30 December 2015

Seven boxes

'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' Mark 8:36

In my parents' house, in Gurnee, Illinois, there are seven boxes with my things: the dark matter of life. In its concrete sense, dark matter is a thing that we think is there, but we can't see. We infer its presence from its effects. When you are standing at the top of a hill in Harborne in Birmingham in the United Kingdom where I live, at three in the morning because you can't sleep and the church bells are ringing, the things in those boxes, they speak through time to you: you know what's there, or what you think might be there. Your journals. Your empty CD cases. Your Bible awards. You stand and look up at the ringing church bells, how many thousands of miles away, and you can feel it pulling on you.

Chicago is my lost city: I come back and remember a time in my life I made plans to stay and be here forever. In my senior year at Knox, I was going to do research at the Newberry Library. I was going to have a small studio apartment near Washington Square Park. And then, the next year, I interviewed for a job in the Aon Center. I wore a black suit.

The dark matter of those years, when I left high school and went to college, is piled up in short stories I wrote for writing classes and in textbooks. Poems about hands and breasts. In a lunchbox I bought as a joke in 2001 before the towers exploded, there are all the pictures of my band. The fire red Gibson SG with those pickups. (They make such a fat sound, I say to Yoko in Japanese and ask if that metaphor works: if I say the sound is fat, do you understand?)

Before I came back home for Christmas this year with Yoko, my wife, and my three children, I made a plan to finally deal with my things, to throw away and give away all that I could. All the books. My papers. My past as an Evangelical and conservative Republican. Most of it was comedy, my letters to the editor I wrote as jokes when I was 12 and 13. A response from Oprah Winfrey to a letter I had written her (I had written Oprah a letter). But there was also the dark, dark matter. The dark matter of a high school relationship, with the girl I thought for some time I might marry and who had followed me for many years after, despite having gone to the other side of the world, to Japan, to Yoko and the girls. There were things I was unable to throw away the last times I had been home. I didn't know what they were exactly until I was holding them, swallowing, travelling in time. A box of Virginia Slims, cigarettes I had taken from my girlfriend in a fit of self-righteous rage. When I was consumed with worry. When I had faith. There were layers and layers of artefacts, her things, things I had made about her, things she had given me: cigarettes, a pair of socks, and photos.

I thought I might also see her finally after all these years to catch up and reminice for a bit, but I felt guilty about wanting that, some embedded Evangelical belief about guarding your heart and never putting yourself in a place where you think you might sin. When I had been back some years before, we had planned to meet and I had cancelled at the last minute, afraid that someone might see us, that my parents would find out, that everyone would find out, and that my desire for her would still be there, that something would happen that I couldn't undo. 

This time I had told Yoko, who didn't seem to care one way or another but I had not told anyone else. I made plans around it so I would have to leave at some point, go meet up with friends for a show at Second City later, still going through the motions of following the rules, whatever the rules were, even though I am in my thirties and haven't believed in anything resembling Christian belief for years and years. I took the train into the city and it was snowing, and I went to the De Paul University bookstore alone and then up to where we were meant to meet, a Lebanese restaurant because I don't eat meat now. When the time came and I took my seat and ordered tea, I almost panicked again like I needed to escape. What was I doing, what sort of complex lie was I telling myself. But this time, I managed it: I sat waiting with tea and let myself remember, look out into the snowy darkness, the cars passing, all of Chicago aware that the lost son has come home for the night and looking back at me like an absence, a Tolstoyan void. And then she was there. 

Chicago, I lost you, but I gained the world. Istanbul, yes, and Paris. London and Dhaka. A Sunday morning in Moscow and then Seoul and then Seoul again. Madrid. Amsterdam, when I was drunk on that bike. Rome, of course. Tokyo, and the night I smoked outside the walls of the palace. Fukuoka. Kuala Lumpur. Vientiane, and the Mekong River. Bangkok. In the absence of god's perfect plan for my life, I had set out to gain the world, the parts of it I could at least. We have to, don't we. We have no choice but to make our own path when we are led into the thicket. When we are stuck, when we have no way out, we must take risks. We must say the things to the absences in our lives that we mean to say to ourselves. You don't need to implicate others, do you. We want forgiveness, but we can only forgive ourselves. We want understanding, but then we only need to understand ourselves. When finally you can say the things you needed to say, you are just speaking out loud to yourself. You look back at yourself when you were young and you say, don't worry. It's okay. You're okay.

Standing ankle-deep in snow slush on North Wells, I finally realise this. After all these years. Our time together is over and her car is stuck in the snow. She gets in, after we have hugged goodbye and said it was lovely to catch up. I tell her I will give her a push and the ritual of moving a car out of the snow comes back to me, in muscle memory. The tyres spin in the ice and I push. A man comes out of nowhere to push with me. And then another and another. The car rocks back and forth and back and forth without going anywhere. Back and forth and back and forth and then the feeling you have when you are pushing a car and it breaks free. You are suddenly pushing against nothing. You are standing there with your bag. You are alone after having not been alone, but you can do anything, can't you. The world is yours.

16 December 2015

Giving up on 2015

After the party last night, I walked home from the city centre, stopping at Morrison's to buy cigarillos. I didn't have my pipe, but I wanted to smoke, the way you do when you've drunk three-quarters of bottle of wine. I bought Hamlets, five for five pounds almost exactly and stood outside in the mist and lit one, a kind of time machine back to the night I came back from Malaysia and smoked at the service area on the M1. That was the end of 2013, of course, right at the end, I remember thinking that from that point on, things would be okay, that I had a hold on things.

The girls have been inundated with parties and events — Mei excitedly told me about her performance of the nativity and how there had been a donkey, a real donkey, at the school. We watched a video together and she assured me that the donkey was just out of the frame and she scolded Yoko for missing the most important bit of the video, the donkey, not her dressed as an angel. Mei and Naomi came too as I watched the video on the camera and they crowded around chattering and full of stories, until I shut it off: it's time to eat, you need to eat before swimming.

The year has been a non-stop series of things for the girls to go to, one after another, another party, another swimming lesson, an art lesson. Yoko has been subsumed by it in a way that I haven't, and I'm somewhere on the periphery, watching, but not present in the way they are. I'm working five jobs now, that I can count. I'm writing a book. I'm sleeping on the sofa.

I woke up again on the sofa at 2:30. I had gotten up at 10:30 and 12:30 and couldn't get back to sleep. I made coffee and cooked two eggs which I ate with chopsticks. I made coffee and turned on the computer to send e-mails: please don't check the timestamp, I wasn't working that early I swear. I should work on the book a bit. I have a couple of things I wanted to get down. A thought as I was smoking the night before, as I was walking back to the house. The light upstairs was on when I got back, but I didn't go up. I answered e-mails and when it was time to brush my teeth, I noticed the light was off.

So it goes. 2016 will be another year on the periphery. At some point you get legitimacy, you get welcomed back in. Not now though. Not this year or next. Sometime in the future.

01 December 2015

She holds a smile

The sun did not come up on Saturday before I had to leave; the man at the hostel opened the iron gates for me and I left into a morning that was still night. At the park where I had been running, I turned up towards the sea and the building I was supposed to stand in front of I assumed, where the minibus would pick me up. It was still very early and the wind was blowing: a British kid with red trainers and skinny jeans was walking in front of me on an iPhone. I stopped and stood where I thought I needed to: if the minibus didn't come, I would get a cab. But like it had been planned, a woman appeared suddenly from the dark across the street, pulling a suitcase and speaking Spanish at me: I said I didn't understand. She smiled and was suddenly Welsh: was this where the minibus was supposed to come. Yes, I thought so, I didn't know.

We stood and chatted and then she went up to the wall to light a cigarette and tell me about her uncle who had died in bed, almost in his sleep and the funeral she was going back for. I wanted to ask for a cigarette.

The flight left from an airport built on corruption in the middle of the desert: it looked like the Southwest. The airport had been built and left empty. The Welsh woman with the dead uncle told me that until Ryanair had decided to fly in and out of it twice a week it had just been sat there. I was annoyed with everyone — all I wanted was some coffee. I heard: Se habla espaƱol? and was angry with the woman: no, of course not, look at me. There was a vending machine that didn't work, and no coffee: I sat at the end of a bench on the plastic and thought about nothing in particular, how I had lost control of my eating again, and was bloated.

As I've been away the last month, both in body and spirit, the kids have grown up. Naomi is not a little girl anymore: she feels responsibility and can cook sometimes. Mei lets me brush her hair and then has her mother fix it after I turn away. Mia can chat about anything in English, about sweeties and the birthday parties she's been invited too. At one party on Sunday, I stood outside a disco room while the earnest 4 and 5 year-olds danced with a woman in a giant cat costume. A German man, one of the kid's father, stood out with me, looking in and said, 'It's very surreal.' Mia was dancing by bending her legs and watching the cat carefully. She didn't look happy, but afterwards, telling her sisters about it, she was proud and smiling broadly. 

The girls put on warm clothes in the morning to walk to school with Yoko although I haven't been there for a week now. I am looking for work, but I don't need to say anything about that. I'll say something when I leave: until then, this year of failure and heated up chick peas in pasta sauce can continue on. I wake up, go to sleep, wake up again. A surprise cigarette with a friend, waiting for a bus. Another bus or train taking me somewhere.