The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Stories

Maggie Tiojakin

hen you told your friends you were coming home, they didn’t believe you. And, later, when you mentioned it to them that you were coming home to stay, they couldn’t believe their ears. Of course, you didn’t blame them. After all, you had told them the same thing every year; how it was going to be the year that you would finally settle in Jakarta. Six years went by in the blink of an eye, and what promises you failed to meet seemed to have been forgiven, if not forgotten.

You knew then, as you do now, that your experience in America would carry some god-like credentials to the people who had never been there; people whose past you shared with much delight; and whose present you still shared from a distance. You wanted to tell them everything you discovered in another country, but you kept finding yourself unable to destroy all the things they’d come to believe—for some vain reason you failed to understand, being in America somehow put you on a pedestal. It was as though you had reached nirvana, mingled among the gods and goddesses, and become one yourself in the process. Because of this you didn’t have the heart to tell them the truth. Or, maybe you were avoiding the truth along with them.

But none of it matters, anymore. You are home now, much to everyone’s chagrin. Two weeks ago, you arrived at Sukarno-Hatta Airport at a little past noon and told your family not to bother meeting you there.
You hailed a cab, like regular people.

Your father was at the office; your mother was out shopping with friends; and your sister was in school. Your friends offered to do you service, but you only thanked them, saying it wasn’t necessary. You weren’t used to asking for help. America taught you to be self-dependent, and you had every intention to do right by it.

In spite of your absence, you didn’t want your homecoming to be a big deal. So you came back, all of your adult life packed into a single suitcase, as though you’d never left.
Inside the cab, on your way to your parents’ house where you were raised alongside your sister, Anne, you noticed a couple of things which startled you about the city: the roads were well-paved; and there were billboard signs everywhere advertising cigarettes and baby diapers—you weren’t used to any of these. You had prepared yourself for the worst: a city in which nothing was in order; a metropolitan that stank of irony; a whole world existing in and of itself because everything that had come to contact with it would leave it to abandonment, like you did.

You asked the driver how long the billboard signs had been erected, and he couldn’t give you a straight answer.
‘Quite a long time,’ said he, looking at your reflection in the mirror, ‘Three, maybe four years?’
Three, maybe four years, you recited these words inside your head, and you started to wonder what you were doing four years ago. You were working at a publishing house as an intern, you thought, in Cambridge, two blocks away from Porter Square’s subway station, where you usually got your morning paper from a tall, lanky, Latino named Juarez. You were twenty-two at the time, and you had just received your Bachelor Degree from some community college you had accidentally discovered on the internet before you left for America in the year 2000.

After graduation, you left the campus housing and got yourself an apartment in Davis Square, which you thought was convenient because you would only have to endure a fifteen-minute commute to work.
The lease was signed in September, and you had to pay a first and last month rent for a total of twelve-hundred dollars, so you called your dad and asked for a loan. He wired two thousand dollars into your account, and you saved up the rest. Months later, you would begin to work your way to pay him—which he always said was not necessary, but you did it anyway. Your American-self demanded it.
As a graduate, you were allowed to work legally for a year in an American company. If you were lucky enough to get sponsored by the same company or other companies, in time, you’d be eligible to apply for a permanent residency (which was exactly what happened to you).

However, it took you a total of ten weeks to obtain a working permit from the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) in downtown Boston; and several more years to obtain the residency status. The job was something the school had applied for you, and the pay was okay, so for the first twelve months you worked grueling hours with people you barely knew.

The taxi stopped at a toll booth, and the driver had turned to you for some cash. You reached into your coat pocket immediately, pulling out a dollar bill. You apologized to him briefly, before memory caught you by surprise, and you reached into your other pocket, from which you produced a five-thousand rupiah bill. You gave it to the driver, and he gave it to the woman sitting inside the booth. The light in front of you suddenly turned green.

You looked out the window and saw cars passing you by one after another. The sun was shining bright above you, and its ray of light was bouncing off of the front shield, creating a ball of rainbow on the glass surface. You tried to remember the last time you’d seen the sun shining that bright.

Last summer, you murmured to yourself, and a smile came across your face—you had a girl last summer, her name was Amanda, and you were in love with her. Your smile went away as soon as the taxi came to a sudden halt behind a long line of cars, all of which was not moving.

‘What’s wrong?’ you asked the driver, leaning forward to get a better look at the road ahead.
‘Probably an accident,’ he replied. ‘They’ve closed off three other lanes.’
You leaned back in your seat, glanced at your watch, which showed you the U.S. Eastern Standard Time. It was two thirty in the morning, which meant it was one thirty in the afternoon where you were. You had gotten pretty good at calculating time differences since you left to America six years ago—it helped you remember the appropriate hours to make long-distance calls. Once, for your sister’s birthday, you had called her from halfway across the world at four o’clock in the morning Jakarta time, and she yelled at you in response. You learned your lesson.
‘How long do you think it’s going to take?’ you asked the driver again, growing impatient now, the line was at standstill.
‘I don’t know. It could take one to two hours, hopefully less,’ said the driver, tilting his head to catch your reflection in the rearview mirror, smiling.

In America, you said to yourself, the city could be sued for this sort of thing. But you didn’t say anything more to the driver. You closed your eyes, instead, and tried to get some sleep.
When you saw your mother, you cried. You swept her into your arms and told her how much you missed her. You also kissed the back of her hand—a new habit you had acquired for all the years spent away from her—and you offered her numerous presents you had thoughtfully gift-wrapped before you departed from Boston.

Later, when your father arrived at the door after a long day at the office, you greeted him with a respectful nod and a handshake that was firm and solid—you wanted him to see you as a man now, instead of a boy. He congratulated you, threw one arm across your shoulders, and told you how good it was to have you home. You presented him with a few gifts, as well, but he didn’t open them. Your sister, Anne, never showed up. She was staying at a friend’s house to study for her exams, but she called to check in on you. The two of you got into your usual banter, and she promised to be home tomorrow. She asked you to wish her luck on her exams, and you did. You had bought a bottle of perfume and a few shirts for her, but you didn’t tell your sister this over the phone. You were embarrassed at the common values of your gifts, embarrassed to admit you didn’t know what she likes now that she is no longer a teenager.

You lay on your bed that night and saw the posters you had taped to the walls—Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippen, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley in various positions on a basketball court staring back at you from behind layers of uncollected dust. You championed them once, and you remembered how crushed you were when the news reported of Magic Johnson’s early retirement. You already knew what HIV/AIDS was, but you didn’t understand what it implied. You remembered what your friends told you back then: the Johnson in Magic Johnson stood for what hung in his crotch, whereas the Magic for how he took it from behind. You didn’t believe them then, but you laughed with them, anyway. You were young.
The next several days brought you to the here and now, at a dinner table, surrounded by faces which, in the past, were familiar to you and which now seem altogether strange to look at. They have aged, your friends. Half of them are married; half others are still searching for their true loves; few don’t care whether they will ever be married, your better-halves.

They are gazing at you, begging you to spill the beans—what is America like? How are the women? Did you go to strip clubs? Did you meet someone like Demi Moore in the movie, Strip Tease? Did you fall in love? How was work? What’s it like to work there? Did you like it? Hate it? Did you drive? Did you do drugs? Did you get high? Did you have sex with someone while you got high? And so on.

Lighting a cigarette, you give them a quiet smile. You find yourself speaking to them in a way you never spoke to them before—there is detachment in your voice, an expression of boredom on your face, and as you pick and choose which questions you are willing to answer, you realize that you, too, have aged.
When you are done with your little monologue, one of them leans forward at the table and asks you why you decided to come back. Seeing the way everyone glances at you, you understand they all share the same question. You run this small trivia once through your head, and then twice.
‘I got bored, I guess,’ you say to them, which is replied by loud groans.
‘You got bored in America?’ asks Anton, your seat mate in high school. ‘Hell, Jakarta is boring! We want to leave this dump, and we hope to God it will be to America—and you left it because you got bored ?!’
‘Seriously, did you get into some kind of trouble?’ asks Julius, the friend you used to run laps with, who is now a father of two little girls. ‘Did you get deported?’
‘It just makes no sense, really,’ adds another, looking across the table at you from behind a bottle of beer. ‘How could anyone leave America? It’s the land of hope!’
You are mute. You don’t want to defend yourself against them, nor to tell them the real reason you returned to your home country. You find yourself, unexpectedly, just as far away from them as when you were still in Boston—tens of thousands of mileage spent to be among them will remain between you and them. You suddenly get a headache, everything spins violently before you. Exhaling, you excuse yourself to the men’s room.

On the bathroom mirror, you take a good look at your own reflection: your face is a bit square-ish, a contour which everyone in your family shares, especially your father; your eyebrows are thick and dark, like your mother’s; and you have that small scar on your forehead which is the result of a fall when you were a toddler. Around your lower jaws is a grey shadow of a bedding of small hairs, and you remind yourself to shave them in the morning. There are veins on your face, neck, and arms that are a faint color of green running under your skin, carrying inside them a passage of youth which have gone by but whose trails are stuck inside you, like a disease. Then, you look at the way you dress: a combination of soft yellow-colored shirt underneath a brown tweed jacket with a thin padding patched on the elbows, and a pair of faded jeans. You dress the same way you always did in Boston during this time of year—expecting the cold win to attack you at any given moment (ergo, the jacket). It’s autumn now, you think to yourself. Leaves are turning colors up in Maine and New Hampshire.

You open the tap in the sink, let fresh water puddle in the cups of your hands, and you bend forward to splash it against your face. Your slightly crooked nose drips with water, followed by the rest of your countenance. You reach for the napkins on one side of the wall, pull a few of them, and wipe your face with it. You convince yourself this is a new chapter— the new you—which is a mixture of your two previous lives.

You return to the table and to your questioning friends. You resume your seat and study their faces for a while. Then, the inescapable happens: you begin to answer them in a confident tone which you borrowed from someone else; you tell them everything they want to hear, stories from the great New England; you twist and turn the plot so many times it resembles none of your own; but you amuse them, make them hold on to their stomachs while laughing, and you take credit for this. You shine because of it, the way you did when you told them you were leaving the country six years ago, and you stop yourself from rationalizing your actions.

You become their god in a matter of hours, and long after you’ve gone home and tucked yourself into bed, they will be thinking of you still—wanting to be you, needing to experience everything you have experienced. You make them laugh, and in turn, they make you omniscient. When the hours surreptitiously roll into dawn, you dream of things you rarely dream about: monsters and aliens taking over the world. You taking over theirs.

Your mother fixes you a plate of fried rice in the morning for breakfast, which was what you used to have when you were younger, but you cringe at the table, trying to figure out ways to tell your mother how you are no longer able to down a whole plate of rice so early in the day. You hardly ever ate rice when you were abroad, and your breakfast intake consisted of a cup of black coffee you bought from the Dunkin Donuts’ shop around the corner of the street where you lived.

However, there you are, seated at a table in the dining room of the house you grew up in, surrounded by the family you were born into, and expected to eat the rice your mother has cooked for you—perhaps out of habit, but mostly because she loves you. So, you tell her nothing.

You express gratitude by shoving a spoonful of fried rice into your mouth, and then another, and another until there’s nothing left on the plate. Your stomach feels as if it’s about to spontaneously combust, but you smile and you drink the orange juice your mother has prepared for you. The taste of vegetable oil against your tonsils is almost unbearable, and you struggle to get it out of your head. Your father tells you about the profit he has made in the last six years, the conventional ideas he’s left behind, and the new ones he has come to embrace. Your mother is quiet, finding herself mute at the odds of your return, speaking only when spoken to.

Moments later, you rise from the table and excuse yourself, carrying your plate and silverware and empty glass along with you, when your mother immediately pulls herself up to her feet and snatches each item away from you.
‘That’s my job,’ she says to you, half insulted by your gestures. ‘You just relax.’
But you don’t want to relax; you need something to do. Something to keep you busy. So you leave the dining room and climb up the stairs to your bedroom. You have been thinking, since you came back, to clean it up a bit, strip the posters off the walls.

You see your bedroom door is left ajar, though you could swear you had closed it. You hear the sound of someone working their way through piles of papers behind the plank of wood, so you lurk your head to see who’s inside. Bik Minah, the house servant who’s been working for your family since you were in kindergarten—sixty years old and already a grandmother of five little children (or so your mother said to you)— was bending over your bed, tucking the edges of the sheets underneath the mattress.
A strange, foreign thought takes hold of you. Suddenly, you object to her presence inside the most private space that is your bedroom; to her candid manner when you walk past your own doorway toward her; to the bright, full smile on her aging face when she captures your figure towering beside her.

‘Eh, Aden, apa kabar?’ she approaches you, reaches for your hand and shakes it. You notice she calls you Aden, which is not your name, but a nickname she gave you when you were little. ‘Maaf, Bibik baru aja mulai beberes di kamar Aden.’
You want to correct her, for her to start calling you by your real name, Ardianshah, instead of some silly nickname she came up with decades ago. You want to sit her down and tell her how you can’t even remember the person she keeps calling for. You’re a grown man now. A man who has made his living; who has had his heart broken; who has traveled beyond his means—you’re not the boy she once sang to before you went to sleep. You’re not anyone’s boy, anymore.
‘That’s okay, Bik Minah,’ you say to her. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine,’ she replies, and you notice the whiteness of her hair. ‘My youngest daughter just gave birth to her second son last night, so I’m very happy.’
‘Another grandchild, eh?’ you tease her. ‘And yet you haven’t looked a year older than the last time I saw you.’
‘Ah, Aden, bisa aja.’ She taps you slightly on the wrist, signaling some form of familiarity to your psyche, your body when you feel like a stranger near her. ‘Bibik permisi dulu ya.’ She excuses herself from the confinement of your bedroom, leaving you all alone, pondering things you haven’t pondered in so long. You sit on your bed, run your fingers on top of the sheets—smooth, almost silk-like, which also give off a familiar scent of a detergent brand your mother uses.

You lied to Bik Minah just now about the way she looks, because she does look older to you—much older than you expected her to be. That was your other self talking: the self which is accustomed to making people feel good about themselves through a string of innocent lies; which administers hope in a world where there is none left to savor; and which is so prudent and proud of its ability to carry on a masquerade in a room full of savages—business executives, flirtatious secretaries, jealous colleagues, and back-stabbing strangers.

In America, you remind yourself, nothing is what it seems. And that was what you should have told your friends last night, but something held you back. You wanted to play god, even if only for a short while.
Thumbing through the old address book, you find her under K, for Kayla. When you dial her number, your heart skips a beat, your mind processing random moments from a long gone past. You look at your own handwriting—scrawny letters filling up the pages in various colored ink—and you try to remember the last time you had written with your hands.

Then, it comes to you: a vision—the incursion of memory which takes hold of you. The last time you had used your hands to write was a month ago, in a park, on a yellow legal pad, jotting down thoughts you found impossible to utter. You don’t know where that note is now, and perhaps you threw it away along with other scraps of writing you had accumulated over the years.
‘Hello,’ a voice springs from the other line as you hold the phone receiver to your ear. She sounds excited, you think, almost as if she’s singing the word.
‘Kayla?’ you mutter, your own intonation falls flat on your ears.
‘Yes—who’s this?’
‘Ardian? The Ardianshah?’ She sounds surprised.
‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ she says, laughing as she does. ‘The prodigal child returns.’
‘Can we meet?’
‘I don’t believe this.’
‘Are you busy? ‘Cause if you are...’
‘What has America done to you, lover boy?’ she asks lightly. ‘Of course, I can meet you. Tell me when and where.’
‘Where are you now?’
She groans, and you smile when you hear it. ‘Work,’ she replies. ‘But I’ll leave early.’
‘Where’s work?’
‘Who are you—Sherlock Holmes?’
‘Do you drive?’
‘Yes, I drive. I have my own car now.’ She pauses. ‘Why, do you want me to come over and pick you up?’
‘No—no. I can borrow my sister’s car,’ you reply. ‘I was thinking to pick you up.’
She doesn’t respond for a brief few seconds. And then, ‘Let’s do this: I’ll go home, take a shower and change into something nice—because, frankly, my suit is killing me—and you can come and pick me up at … seven? How’s that?’
‘Seven,’ you mumble, reaching for a pen to jot it down on a pink post-it next to the telephone. ‘Great.’
‘I’ll see you then,’ she says.
‘Wait—uh—do you still live in Kebayoran?’
‘God, it’s so good to hear from you!’
‘Yeah. You, too.’
‘See you tonight.’

As you put down the phone receiver, you are surprised to find your sister already standing in the doorway. Anne, at the age of twenty-two, has blossomed into a woman you barely recognize. Her short hair has grown past her waistline, and her face is now attributed with make-up coloring which accentuates each bone structure on her countenance.
‘Hey,’ she walks toward you, wearing the shirt you brought for her, which had the face of her favorite cartoon star, Mickey Mouse, embroidered on the front side.
‘Hey,’ you nod at her, smiling. ‘What’s up?’
She sits on the chair behind your computer desk, crosses her legs, and leans back. ‘You look good,’ she smiles back at you. ‘Your skin is a bit lighter, and there’s something about your face.’
‘What about my face?’
‘I don’t know,’ her voice drifts off. ‘I can’t put my finger on it.’
You approach her, bend yourself forward so your eyes are level with hers, and make a silly expression. ‘Maybe you’re dazzled by my good looks,’ you tease her, pouting your lips the way female models do on magazine covers.
Suddenly, in an outburst of familiar gestures, she pinches your nose between her thumb and forefinger, leaving you breathless. ‘I think it’s the wrinkles.’
You place your knuckles on her scalp, and do a quick stroke. ‘Please, leave my room, I need to change.’
‘What, you got a hot date or something?’
‘Do I know her?’
‘Maybe, maybe not.’
She rolls her eyes upward. ‘Well? Do I?’
You open your closet, examining your collection of shirts. ‘Oh, I also need to borrow your car.’
‘Not until you tell me who you’re going out with.’
‘No one you know,’ you lie.
‘No one I know? Really?’
‘Yes.’ You think about it. ‘No.’ You realize you don’t know what the correct answer is, anymore. ‘Forget it.’
‘It wouldn’t be Kayla, by any chance, would it?’
You turn to her, usher her to the door. ‘No. Stay out of it.’
‘Cuz I heard different.’
‘Get out.’
She takes her car key out of her pocket, and dangles it in front of you. ‘Forgetting something, dear brother?’ You reach out your hand to grab for the keys, but she retracts them away from you. ‘Tell me her name.’
‘Her name is get out,’ you reply, snatching the key from her fingers. ‘Gotcha!’
You are about to push the door close, when she holds it with the palm of her hand. ‘You know, there’s something else I’m curious to hear.’
‘Why did you come back here?’ She folds her arms across her chest. ‘I mean, after all these years of not wanting to come back—why now?’
‘Because.’ You shrug.
You smile wide. ‘I missed you.’
She rolls her eyes backwards and turns to leave your room.

You wear a pair of black khakis and a pair of leather shoes you bought last year at Nieman Marcus. Each pair should cost you about three hundred dollars, but they were on sale, and you got a half-price discount. You put on a clean white shirt, and then a matching color of sports jacket. You drive a hard bargain with yourself on whether or not to wear a tie, but you eventually decide against it. You tell yourself you’re not meeting with the First Lady, though you are meeting with the first person you had ever fallen in love with.
At seven sharp, you arrive at her house. You double park across the street, and stand at the green gate before thrusting your arm through the space between the protruding iron fences and reach for the doorbell button. You press it once, twice.

You can hear low murmurings in the distant between Kayla and her father. He is telling her not to stay out too late, and she promises him to be home before midnight. You remember the way her mother died, years ago, from heart attack, and the devastation she went through the following months after that. You shudder at the thought.

You hear footsteps coming to approach you—the clicking of heels against the marble tiles—and you reposition yourself in front of the gate. Eyes forward, shoulders straight, hands on your sides.
She’s wearing a low-cut red dress and a pair of red, Gucci shoes. Her hair is still wet from the showers, and dangling off her ears are a pair of earrings you gave her for her seventeenth birthday. She takes your arm, kisses you on the cheek before you have the chance to greet her, and you lead her to the car. You open the door for her, wait until she settles in, and close it. You come upon the driver’s side. She shakes her head looking at you, and you begin to command the wheel.

You choose a prestigious restaurant, Six Ribs, and you buy her flowers from the shop next door. Kayla doesn’t mind it, but she isn’t comfortable carrying a bouquet of flowers in her arms. So you offer to put it in the car while she orders for the two of you.

Preceding the main course, you ask for a bottle of wine from the maître’d, a 1960 Chianti, and you are surprised when he doesn’t ask for your ID. You say nothing to Kayla. When the maître’d returns with your wine order, you pour its content into two glasses—one for you, one for Kayla.

She lifts her eyebrows, smiles, and raises a toast. You make small concentric-circle movements with your hand to let the wine air out, and you dip the tip of your nose into the glass before you finally raise the glass to meet Kayla’s. She laughs, but you don’t know why. When the glasses make a clinking sound, she says, ‘To you—my one and only.’ You don’t know what she means when she says it, but you don’t ask.
Over well-done steak tips and mash potatoes you converse. You learn about her engagement to a local actor, about the way he proposed to her, and how much her father adores him. You learn about her new job as an Accounting Manager at an international corporation based in Brussels, Belgium; and her hopes to travel the world. You learn about the accident, the horrible car wreck she was in two years ago, which left a permanent scar on her inner thigh. She doesn’t show you, but telling you is enough. You learn of all the birthdays you missed while you were gone, the gradually diminishing desire for celebration, and how she enjoys the comfort of spending that particular day in the company of her closest friends. You learn about her trip to Europe, where she met her fiancé three years ago, where she had also lost her virginity. Eventually, you learn about the pain, the anger, and the disappointment you have caused her by leaving. You were both very young then, but love knows no boundary.
Over dessert, she asks about you.
‘What do you want to know?’ you ask her, sipping your wine.
‘Everything,’ she demands, leaning back in her seat, a few strands of hair fall across her face. ‘For starters, what made you turn your course?’
You sigh a deep sigh and look her straight in the eyes. Then, you avert your eyes back into your wineglass, as if the answers were there all along, waiting to be fished out. ‘I got bored,’ you say, repeating what you already told your friends the night before.
‘Bullshit,’ she says. ‘You didn’t leave me because you thought America was interesting.’
‘What,’ you frown.
‘You had desire, Ardi,’ she mumbles. ‘Something even I couldn’t compete with. It would take more than boredom to pull you out of there.’
You shrug. You don’t want to talk about it. ‘I guess I fell out of love with it,’ you say.
‘The way you fell out of love with me?’ she gives you a short, ironic smile.
‘I never fell out of love with you,’ you argue.
‘Was there a girl involved?’
‘Did it hurt?’
‘Did what hurt?’ You finish your wine, and pour another glass. She is fixing her eyes on you in a way that suffocates you, so you shift in your seat. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I can read you like a book, you know,’ she says, leaning forward. ‘Always have.’
‘Things have changed,’ you say, flat.
‘I’m sure.’
‘I’m not the same person.’
‘You have the same soul,’ she relents. ‘The way you walk, talk, and sit is different—but it’s still you. Somewhere in there,’ she points at your chest. ‘Still the same guy who pretended everything was okay when they weren’t.’
‘There’s no girl,’ you convince her, downing your wine.
‘What’s her name?’
She smiles, genuinely this time. ‘I told you my secrets, now it’s your turn to tell me yours.’

You look around, your eyes go over a crowd of men and women seated a few feet away from you, muttering words you don’t understand. Their body language tells you how they are safe in each other’s company, but when they let out a giggle or a nervous laugh, you suddenly get a glimpse of their own discomfort which, in so many ways, matches yours at the moment.
You examine the way the maître’d moves from one table to another, a smile tattooed on his face like a clown, and you wonder if he is having a good day or a bad one. You wonder if people even care. A momentary lapse between tables lets you in on secrets no one else knows: the small bursts of emotion recognizable in the manner of his walk, his arms’ sway, his perpetual gracefulness. Then you wonder if he knows that you know.
By the time you turn to Kayla, she’s waiting for an answer, the way your friends waited for an answer. You search for the god inside you.
‘The girl’s got nothing to do with this,’ you reply, trying to turn off the deafening sound of an alarm which fills your eardrums from the inside. ‘I just thought maybe I could use a fresh start.’
‘So there was a girl?’
You take a moment to pause, feel the surface of the wineglass against your skin. ‘Amanda, yes,’ you hear yourself confiding to Kayla. ‘Amanda Steinhart.’
‘Was she nice?’
‘Very nice.’
‘Beauty’s relative,’ you respond, which sends a polite laughter across the table.
‘She makes you laugh, cry, throw fits—all the things living people do?’
‘All of that,’ you say, exhaling. ‘And more.’
‘You loved her?’
‘Did she love you back?’
‘I hope so.’
‘Then, she dumped you?’
Your throat narrows itself into the size of a straw, and you can’t breathe. It must have been some chemical reaction, you say to yourself, or perhaps the beef you dined on had mad cow’s disease. You want to laugh, but you lose the moment. You close your eyes, wishing you are somewhere else. Everything inside you is turning spasmodically—everything has to come out. You excuse yourself from the table, and run to the bathroom, where you lock yourself inside one of its stalls and sit on the floor, hugging the toilet bowl. You vomit. Your head spins in a thousand directions.

You are quiet in the car, driving Kayla home. Through the traffic lights and freeways and bridges your mind wanders off. The radio hums softly from beneath you, where the speakers are installed, and you remind yourself to tell your sister to rearrange her sound system. You think of roads similar to this one, which are built in another country, filling up space in another world, where your soul now lays barren. You think of the routes you’ve traversed to get to this one, next to the woman you once loved, not knowing where you are, or where you’re going.

Something inside you demands for an explanation—a seam of reasons to connect all you’ve lost, and the possibility to reclaim them. You are furious at the world, defying its unwritten rules and regulations, willing to bet anything for a second chance, to expel truth.
Truth, you repeat to yourself. You can’t feel anything. You are numb.
‘I’m sorry,’ Kayla says once you hit the breaks in front of her house. The light in the living room is still on at twenty to midnight, and you imagine her father sitting on the sofa, waiting for his daughter to come home.
‘For what?’
‘I’ve put you in distress,’ she says, taking a deep breath. ‘I shouldn’t have asked so many questions. I should just be happy that you’re back.’
‘I’m happy to see you,’ you say, returning the gesture. ‘I hope your fiancé isn’t too upset about me taking you out to dinner.’
‘He isn’t,’ she shakes her head. ‘He never gets upset.’
‘Which is why I always try to get him mad,’ she confesses. ‘Or get him to feel something.’
‘I thought he was an actor.’
‘That’s the problem,’ she smiles warily. ‘He saves it all up for his acting. The fool.’
Pause. She unbuckles her seat-belt. Her hand is at the door, but she does not move.
‘A loveable fool, nonetheless,’ you say, buying time. ‘Your loveable fool.’
She nods, but without claim. ‘She must be pretty special, that Amy.’
‘Whatever.’ She turns to look at you, her eyes commiserating your unfortunate life, though you believe she doesn’t know what it implies. No one does. ‘You loved her, right?’
‘I love her still.’
‘Right.’ She sighs, tears escape her eyes. Your immediate reaction is to run your fingers across her cheeks, but you restrain yourself from doing so. You stay back, pull a pack of tissue from the backseat, and offer it to her. She laughs through her tears. ‘God, this is pathetic.’
‘What is?’
‘Stop being so goddamn concerned all the time!’ she screams at you. ‘Show me something, anything real about you. Please.’
‘Kayla, what’s—’
‘My life is a joke, alright?’ she turns to you, glass-eyed. ‘My father made me accept the marriage proposal for some business deal. I hate my job. I have never been anywhere outside of this god-forsaken country, and I don’t think wishing—no matter how hard—is going to do the trick. I never went to Europe; I only said that to impress you. I had to have been somewhere beautiful, like you have.’ She takes a moment to readjust herself in the seat beside you. ‘I didn’t lose my virginity because of love. He and I—it isn’t love. It never was. I didn’t even like him.’ She inhales deeply. ‘The first time we did it, I couldn’t breathe. I kept telling myself it was not happening, that I’d imagined it all, and so I held my breath until my face turned blue, until blood dried on my skin. It wasn’t rape, because I’d let him. But it wasn’t something I wanted to happen, either—that much I know.’

Kayla looks down at her hands, her trembling fingers which she dutifully keeps upon her lap. "You see, when I had the car accident some time ago, I was grateful. Believe it or not, I wanted to die. Get it over with. Yet, here I am—and of all people—with you.’ She blows air out of her mouth in an exasperated gesture, and then, ‘I hate birthdays because it reminds me that I am alive, another year has gone by, and nothing’s changed. Nothing’s changed.’

You break along with her, and you instinctively pull her into your arms. You want to protect her, though you know you can’t. You can’t do all she asks of you. You can’t undo the last six years. Your heart sympathizes for her, but doesn’t share her burden. So you tell her lies to make her feel better.
‘It’s going to be okay,’ you whisper into her ear. ‘You’re going to be fine.’

She releases herself from you and quickly fixes her hair, her make-up, her posture so that it will resemble the one you saw before—confident, witty, untouched by life’s cruel tragedies. ‘Sure, I will,’ she says to you, mirroring herself on the small mirror of her compact powder case, tapping the soft, underside of the padding onto her flawless countenance. Then, as if struck by lightning, it comes to you why you left her. You did fall out of love with her, long ago, and you were hoping she wouldn’t know.
‘All I hear, for six years, is how wonderful your life is in the great Ah-me-ri-kah,’ she continues, closing her powder case and tossing it absent-mindedly into her purse. ‘How successful, how rich, how convenient—and I’m sick of it. I’m sick of being the one left behind.’
‘No one left you behind,’ you comfort her.
She sneers out of irony. ‘So you say,’ she breathes aloud, almost hissing the words out. ‘After you left, everyone felt sorry for me. The way they looked at me—I can still see it now—made me want to throw up. I felt like one of those women whose husbands left them for someone younger, better, sexier. I was a lump on the street.’
‘Kay, we were teenagers,’ you try to reason with her.
‘I loved you,’ she snaps. ‘And I would have loved you still if you weren’t so goddamn difficult to love.’

You withdraw yourself away from her, mentally creating an alternate universe to which only you would have access. You study her face, her body language, her words, and none of it makes any sense to you now. You let silence fall between you and her, until you can hear her breathe beside you, her heart throbbing next to you like a drum.
‘I need to know that your life isn’t perfect,’ she says, an air of calm takes hold of her. ‘I need to know that no matter how deranged, how unbelievably messy and sad mine has become there’s still a part of you I can relate to.’
You process this through your mind, the small of your brain which contains information beyond its capacity to restore them, and you feel a shiver down your spine as you part your lips open to speak. So much of who you are is no longer here, in this world or the world before it, yet somehow the rest of you is in the car, with her. You want to save her, but you keep trying to figure out a way to save yourself. You don’t know if you can, anymore.
The word slithers out of your mouth from the deepest corners of your brain, and the moment you say it the world begins to close in on you. A cloud of mist descends from the evening skies like a bad omen.
‘I have cancer,’ you say. The hair behind your neck stands erect at the sound of your own voice. Your body hurts all over. ‘I came home to die.’
‘Oh my God.’ She places her hand over her mouth, her voice a muffle behind her fingers. She reaches out to you, touches your face. But you know it isn’t love, and instead, its mystifying twin—pity. ‘Are you…’
‘I’m okay,’ you tell her. You draw a deep breath from around you, sucking in every ounce of air as though for the last time, and you exhale. ‘I’ll be okay.’
The way she wraps you up in her gaze makes you feel vulnerable, but you don’t let yourself cry—you don’t even know how. For the first time in what seems to be eternity, you begin to develop a strange sense of sympathy toward yourself, and everything which looked, tasted, and felt bitter now appears full of colors. Adventures.

You bring yourself back to the moments when you sat in the doctor’s office, behind one of those long, white corridors at Massachusetts General Hospitals, waiting for fate to either pardon or punish you. You remember the way Dr. Greenberg called you into his chamber, holding in his hands a stack of files which would determine your entire future, how his eyes told you everything you wanted to know before he had a chance to speak. You remember the hours you spent inside the tube, lying helpless as they ran a scan over your body, a million of colors blending into one, your eyes unable to see anything else other than the plastic roof over your head.

There were other hours, of course, which you spent throwing up into a basin next to your hospital bed or staring up at the ceilings above you, trying to remember the last time you ever felt as excruciating a pain. And then, the other hours you lay on Amanda’s bed—pale, weak, ready to collapse. You never told her what you’re telling Kayla now. Amanda never understood why you left, and she never will. You had planned to write her a letter, and you went to the park one afternoon with a yellow legal pad in hand, hoping that as you watched other lives passed you by you would gain enough strength to appreciate the one you were about to leave behind. But, the letter sat on your desk for days, weeks until you lost track of it. In the end, you just left. You packed everything you could find into a cheap suitcase you bought at the mall, and you abandoned all that had become your whole life.

You could take comfort in Kayla’s arms as she offered it to you, but not you. You take comfort from no one, because America has taught you that while no one takes either fame or glory to their graves, pity follows you even in hell.

You like playing god because it makes you invisible to others; it makes your pain dull and insignificant compared to their unfulfilled desires. You want to be omniscient because it lets you in on secrets no one can ever know—the brief seconds or minutes in everyone’s lives when everything they ever believe in turns its back on them. And it’s not travels which taught you this. Rather, the bigger picture of things as you’ve come to see them. When death is at your door, everything falls into place. You become immune to life’s adversities, and you can no longer lose.
You reinvent nature, behavior, truth.
And the truth is you didn’t come home to stay. You’ll leave again when the time is right—maybe to a parallel universe much like this one, or maybe to hell. You don’t know. What you do know is that you’re going to be okay. As long as you keep feeding them innocent lies, tell them everything they want to hear, no one has to know.

© Maggie Tiojakin May 2006

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