Posts Tagged ‘futility’




Training to Hold My Breath

I want to live in a world where pearls cannot be sold or traded, only given; cannot be formed or manufactured, only discovered. I want us to forswear jewelry stores and aquaculture, to dive for treasure without wetsuits or scuba tanks. I have been training to hold my breath.

The pearl I am saving was formed forty-one meters deep. Four years ago, I could dive close enough to see the oyster bed, but I could not reach it. So I undertook a regimen, conditioned the vessels in my lungs, kept myself in places with good air. I practiced yoga and pilates to strengthen the muscles between my ribs. In boxing class, I learned to conserve my effort by moving while relaxed. In my bathtub, I learned how to store extra air in my stomach, throat, mouth and sinuses. Over those years, I added twenty-eight seconds to my dive.

My father is unimpressed. He tells me I have wasted my time, that I could have studied mathematics, improved my Chinese, taken an internship, gotten a job, done something productive. I tell him about my twenty-eight seconds and he scoffs. What are twenty-eight seconds worth?

I don’t believe in omens, but I am not ready to discount them completely. And I do have a recurring dream. You and I are on the ocean floor, we cannot see the surface, but we have to reach it. We rise as fast as we can. It’s no use but we must try. You signal that you have run out of air. I seal my lips with yours and give you half of mine. The surface is still far, but now things have inverted—it is the bottom we cannot see. We are rising through featureless water and we have fourteen seconds left.

I want you to toss things into the sea for me to recover, precious things neither of us can really bear to lose. Toss them so they drop deeper and deeper, let them drop far too deep for comfort, dare me. I don’t want to know for sure.

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We Passed Each Other Notes

The first time I saw you, you were tossing origami flowers, doves, cranes and boats from your bedroom window. The alley between our apartments used to be a canal—the Austrians, during their rule here, paved it over. So once, the tides and the winds would have carried your creations away, like the galleys that once made this city rich and strong. Instead, the tourists did, the few they did not ignore or trample.

Your window, facing mine, was not quite close enough that our hands could have touched. But it was not far off, and the effect was tantalizing. The arch that spanned from my side to yours had been built long after the original structures, probably to keep them from collapsing into each other.

I smiled, you smiled back. I started to speak, you put a finger to your lips. I wrote a note, scrunched it into a ball, and tossed it over. You spread it back out, wrote “lazy” on the blank side, folded it into a paper airplane, and flew it back to me. From then on, I left my notes in your mailbox. Your notes to me always wound up on my pillow, always neatly folded into birds, always arriving when I was not home, as if to suggest your foldings have the power of flight when unobserved.

Your first note came folded as a pigeon. It was a drawing in India ink of our alley, built much higher, perhaps a vision of the future, a disordered stacking of architectural ideas rising into the clouds, a medieval post-modern collision populated by people, their pets, and their flying robots. Perhaps you expected me to answer in kind, but how can two people connect with each other by speaking in wild images? So my notes were straight-forward. I talked about what I did during a given day, about my plans, about my opinions, about my observations, and, naturally, about my reactions to your work. Your notes were relentlessly imaginative. You wrote for seven unpunctuated pages about what a needle could never be, and it appeared on my pillow as a flower of seven parts. You wrote in technical detail, with complete (but fake) archeological references about how an obscure civilization (also, it turns out, a fake one) made bricks differently, and included a touching trail of correspondence between two hod carriers, father and son. This arrived in instalments.

I asked you questions you would not answer. What was your name? In your next note I read a couple of lines on the power of making names up. What was your school? This didn’t engender any response at all. I asked you to come out and meet me. You drew the two of us meeting in a square with nine clocks and watches shown, each set to a different time. As I went about my ordinary life in the city, many times, I was sure I saw you at the end of some alley, at a table across some café, on a bridge looking my way, but by the time I could reach the spot in question, you were gone. In a city of masks, who can be sure.

I know you used my notes to make those paper cranes you left for strangers. What did the tourists make of them, I wonder? Glimpses into my world, visions naked but incomplete, exposed but unaware, a perfect stream for voyeurism.

The following season, I came back to the alley. It is always the same, but now a new visitor was in the window across. Yet, walking along a canal not far from the apartment, on a ledge where you often left your treasures, was a book. Open it to any page and it is clear the writing and the drawing can only be yours. The ISBN and the publisher are fake. So are the reviews and even the names in the acknowledgements: the diligent editor, the spouse who stood by you all those years. I looked it up, and still, there is not so much as a hint as to who you are or where.



To Sleep through the Call to Prayer

I have not yet learned to sleep through the call to prayer. It carries over the rooftops, ten thousand loudspeakers just out of sync, a monophonic rondo that sweeps me into the seventh century. The call is both far and close; it is, like the Southern Cross, a whisper from another time.

But no one counts the hours or the years. There are no seasons, the days are unchanging. Nothing dies out, nothing freezes over—not the mosquitos, not the refuse in the river beds. Everywhere we look we find the litter of surplus, the riot of vegetation, the overgrowth of humanity spilling out, as if God’s thermometer has snapped apart over the streets and its mercury dots have become the motorcycles.

Five men sit under a sheet metal screen, quiet as a constellation. They are waiting. They are blank with waiting, waiting for anything to happen. The hours pass uncounted, news and trivia fall into the gutters with the rest of it, with the wastes of humanity.

This peace is mystic, ancient and crushing. They say never to add music to what silence has said best, but this is a peace I want to shatter with a chord. And you—with you I want to rouse the street, not to prayer but to life. I want us to inspire the roofs to lift and the vines to tumble, the city to erupt like the volcanos that surround it, leaving gardens in the craters and love letters in the igneous pillars.

Tonight, love, we will gather up and organize. Tomorrow before dawn we will storm the mosques, fill them to bursting, spill out over their grounds. A choir of thousands, we will sing through their megaphones. We will make an instrument of them, the greatest organ ever built, the throat of Jakarta. Together we will join in a resonance that will rise into the sky and fall onto us, a celestial command that, touching our foreheads, will lift us to our feet.