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.

Lavender Beringia

Around 20,000 years ago, what is now the sea between Siberia and North America was a land bridge. For several thousand years, during an ice age, a small population of humans lived there. A pause in history as a handful of men and women billowed into perfectly habitable hinterland, locked between two forbiddingly cold continents.

Today, the land bridge is submerged in hundreds of feet of water, but at the time it would have been lush, temperate, and coated in high grass and clusters of fragrant purple flowers. Pleistocene horses, oxen. American mountain lions. A now-extinct species of pine tree. Artemisia, willow, and woolly mammoths.

Imagine a young woman in this time. Living at the cusp of prehistory, in the years before the Holocene glacial retreat. Imagine her 30 years of killing, collecting, and cloud-gazing on the Bering Strait. There would have been nothing glamorous about her life; after all, there’s a reason we don’t make period pieces about the Pleistocene. Likely nasty, brutish, and short, in the words of one coiffed philosopher. Undeniably painful, and undeniably hard. Those many thousands of days are distant now, dissolved into strands of dirt and DNA.

None of us would trade places with her, not least because our depictions of cavemen have never been particularly flattering. In our stories, they moan and limp, dragging misshapen clubs through dust. Illiterate, un-Enlightened, and as vapidly ignorant of their semi-nakedness as boorish Adam and Eve.

But I can’t stop thinking about the land bridge, and the young woman who lived there. In my fantasy, she is strong, focused, sharp. Her body and mind, part of a chain of forebears forever lost. Not any less gifted than modern Man, and not any less flawed. Gathering bouquets of fireweed on the steppes with gray stone chipped into a hand ax. Watching the wind glide moodily through the grass. Her imagination spilling out like guts when she casts her gaze onto the lavender landscape. A mind not primitive, but boundless. Moving through the world like magic.

El mundo en que vivimos

At the drugstore while purchasing lock-down provisions, I spot a bar of chocolate wrapped in pink tinfoil. I devour it whole as I walk back home, carrying kitchen bleach and soy milk in a plastic bag. It tastes almost exactly like the strawberry yogurt cups of my distant childhood. I am drawn to the familiarity of that flavor, rather than its taste.

Familiarity anchors me in place. I work from home, and, at four in the afternoon, I call my parents and brother. They are spending their days indoors, enduring cycle after cycle of furious cleaning followed by listless channel-surfing on the couch. With all the investigative ardor of an archaeologist discovering a tomb of relics, my mother regales me with a litany of Hollywood-lite tinfoil-hat theories collated from WhatsApp chats. Gently, chidingly, I try to act as the counterweight to conspiracy, but frequently find myself an unsuitable challenger against its muddying, maddening rhetoric. My brother, sporting long hair and the beginnings of a scratchy beard, tells me he will use his time in quarantine to compose a sea shanty.

I drink endless cups of coffee and then, when that runs out, I start on a 100-bag stash of cheap, powdery Ceylon. I trawl through survivalist forums. I idly ponder if I have enough time to start a vegetable garden on my poorly-lit balcony before the apocalypse hits. I conclude that I will have to make do with four cans of red kidney beans and a liter of Aquarius. I answer e-mails, though not with much gusto. I write, though not particularly well. When Strawberry asks what it is I say “a travelogue about staying inside.”

Routine forms a chain that orients and re-orients me toward important tasks, though my thoughts tend to want to wander from the path. I think about my birthday, which was this Saturday. I turned 26, meaning that I have officially outlived Keats. I think about my dreams, which have become progressively darker and more wild. When I wake, it is with the sensation that my mind has trawled through wet, damp sludge, and made it through, but not unashamed, and not clean. I pull back the heavy curtains. The sun is shining, and chubby clouds dot the spring sky. I am riddled with fear. I have woken to a beautiful day with my heart already extruded into bloody pulp. How wrong it seems–that the weather should be so picture-perfect, at a time and in a world like this.

Deadly Cherry

Sitting on the subway, I notice, for the first time, the tartan pattern on the train seats: maroon diamonds, with tiny, dark pink blossoms in the center of the repeating design.

The trees sprout fistfuls of white flowers. I stare up at the boughs, mesmerized. The color instantly reminds me of the vivid, graphic white of Georgia O’Keeffe’s painted ram skulls. My brain connects it to another secluded memory, and suddenly I remember, with unbelievable clarity, my elementary school art teacher helping me tie-dye a shirt in a bucket. She was the woman who first showed me how a painting can operate on the mind: painful, striking, stinging. A rebuke meant to pull me out of stillness. The ram’s head, a many-petalled flower emerging from a bone socket. I blink as the cherry blossoms, small and charmingly delicate, flutter in the breeze. I imagine reaching out and wrenching them from the branches.

An elderly man approaches me and Strawberry as we admire the multi-colored (red, pink, white) blossoms growing from a tiny tree at the center of a roundabout. “Peach,” he says gently, when Strawberry idly muses that the flowers might be cherry blossoms. He walks us over to an authentic cherry flowering by the roadside. “This is a Yoshino cherry,” he tells us in Japanese. All Yoshino cherry trees, he continues, cannot produce seeds; they are not descendants but clones of an original cherry tree. I furrow my brow, unsure that I’ve understood correctly. He joins his two fists and then parts them so each hand heads in a different direction. He repeats the motion, looking at us expectantly. I am still cheerfully confused, but Strawberry understands the pantomime: the cherry trees don’t grow unassisted. They have been propagated by man via grafting.

Grafting: uniting tissue from two plants so that they continue their growth together. There’s something both unexpectedly happy and sad about that. I sit at my desk, in front of the computer, scrolling through photos of cherry tree after cherry tree. Each time, I click through images of the same tree placed in a different setting, a different fable, accompanied by a different cast of characters. Yoshino gilding the river in petals. Stippled around a school yard, providing tree cover for new graduates posing in their cap and gown. Part of a curated assembly, Yoshino slotted between radiant Japanese wisteria. Vapid Yoshino, overseeing a picnic. Growing fitfully, Yoshino awash the mountainside.

I video chat with my father, ten thousand kilometers away in quarantine, and he gasps aloud. “You’re outside?” he says, unfazed by my attempts to show him the cherries in bloom.

Time horizon

A gulf yawns between the past and the future. Supposedly, this space is meant to be filled with the present, but I’m not confident I know what this means nor entails. A wide view of the present contains yesterday, today, and tomorrow. A narrower view contains only a single fleeting, blistered millisecond: the now. The now is capricious. Sometimes she hovers above and below me, a current of gilded roses, rippling forward and saturating my perspective in optimistic golden tones. But at other times she is brattier and less eager to please, sticking to my soles and palms like dark, rapidly solidifying lava and pulling me deep into the Earth’s soft, burning-hot mantle. Either way, the now cannot be trusted, though irrevocably I am swept up into its deviousness, which has the same effect on me as impossible, fantastical dreaming.

I am always trying to pierce the waves of shifting transitions. I am always looking for the anchor that reaches from my heart (located so perilously in the now) into the securest version of the future. But I look at my life and can’t detect where now and present become past and future. Instead, I feel like I am swimming at the mouth of a river, unable to comprehend where I am located in the stream, and unable to see how to get out the sea.

I’m repeatedly told to “plan for your future” but, at what point, in “the future,” will I know the planning is done? When I try to settle on a personal deadline, the time horizon in my mind moves and smears like dragging a hand through a still-wet stripe of thick oil paint. There will always be something yet to plan, and something yet to decide. Past and future disappear, replaced by a constantly vacillating, wounding present.

I walk past the shuttered nature conservatory, the empty coffee shop, the quiet, sunlit park, and take two trains to campus, where I discover that the school library has been closed to avoid the spread of disease. On my way back home, I wait on the platform and stand underneath the Japan Rail digital announcement panel. In oddly spaced, blinking green 8-bit letters, the panel reminds me to wash my hands, avoid crowds, and wear a mask. Later, I read online that “for the time being,” public facilities will remain closed. Two weeks later, my brother flees his college dorm and returns home, to a country that closes its land borders only days after his arrival. A sense of dread shoulders into my apartment and watches as I line the walls of my kitchen cabinet with canned red kidney beans, “just in case.” My father texts me to tell me he isn’t busy during the day anymore, which is his way of asking me to call to check up on him. I think of the fish in its struggle to reach the sea, its scales like gold coins, surfacing, belly-up, on the shores of the river delta. The future immediately twisted into nothing as the present eats itself.

Tokyo gold rush

I often say that life in Tokyo is fantastically lonely. That description isn’t fully accurate; for one, I should really specify “my life,” to avoid immediate objections regarding generalization. I should also qualify the use of “lonely,” which, despite the aura of negative connotations, deserves, in my mind, a long-awaited re-branding. When I flesh out the world of loneliness, my mind moves to empty parking lots, tightly-packed library aisles, trees bathed in shade. Tiny treasures found on midnight excursions. Sometimes, this world is inhabited by others: strangers, friends. Lovers, too. Loneliness is possible in the company of the many. I imagine living as an android, interfacing with real, full-blooded humans without knowledge of their supremacy, as though they were a museum display of glittering objects. I turn inwards, like a night-blooming flower faced with sunlight.

I struggle to word this issue of loneliness without falling deeply into alternating pools of narcissism and self-pity. “What does ‘a pool of narcissism’ look like? Glad you asked: I imagine it to be perfectly circular, as though inscribed upon the Earth with an art compass. The surface is littered in wax lilies in impossible colors. Their fragrance is vaguely fungal, cadaverous, and clings to the air like a swipe of oily residue on a dirty pan. The pool of self-pity, in contrast, smells divine. Alcoholic on the palate, even; like a sweet, nutty cognac. To consistently avoid both traps requires more patience, maturity, and thoughtfulness than I think I will ever possess.

But back to loneliness. This is the ultimate banal leitmotif, but at my loneliest, I see most clearly. I think of my own life, totally unremarkable in the cosmic sense of things, weaved into a period of human history that is sensationally sad, powerfully narcotized, and desperately hopeful. Here sit I, on a grassy knoll on the periphery, caught in a microcosm of personal dysfunction.

How to abide the limp truths of mortal living, which render us fragile, transient, and easily submerged in dark sands of time. How to sustain the memories of every past hurt, every present joy, every future aspiration for myself, for you, for humans, as a biological whole and concept, all nonhuman life, dogwood flowers, millennial pink salmon fish, shiny lavender acrylic rhinestones, 23 billion chickens, pale green jade peeled from the riverbed, starving beasts, bloodied jaguars, domesticated tabby cats, houseplants. How to artfully curate an aesthetic of deep, constant loneliness. How to embrace that sweet swell of affection that you feel for yourself at your weakest. The colors of passion on the palette as I crest the hill and notice the cherries in hypnotically early bloom. The buckling of the knees. Taking the elevator to the top of a seaside viewing tower and gauging, out of simple-minded, morbid curiosity, the impact of a fall. How to exorcise the instinct to mash and tenderize my mind with every bad feeling. How to withstand the pressure to be better than the worst I’ve ever been.

I think of it all, walking alone to the station as I have almost every day for two years. I feel my emotions rise feverishly, then fade. Hunger, thunder, envy, neediness, all filling that negative space between reality and expectation. The loneliness I hold too close to my heart. The funny part is that I’ve never been this secure and well-loved in my entire life. I have my health and my happiness; they sit like two perfect peaches in each of my outstretched palms. It’s easily how confident I feel in this love that allows my loneliness to be so thoughtlessly self-indulgent. Like a young poet in a Hollywood production, or a nymph gazing at a sailor from a supersized aquamarine clam shell, I delight in channeling melodrama from a place of safety. This is the earnest, foolish, dramatic, complicated pain that has accompanied me all throughout my early twenties.

Yearn tonight

In a near-empty library, I sit at a computer and type away, smacking at the keyboard as though breaking a fast. I’m listening to an ambient music album recommended to me this morning by my brother, who now lives almost 11,000 kilometers away in an arboreal industrial city. The music has cracked something inside me. I feel re-energized, but also, importantly, depressurized; the urge to write is here again, but it hovers behind me gently, peacefully, uncritically, and I am able to write freely and shamelessly, without the need to compulsively self-edit at every turn.

Lately I’ve realized that all I want out of life is the ability to exercise flexibility in thought. That is, I want to observe with an eye that knows precision and humility, that can search for angles other than the one immediately presented. I want to speak with a mind that is malleable, soft, but diamond-tough. I want to comprehend the multitude and richness of what is possible without losing sight of specificity, locality, and exactitude. What I want, I fear, is not within my capacity: This is a statement made not out of self-deprecation nor self-loathing but intimate understanding.

If my desires had a physical manifestation, they would arrive into the world in the shape of a fat, bulbous virus. It would live inside my body and attach itself to the cells of my heart, lungs, and brain. It would play me like a virtuoso slaughters the piano. Meanwhile, I would write everything that has resided for years, like a sticky, ancient splatter on the stove, in my imagination. It would be ideal if I could channel this energy into an explosion of output but I find my motivation comes in irregular fits and bursts, while desire bubbles, a kettle brimming with blood, just underneath. The end result is like being submerged in a constantly mounting crisis; a wave that climbs into the air, higher and higher and higher, but never breaks onto the shore.

I walk outside to have something to do. I waste time so stupidly, so luxuriously. I get older. I become a vessel of constant, irrepressible sensation. I scroll through a newsfeed that will generate material forever, but bring me no closer to truth or absolution. I turn to another channel, or another YouTube video. I feel my attention span being drawn away and filled, until it is as distended and misshapen as a sponge dropped into water. The album my brother recommended continues to play in the background, with occasional silences punctuating the end of one song and the beginning of another.

The Fisher Princess

At about half-past nine in the evening, a red-orange square appears over the lake. It ripples against the water like a vast impermeable sheet, or the reflection of a bloodied, disfigured moon. The square itself is invisible from the dirt path, but Maxine, bicycling back to camp, immediately notices its light, which appears as a wash of color that bathes the dark treeline in orange. Her body reacts before her mind does, and she clamps down hard on the hand brakes, skidding to a halt.

Her weight shifts, and one foot comes down to rest against the path. Between the dense boughs of pine, Maxine watches as the bright red-orange light flickers, intensifying and deepening in color. Her eyes track the color as it projects itself, a wave of dark orange, onto first the dusty path, then the front bicycle wheel, and her old sneakers. The effect reminds her of Venetian blinds against a window, blocking the rich sunlight and scattering it into bars against the floor. For a moment, she is convinced she’s lost track of time somehow and passed out on a bed of pine needles. What she’s seeing now must be the reflection of the dawn on the path. But it is almost completely dark out, and the red-orange is too impossible, suggesting an artificial, rather than a natural, origin. Max frowns as she examines the treeline more closely. The light looks almost like neon of a searchlight, or a particularly strong flashlight, and she imagines a lost camper in a canoe whirling one around in terror. In her mind’s eye, the canoe tips over and the anonymous camper sinks wordlessly into the lake, arms akimbo, the tendrils of her hair coloring the surface of the clear water like an ink stain. Panic rising, Max quickly gets off the bicycle; it tumbles into the dirt as she pushes past the foliage.

Maxine’s sneakers, scuffed up after two months of summertime, sink softly into the sand. Catching her breath, she stares at the square. It lays, rippling but unmoved by the tide, a few meters from the shore. She cannot make sense of it rationally, but still her mind tries on different interpretations: A bright orange mainsail, ripped from a pleasure boat during a squall, a waterproof picnic cloth, a strip of shimmering industrial plastic, brought by the west wind. Which could it be?

She’s still lost in thought when the square suddenly erupts, doubling in size in a matter of seconds. Its sides quiver and shatter, blossoming into smaller geometric forms that group and reform into the original square. Despite this frantic activity, the rest of the lake water remains undisturbed. Max watches, perfectly still, her gaze fixed to the image as it decomposes and recomposes, over and over. She blinks a few times. The panic she felt earlier has gone. Her mind is instead dominated by a peculiar wave of calm. With barely any realization of what she’s doing, she rolls up her pant legs and sheds her shoes to wade into the water.

It doesn’t occur to her that something so paranormal, so explicitly removed from nature, could pose a danger to her. Later, when she tries to recall the setting, she remembers only the water, cool to the touch. A clouding of her mind, as though each of her senses were filled with white noise, bars any other possible memory. She is almost knee-deep into the water when the stranger emerges from the dead center of the square.

And death shall have no dominion

Flying over Siberia, I press my face to the tiny cabin window and stare down at the landscape. The tundra at night is a frigid blue-white veined with darker depressions; arctic tones, though the flashing light on the airplane wing occasionally tinges the snowbanks 30,000 feet below with strawberry-pink. Everything I can see has a delicate, painterly quality, as though crafted by sentient, perfectionist powers of wind and precipitation. In the distance, a bright orange spot structured like a miniature skyline is sewn into the tundra, and the light around it bubbles and bleeds out, red-hot. I can’t tell precisely what it is, though I keep my eyes on it for as long as it remains in view: Maybe an industrial plant, maybe a den of witches. The effect, against the polar terrain and soot-black sky, is otherworldly. I think to myself: “I could be parachuted here right now and never found.” My body forever frozen in time and place, among the polar bears. The thought is strangely freeing.

From such heights, the planet feels neatly and safely contained; I watch it flow past me, circumscribed within the hard plastic and titanium of the airplane window frame. But at the same time I know it is a false comfort and a false expectation. The biophysical world resists easy comprehension and easy containment. I have heard human life characterized as no different from wildlife; Homo sapiens in the same network and made of the same bloodied pulp as Panthera tigris and Formicidae. I have also heard of “the Anthropocene,” in which humans are demigods, creating and destroying in a constant, technicolor cycle. I believe both visions hold some truth, which makes the conflict between them inevitable and interminable. But, flying above the quiet world in a shaking tin can, I forget my humanness. I look out at an Earth of chiaroscuro and suddenly remember autumn, when the light strikes leaves on trees rendered gold and plentiful by the passing time. Diamond-like, their brilliance; like veils made of string and broken CDs, hung up in backyard gardens to distract the animals.