Iphigenia in pieces

On my way home from graduation, I brake too abruptly at a stoplight, causing the front tire on my bicycle to turn and skid. Something in the weave of reality contorts too far and snaps, and I tip over onto the asphalt. My right thigh takes most of the impact, and two nights later, like a foregrounded flower in a darkroom as it sinks into a tepid bath of photo-developing liquid, a purple-yellow bruise appears, sudden, complete, and firmly fixed. My elbow and hand, painfully abraded, leak wet patches of blood onto my clothes. Taking in weak, shallow breaths, I make a point of not looking at my wounds as I push the bicycle the rest of the way home.

The mornings are cooler now. When I wake up, Strawberry has left the warm moka pot on the countertop, still half-full with dark, soupy, silty coffee. I change my band-aids and listen to the American news from the other side of the ocean. The headlines–vivid, heady, satanically sad–drift past me like a chunky crowd of sleepy, slo-mo arrows. Sometimes, as I prepare breakfast, an arrow splits off from the mass and, finding me off-guard, pierces me deeply. Hearing, for example, the story of a woman separated from her dementia-afflicted mother, unable to see her in the flesh, unable to stop the flow of her forgetfulness through the laggy connection of a Zoom call, was enough to knock the breath out of me. I clutch the cutting board, fingering the soggy, droopy, flimsy wood until I can force down that blue, leaden lump of secondhand sadness stuck in my throat. Afterwards, I feel angry at myself. I am filled with horror at myself. My emotions are low, lousy, suffered only briefly, felt only cheaply compared to the nighttime river in spate of that daughter’s pain. The worst possible kind of voyeurism.

The bruise fades irregularly. The yellow goes first, but a mangled smattering of dark red splatters remain for days. Disaffected, estranged, I examine at my leg and the bloodied quilt made by a dozen veins splitting open. I am meat and bones. I am fat tissues and frayed keratin. It fascinates me: how my body heals itself, mindlessly, devotedly. Even though there’s always a scar left behind, I am charmed by the earnest attempt by bubbly platelets, stretchy collagen, and fighter cells, to turn the page, soften the blow, and keep me going. A humble, calloused vessel that, though continually emptied, fills and refills itself with warm blood and green breath, trying again to renew, recover, reawaken, and, when that proves impossible, to simply stay alive.

The Nightmare

Summer has edges that feel so defined. The horizon looks like a chiseled corner fold; a thin gold-green edge balancing against forget-me-not blue. I close my eyes and imagine that we live inside a handmade paper dodecahedron, its faces cutting into the atmosphere, scarring the sky in vertical stripes. I imagine that, if I reach for a cloud, I can trace its limits, isolate the blurriness from the substrate, and pull it clean from the sky like a puffy, 3-D sticker.

I remember being a kindergartner on my way home from school, flipping through my collection of sparkly, textured stickers with Titanic’s Rose and Jack printed on them, gingerly sealing and unsealing them from wax paper to share with the girl sitting across the aisle. Now, I do much of the same, in both smaller and grander ways. I collect beliefs, sources of faith and despair, strategically located wounds, and affix them to the walls of my psyche like glistening, overwrought posters of flowers, blood, and crying models in an adolescent bedroom.

In the pantheon that lives in the dodecahedron of my mind, there is no greater god than the one glued to the ceiling, a woman I glare at nightly while resisting sleep. She looks down at me, many-armed, many-eyed, curly-haired, wearing a crown of thorny red, blue, and yellow blooms. I try to pull her down, tear her into pieces, but I can’t reach high enough to strip her from the surface of my own mind. So we stare in silence at each other, deadlocked, constant, like the moon and Earth, like lion and canary, like heaven and hell, like sickness and health, like sense and absence.

In the Shadow of the Rain

On her way to collect a secondhand bedside table from a Craigslist user, Emma looks up at the sky above Setagaya to find the most beautiful cloud in memory. A mass of corpulent, slow-moving, baby pink sweetness, it hovers in the center of the firmament like a nude Renaissance courtier pillowed in rose-colored velvet, or a bulbous mountain of huge, bruised, tumbling peaches. Caught halfway into a crosswalk, she stops and stares spellbound until a car horn yelps at her and she jumps, half-bows in apology, and hurries over to the other side. The buildings immediately eclipse her view of the cloud, and she puts it out of mind, turning instead to the vibrating, navy blue arrow on her phone screen orienting her towards Setagaya 1-chome.

There is an awkward exchange of greetings and the Craigslist user–a young woman much like Emma–unceremoniously presents her with the little bedside table, made of flimsy plywood and seafoam-green fabric and just light enough, Emma thinks, to carry back to the station. However, having seriously overestimated both her strength and her stamina, she is forced to stop a few times on her return, huffing and puffing under the street lights that are now blinking on. She ducks into a drugstore, bedside table and all, to buy a bottle of sour-tasting, violet-colored sports drink, and chugs it in the shade of the store’s awning.

Even in the evening, summer is woundingly hot, and her undershirt sticks to her skin as closely and as suffocatingly as glossy protective shrink-wrapping. Around her, commuters are walking the last mile home, and the air buzzes with snippets of phone calls and crows cawing. She wipes her mouth and tucks the bottle into her bag. As she looks about her, she spots the cloud again. It feels closer now, somehow, as well as larger and more beautiful. Dominating the darkening sky, it moves, serenely, entrancingly, like a carnation-pink whale swimming in the bluest waters. Emma smiles, saturated in the feeling of wonder that only the natural world’s sudden, unexpected pleasures can provide.

She goes to pick up the dresser again but, as she heaves it up into her arms, she notices something strange and new. An alleyway spirals perpendicularly from the main road where she stands, and, at its end, a soft, strange light flickers. Maybe it’s the cloud, its cool-toned shadow casting far into her mind, leaving her drunken, mystified, sopoforic, and all too eager to participate in the world’s hidden secrets, but she is instantly, overwhelming fascinated. She quickly tucks the chest of drawers against the wall of a nearby apartment building where it can remain temporarily undisturbed, and sets out to investigate the source of the light.

Continued reading >

Fons et Origo

I sit in the bathtub with my hair braided into a loop and pinned to my head. In two weeks, Strawberry and I will be moving out of the dorm and into our first real place together. Now, when I run errands, I try to be intentional about where I look. This neighborhood will soon become another silvery scale in my armor, another scalloped edge in the closed book of my past, and, before I go, I want to notice everything.

The ginkgo leaves like tiny open fans, the setting sun herniating over chrome buildings in a torrent of blue, pink, and orange. The corner greengrocer with its plywood walls and gold-and-purple stacks of fermented radishes and pitted plums. Moving downhill through the red, saturated air, my breath hot inside an ice-blue surgical mask. Eyes darting. The butcher’s display. Styrofoam trays of eggs and dangling cuts of meat (I stare, disgusted and mesmerized, at the florid fat swirls surrounded by ribbed tissue, swaying on a hook: the colors and textures remind me of a ruffled cream-and-crimson underskirt in a Rococo-era painting). The dilapidated double doors leading to the dormitory’s underground passage. The old cork bulletin board with its evolving sequence of neatly-typed notices about the pandemic. The dark mouth of a sprawling garden.

Jumping across stepping stones. Climbing up a ladder and then sliding down several rungs. A cicada struggling on its back. The perennially empty flower store with the striking, blue-veined blown-glass vase in the window. Rain smacking the pavement with the flat of its hand. Waking up fully rested and clear-eyed, like a woman newly escaped from an enchantment. A stray phrase catching on an edge of my mind like unraveled thread on a thorn.

The Fisher Princess II

The Fisher Princess I

The stranger hovers above the water, perfectly upright, as though her body were an ornament hung from heaven. Her toes point down, rippling the surface ever so slightly. Max stops moving. The cold water laps at her as she stands at the edge of the red-orange square, looking up almost shyly, like a child encountering an imposing work of art. The stranger’s chin is tucked against her chest, and her long hair obscures her face, but the breeze shifts the strands and Max catches a shard of her unconscious, inanimate expression, a glimpse of her plummy, veined eyelids. Max breathes in sharply. The spell instantly breaks. The stranger, consumed by gravity, falls like a rock, straight into the water. The red-orange square vanishes.

Not thinking, Max rushes forward. The lake bottom drops underneath her, and she is submerged. Blind, she swings out clumsily, her open hand making contact first with the stranger’s hair, which she grabs by the fistful. She finds a limp arm, and then a shoulder, and Max reaches in to encircle the stranger’s waist and prop her up so her face is above water, just like Cal had shown her on the first day. Max pulls the body in towards her own; the stranger is warm to the touch, like peaches left in the sun. At this depth, Max can just barely touch the lake bottom, but she finds it in the blue-black darkness and she pushes against it hard, swallowing water in her exertion. The shore is hardly ten feet away but it takes all her energy to half-swim, half-drag, the stranger there.

Max leans down on the sand, her ear above the stranger’s mouth, and one hand on her throat. She waits there for a moment that feels like it expands like elastic into an eternity. But eventually she hears how the waves beat in time with the stranger’s heart and improbably steady breathing, and she sighs with relief. The rush of adrenaline that powered her disappears, and the weight of her exhaustion drops hard onto her mind and buckles her legs. She allows herself a moment’s rest, her chest heaving. A bird cries out somewhere on the other side of the lake. Max fishes out a walkie talkie from the zippered-up pocket of her canvas pants and presses the large central button. It buzzes, and a voice appears on the end of the line.

“Max? What’s taking you so long?”

“Hey, uh, C-Cal…” To her surprise and horror, Max discovers that she can’t answer without her voice breaking.

“Where are you?” She hears the creaking swing of the cabin’s front door as he steps outside.

“The l-lake, just off the path. N-Not far. Can you bring the truck around?” Her teeth chatter loudly. “And blankets.”

“Stay put, OK? Don’t go anywhere.”

Max laughs bleakly. “Where would I go?”

The line beeps, and Max sets the communicator aside. She drops onto her elbows, next to the stranger. Looking over, she remembers with a start that she is naked, and quickly she removes her t-shirt and drapes it over her. Unsure what to do but convinced this is not yet enough, Max arranges her arms alongside her body, and gingerly brushes the remainder of her wet hair onto her shoulders and chest. The glacial stillness of her features, freckled with water and sand, seem to suggest a rest far beyond dreaming. Max reassures herself that the stranger is breathing and then returns to the path, shivering in her sports bra, to watch for the truck’s headlights.

Sarushima Summer

Every year, during the summer months, I develop a taste for pickled fruit and vegetables. I eat pickled plums in bowls of rice: they are round, soft, and purple-red, like gluey, zombified eyes. I buy trays of kimchi from the supermarket: lasagna-like layers of briny cabbage and chili spice. I think longingly of my year in south India, during which time I ate pounds upon pounds of chunky, fragrant Andhra-style mango aachar. Though I’ve always had a sweet tooth, sourness manages to linger more indelibly on my palate and in my gustatory memories. It makes me wonder what types of sensory experiences overpower others in my mind, and quickly I draw up a classification: Darkness over brightness, sharpness over softness, silence over sound, foul and fecal over faint and flowery. I don’t enjoy many of these experiences, but they resonate deeply enough to end up splashing onto the timeline of my life. When I recall a day I’ll fill it in with its strongest sensory impressions, as though possessed by a single-minded algorithm designed to prioritize attention-grabbing content. But that is likely too simplistic; maybe what I consciously remember is not all that has left its mark on me. I have never been the best curator of my own feelings and memories.

I think of my life immersed in brine, or preserved in resin. I think of my life as a terrarium: A miniature, individualized world encased in a glass globe, featuring a mismatched assortment of color palettes, textures, and shapes. Clay figurines of friends and family cast into different poses. Striped-and-spotted flora and fauna rustling in the underbrush. Decorations handmade out of styrofoam, yarn, and tinfoil hanging from the ceiling like Christmas ornaments. A fully formed climate system inside, defined by cloudbursts punctured by glossy sunlight. All of this hidden underneath a thick veil of vines, because I’ve always been secretive.

Sarushima, a tiny island located in Tokyo Bay, also holds its secrets close to its chest. Though the island’s main purpose–to serve as a military battery for various wars–is clearly described on the many explanatory placards placed alongside the main path, the general atmosphere is one of mystery, not clarity. We wander around, from the moss-covered stone fort to the frothy, rocky coastline. I circle the remains of a massive artillery unit constructed on the island’s high point, situated at the perfect angle, I am informed, to shoot enemies at sea. Unexpectedly, the glass terrarium that holds my life fractures ever so slightly, and I cup my hands around it to contain the sudden tide of confused, sad anger. There’s many facts about our world that fill me with a brew of dark, quiet, sharp, sour emotions but I feel that blend press against me acutely as I stand there, in a place that locked and loaded meaningless death, that mounted devices to strip breath from bone, now overrun with tree stumps and bathed in sea spray.

Jungle Body Horror

Clicking through online clips of documentaries, I find myself entranced by the lusty, dynamic collaboration between danger and nature. Springing from a tree like Aphrodite through the foam, a bird cuts through the reddish air to escape a dusky-eyed jaguar just behind. A velvety penguin zooms through crystalline, pale blue seawater while a dove-gray seal awaits him on a chunk of ice. In a viral video, a scaly iguana evades a wave of lithe snakes, while a lively voice-over narrates his brush with death. I watch a mantis crawl delicately over a leaf, only to be promptly devoured whole by another mantis.

The camera pans over the savanna, under the ocean, and into the desert, grasping at anything bright, textured, and high-contrast. My human eyes track all over the screen, energized by that insatiable desire to be everywhere, to capture and contain everything, to see the natural world open up like a flower and release its mysteries. Many of the mysteries, once revealed, are painful to watch. Prey caught by the nape and dragged through the underbrush: its life immediately pacified in a single stroke of oxblood. Eyes bulging out like lotus bulbs poking through pond water. Flesh glimmering juicily in the grass. A limb parted dispassionately from a razed torso. Elephants walking miles to arrange themselves into a funereal semi-circle around a rotting body. Their eyes, ringed with flies, huge, wide, and scarlet-tinged. I freeze the frame and search for a flicker of understanding within me; but it is not possible for me to really understand their sorrow. Grief hits differently in the kingdom Animalia.

The painterly hands of evolution have produced a terrestrial environment that blushes in a million different colors. But in the city I live in, that palette is reduced to a few sad hues: sidewalk-gray (peppered with dark, gluey stains), tar-black hot from the sun, and the occasional blot of dirty green from a malnourished tree growing out of concrete. Walking to a friend’s house in a bordering neighborhood, I try to find the other colors, and sometimes succeed: cherry red and ocean blue looped around a barber’s pole, muted yellow emanating from inside a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. On the pedestrian bridge over the train tracks, I find, to my surprise, that the glass barriers are covered in coiling, royal purple and bright orange graffiti.

I scan the Yamanote trains as they pass below; their final destinations flash by, written in glittering kanji above the sliding doors, and I remember what it felt like to learn to read them for the first time. The mystery contained within that introductory encounter no longer exists. I now regard many Japanese characters with the same mechanical familiarity that I do my native alphabet. The replacement of naivete with knowledge is expertise gained, but it also means recognizing that something–maybe ignorance, maybe innocence–has been lost. Many kinds of loss have been personally useful; they have led to the scabbing over of pain, the vital life lesson. But other kinds of loss are so cruel so as to serve no meaningful purpose. I don’t know how to manage the realization that there are so many experiences I can see no reason for, and that I wish I had never had, or never inflicted upon others. Life might be just a protracted, melodramatic, gamified maze in which I keep secrets, process anger, leverage meager talents to collect paychecks, and struggle to locate enough luck to avoid the gory dead-ends with the biggest predators and the truest horrors.

Evening has fallen over this year’s first true summer day, and my body buzzes with a bitter cocktail of apprehension, contemplation, and longing. While waiting for the lights to change, I pull my unkempt hair up into a ponytail and roll up my sleeves. The breeze is a balm, but still my mind resists the calming effects of the cool air and wan moonlight. I walk under the underpass thinking of death and grief. I know that, one day, the opportunity to know both these intimately will arrive on my doorstep. If I focus, I can see them in the distance, twin blurry mirages in lustrous, rainbow colors. They are always two steps ahead, waiting along the path of the jungle.

What we see is not what we see

I’ve written extensively and enthusiastically about all my temporary places of residence: rural and urban Japan, the southern coast of India, the American Midwest. But rarely do I describe the place where I was raised, and where I have spent the majority of my life thus far. If I am unreasonably reclusive about it, maybe I have some excuse in the double edge of a hometown.

A hometown contains formative experiences but these are also, inevitably, and sometimes necessarily, accompanied by memories of heartache, tragedy, and bad behavior. I both love and loathe returning to this town, with its endlessly tall palm trees, dry, yellow plains, and blue-skied mornings off the speckled sea. As I look down from a flight home onto the churning, foaming Mediterranean, I am filled to the brim with a numbing, bubbling, phantasmagorical sensation too akin to dissociative stress. Waiting at baggage claim, dazed beyond jet lag, I experience my return as though forcefully ejected from my own body. In the front seat of my mother’s car as she leaps onto the highway, I am swept away by a wave of blisteringly black magic that chucks me back into twisting histories I would rather not relive. In the end, I cannot divorce the pain from the place.

It has always been easier to remain tucked away in the comfort of other towns, other countries, other lives. In my case, maintaining distance is nothing but cowardice, but, like most cowards, I feel as though there is there is no realistic alternative but running away. Bumped from continent to continent in childhood, I grew up pinned between competing parents, colliding cultures, and displaced heritage; I experienced deracination before I knew what putting down roots could even come to mean. I live now like Baba Yaga: alone, ambiguous, moving through the clouded forest in a house that walks from place to place on chicken legs.

Five Minutes to Midnight

For obvious reasons, I have been thinking a lot about sickness lately. The sweet-smelling sweat, the gunky vomit, the hacking cough, the hushed room with the shades drawn at noon. Foil packets of pastel-colored pills, alphabet pasta in thin broth. A body existing only in stasis, waiting powerlessly for healing. The terrifying hypotenuse formed by joining death and life at the hip.

Sickness has a way of kidnapping me from this time and place and plunging me back into the misty dreamworld of my childhood. I am again surrounded by the arcane, occasionally goofy artifacts of medicine: the toy-like stethoscopes, the multi-colored tubes snaking into the bed, the intricate anatomical charts, the clunky machines whose beeps, clacks, and dings live in my mind so obstinately I recollect them better than symphonies. As sickness escalates, every feeling is eclipsed by pure panic; rationality topples headfirst into heightened vulnerability. Red-hot bile, chilling fever, and the wails of an ambulance speeding through the velvety, all-encompassing darkness.

In Tokyo, shorts weather begins. I shed my layers and eye the A/C. In a surgical mask and denim overalls, I walk to the convenience store to check if the change in season has prompted an update to inventory. With glee, I spot kakigouri, a dessert of shaved ice, condensed milk, and fruit jam, in the 7/11 freezer. I buy three cups, paying the cashier by sliding coins underneath a sheet of heavy plastic, and walk back home, irradiated by an early spring sun that feels stolen from midsummer.

(A confession in this luminous Tokyo interlude which no one wants to hear: I know from experience that, for some, healing from sickness is impossible. You don’t realize it at first, and even when you do, you do not recognize it as truth. Hope is so stupidly human, it might as well be chemically baked into DNA. You watch someone ride the wave of recovery high, inching away from pain and towards life, before throttling down into relapse. This has to happen a few times before you stop hoping they can get better. Comfort and cure become alien words. You sit alone at the bedside, as still as a potted fern or a pinned butterfly, an observer to the palliative trance of a forever sickness. You watch someone die in real-time.)

Back in the world of the living, Strawberry and I sit at the table and dig into the kakigouri. The jam gleams, slippery and delectable, as reflective as gemstone in the light pouring in from our dusty balcony windows. I watch Strawberry quietly, resisting the usual urge to leap into irreverent conversation. The glossy sunshine glances off the blond tips of his thick eyelashes. I think of the family gene for dementia, living by the billions in the body, strewn across the bloodstream like ashes carried by a river. I think of tumors cropping up in soft tissue like explosions of dandelions in a field. Underneath Strawberry’s right eye are five perfectly round, fawn-brown freckles: a tiny segment of Ursa Major cupping his cheekbone. I think of viral particles studding the air. Strawberry scrapes the bottom of the white plastic cup with a stainless steel spoon, and I think of bone-bleached hospital sheets and the metal, cool-to-the-touch rails surrounding the cot. He smiles at me, guilelessly. I think of how some sicknesses are invisible; how they replace the mind overnight with a dagger, perched in the skull, the blade pointing downwards, revving up.

Plague Doctor

Shinjuku, at night. The lights from the blinking cinema marquee are a funky, druggy rainbow of fuchsia, indigo, taxi cab yellow, sunset orange, and baby blue. On the screen above them, the mayor of Tokyo speaks into a standing microphone; the chyron below her displays the municipal virus helpline in rounded white numbers on a background the color of mint-green medical scrubs. In a printed ad, a tattooed, gray-scale male model reclines, frozen, with one hand in his hair. In another, a charmingly cartoon woman in a tube top poses behind bright coral-pink Japanese characters decorated with stars. The windows around them are dark with drawn blinds and unlit interiors. The rain shines on the tarred road like shattered glass.

I go downstairs, in a secondhand sweater and Strawberry’s old sweatpants, to check our mail. I find, to my dismay, a healthcare bill that I thought we’d already paid, but not the government-issued cloth masks we’d been expecting. Listlessly, I return upstairs and go through the textbooks lent to me by my adviser and find, like a good luck charm, an old postcard celebrating the Year of the Rabbit (2011). Bushy-tailed, bright-eyed, pencil-drawn Sylvilagus. I think, for maybe the millionth time, how reliant we are on the unknowns midwifed by the nebulous future and I imagine a new essential service: a forest oracle, a rabbit soothsayer, who could divine these outcomes. Located between the grocer and the 100-yen store, an oracle with the head of a hare, diving 24/7 into a slipstream of contingencies in order to fan out the future on a bed of predictive cards placed on pine needles. Emerging from a trance to assure me, most importantly, that I will be forgiven for making the wrong choice.

The tall concrete-and-tile buildings in central Tokyo seem gloomier than ever. At sunset, their roofs and upper floors are limned in clouds, steely, cool, and gray, while their massive lower halves are radiated by the dark rose glow of a dusky sun, looking for all the world like an enormous glass half-empty. I check video feeds of Tokyo’s prairies of zebra crossings; they are now drowsy, inert, bare. Occasionally, a masked pedestrian scampers across in slow motion, their movements translated inelegantly into staccato by the stuttering bandwidth. A municipal truck outfitted with a loudspeaker, driven by a pair of volunteer firefighters, blares the same message every Saturday and Sunday: “Please refrain from going outside. Please refrain from going outside.” The sound bounces off the buildings, pulled apart by the Doppler effect, and arrives to me as totally garbled, breathy, dystopian crooning.

Maybe I just don’t pay enough attention during the day, but now it seems like earthquakes always happen at night. A little past 1 AM, Strawberry and I are jolted out of sleep by the shaking of the bed frame. In the dark, we stare at each other wordlessly as we decide, in that critical split-second, whether to stay put or move.