The red apple

Archive for the category “Slice of life”

Love and War

“What do you know about life” he sneered at me. “How old are you anyways?”

“19, sir” I replied.

“19. You know what I was doing when I was 19? I was killing people. I was fucking girls. I was Alive!” He reached down and adjusted his wheelchair. He motioned for me to lean in. “I was serving my goddamn country” he hissed. “And what are you doing at 19 years old? Nothing! Coming here, talking to homeless people.”

I bared a fake smile. “I’m trying to do some good things I guess.” I handed him a sandwich we had wrapped back at the church.

Sarcasm dripped from his voice. “Good things. You don’t know good until you’ve done evil things in the name of ‘good’.” He rolled a cigarette between his fingers, contemplating smoking it. “At nineteen years old, your life is ahead of you. You’re at the best point in your life. Look at me.”

My eyes had wandered across the street. An older homeless woman, skinny as a stick, stood at the stop sign, waving her frail hands at the cars driving by, weaving a red scarf through the air like a flag raised over a conquered battlefield. She was soliciting sex.

I turned my eyes back to the crippled veteran as he commanded. His wrinkled skin, the thick, green military style jacket, the whiskey on his breath. He was a different creature than I. A man who had loved and fought. By any measure his life should have been counted as a full life. A lover and a fighter, a sage man who has seen the glory of better days. But sitting before me was a man more worn down than the donated jacket draped over his shoulders. The unwashed hair that must not have felt clean water in years. The sum of his appearances were mild however, compared to the bitterness in his voice. This was not the image of a content life.

“I’m a native american. We’re a warrior people. I joined the US army because this is the best fucking country in the world. And I wanted to serve it proudly. They sent us to Vietnam. Do you know the feeling of looking a man in the eyes, and pulling the trigger before he does? Blowing his damn head off. Putting bullets into a man’s chest. I didn’t want to do it, you know?” his eyes searched mine for redemption. Then he whispered, “…but I had to. I had to shoot him before he shot me. Or shot my friends. It changes you, knowing that someone is dead because of you. Knowing that you took someone’s life, and knowing that it ended then and there, at your hands. And the blood…” he trailed off.

I didn’t know what to say to the man. He was right by all counts. I knew nothing, compared to him.

“But look at me now, I’m old. I’m useless. You…” he jammed a bony finger at me. “…you ever slept with a woman before?”

I shook my head, embarrassed.

He chuckled. “You’re a virgin?” he uttered. “Even more useless than I thought. Then you know nothing at all. Sex, oh it is a beautiful thing.” He smiled and closed his eyes. “The girls that I’ve been with… I’ll tell you, when you have sex, you see heaven.”

He stopped when he noticed how uncomfortable I was. I, standing there, listening to a homeless Vietnam war veteran discuss the sex life of his better years.

“There’s nothing wrong with sex, you know,” he said. Before I could object and tell him I never said it was, he asked, “You’re not a homo are you?”

“No, no, definitely not. Believe me, I like girls. I just haven’t had a chance to find the right one.” I hastily replied.

“Good. Because when you find a beautiful girl, that changes you too. You become a better person. ” He drifted into his thoughts.

A wiry black man approached us wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt. “Hey, you still got that stuff we bought? I want my share right now. I’m gonna go get high over there if you wanna join me.” he asked the veteran.

“Can’t you see I’m talking to this young man right now? You should be respectful around him. He’s here trying to do us some good, give us some food. You better watch your mouth around him, you hear me?” he barked to the tall junkie.

Looking at me, the junkie looked sincerely sorry. “My apologies, sir.”

I nodded. “No worries.”

The junkie walked off.

“Look, kid. All I’m trying to tell you is that you don’t know much. Not as much as I do at least. You haven’t seen the things I’ve seen. You might have learned them, or read about them, or heard about them, but life… Life is so much bigger than that. You’re trying to tell me about Jesus, and tell me how I should live my life. Look, I appreciate the sandwich, but you need to know that your whole life is ahead of you. Don’t miss it. I appreciate you trying to tell me about the gospel, trying to save my soul. But young man, I know who God is. And He sure as hell knows who I am. I’ve lived my life. It’s time for you to live yours.”

He thanked me again for the food and the conversation. Then he rolled his wheelchair off, to find the tall junkie

Three Cherimoyas

What does it take to know a city?

To know a city, is to know mankind. Our species is a story that is told over and over on every corner of this globe, unable to escape the fundamental longings that drive us. Like a fish longs for water, or a bird longs for the sky. We are driven by desires, and time and time again, we return to our carnal selves. Underneath the clothing, the flesh and sinews; underneath the name and title, we are nothing more than our primal desires, wearing the skin of the land.

There’s a part of Los Angeles that feels the breeze of the eastern winds. For many people, Chinatown is just another segment of the map, another discolored stain on the rug that is the City of Angels. Like its eastern muse, Chinatown is overpopulated and crowded. Narrow alleyways packed full of tourists, locals, and stragglers wandering through the town. These alleys are lined with vendors in their tiny stalls, peddling anything from fake designer t shirts to knives and bongs. Jade trinkets tinkle in each miniature shop, assuring you that it harnesses the ancient luck of authentic Chinese legends. You could flip any product upside down and find a “Made in China” sticker, if that vendor was honest enough to leave the sticker on. The once great dragon known as China, has been tamed so that its grandchildren could work in factories and churn out trinkets for the whims of the West.

The shop owners tell a story of their own, with their faces. In all likelihood, this shop is their life. It is their livelihood, clustered here with hundreds of others. No sign or title, no name above their shop. Impossible to find again in the maze of ever shifting faces. Their shops reminded me of the American dream. In their weary eyes, they told the tale of a journey. They looked like immigrants who may have come here yearning for the American dream, but upon arrival, decided it was too expensive, and settled for a meager life. And so every morning, they reported to their own shop, and repeated the phrase “two shirts for five dollars”. Over and over, day after day, week after week, until unbeknownst to them, some banker in Europe makes a decision that causes cotton prices to rise. Then they learn a new phrase. “Two shirts for six dollars”. I felt a sense of awe towards their stamina, their resilience. They had no names, no face, and no voice. Yet on their shoulders stood Chinatown in all its glory, as well as the rest of the great Los Angeles.

I ventured into Chinatown with two friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon. There, we perused the shelves of miniature bamboos and toys, the trinkets and souvenirs, taking in the sight and smell that was the LA Chinatown. We shifted through the masses like three apples in a turbulent ocean. Finally, we reached a quiet corner of the city where we took a breath and stood in the sun.

As we looked around, we noticed an old Chinese woman selling fruits by the stairs. She had no storefront, no shelves. There was no shop, simply an old woman who found an empty space on the ground, and began selling her fruits. In fact, I was willing to bet she had no license or other forms of legitimacy for her fruit business. To the city of Los Angeles, she was a ghost, sitting in a forgotten corner of Chinatown. She had her entire inventory on the concrete before her feet. A box of Lychee fruit, some citrus fruits, and a box of Cherimoya fruit. I could only guess how long she had to sell all of these fruits before they went bad in the smog filled city air, and with those fruits, her livelihood for the week. My friend remembered that she needed to bring home some Lychee for her mom, so we went to the old woman to purchase fruits.

I crouched and inspected the Cherimoya. The Cherimoya is a very unexpected fruit to us westerners. I’ve only had it once in my life before seeing it that day. I still remembered my first time seeing the Cherimoya fruit. It was in Taiwan, when I was a child visiting my grandfather. He stopped at a street vendor like I did, and began selecting Cherimoyas. Having never seen a Cherimoya before, I confused them with dreadful Artichokes after a quick glance. But my grandfather told me to trust him as he picked out a bag of ripe, green, scaled fruits. When we got home, he grasped one with both hands and split it wide. He revealed a fleshy white fruit bound around black seeds, a simple and sweet fruit that tasted amazingly like candy. “You have to pick the good ones”, he told me, eyes fixed on the fruit in his hand. “These are a native fruit to Taiwan.” I told him I had never seen this fruit before, and I was amazed at how sweet it was. My grandfather chuckled, happy to show his grandson another bit of this world.

I told the old Chinese lady behind the stairs that I wanted 3 Cherimoyas. I lifted three fingers to punctuate my point, elucidating my broken Chinese. She placed the three Cherimoyas on a scale. Two point three pounds. She ran the numbers in her head. “$5.25” she told me after she calculated it.

I handed her six dollars and tried telling her to keep the change. She didn’t seem to understand, so I explained slower in my broken Chinese that I didn’t need the change. She seemed to appreciate the gesture, but still was hesitant to let me leave having paid more than she asked, even if it was only a few cents. She grabbed a handful of Lychee fruits and slid them into my bag for free. Her integrity surprised me. Here, in the heart of Chinatown, was an old, hard working, and honest Chinese woman who savored the value of a fair trade. In her squinted eyes, and hunched back, a certain wisdom glimmered, and I had the vague sensation that she knew far more about this world than I did. Perhaps she was more than the heart of Chinatown. Perhaps she was the soul of the city.

We plunged back into the darkness of the market, pushing and shoving through the crowd to get out. We heard cymbals and drums, and the clanging of traditional Chinese New Years music. A tiny parade of about six teenagers were performing a Chinese New Year ceremony to bless the local shops, in exchange for tips from the shop owners. They were in full regalia, leading a faux dragon behind a masked monk. As they danced through the narrow aisles, tourists and shoppers swarmed around them, snapping pictures on their phones and cameras, smiling excitedly at witnessing this pivotal Chinese experience. The three of us watched with intrigue. Suddenly, my friend felt a tug on her purse, and when she looked down, it was opened and her wallet was missing. While we were entranced by the display of culture and tradition, someone had snatched her wallet.

After the cursing and the feelings of helplessness, we called the bank to cancel the credit cards. I looked up and saw the setting sun. The golden rays spilled over graffiti splayed walls, over tarp and tin buildings, tall business parks and urban apartments. The sun was setting on another day in Chinatown, where the human will to live took another form and wore the mask of culture. Life spoke another language in this town, one that had the subtle dialect of money, carried by the eastern winds. This was another part of Los Angeles where dreams lived and died, and where people strove to get by, one way or another. We witnessed the two sides of a city that day, both of them faceless, but more real than we could ever imagine.

And so I ask again. What does it take to know a city? Perhaps it is to taste its fruits, regardless of where it was grown, whether it is sour or sweet. It is to hear its language, whether it has a voice or not. It is to be robbed by it, yet still stand in awe of it. But like the Cherimoya, you must choose to see that it is good, and venture forth.

Traffic

Damn.

Five lanes, and no one is moving. Four o’clock on the interstate seems to be a witching hour that exposes the soul of the city. In this city of Angels, everyone seems like a demon.

My sweaty palms slip off the steering wheel and rest on my knees. The car in front lurches forward, and a minivan cuts in before I could move. I stopped caring about getting cut off a while ago, and now stare at the dusty car in front of me with an apathetic eye. Somewhere down the line, I hear a loud honk.

This road was a portrait of America. A road full of people, packed into their individual compartments, tugged along by one promise or another. All of them chasing a dream of being home, of being anywhere else but here. I suppose it goes to show that when everyone races for their dreams, they only share the nightmare of a gridlock. Everyone was coming from somewhere different. Office dwellers getting off from their 9 to 5, racing home to a cold dinner and an 8 hour nap before returning to their suit and tie cage. Minivans with kids in the back, exhausted from some after-school practice. Truckers sedated by the everlasting spirit of the road. Here, people were coming back from building their dreams.

The American dream is a road. It promises to take you somewhere, but everywhere you look, you find only the dismayed stares of the transient. We cling to this promise like rubber clings to asphalt on a summer day in Los Angeles. We insist that it’s ours, and lay claim to it like we do to the strip of black between the dotted white lines. But so often, we forget that the road is a force. The road is a flow that we are subjects to; no more kings of this road than moths are of the wind.

And so in these listless eyes, I see myself. In their seething anger, their shifty suspicions, in their desolate desperation.

We leave the day behind with the promise that night will bring solace. But the smog from our cars keep the stars from shining each night. Traffic is a moment of hope, in which hundreds of city-dwellers unify for one drive. Banding together for the practice of individuality, we find ourselves living this narrow contradiction.

Someone moves a few inches. Someone honks. God.Damn.Indeed.

Absolution

There’s a place in Mexico where the dust swirls in a very particular way. Where the sun tilts a glaring face at it from all angles of the sky, baking the earth. It’s an arid desert land, tilled by migrant laborers and farmers. It’s not too unlike other dusty slums south of the border, where the men work all day so the kids can watch their mothers hang the laundry under a dry Mexican sun. I was ten years old when I visited this little town, my first time south of the border.

I was just a kid. My mind thought about the things of God as much as I thought about how fast an ant could crawl, or how far I could hurl a stone. I knew nothing of the divine, nor did the divine disturb me. Divinity. Divinity was the fruit at the top of the tree, just beyond my reach. Nonetheless, God was the reason I was here in Mexico. I had come with my church group, to preach the gospel, and deliver supplies.

Rocks tumbled before my toes as I walked through their town. I strayed between their houses, inspecting the walls they had built for shelter. Through the rusted tin walls and crumbling cardboard, I saw an occasional chicken, tied to a post, waiting to be slaughtered for dinner. The floors were bare dirt. Their homes were a simple affair. Children’s eyes, not much younger than me, peered out from the shadows, watching me walk by under the noontime sun. I was in the light, as they were in the dark.

A little girl ran up to me. Urgency was in her eyes.

The air burned with a certain kind of grace that day, the kind that makes a sinner scowl in the dusty wind.

She pointed back towards her ramshackle house. Her mother stood at the door, cradling a baby in her arms. She waved to me, beckoning me to come over. Another boy from my church came to my side to see what the commotion was about, and together we went to the mother.

“My baby is dying”, my friend whispered the English translation from the desperate mother’s lips. The mother had tears in her wrinkled eyes. She lowered the baby boy. He had a glazed look on his face, where he should have been full of life and movement. “The doctors say he has a tumor.”

She pointed to the massive lump on the side of the baby’s head. Stitches lined the bump. “The doctors performed surgery before, but the tumor came back… even worse.”

My throat stifled a choke. I, in my infinite immaturity, in my inexperience with mortality, now stood at the face of Death. I was a child, and the vast expanse of eternity now stood before me. For the first time, I faced the window beyond this life, and peering into the darkness, I had nothing to say.

“Please, can you pray for my baby? Perhaps God will heal him.” Her voice wavered.

What did I know about God? Was I now a qualified spokesman for the infinite Deity that created all existence? Was I now a salesman of solace, a preacher of peace? Oh lord, if there was ever a moment I wanted to see God, it was then and there, at that very moment. My eyes followed the stitches on the infant’s head. His eyes were peaceful, his chest gently rising and falling with each breath. His blanket was brown from all the dust in that god-forsaken town. I had no choice but to call out to God. And oh how deeply I prayed that God would hear me. The god of my Sunday School stories, and of my bedside prayers. The one who granted me action figures on Christmas, and helped me on my math test. I tried to conjure this same god in that dusty town in Mexico.

I nodded.

I lowered my head and reached out my hand shakily, resting it gently on the infant’s shoulder. The mother, and everyone around me quickly followed suit. “Dear Lord,” I whispered.

When I prayed as a child, I would have two voices. I would speak out a formal prayer with my lips, but in my mind and heart, I begged and pleaded for god to speak to me. This silent voice inside was the most earnest one. It had the innocent yearning for substance, and curiosity for the truth. I slammed each word of my prayer into my heart, hoping, wishing, that somehow these words would go to the Creator. That he who could heal, would come and heal.

In that moment before I opened my eyes after the prayer, the entirety of the divine must have flashed before me. In that single moment, that mere second before my eyes opened, the fullness of God must have stood before me. For, if I, as a child, praying for another cancer inflicted infant could not find god behind my closed eyes in that moment, then where could God be? If the decadence of the heavens was not revealed to me in that moment, in that dusty town in Mexico, then who could that glory be saved for?

I yearned more than I ever could. I begged, and begged. Hating myself for not being able to beg harder. For not being able to hear God, for not being able to issue his grace like the soothsayers of earlier times. Because an infant’s life was now in my hands. I was the spokesman of god, a god that I believed in, and had come to preach about. I was here on behalf of a god who I had claimed could heal their infant. The hope was suffocating.

There’s a dusty little town in Mexico, where I met my God. In that little town, I came to know myself, and my place in this world. There’s a dusty little town where I found absolution.

Tyranny of the Urgent

There was something poignant about this lady. Something that struck me as melancholic. The way she stood by herself, as though she wasn’t supposed to be alone. The way she stared at the picture on the wall, intrigued by the simple image.

The simplicity of the moment tugged at something elaborate.

A stranger walked by and brushed against her frail shoulder. She stepped aside and apologized with a wide grin. He went his way, and her gaze returned to the painting.

Outside, the warm sunlight swirled with the Springtime winds. A bird darted through the withering leaves.

There is a certain elegance to silence, only heard by those who refuse to speak.

Flight of the June Bug

I can always tell when summer arrives. It is a season that comes subtly, without banners or announcements. To me, summer comes with the flight of June bugs. They appear in the warm night air, like messengers of the dark. Their lives are marked by futility, as they launch themselves at the artificial light that men have placed in their homes. They crawl over window screens, begging to be closer to the light, as if they never wanted to be in the darkness in the first place. But when the day begins, they scamper away to the nearest crevice and shade, hastily fleeing from the kingdom of the Sun. In the cool and moist soil, the June bugs bide their time, awaiting the veil of night, when they can once more pursue light, like vain heroes chasing an imaginary treasure. These overgrown insects have a strange hint of humanity about them, as they are arduously drawn to these artificial lights.

They wax and wane like the season, welcomed by the warmth of summer, and driven away by the cold of the coming fall.

An insect like the June bug will never be known for their grandeur. There will never be a legend about a particular June bug; valor and fame will never be associated with this armored creature. Their presence will always be nothing more than an undertone of summer, like a certain scent that someone leaves when they depart from a room. But does the June bug inherit anything more than futility? Can their existence be discounted as meaningless, and not worthy?

In the end, the June bug exists, and their existence is perhaps the greatest argument for their place in time. Though they stay only for a time, they return the following year, an entire specie’s resilience played out through generations.

Summer seems to be a futile time. A time of contemplation, that if left to fester, can lead to remorse. It is also a time of life, of growing and slowing down. Summer to me seems like the night, when men withdraw into their souls, only to emerge and chase lights again.

Indecisive creatures. The only light they have in their natural world would be from fire or the sun, both of which would result in their demise. But with Man’s creation, they have artificial light which they hurl themselves at, like suicidal rats. Are they creatures of the darkness that desire light, or are they creatures of the light imprisoned by the dark?

They are bound by futility, but then again, summer is a temporal time, when eternity coils into a season, and their world is bound only by their time alive. Thus, is a life futile if it had its time and place, and has come and gone, like a season that repeats itself?

Checkout Counter

Impatience was in the air like a cheap fragrance that claimed to be from France. Rows of people clutched the handles of their shopping carts restlessly, like they had somewhere to be, as others had clearly given up, by the dead look on their faces. Counter seven finished one customer. As the customer who resembled a walrus gathered her products back into the cart and waddled away, the clerk summoned the next customer with a loud “Next!”

I counted the items in my hand. Two T-shirts for eight dollars, some trash bags, and a few binders. I qualified for the fast lane. I stepped into line, behind a man and a woman. As I stood in line, I heard the man complain loudly to the woman about the self checkout counters being shut down. “How stupid, that they don’t even have working self checkout counters. What’s the point then?” The woman nodded and began paying for her stuff. He looked around impatiently, as if the injustice of the self checkout situation would rise to the ceiling like smoke, and attract the attention of justice loving patriots. The fast lane simply wasn’t fast enough for him. He turned, and his belly nearly hit the magazine rack.

A few seconds later, another woman embarked on the same quest as I had, to find which line would service her exit from the store fastest. She went by the self checkout counter first. She looked up at the indicator light above the checkout counter, which was off, telling her that it was not available. A puzzled look crawled across her face, as she stared at the dark light dumbly, trying to decipher why a self checkout light could be off. The man in line saw her, and like the true hero he was, called out to tell her that the self checkout lines were all inactive. “The self checkout isn’t working right now. I dunno why.” She acknowledged it, and slowly came to the back of our line. The man then muttered under his breath, “says the guy who has only one thing to buy.” Discontent dripped out of each word, and his eyes crawled with dissatisfaction.

The shared confusion about the automated checkout emanated from the people around me. They wanted to pay for their things, and be on their way, without wasting their time. Standing in line with some minimum wage clerk was squandering the time they could be spending in front of their televisions and microwave dinners. They had better things to do. They wanted to leave. But they could not understand. The system which was made to facilitate their efficiency and pleasure was broken. They could not understand why the light was red, and not green.

When it was the turn of the man in front of me, he eagerly asked the leathery woman behind the counter why the self checkout wasn’t working. The elder woman shrugged, wearing a giant smile nonetheless; as this younger fat man asked her why the machine made to take her job wasn’t working. “The computers crashed, and we haven’t been able to get it up,” was her reply as her hands quickly swept each bar code over the laser scanner.

“It would be soo much easier,” the man declared, “Someone really should take a look at that thing.” What a revolutionary spirit. He cared so deeply about the things that matter so much. Bless his soul.

When I finished paying for my things, I grabbed my plastic bag and bid the lady at the counter farewell. She said goodbye cheerfully, while ringing up the next customer. Discontent is a plague. I walked past the entrance as I left the store, and saw the signs that beckoned customers with promises of cheap products. I saw the prices that excited me at first, as they promised to make me complete for so much less, leaving me with more money to make me even more satisfied the next time I come. I saw how incomplete everyone was, leaving the store. The transition from the store to the parking lot was a rude one. The bright glaring fluorescent lights that filled the store before now became a dark, star studded night sky. It was warm, but I felt cold.

The last light I passed as I disappeared into the darkness of the parking lot was mounted in the ground, pointed up at an American flag. The red white and blue cloth drooped sadly on a pole, lifeless in the still night air. It was well lit, a proud monument of this fine American institution. Against the black sky, it hung lifelessly, waiting for day to come, a day when strong winds would fill it with vigor, and it would wave furiously once more.

Resting in peace

The sky was gray today. I went hiking with my parents. As we got out of the car where we parked and began walking up the steep trail, the cold ocean air tugged at our clothes from the frothy shore next to us. Joggers in windbreakers and shorts bounced past us going both ways. Walking towards us, two men stopped us and asked us a question. One man dressed as though he just left an office cubicle, which seemed so out of place here surrounded by joggers and tourists. The other man wore a sweatshirt and shorts.

“Sorry to bother you, but are you friends of Troy?”

“No, we don’t know a Troy,” I responded. “Sorry.”

“Oh nevermind then.” He apologized, and went on his way.

My dad didn’t hear him very clearly, and asked me, “What did that guy say to us?”

“He asked us if we were friends with someone named Troy.”

“Hmm. Doesn’t seem familiar. That’s kind of strange though, just to ask a random person if we were friends of someone he knows. Maybe we look like him or something.”

We kept walking. Several minutes pass, and the next pair of people we encounter along the beach trail also stop us.

“Do you guys know where the family of the guy who just passed away are at?” One man asked us.

“No, sorry. Was the person’s name Troy? The two guys back there just asked us about Troy.”

“Yea. We’re looking for his family, they should be out here somewhere.”

“What happened?”

“On Saturday, they were in the water, and she got pulled out to sea. He went out and saved her, but she’s in a coma now. He passed away.”

“Oh man, I’m sorry to hear that. Who was she?”

“She was his girlfriend.” The first man said. Pointing to the other asian man, he then said, “This guy is the brother of his father.”

We expressed our condolences. Wished them luck on finding the family, and we were on our way up the mountain trail. Troy was on my mind. I didn’t know him, and now never will meet him. But our paths crossed, though he had already passed away, through the memory of his friends. I met him, in a sense, through others. We walked on. I wondered what Troy was like.

I walked in silence. My pace was faster than my parents, so I was always a generous number of steps ahead of them. My parents would call out to me to slow down and wait for them every once in a while. I get lost in my thoughts too easily. At one point up the mountain, my mom walked next to me. “I learned a new English saying today,” she told me.

“What saying?” I asked.

“Life isn’t always roses.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“I heard that lady in the pink say it earlier, the one who just walked past. The Middle eastern looking one.”

“So what do you think it means?”

“That life isn’t always beautiful. Sometimes it’s ugly.”

“That’s one way of interpreting it I guess.” I replied. We walked in more silence.

The trails we walked on were surrounded on both sides by flowers. Velvet, white, gold, crimson hues poured down the slopes like a technicolor oil spill. They blossomed under the rumor of Spring, because the gray skies still spoke of winter. But they blossomed nonetheless. This mountain trail was beautiful, but it had not one single rose. Thorny roses, the passing futility of beauty, the domestic wonder, the fading crimson stain.

Near the top of the mountain, I reached an overlooking point. I stood and leaned against a wooden post and watched the ocean view. The vastness of the shore stretched into the horizon, with the flower draped cliffs underneath me. My mom came and stood next to me. “I want you to know something,” she said to me.

“What’s that?”

“Even if the world ends, whatever that can go wrong, know that I’m always going to love you, ok?”

“Ok mom, sure thing.”

“So you should cheer up, honey. You don’t have to be so down all the time.”

“I’m not down, I’m just thinking about things.”

She had been asking me what was on my mind since we started walking up the mountain. “Nothing” was my constant reply.

I put my arm around her shoulder as we turned and began our descent from the mountain trail. “Mom, sometimes there’s just things that I think about. Philosophical things, random wonderings, stupid silly things. They’re just things I think about, I’m not sad. Sometimes it’s just hard to put the things I think about into words, they just belong in my mind, and I just like to think about them. So don’t worry ok? I just like to daydream.”

She laughed and agreed. My dad pointed out how I was like him, a thinker.

At the bottom of the mountain, as we walked out of the trail the same way we came in, we passed a group of teenagers and several parents on the beach. They seemed busy, assembling something in the sand with stones they gathered nearby on the beach. They seemed somber, the ones who weren’t placing stones were standing by, looking around without a smile. The adults had red eyes, as though they had been crying. When I got closer, I saw that they had written two messages in the sand with the stones. One read “We ❤ you” and the other was “R.I.P. Troy”. As I watched, the woman who looked like she had been crying the most turned, and made eye contact with me in the distance. She said nothing. Perhaps she was wondering why I watched them. Maybe I made her think of something about Troy. Maybe she just wondered if I knew Troy. She looked away. The ocean waves poured out on the sandy shores again, over and over. The sky was still gray.

Inky existence

A few years ago, I worked at a small bookstore by my house. The hours were short, and the customers were few, and much of my time there was spent in thought and silence.

One night, while working there by myself, I went to check the staff clipboard that listed our weekly schedules. On it was listed the names of the five employees, and a chart showing the different work shifts each person had that week. I saw my name printed on that list, next to all the other employees. Under that paper was another sheet that listed all the staff, and their personal contact information in case we needed to reach another employee. On that sheet, my name was written in blue ink, and my phone number scrawled next to it. I guess they wrote it on there when I was hired, instead of printing a new sheet. Above my name, the names of previous employees who have already left when they went to college were printed, but crossed out. My name looked so temporary here, in blue ink. But I was on the list.

I looked around. The store was empty. If I left, then there would be no sign that I ever existed here. Other than this blue ink on this paper. The shelves were lined with books written by famous people, old people, young people, black people, white people, all who had their faces and names plastered on the back flap of a book or two, and their words inscribed on the pages. But all I had was this blue ink. This blue ink said I was allowed to be behind the register, instead of restricted to browsing the shelves. The blue ink said I came here four times a week, for three hours at a time. The blue ink.

But if I were to quit, then my name would be scratched out from the sheet. It would only be written in the memory of my coworkers and the few regular customers who I chatted with every once in a while. The memory of people, who tend to be so very forgetful. If I stopped working there, the blue ink would be scratched out.

I put the clipboard back and walked over to the counter. Pulling open a drawer, I grabbed a permanent marker. I wrote my name on the side of the drawer, where it wouldn’t be easily seen, but nonetheless, was there. I was now there in black ink.

Promises.

We live in a world of promises. Everything is a promise. When the stoplight turns green, it’s a promise that the intersection is clear, and that you can drive across safely. When a chair is offered to you to sit in, it is a four legged guarantee that it will hold you up. When you tell your friend that you will be there for him.

But it’s the promises that are broken that always impact us the most.

When a drunk driver pummels through a red light, and smashes your car to bits and throws you fifteen feet into the air through your windshield. The red and blue of sirens reflect off the bits of glass and metal strewn carelessly across the intersection. The stoplight overhead still preaches a solid green, insensitively, as if it were blind to the life slipping away below it. Minutes pass, and it clicks to a yellow, then to a red. This is a promise that we will never forget.

A promise. Why is a promise so important to us? Because the solidarity of a promise kept assures us that the rest of existence will be that stable? Because we hate the unknown, and in a sense, a promise kept is our way of knowing the future? Because in a world so uncertain, a promise is a hope, a hope that someone will be loyal to us, true to us, and in a sense, be all that we have? Because a broken promise can shatter our world.

I remember when I was much younger, my dad sat my brother and I down and told us that our word was all we had. A promise must always be kept. He would always keep his promises to us, and we would always have to keep our promises to him. We put that to the test numerous times. As hard as it was for him, he would keep his promise. Whether it was to take us to the museum on Saturday or buy us ice cream for us after church, regardless of the rain or his exhaustion or the circumstances, his word was what he kept. And now when I look into his face, many times it is a very tired face, sometimes his brows sag with burdens, but I see in them the promises he kept. One day we went to the beach as a family. My brother and I had been in an indoors mood the whole day, and refused to leave the car. My mom and dad went down to the beach, set up the towel, snacks, umbrella, and came back to give us one last invitation. We met them with angry pouting lips and a unified “NO!” My dad opened the back door and gave us a serious look. We knew he meant business. He wasn’t letting us sit in the car for the whole day of our family vacation. At that moment, he looked into our eyes and made us a promise. He promised us that we would have a great time in the water. I looked out at the waves. I really preferred sitting in the car. But my father made us a promise, and at this point we had to trust him. We changed into our swimming trunks and trudged through the hot sand into the water. I formed in my mind the exact unhappy face that I would wear to the end of the day, just to prove how boring it was. I looked at the back of my dad’s head as we walked into the water, thinking how stupid it was to make us go play in the water. We’ll show him.

The water was more than exhilarating. Each wave was an adventure, an unpredictable roller coaster of movement. My brother and I practiced karate moves in the water, daring each other to stick our heads under water for the longest. I’ve never laughed so much, gasped a salty breath of anticipation, and ducked into a wave of wonder like that. It was without a doubt one of the best days of my life. And in the midst of it all, one moment will always be in my mind. I looked back at my dad as the three of us jumped a massive wave, and he smiled and said, “Didn’t I promise it would be fun?”

I never realized what a risk it was for him to make that promise. He didn’t know necessarily that we would have fun. He was putting all the promises he had ever made on the line by looking us in the eye at that moment, and promising to us something that was out of his control. He risked becoming a liar, so that we could know how fun it was to jump a cold, salty, ocean wave.

What promises are worth making? Only the ones that you can fulfill? What about the ones that you make, and step into the night with your eyes squeezed shut, fingers crossed, whispering to the sky a desperate plea for it to all work out as you said it would?

I know I’ve made promises knowing that I wouldn’t keep them. I’ve made some promises that I wanted to keep more than anything in the world. There were some promises that I wished so badly that I could make, but knew that I couldn’t.

The broken promises that have been made to us hurt the most. But breaking a promise hurts just as much as being on the receiving end. Because in the end, you’re left under a dark sky wondering what is real, whether you can trust yourself, and who will trust you anymore. Because you realize you’ve made this world a lonelier place.

Promises are the fibers holding together our lonely existence. Night is one promise, just as day is another. Each day is a promise we think was made to us. Tragedy is when we realize this promise never took place, and each day is not a guarantee.

I had a friend once name Winston. We met in fifth grade. He was new to our school. He was Vietnamese, and really short and skinny. He would get picked on by bullies sometimes, and I would always try to be his bodyguard or something since he was my friend. I still remember when he invited me over to hang out at his house. We sat there reading comic books for a while in his living room. The skies outside were cold and gray. We talked about things. We had a lot in common. He had a smile on his face when he said, “I have a feeling our moms will meet someday and be really good friends. That’s what usually happens.” I agreed. Our moms never met each other after that cold gray afternoon. I moved away the end of that year. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to call each other and stay friends. Now he’s nothing more than a memory to me.

Our promise is all we have, because sometimes it is the only real thing in this shadow of a world.

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