London (once more)
In the early days still brimming in the exuberance of their interactions, he had once asked H if they could meet Liz. H shook his head: “You know how this works.”
“Yes, but so much has happened! I just thought it might be possible.”
“I’m afraid it’s not.”
He suddenly felt close to tears. A precipice plunge into despair from the giddy heights of the last few days. “We have done so much. I… I miss her.”
“I know.” H was placatory. “But there is too much… history. Emotions. Life. Too many eventualities that need to be taken into account. It cannot be done. I’m sorry.”
On some level, he knew that was the answer. So his tears did not well up. Instead, he turned to face out of the window of the Strand Palace Hotel, and into the traffic of the Strand below. To stare at the wash of humanity in the streets of London, without the faces of those he really wished to see.
H took his cue, and gazed out of the window too. The pigeons circled ahead as masses of gray feathers and bobbing heads. “Flying rats,” H remarked, and turned back to his book.
How apt that the avian-silvery romance of the city morphs into the disease-ridden grotesqueness of rodents. He, too, turned away from the window. No need anymore to look at the city or even talk. Instead, he took out his iPhone and opened Candy Crush, the screen lighting up his face with its gummy‑neon coloured rows.
1991 Diet Coke ad with Elton John “co-starring” with deceased celebrities Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong and James Cagney.
He remembers the time when H was offline. It wasn’t for very long. Two days at most. Still, the time dragged. He could do nothing but breathe, and feel the emptiness inside him intensify into a visceral throb.
H soon returned, of course. It was only a few weeks later at the platform of Waterloo station in London that he realized what that sensation was about. They had been wandering down South Bank doing their usual rounds – ramen at Wagamama; art at the Hayward Gallery; a film at the British Film Institute. They had gone to the railway platforms just to watch the trains – it was not as if they had to go anywhere.
And the trains arrived, and they left. Their entrance and exit rhythms were soothing, poetic, and almost cinematic. Or perhaps it was because of the movie they had just watched (Bicycle Thieves?), so he still saw his world around him as a cinematic reel. But as one train started pulling out of the station with its quickening mechanical puffs, he started out of his reverie. He suddenly thought of the beautiful Soledad Villamil in Juan José Campanella’s film, The Secret in Their Eyes, her tears pooling as she ran along the platform: face twisted, mouth open and gasping, watching the train pull away from her with Benjamín Espósito in it. She knew she was thus to be forever imprisoned with her love for him that she had never confessed. Because Soledad was not chasing her love; she was chasing for an opportunity: to speak, to declare, to plan a lifetime with.
And that was his revelation as the train huffed out of Waterloo station. In the clouds of the London grime and dust, he realized what he really wanted with H was neither love nor care. It was more time. More time, more time, more time.
The mountain rose before them, looking back but also facing forward. A mountain would never budge. Instead, it trickles away, in pebbles and sand over centuries and millennia.
He turned to H next to him. But H was, as usual, gazing thoughtfully ahead. So he didn’t speak. Rather, he raised his arm, device in hand, and thought:
“We are not standing on the precipice of a mountain, imposing as the drop is below. We are standing on the brink of a single millisecond.”
With that thought, he tapped his iPhone camera for a couple’s selfie.
There are many hard things in Havana. The plethora of monuments, fortresses, fortifications, convents, churches, and palaces in Habana Vieja. The marble statues; the mansions; the bullfights; the plazas and streets in which its history lies – glorious, revolutionary, bloody.
There are also many soft things in Havana. The tendrils of cigar smoke, and the waft of their unmistakable fragrance. The drifting of salsa music and laughter from the parties in the exclusive mansions. The scents of perfumes and blow-dried hair to the swishes of expensive fabrics and the glinting of million-dollar jewellery. The clink of glasses, the golden hue of Dom Pérignon champagne, the bubbles as their flutes are raised with the contentment of those who know they breathe rarefied air, that they have light, warmth, comfort and satisfaction.
But what captivated him most in Havana were the minutes he and H spent watching a couple slow-dance on the iron-wrought balcony of their third-floor apartment. The couple’s bodies were tender against the cold metal of the balcony balustrades, their movements fluid and flowing in the hard blackness of the night.
He turned to H and said: “I want you to hold me like that and dance with me.” H smiled.
All of Dubai was like a mirage. The glitzy hotels, the skyscrapers, the massive shopping malls that appear as veritable magic conjurements out of this vast desert. There was even a huge garden replete with flower displays of all kinds and designs, with topiaries of enormous hedges trimmed into shapes of animals and cartoon characters. It was appropriately named the “Dubai Miracle Garden”. Miracle indeed.
They walked on the beaches of the Palm Jumeirah island – soft golden grains for fat tourist feet. The ambient glow of the sun lit their skin. The monorail train whirred above them. The desert air stirred a little, then abated back into the mirage.
He wondered aloud: “Can this last?”
H looked at him for a few long minutes before finally replying: “You know the answer.”
A movement caught their eye. A tortoise had somehow cast itself onto its back, its small flipper feet waving frantically as it tried to turn itself over. Without success. And still the tortoise stretched and strained.
H reached out and gently turned over the tortoise. “About time he started tanning its other side,” H remarked, and beamed. He thought: “That’s it, then. One turn for a beginning; another for its ending. And so it goes, and so it goes. Until it doesn’t, and the whole world implodes.”
The joke was that the pollution in the capital was so thick that lovers’ dates were ruined because they, sitting side by side, could not see each other in the denseness of the dust.
He clung to H as they walked down Tiananmen Square, the hugeness of the space reduced to the warmth of their bodies and the brown swirl before them. The cloud of toxicity from which there was seemingly no escape – he felt that they were to be ensconced in it forever. “H, this is you and me now, marching arm-in-arm across a historic square, barely seeing ten steps ahead. Yet we behold in complete clarity all our futures as laid before us.”
He’d once asked H: “Could we go to Mars?”
“You wouldn’t like it very much there,” H replied. “It’s all red and hot. Nothing very interesting.”
He thought about that answer for a while, gazing out onto the far horizon of the sea. The lapping waves were soothing and rhythmic. The sun was warm under their beach umbrella. The clouds drifted by. The gado gado salad for lunch sat half-eaten between them. Their books lay strewn on the golden sand. How interesting is this, then?
He spoke again. “But isn’t that the point? To see how uninteresting it is? How can we know that something is not interesting unless we have been there to see that it is uninteresting?”
H propped up on one elbow against the sun-lounger and regarded him coolly. “Use your imagination.”
Once more in China.
He stepped through the doorway into the siheyuan, the famous four-sided dynastic courtyards of old Chinese houses. This one is rare in its authenticity, not reconstructed as an imitation of the old or – for the Chinese even have a specific phrase for this phenomenon – fang jiu. This actual siheyuan had originally been the residence of a famous city official, and today is still used as a dilapidated family home for some level of the official’s descendents. The adult son sneaks in a few tourist visits a day to supplement the family income. He and H had bribed their rickshaw driver for this contact. And now, inside, they gazed around them, taking in the crumbling walls and roof; the austere darkness of the interiors; the dusty door thresholds; the overgrown gardens; the algae in the cracked fishpond. In the Beijing summer heat, his arms were already swelling with the itchy blisters of multiple mosquito bites.
He thought back to the morning they had spent in the capital, wandering through the vast air-conditioned shopping malls of Qianmen and Wangfujing, replete with Starbucks cafés, Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets, Sketchers sneakers and Levi shops, where Beijing youths thronged in tight shorts and baggy hoodies.
Two scenes of China. He easily understood their difference: one of the future, one of the past. The future of glass and steel – shiny, air-conditioned, clean, comfortable. The past which bears scars, pain, history and, most of all, the crushing strain of being at the brink of annihilation. As it is with all life that moves inexorably from past to future, from difference to difference – from birth to death and eventually beyond memory. As it is with his own too, soon to pass.
As this thought crossed his mind, he glanced over and saw – or imagined? – a flicker across H’s face. And suddenly it occurred to him: that difference, too, might be the same difference between H and him. Soon, H, too, will be at the brink of his own annihilation. And who will remember him?
Still in China.
In 600 AD, the Emperor Sui Yang ordered an ambitious extension of the waterways started by Fuchai, the King of the State of Wu, nearly 1,000 years before his time. Into these trenches, five million people drained their blood, sweat and sacrifice. The Emperor’s will hung in the air like the resonance of an ancient gong.
By 609 AD, the completed canal carved a vein down the length of China from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. This became known as the da yunhe – The Large River That Carries.
Today, twenty-first century China carries a different kind of current up and down the country: the current of untold possibilities. The possibilities of countless riches; unprecedented social mobility; choices of goods and shopping and methods of consumption; the haze of yet-to-form geopolitical destinies and futures. In their own ways, the criss-crossing networks of canals in Suzhou, deluged with ancient imperial ambitions and still ferrying today (if only modern cargoes of tourists and daytrippers), somehow also connected to that endlessly flowing abundance of possibility.
He pondered on all this as they wandered along the Grand Canal. The tantrum in Shanghai has been long forgotten. Here, they are as serene as the calm canal water. A thought floated clear across his mind:
“H, this could be us through the rest of this life: a canal, delved into with determination and dedication that cuts across the swathe of all the possibilities, probabilities, complexities, totalities. In this life as with this canal, we will be as certain of ourselves as the canal’s coils, self-assured with the authority of a higher power, winding through the messy lives of men. It will carry all our dreams, futures and pasts.”
This was the setting of their first argument. As with most arguments, the genesis was unclear – something about the choice of tea. But what stayed clarion to him was the anger which exploded in his head, filling his blood and spilling into his organs, so that his whole being was consumed with fury where the only recourse was to run from the scene, like fleeing a house on fire.
He stormed out of the teahouse, marching to the rapid beating of his heart. H followed, unperturbed as always. Yet even then – unless he had imagined it – there were flickers of concern.
“Look around us!” he snapped. “Why are we even here?”
H reasoned: “Did you not want to be here? You chose Shanghai.”
“Yes, but not this!” He waved his arms, gesticulating to nothing in particular. “Not this!”
Not the linings of faux old tea houses and pagodas amidst the landscaped gardens, lakes and bridges, with their recast Song dynasty architecture and furniture. Not the endless shops which hawked equally endless lines of goods and products, blaring advertising jingles and repetitive welcome addresses to attract shoppers’ attention. Not the prices of tea for a newly monied Chinese population, rather than tea simply for a parched throat. Not the walled compounds, raised pavilions, wooden columns and panelling which are not so much city but theme park. The city is clean, tasteful, air-conditioned, comfortable, and expensive. But not this.
So he just cried to H: “I want to go!” H asked: “To where?” And he could not reply.
In Singapore, the heat is everywhere. It is in the haze which rises from the asphalt. The pounding of the sun which bakes through car windscreens and building walls, right down to the underground carparks. It is in the fumes from the country’s famed hawker stalls, and the grease from the frying woks that is whooshed through the air by whirring ceiling fans. Most of all, it is in the omnipresent humidity – the sticky, drenched air which saturates the whole island, so that rivulets of sweat run in perfect beads down his spine and form moist trenches in his arm-pits even just three steps out of the air-conditioned mall.
The heat is also in the sambal which lay before him – the aromatic and iconic chilli paste common in Southeast Asian dishes, fragrant with shrimp paste, garlic and ginger; sour with lime; balanced with palm sugar. But, most of all, fiery with burning chilli peppers. And therefore presenting as the greatest temptation: forbidden fruit.
For he knows he is unable to eat spicy food. He fantasizes about it, imagining himself as a more dashing (if possible) Anthony Bourdain ready to conquer any world cuisine, slurping down laksa noodles with their full creamy broth of chilli and assam, or tearing apart black pepper crab claws. But his larynx closes up with the heat, and the coughing fits take over. He splutters and stutters at the touch of spice in his throat. It is not possible. And yet here… here, it might just be possible.
He continues to gaze at the sambal before him, rich and glistening in its gold-rimmed china dish. The dark red paste against the white dish, the peony flowers setting off its crimson oil. If not now, then when?
On the side, H remarks drily: “Know your reality.”
And so he puts down the spoon.
It was the height of the pandemic. Full lockdowns were imposed everywhere. The roads gleamed in the sunshine, devoid of wheels and heels on their pristine surface. Birdsong rang shrill in the silenced traffic. People shuttered up in their houses and apartments, fearful of and besieged by the virus that could be in every breath they took. The greater the danger, the fresher the air, the crisper the spring. There is surely some law of inverse proportion at play.
H’s company, too, retreated. So he and H could only speak online, which they did nearly everyday. Miles apart, he and H were connected only by fibre optic cables lain deep underwater, DNS gateways, web servers and buzzing electricity – the sexy infrastructure and media architecture of Internet communication. And, of course, computers and computer screens. Always the screen, into which he stared for hours all through those long lockdown days at H’s face, so familiar even as it appeared as a constellation of pixels which grew fuzzy as his Internet connection buffered or simply stopped altogether in a caricature snapshot. Always the screen, now the portal into the world outside his room, the world with H in it. Always the screen, through which H’s jokes floated across with the eyes squeezed tight in big smiles, assuring him. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.” Always the screen, which he touches everytime to “hang up” the conversation, but what his finger really wants to do is to write under H’s face: “if only you are here.”
On entering New York City, the first place he visited was Times Square. Like Georgi dazzled by the ocean of light of Metropolis, he was overpowered. Drugged. Paradoxes flooded his sensorium. He could see: across his entire visual field crossed buildings, people, road curbs, lamp-posts. But he was also blind, aware only of ceaseless shape-shifting out of the walls of screens. He could hear, yet only the roar of traffic and babble of human noise. He was rooted to the spot on the heaving street, but he was also swept away by the tsunami of LED blazes. Passers-by were wraiths streaking past him. Even the street – his ground beneath his feet – started falling away from him, consumed by the endless voltage of light and glow.
And then he spotted H standing across the road at the traffic lights, waving frantically to him and yelling. “C’mon, cross the road! We’ve gotta go!” Like the tug of an anchor before he floated adrift, he returned to the street, to Times Square, to the musical they were going to attend that night. To travelling the world, to where he had come from, to H, to all their complexities betwixt. The boundaries of the city re-emerged: here are the screens and the light and the noise and the advertisements; there is, well, H.
The traffic lights changed, and he crossed the road.