Surf’s up

27 May

“It’s ugly here,” Ariana said in her Albanian accent. They were overlooking El Segundo Beach, a section of sand and ocean just north of the more famous Redondo and Manhattan beaches in Southern California. Bill was shocked. This was an important moment for him. He was sharing his sanctuary with her. It was a place he had discovered when his entire world had shattered and crashed down around him. Six months earlier he had been fired. Two months later, his wife left him. Living off credit card advances, his already sizable debt had grown so large that he couldn’t even bring himself to look at the balances he owed. This beach had saved him. Three times a week, as he ran along the shore, its gray foamy waves crashed away his anxious thoughts while the spongy, damp sand absorbed his frustration with each footfall.

“Look at the sky,” Bill told her. The late summer sunset was burning the clouds in deep purple and salmon pink hues. “I don’t like un-crowded beaches, Ariana said. “It looks like an ugly desert.” Hearing the irritation in her voice, he knew it was time to leave. They walked back to his ten-year-old Toyota Corolla.
“I didn’t know you liked ugly beaches,” Ariana said as they drove into L.A.’s infamous rush hour traffic. “I like a lot of ugly things,” he replied with a smile. She laughed at the attack and countered: “That would explain your shirt.”
They inched their way up Sepulveda Blvd., bumper to bumper. Ariana wondered if it would be rude to check her messages. She was hoping to hear from someone. Unconsciously, her hand touched the pocket that held her phone. “Is Thai OK?” Bill suddenly asked, breaking into her thoughts. “Yeah,” she said as she looked out the side window. Bill stole a glance at her midnight-black hair and long, elegant neck.

Earlier, he had introduced her to his friend, an immigration attorney. Ariana was on a temporary work visa, and she was trying to change it. Bill suggested they have dinner after the meeting, and Ariana felt it would be rude for her to refuse. She liked Bill. They had been co-workers. But she always felt a little self-conscious around him. She worried about others thinking that they were romantically involved. After all, he was in his forties. And that was pretty old in her 20-something eyes.
Finally, they turned into the restaurant’s half-empty parking lot. “This is it?” Ariana exclaimed. “Wow, you really like desolate places.” Bill laughed.
Seated at a booth by a large window, they ordered, and then Ariana excused herself. She went into the bathroom and quickly took out her phone. No messages. She wondered if she should send one to him. She did some internal social calculations in her head. Then she typed “what’s up” and pressed send. She waited. There was no reply. Back at the table, Bill was already eating when Ariana returned. He wondered what took her so long but said nothing. Maybe she was menstruating.

He once heard that helplessness could be charming, and he thought that could be true. He loved her for her constant struggle with the world. If she wasn’t fearing her future, she was lamenting her past. And for all her intelligence, wit and talent, the world just didn’t move fast enough or the way she wanted it to sometimes. And that drove her to distraction.
“I can’t believe your bitch night-school attorney friend wanted to charge me a $3,000 retainer.” She complained, bringing up the meeting. “That’s cheap,” Bill said. “If you had wanted a better deal, you should have worn a tighter blouse.” “Albanians aren’t whores. You’re thinking of the Kurds.” Ariana replied. Bill laughed. “You’re the Eastern European Don Rickles.”
Who’s he?”

“An old racist comic who looks like Humpty Dumpty.”

“Who?”

“Look it up on the Internet.”

“That’s OK. If you know about it, it’s probably not important.”

And so the evening went. Barb met barb, insult met insult until their banter and laughter grew so loud that it ruined the restaurant’s quiet ambiance for the other diners.
Bill was talking when he noticed Ariana turning to look at a young man who was waiting at the counter. He was in his twenties, and wore a T-shirt with the word Hollister on it. To Bill, he didn’t seem especially handsome. But Ariana gazed at the young man like a cat spying an injured sparrow. Bill felt jealous and hurt. He turned to look out the window but saw only his reflection. The reflection of a middle aged man with a tired, worn face and thinning hair that was graying on the sides. He had been duped by his own pride and vanity. The awareness of his foolishness burned deep, igniting a firestorm of self-loathing. He was ashamed and lost.

“Ready to go?” he asked, regaining his composure.

They drove back to the lawyer’s office without talking. Bill parked next to Ariana’s car and she opened the door. Turning to say good-bye, she noticed a shadow of disappointment pass across his face. What’s wrong?” she asked. Bill paused, and then said “I miss you.” “Yeah, you shouldn’t have gotten fired.” With that, she got in her car and drove away, autodialing her phone before even leaving the parking lot. Bill sat motionless. The echoes of the evening faded into a lonely, dark silence. He rolled down the window and felt an ocean breeze. On it, the sound of waves no louder than a whisper seemed to call him.

Parking on a roadside high above the ocean, he took out his notebook and wrote in capital letters: Gone swimming, Bill. He dated it and then placed in on the passenger’s seat. He put his wallet in the glove box, and then got out of the car. There was a walkway connecting the road to the beach and he walked down it to the sand and then toward the sound of the ocean.
He reached the edge of the ocean. Above him, the bleached-bone-white full moon exposed the thick foamy fingers of the spent waves. They seemed to reach out to him before returning to the sea. He slowly stepped into the waters until he was up to his waist. A large wave approached. He dived beneath it and then began to swim out.
He was a good swimmer and moved quickly, swimming over some waves, diving through others. Above him, the stars coldly watched. He wondered what lurked below him. He looked back. The shore had disappeared. What would death be like? His brother said that drowning was probably one of the most peaceful ways to go.
Further out, Bill watched as the stars seemed to bob up and down above the dark, liquid void. He was feeling colder and heavier from fatigue. His swimming slowed. Suddenly, a large wave blotted out the stars, pushing him underwater. He swallowed seawater and his tired arms and legs worked fearfully to bring him to the surface. He popped up, coughing and gagging. His heart was racing with fear now. A few moments passed and the stars vanished again. He had been pushed even deeper this time. In a panic, he flailed his tired, heavy arms and kicked his legs. But his movement was slow. He had been twirled and twisted by the wave and wasn’t even sure where the surface was. A fear-induced final burst of energy allowed him to kick his legs with some force and he felt himself begin to thrust upwards. But then something inside him broke. He inhaled. Seawater rushed in, quickly filling his lungs.
Fear and fatigue melted. He no longer kicked, and his arms rose above his head as something pulled him deeper and deeper. High above him, the waves continued their trek to the shore under the frozen gaze of the silent moon and the twinkling, starry sky.

Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth: A one-man show

16 Mar

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via Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth: A one-man show.

The 80s are alive and well…and collecting dust in my closet

20 Feb

I decided to rummage around my 80s walk-in closet and found an entire lost decade intact. No wonder it’s hard to find anything. The Laserdisc was in front because I have used it recently  and I am thinking of selling it on Craigslist.

I wear a white painter’s mask because the dust of desiccated Power Spikes hair gel and mousse billow up whenever I step down hard on the unclean carpet or when I shuffle and open unmarked boxes too quickly. It’s like SCUBA diving and I must move gingerly lest I lose all visibility.

I stumble over my cheap suits and strange thin ties, my Talking Heads albums and my college diploma. Beyond that, my low-paying part-time jobs scramble across the floor like scared rodents. I can hear them but never catch a glimpse.

My friend Chris, who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge is there, still young. He is quiet and looks good for a deceased guy. Moving along, more dead, still in their 80s garb. Grandparents, people I kind of knew, kids from school that I knew of but never really talked to. They’re all still there just hanging out. You would think they’d find a better place.

I move on. The floor ungulates as I pass through the emotional temblors of teen life. There’s even an old dusty jar of acne, its gold and red contents shimmer and blaze against the darkness. It sits on a small dresser, protected by small Star Wars action figures: Storm Troopers, Darth Vader, even sand people. 

I’ve seen enough and I need fresher air. I stumble back the way I came in as the dust’s deepening opacity clouds the room into an even deeper pea-soup foggy grey.

Finally, I find the door way that leads me out into the muted fears and horrors of 2011.   

Hope: Crack for the jobless

19 Nov

It’s job interview day and I’m wrapping a peppermint “strangle ribbon” around my neck. Out of the three hundred jobs I applied for, only one company has asked me to come and see them. It’s a job of halves: half the pay of my last job, half the hours and even coworkers who are half my age. But it offers full health benefits and I can practice my Japanese. It’ll be great if I can just find a real job later to go with it. But that’s not to say I’m in high spirits. Breakfast is the bitter bile of disappointment, self-loathing and the burning rage I feel for fate, karma or whatever it is that has dropped me into this middle-aged conundrum. I put on my game face, try not to seem excessively psychopathic and head for the office.

The interview is alarmingly short. The HR guy tells me that if I don’t hear from them by the end of the week, they’re no longer considering my application. The realization that I’m not even worth a patronizing mass email drops my mood down another floor. We say our good-byes, and he’s cordially unfriendly. Hope has drained from me, leaving a sticky puddle on the dirty carpet. Feeling dejected, I walk slowly to my car, a 20-year-old hand-me-down Toyota. I’m dragging with me a nagging fear that these are the early days of long-term unemployment. The thought fills my head like a loose bowel fills a toilet bowl — I long for a silver lever to flush it all away. Sadly, I find none.

Dead Ricky and Lucy
I return to my apartment where the long afternoon shadows await. I fight the urge to lie down and drift away into a safe sitcom solace. It would be so nice to douse the frenetic fear and weighty laments in my head with the banal banter of those trapped celluloid marionettes of 1950s T.V: Lucy and Ricky. How relaxing it would be to hide under the covers and let late Lucy sweetly torment dead Ricky for dead audiences. So easy to switch them on and switch myself off. Let them prance upon the stage while I play the corpse, fading back and forth into dreamless unconsciousness, savoring a few moments of psychic peace, far away from my own endless loop of worry and regrets.

Instead, I grab my running shoes, slather myself with sun block, and head for the beach to punish my feet. As I run, the endorphin kick in and my outlook brightens. It comes down to fortitude. I have to remain positive and keep trying. Succumb to the comfy bed and pillow and all will be lost.

Holiday in Vietnam

4 Oct

“They’re going to kill the pig,” Julie said with gleeful excitement. She grabbed Jack’s arm and worked their way through the crowd. Just a few feet in front of them, two men struggled to keep the large beast still, one man at the head, one at the tail. It was the main event of a ceremony that no one could fully explain to Jack in English.

They were on a small island in a bay near the seaside town of Nha Trang. Julie, an Amerasian, had come back to her hometown for a visit after being in America for about ten years. She had met Jack, an American tourist, two days earlier and invited him to the ceremony.

The scene was illuminated by a large flood light, and the star of the show squealed and defecated in fear. Its owner patted the animal’s big head and calmed it down. Jack noticed how the pig’s mouth curled at the ends, looking like a defiant smile.

The butcher, long killing knife in hand, approached. The man at the front, the pig’s owner, lifted the beast’s chin, stretching out his pink, vulnerable neck. Without expression or pause, the  butcher pierced the pig’s throat, sliding its silver blade across in one quick, seamless action. Blood gushed. A red, thin curtain splashed down onto the dusty brown earth, spreading out in a thick, red puddle. When the pig could no longer stand, its two handlers gently laid him on his side. The show over, the crowd returned to their conversations. Behind them, on the ground, pints of blood continued to pump out from the pig’s wound with the slowing rhythm of his weakening heartbeat.

“Now, there’s a pig with a problem,” Julie said.

“Doesn’t this bother you?” Jack asked.

“It sure does. Why did they waste all that blood?”

Jack laughed.

“Here, try one,” she said, holding up a small paper plate of egg rolls.

Jack bit into one. “Pork!” he exclaimed.“How appropriate.” And then he asked why they sacrificed the pig.

“Just so things get better, I guess.”

“Well it didn’t get better for Porky over there.”

“Who knows, maybe he’ll be reincarnated as rock star.”

Jack looked over at the pig. “Maybe.”

“Don’t worry, Jack. Vietnam will always have plenty of pigs. Come on, let’s go set up the lanterns.”

Julie led him to the water where an old boat filled with small paper lanterns was beached. They pushed it into the water and, along with a Vietnamese soldier who would operate the small engine, boarded it. “Why’s he here?” Jack asked quietly. “To prevent people from leaving the country,” Julie replied.  “Two years ago, someone threw out their lanterns and just kept on going.”

The boat stopped and Julie handed Jack a plastic lighter. Getting the lanterns lit and on the bay wasn’t easy. A slight breeze coming up off the water was just strong enough to blow out the lighter’s flame. The lanterns were small, waxed paper boxes so it was hard for Jack to get his large fingers inside to light the candles. Once he managed to keep them lit, he had to gingerly place them on the bay without them capsizing. His efforts proved endlessly amusing to Julie, who applauded and praised him each time he got one successfully on the water. “You did it!” she would shout playfully. Thankfully, others were also placing lanterns on the water. And soon the bay was aglow with candlelight.

Silently, the two of them took it all in. The hundreds of glowing lanterns competed with the sparks of silver, white moonlight caught by the bay’s small ripples. Jack remembered the pig, which reminded him of a hunting trip with his friend, Bill one summer when he was in high school. The two suburbans had driven to the country for a rare hunting trip. Walking through fields and orchards, they carried well-oiled shotguns, barely used, loaded and ready. They were after quail. Smart quail, when surprised, ran into the thicket, dumb ones took to the air and, if the boys were close enough, the birds were usually doomed. The boys, excited at the chance, hurriedly jostled their weapons into place and fired, blasting a lethal mist of bird shot into the air. The unlucky game dropped like stones, usually too obliterated to be eaten.

At dusk, Jack and Bill drove home, recounting the day’s killing success, the small, greasy bag with their game in the back seat. Later, when night fell, when Jack was alone and waiting for sleep, guilt over the day’s killing slowly drifted into his heart like a coastal fog.

“Earth to Jack.”

Jack snapped out of his memory and saw Julie smiling at him. “Are you still fretting over that pig?” she asked. Jack shook his head. “No, just thinking.”

There was a pause.

“Do you like me, Jack?”

Jack looked at her. She seemed anxious and vulnerable. The answer seemed important to her.

“More than like,” he replied with a smile.

Julie giggled. She pointed at him with her chin, smiled and said. “Good. I more than like you, too.”

She switched benches and sat next to him, so close their hips touched. She placed her head on his shoulder, her long, black satin-soft hair fanned out across his back.

“Jack?”

“Yes.”

“Where do you think the pig is now?”

“Pig heaven. Where do you think it is?”

“I think it’s still over there in the dirt.”

Jack laughed, feeling foolish and overly sentimental.