The old man sees his age spotted arm laying by his side. The limb floats up like a table at a séance and he wonders whether the limb has a purpose at all or if it’s only present to serve as part of the ruse of normality kept up by inpatient care.
In rolls a nurse dressed in sea-foam green scrubs. She carries a tray of food and sets it on the little blue round table near his hospital bed, the crude metal of the tray gleaming under the hospital lights. The food is prepackaged, covered in sterile plastic wraps. He listens for the familiar crinkle of flexing plastic as the nurse unwraps the food and places utensils on the tray – knives and spoons on the right, forks on the left. The nurse tucks a napkin into the collar of his hospital garb, as she usually does, and smiles the nurse-smile.
“Enjoy the meal, mister. Just buzz me once you’re done, and let me know if you want more ice cream.”
The old man smiles his old man smile and croaked, “thank you,” but he doesn’t mean it. He hates it when the nurse offers him more ice cream. He hates it because it reminds him of how that’s all they can really do for him now – offer him ice cream. They can’t give him more time.
He doesn’t know what he would do with the extra time anyway, but it never felt like enough. The heart-rate monitor lines begin to reach the “red-zone” and the beeping begins – same as always.
The door bangs open and this time, a doctor in white scrubs rushes in towards him. The old man waves his hand weakly, and the doctor sighs as he checks his vitals routinely. Physically, the old man is fine.
The old man reaches for the tray and raises a spoonful of lukewarm chicken soup to his mouth, savoring the bland texture.
He crossed his arms and leaned on the balcony railing, looking out at the city from his condo on the 48th floor of The Loop. Chicago glowed like molten lava beneath him. It seemed to move and breathe on its own - streetlights meandered around buildings like casual social dancers. The orange yellow hue of the city was all encompassing - it was inspiring and alienating at the same time.
He looked up at the night sky, wondering whether the blinking lights above were stars or satellites. The time read 9:44 pm, Aug 11, 2002. Instead of returning home to the country, he took up an internship at a bank over the summer to earn college credits.
“I miss the Milky Way,” he mumbled to himself.
It’s been 3 years since he’s been home, but he wants to finish his Master’s first. He checked his blackberry again – missed call from Mom.
She always calls in the afternoon to remind him how proud she is of him living the dream, but he doesn’t call back out of guilt. Her high hopes, his tuition money, yet all he wanted to do was return home and help grandfather plant tomatoes again. The small yellow, orange, and red fruits are still fresh in his mind, as if he had only left home the day before, especially on rainy days when he could smell the petrichor from the city’s sidewalk plants.
The way the rain boomerangs up again after hitting the ground reminds him of salmon rushing upstream during mating season– organic, fresh, and full of life. That sweet, fresh, powerfully evocative smell of fresh rain– nothing comes close to comparing. “Petrichor,” it is called. “Petrichor” but he could steal Shakespeare’s prose and say rain by any other name would smell as sweet. This is the life-giver, the city sewage system flooder, the sprinkler complex of the world. To some, that scent is the product of a mixture of plant oils, bacterial spores and ozone, but to him none of that is important.
For him – it’s the smell of home.
Still learning on the balcony, he watched the dusk roll in across the dull city skyline. He checked the time again – five minutes had passed. No one in the city has enough time to think about petrichor.
“No, I have to go.”
She pulled away from him, her thin wrists wrapped in his warm grip. She could feel his thumb pressing into the tip of her wrist. It must’ve meant something. She wanted to stay, but she could hear the clock hands – tick, tick, tick, tick.She could visualize the gears in the clock grinding past each other, metal on metal. The cog teeth must be worn down by now, with smooth well-loved edges.
She ran her fingers through the fine hairs on his torso, slid slowly onto her knees and left the warmth of his bare skin behind her.
As she brushes her teeth, she notices that the fine bristles of her brush bend opposite the direction of motion. It feels wrong in a way she can’t capture with words. She looks through the doorframe of the bathroom, peeking into the bedroom. She sees him smoothing away the wrinkles on the off white bed sheets, erasing any indication she had previously occupied that space.
She wanted to stay.
He nodded his stubbly chin in acknowledgment as she opened the door, head turned over her shoulder. Morning light streamed in from outside, and she felt almost picture-esque.
Descending the stone steps from his apartment, she sees a familiar yellow rounding the corner behind all the brush blocking her view. The wheels underneath the yellow revolve rather quickly; it comes closer.
She gets in the taxi-cab, feeling the car lurch forwards, away from him. She inhales the musty scent of the old cab and feels the cushion give under her weight as she leans back into the seat.
Fresh scent of grass, car fumes, sticky ice cream hands in the late evening, air tasting like heat and humidity. Surrounded by the soft thud thud of many pairs of stubby legs running around on concrete. Following odd chirping sounds with cupped hands and eyebrows damp with anticipation. I can see it – a big grasshopper perched in the grass, chirping, hopping great lengths, beady eyes twitching at predatory toddlers. A brief moment of triumphant joy and then I hear a child crying… It’s me when I was a kid – the first time I caught a grasshopper on my own, and the first time I felt how strong its legs were against the palm of my soft tot hands.
The first time I tasted the bittersweet flavor of independence.
I remember the dented black mosquito screens over the windows of my grandmother’s apartment in China on the 7th floor and the unkempt grey cement stairs I struggled up with my stubby four-year-old legs everyday. I remember when I colored a horse purple on my first day of school in America, how everyone laughed at me because I couldn’t read “BROWN” and laughed more when I asked why the letters were all BIG. I remember trying to lose a wiggly tooth by biting into an apple because that’s how it was done in the cartoons.
Remember… the verb that captures the noun experience. And yet, it is that very curious act of remembering that reminds me just how much I have forgotten. Things I used to consider relevant have become fuzzy, like lens with short focal lengths, and it makes me wonder just how many experiences I have lost to time.
The only time I think of apples and oranges is when I am choosing between them for my afternoon snack. What comparing apples and oranges is for me boils down to a decision – a decision to choose one over the other, to reach a trembling hand over to snatch one, to label each as something I designate a meaning to.
Some decisions we make are very easy: we get up when it’s time to go to school or work, brush our teeth to prevent cavities, and eat because we need to live. Other decisions are not so intuitive.
For me, recently, the prompt wasn’t “How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared?” but apples or oranges, pick one. I raised one hand tentatively to pick fruit from my figurative apple tree, but my other hand said, “Stop!” and procured a whole list of reasons why I shouldn’t. I stood at a standstill, feeling like the de-glorified heroine of a fairytale, or perhaps a discombobulated dog trying to pee on a green fire hydrant. A normal dog wouldn’t have enough cone cells to tell the difference, but such is my handicap. Oh, you lucky mutt – just think about all that free parking!
I rack my brain for an appropriate anecdote, but it’s complicated because it’s not a lesson or fable about how an easy choice is less fulfilling than some difficult “right” decision. It’s a situation where the options are equal, and there are no “right” answers, but the decision itself is pivotal.
Between apples and oranges, I thought over my choices again and again. It came to the point where they developed into mantras, circling around in my head like a pair of predatory hawks going in for a single kill:
“Wash the apple, eat the apple, you don’t even need to peel the apple.”
“Peel the orange, eat the orange, you don’t even need to wash the orange.”
The process became almost a ritual everyday, where I would try to convince myself of either option so I could finally rest.
Eventually it became too taxing; acute decision-making comes with a biological price of mental fatigue. I let it go, but I did manage to learn something from the experience. Some questions cannot be answered immediately, and perhaps need a more mature perspective from higher ground – like looking down on a maze from atop a grassy hill and realizing all the dead ends you could have avoided. It’s an internal conflict full of confusion and frustration, but you need conflict for the plots of most books, and you need conflict in your life. Beyond the realm of apples and oranges, the friction from conflict is reassuring. It is proof that though some hurdles are hard to get over, I am still learning, and I am still trying my best.
In the search for independence and happiness, have I forgotten about others? Have I made the right decision? Why do I feel an overwhelming sense of IDGAF (oh, the irony…)? Hah. The irony of writing about IDGAF. I wonder if I made the right choice, but in my gut I know I have, because I am happy and confident with myself. I believe this is a positive sign — I know it is, like my prefrontal cortex is nodding its head in approval: “YES. LET’S GO!!”
I can’t say for sure whether this is a good thing, but I am tired of being defined by adjectives like “Good” and “Bad.” I am tired of being told what I “should-have-done” or where I went wrong. I perform an action and receive judgment, but actions are merely actions — they cannot be “good” or “bad.” And thus follows the logic that my person is good/bad, on the basis of a single action… what a fickle state of being! And so, honestly, IDGAF. I have no need for excessive external validation.
I am not good. I am not bad.
I am Michelle.
What if I had been honest about how scared I was?
not that it makes any difference now but
I’m still terrified
lately I’ve been using minor keys
I swear, on accident, like I awake
above page after page and it’s
upsetting to be doused in relinquish
for what I write
it’s a tragedy
to be writing
what ought to be happy
but is released in frustration
and it warps you and makes you
spurt a lie and you lie
it feels so confusing
to be confused of what you’re feeling