Obscura

September 28, 2002

Obscura

You stand in a dark room gazing down at a round, concave surface perhaps five feet in diameter. On the surface is the ocean, revealed in a slow pan.

It’s like watching a film. But this isn’t a film; it’s a reflection of what you would see at this moment if you stood on the roof of the building looking through binoculars and ever so slowly turned, taking a full minute to complete a single rotation.

First there’s the ocean. Then the beach. Then trees. Then the buildings behind the building in which you stand. And then the shore on the other side of the building. And then the ocean again, and across it.

There are birds above the waves. From the shore these birds are too small to be seen. But here they are plain. Birds above waves.

September 23, 2002

Chronicle

He had a board with letters that he would point to with a stick he held in his mouth. The stick was u-shaped at one end and had a rubber cover so he could grasp it in his teeth.

He had been the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Now he was dying. I learned these things from his wife, who appeared always about to cry, or having just cried, but never did cry, in my presence.

I don’t remember what my job was exactly. Probably feeding him and getting him things. It didn’t last long because he died after just a few weeks. His wife called and said, simply, that I didn’t need to come in anymore.

I only have one real memory of him. We were alone in his study and he was spelling something with his pointer. This may have been my first day. He had just spelled a word I didn’t know, preceded by the words DON’T BE SUCH A, and so I had asked him to spell the last word again. That’s what he was doing. I thought he seemed pissed.

Here’s what he spelled:

N

E

B

B

I

S

H

September 17, 2002

Thing

There was once a basketball player named Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek was ugly but a very good shooter. Whenever he shot free throws, he would bounce the ball a certain number of times, then rub his cheek with his right hand. The gesture was a message to his kids; it meant that he loved them. He did it before every free throw he shot.

If you had never seen Jeff Hornacek shoot free throws, you would have thought the gesture unconscious. A man gazes at something, directing all his attention on it, trying to reduce the world to just this thing and him, and then, without thinking, he absently strokes his cheek as though to brush away a small irritant, or more likely as an accompaniment to his thoughts, which are focused on the thing before him.

I’ve been wanting to find a symbol, a word, a gesture, anything that might stand in the place of the things not said. It would be for you, and it would mean a thing that only you would understand. To everyone else I would appear to be a man, the same man as always, absently stroking his cheek.

September 10, 2002

News

Saturday afternoon, after the mover guy left, I stood in the chaos of my new apartment, boxes everywhere, my desk in pieces in the corner, and said to no one, “I want to go home.”

September 7, 2002

Marathon

I woke ridiculously early this morning given how little remained to be done. The mover is due in an hour and a half and the only things left to pack are the air conditioner (which will be last) and this computer. All the dishes are packed, so I’m eating my breakfast, a banana and peanut butter sandwich, off a manila folder.

I have a question about crying. Is a certain amount of crying necessary to complete the process of mourning, and if so, can it be completed in a single marathon session or must it be done in separate episodes spread out over time?

When I learned to type, I ignored the instructions that came with the program, which said to practice for no more than an hour a day, and instead typed eight hours a day for three weeks straight. Although this approach took longer in total hours, I reached proficiency in fewer days.

I realize there are people who don’t cry at all. What happens when they feel sad? Could it be they never feel sad? Perhaps they feel sad for a moment, then immediately do something to stop the feeling. I know that while packing, I would skip certain songs on the CDs I played. On hearing the opening notes of one, a wave of heaviness would flood my chest and I’d immediately hit the NEXT button. It’s not that I’m afraid of crying; it’s just that not every moment is a convenient time to lose it.

Two days ago in the gym, a song came on the radio about giving love one more chance. This left me no choice but to put down the weights I was holding, walk out of the room, and quietly weep on the stairs.

Because I packed all the utensils last night, I had to spread the peanut butter with my finger – a tricky process because the peanut butter tends to tear off little swatches of bread as you smear it.

I have to end here because it’s time to pack the computer. Now would be a convenient time to listen to sad songs and cry – who knows how long the mover will be? – but I already packed my CDs.

September 5, 2002

China Star

You will find the phone number on the menu, which is affixed with little black magnets to the refrigerator door. I have never bothered to memorize it. It has proved easier, each time, to walk the five paces from my desk to the refrigerator, temporarily memorize the number, and return to the desk and dial. Today, two days from the day I move, I regret this small repeated laziness. If I could turn back the clock, I would memorize the number on the first day and save myself the walk to the refrigerator and back, performed several times a week for two years.

When you call the number, the woman who answers, whose name I still don’t know, will say, “China Star, can I help you?” only her accent will make this sound something like Chhnahsta kunnaheyuh. This doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve dialed the right number. Chhnahsta kunnaheyuh confirms this. Wait for her to say it, then say, “I’d like to place an order to pick up. Broccoli and tofu. Small.”

I realize now that after the first few months I didn’t need to say “small,” since by that point the woman had learned my voice and learned too that I never ordered anything but broccoli and tofu, small. Indeed, I probably could have left out the bit about wanting to place an order and instead just said, “Broccoli and tofu, small,” or even, “Broccoli and tofu.”

Regrets.

Wait at least ten minutes before heading over, to avoid having to stand too long in that cramped little space (China Star is take-out only).

Broccoli and tofu costs $2.75. I get it fried, since the steamed version has no flavor. If you decide to try it steamed, be prepared to pay an extra quarter. I don’t know why the plainer, simpler version is more expensive, but I figure it’s the same reason that it costs more for an unlisted phone number.

Your order should be ready when you arrive. However, sometimes you will have to wait a few minutes while the woman deals with other customers. A total of three times she’s forgotten to relay my order to the cook. I’ve never shown any anger about this, and neither should you. The poor woman works seven days a week, twelve hours a day (thirteen on Friday and Saturday), and must be forgiven the occasional oversight.

We’ve now arrived at the difficult part, the part about the condiments and the fork. If you’re like me, you don’t use those condiments, nor would you dream of eating with a plastic fork when you own nice metal forks that can be washed and reused. The China Star woman includes a fork and a half dozen condiment packages in every order. I don’t know how many orders she fills each day, but it must be in the high hundreds, if not thousands. And each time the same motions: fork in, condiments in, close bag.

It took several months to get her to stop giving me these things. Again and again I asked her to take back the fork and condiments, and each time she responded with a confused and weary look before opening the bag. I tried to make it into a kind of joke, a friendly jesting: “Ha, you didn’t remember this time.” Part of the problem was that she doesn’t understand the word condiments, so I had to be excruciatingly specific: “Please, no soy sauce or duck sauce or hot sauce or fork or anything.” I would accompany this with a frantic hand gesture. The turning point came when I hit on the phrase, “Just the food, please.” Somehow this clarified things for her.

A new thought: You could mention me whenever you request no extras (she doesn’t understand the word extras either; I tried), perhaps by saying something like, “Just the food, please – like that guy” (she doesn’t know my name). Here it would help if you only ordered broccoli and tofu, for that is how she must think of me, as the broccoli and tofu guy. The combination of the two things, the broccoli and tofu and “just the food,” would surely click in her head and you’d be set.

Back at home remove both containers from the bag and uncover the dish. Allow the food to “breathe” (I really do think of it this way) about five minutes. The longer you wait, the more the sauce congeals and (I swear this is true) sweetens. As with many of life’s true pleasures, it’s best to wait for a time before indulging.

September 3, 2002

Egg

Last night Rachel talked on the phone with her nieces. The first thing Sydney asked was if Rachel and I are going to get married. Rachel said no, holding back tears. “We’ve decided to just be friends,” she said.

Sydney is almost six and, although precocious, doesn’t understand certain things.

“Is Michael going to live at your apartment?”

“No, Sydney, we’re going to live in different apartments.”

“But you’re going to sleep over, right?”

“No, Sydney, we’re not going to sleep over anymore.”

Rachel tried various ways to explain what a breakup is, but the concept was new to Sydney and thus difficult.

A sudden memory: At a family dinner this past spring, Sydney asked if I was going to sleep at Rachel’s that night. I nodded and smiled, for Sydney is obsessed with sleeping arrangements. “I know what that means,” she leered, and for a moment I believed she did. “It means you’re going to wear her pajamas!”

Hannah got on the phone after Sydney. Hannah is three and half. She asked if Rachel wanted an egg.

“No, thanks, sweetie. I already ate.”

“Are you sure?”

“Well, okay.”

It’s not clear if Hannah tried to squeeze bits of egg through the tiny holes in the mouthpiece or if she merely held some egg there for Rachel to absorb through the wire. Whichever was true, Rachel nearly lost it.

“Why, thank you, Hannah,” she said, making appreciative chewing sounds. “This egg is delicious.”