An Old Friend Called
He spoke about what he eats. No processed or packaged food. Nothing in plastic or out of a box. Vegetables, fruits, bulbs, legumes—all fresh and from this earth. On either side of his mouth, he chews, twenty-five times each, at least. Mastication and digestion; both were critical.
He then described intentional community. Connecting with people based on common interests. At the Farmer’s Market, he met his friends. The produce guy was there. He tore broccoli leaves off the stem and added them to the compost.
“May I have those if you’re not using them?”
I didn’t ask if his friend had begun to charge.
At points in the conversation, Avi moved from describing how well he was doing, and he began insisting that I could live this way too. He wanted me to live the life he was living. For me to have such an efficient life. An environmental life. A prosperous life—self-actualizing and free.
“The first five percent is the hardest part, but the next eighty percent is great. It’s easy. It feels great to get rid of all that stuff!”
It made me giggle; he was trying to be convincing. I hoped he couldn’t hear me over the phone.
But, yes, it was true, I had accumulated too many possessions. Far more than I needed. I didn’t tell him this, of course; we hadn’t spoken in years. I would like to change. I would like to be free of my encumbrances—my anxieties, my doubts, my stuff, my “career”—if we could call it that without laughing too hard.
He was assessing me now. Was I using too many paper products? Yes. Did I really need a full shower when a washcloth rinse would do? I supposed not. Walk whenever possible; drive only if you must. Of course. Avoid elevators; take the stairs. From now on, I would. Change would be good for me. Moving more would be good for me. Stationary bike or lap lane? Sure. Finishing this cheeseburger and cola was not the best I could do, and ordering a hot fudge sundae would work against my interests.
Then the conversation took a turn. It began with how great Avi’s lifestyle was—the young women moved closer to him when he danced in the clubs; he could feel it—but then he clarified his NYU status. Yes, he still taught there, but he was not in the business school. He was listed as an adjunct in the Evening College for Professional Studies or some such program. He was barely hanging on to the least appealing adjunct class, but he included NYU in his Author’s Bio and LinkedIn profile.
“It sounds good, you know?”
That much, I knew.
“I’m an entrepreneur first, but I’m also an author and educator.”
It turned out that he owns the one bedroom. It’s in the Village, but he’s “illiquid”—he’s been living off savings this year. We discussed his options. If he had to, he could rent out his place for $3,500 a month and move in with his mom. His mom turns 80 in a month but is doing well. Nowhere near ready for assisted living, she walks every day. I expressed admiration for his mother, and envy for his net wealth.
Then we discussed his monthly “nut.” Avi doesn’t have a mortgage, but he needs eighteen hundred a month to break even. Over twice as much as I’ve ever paid in rent. That’s a thousand dollars for the condo maintenance fee—that’s the big one. For food, he lives on about three hundred a month. He said that he eats like he’s still in college. I understood. Like an undergrad, yes. We paused. Two middle-aged men wishing we were back in school.
I was reminded of our Paris days. Our Burger King days. Or, his Burger King days. I worked as a busboy in a pizza place. We didn’t even know that we were both in Europe, so it was a shock to meet at the American Church. We’d barely seen each other since high school, but there he was—at the bulletin board for apartment listings—and I was grateful to see a familiar face. It was my fourth day in the city. I had my job lined up, but I still didn’t know where I would live. All the rooms I’d visited were cramped, and the live-in owners seemed strange. Not because they were foreign, no, but because they were oddballs. Weirdos with idiosyncrasies. Squished against an occupant-owner was not appealing to me. And there were rules about using the shower and kitchen. Limits on hot water consumption, that kind of thing. Saving money by sharing a place seemed like the sensible move.
I met him a day after I’d competed for a dishwasher job with a stranger. Meager scraps of Parisian employment. The other man prevailed, but in the evening toward the end of the working day, I caught a break and negotiated employment as a busboy at a pizza chain. The company was registered in a work-exchange program, so I was fortunate to be legally employed.
We found a place and lived together that summer. In Paris, we were able to get our primary meals from work, so we kept only cereal and milk in the apartment. It was a seven-floor walk-up by Gare du Nord. But those were good times. Our youth. An adventure. Where I worked, servers guzzled wine straight from the tap as they scooped up toast fallen to the floor, topped it with an egg, and headed out to the floor. My bussing companion, a young Algerian, blew smoke in my face as he gushed about his uncle, a radical communist. His tales, I enjoyed. Yes, too much menial labor—forty hours or more each—but we lived in France.
A white Parisian was our landlord although we soon noticed the northern arrondissement neighborhood was rife with darker-hued masses. We had moved to the Muslim and North African section, Paris’s North Philly. This wasn’t the kind of thing we would have discussed at length, then—and certainly not now—but we both would have recognized the demographics as familiar. As it would turn out, no one ever bothered us there, and the few guys we interacted with—for a local beer or crêpe—seemed happy to hear us mangling our French.
The landlord was a cartoonist who spoke limited English, but our summer lease was clear and easy to sign. He was headed to the countryside, and we gave him a thick wad of currency. All of it in advance, that much I recall.
Proof of the cartoonist’s career was in the stacks of New Yorker magazines piled on the bottom shelf of a hallway bookcase. How did he obtain them in France? I know not, but, yes, The New Yorker, known for cartoons, and Avi had already read many long articles from that most famous of American “slicks.” I was 20, and I fancied myself an intellectual, so I kept to the classics boys would read then—Melville, Nietzsche, Marx or Freud perhaps, mostly pre-Lacan and Foucault—I didn’t even know that I was supposed to be reading The New Yorker. I mean I didn’t know that it was a periodical that young men were supposed to read and aspire to be published in. When Avi would speak to me enthusiastically about our landlord’s reading tastes—unless he kept them only for the cartoons—I would nod, but largely ignore him. Who in hell did I think I was?
Allow me to clarify further the finances of the characters in this French adventure. No, we were not the rich kids racking up credit card debt on our parents’ dime. Our parents had jobs that required education, but there were divorces in the background. Layoffs too, more than occasional underemployment. My father should have died as broke as he was a couple times in my life—avoiding debts, losing houses, his lady friends escaping to churches, and the clutches of their ministers. At a low late in his life, fast food at sixty hours a week would be the only way he could survive. He asked me over the phone: Who would want to do that? Twenty years earlier, when he was adrift from an IT career, Dad delivered flowers from a van. I have no idea of what that could have paid. Minimum wage? Perhaps. But the point is that we were not the entitled children everyone assumes take the European tour. A summer on the Mediterranean, or across the continent with a two-month train pass. We dealt in dishes and trays. As Orwell wrote it.
In an interview with Harry Mathews—yes, the author, Oulipo, the famous guy, American, tall, blonde, WASP, etc.—in The Paris Review, Mathews denied the allegations—despite all the whispers—that he was a trust-fund kid or that he was C.I.A. In fact, his comic novel on being C.I.A. is the only one of his I’ve read. He wasn’t wealthy either—unless he was and was lying or saying that he wasn’t rich in the way that only the reasonably affluent can say it while having no fucking clue as to what real poverty feels like. I read somewhere more recently that Hemingway and his first wife were never starving in Paris. They had plenty of cash, but for the sake of creating a sympathetic narrator, in A Moveable Feast, the author or publisher lied.
So back to Paris—my Paris, not Papa’s or anyone else’s. I would describe myself as a barbarian at the time. Avi had to introduce me to The New Yorker. I was dumb enough to still believe that the math and science kids were smarter than the others. And you had to read the Western classics on your journey to becoming a writer. You had to read Plato and Aristotle. And Marx and Nietzsche. Melville. I hadn’t read Hawthorne, but he was required too. I had no idea of what a fucking cliché I was.
Which reminds me of the current phone conversation. Avi was telling me that he hadn’t figured out academia. With a PhD and an MBA, he clung to the least appealing scrap of adjunct employment that a research university had to offer. An evening class in a college of continuing studies. He’d earn more if he taught at CUNY.
He didn’t know why he had wound up where he was. But he knew who he was—an eco-educator and thought leader. “I’m not a fucking account executive for Big Pharma or the coal industry.”
But he couldn’t explain why he worked where he did.
Academia wasn’t like “pick up”—which he had mastered to the extent that he got bored of bringing girls home to his Village loft, initiating sexual favors, and then watching from a seated position on his couch as they knelt and attended to his knowledge worker. No, academia was a more complex game that with two advanced degrees he had failed to navigate.
As he went on—describing a “career” that wasn’t and one that he didn’t even desperately need—he had consulting, and he had earned $8,500 for a single contract; he had delivered a TED Talk the previous year—I began to think of my own “career” that also wasn’t, but which I had navigated with minimal qualifications. Yes, the bare minimum was my passport toward gainful employment teaching others to value avocational learning and strive for degrees I did not possess.
My “career” was scrambling for courses, writing-center hours, and freelance gigs. I’d seen what had happened to my father—how he had spent down his savings until his cash disappeared. Zero dollars and no cents. My dad’s life was my warning, what I was fighting against. My “success” as an adjunct was due partly to the boom economy of the late 1990s when colleges were grateful for instructors who stuck around as every qualified person with a graduate degree fled to the dot-com bubble.
As I listened to Avi, I felt guilty that I’d had “success” as an adjunct—hah!—and he was illiquid. But then I recalled that he owned $500,000 of Manhattan real estate while I had nothing. No property, not even employment at present. Yes, Avi was illiquid and alone, but he could escape in a day if he had to. Sell the property. Who wouldn’t buy property in Manhattan? All he had to do was post a for-sale sign, and he’d be free.
And the women were dancing in his direction. But who needed dancing when Avi knew “pick up”? It was a game. You know, trying to get girls. Avi was the king of condo seducers. He went into more detail, and I did nothing to dissuade him from continuing. As he indulged me, I began to conflate Avi with Roger Frade. He was the tenured novelist who had seduced and destroyed Ellen. She was a friend from graduate school. Avi and Frade were pick-up artists; ladies’ men.
Frade had the condo in the Village, Ellen was kneeling on his rug, Frade was lying with legs splayed on Avi’s couch. The decades were backward, up-side-down, or in reverse, and the men were interchangeable. Frade, Avi; Avi, Frade. But Frade had liquid assets—plenty of money, filthy lucre from his book sales and teaching appointments whereas Avi seemed to be looking for direction. Had Avi called because he was asking for help? And he thought that I could provide it? Me? Rudderless as I was, how could I help?
Back to Paris and the seven-floor walk-up. Was it eight or nine? Make it nine. Make the steps steeper. To lie like Hemingway, make us poorer. Moldy baguette and dry croissant? It doesn’t matter. Neither stairs nor stale bread could break us the way decades of life could. At twenty overseas, we held jobs, paid our own way, and established routines. We were self-supporting and surviving abroad.
Avi went on and on. He had stories to tell, pitches to sell me. “Double up on your flavonoids. Reduce the carbs. Ice cream? Are you crazy? Once a month, tops. Don’t do you unless you is soy-based. Eat vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. The fatty meat is okay, but white bread and rice will kill you.” I spaced out, even as I managed to add enough, “I see,” “Hmm,” and “Indeed,” so that he could go on because his audience was listening. “No dyes or additives. Move often. Drink water.”
At a Marxist restaurant, I learned that we weren’t individuals with our own problems—broken homes, uncertain futures, burgers to sell, or dishes to bus. No, we were affluent young Americans—white, Jewish most likely, partly, or along those lines; you know the deal. I had wanted to eat at this restaurant. I’d seen it in the tour guide for budget travelers. A Let’s Go France, I believe.
I’d been reading Marx in college. Coming out of my mother’s apartment in University City—an urban community where tenured professors, yes, “intellectuals,” “scholars,” “people of substance,” and so on—saved the world with their novel ideas while living in four-story six-bedroom Victorians towering over a sea of poverty, Marx made perfect sense. It was only as I became more aware of my college surroundings that I realized that Marx was nonsense to the affluent children of the liberal elite who attended college with me. Marx’s ideas didn’t send them to college; their parents’ money did. I was an outlier. I’d snuck past the entrance gates, but I didn’t belong at that school. I didn’t belong in a Marxist restaurant either.
The proprietor made sure of that. He was an older man—short and round but animated—and it made perfect sense to him to demand a generous tip from the two wealthy young Americans dining that evening. But rather than politely requesting one, he confiscated extra cash by refusing to provide change. I have always been shy and reserved. I was disappointed, but I wouldn’t have said anything. We were two of the only people in the establishment. With experience, I would have understood things better and wanted him to have any francs I could afford to part with.
Avi didn’t see it the same way as the Marxist. He was offended. Tips were earned, not taken. His older sister had told him that France had no tipping culture, and that only a single coin should be left on the table. After demanding our change—in his imperfect French—didn’t accomplish his goal, Avi confiscated the Marxist’s glasses. Swiped them right off the owner’s nose. It all happened fast. I was shocked. I thought we were raised properly, and that we’d been taught not to steal, beg, or borrow. But Avi now clutched the frames. “You’ll get them back after you give us our change.” The proprietor had to know what Avi wanted.
We sat, and the owner returned to the kitchen. For a while, nothing happened. The events seemed unusual—money withheld, pinched spectacles—but nothing seemed completely out of hand. We had finished eating, but we returned to our conversation.
Suddenly, the proprietor leapt back to our table swinging a butcher’s knife. He lunged left and right, screamed, shrieked, and demanded his glasses.
At first, we froze. The owner gave us a moment’s pause. What Avi failed to do next was to hand over the glasses.
The owner swung at Avi’s head just as he began to stumble while ducking out from his chair. On impulse, I pushed Avi in the back, so he would fall down faster as the Marxist decapitated the air above Avi’s chair. The Marxist missed by two feet.
As I hastened my step, I pulled Avi up, and then lugged us both toward and out the door.
“What the fuck, man!” Avi cried.
Thank god that was enough for the Marxist proprietor. He didn’t chase us outside.
That was also plenty for me—to escape alive into the safety of public sidewalk although we were in a dark corner of the city with few pedestrians. It was immediately clear that the owner was staying inside. All he wanted were his glasses, which lay safely on the table we’d vacated.
But Avi was angry. His left knee bled from his fall, and his ego was more substantially bruised. I held him by the waist as he fought me to return inside. He wanted his change, and he wanted revenge.
My strength was nearly depleted when Avi stopped pressing hard against me; at last, I could see he was no threat to attack. I didn’t see anything we could win by furthering this contest, and I recognized that Avi’s theft was the initiation of the physical encounter, if not the first act of aggression. In hindsight, it’s hard to remember another time when anything I was involved with was settled in such a primitive way. As I began to lug and limp with Avi back to Le Métro, I was relieved when he no longer needed my support. In fact, he picked up the pace. I felt a burst of freedom when down below—in the sunken subway of Paris—he quit pontificating on how he could have disarmed the Marxist and forced him down, and instead changed the subject to Burger King meals—an analysis of French versus American particulars.
“And here is the essence of the matter: The European French fry is not the same as the one we were raised on.”
As I was saying, we were seen as the rich kids, but we weren’t. The sons and daughters of America’s inheritors never would have taken an apartment in the French version of North Philly. The rich kids would never dine at off-the-beaten-track Marxist eateries. If they had been there—or anywhere—they would have slapped down an American Express card and thought nothing of tipping well or poorly or even at all. Their entire lives were paid for with a credit line—fine dining, hotel suites, overnight fly-ins for five-star accommodations. Lives adorned with diamonds and pearls. They made movies out of their lives—Metropolitan, that sort of thing—while the rest of us toiled at two or three jobs at once. Their Jacobin Marxism was “just pretend.”
Avi never married or had children, but he was worth a half million dollars in real estate even if he was illiquid. I built my own house of cards—pay-by-the-year or pay-by-the-course—but I did okay. Twenty-three years of adjunct instruction, if not a path to getting ahead, at least a path to getting by. Keep your head down and endure; I knew how the rest of us survived.
Adjunct survival led me to a bird that flew into my apartment only this past year while teaching abroad in Suzhou, China. Not dead yet and employed overseas again, I’d chased contract work to “the Venice of the Far East”—a mainland city of man-made lakes and narrow canals—but I was alone. I had no friends. Gardens bloomed throughout the city, but there was no housing bulletin board at an American church. I had people in the program—teachers, students, staff—that I would exchange pleasantries with or occasional chitchat, but there was no one I was close to. I wasn’t going to stay up all night discussing politics, literature, or anything else. No one was in my life, and talking all about it no longer appealed to me.
But back to my feathery friend. It was a windy, rainy night. I had the windows open, their screens firmly in place. I had taken a shower and noticed that the kitchen window’s screen had been defeated by strong gusts while I was in the bathroom. I promptly reattached the screen to its magnetic clasp in the kitchen to prevent insects from flying in.
With my beige towel around my waist, I retreated to the bedroom where I could find clean clothes. I was changing in this interior room when the faux hardwood door separating the bedroom from the living room slammed shut. I jumped, then froze, and then relaxed when I understood what had occurred.
When I moved to open it again, I saw light and movement near the overhead lamp fastened to the center of the ceiling in the other room. And I heard a flapping noise. Golden feathers glistened against the light of the lamp. I was scared. A bird had flown through the window when I was in the shower, and it was trapped in my tiny apartment and a danger to my person!
I slammed the dividing door shut and leaned against it with my body’s full weight. The curtain opposite the bedroom—the one protecting the apartment from possible voyeurs in the office building across the small street—was wide open. Although the view may have been obscured, I desperately clutched the towel with my free left arm and did everything possible to keep it wrapped around my waste. Even with a bird circling around the ceiling lamp in the other room, I knew that no one should have the right or obligation to stare at a nude, hairy white man who could stand to lose fifteen pounds. Or thirty.
With my body lodged against the door, I planned my next move. Was there a weapon in sight that I could use to shoo away my aviary enemy?
A purple clothes hanger was all I saw, so I desperately stretched toward the adjacent closet. Against all odds—indeed, against logic and possibility—I wanted to keep the door shut, keep my towel up and wrapped around my waist, and snag a clothes hanger with my teeth.
But of course, my neck wouldn’t stretch that far.
I must admit that I was expecting the impossible as I let go of the towel and reached with my left hand as my right side kept the door closed. Alas, the closest clothes hanger was still too far away, as I made a final lunge, and felt the towel drop to the faux hardwood, linoleum floor. Now I was naked, my drying towel in a heap beneath me.
Man’s fear of full frontal display is great, so I at once let go of the door, leaped to grab the clothes hanger, pulled the towel up from the floor, panicked when I saw the door slide six inches open, and then slammed it shut by pressing my body’s full weight against it. I held the clothes hanger under my left armpit and contorted as best I could to get the towel back around my waist.
I took a few deep breaths. I waited. Unsure of what my next course of action should be. I knew I had to open the door again to confirm what I’d seen. When I was relaxed, that’s what I did. Slowly. As I did so, I noticed all was quiet. I couldn’t hear any flapping.
But I knew I had heard a bird, so I looked around every corner and crevice of that side of the compact four-area apartment. There were thick interior curtains by the window—an uninspiring beige-brown—and I recognized that the bird had to be hiding behind them and above the rod.
After throwing on a respectable amount of clothing—shorts, shirt, boxers, socks—I went downstairs to ask for help. If I spoke clearly, the woman at the desk understood my English, so I communicated that a bird or bird-sized beast had flown into my apartment. “Golden feathers,” I emphasized, and if I had been sophisticated, I would have added a “pigeon” or “sparrow.” The woman found my information to be a point of curiosity, but she didn’t giggle or guffaw out loud.
Instead, she called over two men—the “engineers” as they were called in English for Anglophone residents, what back home we would have called “maintenance men.” In Chinese, she explained the situation to the men who looked alternately bewildered and amused. I led them back upstairs to my apartment where we did the once-over. I pointed toward the corners in the living room where the window’s curtains were bunched together. The lead engineer took a closer look. He prodded above with a small broom I never used. Nothing flew out to escape this threat. There was no bird anywhere in sight.
The embarrassing part was when my neighbor—an older American, tenured and secure, and with the annoying habit of plucking his string instruments at a volume I could hear inside my apartment—peeked his head out to check on me. Before each night’s sitar and ukulele solo, I would hear his hundred squats and curls. This was his notice that he was built to last a lot longer than I was, but it was his face—his visage as awkward caricature of Roger Frade’s author photo—that startled me whenever we crossed paths.
That night, his brow furrowed with concern, as if he cared and wanted to make sure that my documents weren’t being confiscated by the authorities. He’d told me previously that in China, he was terrified of the guards and police. I gave my neighbor a nod that everything was okay, and then I acknowledged and thanked the maintenance men. We were all now in agreement that there’d been no bird. I closed the door behind them and sunk down on my couch.
A few minutes later, I recognized that the window screen which had blown open on a windy night had allowed me to imagine that a bird could have flown in. The flapping noise was only the wind against the living room lamp. I was paranoid. Cuckoo. Nuts. I collapsed deeper into the couch’s cushioned seat.
I was isolated in China as a middle-aged man in a way I had never been as a young man in Paris. Both times abroad I spent considerable time alone, but as a young man in Paris, this didn’t bother me. But now, not only was I alone, but I felt alone. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was knock on my neighbor’s door and listen to him talk—droning on about his international contacts, successful children, sexual conquests, or string instruments. Teaching in China wasn’t like living in Paris.
After I’d had a few days to ruminate over Avi’s telephone call—to digest its reminiscences, digressions, and sales pitches—I came to regret all that had come to pass. My travels, “my life’s journey,” as they say. It was too fucking all-American—seeing the world, working abroad, dropping coin in countries where I didn’t belong. It didn’t matter if I was rich and spoiled, middle class, or a child of poverty and a broken home. I was away from home; I had “privilege” or “opportunity” as various castes or complexions would say. Or was I in possession of plain dumb luck? Gumption? Chutzpah? Guidance or good rearing?
I can’t tell you, no, I can’t. Sorry. But yet again, my mind leapt to another episode from my past. Overseas, again, yes. I know. I admit it, I’ve seen my share of international airports. I’ve blended in with tourists and businessmen. I played “the normie”—one of them. Airports offer an oversupply of oversized Americans, middle-age men and women who, impossibly, fit into economy passenger seats. In Asia, I’ve seen the long lines of foreign students eager to embrace America. Extended families queue up at the dispenser for warm water, and they bring their own hot pots and freeze-dried noodles for slurping and belching before flights overseas—as if it would be all cheeseburgers and chili dogs upon arrival in foreign lands.
You may be asking, “Was he ever at home?”
Certainly so; I lived at home—my share of studios, efficiencies, and junior one-bedrooms, my mother’s apartment, a friend’s couch. Various arrangements—squalid, cozy, overpriced, plain. I knew Murphy beds and futons thrown on the floor; minifridges without a freezer; electric-range only, no full-sized oven or no oven; and metal fire escapes, stored in a painted box, to be thrown out the window ahead of me. I’ve worked in several sections of America, and I’ve seen entire towns of people poorer than me. Obese and depressed; wobbling through Walmarts. I’ve lived among them.
And I might add that none of this “work abroad” lasted more than a few months. I was an employment tourist, not an expat. Paris, Suzhou, and in between, then, Seoul. I was no longer young in Paris and not yet middle-aged as I was in Suzhou. South Korea was my first time in Asia. I was excited, eager to embrace the Far East—indeed, “the Orient”—and positively ecstatic at the prospect of ten weeks without grading college compositions and business correspondence.
In Seoul, I taught or tutored a tiny collection of children and teens ranging in ages from ten to nineteen. The eldest had already been a residential student at a California boarding school whereas the five young ones were learning English during the summer before fifth grade. But I was away from my charges; it was a weekend afternoon, and I was in a basement shopping mall in the financial district. I was outside a super-sized bookstore, a place I’d frequent to browse a spare selection of literature in English.
On a high shelf beneath a low ceiling, I’d discovered a single copy of Harry Mathews’s The Sinking of Odradek Stadium. It was a novel recommended to me in a professor’s rushed, almost indecipherable scrawl on the first story I ever submitted to a college class—a literature course, not one of those dreary, impossible fiction-writing workshops. The professor added that I had the talent to be a writer, but that I had to quit rambling and get to the point. Twenty-five years later on the other side of the world, the book was waiting. His point had found me.
I was puzzling over the opening pages on a marble bench outside the store when a boy—likely eleven to thirteen—was walking toward me. I don’t know why, but we made eye contact when he was thirty paces away, and he stayed focused on me. Walking at a brisk pace, he was soon upon me, and as he strode past, he said to me directly, “You see? I’m like you! I don’t belong here!” His English was perfect, his accent American, or certainly not recognizably British or Australian. He’d seen an American, and he wanted someone to understand. Whereas Avi wanted me to know who I could become, the boy already knew who I was. An identification, no conversion required.
He appointed me as his countryman, but he didn’t stop and give me time to pledge allegiance. As he strode away quickly, I was left to ruminate with my coffee-to-go and all-American Harry. I don’t know if the boy had lived in the United States for most or all of his previous life. It didn’t look like a happy summer abroad; rather, I assumed he’d been returned to South Korea for an indefinite period—maybe to be raised by Grandma, or perhaps his parents had suffered reversals in the States that made raising him in their adopted country impossible. Had his parents divorced? And now his mother slaved at two or three jobs for sixty or eighty hours a week? I can’t say.
What I can tell you is that the boy was distraught over his present circumstances, and he wanted me to know. How horrible was his existence? Could his life have been contrasted unfavorably to today’s evening news? Children molested behind bars at the borders. Bombed upon, or strapped around them, the bombs. Kids swept away by undulating waves. Mother nature’s inevitable violence. Infants dead in the surf. But what could anyone know of this or any boy’s pain?
Kids were in cages now, but kids were in cages then. All other centuries, epochs, and ages offer a fine selection of oppressed children. Marx saw kids lowered into the bowels of the earth only to return blackened from the mines. Melville and Dickens knew capitalism was to blame. The Chinese Chairman taught kids to destroy their cages, parents, sparrows, and villages. To serve their chopped-up teachers in iron rice bowls was the treachery attributed to teens under Mao. A Vietnamese child running naked from napalm carpeting, dead cattle on the side of the road. She’s free—the girl, not Ellen or murdered bovine—unencumbered. Without her clothes. Once an image, now only a cliché? Crying tears, yes. Real wet drops down her cheeks and torso. Sprinting toward America, innocent America, where we welcome foreigners as we extinguish their nations. I’ve read that Marx enjoyed his family life. Sponging off Engels, the communist king was a sort-of propertied man. In his private dwelling, he pranced about in his royal robes and bounced his daughter on his knee. Nietzsche knew Marx was full of shit and largely ignored this grievance-monger for the masses. Nietzsche wouldn’t care for Burger King or bussing dishes. Cow’s work; for the common herd. Is she—the napalmed girl, not Ellen or Marx’s daughter—sobbing for Marx and Nietzsche? Dickens or Melville? The Korean-American boy? Harry Mathews and every oulipo burger denied? All of the above? Well, yes, no, maybe so. To be frank, I don’t know. I know that Avi and I were not the lasting images of the bildungsroman I had intended to describe before I got carried away. Yes, in Paris, we mingled with the masses, worked with Muslims, slung French fries and broke glasses, but the oppressed, we weren’t.
About the genuinely oppressed, I always felt so helpless and hated all the righteous and groovy innocents who went through life certain they were helping them. Kids were always trapped and jailed—in cages, slums, coal mines, or worse—and we were never those kids. No shtetl, ghetto, les banlieues, rotten decaying opioid-addicted suburbs and satellite cities, sleeping in a van or shack or barn fucking bulls and sheep to keep warm—no! No, it was never like that for us. Even if we didn’t grow up in four-story, six-bedroom McMansions, we could quit selling Whoppers whenever we pleased. And even if the cages weren’t always going viral around the world wide web, do you think the world ever changes? How do I know what that Marxist proprietor was going through? What were his property taxes? Was he in arrears and due to lose his slither of Parisian real estate? Don’t you get it? I traveled to these places. Yes, I didn’t belong there; okay, yes, I don’t belong here. Abroad, I lived and worked, but there was no fundamental alteration. My rudderless state remained the same.
What I’m saying is that, yes, I could have stayed at home the whole time. I should never have explored. Like a rational careerist, I should have remained in Philadelphia, finished college, applied to jobs, accrued savings, and purchased property that would keep me moored to one place and never send me off to bus dishes, teach school, or tutor on another continent. Safely ensconced from my living room recliner and hidden from public view, I could manipulate under my exotic Afghan to alternate news broadcasts of Palestinian oppression. If I were to venture out for entertainment, I’d view the right film in the right theater instead of eating the French Marxist’s food or escaping imagined birds flying through my windows. I’d write checks to save the global poor, and if needed, I’d moonlight teaching adjunct courses. After years of frequenting local libraries, parks, museums, and restaurants, I’d retire and die of domestic diseases. No, I’m not implying that there was news of the deceased, or that the French communist served us fresh pigeon that had flown in his kitchen window. Cornish hen? Roasted duck? Are you insane? How can you claim this wasn’t me?
Forget it, okay? Back to reality, please; back to my life. I’d listen to Avi after so many years, but I’d never turn to rigorous calisthenics; I’d never do push-ups, never mind sets of fifty with my body’s weight on my thumbs. Unfit, if not incontrovertibly destroyed, I didn’t care for his recommendations. Yet Avi was an old friend, and I hardly knew any of the others I’ve described.
Teaching abroad in Suzhou, China, there was no bird—no cardinal or goldfinch—but back in the states, there was an old friend’s phone call—about the life I would never have unless I took action—which reminded me of working abroad and disappeared youth; a butcher’s knife swung at the air above an old friend’s throat; an imagined bird; and a brief, if emphatic, encounter with a Korean-American adolescent in a basement shopping mall. And after all that, a rant, a ramble, and an impotent sigh. A mere phone call led me back to these extended stays in other nations, these uncollected memories—snapshots and clippings—the disentangled fragments of my life. I’d been around the world, but my “I” had remained. No phone call or overseas adventure could cure me. I’d never change.
Alex Kudera’s award-winning adjunct novel, Fight for Your Long Day (Atticus Books), was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea. In 2016, he published Auggie’s Revenge with Beating Windward Press as well as a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day with Hard Ball Press. The e-singles “Frade Killed Ellen” (Dutch Kills Press), “Turquoise Truck” (Mendicant Bookworks), and “The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity” (Gone Dog Press) are available most anywhere books are downloaded. His published short stories include “Bombing From Above" and “My Father’s Great Recession” (Heavy Feather Review) as well as "A Thanksgiving" and “Over Fifty Billion Kafkas Served” (Eclectica Magazine). For many years, Kudera has taught college writing and literature, but he currently supports English language learners in inner-city high schools.