Today’s Saturday, my second favorite day of the week. Friday is the best, because after Friday comes Saturday, which is still fun, but after Saturday comes Sunday, and Sundays make me sad. But this Saturday is special. Dad’s home, mom’s home, and I’m home, all at the same time. Lucy gets really excited when we’re all home together, so we play with her to make her calm down. I throw her a ball, and she runs after it. When she comes running back, we wait for her to give us back her ball so we can throw it again, but she doesn’t want to drop it out of her mouth. She’s being stubborn, like always.
“Matt, I’m going out today, wanna come?” Mom told me people wink when they have a secret. Dad doesn’t wink, but I know what his secret is. I know exactly what it is, because he always asks me this same question, and I always give the same answer. “Yeah”. I try not to sound too excited, even though this is my favorite part of my second favorite day of the week. He tells mom we’ll be back in a couple of hours. (My teacher says “a couple” means two, only two, and never three. But sometimes, when dad says “a couple hours”, he means three or four or five.) Mom tells him she needs something from the store, I don’t know what, and I run to get in his truck.
As we turn out of our neighborhood and onto the big road that leads to the highway, I hear a weird sound coming from the front of the truck every time it makes a turn. Dad’s truck is a big mystery. How does it know where we want to go? It’s so weird. And it’s worse, too, because I’m in the back seat, so I can’t even take a look myself. If it was not the most important thing in the world for my dad to give me an explanation, I would keep my mouth shut. I try really hard, but I can’t think of anything else more important in the world than the answer to this question, so I tell myself to be brave.
“Dad, how come the truck always knows when you’re gonna turn?” I ask. “Huh?” “Like, when you’re gonna go left, or when you wanna go right, the car always makes some sound, like it already knows. How does it know, dad?” Dad, even though he knows a lot of big-people stuff, says he doesn’t know what I mean. I look down at the floorboards and make a decision to stay quiet. Some mysteries, I learn, nobody can solve. We pass by the hardware store, get gas at the gas station, and buy milk at the grocery store, and I watch all this happen without making one single sound. Finally, we get to the bookstore, and I forget about the mystery from earlier.
“Let’s go,” he says. To get to the kid’s section, you take seventeen steps forward, turn left, and then count 43 (but sometimes 42) steps to the left. Dad goes over to the adult section. I guess he likes those books better than all these kid books, but I don’t think he likes any books that much. He’s kinda like a mystery, too.
I see the toy trains they always have in the kid’s section and I jump in one. Last week, there were a bunch of other kids playing here, and I was too shy to ask my turn. But this week, I’m the only kid here. When I’m done in the toy train, I get up and start looking for my new book. It smells like books everywhere, like old trees and pancake syrup. I take one book from the highest shelf I can reach, and flip through its pages. They’re sticky when you touch them and move from page to page, but in a good way. So many books, but which one is mine?
My eyes land on a big, heavy book called Egyptology. I open it, and I’m astounded by everything that I see. It’s about this far-away place called Egypt (E-G-Y-P-T) and it has so many things inside to pull out and pull on and pull off. I think if mom was here, she would say this book had my name on it. When she says that, she means that she thinks it’s a good book for me to read. But she thinks some books are too good for me sometimes, because I read them under the covers with a flashlight after she turns my light off and tells me to go to bed, and that’s not allowed.
I walk around the store, looking for my dad and his white sweater, so I can tell him I found the book I want. He is looking at some books that look too long and too hard for anyone to read for fun, or for ever. Maybe one day, I’ll find a book that’s bigger than me and read every page. “Okay,” my dad says. We go to the cash register so he can look in his pocket for his credit card and show it to the man at the counter.
He gives me the bag to hold. As he puts it in my hands, he looks in my eyes. I’ve seen this look before, but not very much, and I don’t really know what it means. It kinda feels like he looks for a long time, but he smiles, too, and it looks like he has a lot of words to say, so many he could put them all into a book, and that book would be bigger than me. But he doesn’t say much at all. “Let’s go home,” he says instead, and holds my hand as we walk to the truck.
I am in my bed, in this dormitory nestled in a cozy corner of Madrid. I didn’t stay up to watch Hillary Clinton become the first woman president of the United States last night, because it would have meant staying up until three or four, and I thought I could celebrate better with a full eight hours of sleep. I am confident, anyways, that my country has not grown irrevocably stupid in my absence.
I pick up my phone by reflex and think to send a text to my friends back home to congratulate ourselves on this historic victory. Their texts already flood my screen, however. I realize with astonishment from these texts that today will be a much different day than I expected, and a hell of a lot more difficult.
A Spanish boy texts me, asking me to weigh in on this North American political development, and all of a sudden it feels weird for him to call it “tu país“. I cannot expect him to understand my newfound truth, that the geographical coincidence of your birth does not necessarily correspond with your allegiances, but I wish he could just read my mind as it changes. I look up on Google how to say “I’m in mourning” in a way I hope understands: “Estoy de luto.” But even when we mourn losses we know we cannot fathom, daily schedules must continue, so I lift myself with a dramatic sigh to get ready for class.
My roommate and I exchange knowing glances. “Did you see already?” I ask. “Yeah,” he responds with resignation. We get dressed, brush our teeth, and go downstairs to walk to the Global Politics course that all students on our program share. On the walk to class, I notice that Madrid’s typical happy-go-lucky sun has given way to a dim grayness. The rain pours with gloom that swells by the minute. Left without the protection of my umbrella, the one I forgot at my old home thousands of miles away, I accept being drenched, because sometimes cities have bad days, just like people do, and sometimes entire countries buckle under the weight of the present moment.
As we enter the classroom, we mumble nervously. But our chatter keeps below a certain decibel threshold, as if we had all agreed to respect a few moments of (almost) silence. Then, as soon as our professor arrives at the podium, all voices stop abruptly, and quasi-silence turns into complete, utter silence. Something has changed in our classroom. Today, it seems that order has been disturbed so greatly, that perhaps our routine will have to change.
“Does anyone have anything to say?” our professor asks.
For a moment, the silence sticks. And then in another moment, I feel uniquely compelled to raise my hand. From my front row seat, I turn around to see that almost everyone else has also felt uniquely compelled to raise their hand at this specific moment, too. Even I, knowing we did not plan our reactions as a class, am left wondering if there was a way we all knew to act as one. The professor is taken aback, but suggests we go one by one so everyone can speak their mind. “There is order in chaos,” she says.
One of my classmates, adopted from Korea, says he’s worried he won’t feel at home at home. Another one of our classmates, her eyes puffier than allergies might explain, expresses that she’s sad Trump’s environmental policies will make the earth burn more recklessly. A close friend, though it seems hysterical in the moment, wonders how irreversible the damage to the Presidency and to the country is.
Our commentary continues. My classmates, my friends, express their fears, their doubts, their lament, one by one. It is as if, by dutifully respecting the right of everyone to speak their mind without interruption, the damage can be undone.
We are all deeply shaken. There are those of us who rattle off a neat laundry list of thoughts, those of us who can eke out only a sentence, and those of us who are eloquent enough to construct an on-the-fly call to radicalization. But everyone’s voice touches everyone’s heart: we are brought together by tragedy.
Soon, it is my turn to speak.
“I am concerned for the LGBTQIA+ community, considering Mike Pence’s prior support for conversion therapy,” I state soberly. “But I also wonder why my parents still want to vote for Trump…” I take a pause to breathe, and the room takes a pause with me. “If they know, why doesn’t it bother them that he doesn’t believe in our right to exist?” I choke down tears. Since they don’t find release, I do not know if the tears are few or many. “How can they say they care about me when they don’t care about us?” I’m scared that I have gone too far, gotten too personal.
My closest friend has to pass up her opportunity to make her own comment. “Skip me for now,” she manages to squeak out. Years after her comment has been said, when we become roommates, she tells me that this was because her eyes became so heavy with the weight of another person’s tears that she could not speak.
Mom Kim is taking me for a ride in her Jeep. She says she has to go to the grocery store. I don’t have to go to the grocery store, but I go with her anyways because she’s fun to be around. I am in Kentucky again, because mom and dad and I come every year to visit our family and celebrate one holiday. Mom says it’s too far to drive there and back for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But I think turkey tastes better in Kentucky.
Mom Kim isn’t really my mom, of course. She’s just my mom’s sister. But when I was a baby, I had to stay with her for a few months while mom and dad were away at training, and I started to call her Mom Kim because I couldn’t remember who my real mom was.
I don’t remember any of it, but my mom told me I cried after she came to say it was time for me, for us to go home. How was I supposed to know? I still call my mom’s sister Mom Kim, anyways. It’s easier to say instead of Aunt Kim, because I haven’t figured out if aunt is supposed to sound like ant, like the bug, or awhnt, not like the bug.
We have to find a way to pass the time, or else the hour-long ride to Food City will be too boring. Mom Kim always knows something fun to do. “I’m gonna teach you how to talk redneck,” she said. “Because you talk like a Yankee!” What a funny word. Yank-e. I think that could be a fun new toy. Maybe a big letter E, plush you know, like a teddy bear, with some strings attached, for yanking. And it’ll have a catchphrase when you do the yanking, like “Yank yank” in a funny voice, or something like that. I’m still working on it.
“Teach me teach me!” She tells me, in the voice she calls her librarian voice, the one she uses when she teaches at school, to repeat after her: “We live in the holler.” So I do as I am told, repeating after her and trying my hardest even though I don’t know what it means: “We live in the holler.”
But she says I say it in my Yankee voice, which is different from a library voice, and also different from a redneck voice. “No, not like that. Say it like me: we live in the holler.” I try again: “We live in the holler.” “That’s better,” she says. Something tells me though that she doesn’t think it was much better. I practice for a bit on my own. We live in a holler, we live in a holler, we live in a holler.
“Mom Kim, what’s a holler?”
My alarm buzzes crisply at seven A.M., reminding me to take a shower and get ready for German class. Like yesterday, and like the day before, I feel very strongly that I would rather close my eyes again than feign interest in academics. My alarm falls into an obsolescent silence, and I fall back into slumber.
I wake up again, to my dismay, confronted by a midday light whose rays cascade into my window. Germany in January is very cloudy and very wet, but today, creation has chosen to shine on the sharp, cold faces of Northern Europe. Although the weather has changed its tone, I have not changed mine: it seems that, on sunny days, I long for the dull tones of clouds, and on cloudy days, I wish I could get myself out of bed so as to greet the sun.
I do get out of bed, but with the sole purpose of blocking the light. To shut the blinds, one must grab the handle that lies on top of the radiator, stick the handle in a designated hole next to the window, and turn to the right. I grab the handle, stick the handle in its corresponding hole, and turn to the right until the final most stubborn flecks of bitter copper no longer may enter, and all is black once more.
I shower and hope it may do me some good. It is mindless. Having showered, I feel dry and empty, like before, but now with the faint aroma of an unfamiliar body wash. I brush my teeth and then try again to get the gunk out of the malfunctioning sink, an activity I repeat every day as if mandated by a strict religious creed.
First, I use one of my two pieces of silverware to dig through to the bottom of the pile. The fork does not work. I switch to the knife, but it is also unsuccessful in making more than a small dent in the mound of gunk that clogs the drain. I try to think of another method, one that will show my increased determination, if not bringing higher odds of success. I shove the bottom of an old toothbrush in and out of the drain methodically: it goes in for three seconds, then I take it out, and after I shake the gunk off to dwell at the sides of the sink’s basin, I repeat the process. I am convinced my luck is gone.
I am left staring at the drain, feeling both tired and dauntingly awake, fixated on the black mass hidden in its depths. It is as black as my room that is cut off from the light, but I much prefer the darkness I see when I am prostrate in bed, so I return to my bed to lie once more. The laundry machine in the dorm doesn’t work and going to a laundromat seems like a lavish chore, so the sheets are greasy, and soon, my fresh shower feel will evaporate into the grease of a bed whose sheets are sour from overuse.
I pick up my book. Eine kurze Geschichte der Menschheit: A short history of humankind. This book, I had to buy. My attempts to borrow books from the local library failed, because I didn’t have the correct documents. In a bureaucratic paradox, I was informed that it is also, I’m sorry to inform you, Sir, impossible for you to obtain the required documents for library privileges during your brief stay. Thinking they must have removed the right to read from the list of internationally enforceable human rights, I was forced to create a private collection.
I bought Eine kurze Geschichte der Menschheit with the specific intention that I would be reading a book in its original German. This way, I would unlock hidden German secrets that would rub away my Anglo prints, and maybe I would unlock the keys to performing the German psyche. Maybe, I predicted, it would even make up for my absences in the German language course I had booked so eagerly months prior. I imagined each new page as a brick in a cozy little house full of German secrets, a house that would grant asylum from my past. On page 230, I found out that the author originally wrote the book in Hebrew.
I read on anyways, learning about hunters and gatherers and their daily lives. That they only hunted for as long as was necessary, usually only for about three or four hours a day. Then, they had time to spend with their tight-knit circle, recounting tales both didactic and amusing while feasting on their gains. What a world, I think, a world that lacks the word for “human rights” but protects a human’s right to idle.
To think how Germany was before Germany was. To think how the seven dwarves, national heroes unaware of their national allegiance, hosted Snow White with such hospitality and community spirit. Or to think of idyllic pastures marked only by great verdant expanses, the only sound that of bulky and impractical Alpen musical instruments played for no special occasion. Words like Eichhörnchen or Sauerstoff, lexically ridiculous, sound like relics of this past.
I wonder if my oscillations between Heimweh, a pain for home (an emotion felt most strongly by people who know what home is), Fernweh, the wish to be far, far away (farther away than your latest escape attempt has brought you), and numbness to the past and present (perhaps the most quintessential of German anti-emotions) represent an understanding of the German psyche deep enough to warrant German citizenship.
I put the book down, feeling guilty about squandering this special time in Germany. I prepare to turn the blinds to investigate the possibility of an exploratory walk. I grab the blind-turning handle, turn the handle in its designated hole near the window, and turn to the right, turning and turning until it is suddenly day again.
I see noxious gray fumes descending in the sky from factories located on the outskirts of Heidelberg, where space and regulations permit them to cough out their debris. I hear the raucous noise of transit: the car, the tram, and the bus fighting for primacy in the street. I see the sun, but it reflects poorly on the crowded landscape, showing how distant these pastures are from past virginity.
At least here in my room, I can see as little as I like. Or at least it is mine temporarily, assigned to me for my temporary habitation between the dates of 01.01.2020 and 31.01.2020 (as stipulated in my contract). From the outlook of the window, I decide I have seen enough of the outside world for two, perhaps even three days. I grab the blind-turning handle, turn the handle in its designated hole near the window, and crank the window blinds down until the last morsel of reality is, again, without trace.
My mom likes plants so much that she keeps them inside and outside, trying her best to raise them despite not being a natural gardener. They linger in the corners of rooms, embroider the mantle of the fireplace, greet us at the window. Large bushes surround the outer perimeter of our backyard, flowers sprout in the front yard, a weeping willow weeps near the mailbox.
“Mom, how are things in the holler?” I ask, watching her as she waters the plant in our dining room.
A holler is where my mom’s family lives, and the word only makes sense if you say it with your “r” a little bit countrier and you’ve been to a place in the mountains of Appalachia that one could call a holler. In Yankee language, I would probably translate it as a small rising hilly region between two valleys. But, in this situation, it just means I’m asking my mom how the closest family members we have are doing, the ones who live ten hours away by car, hours that seem to get longer and longer each year as my visits dwindle.
“They’re good,” she says. “I think Mom Kim is mad at me.”
“Oh, the usual.” So, it seems, our discussion will end, because I am too young to be involved in the daily intricate dramas of sibling quarrels, and too naïve as an only child to know how to respond.
“Mom, do you miss Kentucky?” Her gaze does not move from the plant for a solid minute. She may be pondering, or maybe she is concerned this plant doesn’t have enough sun to grow tall. Maybe she is surprised by the urgency of a conversation she doesn’t want to have. I cannot tell, so I wait for her to break the silence.
“Sometimes…but I never really liked it there.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s kind of depressing. There’s nothing to do, no jobs, and there’s a lot of issues. I always wished I had grown up near the beach, maybe in South Carolina or something.”
My mom must think that in land that is flatter, much denser with people, and void of any geographical form similar to a holler, she can grow higher.
Maybe all the plants that surround us, whose exhalations sweeten our air, are just artificial roots to replace the ones my mom ripped out of soil she called arid.
The air cannot be filled with hope, because it is full of tedium and discomfort that recirculates every two to three minutes between the aisles and through the narrow rows of seats. If there is hope, it is hope that I smuggled from pre-boarding zones, before security processes grabbed at and confiscated my feelings from the ground. Perhaps that’s why this plane ride does not feel especially glamorous, but more like the tedium of procedure. Germany, Deutschland, by any name an escape.
My ears filled with distraction, I listen to carefully curated travel playlists, I listen to German podcasts, undecided if this constitutes well-needed language practice or simply a superfluous refresher to remind myself of an already formidable linguistic allegiance. If movies run before my eyes and content crowds my brains, I have no room left to consider the fleeing inherent in flight. To cover all my bases, I eat my on-plane meal with care, prolonging its duration to keep my sense of taste as occupied as my senses of sight and sound.
Finally, we land. I stand up, resolutely determined to have first access to the overhead bins. I pull out the large puffy jacket my mom bought me in preparation for the cruel anonymous cold. If she could not be there to hold my hand and guide my journey, she wanted to at least know I would dress myself appropriately. It’s bulky on my body and makes me sweat as I run anxiously through the airport looking for my connecting flight from Frankfurt to Berlin. It is heavy on my body and heavy in my hand when I decide not to wear it any longer.
I run through the airport. I see Europeans with petite modest baggage, and it makes my transatlantic haul feel giant and irresponsible. I sweat with the weight of my jacket in my hand and wish I could make it disappear. I dodge couples, I skirt past baby strollers with the fear that I will miss my flight. But I have to pass through border security first, and my thoughts head for the worst. What if there are long lines and I am chosen for a surprise inspection and they decide I don’t belong in their land? My worst fears are assuaged: the line is short, and in a few short minutes I am in front of a border security guard. Thankfully, it is the one that looks nice and handsome, and not the one I was dreading getting in front of.
There is no hiding behind my blue-bound American passport.
“What brings you to Germany?” he asks bureaucratically in the language of frank commerce.
“I’m taking a language course in Berlin.” This is a new person I create, a person separate from myself. Because I am really going to Heidelberg to take my language course and will only stop in Berlin for a couple of days. Who is to know what truth comes out of lies?
“Viel Erfolg!” he says. I am surprised that he has changed to German. His smile, welcoming, is contagious, and makes me feel at home, zuhause. “Danke,” I say, and go to my gate. The flight attendant announces, in a German that I understand without effort, our flight from Frankfurt to the capital, to what she calls the Hauptstadt. I can’t decide if I am listening in on a conversation I am not supposed to hear, or if I am intentionally included as a member of the audience. I board the plane, my brain having switched itself to German to mold itself into its new surroundings, and ask myself auf Deutsch where I shall abandon my jacket once I land.
The wind blows gently, causing the trees on each side of the pavement to sway in its breeze, back and forth. The cherry blossoms smell fresh and fragrant. My mom, kneeling in front of me, looks at me deeply with a sparkle in her eye. I don’t cry, because I don’t want to cry. On my back, I carry a brand-new backpack, the backpack I said I had to have for this very day. I look around and look at all the other kids and the backpacks they carry. I wonder who will want to be my friend. Although I am smiling, my throat feels itchy, and my nose is stuffy. I have allergies, but the feeling in my throat is different from that. My mom slips a tissue into my pocket, and I hope the other kids aren’t watching.
A crisp ray of light comes out from playing hide and seek behind the gray clouds. I count: one cloud, two clouds, three clouds. “Are you excited?” my mom asks. “Yeah,” I replied. My smile is missing some teeth, but I grin happily. I feel like a kid, I feel like a full-grown adult. In the midst of chatter and tears still wet, the Kindergarten teachers come out of the glass doors expectantly. I see the woman that I met last week who told me she would be my teacher.
“Okay parents, it’s time to say goodbye, we’re going to take the kids inside now!” My mom looks from my teacher back to me. I wonder if she thinks my teacher is pretty. “Have fun, Matt! I love you!” “Love you too, mom!” I say as I walk towards the door. I look back and see that my mom is no longer squatting to talk to me at my height, but is standing up and waving to me with a tight smile. I follow my teacher into the school, out of sight of the windows where I can be seen, and wipe a sour tear off my cheek.
The dark is scary and seeping with secrets. My nightlight is not enough to protect me: in fact, I fear that it may just taunt the monsters and ghosts outside my window enough that, instead of deciding to leave me alone, they feel emboldened to come in. Mom is fiddling with a small radio at the other side of the room. The room is small, but it feels big, like I could be swept up from under the covers in a split second without mom noticing.
She cranks the knob, looking for a musical break in the radio static. She finds AM talk radio but fiddles some more to find something more soothing. The static hisses gently. She fiddles, finding only brief snippets of semi-lucid gospel music and uneventful late-night news. Finally, she lands on something whose signal is crisp and clear. It is jazz.
“You like this, honey?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say, even though I haven’t yet decided if the unfamiliar piano tones are soothing or unsettling. “Good night”, she says, sealed with a kiss.
“Mom,” I call, my voice coming out a bit more desperate than I had hoped.
“Do you like jazz?”
“It’s alright”, she says lukewarm. She exits the room, wishing good night for the last time, and I am left on my own.
It is night, but is it good? My hands pulling the covers up above my nose, I steal a gaze outside of the window. The moon is full, but its light is dim. I turn back to staring at the ceiling, without the courage to let my guard down to sleep. I listen to the piano’s smooth groove go up and come back down, only to go back up again.
An image materializes: a man in a suit seated at the piano in a light green room, following the melody’s capricious hills and valleys with flamboyant moves of his body. The sound is sweet and soulful. This man, he is alone. He is his own accompaniment, expressing his heart with fat white keys and cragged black keys. A voice interrupts, waxy like honey: “We’ll be keeping it smooth for you all night, so don’t turn that dial: you’re listening to Jazz 101.4.” The music begins again.
I listen, eyes closed, watching the man respond to a melody he creates and resolves all on his own. Sometimes his movements are slow and deliberate, his body heavy like lead. And sometimes, by sudden impulse, his movements show great dexterity and coordination, his fingers moving rapidly with his hands and his arms and his body moving as one.
I walk into the green room. The man continues to play with ambition and vitality. His back to me, he seems undisturbed by my entrance, and I imagine that I am observing secretly. His keystrokes are virtuous when they express great melancholy, virtuous when they are explosive like cannonballs in agitation, virtuous when the two contrasting styles intertwine themselves in an ode to the complexities of human emotion.
I listen to him play, I listen to him pound his heart and soul into the keys and strings of the great piano beast. Is it tame? To my great surprise, he turns around and acknowledges me with a nod of his head. Has he known I’ve been here this whole time? He looks back at me once more, his playing uninterrupted. “Life may be green,” he remarks, “but me, I’m blue.” He returns to his task. I stand and observe for hours more.
The hours pass, and then my eyes open, and the hours feel like an instant. I am in my bed. My window is to the right of my bed, as usual, and my nightlight still shines, although it is pale in comparison even to the light of the early morning. The radio is still playing, though the jazz is of a different color, less surreal.
I step out of bed, turn up the radio and return to the covers, thinking of a polite way I can ask the blue man next time I see him to play for me every day and every night.
My mom and I are going to Philadelphia for an Elton John concert. I don’t really like Elton John, and I don’t really want to go, but a little voice in my head would have made me feel guilty if I didn’t go. We do not share the same taste in music, but we do share the human need to eat, so upon arriving in Philadelphia, we decide to go get dinner.
She asks me where I want to eat. I’m not really familiar with Philadelphia’s food scene, but I know that if I don’t take control of this situation, we will end up at a chain sports bar near the hotel. So I do my Yelp research, like a proper urbanite, and look up a place we can both stomach. Nothing ethnic, no rice, no spice, no chopsticks. We settle on Italian food.
We sit down at the restaurant. The waiter asks what we want to drink. She gets a glass of wine, I just want water.
“So, how is everything?” she asks. Though we had already been together for several hours prior, it appears that this is the first chance we have to truly converse, having been distracted earlier by chores like driving and parking and checking into the hotel.
“Fine, I guess,” I respond. I tell her that my roommate and I aren’t friends anymore, because she spends so much time with her boyfriend and doesn’t care about anybody else. “The one you were so close to in Madrid?” she asks, her brow furrowed with concern.
My mom tells me that’s a shame, and maybe she’ll change. “Eh.” My feelings are more complex than this monosyllabic utterance. I feel it’s sad, too, but I don’t have the energy to put into friendships that do not bring me peace. I don’t say that, because it is easier to say one word.
“Do you remember when I used to sing that song to you? You are my sunshine?”
“Yeah,” I say. I remember every word, and I remember how she sang it: the song gets stuck in my head.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy, when skies are gray.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
My mom thinks of some other topics for us to discuss. Mom Kim, neighborhood drama I don’t keep up with. But the silence between each topic grows exponentially. At first, it doesn’t take us long to find something else to talk about after satisfactorily discussing one thing. But it starts to stretch out, growing longer and more painful, the space in between our words. I feel sad, but I don’t have the strength to fight the current.
“I guess people grow apart,” she says, clearly resigned but with a tinge of fake optimism. And then, silence becomes the deepest part of our conversation, because tears well up in my eyes, barely out of sight, and to talk means to burst.
B flat, as any good student with a rudimentary understanding of music may know, is blue like peaceful open sky. A trumpet player in our ensemble claims that the key of A flat is ruddy brown. I do not agree. A flat may be dirty and unclear, but it is more like an earthen red, like the rash color of deep soil.
The fact that E flat is inherently green, however, is no mystery to even the most elementary of instrumentalists: it is simply fact. Today, we play “Waltz of the Mushroom Hunters”, in the key of A, a sly red-orange, or maybe an orange-red, a color too unique and distasteful of conformity to place itself firmly and definitively on one side of the boundary between apples and oranges.
Our director, prone to outbursts of well-intentioned furor, tells us that today, in preparation for our concert, we will be playing the piece in full. “There’s no stopping,” he warns, instructing us to brave the sorts of inclement errors that can take place in a live performance: the small, the large, and the grave, the ones that threaten to take away our collective voice, dismantling our sound into unharmonious, indistinct and ultimately inconsequential racket. He gives us final, brief instructions before we begin. “Saxes, don’t speed up. Matty, play out.” Hearing myself addressed in this way, by a name I would hate in any other circumstance, I hold my trombone with purpose and prepare for the first blast of air.
Before we begin playing, there is no we. There are sections: there are the saxophones, the trombones, the trumpets, and sections that are composed of one member only, such as the electric bass. And within the multiple-member sections, we are divided further by other boundaries: grade, gender, favorite subject, favorite color. We begin playing, however, as an all-inclusive we.
The ceremony begins with triumph, yet it is also unsure in the trials and tribulations that it will face. The mushroom hunters declare their bloodthirsty search for fungi in the smoky jungle of musical tension. I see these hunters enter the room, one by one, marching to the beat we determine. They bear their arms, they show their pride; they show they are out to destroy. The beat becomes steadier, fatter as it, as we, become more confident.
The mushroom hunters resound bravely, tell tales of their previous conquests of this sub-stratum, of their complete hegemony over this garden variety. This is all joyous and charged with masculine arrogance. It is the calm before the storm. But even in this calm, our music is frenzied, and there are many questions that may or may not have answers.
I play with conviction, noticing the director’s approving wink of his eye. Shortly after, the title mushrooms begin to waltz in, their movements clear and distinct in the room in front of us. They are not aware of their danger – or are they daring their opponents? The piano player takes his sweet time vibrating up and down the body of his beast. For a second, the tension becomes less pronounced, or maybe just hidden: the mushrooms graze in the fields that replace the cold industrial tile of the music room.
Then, the trumpets announce a change. I see hunters taunting, hiding with their great spears behind trees almost maternal in their round stature. Without a warning, the hunters no longer taunt, and start to do. The trumpets’ screams pierce the air with brassy force: the mushrooms find themselves in great danger!
The mushrooms scurry closer to us, then run to hide away in between clumps of overgrown grass, and then dart once again toward us, as if their proximity to the creators of this musical madness will shield them from ruthless men of sport hiding in plain sight. The hunters trot around musically and with delighted evil in their eyes. The moment will come, I think in the small space of brain that does not concentrate fiercely on battle, when these hunters unleash their fury.
There is an abrupt rupture of all order, punctuated by the shrill screams of the trumpets. Maybe the trumpets themselves are scared to behold what may happen, but we are powerless because the pages of our sheet music must be turned over and over again to pronounce the last drop of ink. Then, a surprising silence, a silence too latent to trust.
Surely, the mushrooms will know to flee, but they will have nowhere to go. These fields are too vastly empty: the red sun shines down too greatly for them to flee unnoticed. Their movements are no longer sure and prideful: they are uneven, the musical beats of their skidding feet contradict each other and contradict our sounds. The energy builds, our bodies shiver with the vibration of this great chaos. The fury and hunger of these men of sport grows to a point where it can no longer swell higher. There is a great outcry: the next thing I see, the mushrooms are dead in battle, and the hunters proclaim a noisy victory.
We do not know whether to celebrate or to mourn. We have no space for either: our last note, seconds before in the midst of an explosion, disappears into a grand silence.
I drive to my parent’s house for a monthly dinner, our compromised arrangement. I know the route by heart from a life spent going up and down on the same road, moving a lot without going anywhere. Today I drive south, passing farmland and peaceful grassland once pure and free of highways, driving into the past. How beautiful life must have been when history, repeated orally for future generations, was just a collection of stories of your people.
I listen to an audiobook. The chapter I am on begins and ends neatly and compactly in the one hour I am in the car. And in that chapter, I learn about a boy whose father emigrated to the Basque town of Obaba from Hamburg, and ever since has felt alien in his surroundings. It strikes me, feeling especially wistful in the tedium of traffic, how similar human stories are to others. The places change, but the people do not.
I understand that the father notices his son becoming more and more distant from him as he grows, rebelling against the life of intentional self-exclusion that the father chose to conserve his own identity. He no longer denies him the opportunity to go out with his friends, to go to the movie theater, to grow away from him, because he has grown, and in his newfound maturity he shows that his dad can do no more to stop it.
My ears drift away from this audio for some brief seconds. My gaze always turns to the billboards that litter the highway, even though I have seen them countless times before. But each time I pass, they have different messages. The one with the small fetus feels less like the random oddity I thought it was as a child, and more like a definite sign of my alienation. The one advertising the services of a Lenape Construction company is more historically transparent, more clearly a boldfaced affront to stolen land, and inspires in me the urge to cry, as most things do if you look long enough. But I drive on.
I tune back into the audio as the son begins to receive letters from a beautiful girl in Hamburg. He is so smitten by this girl, to whom he writes with passion, that he learns her language, using as his guide a dictionary his father gifted to him long ago. Their words become more affectionate and their words entwine their souls so tightly that he makes a plan to study there, in Hamburg, so they can be together.
In high school, I wanted to apply to the University of Kentucky. It was like, struck by some sudden sense of placelessness, I had to throw my life into mayhem to start anew. I was struck by a vague sort of geographical pride for a place I had decided already I was not from, a pride that was not true then, a pride I do not have now.
But as the narrator’s preparations for his trip become more and more concrete, she becomes more distant. She writes less, and then stops altogether. He is still determined to follow through with his plan, to sacrifice his “me” for their “us”.
My mom does not like to believe that I will run to Taiwan and never come back. In her brain, she is always constructing some other less radical version of this prophesy. “When you come back from Taiwan,” she says, or “After you’re done living in Europe for a couple of years”, falsifying both the direction and duration of my flight. I’m sorry you fled so I wouldn’t have to.
Years later, after the son’s years in Hamburg have passed and he has already returned to Obaba, the son makes another pilgrimage to Hamburg in remembrance of his late father. On the last day of his visit, he gathers the courage to pay his long-lost lover a visit, at the address he has conserved ever since. He is greeted by an old man, who tells him that his father wrote every single letter himself, performing this persona in hopes that his son would learn German and feel connected to his homeland.
As the story comes to its conclusion, I pull off of the highway and am transported again to a land of memories swaddled in brittle nostalgia. I pass by the old familiar Atlantic Books that my father took me to on Saturdays. It’s a Best Buy now. I try to do a quick calculation in my head, the emotional calculus of which is infinitely more complex than the sum of its parts: can books you buy be equal to letters you write?
Matthew Anderson is a recent graduate of the University of Delaware, where he studied foreign languages and English. His work has been published in several university publications, including the Main Street Journal and The Polyglot, the newsletter for his university’s foreign languages department. He is currently working on his first novel, in which Delaware becomes its own independent country, and things fall apart. He lives in Delaware for the moment, but hopes to settle down in a different corner of the world when this is all over.