Reprieve

Fourteen years ago, I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story and less interesting than it sounds. A lot of people have told me about their own near-death experiences over the years, often in harrowing medical detail, imagining that those details—how many times they rolled the car, how many vertebrae shattered, how many months spent in traction—will somehow convey the subjective psychic force of the experience, the way some people will relate the whole narrative of a dream in a futile attempt to evoke its ambient feeling. Except for the ten or fifteen minutes during which it looked like I was about to die, which I would prefer not to relive, getting stabbed wasn’t even among the worst experiences of my life. In fact it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

The bank’s assistant manager approached me with a friendly smile and an immaculate suit. Charles looked his part—competent, precise, rational. He also looked younger than I am, much younger, but appearances are tricky. He asked why I’d come in. I explained I needed to shift some money around to keep it liquid. I was a writer who dipped into savings and was contemplating a move to another state.

Okay, so what’s up with all the ghosts in your work?

I like playing along the borderlines of what’s remotely possible.

These arrangements of empty chairs are what’s left of celebration, argument, meditation, sleep and revelation.  They huddle together like still animals in the cold.  From a chair beneath a plane tree, the round tracks of a cane disappear into the gravel.

The single chairs are absent of their poets, readers and afternoon philosophers.

Those side by side and face to face are absent of their lovers, their chess players, the soon to be married and the just abandoned.

The great groups of circles and strange half-moons have lost their lecturers, their students.

I’m having the Monday coffee with CP and SK. SK has only a dollar in cash and asks if I can get the rest of his drink.

“Sure,” I say. I pull out a twenty dollar bill. I don’t have anything smaller.

“I’m on the twenty dollar diet,” I say. “I only pay with twenties.” It’s supposed to be a joke but I have no idea where I’m going with it until I notice that CP also has a twenty out and ready.

“See? CP’s doing the same thing. It’s rough out there. We have to burn the small bills just to keep warm.”

It’s odd to grow accustomed to rickshaw travel: the fresh air, the cruising under the night sky just a little buzzed after a stop at Shantou’s finest wine bar where elbows were rubbed against those of the budding bourgeois. Sometimes I think of the rickshaw as a time machine, transporting me back to a moment when the triangular straw hats and tattered short pants of the driver were no less obsolete than… rickshaws. Despite the allure, I think I’m witnessing the last days of rickshaw culture here in Shantou. Traffic is getting a little too car oriented and I can’t imagine this mode of travel making it very long in such a fast growing city. There are other bits of local culture in Shantou, however, that seem perfectly safe for the forseeable future, and one of those was exactly what I set out to explore on the back of my rickshaw last Saturday night.

All my local friends have assured me that KTV, or karaoke, is the best time to be had in Shantou. In my mind a karaoke bar is a big open room where people get sloppy drunk and sing their favorite Credence, their least favorite Fine Young Canibals or their hopeless renditions of Queen (which always begins seriously but quickly, upon coming to the realization that nobody can really sing those high notes, become hopeless), as friends berate their lack of vocal prowess, and at the end of the night everyone’s that much more certain of the fact that they made the right choice in giving up their operatic aspirations and going back to whatever tone deaf, sobriety laden occupation keeps them busy on weekdays.

But that is not this karaoke bar. ‘Bar’ is really not the applicable term. It’s a palace, reminiscent of the home of a Suadi Prince who fell in love with a Vegas based interior decorator. It’s divided into hundreds of private rooms like a hotel. These private rooms line the neon and mirror filled mazes of hallways on floor after floor of closed doors, the gentle whiff of John Denver or the Carpenters slipping from under the threshold.

I wanted in. KTV is supposedly a Shantou delicacy (though that seems to be the claim no matter where you go in Southeast Asia), and I wanted a big fat bite of some local culture that wasn’t coated in MSG (I love my MSG, but too much is too much). Alas, we, myself and three other Americans, were led down one of the long magical hallways and into our own private room. The room was ours for the night at 300RMB (about 50 USD) and came complete with 30 cans of Budweiser. There was even a bathroom in our room, which meant that for the next six hours or so, we had no reason to exit our private salon.

We turned on the machine to look through the song list. Chinese… Chinese… Chinese… Chinese… What’s this here “three little Indians.” In case you don’t recall your primary education in the days of zero cultural sensitivity that is the song that goes a little something like, “one little, two little, three little Indians, four little, five little, six little Indians, seven little, eight little, nine little Indians, ten little Indian boys.” Over and over again. And that was it. That was our English selection. Well, that and a couple of Avril tunes.

It was just as the confusion of the one-English-song karaoke machine was wearing off that the tray of six assorted varieties of chicken feet was brought in, and we were all forced to acknowledge that the next three hours, or however long it was going to take us to finish those 30 beers and six trays of feet, and we were determined to finish them, were going to be very long hours. Not so much because of the short song supply, or even the chicken feet, but mostly because we were going to be stuck with each other in a confined space with little to no odds of meeting new friends, girls, practicing Chinese… In short, all of the reasons that I go to a bar were locked away in identical, tantalizingly closed-off worlds, spread around this massive karaoke palace as if it were the honey-comb universe of Quantum Leap and I was Scott Bakula.

Ultimately, we were forced to breach the force field of the vigilant hallway security team by doing a sort of, ‘I’m just standing in the hall whistling and leaning… doing some fresh air… taken a break from the little Indian song…’ charade, and darting into random rooms as soon as security’s heads were turned. No one was fooled except perhaps us in assuming that they cared if we entered random rooms, but too much Budweiser mixed with the giddiness of four quasi-grown men thrown into what felt like grade school sleepover conditions, led to a little bit of make-believing. To us, these forays into the unfamiliar rooms were bona fide adventures.

Once inside, we were greeted with more Budweiser and chicken feet, and Chinese songs being calmly, sweetly sung amongst mostly sober friends who were caught just a little off guard by the beer filled, socially starved Americans who had sabotaged their gathering.

By chance, on one of our clandestine missions into unknown territories we stumbled upon a couple of Chinese friends from work, and they came back to our room to get a little taste of what American karaoke was like. They told us that the spicy bird feet were good luck. I picked one up and asked if you were supposed to rub it, like a rabbits foot, our eat it for luck, but they didn’t seem to follow. I ate it, but then decided to name it Rub to be sure I was respecting both of our traditions.

It was time for Avril, and lets just say the gods of rock would have been pleased with the show we put on… The Chinese fan of karaoke on the other hand…

There was some fundamental misunderstanding here about the meaning of Karaoke, and beyond that about the meaning of going out. While it seemed that the patrons were fully attempting to create a barrier between their own group of friends and the outside world, that idea was the height of undesirable to my mind. I was going ‘out,’ after all, not staying ‘in.’ And yet, here I’d gone ‘out,’ just to end up being locked ‘in,’ and I’d ended up acting like my friends parents had gone to sleep and we had to sneak out of his room, and down to the pantry to steal more Poptarts.

I am not intending to make any judgments about who was wrong and who was right here. Actually, I’m pretty sure that if I were to make any they would not be in my favor. Among other things, I realized that my sense of social is completely distorted. I don’t claim to speak for Americans by any means, but I think that I have witnessed in many Americans (or maybe I’m projecting) a fear of intimacy that precludes the kind of deep friendship that most of us crave. Mostly, I spent a night being extremely immature, sneaking about like an interdemensional hopper from a crap sci-fi program, and shotgunning cans of beer like I haven’t since the last time I was in Indiana (long story), because the idea of being in a quiet room with three friends and no distractions (chicken feet and children’s songs excluded) made me quite anxious. But, I’m not going to be too hard on me. It was a pretty good time.

But, it’s true that intimacy is something other than what it used to be (or at least what I used to think it was supposed to be), no? We (I) are more self-absorbed in all the best and worst ways than I thought we (I) were. We don’t think of relationships in terms of self-sacrifice for the preservation of tradition, family, etc…, which as far as I can tell are still very much a part of Chinese society. For better or worse, I think I see relationships almost like the various rooms in this karaoke palace; we spend a lifetime wandering from one to another, learning the lyrics to Raffi, Green Day, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone and finally, morbidly humming the tune to some Requiem all alone, watching for the door handle to jiggle when the white gloved waiter walks in with the bill.

I’m thinking of friends who’ve said to me after particularly hard break-ups, “well, I guess you two had learned what you needed from one another.” After which I nod my head in agreement. On to the next room. Even serious relationships (and I am including friendships) lack intimacy when you expect them to end, when you remove the possibility of their being, for lack of a better word, eternal.

And, maybe, this makes relationships potentially stonger, more realistic, someohow more intimate in the acceptance of the joint limitedness of their partakers. But, usually it just taps into our insecurities and makes us avert our eyes, maybe drink faster, wish that Rickshaws didn’t have to go out of style instead of listening to the person who is sitting next to us in one, pretend that you are in an episode of Quantum Leap instead of taking advantage of some time with friends… Maybe it’s just me.

On the way out of the karaoke palace, we were all just a little bit wobbly, and in quick need of a rickshaw back home, potentially making a stop for some barbeque to reconcile the Budweiser and bird feet churning in our stomachs. There were, however, no rickshaws to be found. The rickshaw drivers, it would seem, had gone on strike at some point between 10pm and 3am. Maybe we would be seeing the end of that relic sooner than I thought. It looked like rather than cruising home pretending to be on the back of a very lo-fi time machine, we would be walking down the long road that passed Wu’s sweater shop. But atleast we were finally ‘out.’

We sat together in the back of my car for an hour and I did not kiss her. We sat together on her couch, watching something or another on the TV and I didn’t kiss her. We lay together in her bed for hours, not kissing. It seems we can spend our lives together, swallow eternity and quake with love, and I haven’t kissed her. I cannot kiss her forever. There is agony in our kissing.

It gets worse

Perhaps some wine can help. The brutish concrete dividing our lips gains some minerals, that agonizing superstructure breaks down and her mouth splashes through all this decomposed boundary and there it is, I kiss her. But I do not kiss her. Maybe wine is a parlor trick for a kiss. Just hissing, adolescent monkeyshines and in the morning it was all greasy kid stuff. Wine is dangerous, as you never know when to fall in or out of love. Wine decides for you. That is why we drink it. Wine decides within and without you. That is why we drink it. I want to set a mortar charge in this fragile wall and blast out all the foundations, because wine is too slow. Then I will kiss her.

And then we kiss. Oh, I can just imagine it! She doesn’t taste like anything I have tasted before. She tastes like sprinkles from a thousand yellow butterflies. She tastes like drops of syrup on anArdennes pancake! My ribs collapse and my heart coils around her and our tears merge; an alloy prone to extinguish the flames of Hell! Devour me, sweet girl. Devour me soon as I devour you…when I was younger, when I was much smaller I thought like this. Always in love and always roaring with hope. There are so many girls, but I want this one! Ignore her, you brutes–you have never known love and you speak like ghouls and you tread like troglodytes. She can’t hear you, she mustn’t. She must hear only me and my voice and how it cracks and twists and burns and speaks in agonizing silence…I want to sleep.

I want to paw through her hair and slow her down. I want the diminuendo of processes. I want to slow her down and look at her in sleep. I will choose Endymion and she can choose Sleeping Beauty. And we will sleep. And then I will kiss her. I will kiss her gently and violently, because how can I not? I am angry with love! It’s all so perfectly horrible, as it was when I was younger.

Now, what–now that we kiss? Can I pull away and stop? Absolutely not. By my heart, by her swatting systoles I swear not Venus nor her sulfur rains can pull me from her lips. We are hitched eternally in a kiss. My breath is hers is mine and now there is no need for food, for drink, for watching the New Year’s Day parade. I have my moment and please, sweet girl, let this be yours and this is our time. There is no need for clocks, sundials, compasses, sextants, the winds, the sea, the air, the sun. There is only the dark spot, the void where she and I hide and nobody must see us. But we are not gone. One day we will come blazing out from the darkness, hoary, incontinent and withered and we will tell you that you will never know suffering. We have suffered for you. I must kiss her.

Screaming forth, through scales, through time signature, through hundreds of thousands of spilled seeds and our little laureates awash in infinite Egyptian thread counts. Now nothing but lead droplets, forsaken, gifted world-makers. And so ahead I’m charging on and hoping you don’t cry when you see my hearse and scratching at death’s thin membrane to rant and change the oil and the timing belt and the Volvo must be taken in every 10-12,000 miles. The children mustn’t chew gum. They look ignorant that way. Will they test well? Will they crush records on foot or in the water or with mighty spears and all I want is just to kiss you. First, just kiss you.

It goes on. . .

Then I see our name on bank accounts, sundry certificates and written indelibly on our faces. We. Our. Us. Ours. And when you run out of breath, engulf mine, smoky and diluted. And when it gets so heavy and you carry anvils up the street look at me. Look at me! And I’ll be your helium. I’ll be your vehicle, your imagination, I’ll be everything. You don’t believe me? Try me.

I have seen too many idle kisses. This one has value. This one is a live one…full of watts and ohms and puncturing that thin chrysalis of any damned barrier you can conjure.

This kiss can fight, this kiss won’t go down. This kiss has money on itself. Kiss me. And I’ll kiss you back. Heaven watch me, help me. Angels, pierce me with your slings and I’ll spit in your face. Under the cross, I’ll untie poor Iscariot from his fig and send him down the river. Ask me if I could care. I can’t care more for you and can’t care more for this. This blessed kiss. Forever and Forever and never. Let these charges move up their rungs and turn me into the harlequin with the mirror; Christ and the Samaritan and everything you’re afraid of. That’s how it is–I am the dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second after waking.

And the children, the laureates, the scoundrels, the scourges, the cherubs and the gentle Gooseberries. They all wait for their mother, their starburst of a mother, festooned with breasts of chocolate milk and a licorice umbilical. So, help me. Help me kiss her, all of you. Fight for me, unbuckle your swash and launch out. Attack for me. Attack like a mother for her boys on the morning of a war. If you see you, kiss you for me.

An open letter to Julie, the girl who dumped me right after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded:


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Dear Julie,

We dated briefly in the fifth grade, and on January 28, 1986, you broke up with me. We were sitting in the Presentation Area, adjacent the library, and we had just finished watching the Space Shuttle Challenger explode. It ascended from the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, and seventy-three seconds later, the whole thing went up in a massive fireball, killing everyone aboard. The room was silent, and our teachers started crying. And then your friend Marianne walked over to me and handed me a note that said, “Hey … You’re dumped.”

I’m not the type to hold a grudge or anything, but I always felt like that was really insensitive timing.

Cordially,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA



An open letter to Jeffrey Dahmer:


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Dear Jeffrey,

You worked at the Ambrosia Chocolate factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the early 1980s. I read about it somewhere not too long after you were bludgeoned to death in prison. My second-grade class went on a field trip to the Ambrosia factory in 1982. I often wonder if you were there at the time of my visit. I wonder if we saw each other in the hallway or something. And naturally, I wonder if you looked at me and decided that you wanted to eat me and keep my skull as a souvenir.

Sincerely,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA



An open letter to John Walker Lindh:


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Dear John,

You were born in 1981. Whenever I hear of adults who were born in the 1980s, it makes me feel old. You’re twenty-six now. And you’re in prison. I can’t think of anything worse than being twenty-six and in prison. I hope you’re not going insane.

I just reread your personal history online, and I have to admit, I find it pretty stunning. It’s hard to believe you started off in Marin County and wound up fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s a massive statistical unlikelihood—which I suppose is part of the reason why you did it. For a teenager raised in Mill Valley, moving to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban has got to be the ultimate in youthful rebellion.

You must have been really pissed off at your parents.

At the time of your arrest, you were twenty years old.

When I was twenty, I was taking bong hits in a Boulder basement, listening to Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz.

People, generally speaking, are pretty stupid at the age of twenty. I know I certainly was. And I imagine that you were, too.

To be honest, I think you might have set some kind of record for misguided youthful indiscretion. If there were some sort of measuring device that could calculate this kind of thing, I’m almost certain that you’d rank right up near the top.

A lot of my friends lost their shit in college, but nobody grew a beard and moved to Afghanistan.

Kindest regards,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA

P.S. Forty is the new twenty.