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One Chance

In a city of seven million, what were the chances that you and I would meet again?


It was a question I found myself asking on the night bus home. I even tried doing the calculations to soothe my head- but would it be as simple as 1:7 million? Or would it be double, or half? And what about all the other factors to be taken into account? I’m no mathematician, but the outlook wasn’t good.


I had been working some kind of introductions evening at the Museum of London that night, pouring champagne for pre-drunk and overexcited young lawyers (or something along those lines) whose firm were so kindly throwing them a welcome party to celebrate the life of alternating hard work and hedonism that surely lay ahead. Luckily, I was on the “early” shift, so at 12 I promptly put down my bottle of Moët, signed out and left my poor colleagues to deal with the dirty entrails of the night.


A cool rain was falling when I got outside, mixing with the city smog and dusting the streetlamps gold. I walked a little way until I found an overhanging roof offering just enough space to light the cigarette I had been gasping for all evening. The smoke rose slowly through the drizzle to the grey, cloudy sky, as if it were going home.


The circle line ran until 12.30, so I took one of the last trains eastbound from Barbican. The carriage was empty but for one navy-suited man who sat staring at a single page of the Evening Standard until I got off at Embankment. Only the lost and lonely wander between midnight and 4am. The sleepers are already sleeping, the drinkers still drinking. The few of us that remain aren’t headed anywhere.


I certainly wasn’t in any hurry to get home; only desperate to be free.


I came out of the station and past Charing Cross to find that I had just missed a bus, and the next wouldn’t arrive for at least 40 minutes. But it was of no bother to me: like I say, time moves differently during these strange hours.


There was an all-night cafe around the corner from the bus stop, where I often found myself after long shifts, so I entered the familiar womb of fluorescent lighting and paid for a cup of tea and somewhere slightly warmer to sit, along the front window. Outside, the rain continued to fall, drumming a pleasing plush-plush rhythm into the pavement.


In a matter of hours the cafe would be flooded with drunken revellers (and a couple of heartbroken sods) ordering chips and talking loudly about their love for life. (I knew, for I had been one of those people myself.) For now, though, it was almost silent: only the hum of the dormant deep-fat frier, the dull beat of the rain outside, an occasional crackle from the overhead lighting, and somewhere - at the back of my head - a metallic, percussive sound. I looked around, recognising worn-out faces of those coming off or about to start night shifts, either half-asleep or half-alive.


Then, you.


The rain had settled like dew across your hair, despite the umbrella chucked under the table, and droplets hung, glistening, on the host of silver bracelets furnishing your bare wrists, which crashed together as you scribbled intently in black ink on a wide sheet of paper.


Thus the symphony of scattered sounds was complete.


I thought about how, were I an entirely different person, I might go over and sit down across from you, ask what you were working on, and see if your eyes shone illuminate gold as I imagined they must. Time would slip by and I’d offer you another coffee and we’d stay, talking, or maybe quiet, until dawn; two strangers finding peace in an unforgiving city.


The fantasy disintegrated as I heard the screech of a chair across the floor. Sketchbook under one arm, canvas bag slung across the other, you walked slowly to the door, paused- as if to measure quite how badly you had damaged the silence- then turned, to look at me.


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A Cold Day

The house was too crowded. It was stuffy and miserable and her hair kept jumping out of its bun to stick to her forehead. Everywhere she moved someone tried to put their arm around her. “Oh, honey, we’re so sorry” and “Your daddy was a fine man”. No, he wasn’t.

She stared at the oak coffin in the living room, breathing in the smell of death and gardenias until she thought she would vomit. Finally she escaped onto the porch and the cat followed her, crawling into her lap for the first time ever. Even the meanest cat in the world knew she was in pain.

The rain started then…..driving sideways under the edge of the sagging wood, soaking the concrete slab, pouring down off the edge of the tin roof like an angry waterfall. The people milled in and out, but other than joining her for the length of a cigarette, no one else seemed to want to brave the splatter of the cold late fall rain. She didn’t care; she didn’t even feel it.

The man with the wagon pulled around just as the rain started to let up and all the young men came out to put that awful box in the back. Her stepmother appeared with her coat and two umbrellas. “Come on, kid.” Hateful woman. The young girl followed dutifully, climbing up in the front next to the driver. The ride to the cemetery was slow, but what did anyone expect from a mule team? The rain started again and they tried to stop, the crack of the whip on their wet hides making her shudder.

There was a tent by the graveside, and everyone huddled under it as the storm kicked back up, making her smile a little. He certainly knew how to make an exit. There was a man with a guitar that sang, and the preacher tried to say a few words, but no one could hear him for the howl of the wind. Serves him right, she thought. Of all people, the man in that box certainly didn’t deserve to be made into a deathbed saint. Then it was finished and the people began to move away. The men picked up shovels and she could hear the dirt clods hitting the top of the wood….whump….whump…..each shovel full felt like it was hitting the bottom of her stomach.

Someone grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to take her away but her feet wouldn’t move. It was then she realized they were soaked all the way through her shoes and socks, the mud sucking her soles down into the soft graveside earth. “It’s over,” the female voice said in her ear, some precious soul that knew that man wasn’t what most of these people thought he was. “You can let it go now.” Could she? The cold numbness crawled up her legs all the way to her scalp as a voice inside her whispered, “no”.

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Untitled

You lie to your hippie boyfriend, Matt, who drives you to the train station near his house. You’re going to visit an old friend you knew from Jewish summer camp, you tell him.  You’ll be back before midnight.

 It is the summer of 2005, you are a few months away from turning 24. You are living in the Hamptons, a waitress in the same restaurant you worked in when you were 18 and Billy Joel –the fucking piano man—threw a salad at you. You’re dating a guy named Matt who is 28 and lives with his parents, and works at a nonprofit and loves the band Phish and steals oxycotin from his disabled father.

 Then one day Jager (like the Jager in Mick Jager) which is his fucking real name and you hate him for how great and stupid it is at the same time, calls you out of the blue and says, “I’m in The City, come see me.” It’s been two years since you broke his heart and he moved to San Francisco, and the sound of his voice makes you want die and orgasm all at the same time.

 You remember the night you broke up, when you said to him, “I love you but I’m not leaving New York. I can’t do long distance.” And then you fucked on his living room couch, the leather sucking at his skin and your skin, like suction cups trying to find their grip on a tile wall, but never succeeding.

 And he was sad and teary eyed as you fucked him and he bit your back and you clawed at his thighs and he kept saying, ‘I love when you cum on my cock. I love when you cum.” You still hear the anger and desperation in his voice two years later when he says, “Come see me” that it feels like your heart is breaking all over again.

 You wonder if he is still dating the Ani DiFranco look a like who he sent you e-mails about six months before, but you don’t bother asking. Knowing about her means you can’t deny her existence later.

 Your hippie boyfriend stays with you on the platform until the train comes and you spend three hours on the same train and finally you wait for Jager in the sweltering late morning heat outside of Grand Central station. You dressed down, a t-shirt that is too tight and jeans with a tear across your right thigh, trying to look casual and like you don’t give a fuck.

 He shows up wearing expensive jeans, and a bright white button down shirt, carrying a rolled up French Movie poster from a store somewhere downtown that you know he will meticulously frame and hang in his living room somewhere near the Pacific Ocean. He hugs you so tight that you can’t breathe and he is tall and your face presses into the center of his chest and he smells like lemons and sweat. His bright blue eyes are flickering, like behind them someone has lit a match.

He points south, down Park Avenue and says, “My hotel is over here. I’m staying at the W.”

And there is no hesitation in you to go with him, just to change out of his shoes he says. He holds up his long leg and lifts up the hem of his jeans and he is wearing brown dress shoes. “I just need to put on some sneakers.”

You’re not going to sleep with him, you promise yourself. You have a boyfriend. You’re not that kind of girl.

An hour later your cheap Old Navy jeans are crumpled in a heap next Jager’s king size bed on the 10th floor of the W hotel and Jager is fucking you from behind and something about the way he moans feels like he is answering  all of your problems.

He is the answer to your shitty job, the answer to living in the same town you lived in your whole life that you swore you’d never move back to, the answer to your hippie drug addict boyfriend who is sitting at home and probably jacking off, waiting for you to call him so he can come get you from the train station.

Then Jager says it, he leans forward, grabs your neck with his hands, gently, pulls you up off the bed and whispers in your ear, “I fucking love when you cum.”

You have sex twice, three times, until the sun sets and you begin to believe that this many orgasms is exactly what has been missing from your whole lifethe past two years. That you live in the fucking Hamptons, serving over priced fish to rich people, and date a prescription pill addict because no one has fucked you right since Jager. You doze off with his arm resting on your hip, his limp dick wedged between your ass cheeks and think when you wake up, you’ll tell him that this time, you can do long distance, that this time, you can move to San Francisco, that this time you’ll give up anything to love him.

At 9pm, Jager is kissing the side of your face. You wake up and he is fully clothed, your jeans and t-shirt and bra are neatly arranged at the end of the bed. “I’ve got a big meeting in the morning,” he whispers. He pulls the covers off your body slowly and then retreats to the bathroom. You feel naked, for the first time in hours, cold and covered with goose bumps from the A/C that hours ago felt as if it wasn’t even on.

You put on your clothes clumsily, finding your flip flops, searching for your underwear. You can’t find it, but it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t a sexy pair. You rationalize that because you didn’t wear the black lace thong, that you had no idea any of this would happen today. You wonder what the maid will think when she finds your pink cotton polka dot underwear somewhere in the corner of the room. You remember Jager ripping them off and tossing them somewhere near the front door but he comes out of the bathroom before you think to look again.

“Do you need train money?” Jager asks and you remember making a joke the day before, when he called, that you were poor. He reaches into the back pocket of his jeans and pulls out a big brown wallet. He hands you a 20 dollar bill from a stack of 100. “Is that enough he asks?”

You take the money, which you don’t really need, and shove it in your back pocket. It’s enough, you say. You both stand there awkwardly, like strangers, like two hours before he wasn’t pulling your hair while you sucked his cock.

“I’ll walk you to the station?” he asks. In the elevator an old couple talks about the price of hot dogs and you laugh but Jager doesn’t crack a smile. You walk up Park Avenue. The space between your shoulder and Jager’s feels like the width of the Grand Canyon, like if you said something all you would get back was an echo.

At Grand Central he hugs you. It is quick, fast, light. You can feel the hours of sex and the humidity of the city trickling down your thighs. You don’t know what your face is doing but it is doing something because he says, “Oh, don’t look so sadd Kris. Kiddo.” So you smile, tight and hard and he hugs you again, fast and light, and he says “Call me when you get home?”

On the train ride home you call Matt, your boyfriend, you’re crying but you can’t tell him why, he sounds confused and concerned. You hate how worried he sounds. You hate that you can’t tell him that you just fucked your exboyfriend and it was amazing and you want to say, “I don’t love you Matt.” But you worry that he will not come pick you up, that he will go into his father’s bathroom, slip an oxycontin out of the medicine cabinet and snort it before you can get home. You’re just sad, you lie, you’re just sad about saying good bye to your friend and maybe it isn’t all a lie. Maybe it isn’t all a complete lie.

    The next day, back at home in the Hamptons, you write Jager an e-mail. You start it out by telling him you love him that you’re sorry you broke his heart two years ago, you apologize for being young and scared, young and scared and selfish. You promise to love him completely. You promise that this time he will get to have all of you, that you’re ready.

He writes back, five minutes later, that he needs time to think about all of this. You sit around holding your breath, turning blue, almost crying every time someone orders a shot of Jager from the bar because you have to write down his name on your order pad, the whole time holding out hope that any minute he will dial your number, put his finger on your chest and pick YOU.

You stop having sex with the hippie, because you feel as if you’re cheating on Jager. You stop calling the hippie, because you cant stand the way his voice sounds. Eventually you tell the hippie you have to take a break, and you think that this is it, that any day Jager will make up his mind. You pray to god. You promise to go to Synagogue, to celebrate every fucking high holiday. You promise to fast and keep kosher if Jager will be yours. You swear on every dead relative you love that if Jager can be yours, you will change your life. Never once does Jager dial your phone number, never once do you hear his voice.

Eventually you find a photo album on the internet with Jager’s first and last name, after crazily googling him him on the internet. The profile on Flickr says: “30, San Francisco, Taken”. It is filled with recently updated photos of Jager and a small blonde woman with huge tits in a tropical location, standing in front of a sunset just two black shadows like two fucking douche bags, pictures of their feet in smooth white sand, a picture of the girl in a crisp white bikini drinking a fucking frozen drink with an umbrella in it.

He never replies to your e-mail, not even to say he doesn’t feel the same. You never see the hippie again and you never go back to synagogue or learn how to keep kosher. You do quit your shitty waitress job and move back to the city and it isn’t as great or as glamorous as it used to be, it is just the same place at a different time.

You go back to school and you start to think that what you are doing is way better than trips to tropical locations and living in San Francisco, except sometimes you realize you never fuck anyone the way that you fucked Jager. You never find the answer to any of your problems at the end of an orgasm and you can never, for the life of you figure out if that’s a good thing or not.

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The birds felt restless around the fire as they flew away from the flames. They cried loudly when they saw their friends’ wings combust in mid air. The fall was swift, the crash was heavy.

She heard them from a mile away as if their agony was telegraphed into her heart. The noise was too much for her to bear even when she covered her ears and curled her body into a crescent moon.

Soon everything was silent and so was she.

I looked at her and thought of the pain she must have felt. She laid still on the ground like a seashell that drifted far away from the shore.

(if you could have listened close enough you would have heard the sea echoed crashing waves like I did. It disturbed me at first but then again the sea had always calmed me down.)

The last time pain got the best of me was when I strung up my hatred and tied it into a noose. And everyday I stared at it— fashioned it around my neck to see how well it fits. But that was the farthest I ever done and it hurt more ways than I could ever count.

I thought about the times how the chord felt constrict my skin. How that fiction electrified my body to be frozen— to be like a stone.

And then I would counted to ten and thought about simple things that made me happy.

1. There is still much to do. I shouldn’t quit now. 2. Remember the sun. Especially every 24th. 3. The smell of bacon and eggs early in the morning. 4. The breeze that sweeps off my feet. 5. Photographs yet to be taken. 6. Songs that are yet to be sung. 7. Gentle hugs and soft kisses. 8. Children’s laughter caught on tape. Maybe my own’s. 9. Her candidness. 10. Her.

And somehow everything made sense again.

She still laid silent and had not moved an inch. Not even a trace of shiver nor vibrations near the grass.

I kneeled down and placed my lips near her covered ears and whispered as soft as I could—

“Count to ten dear and just breathe. just believe— maybe everything will make sense again.”

and I could see her try.

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Song of the Silk Road

A string of caravans makes its way ponderously across the Karakum Desert. The weary thuds of the horses’ hooves fall in time with the sleepy nods of the riders. Even the warriors – the ones paid to protect the merchants – are affected by the scorching heat. They are heading to the nearby oasis, hoping to reach it before nightfall.

They will never reach their destination.

The bandit leader is on the top of the sand dune, knowing that the travellers will not look up. Even if they do, it’ll be too late.

He heads back and looks at his band. They are a motley crew, browned by the sun and hardened by their greed. On their necks lie gold chains, taken from previous victims. Clinking together, they weave a battle melody as the bandits prepare themselves. Tonight, more chains will join the song.

Horses thunder out from behind sand dunes. The warriors curse and scrabble for weapons. The merchants moan at their ill fortune. Their wives shrink into corners of their caravans.

The war-cries of the bandits and the pleas of their victims fill the air. But the desert falls silent once more as the sands take in their bloody meal.

The bandit leader strides from caravan to caravan, inspecting the goods. He pays no attention to the corpses sprawled around him. The loot is the only thing that matters.

Upon opening a caravan door, he is surprised when a young girl leaps out at him, brandishing a knife. Unskilled, she is disarmed quickly. The bandit leader surveys her.

The girl cannot be more than nine summers old. Her hands are soft yet her fingertips have calluses, the rewards of playing a string instrument. There is no fear or grief in her eyes, only hatred. The girl is strong.

He decides to keep her.

Slinging her over his shoulder, he does not notice the blows that fall on his back nor the shrill squeals of indignity that break the desert’s silence once more.

 

The bandit leader, along with the screaming girl and his band, soon reach the caves and haul the spoils inside. Even the girl is silenced – temporarily - by the amount of treasure that glitters inside the caves.

There are dates and nuts, taken from the merchants of Persia. Frankincense and myrrh lie on the right, snatched from the traders of Somalia. Logs of sandalwood are piled at the back, plundered from the foreigners of India. And there is the silk, the cause of all these opportunities for fortune. They shimmer in the dim light, beckoning and cooing. Men have lost their lives to obtain these bolts of fabric. The cache hidden in the depths of the dark cave sparkle and purr in harmony, whispering, “Come” and little are the men who can resist their charms.

The bandit leader strides to his quarters and puts the girl down. She ignores him and instead inspects her surroundings. In the corner, a liuqin sits. It is of good quality – obviously ripped from some travelling musician’s hands. The girl picks up the lute. Shifting her hands so that the pear-shaped instrument is balanced, the girl gingerly strikes a note. A pure sound echoes up and down the caves.

Slowly at first, then picking up the pace, the girl lets her fingers fly over the strings, plucking a mournful song – a tune for the dead people who have died today. 

The bandit leader listens to the melody with a slight pang in his heart. He has heard the song before and plays it often – he has lost companions too. The child is exceedingly good. He settles his chin on his hands and immerses himself in the heartbreaking harmony.

 

Every day, the girl plays a different tune for the bandit leader. Some are merry, others forlorn. Some are foreign to his ears, others remind him of his old life.

After she finishes, the bandit leader is subjected to her scrutiny. Every day, she sighs and turns away. When he asks why, she answers, “I wanted to see if you were ready to learn the Song of the Silk Road.”

 

Tonight, the bandit leader leans back against the wall of the cave and gestures for the girl to start.

Her hands in position, she starts to strum a well-known folk song. Her fingers pull and release with practiced ease and send the chords resonating through the caves. Her hands dance up and down the lute and so, too, does the melody. It sails out, a net of happiness, and catches the bandit leader unawares. Yet something pricks the back of his mind, pushing a long-forgotten memory forward. He is sure he knows the tune…

A village woman sits on a crudely fashioned bed, humming gently as she brushes her son’s hair. The boy’s eyes are half-closed, relishing the soft touch…

The boy is running, feet slapping the ground in a fast tempo. Into the fields he flies, stopping only when he sees a muscled man. His father turns and roars in delight. They pad off home, singing boisterously…

In the hut, the woman plays a liuqin, crooning in dulcet tones. The father joins in, a deep bass and their voices soar, twining around each other. The father gestures at his son and the boy lets his voice loose. The music spins around and around the hut, bouncing off the walls, surrounding the family, binding them together in the Song of Love...

It is a long time before the bandit leader realizes that the girl has stopped playing. He touches his face wonderingly and feels the wetness underneath his finger. He looks up at the girl. For the first time, she is smiling.

 

They sit on top of a sand dune. The bandit leader is puzzled as to why the girl insists that he must learn the Song of the Silk Road but tonight he has been reminded of a long-forgotten song and is feeling amicable.

“Close your eyes… listen...”

The girl is already positioned, eyes shut off from the world but with her mind and her ears wide open, ready to receive the Song of the Silk Road.

The bandit leader is cautious as to closing his eyes; it goes against his most primary instincts. But in the end, he forces himself to relax and listen.

Nothing.

He can hear nothing.

Sitting there, he wonders how long they have sat already. Surely it has only been minutes but it feels like several summers. He can feel his mind settling, as if about to enter a deep sleep.

Shhhhhhaaaa…

The wind rustles through the sand.

“Listen…”

The bandit leader hears.

Shhhhhhaaaa…woooooaaaooo…rowrraaaa…

The wind hums. The bird calls. The cat howls. The snake hisses.

Was this the Song of the Silk Road?

“No…”

Shhing. Ahhhhhh!!!!! Sliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. Splaaaa!!! AIEEEEE!!!!

“NO!”

The bandit leader hears, his ears open to the Song of the Silk Road. In his mind, the swords unsheathe. The victims cry. The blades slash. The blood spurts. The bandits roar.

The bandit leader wants to open his eyes, and close his ears. He can do neither. He cannot tear himself away from the bloody images because he knows that he has lived this before.

The music changes suddenly, a river diverted from its true course, flowing from melody to melody.

Come…Touch us…We can give you so much…Come…

The silk croon. The scents tempt. The wood whispers. The silk murmurs again.

Come… sing with us…

The bandit leader forgets the other melody of the Silk Road. He can only hear the silk singing. Treasure. Wealth. Power. The words boom in his head.

“No…”

As if she can sense the shift in his mind, the girl suddenly brings out the liuqin and plays on it a simple, familiar tune. The bandit stiffens.

A woman hums. Two people warble. Three people sing.

The Song of Love… The Song of the Silk Road…

A woman hums. Shhaaaa. Come. Splaaaa!!! Three voices soar. Come.

Come.

The bandit leader’s eyes fly open. He is panting. Again, tears stain his cheeks. He buries his face in his hands. He has learned the Song of the Silk Road, or perhaps, he had learned the Song of the Silk Road long ago but had only just started understanding it. It is a tune so different from the Song of Love. Composed by greed and malice, its lyrics sing of blood and gore. Yet…

Come…

He stands up, not meeting the girl’s eyes. The girl does not say anything. There is nothing to say.

He cannot give up the Song of the Silk Road.

 

A string of caravans makes its way ponderously across the Karakum Desert. A girl no more than ten summers old runs out from behind a sand dune, a liuqin strapped to her back. The caravans stop. The girl boards.

On top of the sand dune, the bandit leader looks down, knowing that the travelers will not look up.

 

Copyrighted 2011