Jan/Feb 2021  •   Fiction

Where Are You Going? Where Am I Going?

by Jonathan Truong

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador, 'Strokes II', 2007. San Francisco, CA.

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador


In the sophomore year of my undergrad, I took aerial yoga classes in secret, which made a lot of sense given the trajectory of my life at the time—Point A never leads to Point B. The studio was on the 11th floor and faced the rear of an apartment complex, so as I suspended from the ceiling by aerial silks, I could glimpse inverted images of people's lives: a woman reheating leftovers, a man trying to fix her leaky faucet. If for nothing else, I returned week after week just to see how these boxed vignettes played out. The answer was often violent sex.

It was a weeknight when I called him to join me. We were always doing strange things together, Saul and me, like sneaking into tennis clubs or going to Tarot readings, so this invitation didn't seem all that peculiar. I didn't tell him I'd been going to the studio, or about the catharsis I felt hanging upside-down in spread eagle, swinging. I didn't even tell him about those domestic window displays I'd collected and filed away in memory.

Let me say Saul was Dutch, and this detail informed almost every interaction I had with him. His Dutch-ness, in fact, was important to me. He was tall, of course. He had no upper lip hair and an immaculate physique, and it was casually rumoured among our classmates that his father starred in a terrible 1970s slasher film, which followed a serial killer lurking the Amsterdam canals. His being born in Rotterdam only fueled this rustic image I had projected onto him, and whenever he alluded to his upbringing, I imagined aerial views of large, ocean-going steamships, cargoes of crude oil and petroleum, the angles and pistons and vectors of a sort of postmodern carnage. He spoke about none of these things. Saul was unbearably centrist—unlawfully so, if I may suggest such a paradox—and radiated a proudness particularly un-American.

It was no wonder, then, that he was reluctant to shed his ego at the command of a woman in pink polyester leggings, who spoke with the rasp of a chain-smoker. That was the thing about Saul: he was always conspicuous in his disapproval.

But then the class was ending, and the instructor cranked the volume up on Black Sabbath's "Electric Funeral" and commanded the class to scream. Saul looked at me and mouthed, What the fuck? but I shrugged, joining the chorus. It occurred to me there were few moments weirder than this—wailing at the top of my lungs in a class full of middle-aged white women—but this pseudo-guru had a way of penetrating straight to the heart space. Either that, or the sound of her screaming "Let that out! Let that out!" over heavy metal was making me lose my mind. Then we were all crying, even Saul, lying in corpse pose in those hammocks. It felt good to be airborne in a silk cocoon. I have a surviving sense of excitement from that impossible feeling of weightlessness.

Saul was too stubborn to find his inner light—such resistance, I am told, a very Dutch trait to have, straightforwardness encoded into the language. This nonetheless bothered me, and I thought about it as we descended in the dingy elevator.

Outside it was cold. It was wonderful. It was fall, the city rung out and flaccid. Technicolor lights were flashing everywhere. Everything had a heavy odor like nickels and vodka soda and Penhaligon's cologne. The night balanced on an empty, wind-blown can of Coke Zero.

"Do you feel enlightened now?" he asked me.

"Perhaps. Self-work is a deeply personal thing, you know," I replied.

"I think you're starting to lose your mind," he said. After that, we walked in silence for a block or so.

"So is this like a thing? That you're doing?" he asked.

"I'm being happy."

"Maybe you should try getting shit-faced instead. Or download some dating apps?"

"Well, I love Grindr as much as anyone else, Saul, but love is dead." A pause. "I'll never live for the sake of someone else."

"Didn't Ayn Rand say something about that?"

"About Grindr? Doubtful."

He smiled. "About self-interest."

"Ayn Rand is a war criminal."

Across the street, the final hours of sunlight were wasted upon a scaffolded building's face and its boarded up windows. Beneath them: a woman haggling for a faux leather bag in Spanish (¡Tómalo o déjalo!), the vendor laughing (Are you crazy?). All of these little scenes happened around us, and yet we couldn't look into any of them, even if we tried.

 

Our problem, Saul and mine, began the night we got bored with ourselves.

I was telling him a story from my hometown. My friends and I were not yet 17, and June's electric moon was blowing O's with us. Well, with them—I, on the other hand, could barely flick a disposable Bic lighter and was still traumatized from junior high propaganda, where we watched a teenager in a PSA get air-lifted to a Los Angeles hospital after taking—and I quote—a fat bong rip. What I mean is I coughed up a few mouthfuls of smoke. Anyways, this was all beside the point, the point being, that night, I realized how beautiful back home was. We were bent over the pier's guard rail. As I told Saul about the way the waves just sort of fizzled at night, I once again felt the heavy life of the ocean inside me. It could've swallowed me whole; I might've even allowed it to.

He said something about learning to swim, how odd it is how some people in the states can go their whole childhoods without ever learning to stay afloat. Then he began to work backwards, excavating through his memory, telling me all of the ways in which he arrived here: about patroons and big girthy plots of land, about the splitting of bread and church, about drinking beer by the river with his friends, throwing the bottles at ducks, violently. I didn't know why he was telling me any of this, or how any of it related to him, right then, standing before me.

Within this brief moment of intimacy, I began to look at him—not just his body, but the "him" beyond the skin and breath and formalities. I was trying to be real, to communicate something beyond speech, like those electromagnetic signals between devices (Hello? Can you hear me?). In those moments I had a nagging feeling in my appendix—was this enlightenment? Well, no. Sometimes I felt like I was just an animal posing as a human, one of those biomimicry octopuses on PBS camouflaging as a sea snake. It wasn't just me, though.

We often played a game where we'd switch identities. I don't know: something about being young and impressionable in the city. The barista at some coffee shop downtown would ask for my name, and I'd grin and say, "Saul." He wasn't as good at the game, which I attributed to my unequaled wit, but probably had more to do with his reluctance to assume my gayness.

Saul, Saul, Saul. It filled my ribcage and came out as song.

 

A portrait... Me, Missy, and Saul, three NYU students, taking the NJ transit for a garage rock concert in Newark. I didn't know the proper attire, so I was dressed ambiguously: a proto-Punk, mod, '60s getup. I was always trying to be ambiguous. For example, when Missy texted me, asking why I wasn't at Penn Station yet, I sent her four of the cat emojis: heart eyes, kissing face, crying, shocked.

We were alone in a four-seater, all of us grown enough so our knees touched, when Missy pulled out a baggie of cocaine. What I wanted was for it to get all moody like a still-life from a Debussy soundtrack, but then each of us took turns inhaling sharply, and we all sat back, sucking the weird chemical taste from our enamels. I asked who was playing tonight. The Black Keys was the answer.

In the bathroom, I stared at myself through the calcium stained mirror. From outside I could hear the general hum of the train, the mechanics of things moving, and I thought of the body underneath my body as an amalgam of gears and pistons. I imagined the animal inside of me dead, replaced with a machine-like whirring. When I got back, Saul was giving an impromptu lecture on probability, something about how, given enough time, a monkey randomly striking keys on a typewriter could end up writing Hamlet. Missy threw her head back, perhaps in laughter. You must be thinking of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, I replied, though I couldn't tell who "I" was at all: the I speaking or the I sitting across from me. Saul was probably bothered I knew more than him in almost all avenues of life. Could he paraphrase Kierkegaard in casual conversation? Probably not.

We arrived in Newark with our heads down. The moon must have been late because the night was completely blank. A mile away someone jangled their keys. We were walking for hours. Walking here, walking there. Walking was only half the battle. For no reason in particular I thought, It's a dog eat dog world.

"Life can only be understood backwards," Saul said, "but it must be lived forwards."

I went, "What does that mean?"

He kept walking.

I persisted. "What does that mean?"

And maybe this wasn't even Saul I was talking to. It was me, or Saul playing me, or me playing Saul playing me, and somewhere between Greenwich and Newark he had started playing our game without me. I realized as we walked that the whole city was a terrible disappointment. It was lonely, disarranged, dispirited. Everything moved dangerously here. There were hardly any streetlamps, and in blackness everything lost its perimeters.

At the concert, the crowd became church for the hot and bothered. We were trying to push our way to the front, but then people started to dance in a way that was like fighting, and everything became bones and teeth and knees, hard edges jostled together. Missy mouthed something to me I didn't understand. Everyone recorded on their iPhones.

At first the music sounded terrible, and then it sounded wonderful. The bassist's liquid 16th notes had a way of reaching us, breaking through synaptic time no matter how far gone we thought we might be.

On another day, c'mon c'mon With these ropes I tied, can we do no wrong? Now we grieve, cause now is gone Things were good when we were young

I realized then that my friends had stopped listening to the music. What I mean is Saul and Missy were kissing. His hand brushing the hem of her low cut jeans, her mouth touching whatever part of his face was closest. And the thing was, I liked it. How it made me think of when the yoga instructor says bring your hands to the heart center, and the two hemispheres of the body were suddenly bridged.

Around me, as the young amateurs violated their instruments to unspeakable volumes, I once again felt myself losing my bearings. I was throwing myself out and looking in, racing the NJ Transit in 60 mph through space. In this scene, I imagined myself as Saul once more. I felt the stiffness of Missy's denim at my fingertips; I felt the prick of Missy's stabby tongue in my cheek; I felt my hands, id-driven, uncontrollable, pawing at the whiteness of her exposed back, heartbeat versus heartbeat.

In bed back at the dorms, I turned off the lights and went through the motions all over again. "Saul, Saul, Saul," I whispered reassuringly, and then got on all fours. I moved swiftly. Lay prone over my duvet, tore off the sheets in my undressing. I was a man, an animal, a deep gnawing. I was radical, I was explosive, I was Rotterdam's aerial bombardment and its calcified remains.

What I feared: the NJ Transit was a time machine, and at some point from Point A to Point B, all of our timelines had been unravelled. I didn't even know if Greenwich was Point B, or which direction I was moving towards. At that moment I chose downward and shuddered onto my pillow.

That night, I dreamt of Missy and me in bed. A dream where the body underneath my body slipped out of itself, and the night opened its satin legs. In one version of things, I lifted the white hem of Missy's shirt, only to reveal she had the torso of a man. In another, Missy and I crawled dog-like on our limbs and I couldn't tell which of the four bodies was mine.

 

I woke up the next morning and immediately walked down to the dining hall. By the time I'd finished watching Anderson Cooper on my phone, I realized the only thing I'd heard was the shrill voice of a girl adjacent to me. I tweeted, "Anderson Cooper is hot, in a Mr. Clean sort of way."

Every 15 minutes, I returned to the microwave to reheat my coffee, and I sipped on it as I walked up 14th Street.

It didn't make sense to skip my Intro to Political Theology lecture to go to an aerial yoga class, but I told myself this was what my inner self wanted. After all, the cold and dark months were creeping up behind us. I passed a man in drag on the way there, sheer pantyhouse covering his lower half, plastic wig off to reveal unspectacular cropped hair. He smiled with his teeth. I think I smiled, too, but then he turned the corner and we settled back into our lives.

No silks today, the instructor said at the studio. I'd never come this early, and so I didn't know how hideously empty it would look without them. I rolled out my rubber yoga mat. We did seven sun salutations. Every time we got to downward dog, she said something about checking in with our breath. Listening to the body and then letting go of the body.

She didn't play any Black Sabbath or any rock music for that matter, just an odd medley of shamanic incantations and studio recordings of crystal bowls. All I knew how to do was stand there, dazed. Inhale the light, exhale the darkness.

I flew home the next weekend.

 

Mom was surprised to see I didn't have any luggage save a single carry-on tote. I said, "Minimalism, Marie Kondo-style." She said, "All that hippie shit is really making you a narcissist," and maybe it was something about being airborne or liminal spaces that made me realize then, right then, I was beginning my adult life.

It'd only been a few weeks since I'd been to the beach, but it felt like years. Maybe the NJ Transit had been a time machine after all. So much of it had been eroded, there was this gaping drop-off where the sand should be, and the white foam came and dragged all that remained. The light, too, was retreating; everything was Novembering. I looked at my skin. I was in the final weeks of my July tan, developed from weeks of sitting beside the AC unit in my backyard where the sun was strongest. The only thing near the lip of the tide was a dead seabird the other birds had started to eat.

"Mom," I said, "I think I'm going to dye my hair blue. Or shave it."

"Okay," she responded.

Clearly the monkey who authored this life story was no Shakespeare, but regardless I continued, "What I mean is I'm a twink, mom. I'm a total fucking twink."

She laughed. "So are we thinking pad thai for dinner or...?"

Eight hours it'd taken to get here, and for what? I still couldn't find my inner light like they told me to in those five-minute-mindfulness meditations, and there was no sun in my solar plexus. It came to me that somewhere within my brief residence here, time had washed cruelly over me, and there was nothing democratic about it. It had washed over me, and now all I could do was watch myself tell my mother my sexual preferences seven years too late, after she'd already met one of my Grindr matches in the grocery store and taken me to see the musical rendition of Jerry Springer: The Opera.

I couldn't help myself; I texted Saul—

ME: tell me something about ur day.

ME: preferably good.

SAUL: I'm in the library. POV: I turn on my ringer and see how long it takes someone to tell me to shut up.

ME: you're giving me ENFP-type energy right now.

SAUL: So how's home?

ME: good.

He texted me a picture of his face. For the first time, I thought maybe he was envious of my proximity to home. The picture was lit in a way as to suggest something behind his face, but what, I didn't know. He looked inconceivably all-American, like those pictures you find in frayed leather wallets where the blonde boys hold fish or dead animals, grinning ear-to-ear.

ME: hey do u think that the fat cats are getting fatter? what are they feeding us on our meal plans?

SAUL: They're distracting us with Breakfast-for-Dinner nights. But I think it's a soy meat substitute.

Later, I would send him a voice memo. Into the receiver I just repeated his name over and over again. My voice, which drew a breath and then kept it, carried itself across state borders. My voice, left as it was, a network of cords tangled in transmission. Coded and then decoded, digitized.

I wondered if Saul lived in one of those buildings below sea level, where a dike separated him from an entire wall of ocean. Or maybe he lived in one of those Brutalist constructions above the canals, and at night you could see straight into his window when his place was lit up. Could he hear the water? Could he hear passersby all throughout the day? Somehow I still knew nothing about him.

I'd been around long enough to know that things never die the right way anymore, so I kissed goodbye to the sea bird's body and its cannibalistic friends. I thought about it the whole drive home.

At a stoplight, a 20-something woman in a tennis skirt paused for a moment in the center of the crosswalk, just briefly, and I thought about those two-dimensional window scenes I could see from the studio. Of course, the moment never lasts. The woman blinked, then continued to the other side of the street. The leaky faucet was fixed by a man, and afterward she thanked him by getting on her knees.

For the first time in my life, I thought about letting it all go, still unsure of what "it" was, but even after my one-month-unlimited-class-pack of aerial yoga, I was no more wise and no more certain, and so instead I hoped for more red lights—just a few more red lights—and held onto myself tightly.