A man giving a thumbs up holds a banner that reads “We the people want to establish a new and independent state,” in Taipei’s Ximen District, on Sunday, Nov. 17. Protesters marched near a busy pedestrian mall to advocate independence from mainland China two days after The Gambian government announced it would break diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The mainland Chinese government denies having any prior knowledge of the decision.
A nurse in pink scrubs accompanies me with soundless footsteps into a room where a doctor waits behind a desk. His face is covered by a surgical mask revealing only eyes.
"If you are positive, you have to leave the country, do you understand?" the eyes ask.
I had forgotten about the island’s deportation policy. Stranded at the outpost of indecision, I sit dumb. The doctor repeats the question but his voice becomes more distant as the examination room begins to shrink smaller and smaller until it is the size of a pea that rests on my outstretched palm. I can see myself inside the miniature clinic sitting unnaturally stiff as if someone had just admonished me for my posture. I instinctively open my other palm to find another pea-sized world, my parent’s home in New Jersey where I sit on a tautly made bed in the same wooden manner. There is no meaning to glean from these side-by-side visions; they are nothing more than two Shroedinger scenarios.
"Yes" — a syringe juts into the crook of my arm, as the palm-held peas roll to the floor and vanish in the way that dropped objects tend to do — "I understand."
"Do you want to continue?" the eyes ask.
"Yes" — a warm ruby-red liquid floods a glass vile — "I do."
I have never been squeamish about needles or blood. Such horrors dull early on in an accident-prone childhood, especially for a middle child that sustained himself on platitudes for emergency-room bravery. Under stark white hospital light, seated on the crinkling paper sheets of an operating table, as machines blinked and beeped, and hairy-armed doctors stared with thrilling detachment at the gash in my thrice-scarred face, I learned that we’re only scarecrows. Flesh is our cloth, blood is our hay, and with beady button-eyes, I watch the slow drain of stuffing.
The vile is full. I look up. The doctor is no longer before me, but a second masked nurse in pink.
“Take this to fourth floor,” she says, then flies away like a pink crow.My friend meets me in the hallway. I show him the vile and we exchange confused looks. How strange that a hospital would trust a patient to carry the sample. “What if a patient drops it?” he wonders. But I have something else in mind.
Deep down, I think we all know who was behind the recent explosion in Taoyuan of Florentijn Hofman’s supersized bathtub toy: Rubber Duck’s evil gay twin.
There have been moments lately when I walk around Taoyuan on some overcast day like today, and overhearing a snippet of jibberish, or being handed back my change with an obsequious bow from a convenience store clerk, or walking through a night market and seeing some claw deep-frying in a pit of gurgling oil, or walking past a shirtless old man chewing beetle nut outside a smoking temple, and all that was exotic is amiss, I start to wonder, what am I doing here?
"You’re homesick," a friend said flippantly like it was closed case.
"But how can I be homesick if I don’t want to be home?" I asked.
I knew it was something else, but I didn’t press the issue. My friend was ornery having just returned from a six-hour misadventure after falling asleep on the high-speed train and ending up at the second to last stop. Listening to his non-story about all the things he didn’t do while thumbing around in a strange train station, waiting to get back on his rightful course, I realized exactly what I was feeling.
Or is this just how people get on overcast days in October? I tried to think back to a time when I felt some long stretch of certainty about my proper place along the space-time continuum. Being honest with myself, there haven’t been a whole lot. Of course, there was childhood but that was for a lack of knowing any better. There was the rush of walking into my first unpaid newspaper internship in New York, thinking: this is where life begins, chapter one. But that feeling was on loan — a low interest-rate student loan. Such is the life of a nomad, I guess. There have been flightier moments when I experienced something like universal harmony. Most of them involve me kicking my feet in laughter and struggling to keep wine from spilling on my white shirt at a friend’s wedding … remember Heather’s wedding? As the sun was setting on the putting greens where the four of us had stolen out on a covert mission, I loosened my tie and rolled up my shirt sleeves to the elbow, and you kicked off your heels, and we lay in the grass in our nice fine clothes. We must have heard our names called because we were so stupidly happy there. Brushing off the grass, we staggered back to the tent where the band was playing, and your dresses swirled as you turned.
I wonder, while riding the elevator up to my apartment, am I supposed to be here? I laugh at the privilege of asking such a question, as I enter my studio on the seventeenth floor. I walk to the window and look out at the gray city as if a cityscape knew anything other than about staying put. It did not. Although I noticed that one of the plants on the windowsill is dying — about a week’s worth of death has set in — and there’s no one else to blame. And yet, the dilemma is much the same: nurse it back to health or toss it out and start over?
Summer is like the childhood friend that spends the vacation bunked up at your house. She gets to work occupying all the empty spaces that obedient young people hope to fill in one summery stretch. Day by day, her seductions cool though. She bogarts your life, flirts with your brother, and one day you catch her rifling through your sock drawer and it will plague you until you are gray what it was she was looking for that afternoon (because she knew that wasn’t where the jewelry was). Finally, a wood-paneled station wagon arrives. After a wooden goodbye, summer leaves down the gravel driveway, kicking up dust, and you feel nothing but relief.
September is a freckled friend from down the street. Months ago, you thought she was goober, but now you want to kiss her for being so kind and true. Twirling a soft tuft of her auburn hair, you tell her in roundabout ways that you love her, and you do — until the end of fall; then once more when you’re grown and maybe she’ll have stuck around to know.
The joy of moving to a new place, whether that place is around the world or around the corner, is watching it slowly filling up with things. You hardly notice it happening until one day everything is brimming over like a cup left outside in a storm.
Over the past months of Taiwan’s rainy season, drip by drip, my tiny world that once fit inside a seam-busted suitcase had gotten all stocked up: clothes in the closet, socks in the drawer, plants in the window, books on the shelf. They aren’t just objects accumulating, but proof validating that a person can go almost anywhere in the world and not only survive, but make themselves right at home. And learning this about myself makes me far less vulnerable to spills.
A protester waves a flag emblazoned with an image of Taiwan yesterday outside Taipei’s Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. In the wake of Japan’s recent nuclear disaster, a strong grassroots effort is growing to block construction of a fourth nuclear power plant near Taiwan’s capital city.
On a misty afternoon, a crowd of revelers in white and yellow rain gear gather at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (國立中正紀念堂), in Taipei, Taiwan, for a celebration of Buddha’s birthday.
"Clear your mind, not by pushing thoughts out, but allowing them in and letting them flow out like water running through you, over you, under you." — Yoga teacher
With a little time and luck, a person missing in the vast physical world can always be found. But when you’re lost inside yourself—where excuses dredge endless channels spiraling outwards—you can remain lost forever.
Unless life dangles a little rope.
The bright pink post-it note that was slipped to Magdalena during a meeting by the new receptionist — a young, English-fluent waif — was like seeing a bright red flare gun shot into the sky. It startled her; then angered her: she didn’t want to be found. While excusing herself to make the phone call in the hallway, she imagined how she would react to the the news she was anticipating. Had guilt hardened her? Not by a mile. Instead, tears began gushing from her face like a water main break. Why hadn’t she found the time to visit her brother? She bought that damn birthday gift weeks ago, but there was always something in the way: her impromptu vacation to the mountains only to come back to a less-majestic mountain of piled-up paperwork; the subway strikes—followed by the gremialista strike—that shut down the city making it impossible to get anywhere (impossible or just inconvenient?). And once his birthday had passed, well, what difference did it make now whether it came two or five weeks late. It was late.
And now, it was too late. When Magdalena got home that night—arriving late—and saw the wrapped box sitting in the bedroom, it hit her. What on earth do you do with a dead man’s birthday gift? She tossed it in the garbage and parried away from it as if were explosive. She dropped to the floor, tearing out soap and rags from under the sink to clean her already spotless house upside down and when she was through, frightened by the prospect of sitting still, she decided to do what woman her age simply don’t do in Buenos Aires, not at these hours. She went for a walk. Alone. Along the dark streets. She stuffed a couple hundred pesos in her pocket to appease any would-be thieves — but only out of habit. For the first time in her life, she felt fearless of the night and welcomed any funny business that might come her way. As she descended the stairs of her apartment in Belgrano, her painted nails seemed to thrust out further and sharper; they throbbed with idleness; they thirsted. Like blood meeting mercury, she felt a monstrous, chemical thickening of her spirit.
She wasn’t braving the streets, she realized.
”No,” Magdalena thought, plunging into the night with a hiss. “I’m marauding them.”
I wrote to my father last night and woke up with a reply that left my hair standing on end.
“I was just writing you when your message came in,” he wrote.
This phenomenon happens more than it should. When two people in vastly distant places reach out to each other at precisely the same time. It can’t just be coincidence.
I didn’t tell him that I was homesick, mostly out of pride. I couldn’t believe it struck so soon after leaving. Or at all, considering the state of things.
After a year and some months living in South America, I came home in the dead of a never-ending winter on Christmas Eve. But it was hardly a homecoming: that place wasn’t home — at least not the one in my mind — nor did I come there. I was sent. By a lovely old woman who dropped dead two days before I made it to the wreathed doorstep. She left behind gifts and by unwrapping them, I learned the guilt of a one-sided exchange. There had been time to say thank you. Time is all we ever have, until there isn’t any left.
As the strange holidays and house visits wound down, there was talk of my family moving out of New Jersey, away from the taxes and the winters. And the motherfucking hurricanes. I never thought I would stay very long, but for the first time I had a feeling I might never be back.
Never is a long-ass time. It’s funny what we grasp for when we’re faced with it. I knew I wanted to take something with me—a keepsake—but whatever it was had to fit in a suitcase that weighed less than 15 pounds. We live in an age when airlines impose limits on how sentimental we can be. I found an old gold chain in my nightstand the day before my flight to Asia and haven’t taken it off since. It must have been from grade school because that was the last time I wore guido jewelry. Remember how much time we had in grade school?
The night before I set off to the airport, my mom said she had another one of her vivid dreams. Mom is a deeply superstitious woman—bordering on suburban voodoo priestess—but in such a sincere way that you can’t help but entertain her oracular divinations.
“I saw her last night,” mom said, smiling with relief.
Her. No name was required. Younger and healthier, but unmistakably her. She was walking briskly, my mom said, toting the clan of tongue-wagging dogs we had as we were growing up.
“How are you doing?” my mom asked her. “We think about you all the time.”
The old woman, now youthful, turned with surprise recognition — ah, look who it is! — but also nervously, as if she were running late for something.
“I’m fine, don’t you worry about me,” she said, laughing. “I’m just really busy up here — really busy! — send everyone my love.”
Then she abruptly about-faced and pranced off with a proud bounce we all missed seeing.
Too busy. Ha. There’s really never enough time. Not even in the after-life.