“A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted ― made cynical, superficial ― by this understanding.”—Susan Sontag
I first met Tami when she was blonde. Fun, easygoing, and cool as hell; it didn’t take long before we got along with the usual small talk, before bonding over making fun of Nelson. I liked her immediately.
Later came Tami the brunette. Still cool, but no, blonde Tami was always my favorite. I guess I’m bias. Damn blondes. But blonde, brunette, pink hair – that’s all trivial, really; utter nonsense in pale comparison to the realization that Tami herself, who is bald now, might not be around anymore.
Bald Tami. Tami with breast cancer. That was hard getting used to. And as the chemotherapy progressed, her body became weaker, the hair kept falling, and just like that, Tami was bald.
At that point, I could not help but feel once again fascinated and baffled by the irony of chemotherapy – treatment that, thankfully, should ultimately help, but which side effects only further robs you of your own lifestyle, your autonomy, and of course, your hair. And for a woman, it is hair that she has toyed with and brushed and combed and cherished since she was a little girl, as if having cancer wasn’t enough to mock her for her misfortune.
But who the hell am I to say, when Tami is the one who has to deal with the pain, has to make the sacrifices, watching every little detail of what she eats and does. To see your friend have to struggle just for another tomorrow, all with an uncertainty and a sense of living on borrowed time – so really, there is nothing I can describe that could ever fathom what Tami has had to go through.
But if I am segueing towards a sob story, then I have to regress. Most cancer stories are sad; sad stories we tend to avoid, sad stories without a happy ending, and that’s the honest truth.
But as for Tami’s story, it’s far from over. It’s still going, as many of ours are. It is not a cancer story. Because if you saw her today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything sad about her. She just won’t let you.
You could say adversity builds character, but I feel more than anything, it reveals it. And Tami, she’s as tough as nails. She might not have breasts at the moment, but she sure hell has bigger balls than most of us.
She has her days, she says, and I don’t doubt it. We all have our bad days – those days we get a parking ticket, or those days we drop our phone on the pavement. Bad days, I’m sure.
So yes, she has her days, but it’s tough for me to believe her when all I see is her smiling, taking solace in the “little things,” as she puts it, still being good to her people. She’s not giving any reason to feel sorry for her, not letting the cancer define her. Because she is better than that, better than being a sob story, better than simply being a bald girl with cancer.
When it comes down to it, though, this is all unfair. It is unfair to Tami, to her family, to anyone who has had cancer affect their lives and their loved ones. But don’t let the world beat you up, because it will – it will throw everything at you, when you least expect it, when you’re most vulnerable – from everything that is in and out of your control, from cancer, to people, your own friends, even, may get to you. And the world will make sure of that. But it hasn’t for Tami; it has not got the better of her. She is a testament to that.
So what has changed about Tami? Nothing, nothing at all. Her hair, perhaps. But she is still fun, still easygoing, still cool as hell. She’s still smiling. And when this is all over, when her hair grows back, when this difficult time in her life, her story, comes to pass, it’ll be nothing more but another rough chapter she overcame, leaving us all the more impressed. I just hope she goes back to being blonde.
What else? She is so beautiful. You don’t get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she is smarter than you: You know she is. She is funny without ever being mean. I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.
He watched them pass by. One by one, they drifted past his sight. So many of them. And they moved fast. Too fast, for his liking. But he liked it up there, his head up in the clouds. They left as soon as they appeared, but the clouds left their mark; against the blue canvas, a palette of colors so pure it was almost surreal.
He tried to turn them into things. Animals. Buildings. People. But to no avail. His mind wandered in place, but there was no memory, no sense of reality in his thoughts. Nothing.
"I must be drunk."
He sat up. Beside him was her. She was reading then. They sat under the shade of a tree. A lone tree, a tree in the middle of nowhere. It was if that tree was planted there for this very purpose, its shade meant to protect her from the burning sun on one of those hot summer days. And now the tree embraced him too, as she did. She looked at him.
"Yes. And you need to learn how to share." She held up the empty wine bottle.
"Sorry." he said.
"You doze off for a bit. Were you dreaming?"
"No," he said. "I don’t know. If I was, it was probably about you."
He laughed. She rolled her eyes and went back to reading.
He stared up at the sky again. “I couldn’t see anything in those clouds. They’re just, clouds.”
"You must have no imagination then." she said.
"Maybe." He fell backwards on the grass. "Maybe, I have nothing left to imagine. Everything I need is right in front of me." He turned and smiled at her.
"Wow. You are so fucking corny." She grabbed a handful of grass and sprinkled it over him.
She laughed as he tried to fight this off. He brushed his face, spitting out the grass that landed on his mouth.
He got up again. He eyed the book laying in her lap. It was dog-eared and beat-up, worn out from the passing of time. But it seemed to hold itself together for her, knowing that one day it would be read once more.
"Are you liking that book so far?" he asked. "—again, I mean." He knew she did not like to reread books.
"Yes. I love it so far." she said. "Sometimes it’s good to revisit things. A book I did not like at first, maybe I’ll fall in love with it next time around."
"That’s a good way to put it." he said. "I like to think so, too."
A light breeze picked up. The leaves of the tree started to rustle, and she shivered as it passed through.
His first reaction was to wrap his arms around her, to keep her warm, to shield her from this wind that would give her discomfort — he would do anything in his power to keep her from harm, from anything that would dare threaten her — he cared for her in this way. He only, and always, wanted to make her feel good.
But he knew better; he knew he need not do anything. He knew of her strength, her courage; he knew she could take care of herself.
She shook it off. She sat up straight. She closed her eyes, as if meditating, like Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, greeting the wind as it came to her.
He watched as she did this. She looked lovely that day. Or as always, he thought. She had fixed a single, thin braid that went across a side of her head, and it was those little details that made him appreciate her more. But the wind caught some of her long hair, and it waved gently in the breeze, covering part of her face from time to time.
So damn lovely, he thought.
But he remembered this would not last. He knew he might not see her again like this. He did not want to think about it.
Then, the sky began to clear, and the sun, sneaking behind those clouds this whole time, showed itself to them. Its rays broke through the branches of the tree, showering her in light.
But she simply smiled and basked in it, feeling the warmth of the sun on her delicate skin.
And she glowed. She glowed like the sun that brightened her. She glowed like nothing he had ever set his eyes on before. Angelic.
He wanted to hold her in his arms so bad, but he could not bring himself to ruin the moment. He wanted this image to last forever. Picture perfect. He felt the rush as if he was seeing her for the first time again. As if he had hiked to the top of a hill for a cliffside view of a Hawaiian beach, to experience a sunrise painting the Grand Canyon, to gaze up at the heavens and marvel at the Northern Lights; she was that breathtaking sight men travel the world for.
Enlightened, the universe suddenly became clear to him. He believed himself a philosopher just then, and he had answered the meaning of life. He had escaped Plato’s cave and behind the flickering shadows was her, this goddess of a woman.
It was clearer than ever; she meant everything to him. She was everything, and everything. Nothing in the world made him happier, than being with her right there and then.
"God, you’re beautiful."
She opened her eyes and looked at him. Those shining eyes. She gave him a faint smile, that distinct Mona Lisa smile she always had, but a smile that brought out everything that was enigmatic and amazing about her. She leaned over and kissed him. He kissed back. She held his hand. He was on top of the world.
Aomame pressed an ear against his chest. “I’ve been lonely for so long. And I’ve been hurt so deeply. If only I could have met you again a long time ago, then I wouldn’t have had to take all these detours to get here.”
Tengo shook his head. “I don’t think so. This way is just fine. This is exactly the right time. For both of us.”
Aomame started to cry. The tears she had been holding back spilled down her cheeks and there was nothing she could do to stop them. Large teardrops fell audibly onto the sheets like rain. With Tengo buried deep inside her, she trembled slightly as she went on crying. Tengo put his arms around her and held her. He would be holding her close from now on, a thought that made him happier than he could imagine.
"We needed that much time," Tengo said, "to understand how lonely we really were."
Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later — no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget — we will return.
No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.
"Don’t you just love it?" she said. "Every day you stand on top of a mountain, make a three-hundred-sixty-degree sweep, checking to see if they’re any fires. And that’s it. You’re done for the day. The rest of the time you can read, write, whatever you want. At night scruffy bears hang around your cabin. That’s the life! Compared with that, studying literature in college is like chomping down on the bitter end of a cucumber."
"OK," I said, "but someday you’ll have to come down off the mountain." As usual, my practical, humdrum opinions didn’t faze her.
Sumire wanted to be like a character in a Kerouac novel — wild, cool, dissolute. She’d stand around, hands shoved deep in her coat pockets, her hair an uncombed mess, staring vacantly at the sky through her black plastic-frame Dizzy Gillespie glasses, which she wore despite her twenty-twenty vision. She was invariably decked out in an oversize herringbone coat from a secondhand store and a pair of rough work boots. If she’d been able to grow a beard, I’m sure she would have.
To witness an artist at work, honing their craft, focused, determined; such unique choreography, the rhythm and flow to it all, can be a beautiful thing.
A painter, and the stroke of their brush hitting the canvas. A chef, toiling away in the kitchen, juggling each dish and knife and pan with amazing finesse. A photographer, running from spot to spot, setting up their subject, waiting patiently for that perfect lighting, that right moment.
It goes on. A garage band jammin’ out together. An actor improvising their lines. A pianist going through their scales. Even a woman applying her makeup; that delicate touch, those starry eyes, her pursed lips.
It is a beautiful thing, the artistic process, maybe even more so than the finished product.
As for a writer? Not so much. Writing alone is an undesirable, messy undertaking. A writer at work is but a poor soul trapping themselves in a dimly-lit room, late-night hours spent staring at the ceiling, pacing back and forth, struggling to translate their thoughts onto paper. A cigarette and a glass of whiskey too many. It is a lonely endeavor.
Though, to understand the writing process is an attempt to understand the writer — You’d want to follow their life, their dreams, their fears, where they’ve traveled, who they’ve met, who they’ve lost — and somewhere in between, there’s her, the muse sitting quietly in the corner, making this all happen.
And if the writer is lucky, their work will be read. That is what any writer wants. But even with readers, there is little chance of fame or wealth. And for the writer, rarely is there instant gratification. They expose themselves to the world, but there is no performance, no round of applause. It can be a fruitless pursuit. The writer, knowingly, throws themselves into an abyss, and more often than not, their words become nothing more but a shout in the dark, all in hopes that those words reach out to someone.
So why do it? Why write at all? If anything, the goal is abstract, intangible. To entertain. To inspire. To reflect. To make her fall in love.
Take your pick. But for the writer, sometimes, that is enough.
I make the habit of turning to the last page of a book first, before I ever start reading it cover to cover. Of course, those last lines, those final words, would never make any sense, but I’ve stuck with this strange ritual for as long as I can remember.
I’m sure when I was younger, I was simply eager to know the ending of the book; that, and being an impatient kid who wanted a leg up on his classmates. Not that it made a difference, though; merely reading those few ending paragraphs would, unsurprisingly, offer zero insight. Or, I’d just forget what I read. So genius of me.
Eventually, I took notice to the obvious problem of this quirk of mine – the possibility of spoilers, it seemed, could become an issue. I could read that last page, piece it together later, and shit, the entire book would be “ruined” for me. The thrill of plot twists, the suspense of solving a mystery; all of which could be compromised. Regardless, I continued my ritual with every new book.
Every story’s been told, and anything and everything imaginable has been conceived already, I thought. There’s nothing left to spoil. Style, execution, the way the story and its characters unfold, I believed, mattered more to me than knowing who dies, who lives, what saved the day, who ends up with who; besides, I liked the story coming full circle, after starting off with that last page.
Because at some point, I realized that every story ends in tragedy. Heroes die; hearts are broken. There is no happily ever after. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, but lives were lost, sacrifices made. A couple may meet, fall in love, end up together, but that third person does not — they fall in love, too, but they become jealous, left alone. They suffer.
I’m older now, but I still continue this habit. I pick up a new book, flip through to the end, and read that last page. Because now, I’m simply desperate for a happy ending. I want to know there’s a story out there that ends well.
Maybe I’ve come full circle. I’m just that eager kid again, and all he wants is for his story to end well. I shall have to write my own novel, I suppose. We all should.
Drinking’s funny. When I look back on it, all of our important decisions have been figured out when we were drinking. Even when we talked about having to cut back on our drinking, we’d be sitting at the kitchen or out at the picnic table with a six-pack or whiskey. When we made up our minds to move down here and take this job as managers, we sat up a couple of nights drinking while we weighed the pros and cons.
I pour the last of the Teacher’s into our glasses and add cubes and a spill of water. Holly gets off the sofa and stretches on out across the bed.
She goes, “Did you do it to her in this bed?”
I don’t have anything to say. I feel all out of words inside. I give her the glass and sit down in the chair. I drink my drink and think it’s not ever going to be the same.
Favorite writers: Adonis, Gen Urobuchi, Rebecca Sugar, and Naotaka Hayashi, Haruki Murakami. That's not a question? No question about it. Cheers fellow Love Hina fan.
Cheers. I’m flattered, considering you’re putting me in the same company that includes a couple of successful anime writers, a head writer for one of the best shows out there, and a Nobel Prize candidate. Flattered, considering I spent my Sunday lying on a couch, smoking weed, watching football, and having Burger King for dinner. Dine-in Burger King, I mind you. But thank you.