Sometimes it confounds others that I have lived a usual life. I can’t quite believe it either. I always seem to perfectly grasp and present any idea with all five senses. They want to feel what I’ve supposedly felt, chasing after my works as if craving to be in my body, though in fact, my body has never actually consumed the very idea of discussion. No, I have never had a lover or any bizarre phobia, but that’s impossible, isn’t it? The dozens of esteemed critics claim that I possess some godly insight, allowing me to know what it’s really like. But the fact remains: I don’t know. I am the secondary source, the historian, not the witness. For years I’ve convinced the world that I knew. Until—now I realize that I am the one who knows the least.
It is only until after I feel I’ve extracted what’s rest of my creative inventory that I find I’ve lied. It’s such a rich lie. And it’s because of the deeply internal nature of the lie that I feel fatigue and a dispirited heart, not because of the fallacy itself.
I’m looking at the mesh of industrialized colors, of sidewalks, cement and walls, mundane outside my window. For the first time, I am out of ideas. I can’t think of what emotion or insights to convey next. It is then that the growing pebble of emptiness was dropped unto the roof of my (already) rigid heart. If even my ideas have escaped me, with whom must I now consort? I want to speak. I want to laugh, weep—shriek of my intimate stress but my voices are all tamed and caged by the frown on my lips. Who am I to speak?
The ghost of that other kind of solitude lingers in the air. I haven’t been familiar with this particular solitude in this particular situation before. Typically, the silent serenade of solitude wafted about me when I was at my desk. I could close my eyes and be waltzing in the arms of an idea. While the others were caressing their primitive senses in each other’s arms, I was so satisfied right where I was.
And, now I can’t help but feel those raindrops of shame and self-pity dissolving into my hard conscience. I feel light-headed, and I at once blame it on that ghost whose misty tissue I’ve been inhaling. But begone, I say; this was my destiny.
I suddenly rise from my seat.
“God, do I need a coffee break.”
There’s nothing quite as refreshing as a walk. Yet without a destination, I feel so lost.
I see hydrangeas, clouds of magenta and royal blue, whose hues are so colorfully strong and vibrant. The flowers only lie within my line of sight for a moment, for my feet must keep up with the pace of the street, but that one vigorous second inflames my senses. They make my paints mixed to that perfect shade seem like unmolded dark gunk oozing out of the tube. Already I’m imagining using a variety of my paints, layered on top of each other. I’d slather the thick color onto the smooth canvas of my skin and then I’d set my wide lips onto that color just to see what flora really tastes like, for the two are stunning mirror images. I imagine that the sensation of that first contact between my lips and that paint is phenomenal, but I know I’ll pull myself back, disgusted by the waxy complexion of the paint. But that first contact was enough, and it’s fortunate that I refrain now. Hereafter, I can just get lost in the memory of that first delicious blast, stretching its life longer. But most others aren’t satisfied with that. No, they need real hydrangeas. They need to ingest real emotion, the most powerful alcohol of them all, bathing their little hearts while damaging their perception of its value. Blinding them.
If it’s true that Vincent Van Gogh was a lonely alcoholic, and that, on several occasions, had swallowed paint, who’s to say that the two observations weren’t related? I’d like to imagine the cold soul, surrounded by yellow beauty, yet suffocating still. He could make his nights as starry as he liked, and blossoms as palatable as he craved. But in the absence of absinthe, did he turn to the paint, to helplessly give his flowers another chance to move him?
My footsteps seem to hasten as I near the café.
I sit by the window with my black coffee, placing myself in the spotlight for an idea. The bell on the door rings and a girl enters. I’ve never seen her before, but I know who she is.
I’ve always been like that self-emaciated girl who steps into a bakery. She’s the one who bends so curiously close to the glass counter, mindfully devouring the crème caramels and rich panna cottas, all with that thick chocolate scrawl binding the delicacies away from her desirous tongue. She just wants to look. She wants to study how each layer of creamy dessert is presented on top of another and how every cosmic flavor is artfully woven into the sculpture that she will never allow herself to place into her mouth. She will not be a glutton. She wants to remain able to appreciate. There’s a plumper man over there indulging himself in one of those silk tarts, who doesn’t seem to care about the deeper beauty of the work, just the luscious, ephemeral ecstasy of the chocolate in his mouth. She glances at him coldly. When the young baker asks her sweetly,
“Miss, can I get you anything?”
“No thanks, I just wanted to take a look.”
And she is satiated.
There are some places full of breaths of fresh air. I recall now the scent of unhampered sunlight, feeding the air through the scintillating inflections of the Mekong. It’s strange how costly it is for an urban mouse to opt out of civilization, even for a few days. But I had once finally saved enough to leave.
There had been a little boy not far from me. He didn’t have many sets of clothes to suit his dirty mound of short curly hair and dusty dark skin. He lived in one of those straw huts along the banks the river’s dunes. To him I probably appeared as one of the wealthy Westerners armored with sunscreen, mosquito repellent, and perhaps an iPod. Our sun-sensitive eyes grimaced at the boy from behind thick brown glasses. I may have been heavily armored, but I would not wear sunglasses to look upon this boy’s world.
His world remained untouched by those industrialized hands clean of microbes but filthier of money and smog. So although the wooden structures have every nook and cranny filled with the dark, damp remnants of soil, the blues of his sky and his waters are pristine and crystal. His world is much cleaner than ours.
He was smiling at us with the traditional smile of indigenous youth that appears in charity ads.
But I was smiling at him because he seemed to know. Here was a simple boy, who loved his home. He worked, he played, he slept and dreamed in this niche, peacefully engulfed in his world, respectful. He didn’t quite know yet how his lands were being exploited for its goods.
But then he sees the white men. He sees the way we crawl humbly to the pristine, the way we come to his river as if it’s a theme park. It’s as if simple, untouched life is a fantasy for us, or a painting of a flower. It’s then that he knows there is a far deeper worth in his soil and in his fragrant blades of grass. And that worth, which he perceived, had nothing to do with money or material goods.
I was smiling at him because, unlike the rest of us, he seemed able to both live and love at the same time. He smiled back at me, recognizing my admiration for him.
It’s when we’re blessed with that beauty that we lose sense of its worth.
I paint real emotion all the time, and yet I don’t want to consume it. I want to savor its value forever in that first point of contact, even if I must make frequent friends with the ghost.
This is a gift. I get to have my panna cotta and eat it too.
So perhaps I did not lie. I may just know what our experiences do mean to tell us. Perhaps it is those who allow themselves to be swept romantically away by the little butterfly’s wing of human life, who do not know. Perhaps they’re happily drowning below the surface while I stand above it, peering deep into the consciousness of the world I love, but will never allow myself to be a part of.
The coffee swallows my tongue in its deep presence. Maybe the beans ground in this cup came from somewhere near the boy’s village. I wonder, as if the drink is an escape of the struggle that civilization has thrown onto my desk. My absinthe.
The thin girl decides to take a seat. She doesn’t want to hinder the many impatient people entering the café to mindlessly devour their afternoon sugar-fixes. It’s too bad. All she wanted was a look. At this busy hour, there’s no time for people who are just looking.
I turn away. My eyes try to peer further through the window, reaching for those hydrangeas again, their intoxicating, aromatic colors. I can’t help it. I suppose I’m no better than the edgy customers in line.
“Miss, would you like one?”
The young man from behind the counter sits across from the thin girl, setting a plated raspberry soufflé with chocolate shavings and a spoon before her.
“You’re not in a rush, are you?” he asks.
The girl flushes, her fragile face jumping out of surprise.
“Um, no, I have time. I’m not going anywhere,” she says.
Good answer. If she eats slowly, she’ll find the delicious tastes emerging. She may have observed the desserts as if they were sculptures in an impenetrable glass case, but as I watch her take the first bite, it seems that the artwork has some real flavor. It’s okay to consume once in a while.
And as for me? Well, I take another sip of my coffee, gladly.
Betsy Tsai. — 2009