And I’m telling you, she was about to slip. She was gonna blurt everything, I could feel it. I was sitting just like I am now. You know, legs crossed at the ankle, not too much, medium smirk. I was drinking coffee, just watching her. I was holding back, that’s what I’m saying. And that’s the part that kills me. I know that bitch! She’s dying to tell me! She just can’t bring herself to spit it out! Actually that’s the part that excites me. I can admit it. Like everywhere else, the women here are inveterate liars. But here it’s like they won’t let up! No matter what, the charade must go on!
Listen, by the time I’m done here, I’ll tell you, I’m gonna write the damn book on these sluts! I was sitting there—whatever—nodding, small-talk, and like an epiphany, it was as if she could suddenly see the irony, she could see me steeped in it, Buddha-style, and that I could go on smirking for a thousand years if need be, spending money, fucking the shit out of her, and still never doubting it for a second! After all, what do we know about real girls? That’s why it was there on the tip of her tongue. Guys like us, we have an instinct with whores because it’s a symbiosis. They need us like we need them, and that’s the part she couldn’t admit. So instead, at the last minute, it’s some lame bit about how she’s had another boyfriend all this while. That she feels terrible for lying to me. And I suppose I’m playing for headway, but in my mind I’m like: Oh come on! A boyfriend! Try twenty, you bitch! Fifty! And that’s even beside the point!
I was down on the mattress, eating cold noodles, watching Malaysian Strike Force on the VCD… Like with Benoit rambling, I was only halfway into it, halfway listening, because it was a scene I’d been through dozens of times… The big showdown. The main cop vs. the Japanese bad guy. They were wearing hyperbaric suits, facing off in an air-sealed chamber flooding with poisonous gas… As with most Chinese action pics, there was a lot of eye-popping wirework involved, some hair-raising near-misses with those little combat knives… Meanwhile, Benoit had worked himself into a lather. He’d leapt out of the chair and begun to pace around the room. He was spastic, muttering to himself, thumbing through my sketchbook, through my paperbacks and comics littered on the desk, quickly tossing them aside…
You know, and that’s the irony! Tell one of these hoes you’re in love and she wants to laugh in your face. On the other hand, whenever she decides to say it, you feel forced to take it seriously in spite of yourself. No, the irony is that even here, all these girls willing to go at the drop of a hat, at the slightest whiff of a dollar, and yet still, secretly, pretending to themselves that it’s some sort of spiritual journey. And don’t act like you can’t see what I’m talking about either. You can’t name it any more than I can, but you can feel that Shangri-la, that something out there and it’s the same reason all these chicks can’t satisfy themselves working as waitresses. And you’d be in a better position to help me play this thing out if you weren’t still stuck on what’s-her-name… I mean how long are you going to stay cooped up here as if it’s the end of the world? Listen, give me one way that she was any different from the rest and I’ll leave you alone about it. Just one—but you can’t! So what’s holding you back? The memory of what could have been? Look, didn’t you say that bitch could barely speak a word of English! Come on, what were you going to do, learn Chinese? What, settle down? Meet her family? Yeah, you’re laughing, because it sounds just as bad to you! Which is exactly what I’m saying, pal, fuck that shit!
. . . .
Then later still, same cycle… Back to sleep, then wide awake, and I sat bolt upright from the mattress on the floor. I had no clock, no way of telling night from day, but because there was no excuse left, I started drawing… Pen to paper, page sideways, tracing a long curve—deep breath—and every mark I made somehow seemed to drift. I stopped. I got up and paced, I circled my spot in the corner a few times, then dove back into it… Because like jumpshots, drawn lines fall and miss… And that was my own voice, the little poems I repeated to myself, gritting my teeth, with sweat bursting through pores on my forehead… Brick, bounce, slip and bank home—then my pen skipped. I threw it across the room and took another. It wasn’t just those girls dancing behind my eyes either. Also that cloudy mess on the paper in front of me, same struggle, the same uphill battle! Then on the other hand was the truth I was actually trying to draw, which I knew meant nothing to anyone, but still so clear, so futile now, and on the page so distant that the act of drawing was like trying to forget.
Benoit was always dropping by, that was the thing and that was always how it started. I’d be in that filthy room, no windows, the walls starting to dome in on me, my heart palpitating but with the magic seeping back into my fingertips… I’d be there, pencil in hand, poised over the drawing board when all of a sudden it was Benoit, thooming at the door as if there was an army at his heels. The ludicrous part about it was that we both thought of ourselves as great somethings—as artists—as if all it took was idle curiosity to change one’s life. I was worse off than Benoit, in that I felt overwhelmed most of the time and I could never quite settle on what was driving me. Who was Ching Wren? Why did it matter? Who were all these other strobe-lit, invincible Chinese girls we imagined milling around underground, or down on empty dance floors waiting for us? Two douchebags, and yet this was the feeling, the euphoria that carried us out. And that was how we hit the streets, night after night; jogging in matched steps past the old Chinaman with his wooden cart, the benches in the courtyard, past the stone Buddha and out with a flourish onto the sidewalk to a soundtrack of trilled saxophones.
That particular night I’d just woken up when Benoit came crashing in, slamming the door shut… Then, again later, in the dead hours, beating with his fists, shouting at me through the door because I’d remembered to throw the bolt:
“HER HANDSOME AMERICAN FRIENDS! That’s what they said, pal, and that’s us! C’mon, I can hear you breathing! Blue! Blue, pal, get up! We’ve gotta get down there! Blue! Listen! This is no time to start acting funny…
Instead I drew until the walls of Jericho seemed to crash down around me, until my hands trembled and I could no longer think. Then I pushed the drawing board aside and moved about the room in a daze. I gulped the strains from a half-crushed can of soda. I turned on Malaysian Strike Force, then clicked it off again. By now Benoit was on some couch somewhere smothered in ass, and the fact that this, what I was doing, seemed like the high road was no great relief. But Benoit wasn’t the problem… I felt like screaming, breaking something, but instead I unclipped my drawing book from the board, flung open the door and stormed into the hallway. That soft, tropical sigh of rain on the roof, down the walls in pipes. Same cycle, same lump in my throat. And after a few tries I was able to snap free the rusted latch and hurl the book down through the open window.
. . . .
For whatever reason, though, I felt I owed that Chinaman an explanation… Him and his wooden cart, like a miniature temple on wheels, intricately carved with script in bas-relief, and with no other obvious function than to provide a place for him to crawl into and sleep there on the breezeway. So far, it was this old man who had been my inscrutable orient, my conscience, maybe, my Svengali, as well as an unblinking sentinel to all those limitless nights. For instance: That morning I finally picked up and left Ching Wren’s place, after all the silence had bled into too many doubts and there was nothing left but to give up, to let go, slip out while she slept, to stumble all night through the streets until I found my way back to Changking mansions with dawn spilling into the courtyard… There as always, it was the old man, not waiting, just watching, arms at ease, perched on his little stool. That morning, the same as the many times afterward when I’d have given anything for some sane word of reproach! I’d tell him that it was as if I’d been using her, I felt that way about it, only I couldn’t figure out exactly how. Then again, where was the whimsy, the sage-like smirk and knowing cadence leading into little word-poems about rustling leaves assuaging guilt? Now more than ever, when I could’ve used a Chinese sage, here was this guy, still mute, and looking pretty satisfied with himself… And how many nights, in the throes of that guilt, had I thrown myself down to sit across from him on the concrete—hoping for what, to go back in time? I’d tell him, if I could, that it wasn’t until months later I found out from my Chinese pal that her name was actually Chien Lien, and that I’d burst out laughing because it was like the emblem of how much I’d been wrong about everything. Maybe if I could get him to laugh too, or to cringe, thinking about me and Ching Wren hugging and mooning over each other, maybe then I could wash it out of my system. Or at least this was what I’d think to myself sitting across from him. While he was a rock, perched in boxer shorts, just nodding occasionally, as he always did, smoking his pipe…
I was down in the chute, the narrow chasm made where the inside facing walls from the three towers of Changking Mansions almost touched. It was still night, still wet, as I plowed around and climbed through that ocean of stinking plastic sacks. The rain was soaking my A-shirt, running down my face in rivulets. The mound of garbage was almost seven feet, some in bags, some loose, spilling from dumpsters, riding along the walls like ivy. I cut a mean swath, throwing aside bundles and rotting clumps as I made my way toward the center, because it had to be there somewhere on top… And because I’d lost count, I wondered how many nights had that old man seen my sketchbook come flying from the window on the eleventh floor, down into the chute, then hours later watched me go tearing up that mountain of garbage like a man on fire? I could feel him watching me, his eyes on my back as I found it mashed in with a sopping wad of newspapers, still half dry. The truth was that sketchbook was full of nothing but failure, and maybe that’s what I wanted to hear, that every mistake has meaning. He could have told me anything, in English or otherwise, I’d tack on the divine part, but he just stood down there on the ramp, unblinking as always and with his hands clasped, as if it was the closing seconds of some rousing event. Still no smile, no nothing, still nodding, but because it seemed like he was expecting something big I held up the book…
“Old man.” I said, “What else is there?”
UZODINMA OKEHI spent 2 years handing out zines on the subway. Wasn’t as fun as he thought. His work has appeared in Pank, Hobart,Bartleby Snopes, and many, many other places, no doubt, you’ve never heard of. He has an MFA in writing from New York University. He lives in Brooklyn. His son is 8 yrs old, smiles a lot, (too much?), and will absolutely, cross you over and drain a jumper in your face. Over For Rockwell is his first novel.
Adapted from Over For Rockwell, by Uzodinma Okehi, Copyright © 2015 by Uzodinma Okehi. With the permission of the publisher, Short Flight/Long Drive Books.