On Turning 23: a Three-part Study in Vomit

I

The first day of my 24th year started off pretty much like it ended: in vomit.

Of course, no one means for things to end in a pool of dinner-remains and bile. Vomiting is nature’s wild card, happening with the regularity of, say, bumping into an old acquaintance on the bus. Once a year if you’re lucky, never at all would be best. It’s an uncanny comparison, and I can’t decide which scenario is worst. At least you’re likely to feel better after vomiting.

23 started in vomit. It happened quickly. It was half past one on the Uber, I was in the front passenger seat watching street lights streak across the dashboard. A dude no older than me gets on at Holland Village, having, like me, had the presence of mind to use Uber-pool in an attempt to save a few. But things go wrong as the Uber turns into the main road where my house is. “I need to vomit,” he begs. The desire to find the sidewalk when you are on the verge of barfing is as instinctive as wanting love and affection in a cold lonely world. Your body will search for an excuse, any at all, to release the contents of the night.

He did not find the curbside. Instead, his vomit found the side of the car door, and some of my left arm when I tried to open the door for him. I remember vividly. It was a white chuck of something on my arm. It looked almost like a piece of ground chicken. All this, from a person who had the presence of mind to save $3 by Uber-pooling.

And so, 23 started with vomit. Make what you want of that.

Eighteen hours later, I was at a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I used to hide alcohol from my parents during my army days, but nowadays I’m old enough for my grandfather to look at me with intense sadness every time I reject a drink. It’s disappointment of the highest degree, the kind that can land you in jail of you abet in its continuation. The classic beer-whisky-wine combo is what we always have at such occasions, and once you start on one, you’ll have to go through all of them. A lot of families know that it isn’t good to mix different kinds of liquors, and for all I know only drink one kind of liquor in one sitting. My family is not one of them. Our conversations got louder and louder as the dishes came and went. This restaurant  was peculiar, serving the assortment platter as a third dish, and soup as the second last dish. If you’re of Chinese heritage or have been to enough of these dinners, then you’d know what I mean. It was a strange order, a perfect segue to the even stranger night ahead.

I was poured a glass of whisky that was intensely personal: and by personal I mean that the cup was full enough to change your night. The glass was filled three quarters up with pure whisky; a conservative estimate would equate it to five shots. I reached out to take it, but my grandfather interjected. “I’ll drink this for you because it’s your birthday.” He said this with a smile on his face that was a mixture of confidence and kindness. It was a peculiar smile, the kind that doesn’t ask for anything in return. And so he did. I don’t know how, but he finished the entire glass over the course of the night. This was on top of wine, and beer, and another glass of whisky before that. His level of inebriation gave him the authority to talk about World War Two, and his passage from China to Singapore. Come to think of it, he always had that authority. The alcohol just gave him a reason to use it.

Alcohol is the ultimate example of diminishing returns. By the end of the night my grandfather was hobbling out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk. My brother and I were holding him, one of us on each side, waiting for my father to come over with the car. We struggled to get him in without his head hitting the doorframe. He was muttering sweet nothings, holding onto me tightly as we guided him into the vehicle. From there we had to slowly get him out of the car. At this point he was still relying on his own energy to stand up and walk forward. We were just there to ensure that he didn’t fall forwards or back. He needed a firm hand to hold and there we were; his grandchildren. He said a bunch of thank yous as we guided him up the stairs to his bedroom, and more hugs were exchanged right before we left.

This is the same man that I hardly talk to in the course of normal conversation. Not that there was any one reason for this, but perhaps just my own lack of initiative that accreted over the years and led me to become the grandson I was, the kind that takes the presence of his grandparents for granted. A grandson I wouldn’t want my own grandchildren (if I ever see that day) to be but probably the grandchildren I deserve. My grandmother was peeling an orange for him in the kitchen, and my grandfather sat on his recliner in his room with a smile on his face. That smile. Given how my grandmother was excessively calm, I got the sense that this has definitely happened before. Sometimes I wish I knew more about my grandparents, and in some instances I have tried to. But it never seems enough, does it? Not enough time, not enough effort. But if a drunken episode is what it takes to get some sense of closeness, then I’d settle for that.

***

II

I was shuttled back home after that with surprising haste, where a bunch of my friends were already waiting for me in my room. With some alcohol swimming in my blood I was struck by a singular perverse thought; that everyone had to go down kicking and screaming as well. Cups in one hand and ice in the other, I poured them a bunch of drinks that were gentle at first, then got higher in alcohol content as the mixers started to run out. We played a bunch of party games that involved 1) careful attention to the environment 2) a good sense of circular direction 3) an ability to dissociate speech with action. Any penalty incurred would mean a sip. As you can imagine, these are all judgments that get increasingly harder to make as the alcohol massages your senses, and so if one were to draw a graph of how intoxicated you would be over the course of the game then it would be of an increasing rate. The more intoxicated you are, the more mistakes you make, and the more mistakes you make, the more intoxicated you become. I did two more potent mixes and stashed them in fruit juice boxes for good concealment. Some of us were already swimming by the time we left my house.

We got on the uber before 1.

By then my birthday was already over, but that’s not important. No, not at all.

The night involved 5 more potent drinks, and two of my friends leaving early to regurgitate their dinners outside. Alcohol is a study in diminishing returns, and we were all way past the peak.

As promised, my 23rd birthday ended in vomit. I reached home at about 3 am, and let everything out on a grass patch outside my house. I crouched over and allowed my body to save itself. There was a stinging sensation at the back of my throat, one that I had to rid myself of by guzzling on a stream of garden hose water. Surprisingly, I remembered everything.

23 was an age I thought I would never reach. This has nothing to do with life expectancy. I just thought that time would fold upon itself, halving again and again as I approached 23, but never quite reaching. I would forever be in the vague zone between 20 and 22 but never will I ever actually cross that boundary. Maybe I feel this way because my life was always a comfortable and privileged one. People always say that they grew up too fast but I never did feel that way. If anything I didn’t grow up as fast as I’d like. There was always a house to go back to and a school to call my own and parents who didn’t pressure me so much. It has helped me to pause and think about a bunch of stuff but sometimes I wonder just how far can thinking get you. I have some goals and I have chased after them but I don’t know how realistic they are. Now is an especially apt time to reconsider, but also to find ways to move on with my life. You can’t be trapped in the 20 – 22 year old buffer zone forever. It was fun while it lasted, yes, but it’s not where you want to be in, say, ten years from now. You have to force every notion of a coddled existence out of your life like your body rejects anything too toxic.

Maybe 23 started and ended in vomit to remind me of that sudden instinct to purge all the insecurity and laziness that has followed me around. But it’s a weak proposition. After all, there’s no final consolation and no final reflection for these things. Dealing with negativity will always be an ongoing process, and that’s not a bad thing because it gives us something to work towards. Keep your head in the game, be there for loved ones, don’t take things for granted, be brave enough to live and love. We live for these realisations. Sure, they sound like platitudes but these mantras keep our lives in check and remind us constantly that it’s not just about ourselves that we live, but for those around us. And then this links back to how alcohol helps us notice all these things; enhances the intimacy with the people we care about yet allowing us to appreciate the voids that we carry within ourselves.

***

III

I don’t have the answers but the closest thing to a resolution would be what someone told me on the night before my birthday: that it’s ok to not be there yet, but as long as you have the awareness that you’re not there then there’s some salvation. I think that’s a good as place as any to start, whether there’s vomit involved or not.

Book Reviews: Japanese Modern Literature

After being introduced to contemporary Japanese literature back when I was serving my national service, I’ve never tired of it, having read extensively into the different works of contemporary Japanese authors. From someone who likes to write, there is a lot to gain from reading these texts. I learnt that a simple style of writing need not occlude complex trains of thought, but complement the latter by granting clarity. I’ve also learnt that desire and emotion can be effectively shown in not only what characters do, but also in what they don’t do. The use of silence, for example, to show longing, or the constant evocation of hunger to show the effects of loss. There’s something special about holding back and keeping yourself restrained, especially in a world which encourages the active pursuit of your desires. In any case, here are four reviews of contemporary Japanese texts that I has shaped the way I think about writing.

 

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

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A home can mean family, but what happens after the death of a family member? A home becomes a reminder of what remains, but at the same time, what has been lost, a place of reunion but also intense loneliness. Set in late 20th Century suburban Japan, we find Mikage in her kitchen, her favourite place in the world, a place where she is able to stay hidden from the outside world. It is a time of grief and solitude for her, having lost her grandmother, the only family she had. And then almost graciously, Yuichi, a young man who was a friend of her Grandmother, invites her over to stay with his transgender mother.

It appears that salvation lies in such strange and seemingly random interactions. Theirs is a space tainted with loneliness, but is where Yuichi and Mikage mingle, cook, laugh, grieve and eventually, begin to love. We don’t quite know how their feelings emerge but Yoshimoto’s steady hand guides and moves us from one room of her creation to the next: through each carefully prepared meal, swig of sake and honest conversation late into the night. The ending captivates, a cup filled to the brim but neither boiling nor spilling over. It is full.

 

 

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

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This novel is a portrait of Tsukiko, a woman in her thirties who one night chances upon her high school teacher, whom she refers to as Sensei, at a Sake bar. From there an unlikely relationship blossoms, unravelling at a stroll that is as slow as it is enchanting. Unlike in most romance novels, sexual desire does not drive much of the plot. Tsukiko and Sensei move through the text, virtual strangers with a tinge of shared history. They never quite mean to meet each other but do so anyway, through a series of forced coincidences that culminates with unplanned desire. We feel for them even before we are aware, the plot reeling us in as stealthily as the characters are drawn to each other. And no wonder, for the story plays with the scales of fate and agency, where two characters mingle with their past; Sensei his dead wife and Tsukiko an ex lover, but in reminiscing about the past they never quite finding the same comfort as they do in the here and now, in the company of each other. The threat of the past is tame compared to that of the future; the mortality of Sensei is often called into question by the younger Tsukiko and we are left wondering if a relationship like theirs is even meant to exist. And yet, with the relationship’s very existence we are challenged to reevaluate what it really means to love. If you want a novel that holds your heart gently before giving it a tight squeeze at the last paragraph, then you have this to look forward to.

 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

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The novel follows the life of Kathy, through a series of flashbacks that has led to the woman she is today. Set in a dystopian universe where people are raised to be organ donors, the mechanics of such a world is not just elaborately explained, but sometimes over-explained, laborious to read and heavy-handed. The style of writing is conversational, one feels like they are having tea with Kathy where she speaks at length about her experiences, some which are vastly interesting, others less so. The novel falls flat due to its step-by-step method in storytelling, where significance is always mentioned, where intentions are elaborated upon time and again as if Kathy never did trust our better judgment in the first place. It lacks the light, minimalist springiness of the other novels in this review, its sombre heaviness instantly scorching itchy fingers, rather than setting in slowly like a heater in a large room. All in all an the novel has an interesting plot with devastating implications, rueful losses and heartbreaking finalities. But that’s life as observed, not expressed. Good expression (and good literature), seems harder to find.

 

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

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A man who can talk to cats, another named Johnnie Walker who kills them, fish that rain down from the sky, a Japanese Colonel Sanders and a man who attempts to make a magical flute; these are just some of the things you’d struggle to accept and perhaps never come to terms with by the end of the novel.

But that’s just where the absurdities begin. We follow the life of fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura who runs away from home in fear of his father, or rather, in fear of the prophecy of him killing his own father. But fate is never too shy to act, and the further he runs the closer he is to the action. He seeks refuge in a neighbourhood library and meets a librarian whom he suspects is be his estranged mother. He is helped by a stranger along the way that could very well be sister, whom he has not seen since he was a child. Try as he might, there is a growing sense that Kafka is unable, to escape from the very thing he tries to run away from; that the experiences he hopes can help him start anew somehow lead back to him. His desires (sexual or otherwise) grow stronger as he navigates not just through the rural landscape or the intricacies of his fate, but also his own adolescence and emerging adulthood.

As the story unwinds we are left wondering if Kafka would make it out of the storm, and if so, whether he would ever be the same again. Woven together by Murakami’s entrancing prose, this story brings together a slew of elements that don’t quite make sense and don’t quite add up but form an imperfect basket that is not so much functional as it is beautiful. Unlike in Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, Kafka on the Shore does not hold you gently, but grabs you roughly by the hand and pulls you along a twisted narrative. It tells you straight out that running away from yourself is a race that you cannot win, but urges you to try anyway. And what a run it turns out to be.

 

Crabs

“I have something very important to tell you,” she started.

I turned around because turning around was all I knew.

“I’m quite sure there aren’t anymore crabs on this beach,” she said.

“Crabs?”

“Yes, crabs.”

All around the waves tumbled, one on top of the next, spitting out shiny foam and lacklustre sprinkles. I was curious as to how this related to our walk.

“Tell me more about these crabs.”

“Well,” she started, “when I was younger mother and I would come down here. We would squat by the rocky pools and look for crabs. Sometimes I would get tired and just sit down. I didn’t mind the wet sand. Mother would always scream.”

“Scream at you to stand up?”

“Yes, of course. What else would she scream for?”

The sun hid behind white, innocuous clouds.

I was deep in thought as the waves continued to shuffle. What was it about crabs that bothered her? Was it to do with the way they moved about as her little hands tried to grab for them? Was it, perhaps, an instinctive reaction to all that had changed in her life? That even the simplest of things; crabs, for goodness sake. Even the crabs had ran somewhere, further away.

Later as we were having lunch I watched her pick apart a mussel. They were the freshest in town. The beach flowed endlessly along the solid shoreline. Part of her face was in the sun but she didn’t seem to mind.

“Have I ever told you that I really enjoy these walks?”

I looked up from my platter and smiled in acknowledgement.

“Too bad there aren’t any crabs,” I mentioned.

“No, too bad there aren’t. I think they’ve all moved somewhere else.”

I stared hard at the beach. The breeze played with the trees.

“Something bad must have happened. And they had to leave.”

“Maybe a disease or something,” she added.

“Yes. Maybe.”

We finished our meal in silence.

***

Later we were walking again, her in front of me. The sun was lower in the horizon this time. The breeze still played with the trees. She turned back at me, then looked forward again. She was trying to balance on the ever moving shoreline as the waves came and went. I watched her stumble over this impossible tightrope.

I stepped on something hard, depressing it into the sand.

It was a shell. But no. It was moving.

A crab.

A tiny one too. It looked up at me with eyes that spoke of countless miseries. They were glossy and black, and incredibly small. In its entirety it was no larger than a packet of chilli sauce.

I bent over to pick it up. It looked at me with a mixture of fear and gratefulness. Its eyes went in and out of their sockets. Maybe that’s how they blink. I looked up and saw that she was further ahead now.

The shell was grey, both claws evenly sized. It hardly struggled as I held it between forefinger and thumb. That in the years she spent walking the beach and finding none I should step on a crab on my first visit.

I walked to her, slow steps traipsing between waves. The sun slapped the side of my face as she urged me to hurry up.

I waved at her and her silhouette waved back. In my hand was her childhood. It was struggling now, and started clawing at my palm.

“I found it!” I shouted.

She turned to look, the waves shimmered.

The crab adjusted its pincer and at the precise angle clamped down on my little finger. I let out a sharp cry and released the creature, watching as a precisely timed wave took it away.

Everything happened very quickly. All that was left was the sound of the breeze.

Perhaps I could have jumped, maybe lunged forward to grab the poor thing. But until today I don’t know why I didn’t. I just watched the damn thing fall out of my hands. Disappear into foamy waves that turned water opaque then transparent, opaque then transparent.

Later she would ask me what I found, and I would tell her a well rehearsed line.

“It was nothing.”

She laughed and continued walking.

And naturally part of me would think that something did happen, something very special, something potentially groundbreaking. It was so close, so close to being a moment we could share and relish and ruminate about in wonder.

And then part of me would think that perhaps what I told her was true. Between salted mussels and the bothered palms, nothing special happened on the beach that day.