Paradise

This is the end, so it appears. I wonder if you still dream. I imagine you do, though hopefully not of our zip lining adventure in Costa Rica. My screams were my own, I don’t apologize. A strong falsetto, that’s what my choir teacher said. And before you interrupt, I know that you know – I was never in any choir. You chided and reminded me my voice was “Cute and flat,” I think you said, “Like a law school surfer, trying to whisper in a library.” There are too many cinematic possibilities of our moments, our time together, being twisted and drained of truth to evolve or devolve into a fantasy. Let’s try to create some honesty, if we can. That’s why I’m writing all this down, for you and for me. For us.

In some strange way I’m glad it’s ended like this. When my mom died, I compartmentalized my feelings in a dangerous sequence that ultimately eviscerated all emotion. Unless I listen to a song that has those components that work on me and melt my resolve – in which case I’ll sit in bed or on the floor, lights in the room flipped off, and try to elevate those emotions of pain into something I can hold. I need this to be different. I hope I only remember the love we shared, the experiences. The maniac you created in me. That’s love, I think.

I heard someone say you mourn for half the lifetime of the relationship. That’s fucked. My dad has been in mourning for two years so far. My parents were married for over thirty. I never told you this, but when I visited him for his birthday last year he still had the grief therapy booklets lying around the house. Post-it notes slapped onto the fridge, the bathroom mirrors, the cover of the book he’d been trying to read for months. All the phone numbers written in his scratchy handwriting, of those desperate souls he became friends with, all those men and women suffering a new life without their other. According to that theory, I’ll be back on the horse, dating and sleeping around by Christmas. My dad, that poor fucker, is going to be mourning into the afterlife.

I know we joked all the time about our age difference and I appreciated how upfront you were about everything going on with you, your illness, your wild desire to turn back the clock before the clock snuffed you out. And what a time we had.

Let’s go back to the first time I saw you. I thought you’d be nothing more than a little tummy ache of longing that followed me into the silent hours. The selfish reflections we find ourselves in sometimes. Little did I know. I was traveling with the ex-girlfriend at the time. We traveled a lot, I’ll never take that away from her. Like you, she was adventurous, in a different way, so not really like you at all. She spent several hours a day reading reviews written by fellow travelers, about the places she was to go, the sights we needed to see. I’d gotten skilled at navigating her to local bookstores and cafes where she sat with her knees together, biting her lip in deep thought as she let other people’s opinions dictate our potential experiences. I took that time to take a look at the skimpy selection of English books, or drink a mango smoothie. I liked to sip my sweating drink and observe the chaos that seemed to be the norm in every country I’d ever been to outside the US and Canada. The ex-girlfriend never truly understood me at all, which is fine. You live and you learn. She had a vision of what she wanted me to be. On numerous occasions, she explained to me my lack of empathy. Whatever she meant by that, I’m not sure. I love too much is how I summed it up. She was good at rolling her eyes, which I felt was not exactly empathetic in its own right. On many occasions as I was sharing some deep and obviously profound observation, her gaze carried over me to the nearest reflective surface so she could check her hair or outfit or whatever.

The girlfriend spent our visit to the Hỏa Lò prison museum chatting up the other Americans and Canadians. “They’re relatable,” she said. I nodded. “Go see where the prisoners slept and imagine how uncomfortable it must have been. It’ll do you good.” I nodded again and wandered off. The musty smell of wartime suffering and prison life was a nice reprieve. I walked around the exterior, to see if I could conjure up the emotional energy of the past inhabitants. But really, I was just bored. My heels burned and winced from the friction caused by the lousy shoes I’d brought. I looked at a deceased senator’s military uniform. He’d been captured and held captive at this place.

And that is when I met you, that first time.

You stood beside me, sending electric waves into my nervous system. “I never liked him,” you said, and pretended to spit on the ground. You laughed. I wanted to trace my tongue along those perfect teeth. I knew then and there I’d break up with my girlfriend and follow you to the farthest reaches of space if I had to. Your gaze held mine, gravity’s pull on my eyeballs. The creases around your eyes told me stories. Your lips were violet in the light of that prison. You looked down at my raw, red ankles. “Ouch,” you said. And with your perfect smile you left me there in that dungeon.

Is that romantic at all? Maybe not yet. Am I grieving? Is this grief? I don’t know. It’s possible it’s just my mind clinging to love of you, or maybe it’s real. I don’t think you’re in pain. I want it to be painless. Or maybe I wanted you to feel pain in the transition from living to dead, to experience some kind of powerful elation? I don’t know. I never shared much with you about watching my mom die, how surreal and horrifying it was. I don’t like to think about it, but maybe I owe it to you, to us. To myself. The day she passed, I had left the house early in the morning, around five. The sun was still hidden in darkness. I sat in my car and wondered if the light would ever return. We had sat around the hospice bed, eating ice cubes in solidarity with my mother. Tubes protruded from her stomach, where they clung to her intestines, kidneys. Anything that went in came out immediately. Everything just ran straight through her and into the yellowing bags hanging out of her like a lab experiment. The meds stopped working. Her eyes darted around, manic and hopeless. Her skin was nothing more than soggy, thin paper clinging to bones. Her tongue was swollen and dry. Useless. Sometime in the middle of the night after I’d helped her shift or moved her so she could sit on her knees on the floor, anything for a brief ease of the pain, even one second of comfort was holy, I felt a huge surge of sorrow rising from the core of the earth and rush into my heart. I knew she was going to die. My mother’s last few days were hell on earth. I don’t even know who made the decision to bring her home. I guess, when you’re on your way out of this world and everyone else is making the calls, the dying person has no say, and so it falls onto what is most comfortable for everyone else. Being alive sucks too, because we sit and we watch and we can’t do anything and all our agony is our own. I sat in the hallway in the middle of the night and listened to my mother writhing and mumbling dreadful requests for comfort, the brushing of feathery light thighs wrapped in cheap sheets supplied by the hospice, the queasy moans when my sister and aunt lifted her too quickly or held her aloft too long, all the life dribbling out of her like air from a tire. I cried silently.

This is easier. I want to believe that.

Back in Vietnam. That night, after seeing you at the prison museum I had a stomachache, lovesick maybe. Three days later I sat and ate phở on a tiny chair in front of a cafe, and saw you come out of the very same cafe. Fate. That’s all we can call it, right? Can we dare to call it anything else? It wasn’t even seven in the morning yet and I know for certain I hadn’t seen you enter the cafe. You waved at me, and like an overly excited child I tried to stand up so I could wave back and knocked my bowl of soup into my lap. You laughed. I laughed and I smiled and my face hurt from the laughing and the smiling because you were so beautiful. You asked if you could sit down and I said something too chivalrous and bent at the waist, my soaked lap exposed, and extended an arm like a very fancy waiter. Your smile…my god. That’s when you told me your name. We sat there for over two hours and shared laughs and travel stories and cigarettes. My stories were not as exciting as yours. I just wanted to listen to you. You were traveling alone, enjoying Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, garnering that luxurious tan, after attending a friend’s renewal of vows in the Philippines. I was visiting Vietnam because the girlfriend at the time insisted we use her dad’s miles and take a trip. She said I never liked to go anywhere, but if you looked at our passports mine was full of stamps and visas from international excursions. Her passport had, like, seven stamps from Mexico. Cabo. But we went and stayed in some nice hotels and I stayed up late at night and woke up early, smoked cigarettes with the little geckos as they scurried about, up the walls and into the cracks, wherever they went. I drank cheap beer like it was water, ate all the street food I could find, never got sick. My steel guts impressed you. You rocked back a little in your tiny purple chair, swiping the hair above your left eye, moving a cigarette from side to side in your mouth with only your lips. I had to excuse myself, reminded you three or four times I’d be right back, begged you not to leave, while I purchased more smokes, laughing on the short walk to the store, my heart soaring. When I sat back down I handed you a cigarette and our skin made contact for the first time. Electricity. It’s cliche, but it’s true. You told me about a trip to South Korea when you were my age, eating Army Soup with some friends, the tumultuous gut rot and immediate expelling of, your exact words, “A gallon of something like hot tea in an alley behind the restaurant.” I was smitten, taken aback by your honesty, in a good way. You were blunt, held nothing back from me, a youthful man soaked in soup, sitting on a red chair designed for a preschool classroom.

A little later that morning the ex-girlfriend finally shuffled down to the cafe in hotel slippers. You politely excused yourself and she took your chair. I didn’t think I’d see you again and once more felt that pit in my stomach grow.

But really our story was only beginning.

As fate would have it, I ran into you again, in the smoking area at the airport. You waved and removed your sunglasses. Things blurred in my mind at this point, stricken with something almost like panic, an anxiety so strong it caused a mental break. I took your hand and rushed to the taxi stand. You were strangely quiet, and not until we were in the backseat of the taxi and I had said the only intersection I could remember to the driver, did you ask where we were going. I said that it didn’t matter, that I’d left the girlfriend at the airport and she’d fly home without me, probably. You squinted and smiled and then you said, “I’m going to die this year.” I didn’t know what to say. You said, “I’ve got cancer and I’m done with treatment. I’ve accepted it.” I said nothing. You said, “You’re sweet and maybe a little crazy. Do you want to be my date to the end of my life?”

When did I realize you were, and I mean this in the sweetest possible terms, completely berserk? Probably the night we returned to the States and visited your apartment. That was how long ago? Nine months and fourteen days. Los Angeles, a city with which I had very limited familiarity. I liked the warm nights, the broad streets. You told the taxi driver to drop us off and we hopped out of the cab. The driver popped the trunk and I walked to retrieve our bags. I was nervous the ex-girlfriend had somehow tracked me and would come to end me like the Terminator, seeing her face on the strangers in passing cars, on the sleepy homeless junkies crowded under overpasses. You took my arm in yours before I could get our bags and you said, “Leave them.” You pulled me by the hand and we ran from the cab, like guilty schoolchildren. The adrenaline filled my heart with blood and the smile on my face must have appeared ghoulish. We rounded a corner and entered the first door we saw, a laundromat. We ducked behind a washing machine and laughed. It felt silly in a good way. You said, “It’s illegal to jaywalk in California. But I don’t know about leaving your bags in a taxi.” I said it was probably not illegal, but maybe caused annoyance to the drivers if they felt inclined to follow the procedure of returning the bags to their rightful owner. It was in the middle of this moronic commentary you leaned in and silenced me with a kiss. That night at your apartment we slept next to one another on the floor. The space was mostly empty, like no one had ever moved in. I furrowed my brow in confusion and admiration when you told me you’d made a habit of leaving your apartment door unlocked and open whenever you weren’t home, a note for your neighbors that they could come in and take what they wanted. When I mentioned it seemed dangerous to do that, you said, “I’m already dead, silly.” We shared a toothbrush you purchased at a convenience store, rinsed with a bottle of Fiji. We curled up on a yoga mat you told me your neighbor gave you in exchange for your flatscreen TV and listened to the whooshing of cars outside on the wide boulevards. You thought it was really cute that I held off from sex on that first night. The honest to God truth was I felt scared. Looking back I can identify what my fear was. I was scared if I got too close physically then the strange dream I’d found myself in would pop and I’d be in Los Angeles alone with no direction home. I fell asleep with a palpable anxiety humming throughout my chest, that lingering kiss in the laundromat flickering behind my eyelids.

I guess I’ll never know the you before this you, the one that wasn’t aware of the coming plummet down the waterfall of the End. It’s been a surreal journey. The immediate shift from the girlfriend to you was like stepping out of a sterile hallway onto the moon, the lack of gravity and the bounce and sway of your energy was wholly unheard of to me. You spoke in riddles and usually laughed off my worries and wonders, sometimes with a kiss or a motherly fluffing of my hair. You woke me up on the first Saturday of our strange new life together and we ate cold Chinese food from the boxes with chopsticks, like some ridiculous romantic comedy. You readied me for a “Big Day.” You dressed me in a rented suit, tied my tie. We hopped in a cab and attended an afternoon of high school graduation ceremonies. Only later I learned you didn’t know any of the people. All day you had been inventing names and relationships and excuses for not saying hellos. And still, we emoted deeply, my eyes constantly misting, tears of admiration dripping down my cheeks, for these young people starting “The beginning of the rest of their lives.” In the cab on the way back to your apartment you tucked my head into the nook of your shoulder and head. I didn’t know if what I was sensing was salvation, or death, or both. You took my hand in yours and said, “I knew the first time I saw you that you’d find me again.”

I’d never broken into cars before I met you. Even as a teen, it never crossed my mind as something to do. We had a nice dinner at a smoky African restaurant, a live jazz band in the corner of the small room. They played at a volume fit for a stadium. I watched you take bites of the spongy bread you’d dipped in some sloppy, fragrant substance. Your eyes raised up to mine and you winked. However detached from myself I became, wandering deep into the mystery of you, those eyes of yours brought me back to center. And the process reset, my fragmented self floating out to sea.

Under the black sky, the hideous orange glow from the streetlights made us into oblong shadows, thieving caricatures, I watched you sneak between cars, slinking like a cat and checking door handles. The way you slid into the front seat of an unlocked car and moved things about, your pockets fat with fresh twenties, so you could leave them in the console, tucked in the straw of a Starbucks Frappuccino or gently placed in front of the speedometer. Craziness, and yet somehow wholesome. These actions appeared curious and gentle, not like the invasions of privacy they were. It didn’t matter. I took a twenty and opened the door of a big SUV and was blasted by the alarm. You told me to drop the twenty on the seat and then you threw another crisp bill for good measure. And we ran. We ran until my lungs burned and you were shiny with sweat.

At a cemetery overlooking some part of LA we held each other and you asked me to smell you, and you asked me how close to death I thought you were. I said, “I don’t see you dying anytime soon.” You laughed and tugged me through a hole in the cemetery gate. I scratched my back and you tore a hole in your sweatshirt. We walked around and you looked at the headstones, searching silently for something. I didn’t ask what. Finally we found a spot in the dry, bristly grass on top of a dead man’s home and we made love for the only time. It was powerful in a way I can barely describe. The sensations in my body were more like a psilocybin-induced grief session than sex, and somehow so visceral and animalistic in its physical need. I finished inside you, at your insistence, and looked into your eyes and saw the moon and the stars reflected there. We gathered our clothes in silence, sharing our intimacy without words, only our shallow breaths. I looked at the tombstone and read the name—well, I don’t remember the name, but he died at fifty-seven, which makes him the same age as you.

The weeks and months passed in a blur. Time is so strange that way. All the mornings I watched you sleep in some new place, stitched every breath of reality like its own eternity. The sun setting and rising, the different denominations of currency piled on the side table. The warming sky, bringing light unto the world. I never knew what each new day would bring, what you had in store. Sometimes as I lay anxious beside you I’d forget where I was, which continent, what country? A gift hurled from the endless expanse of the universe. This particular morning, our last together, we drank coffee and readied for the day. You tugged on boots for a hike along the Nā Pali coast. I was dousing my neck and forehead in suntan lotion, a needed distraction. You caught me staring at your breasts, free in the loose tank top you wore. You told me why you stopped wearing a bra. You said it didn’t matter. You said it made you feel sexy. I said you had great tits for your age, and I blushed. It always made me self-conscious when I spoke of our age gap, especially on this morning. You laughed in that way you do, the twist of your mouth, the color explosion in your eyes. You strapped the laces tight and snatched the lotion from my hand, squirted a thick dollop in your palm and snaked your hands down the front of my swim trunks. Looking back now, I think these moments were like a certain therapy for you. I was incapable of any rational thought, my mind wiped clean by your sensual touch. But I sensed a purpose for you, like a show of power. Defying mortality with our most base of human actions. If you had picked up the lamp on the side table and smashed me over the head and used the broken shards to slice through my carotid artery, I wouldn’t have judged you for it. In my soul I knew from the get-go I’d have exchanged my life for yours. Maybe in those last moments of my existence on earth I would have drawn a heart in blood on your cheek.

That hike broke my heart. Here we were at the end of the world, our feet walking atop one of God’s most perfect works. Not even a mile in and you were regularly yards ahead of me. My breathing was labored. Like the day I met you in Vietnam, my ankles and heels were sore, blistered from heat and friction. You moved pure of force, a living thing meant to be. Your tan legs guided me, the strength in your thighs with each flexing bounce along the trail helping me accept this fate, out here, in the hot, sweet-smelling tropics. In this paradise. You rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. I stopped on the trail and listened to the breeze, the birds, the ocean. The silent roar of endlessness. This was the moment I accepted I was losing you. I tried to find peace in that simple fact, and it nearly came. But I’m too childish. My mind’s eye drew pictures of a future where you were gone. I was nothing more than a dot millions of miles away. I watched myself sitting on a park bench as an old man, alone and withdrawn from the world. So boring. I took several deep breaths and continued, suddenly ravenous with anxiety and fear that I was missing out on even one second of my life with you.

I came out of the bamboo to a wide expanse of beach. The sun glistened along the shore. The Pacific Ocean washed away and clung to the horizon. I walked toward you and saw you were topless, smiling like a child. We were alone. The only two people here in this untouched heaven. You looked at me and you saw through to the truth. You hugged me and kissed me on my sweaty, lotion-drenched forehead. “I know,” you said. “I know.” We embraced for a long time, my mind somersaulting so wildly, coming up with non-existent math for the seconds becoming the days and warping into years, unable to calculate lost time and time yet lived – in hopes it would make it okay, losing you.

When we separated, I looked deep into your eyes and smiled. The radiance there forced it, like a magic trick, an illusion. It’s always been impossible to stare at you and not feel a smile come over my lips, wrinkle my eyes. “Watch this,” you said. From your small pack, you removed a granola bar. “Watch.” You opened a small corner of the wrapper. You put your lips to your mouth, telling me to listen, be quiet. I stared at the blue expanse of the Pacific. You turned me by the shoulders and together we watched a stampede of kittens come from the trees and gallop toward us. I laughed, an uncontrollable vibration seeping out of me. We spent an hour feeding the kittens. We laughed and hooted, our minds and bodies undone. An improbable mass gathering of kittens on a secluded beach in paradise. When the kittens had had their fill, realized we were dry and had nothing more to offer, they disappeared. Looking back, a miraculously absurd ending. You unlaced your boots and set them beside you. You slipped out of your shorts. You untied your bathing suit. The sunlight clung to your skin like some ancient Greek myth. You lifted my chin to inspect my face. You said, “Look at me.” I did, and my face firmly in your grasp, you licked each of my eyeballs. We laughed until I was crying. The tide washed in, lapped first our toes, then our legs with its warm perfection. You held me in your arms, a big, stupid man baby. You grazed your fingers along my collar bones, down my shoulder and biceps. Your fingers traced invisible lines along my legs. You looked at my damaged heels and removed my shoes. “You’re going to be just fine, you know. But please, for me, get some better shoes.”

Anthony Statham is a creative writer and visual artist from Portland, OR.

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