This Great Society - Writing

 

 
Illustration: Trevor Leyenhorst


Caroline Cooper: New to America
Illustration: Trevor Leyenhorst

 
 

              My landlord settled an outstanding electrical bill with pot. So I sat on the fire escape and smoked and got high and ate the fat off a duck soup. I listened to my elderly neighbor. The landlord said this guy was crazy, had been in and out of prison and rehab, “you name it.” So here I could listen to him and eat fat and get high and be aware that some people might have it all worse. I blew pot smoke his way, but the windows were sealed and there was no getting in or out.
              I put my passport in a kitchen drawer. My driver’s license had expired years ago, which was just as well. The photo on the license was more than 15 years old now.
              I walked down the street. No plans for dinner, a vague sense of where the subway was, a stack of savings in the bank. That was it. I bought some oranges and some cleaning solution and sat against a white wall of my empty apartment and ate oranges. And when I got tired of that, I got up and cleaned the floor with my cleaning solution. When I got tired of that, I went to sleep and when I woke in the morning, feeling hungry, I ate some oranges.
              There were no right angles in the apartment and the floor sloped toward the street. One wall in the bedroom featured a life-sized drawing of a naked woman. The word “Kinky” was plastered everywhere. I paid cash for the place within ten minutes of seeing it.
              I ate another orange. After a lot of oranges and floor time, interspersed with crackers and glasses of juice, I received a letter from the gas company:
              “The readings we’ve obtained from your gas meter for the referenced account do not show any usage,” the letter read. “This is a matter of concern to us since you may have stopped using our gas service or our meter may not be working properly. We look forward to resolving this problem as soon as possible.”
              I went for a walk. I bought a coffee and it cost four dollars. I took it to go and walked into afternoon wind. The next thing I knew my four-dollar latte had flattened to a one dollar cup of joe. Must remember to get things for here, I thought. Rather than to go.
              I was trying not to think about money and also trying not to smoke, so next I bought a pack of chewing gum that was flavoured like a mixed drink and cost only a dollar twenty-five. It really seemed to me that I was chewing a big, gooey wad of emasculated alcohol.
              A series of homemade flyers with a tear-off phone number went up around the neighbourhood. The flyers were printed with this sentence: “I remember every word you said to me.”
              I started to see a man from Hong Kong. He was an architect and he worked downtown. “I am the king of Chinatown!” he announced, trotting me down the street. “Now let’s grab a coffee.”
              What was I doing on this hopeless walk, this endless drivel with this nice guy destined for some other boy, some alternate experience to which I wouldn’t have any long-standing part? I wished we would skip this pretense, the trivial requirement-encrusted stepping-stones. Our conversations flew right over our heads and into the atmosphere, never once hitting the mark. We had dinners and cups of coffee. We went for walks and drank. I would have just as soon done all that alone. The man wore a long coat and held my hand.
              When I took a part-time babysitting job that same week and got paid four hundred dollars, I tucked the money so deep into my pocket I could walk the city for days, observing the light in the sky and the windows and all the fancy things to buy. Take this alligator skin wallet, for example. Or that five-course tasting menu. But then I was inside my empty apartment again and there were bills and groceries and the cold handshake of unemployment and then I was down to one hundred twenty and then to sixty dollars and then to the very last twenty, which I blew on a taxi and a drink. And then it was gone.
              I showed up the following week for more babysitting and more four hundred dollars. Even though I held it together, the mother smelled vodka on my breath and fired me on the spot. She was not wrong. I told her she was wrong. I made a determined little face at the child who laughed. I saw myself out the door and heard the hard click of locks when I wasn’t doing anything more than just waiting for the elevator.
              I walked. Everywhere had me walking. I jumped out of taxis after quick jobs late at night. Oh, do you want to take this on to wherever you’re going? No, no! I said. Not at all! And I listened for that solid click of the taxi door as it slammed behind me, the rush of a gasoline-flooded engine, the strain of the tires as the vehicle pulling away. And then I slipped down into the 3 a.m. subway platform to wait.
              “Let’s eat the soup,” the man from Hong Kong said to me. “Do you want the soup?”
              In the end we were just lying on the hardwood floor in my apartment with absolutely nothing in it and nothing more to do and nowhere to go and the high was turning into sleep and I started feeling nervous because I didn’t want him to stay but didn’t know how to ask him to leave. When he was gone I got in my own bed and fell completely asleep, a sleep that exerts its own black and obliterating force and nothing more.
              In the morning we spoke on the phone. I was informed in his crispy English: “I’m selling smaller mattress and getting bigger. I’m buying such a bigger mattress.”
              This world of lotharios and lovers and cheaters and other people and bigger mattresses and soup, well, that is this world. I sat alone in the same room the following day, on the same floor with the same white walls, christening the place into a holy pureness. I sat there thinking and when I couldn’t do that anymore I took the subway up to a neighbourhood restaurant where a friend had invited me to a dinner in exchange for some work. All the people sitting around me were in fashion and design and media. Real go-getters.
              The talk went like this: He’s marrying her? … I hate my job … The chicken is good, if you like chicken …
              The governor of New York had just been brought down for patronizing a prostitution ring and the general tone of the table was frank bafflement: I can’t even tell you what she wears … He paid how much? … For her? She’s not even hot … There are models you could fuck for that price … For free … Seriously? Her?
              I said nothing and dipped my spoon into my soup as lightly as a lotus leaf atop a pond gathering water within its concave hold. I lifted it to my mouth. I was not shocked he would do that but rather amazed that more people are not caught. I am sure that the people who are not patronizing high-end prostitutes in high-end hotels are patronizing middle-end prostitutes in mid-range hotels. Those remaining, those doing none of the above, deeply wish they had the guts or the money but they don’t. So they close their eyes and lovingly imagine banging a real live hooker.
              When we ran low on wine I was glad Adam waved his hand for another bottle. That got us all in a good mood. Then he talked about a young woman he slept with the night before, a woman he met at a bar. A woman so hammered she had nearly set the couch on fire with her cigarette. I had seen a lot of these kinds of women in Jakarta. Some of them were so beautiful that, when I found out they were actually boys, I felt thrilled and threatened and honoured, even. Especially. I wanted to take one home but I certainly couldn’t afford him. And I don’t cheat. Plus, you don’t want to catch anything. But I don’t cheat and that’s the main thing.
              “You moved here from Jakarta?” a fellow diner asked me.
              “Yeah,” I said.
              “Where is that?” she asked.
              “Indonesia,” I said. “Southeast Asia.”
              “Oh! I know where that is. Jakarta. There are fires everywhere there, like on all the streets.”
              “It’s easy to start a terrorist cell there,” another person said. “The terrorist cells there are all very active.”
              Trash and terrorists. What a white-hot constellation. But I didn’t speak again and the conversation rolled on, rolling and gone, on to the next.
              By the time we reached the bottom of our drinks, Adam had fallen into a funk about his new single life.
              “You’ll be fine,” one of the women said. “You know, after a certain point, it’s much harder for women than for men.”
              “Let’s go,” someone said.
              My boxes from Indonesia arrived. I was by turns ferocious at the packing tape, the shredding of cardboard sides, and then utterly negligent, walking out for days on end. What a merciless process unpacking is. What a loose cannon shot goes off when a container of belongings arrives from the other side of the world, down to the most mundane items. Here are two staplers. Here are t-shirts. Some pens that went whispery and ink-dry on the way over. A roll of toilet paper, even. The packers had been so thorough as to pack even this roll. I imagined bringing it out, the right context. Dear dinner party, here is the Jakarta Roll, a triple-ply, woven by orphaned street urchins, to be used at your discretion. But no, nothing like that. I threw it in with the others under my sink. They all looked the same, indistinguishably white and ready to be drained away, piece by piece, down the New York City sewer.
              Three boxes of staples. I put them together with the staplers. And a pair of knee-high Balinese guard frogs. Such a randomness—guard frogs and staples.
              Check this part here. Right here. That guitar. You feel how that reaches? Spectacular. That’s the reach I was telling you about. No one can understand that reach until they listen to Neil Young, that kind of stamina. You know what I mean? I was unprepared for this, my scars un-tough and rubbing tender before coming clean because here was his old collection of Neil Young CDs marked CH everywhere for CHRIS HARDING. God, how we danced, pouring whiskey and dancing.
              And then I saw it. But it was just a wisp of paper. But everything gets my attention in these boxes.
              “Maybe if you have time, there is a chance for us of studying English like two people.” A friend’s cousin in a low-cut shirt said this to me in the bar. Chris was there. She said this not knowing who I was, who I was with. Not knowing how I was. Not knowing that a low-cut shirt on a woman in a bar means nothing to me. Not knowing I just wanted Chris back, for him to stop talking at the damn end of the bar and stop ignoring me because he knew I was there and for him to just come back so we could be, as she said, like two people. Like one person. Like before. Not knowing what this bullshit felt like. How easily it could be fixed. It was fucking easy. Not knowing that there are just a few really important choices in life and that this was one of them. We were facing one of them and Chris was making the wrong fucking choice. Which was stupid. “You’re choosing the hard way,” I said to the woman, “when there’s actually a much easier way. Don’t choose the hard way when there’s an easy way.” But she just stared at me. “You’re talking about what?” she asked.
              The top portion in Bahasa Indonesia, obscured in part by the purple stamp of an official Garuda looking to the right, looking for all the world like an underfed American eagle. The bottom half was in English:

Mr. FRANK ANDERSON, you are reporting to Polsek Menteng, Jl. Sutan Syahrir No. 1 (Menteng), Central Jakarta, Jakarta Capital Region, Indonesia, in connotation to the situation of missing Mr. Chris Harding. Mr. Harding last occasion to be seen in Jakarta was for the Facebar #85 Kusuma Atmaja, Imam Bonjol Jakarta, Indonesia, now reported as being unseen. We are finding a time for talking with you as you are coming to our office for a question. We make contact with all Harding Friends and it is eager to speak with you about Harding and Jakarta at Facebar. Please readily use the following number: 326390. It is with regards we will conduct in-person investigation for determining all locations of Harding.
Thank you for your soon response.

              “There is a chance,” she had said, “for us studying English.”
              I was gone thirteen hours after receiving the summons, by boat to Singapore then out. All thirteen hours devoted to packing, to overseeing the packers, to throwing things in. And I had thrown this slip in, I guess, beside my frogs and my staplers, his teapots and refrigerator magnets, all the toilet paper. The time of day the summons was issued, 12:17:32 p.m., appeared recorded to absurd detail. The signing officer’s name—Pak Agus—seemed a fiction.
              The whole document was a hateful black bomb, blowing my face and fingers off all over again. I scrutinized it, immobilized by the hot blast, inured to its weird language. Then I wrapped my scarf around my neck and laced up my sneakers, and I was out the door and down the street. The whole day was ahead of me and no one was waiting for me and there was nowhere in the world that I absolutely had to be.
              I kept the summons for some concrete evidence, some proof. I hadn’t had the foresight to throw it out in Jakarta. Evidence-driven, I shipped it home.
              So I grabbed it again and crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage on the street only to retrieve it again and smooth it out. I re-read it one last time. Then I shredded the paper. The purple Garuda snowed into the can.
              Tuesday afternoon became Wednesday morning and on Thursday it rained all day. On Friday, the skies cleared. And by the time I made it home (two trains and a walk among the gape-mouthed and the convicted, both) the morning sun was cresting the city. Light burnished the sky to a wide-open blue. I fell asleep.

 

 
This Great Society - Contents

 

This Great Society - Contents