices off the golden air, like a well-behaved guest at a dinner party, forming dull grey sections. But the sections soon grow larger, permanent, transforming the thick bourbony air into its sober blank self.
But what is worse, she stands up. With the inertia of the truly depressed she moves to the door right next to her, the doors already opening with the same drowsiness.
React. How to react? The stranger is passing. Should I let her? Have only the moment as a memory and the thousand what-ifs as idealities? Add her to my dozen?
Believe me, usually, I am a coward. I am the one who runs away. I am the one who hides in his cave. I am the one you see sitting in the theater alone. I am the one who – I hate to admit – started talking to the painting on the wall. I know her crude strokes better than any real human features. Because I am not interested in humans anymore. I just don’t want them. I want to be alone.
But despite all of this I feel drawn to her. To her brokenness. To her hurt. You may think it’s a kind of helpers complex, that I want to make her whole again. But that’s not it. I enjoy her hurt. Okay, now that sounds a bit creepy. I’m not a serial killer, don’t misunderstand me.
I want to be her shadow, like a sad dog that sits next to a grieving widow. The dog doesn’t want to change anything about the status quo. It relishes the moment. Yes, it still sounds creepy, I realize that. But in any case, isn’t it weird? A society in which wanting to help someone is deemed pathological?
And my watch still says 12:37.
So, three thousand miles ago, I squeeze out just as the door is closing. Some of the zombies in the carriage look momentarily up at the sudden movement. Standing on the platform in the crowd of people I realize how stupid this idea was. How am I supposed to find her here? And even if I do, what am I going to do? What am I doing here at a subway station I’ve never been to, never intended to go to. Surely showing up too late for work now. An idiot is what I am. A disgustingly sappy, borderline-creepy idiot.
Which is when I catch a glimpse of brown and blue. Her brown short-sleeved t-shirt, blue rims. I can see her now from the back, walking up the stairs towards one of the exits. So I follow her, trying to keep her in sight while maneuvering through the masses of secretaries, executives, editors, returning home from work.
A few blocks later clientele changes into
a guy with a single yellow tooth, overwhelmingly happy with his ham and cheese sandwich,
a man with gray stringy hair and dirt caked face, dressed in suit and tattered pride,
a female human alien of unidentifiable age, either 12 or 42, golden locks of innocence and flower pattern skirt,
an anachronistic black fella who might be on his way to an 1850s theme party hosted by Run DMC, with gold tooth and high hat.
I follow her like this for a few blocks, maintaining a steady distance between us, when fat goblets of water fall on the earth, making a sound like giant beetles being crushed against windshields. She – in her shirt, shorts and tennis shoes – just walks on.
She enters this coffee shop at a street corner and I wonder what I should do. I can still simply go back to the subway station, maybe show up at work on time, forget all this foolishness and stop stalking this girl.
But I could also…. It doesn’t hurt to just… see what happens… right? So I leave my spot at the deli next door and venture inside. While gazing at the billboard of coffee mutations I see her fastening the strings of her green apron in the corner of my eye. Already, I am idealizing her every feature, the shape of her neck, the tip of her nose. And yet, it’s not any of these features that attracts me, but what is promised to be hidden underneath the surface, like some enchanting well, calling little children in the middle of the night to leave their beds, to be swallowed whole.
She notices me only at the periphery of her existence while I wait to place my order, not waiting, really, but standing in awe.
I’m not a coffee kind of person. It reminds me too much of the big silver coffee pots, like beer kegs, on tables shoved awkwardly to the side of the rooms in church basements. “You guys do sell hot chocolate, right?” I manage to say, surprised at how relaxed it sounds. Not like your creepy stalker at all. She nods and I am left again in my silent venerations while she prepares my order.
When she hands me the cup I thank her, reading her name tag. “Yoki. You don’t look Japanese.” All ease gone. She stares at me for a few seconds with moss green eyes, golden speckles enclosed, now for the first time truly registering my presence.
“Because it’s Yoki. Not Yoko. As in Ono… Yuki is Japanese, too.” I think she’s finished her sentence when she adds, “It’s Hopi. Means rain.” She says this as though she’s ready to pull a trigger or glide a blade along her wrist, pressing her lips together to mimic a smile. And I wonder whether she knows me, the way I feel I know her.
To suture a wound, you clean the area first, take out any foreign objects – splinters, gravel. Use water or diluted Betadine to cleanse the wound thoroughly. Make the first stitch about 2 millimeters from the wound edge, depending on skin thickness. For best results, the needle should enter and exit the skin at a 90 degree angle. The rest is all a question of skin thickness and location of the wound. A matter of technique.
I am threading the curved needle at perfect 90 degree angles through some drunken guy’s arm when I realize that I’m muttering ‘Yoki’ on and on as a kind of mantra. A thousand minds stand in between her and my own swiftly moving hands. Hers preparing magic brews that soothe the soul, mine fixing their shells, sewing skin together. The drunk replies something with a mumble of his own.
This is why I prefer night shifts: Because you get the fucked up people. During the day it’s all household accidents, chronic and infectious diseases. In the night you get the drunks, the addicts, the suicides. Domestic violence and failed gas station robbers. The ugly stuff.
Zip – And that watch of mine, the glass is all foggy with scratches so you can hardly see the yellowed face underneath, but it’s 12:37, sure enough.
Today it’s pretty quiet, so I’m sitting here with this guy slowly drooling over his Guns N’ Roses shirt.
“Hey you inconscientious, late-coming, unreliable bastard,” Chuck welcomes me. I’m not even sure inconscientious is a word. “Have you seen Amy?” he says, “Need to ask her about the blood pressure of this Steve Buscemi Doppelgänger.”
“Who?” I ask.
Chuck does this thing where he flicks his head to one side to get his hair out of his face. Only, for months now, he has a new haircut, so he’s left looking like someone with Tourette’s. Flicking his head, he says, “The stabbed taxi driver on one.”
“No way! He looks nothing like Buscemi,” I say, making the last stitch.
“Yes way. Okay, wanna bet? We’ll let Amy decide.”
Tying a square knot, I say, “I think she’s on four, getting molested by terminal cancer.”
Amy is the head nurse on the ward. 62 and grumpy. And if she’d know we’re actually calling her Amy when she’s not around, she’d give us a prostate exam for free.
“But don’t tell her who’s betting on what,” I plead, “She’ll always decide in your favor, you fuckhead.”
Flicking his head, he says, “Oki-doke” and is out of the door.
The rest of the night has me clean an operating theater, document of an unsuccessful surgery; help with a gastric lavage (the polite term for stomach pumping) on a woman who overdosed on Xanax; and clean shards of glass out of the knee of an obnoxiously rich, drunk kid. Those are my highlights in between checking vitals and handing out meds. And when my shift ends I resist the urge to take a detour past that coffee shop, but go straight home as usual. The streets are empty except for the occasional street cleaner, early office clerk, night guards getting off work.
I climb the three flights of stairs to my door. In the hallway you can hear the echoes of the family on the ground floor making noises of getting ready for school and work and I unlock the door to my den, my little hole where I hide from the world. And I hide a lot. I drop my bag on the rug by the door. It’s the third, at parts fourth, layer covering the floor. Luckily, my apartment door opens to the outside. But you can’t slip letters under the door; they’ll get lost. I’ve hung some of the lighter rugs against the bare concrete and brick walls, half covered now by the stacks of books and records. I drop myself on the unmade bed to the far end of the room, nod the face hello. It’s 12:37.
The next day, I’m not that strong. For the second time I am standing at that counter. And we both drown in the choppy sea of neon light.
I think the beauty of matter is overrated. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that some objects aren’t aesthetically appealing, I agree on that, but what is often a much more magical form of beauty is light and how it falls on things.
As a child I used to lie in the apple orchard behind our house waiting for the light to be at the right angle to filter through the trees so that you could see the light itself as a separate entity, forming holographic columns. I would conceive of the air surrounding me not as empty void, but as a flexible, movable substance, like a special kind of water, and I could feel the molecules on my skin, surrounding me like a glove. I was a weird kid.
But really, that’s the thing about Edward Hopper, the painter: He managed to portray objects without having them overshadow the light. Yoki and the light, they work well together. Not against each other, but in symbiosis. Each of them strong but soft; in their own way uncanny and strangely seductive.
I guess I am standing there already for a while. Staring at her and the light, not looking at the menu. At a loss for what to say. I look at her, but it doesn’t seem to bother her, she just returns my stares. Despite of what it sounds like this is not an awkward moment. It feels more like taking a break, like breathing. Then again, maybe that’s just me. Maybe all this is just as awkward as it sounds. Because the girl with those two perfect universes for eyes, she says, “Yoko Ono guy. I’m starting to think you’re stalking me.”
Rubbing along the watch on my wrist, I admit, “I guess I kinda am.”
“I’m getting off now. So instead of walking behind me, do you want to walk next to me?”
So she did notice me. I gotta improve my stalking skills. “I could be a serial killer for all you know,” I answer, stunned at her offer.
“Maybe that’s exactly why I like you.” No endearment, no emotion at all.
I answer, a bit perplexed that that’d be great, the walking thing, and soon enough, after she wiped the counter, said a noncommittal goodbye to her coworker and grabbed a leatherjacket I hadn’t noticed before, we head outside. I want to turn to the left, the way she came from, when she stops me, “No, no. We’re taking the scenic route.” Both her hands are busy tying her hair in a high ponytail, the jacket stuck awkwardly between shoulder and neck, all the while walking. “Uhm… just to make this clear though, don’t think I’m taking you home or anything. ‘Cos I’m not.” At least she’s not the type to beat about the bush. “So what is it you’re doing? ‘Cos either you have a very fucked up circadian rhythm, or you’re also a night-shifter,” she continues.
“You make it sound like something from X-Men,” I say. I like to inject things into people. I like to cut them open and sew them closed. Today, I turned a morbidly obese paraplegic patient around in his bed. The skin on the bottom as black as crude oil. I got vomited on twice.
Hospitals have the highest square meter density of both fortune and misfortune. The lowest square meter density of normality. I say just that. I get a porcelain smile in return. “Why are you doing it?” I ask her.
“The night shifts? Hah, well. It pays better and I can use the money. And you tend to get way cooler customers. Okay,” She looks at me. “also the occasional creeps. And… This,” she says, pointing at the dawn that is setting itself up majestically in front of us as an orange strip underneath the dark blue sky. “This is how cruel the world is,” she sighs.
“Why cruel?” I ask, although I get it somehow. That golden light in the subway last evening was painful on some very basic human level.
“I mean… Everything is so fucking awful and hopeless and painful that you just want to kill yourself because the prospect of nothingness seems more pleasant than the pain, and then the world throws this,” she motions around her “at you. And it just feels like a slap in the face.”
Between steps, I catch a careful glance at her, to make sure she’s really there, to make sure I’m not making her up. And without any prior indication, without slowing down, she just slumps down on the next park bench, so I have to backtrack a bit and sit down next to her. “Because,” I say, “you already resolved to give up, but then… maybe not just yet? Because, maybe there is still something to come?”
The sunrise dyeing her eyes blue and orange, she bites the inside of her lower lip. “It’s like a cliffhanger to a TV-show, but in the end the resolution is boring and dull. I just want to stop watching the show.”
I can’t help but chuckle. “That’s probably one of the weirdest euphemisms for suicide I’ve ever heard.”
After a stretch of silence in which the orange wins a few centimeters over the blue, she resumes with a sigh. “Sometimes I really enjoy that slap in the face.” And that makes me grin. The way she says that. So utterly regretful. And we just sit there, watching as the sun gains more and more territory.
Have you noticed that the air feels different at dawn? It feels as though it’s been recycled during the night. There must be some elaborate ventilation scheme to ensure that by the next day people have their share of fresh air. And at dawn you get it the freshest. Untouched like just-fallen snow, yet undisturbed by human existence.
Wrapping herself tighter into the leather jacket, Yoki says, “I think it’s the purity of it all that I like.” She says, “The roughness. I mean, you don’t get those pleasantville bitches at night. Or at least, if you do, you get them with their faces off. Normally, you hardly see the broken parts of people. It’s so discouraging. Broken things can be so beautiful. Maybe because they let you know it’s okay that you are broken too.” Her forehead all in wrinkles, she turns to look at me. “I’m not making sense, I’m sorry. What I want to say is… during the day it’s full of those straight little people living straight little lives. At night they stop wearing their little plastic masks. Or they’re too tired to hold ’em up. You get the junkie sitting in the corner, crying for hours and holding onto his cup like that’s his last connection to reality. The pleasantville mom on valium, reconsidering her choices. The night watchman who is struggling to feed his family. Seriously, these were my customers today… Oh right. And there was this weird stalker, too,” she says with a big smile on her face, looking at me, all the while fumbling with her nametag, now detached from her shirt. “No, seriously. If I ever become like one of those pleasantville bitches, please God, just shoot me.”
“I’d say the risk of you turning into a … pleasantville bitch? … is pretty low. God can keep his shotgun safely stowed away.” On the nametag it says ‘Yoki P’ and not really thinking, I ask, “What does the P stand for?”
“The P. Your nametag. It says Yoki P.”
It comes automatic when she says, “Palmer,” and then mocks concern, “oh no. Now you can stalk me some more. I shouldn’t have said that, right?”
“Palmer…. Why do I think of Laura Palmer? Where is that from?”
She invariably starts to grin. First to herself, then at me. “You’re a creep, but at least you’re a creep with good taste.”
“Why, where’s it from?”
“Twin Peaks. Laura Palmer is the girl who dies in the beginning of Twin Peaks,” she answers.
And I have to smile, too, thinking back to backward-talking dwarfs.
Her grin dilutes in the same speed as the sun fills the sky, but a smudge of it never fades. Stroking over the glass of my watch, I say, “There’s a new Lynch.”
Yoki nods and says, “Yeah, haven’t gotten around to watch it, yet. Or… Okay, the truth is, I’m waiting till I can watch it for free online.” Her eyes pinch closed in honest embarrassment.
And I get this stupid, naive idea. “How about we make a deal: I stop stalking you. And I’ll go to see the movie next Friday. If you happen to be there as well, I’d be more than happy. If you don’t… I’ll have to live with that.”
She ponders the idea for a moment. “Somehow you turn me into a stalker that way… I like that. Do you know whether they smoke in that one?”
“In the theater?”
“No, the movie,” She says.
“Uh, how should I know? Why?”
“Yoki fun fact #1: I get cravings when I see someone smoke in a movie. I don’t normally smoke, and it doesn’t happen to me when I see people smoke in real life. Just faulty wiring. Anyway, which theater? I mean, I’m not saying that I will come. But just to give you the opportunity to be turned down…”
I give her the name of a rundown but cozy place in Greenwich where you have to check your seat before you sit down if you don’t want to sit in jizz, and she nods with a smile.
And then she gets up from the park bench, says a goodbye only with her eyes, not her mouth, one piercing look, and walks away into the day. “Don’t stop watching the show. It has its moments, you know?” I shout after her, but some singer’s eternally depressed voice is already whining over her headphones. Left here, with the watch on my wrist, my insides jump with giddiness. I find it hard not to grin. And yet, there is that tangle of thoughts trying to smother that happiness. Thinking, I had a deal with myself. Because I had a chance and blew it. Thinking, this isn’t fair to anyone. Thinking, who I am is not fair to her.
© Deva Mari