Part I of a novel:

Preparations for a Journey

 

Meditation

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            Am I present? I have to think. I’m wanting for a wave of blankness to wash over me, for my mind to tingle and ease, for my eyes and shoulders to give, to accept the everythingness of things. I say this like I’m totally conscious of it, but I’m not – it’s more instinctive, I think. The most conscious part is of time passing.

            I’m staring out the window. My eyes are pointed at a tree. Its empty branches sway in the cold wind of this grey winter scene. The color slowly shifts as the sun sneaks out, then darkens again, light flittering. I have anxiety about things, like so many leaves that cover summer trees. This barren tree speaks to me now. I’m not really looking at it, but through it, past its branches. I am a tree that blows in the wind. I am less than that. Nothing. Now I’m loosening. My shoulders relax, my eyes glaze over and my anxiety fades. My ego like scattered sunlight, disappearing. The sky is a blanket. I snuggle into that, just atmosphere, comfy. Oxygen fills my lungs, my head buzzing. I exhale like a wave crashing in slow motion and it hits me: a moment, an orgasm, my self is gone; empty bliss.

            Fade to white. Blankness.

There’s nothing but a hum, an innocent tone like the last sound of Radiohead’s Kid A album. I picture a soft light glowing, growing in intensity – it’s the summer light of New York City shining into my bedroom on a Sunday morning. I’m in Brooklyn, in bed with Allison, the soft duvet cozily encapsulating us, my feet peeking out into the still, sedate air, her head tucked into my neck, my skin brushed by her auburn hair and her hands on my chest, each of us between wake and rest.

            “What do you feel like doing?” she asks me.

            I sigh with content: “Nothing.”

            “Great, nothing it is,” she says, and we continually drift in half-sleep.

            Now I’m standing here like this is the dream. I’m an apparition. I’m still, barely breathing. I’m not exactly holding my breath, but it’s like I forget to breathe, like I’m resting my lungs or something. I inhale. I see Allison’s porcelain face, her kind eyes opening, her smile growing, in sync with my lungs filling completely. A moment, a memory. Then a sigh – I exhale loudly. The image dissipates. The soft summer light vanishes with it.

            Dissolve to black. Now there’s darkness.

            My eyes are closed. Slowly, I keep breathing. The light shifts back to the flat greyness of this winter day. The clouds aren’t breaking. The trees aren’t swaying. Nothing’s happening.

            There’s a whistle. It’s the kettle: water’s boiling. I open my eyes, unsure of when I closed them exactly.

It’s a Thursday morning. I’m standing in my kitchen, making coffee. I listen to the whistle, roll my neck around my shoulders and listen to the cracking of muscles. My back hurts. I pour hot water into the French press on the counter and stir the coffee carefully. Everything feels slow, intended. The radiator crackles. The clock ticks. The city carries on in the distance.

            I’m relaxed but I can sense my anxieties bubbling just under the surface, like a zit you just know will soon ruin a day. No steady money. No prospects. No solid career path. A weak résumé. And all these plans for a trip, so precarious… Is this sustainable? Am I making smart decisions? Who am I and what have I done with my life? I don’t actually want to be thinking this.

            I turn back to the window. The coffee steeps. I look at the large courtyard, intrigued by the layout of old buildings, the architecture very European. That makes sense – I’m in Berlin, Germany. There are lots of similarities between here and Brooklyn, but also lots of differences. None of my close friends or family are here, for instance. No stability. No Allison.

            I hum to myself, hearing music in my head: the soft synthetic beat and dancing melody of the song “Bored Games” by Wild Nothing:

            ♬ Where are you going? Can I go with you? I don’t feel right when you’re not here…

            I just want to be in a song.

            I breathe, straighten my back, listen now to the clock. The seconds tick. I pay attention to the space between each tick and everything in it: countless fractions of slivers, small infinities.  Again and again, with every passing second, infinities of nothing.

            It’s funny how it’s called a second. I read that it’s because it’s the second division of the hour, the first divisible unit being the minute. But why is the hour the thing to be divided? Shouldn’t it be the day that we’re dividing? The first division is really the hour – and it’s the first hand on the clock as well. That makes sense. The minute hand, then, is really the second, the second hand really the third. So shouldn’t seconds be called thirds?? It really bothers me,  this imperfect system of timekeeping. I wish we could fix it. This is suddenly all I want in life, for this to be right. At least something, then. And why anything.

            I sigh, my empty thoughts filled with such banality. My passions awake at the most mundane. I want the time back, in a way. I want time to cease. It’s dumb that such things bothers me, isn’t it? It’s my own mind that bothers me. Let it go, Ethan. Breathe. Lose yourself again. Care less. Just stare at the clock, look at the minute hand vibrating ever so slightly as it ticks. The hour hand moves smoothly forward as well, imperceptibly. I’m watching it… It points close to the 12. Almost noon. After 12 comes 13 – 13:00 in Europe – but 1 on this circle, this cyclical system. 1 and 13 are the same thing, an ace in blackjack is 1 and 11 simultaneously. Does zero equal infinity?

            The coffee must be ready. I’m pouring it, watching the steam rise and dissipate. That makes me happy. I pick up the mug and it warms me. Out the window, flakes of frozen precipitation are forming. Interesting weather we’re having. My eyelids fall as gently. The radiator is crackling, the refrigerator is buzzing, the clock is ticking. The universe expands and I’m breathing. Eyes closed, I’m seeing the bright sun, gentle waves at the beach, the sound of water lapping, the infinite sea… I pause, hold this vision in anticipation.  I’m going there. I’m returning. My happy place, you could say. I’ve been places. I’ve seen things. All these things that I’ve done, snapshots of my life, real quick, like that, in succession, flashing before my eyes, a slideshow, strobing. Loud light, black and white, rhythmic, and then a bed of pulsing music. It’s building, a textured beat, 60 BPM doubled, then speeding. Life, faster and faster. I’m remembering, fantasizing, dreaming. I’m bobbing my head to this daydream, my body loose, my shoulders light, my hands… warm… This coffee feels nice. I raise it to my face, inhale its aroma and the thought obscures, fades into the background as I breathe. This smell cuts through me. I tilt the mug toward my mouth. I’m going to taste it now. I sip. It’s good. I open my eyes widely. This energy enters my body. It’s in me. There. I’m present I think.

 

 

Heartbeat

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     Cut to: a party. The blaring beat of hard German techno, a crowd clad in black, possessed, the scene of a classic industrial aesthetic. Berghain, Berlin, 2015. This was weeks ago. I was standing upstairs in Panorama Bar with Michael, dark red light, house music, ecstasy. We were drinking Club Mates, bobbing our heads, people-watching. That’s when I saw her, in passing, while eyeing other women, lamenting my lust in these exciting moments. As it happened, our eyes connected for just a split second, but that first sight expanded in my mind like a firework. Like magic. It’s like I memorized her face in that one instant; it became imprinted on my soul or something, her gaze like a graceful gazelle caught in my headlights, her eyes beaming bright.

            Time passed with the music and fluids and various chemicals through my body, my heart beating. Michael and I danced, swaying through the crowd and the night. I talked with other girls but she stayed on my mind. I wondered if I was imagining things. Then I saw her again – she was more than a vision. Her hair wisped in the electric air, her torso moving like poetry. I knew I could adore her forever, it occurred to me.

            She danced with friends on the main floor, the DJ brooding and intense. I danced nearer and nearer. I didn’t push it, didn’t bumble my way with overt aggression. The tone was dark and weird and I could get lost in it. I could focus on my own joy and display my independence. I did that but I couldn’t stay – my desire was different. Soon we were next to each other, her body sometimes facing me. That was key. I moved closer to her movements, syncing my motion to her rhythm, glimpsing her slyly, keeping distance but closing it. I wanted to stare but I held back, wanted to hug her and kiss her but of course didn’t. Fools rush in, Ethan. We eyed each other again and again. Her looks varied: a smile, a scowl, a furtive vulnerability. Her face was bright but she exuded a complex mystery. Fascinating, it seemed, that someone so light could contain something so heavy. She was apprehensive – I could sense it. But I smiled, relaxed, backed away; I tried to communicate that I wasn’t desperate, didn’t need anything but could entertain her company, if interest was reciprocated. It was mutual enough: we exchanged words eventually, slowly built a rapport with spotted conversation. Then we moved from the dance floor away from her friends and upstairs for some coffee, actually talking.

            She’s called Annie. I told her typical first-date stuff: that I’m from New York, been in Berlin just a few months, a video artist trying to show work in galleries. She said less but seemed curious. She had a stone façade, but occasional smiles cracked it.

We left together. I rode the train with her to Prenzlauer Berg and we ate croissants on a park bench in the sunny winter morning. She put her head on my shoulder and we sat in peace as the sun rose. The sky was brightening, the birds were chirping, the whole scene so full of serenity. In that moment I would have married her, gotten a proper job, started a family, made her every promise and kept it. My smile stretched from one ear to the other as I felt her shape in my emptiness. This is what it’s like to feel full, I think. I kissed her goodbye on her cheek.

            That’s how I met Annie. I’ve since thought of her for weeks.

I think of her now as I ride my bike through the city. I pass by Alexanderplatz and the tower that pierces the sky, eye the grand soviet architecture of Karl-Marx-Allee and wonder if we could build something so monumental, Annie and me. I listen to Ratatat as I coast down cold roads, the luscious grooves and guitar riffs like that perfect moment we had on that park bench, a moment I move to long-term memory. I wouldn’t say I’ve been obsessing – I just can’t stop thinking about it! Never mind that we were each on MDMA. There’s veracity to the feelings. Drugs don’t put them there, they expose things. I’m crushing. This bike ride in this city to this music – it’s all imbued with romance. This is how and where I live. I take note of each thought and emotion as I pass the bars and restaurants in Kreuzberg, wondering how she and I might meet again. How I can make it happen. We’ve been texting – I’m seemingly maintaining her interest. I wonder how to best negotiate it, how to proceed. I’d love for us to go to the movies, to be that couple on the screen. I’m sure she senses my lunging love for the idea of us, is perhaps put off by it. I wonder how much she wants to see me and I fear it’s not enough. But I keep a quiet optimism. I keep holding on. I’m not sure it’s really there, but I still feel it.

 

Preparations

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I went to UC Berkeley. Lots of us from LA went there. After a year in the dorms I moved in with some friends, one of whom was Jane. We’ve been close always, and into the same things: art, movies, music. Anish was our flatmate too. He’s a tech guy who majored in Electrical Engineering. He wasn’t a huge partier back then, but he is now.

            Months ago I was at a Berlin party called Sisyphos when Jane messaged. It was dawn and I was feeling desperate. I had been chatting with some fun girls, hoping to play with them but giving up on it, was coming down off GHB, mixing it with Ketamine, tired of dancing and sick of all the conversation. Everything felt so pointless. Michael was off with a guy; everyone else was rolling. I sat on a couch and stared off, feeling alienated and strange. I was into a girl called Celine, but she wasn’t around that weekend and I was unsure how things were between us. I took out my phone and saw Jane’s message: Hey, I’ll be in Vietnam in February and March. You should come visit!

            I smiled, reminisced about old friends and real connections. As you get older, the more you value the people you’ve always known.

            Part of me wants to just stay in Europe, continue settling into a routine, save money, make work, be a responsible adult. But I have no job, no other commitments actually preventing me. Most people would fall back on that excuse, but I could do it, technically. I’m free to do whatever I want. Truly. But there’s guilt. It’s a bit complicated.

            I made a list of pros and cons. These were my reasons to go:

            - Proximity. Maybe it’s silly, but in Europe I’m geographically closer to Vietnam than I was in New York or LA. The travel time is shorter, and a smaller carbon footprint. The distance is less. Seems like something to take advantage of, in a sense.

            8880 miles / 14300 kilometers / 18.5 hours from New York
            8150 miles / 13100 kilometers / 17 hours from Los Angeles
            5760 miles / 9270 kilometers / 12 hours from Berlin

            - Cultural Interest. Vietnam interests me, and Southeast Asia generally. It’s not my ideal destination, but I’m at least curious. I wonder about the mystique of Vietnam, about its historical relationship to America, and the ethos of the 1960s. Also Thailand. I’ve heard so much about it from friends who totally loved it. I wonder about the party scene in Bangkok and the beaches of the South, and this is as good a chance to finally get there as any. Angkor Wat in Cambodia intrigues me, too. It’s between the two, so I could fit this in. Seems interesting, this ancient mythic vibe like Machu Picchu. Ruins.

            - Adventure. Southeast Asia is also appealing for what it isn’t. It’s not Europe, not the Western World, not easy. I imagine it might be intensely polluted, crowded and overwhelming, but not to such a chaotic extent as China or India. The abject poverty won’t be as alarming, I’m guessing. But still, something. And these aren’t politically dangerous, threatening countries, but do have a sort of sinister element. Just being out of my element is somehow worth investigating. The scale of the challenge is appealing.

            - An invitation. My close friend invited me. It always makes sense to visit friends. Call me an opportunist, but I definitely want to take advantage of a hosting situation: not only is it more affordable, places are just more rewarding when someone shows you, provides context and things to do. When else would I have this opportunity? This is the biggest reason, really.

            - Camaraderie. I want to see Jane. And then I thought that maybe others from our old crew could get involved, so we started scheming. I brought in Anish, and Jane brought in Meredith, who studies Art History with her in Chicago. Meredith would also bring her boyfriend, Neil. I haven’t seen Meredith in forever, and Neil I’ve never met, but still: it would be great to have some of our Berkeley group together again, in such a new setting and permutation.

            - Weather. Hey, it’s March. It’s cold and bleak in Germany. Southeast Asia offers a vacation in the most traditional sense: fun and sun and sand and the ocean. So the timing is appealing – a good chance to escape from bad weather to nice weather.

            These are my arguments for it.

            Arguments against it?

            It’s not work. I should be working, right? I think I’m supposed to have a career by now. I’ve had very little success with my video art or filmmaking. I don’t know how. All I really want to do is live life, but I feel guilty. It’s like I’m supposed to be doing something else besides living. It would be different if I were shooting a film there, or if I was exhibiting in a gallery. Hell, I’d take just a meeting with a curator or collector or something. I have nothing. So the trip feels frivolous, extravagant. And I wonder how I’ll afford it…

            Money. This is the real issue, isn’t it? It is always such a difficulty. I suppose you’ll judge me for this – that I just pack up and leave without worrying enough about it. I moved to Berlin with some savings – $15,000. This trip figures to be at least $1,500. It will hurt. I’m sure for most people, the idea of the trip would die right there. But I don’t know… money is for spending, isn’t it? I can earn more at any time when it comes down to it. I have earning potential, after all. So yes, my bank account will sink because of this trip, but not permanently. I’ll never run out entirely. And money shouldn’t be a reason not to do things. I suppose I’m privileged enough to believe this. Yes, I’m privileged. I can face it. My family will always be there for me, not to mention credit.

            The thought warms me a little.

            I’m headed now to the airport. The Berlin air is cold. People walk around bundled up in scarves and heavy coats. I’ve decided not to bring one – it’s almost 0° but in Asia it’s 30°. I can handle it. I’m layered: T-shirt, collared shirt, pullover, hoodie.  I feel so transient, so ephemeral.  Am I a ghost? Have I packed enough clothes?

            The train arrives. I’m anxious about timing but it seems alright. I take a seat and open my pillbox and fiddle with it. I take a deep breath and stare out the window at the dead trees and the grey sky, listening to “My Girls” by Animal Collective as the train rolls out of the city.      

 

Ascent

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There’s that moment during takeoff when the jets settle, the sounds die and the airplane just sort of hangs there in the sky. I know I’m much more likely to die in a car crash than a plane, but I still get that nervous feeling, like we’ll just fall right out of the air, back to earth in a blaze of folly. It amazes me every time this doesn’t happen, really. How the hell does this big, heavy contraption get off the ground, and once off, how the hell does it stay up? It is incredible. I don’t understand propulsion and thrust and these engineering things completely, but of course I trust the science enough to put my body in this metal tube regularly. Still, taking off is the scariest part of flying.

Gotta be above it. Gotta be above it. Gotta be above it…

            I’m staring out the window at the land below, fields getting more miniscule. We pass through clouds. The overcast Berlin day breaks into the ever-sunny stratosphere above it. This perspective feels significant somehow. I take video: the gridded German farms and sprawling swaths of forest, the big puffy clouds hanging there above them, the bright blue sky over it all, the transition. I have taken these pictures countless times and I never tire of them. I can photograph the sky all day. This vantage point is always terrific. Cumulous clouds are my favorite, the way they billow and suggest such powerful softness. And to be among them, above everything… this feeling is important to me. There’s something transcendent about this.

            I like being on planes. I like just staring off, thinking. I like this transitory feeling, this disorientation. I like being nowhere specific, between time zones, out of time sort of, out of geographic placement. These images won’t be geo-tagged. On iCal, this will just be an empty block to compensate for the time shift. It’s like transcending space-time, like limbo, suspended animation.

            If I were a superhero, either flying or freezing time would be the power I’d want most. With flying, you could have this feeling any time you craved it, and with complete control. You could live in dreams, like a bird, soaring. With freezing time you could basically live forever. Think of the possibilities, to live so many lives, accrue so many experiences, never aging… I’m not thinking so much about the trip now, nor the future, nor the past. This time is just for me.  

 

Orientation

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            Where am I, I wonder. In limbo – layover. I want to orient myself, properly situate my body in time and space, adapt to wherever this is, this place. I want to be present, located in a location. I hold my phone, look at the map and the blue dot that says where I am: Eurasia, Russia, Moscow. The GPS clearly says so. But am I really there, though?

            I like to keep track of the places I’ve been, to chronicle my travels and worldly experience. I love maps, and they’re handy for this, but they’re always designed around political borders, which are so woefully unhelpful. They don’t accurately describe where we’ve been. Not really. I want more from cartography. I want to visualize data, to accurately identify the places I’ve experienced. I want to see real geography, demography, to understand Earth more fully. I want to chart my life adventures on a map more empathic, more descriptive. This is what I’m thinking as I stand in this Moscow airport, wondering if I’m experiencing Russia, if this might count as visiting. I think not, despite decent evidence for it. It seems hard to count an airport as seeing a country. I’d at least have to leave this building and go into the city.

            Size-wise, Russia is the largest country in the world, spreading all the way from Norway to North Korea. It really makes a mockery of political geography, confounding conceptions of continents and global regions. It’s the biggest country in Europe and the biggest country in Asia, and that’s when divided at the Ural Mountains. The country is simply too damn big, if you ask me. Do Moscow and Siberia have anything fundamental in common? Somehow I don’t think so.

            What defines a place, anyway? Being an American in Europe, the topic comes up often. Where you’re “from” is shorthand for your experience and personality, along with where you’ve been – places leave imprints. People say they’ve visited the States, for instance, which connotes a sort of worldliness. But maybe they just spent a few days in Manhattan. Does it count? Sure – they felt the busy sidewalks and gruffness that’s too often mistaken for rudeness, the sheer density of a certain kind of person. Hell, they might have even felt it at JFK airport on their way to Iowa or something. I’ve met people who did a semester of high school in America, in some small town in Arkansas or Wisconsin. Surely it counts as having been to America, but not the America I’m “from”, the America that defines my experience. The US is multitudinous. There’s the America of Wal-Mart, guns and the Bible Belt, and then there’s the America of the New York Times, Apple computers and Seinfeld. It renders quite ambiguous the term American, except in the most general, broad sense.  

            Specific places are multifaceted enough as it is: Berlin is at once the European capital of WWII history and weekend-long parties. There are these two simultaneous Berlins, a city once literally divided. Berlin is certainly German – the country’s capital, even – but it lacks so much of what Americans think of when they think of Germany. All the Oktoberfest and lederhosen stuff is in Bavaria, in the south. The big engineering factories and auto headquarters are in the west. And of course all the fascism and nationalism is basically gone, especially in Berlin. So have I fully experienced a “German” essence? Have I really been?

            Germany is one country, like the USA. It counts somehow as one land – Deutschland – no matter which state you visit. Bavaria is a distinct place – a people and their land. It could be its own country, just like neighboring Austria is. Austria, along with part of Switzerland, comprises the rest of the German-speaking world. This swath of central Europe could be one country, or twenty. It happens to be three federations, for whatever reason.

            The USA is stranger still, has even more distinct ecosystems and peoples. It is many nations within one state, really: united states, appropriately. But the borders of each state are themselves problematic. Ideally, the US would be divided into more distinct regions: the tri-state area or city-state of New York, New England, the Rust Belt or Great Lakes, Appalachia, the Deep South, the Southwest, the Great Plains, Cascadia, California… Hawaii is obviously a separate thing, much more akin to Polynesia than, say, Massachusetts. And what the hell is Alaska doing in the union? It’s clearly part of the vast Canadian tundra. And yet, since the US has bought it and claimed it within its empire, the people there count as Americans. The border that distinguishes Canada seems arbitrary in addition – North America in general could very well be one federal union.

            Sure, Stalin moved ethnic Russians to the Far East, but do they actually belong there? And does that make it somehow Russian? I know: it’s almost impossible to say who belongs anywhere, really. Such is the effect of empires and their ravenous creation of history. Imperialism makes a mockery of order, ironically.

            And yet: East Asia is indeed the place of East Asians, each of its countries quite ethnically homogeneous. Arabia is indeed comprised of Arabs. Arabs have also conquered northern Africa and made Muslims of the Berbers, who are now essentially part of the same Sunni culture, and yet Libya remains a part of the African continent, hardly resembling the sub-Saharan land and people so far below it. What’s more African: Arabic or Afrikaans? 

            The world is full of random, inaccurate, curious distinctions. I think it’s stupid.

            To be clear: Nation means people. A nation is a people with shared history, culture, ethnicity, language, belief system. State is a sovereign political designation. A state is a country, a federal republic. Some nations have their own states: Japan, Nepal, Italy. Some states are made of multiple nations: Belgium, Russia, the USA. Kurdistan and Palestine are nations without states, without full recognition by the United Nations. You could say the same for the American Confederacy, where they still wave their flag in preference to the US’s. The world is so delicately demarcated with political borders that carefully acknowledge sovereign statehood, but it’s a total mess, straight lines cutting through nuanced national distinctions. Some people/tribes/monarchies hold their sovereign status, while other distinct nations are disintegrated. How does Monaco – a city on the French Riviera – count as a distinct country, but Tibet doesn’t? If your counting, that means a trip to Monaco + Nice = 2, a trip to Beijing + Tibet = 1.

            The United Kingdom: Scotland and England are distinct nations with differing histories and perspectives, but they share a larger sovereign statehood along with Wales on the island of Great Britain. They all form one country, along with Northern Ireland: the United Kingdom. Going to Belfast crosses off all of it. A two-hour train ride from there gets you to Dublin, Ireland, which counts as its own distinct country, even though it shares an island and is clearly part of the same general region – the British Isles. But they get upset if you point that out, because they identify so much as such distinct people – so resolutely Catholic, not Protestant. Somehow it’s easier to divide an island of similar people than to reconcile political and religious ideas of in-groups and factions.

Is Belgium a real country? Created originally as a buffer zone, it’s comprised of Dutch Flanders and French Wallonia, its capital city a sort of blend of the two, where both languages are spoken and posted. (Mostly it’s French, but lies on the Dutch side). Flanders could easily be part of The Netherlands, and Wallonia could certainly be part of France. So why aren’t they? No good reason! There’s even a German-speaking bit – the East Cantons – which the country took from Germany after World War I, despite its people’s resistance. So you have this country comprised from parts of its neighbors… to what end? Brussels is much more similar to Amsterdam than Honolulu is to Boston. And yet Belgium is politically distinct, with UN membership of course, while also part of one larger regional unit: The Low Countries, the Benelux Union. I haven’t been to the tiny country of Luxembourg (half a million people out of Benelux’s 28 million), but how much different could it be from its neighbors? Must microstates really have more legitimate international identity than huge, dominated territories? Benelux could easily be considered one land. Instead it counts as three.

            Luxembourg is huge compared to the “state” of Vatican City – a neighborhood inside Rome inside Italy that somehow counts as its own country. It’s considerably smaller than Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, both by size and population. It’s not so different in any meaningful way from Rome – it’s just the Catholic center of it. So here we have a neighborhood of 1,000 people that has more rights at the UN than Puerto Rico (3.3 mil), for instance. Within London, England, UK is The City of London – it’s also just a neighborhood: the financial district. It somehow counts as its own city, with its own laws and regulations. New York has a financial district, too, also just a neighborhood in Manhattan, one of the five New York City boroughs. Wall Street, and more specifically the NYSE building, is perhaps the highest concentration of economic power in the world, but it adheres to the same laws as Anchorage, Alaska. Building, neighborhood, district, borough, city, county, province, region, nation, state, country, union: the arbitrary status of sovereignty and administration; ambiguous, convoluted distinctions; terminology as a means of trying to make sense.

            The world is chaos, in the end.

            I look back at Google Maps, scroll over to where I am going. Southeast Asia, Indochina, the East Indies. Its borders are crazy. The map isn’t fully loading and the rough sketch that Google presents me makes it all the more clear how haphazard and questionable certain borders can be. Sharp jagged lines going every which way – it looks like a child took scissors to this region. I wonder what that will feel like, how clearly the nations are defined.   

            It is helpful to recognize distinctions between places, to locate, identify and appreciate each one. Every place has a certain meaning, and every land and its people enrich the world in a certain way. So it does make sense to categorize the planet, to this extent. Administrative boundaries are necessary in any case. Politics change things over time, but cities and cultures are more robust, definite. There will always be a New York City, defined – if nothing else – by its architecture and skyline, whether it’s part of the Empire State as currently defined, its own city-state like Hong Kong or Singapore, or a new seceded territory that includes its tri-state area, where so many of its workers commute from. Some borders – like New York – should be redrawn. Others, like in Ireland, should be erased entirely, I think. I’m curious what each part of Southeast Asia will feel like, and still wondering what counts as being somewhere. Sometimes I feel there just thinking about it.

 

East of Union

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           I’m browsing Facebook and drinking a golden beer in a TGI Fridays of all places. If it weren’t for the funny-looking letters on the menu, I wouldn’t believe I was in the former Soviet Union. I have to Snapchat this. The quality of the picture doesn’t really matter – in seconds it will vanish – but I take my time composing the beer and menu just right, then send it to Laura & Danny and Allison. The four of us had gone to a TGI Friday’s in Upstate New York last year as a goof on our trip to the Catskills. That was a fun time: going to such a generic commercial eatery, ordering the funniest-sounding things. I’m missing my crew in NYC.

            My flight to Vietnam is delayed. I email Jane about it. I’m passing the time appropriately, charging my phone, taking in this Russian scene.. I send my snap with  a joke: In Soviet Russia, internet browses YOU! Then I Instagram the requisite sky pic with airplane wing, cropping and editing it carefully. I play Words with Friends with my mom and aunt. I scroll through Tumblr and Reddit. Finally I put down my phone.

            The airport is busy with chatter and foot traffic. Overweight, middle-aged men and women sit idly at their gates, eat fast food, watch the generic TV news. There’s a duty free shop for candy and cigarettes and alcohol among numerous coffee shops, a jewelry store for some reason, a Burger King. It all feels so familiar, like this could be anywhere, but there is a distinct Russianness. I imagine everyone buzzed at this very moment on complimentary vodka, for instance. I think about finding the liquor section of duty free, joining in.

            I’m judging people: the tasteless normalcy of the default setting, knockoff brands and worn faces, the slovenly, unbecoming aspects of the general airport population. A man stares blankly at NBA basketball news on the CNN-like screen. The woman next to him stares off into space, a burger in her hand, half eaten. Her face is weathered, her eyes squinted. She’s seen things. Her hair holds onto its last bit of vibrancy, a glimmer of the radiance that her husband once fell in love with. She’s thinking something, maybe something deep like what the hell happened to my life. But probably not. Next to her are two kids, not too obnoxious, speaking Russian. There’s a quiet dignity to the family, a solemn resignation. There’s a world-weary tenderness in the couple’s posture. I’m feeling something in my chest, my heart… it’s faint… 

            Sexy women walk around. They seem sluttier, tackier than what I’m accustomed to. Are they prostitutes? I feel rude even thinking this, but they do have that look. I can imagine them being paid large amounts of cash to accompany shady Russian businessmen on their trips. Or maybe in Russia hot women just look more like porn stars, dressed in smutty outfits and walking proudly. I feel oddly attracted. Maybe it’s a projection, my own fetish.

            To me, Russia is crazy car crash videos, state oppression and casual anal pornography. It’s a place of confusion, desperation and stark reality. And history. Failed communism and the Cold War, real and imagined atrocities of the USSR. That damn Joseph Stalin, ruining Marxism for everyone. The Stasi and the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, archive footage burned into my brain. Within my lifetime it was a forbidden and hostile land to Americans, my parents having lived through duck-and-cover exercises.

            Just recently Ed Snowden got stuck in this very airport – an international zone by definition – until Russia granted him asylum as a political refugee, the USA having cancelled his passport. That sort of thing won’t happen to me, of course – I’ m not a targeted enemy of the state. But still, the idea is scary and I resent that I’m even thinking it. Totalitarianism, invasive surveillance, political imprisonment – the USSR certainly exemplified that shit. Thought crime – WTF. Sometimes I post radical stuff on Facebook: smash capitalism, fuck religion. Suddenly I’m paranoid. Stupid.

            I remind myself that I’m free but I don’t exactly feel it. The security gate reminds me how seriously people take shit. Someone today will be incarcerated here, in this airport. Someone will be overly frisked, detained, arrested, their passport confiscated. Feasibly, it could be any of us. It could be me. Why do I have to worry about these things? Why can’t people just move around the planet freely? Why is the world so not free?

            I don’t understand authority. Do people really need to be so controlled? And this new world order, the world post-9/11, the NSA that Snowden stood up against… What is everyone so freaked out about? The world is so irrational. We’re all people; we want the same things. The planet’s just mismanaged.

            The airport is an obvious symbol of travel, but it doesn’t embody the spirit. These places feel fascist, an ill-defined consumerist experience with overpriced food and the ever-present threat of something ominous. There’s a disconnect between the freedom represented by a port and the oppressive reality of securing it. I’m suffocating. I wish I could get out of here. I want to leave the airport, feel the Russian air. I want to explore Moscow, even for a little bit, get a real Russian meal in town. The Kremlin and famous Red Square are just an Uber ride away. It’d be cool to see it, take the souvenir pic, say I’ve been there. That would really count, wouldn’t it? I could actually cross off Russia from my list of places been, this whole transcontinental continent summed up by a city. I looked into doing this, actually – staying long enough to explore – but it requires a visa, and the application and fee and everything was too complicated. This is what I mean: Why is it like that? Because of inherited diplomatic animosity? What’s it got to do with me? Russia has a very weird sense of international relations, of East and West. I’m sure it’s mutual with the EU and US, but still, Jesus.

            Is Russia really even the East? In terms of American/European geography, sure, I could see a case made for it, but in terms of the actual East – the Far East / East Asia / Asia – no, not even close. Moscow is not an Asian city. It’s Eastern European, really. The Ural Mountains generally represent the border between these imagined continents of Europe and Asia, and Moscow (along with 80% of Russia’s population) is west of them. Our concept of continents is so unhelpful. Frustrating geography: typical. I just wonder what the East actually means. The orient: haphazardly applied to Istanbul, all the way to Shanghai. Vietnam – itself tied to the communism of the Cold War – is the East for sure. It also requires a visa, which I have, of course. It makes more sense to me somehow, that this still-communist Asian country would require one… I don’t know why, though.

            I’m hungry. I want pierogis or pelmeni or something. Something somewhat Russian. Instead I order potato skins from this Russian waiter at TGIF’s. I sip my beer, losing myself in these thoughts, not totally satisfied, but complacent. I stare at my phone, check my notifications. Jane has written: Damn! Ok, see you in the afternoon then. And my friend Claire has written from LA: Hey! Have a good travel day! What’s happening with the ladies, btw?? ;) Would love to hear about the trip and everything when you have some time!

            And speaking of, Annie has written too. A response to a recent email I sent. I brace myself, open her message:

            Hi Ethan, yes, Blue Is the Warmest Color was one of my favorite films. I also love Mommy. Maybe we have similar taste on this subject.

            About meeting I would like to be clear. Actually I like to talk to you about different things. It’s interesting. But I don’t feel attracted to you in another way. Also I am really sure that in any relationship I am just looking for a friendship right now and nothing in between or different to that. I don’t want to feel this certain kind of energy and have ambiguous situations. I am not sure if we want the same in that point.

            I would also love to concentrate on my projects and work. I figured out that I always let go and do things and they are ok like that. But this year I want to start working for real. Focus on my work, gaining knowledge, maybe start studying again and find something I want to do.

            Also now I am in Paris, visiting the most wonderful man. That’s another reason. I’m not sure how he feels but if he asked me to stay, I think I would.

            I guess you are traveling soon? Is it today? I hope the weather is nice wherever you are. It’s freezing outside.

            Annie

            And inside it also freezes.

 

Snowflake

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At certain altitudes, in certain conditions, the sky affects airplane windows in interesting ways. There's a layer of air between two panes, a tiny hole cut into one of them for pressure to escape. In that empty space water condenses, forms into small shards of crystalline pieces. It makes snowflakes.

I identify. I am each atom, my mind is the pattern that delicately freezes. I think of phenomena, cell divisions, outer space. The fractals materialize before your very eyes. And maybe, just maybe, I am also a special, unique sneuxflake.

The music plays:

You went so far away, and I want to come there too. I want to be with you. I'm just waiting until you say these words: ''Come back, come back, come back, oh to me ...''