by Joy Icayan
“You have the advantage of youth, use it to win.”
An old remembered advice from an old job. That was years back, just post college and unsure of what we were doing, trying to sell products whose own reasons for existing eluded us. Someone was always trying to do something else—trying to rekindle a band or the armed revolution. I was trying to write stories and poetry. But one writes what one knows, so in one of my stories a man is trying to save his brand image. I tried to make sci-fi, George Saunders like, but I’m no George Saunders. In my stories the characters are always speaking in corporate jargon—your rebranding is not working, our consumers relate our fast food label to pictures of dead cows! Or resorting to suicide or murder, which was often the easiest thing to do in case of non-functional characters. In the mornings, my boss gently told me I didn’t understand how desire led to action and to revise the slides.
The truth is, we were massively bored, bored in the manner of the ill fit young, middle class in a developing country—educated, earning enough for rent and expensive coffee and independence—when our idea of revolt was attacking the human resources office for imposing stupid regulations like Skirt Mondays. We revolted against Skirt Mondays, and we revolted when they prohibited miniskirts. We were always finding something to fight for or against. It felt good to be fighting against something.
There’s a game children play when they’re bored in traffic—make words out of license plates. At some point you do enough of these and you develop a talent for finding words where there are none. So the man who comes on Wednesday nights in a motel near my apartment, the man who drives an SUV is RAFT (Plate Number RFT). I’ve become his personal documentor; no one has documented his comings and goings as I have and I feel we’ve formed some sort of connection, as one way as it is. When he doesn’t come, or I’ve missed him, I feel a bit unaccomplished.
In my head, he has a wife somewhere who has a conventional name like Sara or Lisa. This isn’t the same woman who rides in the passenger seat, window always open, arm perched on the door. I’ve caught sight of her more than the man; she looks bored all the time.
I don’t know what their deal is or what it is with Wednesdays. I imagine the mirrors, wall and ceiling of the rooms they’ve gone in. They touch the rooms where a hundred others have come in, and leave traces others would soon erase.
I don’t know why I start telling my friends Audrey and Joshua about these things, that I’ve been giving life to a couple I haven’t even seen at close range. I want to tell her it’s important, it’s important to me at least. I needed their lives, their levels of damage, their closed pent-up anger. She decides to get into the storytelling.
“Imagine I have someone and his name is Mike.”
“Suppose he buys underwear for me and makes me take pictures wearing it.”
I don’t understand where this is going but I let her get into it. In my head, I imagine Mike in one of those beat-up cars, Audrey describes him as a hippie after all, listening to Janis Joplin.
That’s always the rub, isn’t it. No divorce in the country and annulments take forever. And what we don’t ask her is that if he still loves his wife. Our questions must retain the belief that this doesn’t matter. That we live in the moment and have no interest in the dull intricacies of married life.
There has got to be some morals in the story, Joshua, our friend says. Like if you’re seeing a married guy who has a child, you shouldn’t be swallowing the guy’s semen.
Audrey looks pissed. I haven’t even gotten that far in my story yet, I tell him. My characters go to motels and talk, dissect their lives. They’re shy and are exceptionally bad at small talk. They wear cheap lipstick. They have convoluted histories, bad marriages, children, unpaid electric bills. I realize that doesn’t accurately depict the lives of men and women in little rooms but I can’t do erotica yet.
Why not, Audrey says. She’s the logical one. Everything has to be connected to some greater cause. If A equals B and B is not equal to C then… miss some slight connection there and she will tear down your argument.
Because, and Joshua stares at Audrey. That would be like eating the kid’s little brothers and sisters.
I’m serious, there’s got to be some morals here, guys.
Morals apparently transcend the boundaries of science. You can tell Joshua patiently the sperm is not exactly a little child. It doesn’t have a life of its own, or little legs and fingers. Or you can’t. He knows these things, the same way as children we know that plunging in a pool with cold water will leave us shivering like crumpled origami. And then we jump. We try to extend that fraction of the second before our toes hit the water. We imagine it will be a soft glide like those Olympian divers who sink into the water like they were hybrid fish, trusting to be lifted back to the surface. For Joshua, it’s life or it isn’t, there is no in between. A person gives himself a hundred percent; he can only imagine those darts of miniscule white, slivers of unknowing life rushing forth with nowhere to go but be received.
In an alternate story, the man and woman come together, or perhaps it’s two men, or two women. Or a man and two women, if you’re into that. Take your pick. When it’s the end, or you have some idea it’s the end, characters don’t quite matter as much. One of them says, you can watch tv if you like. No, I don’t want to watch tv. We’re always watching tv. Fine, I’ll take a shower. Alright, go.
And then they end up in bed, doing nothing. Touching a little, perhaps, jarred images flashing on the television, the volume too low for them to catch anything but the drift of voices.
Someone says something silly like, I used to have a friend who thought thesaurus were a kind of dinosaur.
I thought that was funny.
It is, isn’t it.
You’re not listening.
If you keep making up these stories, eventually it comes to that. You run out of dialogue. You get bored. You leave your characters stranded, derelict buildings in a post war town. There will be other characters, you’ll say. You are not responsible for any happiness, fictional kind. And so the woman is saying, of course I love you… it’s just that… Or perhaps it’s the man saying that. You take turns, you let each other say their piece. You ‘re losing the plotline anyway, it’s like a spiral going over and over and then the details get fuzzy and you confuse who’s holding who, whose turn is it, like you were watching a compilation of cartoons with funky music. There is no RAFT or Wednesday woman or wife. There is just a person, and another, and then another. And sometimes you are one of them, and you are saying no, perhaps you’d want to change the plot a little. Leave on a high note, say something cool like, if you want to end it like this, fine, go your own way, like Fleetwood Mac. Yes, end it like a rock star. Not be the girl or boy with the forehead on the edge of the bed, kneeling on the sticky floor, your head a blob of black reflected on the ceiling. Not be any of them, not be here at all. If the world were ending and you could choose your own perfect end—why would you?
You can’t change things because it’s in the past, the extra-filtered, made-up, conveniently plucked past. The 20/20 hindsight is only to see it, roll it like a film, over and over the best parts until the reel feels plucked out of the fifties, all static and blur. To see, oh so clearly, that nothing of it can be changed. You redo the conversations, give yourself the red shoes, the better hair, the dignified pose. But you’re stuck in that moment, whoever you’ve chosen to be, saying oh fuck it and just please, please.
Mike left Audrey crying in a drinking hole somewhere in the city. Or rather, Mike (not his real name, we were told), left, and then Audrey went full make up, high boots, and cried to a bad rendition of The Backstreet Boy’s As Long As You Love Me.
We call it an instinct for time. You just know when that knock is coming, when the hours you’ve paid for are used up. It’s something that grows on you like an extra sense, and now that you have it, you can’t quite slip out of it like it were wet slippery clothes. Like learning to bike or swim or kiss, that first time you knew you can now do something different, that you were changed, before you understood that you would always be expecting the rush of that first time, the first independent stroke with the whole body committed to pushing forward, that shy slip of tongue inside someone else’s mouth.
In a psychology class back in my college years, we learned about the happiness index. People’s happiness and sadness go back to a baseline level. People move on. The psychological immune system—we call it. The happiness experiment—if you were to choose between being a paraplegic or winning the lotto, which would you choose? Because a year later, they’re almost similarly happy. You underestimate what the mind is capable of—how in the end we are going to justify the bad and then end up alright. Audrey went to Japan, then to Australia and then back to Japan. Her postcards contain scribbled Japanese letters with quick notes of love: Tokyo is awesome, wish you were here! Come see the The Great Ocean Road! Preferably with someone you love.xoxo My friend has been transformed into a preppy 21st century citizen of the world. Joshua stayed in a corporate job. I moved jobs and apartments, went to grad school.
You shelve unfinished stories. There is little I remember of conversations, with friends and characters who have become ghosts—wavering over other thoughts. I remember though, an evening after work, seeing Audrey before she left the country. It was one of those days in a mall after work hours, men and women having taken off their blazers, some wrapped around their waists. She couldn’t wait to talk. I asked her what was wrong.
“Joshua said I was beautiful… in a dirty way.”
I repeated the phrase in my head.
She was sulking. She ranted on about people and how we do not really know their stories, that our judgments can be so categorized. She wanted an explanation to this, a null hypothesis and then an alternate, some significant result that can prove Joshua’s point. And there is none, it’s a bad argument—.
She waited for me to say this, all of this. But I’m stuck in the words—beautiful, dirty, thinking of lazy afternoons when we would kneel on the bank of a river, and dip our hands in the water. It was a river cum dump, catfish swimming in mud, its silver dissecting the murky, thick water. When we were little we used to kneel on the riverbank and sink our hands in this mud, our own immature way of catching fish. Often the little things slip, leaving one only with the memory of a slight touch of fin. It had its logic, didn’t it, eluding human touch.