Because he tapped me on my shoulder in the PC Bang and said, Do you want to go to ping pong room tomorrow? Because in the ping pong room we talked over instant coffee, and played Beatles music together. Because he asked, Do you want to go to Amen Church with me? And because I said yes and I sat with him in the chapel pews with his Korean-English bible, reciting Korean. Because he introduced me to his friends, culture, and way of life. Because he gave me hope on Sundays when I was alone. Because one night he said, Duck, let’s eat, and I said yes because I never had duck in another country, or soju to wash it down with. Because he slapped my back when a bone was caught in my throat and we watched it fling in front of us like it a slingshot. Because we couldn’t stop laughing about that. Because he showed me pictures of his son and daughter who are married and have their own families in Seoul. Because he’s a proud father and he inspired me to be like him, except perhaps with a little less of the late-night gambling, soju, and cigarettes at the PC Bang. Because I hugged him before I left South Korea. And, because it’s hard to hug people these days.
Flash Nonfiction / Micro-Essays
At first our city’s two Red Guard factions engaged in “civilized struggle”—using brush pens and words, big-character posters and leaflets, high-pitched broadcast and public debates, loud diatribes and, occasionally, fists to attack each other—until one side started to frequently parade the streets, shouting insulting and damaging slogans such as “Blah-blah is doomed,” and that nettled the nerve of the said faction, middle and high school and college students who had successfully forced the city government to stop classes, so they could carry on the Cultural Revolution, and so they charged into the city’s firehouses, where fire-fighters had been told not to resist the Red Guards, filled fire engines with sewage from big cesspools of communal toilets, drove to the streets, and sprayed their parading opponents—who might have been able to stand up against water cannons but ended up fleeing helter-skelter from the overwhelming foul smell—making the streets stink for days, so badly that stores stayed closed. That was how piss and shit and fire engines became the first real weapon in our city’s “armed struggle,” preceding steel rods and spears, which would, in turn, be replaced by rifles, machine guns, tanks, even warships, all supplies from arsenals stocked to aid Vietnam’s resistance of the U.S., and when those weapons drew blood we’d hear stories such as friends of an injured student tying a towel below his leg wounds, a first-aid method they thought they had learned from war movies, until the boy shed all his blood and stopped breathing.
In the bathroom of the doctor’s office you stare at the pad in your underwear, slick red but not soaked through. You wonder if you should change it.
A nurse leads you to the exam room, where you climb onto the table. You wrinkle the paper that will tear when you lay back, shift forward into the stirrups.
Your husband smiles at you from a chair where he is reading emails on his phone.
The doctor enters, announces that you’re having a miscarriage.
You knew this last night, when a thud in your belly woke you once, twice. Dragged you to the toilet where you sat for hours, watching the dog watching you, her head cocked, pacing back and forth in the doorway.
The doctor steps out, tells you to undress from the waist down and cover yourself with a sheet.
You lump your jeans and underwear on the floor, and the pad sits, exposed, raw.
A knock and the doctor is back, snapping on gloves, checking for latex allergies. Sliding between your legs, saying, You’re going to feel my hand, you’re going to feel my hand, you’re going to feel my fingers.
My father’s hands held many things. Grasped, grabbed, gripped. Around a throat. Around a bottle. Around the trigger of a gun. On the computer. Stirring a pot of stew, the air weeping with cayenne and cinnamon. Thick. Calloused. A gold band that holds him hostage. Wiry hands. No, his hands aren’t wiry, but thick with wiry hair like weeds on the pale skin. His hand throws bottles, knives, punches. They are paler than the rest of him, naked and fat. But the wiry hair is all over his corpse, even still. He was dying before he died. He was hopeful before he was hopeless. Around and around and around, the macabre—a dance, a thought, a corpus. His entire life for this. My entire childhood for that. His thick fingers could squeeze your arm until it turned pale pink, then white.
He used those hands to hold onto the samurai sword that was meant for decoration. In the dark, in the night, he pretended he was a samurai. Silently, he went through the motions. I saw reflected in the window, his body—large and undressed. The blinds were open. The urban dark landscape punctuated by lit up windows across the street. Other nocturnals. Others with fears. I stayed quiet around the corner. He thought everyone was asleep. He raised a stone foot, placed it down almost gracefully. He flicked his wrist and I envisioned an enemy’s head lopped off. I padded back down the hall, to my bed, to warmth. He tried for grace, but I still heard the mass of his foot as it landed in the cushion of the carpet. I imagined I could hear the fatal switch of his wrist, as I fell asleep and dreamed dreadful things.
Mount Cavalry Cemetery was just off Hot Springs Boulevard and it was our go-to spot in eighth grade. We felt cool there, in the dark, wearing our ripped up jeans and flannel shirts. If Kurt Cobain hadn’t died two years prior he might have been proud of our middle-of-nowhere New Mexico grunge crew. I’d dyed my hair eggplant that year and my favorite jeans had patches all over them. My favorite patch was sewn on the back pocket: bright red voluptuous lips with the words “kiss my patch” scrawled across them in white letters. It was as far as I could go. My friend Lynette’s hair was dyed an inky black and she wore it draped around her pale face. Excluding the forest green and black checked flannel tied around her waist every day, her clothes were all black. Her eyes were lined with thick black eyeliner, her eyelashes were heavy with mascara and she wore black lipstick, too. David and Patrick, the tall and hollow-cheeked twins, had “slayer” scratched into their skateboards. Lynette and Angelica took it a step further, carving “slayer” into their wrists and the insides of their soft biceps with dull pocket knives during algebra class. “It makes the pain go away,” they’d explain, referring to a mysterious emotional trauma that I was not privileged to understand.
I assign my students to write poems, play with language, and explain the effects they hoped to achieve. The sixteen-year-old girl who survived a subdural hematoma writes,
My head pounds like my brain
is going to brust out of my skull.
She says the effect she was going for was that “the more my friends think about it, the more I inspire them to live their lives to the fullest, and thats a great achievement.” But her spelling error puts me in mind of Chaucer’s abecedarium, “La Priere de Nostre Dame.” Under “B” he asks the Virgin to intercede—
er that my ship to-breste!
Or, before his ship is blown to bits. My own brain goes sea-faring, nudged offshore by a little accidental metathesis. Bless me: blesser is French for hurt; faire un bleu is bruise. Was her brain blest or brust? According to a linguist at Ohio State (on a webpage not updated since 2002), metatheses in North American English tend to occur around liquid consonants— “r” and “l.” We say, comfterble, nucular, Chipolte. We interduce ourselves to purty girls. But not since the middle ages have briddes flown in a beorht sky, have brands brent.
So there’s something medieval to me about that brust; the funnel-hatted deadpan charlatan from Bosch’s Stone Operation appears in a mirror. What am I doing, knife in hand, trying to trepan poetry from the skull of a girl who looked at death and lived?
Near the wharf in the southwestern Newfoundland outport of Codroy is a small beach where the ocean stores cobblestones. They look like huge gray potatoes, their surfaces, angles, and corners smoothed and rounded by the constant rolling. One can hear a thousand disunited voices saying “cobble” as each wave rolls them twice, once coming in and again going out. One can also hear a thousand wooden shoes walking in a tunnel walled with stone, or a ruptured storage bin in a bowling-ball factory, or a thousand skulls rolling down a bedrock slope in a catacomb.
Initially I thought the cobble sound obeyed two pulses, the faster pulse with the waves, and a slower one with the tides. On a return visit I was greeted with silence at the cobblestone beach, and assumed I would have to wait for high tide to hear the knock-about rocks again. So I interrupted three fishermen working with gear on the Codroy wharf to find out when the next high tide would be.
“Looks high now,” one of them said, his tone indicating the conversation had run its course.
But I was not deterred. “When I was here last year, the tide was rolling the cobblestones on the beach below the road going up the hill over there.” As I pointed towards the road, I realized I was on the verge of profound silliness, but could not stop myself. “It was a wonderful sound, and I was hoping to hear it again. I thought it happened at high tide.”
“Those was probably storm waves rolling the rocks,” said another fisherman, the look on his face suggesting he was working hard at sounding normal for someone who wasn’t.
So many palm trees, shooting up like fireworks. A courtyard of orange trees. After harvest, the sunflower stalks stand alert as otters.
The Alhambra is a mosaic of not two, not three, but four dimensions. After moving through its fountains, gardens, and palaces, I see on the way home the tessellation of leaves and the space between leaves. I see the tessellation of leaves and the time between leaves.
Riding pillion behind my host on a motorbike and slipping through the streets of Sevilla.
In Murillo’s great painting, the child gives his coin to his mother, with a look of tenderness that only a child can give, just as the towering saint gives his money to the beggar man. Outside the cathedral, one night, the guitarist waved away the coin proffered by a child. He did not want charity but to sell his compact discs.
Mecca is east-southeast but the Mosque of Córdoba faces south because its royal builder was homesick for Damascus. Representing the earth, its perfect square dances in red and white arabesques, until it is severed in the aorta by the flashing sword of a Cathedral nave. I could not bear to look around the church. How could an architect destroy the best work of another architect? A king, a bishop would, yes, that is the way of the world, but an artist?
In the Alcázar del Rey, in the oldest part of Sevilla, there is a garden that remembers the meeting in friendship of the Spanish poets called the Generation of ‘27. Will I be remembered? And whom will I be remembered with?
Justin and I thought umbrellas were things men carried. Men like our dads held them above their briefcases on their way out the door. Those umbrellas sat in stands in the foyers near our dads’ other work things—rubber galoshes, khaki raincoats—which we weren’t allowed to disturb. Since the eighties were an era when men didn’t bring home work except for show, there his business things sat, claiming a corner of the foyer, from the moment he entered until first thing in the morning, when he left.
Justin and I decided to be men on a day when it wasn’t raining. We grabbed our dads’ umbrellas, pulling on the curled handles and drawing the rods up from their stands. We went outside and turned on the sprinkler and unfurled black umbrellas, which made a whoosh like dark wings, and pretended to be busy-ness men. I held paychecks in my hands as water streamed overhead. Justin raised an index finger as he parried the spray, signaling me to wait as I called his name.
He’d ask me for a “rain check,” which is what a man would say if you rushed him in the doorway. We thought it must have something to do with rain.
I live in a world of imaginary paintings. They have taken the place of my imaginary friends. My imaginary friends were a treacherous and surly lot. There was no honor among thieves.
The Imperial court of Czar Nicholas was much kinder and gentler. His son, the Tsarevich, suffered terribly from necrophilia… no, not necrophilia, hemophilia. As I get older, I sometimes have trouble keeping all the afflictions straight. There are so many of them—a near infinite set. Think of this—with or without hemophilia, Alexis would have had the same response to the bullet in the brain fired by the red revolutionaries.
I am sorry. I have lived too long with imaginary friends, with imaginary paintings. My father told me I was a bum and would always be a bum. That was at a critical stage of my development. Thus, I flirted with becoming a Jesus freak, but didn’t give in. Bob Dylan gave in. He painted his face like Batman’s Joker and declared: You’ve got to serve somebody. Bullshit. The only person you’ve got to serve is yourself at the ALL YOU CAN EAT buffet. Also your legless wife—she can’t serve herself. She was a hero in the Iraq War—she had her legs blown off. That’s how you can tell she’s bona fide.
Every day I live in a home, I have beaten my pater. If I was homeless, He would have won. I have imaginary Picassos on my walls, imaginary van Goghs, imaginary Rembrandts and Matisses, and all of my paintings are better than the real paintings by the same artists. I have a collection worth billions of imaginary dollars. How much am I worth? My worth is an illusion. This is true of all of us.
I gave my one-year-old granddaughter a birthday present—My First Buddha. She points at it on the shelf on which it lives. I take it out of the box and set it on the couch where she can reach it. She knocks it down like a bowling pin. I set it aright. She knocks it down. We do this dozens of times. I have huge patience for the innocent, joyful shenanigans of babies. She keeps my serotonin level high. I thank her. She will never be a Jesus freak. She’s been too well-loved to be a Jesus freak. Only those who have been deprived at an essential level go on to become Christians. It is their shout-out for affection. If they didn’t get natural love, they crave supernatural love. It is overcompensation, the most common thing in the world.