I. Letter to James
I think I should explain some things. When we met it was a month into school and things were still supposed to be exciting. Everyone introduced themselves with the same over-flowing enthusiasm and purpose. But for me, the novelty had already begun to fade from the new place - this country, this university where I had to make a home for four years. You see, I had done it for the promise of freedom. In those austere buildings, under the gothic, elongated archways I had found on the Internet, the students in the brochures had gleamed with a mysterious knowledge in their printed grins. Their eyes seemed to say that they had discovered the pattern of their pasts and the direction of their futures. The details were not perfect – but the details were not important. What mattered was that they had been set into motion.
After a while, I couldn’t remember the things people said to me anymore. It was the odd idiosyncrasies that I would mull over later: the twitches of a hand, the shifts of weight from foot to foot. Without these differences, people were no different in this country than the hot one I had left behind on the other side of the world. I saw fragments of the acquaintances I had known in Australia, the same disguised insecurities in quiet thinkers who would never speak up, in booming extroverts who asked a tirade of questions. It was not quite the same, but close enough. Even the strangeness of the American accent faded. Sometimes when I spoke, I was surprised at the way my own words drawled as they came out.
It was the things I’d never thought about, the small, surprising moments that differed. The sky, for one. I had thought that sky-blue was a single shade spread all over the world. Sky-blue in Sydney was saturated and cartoonish. We were sun worshippers there, nobody caring that our ozone layer was thin and patchy, not minding even when their skin turned leathery and burned. But sky-blue in North Carolina was paler and cooler. I never tanned under it. It was disorientating. And yet – all the long-distance calls at 3am, the doubt, the odd frozen smiles on Australian friends when I told them I was leaving, the hours of endless airport sterility, the waiting, constant waiting, among strange faces, ten thousand miles of it, twenty thousand kilometers of it. Without their little idiosyncrasies, people were identical. You couldn’t say things they did not want to hear. You couldn’t ever tell the truth.
So that very first time we met, I dismissed you immediately. You were not exceptionally good-looking or well dressed, your personality neither charismatic nor annoying, nothing that made me take notice. We shook hands in somebody’s dormitory room, and I forgot in the next instant that you existed. And then, some six months after we first spoke, I saw you ambling into the café with the glass windows, while I was waiting in line for my coffee. I was so lonely that afternoon. Over the speakers, they had been playing a song that I recognized, some classical piece of music that I used to know the name of but had forgotten. I heard it every week, back in Sydney, in my old piano teacher’s living room, while waiting for her to finish her lesson with the student before me. Hearing the song made me think of all those hours listening to sonatas in that living room, before I would make my own creaky attempts, and then of my wiry father, driving me week after week to this old woman’s house, waiting quietly in her living room until the hour was up. Suddenly I realized I was not only thousands of miles away from that living room, but also thousands of hours away from the scrawny teenager who read Bach biographies as she waited for her turn at the piano. I learnt the craft until my fingers were supple, and then I simply stopped. My parents pressed a little, but not much. My father never said anything about the hours he had spent ferrying me back and forth. And here I was, listening to this piece of music, suddenly missing home, even though I had been convinced I would not. You came up and greeted me then, while I was awash in cold nostalgia, wondering what I had done to myself. Your expression changed because you had caught something - a flinch? A taste of sadness in the air? I wanted to make you understand why all my life I had a habit of digging my fingers into my thighs, until they were pocked with white marks. But I couldn’t get the words out.
So I told you about the piano lessons and then other meaningless things gushed out, like how the night before I got on the plane, while my parents slept amongst the debris of emptied drawers, I stole the car keys and left. I drove to the large, open soccer field behind my high school, where it was a good and deserted place to think. It was winter then, colder than people expected Australia to be, and I was shivering inside my thin pajama shirt. I hadn’t brought anything warm, not even a towel to sit on.
It has been four years now. We haven’t kept in contact. These days, when I try to pull up your face in my mind, I can’t quite do it with any clarity. Your features blur together, and all I can really hold onto is an impression of dark hair. But you listened without interrupting. And then you told me about the push. It was a way of life, you said, that you adapted to every place. The world was not always kind. There were barriers made of polite manners and fears and insecurities that repelled us from seeking each other out. Like this, people seemed distant and unreachable. But if you decided those barriers did not have to exist, you could find weak spots in it, where people were more open. You could transcend aloofness and make things right. I did not quite understand at the time, but I started to watch you when I could. You were not a particularly tall man, but you had a habit of ambling that was unmistakable. Everyone else at this school adopted the quick, hurried steps, and the pinched frown that was supposed to deflect attention. You invited intrusion, greeting passersby and waving at children. I would be on my way to class and I would look up and there you would be, ambling along, as if you had all the time in the world, as if the streets and the sky and trees were interesting things you had not seen a thousand times before. You were onto something. I could see it. And after you left, I mulled things over, as sly tendrils of pressure began to creep across my shoulders and around my neck, telling me how I should eat and read and speak. I remember the powerful emotion I was under, in that field behind my high school, as I shivered and tried to say goodbye to the familiar things I knew. I felt a blank, relieved joy. It was not any premonition of the future, or the fact that I was escaping the island that made me happy. In fact, trying to imagine the future was like peering beyond a dark veil of nothingness. No, I was happy because a hand that had closed around so many of my friends had paused above me and passed me over. I had evaded its groping fingers.
So I hope you are somewhere in the world, happy and well. Even after you left and I had no idea where you had gone, I still imagined the various ways you might be living, the places you might be ambling, the people you might be finding. I kept the memory of our conversation sharp. And I pushed.