Summer is gone. I'm moving on. I'm beginning to care about things again. But I'm not sure that is good. You see, I had a wonderful summer. A little voice kept whispering, "I don't care anymore, I don't care." I loved that little voice. I had not heard it for so long. It was wonderful to stop and feel that nothing really mattered that much. Or let me put it another way: that few things mattered, very few. Breathing, a smile, the fog as it moved in over the bay, a sunrise, a sunset, red wine on an empty stomach ... Yes, those things mattered but little else.
The erosion of my cares came about when I went to visit a friend at the hospital. I had not seen her in six months. I thought she had gone back to China. Then someone told me she was in the hospital. She was on a machine that was pumping blood and water out of her lungs. It sounded like the pump for a fish aquarium. She looked like a child in her bed at the hospital. A very sick child in a flannel nightie that said SF General Hospital. In the white walled room on the fifth floor of the concrete-slab hospital, she looked like someone who had been exiled from real life. I thought of Jean-Paul Sartre and his play "No Exit."
"Hey," she said when I came into her room. She was surprised to see me. She smiled, then her dark eyes filled with tears.
She had been feeling tired for about six months and had had trouble breathing but didn't go to a doctor. She had no money. Then she collapsed and someone took her to the hospital. It was now "late in the game" and the game had turned nasty. In effect, she had played all her cards and the dealer was dealing her no new ones.
"Hey, yourself," I said and sat down close to the bed. We stared at each other for awhile. Then she said:
"Life not a choice."
Her doctors had told her that her case was advanced and that all they could do was delay things, maybe a few months, maybe a year or so. But it did not leave her much hope. Not the kind of hope that "well" people have about their future. She could take nothing for granted. As far as she knew, her life could come to an end tomorrow. For awhile that all seemed depressing. Then I think she realized, as I did, something wonderful about the situation. She would have to live each day as if it were her last. There was no choice. She would have to give up the future and make each day count. Only her deeper feelings would matter.
I don't know why, but at this point my life connected up with hers. I felt like I too had to make each day count and quit dreaming stupid things. I could dream the good stuff. That was my lifeblood. But the bad stuff, the meaningless stuff, the utter nonsense that goes through most of our minds day after day, that would have to go. And it did. And good riddance to it.
We watched the sun rise and the sun set as if each time it was a totally unique experience. As is? In fact it was. And when we ate, we really tasted what went into our mouthsa grape, a strawberry, some ice creamas if we had never tasted it before.
When we both got used to the idea that each moment counted, it made us smile all over. We were forced to live in the present. Anything that mattered was going to happen right now, and we were going to have to notice it or create it and appreciate it or condemn it for what it really was. But I must say, before this transformation took place, I found myself in a moodone in which I questioned everything but had no answers. It reminded me of earlier times in my life.
In high school and college I got into moods like this when schools was out for the summer and I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands. I went from total fullness to total emptiness. It took only a couple of days for the academic dross to drift away and the fundamental issues to appear before me. I had no answers, but at least I could contemplate something real, something with meaning.
Upon the second or third day out of school and after a late breakfast, I would find myself staring at the smudges on my empty plate. And I would begin to stare at my mother as if I did not know her. When my father came home from work, I would retire into my bedroom to read rather than listen to the meaningless details of his day at work. I would read half the night, sneaking outside for a cigarette in the cool fresh air, staring at the moon or stars and feeling wonderfully alive. When I discovered Albert Camus and "The Myth of Sisyphus," I turned my life into a complete system of rejecting the meaningless.
There was a problem, however. I had not lived long enough to have any real feeling for what I was rejecting. I did not know what it took to support oneself in this world. And I had not strived at anything long enough to know the pain of failure. I had a system but it was one based on no real experience. It was a borrowed system. It took a certain amount of livingjobs that were chores, friends who were fiends, girlfiends, ex-girlfiends; plans that were blueprints for failure, assorted fiascos, and strange, inexplicable successes; a mugging by the IRS and a beating by a bullyuntil I had a real feeling for the world and what I believed in and didn't.
But now we were taking each day for what it had to offer. We were not taking life apart and questioning everything; we were living. Each day was an "existential" experience but also a profoundly human experience. The "absurd" was only our inability to grasp the basics.
As I said in the beginning, I'm starting to care again. But I'm being very selective. Don't expect me to care about your your mortgage, your marriage, or problems with your mistress. Cela n'a pas importance.
"Louis, what you doing, honey?"
"Working," I say. "I'm in front of the computer trying to think of something that matters."
"Uh, uh, uh, forget that," she says. "You want come down see me?"
"Uh, I don't know." I say. "Someone might see me."
I really didn't care if "someone" saw me; I didn't want certain people to see me. I have friends who work in the bar across the street form Ui Z's "place of employment," and I did not want to have to explain to them that I was just going to visit my friend at her job because she was bored and there weren't any customers.
"Back door," said Ui Z. "I let you in back door on O'Farrell."
Well, now this was sounding interesting. I didn't know there was a back door. I like back doors. I thought for a moment and said, "Okay, give me ten minutes. I call you on the cell when I'm there."
Smiling impishly, she opened the wrought-iron door and we descended the narrow staircase to the basement. Turning right at the bottom of the stairs, we came to a kind of "back porch" with a clothes washer that was churning away. There was a pile of sheets in a clothes basket below it. Then we stepped into a cozy kitchen with a new range and freshly painted yellow walls. Ui Z had mentioned remodelling but I had forgotten about it. There was a steaming pot of vegetables on the stove that warmed the kitchen, and the smell of roat pork came from the oven. A big pot of tea sat on the table at the far end of the kitchen. I think there was a cookie jar too, but I may be imagining that.
I wanted to sit down, talk awhile, but Ui Z took my hand and dragged me out of the kitchen, down a hall, and into a big room with mirrors and pink walls and red-upholstered benches and chandeliers.
"Hey, Mai, this my friend Louis. He come see me."
Mai was a pretty girl with black tresses, silver speckles around her eyes, and a gauzy, loose-fitting garment. She was partially dozing on one of the benches. She looked up at me and smiled.
Ui Z introduced me to the other girls, who were all very relaxedtwo were lying down on another benchas there were no customers. High-heel glass-slipper shoes lay in pairs on the carpet. It brought back warm memories of my sister Catrine and the slumber parties she used to have.
"Wanna see room?" asked Ui Z.
"Sure, why not."
We walked down a long hall, passing a lot of closed doors with numbers, until we came to the end of the hall. Ui Z opened the door of number 10 and we went in.
"Not bad, huh?" she said. "Look shower. Brand new. Very clean."
I was surprised. The room was neat and tidy and the shower was big with shiny new fixtures.
Ui Z opened the door of the shower.
"See, very nice, huh?" she said.
I stared at the new big faucet. There was a plastic bottle of soap in a rack. It was a big bottle with a pump. It looked like it hadn't been used yet. There were no gooey messes dripping down the sides.
"You take nice warm shower. I bring you tea," said Ui Z.
"Uh, I don't know," I said.
"You so tired looking," said Ui Z. "Think too much. I make you feel better."
"Feel okay now," I said, imitating her speech.
"No. You tired, honey," she said, her voice now low and soothing. "Always try think something important. What kind of life that?"
"A good life?" I asked.
"No, not good life," she said sternly. "Forget important thing." She was speaking more rapidly now. She sounded almost angry. This was a side of Ui Z I had not seen before. I think I was getting a scolding. Then she looked at me and her eyes were soft and caring again.
"I make you feel all better. Then you go back, think important thing. Plenty time for important thing. Important thing never go way. You want tea?"
"Sure, that sounds nice."
"I be back minute. You take shower."
I stared at the shiny faucet. Just like at home. I watched it get all steamy as my muscles relaxed under the warm water. I am zai jia.