I remember the food. So much of it. Noodles and dumplings and greens soaked in garlic sauce and pork belly in red sauce and more noodles and green tea and red bean buns and cakes. I remember the sounds. The people chattering, the drums beating, firecrackers crackling, people laughing, feet stomping, someone playing an erhu, a boombox blasting traditional music. I remember the smells of incense and smoke and the sweet and sour and saltiness of food and sweat and perfume. But most of all, I always remember the lanterns. How they glow so red and warm, welcoming us into a new year. How they seem to just say, this is the beginning. This is fresh like blood. This is when you can look up and actually see a year of health, happiness and prosperity.
Kinsey could see the giraffe basking under the warm evening sun. And to her, though she knew it was likely her imagination, he was smiling. She had watched the giraffe slowly roam from tree to tree, picking the highest leaves from the acacia trees. He walked in a meditative way, step by step, occasionally bending his neck down to lick up some dirt with his strange dark tongue. She tried counting the spots on his neck, but failed to ever count up the same number. Each afternoon she went out to watch him, and many days she stayed until her lids weighed down heavy with fatigue and her mother would call her back into the house for dinner. Some nights, as the sun was setting, she could see him through her bedroom window, his silhouette still slowly roaming in the distance. And she wondered, “Does he ever sleep?” Her mother always told her to count sheep to fall asleep, but she knew a trick that worked much better. “Goodnight Daniel,” she said, as she closed her eyes and began counting the spots on her giraffe.
This is our city. It’s the one where you can look up to see man’s accomplishments and look around and trick yourself into seeing nature’s gifts. Our city breathes in the dreams of newcomers and breathes out the sighs of our weary. Even the pigeons in this city die while trying to achieve a goal. It is fast and hard and messy. Just don’t forget to rest between the running.
She grew up in the California suburbs, just outside of the Bay Area hustle. It was warm most days, and she could spend the summer months swimming and laying out to bake beneath the sun. But by the time she was in middle school she knew she would have to leave. As safe as she felt walking alone in the streets and as much as she loved the way people smiled and said “hello” as they walked by, she couldn’t shake the constant desire to escape. She neatly unfolded a large map of California, purchased from the nearby drug store, and taped it on her bedroom wall. At first eying the area she called home, she began to trace her finger in different directions. Down south to Los Angeles, and further down to San Diego. And then back up and East, through Death Valley and Yosemite, imagining the giant waterfalls roaring before her. Then she moved North, skipping her house and making a pit stop in San Francisco, where she could almost feel the fog wetting her face. Up and further up she went, passing through a place called Paradise, until she reached the tip of the Golden State, wondering where she could go beyond the lines.
Love does not age like the body, they say. At family events, like a wedding or a reunion, that require dressing up and smiling for cameras, both of them know that it’s not about the rosy, fun-filled fleeting moments. In fact, fleeting moments don’t exist; it’s all one long, extended, continuum that ends only with death. She knows that his figure is shrinking, once lean, muscular limbs becoming a soft, thin mush of skin covering bone. And he sees that her face is dropping, the corner of her eyes unable to fight a life worth’s of gravity. But love is not like the body, and it ages quite well, not unlike a fine vintage cheddar.
“Can you see it?” my sister asked. She was looking into the fountain, her eyes reflecting its water. I couldn’t see anything but her face and mine, looking back at us with their distorted mouths and cheeks. “There’s a whole world inside of here, where I’m the queen and you’re the prince and there’s enough food to feed us ten lives over,” my sister whispered, her face flushed from the summer humidity. My stomach grumbled and I started to feel a knot tighten in my chest. It felt like fear. And guilt. I couldn’t see what she saw in the water, and I knew that if I didn’t see it soon she would leave me. She would fall into the fountain and vanish into her kingdom alone, without me, her prince. She would drift away from me, and I would be roam the streets without the only person who loved me. I would have to crawl through dumpsters alone and dig into people’s garbage, looking for anything — stale cookies, not-too-moldy cheese, a peanut butter jar with enough peanut butter along the sides — worth eating… “I see it,” I said. “I want to go there together.”
This is the last photo I took of her before she got away, the woman tells me. All the while the woman has her lips curled slightly in a half smile and it reminds of me of those surveys where they show a picture of a person smiling and ask, ‘Is that smile real or fake?’ A researcher in my college’s Psychology department once paid me $30 for taking that exact survey — I answered correctly 30 out of 30 times. (Those were the days when I signed up for as many “paid studies” as possible, needing the cash for my nightly outings.) But right now, I’m not sure. The woman looks at me and I see that her eyes are bloodshot and dry. She says, isn’t she beautiful in this photo? I want to tell her that her daughter is safe and probably just in the next town over, drinking coffee and laughing with strangers. But I can’t, because I know that this, at least, isn’t real.
She left as soon as the sky turned pink the evening of her eighteenth birthday. She didn’t pack a thing, just grabbed a notebook, a pen, and the cash she’d saved up from teaching local kids piano — a wad of twenty dollar bills that totaled $1600 — and walked out the door in her best hiking boots. After walking five miles she decided it was safe enough to see if anyone could pick her up and drive her west. In big block letters she wrote “NEED A RIDE WEST. WILL PAY!” It took less than 15 minutes before the truck pulled over and her mom hopped out screaming, feet stomping up a storm of dust around her.
A sunny noonish stroll after a brunch where you ate too much. Too happy and full and warm and lazy to stop and pose for a photograph, but someone takes one anyway. You only have the energy to turn and squint because all you really want to do is get home, change your pants, and get in bed for a nap with your person. It’s really not long before you both stumble into a sodium-induced slumber. Inside the house, everything is quiet and even in your dreams, your body is heavy and slow. But the world outside your house carries on, and when you wake up the sky is dark orange and sleepy too. A few weeks later, your mom will see the photograph of you from that day and tell you that you both look ugly.
Her hologram felt more real this morning than ever before. Maybe it was because I’d barely slept last night, having gotten back from the bar at 4 AM. I could still taste the whiskey in the back of my mouth when I turned on the hologram machine, like I do every day before eating breakfast. She appeared and smiled at me as usual, said good morning to me as usual. But when she moved toward me and touched my arm, it felt more human than laser and light.
When I was eight years old, I heard the story about my great grandfather and his love of trees. My mother told me the story while we were taking a walk in what I called “the fake woods”—the small grove of trees that surrounded the park across the street from our house. She told me that when he was young, about the same age as me, he would climb every tree in his village, and even wander out into the woods to climb those trees, to his parent’s distress. He’d sit in the branches for hours, watching the squirrels circling up the tree’s trunk and befriending the birds that took perch next to him. It was in the branches that he met the crow that would not give up. Treating the bird like any other, my great grandfather held out a hand with a few sesame seeds he had stolen from his mother’s pantry. From the moment the crow ate those seeds from his hands, she refused to let him out of her sight, until the day she died.
This is the dinosaur living beneath the house. The dinosaur has a long neck, four legs, and four feet. He uses his feet to walk, run, and sometimes dance. His dancing feet can be heard in the night, they tap like the sound of rain. When the dinosaur is happy, rays of electricity shoot from his body and fuel the lights and all the other electronics in the house. The dinosaur likes music, jazz and top 20 hits in particular. Whenever it hears Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO or a good Louis Armstrong song, the dinosaur dances. The dinosaur, however, dislikes rock and country. If the dinosaur hears too much of this music, none of the lights or electronics will work in the house.
Do you remember the days when we went to the beach, just because it was warm and we had nothing else to do? It was before we started working, before we started thinking in terms of hours and dollars. You would watch the way the wind moved the sand, and count the birds that flitted by looking for their lunch. It didn’t matter how much time passed. Our minds were empty enough so that we found mysteries in the lines of our own hands. Those were the days when we stared into the ocean, thinking that the world was endless and impossible and free.
The train is nice when it’s empty, he thought. He could lean back and press his feet up against the seat in front of him, without hearing any grunts of complaint. But his favorite part about riding the train was the view. It went from buildings and bridges to trees and haystacks. At one point he saw a little girl and her mother standing by the tracks, waving as each train car passed by. He waved back and smiled.
In the evening, right before the sun would set and the shops would close their doors and the birds would come to eat the day’s dropped crumbs, it was magic hour. The pedestrian street glowed beneath the darkening sky. Proper families were in their homes, sitting down to larger than necessary dinners, the tables set with cloth napkins and three kinds of forks. Yet those who lingered in the street in that hour couldn’t imagine ever giving it up. Who else would come and admire the way buildings seemed to cry in the dimming light, or how the silence made the air feel that kind of fresh where anything seemed possible?