As per usual, here’s a link to a Chinese nesting doll of the previous chapters:
I am not handsome. I am a fraud. A smelly fraud.
I haven’t showered in three days, a fact verified by the stench that escapes from the opening at the bottom of my hospital gown, something that smells vaguely of cumin and dairy. Olfactory is the one part of my body that hasn’t fatigued. As my mind yawns (or maybe just yells in silence), my mouth follows, opening and allowing me to consume even more of myself, my essence, to taste it even. I continue to smell my bodily odor of ignored crevices, perhaps because this is the only familiar sensation in the room. Repulsive, but at least it’s repulsive in a familiar way.
Three days. A seemingly holy number. And they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. I haven’t used a mirror in an equally long time. This is the longest I’ve been without. And the irony of dissociation caused by withdrawal from the divided self is lost in my general mental discomfort, my irritation of an organ that can’t be scratched or relieved by the human touch.
I perceive only what I can feel: the cold hollow steel of hospital bed railings against the underbelly of my arm every time I reach out to adjust my IV; the oil-sopped sponge of my scalp under my fingertips, becoming more accessible with every hair I remove; pills in my palms that roll around with the consistency of dried legumes needing to be watered. Yet also, the intangibles: dread, anticipation, nausea of the brain and stomach.
I see, but do not perceive, my torso and half of my legs – emasculated by a floral nightgown – leading down the length of a gurney-style bed toward calloused feet that cant outward like a pair of time-abused gravestones at the end, loose items scattered around these body parts as if the bed has become my single-room apartment.
I need to see my face.
If for no other reason, than to fix a habit. The mirror is my clock in life, with me glancing at it frequently throughout the day in hopeful reverence, like to live is my labor, and I’m measuring, always measuring, noting the time until my shift ends. I check in car and storefront windows, blanking computer screens, the sunglass lens of strangers (like I could ever look them in the eyes), metallic pen clips and urinal flush handles, polished countertops. Viewing all of these things in opposition to how they wish to be seen. Evading their true meaning. I’d rather look at my own face than the hypnotic hands of time.
A piece of reflective glass would set everything straight again. I look up.
But directly across from me – separated by a great white linoleum divide – is not my countenance, instead a man with his head lolled to the side and his mouth hanging open re: a beached fish, some family members standing to his left watching as if they were the anglers who caught him, reeled him in, and are now waiting for him to stop breathing. The onlookers mutter a couple of phrases, either curses or prayers. I mutter a small one for myself. What will become of the fished man? Will he return to the eggs of his mother?
He lies caught and sandwiched between two more beds, one occupied by an elderly man who sleeps restlessly, sagging skin puddled on the sheets as if he’s melted to the bed, his gown open and exposing taffy genitalia; the other bed supporting a middle-aged man whose existence is ancillary to a cough, a real brutal sonofabitch that interrupts the man whenever he tries to breathe or initiate any other forms of contact with life. He is the cough’s servant, defined by its whims. His eyes close between sessions as he gargles his own snot.
These are a few of my roommates, rough sketches of human beings. The person I described in my bed is included in that statement because that person is not me. He is a frightened child, orphaned by the dying culture that reared him, waiting on a warm meal with more of the recklessly abandoned in their shared room at the orphanage.
Light only appearing in flickers.
But what will he wait on after the meal has been consumed, when he has stuffed it all inside of him? Maybe the next meal, the only constant by which to measure his growth. Maybe he waits on some other part of the world to happen to him, to take him into consideration and behold him in its eye for judgment, unsure if his actions are substantial enough evidence for a life truly lived, with conviction, to banish him from imprisonment to life or instead the more common sequence. And whether he will be underneath the gavel when it hammers the marble.
The meal arrives – food on a tray that hovers above his lap as he sits upright, every item ensconced in a stainless steel tupperware container so that each dish is a surprise, each lifting of the lid a revelation. The consumer never knows what the dish will hide or how much. White rice is the constant, though where it will show up on the tray is a mystery better left to awed minds. One of the lids usually hides green leaves wilted by water brought to a boil. The tainted water itself rests in a separate dish, now existing as palatable soup. Another container empty except for a piece of kimchi, sitting lonely at the bottom of its dish awaiting a microscope slide, ready to be studied in isolation to better understand its absent environment. All of these items arranged around meat, which rests dead in the center without a lidded container, exposed, proud of what it is, what it was.
The meat is fish. Was fish.
He lifts clumsily with metal chopsticks. His fingers are underdeveloped, improperly disciplined for the process. He applies the chopsticks to the food as if they are pencils with which he is attempting to simultaneously write two different letters. Metal clanks on more metal. He eats this meal and the others so I don’t have to.
I’m not there. My body serves as placeholder while I’ve wandered off into my brain searching for myself. It’s a hell of a landscape. I must be careful with words here, for this is a different kind of travel narrative. “Seeking” would imply a journey less desperate. Would imply a journey embarked upon in wonder for the sake of enlightenment, as opposed to the frantic nature with which I upturn stones and shout down dark corridors, the same way a mother looks senselessly for her missing child. Or even the way I sort through memories when I can stomach them, in the same way a mother flips (even more desperately now, after a funeral and closure) through a photoalbum because maybe the right smiling face could restart a life.
I could will that face into existence if only I could remember exactly how it looked, how it viewed the world.
Something about childhood seems to be key here. Only children are allowed to escape into their brains. Most adults obey the sign posted at the entrance, because they are able to read and analyze it. But even those who ignore written words and plunge onward to the portal will be denied because of their shape (it doesn’t fill the lack), will feel a certain dismay at their inability to belong. For the portal is child-sized, and the boy has been killed and buried in the subconscious. Those who ignore the sign can obviously look inside the portal, glimpse what exists in the realm of “was,” but good luck reducing yourself back to the correct form with plastic surgery or feel-good juices or daydream candy or the pursuit of unfettered pleasure. You’ll never quite fit.
I’ve re-lived that denial several times over the past few years, discovering each time that the boy is dead, that I made the sacrifice a long time ago and have the Cain’s mark on my nape to prove it – a mark that has supposedly been there since birth.
So why am I in here now, in a land where the dead and buried walk, and I wander among them, as an adult, frightened and small? Yet another land that seemed so large and vast as a child is actually incredibly small and suffocating when you revisit it as an adult. A land of constant corners and no straightaways, where you travel only a couple of feet before you must round another unknown bend and fear its revelation. Nothing in front foreseeable, everything behind contorted.
Is reentrance a willingness to crawl? Because I have been reduced to my knees.
A land where you are never allowed to stop moving, where your heart beats furiously somewhere behind you, at your heels, as if trying to chase you out of your own body. And you scramble around corners senselessly on all fours because stillness is not the calm before the storm but the storm itself. Despite how far you travel, nothing repeats, there is no relief of the familiar. Experience cannot be acquired, cannot be relied upon as a guide, and that makes the landscape even more terrifying despite how harmless it might actually be.
A land without fixed perimeters, where the walls seem to contract a little every time you notice them, and you notice them often, considering they’re about all you have to look at. Everything beautiful hides behind these walls, like paintings hung on the wrong side of a partition, so all you have left is a blank gallery where art exists but not for you. Walls are your art.
This is supposed to be what I wanted (seemingly what all adults want), a return to my childhood state – the environment of my brain where solace can be found from the real world outside, and the only world that exists is the one you create within. But perhaps I remembered that past state with a certain prejudice against the present, forgetting the isolation, the horror, and romanticizing the imagination as purely good, something sacred and nirvanic. When in reality the world I have created within is a funhouse of conflicting self-images.
I’ve been working toward this withdrawal my entire life, retreating in my cowardly way from conflict and lesser grades of human contact, retreating inside where no one can reach me, despite sincere efforts, and now that I’ve finally made it, I want out. I want out so badly. Yet there are no doors, only walls. Walls against which my fingernails scrape their own cuneiform, a chorus of soprano screeches howling through my head as each cuticle carves the same symbol down the length of the wall. From my position on the floor, it’s really a feeble last attempt at communication, primitive in thought and execution; possibly – at the action’s very core – an attempt to carve a doorway. No doorway will appear, though. The skull is too thick to concede to human renovation. I must remain in the mausoleum of my mind, where escape is nothing but a theistic dream of egress or colossal floods that take away and renew. And with a blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea. Who will send me that water? My mother is a fish. I know not what I am, only that I will sink.
The hospital room maintains its feel of an orphanage. A TV placed at the head of the room by the window flickers blue light, its electric fire growing brighter as the day outside dims, almost as if time itself is blowing on the flame. We the patients remain confined to the corners and along the walls, allowing the talking box to take center stage. It never tires of entertaining. A Korean soap opera plays on the screen, flashing scenes of living room romance and hospital vigils – a world not unlike our own; seemingly from another dimension the sound of these actions escapes. The only voices in the room are distilled through the speakers’ perforations. The voices are sad then angry then hysterical then calm then sad again, but they express all of these emotions in a language I don’t understand, so their pain blends seamlessly with the cheap background music – a forgettable soundtrack of three-note piano riffs and lazy violin strokes.
But even if I were to understand them, would that make their pain any more real, these actors who make their living off of people’s empathy?
I pick up an iPod from my scattered belongings on the bedsheet and press my thumb to its control pad. The screen brightens at my touch, illuminating my face with a glow much dimmer than that emitted by the television. Not enough light to read by, but enough to see the screen itself. I scroll intently through the list of musicians in search of my own soundtrack, eventually choosing Josh Ritter’s The Animal Years and forever dooming the album to the negative connotations of this moment, when I – a 22-year-old with more future in my bones than past – attempted to travel a distance of 6,000 miles with a malnourished heart and splintering brain, and ended up infirmed at an Evangelical Christian hospital in Daegu, South Korea, with Jesus crucified ornately on the purgatory-white wall above me and not a single pillow under my head to relieve the heaviness of my mind. Nothing to depend on for a pillow but the clothing off of my own back, crumpled and wedged under my neck, proffering it to the ceiling fan’s blade. Not that I would rest anyway; my mind won’t allow it. It’s too busy fleeing the present in pursuit of the future, only to encounter the future, fear it, and flee in the opposite direction.
Sleep isn’t an option. Alcohol isn’t an option. Vanity isn’t an option. I’m out of escapes.
I press play on the iPod – adding yet another noise, another voice, to my over-stimulated brain – and toss the device back on the bed among the miscellany of my identity – a passport, a notebook, an actual book, coins, cards, a fountain pen. Recently, during a major Korean holiday called Chuseok (which is a harvest festival, essentially Thanksgiving for Koreans) I asked my middle school students what kind of traditions they observed during the holiday. After first telling me with unified grimaces about a traditional rice cake (songpyeon) served relentlessly at every meal, the more talkative students began to elaborate on a custom in which they wake early in the morning, load the van as if for vacation, and travel with their families – often far away from the city – to the graves of their more recent ancestors – grandfathers, grandmothers, great uncles, estranged aunts. At the gravesites, the children and their parents clean the area around these ancestors’ tombs, pulling weeds and bagging stray garbage, and then begin laying that particular ancestor’s favorite foods and personal items on the grave. Candybars, tea, freshly cooked and steaming bulgogi, a pack of cigarettes, a favorite newspaper, Soju. Perhaps even a Yunnori game board or a badminton racket. All objects supposedly representing who the ancestor was and what he enjoyed during life (as what we consume in life often defines us).* By offering the ancestors these goods, families hope to appease them, and that – in return – the ancestors will bless the family and all of the living with a bountiful harvest in the upcoming season.
A touching concept, at its heart, one of sacrifice and renewal, where the young and vital still look expectantly to their elders for guidance, still maintain that child-like need to be provided for, and from that need blossoms a purpose for the dead and buried, regardless of its validity or whether that purpose is being fulfilled. Koreans have established a physical relationship with the dead, something more than the spectral words and thoughts we Westerners hold in such high esteem; and, even if done in vain, this annual commitment to pampering the dead as one would the living – the physical effort of preparing and laying these items on the grave – is enough.
I stare at the items on my bed and consider how accurately they represent me. Whether it’s telling that they’re mostly paper, and whether reverence still exists in the act if you have laid out the objects for yourself.
Whether this can be considered a grave.
My Chuseok arrangement contains nothing perishable, no uneaten meal with thinning plumes of steam. The food tray has been taken from the railings of my bed in my absence, and any lingering odors of vegetables or brine have wafted toward the cracked window by the TV. My bodily stench – my essence – has escaped out the window with them, and I’ve forgotten my scent, at least for the time being.
Yet something has altered the stagnant hospital room environment in my absence, something strong and present and alive in this land of death. A fragrant ghost still lingers in the visitor’s chair next to my bed. It smells of perfume I know but can’t quite place. Not that it would matter if I could. Despite the various titles and scents, all perfume smells like the past. But the way this fragrance lingers…
A nurse works on the man to my left, trying to alleviate his cough with an inhaler. Every time he hacks, she moves the inhaler to his mouth and presses a button, as if counterbalancing the force of his cough with a medicated gust of her own. I can’t imagine the turmoil in his lungs. He violently rocks himself back and forth in the bed, the preparation for and execution of the cough determining his trajectory, and she remains the statue of patience, body sculpted into a permanent pose yet face still blank, waiting with the inhaler in hand until the cough has been pushed back down into his depths and stays there.
A mother to my right performs a similar function for her son – the only real child in the room, a boy of 11 or 12. The mother is the one person in the ward who speaks some English, and she will speak to me once a day, kindly, perhaps because she recognizes a boy in need of a mother. I await those words, crave that language, that small piece of communication and understanding. Until then every day it’s pure reminiscing and mental manipulation.
Her boy gets the respirator; his air comes to him in doses. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. She turns on the machine mounted to the wall behind him (his machine is about where my Jesus is). The machine rattles and hums, building its way up to the constant drone of an electric leaf blower. The mother removes the mask and hose attached to the side of the machine and fastens the mask over her boy’s nose and mouth, hesitantly, as if she hates the motion of covering his face. He accepts whatever oxygen is given to him and looks ahead without concern, death such an abstract concept to children that they could be cradled in its very arms, and the fear – the abject horror – would be found in the parents’ eyes, and only in those eyes would the child see that he should be afraid, would he begin to cry.
When the boy isn’t learning how to breathe, he’s being visited by various family members, family members who bring balloons and cards and toys. Almost as if they are celebrating his birthday. They place the items by his bedside next to a stack of schoolwork, which he occasionally picks up and scratches with a pen, his mother reading to him from a textbook while other relatives talk among themselves or watch the soap opera. To reach pen and paper, the boy must move his arms around the tangled hose, under steel railings, through loops of plastic tubing, navigating the space about him like a puzzle more complex than the schoolwork itself. In this way he exists.
Even when not attached to his mouth, the breathing machine continues to hum along with the coughs and rumbling lungs of the other patients, while the voices from the TV perform on some higher frequency, separate from these human registers. What binds every patient in the room – aside from being male and wanting to save money by sharing a room with five strangers – are these sounds of respiratory malfunction. No one in this room can breathe. They use crude technology and stubborn will to force air into their lungs with the same violence by which air is often taken from the lungs of others – the same choking sounds, even – only to purge themselves of it with a cough and start the process anew. My unprompted gagging spells seem to be the inception of that lifetime cough.
I could breathe fine before coming to this place, but after spending time in this room, I’m convinced that I can’t breathe either. If no one else can, why should I be able to? We share the same air, after all. Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters. The other patients are bodies who have been thrown into the water. They fight as they sink. Yet I am something different. The water was created for me. I am a fish. I cannot truly sink. But the way I perceive my environment has been questioned, as if someone has asked me to drink water to subsist, and the conflict inherent in that request has yielded a complete reconsideration of how I’ve managed to exist thus far.
I beckon to the nurse that I need the breathing machine as well. She shakes her head, will not give it to me.
No, I’m certain of it. I need the machine. I can’t breathe.
I ask again with my hands, miming the unlikely gesture of a person choking himself, both hands clenching the throat, trembling. The nurse again shakes her head and says something in Hangul.
No, the mother explains. The respirator is not meant for you. You do not need it. The problem is with your (she runs her hand up and down her hip and looks skyward as she searches for the right word) liver. The problem is with your liver.
I take an expired asthma inhaler from the backpack by my bed and administer a couple of puffs to myself, as a statement, because the action itself is an obsolete habit and offers little consolation. I then toss the inhaler onto the bed with the other symbols of my identity and recline on my clothing mound, gazing at the window. Whatever view it could offer is tainted by streaks of rain and darkness. In place of the absent world, the TV offers its light, welcomes me with a commercial – that thirty second glimpse of what I could become. The ad is for a vacation spot, some tropical island off one of South Korea’s many coasts, and the image that lingers on the screen is that of a tree – a palm – on the fringe of the island, leaning out toward the ocean as if to offer it shade but not touching it, as a beautiful young Korean couple plays next to the tree in nothing close to nudity, long-sleeved clothes protecting all parts of their dairy skin from the sun and straw hats to crown their silken heads,** their dancing feet eroding the sand at the tree’s base – roots still buried but gaining exposure – while the water laps thirstily several meters away, the sea flicking its many tongues out at the sand but never allowed to taste the tree’s salt, what could easily be the salt of its own past; the couple’s bare feet – their only bare body part, really, other than their hands and smiles – kicking sand into the ocean as they play, feeding it more of the same, while the sun condenses into that acute crepuscular glint at the golden hour where it’s just another star to be pointed at. And then the image of a cartoon radish, dancing across the kitchen countertops of an applauding real-life family, with a smile on its face that might be a blind person’s artistic rendering of happiness.
The room would be completely dark if not for the TV, which will remain on, while we are here, while we are sleeping, when we have departed. Our sun, our moon; our black and blue sky. In its residual light I watch an air bubble in my IV tube sink slowly, traveling down through the clear solution and clouds of escaped blood toward my tapped vein. Bubbles aren’t supposed to sink. Yet logic and reality follow forked paths when traveling; this bubble sinks like a pumice stone. It has chosen its path, and that path is downward. I do not fight. I await the pain of the air’s entrance into my blood.
* The dutiful bereaved make their offerings based on the assumption that the ancestor is the same person in death as he was in life, maintains the same hobbies and tastes, ignoring altogether the variables of reincarnation or the possibility that no afterlife exists (students weren’t keen on my question of What if their grandfather was reincarnated as the pack of smokes they placed on his grave? preferring instead to accept the tradition’s taxing standards at face value and not complicate things any further; also preferring not to extend their 18 hours of daily class time only to humor a Waygook who spends roughly three hours per day in the classroom).
**Koreans wear more clothing to the beach than they would to work, because – like seemingly all countries outside the United Tanning States of America – light skin is considered the purest form of humanity, with darker tones often being the pigment of the poor or socially ignored.