Cover image courtesy Hana:
I wanted to try somewhere different. The usual cafe where I purchased my morning coffee was filled with too many people for comfort. Not just the amount of customers bothered me but their conversations were also irritating. The place was next door to the residential hotel where I lived so that had been convenient on rainy days when I could walk out of the hotel lobby and into the cafe without getting wet but now I was looking for a different scene.
If today was Wednesday, I would be waiting for a friend of mine, John Lanegan, whom I was helping work on a musical composition. He had unique ideas for chord structures and melodies but was not adept at playing keyboard instruments so I would play his music for him. We would go to San Francisco just to have a change of scene. The ambiance of the city put us in a more creative mood than if we stayed in Oakland. However, that was yesterday. He had a busy schedule on the other six days of the week and I decided usually to stay close to home if my day was not planned totally in advance.
Familiarity was my excuse for not wanting usually to walk towards the downtown area. I was comfortable enough on my residential block where the cafe was located. The prices of sandwiches and drinks were a few dollars higher than somewhere on 19th Street where administrative buildings and corporate offices intermingled with delicatessens and pizza parlors. However, there were occasions when I started considering the stroll towards that area when I would suddenly see a neighbor who wanted to talk with me. The conversation became interesting and lasted a long time. Afterwards, I would forget about walking downtown. I went back to my room and read a book. My mind was stimulated by the literature so, when I realized I did not accomplish my goal of finding a different locale, I felt not too disappointed.
There were exceptions to my rule. Other than Wednesday, when I was in San Francisco with John, I made a point of spending time in a cafe other than Russell’s Roastery on 14th Street. However, the exceptions were twice a month, as opposed to twice a week which I would have preferred, so I had generally pretended I never went out of my way to do something different. I had merely not done so as often as my schedule allowed. In the deeper scheme of things, I was looking for inspiration so I could write a new story but I did not want to spend all day looking for the right location. I had my own ideas about what could inspire me and they were not the usual ideas everyone else had.
When I went to Russell’s Roastery, I was hoping to be waited on by a good looking female cashier who would touch my hand when giving my change. That little bit of energy transference helped boost my creativity so I could think of something to write. The subject matter was totally unrelated to the hand touch or the cafe appearance but it was the result of my feeling I needed to honor the moment by putting pen to paper. However, during the last several weeks, the cashiers were mostly men. There was a change in staff and also a change of customers. I would see a variety of different types of people when the staff was more co-ed and some of the patrons were college students. My favorite sight was noticing a woman who wore her shirt tucked into jeans. If the female cashier wore her shirt that way and she touched my hand during the exchange of coins, I had a double whammy of excitement. However, those days were in the past. Now, the one woman still working there was the owner’s wife and she always wore loose sweat clothes and never waited on the customers who were mostly older men living in the neighborhood. Something happened to the cafe, as if an invisible vacuum sucked up the magic.
I cannot say there was a direct connection to the cafe customers and my birth family but I would not be surprised if synchronicity worked that way. I had decided to locate my birth family, because my friend John suggested strongly I do so, and there was less magic in the air. I grew up with David and Muriel Banks, whom I considered my real parents, since I was a young child. They became my legal parents when I was adopted. My birth mother, Nicola Lynch, was a teenager when she was pregnant with me and her parents, Martin and Laura Lynch, told her that if she decided to bring me into their house, they would raise me as their child and tell me she was my sister. Nicola agreed to go to Social Services where she became a foster child of the Banks for two years until she decided suddenly to move back in with her family. She had not returned to visit me and my memory of her was gone.
There were reasons why she had stayed away. Social Services suggested she do so because they were concerned. When Nicola explained that to me, she was not specific about why they were concerned but, if she was anything like how she was now, I would understand. She was slim but unhealthy. She was constantly smoking cigarettes and, when I visited her, she had a tendency to eat one meal only a day and that consisted of one or two slices of ham between two slices of white bread, period. When she asked if I wanted something to eat and I said yes so she could feel motherly by feeding me, she included a slice of imitation cheddar cheese and a type of mayonnaise substitute to my sandwich but she stuck strictly to ham and white bread for herself. She had a lot of vegetables and meat in the refrigerator but she never ate them and they stayed in there, getting rotten.
She had a brother, Bernard, who was four hundred pounds. His late wife, Eunice, was slim but their daughter, Jean, was as heavy as her father. Bernard did all the cooking. At least they ate more food than my mother ate but their food was not better in quality. They ate canned raviolis and fruit cocktail in thick syrup and drank soda. Bernard could walk but he chose to maneuver in a wheelchair when he went in town. His wheelchair would get low in power, sometimes stopping in the middle of a busy street. Other times, he would crash on the sides of buildings, bumping his head. One could tell he was out on errands when he arrived home with cuts and bruises on his face.
While most people may have an occasional heavy duty problem that was very upsetting, the Lynch family was one unending tragedy. There were so many disturbing and eccentric things that happened to them. I noticed that all of their neighbors and friends were overweight, tired and sad. They lived in Antioch where there was no cultural happenings. Dollar stores were abundant and the cashiers made the current staff of Russell’s Roastery look like gorgeous actresses, including the men.
After I spent time with members of my birth family, none of whom ever wore clean clothes or even knew that shirts could be tucked in, I would go back to Oakland and see suddenly more people who could have followed me from Antioch. Whether or not I had an active imagination or the shift in circumstances were changing on account of my contact with birth family, I was not pleased. I did not feel that my knowing them was like a gift. I felt that fate gave me a prank. I became frustrated and figured there were no more attractive female cashiers anymore because the Lynch family willed them out of existence.
Ordinarily, I would not allow myself to accept that ridiculous notion because I knew that it was not really true. I understood that there would be a cafe I could patron and see the type of people who would inspire me to write again. However, I did not want to go on a long trek just to find the place. That was why I usually stayed home but today I had enough.
When I saw Russell’s Roastery was filled with a lot of young men who talked loudly about news events that were unpleasant, I felt an even heavier weight than usual. Somehow, the crowd was not the typical old man and his brother discussing how to fix the fence in the front yard. They were talking about violence and political corruption but with shouting voices, almost timed exactly to stifle any moment I tried to think of a new story idea. I headed towards 19th Street.
Suddenly, my neighbor, Adarsh Malladi, was walking towards me, as if he was coming back from where I was headed. Of all my neighbors who lived in my hotel, he was the one person I considered a friend. Other tenants were cordial enough, giving nods as we rode together on the elevator but, other than a quick comment about the weather or a question about who won a certain sports tournament, I considered them to be strangers of whom we shared mutual indifference. However, Adarsh would converse with me and I appreciated his ideas. Now, he nodded and said, “Hello, my friend Keith. I see we have a pleasant day with not too many people. Usually, there is commotion somewhere. This is nice.”
I replied, “I think everyone moved the commotion towards the cafe. There’s a lot of loud people and I needed to walk away from them.”
“That is interesting. Do you not enjoy loud turmoil?” He laughed.
“I can enjoy loud music at a concert but I don’t enjoy loud political discussions. That crowd was worse than a newspaper. At least I can avoid looking at the paper. It’s hard to avoid loud buffoons who won’t shut up.”
He smiled. “Interesting. Are you going for a walk, somewhere? May I join you? I would like to ask you about this.”
“That’s fine. I get along with you. Maybe you’ll help influence me by giving me an idea for a story.”
“Okay. I like that. What I want to ask is why you use the word buffoon? Is that like a balloon?”
I nodded. “In the way I mean it, yes. I was referring to people who use hot air.”
“I could guess that. My wonder is if you think they are stupid because they talk loud. A genius is a person who speaks so quietly you cannot hear them?”
I appreciated his sense of humor. The way we talked together was similar to how my friend John and I talked instead of a Lynch family conversation which started with, “Honey, can you buy me some cigarettes?” I was able to set my mental television to a different radar when I was around others who stimulated my thoughts. I said, “I equate all irritating people as existing in one large soup of blah. I prefer being around attractive people and positive vibes. In fact, that’s what I’m looking for now. I want to hang out at a cafe where the women are good looking and the men don’t bother me.”
“That is a good idea. I would like to go to that type of cafe. Do you know where it is located? Is your woman radar working?”
“I wish. At this point, let’s just walk up 19th Street and go to the first cafe we see. There’s business workers around that area all the time and I’m sure the cashiers at one of the cafes are going to be hip and together looking. They almost have to be if they want to work at 19th Street.”
“Even the dishwashers and the garbage men? They wear suits and ties?”
I laughed. “Maybe not.”
We continued walking. Adarsh pointed to a building. “This place serves coffee.”
We walked in. The cashier was a man. I was not enthusiastic by yet another example of what I figured was an extension of the type of disappointment I encountered with my family. However, there was a woman there, talking with another man behind the counter. Her back was facing me but she seemed like a college student because of how she gestured while speaking. She was wearing a black blazer which worked with the stance of her behavior. Her sleeves were rolled up, showing a leopard print. I could only hope that, when she turned around, her blazer was open and the shirt underneath was tucked in.
Adarsh said, “Let this be my treat.”
“Thank you.” I felt better not paying the man cashier.
Adarsh ordered a mocha latte and I ordered a cappuccino. When the cashier rang up the purchase, the woman turned around. She was Asian and her blazer was open, showing a white shirt underneath, tucked into black slacks with a red belt. She brought an element to the experience that allowed me to feel I was eliminating all the negative energy caused by my birth family. Perhaps the woman was a cashier on other days. Something about her appearance intrigued me. Even if I knew that my judging a person on appearance was not always accurate, I figured there was nothing wrong with feeling good about a certain person. After all, if the Lynch relatives were rotten dressers with no redeeming opinions, an attractive person could have a lot of substance.
The woman smiled and said, “Hello.”
I said, “Hello.”
Adarsh took his latte and I took my cappuccino. He said, “This is a good looking place. It is where a person can have a pleasant conversation.”
Suddenly, music played. Stanley Turrentine’s version of “Gibraltar” from the album “Salt Song.” That was one of my favorites. I noticed the woman was still looking at me. She nodded her head as if to indicate we shared the same taste in music. To Adarsh, I said, “Wow, this is a pretty decent place.”
We sat down by a table. I looked and noticed the woman was occasionally glancing at me. My attention was split between Adarsh and her. I told myself that, if I had a refill of coffee, the woman would probably wait on me. I was not sure completely if that would be the case, because there was a possibility she was merely behaving in that polite business way employees act when they notice who might be returning customers, but I needed to find out. I wanted to get my refill right away but logic told me I ought to wait until I drank my first cup of coffee.
Adarsh said, “I think this place is new. I believe it was something else before it became a cafe. I forget what it was.”
I was merely half attentive. I said, “It could have been a pizza place. If I remember correctly, wasn’t Malamud’s Pizza here?”
“Oh, yes. That was it. I remember now. I once had a slice of pizza here and the crust was a bit thin and crisp. Is that how pizza is served nowadays?”
“There are different types of pizza styles. The thin crust is New York style, I think. Chicago has deep dish pizza.”
“Deep dish? Do they serve it on a thick platter? What do they mean by deep dish?”
“It’s more like a pizza pie. There’s a lot of filling and the crust is more like a pie.”
He nodded. “Okay. I have seen that. If there is a thin crust from New York and a thick crust from Chicago, what would be California style?”
“I don’t know if California has a style of pizza. I think it mimics other places. California is a melting pot of pizza, like America is a melting pot of people.”
“That is interesting. California is like an America in itself. So, when people talk about California cuisine, is it its own thing or is it a melting pot of other cuisines?”
“It’s a cuisine based on emphasis towards fresh ingredients.”
“I guess then that California is the inventor of cooking with fresh ingredients. Other states cook with the leftovers that are not fresh.”
“Who knows? I always figured that food is food and there’s no reason why it has to be called California Cuisine. I think it’s a pretentious name for what is only known as a salad anywhere else.”
“That is true. I am happy to talk with you. I think about things in ways that I would not think about on my own. That is why I like to go on walks and enjoy the world around me.”
I nodded. “Exactly. Right now, I am not totally focused on what you are saying because the woman working here is good looking. When I’m finished my coffee, I’m going to get a refill so I can see if she waits on me.”
He nodded. “It sounds like a plan. I think you will be busy with your thoughts so I will allow you to compose yourself for the big moment. We shall see each other again. I am on my way to see a bird about a watching.” He winked, waved and exited the cafe.
From behind me, I heard the woman say, “I don’t agree. A film does not need a lot of dialogue to prove its point. Some of the old silent films were really well made and they didn’t have any talking.”
The cashier, who waited on Adarsh, said, “You’re just saying that because you think Metropolis is a classic. I thought it was too surreal and didn’t really do what it set out to do. I think it should have been remade after sound went into film.”
“Do you mean right after sound started getting into film or more recent times like last year?”
The cashier shook his head. “Gillian, why are you always criticizing what I say?”
Gilliam sighed. “It’s not criticism. It’s correction and it’s not even that. I just want to know what you mean, Thomas.”
Thomas said, “My point is that sound can help a movie along and some of my favorite movies are not much more than candid conversations that were filmed like My Dinner With Andre.”
“So, you don’t think that a moment where two people make eye contact is sexy?”
“If it’s with the right person. Otherwise, I feel like asking what are they trying to say.”
The other man working behind the counter said, “So, Gillian, what are your plans for the future?”
She laughed. “That’s an odd question, Mark. Where did that come from?”
Mark shrugged. “I meant it philosophically. I ask everyone that question. It gives me a chance to think about my options. I see the universe as a large round glass and we eventually come back to the same point in time so we don’t have to look at our lives too seriously. If you tell me you don’t know what your plans are, I can ease up on mine.”
She shrugged. “I do have a plan, but I don’t know if it is something I should talk about yet.”
Thomas asked, “Are you planning on quitting your job? That’s the only thing I’d be concerned with. It’s hard to get good workers like you.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not planning on quitting anything. When I do something, I stick with it.”
Mark smiled. “Sounds good to me. Thomas, I’m going to do a bit of clean-up in the back.”
Thomas said, “Your shift doesn’t start for another ten minutes. You’re so eager to do a good job. I love it.”
Thomas and Mark went in the back room. Gillian was standing at the register. Roxy Music’s “My Only Love” was playing now. That was another favorite song of mine. There was no one in line so I got up and approached the counter. I looked at my cup to make sure it was empty.
She stared at me and said, “Hello, cutie.”
I was not sure if she said that to other customers and it was merely a general term of affection but I had a strange feeling surround me as if something unusual was going to happen. Perhaps I drank my coffee faster than need be. I said, “I would like a refill.”
She stood there, looking at me as if I said the situation was very important. She extended her hand. “Hello, I’m Gillian.” We shook hands for a few seconds but she kept holding on.
My original doubts concerning her intent were gone. I felt as though I had probably met a celebrity and discovered that, behind the fame, the person was a human being like me. I switched from thinking about my urgency to have contact with her and now I figured she was overly eager to meet me.
She asked, “What’s your name?”
I was nervous and said, “All I want is a refill of coffee.”
“I asked you your name.”
There was something odd about her behavior. She acted as though we were now in a relationship and a mere technicality had prevented me from knowing previously about it. I tried pulling my hand free but she tightened her grip. The moment could not be more awkward. My plan had been to go home and use the energy from her touch to write a new story. However, I would not be able to do so if she was holding my writing hand. I pulled harder but she refused to let go.
She frowned. “Stop that!”
“What do you mean?”
“Why do you want me to stop?”
“It’s rude. I’ve committed to you and you act like it’s no big deal.”
“What do you mean you’re committed to me?”
“You’re not that dumb, are you? We’re joined. There’s no turning back.”
Thomas returned to the counter. He asked, “Can I help who’s next, please?”
I said, “Help me get my hand free.”
He sighed. “That is not the polite way to say it.”
I must have been a part of a prank. However, he looked too serious. I asked, “Are you going to help me?”
He shook his head. “When a gentleman addresses another gentleman, proper conduct indicates that words like please and thank you are involved. I cannot help you unless you show me respect.”
“I apologize. May I please ask for your assistance in getting my hand free?”
“Yes, you may ask.”
However, he was merely standing by the register. I asked again, “May I please ask for your help?”
Again, he said, “Yes, you may ask.”
The conversation was going nowhere. I was extremely polite but still he would not do anything. I realized he was concerned about semantics. I had to present the question another way. “Will you please help me?”
In a polite tone of voice, he said, “No, I will not help you.”
“What do you mean you will not help me? Aren’t you concerned about what she’s doing?”
“Her shift is over and I make it a stern policy not to get in the business of my workers on their leisure time. If you want someone to help you, I would suggest you ask Gillian because she’s holding on. However, from my observing, she is giving a gift by connecting herself to you and I would be a damn fool if I was given that gift and would not accept it. If I gave someone else that gift and the person wanted to refuse receiving it, I would get angry and violent. But I know Gillian and she is a very sensitive and heartfelt individual. You will get used to this.”
Gillian shook her head. “Thomas, Kenneth is being unreasonable. He needs to understand we will never separate.”
Thomas said, “I’m not getting involved. I’m on your side, Gillian, but you have to handle this on your own.”
She sighed. “Alright. Kenneth, we’re going to my place. Please act civil. That’s the best way.”
I shrugged. “Fine.”
The reason for why I gave in and let her do what she planned was on account of my curiosity. If I really needed to break away from her, I could ask any random person to pry us apart. However, since everything was the result of what preceded it, I allowed myself to share the blame in my predicament. How often would I have the opportunity to be ensnared in the web of a desirable woman? If I had to assess my chances according to logic, my guess would be never.
When my parents, the Banks whom I considered real as opposed to the Lynch family whom was merely biological, attended church back when I was a teenager, I enjoyed Communion because, when the Pastor gave the Benediction, the congregation would join hands. If I had been sitting next to a good looking woman, I would enjoy our moment of touch. However, the situation was not always lucky. People sat next to each other not because they were thinking about with whom they would join hands during Communion but who were their friends or relations or neighbors. The intent was undeniably non-sexual. Two men joining hands did so because they could be brothers or business partners who wanted to discuss a deal during fellowship. To that extent, I was not annoyed when I sat next to whoever chose to be by me. If I complained about a person in church, next I could complain about any person who had coincidentally walked past me on the street. Worse yet, neighbors could be criticized for living next door to people whom they were hoping conceptually to hold hands with during communion. There was a point when pushing the envelope ideas-wise had to stop. However, that made the moment when I had the rare advantage of joining hands with a good looking woman that much sweeter. I could privately savor the experience without feeling guilt.
Dana Catton lived in Cupertino and, for reasons unknown, went to Holy Worship Lutheran Church in San Anselmo, the next town from Fairfax where I lived. My family, the Banks, lived previously in San Anselmo but moved to Fairfax because our landlord was selling the house we were renting and they could only find an affordable alternative in Fairfax. However, one did not switch churches as easily as one’s living abode so we stayed true to Holy Worship. I guessed Dana Catton stayed a member for a similar reason. There were a few times when she talked with my family before church service but she was merely an acquaintance of ours.
She was older than me but her appearance was timeless as if she could have been either twenty years old or sixty or a combination of both. Her usual attire was dresses but once she wore a blouse tucked into her skirt. Coincidentally, that was the day we held hands during Communion Benediction.
When Pastor Bruce Hunter advised everyone to join hands, Dana had slowly offered her hand to me as if she was giving me a present she was cautious of anyone else seeing but her slightly coy smile indicated she was on a wavelength similar to mine. In retrospect, I wondered if she wore a two-piece outfit specifically for my benefit on a day she chose to sit next to me at church. However, there were other factors as to why she chose the seat next to mine. She and my father had a conversation before the service and they continued talking while finding available rows. I chose to sit away from my father, mostly because my seat was at the edge of the rows in case I needed easy access to the bathroom. However, that worked to my advantage when Dana sat between my father and me. I could hold her hand and not hold his.
As Pastor Hunter read a mini-sermon during the Benediction, Dana’s hand sat comfortably in mine, not holding either firmly or loosely. In the middle of Pastor’s speech, he paused and nodded as if to indicate everyone could drop hands so I tried letting go but Dana held tighter and Pastor continued talking. I was glad Dana tightened her grip because that informed me she was not against holding my hand. Pastor spoke what seemed between five and ten minutes while I felt a sense of heavenly delight locked inside the control of Dana Catton’s grasp. When the speech was over and everyone let go of hands, I compared in my mind the difference between her behavior when she would not let go and when she did. Later that night and for many nights since, I replayed the incident in my memory, thinking of the situation in slow and fast motion. I wondered what she would be like on a date. If I told her I had to leave prematurely, would she hold me tight and tell me to stay?
Ever since then I had developed a perception of meaning behind communication that was totally unlike anything I had heard from others. Nobody talked about touch in the way I thought about it so I was not sure if other people were aware of the dynamics I perceived. Perhaps they were reluctant to talk about their discoveries just like I was hesitant to do so. However, I formulated a priority list of what were worthwhile relationships. If I was at a party and a woman shook my hand during the introduction, I remembered that more than the band playing on stage or the drunken fellow who chatted with me for an hour on why there ought to be a history written on the invention of paper clips. If I went to a friend’s family’s house for a holiday dinner, I would take notice of what happened when everyone said grace.
Usually, whenever I went to a family holiday dinner, whether or not my family or that of a friend’s, the saying of grace consisted of each person with his or her hands folded in prayer. No joining happened. That was fine with me, especially if the family was mine and I was not attracted to them anyway, but the get-together itself and the reasons for it were seeming less meaningful, as if formality took precedence over functionality. When I attended a few family dinners hosted by the Lynch crew, I was aware of more than just the bad cooking and the arguments. I noticed that there was a suppression of any intended desire to get along. I was glad there was no hand holding during grace because I had no urge to sit next to any of them let alone have skin contact. The whole evening was equally disappointing. There was a sort of unintentional play acting going on where everyone called each other the villain and nobody decided to later confess the accusation was a joke. The body weights of my uncle and cousin seemed more like self-inflicted punishments than carelessness. The family seemed only able to do anything if the purpose was negative. I finally assumed they were choreographing energy to work against me since I did not grow up with them and I was generally happier about life, even during mundane moments.
As Gillian and I were walking to wherever she was heading, those thoughts were intensifying. I became aware of how I felt about those situations but also how she felt about them. She seemed to be me. I knew that was not possible but, then again, I was no expert in how the universe worked. She could have been the part of me I tried to resist.
We continued on Harrison Street, which changed from a busy Boulevard to a more residential Avenue. She did not say much other than ask if I was tired. On the contrary, I was completely buzzed, not so much from happiness but electric shock. She had finally turned on 29th Street, which was where the Grocery Outlet was located if we continued a few more blocks. However, she opened a gate door to an apartment complex right before the road turned level. 29th had a small hill that lasted only two or three blocks but that apartment was approximately midpoint up the hill. The place was not fancy but had a nostalgic nineteen seventies appearance to it, as if it was meant to be catered to people who had lived there for fifty years and did not want it to change.
She said, “We are going so you can meet my parents.”
I asked, “Do you mean your parents live here?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“In other words, we are going so I can be acquainted with your parents?”
“In other words, you are going to introduce me to your parents as your husband?”
She frowned. “I don’t like your tone of voice. You’re putting a negative spin on things.”
“I don’t know if trying to avoid a marriage trap can be considered negative.”
She shook her head. “Wait until we speak with my parents.”
“Wait… and then what? I don’t understand the plan.”
“You’ll understand soon enough. Be prepared.”
“I wish I can.”
We walked up some steps to the next level of apartments. I felt more like an employee of hers and my job was to let her keep me. The day was getting cooler and a breeze lingered while the view became overcast. That was preferable to the usual bright warm days of Antioch where the heat was unbearable and it matched the behavior of my mother and her family.
Gillian knocked on a door. I wondered what sort of parents she had. They were probably nothing like my uncle whose sole advice to his daughter was to be careful she not cut her hand on the sharp tin lid of the ravioli can. She knew nothing about how to make food and had no fashion sense whatsoever. My uncle was obese and never tucked in his shirt a day in his life and neither did my cousin. The whole Lynch family wore long and loose fabrics that looked suspiciously like cut-up couch covers. When they ate food, there was no regard for being careful not to spill food all over their shirts and pants. My mother and uncle once went to the dollar store together so they could take advantage of the arrival of an even cheaper brand of raviolis. Before they left, I mentioned the large sauce stain smeared on their shirts. Each respectively rubbed his or her hands on the sauce and made their shirts look worse. My cousin stayed home, watching a movie on television. Her shirt was equally as stained but she won brownie points for good sense by not walking to the store, also. However, she tended not to walk much anyway. When she did go outside and stroll through the neighborhood, her pace was literally an hour a block. The blocks were longer than the streets of Oakland but I could walk an Antioch block in five minutes. The exception for her was when her father brought home a new bottle of soda. She could walk quickly to him and take it.
The door opened and an older man stood there. He nodded and said, “Hello.”
Gillian said, “Father, this is Kenneth.”
Her father nodded and stepped aside. “My name is Jonah Truong. Please come in.”
We walked in. Gillian said, “Where’s mother?”
Jonah said, “She will be here later. She is at the Grocery Outlet, shopping for dinner. Will you be joining us for dinner, Kenneth?”
I said, “I’m assuming so.”
He looked puzzled. “What does that mean? Did she not invite you?”
I shrugged. “She might have. If her gripping my hand and refusing to let go is an indication I was invited to dinner, then yes she did.”
“I can see she is holding your hand. You seem worried. Do you not like Gillian?”
“I just met her today and I’m worried she’s going to hold my hand forever.”
He nodded. “She likes you. That is the most important thing.”
Gillian smiled. “What are we having for dinner?”
Jonah said, “Tonight we will be eating baked chicken with a special Hawaiian pineapple barbecue sauce your mother, Ann, found on sale. She is hoping it will still be in stock. It is organic and tastes great, I’m imagining.”
I said, “It sounds like you eat healthier food than my family.”
He asked, “Is the food your family eats rotted?”
“There’s so many chemicals and artificial flavorings in the canned foods they eat, the stuff has an endless shelf life.”
“So, the food is not spoiled.”
“Correct but my birth family only eats food that is as far from being natural as possible.”
“In what way is it not natural?”
“They don’t eat fresh fruits or salads. If forced to eat fruit, it’s fruit cocktail with a lot of sugary syrup on it and the closest thing to any vegetables they will touch is the sorry excuse for tomato sauce on their cheap raviolis and tamales.”
He shrugged. “It sounds like they have little money and they sacrifice choice to save dollars.”
“I would say yes to that but they really like that stuff and they buy more of it than what any normal person would buy of anything.”
“Your family knows what they want to eat. It is satisfying for them. Not everyone appreciates the same thing. Some people like to have open relationships where both people are free to see other people. My daughter prefers a relationship where she is dating one man only and he cannot get away. That is her choice. I respect it.”
“So, you don’t think it’s wrong she will never let go of my hand?”
He shook his head. “It is not wrong if that is the relationship you are in. You might feel like getting away but your feelings do not matter here. That is the beauty of it. She is in charge and you cannot stop it.”
“That’s crazy! How can my feelings not matter? How did she get the idea to do this, anyway? I was a customer in the cafe where she works. I wanted a refill of coffee, which I don’t remember getting.”
He shrugged. “The refill is not important. My daughter is in love with you and you are heartless but she knows how to handle you and that is best.”
Gillian said, “Father, he is my destiny. I was surprised when Mark, my co-worker, asked me today about my future because I have planned this for a while and I knew Kenneth would fulfill my need.”
Jonah said, “You have my full respect and I will do my part in making sure he stays with you. I am not a man who believes that confrontation is a good thing but there are others with whom I have acquaintance. They handle complex situations and they fix any problem in a hurry.”
I was nervous. “Can you be more specific?”
“There is no need for specifics if a situation does not occur. If you act properly then everything I have said is only a hypothetical statement.”
“By acting properly, you mean that Gillian holds my hand every minute of every day and I accept it without question?”
“That is correct.”
“In other words, if I escape, I will look forward to a group of men who will beat me up?”
He sighed. “I would prefer you refrain from stating things in such an obvious way. You do not have a say, here. You are a guest and my daughter is the loving hostess who will be kind and gentle to you. How dare you question her beauty? She is very pretty and other men have wanted to spend time with her but they only get friendship. You are the lucky one who benefits from romance. I also love you in a brotherly way because of my daughter but I am disgusted with your hesitance. Your problem is not your family. Your problem is you cannot get past your stupidity. You were not meant to be in control of your own life. You no longer have those wild and carefree ways where solitude existed.”
The front door opened and an older woman walked in. She was carrying two large bags. She said, “Change of plans. I didn’t like the look of the chicken at the store so I ordered some burritos, enchiladas, tacos and tortas for tonight and tomorrow morning. I got them at the taco truck on the sidewalk next to Grocery Outlet.”
Jonah said, “That is fine, Anne. We have a guest staying for dinner. His name is Kenneth.”
Anne put the food on a table in the dining room. She waved and said, “Pleased to meet you, Kenneth.”
Gillian said, “He’s the one.”
Anne said, “I’m so happy for you! I hope you make sure he never leaves you.”
“Don’t worry, mother. I have a tight grip on him.”
“I can see that.” They both laughed.
As Anne took the food out of the bags and unwrapped the various items, Jonah went in the kitchen and then came back with some plates. I felt uneasy. Here was a group of people who saw nothing wrong in what was really a situation of entrapment. I could not feel disgust because Gillian was perhaps the most attractive woman I had met in a long time. I knew that the alternative would be my hanging out at the cafe next door to my apartment complex or, even worse, spending time with the Lynch clan. In an odd sort of way, I was getting rescued from my fate. I wondered if I ought to embrace the situation. Perhaps it was the best opportunity I would ever receive.
For now, I would sit with Gillian’s family and add to whatever conversation they chose to discuss. Later, after everyone ate and she and I went somewhere else, I would do everything possible to reason with her so she knew she could let go of my hand and I would not try to get away.
Dinner was excellent. The food from the taco truck may not have been an accurate representation of a homemade Truong family dinner but it showed the kind of attentive thinking they may resort to if they were not able to pursue their first preference. My birth family, if they were presented with a predicament concerning no more canned raviolis available in the dollar store, would search somewhere else for the sort of glop they were used to eating. If no canned raviolis were available anywhere at any store in the entire world, they would chew on gum. They would not know what to order at a restaurant. They would look at a taco truck and think it was a large train caboose.
Gillian kept her grip intact on my hand the whole time we were eating. Maneuvering the utensils was awkward but I had no indigestion problem like I had when I visited my mother and the cigarette smoke was choking me to the point where I would have to spend time outside on her back patio. At Gillian’s house, the aroma was immediately pleasant. Even though her mother did no cooking that night, I could smell the various seasonings and cooking oils she must have used when in the kitchen. I experienced one of the very few times I was able to eat at the house of someone else and not have the urge to get sick.
Now, she and I were walking up the stairs in the same apartment complex to the third level where she told me she lived. When we arrived at her place and entered it, I could not believe how attractive it looked. She was not only able to dress herself in appealing attire but she had a sense of how to make her surroundings match the beauty of her.
Suddenly, I knew that what I was experiencing was right. If such a thing meant I had to deal with her control, so be it. She was positive in every meaning of the word.
We sat down on her couch in the living room. I said, “Gillian, I need to apologize to you. I have never felt better than how I feel right now. All this is new to me so that was why I behaved how I did, but I want this to continue. You’re an angel.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
“I have to let you know that I have been through intense moments. I was born to a family who never had any clue as to what to do with their lives and luck intervened when my birth mother and I lived in a foster care home. That saved me from the hardships I would have had to face if I lived with my birth relatives, the Lynch family. My mom never married so you can understand what type of lifestyle she must have been in. My foster family, who later adopted me, were the Banks. I won’t say they were perfect because they had their fair share of problems but my father taught me about creativity and art and my mom gave me piano lessons so I learned how to read and write music. You are teaching me about love. It’s something I would have never thought I could learn from someone like you.”
She had tears in her eyes. She said, “I go with my heart. You say you never thought about learning of love from someone like me? That tells me you think I’m special. That means a lot. I just knew instantly when I saw you that we were to be together.”
“When was the first time you saw me? You told Jonah that you were planning this for a while.”
“I planned it in the conceptual sense. I didn’t know who would fit until I saw you.”
“What were you looking for?”
“Have you heard of Feng Shui? It’s the art of placement. There’s a sense of putting in your life what needs to be there and also to eliminate what needs to be out. You have understood what needs to be out of your life, like the negativity of your family, and I have understood what needs to be in my life, like you.”
I nodded. “I’m aware of the concept of Feng Shui but it’s been explained in complicated ways so I don’t know if I understand it too well.”
She sighed. “Let’s say you want to go to the country by a farm with animals grazing on the grass but you’re in the city. Do you tell yourself you can never live in the country or do you buy posters of farms and grass and animals grazing and put them on your wall? Every activity that allows you to reach out towards your goals is a good thing. Anything you do, whether it be for yourself or someone else, that brings negativity towards your goals, is a bad thing. Your family is bringing you down. I’m bringing you up.”
No one else ever explained that sort of concept before to me. I knew there were little moments in each day that affected me just like food affected the body or conversation could affect the ego, but I never experienced the sort of philosophical high that emanated from our talk. The closest I came to that kind of transcendent reality was when whom I consider my real mother drove us on the freeway and I had a pure sense of movement on the road, unencumbered by the rules and regulations of neighborhood avenues. When the radio was on during those journeys, I felt a different aesthetic from the music than if I heard the same songs in a bar where people would be jumping up and down and hollering as if enjoying their surroundings but I sensed the situation was fake. The context involved alcohol and money. The music was not in a free situation like the highway.
She patted my hand with her other hand. “What are you thinking about?”
“I’m thinking about the magic of it all. You don’t even know why I went in the cafe. Maybe you guessed why but I don’t think you really knew. I wanted an interesting situation and my friend, Adarsh, suggested where you work. I saw you and I thought about how good you looked and I wanted to have you touch my hand when I got my refill. You gave me the touch but not the refill.”
“It works both ways. You wanted something and I wanted something. It’s the meeting of the ways. It’s just like creativity. Have you ever tried to write something but felt blocked for some reason?”
I nodded. “That has happened to me many more times than I can count. I went to my uncle’s house and my cousin was watching a cartoon movie. I love cartoons, even more so than images in real life, but the soundtrack and the dialogue of the film prevented me from being able to think of something I could write. I visited my uncle’s place while I was in a good mood but I became oppressed by the excess of loud media information that did not serve to help my creativity.”
“In other words, you felt cramped as if you were being served a dinner by them.”
“I didn’t think so then. I just assumed I was empty of ideas. I would have never considered cartoons to stifle my creativity. However, upon retrospect, I see that the cartoons did nothing to make me further explore my inspiration.”
She sighed. “I want to explain something to you. Each person has an energy and a polarity. No two people are exactly the same. One person can affect the outcome of a situation in a much different way than another person. The situation could be positive but the outcome negative. I want you to think of the differences between your cousin and me.”
I laughed. “That’s totally easy. There’s no similarities.”
“Okay. Go with that. When you saw that movie with your cousin you felt stifled. That was because of your cousin, not the movie. Imagine you seeing that same movie with me. I would give you a different vibe. It’s aesthetics and magic. Your cousin is not a bad person, probably, but she is not your idea of a desirable woman. She shouldn’t be. She’s your cousin. She’s related to her father who eats horrible food and she’s related to your mother who smokes. She has been used to poison but she has adapted and has made it work for her. You were not raised in that environment so you are not used to that poison. You’ve been in situations your cousin would think are poisonous. The purpose of Feng Shui is to create a non-poisonous vibration and aesthetic in our lives. I am holding your hand not only to help you but because it’s beneficial to me.”
I did not know what to say. I felt the truth of what she explained but was not able to respond with an intelligent retort. I felt an emotion that had no description.
She smiled. “What kind of wedding ceremony would you like?”
“I don’t know if I believe in official weddings.”
“Okay. I was just joking, anyway.”
Next on our to-do-list was visit Snow Park, located merely five blocks away from my apartment complex. Russell’s Roastery was up just four blocks from 19th Street so the park served allegorically as a meeting point between my world and hers. There were people sitting at each bench, as if there could be benches available… ha ha, so we sat next to a tree.
I had doubts again as to the validity behind what she was doing. There seemed to be a perverse undercurrent of incongruity at work. For instance, once when I was sitting on a bench at Snow Park, during the one time a bench had been available, a photographer was filming pictures of a female model. The model had on a loose blue button blouse with long sleeves rolled up and black pants. The photographer was also a woman who wore a long sleeveless beige shirt over black pants. However, the photographer’s assistant, another female, had on a white tucked-in shirt and cream-colored pants with a brown belt and an open black button sweater with long sleeves pushed up on top. Clearly, the assistant was the most photogenic of the three but she had the least interesting job. As Gillian kept gripping my hand, I felt the irony of the situation. She was the good looking one, yet she needed to hold on to me. In a more realistic world, the situation would be vice-versa. On days when I walked up toward Prospect Street and 24th Avenue, for instance, where the houses looked much better than the general monotonous view of my street, I was surprised to observe that residents of the finer neighborhood acted as flaky as neighbors of mine. I had no choice as to where I lived. My economic status indicated that. They could live anywhere. They had money.
My thoughts became very trippy as Gillian sat by me, holding my hand. If she was going to stick with me, I wanted to know answers to my questions. I asked, “Can you tell me more about yourself?”
She shrugged. “That’s fine. What would you like to know?”
“What nationality are you?”
“My family is Vietnamese but I was born in Oregon. I moved to California last year.”
“Do you prefer cold weather or hot?”
“I like weather that is not too hot nor cold. A medium temperature is my thing.”
“Have you ever dated anyone before?”
“I went to the movies with my grammar school class but I don’t think you could call that a date, though I remember thinking it was an outing and that seemed like a date to me then.”
“How often do you wear your shirts tucked in?”
“I just think it looks good.”
“Okay. Can I ask you something?”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
“How often do you blink your eyes?”
I was puzzled. “Why are you asking?”
“I just think it looks good.”
I wondered if our conversation was crazy or a metaphysical realm of our combined sensibilities. I asked, “Do you think of my hand as an electric outlet?”
“Actually, sort of.”
“Do you feel you will lose your energy if you let go of me?”
She sighed. “I would appreciate if you stopped talking about that. Everything will be alright.”
I felt suddenly I could no longer appreciate the park. The weather was a combination of hot and cold without any in between. I was not comfortable anymore with the outdoors. No bench to sit on and the ground was not a means of causing a grounding of energy. I almost felt like I would prefer sitting on gravel because it was at least constant. Perhaps I would chew on bike parts or use valve oil instead of Russian dressing on my salad. Gillian’s energy was freaking me out. I said, “You think of me as Irish fruit soda.”
She said, “Not really. I think of you as the airwaves of a radio station.”
There were men walking by, accompanied by their dogs. I was unsure whether the men or the dogs were more concerned with my behavior. I said, “Tonight I plan to escape.”
“Why do you want to escape? There is no such thing as escape.”
“Can we at least then go to my house?”
We walked on 14th Street when Adarsh approached us, walking from the other direction. He said, “Hello, friend. I see you have made company with the woman who you wanted to know. Don’t tell me she is going to keep shaking your hand. You cannot have a live-in guest in a single room occupancy hotel. You are not Elvis Presley.”
Gillian asked, “Is he kidding?”
I answered, “Adarsh and I have an interesting way of communicating with each other. One never knows when he will be serious or not. I don’t think even he knows.”
Adarsh laughed. “That is very funny my friend, yet I do not know what is funny so I am a bundle of laughs I cannot untie. May I ask you, young lady, what is your name and where you are from? I am Adarsh Malladi. I come from India.”
Gillian said, “I’m Gillian Truong. I was born in Oregon. My ancestors come from Vietnam.”
“That is understandable. Do you like listening to Bobby Darin?”
She shrugged. “I’m not sure I heard of him.”
“Okay. You might be more into Squirrel Nut Zippers.”
“No. I don’t like them too much.”
I said, “I loved that Stanley Turrentine song I heard at the cafe and the Roxy Music song.”
Gillian nodded. “I played them for you. It was to bring us together.”
Adarsh said, “It worked.”
I was unsure how to react. So far, people were relatively unconcerned about my predicament. Was there anybody who thought the situation was strange?
I said, “Well, Adarsh, Gillian and I have to go to my place. I’ll talk to you later.”
Adarsh waved and said, “Good day to you both.”
Gillian and I continued walking. I wondered how would she write her name on the sign-in list at the hotel if she had to use her right hand? The security guard might view the situation as odd, especially if I gestured frantically to him, indicating as such. Hopefully, everything would be resolved.
One thing to my advantage was my not previously having a good looking guest like her. If the other tenants saw us together, they might change their opinions about me. A lot of the people who lived in the hotel were pretentious and tended to react towards me as if I had no substantial life. Even though my friend John counted as a quality person, others could interpret my few visitors as a quantitative lack of friends. I would not have to say anything to other tenants as we went in the elevator or walked towards my room. They would see our joined hands and realize what was going on.
When Adarsh had mentioned Elvis Presley and Bobby Darin, I was reminded of a time when I was listening to songs on my parents’ favorite radio station. I was young and I felt happy. In a way, I was feeling that happiness again.
When we walked in the hotel lobby, the guard was on his rounds. We were able to go up to my room without her signing in. No one was around to notice us. In some ways, I was relieved but in other ways I wished someone would have been able to observe a shirt tucker was touching me. As we walked in my room, I felt I achieved success.
Suddenly, I noticed my mother and uncle and cousin sitting there. I remember once telling my mother where I lived but I had no idea how she would have ever found a way to get over to Oakland, let alone know how to locate 14th Street. However, for me to see my uncle there was an even unlikelier proposition. He drove all over Antioch in his wheelchair and disliked getting on buses. He was afraid the bus was going to drive him to a hospital without his permission. For me to see his daughter there was the miracle of a lifetime. She walked literally so slow a major length motion picture could start and end before she reached three blocks.
Still, they were family, as much as I was reluctant to admit it. If the people entering my apartment were strangers, I would wonder how they got in and what did they want. However, that was the case, anyway. I asked, “What are you all doing here?”
Mother said, “Your uncle needs to go to the hospital. He has a bad ulcer and his stomach is bleeding.”
Uncle said, “My stomach’s been bleeding for two years! There’s nothing wrong with it! The doctor told me.”
Cousin said, “I wouldn’t believe the doctor, dad.”
Uncle said, “Oh, you shut up! I don’t even know why you came here with us.”
Cousin said, “I told you that I don’t know how to make dinner. Who’s going to feed me when you’re in the hospital?”
“Well, the hospital sure isn’t going to feed you. You’re not a patient. Neither am I. What the hell am I saying?”
Mother said, “You need to go to the hospital. The doctor told you that.”
The conversation was not totally new. Often, there were times when a situation happened and the explanation did not fit in logical terms but was consistent with the kinds of phrases they would say. I asked, “All that is intriguing, even if a bit contradictory, but it does not tell me why you are here or how you got in.”
Mother said, “We took a taxi.”
Uncle said, “The driver wanted to take me to the hospital. I refused to go in the cab. Wait a minute, how did I get here?”
Mother said, “If you remember that orange juice I gave you before we left, I put a sleeping pill in it. When the driver came, we put you in the cab.”
“I hope you didn’t put me in the hospital.”
“No, we didn’t. You’re at Kenneth’s house.”
Cousin said, “You should be in the hospital.”
Uncle yelled, “Then get me out!”
Mother yelled, “You’re not in the hospital!”
I asked, “But why are you here?”
Mother said, “Your uncle said he would agree to go in the hospital if you went with him.”
Gillian said, “You’re not going to the hospital. You’re with me.”
Uncle cried, “I’m scared of going to the hospital by myself!”
Gillian said, “Get someone other than Kenneth. He can’t go.”
Uncle frowned. “Wait a minute! Who are you?”
Mother said, “Yes, I’m wondering the same thing. Who the hell are you?”
I said, “She’s Gillian. We met at the cafe.”
Cousin asked, “What cafe? Do they serve raviolis?”
Mother said, “She’s been shaking your hand this whole time and her grip is rather tight. Are you sure she’s from the cafe? Isn’t she from a credit office and she’s not allowed to let go of your hand until you sign some paperwork?”
Uncle said, “I need you to go to the hospital with me, Kenneth, and I don’t want your friend to come with you. That would upset me!”
Mother said, “Let go of my son’s hand!”
Gillian said, “No.”
Mother said, “You’re not holding on forever!”
Gillian said, “Yes, I am!”
Uncle cried, “My wife was supposed to hold my hand forever. Well, it’s a metaphor. She died because she wouldn’t eat my cooking anymore. I used to make steaks and put garlic, mushrooms, granola and strawberries on top. She hated that. She turned off my James Bond movies and put on some music station I didn’t like that played jazz. So, I chased the dogs out of the room and my daughter screamed because they were chewing on her teddy bears. So that’s how things were and my wife died.”
Mother said, “Your uncle is on his medication so he can’t remember what happened. His wife died before the dogs chewed on the teddy bears. It wasn’t their fault. Your cousin was spilling ravioli sauce all over the place. She saw a cooking show where the chef sprinkles Parmesan cheese on some pasta so she thought she’d sprinkle tomato sauce all over her room and it would turn the floor to cheese.”
Gillian nodded. “What kind of cheese were you hoping it would turn into?”
Cousin said, “I thought it would turn into Swiss cheese even though my first choice would be Roquefort. We don’t have any good food at my house so I’ll do anything to turn the house into food.”
Gillian said, “Are you on medication?”
Cousin said, “I hope. All we have around here is a bunch of raviolis and other junk.”
Gillian asked, “You have raviolis here?”
I said, “She meant at her place.”
Cousin said, “I meant the whole world is raviolis!”
I said, “Please listen. This is very strange. If I didn’t know better, I would think you’re all trying to separate Gillian and I.”
Mother said, “I think it would be best if she let go of your hand because you really shouldn’t upset your uncle even more. He’s freaking out as it is and he cannot go to the hospital with both you and her there. He’s jealous you have somebody.”
I said, “How the hell would you know if I have somebody or not? I mean, before you came over here. How would he be jealous of anybody he hadn’t even known existed?”
Uncle said, “I was doing some deep meditation and I was practicing some spells to get someone to fall in love with you. I imagined myself in a cafe and I saw a dog who was walking with a bad foot. In my mind, I wanted to correct that situation. You became the dog with the bad foot and the woman became the walking. I think it worked but maybe I goofed up.”
Gillian shrugged. “It had nothing to do with you. It had everything to do with me and Kenneth.”
Uncle said, “That’s possible but you have to understand that I had a perception and you manifested.”
I shrugged. “I believe it is more that you, uncle, manifested and the reason I was a dog with a hurt foot was because you were the fungus under my toenail.”
Mother stood up. “Miss, you let go of my son’s hand right now!”
Gillian said, “No!”
Cousin shrugged. “Gillian, perhaps my father will let both of you go to the hospital with him.”
Uncle yelled, “I’m not going to the damn hospital but, if I do go, I have to go with only Kenneth!”
Gillian said, “Kenneth, let’s leave. We can walk around for and hopefully, when we get back, they’ll be gone.”
I shrugged. “They’ll stay all night, probably. I know them too well. They spent all that money on the taxi fare and they’ll need money from me to get back.”
She sighed. “I really hope not.”
Mother said, “You hope for a lot that you won’t get.”
Uncle said, “He already has the woman. I’m afraid I did the wrong spell, Kenneth. You’re stuck with her for good. She’s like glue.”
I said, “I’m sure that if I really wanted to, I could get away from her.”
Gillian shook her head. “That’s not so. You will never get your hand back ever again. It is karmic energy that needs to be locked and fixed in its position.”
Mother ran towards us and, with either hand, tried prying us apart. Gillian’s grip remained strong and would not loosen. Mother strained and grunted. Finally, she yelled, making loud sounds. Gillian’s facial expression became intensely focused as if she was concentrating on a source beyond the earthly. I became extremely nervous and figured finally the whole thing was wrong. I needed to get away from her. Even if she seemed good for me, it was the kind of good that was merely surface level. There was a horror element involved. I had no idea how I would successfully correct the situation but I had an inkling on how to start. I told myself that she and I would go to the park again but the second time would include a plan.
Somehow, the weather became warmer again. However, my emotional ride had been intense and I had felt like I had been drunk. During moments when I had ingested alcohol, if the amount had been a bit much, I would rest and feel like I could not get up. I would be perfectly content staying in bed. I knew I would get up eventually but not yet. Now, the feeling was both similar and different. I appreciated the warm sun. That was a rarity for me. Ever since I was a young child, I preferred the cooler weather. However, a breeze would have urged me to be lazy and sleep right now. The vibe of toasty warm helped bake away my tiredness. I was able to concentrate on a plan so I could get away from Gillian.
The park was close to empty. There was one man walking his dog but no one was sitting on a bench. Though the temperature was close to eighty degrees, the view was not bright but just a bit overcast, as if the weather would be lower again in a few minutes. Gillian and I sat on a bench next to a tree. There was a little shade from where the branches hung above us but I still felt the sun.
I also still felt her hand. The pulsation of energy was strong, enveloping me like a teacher watching my every move. No matter where I went or how I tried to behave, her hand was in strict control. I looked at how her fingers were pressing on mine and I determined that the situation was not easy.
However, I wanted to make the moment fun. I moved my hand in handshake motion and so did she. I noticed she was smiling. She seemed to glow from happiness because of what I was doing. Perhaps her main intent all along was to continue with the handshake.
I looked at her arms and how her sleeves were rolled up, like a worker with an agenda. Since her shirt was tucked in, she escaped the sloppy look people had when they assumed they could roll up their sleeves and that was the end of their responsibility on how to look good.
My mother’s clothes were probably the same garments she owned for the last thirty years. Her blouses had designs similar to wallpaper and were faded from overuse. Perhaps she did laundry on rare occasions but, whenever I visited her, the blouse looked like its last washing had been ten years ago. Her pants were sweat clothes and they always looked dirtier than her blouses. She ate her meals in bed and spilled tomato sauce on the bed and then laid on the tomato sauce. For her to tuck in her blouses would be, in her opinion, pointless because she had no boyfriend and she could care less about how her family or her cats thought of her.
My uncle had a different reason why he would not tuck in his shirts. His sweat pants had large holes in the front where no holes should be and he never wore underwear. He had been married for thirty years until his wife died and he felt satisfied with his love life. He felt lonely sometimes and talked about the possibility of finding another female companion but he also realized he had a lot of problems health-wise, finance-wise and psychologically so he refrained from pursuing romance again. He would watch old movies and look at actresses he thought were good looking and that was enough.
His daughter had been obese ever since she was a very young child. She never was slim and had a hard time finding clothes that fit, let alone her thinking about tucking in shirts. She had colorful blouses that made her look as good as possible but she grew up with people who knew nothing about how to dress well.
I met my uncle’s wife once before she died and she was in a hospital bed under the covers so I did not know how she dressed but, with my knowing the consistency of how the other family members wore their clothes, I imagined she was no different than them. If she had any sense of style, she would have avoided being a part of that family.
I realized I had perhaps an obsessive attitude concerning tucked in shirts and women. However, my attitude was based on my lack of knowing anybody with whom I felt attracted. Gillian also had an obsessive attitude about touching, or at least touching me. I had to break that obsession.
I pulled with all my might, hoping to cause some slack in her grip. Yet, she held extremely firm and would not loosen. I yelled, “Let go right now! For Pete’s sake, I’m not going to run away! We can still date. We can exchange phone numbers. It’s not like I don’t want to see you again.”
“That’s not what this is about! This is connecting energy.”
I stood up and started walking, pulling my hand. However, she stayed sitting, her fingers pressing so tight it hurt. I yelled, “Somebody help me!” I looked around. No one was in the park anymore, not even the man with the dog. I felt trapped, not just physically but mentally. The expression on her face was not anger but a fierce determination. I asked, “Is there any way I can reason with you about this?”
“Are you doing this to control me?”
“I’m doing it to control myself.”
“What if I ever was able to pull free?”
“It won’t happen.”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
She nodded. “This place is freaking you out. Let’s go back to your apartment.”
“Okay.” I figured she had a good idea. We could sit on my bed. Eventually, she would fall asleep.
We walked to my apartment. Surprisingly, my family left. When we entered my room, she looked dreamily at me and said, “We’re attached and I’m happy.”
I asked, “Would you like to hear some music?”
“Sure. Do you have jazz? Any Ornette Coleman?”
“Yes. That was what I was going to play.” I pressed the remote on my CD player which already had The Shape Of Jazz To Come in it. The first song, Lonely Woman, came on.
She smiled. “Let’s sit on your bed. I’m on cloud nine and this music makes me feel romantic.”
“The song is called Lonely Woman. I guess you’re not feeling lonely.”
“Not at all. I feel that I am you.” She closed her eyes.
I decided not to ask anything about if she was tired. She would eventually fall asleep. That was inevitable. I could pull my hand loose then. She would later wake up, see that we were separated and not raise a big deal about it.
She asked, “What other jazz albums do you have?”
“I have CDs. I don’t own albums anymore but one of my favorites is the Prestige double-album compilation of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. I also like Jazz Impressions Of New York by Dave Brubeck and Birth by Keith Jarrett. Lookout Farm by Dave Liebman is awesome and the soundtrack to Jack Johnson by Miles Davis is great.”
“Cool. Can we hear them later?”
“Sure.” I was feeling confident she was getting sleepy. My plan was working.
The next song by Ornette Coleman came on. It was called Eventually. Suddenly, I sensed that Gillian was asleep. I asked, “How do you like the music?”
I looked at our joined hands. Now was my opportunity. Finally, freedom.
I lifted our joined hands and looked at them. The way her fingers pressed against mine was a thing of beauty like a work of art. Was it in my best interest to dismantle the art work?
Suppose I was in a bank and the bank supervisor shook my hand and she was a good looking woman who wanted to keep shaking and never let go. I would think to myself the situation was heavenly because she was a person in finance. I would think about how the Banks, whom I considered my real family, would bail me out with money when I needed it. Then, I would compare that to how the Lynch family asked occasionally for money because they needed extra raviolis and cigarettes.
Then, I felt as though I needed to pull away right now. Would her hand let me? Obviously, her grip would not be controlled by someone not awake.
Before I tried pulling away, I waited to savor what was a most unusual day. I could honestly encounter people and prove to them that my connection to her was real. If someone at the hotel wondered why I was being gripped by a good looking woman, I would let the person wonder because the evidence would be there. The person would understand something that preconceived notions could not explain.
I moved my hand in an up and down motion and said, “Thank you very much. I am pleased to meet your acquaintance. Perhaps we will see each other again sometime. Okay, well good afternoon, or evening as the case may be.”
I must put my mind in a different location so then I can come back to here and deal with everything. I close my eyes. I am at the mall at 8th and Franklin, on the steps where the shade cools me as opposed to the benches in the middle of the outside courtyard where the sun shines unforgivably. The energy of the people is positive and I am transported from a regular humdrum existence to a mellow fine trip.
The Asian branch of the Oakland Library is located close by. I imagine the women who check out books are dressed in various ways, some in boring outfits and some exciting. Many of the college students wear UC Berkeley sweatshirts with their sleeves pushed up. When the bottom hem looks bloused or banded, the sweatshirt can look deceivingly tucked in. However, when the person, a woman, lifts her arms to stretch, the truth is revealed. Most of the time, the sweatshirt will be outside of the pants. However, one time out of fifty, it will be tucked in. When that situation happens, a sense of excitement overtakes me and I wonder how often she wears something tucked in.
I notice several young Asian women in flowery skirts and tucked in sleeveless blouses, standing and talking gently, helping my mood a lot more than the people living in my residential hotel where the ethnicity is mixed but the conversation is negative.
If I could talk with the women standing in the mall, I could imagine one swinging her arms until she catches my hand and the soft energy of her touch starts an intimate positive moment. When it happens, I notice a change in her outfit. She is now wearing a sleeveless down jacket and a thick ribbed sweater with pushed up sleeves underneath. She lifts up her arms, showing her sweater is tucked in. We keep swinging arms. I feel happy.
The conversation goes approximately in a certain way. Lily, in the green sweater and sleeveless down jacket says, “What movie do you want to see?”
Mary, in a flowery skirt and tucked-in sleeveless blouse, says, “How about a spy movie?”
Tanya, in an outfit exactly like Mary’s, says, “I’d prefer to see a comedy.”
Lily asks, “Kenneth, can you please go to the car and get my purse so we can go to the movies?”
I say, “Okay.” I start walking but, when I try to pull my hand out of hers, our hands cannot separate.
Lily frowns. “What’s wrong?”
Mary says, “It seems like you’re stuck.”
Tanya shrugs. “Both of you pull.”
Lily walks to her left and I to my right. We try opening our fingers but they are glued to the backs of our hands. We pull harder but nothing happens.
Mary says, “Is this one of those weird scientific cases we’ve heard about?”
Lily shrugs. “I don’t know.”
Mary explains, “There was a doctor who wrote about two people, a man and a woman, who met at church. They joined hands during Communion and later they couldn’t let go. They stayed stuck like that. The doctor explained there was a divine intervention of energy he could not cure. The two people are still together.”
Tanya says, “Well, how do we know that Lily is not faking this and isn’t letting Kenneth go?”
Lily says, “I prefer we not talk about this!”
I say, “I guess we won’t go to the movies, then.”
Lily shrugs. “I guess not.”
As Gillian keeps her grip intact, even in sleep, I wonder what to do. Is she pretending not to be awake? Now that I have the opportunity, I do not feel that my pulling away would be right.
Her hand on mine is a gift. When I see a mother holding her child’s hand and the child tries to wander off, the mother holds tighter. I imagine Gillian as my babysitter, hired to keep hold of me until my mother comes home.
However, if my mother really had hired a babysitter for me, she would pick someone obese, loud, dirty, smelly and not female. She would not have my best interests in mind.
Gillian has my best interests in mind. Her behavior is the start of a domino effect. Her firm grip will influence other women to grip hands of men they want to hold.
The grip could be called something strange like The Snape. For someone to say, “I just snaped you” would mean the person gave a handshake that lasted until eternity. People would have to watch out before giving their hands because a Snape handshake would be serious business, like a practical joke that lasted forever.
I am not sure if Gillian’s grip was meant to be a handshake. Her grip seemed to be merely in handshake mode. If I pried her fingers open so I could slip my other hand in hers, would that upset the flow of what she was doing? When she wakes up, will she think I was a traitor? I would not want her to feel like that.
Enough is enough. She is asleep. I will let go. That is what she wants me to do.
Wait a minute. I will not let go yet. She could be awake and awaiting my next move and she will get extremely angry.
No, she will not get angry. If she wanted me to keep holding on, she would not have fallen asleep.
I am incorrect. She is not asleep.
Yes, she is asleep. Her sincerity has proven she means what she says.
What if she was never sincere? What if this has all been a big joke and I have been filmed this whole time?
There is no way this could have been filmed or be a joke. It has lasted too long.
It has not lasted long enough. It needs to continue.
It needs to continue for five more seconds only. Then, it needs to stop.
It needs to stop exactly when she says it will stop.
She is not going to say when it will stop.
I must show her I am speaking for her. I will tell her when it will stop by my showing her when it will stop.
She will stop me from stopping her. Everything will stop but the handshake.
The world will be a better place when I stop our handshake.
The world will be a better place if I stop our handshake but it will be that way for others only. The world will be a better place for us if we do not stop our handshake.
I will not know what is best until I break our grip and I escape the handshake.
I will not know what is best if I break our grip and escape the handshake.
One or the other.