That darkness engulfed me for years.
The living seem to be imbued with the desire to escape. We all aspire to it, always wanting to be some place else, any place, anywhere but here.
A late afternoon it was, and I was alone at a desk, internet open to me. I dove in, and came up gasping, with this:
I am in the middle of a flight to St. Louis to give a reading. I was reading a New Yorker story that made me think of my mother and all alone in the seat I whispered to her “I know, Mother, I know.” (Found a pen!) And I thought of you — someday flying somewhere all alone and me dead perhaps and you wishing to speak to me.
And I want to speak back. (Linda, maybe it won’t be flying, maybe it will be at your own kitchen table drinking tea some afternoon when you are 40. Anytime.) — I want to say back.
1st, I love you.
2. You never let me down
3. I know. I was there once. I too, was 40 and with a dead mother who I needed still.
I lament the demise of the art of good conversation. I’ve been working abroad for close to 8 years now, and in that time, I realize my conversation skills have deteriorated to the level of Neanderthal. How can one regress that bad? I’ll tell you how — years of brain-mushing, soul-crushing, vocabulary-shrinking non-talking to people here.
I’ll call it as I see it: No one here makes the effort to keep up a decent conversation anymore. And I don’t even look for witty banter; I just want a minimum amount of articulation, a world view, an informed opinion. Believe me, I’ve tried. Countless times. Standing in line at chow, opening with, how bad does that chicken look, do you really like asparagus, did the Talibans win today? Not much in reply. Mostly a grunt or two, some vague syllables running together, maybe a stupefied look on their faces. Yes, you — I am talking to you, make an effort to answer coherently.
It’s so sad — no — it’s downright miserable to have to sit with people that appear animated, but stay mute. It’s like watching TV with the sound off. Pointless, like an admission of defeat.
I miss being engaged in a good discussion. I miss having my brain cells stimulated, sitting with other people around a table full of wine and tapas, arguing over world events, the impending nukes from NK, guerrilla art taking over the streets, the deadly politics of drugs, heck, even what new fashion trends are popping up in the streets NY and elsewhere. I miss being asked to think for myself, having to cultivate an informed opinion, or being corrected for an erroneous one. I miss the civilized discourse that is the exclusive province of all humans, the thing that sets us apart from the animal. Conversation skill is the equivalent of having an opposable thumb in one’s brain, able to touch all lobes and bring forth an engaging discourse.
But instead, we sit mute in separate chairs and look down on our hands, when we should have had evolved so far as to look up and say something to each other.
Fellow human, talk to me.
Some days, when it all gets to be too much, I go outside and secretly touch the trees.
Sometimes our dark side shows up in in public dressed like an ordinary thing, able to blend into the crowd, absolutely unmemorable.
I much prefer evil to reveal itself. The bland, expressionless version of it often obfuscates one’s vision, and the fight tilts to the other’s favor.
In an airport lounge in Colombo, I remember being woken up unceremoniously by a blond guy, late 30s, herding two toddlers. In a gray haze, I heard him saying loudly at me, “There are people that need these seats, you know.”
Half-awake, I scramble to sit up, thereby freeing two seats for this irascible man and his toddlers. I vaguely register people sitting near me look on, startled by his loud voice. I see his wife sitting on the floor, cradling a baby. A moment passes, and the pair begin to argue. I tune them out, thinking what bad luck to wake up to such negativity.
When my wits have fully returned, I look around and notice that three feet or so away there were maybe thirty, no, probably 40+ empty seats all around us. I didn’t need to be summarily jolted out of my sleep.
I stand up, walk over to the man with the toddlers and say to him, “Look over there. Look. Look real hard. Those are empty seats, all what, 40 of them. You didn’t have to wake me up. You’re an asshole.”
I walked away from the sight of his gaping mouth. The lounge was quiet. The wife didn’t say a word.
I’m usually very zen, but when my limit is reached, I do get pissed off. And I’m not at all shy to express it. After a brief discussion, the boy and I reached an agreement of sorts and put the matter (including ourselves) to bed. The next day, early in the morning, he messages me.
H: How are you this morning?
M: Well, I slept good, so I’m not that pissed off anymore.
H: Last night I told my guards to watch my door very closely.
M: So I put some fear in you. Good.
Well, I’m glad we got that resolved.
Some days at work can be slow. On such a day, my boss came into my office to show me a new knife, part of his collection. He knows that I also have an appreciation for knives.
Me: (looking intently at the knife) That blade can easily go through a rib.
Boss: (grinning) I like the way you think.
These dalliances, they require persistence. Persistence to see them through, most probably because they cannot rely on actual presence. I make myself available online — I am a patient listening ear: the TV set to mute, my laptop tethered to headphones. I have their voices in my head, echoes of conversations that are quick to dry up and become imagined sounds, then degrade into white noise.
I persist, like I said, to be present for these men. I hold up my part of the bargain like a good trader. In return, they strive to honor my attempts at realness. They send me photos of traversed landscapes, nameless faces, objects they value. They leave long drawn-out voice mails full of longing, proffered plans, promises of meetings. They gift me with lines and lines of intimate chats that I read when the days are long and need to be filled.
We are strangers, though, for all our insistence on that meet up in real life (IRL). I know the drill by now, the swapping of calendars, the constant arranging and re-arranging of days so that separate lives may dovetail. Still, all that desire does not transmute into commitment. I am a ghost that passes through their lives, briefly. They all hold me closely, as though at any second I will flit away. They offer promises of permanence, as though that will hold me down, as though that is what I want.
I’ve discovered that there is a song for this.
And so I am quoted.