Short Story by Maggie Tiojakin (The Jakarta Post, February 11, 2019)
THERE were moments in what Garin called his American life when he felt the urge to stop himself, while walking down some familiar street, caught in the midst of a moving crowd, staring at faces, places, as if he were lost, or otherwise found. Then, with both hands tucked in his pockets, he took a deep breath and exhaled quietly the seconds brewing within him, racing — always racing — against the rapid surge of a city, a whole nation, until it became unrecognizable, and he found himself yearning to be home.
Home, he recited the word in his head: this morning, when he tossed a box of fruit loops into a ceramic bowl he purchased not a month ago at Crate & Barrel; when he stood on a platform waiting for the train at Kenmore Square; or when he sat in the subway car, going north toward Gov’t Center, next to a woman who smelled of corn oil, who was eating fried rice out of a plastic container; and again, when he switched lines at Park Street.
Not too long ago, a call came through marked as a private number, and as usual Garin let his voicemail pick it up.
The message, when Garin got around to checking his voice mailbox, was from an old friend, Amulet. She was going to be in town this coming weekend for a quick visit. She had news to tell him. That, and The Nutcracker was going to be playing at the Boston Opera House. It would be nice, she said in a hyperactive voice — as if she was in a hurry toward some place exciting — if they could grab a drink together. Just the two of them, after the show.
It was a week before Christmas, Garin had been waiting for snowflakes to sprinkle down from the sky. Back when he still lived in a tropical country, he had thought every Christmas in America was a white Christmas. He had been wrong: some Christmases are dull and gray with a gloomy air wrapped around them, though some others are postcard-perfect.
Garin had seen the Nutcracker before, in his first year away from home, on television, aired live from the Kennedy Center, Mikhail Baryshnikov taking center stage. It was impressive, but Garin didn’t understand ballet. And he’d never made the effort to understand it. Not really.
“Aw, my Lord!” Amulet shrieked at the sight of him running up to her, moments after he’d gotten out of the subway station in Downtown Crossing, then strutting past a long line of late-comers who were hoping to buy discounted tickets at the Opera House. Garin wore three layers of clothing, yet he was still shivering. “Look at you, guy!”
“Hey gorgeous,” Garin said. It was all he could say. He kissed her absent-mindedly on the lips, which was how he remembered to greet her. They hugged briefly, amicably, as old friends would. Her cheek flushed when it touched his. “Have you been waiting long?”
“Yes, I have,” she said without taking her eyes off Garin. “You owe me a drink.”
“Sure.” He mustered a smile.
Finding Garin’s freezing hand, she led him into the lobby area — where they ordered two glasses of Shiraz at the concession stand and purchased a copy of the show’s program to be shared inside the theatre.
Joining the dozens who milled around in the lobby, the two secured a corner spot by the banisters, half hidden by the grand staircase. The room was flooded with orange lighting that spilled from the chandeliers above. Garin hadn’t faced her in so long he forgot what it was like to be in the presence of her breath, as he made the painstaking effort to talk over loud chatter emanating from the crowd.
“So, what was it you wanted to tell me?” he asked, taking a small sip of the Shiraz.
Amulet gestured with her hand and mouthed the words: “I can’t hear you.”
She wore a tight, black dress underneath a heavy overcoat, and through the unbuttoned top Garin could see the fullness of her cleavage.
Since they’d seen each other last, she had cut her hair off to shoulder length, had had it curled and dyed into a shade of burgundy with pink highlights. She had also lost a considerable amount of weight, which struck him as odd, because he had always thought the extra weight was what made her more human, less like every other woman who aspired to be thin and frail. The thought of touching her frightened him now, thinking she would break easily.
Garin leaned forward so his lips touched her earlobe. “Are you getting married?”
A smile broke through her countenance, and she pulled away from him. “Oh, right: go there,” she said.
“Why not go there?”
“Don’t be a prick, all right? Just for tonight, please?”
“That mouth,” he said, laughing. “I’ve missed you, Ames.”
He had thought of marrying her once, back when the choice was his to make, and when the concept of America was still as strange to him as that of the rest of the world, the peoples and places that made up the vast universe he lived in.
“Then what’s the news?” Garin continued to prod her.
“Not now,” said Amulet, finishing her drink and handing her glass to a waiter who carried a tray full of empty stemware. “After the show.”
“It’s not important,” she said. “But I wanted you to know about it nonetheless.”
“I’m dying here.”
“You won a lottery?”
“Did I get it right?”
“Did you hit your head on the way here?”
“Please, you’re nowhere near sorry.”
They laughed. This was their rhythm. It felt familiar to him.
“Fine, I give up,” he said.
Theirs was the first row called into the theater to assume their seats. At the door, their tickets were checked by an usher. Amulet walked behind Garin toward their seats. She forgot to check her coat at the door, so he said he’d hold on to it.
On stage, it’s Christmas Eve, and the Stahlbaums are gathered together in a festive mood. When a mysterious man in a long, dark overcoat enters bearing gifts, the children are joined in an elaborate and joyful dance, with the exception of the girl in the white dress, Clara, who pouts disappointedly at the mysterious man for having forgotten her present. The man produces a Nutcracker toy from under his coat, hands it over to Clara, and pats her on the head before joining the adults. The party ends not long after Clara receives her new toy, with Clara sleeping under the Christmas tree, holding the Nutcracker close to her chest.
Next to him, Amulet was far away: her gaze settled on the crowd of men, women, little children in tights making merry over a few dance numbers — her mind was elsewhere, unreachable to him. Her hand, leaning against the armrest, turned colors as the stage flooded with lights of varying bright shades. Garin wanted to touch that hand, just to see what would happen if he did.
When they met a few years ago, Amulet was 26. It wasn’t her real name. She wasn’t skinny like most strippers Garin had previously gone to watch at strip clubs; she was curvy, her love handles had jiggled some when she had sat on him the previous night. Perhaps that was what had attracted him to her in the first place: her ordinariness, her flawed dispositions. So, despite her earlier warnings, he continued to steal from her a few intimate kisses.
The first two months of his relationship with Amulet were mostly spent in bed, where they did almost everything naked — reading, eating, drinking, watching TV, making love — and it wasn’t until the third month when their activities began to have some semblance with those of normal couples the world over: dining in restaurants, going to the movies, grocery shopping, watching live music at the neighborhood bar, or sometimes lying in bed and not having sex, designing the future, picking the past apart.
Amulet was not the first woman Garin had dated in America: there had been others, women who caught his attention and made him believe in everything that was right with the world, and who had offered him bits and pieces of their home. When, one by one, they left him, he didn’t forsake the idea of love — or happiness, for that matter, because he knew someone, anyone, else would come along.
What he had with Amulet, while it lasted, was a good thing — Garin was sure of that — and how it came to an end was unfortunate.
They stayed in touch after the break-up: at first, out of habit; and then out of courtesy. The frequency of their efforts to keep each other updated gradually diminished as time went by, until the very substance of their relationship was reduced to birthday messages left on answering machines or one-liner notes sent via email. They weren’t the kind of couple who relied on each other’s strength like parasites: their need was limited, proportionate. Maybe that was their problem.
Near the end of the first Act, Garin stirred in his seat while the Nutcracker transforms into a human Prince. Together with Clara, the Prince leaps into a world of dancing fairies and sleigh-rides, of singing taffies and laughing sugar plums. It was quite a sight to behold. Then, suddenly, Garin felt OK, being here, where he was, where everybody was. And when a wave of fear came at him, arresting him, he didn’t stop to question it, or to breathe more air — for he knew he was home.
Seconds before the curtain fell, Garin took Amulet’s hand in his. He no longer cared what Amulet had come all this way to tell him, and he was not going to ask. For now, they watched with amusement as the Prince rides off to fairyland with the girl in white: away from the Christmas tree. ***
This is a short excerpt of a longer story, titled “This American Life” previously published by Eastown Fiction. Maggie Tiojakin is an almost-writer who spends most of her time thinking whether she can write, at all.