Fiction / November 2009 (Issue 9)


Improv

by Drew Calvert

On the night I turned twenty-four, I was drinking a glass of Shiraz in the Irving Park neighborhood of Chicago and listening to a Jesuit priest tell me about the day he spent stranded in a Chic-Fil-A near the University of Georgia. We were at an end-of-the-semester party full of professors and graduate students gossiping kindly and introducing their spouses. The host was a Shakespeare scholar and proud editor of a new anthology of essays on, as he explained to me with false deference, the subject of visual representations of homosexuality in the reception history of Shakespeare's folios. It would be exhausting for me to fully catalogue the pretensions of this man, clearly still in his prime, so I'll just say that he was tall and gelled his gray hair so heavily it looked like barbed wire, suggesting perhaps a youth touched by punk-rock. This might be an indication of my state of mind, but it sounded as if he and the other professors laughed like cartoon villains about the undergraduates who took their classes and mispronounced the names of French or Czech authors. Listening to them, I was temporarily relieved that I had dropped out of graduate school myself, and secretly glad that nobody would ever read these guys' books except for the poor students they scorned.

The priest was a nice guy, as you might expect. But as he told me the story about being stuck in the Chic-Fil-A, two thoughts competed in my head. One told me that this was a charming vignette, something that belonged in The New Yorker, and I should be happy to share such warm company. But this thought was forced; the other was darker and more convincing. It told me that the rest of my life would be lived out in rooms or offices or cities full of merely interesting people; that out of cowardice or sheer inertia, I would discover no moral compass for myself as I slumped into middle age on a snowy El platform; and that Laura, the girl who had brought me to the party, would almost certainly sleep with the greasy, lecherous poet-in-residence. I hadn't been introduced to him yet, and the truth is I wasn't sure if he even existed, but I assumed a party filled with clowns like these would not be complete without one.

"It was a conference on Flannery O'Connor," Father Vincent continued. "I was going to deliver a paper on O'Connor's personal letters, but some of her family members were going to be there, and they weren't too happy about it. So I was hiding out in the Chic-Fil-A, missing the first half of the conference, waiting to show up at the exact time I was scheduled to present. That way, I could avoid the family."

Elsewhere in the room, people were debating the Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Most people seemed to favor Obama, but the Hillary supporters were louder. "A man would never have to answer a question like that," someone said.

Flannery. What a strange name, I thought. It sounded like a color you might order your curtains in. I was attracted to the image I had of her life: her impeccable Southern manners, her deadpan satire, her letters with greetings as elaborately designed as verandas, and her seething moral rage. Maybe I had drunk too much wine, but I felt that if I could have met someone like Flannery O'Connor, I would have been happy. I had read her short stories in high school, expecting them, because of her name, to be dark and whimsical accounts of the Irish Troubles, but instead they were, at least in the desperately erudite language of graduate school, "fiercely observed attacks on human pride and artifice." These days I didn't read any literature; I was sick of art in general. I think Flannery would have understood. I remembered her picture on the book jacket of the copy I checked out of the Anglo Chinese School Library: her thin lips seemed to quiver.

Laura, the girl I met at a bar weeks before, did not have Flannery O'Conner's sense of humor. But she did have many ideas. First of all, she wanted to Save Darfur, and it said so on half of her T-shirts. But she also wanted to be in a burlesque show, stage an impromptu Vagina Monologues, learn Arabic, become a human rights lawyer in China, escape the Christian undertow of her Southern Illinois town once and for all, and earn the admiration of people everywhere. She was a graduate student in Human Development at Northwestern. A few nights previously she had shown me all of the pictures of her family members and even her grandmother's collection of hatboxes. Then she read me a high school speech she had given about peace. When I kissed her goodnight, she said, "I would let you stay, but my mind is just too preoccupied tonight."

I waited for an hour for the bus outside her apartment, watching the American flag's rumpled salute over a boarded-up Sears, remembering the apple scent of her perfume and cursing under my breath. After four weeks, we still hadn't slept together.

Laura decided to date me for a while in part because I had a long scar on the side of my neck and I was missing part of the small finger on my left hand, the results of a car accident the year before. Plus, I was Asian, and she seemed to be in an Asian phase. These facts, combined with my ability to keep quiet, qualified me as interesting. While certainly not the wretched of the earth, I was a step in the right direction, and I was pitiable in my own way, standing awkwardly alone at the bar. She took my air of disinterest for stoical grace, which was convenient enough for me. I'm assuming the boyfriend before me was either black or Arab or perhaps even maimed in some minor way like myself, and the one after me would be a grunge musician who made his living in a greenhouse. Eventually she would marry a banker.

We played darts at an after-hours bar, that night we met, both of us having left our loose cluster of friends. After emptying her Miller Lite, she kissed my hand elaborately to show me she didn't mind the stump. I didn't mind, either, because she had a body that made jeans and a T-shirt look like lace, and she chewed on my lower lip the first time she kissed me—in between dart games. We played 80s rock on the juke box until four, when the bar closed down, and then we went back to her place in Rogers Park, where she told me about her Senegalese and Slovakian neighbors, and the gay couple with their adopted greyhound who sometimes invited her over for dinner. I was still rubbing my tongue over the teeth marks on my lip.

I assumed she would want to investigate my body, in order to understand what it meant to hold a healthy but slightly wounded Asian man in her arms. She would run her fingers slowly over my scar, and I would tell the story. I was in love with a girl in Singapore who didn't love me anymore, or pretended not to, so I went partying one night with a few philosophy students and together we decided to drive to Canada for the weekend. On the highway we chattered manically about the thrilling prospect of temporary escape until, about three hours into the trip, after stopping for more beers and rolling a joint, the driver, whose name was Anthony, fell asleep at the wheel and drove us into a highway sign. Everyone survived relatively unharmed except for Anthony and I: Anthony broke his arm in several places and suffered a bad concussion, and some broken glass from the windshield sliced my finger and the side of my neck—closer to the collar bone and well clear of the jugular, fortunately. Whenever I had a chance to tell the story, I played up the jilted lover aspect of the story and played down the immature dash for the border.

Rather than strip off her clothes and push me onto the bed, however, Laura showed me some pictures that her friend, a social worker and "an absolute saint," had sent from South Africa. By now it was dawn: there were pink shades in the sky and I could hear the street-cleaning trucks in the distance. As we watched a slideshow of Johannesburg, then Durban, then Pretoria, and about ten shots too many of shifting cloud patterns above Table Mountain, the eroticism of the evening faded rapidly. It was terrible foreplay. I recalled the conversation we had at the bar with a wince. It had been one of those conversations that have very little meaning, because they involve two people proving themselves to be friendly, thoughtful, ironic, jaded and clean—the kind of conversation you politely repeat again and again until you've wasted years of your life. This particular conversation had been about aid supplies given to tsunami victims in 2005. Her friend who was getting married—that's why they were out that night, to celebrate—had been writing a thesis for a degree in Economics about the response to the tsunami. It concerned a number of facets: the media's focus on Phuket, Thailand and other major resort areas popular with Western tourists; Banda Acheh, Indonesia, in regards to which she argued that more pressure from the UN and ASEAN, which others called unnecessarily intrusive, would have been more effective in preventing the starvation and fatal diarrhea that followed for weeks afterwards; and the political interpretation in the U.S. of economic realities in Southeast Asia since the financial crisis in 1997. This was the thesis. I shared the story that I usually shared when the topic of the tsunami came up. My sister, who had been living in Bangkok at the time and had many friends vacationing on various Thai and Indonesian islands, had told it to me. The story was that some indigenous Indonesians who were otherwise doomed actually saved themselves by climbing into the trees, because their oral mythology stated that when the tide goes out so rapidly, so unexpectedly, this portended imminent danger. Laura was pleased by this story.

"You see? It just shows you, right, how arrogant the Western mind can be with their interpretations of the world. I mean, you had tourists out there, clever business people or teachers or PhDs even—they were out there on the beaches with the digital cameras, filming their children playing around in the mud when the tide went out. Nobody realized what was going on until it was too late."

Not only was she personally appalled by the arrogance of the Western mind, Laura was similarly aghast that the aid given to nations like Sri Lanka was given in such abysmally small increments, with all kinds of forbidding political stipulations. Here is where her unruly passion truly baffled me, but I kept quiet. If there's one thing I learned in philosophy graduate seminars, it's that the people who are arguing at least nominally on the side of compassion always get the benefit of the doubt. I mentioned that there were some pretty corrupt government officials in Southeast Asia, and that I didn't blame aid groups for being a little bit cautious at first about giving large sums of money to a gang of mistrustful men. But she was already on to the next subject.

"But meanwhile there are hundreds of other tsunamis going on—you know, the silent ones, like AIDS, child soldiers, the abuse of women. There's basically an epidemic of hopelessness in Africa." It was then that I bought her another drink and decided to forget about my stake in the conversation. There were few things that annoy me more than people using the words "tsunami" and "epidemic" to describe anything other than tsunamis and epidemics. But she looked gorgeous. All I said was, "You'd better at least take a breath before you move on to the next global catastrophe."

At her apartment, where it was becoming clear that we were not going to have sex, she told me to write down my email address and leave it near her computer, so that I could be added to The List, a group of socially conscious people in the Greater Chicago area and the world beyond who remembered daily the plight of the Third World while they sifted through their inboxes. By this time I was dead-tired. I wrote down my email address and soon afterwards fell asleep on her futon, below her faded poster of Simon Bolivar.

The next day we had lunch together and she told me all about her mother, who, as it happens, was suicidal. Laura was visibly nervous, constantly taking out her phone to check for messages. Her sister was a lawyer in New York, and her father worked long hours on an oil derrick, so when her mother wasn't at work at the Illinois Department of Agriculture she was vulnerable to self-destruction. I listened carefully now despite my hangover, because Laura had dropped her act. Suddenly she was just a scared girl from Southern Illinois who didn't want to lose her mother. Maybe the silent tsunamis were just a distraction. I couldn't decide in the end, and I left that lunch feeling like a miserable, shallow person. After listening to Laura describe her childhood—a father who was overworked and weary, an unstable mother, a brother who at nineteen had already been married and was now addicted to methamphetamines—I decided I at least owed her my sympathy. Besides, listening to her personal problems, rather than her half-baked interpretations of world politics, helped me to focus my mind and forget about my own uncertainties. While I plugged away at my paralegal job, Laura's antics were a welcome distraction from my own boring, confused life.

But now, at this academic, Democratic, humanities-heavy love-fest, she was back in her element, flirting with intellectuals, quizzing a theologian about NAFTA and telling a scholar of East Asian poetry that the US government should not let China fund the genocide in Sudan. The men in the group nodded knowingly, sneaking quick peaks down her loose shirt, one of those European-style designs that slide down one shoulder. She had curled her hair and was wearing faint green eye shadow. There was no reason not to stare at her. I kept my eyes on her conversation circle as Father Vincent finished his story.

"Anyway, I'll tell you, academics can be a dangerous business," he said. "Sometimes I wish I had become an assassin." This was obviously the fallback joke he repeated when the story itself had a subdued effect, but I laughed anyway. "Let's have more wine, Father," I said.

"I could do that," he said. "So you said you had been studying philosophy?"

"Yes, I did say that." After several glasses of wine my speech had become slow and deliberate, just on the safe side of sarcastic. "I was writing my thesis on Marsilio Ficino, the 16th century Neoplatonist. He wrote self-help books for scholars, and he wrote some pretty good letters. But I guess I didn't have much to say about his philosophy."

"I'm sure that's not true. A philosophy thesis can be a hard one to pitch."

"Not really. I think that's part of the trouble. Some of the thesis ideas I heard were accepted were complete nonsense. I think one was on the relationship between philosophers' beards and their empiricist tendencies."

Father Vincent laughed, and I cringed. The knee-jerk caricature of my own education was becoming dangerously unhealthy. I had even used that joke before, verbatim.

"Anyway, I dropped out after the second meeting with my thesis advisor. It was a nice fall day, and I felt like being somewhere else. I simply needed to get out of the building." This wasn't true. I had agonized over the decision.

"What do you do now?" he asked.

"I do paralegal work. Proofreading. It's a good hourly wage, and lots of Latin. You'd love it." Father Vincent laughed. I smiled at him.

"Where are you from originally?" he asked.

"Singapore," I said.

Just then Laura came over and pointed at me with a half-eaten spring roll.

"Are you trying to get Father Vincent drunk?" she teased.

"Father Vincent is trying to get me drunk," I said. "I hope you know that if Shakespeare were here, he'd be with us, not the tweedy crowd over there. What's going on?"

"Nothing. We're going to go see an Improv group later, OK? My friend Alice is in it. I was just telling some of the others. Father Vincent, would you like to go?"

"I find Improv nights unreliable," he said.

"You see?" I said. "I should have become a priest."

 

***

 

The Improv group was called Slapstick Vernacular. Watching them in a paralyzed daze, I tried to imagine which single word Father Vincent would have used to describe both the name and the performance. I settled on cumbersome. I was imagining Father Vincent's thoughts because my own had become unbearable. For example, I would not have said cumbersome. I would have said fucking awful. While Laura and her hip, enlightened friends giggled and heckled and shouted out topics to the group and tossed sex toys that were used as props around the crowded room, I actually mumbled, "This is fucking awful" under my breath. It's one thing to gripe about academics and Improv groups with a guy like Father Vincent, who had obviously passed through some stage of intense uncertainty and frustration, but it was another thing to be the only person in the room to think that the simulated amateur Jetson-themed porn film being improvised in a back room somewhere off Clark Street was the beginning of the end of my happiness.

At this point in my life, scowling at the cheery, confident faces of the members of Slapstick Vernacular, I had come to develop a deep-seated aversion to anything that was winking or knowing or glib. I couldn't stand people's cleverly named blog titles or the way they said, "Sounds like a band name" or "Sounds like a sex position" when they came across an inadvertently lyrical, faintly technocratic, almost meaningless name of a company or agency or website. I didn't like academics and I didn't like people who satirized academics. I thought the films of Wes Anderson were superficial. I was tired of reading memoirs that were written with the assumption that salvation could be short-circuited by retelling the shattering yet uplifting story of one's childhood, time in the media spotlight, year in an interesting former Soviet nation, or recovery from addiction using the most absurd and mundane details. Objectivity seemed to mean nothing more than not taking yourself too seriously while simultaneously putting yourself at the center of the universe.

When I recognized the familiar bitterness welling up inside of me, I decided to leave. I signaled to Laura that I was going to use the toilet, and I walked out of the bar and turned left, where there were fewer people. I stood at a bus stop until a bus came. I got on and took a seat without thinking.

Heading south, the bus drove past the walk-ups and pooled light of Wrigleyville, where chunky blonde girls wearing Cubs shirts and glitter on their faces walked unsteadily in groups behind beefy men whose faces were flushed with beer, past quiet residential streets where a middle-aged woman was taking a midnight walk with her golden retriever, past grocery stores and graveyards. It didn't seem long before we were close to downtown, where the high rises were sporadically lit up in that inscrutable pattern of commerce and loneliness all cities seem to have. I got off at a stop near the river and stood at the base of the towering, gothic Tribune building, looking across the darkened water of the Chicago River and wondering what to do next. The first thing I did was spit into the river.

I thought vaguely and desperately about going back to Singapore, but the idea of seeing Stephanie made my throat tighten. By now she was probably married to a Hong Kong businessman, living up on the Peak, overlooking the lights of Kowloon and Victoria Harbour and the delicate mist of Southern China. I imagined her with long, pendulant, sapphire earrings, and I pictured her placing them carefully on the bedside table late at night after a gourmet seafood dinner with her husband, an anonymous man fiddling with his cufflinks on the other side of the room. It was this image that finally washed the anger away and made room for tectonic shifts of self-pity. What had I done with my life? Why did I come to Chicago to sit around in seminar rooms reading Heidegger and Richard Rorty? All I really learned was how to be sarcastic, and how to be unhappy.

I reached the conclusion that my education had been a failure. Because my parents (my father, a Chinese-American, was a corporate lawyer, and my mother taught economics at the National University of Singapore) wanted me to attend college in the US, they enrolled me in the Singapore American School at age 15, at which point I completely neglected my study of Chinese. Instead, urged along by various teachers (aging American and Canadian backpackers who had settled down in Singapore to start families and make some real money), I began reading philosophy, without realizing that the intellectual sentiments I was inheriting were outdated 60s re-readings of the Western philosophical cannon. But I had a sharp mind, and my parents encouraged me to befriend the teachers and join the Debate Team and ensure my entrance into an Ivy League college.

But Singapore was an unlikely place to breed such an obsolete intellectual pursuit. I tried to picture myself at age 17, at the Ang Mo Kio library, a ten minute walk from my family's flat, reading Nietzsche. I want to erase the memory entirely. It's too humiliating. When Borders opened on Orchard Road, I would go there on the weekends to read Kierkegaard, Donne, Confucius, Sanskrit poems—whatever piqued my interest at the time—and I would write down excerpts on napkins from The Coffee Bean. But the words that soothed or provoked me then meant nothing to me now, or next to nothing. I couldn't conjure a single surprising thought, and it occurred to me, as I overlooked the river, that it was never salvation or revelation that I was seeking—only surprise. Just a caffeinated hum to pass the time.

Actually, it had nothing to do with the books. It had everything to do with Stephanie, who transferred to the American School from the Chinese Girls School after I had already enrolled. Soon she had the highest GPA, the highest SAT scores, and the respect of all the teachers and administrators; she could also turn heads in the hallway. For a while, we became inseparable. I read book after book of philosophy only so I could talk about them with Stephanie when we went to see movies together or sit at McDonalds and study for exams. I would buy her a sundae or a milkshake and get myself some fries and a coke and we would talk for hours about anything. Philosophy was part of that anything, and that was why it meant something to me. It seemed perfectly natural to talk to a girl about Plato at the Clementi McDonalds, which was near her home, while a primary school student next to us played a hand-held Sega. When she was frustrated or upset or exhausted she would lean her head on my shoulder, and sometimes I would kiss the crown of her head from which her smooth black hair spread and fell across her cheeks.

Stephanie and I were seen as two of the most promising Singaporean students by the ever-growing expatriate community; we were respected for being both smart and "normal" (we held hands sometimes in school and even attended a nightclub together once). I was in love with her. Whether or not she was in love with me was the question that kept life interesting; it kept every daily mishap and disappointment at bay. But when she decided to stay in Singapore for business school, I used that as an excuse to leave. It wasn't my disgust with Singapore's sterile business world, which is what I told people in Chicago to ingratiate myself, and eventually told myself. No, it was the fear, which I couldn't admit to at the time, that she would find out I was weak or small or irritating in some irredeemable way. There was a world beyond the one I had found her in, and I didn't want to live in it.

So I lost her. There would be other men, much smarter than myself, who no doubt had read all of Epictetus at Yale but could also discuss credit derivatives and international shipping lanes. They would know the latest cricket scores from Mumbai as well as the results of televised poker in Vegas. Stories are all the same. We try to make them more interesting for ourselves, but they are all the same. You fall in love. You lose the girl. The moon rises and fades for years over whichever city you end up in with the shattered remnants of your love: Chicago, New York, Istanbul, Berlin, Tokyo, Manila, Paris. Every once in a while you cannot resist the urge to follow your friends' career paths on the Internet, where you can learn everything about them in fifteen minutes. Then you settle down to the lukewarm tragedy of constant regret. If stories are all the same, why does mine seem so unnatural? Why can't I shake the idea that I made a terrible mistake?

While I was standing near the Tribune building, still sulking and watching the water move in mysterious currents below me, my cell phone rang. It was Laura. I didn't answer it. A minute later I received a text message: "Sorry you were bored. My mom is in the hospital. I have to go home tomorrow. Please come over."

Without thinking, I went over. I took the bus, then the El back to Rogers Park. I was feeling sober now and relieved at having reached the terrible bedrock of my thoughts. I read the message again while sitting on the train: there was something sad about the way she didn't abbreviate any of the words. When I got to Laura's place, she threw her arms around me with her fists clenched tight and almost knocked me down.

"Look, I don't really know what to say," she said. "I'm sorry you didn't like the Improv show."

"That's OK," I said. "I just got a little bit sad and had to leave."

"Yeah." She glanced at her phone, a nervous habit. "My mother was threatening to hurt herself again, so they checked her into the hospital. They told me she's safe now, but I have to go see her. I didn't want to be alone tonight. Can you stay with me tonight, please?"

"Sure," I said. Surprisingly, I didn't hesitate.

She looked relieved, and then she started to cry. "I'm so fucking scared," she said. "I'm not even myself. I haven't been myself for a long time."

"Don't worry about that," I said. "Just try to relax."

She sniffled and tugged gently at the collar of my shirt, then buried her face in my chest. I held her and left my mind blank. It felt almost natural.

"Let's watch some TV or something," she said.

We sat on her old futon and watched TV. It was a repeat of The Colbert Report, an episode mocking the Democrats for their recent histrionics and the Republicans for not having a single decent presidential candidate. At another time, Laura would have lectured me about the pathological nature of Republicans, whether I agreed with her or not. But tonight she was silent. She put her head on my shoulder. For once, I knew exactly what to do, which was nothing. She fell asleep. I could smell vodka and mint on her breath. I watched the show until it ended, a melancholy blur of TV laughter and credits, and then I carried Laura into her bedroom and tucked her into bed. She woke up and looked at me sleepily.

"You can sleep on the bed," she said.

"No, I'll sleep on the futon. It's fine."

"OK. Hey, I forgot to tell you. Happy Birthday."

"Thanks. Goodnight. Your mother will be fine."

"We'll all be fine," she said with her eyes already closed.

For some reason I kissed her on the forehead, and then I went back into her living room and switched off the TV. Then I laid down on the futon and stared at her ceiling. I realized that Stephanie would not have married some soulless businessman with glistening cufflinks. Whoever she married would be a pretty nice guy. Or maybe she wouldn't get married. I remembered that she once told me she didn't believe in love. We were at a movie theater at the Bishan Mall in Singapore, sitting through the previews, and she was explaining to me how the advertising and film industries had reinvented the modern concept of love. This is kind of a trite observation in retrospect, but when you are a pedantic seventeen-year-old and a beautiful girl is deconstructing romance before your eyes, and then lets you kiss her, you feel invincible. Stories are not all the same.

Lying on the futon, I felt a strange calm come over me. I began to imagine what it would be like to be in a hospital room in Southern Illinois, waiting for your daughter to come see you as the night staff shuffles past your door, still faintly wishing to die, maybe wanting to die even more because of the shame. I decided I wouldn't try to date Laura anymore, but I would be her friend. I realized how few close friends I had, having alienated most of them with my sordid pride. The thought of having a real one put me at ease. When I rolled over to sleep I discovered I still had Father Vincent's business card in my pocket, and the idea of a priest with a business card was suddenly so funny that I would have laughed out loud if there hadn't been someone asleep in the next room.

 
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2017
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.