I can’t wait for this story to end.
As I sat in a hotel bar in San Francisco, my eyes are drawn to the most breathtaking woman I have ever seen. I approach and offer to buy her a drink. To my delight, she accepts, and we spend the next hour chatting and laughing. Then, she leans in and whispers in my ear, “I need to go, but if you would like to see me again.” She writes a name on a napkin and slips it into my front jacket pocket, “Meet me at this coffee shop in Milan.”
She nods, as if that's a normal answer. My heart flutters as she walks away.
A week later, I cannot get her out of my mind. I must see her. I travel to Milan and each morning sit in the Caffè Fiorio sipping an Americano, waiting.
At last! I spot her outside the window. I watch closely. Positive it’s her, I tap on the glass, smiling and waving. She sees me. With no recognition on her face, she turns and walks away.
“Why did she walk away?” I ask Greg, who was reading the story aloud to our writing group.
“That’s for you to imagine.”
I want an answer.
“This story, it feels like a dream,” says Joseph, the Nigerian leader of our international writing group. “Any other comments?”
“It reads well,” I say. It does read well. I've noticed complex stories may be readable on the page, but can be very hard to follow read aloud.
“Is he picturing his own death?” someone asks.
“It all for you to imagine,”
It’s my second time joining the writing group. While others give feedback, I scan the crowd. Mostly expats in their 30s and 40s. Only two young Hong Kongers, who speak boarding school British-accented English. There are noticeably fewer young people in Hong Kong these days.
Afterward, at a happy hour at a nearby bar, we have a wild and passionate discussion about AI and whether it will cause the downfall of society.
“Does humanity exist in an endless cycle of destruction and rebirth?” Joseph asks. “There are artifacts of civilizations in Africa from tens of thousands of years ago.”
“I think it's human nature that will destroy us,” I say. “Left and right in America is the same dynamic as the Catholic and Protestant Wars in the 1500s in Europe.”
“But humanity always comes back stronger,” Joseph says, smiling. I like his positivity.
Rebecca mentions an academic theory about trends in history, one I can’t quite follow. The spontaneity of conversation with artists and writers is refreshing. My usual crowd of finance industry employees talk about real estate, restaurants, and vacations; plus Machiavellian backstabbing corporate politics. Safe topics.
Jane moves over and begins to echo my sentiments about how we need to be open to the new habits and values of Gen-Z.
“Maybe it doesn’t matter if Gen-Z doesn’t know how to do math!” I say.
“Yes,” she says, “They can look up information on TikTok.”
I haven’t had this much positive feedback in a while.
Holding my glass of overpriced house Pinot Noir, I see my fingers and am reminded I don’t have my wedding ring on. It's a strange feeling.
My wife Trish is away, staying with her friend Agnes in Beijing. Trish wants to explore new career options. Independently. I’m preparing myself for what life might be like alone. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.
There are problems. We both have anger management issues. I’m quietly resentful. A simmering water kettle, best left untouched. Her anger erupts like Vesuvius at any perceived sleight. I’m still angry about her anger management problem, and draft a long email about it--probably not the right answer. I delete it.
The mindful meditation coach says I need to let go.
It’s reassuring that my wife is staying with her friend Agnes, who is a stable sort of person. Not a volcano or a kettle of boiling water. Cooler temperatures may help.
I met Agnes just once, in Hong Kong in 2019. We waited for her in front of a shopping mall in the Causeway Bay district, an urban canyon of 40-floor buildings with shops squeezed into their lower floors.
As Agnes stepped out of the taxi, a half a block away teenage boys in protester outfit–black caps, black masks, large black backpacks holding unknown weapons of protest–put on makeshift gas masks.
“You should be careful,” I say, pointing toward the protesters.
Bangs of tear gas canisters echo at steady intervals from around the corner. A reverberation can be felt in the air. The sea of protesters around the corner chanting in naked rage at the police is as thunderous as a dozen football stadiums.
“Oh. Them,” Agnes says, taking a quick glance. “Now, what are we going to have for dinner?”
“They could be dangerous.”
“They won’t bother us.”
Her calm demeanor in close proximity to physical violence is astounding.
People in the city at that time had been sharing their views. Opinion about the protests was roughly divided by age into two lumps. The young loudly shared their anger at a list of grievances and injustices. Those over forty quietly mumbled that confronting the Chinese state was probably not a wise idea. They remembered Tiananmen Square.
The younger people were, the more passionate. Below my apartment, the girls-only middle school had begun a group chant of revolutionary slogans each morning.
Foreigners, we were mostly unaffected. We could simply leave. A journalist I ran laps with said he hoped tanks would roll down the streets, so he would have a chance to win a Pulitzer. The best times for journalists, he said.
Outside my window today, I see a white cockatoo take flight. Their squawking is a fixture of the neighborhood I live in. Three more white parrots leap off apartment ledges and circle in the air. White cockatoos are an endangered species in their native habitat in Indonesia but are thriving in Hong Kong’s urban environment. Who would have guessed?
They don’t fly far, and land on the middle school below my window. The one that held the protest chants in 2019. It’s been quiet for years now. For young people, time passes differently. It must feel like a distant memory for them. For me, it feels like yesterday.
I have a lot of free time these days, I call my mother. She’s older now, has health problems. Living overseas, the years have flown past between the times I have been able to visit. How do I feel about separation? A sadness. An emptiness. But mostly a nostalgia for earlier days. For the times when I was a small child and she held me between her legs and brushed my hair and the world was safe and I was not alone.
She now lives in Las Vegas. She is one of the few people to have won at a Las Vegas casino. Losing a few twenties every day at the video poker machines, one day, on the way out, she trips on a toolbox left out on the casino floor. Breaks her shoulder. As it's a casino, there are multiple video recordings of her fall. A court determines that there is pain and there is suffering and the casino is responsible.
After living on a tight budget her entire life, she buys a new house and a luxury car at the age of 75. The economy works in strange ways.
In Hong Kong, I’m walking past one of the richest neighborhoods in the city, Leighton Hill. The 1% in this city own real estate. They do nothing but collect rent payments from leasing cement boxes. If reaching the apex of our society is simply counting how many cement boxes we own, what does that mean for us as a species?
A maid is walking two Shiba dogs. The rich in Hong Kong love Shiba dogs. Aren’t they also a symbol for Ukraine? And BitCoin? If the world goes to war over Ukraine and nuclear missiles start flying, all the cement boxes, real estate certificates and bank balances won’t mean anything.
I need to stop overthinking things. Be mindful.
To free myself from the trap of rumination and circling thoughts, I take a mini-bus to Stanley, a beachfront village on the other side of the island. A young Australian man who sits behind me on the mini-bus talks gibberish to his American girlfriend for the whole 45-minute ride. She nods and says “hmm”, “interesting” without really saying anything back. Introverts must have a lot of things they want to say one day.
At Stanley Beach, I go to the beachfront shed, arrange to rent a kayak for two hours. It’s February, but it’s 75F and sunny today.
Pushing off the beach, I dip my paddle into the ocean and start to glide through the water. I haven’t kayaked in years, but my body is still strong and remembers the motions. The winds are calm, and the small choppy waves don’t affect my steering. Coming around the granite boulders that mark the corner of Stanley Harbor, I begin to feel the vastness of the ocean swell. The rhythm of the earth itself.
A large incoming wave pushes me back toward the boulders. I see breaking waves and churning whirlpools. I point the kayak toward the open ocean and paddle with all my might. I feel the rise of the ocean lift the kayak and surge underneath. I’m out of danger again.
In life, there’s only one direction: forward, always forward.
Joseph says, “Sorry, but we have run out of time.”
I have been talking non-stop for an hour.