By James Kramer
The video’s host froze, his arms held up in mock surprise, cue cards there still in hand. The clip wouldn’t load any further. Emi lay on the bed and watched the buffering icon circle in the center of her iPad. On the back of the iPad was a leather protective case. The words on the case said Humans are Stupid. She lay on the bed and groaned. Adam came in and stood watching her.
“Our Wi-Fi is shitty,” she said.
“Whoever rented here before us let someone plant action figures in the garden. They dug them right into the grass.”
“I need to Skype my parents later. Can you call the landlord?” she asked.
“Dial my phone so I can find it.”
Outside, clouds gathered, looking as if they were about to rain and then were not, as the wind picked up and changed its course. In the garden was Captain America, half of a Thor figurine and most of the Hulk. Of all of them, the Hulk looked the most comfortable, buried out there up to his torso, in amongst the weeds.
“The garden is a mess,” Adam said to their landlord.
“There’s a lawnmower in the shed,” she replied.
“There are pools of water in there. The door doesn’t close and mosquitos gather.”
“There is also a lawnmower in there.”
“Can you guarantee that it won’t rain today?”
“No,” she said. “Why not ask someone responsible. Why not ask your father, or a community support officer.”
That night, Adam cooked miso soup. He added to it rehydrated bean curd and a green, leafy kind of lettuce that was not iceberg nor radicchio nor any other kind of lettuce that Adam knew the specific term for but was too tired to search for. He cooked it all the same, watching it wilt and turn a sluggish brown as it sank into the misty-colored soup.
Emi sat down at the table and crossed her legs upon the chair. She started to drink her soup while Adam watched her. He would eat much later, during the night. He would eat directly from the fridge and only food that was silent when eaten. Repeatedly he would have to close and reopen the fridge door as the alarm went off.
“You posted a picture of your lunch today,” he said.
“I ate lunch with Sarah.”
Adam stared out at the garden, over the grass, towards the shed.
“Fucking kid,” he said.
“Does it bother you?”
“No. What? It was a good picture. It looked good, the food and the picture.”
In class Adam was often distracted. He would phase out and find himself thinking of previously irrelevant things. He then began to hyperventilate about all of the memories that he was unaware of having forgotten. He considered how long it would take him to write down everything he could remember happening before now. He unlocked his phone, opened notepad and wrote 1). Then he deleted it and closed his phone. One of his students raised their hand and asked what it was that they should be doing. Adam told them to turn to the next page and complete at least two of the exercises. Then he rolled down the blinds to the classroom and repeatedly opened and closed the browser on his phone with his thumb.
On Tuesday, Adam bought kale and cooked it with dried fruit and rice. He waited at the table while Emi brought her iPad to the table.
“You don’t need to close the door when you talk to your parents. I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I know that.”
“I have literarily no idea what you’re saying.”
“This is really good.”
“Say something in Finnish.”
“Stop being weird.”
“Say I have no idea what you’re saying in Finnish.”
“Say the word literarily.”
Adam picked up his phone and took a picture of the clouds. Before uploading it he wrote the caption, The clouds look impotent, then he deleted it and wrote, Dumb fucking clouds, then switched off his phone.
“This is really good,” Emi said again.
“Thank you. Do you think it looks pretty?”
“Kind of. I don’t know. Did you write today?”
“Yes,” Adam said. “I want my characters to tell each other stories.”
“I don’t like that. It makes me think that they aren’t interesting enough to begin with.”
“A lot of novels do it.”
“So? What does that mean?”
“I guess I just like it. It’s okay, dumb maybe.”
“So we got to the date, right? That’s as far as we went.”
“You want to hear the next part?” he asked, and Emi nodded with kale on the end of her fork.
“Right. So then he goes on this date, our main guy, and everything is going well. They, he and this girl, they go to a Spanish restaurant. Both of them are happy. There is good music, they talk, eat paella. Because the date does in fact go so unusually well, she invites him back and the two of them walk to hers together, having the sort of meandering conversation that they both like to see characters in movies having.
“And then so everything is nicely relaxed when they arrive and settle down once inside and sit on her sofa in the living room, and it’s here that she decides to tell him. That it was during a particularly unhappy time in her life, a period that she would be the first to categorize as severely fucked up, in which she held onto the kind of anger that lacks any sort of direction and therefore she made a willingly conscious series of very bad and permanent mistakes. It’s then here that she shows him the tattoo on her left shoulder that he, peering over, can easily identify as being a swastika, clearly visible between two stemmed branches of a rose bush. The lines of the symbol are clear and bold and the whole thing is unmistakably there. Of course he’s more than a little stunned, given what he’s come to learn of the girl over the course of their date. That she had known of several films that he liked but usually deferred from mentioning due to their pretentious obscurity, that she had shown herself to be wider read than he was comfortable admitting, all seemed to work against this very clear and aggressive symbol that he was currently looking at.
“Why then, he asks the girl, hasn’t she had it covered up, since she’s clearly had other work done around it, what with the roses and all, is the first question he asks. And she explains that while it’s been difficult to keep hidden at all times and that she herself would be the first in line to declare that whole period of her life as incredibly detrimental to her sense of personal worth and overall opinion of herself as a human being, all of it being bundled up as it was with a seriously generous helping of unmitigated and misdirected hatred towards others for ultimately arbitrarily reasons, still she has decided, the girl said, to own this particularly ugly and vicious moment of her life. That she’s not about to condone the irresponsible and the truly reprehensible ideas that she briefly endorsed as a scared and somewhat emotionally tortured adolescent, but that neither too will she deny that this was something fucked up that happened to her. Because if she can, the girl says, continue to maintain the knowledge of this very real and heavy mistake quite literarily on her shoulders, then she knows that there is little that she can do to so epically fuck up worse than before. And that whatever emotional or steadily deepening hole she might find herself in, she will know that she has the tools right there to remind herself that she has been lower, far lower than this before, and was still able to claw herself back out.”
“That’s kind of fucked,” Emi said.
“Yet the real issue,” Adam continued, “arrives when our protagonist excuses himself to go to the bathroom, not so secretly wanting to process this information and take it all in, aware enough that should he take too long in there, then his date will know that he is in fact not going to pee but rather is trying to comprehend and like deal, if she doesn’t realize this obvious fact already. And it’s while our man is standing there at the sink that the whole real unattractive truth of his natural mental process begins to make itself known via a probably unnecessarily long and spiralling internal monologue.”
“You like those.”
“I do. So then while he should be thinking about the girl and about the tattoo, and how it is that he actually understands and even sort of admires her own unwillingness to erase something so profoundly ugly about herself, though a swastika is still a swastika anyway you look at it. Or at the very least he should be considering what it is that he actually wants to do. Whether he can move past it and see her once again as he did an hour ago, or should instead storm out in a riot of righteous political indignation. Yet all the man can think of, all he can focus on, is in picturing himself outer-body-experience-like, standing there in the bathroom, appearing so measured and empathetic and so full of understanding that to the full extent the man’s feelings are now locked solely on viewing himself dealing with this situation as he muses on how he will later recount this story to others, perhaps even try to write about it.
“So we, the readers, then here begin to see that this man is incapable of ever actually dealing with, or being sincerely present in any sort of meaningful position that life might put him in, because he instantaneously starts to observe himself via said objective narration and is therefore always to some degree removed. Were the man to realize this, his own internal camera lens doing a good 360 degree turn all the way back to clinically view his own objective distance, then this would immediately make him incredibly sad, as he would realize how within every single experience that he has ever been a part of, he has always been to some degree separate from it and therefore always partially alone.”
“This is what you do?”
“No. It’s just a story. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Emi finished the last of the rice on her plate, using the edge of her knife to scoop it up into a small pile.
“It makes me sad that you don’t take pictures of the food that I cook for you anymore.”
“Don’t do that,” Emi replied. “I want to have meaningful arguments with you, if we’re going to have them at all, not that. Are you thinking about getting another tattoo? Is that what the story’s about?”
“It’s not about anything. Everybody has them nowadays. It’s too difficult to worry about everybody else’s as well as my own choices because as a tattooed person, I am automatically associated with all of them and their own body decisions, the other tattooed people.”
“My aunt gave me some diazepam that she brought back from China. Do you want to take some?”
Adam shook his head.
“I can’t do it right. I always just fall asleep.”
Emi lay in bed with her iPad resting on her knees, the leather case semi-covered by the bed sheets. Stupid, was all it said. Adam climbed into bed and kissed her on the shoulder.
“You shouldn’t sleep with headphones on,” she said.
“I listen to podcasts when I’m sleeping, otherwise there is a loud ringing in my ears.
“We should both look for better jobs.”
“Tomorrow I’m going to cut the grass in the garden.”
“What about the Avengers?”
Adam kissed her again on the shoulder and then unlocked his phone and wrote on a notepad, Then I will slice off their fucking plastic heads, and then deleted it.
Outside it sounded as if it might soon begin to rain. They were both inside and neither of them cared.
James Kramer has spent the last six years in the outskirts of Beijing, in a sixth floor walk-up staying mostly out of people’s way. He currently writes for Left Lion magazine. He has one unpublished collection of poetry, one of short stories and no agent.