Blossoms and Ashes, Lost in a Jungle, Part 3

Lost in a Jungle

On December 26th 1944 Japanese intelligence officer, Hiro Onoda was sent on a mission to the Filipino island of Lubang. He was ordered to disrupt enemy attacks on the island by destroying airstrips and docks. It wasn’t long before Onoda joined forces with a group of Japanese commandos also sent to the island to jam the Philippine Commonwealth and Allied forces. Within a couple months most of the soldiers were dead. Onoda, now a lieutenant, ordered the rest of the unit to hide in the hills. They waged a guerilla war under the safety of the jungle canopy.

One day while burning a village’s rice supply they found a letter that said the war had ended in August and to please surrender. The surviving members of the Imperial Japanese Army went over the letter at length and after a fair bit of discussion decided the letter was a fake; Allied propaganda meant to trick them into surrender. Their reasoning was simple, Japanese soldiers do not surrender and their country would never ask them to because Japan would never surrender. There would be no Japan at all if the country had lost the war.

Years passed and every once in a while there’d be another skirmish. The propaganda continued. Family photos and letters were air dropped in, imploring the remaining soldiers to lay down their arms and surrender. Still, Onoda and the three men left felt that these efforts were disingenuous in nature and attempts to entrap and dishonor them. They continued to lay traps, kill innocents and hide.

In time, Onoda was the only man left in the group; the rest had died in shootouts with the enemy. He’d made the dense jungle his home and had learned to survive on what it provided. In his hut slept his fully functional Arisaka Type 99 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, a case of hand grenades and most importantly, his sword. Onoda was entirely self-sufficient and still unflinchingly dedicated to the inflexible components of Japanese military moral.

Then, one day a funny dressed Japanese man, with long hair and oddly shaped round glasses found Onoda in the jungle and said to him, I’ve been looking for you, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, and you were on the top of my list. Norio Suzuki looked so strange to Onoda, but Onoda listened to him anyways. Perhaps, Suzuki signaled within Onoda that things are not as they seem. Perhaps Onoda was just lonely? Suzuki asked him why he wouldn’t surrender and Onoda said he’d only surrender if his commanding officer relieved him of duty.

Major Hoshimi Taniguchi was a bookseller in Japan and was quite surprised when the Japanese government requested his help. He agreed to fly to Lubang Island and meet Lieutenant Hiro Onoda. On March 9th 1974 Onoda gave his sword to Major Taniguchi and surrendered. The war had been over for 29 years, but for Onoda it’d just ended.   

***

            Sleep is still hard to come by and the anime program I fell asleep to filled my head with oddly shaped spirits in need of arcane objects. I’m not hungover, which is a miracle. A strong tangle of competing odors emanate from the kitchen. Midori’s home and is making breakfast. She enters my room.

            “Robbie, you slept with the television on, just like your brother.”

            “Yeah, and now I have a party of anime creatures playing jazz in my head.”

            “You’re weird like your brother too,” she says and returns to the kitchen.

            I get up and pull on some pants and replace my shirt. I enter the kitchen and the table is set with a collection of bowls and steaming tea.

            “Sit down and eat,” she says, rummaging around in the sink.

            I sit and she takes off her apron and joins.

            “That,” pointing to a bowl, “is rice,” she says.

            “Very funny,” I say.

            “That’s dashimaki tamago or Japanese style omelet. That,” moving her finger to the next bowl, “is unohana, which is soy pulp with vegetables. And, that is grilled fish. I also have Japanese style white bread if you can’t handle the Japanese food I made for you.”

            “Oh, shut up, I’ve got this,” I say.

            “Oh, I almost forgot,” She gets up and pulls a dish out of the fridge. “Nori, seaweed salad.”

            “I love nori,” I say.

            “Really, me too.”

            We eat for a while.

            “I even brought you a Japanese newspaper.”

            “I wish I could read this,” I say.

            Midori is happy for the first time since I got here. She watches me eat. The food is good, the textures are foreign to me, but not in a bad way. How food feels in your mouth is important in Japan, and so I take my time with every bite and consider the textures in my mouth in union with their flavor. I finish eating, no longer hungry, but neither too full. I pour more tea.

            “I can’t believe you’re leaving soon; it feels like you just got here,” she says.

            “I feel badly about leaving for Kyoto,” I say.

            “No, you should see it.”

            “Well, we have today,” I say.

            “And a day when you return.”

            We’re avoiding talking about Franny. His condition has worsened. He slips in and out of delirium. He hasn’t smoked for over a week and still asks for one every day. We both know he’s not going to get better, but neither of us are going to say anything about it. It’d be pointless anyways; it’s obvious what’s going on. I just didn’t think it was going to happen while I was here. But, it is. Midori is calm. Often distant and disconnected, but centered. She fills her day up going between the hospital and doing chores. She made me this breakfast and she didn’t have to. She booked my Nozumi (bullet train) to Kyoto and found me a place to stay. She bought me a map and marked all the shrines I should see. She took me out to sushi last night and the chef gave me a copy of his hand written menu. I don’t understand how she can be so accommodating at a time like this. She’s super human and her strength has rubbed off on me, though I worry that maybe I’m simply avoiding my emotions. If that is the case, I don’t care; I’m happy to be rid of feelings for a couple days.

            “Remember Otōto, eat every grain of rice or else I’ll think you didn’t like the food,” Midori says.

            I grip my chopsticks, bite my tongue, and concentrate to collect every last grain. She laughs.

            “It looks like it hurts,” she says. “Eating should be enjoyable.”

            “Picking up grains of rice with chopsticks is like threading a needle.”

            I take a shower and when I come out Midori is nearly out the door.

            “I’m going to the hospital, will you be coming for lunch or after? If you come for lunch I’ll buy you Hitsumabushi.”

            “That’s grilled eel, right? Unagi?”

            “Yes, it’s a Nagoya specialty.”

            “I wouldn’t miss it,” I say. She leaves, and their cat, Tami comes out from the closet and begins to meow like crazy.  

            “You heard us talk about grilled unagi, didn’t you?” I say to her.

            She looks at me and says, “Why yes I did and I don’t appreciate being left out of these events.”

            “You should take that up with your mother,” I say.

            “I have many times,” she says, “but Haha believes dry food is best for me.”

            “Some people believe crazy things,” I say.

            “You’re telling me. This is why I whine at night; to make her pay for the suffering she causes Tami.”

            We go out to the deck and sit in the two weathered teak chairs.

            “I’m sorry about your father,” I say.

            She says nothing.

            “If I could make him better I would.”

            “He served Tami tsuna and saba. He sometimes reads Isaac Asimov and tells Tami about him. It’s very complicated and puts Tami to sleep.”

            “What else would you and Franny do?”

            “I would watch him write little plays and act them out with him. Sometimes he’d dance and sing, but sometimes he’d get frustrated and yell at me and cry.”

            “I’m sorry,” I say.

            She licks her paw and wipes her face.

            “It’s nothing, he never hurt Tami, only himself.”

            “How do you mean?” I ask.

            “He’d pound his hand with his own fist, slap his face, scratch his chest with his nails.”

            “Why, do you think he did this?”      

            Tami stops cleaning her face and hops off the chair.

            “It happens when he drinks wine alone,” she says. “I just don’t eat or drink things that are bad for me, but master Franny doesn’t care, he drinks wine no matter what. Will you stay here and feed Tami and read Isaac Asimov to me now?”

            “I don’t think so, Tami. I don’t live in Japan.”

            “What is Japan?” she screeches. “You’re making up stories like my father,” she says. Tami walks back inside the apartment and to her sleeping pad in the closet.

            I think about Franny and his life in Japan and it reminds me of something my dad said, that wherever you go, you have to take yourself with you, and I wonder if Japan was an escape or a destination for Fran? Here, he’s still at war with himself, just as much so as at home. But here, and alone in his apartment, he was undercover, in hiding for as long as he needed.

            I finish getting ready, slug a glass of cold green tea, and pop in my headphones. Franny loves Peter Gabriel, so I turn on Solsbury Hill, and I’m eight years-old again watching Franny practice his golf swing in the back yard. His hair is long and he has a single thin braid hugging the back hip of his right ear. His t-shirt is pink and large, his shorts are khaki and short. His golf shoes are black and white wingtips. He’s smoking and his skin is young and tight. He says, catch, and hits a golf ball at me. I miss it and it hits my chest with a thud. It hurts, but I’m already embarrassed enough for not catching the ball, so I suck up the sting, throw the ball back to him and say, another. He hits another, and I leap and catch it. He says nothing, but is smiling. I know he’s thinking of something to say to take me down a peg, but decides against it. He gives me this win.

I’m in Chikusa Station and the ushers are here. They’re wearing suits, bright white gloves, and peaked hats. The platform is crowded, my train arrives, a flood of people spill out, I’m lifted off my feet and poured in. We are all stuffed inside, the bodies of strangers touching mine. Still, no eyes on eyes. I have to change trains and I’m anxious about getting off, but when the time comes packs of passengers liquefy and drip off the exits, allowing me a pathway to escape through. I want to high-five everyone, but this exercise is not exceptional, it’s just the right way to go about things—to-step-off-to-step-on-again. 

            I eventually arrive to the hospital and step up to the Starbucks counter inside and order an aisukōhī with bullet-between-the-teeth confidence. After a minute or two, In perfect English, the girl at the counter says to be, here’s your iced coffee, sir. Again, on the elevator, a middle-aged man asks me point blank in English which floor I want. The rest of the people in the elevator don’t even flinch. Business as unusual. I arrive to Franny’s room concerned that maybe I look lost today and in need of an extra hand, but why should people going out of their way bother me? I put it aside.

            Franny’s awake, laying on his bed, looking out the window like I’ve seen mom and Liam look out a hospital window. I’m sure I’ve looked out a window the same way, but from home, when I’m alone. I pull a chair next to him and hope he’s not delirious.

            “Are you delirious?” I ask.

            “No, I’m Francis,” he says.

            “Midori made me breakfast,” I say. “And Tami says you read her Asimov.”

            That sparks his interest and he turns to me.

            “She wasn’t supposed to do that,” he says.

            “What, make me breakfast?”

            “No, Tami wasn’t supposed to tell anyone I read to her.”

            “She’s got a lot to say.”

            “You’re telling me,” he say. “I try to go over my scripts with her, but she won’t shut up about her favorite kinds of fish and the power of bonito flakes!”

            We pause to take in a breath and see the sun pouring into the little room.

            “Where’s Midori?” I ask.

            “I think she went out to pick up your unagi lunch.”

            “Are you eating with us?”

            “I hate unagi,” he says. “It tastes like kippers in old slippers to me.”

            “Kippers in slippers? Wow, sounds as fun as Bananas in Pajamas.”

            “God that was a weird kid’s show,” he says.

            “Tell me about it, all the sexual tension between B1 and B2 sleeping in separate beds. I couldn’t take it.”

            “Man, that’s the truth,” Fran says, laughing.

            Midori comes into the room.

            “It’s nice to see the brothers laughing,” she says.

            “We’re not laughing,” Franny says, pretending to act grumpy. “Now go eat your kippers in slippers in the cafeteria and leave me to my ice water and unlimited supply of rescue shots. I might just take a rescue and trip out to the X-Files while you guys are away poisoning yourselves on grilled sea snake.”

            “Someone’s in a good mood,” Midori says. “Okay, Mr. Francis, we’ll be back.”

            We make our way to a small dining area located on the same floor. My favorite feature of this room is the green tea machine. It comes out either hot or cold. It’s a true miracle maker.

We sit down, unpack our lunch, and Midori explains to me the condiments and broths, which come on the side. We dig in and say very little until only grains of rice are left.

            “Who will I offend if I don’t eat these grains of rice,” I say.

            “Me,” she says. “I bought this meal for you and it’s my favorite.”

I keep picking away.

            “You know, thank you so much for being here. Franny didn’t say a single word today until you got here; you make him feel better.”

            “I hope so,” I say.

            “Through all these years why didn’t any of you ever come to see Franny? It hurt him a lot.”

            I want to believe it was a money issue for us, which is partially true, we’re always broke, but that’s an issue of misappropriated funds, rather than hurting from want. I want to tell Midori I’m not included because look, I’m here now, but honestly I could have found a way here before the cancer. As for the family: mom, Aja and Liam, maybe they were scared to, but I cannot say for certain. I know that I didn’t because I wanted to go to other places, and when I was away I was too preoccupied with my own life. I don’t have an answer for her without throwing someone, including myself, under a bus. We’re all guilty.

            “You were young,” she continues, and you are here now, but what about Liam and Aja? What about your mom?”

            “I think they thought there’s always time, and now there’s not,” I say.

            “It’s too late now because I cannot accommodate them,” she says.

            “Yes, that’s what I mean,” I say.

            “You Americans,” she says. “You Americans like tragedy, especially if you live through it. It makes you feel strong, but in reality it makes you weaker because a piece of you has been bitten off. A chunk you cannot recover.”

            “A lot of our stories are about overcoming obstacles,” I say. 

            “People and their condition aren’t obstacles, and when they die there’s damage, even if you jump over their bodies.”

            “I know,” I say. “That’s what I believe too.”

            Despite a few bits of rice still left in my bowl she collects what’s left of our lunch and throws it away. All of a sudden, Midori isn’t well, and I feel it’s partially my fault. I stop her.

            “My family doesn’t make much sense, and they can appear self-centered and callous, but I promise you, that isn’t the case. The truth is, many of them never thought Franny wanted to see them, they thought they’re too much for him, and they should stay away unless Franny asks for them. My family feels love for each other, but never says it, and barely ever shows it. It’s a mystery, but not simply a situation where they don’t care.”

            “I don’t understand that,” she says, and leaves the room.

            “I don’t understand either,” I say to myself.

            “I understand,” a nurse says to be, again in perfect English. “They’re shy with emotions. My family’s the same way.”

            “Perhaps they are,” I say. I think on it for a moment and decided I like the sound of it. “Doumo arigatou gozaimasu,” I say.

            “No problem,” she says, holding in laughter. 

***

            Franny and I go on a walk and we’re sitting by the shrine where he had his seizure. He’s distant, either sullen, or lost in thought. He looks awful, fatigued and emaciated. He drops his head like he’s sleeping. I look into the little shrine and I see a figurine of a woman in a red Kimono. There are offerings of fruit and yen in little bowls surrounding her. I look at her closely and see she’s smirking. I wonder if she knows something about Franny I don’t? That’s the thing about Shinto kami, they always know what’s up and they always have a plan. At least, that’s what I’ve surmised in my short time here.

            Franny wakes up and looks at me like I’m a polished figurine myself.

            “Hi brother,” he says. “When’s the game?”

            “What game?” I ask.

            “The Mariners game.”

            “Not until later,” I say. “Since that win streak in April we’ve been nothing but poop stain and skid mark.”

            “It’s the Mariners, Robbie,” he says.

            “I wish they’d just make a deal with the devil already and win the pennant.”

            “They already did in ’95, and we’ve been suffering the consequences ever since.”

            “What about Ichiro and 2001,” I say. “One of the greatest hitters ever to play and we won 116 games, which tied the all-time record?”

            “I know the stats, but look at the results. We lost to the Yankees in the first series of the playoffs and haven’t been to the post season since. One of the greatest feats of underperformance in the history of baseball.”

            “I see your point,” I say.

            I get a message from Aja.

            “Hi little brother. How’s Franny doing? I miss him so much and it kills me to not be there. Instead, I’m here with mom, or at least, what was mom. I suppose, it still is mom, but the mean 1974 version of mom who ruined my life. I don’t mean to spoil your trip at all, but you should know mom’s really slipping. When she’s not catatonic, she does this thing where she thinks everyone around her is a demon and she begins to hyperventilate until she’s shot with a sedative to knock her out. It’s distressing to watch.

“Liam was here the first time it happened and it sent him away in pieces. Just so you know, Ronda somehow broke Liam’s contract with his horse dealer, and bought the horse out from under him and took it to her property. Least to say, Kayleigh’s now at her mom’s nearly all the time. Watching mom freak out sent him over the edge and no one has seen him in a couple days. Have you heard from him? Margo and I are worried. Sorry to dump this on you, but you need to know. Is it bad to want mom to die? How’s our brother doing? Kiss Franny for me. Hugs.” [Message, Aja]

            I look up at Franny and he says, “That bad, huh?”

            “Mom’s doing real bad and Liam had Ronda do one over on him again,” I say.

            “What did she do?”

            “She bought a horse out from under him,” I say.

            Franny lets out a fantastic laugh.

            “Come on, man,” he says. “First of all, what the fuck is Liam doing buying a horse to begin with—leverage to win over his daughter? Secondly, if he were Ronda and saw the opening, he’d do the same thing. Never forget he and Ronda are more the same than different.”

            “I just want to be left out of it,” I say. “I could give a shit about their fucking horse. It’s so bizarre anyways, like a total cliché.”

            “And so coded in their bizarre hang up with appearing high class.”

            “You can learn a lot from watching Masterpiece Theater,” I say.

            “Table manners, back handed compliments, and yes, the finer aspects of horse care,” he says.

            I let the air out of the bag, “We should stop talking shit, but I know how hard it can be with those two.”

            “Kayleigh’s joined the club, huh?” Franny says.

            “What club?” I ask.

            “The Family suicide club.”

            “Apparently, a two time member.”

            “Fuck, before 16, she’s on pace for greatness. I wish there was something to say to her to make her see her parents’ affection isn’t worth the labor,” he says.

            “Speaking from experience,” I say.

            “I’m still stuck where Kayleigh is, Trauma does that to you; I still want everyone to feel badly for me. That’s what’s getting me through.”

            “If you know you’re doing it, then why don’t you stop?”

            “Because I can’t see the forest through the trees—makes it hard to escape.”

            We sit in silence for a few minutes and I look back inside the tiny little shrine and see the figurine now smiling.

            “What if I told you, you could walk in any direction and find an exit,” I say.

            “I’d say it’s a trick.”

            “Why?”

            “Because childhood trauma doesn’t just keep you bleeding, it’s also a shield which keeps you safe from adulthood trauma, but at the price of normalcy and happiness. I don’t want to be right, I just want to feel right.”

            “So, you’re saying you knowingly stay locking inside your childhood trauma even if it means you miss out on a chance of normalcy and happiness?”

            “It’s not as easy as that. I’ve got too many mistakes to face up to,” he says. “That’s when all my addictions take hold and I blame mom again for her mistakes. It’s a loop.”

            “Like I said, stop walking in circles and aim in one direction,” I say.

            “That’s not an option now,” he says. “I’ll be dead in a few days.”

              “Don’t talk like that.”

            “Why, does it offend you?”

            He rolls away from me, stops in the middle of the narrow side street, and then rolls back to me.

“ Speaking of which, buy me a pack of cigarettes, will you? I want one more before this is all over.

            “I can’t, doctor’s orders.”

            “Who cares,” he says.

            “I do. I don’t want to be the reason you get kicked out of the hospital. Plus, it’s wrong,” I say.

            “This isn’t about your feelings,” he says, growing dark, “This is about me having a moment of joy and relief before I go back inside.

            “Franny, I can’t do it. Don’t ask me to do it again.”

“I’m going to fucking die anyway, give me a cigarette,” he says.

            I ignore him and the wide grin now pasted on the face of the Shinto goddess. She must have something to do with death, or at least trickery and deception. Maybe, she’s the goddess of cigarettes? It’s no matter. I get up, unlock the wheelchair brakes and begin to wheel Franny back to the hospital. As long as we’re outside he’s going to keep working on me.

            “I don’t want to go in yet,” he says. I ignore him and keep wheeling him through the parking lot.

Suddenly, he stomps both feet onto the pavement to stop the wheel chair, but instead of stopping the chair, both feet roll underneath themselves and under his seat. Fran howls in pain.

            “You fucker,” he says. “You rotten little shit.”

            “I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

            “You fucker,” he keeps repeating while rocking in his chair, reaching down but failing to grasp his feet. 

            I don’t know what to do, I look at his feet and one appears dislocated. Several people look at us and one woman says something to be in Japanese, but I don’t understand. I make a sign for a telephone and point to the hospital, which seems to make sense and a couple people jump on their phones. An older man walks up, looks at Fran like he’s a hurt animal, and begins to speak with several onlookers. He looks at me and says in a thick accent, “doctor?” I say, hi. A couple people walk quickly towards the hospital. The pack of good Samaritans pass an expressionless Midori who’s standing like a dagger buried into a card table. The wind brushes passed her and she’s looks right at me. I jog to her.

            “Franny’s feet got caught underneath the wheelchair. He’s hurt.”

            She makes a quick phone call, the Japanese words fly by my head like sparrows, and she hangs up. She remains lost in thought and doesn’t move.

            “Midori, he just stomped on the ground while I was pushing him, it happened so fast.”

            She says, I know, to me and places her hand on my shoulder before leaving me to see Franny. I follow behind her a minute after and Franny’s head is slumped forward and he’s crying. Midori hugs him and speaks to him gently. He nods to her song and I see in front of me a side of Franny seldom available. Around him a jungle forms and he shrinks down to his seven year-old self. He has a wooden sword, a pirate’s hat and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I begin to laugh, but quickly realize that it’s inappropriate. In fact, it’s rather sad. The whole fucking scenario is sad and tears form in my eyes. A hand grasps mine and an older woman appears beside me. Her hair is grey, her shawl is red and her scarf has foxes printed on it. She’s saying things to me in Japanese and I understand them; they’re the universal words one delivers to another who’s grieving.

            I thank the older woman kindly and approach my brother. Two doctors are working on Franny’s feet. I see him grimace in pain whenever the doctor tries to manipulate his ankles. Words are exchanged and indeed Franny dislocated an ankle and the other is sprained. Midori keeps Franny company, but he’s nearly unresponsive, either to control the pain, or because he realized this is another turn for the worst he won’t recover from. After some time Franny is hoisted onto a gurney and wheeled away.

Midori remains, as do I. We look at each other and it’s nothing like how we were at breakfast; now it feels like things are speeding up and that Franny wants it that way.

            “I’m so sorry,” I say.

            “You have to be gentle with Franny,” she says. “I say that to him too. You have to be gentle with yourself, Franny, I say this to him and he drinks and smokes. I don’t know why he lives like that.”

            Her face stretches into the amorphous shape of profound sadness and I feel something inside me begin to break. I hug her to make her feel better, but she cries instead, and she cries for a while in spite of the onlookers. When she pulls herself away from me and asks me for a cigarette. I go to the market across the street from the hospital and do for her what I couldn’t do for Franny. She’s sitting on the bench next to the little Shinto shrine and I light her cigarette for her.

            “You must go to Kyoto and take this scarf to Arashiyama bamboo forest and tie it somewhere,” she says.

            She hands me the scarf, which is more so a handkerchief and says, “Franny loved Arashiyama, he’d want this there.”

            “Of course I’ll take it.”

            Midori smiles and takes a drag.

            “I wish he’d let go of the past,” I say.

            “It’s important for your mother that he does,” she says.

            “How do you mean?” I ask.

            “Your mother is tied to Franny because of his anger. That’s why they’re sharing symptoms. Franny’s making her death worse by not letting go. Nothing works, I’ve tried, he won’t let go.”

            “I’ve tried too,” I say. “So you think they’re linked because they’re dying at the same time?”

            “I think so,” she says. “At the very least, they’re tied together by an unhappy accident of fortune.”

            I don’t know what to think of this, but it’s interesting, and at the very least would explain Franny’s delirium.

            “I just want Franny to surrender,” I say. “All that hurt was from so long ago.”

            “That’s Franny,” Midori says.

            I think, what if the world was actually as magical as Midori says it is? I’d prefer that to the other school of thought that life is just a cosmic pool table of balls hitting balls in a chaotic game with no premise or object. I like the idea that’s there’s an unseen orchestra of actors walking among us, making both good, and trouble. The idea that mom and Franny’s deaths are linked gives the unfortunate coincidence of their dual demise meaning. It’s tragic, but at least it’s not pointless. I look inside the tiny little shrine next to us and notice the statuette is gone.

            “Which god lives here?” I ask. “The statue’s gone.”

            “Inari is the god of foxes.”

            “Wasn’t the shrine of a woman?” I ask.

            “Inari can be either a man, a woman or a fox. I’m sure she’ll be back once she’s finished playing.”

The House of Uncommons

Screen Shot 2020-05-11 at 8.55.02 AM

Margaret Thatcher is tall, lean, and trendy; she could be an art museum curator if it wasn’t for her need to understand her own mental illness through others. Though, if she’s fucked up in her life, it wasn’t too catastrophic—she doesn’t put on airs during our sessions and appears to care for my wellbeing. Her office is shared and typical for a publically funded community psychiatric clinic; a khaki box otherwise empty besides a framed print of Picasso’s Guernica hanging on the wall. I feel agitated. Ms. Thatcher’s subdued presence triggers a smudgy emotion inside of me, one which has lingered far from the emotion that bore it, the feeling’s a cross between being nude in public and dropping food on the ground in front of strangers. There are no windows.

“How’s the writing?” She begins.

“Shannon left.”

Margaret Thatcher sits back in her chair and exhales the “Oh shit” she formed inside her mouth.

“Wow, okay. I’m sorry, Josef. You must feel very upset.”

“I know that I am, I know that I should be, but I feel unable to processes it—I suppose I feel guilty. I thought I was doing my best to make her feel better after the assault, but I didn’t help her recover at all.”

“Helping others through a traumatic experience is a tough business. Maybe you did better than you thought?”

I take a second to think.

“I concocted ideas of what she needed and tried to force them onto her without considering I was wrong.”

“How?”

“I let her alone when she needed someone close. I was too close when she needed space. I was thoughtful and patient—I was forceful and impatient to motivate her, but always on my terms. I did everything right and saw nothing get better, so I did everything wrong in hopes to inspire the opposite effect. I could have just asked her what she needed.”

“The former sounds like the flawed logic of desperation.”

“I was anxious and unable to wait. The weight was bearing down on me. Things had to get better when I needed them to.”

“So, since things weren’t improving quickly enough you took control of the situation by blowing it up?”

“It felt like things were going too slowly and I was close to a breakdown. If she were to see me lose my shit, like I’ve done in the past, she wouldn’t want to be with me anymore. Self-destruction wasn’t a conscious choice, but looking back, the only choice to reduce my anxiety.”

“Self-destruction is a common option we choose when we’re overwhelmed and cannot acknowledge and communicate our feelings properly. What’s troubling about patterns of self-destructive behavior is outsiders can clearly see the individual in question’s ill-conceived plans, but the individual is too wrapped up in self-denial to calculate that their trajectory is on a collision course with reality.”

“I remember thinking things were coming to a head and I should prevent that from happening. But, a second after the thought I reckoned a collision was the natural progression of the situation.”

“I hear that a lot,” Margaret Thatcher says. “We also know your family history and how much self-destructive behavior, perpetual conflict and overly simplified resolutions are the norm. It’s easier to stick with what you know.”

“When emotional responses are sought after like drugs to the addict,” I say. “How the hell did we become this way?”

“It was something your mother learned, something she and your uncles were raised with and used to survive in their broken home. You hold onto the ideas surrounding how positive relationships should be and begin a complex process of mimicking several archetypes of normalcy in the hopes you can fake it until you make it, but it’s still acting. It takes self-discipline, counseling, and time to rewire your brain from that kind of behavior.”

“We’re all high strung, anxious, co-dependent, and insecure— I wish I could control how rushed I always feel, how unsteady and ashamed. I wish I didn’t have this maniacal inclination to always be in good standing with everyone. To always quash conflict.”

“Conflict in the world or conflict you perceive is directed against you?”

“I suppose both.”

“I don’t see you trying to change the world?”

I smile and lean forward in my chair.

“Well, I’m apprehensive to change the world after what you did to it, Margaret Thatcher.”

She rolls her eyes.

“You have two more Margaret Thatcher jokes left this session,” She says, dryly.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about people not liking me.”

“I know, I’m your psychiatrist.”

“I look back on my life and think about all the wrong moves I made. How much I went out of the way to seek validation from those I thought were cool, while ignoring the extended hands from friends I took for granted. For someone who cares so much what people think about him, it’s bizarre who often I put myself in embarrassing positions.”

“What do you believe are your thoughts and feelings that keep you from having peace of mind? In other words, what is inhibiting you from being a consistent and dependable human being?”

“My thoughts are always agitated; I’m always anxious. Often Angry.”

“Why do you think you’re always anxious?”

“Because I can’t help but see everything in a state of decay.”

“What do you mean by that? Decay?”

“Entropy. I had to go to the hospital last night to see my mother in the ER and when I got there she was laying on the bed asleep looking like a dying child.”

“Is your mother’s mortality perhaps changing your thinking to see everything through this lens of entropy?”

“No, I’ve thought this way for a long time—I can’t stop thinking in the past. Often good times that are gone, or times I embarrassed myself. When something good happens I remind myself it will soon pass.”

Margaret Thatcher creases the right side of her tan bob behind her ear leaving a single tendril hanging in the gap between the arm of her glasses and her cheekbone.

“Why are these memories milestones of decay?”

“Because they ended poorly.”

“Or, is it that they just ended?”

God damn Margaret Thatcher going after my negative thoughts again.

“I don’t know, perhaps. But, when I think about the embarrassing moments, I cringe and think how can I have such a lack of self-control to indulge such poor behavior?”

“The process of nostalgia is often evoked to stir in us a sense of serenity and closure. However, if that picture is then compared to our image of the present, the here and now looks less than desirable. Perhaps you already know your nostalgic memories are as false as your embarrassing ones. In my opinion, nostalgic memories are more dangerous than self-loathing thoughts.

“I thought you were into nostalgia?”

“Is that another Margaret Thatcher joke?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, that was number 2, now say something smart.”

“I’ve never wanted a relationship of any kind to cease to be; I’ve wanted the connection to always remain even if our roles change.”

“Is this strictly romantically?”

“No, I mean all relationships. Friendships are the easiest to maintain, but somehow I’ve exhausted those connections too often as well.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“I lost many friends after my divorce. I lost more in New Zealand.”

“You’re not alone and friendships forged abroad will always be loose and eventually fade.”

“But, I want a perfect record.”

Margaret Thatcher stares at me as if she sees something inside me that I cannot and begins to smile.

“Your hopes are valid but unattainable. You will lose relationships, you will watch friendships come and go, you will be faced with the inevitable consequences of living in the world, where both good and bad things happen.”

“I wish I had a better grip on my emotions.”

“But to GRIP them, as you say, means you must be outside of them in order to secure them.”

“Okay,” I say, “To control them.”

“What is control?”

“To not give in to temptation.”

“Very Catholic.”

“I forgot, Margaret Thatcher, has a thing against Catholics.”

“Margaret Thatcher joke number 3 for the win,” she says, invoking a weak fist pump with her eyes scanning the chart balanced on her lap.

“How could I not?” I say.

“Control.” She says to keep us on topic.

“It’s to always respond in the right way. To instantaneously weight a situation and perform appropriately based on its demands,” I say.

“So, it’s some Victorian idea of behavior and restraint developed through good breeding and a high moral and ethical compass?”

“Uh, is that what my answer sounded like?”

“To me, it sounded like a bunch of, excuse the expression, poppycock.”

“Is that a Margaret Thatcher joke?” I say.

“No, it’s a you joke.”

“Ouch, nice one,” I say. “Look, I go up and down, left and right. I’ll have a good couple of days and then the anxiety comes back. I’d like to write more, but I can’t draft anything with a semblance of consistency. I’m unstable. I can’t work more than twenty-five hours a week without exhausting myself and getting worse. I’ve never held a real job because I can’t concentrate or be stable enough to do my tasks at a consistent level over time. I run my own contracting business because I can’t have a boss. I can barely work with others anymore because before, I’d get such profound performance anxiety I’d lash out. I’m something to laugh at. I have no control.”

“No, you suffer from rapid cycling bipolar disorder,” she says.

A pause. A dog barks, but from Where? Margaret Thatcher’s lips are pursed with the pride inherent in a well-executed bombing pattern. I riposte.

“No, I think it’s just a learned behavior from my mother; I’m not like her, I don’t eat my fucking meals over the sink.”

“…”

Margarette Thatcher’s green eyes glint just below her bangs and then pop with emerald smoke curling up towards the ceiling.

“So, I’ve been nuts this entire time,” I say, “and people have been placating me?”

“That’s a meaningless sentence. Tear it apart and ask yourself if it holds water.”

“It’s a reactionary thought which bears little on reality and more so upon my insecurities,” I parrot back to her like I’ve heard it a thousand times.

“Correct.”

“But, are you sure? Bi-polar? I’m actually fucking crazy?”

“Josef, you’re not crazy. I’ve been observing your behavior for a couple months now and have been almost certain for a few weeks. However, I wanted to wait and be sure, and to also notify you when you were ready.”

“How the hell is now the time when I’m ready?”

“Because your family needs you to fight for yourself to help them, and Shannon needs you to accept yourself so you can begin loving her.”

I resonate with what Margaret Thatcher is saying, but afraid of what it means. I feel emotional.

“Have you heard of lithium before?”

“Yes,” I say, less than excitedly.

“And?” She asks.

“I’m afraid it will turn me into an uncreative zombie.”

“Well, you’ve been complaining about being an uncreative spas the past two months, what do you have to lose?”

“Good point.”

“Look, it’s all about the blood work. We’ll get you on the right dose, which will stabilize your mood without making you feel like a manikin.”

“I suppose I’ll have to trust you,” I sigh.

I look again from Margaret Thatcher to the Guernica print and realize that I’ve been screaming in the inside like the cow in the painting for years.

“You put that print there on purpose, don’t you?” I say.

“No, but someone did,” she says.

I look away and my eyes begin to swell.

“This isn’t a loss, Josef. This is a chance to gain control back.”

“What if I’m scared to have control? I’d rather keep wanting it than to actually have it.”

Sunsets Over Troubles Immemorable

vietnam-wall-graffiti-842x452

My dad’s a vet. Vietnam. He graduated high school, took off to Iowa for the corn harvest, and ran with the carnivals selling postcards and knickknacks until one day outside of Baton Rouge he got a phone call from grandma telling her only son his draft notice came in the mail. His boss, Pennant Red, said to him, “Son, get your ass back to Seattle and sign up for the Army so you can go through Basic and pick what you want to do. Otherwise, you’re good as dead.” Lucky for dad, between Pennant Red, Little Joe, and Big Cowboy and Little Cowboy, there were enough war veterans working the carnival circuit to give my father the best advice to save his neck.

 

For him, not going wasn’t an option. Not because he agreed with the war, but because it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. So he went to Vietnam and felt wrong about it the whole time— and when he got back was told he was wrong for being a soldier and for going. He told me he was convinced his plane home was going to crash and sweated the whole ride home. He got off the plane at Sea-Tac Airport and went to the bathroom to take a leak. The bathroom was strewn with abandoned army suits. Dad refused to take his off, not because he agreed with the war, or even because he respected the army, but because he couldn’t disrespect those other soldiers who didn’t make it home.

 

He waited all night for a cab, but no one would pick him up in his green suit; so he called his dad, and Grandpa picked him up.

 

Settling back into American life was difficult. He told me he was really interested in a girl, but she told him one evening over a beer, “I just wouldn’t have gone.” That’s what she said, “I just wouldn’t have gone.” He disappeared for a few years after that but came out the other end. We are all thankful that he did. Some in our family didn’t.

 

Grandma told me, my Great Uncle, Ken died during WWII in Alaska. Ken was her favorite brother. I asked my dad, when I got old enough, how Ken died. Dad said, “He was stationed on a tiny island in the Aleutian Island chain and thought the war had ended and was forgotten. He ended his life with his service weapon and was found days later.” With Grandma, painful things were always masked in understatements.

 

She said her younger brother was a very sensitive boy, but brave. He began to leave the farm at six-years-old to work the railroads and would come back with money for the family. I think Dad reminded her of Ken. When I asked her what she thought of dad going to war, she said, “We took a road trip back to Iowa one summer when the kids were young and your dad insisted that he always got to a campsite before sunset so that he could lay on top of the car and watch the sunset slip behind a mountain, cast its rays over a cliff, or set a cornfield on fire.” She paused and stared into her past and then qualified her story, “A boy like that isn’t meant for war,” she said. “And, that’s the thing.”

 

Fighting hurts us all.

Snippets—On Character

Scan 1

There’s this recurring character who appears in my stories. He’s not of one fixed identity; she can be another. Together, they build and destroy, damage and revive memories under a chain-linked arbor of narrative. I’ve called him Simon, her name has been Mary. They’ve both meant the same to me: an undisturbed arc of life after death.

The Elusive Salmon

salmonmedium

Across my little apartment is the city locks. The locks see every boat coming in, or going out to sea. Though there are a lot of boats coming and going there’s also a good portion of the day when the locks are empty, and when they’re empty in the late summer and early autumn, schools of spawning salmon enjoy the peace by leaping out of the water, and going plop back in.

I say plop because that’s usually all you hear. It’s not as easy as you might think to spot a jumping salmon. Try as you may, staring in one spot and waiting for a salmon to jump is a fool’s errand.

Today’s Friday, and I have no work to keep me from the locks. I was also here this past Monday, and the Friday before last, not working, instead listening to the salmon go plop.

The rest of my time spent has been in my apartment. I’ve been on the computer, looking through job postings. With the click of a button, another resume goes into the blackness. For each prospective employer, I tell them that I’m qualified, a quick learner, and nearly perfect. I wait and watch for a reply. I wait, and watch.

While I wait, I try not to think about how hard I’ve worked to be broke, how maybe my quest to define myself as independent, unique, and a stand-alone has greatly compromised my ability to write a good resume and cover letter—I can’t seem to connect.

I finally pull my eyes away from my computer screen and make something to eat, and when I return, another rejection letter has been sent from a web address that begins with, “donotreply.” Cowards.

All these rejections come when I’m not looking. It’s the second I break my will to force good news that the tech world tells me to keep fishing (and to follow them on Twitter, etc.). I get angry, and then sad, and then I tell myself that I’m an anomaly, a force of nature that their vetting algorithms cannot grasp or define. When these half-truths escape my lips, I become thirsty for alcohol; for a cigarette before I return to my seat at the gambling table.

Yesterday, I spent the day doing something different. My mother had called to tell me that my brother lost custody of his daughter and threatened to kill himself. He texted me later and asked me to take care of his life insurance policy. He then turned off his phone and disappeared. I spent yesterday hunting.

When a salmon goes plop and you turn to the noise there’s a gentle wake. It spreads and rolls from its starting point in perfect symmetry. The succession of arches spread until they are swallowed by the bigger currents surrounding them. They die into the fold.

My brother’s wake continued for some time before he jumped. Not off a bridge, or a building, but by text message. He contacted his daughter to tell her that everything’s fine. He was alive.

I spent yesterday guessing where my brother could be, but I didn’t know until I did. I haven’t seen or talked to him. I’m not at all ready for that.

Some boats have arrived now. In particular, a fishing vessel with three deckhands chattering in Italian. The salmon are still jumping, and I can hear that language too. I’m too tired today to apply for jobs. It’s a fool’s errand anyway.

Today, I came to the locks and saw a large salmon, looking green and pink, she jumped right in front of me while I was looking at the boats waiting to go out to sea. She went plop and I saw the whole thing.

 

I VISTED GRANDMA IN THE HOSPITAL TODAY

I saw grandma today. She’s very sick. Well, dying actually. When I went to her room in the assisted living house, it was in her old room because her new room is in the hospital ward now. I moved her bed, the family dish cabinet, the old dinner table we used to use for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We were taking them to a place to be sold. No one wanted them.

On the last load I stayed behind with my aunt. She said, Josef, there’s no reason for you to take the last; you should visit grandma, but bear in mind that it’s pretty grim. I said that I’m used to that, and that it didn’t matter; that I was ready for just watching her for a while.

Hospitals, even “rehabilitation wards” within rest homes always smell like stale chips and used synthetic clothing. Nothing beautiful can be summoned within that scent. However, the thoughts that echo within those that travel down those halls makes up for it.

She looked so small on her single bed. The bed was made, but she lay fragile under a blanket, looking like an ant underneath a wet leaf. I sat next to her, saw her face stretched so tight and tired. Where was the caretaker and the boy now? Where was the man and the too old to keep being old anymore, but there at that moment.

I kissed her forehead and she woke up. She wasn’t supposed to; she was supposed to be too confused, too detached — they told me to be prepared with the fact that she may not recognize me. She opened her eyes and asked, you’re back from New Zealand. Yes grandma, I’m back.

And we talked like we used to, but I could tell it took everything for her to remain engaged. So I made it easy. I talked about travel. I reminded her of all the places I’ve been. Told her that it’s hard to have two homes when neither feels like home. There was silence. Then she said, I’ve traveled a lot too.

She has been all over the world. When I was a child she would be gone for months at a time, but would return with stories about Greece, Kashmir, India — amazing adventures that I couldn’t have ever imagined if it wasn’t for her gift of story. She taught me that who we are as a people of the earth has everything to do with the differences, not the likenesses.

And then, when she had nothing left, she said to me, you can go everywhere in the world and be nowhere. And then she went to sleep.