This is an essay I wrote on 28 May 2012. It is about memory. I hope it is not about memory in the way that all writing is about memory. Maybe an essay this old — to flatter it, I’d call it “thoughtless” (its writing was easy) — is immune to my hopes. Whatever its subject, I want you to know before you read it that its final words are “Nothing ever goes away”.
by tim rogers
28 may 2012
Maybe six out of nineteen times I pour coffee or hot water for tea into my Starbucks “Hawaii” mug, I think for a moment about that friend of mine who bragged to me about having had sex with his ex-girlfriend in my shower.
He was a little guy — I am pretty sure he still is. His hair was curly. It appeared perpetually wet. He never took off his newsie hat. If he were standing up, every word he said was delivered with the tone of voice as though his feet and fists were doing a marionette jig. He was a sort of 1950s game-show-host of a human being. An ounce of alcohol (cough syrup will do) transformed him into a 1950s game-show host on speed. He was from Boston. I once listened to him talk about Sonic Youth.
I had first met him in Korea. He was a reader of my blog. He let me sleep on his sofa, and I told him if he was ever in Tokyo, he could sleep on mine.
Years later, he had been living in a town outside Tokyo for a couple months. He had come to Japan because Bangkok had turned out to be not his type of adventure. Other places that were not his type of adventure included Seoul, Shanghai, and Bogota.
His ex-girlfriend was in Japan for reasons of “travel”. I gathered she’d been staying with him in the shallow end of the countryside for five days before the weekend came: he was able to get away from work (he taught English at an elementary school) and show her the sights and sounds of Tokyo.
He called ten minutes before he showed up. “Dude,” he said, “I’m in Koenji. I’m here with a lady. My ex — what, don’t look at me like that! That’s what you are!” He was quiet for a second. “I’ll be right out here.” He cleared his throat. “She went in to get some smokes.”
(This is important: He didn’t say in to where. His pure, oblivious, nice-person subconscious told him I knew where he was and could see what he could see. In a way, I could: it was likely a convenient store. This was Tokyo, after all.)
“So what’s up?” I asked him.
“I was wondering — we’re in Tokyo for the weekend.” It was just before midnight on Saturday. “She’s — well, she’s being a bit of a bitch. I can’t blame her — I never did treat her right! I always had my mind on adventure. You know me. And now, seeing her after so long — it’s tough.”
“Okay,” I said. Conversations like this were unfortunately commonplace during my life at that point in time.
“I was just wondering if you’d . . .”
He was quiet.
“If I’d what?”
“You know . . .”
“What? Do you want me to have sex with her? Is she hot?”
“No, no, no — hah — no, no, man, not that. I just wanted to ask if, you know. We could stay at your place.”
“Oh.” I looked around at my little wooden living room. I was having a good, quiet time in there, sitting on my brown sofa on the floor, toes making foot-fists in the forest-green faux-sheepskin microfiber shag carpet, reading a book by the amber light of the science-fiction sphere in the corner by our cactus, a light little rain whispering on cobblestone two stories beneath my half-open windows.
“I mean — if it’s too much trouble, I’d understand.”
“Nah,” I said. “I was about to go to bed, anyway. I have extra futons. You guys can sleep in the tearoom.”
“You are my hero,” he said, with no change to that 1950s game-show-host inflection of his. “We’ll be over in a couple minutes. Can I interest you in a Snickers, or something else to eat from the 7-Eleven?”
“No,” I said. “The door is unlocked.”
Eight minutes later, he called again.
“Which house is yours again?”
I told him where I was.
“The door is unlocked,” I said.
He banged on the door like he was the cops.
I opened the door.
“Come on in.”
His ex-girlfriend was two heads taller than him. She was that kind of Irish person you see in movies about New England: someone’s older sister. A whole neighborhood’s older sister, depending on the neighborhood. Her hair was a weird black-cherry kind of shade.
“This is some place,” she said.
“Have a look around,” I said.
Of course, she went directly into The Green-Haired Girl’s bedroom — all the way at the end of the main hallway — without my telling her not to. There was that weird subliminal sound, like a dream on the tip of the mind’s tongue, of The Green-Haired Girl speaking English, then the echo of a door lock clicking shut.
My friend and I were in the living room.
“Thanks again for this — sorry about the short notice –”
“It’s been a rough week! We’ve hardly been talking to one another. I think we’ve had maybe half of one conversation in five days.”
“People drift apart, you know what I’m saying? We’ve been half a world apart for five years now — literally! Five years! Man!” He did a weird little theatrical wipe of his brow, like living five years had been a lot of hard work.
The lady wandered into the living room. She was chewing a pebble-sized wad of gum.
“What do you do for a living?” she asked my forehead.
“Marketing,” I said.
“Come on baby, have a seat,” my friend said. He sat down on the carpet. “Every time I come over here I feel like some kinda hippie sitting on this carpet!”
“You sit on the carpet every time you come here?”
“I don’t let him on the sofa,” I said.
“I–I didn’t want to move your guitar,” my friend said.
I sat onto my sofa and stretched my legs out on the carpet. My sofa was one of those Japanese sofas that sat directly on the floor. I picked up my acoustic guitar and put it on my lap.
“You gonna play us some tunes?” my friend said, his mouth a seriously happy triangle. He literally jabbed the lady with his elbow. “This guy’s a major rock star, you know.”
“I thought he was in marketing,” she said. She blew hair out of her eyes with the corner of her mouth.
“He’s got all the angles covered, baby.” He looked at me again. “Play something for us.”
“The neighbors will complain.”
“Ah, that’s right. Thin walls in this town,” he said. “The birth rate in Tokyo is through the floor, baby, have you heard that? Nobody wants their neighbors to hear them doing the nasty.”
“Okay,” I said, and I strummed a quiet C9 chord with the bony region of my thumb.
“Are you in some kind of band?” the lady asked.
“It’s a kind of band, I guess.”
“Listen to this guy! So modest — they played The Biggest Party In Tokyo a little while back.”
“What kind of music do you guys play?”
“They’re totally awesome — just loud, crazy, awesome.”
“I was asking him.”
“We work hard to stretch people’s definition of ‘suck’.”
“This guy’s got a lot of stories! I could sit and listen to him tell stories all day! That’s how I met this guy — I read his blog. Great stories!”
“Tell me a story,” the lady said, and — this time — she was looking right at me. It was one of those mirror stares. I could feel what she was seeing: this tank-topped marathon-runner skeleton of a tall, ropy man, hair like a Depression-era clown wig, like Marc Bolan of T. Rex after a thirty-second shower: what sort of marketing could this guy possibly do? What sort of rock band could he possibly have? What sort of stories could he possibly have that were worth telling?
“It takes me a while to get warmed up,” I said, honestly. “The process of selecting the story to tell sometimes is harder work than the telling of the story.”
“What does that mean?”
I looked her in the eye and tried to affect the mannerism of a doctor delivering a cancer diagnosis:
“It means I’m not sure which story of mine would have any impact on this situation.”
“Are we having a situation? Is that what we’re having?”
“Every moment is a situation,” I said, looking at my foot-fists in the carpet. I gave it my sincere best: what could I talk about, to pass the time, to amuse these people? Here I was, at this weird stage in my life — few people, thank god, will ever have to face this — where I’d just decided to start writing a book about myself. I needed practice wittily recounting the horrible near-deadly social accidents I’d endured.
“Tell her the story about that drummer friend of yours!” my friend said. “That one time she mixed a Coke and a cappuccino and called it Cocaccino.”
“No,” I said.
So here was one of those rhinoceros silences, again.
My friend took a plastic tray of cold soba noodles out of a beige 7-Eleven bag. He began eating them. The lady drank a box of chocolate milk. I looked at the underside of my face reflected in the aluminum resonator cone of my acoustic guitar. My friend made the most horrible sounds as he ate. It was like he was sucking the noodles against the fronts of his top teeth until they gave in and broke into soft bits and tumbled down his throat. He smiled chipmunkishly, deliciously oblivious. The lady chewed her gum pebble and watched her toes move. I breathed in my nose and out my mouth. Time passed; some glaciers moved a little bit.
“I’m going to head to bed,” I said. “I’ll lay out some futons in the tearoom.”
“Which room is that?”
I pointed out the living room and down the hall. “Those first doors there.”
“Gotcha. You don’t mind if we chill here for a little bit, do you?”
“Chill all you want. Don’t break anything.”
“Understood, dude. And hey — hey! Don’t worry. We won’t have sex on your sofa, or anything.”
“If you do, I’ll call the police.”
“Hah — hah.”
I went to bed.
In the morning, my friend was playing my Xbox, with my pair of Dolby 7.1 headphones on his head. Everyone loved those headphones. I feel like, sometimes, my friends came over to my house just so I could go to bed and they could respect my privacy by using those headphones to play video games. Those headphones truly were great.
He snapped the headphones off and flopped all five-hundred-dollars’-worth of them onto the sofa cushion.
“I was only using them for like five seconds, man; I just wanted to check them out.”
“Nah, it’s okay.”
“My girl went down to the 7-Eleven,” he said. “You slept all night, huh? Slept good? Got forty whole winks, yeah? Not thirty-nine? Not thirty-eight? Forty-one, maybe?”
“I slept alright.”
“Oh, good. I mean, we didn’t wake you, did we?”
“What? No, you didn’t wake me.”
“I heard you get up to go to the bathroom a couple times.”
“You guys didn’t sleep in the tearoom.”
“We didn’t want to wake you up closing and opening doors,” he said. “You’re such a good sport, putting up with us.”
It was sunny outside. The windows were closed, the hammy smell of sweat hanging out to dry in the living room air. My rug was pushed a whole foot and a half from where it should have been. Two balled-up pairs of socks lay crumpled in the wooden space between the sofa and the carpet. All four socks were touching each other. Everything I looked at, I imagined it was damp.
I pulled a window open; from three stories below, the whispering joy of pedestrians in the ancient shopping arcade.
“Don’t worry, man,” my friend said.
“Don’t worry,” he repeated. I could hear him smirking behind my back.
Now the tactlessness was palpable; his tentative boasts hung thick like beef in the air.
“Don’t worry, dude. We didn’t have sex on your sofa.”
I sat down.
“We had sex in your shower.”
Now the lady opened the door, strode into the living room, and removed her sunglasses.
“What are you up to today?” my friend asked me.
“I’ve got work to do.”
“No fun-day Sunday, huh?” He slapped his hands on his knees. He stood up. “You sure you don’t want to come down to Harajuku with us? I’m gonna take pictures of this lassie here with some gothic lolitas.”
“You kids have fun,” I said, and the expression suddenly wasn’t of endearment or even condescension. I felt something fall out of the soles of my feet and through the floor. I was the adult; they were the kids.
When they were gone, I looked into the shower room. The floor and walls were damp. Then again, when weren’t they? It was a shower, and this was the middle of a humid, rainy summer. This wasn’t a murder scene: I found no blood or hair or fingernails.
I went grocery shopping.
The Green-Haired Girl was in the kitchen when I returned. She shrieked. I was a conservative poltergeist in my own home, as always.
“Scare me half to death,” she said.
“Sorry,” I said.
She cradled a teacup in front of her face.
“Is that guy gone?”
“That girl was pretty. I don’t know what she’s doing with a guy like him.”
“I could never date a guy that much shorter than me.”
“If a guy were that much shorter than you, he’d be a toddler.”
“Fuck you,” she said. She smiled that kittenrabbit smile. She looked back into her teacup. “I could hear that guy eating from all the way down the hall.”
“His tooth-sucking penetrated my dreams.”
“Sorry about that.”
“He eats like an opossum cleaning a gopher corpse.”
“Yeah. And he snores like a grizzly bear trying to drink a panda.”
His snores had awakened me a dozen times in the night. Each occasion reminded me of my bladder. Every time I flushed the toilet, he stopped snoring for a couple minutes. By the time I was ready to fall into peaceful blackness again, his sound was back, shaking all the wood in the house.
One year later, following a political accident involving the immigration department, I faced exile to Honolulu, Hawaii. As far as exiles go, you can do a lot worse. The sky was the color of a cartoon, and the occasion marked the first time I ever stood in ocean water where I could see my feet if I looked down.
The world had just eaten my life. I got a heck of a deal on a hotel room for forty-four dollars a night. It was fantastic, though it still didn’t feel like a fair trade. I threw a big bag of dried mango slices on the bed, opened the window, tasted the ocean, and decided to extend my one-night stay to two nights. It was nine in the morning, and beautiful. As soon as possible, I needed to get a tan and go surfing, possibly at the same time.
On my way out of the room, I met the woman staying next door. She was an athletic, short-haired Japanese lady. She looked like she had been in Hawaii a while: tanned a delicious shade of mocha. She said “Hi,” and I said “Hi” in Japanese. Here, I decided I was going to, for the first time in my life, take the sexual initiative with a woman I had just met. Let’s see if I can turn my life into a movie, after all. We walked together to the elevator, and I asked her if she wanted to “have a drink” tonight. This was a difficult gesture for me: I’ve still never tasted alcohol in my life. Before I could leave the hotel, I had learned that this woman was a PGA Tour golfer. I complimented her on that, in a weird sort of way you can’t translate into any language, especially the one you’re speaking: “That’s my ideal type of woman — the kind who can endure long walks without a golf cart.”
“I joined the tour expressly because I hate golf carts,” she said, mock-seriously. “I hated them so much that I wanted to force myself into a situation where it’s against the rules to use them.”
She was funny.
Well, I should say she was funny when I met her.
Somehow, thirty-six hours later, we were sexlessly engaged in a morose dialogue about her husband: he’d murdered his mistress. I didn’t know what she was making up and what she wasn’t making up — just that we all make some things up, and we all tell the truth about some things.
“Tell me something horrible about yourself,” she implored me. This was at a Starbucks.
“I don’t want to tell you something horrible about myself.”
“I’ve told you something horrible about myself. You need to reciprocate. I’m in pain here. I need you to — look at me. Look at me when I’m talking to you: I need you to help me. I need you to tell me something horrible about yourself.”
This happened in the hot weirdness of a Honolulu nighttime as we sat outside a Starbucks drinking Starbucks macchiatos.
I told the woman something horrible about myself.
Soon after, I mentioned that, less than two hours ago, I’d eaten something containing peanuts.
She told me that, if I wanted to have sex with her, I’d have to take two showers, or risk fatally upsetting her allergy.
“If you so much as kiss the back of my hand, I’ll blow up like a balloon and pop. I’ll be a black stain on the sheets.”
I went back to my hotel. I showered. I looked at myself in the mirror. Rather than call this woman, I got on OKCupid.com. I told the only girl online in the area that I was having the worst string of days in my life. She drove by my hotel a half an hour later, her Toyota Prius midnight blue, her blond hair big like a lion’s mane. Over seventy-two hours, I near-completely fell in love with her. It was a miracle of terrifying velocity.
Then The Green-Haired Girl showed up. She cried. She would have come sooner, if her uncle hadn’t died. She’d been at the funeral, which required her to stick around her hometown for a week. It rained tigers and wolves the whole time.
“We didn’t even know how old he was. All we know is he’s a year older than my dad, and my dad is so old that we don’t know how old he is.”
I figure, the older a person, the longer the funeral, and the harder it rains.
I was in Hawaii for a month. The Green-Haired Girl had brought papers. She needed me to sign all of the papers. I signed some of them. The most important papers — for her, anyway — I didn’t sign.
We were having coffee in Like-Like Drive Inn in downtown Honolulu on the twenty-first morning. One of my Twitter followers had told me, twenty days prior, that, based on what he knew about me, he assumed I’d like Like-Like Drive Inn in downtown Honolulu more than anywhere in the world. Maybe he was right. I sure think about that place a lot. The omelet is nothing special, though the Kona coffee was nice. The waitresses are so friendly and the people are so real. The wood-paneled walls feel like the place I’d like to call “home” someday: someplace a little bit too tacky to be on purpose.
The Green-Haired Girl told me about her father — how he has twenty children with different mothers, how he invents machines that build machines, and how he’s going to die someday without ever having the time to step back and teach someone else how to do what he does.
“Any day he takes off work is a day without progress.”
“Assessing a risk is in itself a risk, sometimes.”
“I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing.”
On the twenty-third midnight, we were back in Like Like Drive Inn, listening to cars. Here’s where I remembered that friend who’d bragged about having sex in my shower. He was bragging about something he might not have even done — and even if he had done it, he had done it with someone he’d done it with before, long ago, and drifted away from. All human conquests or accomplishments are such dumb and sad things.
The Green-Haired Girl wasn’t crying, at that precise moment, though I could have said any one of a thousand things to make her.
My fries and orange juice arrived, and I was thinking about another man who snored. My friend Gord, a world-wandering hockey-jersey-wearing bald-headed narcoleptic minor internet celebrity. I’d let him stay at my home in Tokyo years before I moved to the big house in Koenji. He’d backpack around the city, buying pornographic comic books and canned beverages with names he found hilarious. He’d come back every night with two Starbucks chai lattes — both he and I hated how they “correct” you by calling them chai “tea” lattes — and hand me one.
“Lukewarm, just how you like it!” he’d say.
His week-long stay lasted a month. He snored like a wood chipper digesting another wood chipper. On his last day, I escorted him to Ueno Station. Just as he was about to hop through the ticket gate, he slapped himself on the forehead.
“I forgot Christine,” he said.
“How much time do we have?”
We skipped to the Starbucks nearest Ueno Station. He bought a nice coffee mug that said “Tokyo”, and another one that said “Japan”. On the way out, he spied a third mug: “Ueno”.
“My ex back home — I’m getting her one Starbucks mug from every country in the globe.”
He’d just bought her three.
The movie screen of my mind’s eye showed an alien punctuation mark reserved for the ends of sentences about epilepsy.
I’d spent my twenty-second midnight in Hawaii sitting on a bus stop bench somewhere near the north shore of Oahu. I’d fallen asleep on a bus that was supposed to terminate at Brigham-Young University. It did terminate there — and then it turned around, and became another bus, on another route. It took me to a place I can only describe as Invisible Dinosaur Country. The beach there is an enormous breathing map of the human soul, noisy and turbulent. The sky is alive with stars like tiny suns and the whisper of distant and nearby trees. Over and under hills and mountains and behind brick walls, memories not belonging to me crouched and wallowed.
“I didn’t see you back there, in the dark,” the bus driver had apologized.
The lady on the phone told me I’d have to walk three miles to get to a place where buses were still stopping.
I was supposed to go see my sister. I had seen her precisely once in my entire life; she’d been a toddler, then, and she’d eaten all of the Star Wars cookies my mother had packed for me and my brother to eat while staying at our biological mother’s house. Before MySpace, I didn’t know that my sister could actually become an adult human and marry a Navy man. Before Facebook, I didn’t know she lived in Hawaii and had a dog. I wanted to text her to say I’d flubbed the bus trip, though a fat raindrop had killed my prepaid phone keypad. I sat alone in the beautiful air, thinking about how much I’d enjoy another trip to Like Like Drive Inn, if I weren’t too tired when I got back.
A year and a half later, I was back in Hawaii, this time full of freedom. For the first time in my adult life, I was in love with something, and I had no doubts about it. I’d finally just finished my book where I talk as humanely as I can about this string of horrible social accidents and low lows that comprises my adult life. Hawaii is in there — Hawaii is a large part of that book. Everything in that book is a large part of that book, actually: if I started explaining what I mean, we’d be here forever. You probably get what I mean.
Hawaii was no fresher in my mind than anything else; the center of my brain stands equidistant from every painful or weird memory. I’m alive because no one who cared about me ever gave up on me, even when I didn’t care about them. I’m a safe and sound product of my own good-for-nothing attitude.
I wandered Hawaii in the beautiful wind of four November days and nights. I ate malasadas at Leonard’s Bakery. I had omelets, mashed potatoes, lemon cream pie, and black kona coffee at Like-Like Drive Inn. On my way to the bathroom on my last night in Like-Like, I looked over the register area. Part of me was burning: I wanted a T-shirt or a coffee mug.
Of course, they didn’t have one. That’s how you know a place is part of you: life itself is the souvenir.
I sat in a gazebo by the beach for a while, one night, the sky orange and lavender and blue and black, the black silhouettes of palm trees higher-definition than the most expensive television.
I didn’t go see my sister.
I took an afternoon nap on the beach at Kailua Beach Park. That’s “The Most Beautiful Beach in the Northern Hemisphere,” according to . . . somebody. (Also, according to my quaintly incomplete knowledge.)
The TSA guy at Honolulu International took the box of Leonard’s malasadas out of my hands. “I’ll need to confiscate these,” he said. He grinned at me. “Just kidding, bro. Have a good trip.” He gave the box back.
I thought about the nuance, there: he had looked at the pink bakery box and immediately presumed I was taking a trip from Hawaii, not that I had been on vacation to Hawaii. I once heard someone say that you make the jump from “visiting” a place to “living” there when you buy groceries. Maybe donuts are the same as groceries, sometimes. Maybe I “live” everywhere I go.
The flight wouldn’t leave for an hour. I read Twitter — everyone out there is just so clever! — from a mostly comfortable seat near my gate.
Then I remembered Christine.
I found a Starbucks. I ordered an Americano. Starbucks is not my favorite brand of coffee, however their Americano sure does have more caffeine than tap water. I looked over the souvenir mugs. I found one that says “Hawaii”, with “Starbucks Coffee” in tiny font beneath it. The design is just on the “yes” side of a line labeled “World Class”. The mug is a rustic beige, with silhouettes of palm trees and sand in a crisp brown. Between two trees, a hammock. Between two more trees, a man holding a surfboard upright.
“Do you have any more mugs like this?” I asked the chubby, grotesquely pleasant lady behind the counter.
“We got a whole bunch more of them right over there!”
“Nah, I mean . . . different designs.”
“Oh — nope.”
“You don’t have one that says ‘Honolulu’? Or ‘Oahu’?”
“Nope, just ‘Hawaii’.”
“What do they sell in the Starbucks on the Big Island?”
“‘Hawaii’,” she said.
“I’ll take it.”
I drink coffee or tea out of this mug every day. To me, it’s not a Starbucks mug or even a “Hawaii” mug. It’s a Like Like Drive Inn mug, and a Leonard’s Bakery mug: it’s a reminder that I remember many things in this world, some of them with ferocious intensity. I’ve got this mug, here, so I don’t have to think about them. It does the thinking for me. That it’s also a stupid mug with an enormous corporation’s name on it is only a coincidence.
So, here’s the story: I made a friend when I first moved to Japan. She played the drums. She played the drums in a band I was in. I was twenty-two. She was sixteen. I started a blog. I blogged about her and myself. Most of the friends I made in those days were people who’d read that blog. My friend who wore a newsie hat while snoring had been one of those people.
My drummer friend eventually unlocked her own schizophrenia. Before that, she’d been hilarious. It turned out that her precise sense of humor had had something to do with schizophrenia. One of the hilarious things she did, once — and I blogged about this with much gusto — was bring a can of Coke into a Starbucks. She ordered a cappuccino and asked for a separate venti-sized cup. She poured the cappuccino into the venti cup.
She cracked open the Coke. She poured a bunch of it into the cup she’d poured the cappuccino into.
“Eureka! Cocaccino!” she exclaimed. She shotgunned it. She drank the whole darn thing in one gulp. This was an incredible sight, given how tiny she was (you should have seen her bang the drums). She hiccupped. She threw up all over the table. People were staring at us. The employees were too freaked-out to ask us to leave. We laughed for what felt like an hour. I wish now we’d laughed for what felt like three hours. She was dead nine days later. That was ten years ago. It never goes away. Nothing ever goes away.