by Carmen Lau
He was Henry Albertson and he was a stranger to Wing, though they had grown up more or less together. Often Wing was invited to play in the Albertson almond grove, where they chased each other with fallen sticks. In Henry's mind they were knights; in Wing's they were dervishes. Neither noticed how different the games in their minds were. Occasionally Wing was invited for dinner, when Henry's mother served casseroles. Wing's father was Henry's father's buddy, or the other way around; Wing never could suss out in all its exactness the relationship. Those two had business dealings with each other, perhaps, but Wing was never interested enough to notice and then it did not matter, anyway.
Fat, blond and blue-eyed, Henry went to a Christian school and knew all kinds of things, a whole roster of prayers and the right times to do them so imprinted in his brain it was like knowing the colors. All of it taken for granted. None of it trotted out like something precious, like when Wing's father's Jewish friends talked. This, Wing envied more than any bar mitzvah. For example some days before Christmas Henry's mother and her friends held a cookie-baking party and his whole house reeked of sugar, the smell of sugar melting in ovens sinking into the snowy cashmere carpet, and they talked about church and their neighbors and pretended they didn't see Wing. And Wing didn't blame them, he was quiet as a vase in the corner, thinking all the while of how the inside of a mosque must smell (that was during his Sufi phase). And Henry was drinking a glass of milk like it was all perfectly normal.
Henry was the kind of talker that favored almost exclusively personal issues, big emotional dagger-wounds to the gut, hopes, dreams, regrets spanning back to the toddler years. His talk was a complex picking out of stitches in the past, examination and then a clumsy attempt at replacing those stitches. Topic hopped to topic following no stream except that of feeling. He rambled, Henry. High school, college, post-college, long after their fathers lost touch, Henry phoned Wing and talked. His (their) childhood, his running concern about his sense of incompetence, his wife and then his wifelessness, his alienation at work.
There was a time Wing thought the talking was an act of uprooting, that it would stop when Henry got to the bottom of things. But there never was a bottom.
Abroad Wing had expected somehow the calling to end, but these days an ocean or two of distance meant nothing. And though his teaching schedule varied, Henry had mapped it somehow and found him only during hours Wing could give no excuse of being busy. For example nights when he sat alone on his balcony, watching the sky, thinking about how different his life was from how it was years ago, how it might be different again if he just bought another ticket. That was the wonderful thing about life, he reasoned. Why couldn't they talk about something wonderful, for once? Wing's thoughts tended to trammel one, maximum two paths at any given time, it was hard to not get caught in the details and how they related. Left alone, he could maybe one of these days get to the bottom of things and emerge.
Wing had been in Turkey six years, nearly, teaching English. The Sufi thing had no bearing on the location. He had forgotten it for a stretch of decades, his desire to be a “whirling dervish”; at some point he figured out he was not the sort of person belief could cling to. For the years before Turkey he had country-hopped, China and Japan and Thailand, but there he was constantly mistaken for local. As in belonging.
What do you want to be when you grow up? A question he sometimes asked his kid students, feeling like a con man as he did so. A foreigner, I guess, the thing I'm most used to being. But that was an old, beat-to-death complaint, so voicing it was just whining.
But it did, somehow, make a difference in one's life, didn't it? For example, he was here. And when Henry phoned saying he had taken some pills and he was grateful for Wing's lifetime of friendship, Wing partly understood, and partly wondered why he had not shot himself instead.
One inspiration for this story was an article about a serial killer who targeted single, middle-aged men. The article explored how these men, though they had no conventional family life, maintained deep friendships with other single men. They would call each other to say good night, etc., and function as each other's emotional support. This was very moving. I wanted to write a story about a lifelong male friendship.
A native Central Californian, Carmen Lau is currently a psychiatric technician trainee at Atascadero State Hospital. Previously, she taught English in Hong Kong and Shanghai and attempted to relocate to Ireland and England. The best-laid plans of mice and men. Her stories can be found in journals such as Hayden's Ferry Review and Wigleaf. Her short story manuscript, The Girl Wakes, won Alternating Current's 2015 Electric Book Award and will be published in 2016.