A week before the Lunar New Year, an old friend whom you met only last year drops you a line, which means you Skype. Lately the computer freezes because he’s currently in the middle of nowhere, and each time you panic hello hello hello. Other times the connection itself sours, like an easy ploy in a bad horror movie: voices distort and screech, something else holding onto your words, drawing out their sounds, rendering them unearthly, unsafe.
Tonight you have a remarkably clear conversation—at least, in the beginning. You were watching “Your Face” when he called, the video reminding you of Wong Kar-Wai’s As Tears Go By, particularly the scene in the red bar when Andy Lau finally makes that call. Your friend asks if you understand the lyrics of “Your Face,” which you say you do. The screen freezes for a mere second, just as he’s asking how you’ve been and you’re showing him the orchid on your desk, which is half-dead and half-blossomed. I’m good, you say and add, maybe it’s the crazy weather here. I mean El Niño. I mean the orchid, how it is.
You communicate with a patience you never knew you had. His English is better than your Korean. Conversation often flows easily, and even after a year, it still surprises you. There’s never been acknowledgement of faux pas or need for doublespeak, no boundaries drawn; sometimes it seems the things you name are just coming into existence, and they are your discovery alone, yours and his. And when each of you speak the other’s words, once foreign, you sound like each other, and you know if you met those who fluently speak these languages, they would hear him in your words and you in his. This is why you are old friends.
You wonder aloud if the orchid is sick, and he first answers at length in Korean, stopping short to record himself, and then plays it back with Google translation. Together you clean it up, taking out words that didn’t translate or sound right to you, and end up with only: The orchid experiences different states to see what best to exist. You notice his hands are folded like yours, beneath your chin. You think of all the plants you’ve killed because you’re never home. How you type poems on your phone in the shower, never make up the bed. How many apartments you’ve known. You don’t know mulch from mud from loam but had your hands in all of them. Other yards, other fields, never owned land, your parents either. But now you want to plant something, somewhere. You want to return to it each day, to keep it safe. You think of Wendy Chin-Tanner’s poem “Botany”:
You usually talk as evening falls in New York and he’s waking up in Korea a few hours before the sun rises. Originally you were to collaborate on a project that fell through. Another is in the works, but it too has been put on hold. It’s not out of habit your conversations continue; neither of you has time like that to give away. Sometimes he says something in Korean and covers his mouth, embarrassed, as if you understood. Sometimes you stumble into Hebrew and Spanish, the sharp, throaty ch’s and rolling r’s making him start, asking you to repeat the words again and again.
You show him his name in Hebrew, first as its sounds and then the meaning of the Korean words. He prefers Hebrew block script over cursive. He isn’t happy when he hears you have a habit of writing other people’s names in Hebrew. He constantly stretches out his limbs, and you’ve come to do this as well, as if these too are your beginning hours, your truest hours, in which, like in Chin-Tanner’s poem, you emerge like saplings that “grow out from / their cringing pods and / uncurl their coiled heads, stretching / arms and fingers.” As if reaching for somewhere else and returning to a place that does not belong to you, but who else would it belong to, and that’s why you meet him there, week after week.
Yet you’ve never spoken to him in the natural light of day, your conversations ending as darkness sets in on your half of the world and dims in his, always just before sunrise. You suddenly long for those saplings that “straighten together. . . toward the same / naked light.”
And you long for those saplings that the poet planted somewhere, for real, faraway, for the hands that planted them, for the ground crumbling in those hands, fingernails stained in wet earth.
* * *
He wishes you a Happy New Year, and tells you that the monkey is one of the most “goodtimes” zodiac animals, but that it is also the “beacon” for safe journeys. That it’s a good year for creativity, for leaping. He reads this from a piece of paper, having translated it beforehand, holds up a cautious, sloping English script to the screen. You like that he’s used “goodtimes” and “beacon” so close together. You tell him it’s also a leap year, that this February has 29 days, and hold up a small desk calendar to show him. Then you pick up a ceramic camel on your desk, which an ex had told you she made for you in her workshop, and leap it across the calendar. You don’t tell him that once during a fight, your ex admitted she’d bought it at a discount housewares store in Jackson Heights, the kind of store that sells everything from underwear to groceries to bookshelves, all imitations of cheap brands. You don’t tell him that she bought it on a whim, that she wanted you to think she was giving you something precious.
It’s not real, you tell him, meaning the ceramic, meaning its value, but he thinks you mean the camel itself and laughs. You are happy this is what he thinks, that you can leave it at that, as if some spell has been undone and the camel set free.
He has something to tell you, something important. He takes a deep breath, and then emails you this video of two elephants reunited after a 22-year separation. You’ve seen it, but don’t tell him this. You watch it on your phone as he watches you watching through the ripples of the screen, which is now freezing again. He wants you to watch the whole thing. He is content to watch you doing this. Sometimes you look up to see if he’s still looking at you, or if he’s gone back to other things that are there with him, his phone, a magazine, the dark window behind him. But he still’s looking at you.
He is particularly fond of slang like “totally” and “yeah yeah yeah,” the latter which he says like one word, and when the video ends and you look up at him, he speaks to you as if reciting a poem from memory, and flashing both hands twice, to you the number of years, that if 20 years passed and you were elephants torn away from each other and chained to different fences, if you never saw outside train cars and tents, that then if you came to him back broken and limp, he’d still know you from all the other elephants and fences and grass, yeahyeahyeah, and together, even then, you’d leap, totally, you and him.
(In writing this now, you realize you’ve rendered the words above into your speech, you’ve translated and edited what was much longer, less comprehensible and much more passionate. And yet the words are his. And yet the words in English are his.)
When he stops speaking and you are trying to process this, all of this, how long had it taken him to form these words in his head, translate them, work up the nerve to say them, when he says: I want to see you, the sky, you. With stars. With planets. Up, Up. I want to see you.
He wants for you to respond. He is breathless, his chest raising and finally quickly, his uncombed hair spiking out wildly. He rubs his eyes, and opens and shuts them, as if waking a second time. You think of the sky outside your apartment, your cityscape sky. You recall a poem “For Your Eyelash Anchored to the Sky” by Adam Clay. You think of reading it to him when you remember you first read this book in the ER—or rather, your husband read it to you when you were admitted to the hospital. You were so out of it that you didn’t remember any of the poems, only the sound of his voice. Your husband is not a poet, but it was the only book you had on you at the time, and he wanted you to feel normal after the doctors filled you in on the particulars of a spinal tap. You hear the lines against the metal winds of the plains beating against the windows of a car driving too fast: “I am always wishing you were here. / I am tying a typewriter to my leg with a heavy piece of thread. / Because I do not want to be dragged to the bottom.”
Elephants dragged to the bottom of a lake by the weight of all the years of the herd. Elephants writing on tiny typewriters. Elephants revolving and rotating like planets. Elephants on parade and wishing for a world without humans. He’s waiting, waiting for your answer. Like Andy Lau waiting for Maggie Cheung at the harbor. “I want to watch you laughing down from the pier,” Clay writes. Your friend and you hold your computers close, but you hear each other from down the pier. It is amazing you can hear and see each other at all. For that alone you are grateful. And he too is an eyelash anchored to the sky, and he is always with you. But you must leave it there, and not tell him this. Not now.
It is at this point you remind him you care for him as a friend, truly a friend, and finally he stops looking at you, looks down at something you can’t see on the screen, and tells you, in a different voice altogether, “Yeahyeahyeah I know.”
Before you hang up, he says something to you in Korean, he sings it to you, and you know you’ve heard it before. It isn’t until you press play on the video of “Your Face,” picking up where you’ve left off, that you hear the sounds of the words he’d said to you. A translation online tells you that they mean: “Thank you for spending time with me / The short 20 seconds of a phone call.” You think this wildly unfair of him, a lump settling in your throat that you can’t swallow, your throat burning and sore as if you’re coming down with a cold, the rest of your body half-asleep and restless.
And now a spell has been cast and broken. And you carry that weight all week, for you must experience different states to see what best to exist.
* * *
Tonight it’s negative-15 outside, with the wind chill factor, and your husband has gone out to buy oranges. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, your birthday, and every year you’ve been together, your husband peels you an orange the day before. This is not a ritual in his culture, in Chinese culture, at least not that he knows of. He’s never bought a woman oranges before her birthday. Your birthday is close to the Lunar New Year, he says by way of explanation. He buys you roses the next day, which he says would be a cliché if not for the particular timing of your birthday.
You remember once your father bought your mother roses for Valentine’s Day, and she worried about the cost, the wastefulness of cut flowers, how quickly they’d die. They aren’t handy, your mother would say in English. Handy is such a strange word; as a child, you’d always picture what would now be big emoji hands, white-gloved, open and empty. You were born almost a month too early, on Valentine’s Day, a cesarean, an emergency baby who would not stop screaming until in the hands of her mother.
She tells you later she shouldn’t have given into you, into your cries and desires, that she hadn’t held you so much, maybe you’d be a doctor instead of a poet.
She tells you that she’d never held anything or anyone so carefully, and once you were bigger, she doubted she could do it again. All of it.
In “Work,” the poet Jason Koo writes: “In yoga, you learn to release yourself / By resisting yourself. What a beautiful idea.” When my head is unclear, I’ve often turned to this poem because of the poet’s candor. Because it’s a love poem not only romantically, but also in the way it explores the “office work” of his cat who “accepts all this petting / And never gives any back” as well as the idea of work itself: “It is a particularly human quality to grow tired of being tired.” It ends on a filial note, the poet honoring his father who worked so hard “to send me to better schools, where I learned the particularly particular craft of English / So someday I could release myself like this.”
What is poetry, then, but the ultimate liberation, the ultimate giving in to cries and desires? Why are you filled with such sadness, the weight of these elephants and oranges, the leaping and the peeling, when there is release by resistance and an equal but opposite force in embracing the wide, open plains, the wreckage, all the mud and debris and hands wearied?
You have no choice anyway. You are in the middle of it, and it’s in the middle of you, asking for a name, asking for your patience.
* * *
Before your husband comes home, you receive an email from your Korean friend both apologizing for those unfair last words and wishing you a happy birthday. He wants to give some space but at the same time, he wants you to receive this birthday wish in time, which he couldn’t send without clearing the air. That he’s learned these phrases to make sure he’s clear, no more grey matter. That he’s not quite feeling blue, no, he’s searching for the right word still, even in Korean.
You think of the Portugese word saudade, an untranslatable word which journalist Jasmine Garsd explained as “a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again.” She offers up yet another meaning by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”
“Saudade” is also a poem by Yesenia Montilla, and you think of these lines in particular:
You want to ask him: Is your house, too, dirty? Did the wormhole we made destroy the sky? Are you worried you won’t speak again, having written our last poem?
And you want to tell him the poem between you is never the last. Because the last poem means you were a coward. And you are not cowards. There are many ways to love. But you do not want to hurt someone. Anyone. Both of them. Your heart has been given. But this does mean the end of poems.
And now isn’t the time to reply; you do need space in the grey matter. Now you watch your husband carefully peel an orange and you know, as you’ve always known, his hands are the most real hands you’ll ever hold. More real than your own. That you were thinking of realness when your friend posted a photo of himself out of focus, misunderstanding you after you posted an image from Shay Kun’s Teardrop Series a few days ago, adding the words: “When we speak a new world, it’s missing words too.” And you remember now the red dress he’d sent for your birthday, the dress with one eye open and one eye winking on the front, and you thought it was just kitsch. That now you realize he must’ve sent it at least a month ago, meaning he’d thought of you enough to send it so it would arrive on time, meaning he’d been feeling this way for a while, that you do and do not see him, one eye open, the other closed. Red: the color of the Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day, the color of all those things that keep you alive and perhaps the saudade between you.
Tomorrow you will write to him: Soon you will meet in real life, after so much distance. A language barrier and lack of sleep have tinted and washed you both dreamlike, rendered you in saudade. That real life and working together will be better and bittersweet. And that you’re sorry, you’re sorry in the way you imagine a herd loses one of its own, that you will always be connected, but that there are the limits of your own self which will not allow you to share, be shared, in the ways he wants?
You try to tell your husband these things, the elephants, the doubtful hands of your mother, the orchid half-dead and blossoming, but he stops you. He kisses your hands. He tells you not to worry, that he knew from the start about you and him. That while he doesn’t read much poetry, when he looks at you, he often thinks of the line from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
He holds you in his arms. Outside wind beats down the current of its own sound, collapsing into a pile of untouchable stones. You are grateful for the cold. You are grateful for these poets, Yesenia, Adam, Wendy, Jason. You remember your father marveling at the name of Adam Clay, and immediately explaining its significance in Judaism. Your father who would never call that work, but what he was meant to do. What he can’t help doing. Your father as a child hunched over a Torah, knowing even then, from the scroll unrolling to the untouchable paper, that everything was up to humankind, that the rules of the universe could change and still it’s up to humankind, this world alone, its languages, that is our responsibility. Every day your father more comfortable in the secular world, in English. And you, too, are still learning this language, which you never learned properly, and it is a blessing because it led you to be loved by those who try to make themselves understood by finding ways around its rules. By sometimes dispensing with its rules altogether. It’s a weight, a weight though not a burden, to be loved this way, by two incredible people.
It’s the kind of weight, you hope, that one day will make us all planets.