Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Samad Iqbal's Temptation

There is the slowness of progression. Like a frog placed in a pot of cold water, heat turned up ever so gradually to prevent the frog from detecting it and jumping out. It sits there until it boils. Alive.

The chapter starts with one word. "Children." It says.
It gets your attention but is but a clever shift of hand. A magician's trick to redirect your attention elsewhere. The slow turn of the fire. We look and think children, innocence, family, obligations. We do not think temptation, arousal, sex. Though that is precisely where they come from. On topic, yet slyly so.

Smith picks the least provocative setting for the temptation to occur: a Wednesday school governor's meeting. Peopled with cringe worthy characters such as Ms. Katie Miniver and the Iqbals, their spirited, deeply politically incorrect and funny conversations, we are led to believe this little melodramatic fight over democracy in schools encompasses the climax of this chapter. The arguments against Mrs vs. Miss vs. Ms., against the harvest festival, bares Samad's character to the bone without forcing the author to tip her hand at what may come next.

What a next it is! In this unlikely setting, we meet the temptress, and watch her deftly presents herself to a ego-wounded Samad. Unlike his wife, she soothes his ego by supporting his idea and catches his eyes with her physical beauty.

Their cautious and carefully disguised dialogues can easily pass as innocent remarks between a supportive teacher and a concerned parent governor. Nothing more. Yet the inner expose Smith gives us shows how Samad's defense has crumbled against Miss Poppy especially in light of his sexual frustrations.  The ever so slow and meticulous retelling of his normal yet secretive desires fills the page and raises our anxiety level--will they or won't they? The lingering backstories are just as engaging or we would simply skip it. They add context, intrigue, pushes Samad's character into a tighter corner than we can ever expect, yet we understand it as soon as we see him pushed into it, or willingly walks into it himself. He lives his nature, which we learn from the page, but also from people we've met in life. Such is the writing of Smith, she allows certain shorthand scenes and characterization points to expand in our minds, mixing with knowledge we've stuffed up there from some time ago and create vivid personalities we cannot look away.

Saturday, June 11, 2016


I must have looked sad that day in the pool, one of our last swims together. We started in the hot tub as usual, sitting kitty cornered from each other. I looked at you one minute, then looked out into the sky, noticing how low it was hanging over the tree tops, how deep into the summer it already seemed, and how far apart we had drifted from each other. The water swirled gently around us, a quiet sizzle that went unnoticed even amidst the neighborhood quiet.

As I squinted, eyes glazing over the still bright light, you said, "Hey." And you floated over to me, pulling me into a gentle hug. All I could see was the map of freckles splashed across your shoulders, and the gentle swoop of hairline across the back of your neck. You looked young then, vulnerable in the way only a boy could look, untainted by the weight of my pain. So I backed off, wanting simultaneously to retreat into myself and to give in to the urge to nibble your skin, wrap my legs around your waist, feel the gentle swell of your arousal.

Instead I held still, muscles tense with indecision. You waited a second, as if hurt, not knowing what to do, or finding a moment to react, before you stepped closer with arms open. Our bodies barely touched and water swam into the crevices until we both felt buoyed by its gentle hands. I lowered my head, giving into the attraction and grazed your neck with my lips before resting my head down on your shoulders, holding still in that space, holding onto you, closer and closer.

Friday, May 20, 2016


We each
are buried under the ground
beneath our own
private grief
no longer
shouting insults
over the phone
or digging
against the most intimate scars
about which only lovers know

the silence is soothing
even when the pain
of separation
grates like a new knife
dulled by the acid
of tears
and regrets

we rise under a sky
without sun
breathing into an ocean
without chants
of a song we recognize
the darkness of
that first night
bathing our shoulders
in velvety warmth
under which the awkward kiss
bore a scent of sweet new search

I bid you goodbye
in that same scent
towards a journey I knew
you already started
long ago before
I opened my eyes
hit by the wind and sail
of your departure

I shall stay, as I dream
of floating downstream
carrying no sail but
hope to catch
another boat
even if not
bound toward
a shore
too remote to
in the haze
of this day

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

QingMing Rememberance


在我的梦中 有一片草
你不阴沉的脸 也变的不好看了

我的小屋里 有一篇空白
空白的下面 是我这张朦胧的脸
平平的, 轻轻的
酸甜苦辣 来源去道

我把我的空白 献给了春风
让他吹走蒙月的白沙 沉星的黑穴
栽下一颗树 买一片草 安睡在无花的白墙下
联结到这边的小路 牵满了曲折的微笑和

A patch of grass    emerges from my dream
green inside      blue above
underneath is you
hidden among earth black
your shadowless face blurred of its former handsome
like wind scattered rocks
rubbed clean of angular facets and barbs

A white void        fills up my room
inside is dust        outside is sunlight
underneath is my face of mystery
flat      insignificant
Old names trembling in the waves of those eyes
no meals passed those lips
no understanding found that heart
bitter sour sweet spicy
           arrival's origin
                        departure's path
all incomprehensible in the naivete of self, others, world, walls

Toss the void to the monsoon
let him sweep away
white moon's veil
star sinking black hole's vortex
underneath the ancient soil of a foreign land

plant down a tree, buy back a patch of grass, slumber
beneath a flowerless white wall
worming down deep, disintegrate into
slate colored ashes
blue shades of sky
grass green
until a thread of red silk        casts back
to the small lane we recognize
    dangling with windy smiles
                     sun drenched lips
                     a map of freckles

Friday, March 18, 2016


The two cars pressed one side of their faces against each other, as if friends huddling over a good book, a cool instagram posting or a shared spot of light for their cigarettes. One was a Subaru Outback, blue and shiny. The other was an old Toyota, black.

The drivers stood on the sidewalk away from their cars. The parking lot was packed with after school traffic, Trader Joe, Rite Aid and Starbucks goers. Rubberneckers stood around to watch. No one had called the police.

The woman driving the Subaru was in her forties, black sweater over black T-shirt, black pants. Black hair pulled back into a haphazard ponytail. Her face was pale and smooth but her eyebrows knitted together, pressing down hard over her sagging eyes, ringed in dark circles. She spoke loudly to the young girl, who attended the nearby school.

"You should have stopped!" She pointed to the through road behind the girl's black Toyota.

The girl's face was pale, washed in tears. Her eyes puffy and red, blue irises. Her frizzy red hair rose up on the top of her head and was pulled together into a puffy ponytail near the nape of her neck. She covered her face with her hand and walked away from the woman.

Another woman walked up to the scene and pulled the young girl close into a loose embrace. She wore a dark green shirt, and her face, emerging from a mound of dark and curly hair, was small and tight and hard. Veins rose from her neck, thick like ropes, blue like the other woman's car. Two ridges, jagged and hard with vein and folding skin, ringed around her like also, like odd shaped tumors. She stood with her spindly legs splayed apart. The girl, taller and rounder, soft in her weeping sounds, stood inside that space opened by her legs.

"Don't yell at my kid. Give me your insurance information and go!" She swung a hand at the Subaru woman, who had been pressing hard at the keypads on her phone.

"I need your information too. She should have stopped. It's not my fault." The Subaru woman repeated. Her voice sharp, but rippled with a shaky undertone.

Mom took her daughter's hand and walked up to the cars. She yelled back. "Your car is turning right. You are the one who should have stopped. There is a stop sign there." She pointed behind the Subaru.

Someone pointed out to her that no stop sign existed on either side. The school was only three years old and last year enrollment had rose such that more freshmen existed than all the other grades combined. The sleepy strip mall and its small parking lot had become a gathering space for students after school, and a pick up point for parents without any warning. Horns blared constantly, in the midst of cell phones, teenagers hollering, parents shouting out towards their children while idling along a spot where they shouldn't be idling. You rarely heard horns around this area, besides here.

"You should stop. She's going straight, she can't stop." The mother pointed a finger dangerously close to the other woman's nose. She bowed her head down towards her phone.

"I was already turning," she said. "We both needed to stop."

"No! You said you were looking for your son! Didn't you? Didn't you?" The woman leaned forward and pressed her face close this time. When her opponent leaned away and did not respond, she lifted an arm high as if to slap her. A friend of her walked up and took the daughter for a short walk away from the argument. Someone finally called the police.

The daughter looked up at her mom, relief in her eyes. She took out her phone and snapped a photo of the two older women. She pressed around and clicked send when the phone prompted her.

"Share?" with a list of options: Facebook, twitter, email, Instagram.

She picked Instagram, because it was already open earlier when she slammed into the Subaru, looking down at a photo of a classmate's dad, posted for wearing a ridiculous shirt inside out, with red seams exposed against a purple shirt, his pale, skinny and freckled arms stuck out of the blue labeled armholes. 

What a dud. She whispered to herself.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sounds of Her Heart...

In Jane Eyre, you hear the sound of her heart beating off and on, like a small drum that somehow has mastered the full scales of symphonic movements. It reminds me of my own childhood, when I was often sick and relished at home, without playmates or the regularities of school. I could not have been more than seven or eight at the time, likely much younger so what I honestly missed most about school was the inevitable lunchtime squabbles among children and the nerve wrecking drama of occasionally having my compositions read aloud to the class. Left to my own device, with a vague impression of my father sitting at the dark corner of our one room house poring over his books, which were always too thick and scientific in nature for me to care to cast a second glance, I dreamed with my eyes open. This usually happened in winter, so I couldn't free myself from the boxy confines of our room on the flimsy excuse of running outside to the outhouse which was located far and across a street that bordered the gates of our community (called a SiHeYuan, or Four Harmonies Courtyard) and taking too windy a route to return, stopping on the way to visit either the candied cherry sticks vendor named Wang Ma or the one-eyed popcorn man named Samwu (or Sam) who scared me with his black popcorn gadget rolled to a red fiery heat by the cranks of its long handle until the sound of a small explosion cracked open the winter air and rendered a batch of golden dry kernels into a cloud of fluffy white perfection. No I couldn't have taken these detours during the harsh winters of Beijing, much as they called upon me like old friends whenever I passed them by. No, I had to rush home back into the dry but warm air inside the room we shared, the four of us, Mom, Dad, Lou and I.

No I could not so I stayed in bed most of the time, which was pushed against the sunny southern window, against which I pressed my nose and sat on my knees and watched the neighborhood aunties shuffle in their hurried steps to work, the plastic bottoms of their winter shoes smacked against the ancient brick path often because they were late in rising for work, unlike my own mother, who led a small research team at the same academy (where everyone in the neighborhood worked) and therefore insisted arriving ahead of others.  I often suspected it was the farmer in her that gave her that early rising blood (tendencies?) and work ethics. In any case she did not have the mind to leave a minute late even on the occasions of my sickness so she habitually rose at dawn and untangled herself from my clutching fingers and whiny cries to brave the northern wind, mouth covered by the thick and un-tattered portion of a brown wool scarf she received as part of her wedding present, along with a bright red silk quilt which she had stashed high in the only cupboard the family owned. In the early morning gray and the dust filled air of winter, she looked like one of the other aunties whose body slanted forward and propelled against the wind in the thick encasing of their blue or black Mao suits, indistinguishable from one another save for the shape, material and colors of their wedding scarves, all bundled up to erase the slender contours of their feminine necks, yet a small pop of not too bright colors that splashed a minor note of character and individuality in that all too gray and black world. Brown and tan for my mom, green for the Shen's who had originally came from Shanghai and therefore more rebellious than most in their color schemes, and blue or gray for the rest, but in varying shades of lightness or dark to separate from their suits. Such was the fashion of that era. Subtlties ruled.

She didn't exactly smile at me much, my own mother, throughout my childhood, yet that was how I remembered her face, full of gentleness and smiles, perhaps because she had a sort of a smiling eyes, curved up like the new moon, casting a liquid like light with either a quick glance or a fixated gaze. More than her warm hands I grasped without knowing for the soft curves of those eyes, and its moon like qualities, which I did not have the fortune to inherit, but wanted more than anything to possess. I was convinced that the world would love me as much as they loved her, either because then I would have the definitive proof that I was hers and not picked up from the trash pile as she sometimes would joke that I was, conspiring with my older brother through a system of winks and giggles, or because then like her, I would possess that gentle glimmer of likability she so easily wore as the rigid old blue Mao suit and still exhibit the full feminine softness in an obvious but not glaring way.

The only company I had then on those sick days was my own thought, and occasionally when Dad should come home earlier than expected, perhaps right after lunch or perhaps before lunch so he could cook something liquid and easy to digest for me to smell, taste, frown upon, shake away or heave back up in minutes if anything was successfully forced upon me one way or another. He would often switch on the radio or in later years, the phonograph (turn table?), whereupon he played the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin or Schubert. Then I would sleep through the afternoons as I had most likely stayed up half the night coughing and spent the morning watching the world whirling by and thinking hard of nothing and everything so by then I would have been exhausted from activities and ready for naps. The sound of these symphonies would accompany me in my dreams and give colors to them, bright and cheerful at times, somber and melodic or dark, moody and powerful as was often the case with Beethoven, unless Dad had discovered one of his sonatas and it was not already banned by the Party as one of bringing back the feudalistic or capitalistic sentiments and traditions.  Chopin was a safe bet in that regard, being of a patriotic and nationalistic tradition from Poland.

These thoughts while precious too me and would occasionally leap forth when I read good works like Jane Eyre but quite often they would become relished like the sick and discarded child I once was. Or more appropriately the lone crystal pendant you'd hang up against a corner window and then quickly forgotten, because the world around you moved away so fast you feel faint trying to catch a breath against it. Once a while you would stop however, as the sun hit it as a certain angle and it sparkles. It would remind you of how you once hung it up hoping for such glimmers yet have found all sorts of excuses not to stop and watch it more often, knowing it was there all the time. A part of you want to  capture it somehow and reveal it to the world, though you did not know how. So you let it pass and move on with your hurried footwork back into the too busy world, not giving the whole thing another moment's thought.

The difference I saw in Jane Eyre was that she had strung these moments together into a larger narrative, namely the life of Jane Eyre. We encounter these thoughts therefore along with the movement and actions of this girl for whom we carry some growing concern and care, so we are more than willing to see the world through her eyes and participate in her visions of its analysis. Then these thoughts shone like jewels on display, under focused lights because of the inauspicious string on which they found themselves. No one really pay attention to the strings as the way they would pay attention to the jewels, yet they need such neat lines along which to find the jewels in a collective splendor, the magnificence of which would stay lost scattered into corners of old memories and  forgotten windows. Such thoughts, dance on my tongue and press themselves into my memory as a dimension of Jane Eyre that I shan't forget because not only I understand her, I know her and know myself better through these words:

Anybody may blame me who likes, when I add further that, now and then, when I took a walk by myself in the grounds; when I went down to the gates and looked through them along the road; or when, while Adele played with her nurse, and Mrs Fairfax made jellies in the store-room, I climbed the three staircases, raised the trap-door of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and along dim sky-line: that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach. I valued what was good in Mrs Fairfax, and what was good in Adele; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold.

Who blames me? Many no doubt; and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes. Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind's eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it--and certainly they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement which, while it swelled it in trouble, expanded it with life; and best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended--a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence.

Indeed it is somewhat difficult to believe such longing for variety and vivacious characters she had not encountered so soon after her encounter with the good housekeeper and the good child (pupil). Hadn't she longed for just such safety and security not a chapter ago, when she was wronged and chased away from a home occupied by ladies who never showed her an ounce of such goodness and kindness?  Yet we know it is human nature to desire excitement and challenges precisely because one has such characters of endurance and thriving above hardship, as Jane Eyre has since her childhood, as I had, since mine. One cannot rest in comfort, if one has not rested as such since childhood. We demand a different level of difficulties, not the same lack of food, warmth and shelter as we once experienced and endured, but the thriving challenges of intellect, friendship and love that Jane was about to discover. She sensed it, without seeing or knowing what was to come, and such foresight, without overstating the case, give us a sense of anticipation, anxiety and foreknowledge that we do not yet comprehend, but are ready to discover alongside her, the next chapter of her life. Such writing is not naive like mine, where the narrator simply tells us what happens. But transcendent in a way that reminded me of the hands of a conductor once more, of his ability of knowing without revealing the rhythm and movement of the music from one chapter to another, one phrase to another, through a simple flickering of his wrist, a nod, a tapping of one foot.

And the orchestra follows, and so do we.

Monday, February 8, 2016


He didn't see the white Toyota coming from the other direction. The rain had started so fast and furious, he hadn't found time to turn on his wiper. The conference call started five minutes ago, but roll calls went on longer than expected since everyone was caught some sort of mayhem - traffic, rain or running late from another meeting. Scott and Brian had arrived promptly as usual so he exchanged chatters with them about the crazy weather.

Tornado warnings? In Southern California? Is that common? One of them had said.
No. Not really. He replied, fumbling to plug in his blue tooth headset.

Kelly his girlfriend had texted him earlier: could you pick up Tyler? Stuck at work.
He hadn't wanted to pick up Tyler because of all the calls he needed to make. Tyler needed help with homework, dinner, practicing his music, wipe his nose... Maybe not that last one, but sometimes he missed those days when all Tyler needed was the Barney video and one of his hug toys, Kangaroo TT or monkey Joe. He was quieter, more likely to stare out the window and take in the world one object at a time, one second at a time.
But Kelly needed him. They had discussed this at the beginning of the year now that she was back at work for the first time in ten years, he would pick up some of the work at home.

Rain poked his windshield in fat drops, clattering with the sound of something more solid and substantial than water. In seconds, he saw nothing except curtains of water. He thought about pulling over to the side, but rows of garbage cans left no curbs uncovered. Then the Toyota's headlight hit him and he swirled. Not violently but he hit one of the garbage cans and the dull sound hit him like a gunshot fired underwater, diluted, held back, but still reminiscent of something deadly.

He stopped the car to take a breath. Scott shouted at him on the phone: "Jerry, are you alright?"
He nodded to himself and replied yes. Brian's calm but edgy voice came in then, "Gosh I've never heard him swear like that. Thought we lost you..."

He didn't want to be lost. Some days it felt that way. Work, home. A two note life. Tyler had a way of soaking up every ounce of your attention, energy and time. He no longer recognized himself in the mirror. The gray haired guy with wrinkles mapping out his face looked like someone he once knew but had gone away for a long time. The hood of his eyes had grown heavy and long, so he no longer saw the horizon above without tilting his head up. The corners of his mouth curved down now, making him look sad, old and fat. Was this what Kelly saw every morning? No wonder.

He should have heard the wind, the way it was whipping and ravaging the trees that lined that street. If he searched back deep in his memory, perhaps somewhere there was a crack, thin like the snapping of a match stick between your two fingers, but sharp nonetheless. He didn't have time to process it, because the tree fell at the end of Brian's words. He looked up and said something, but not even he heard it. A part of him leaped out of the car, floated above it and watched the tree trunk split open the top of his car by crushing it, not stopping at the minor obstacle of his skull. He watched his body crumble while seated, like a puppet that had lost the string but sagged straight anyway, almost upright. He couldn't see the blood, but he smelled something flow away, slowly at first, then all at once.

"Alright, let's start." The conference finally began on the other end, somewhere in the whites void of the cyberspace where all the voices congregated and murmured through the mud of other voices, one by one. "Jerry! Did we loose you, this time?" Someone asked. Then when nothing but scratches came through, they muted his line.

"Conference calls, what a pain." The group agreed. Outside the storm had cleared, rain drops slicked down window panes and high wires.