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"I was always afraid that someone would find me, And was saddened when no one actually found me"

“I was always afraid that someone would find me,
And was saddened when no one actually found me”

He went to Japan on vacation and brought back this greeting card with a cat on it that sang when you pulled a tab on the side. He recorded a video of himself showing off the card, and his eyes followed the tab as he pulled it, left to right. The video looped automatically and I watched his eyes move: back and forth, back and forth. It looked like he was staring at me, but he was staring at himself, watching himself. His brown eyes are seared into my memory along with the little pink Japanese singing cat. We all had high hopes for that year of our lives. We thought it would go well; that there might be another year after if we were happy. And we tried to be. But the months slowed down as we went, the days stretched out, and the mornings came earlier. The smog in the sky stayed put, blocking out the blue, even in the summer. We were all left to ourselves, by ourselves, recording little moments of time, trying to share them with others. But when we left, there was nothing left of it in us to share. There was no moral to our story. No punch line to the bad joke. Just a sort of gray smog covering strange hangul memories.

 

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“I’m so happy to be home,” she says.

“It’s so different. It’s just like it was when I left. It’s so different from where I was. I just can’t explain it. And no one is asking me to.”

“It’s like PTSD,” she says.

“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or maybe it’s the opposite of that. But it’s sorta the same. Like I just experienced something terrible. And I come home, back here, and this place is not terrible at all. It’s so normal. It’s identical to life before I left, like nothing here has changed. Because it hasn’t.”

“And anyway, I felt it right away, when I got here. This anti-PTSD thing.”

“Oh, and I’m allowed to talk about PTSD, because I met soldiers over there when I was gone. I learned some stuff about their lives. Anyway so it’s not like I have no idea what I’m talking about.”

“So, I stepped out of the airport, after 24 hours of traveling, and, bam, here I was. And maybe that doesn’t sound very impressive. And people don’t seem very impressed. And that’s the thing.”

“I can’t explain what I’ve been through or much of the things I’ve seen. It’s a different world. You have to experience it yourself before you can understand me. So, PTSD, right? You’re living in this world, like me, but at the same time, I’ve lived in another one, and that world’s not completely gone from me. It’s like jet-lag, but culture-lag; experience-lag. It wasn’t really wonderful or beautiful. And you’re not asking, either. And to talk about it just feels like complaining. I can’t describe it right. And you’re not listening to what I’m not saying.”

“This world doesn’t seem real,” she says.

“I can understand what those soldiers must go through. This is a dream land. It’s like nothing happened, like those terrible things never happened. But they did. And it’s so confusing. And you can’t talk about it. See? I’m talking in circles. But I have to say something.”

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Three months later the same guy was dancing with the same woman on the same dance floor to the same five country songs that were played in a repeating loop into what seemed like infinity. Their dance moves had improved but otherwise it was the same army boy from five months ago, using the same words to get girls to dance with him, moving in the same way to the same beat.

Sitting there watching it all happen, the five-song playlist repeating again for the third time, it all was exactly like my picture of hell: A small square wooden dance floor, a repeating, circling square dance, people drinking and laughing but not really happy at all.

And everyone else doesn’t have any dance partner or anything to talk about. And they go through the typical 4 question cycle: Where are you from; What do you do; Do you like it here; Yeah me neither, so why do you stay?

And there is nothing really to talk about, nothing that matters, as everything fades into more and more of the grayness. The people are gray and the city is gray. And it is not beautiful, though the architects seem to think so. It is not good to be miserable. It is not good to laugh joylessly. Loud and empty laughter. Everything is shallow and the same, day after week after month. And the people who might have been otherwise turn harsh and critical and brash. And there is nothing much beautiful left in them. It seeps out through their eyes and evaporates with the tears that wash away the cigarette smoke.

Months go by and years and the same cement city streets are stomped and spat on and brushed clean. Bristle brooms stand on street corners to sweep it all away come morning. There is no hope here, only living. Only another weekend and more hours spent. More turns on the dance floor or swings around the pole in the middle of the basement bar. More attempts at getting women to go home with you, more cycles, going from one girl to another and whispering in any ear that will listen. Expensive cheap shoes well-shined and a fancy flip of a dance move that you’ve been practicing for ages because what else is there to do? People that don’t meet your eye and don’t speak the same language as you even when they do. And after all that it’s nothing, a walk down a steep hill, a taxi cab ride home, a silence at the end of it all. And tomorrow in the bar on the top of the hill across from where the nice ladies flash their bodies at strangers, that boy with the cowboy boots will be practicing his dance moves, and some girls will be sucking down weak jello shots that almost taste like strawberry, and those five songs will play, and mouths will smile but eyes will not.

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I woke up suddenly. My head jerked upright from its place against the window of the airplane. The woman sitting beside me noticed and immediately pointed to small package of peanuts tucked into the pocket of the seat in front of me. “I saved these for you,” she said in a Dutch accent. “And this,” as she handed me a napkin.

“Thank you,” I said. This all made me feel bad since I had been trying to avoid talking to her from the beginning of the flight.

“Where are you from?” she asked me.

“America.”

“Ah, are you going home?”

“No, I’m going to Munich.”

We were landing in Amsterdam. And she was the one going home. Not me.

A week later I was back where I had left from, and the time that had passed between the two points of time, the leaving and the returning, didn’t seem to matter much in the bigger picture. But it really did. Everything was different.

Because the world is bigger, I wrote.

The world is a very big place. From Asia to Europe it takes 12 or 14 or 16 hours of flying, depending on where you find yourself going to and coming from.

There is this beautiful fountain in the middle of Salzburg, Austria. There are horse heads in it that spit water into the sky, and the water falls down into the fountain, splashing the carved webbed feet of the strange water creatures that are almost horses, but really something else entirely, something that only exists in that pond. In that place. A tiny fountain world. I left a coin there, tossed it in, wishing something I can’t remember now, just wishing something.

Fountains make wishing seem easy, but you don’t really need them. They don’t really help. You have to go there, wherever it is you’re going. You have to go there on your own. But maybe a fountain is what you are looking for. A fountain that holds the worlds’ only water horses. A fountain that my 20 euro cent coin is living in.

I am looking for some other fountain, some other place. Maybe I am looking for a building, a beautiful building that I want to go on looking at. Or maybe I am looking for a park, a park where a tree grows that’s been growing there longer than I’ve been alive. Or maybe I’m looking for a person. A water horse, golden sunset, great green park of a person. Or perhaps they are many people. A park full. Yes, that’s it: a city and a park and people. What a small world I am looking for. Maybe I’ve already flown over it. Maybe I’ve already sat next to it.

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1. How to not make friends: refer to someone as “ethically flexible”. Oops.

2. There are a lot of terrible things happening in the world. People are allowed to talk about/mention/feel sad about different things, even if you feel like those things are not as important/tragic/terrible as the things you think are terrible/tragic/important. Just like people are allowed to be happy, even though there are terrible things happening. No one has to wallow in all of the misery at once. You are not the director of the world’s actions. You don’t get to proclaim what’s important and what’s not. Basically, shut up! 

3. sometimes it is forever; other times it is nothing at all.

4. Do some people just enjoy being cynical? I can’t understand it. How can you even have the energy to be so mean-spirited, hateful, angry, blunt, wrong, foolish? Does it give you some kind of pride? Does it make you happy? Does it feel like you’re doing the right thing? Are you lashing out at some unknown attacker? What are you doing?! What. Are. You. Doing. Just stop! Good grief. Do you need a hug?

5. At some point, no matter how nice/funny/smart/good-looking someone is, the little things they’ve done or said that you’ve disliked in a deep-down sort of way add up. And it’s sad, heart-breaking, whatever. But it happens. And they just aren’t the person you thought they were/you didn’t know who they were to begin with.

6. good things from the past month of my life: sparklers in the middle of the road at midnight, polite strangers, tiny presents of tiny stickers from tiny children, mail from Panama and America, learning possessives in French (but please don’t ask me to actually prove it!).

7. You can do it all differently tomorrow.

8. Orange Is the New Black is a great show! I never believe it. It’s always true.

9. It’s real fun living in the middle of a giant city, especially at night, when you hear murderous screams/manic laughter from outside your window and you’re never sure if it’s either or both or just a crazy alley cat.

10. We’re more than halfway through the year, World, and I’m not really sure if we’re being any kinder to each other. Let’s try harder. Let’s all keep going.

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mumbling bumbling baby strollers full
the dull circle of life
flexible moralities
late night tuesdays
brown eyes, grandfather-like face.
too lacking to continue
another engagement, ring finger
expensive white dresses heaped in dusty piles of time.
another week goes by
filled with old and new flat people
not what you thought they were
insulting the men you want to love
ignoring everyone else;
it’s all going very well.

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He started traveling when he was 23, 5 years ago. Now he’s lived in 6 different countries, speaks 4 different languages, has a lot of great photographs and memories. And, much of the time, he is happy. But he does not have happiness. He says all he really has is his guitar. People that move around on their own, he says, they need something other than people to hold on to. He has his guitar, he says. His traveling companion.

His hair is long, kept in brown dreadlocks. He’s from Germany, but he sings in English and whatever language of whatever country he finds himself in. He is content, happy, to sit on benches across the globe, strumming and singing with the people, the crowds, that quickly surround him when he plays. He brings joy to them. Him and his guitar.

I wonder if he is happy after he packs away his one possession, after the crowds of people leave. I wonder how he is strong enough, if he is strong enough, to have been going so long on his own.  I wonder if he lied, if he’s actually terrified and lonely, or if he does take something else along with him on his travels — bits and pieces of people: the old man’s laughter, the girl smiling as she recorded him singing with her cell phone, the busy people who missed train after train as they stood in their subway station, singing. I wonder if it is enough for him, to have a part but not a whole.