It is 4:00 a.m. when I hear that the inevitable has occurred.
I am supposed to be asleep. Classes start in a few hours, another day of walking children through basic phonemes. I should rest, let my brain recharge. I turned the lights off in my apartment just after midnight. But for the past many hours I have lain in bed staring at my apartment half-lit by the residual glow of streetlights several floors below. Last year my girlfriend, now ex, told me I should get blackout curtains if I couldn’t sleep but I looked at the prices of proper curtains that would do the job and the numbers seemed excessive for what could very well be a marginal improvement in sleep quality and I said I’d think about it so now I lie here and feel the vast aching emptiness of the apartment and the undecorated walls pressing in on me.
I don’t think about much of anything. There is not much to think about at this time of the morning. Quasi-defeated hangovers. Failed flirtations. A general inertia.
My phone lights up. A message from home. My mother is normally aware of the time zone difference.
Just thought you should know—
The message is simple. Fact of death. Time of death. Nothing more.
I stare at the ceiling.
My mother is probably sadder than I am. He was her brother, after all. He was part of her life for far longer than he was part of mine.
I think about greasy hamburger pitstops. I think about the elves of Mirkwood. I think about understanding roller coasters.
I feel hollow.
For the past few years, I have told myself that I will learn to cook.
You don’t want to be like your uncle, my mother has told me, the same refrain repeating across months, weeks, years. You don’t want to always rely on takeout and McDonald’s, those costs add up, you want to be able to fend for yourself, live independently.
A few days after obtaining the key to my current apartment, I went on an expedition to the nearby supermarket. I pushed a shopping cart through the aisles, its wheels rattling on the tiled floor. I purchased a wok and a kettle to boil water and a vacuum-sealed bag of rice and a container of cooking oil. My purchases sagged in the overweighted shopping bags I hauled back to the apartment.
Every other time I call home: Don’t be like your uncle. I won’t outlive you, she says. I won’t always be there to bring you casseroles and organize your shit and wash your clothes and sweep the mouse crap from your apartment. When I protest that I don’t have mice in my apartment: You never know and even if you don’t have mice the point still stands, hmm?
The sun decides to emerge. My apartment is thrown into relief. My bed, the clothes hung up to dry, the tangle of books and socks and scraps of paper littering the floor. The cramped space of my kitchen where my unused wok sits atop my forever-cool stovetop.
Every morning I tell myself I can prepare my own food. I can scramble the eggs I don’t keep in my fridge. I can devour an apple I have yet to purchase. I can prepare a bowl of porridge with the rice I have yet to free from its vacuum seal.
But the city is littered with Starbucks and I do not need to rely on myself because I can take the elevator downstairs and walk half a block and buy a too-expensive overlarge coffee and a too-expensive microwave-heated pastry and that is what I do.
This is what I want to remember as I drink my coffee:
The summer between seventh and eighth grade, he showed up unannounced on the front porch. Your parents home? he asked and I responded, Yes, and he said, Okay, we’re going on an adventure, and I asked, Should I tell…, and he said, No need, we’ll sort it out later.
So I got in the car and we drove two hours down the interstate and we talked about everything, my love interests and celebrities and the books I was reading and how none of them lived up to Lord of the Rings and my future plans if I had any and how I should think about going to the University and his time there and the time he streaked a girl’s dorm and the time he snuck into the steam tunnels below Grounds and how that was a holy experience. And as we zoomed down the interstate and pine trees blurred past the car windows I asked where we were going and he said just wait you’ll see.
This was before his diagnosis, before the constant battles to constrain his ups and downs, to temper his mania and depressions, before the death threats and suicide promises. Before everything of his went to shit.
We went to an amusement park. We ate funnel cake off drooping paper plates, we got drenched on the log flume and nauseous on the spinning rides, we tried to spot sports cars in the parking lot from the apex of the Ferris wheel. And we went on roller coasters. We went on roller coasters over and over again.
Before his years of constant calamity, he loved roller coasters.
At first I was terrified by the extravagance of the contraptions, their precipitous plunges and soaring heights, but when I expressed my doubts to my uncle he told me I was a coward and a chicken and he wouldn’t have it and then he thought for a moment and said it was okay my mother was also afraid but I shouldn’t be afraid. He said we could start with the kids’ coasters and when I closed my eyes before the first drop he told me there was no need and the ride was tested and designed by professionals and that it was fun and I was safe, that I should appreciate how g-d lucky I was to be on this machine designed to provide pressing positive forces and lifting negative forces just for me. When the first ride was over I said maybe I could do it again and he said no let’s try something bigger. So we did. Bigger and bigger until there was nothing bigger for us to try.
This was before I left the country, before I packed my belongings into a set of overflowing duffel bags and stepped onto an airplane and crossed the ocean away from my worried mother and overworked father and calcified grandparents and consistently spiraling relatives.
I do not go to work. I can go tomorrow. I can beg forgiveness, fall back on my record of mostly on-time attendance, fall back on the undying novelty of my phenotypical foreignness.
There is a park across the street from this Starbucks. It is one of my regular haunts. Two or three times a week, after my classes end and before I head toward the city’s constellation of expat bars, I walk around the park to boost my daily step count and enjoy the scenery: the patches of flowers and the lake now scumming over with green and the open stretches of grass that so starkly contrast the ubiquitous urban concrete-and-asphalt.
I sip my coffee. It is bitter. The flavor grinds against my tongue.
The park is beautiful and it contains nature and I appreciate that but sometimes it feels lonely, or not that the park feels lonely but I feel lonely as I pass battalions of aunties stepping through organized square dances and groups of old men playing cards through clouds of cigarette smoke and as I walk through the amusement rides in the southeastern corner of the park and I see families enjoying the day together, mother father child, and as I stand to the side and watch the roller coaster run, train filled with parents and children who laugh at the contraption’s motion even though that motion is not much, even though that motion is limited by the ride’s limited stature, constrained by its placement on the fringes of a public park.
I stand up and leave my half-full cup behind and push open the door and walk to the sidewalk and wait for the signal to join the other commuters in their journey across four lanes of road and I look like I do not belong and that is normal and that is unimportant right now and I walk into the park and I do not look at the lake and I do not stop until I reach the amusement rides with their switched-off multicolor lightbulbs and fading painted backdrops of almost-Disney characters.
At the ticket booth, I point at a picture of the coaster. I scan a code. My phone chirps to let me know the payment has gone through. The auntie who hands me my ticket does not ask why I am drawn to the ride even though I am an adult and clearly taller and heavier and older than the ride’s targeted demographic.
There are benefits to not speaking the same language.
As the sun set, we sat at an umbrella-festooned picnic table and gnawed at clouds of cotton candy and watched the roller coasters cycle. They’re misunderstood, he said and I asked, How come, and he said, It’s not unpredictable just look at the track you can see how it will push you and pull you and lift you up, and I asked, Really? and he asked, You don’t believe me? and I took another bite of cotton candy and let the pink sugar dribble down my chin.
A train full of riders eased over the top of a mountainous lift hill and started to glide down the drop, swooping like a bird of prey, and some of the riders screamed and some whooped with laughter and some sat silent with wide-open eyes.
And another thing, he said and I looked at him and he continued, They’re not all the same, and I said, Of course, and he said, No really even if the track looks the same they’re not the same because the location matters it’s a different experience if you’re in the middle of a parking lot or on the edge of the woods or at the beach where you can taste the salt of the sea, and I said, I guess that makes sense, and he said, Yeah, and he sighed and it was a quiet sigh and a sincere sigh and I wasn’t sure if it was a sigh I was supposed to hear or not.
The train bounded over the final hill and slid into the brake run.
He sat silent. I turned and agreed it was beautiful.
I have to fold myself into the seat. My knees cry out from the strain of bending at such an extreme angle. My kneecap brushes the fiberglass of the car. The lap bar weighs upon my waist.
Still, I fit.
The attendant runs down the train and ratchets the lap bars in the other rows into place along empty seats and meanders to the front of the station and flashes a thumbs up to nobody in particular and presses a button. The train eases forward out of the station and starts to clank up the lift hill.
I look around. The sky and city beyond are screened by trees. Ahead of me, the track dips and rises and banks and straightens and curves and spirals around itself.
Just thought you should know—
For the next few fleeting seconds, I can see where I am going.