by Catherine Sinow
I don’t know you anymore, and I will never know your last name. I don’t know where you are, you don’t work at UPaint anymore. Some other employee told me so. So I am going to write this, and print it out a few times. Maybe staple some together and put them on park benches and under windshield wipers so at least other people can know how you factored into my life. They will read it, but it’s not for them. You won’t read it, but it’s for you.
Sometimes that summer when you and I knew one another, I sat in my room for hours and refused to think. Sometimes I felt pathetic sadness incapacitate me. Once it was triggered by an offer on a Popsicle box that said you could get a “free mp3 download” if you went online and entered a code. This offer was presented in a neon green starburst. Another time was when my mom got my brother Angry Birds pencil toppers for his birthday and he screamed. Screaming happened every time my brother experienced a mass gift-giving event.
“I don’t like Angry Birds!” was what he yelled this time.
“I thought everyone liked Angry Birds,” said my mom.
“It’s only for iPhones. I might play it if you gave me an iPhone.” My mom tried to hide her sadness and frustration again. The rubber pencil toppers are in the one drawer in my kitchen that nobody opens. I might stuff them in a beer bottle and throw them away sometime.
I’d like to think you’d understand if I ever told you these kinds of things.
Mitsuko was my best friend that summer. You might have seen her do mugs with me at UPaint a few times. She wore cat eye makeup and bought the shortest tank tops with the thinnest fabric she could find. She was intensely jealous of her identical twin Haruko and her boyfriend Mikey, since the two were super in love. Haruko was the one who looked like Mitsuko but wore more neon rave gear. Mikey was the tall one with a flowing head of red hair and a lot of moles. The two were always making out in public, if you happen to remember one but the other. Once he shot an off-duty police officer with a BB gun in a park, then sped off on a bicycle. Whether the bike was stolen or not, the details are lost to time. He got convicted of a felony and spent a few months in juvie (I think there was some sort of plea bargain involved), where phone calls were $15 a minute. Haruko spent the money and waited patiently, then reunited with Mikey despite the restraining order that the mom filed. Now he’s somehow on this reality show about people in 12-step programs, I watched it once and the people always have fights. They bleep out half the things anyone says while royalty free g-funk backing tracks play in the background. I’m dead serious.
The three (Mitsuko, Haruko, Mikey) of them always came out of a store carrying something they had stolen. Mitsuko would fish out a candy bar from her pocket as we walked down Cross Avenue, then nibble the chocolate inside. I tried to let it go. I even tried to support her to cool down my built-in hatred of thieves. I would say “It’s a dog eat dog world” or some other halfhearted cliché.
Fun fact: I am one of the only people in the world who can tell Mitsuko and Haruko apart.
I was working at Ama Dablam Imports around that time, often mopping the floor after closing. Mitsuko never visited me there, despite my reminders. One song that played on the system had a bumpin’ swing beat and the synths sounded purple. It stopped in the middle so I could take a deep breath and hear nothing but the wet mop dragging across the floor. Then the song started again.
Googling the lyrics and Shazam proved useless in finding this song. Theory: it was made by a guy who wanted to get his song out in the world and he knew someone who worked for Ama. And that’s the only place it was ever played.
“You changed my life/right on cue/that was the day/that I met you.”
Sue me. Someone sue me so I can find out what song that is.
Deborah, another sales associate, said that I couldn’t put my own CDs into the Ama sound system. She had tried one morning before opening with a Linda Ronstadt. Didn’t play. One quarter when a new Ama CD arrived, she tried to put last quarter’s disc in her car player. It didn’t work. Ama Dablam has its own exclusive CD-stereo family, just like North Korea has its own internet.
“Ama!” you said when I told you I worked there. “My mom always used to take me there. They had these beautiful handmade wooden toys.” You loved toys. You said all your old photography projects featured toys. And that sometimes you sold the toys for money, biking to weird places in San Diego with a garbage bag full of dinosaur action figures.
The person who brought me to UPaint in the first place was someone named Julian. I prayed you wouldn’t remember him.
You told me you were 29, and only getting older.
Haruko’s favorite place to shoplift was the H&M jewelry section. The easiest place to steal from, she said, was Abercrombie and Fitch. She could run out of the store and the buzzer would sound, but the dance music would be so loud that the buzzer couldn’t drown it. I imagined a book called “A Smart Girl’s Guide to Shoplifting,” designed with all the pink-bordered fervor of an American Girl book. It would ride on the simple excuse that “this economy doesn’t always let you get what you want these days. Take the frugal route! You go gal!” I figured it could be sold in Urban Outfitters.
I had it bad for someone named Asad. Ever since my senior year of high school. He never talked but always hung around my group in ROP Animation, saying something wildly funny in his monotone every 30-70 minutes. I became a little fascinated when I found his Tumblr dedicated to stupid bumper stickers. I grabbed his iPod once and he had bands I had never heard of that he said were a genre of music called “C86.”
I forget what ROP stands for.
For about half a year the only things I consistently looked forward to were sleeping and seeing Asad every day. It was like my mind had hands, and one was secretly clutching onto Asad like a little stone. I went to two weddings in other states, and I yelled his name off several different balconies. After graduating, I was in the shower when I realized I could just message him on Facebook and try to be friends. There was nothing stopping me. NOTHING. So I messaged him and he was receptive. So we typed long messages for two years, and never hung out. We were those kinds of friends. After Julian and I broke up, I asked him to hang out for real since I was in a post-breakup life change phase, I took photos of him because that’s a good social lubricant. And when I sent them his way, the colorful shots where he laid on a bed of pine needles with a red zip-up jacket, he thanked me. He loved them, he thanked me warmly. And he asked me to spend time with him.
So I was working the typical social air hockey game: I had asked him. Then he had asked me. Then I was planning to ask him again. And then he surprised me, threw off my whole course of action. He wanted to kick it, and with Mitsuko too. (He knew Mitsuko not because of me, but because Mikey had sold cocaine to him. You know, the usual.)
Maybe the three of us could be special friends, I thought. Maybe this was “the good summer.”
We went to Mira Mesa because they wanted to loiter. Mira Mesa is this inland settlement where San Diego stops pretending to be California Dreamin’. We hung out at this big shopping center with everything you could ever want and the mountains. Barnes and Noble, IMAX, Petco, Target. A place where you could run away to and hide in the big safe wonders of commercialism.
We ate at Panda Express. Or was it Pick Up Stix? Both are amazing. Salty, gooey orange chicken and noodles. That word still makes me fall over. Noodles. Ditto with “orange sauce.” Then we traversed the oceanic parking lot to Barnes and Noble, the most comforting place I can think of. I know everyone likes tiny “charming” bookshops, but there’s nothing like a two story Barnes and Noble, escalators and all.
Mitsuko: The Nook is just everywhere here.
Me: They NEED you to have a Nook.
Mitsuko: What if a robot arm like, secretly snuck a Nook into your shopping pile before you were about to check out?
Me: Shopping carts would have a secret Nook hidden in them that would release itself into the pile once other books were put on top of it.
Mitsuko: But how good is that, really? Look, we don’t even have any carts. We’ll never get Nooks now.
Me: Yeah, how are we supposed to have Nooks? This is something the marketing team needs to consider.
Asad: That guy from the cardboard cutout would probably “approach” you in the bathroom.
Me: Then you’d say no. You’d go out to your car and fumble for your keys and you couldn’t find them.
Asad: The guy would pop up from behind the other side of your car dangling your keys. He would be like, “Looking for these?”
We stood in my bathroom and poured vodka into empty plastic water bottles. It was my first real drink and I sucked it straight to impress them. They were impressed. We went in my living room and put on Kiki’s Delivery Service which was just a prop so we could drink more. We all huddled together on my couch in front of the big plasma TV and in our three-way body tangle, Asad’s head found his way to mine and his lips sought me. I pushed him off, whispering we could kiss when we were alone. But I felt as if I were in ethereal heaven. It was finally happening. I wasn’t thinking about the future in that moment. There was no future. Just a dream where I would feel the love of Asad, it would fulfill me in every corner of my being, and then I would die.
Mitsuko disappeared down the hall to the bathroom, Asad finally pounced on me in the dark and we kissed, his mouth tasted like vodka. We heard her coming back, Asad and I peeled ourselves apart, and we all watched Kiki as if nothing had happened. My dream was coming true, I could deal with pretending everything was normal for a little bit. I went upstairs to get my laptop so we could all look at /r/cringepics (I don’t read that anymore, I promise). I came down to find his mouth on hers. Plain as day, like a big joke, illuminated dimly by my living room lights. It made too much sense for me to be angry. I picked up the remote and shut off the TV. “Get out,” I said. “GET OUT.” Then I ran down the long hallway, past the laundry and the game room, to hide in the guest bed. Mitsuko came in and told me she was sorry with wide eyes that I could see even in the dark. She asked if there was anything she could do to make me feel better. I just said, leave.
I stayed on the guest bed in the dark and wrote an email draft with the subject line “I’m drunk.” I blamed myself for feeling bad, it was my fault for expecting him to kiss only me. What a dumb expectation, huh?
I sent the email to nobody. The next morning I was hung over. I always thought hangovers would make my head hurt, but this one just made me feel feverish. I threw up in the shower.
It’s a known rule of society, maybe the universe: bookstores are supposed to be safe. Books are established symbols of comfort and solitude, and when thousands of them are around you, there’s no way you’re not in a sacred place. Asad could have kissed Mitsuko any other day. He could have even just waited until after midnight. You don’t two-time someone just after being in a bookstore.
YOU JUST DON'T.
For a while I wanted to steal Asad back, or at least get a few more kisses. This was until Mitsuko and I sat in the iron chairs in her small, weedy backyard. Nearby was an unused grill covered by a slimy blue tarp. I realized that she wanted him too, and I didn’t want to put up a fight. So I suggested we both avoid Asad, that kisses would only cause drama.
Mitsuko’s lips froze up, and then she dated Asad anyway. She whined about his clinginess and how he consistently took an hour to jizz. I still ached for these things. I thought I would love and care for Asad just the way he was.
But as the summer dragged on, I slowly realized that I didn’t love the way he was. Anyone I loved who could love Mitsuko was not who I thought they were.
I couldn’t help but returning to a couch. A couch in a corner of the Arabian Jewel in a place separated with a half-wall from the main dance pit, floors black and vinyl with scuff marks everywhere. Julian and I stumbled around and then I noticed its holy grail as other disenchanted people rolled off, people with jet black hair, generic punk styles like undercuts. The couch was three cushions across and suede and purple, the color and texture matted out by grease and spotted by dark stains that could have been gum, cigarette burns, spilled drinks. But the purpleness of the couch was unfettered in the end, shining through all the wear. Purple has a way of staying purple in its essence.
The couch was floppy from thousands of people sprawling their weight on it, we sat down and pet each other’s chests until he guided me down until we were lying. I felt the excitement of a totally new body that tremored in different ways and had different temperatures than all the other ones I had been with. We kissed and these new feelings made me shake. They mixed like bleeding colors, potent as the music blared through the fuzzy big speakers, lacking all the precision of headphones. Someone threw a rolled up ball of paper at us, light enough to have me think it was a McDonald’s wrapper. Felt judged but focused on his face to get them away. Same when someone said “get a room.” Soon the onlookers meant nothing to me, the affection and the criticism surrounding it were just two facets of this mecca of counterculture that concerts welcome. I kissed his face in this loud darkness, and the liquor in my blood that he bought me (I wore my fingerless gloves so nobody saw my Xs) gave me a warm and stupid feeling. It buzzed lightly around my edges, making every kiss an injection of tickles.
He and I used to play games where we pretended to be a cute old couple. He lost his marbles one day and I ran down the stairs of his apartment complex crying, leaving all our playtimes choking to death in the sunlight. A carefully built fantasy world vaporized in less than the time it would take you to say “Fuck my stupid fucking life.”
What was my year-long relationship for anyway? I wanted to give it a shot. I thought it would be a logical growth, from tonguing around to a deep adult connection. It ended up being for nothing. I might have learned some lessons about what kind of people to avoid, but afterward I spent all my free time feeling shitty. Sometimes I made myself leave my house so I could feel like I’d done something. Anything. Sometimes I went and did a tile at UPaint just to chat you up, and sometimes I ended up people watching for hours, in the bars I wandered with my fake ID. I wanted to run up to those masculine beer-stenched idiots with pool cues and scream,
“Don’t you know that all your woman-searching is all for making embryos? That you are all FROM embryos, and soon you will be worm food?”
Here is a list of other things I did that summer
(O) Joined MeetUp under a fake name, then never did anything on it.
(O) Spent hours choosing specials to record on the DVR. Topics like gazelles, the history of bread, Alcatraz. Didn’t get more than ten minutes into any of them. My hobbies include planning to watch TV, I should put on my OKCupid profile.
(O) Tried to get the contact info of a barista at a Peet’s at Heritage Mall. I was stalking him because once he wrote some names of classical musicians for me on a napkin. Now that Julian was out of the picture, I rushed back, buying a lot of iced tea (I like tea more than coffee) and taking notes on what days of the week he worked behind the counter. Andreas. He gave me his name on a coffee cup and told me to add him on Facebook. I tried to show him to Mitsuko on her laptop and he didn’t come up. I became fearful that he had dead-ended me, and she gave me a worried look, agreeing with her eyes. After watching Waking Life with her for the five thousandth time while secretly thinking of Andreas, I ripped off the metaphorical band-aid and walked home. My stomach was in knots the whole way. I helped a guy climb over the Jehovah’s Witness church parking lot fence and he told me about how he loved God. I found an olive green beanie on the ground that I later washed and wore repeatedly. At home, as the sun set, I searched so hard and desperately online that I began to feel like an idiot. No dice. So I formulated detailed plans to go to the cafe at irregular intervals. I called the café on a protected number and asked when they closed. In person I asked a blonde employee when Andreas worked and she said, “Tomorrow!” I came back the next day and only that blonde employee was there. She looked at me with knowing eyes. I had just bought pants at H&M. I owned them for another year until they ripped in the crotch. I called them my Andreas pants. I started to learn the appearances and work times of other people who worked in the café and I gave them nicknames. Blondola. Hammer. Uranium. They weren’t supposed to make sense. One day after giving up, I went to the coffee shop after buying a new septum ring at Claire’s (I know that store is gross, but I didn’t want to give Hot Topic my money). I really, genuinely needed an iced tea that evening. Andreas was there, alone, with food machines quietly whirring behind him. I told him I couldn’t find him on Facebook and he gave me his email. I sent him a friendly hello, knowing nothing would come of it. So I deleted the email from my sent box, and then from my email trash can. Can you guess what happened next? You’re right. Nothing. If he had just given me a clearer answer the first time, I wouldn’t have had to go back in the first place. Thanks a lot, Andreas.
(O) Found a hike on Yelp that was 35 miles away. I hiked it and talked to some rock climbers. It was okay. I drove back.
(O) Cried during opening at work with a vacuum strapped to my back. Cried while riding my bike at dusk and listening to Spiritualized. Spiritualized is all about being a dramatic little bitch and thinking you want to be dead, but really staying alive so you romanticize it. But there’s some legitimacy to it since while you listen, you enter something like a temporary death. You pretend and pretend you’re gone, and you really get a chance to feel some peace.
(O) Followed Mitsuko and Asad on their regular trips to Cross Avenue. Mitsuko had no working air conditioner in her car because Mikey crashed it once. I could never see the stars on that street, Cross. I could see the street lamps but I kept my gaze on the neon and the smoke. There were so many restaurants--three sushi bars, Indian, Thai, Peruvian. Multiple places that definitely had Taco Tuesday, along with heat lamp decks and liter margaritas. One night Mitsuko, Haruko, and their boyfriends went for Chipotle despite the world of cuisine in front of them and I obliged, again. Mitsuko and Haruko were passionate about Chipotle. They drew from their preset recipes while ordering. Haruko had hers memorized, and Mitsuko had them written down in her phone. After all the rice and beans we resumed the walk along Cross again. The most sacred rite of our teen and young adult years, second to burning through bowls in rooms filled with candles. Mikey went in a tattoo shop titled “Tattoo” in easily recognizable tattoo font. The lobby had red vinyl booths and pine floors. He looked at the book (which revealed the shop had a name longer than “Tattoo”), considered a tangly tree design, said thank you, and left. There was a florist on the corner, we wandered in a sex shop and how in the world could a sex shop be so dull, I wondered. There was lights-out spa with tubes in the windows filled with water, flowers floating inside like womb babies. Mammalian flowers. We went in a bong shop. “These are gorgeous bongs,” I mumbled to myself. The bearded clerk in a black collared shirt said, “No, they’re called WATER PIPES.” I took a photo of them and the clerk told me to delete it. I flipped my camera over and there was that blackness, the absence of a screen. I remembered when my great uncle first gave me his film camera and I marveled at the nothingness on the back. That mere wrist flip, that showing the clerk the back of my camera was as good as spitting in his face.
(O) Occupied my mom’s room with my fat ass and watched Breaking Bad on her huge TV, lying on the bed and eating bags of healthy unbuttered popcorn. When I finished the series, I just watched it again. The episode “Fly” is so wonderfully better the second time.
(O) Told Mitsuko and Asad to drive to me while they were on LSD. I was hoping they would crash. I’m an attempted murderer. I confess.
They threw a party called Ushibafest. That was their last name, Ushiba. The dad was white, the mom Japanese, and the dad had taken off before his last name could be etched on the birth certificates. The mom was workin’ the ER that night, and the Ushibas lived in the bottom half of a duplex. I went to the party early because I had nothing else to do. Mikey had a bar set up at the counter with a whiteboard hanging overhead, detailing all the liquor stashed under the sink. Kind of appropriate because I always thought liquor tasted like drain cleaner. The whiteboard read:
Vodka! Pinnacle (cotton candy). Skyy (dragonfruit). Smirnoff (green apple). Smirnoff (raspberry). Smirnoff (marshmallow). UV (blue!!!).
Rum! Malibu. Malibu (mango). King’s Bay. Caliche.
Other! Jagermeister. Baileys. MD (20/20).
Beer… Great White. Julian (Hard cider).
Other drinks ---> Coffee. Water. Lemonade. Juice.
Gabbiano is one of the most annoying words/names I have ever heard. Plus I think their bottles are about $13, anyway.
Smirnoff was the kind of vodka we drank when Asad two-timed me. Now Mikey poured it for the small early evening crowd and worked them like nobody’s business. He even poured the liquor into solo cups balancing on his head. Just what you would expect from someone who drives better drunk, huh?
On the coffee table by the fireplace was a hookah with a pink glass base. It had gold emblems in it and I thought it was pretty. I spent 20 minutes adjusting the ISO on my camera and trying to get a perfect photo. Mitsuko, Asad, Haruko and Mikey sat on the floor in a diamond formation and did helium balloons. They inhaled and talked like chipmunks for one breath. This was real, I learned for the first time that day. I always thought it was some kind of slapstick Wile E. Coyote thing.
I retreated to Mitsuko’s room to pore over the photos, and then Mitsuko came in and sat on the starry pink bedsheets with me.
“I think you should leave.”
“Why?” I said. Here it was. I was doomed. I’ve always been doomed to hinge onto shitty people instead of blocking their phone numbers and disappear into the darkness. Now the consequences were descending upon me.
“Asad took E. It’s his first time and he doesn’t want you here ruining it for him.”
“But why would I ruin it for him? Doesn’t ecstasy just make you in love with everything?”
“You’ve been giving him bad vibes.”
“Since we got together.” She was having a hard time saying this. Her presence was thin. But it was her party, she could turn around and shove it on me any second.
“What? Are you kidding me?” I was trying not to cry now.
“Look, I think it’s best if you just leave.”
I told her I was mortified, and that I couldn’t get out of bed. I kept saying I wouldn’t. I sounded like I was a cinderblock. Human cinderblock. She went out and came back in.
“Please leave,” she said.
The hatred formed a lump in my throat, and I said this through clenched teeth: “I’ve never wanted to beat someone up so much in my entire life.” She left.
Sometimes I wonder about what your last name is. It could be literally anything European. Long and Russian, French and hard to pronounce, maybe even some Spanish name with heritage diluted through a few generations of whitewashing. Maybe your parents are Asian, you’re adopted, and your last name is Yang. Your last name could even be Smith. Statistically, it’s most likely “Smith.”
You are a corrupted file in my mind. A glaring and bright memory, but I don’t know your middle name, birthday, contact information, what city you live in. Nothing. I forget your eye color, too. These things don’t keep me up at night anymore, but here I am, wondering them on paper, maybe for the last time.
After I threatened to beat Mitsuko to a pulp, random other girls came in her room for some reason. They asked me why I was curling on the bed and tearing up. “It’s nothing,” I said.
“Didn’t you tell Mitsuko you wanted to beat her up or something?” said one. I thought that this would be such a wonderful chance to stop time. I’ve had a fantasy since I was a kid that I could stop time for two collective hours per month. If this were real, I would have used it then. I would have run out the door past all the unmoving people. But there I stayed and I fantasized about running out the door in Ms. Ushiba’s bedroom. I knew that door wouldn’t work since it had been stuck on its track going on three years. The only way out of the house was through the storm of people.
“Come on,” said Selina. She was fat with long pink hair and bangs. She had perfectly applied cat eyeliner and matte wine lips. “I’ve been sent to get you out of here.” She didn’t mean like a guardian angel. Her hands were on her hips, after all.
“Leave me alone,” I said. I wanted to disappear and avoid the pain of logistics. I imagined hiding behind the bed and sleeping until I could sneak out, everyone too drunk to notice me. I imagined crawling through ceiling vents. I glanced at the window but there was a screen on it.
“What’s going on?” said someone else in the room.
“She’s threatening to beat Mitsuko up,” said Selina.
Someone else, who was blonde and the younger sister of a heroin addict in my class looked at me and said, “You’re a bitch. Get out of this party.”
“Come on,” said Selina, on the opposite side of the doorframe now.
“Shut up, Paul Blart,” I said.
The blonde heroin relative girl spoke to me from behind as she sat on the bed. “Don’t criticize someone for being overweight when you’re overweight yourself.”
I couldn’t say anything back. She could tell I was hurt. But I still held onto a tiny stone in the back of my mind that kept me feeling justified. Mitsuko and Asad had been awful to me. People had wronged me enough so that I had some transcendent righteous status, I could never have been wrong, not in any context.
I followed Selina out the door, and then she waited for me to pass her so she could walk behind me and be more like a guard than a tour guide. And here it came. I walked out of the hallway into the living room, I saw people in my peripheral vision, but I walked right through with a strange newfound confidence that rode off of discomfort. I bet they could tell I didn’t belong, that I was being kicked out with Selina pushing me forward. I tried not to look at them. Realistically, there was no opportunity to be graceful here. I went for a glimpse of Asad, wanting to see him in the rapture of ecstasy. Didn’t see him. Selina slammed the door behind me and I heard a lock barrel into place as fast as it could go. I was on the patio in front of the house by the dusty potted plant and it was all over.
I crossed the street to my car, hoping I wouldn’t see anyone I knew. I was so out in the open, anyone could have seen my stiff walk, me trying to hold it together. I got in my car, I pulled the door shut, I was safe now. Now to drive off to where nobody could see me. I drove a few blocks away to a place close but as good as secluded, the Jehovah’s Witness church parking lot nestled into a hill. Sometimes their gate was open. Sometimes it was not. I parked, only then did I burst into tears.
I scrolled through my contacts needing someone to sink my teeth into. I considered my therapist. But I knew it would just be the same old, same old, she would numb me and tell me to keep my head up, but she wouldn’t revitalize me. My friends were gone, all of them, and right now I could feel the hatred tear through my body at full force. Nobody could ever care if I was kicked out of a party, or if some older guy preyed on me at a concert and funneled me into a long terrible relationship.
At some point it occurred to me that UPaint was there. I liked to go there and ask you questions. Now I really needed it. I drove for 45 minutes, but I knew you were there. Did you know I always drove 45 minutes to chat you up? I always tried to conceal my location. But once when I said I was a short drive to Legoland, I knew I had given myself away.
You know what they say about Cross. Five points for every street toward the ocean you park, starting from Sweetwater that is. Parking in the beach lot is a bonus ten, plus immortality. I scored fifteen that night. I walked past the neon shops that sold tie-dyed shirts with mushroom prints on them, bongs, and hemp necklaces with knitted trees on the end. A crowd of homeless people next to Addie’s Diner blew smoke on me, guys with shopping carts and grey and white beards. The hostel with a big mosaic peace sign on the roof towered over me, and the boarded up stores gave me a melancholy in the pit of my stomach. The air was sweet like candy with the taste of a vape pen, the ocean on my tongue. The nightlife. I walked past it all, breezing along with my out-of-place Urban Outfitters duds, headed for you. Then it came--the big vertical wooden sign leaning up next to the door--UPaint. The studio was narrow and long; iron chairs and painting tables empty, but humming with the quiet light of a thriving business. I conducted that motion I knew so well, walking under the doorframe painted with little flowers and looking to my right to see if you were there. You always were, because I had gradually been memorizing your schedule. You came into my vision each time I went in there, becoming a mantra, your face becoming synonymous with everything behind you. You said my name tiredly, like you were waking up from a coma, but sweetly. “Hannah.” That’s my name. Always hated it, but you made me want to own it.
“I have your latest masterpiece ready,” you said. You ran to the back, all the way at the back of the store, and came walking out of the storeroom with a wrapped tile. I took the time undoing the paper with a smile on my face and there it was, another little piece of art. One of billions upon billions of art attempts on this planet, forever doomed to be unrecognized. With this one I had tried to paint a forest landscape, inspired by photos I had seen of Washington. Now it was all glazed with a reflective pool of darkness.
I said nothing about the party. I walked away from you and picked another tile from the unfired ceramics display. My box at home was filled with dozens of fired tiles. Mitsuko always painted mugs and little dog sculptures, and they were slowly crowding her room. I got my paint colors and sponges and waited patiently at the table, because I knew what was coming. I heard an iron chair pull out next to me along the concrete floor, I looked to my left, and there you were. The music on the speakers was not the usual faux indie pop radio, because for the past few months you had been plugging your laptop into the AUX instead. Only while we were there alone. Highly illegal in the UPaint legal system. It made me feel special, like you were creating a little audio shield for us. We had been talking a lot about ‘70s German electronic. A couple of people have given me weird looks like, why are you listening to something from so far away, from so long ago? But they just don’t get it. It’s a love of hide and seek. You search and search through countless forgotten things, until you find something so potent that it depresses you that people have forgotten this. And it’s all yours. I remember that night B. Aldrian came on. We talked about how that song is some kind of special club for people who can feel emotions deeper than anyone else. Then I painted, and you sat in silence until the song was over.
You and I talked for a couple of hours as I painted the little tile with sponge dabs and careful swirls. I was feeling abstract that night, inspired by photos of coral reefs. Occasionally you handed me a detail of your life. You only photographed with film. You used to skate as a teenager. You frequented a cheesy Hawaii-themed restaurant called Bali Hai. But you never gave me the whole picture. I knew a lot about you, but I didn’t know you.
After I gave you my painted tile, I walked to my car as you closed up. Hot and tropical air coated my skin. Gum dotted all along the sidewalk, graffiti was my backdrop, couples walked by me with tattoos coating their arms. I could smell the ocean so well, salt going up my nose. And I felt calmness simmering in every part of my consciousness. UPaint didn’t sell books, but with you there, it was just as good as a bookstore. Take that, Asad. I don’t know your last name and I probably never will, but I think you saved my life on August 14th, 2011.
It’s been five years (well, four and a half) and I think about you too often. There are at least six other letters like this one. The first one’s in a journal, one I burned in a frying pan, another I threw away in a public bathroom. I think there are some others in desks and drawers, maybe sock drawers of people that I’ve roomed with. I know you didn’t really save my life. I probably could have gone home and screamed into my pillow instead of going to UPaint, and I’d be just as alive as I am today. But I adored you. I adored you so much that I wanted to assign sainthood to you. And for what it’s worth, you must have changed something, anything. You might have prevented me from smashing a bottle against a stranger’s car window or maybe actually beating someone to a pulp. And that’s enough that you’re the only person who gets my parting thought. I’m not dying. I’m moving to Virginia. I’m not some idiot who’s going to get on a bus and see where it goes, I have a job and an apartment set up and the whole nine yards. And I want the clean feeling of saying goodbye to no one. Not my family, and not Mitsuko, and not my succession of friends that fill her shoes and do it no better. You’re the only one who I’m telling, and you won’t even get to know.
Once Catherine Sinow was in LA visiting her school friend. They were near the Elliott Smith mural so Catherine said, "Hey, let’s go see it.” The friend took her to a random painting of an owl and could have sworn it was the real thing. Catherine was doubtful, but at the same time she was dazzled to be seeing what might be the real, authentic Elliott Smith mural. (catherinesinow.weebly.com is where you can read her other stuff)