The Things We Mean To Say

This piece was published in Duke Magazine in the 2016 Special Edition.

I am always trying to find the right word for things. It bothers me when I say annoyed instead of frustrated, or tired instead of exhausted. Perhaps this is a remnant of my childhood, growing up hot Australia, where my Chinese parents had settled on for its good education and weather.

English slipped from my tongue like water - but not for my parents. My mother signed herself up for weekly English classes, and in the evenings pulled her mouth around the o’s and the r’s, the quick brown foxes and the lazy dogs. The language never took hold. I translated for my mother at grocery stores, parks, parent-teacher meetings, and phone calls with the electricity company. When she gestured helplessly at my teachers, my cheeks would redden and I would mutter quick apologies. Even so young, I understood that the language that slipped so easily from my lips held the key to a belonging that she would never receive. But that was how we lived back then, with the hot desire to assimilate and the cold knowledge that it was impossible. I saw how the stony faces of the people who received my mother warmed when I opened my mouth, and saw again how stories spun from the right words made my white classmates look at me with respect. I clung to English fiercely, and it yielded me everything I’d ever wanted; the friends, the belonging, the creamy acceptance letter from a university in the woods of North Carolina.

So it astonished me when I found myself on a date with a man who could not speak my language to perfection. He was a tall German student, new to the States, whose face had an angelic quality. We agreed to meet up for drinks.

“So how do you get around Durham? What’s your..uh...vehicle?” he asked me, over a glass of stale wine. “Do you drive a bicycle?”

I hesitated, thrown off. The mixed verbs and word choices sounded wrong to my ears. A cruel thought flashed into my head. We are too different. He will never understand me.

He must have seen something in my face. “Did I say something wrong? I’m sorry… I know my English isn’t perfect. ”

An image drifted up; my mother, practicing her verbs until late into the night. I was suddenly ashamed of myself. “No, I’m sorry, it’s not your fault.”

“It’s hard to move to a new country,” he said. “I wish I was better.”

“It’s not a problem,” I said. “I know what you mean.”

I saw suddenly, the trappings of communicating in a language that you will never fully inhabit – the subtext, undertones and unspoken rules that you must know to have a chance at being embraced. I was measuring Fabian, just as people had measured my mother and found her wanting. And yet, with Chinese at her disposal, I knew the vivacious, charming woman my mother was. I had searched constantly for the right words, but they were as much a lock as they were a key. It was the meanings that mattered, in the end.

A year later, I know just enough rudimentary German to embarrass myself. Hallo, I say to Fabian, Ich bin Bella! He cringes, but I know he is secreted delighted to hear me try his native language. I will never know the glib part of him that speaks unconsciously, intuitively, freely. But there are openings to learn, like when he revealed that my feelings of weariness for the world, which I could not explain, had a name in German after all: weltzschmerz.

And there are those sweet, clear moments, like the warmth of the sun on your neck or the feel of a hand in yours, or the sadness when you miss a loved one, when we look at each other and say nothing, because there are no words that are enough, because only silence can live up to the things we mean to say.


The most idealistic I have ever felt was the summer I turned 21 in a small but famous city called Oxford. I was there to take a class on Victorian literature and essentially enjoy the benefits of taking an Oxford course without actually having to take an Oxford course. It was my first brush with the culture of the ancient empire that spawned the inception of my own home country. It seemed the city, imprinted with the ideas of the brightest minds in history, was built for learning. It was possible to sit where C.S. Lewis once sat and get a pint of beer. Of course, there were papers to be written and criticisms to be read, but mostly it was a time of late sunsets and long walks in grassy meadows and Pimms filled to the brim with cut strawberries. I met many people. The locals kept telling us that the warm summer nights were unusual and wouldn’t last, but they did—all summer long.

When I returned to Duke, I tried desperately to hold the entire experience and all I had learned close to me. I put up photos on my wall, read a lot of Emily Dickinson and tried to see the best in people. If I had a bad day, I would put on some Hot Chip and dwell on better times. But the familiar faces and places kept slipping away into that obscurity where forgotten memories go. Oxford became something more than a place; it became something to strive for. I was determined to go back.

A year later, I did. I was working in London, in an internship I had found after months of cold-calls and emails. I took the X90 north-west with my best friend and watched the green grass roll past. My heart was pounding. Then we were on High St and all of it was right there. A strange pain settled in my chest. Still there were the tourists in their chattering masses and the beige, towering walls. Still there was the busker who sang Fleetwood Mac. Still there was the coffee shop that I had loved with all my caffeinated heart. But the faces behind the counter were foreign to me. Where there once had been construction was now a shiny set of stairs. I gathered the courage to ask about the barista whom I had befriended a year ago. The new girl shook her head and told me he had moved to Germany.

Here’s the thing about time: it stops for no one. The city had stayed much the same, but each little change that I had not lived through was a tiny adjustment that pushed it further away from me. I had thought that I could recreate the memory of a place. But being there was like being in someone else’s dream. It was not my Oxford anymore. The old faces, the old friends, they had taken their own parts of Oxford and they had moved on. I still loved the city with its endless pubs and romantic atmosphere, but now it was only just a place to me, albeit a place with too many good memories. Time had been passing all along, and I had not been living it in real time. I had been living in the promise of something else: a time and place that simply no longer existed.

Our experience of time can be a powerful coping mechanism. As I begin my senior year, I am reminded all the more of how frightening it is to not know what is ahead. It is tempting for me to live in the glow of good times in order to get over this. But of course, it is possible to live in the past so deeply that it consumes you. Places are air-brushed, people are idolized, and we think about could-haves and should-have-beens. In itself, that is not bad, but to live in the past is to inescapably exist with fragments of regret.

Should we live in the promise of the future then? This is something we at Duke are particularly good at. We often plan our futures out to each scheduled hour, leaving very little doubt about what comes next. Foresight is an amazing knack. If there are goals to achieve and dreams to attain, living this way is the path to success. However, it inevitably robs us of a little of the novelty of living in the immediate present. It rests on the idea that, one day, we can stop the ceaseless striving because we will have fulfilled our ambitions. It suggests that the events of our lives are not only predictable but controllable. I don’t know if that is true.

The past doesn’t have to color every decision we make. The future does not necessarily have to be known for happiness to be found. Why had I been so happy at Oxford? I suppose the irony of it dawned on me after I had thought over it some. That summer was the closest I had truly been to living in present time. I was happy at Oxford because I never knew what was around the corner. I was happy because the things I had done in the past did not matter. What was important was the day-to-day—the books I was reading and the sun in the mornings and the people I encountered. Things made sense, for a brief time, because it felt as if I was living exactly as I was supposed to. It’s how I imagine it’s supposed to be when you are young and naïve and the world is still tender, still undiscovered, still fresh. And we are. And it is.

The power of alone

There are some things I have learnt to expect when traveling through European hostels. The wifi will likely be spotty in the upstairs rooms. One of the hostel bedmates will inevitably snore.  A group of rowdy Australians will probably appear in the communal living room when least expected. And if traveling alone, long wait times and daunting groups of people can sometimes mean that there are hours and hours stretching ahead where you must keep your own company.

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The man next to me on the tube is reading The Evening Standard. He has tattoos on his arms, but I cannot see what they are. He flicks a page; the tip of a wing peeks through. The more stations that pass, the more I am curious. The man himself is non-descript, handsome in a washed-out, vague way. He scratches his wrist absently as he reads. I must know! We are speeding towards Victoria. I cannot explain why, but I am seized with panic, as if time is running out. What if he gets off at the next stop, and I never know?  But the cardinal rule! Thou shalt not speak unto strangers on the tube.  A hot courage surges through my body- and suddenly my lips part. I blurt out a question. 

He looks at me, as if snapping out of a daze. As he considers me, I gape helplessly. The woman across me sniggers. Then - the moment passes. He shakes out his arms and shows me in detail. Now I see: they are doves, made from dark lines and grey shading. They wind from his wrists to his forearms. 

"One on each wrist," he says. "They mean: swift hands." 

The tube is slowing again: Victoria. The man gets up, and the doors zip open. 

"Swift hands." I say, as a way of farewell. He looks back and nods, just once. He steps out. The doors zip close.


Growing Pains

Sydney summers are bone-dry and oven-hot. In the thick of it, when the thermometer creeps up, life becomes about nothing but the heat, everywhere, and how to get away from it. The air itself begins bending in a kind of shimmer; squint hard enough and suddenly one becomes dizzy. Braving the external elements is like entering a blast furnace, a clean burn that purifies and blackens. If I ever ran outside of the comfortable AC, I would feel my flesh puckering in shock for the first few seconds. The sweat would immediately well up and trickle down my neck. I was always sure that some part of me was cooking.

It was on one of these days that my father called me to him, while I was playing outside in our yard. I was five years old, sitting in the lower boughs of the macadaemia tree in our backyard. I had an odd affection for this tree with its peeling bark and dry, crackled leaves, and I gave it a name – a name that I now forget. Nestled in these leaves were clusters of dark, creamy nuts that I would pluck off and try my hardest to crack. I was collecting them seriously, when I heard my name. I loved my father; I came running into the shaded, cool living room.

The blinds were half-drawn, to keep the room as cool as possible. My father was sitting at the long, wooden table, a tall glass of floating ice cubes nestled in one hand. He had been working on something; littered around him were piles of paper with black ink crawling over them, no more interesting to me than lint on the floor. I wish I had looked at his face in that moment. What had he looked like? I flounced towards him in one of the big-skirted things my mother liked to dress me in. He pulled me onto his lap, this tall, thin man who looked younger than he was and could never quite put on weight, and balanced me on his knee. I have never forgotten the feeling of his arms around me in that curiously cold room, how small I must have been to fit within them, how protected. We stayed like that for a few moments. Soon I fidgeted, wanting to go outside again, wanting to climb my beloved tree and go higher. I didn’t quite understand what was happening. But I said nothing. Even so young, I sensed a solemnity hovering in my father’s mood that was not to be disturbed.

“This is the last time I’m going to hold you like this,” my father said, after a while. “You’re getting too big now.”

He put his lips to the top of my head briefly, ruffled my ponytail and set me down. His fingers were still cold from the chilled glass. I ran back to the sunlight and the heat and the fun of the day.

A few days later, my mother came home from the hospital with my  red-faced, shrieking brother in her arms, and it was chaos for a while. My limbs began growing like watermelon vines, spiraling out in all directions. I had my first day of school, spending lunch periods tumbling around the schoolyard with new friends in make-believe worlds. I gave a boy at school an apple from my lunch box, not quite understanding why; not yet. I was first, a head taller than my mother, and then up to my father’s chest, shoulder, and chin. I was much too big now. I was talking about college in United States, pretending not to see the frightened looks my parents gave each other. Even three years later, when I turn at the security gate of the airport to exit the country yet again, my mother will pat my arm, and my father will place a hand on my shoulder, and that is what passes for goodbye in our family. We don’t speak very often; every two weeks, in the middle of the night after I give up on homework, I will click on the pale-blue Skype icon, and see my parents’ faces through a blur of of grainy pixels. Somehow, the connection is always bad. When my father says my name, I hear the edge of controlled excitement in his voice, and it steeps me in an ancient whisper, a distant clinking of ice cubes. Why had I not looked at his face?

That kind of lifestyle

Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night and the events of daily life are crowding my mind, I have a vivid memory of a little café in Oxford. Tucked away in the side streets of a city brimming with tourists, it was a place where the espresso was rich and the music eclectic. You could sit for hours and watch old professors, hippy students, shy teenagers on their first date and, once, a man with the longest hair I’ve ever seen. I loved that little café more than I would admit, casually mentioning it in conversations until my friends would roll their eyes and say, “Bella, not that coffee shop again.” What? They had pretty good blueberry muffins.

But I digress. I loved this place most because it was there that I discovered one of the most important lifestyles I’ll ever find--the lifestyle of kindness.

Being kind. Sure, I try to be nice to others. I’m polite. I volunteer sometimes. Isn't that enough?

But what I saw went beyond the courteous niceties that we all practice. It’s an outward way of looking that projects attention away from ourselves and into the world. It’s paying for the person in the coffee line who forgot their wallet and is getting flustered. It’s listening to someone who thinks they messed up and telling them it’ll be okay. It’s noticing the woman crying in the corner and wordlessly putting a packet of tissues in front of her before moving on.

I saw all these acts and more unfold in front of me. The strangest thing was that these moments of kindness were from one stranger to another, people who didn’t know each other but simply found a moment to be kind. One night, as the café was closing, I lingered, wanting to finish the last pages of a book. “Oh, take your time,” the barista said as he began stacking the chairs. “A few minutes won’t make too much difference to me.” Perhaps it was the tone of his voice, something infinitely warm in it. Or perhaps it was because I knew he had been there since 7 a.m. and should have kicked me out 10 minutes ago. “Thank you so much,” I said, touched. “Seriously, thank you. You don’t have to be so kind.”

He looked at me for a moment and smiled. “Yes, I know. But it’s nice to be nice, isn’t it? Something that only takes a little effort from me really might mean the world to someone else. The world is a better place when we all give a little to each other.”

And it was sentimental and it was cliché but it was true. I know, because after that conversation I endeavored to bring kindness into my daily life, to think not less of myself but of myself less. I watched people who were better versed than me at finding instances where one could comfort or care for another, and I tried. I found that there was a special joy in every day that came from giving without expectation or fear of awkwardness. It was a good life, reader.

Then I came to Duke and I forgot about that little café and that conversation. It wasn’t that there weren’t kind people here--on the contrary, behind these Gothic walls lie exquisitely compassionate people whose kindness has often saved my sanity. I would dare say, however, that people are less kind here. Who could blame them? The competitive college culture does not promote a lifestyle that focuses on others, not when there are classes to take and futures at stake and many of us are competing against each other for higher GPA’s, better jobs and more profitable futures. It is easy to be selfish when we’re surrounded by the urgency of success. In fact, being selfish is probably the rational decision if we want to survive the game of life.

I want to reject that mentality. It’s hard, especially when the desire to achieve has been ingrained in all of us from a young age. Sometimes I see so much potential for kindness at Duke because I see so many people hurting. Don’t you? We’re so good at being kind to the disadvantaged kids on our summer programs or the struggling community in Nepal. Let’s not stop there, though. Let’s bring that kindness to Duke and make it a lifestyle.

Let’s be that genuine person who compliments others when they’re doing something right and holds doors open for people. Let’s actually smile at people and ask how they are, no really.

Let’s give a little and I promise Duke will become a better place.

I am going to try again. Will you try with me?

When you forget how to live

This article was first published in the Duke Chronicle 7 Nov, 2014

Sometimes when I need to relax, I like to take my tacky purple bicycle and go for a ride downtown. It is not a glamorous way to travel, and within minutes, the hills in Durham reduce me to a quivery, sweaty wreck, but even so I feel an immense lightness the moment I begin pedaling. Everything falls away and I forget that I am a Duke student with midterms to take and papers to write and responsibilities to uphold. It’s easy to forget since I have to focus on what’s ahead of me, if I don’t want to get run over by some sedan. And there’s nothing quite like flying down Chapel Drive, the breeze tangling my hair (er, the breeze underneath my helmet, safety first kids!), and watching the gorgeous gray stones blur on either side. I see the shapes of things and the colors, and I feel the breath raspy down my throat and the energy in my legs and for a few minutes, I am so intensely aware of the sensation of living. It’s quite glorious.

I don't always feel so in tune with my surroundings. In fact, I cherish the moments when I feel like I'm truly present because, most of the time, I'm not. My consciousness is constantly somewhere else, distracted. I realized I had spent so much time inside my own head that I had not been alive for very long at all. 

What I had been doing was existing. I was walking to class and thinking about why he hadn’t texted me back, or eating with my eyes glued to the Facebook newsfeed, or sitting with friends and making little mental to-do lists. I was participating in the real world, while listening to the imagined judgments of others, the voices of my own insecurities. Sometimes these voices would even stop me from acting naturally, because I was afraid that others would judge my state of existing and find it subpar. 

And this was what I thought it meant to live. 

And this is how I feel so many of us live. Not in the present. Not alive. Take a walk on the Main Quad and there are too many people whose faces are frowning in concentration, eyes faraway or focused on the brightness of a screen. We have learned to multi-task and plan and think ahead while still going through the motions of life. 

We've projected our minds to be in other places so that it's almost as if physical presence doesn't matter anymore. 

I believe this kind of detached existence is why, on a campus with 6,000 other students, it can still be lonely. Maybe this is how for some of us time passes and we’re 19 and then 20, and then 40 and wondering why we still feel discontent. So many beautiful and significant moments might pass us by and the tragedy is we won’t even know—because we never truly lived them. 

I don’t want to just exist and miss the whole experience of living. I want to enjoy the moments—the seconds, the minutes, the hours of conversations with friends and midnight Cookout runs. No doubt I will sacrifice something for this resolution—the efficiency of multi-tasking or the benefit of long-term thinking. Of course, it’s also impossible to be immersed fully in every moment. But devoting so much of my liveliness and thoughts to petty concerns and fears is just not worth it.

In the last few days, I’ve started to do things slower and with more awareness. I’ve tried to relish the significance of every moment, and curious things have begun to happen. The taste of food started to overwhelm me, like the sourness of red wine when I roll it around my mouth or the delicate sweetness of bread. The warmth of fresh sunshine after being inside all day began to feel delicious. I noticed the funny little idiosyncrasies my friends had more—how one twisted her hands and another used different voices with people. 

It was like having a blindfold taken off. I was seeing. I was present. I was living.

Maybe I’m just going through a mad-hippie phase, but I don’t care. Right now, I’m discovering so much joy in the mundaneness of everyday things. I wish you would join me. Life is happening in real time, right now, in all its glorious tastes and smells and sensations. 

So why don’t we live it?

The freedom of full disclosure

First published in The Duke Chronicle on 5 Dec 2014

One of the most brilliant professors I’ve ever met once whispered something to me over lunch that I've never forgotten. “A person with no fear of disclosure,” he said, “has more power than anyone else in the world.” At the time, I could only nod slowly. We had been discussing the death of intellectual thought at colleges, and my own naivety and stupidity had never seemed so obvious. After all, this professor had two degrees from Harvard and a successful career in research. But he had also once told us he thought that professors were the most insecure and narrow-minded people he knew, and because he had been willing to admit this, I trusted him. I did not always understand him, but nevertheless I remembered his words. They had a ring of importance.

As the strangest semester of my life draws to a close, I am beginning to understand. When half the junior class leaves and the seniors move off campus, Duke transforms into a school of strangers again. I found myself hanging out more with the one person I usually avoid—myself. It is surprising how much you do not know about yourself until you are forced to confront it. I discovered, among other things, that techno music is awesome, eating less meat is feasible and that I didn’t want to go to law school after all. How enjoyable it was to get to know a version of myself I’d never encountered before—unapologetic, sarcastic and as weird as they come. 

Yet, the thing about all that alone time is that you forget about keeping up appearances. You forget that you even have an appearance. But of course, we all do. When we speak to each other, we conceal much of our true selves behind a projected version without even realizing it. We smile when we do not feel like smiling. We think things but do not say them. We have secrets we shrink from sharing with others. There are phrases that are polite, and phrases that are blatantly inappropriate. We have gotten so good at concealing ourselves, we do not even realize we are doing it. 

After spending a semester luxuriating in my freedom of expression, I noticed my interactions with people began to feel strangely restrictive. It was almost painful to moderate myself when all I wanted to do was stop filtering and say what was on my mind. Why was talking about class stress acceptable but mental stress awkward? Why did we need to fill in silences, instead of letting them stretch out? There seemed to be infinite social norms I had to comply with and quashed beneath them was my very own soul.

More than that, I developed a fascination with the idea of seeing moments of authenticity—people as they really are, not who they attempt to be. So many of my peers shine in their online personas, in their cheerful photos and pithy celebratory statuses, but what were they really thinking? Their summer internships, their hometown, their social affiliations—these facts I knew, but they were not the crux of their natures. I wanted to know moments when they had been afraid or morally suspect, moments they were proud of. I wanted to know what their insecurities and hopes what they yearned for the most in the world. 

But I would almost certainly never know all these things. How could I even ask? What I wanted was full disclosure. 

And I realized what my professor had been trying to tell me. A person who does not fear full disclosure is one who does not fear the truth. The truth that, while the world tries to hush it up, we are all human. We do ugly, petty things at times and are selfish and give in to temptation. We envy, we lust, we fail. Imperfection is our natural state. And yet so much goes into covering up these shortcomings, as if pretending we are perfect will make it a truth.

It reminds me of a David Foster Wallace quote that still gives me shivers. “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” Practicing a lifestyle of utter authenticity is voluntarily opening ourselves to a new world of hurt. It is disturbing to confront the full scope of our human shortcomings, especially when we like to see ourselves as heroes of our own stories. But it’s necessary if we are to live lives that are not simply concealments of our true selves.

I will never be perfect. And because I am still uncomfortable with that fact, I still cannot offer full disclosure. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like, though. I imagine having conversations about my deepest insecurities with people as easily as I do about my upcoming class schedule. I imagine not having to play the game where the person who cares less is the more powerful one, even if I care intensely. I imagine no shame about my weaknesses or my fears. I imagine the perfect liberty of full disclosure, because there is nothing left to hide.

Early morning reflections

Here where I sit, the witching hour is at 6am. The hush thrums lightly on every surface. Only the earliest morning sun filters through. There are no things, only the shapes of things bulging oddly in the dim light. The chairs lie in their scattered formations. The patterned metal gate slinks around the counter, the chains like a set of teeth. Bared in preparation. You still want to reach through the gaps. Beyond and beyond, tentatively balanced mounds of pastries crowd on the countertops. The cash register is barricaded on all sides by scones. And there on the backbench: the hulking espresso machine, resting on its haunches. Matte black frame and sexy silver sheen. Modernity at its best.

I have always thought of earliness in splashes of color. The cheerful orange of juice in a glass, the whiteness of toothpaste against my cherry-red toothbrush, the rich, deep black of coffee – I was taught like this, because I lived my mornings in between one color and the next, in hurried gulps of vividness and then out the door with only one hand in a coat. But the early bird is variations of grey, its wings grey, its feathers gray, its song spreading dim grayness across the swept floors and tidied shelves. I like this gray. Gray is subtle, gray is honest.

Then at eight, the machines growl louder, the birds outside croak harsher and the gray pulls back its fingers slightly. The elevator cracks open and Rob walks out. He is never surprised to see me this early, just nods and shoots me the Rob special: his sudden sunny smile. It’s a good smile, all perfect teeth and good humor that reaches up to his eyes. I am always dazzled. Rob clicks his tongue once and begins the good work, jangling keys, clicking buttons, wiping tables. The gray shrinks before him – he chases it away in smooth, easy strokes. The steam rises; the line forms. I order first, my soy cappuccino, and then sit to watch how the witching hour bleeds away. Girls in leggings search through the jumbled tray of bananas. Boys in caps, in long socks and crisp, pressed shirts saunter up to the counter. Rob serves them all in a rattling rhythm. I catch glimpses of his smile between arms and shoulders. His arm held high and curved when he pours the milk. The soft muttering, the register ping. And always, the foaming spout’s moderated scream.

After an hour, the how-are-yous and thin, polite smiles begin to grate, so I look away, following the gray as it flees. The windows are ceiling high with wooden ledges, cutouts carved by careful engineers. Outside, the bells ring, and I see the trees reaching up with their naked branches towards the sky in great, elegant sweeps. The roofs of the other dormitories stretch invitingly below and their sloping surfaces angle dangerously down, dangerously fun. I imagine what it would be like to play on them. Running from rooftop to rooftop, gulping in the crispy air, creeping down towards the drop and sitting with my legs dangling over the side. The tiles are grainy under my hands, so cutting and abrasive. Suddenly, the enclosed space I’m in feels unbearable. The glimpse of outside calls to me mournfully, but the windows do not open here. It is a safety hazard, you see.

So the sun tracks across the sky and I sit and watch and sip. Here is a man coming to buy cereal and milk, a plastic fork already held in his mouth, no words necessary, money changing hands – and then he is gone. Here are the candy bins, twenty different kinds, each one foraged into by twenty kinds of people, furtively, guiltily, desperately. Here in my chair, a girl with glasses stewed last night, writing about tax limits in even, careful letters until her head dropped, and again the night before that and before that. Here in this room, strangers at different tables have sipped their coffee quietly, eyeing each other when it is safe but not daring to speak, not quite yet. The Bella Union is fourteen years old, and here I sit daily, cupping this soy cappuccino with no foam. A kind of grief overwhelms me at the thought of this history. I gulp my drink, but it is still too hot. It slides down my throat in numb, scalding streams and I choke until tears prick at my eyes, the bitterness, the burn. Even then, I still taste the four packets of Splenda, too syrupy to be real sugar, so sweet, overwhelming, and for a moment I drown, there is nothing else in the world, nothing sweeter than this.


Peter Seeing

On Easter Sunday, everyone looks sharp. The pastor in his crisp blue shirt and somber eyes walks across the stage three times. I know this because I am counting each solitary step. Normally I like him, because he yells. He looks at the perfect Christians with their shiny hair and their doll-like smiles and their composed hands and tells them to stop looking so damn cool. He leaps around the microphone, spittle flying, and points fingers at those who point fingers, and tells us money is expendable and love is not. I like him because out of five churches in five years, only he makes me feel like I have a chance at redemption.

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The man at the Publix checkout stares as I pack groceries in. He is middle-aged, with leathery skin, maybe Hispanic. After a minute, he cracks.

“Ni hao” he says. “Chinese? Me too!” He guffaws. “Just kidding.”

I fumble with the tomatoes, dropping one. I don’t speak. I am tasting, in that moment, distant memories of being yelled at while walking along harbors, beaches, the side of some dive bar in a city I don’t remember.

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I want to tell you

The first time I see you, I am alone in a nightclub in Amsterdam, in a bathroom with my hands on either side of a sink. I am trying not to throw up. Even muted, the whole space is pulsing to the harsh synth beats, and only the single, swinging door holds the chaos at bay. It is fresh, my fascination with the dark, rusty seduction of techno music, and all night I have pulsed, pulsed, pulsed. Somehow between one beat and the next, I have lost the very friends who brought me to this underground space.

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