Day of Rock

By Mark Halpern

I take the 4.5 centimetre green-stripe candle from my pocket and squish it into the 110-gram wagyu steak on my friend Derek’s plate. Right into the tenderest part near the middle. Lighting the candle, I sing, “Happy Meat Day to you. Happy Meat Day to you …” I’m wearing my dark blue Brioni suit, with an Egyptian cotton shirt, silk pocket handkerchief and pastel-striped Armani necktie, all tastefully coordinated by an obliging shop clerk.

Approaching the climax, I execute a tight, crisp two-finger drum roll on the tablecloth, crescendo-ing to mezzo piano. The well-cultured-looking bunch one table over takes notice. Finally, “Happy Meat Day to youuuuu,” rallentando, appassionato, still pretty much in key. The next table watches keenly as if I were the most cleverly sophisticated foreigner they’ve ever seen.

In this, they are wrong. But at least they get the joke, as does Derek. Though his birthday isn’t until the following week, today is indeed Meat Day. February ninth. Niku, “meat”. Ni, “two,” for the second month, and ku, “nine,” for the ninth day. The real, once-a-year Meat Day – not just the 29th of some indiscriminate month, when your local supermarket promotes sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. Derek blew out the candle and proclaimed a wish for world peace and a worldwide 37.5% tariff reduction on beef, pork and poultry.

We choose our friends, even casual ones, from among the people we gravitate to naturally, and until high school it didn’t occur to me that not everyone loves numbers. As for words, well, they are, by nature, compellingly fascinating for us humans. Surely. And if you delight in words and numbers you can earn a good living – at least if you write cleverly about numbers other people don’t understand for an investment bank that transfers you to Tokyo. Okay, so the job didn’t much call for music – my other passion – but two out of three ain’t bad. And thus, until a couple of years ago, my life, day to day, was mostly not unpleasant. Although I lacked a sense of purpose, and of connectedness, I had the freedom to buy a Brioni suit in Ginza at full retail price and keep on spending with recklessness.

Now I’m on my own. I’m responsible to no one except the overseas-based clients – I like to call them “partners” – whom I help to assess the Japanese market potential for their miscellaneous goods and services. My connection is direct and my purpose relatively clear, though so is its frequent absence. It all depends on whether my “partners” value me enough to pay me money, which, lately, they mostly do not. I’d picked out that particular suit for a meeting with a much-needed potential new client scheduled for 15:00 in the impressive conference room, with its dark-stained mahogany table surrounded by twelve tall leather-backed chairs, that I’m entitled to utilize 5.25 hours per month within the basic charge of the shared office facilities I inhabit weekday daytimes. My preliminary goal was to not spill food on my clothing. The considerable challenge that even this posed likely went unnoticed by the next table, so distracted were they by my panache and faux joie de vivre.

There’d be no such distraction for my father, should he ever visit. He’d zero in on how I really live and see only that. Then he’d call my career move an irresponsible prioritization of amusement over earnings – in my mind his grey, monotone voice already utters those very words. He’s previously heard my rehearsed speech about desiring a personal connection with my work-product and also a less-cluttered life, which is all true so far as it goes. I’d be unable to conceal my other motivation. To wit, a primal desire to work shorter hours. 

But my father will never pull himself away from his own words-and-numbers career long enough to visit me. In fact, nobody ever tries to discern what I actually do all day. This further privacy – I already had lots, since the few people who know me well live continents away – was self-employment’s big unexpected reward. Also, in Japan you can even be truthful about lacking sufficient work. If you say you do nothing all day, everyone assumes that saying this merely reveals a humble attitude and, if you’re an educated and properly-dressed Westerner, that you must doubtless be successful – not least because of an admirable humility thought to be much too rare among Westerners. So, openness coexisting with privacy. But the B-side of privacy is loneliness.

I’d hoped to use my newly-fabricated non-work hours to find a woman to marry. Someone with at least overlapping interests, someone to be with and to count on. A life partner. But I’m no closer than before. On the one hand, many Japanese women are of a type that seems to like Western guys, and I have an accumulation of expensive clothing and an impressive job title. On the other hand, that’s not necessarily the sort of woman I’m looking for. Also, I lack confidence, am not good looking – weakish chin, baldish head, roundish shoulders etc. etc. – and am apparently incapable of hiding my nerdiness, especially around women. So it’s hard to find someone who will both understand me and also love me, and whom I can love back.

Since I arrived in Japan, a small number of women have come and quickly gone – I believe all were, fundamentally, good people. Always, though, there was an absence of genuine intimacy, and of deep communication, and I’ve never known whether the problem was individual or cultural or both. I suppose this may just be due to my inadequacy at one of life’s central tasks: figuring out how people are the same, and not the same, and why. I like to call this the “other-people problem.” Perhaps I don’t understand other people at all, and that’s why they don’t understand me. Whether that last statement really makes sense, I don’t know, but it has a nice symmetry – and when I apply it to my life so far, it reveals a pattern of predictably-repetitive failure that has a different sort of symmetry, algebraically speaking, but which too is nice.

Anyway, zero-point-zero progress on romance – just more hours for feeling lonely.

Also, I’ve come to learn that when no one else is around and you don’t push yourself forward, you can drift to a standstill. Thus, into worry, ineffectiveness, self-doubt and cash constraint. And more intense loneliness. Which is why I’d invited Derek for lunch – a lunch whose ending was now forcing me to march back and face another expected failure. Then a most pleasant thing happened.

Lingering behind at the next table was the petite woman with large, round eyes who’d smiled at me directly and knowingly. Her smile had been as if to approve my musical efforts – my putting up a good front – while suggesting she knew I wasn’t what I seemed. She looked upper thirties, around my age, but her longish black, undyed hair already had crinkles of grey that somehow made me feel trusting. When she finally stood up, her pleated navy skirt temporarily stopped short enough to reveal skinny legs that were a little sexy and highly adorable. We spoke a few words and – I couldn’t help it – I awkwardly proffered my business card, identifying me as president and representative director of a company whose name conveys no hint that it lacks other employees. She studied the card very carefully, both the English and Japanese sides. Then she said she liked my “playfulness,” all the while smiling in her knowing way. And then she looked into my eyes so deeply I felt the floor vanish from beneath my feet. But after a few seconds she said a quick goodbye and rushed to catch up with her friends.

Week after week passed and I still kept thinking about Fumie – that was her name. I wasn’t optimistic I’d ever see her again, but she did exist and, I believed, she sensed who I truly was and even so found something in me attractive. This – just merely this – was a spark. It gave me impetus. Though my mood still fluctuated up and down, my trend line shifted distinctly to positive. I started celebrating more special days. Most of these I invented – which isn’t hard, given the variety of Japanese syllables associated with each different number.

In terms of concepts, not all these special days were intrinsically uplifting, but I was, in my admittedly idiosyncratic way, lifting myself up. My creativity had returned by February 19th, which I deemed the Day of Absence-of-Gym-Class (fu-taiiku – futa-ii-ku – 2-1-9), though I treated it merely an excuse to veg out. But on Thank You Day (3-9 – san-kyū), I determined to be thankful right through the morning. Then, on April first (4-1 – yo-i – good), I was good – reasonably good – nearly all day. And on May third (5-3 – go-mi – garbage), I systematically threw out all the accumulated refuse in my apartment. These are, of course, just examples.

But Garbage Day was a high point, after which I spent a month drifting downward. My billable work was still thin and I was becoming depressed. Though nearly two years had passed since I’d fled a work environment where self-worth seemed everywhere measured by salaries, bonuses and perks, I hadn’t quite broken the irritating link between money and the meaning of life, which I like to call the “real-world problem.” I still lived in the real world.

In the worst case, I could float along for a while on accumulated savings. I would survive modestly, without pain or drama or achievement. But it would be humiliating if my business failed and, once again, I had to do what some boss told me, all day and frequently into late evening. Especially after my high-minded proclamations, to my father and others, justifying my career restructuring.

My life seemed pointless. I sank to my lowest yet, foreseeing loneliness ahead forever. But then an email came from Fumie.

She politely inquired after my well-being and apologized, without explanation, for her delay in writing. The email, though quite brief, included Japanese phrases rich with connotation, and a few that were disarmingly delicate. As I reread her email again and again, its words – they must have been chosen with great care – increasingly conveyed to me a longing for affection. A longing, it seemed, she’d tried to partly reveal and partly conceal. Like step one in a multi-stage sequence for opening up her true self. It was as if Fumie knew exactly what I needed to hear.

I replied instantly – uncontrollably over-eager, yes, but also seeing no point in playing games. I invited Fumie to dinner the following Monday, June ninth, 6-9, ro-ku, rokku, Rock Day, which I explained, truthfully, was the most special of all my special days. A day to celebrate rock and roll music – even more than we should celebrate it the rest of the year. Though many Japanese seem ignorant of the Day of Rock, I did not invent it. It existed before I got here and will exist even if I someday return home. The Day of Rock. Is Japan cool or what. Our high school rock bands may die, but the music lives on forever. I mean, rock on, man. Rock on!

I did not conceal my nerdy excitement.

Writing in English, I said “I want to celebrate such a special day with someone who herself is special.” Trite and corny that may sound, I was confident that Fumie, being Japanese, had never heard anything like it. Anyway, those words said how I felt.

Fumie wrote back that she loved rock music and wanted to celebrate with me. She said she couldn’t stay out late and suggested meeting at 17:45 at a quiet little bistro not far from where we both worked. I agreed and, during the intervening days, kept rereading her short emails.

On the morning of the Day of Rock I put on another of my expensive suits and its pre-coordinated accompaniments, and began calculating what to say first when we met. I wanted words that indicated my thoroughgoing commitment to honesty, yet didn’t sound goofy or otherwise off-putting. But that day my work was relentlessly – and encouragingly – busy, and I needed to finish on time. So when Fumie appeared precisely at 17:45 wearing subdued-sparkly eyeshadow, all I could think of was, “You look beautiful. I’m so happy to see you.”

Fumie said she too was happy and complimented my necktie. She again looked directly into my eyes, but this time smiled differently, more simply, artlessly, without a grain of pretension, maybe because we were completely alone – it was early and there were no other customers. I wondered if, like me, she felt vulnerable. I tingled all over, like the one time as a teenager I’d got up the nerve to ask out a girl I really liked who then said yes.

I remembered to get Fumie to do the talking and so right off asked what she thought of the background music. She said only that she liked “all music,” so I knew she was shy. It was John Coltrane playing “Too Young to Go Steady” and every sensitive, intelligent person must surely have an opinion.

After scanning the menu, I ordered two glasses of Champagne for celebrating the special day, and also some French wine, because that’s what the man is supposed to do. As I can’t tolerate alcohol well, I was glad Fumie drank most of the bottle – in principle I’m against wasting food. We talked mostly about our jobs, and she agreed right away that we’d afterwards go back to my office to watch rock videos together on YouTube. Actually, I’d already booked the conference room until 22:30 – I could carry in my portable computer, Ekotech pre-amp and McIver XJ speakers from my exclusive work space, which is really just a crowded cubby hole with a door. Since Fumie ate lightly and didn’t want dessert or coffee, we finished dinner at 18:50. I stayed calm the whole time, even after learning she was a tax accountant and liked numbers. All in all, everything went nearly perfectly.

Once outdoors, Fumie was more distant, more reticent, but I supposed this was just because strangers were around. That became clear once we reached the conference room, where she touched my arm and then sat so close her body sometimes brushed against mine. Her modesty in public was so nice. Shyness in a woman is so comforting.

I suggested we take turns deciding videos, but at first Fumie kept insisting that I choose. Her letting me pick tunes helped me relax, especially as I took this as concrete evidence of the compassionate and sympathetic personality I’d sensed in her during our brief meeting months before. On my side, it was important to pick thoughtfully to make a good impression. I told Fumie my selections would be chronological – I’d already decided against choosing thematically or geographically or based on the musical development of particular artists or their chains of stylistic influence on other artists etc. – and started with “School Days” (Chuck Berry) and “Glad All Over” (Dave Clark Five). Then I was brave and picked Smokey Robinson and the Miracles doing “Ooo Baby Baby,” a very romantic number, and as we watched I talked about the difficulty in drawing a clear line between rock and R&B, which I like to call the “rock-versus-soul problem.”  Whenever I sang along, Fumie would move closer to me. She said I had a good voice and then, suddenly, pressed the back of her hand upward along my leg.

I’m not the kind of guy who recounts his sexual exploits, so I’ll just say this. My selections included “Eight Miles High” (the Byrds), “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes), “Blinded by the Light” (Manfred Mann) and “With or Without You” (U2). All Fumie picked from the classic rock era were the Beatles doing “Yesterday” and two tunes by the Ventures. Otherwise she chose bland J-Pop hits and a few 1980s British heavy metal bands. But everyone is entitled to their own taste in music – and perhaps I myself need to further develop my appreciation. Regardless, it was undeniably my best ever Day of Rock. Around 21:30 Fumie went home, as I did, but I lay awake very late thinking about her.

That same week came the Day That Is Meaningless (muimi – mu-i-mi – 6-1-3) and I rejoiced in the irony, as Fumie was bringing meaning to my life. Unfortunately, her work became busier and it was a month before I could next see her. Again, it was very early on a weeknight.

We met at the same restaurant and our dinner was much like the first, but this time I invited Fumie to come afterwards to my apartment. Though it was somewhat far, we’d have more comfort and she’d be able to see my vinyl collection. But she was concerned about the time, so by 19:10 we were back watching YouTube videos in the conference room, which, fortunately, was still unbooked. As to our act of physical intimacy that evening, I’ll just say that it was beautiful and moving and touching, and that I felt connected to her. Later, as we watched Cat Stevens singing “The First Cut is the Deepest” and then the Temptations and Supremes together singing “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” I felt tears forming and had to turn my face away. It was July ninth, 7-9, na-ku, naku, “cry,” but that was a mere coincidence.

Fumie remained terribly busy and weeks kept stumbling by without our meeting. My own work at last picked up too, which I used as an excuse for not visiting my parents – my first summer skipping a trip home – but, really, I didn’t want to miss a chance to see Fumie. Having her in my life brought optimism and a sense of all-round well-being, making me confident at work and, even, giving me strength to discipline my communications with her. I sent only one long email per week, which I proofread carefully to ensure it didn’t push too much. Thus, even when asking about her favourite flowers (hana, ha-na, 8-7) on August seventh, I merely said I’d bring a bouquet next time we met, whenever she was free, without pressuring her on the timing. It was enough that I’d let her know, on that special day, that she was in my mind.

The day we finally did meet, I went to the florist beforehand to pick out each flower to be joined into an expression of my affection. This time Fumie had suggested that instead of a restaurant, we get take-away food, so I purchased elaborate o-bento boxes in the basement of Mitsukoshi Ginza and a bottle of very fine sake that I hoped she’d enjoy, and reserved the conference room for 17:15. Then I could lay out everything in advance and set up the computer and sound system. As always, Fumie was precisely on time, and beautiful. Seeing her face after all these weeks brought sharp pangs of joy.

      On impulse I selected “Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood” (The Animals) and then immediately “Say a Little Prayer” (Aretha Franklin version), which, inevitably, did nothing to lessen the intensity of my feelings. Still, when I felt the urge to say “I love you,” I could find the strength to stay silent – I thought Fumie might not yet be ready to hear these words out loud, though she must surely have seen them when she stared piercingly into my eyes. During our remaining 85 minutes together that evening she didn’t smile – I believed she was experiencing an emotion that could not, due to her modesty, be expressed in a smile.

     From that day on I floated with happiness. I lost restraint and kept pressing Fumie to see me again, which happened about two weeks later. This time it was midafternoon. The night before I’d stayed up late, planning words that would be utterly truthful, but delivered in a calm and measured way. I even practiced out loud.

Fumie had suggested an ordinary coffee shop and when I arrived, I felt ready. I steeled myself and remembered my purpose.

“My heart is full,” I said. “Let me—”

“No. I will go first.” And for the next five minutes Fumie did the talking.

From the start, she said, she’d assumed I was in my mid-forties, married and sought nothing more than a short fling. This she’d believed true of all middle-aged Western men. When I invited her to my apartment, she figured it must be a place I kept to take women, which wealthy guys like me could afford.

“But I’m—”

Fumie lifted her hand and continued. She herself was forty-five. She was married. She had two teenage children. She had no intention of jeopardizing the stability of her family. She was sorry if she’d done anything that caused me pain.

I asked why she’d looked so deeply into my eyes again and again – somehow that was all I could say. Fumie replied that I had “attractive blue eyes.” I guess this was a kindness, her way of letting me down lightly. It was September ninth, 9-9, ki-ki, kiki, “crisis,” but that was mere coincidence. Fumie doesn’t care about such things.

From her perspective, no doubt, everything made sense. As always, the “other-people problem” strikes me down. So again – or, rather, still – I am alone. Also, I’m humiliated at my foolishness, though my life’s built-in privacy lets me keep that private. On the plus side, during the brief period I felt connected to Fumie I was able to put my business on a better footing. And, though I apparently didn’t know her at all, I now possess further evidence of my potential attractiveness to women. But the pain has grossly outweighed the pleasure, and I’ve crossed February third (2-3, fu-mi) off my list of special days. Whether I’ve learned something that generates a net positive return over the long run, I cannot yet say. For the time being I shall call this the “Fumie Problem,” for want of better words.

Mark Halpern has lived since 1993 in Tokyo, where he runs his own law firm and writes stories about foreigners in Japan.  He was born in America, grew up mostly in Canada, and has also spent much time in the UK and France.  As for Japan, Mark has, like some of his stories’ characters, found a way to be both an outsider and an insider.

Three Poems of Korea

Lag

by Ash Dean

Jiyoung   looks over  a  bowl 

of tiny dried fish      seaweed

and rice  While  I     eat    my

cereal hoops    We          flew

against  the     spin  through

the night  shuttered    inside     

with  an  unquiet mind now

everything  is  off    We  vow    

to keep breakfast       in  our

new time without   sleeping   

I  feel   somehow      divided  

from    myself    Somewhere     

I am       plowing         a field       

or baiting   a hook  morning     

is brisk                I wait      for

water   the         zig zag   line

at immigration       replaced

by the smell   of rusty pipes  

Sitting here   with my   wife

I make another vow to find 

myself  I am   behind   I am

ahead   The good world   It

wobbles as it spins The sky

never waits    but     we are

bound     to          return we

are bound  to    the        arc 

of    the      earth        never

completely    at rest       the

muscle          in our      chest

wherever we        stand      it  

pushes       and          pushes         

but  never    away  while we

ride   We         always     ride

RECOGNITION: PUSAN, SOUTH KOREA

by Bob Perchan

You know you’re
at home
finally
in a foreign land
among an alien
folk
on the street
in the market
at a bus
stop when
from the face
of a stranger
strutting young
blade or dolled
up agashi
(“virgin miss”)
besotted office
drone stumbling
homeward
crinkled sidewalk
auntie peddling
mushrooms
and yams
the familiar eyes
of an old
friend decades
dead
a perished father
a lover long
gone over to
the Other Side
stare back

Dear Korea

by Sean O’Gorman

Dear Korea

and your dreamy neon lights,
Nascar cab drivers indifferent to my safety belts,
you’ve always given me a bed,
at times it’s been a park bench,
but if you couldn’t get me home you always woke me up
with sunlight.
Thank you.

When you live across the ocean from your past
done it long enough
you begin to speak mostly in landmarks
and memories.

Being here there’s a list of names
it grows inside of you
you’ll watch it get longer with the more people you meet.

Here we cram lifetimes into years
the way we do holidays into weekends.
Our friends back home will never understand
this shifted perception of time we share.
We blink in months.
The realization of how long I’ve been here
is the difference between surprise
and shock.
I’ve coasted this peninsula for more days
than it has kilometers around it.

The clocks here all speak in rotaries,
the calendars laugh every year I come around.
I swear every single one I buy has fewer days in it.
Time here only recognizes what you’ve done,

It doesn’t care about what you want to do
so we take our hearts out of our chests for each other,
for the people we’ve just met.
When we do meet
when we find each other,
it will be somewhere lost.
It’ll feel like I’ve always known you
been looking for you
didn’t know it until that very moment.

If you’re new I’ll pull you aside.
List all the groups to join online.
I’ll tell you
there’s a truth to the noraebangs,
we half mention it on the nights that never end.

Make the most of your time here,
but be mindful of a few things.
People drive motorcycles on the sidewalks in this place.
Drinking is its own highway
half wonderful
half blackout thunderstorm,
there’s nothing at the end of it,
trust me,
I’ve looked.

If you need me
I’ll always be in the way,
somewhere between last class
and first drink,
look for me where I eat
where the tables are the offspring of building blocks,
they cater to any size crowd.
When I ask to meet you
it’ll be half-way.
Meet me at that place
where for some reason
only one of us knows how to get to,
we’ll speak in pin drops just to get there.

What I love about this community,
the people here
all recommend other people you should meet.

To everyone on that list inside of me
all of you reading this right now,
it’ll feel like a coin toss
which one of us will leave first.
If it’s you
we’ll throw the right kind of party
it will begin somewhere in an afternoon,
shuffle last times
in favourite places.
It will end a few days later
a little more broken
but a bit more ready.
If I’m the one to go
know this
I will carry a piece of you with me,
all my friends back home
will know you by name.
A part of me will break.

When we do leave,
we’ll never fully leave each other,
a part of us will always exist here
like songs lost in a playlist.
I’ll remember you
when I find a sudden genre shift to the music,
where a single drink
turns into an entire night
when I stay up late enough to watch the sunrise
anytime I eat take out
you’ll exist for a moment there
on the outskirts of my peripheral vision.
Remember me when you spell a word wrong,
when one of your friends
drunkenly leaves the bar
without saying goodbye.
I’ll exist in those moments
when they become no longer physical
a landmark trapped in a memory.
a picture in a shoebox
a smile
when you’re all alone.

Ash Dean is an MFA graduate of The International Writing Program at City University of Hong Kong. He grew up in Ferguson, Missouri and currently lives in Songdo, South Korea. His work has appeared in Amethyst, Cha, Drunken-Boat, Gravel, Ma La, Mason’s Road, Red Coyote, Soul-Lit and anthologized in Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia. He is the author of Cardiography from Finishing Line Press.

Robert Perchan’s poetry chapbooks are Mythic Instinct Afternoon (2005 Poetry West Prize) and Overdressed to Kill (Backwaters Press 2005 Weldon Kees Award).  His poetry collection Fluid in Darkness, Frozen in Light won the 1999 Pearl Poetry Prize and was published by Pearl Editions in 2000.   In 2007 his short-short story “The Neoplastic Surgeon” won the on-line Entelechy: Mind and Culture Bio-fiction Prize.  He currently resides in Pusan, South Korea.  You can see some of his stuff on robertperchan.com.

Sean O’Gorman is a Canadian spoken word poet living in Ulsan, South Korea. He’s the literary editor for Angle Magazine and has been organizing the Cypher open mic in Ulsan for the past 6 years. He’s competed in multiple national and international poetry slams, toured Canada as the featured poet twice, and released 5 collections of his work.

Two Poems for Paris

Paris by Carol Alena Aronoff

Paris was always more than Paris:
the light of Monet’s garden
illuminating Renoir’s picnic,
the playgrounds of Matisse, Lautrec.
Art drunk with croissants
every morning
on lace-covered tables
with forsythia blooms
in cerulean,
the aroma of burnt sienna-
cups brimming with water lilies,
pure ambrosia
soft like ripe brie.
The Jerusalem of Chagall
where every man
who sees the fiddler
on Notre Dame’s roof
becomes a Jew.
Even mounds of lush peaches
form fine sculptures
outside Georges Pompidou station,
art, like lunchtime lovers
spilling everywhere.

Exhausted Soil by Alice-Catherine Jennings

Flattened out, zip lined to zero
I feel the flames spear out & rip
through the gambrel of Our Lady—
Notre Dame…“La flèche! La flèche!”
the spectators sob as the spire collapses.
How can I then return in happy plight


to Paris? That roof—lattice of wooden
beams cut from trees in pristine forests.
Trees so huge they exist no more. Now I—
must weep for the trees! And night doth…
make grief’s length seem stronger.
And yet,
in Iraq when St. Elijah, Dair Mar Elia


was crushed by ISIL fever, clouds did
not blot the heavens of my thoughts.


*How can I then return in happy plight and And night doth nightly make grief’s length seem stronger are lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 28.

Carol Alena Aronoff, Ph.D.is a psychologist, teacher and poet whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. She was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has published a chapbook, Cornsilk and five full-length poetry collections: The Nature of Music, an expanded, illustrated CornsilkHer Soup Made the Moon Weep; Blessings from an Unseen World  and Dreaming Earth’s Body : poems by Carol Alena Aronoff, paintings by Betsie Miller-Kusz . Her sixth full-length poetry book, The Gift of Not Finding: Poems for Meditation, is forthcoming in 2020 from Homestead Lighthouse Press and another chapbook, Tapestry of Secrets will be published by Finishing Line Press in November.

Alice-Catherine Jennings grew up in Ohio playing the accordion at poker parties. After years of working/studying here and there in the US and in Mexico, Colombia, Germany, Italy, and Portugal, she now lives in Santa Fé, New Mexico. Her poetry has appeared in various publications worldwide. 

Attaya

by Bob Kunzinger

Late at night we drink tea with a hint of mint and sugar stirred in the dark leaves. Traditionally, at least here in Senegal, the host pours the pot from high above a few glasses, no drops missing. First, the chief or a guest or someone with a birthday will slurp it from the rim of the glass until it is empty, and then more is poured from the pot’s high perch and the glass is passed to the next person around the fire. The tea is potent. By eleven pm my African friends, whose nature and genes defy caffeine, sleep peacefully while I, well, I clean the village, repair the Mosque wall, redesign the flawed forage, and fill the troughs.

This tea opens my veins. Once I couldn’t sleep, so I scrubbed the kettle, rid it of months of food chunks, rice burned black to the inside. At dawn, our cook cried, “Who cleaned the pot?!” I confessed and smiled, but everyone stared, shook their heads and walked away. That night the rice was dry and bland. Weeks passed before whatever had grown or crawled inside the kettle returned and flavored the food. I blame the tea.

The tea ceremony is called Attaya. The first round is strong and bitter, the second sweeter with a hint of mint, and the third round is sweet and minty. It mirrors friendship, which grows over time to reflect how the longer we know each other the sweeter the relationship becomes. What happens most during Attaya, however, is talk. We consume conversation. We talk about the rain, if there is any, the wind, which is more common, and the oppressive sun. And the villagers return to their natural spaces, rest or sleep peacefully. I leave the fire wondering if I had enough materials to tunnel to Mauritania. I just can’t sleep.

I usually drink first, last and sometimes after each other friend around the fire until I am tea’d up as if I drank two pots of espresso. I vibrate. I stare at the stars while friends snore nearby, and I redesign the heavens. At home, I might have dozed off in front of a movie after a snack, seldom walking out to see the stars, settling instead for the famous ones on late night television. But not in the village where after the tea and conversation around the fire leaves everyone fast asleep, I sit up straight at three am and find astrological images of American authors. “Look,” I’d tell no one, “there’s Hemingway! And Orion’s belt looks like the shotgun he used. And there to the south is Fitzgerald, the racist bastard. Look, there’s Zelda picking his drunk ass up off the floor.”

Wired.

But, unlike at home, it doesn’t wear off. No ebbing sense of tiredness, no headaches when I don’t drink. No. When I first arrived in the village, the chief looked like God; he is taller than most, well over six feet anyway, and dark, with long, thin, strong arms, and a white robe that wraps down his legs. He is ancient and eternal. He is Achilles. He is Gandhi. He is Mohammad. Even when doing nothing at all, this man has complete determination about him.

“What is your purpose here?” he asked me in those first days. “Why are you here?”

“To see what’s out here; to meet people like you,” I said, and he nodded. “To have a look around,” I added. “To see more stars. You have more stars than we do at home.” We laughed, and that first night he poured tea in some beautiful and ritualistic way. I had traveled often, but never before had I felt so safe, so in touch with a group of people, and so welcomed. I wondered what life here would have been like had the Europeans not decided for them what their future held. At the same time, I could not imagine a more genuine existence. I stayed.

One night, while staring at the stars, after I found the zodiac which resembled the Stoning of St. Stephen and profiles of Chinua Achebe, I went out to the well where men did not go during the day, and I hauled up water for the emaciated cattle. Some nights I’d study Arabic, listen to men chant, grind millet into flour, and teach myself Fulani. Often, I’d walk outside the village wide awake, stupid awake, like the personification of some nocturnal double-shot, and I’d blend with the sound, the lack of sound, the immersion of my entire self in the liquid of African sound and listen to what was missing. It took a complete opening of my senses to finally tune in to what wasn’t there: no sound of blame or disillusionment. No sound of hypocrisy. All I could hear in that tight-rope awakeness was that one passing moment: the complete absorption of now.  It took an absolute absence of civilization to feel completely aware and connected.

It wasn’t the tea. Sugar and caffeine had nothing to do with this.  

When I first came to the village, I bought space in a van on Saint-Louis Island just below the Mauritanian border. The driver, a tall Toucouleur man with black etched marks on his temples, told me to join them. At one point on the all- day trip east to the village, across the river region of Senegal, our van driver pulled over to sell us to another driver. They negotiated beneath the hood of the van while we sat in the dust of the worn-out road, its edges chewed by age and wind, some portions completely digested by drought, and those of us who weren’t Muslim ate rice and drank warm water beneath the oppressive May sun.

We were sold quickly to the other driver and eventually we left. At dusk again, we pulled over so the driver could break fast along with any others who so desired, and shortly later we continued on to our final stop where well after dark I trekked on foot across the barren land.

I was befriended by many in the small village, and through hand signs and a friend who spoke Pulaar, we communicated. Eventually, the conversation moved toward history, toward colonialism, toward the west, and toward slavery. I told them I was on Goree Island a month earlier. It, along with Saint-Louis Island where I spent the night before catching the van east, had been holding areas for slaves during French rule from the 1600’s through the 19th century, and even before then as ships moved back and forth to Lisbon. Saint-Louis, in particular, became the crossroads of all things West Africa. It was the gathering place for Europeans and Africans, Christians and Muslims, slaveholders and slaves. It was on a West African island like Saint Louis where Europe first stole the heart of West Africa when Antonio Gonsalves brought Africans back to Portugal in the 1400’s and began one of the longest sustained genocides in the history of humanity. It was simple enough to pit Africans against each other—supplying arms to one area, such as Mauritania, to capture another area, such as Senegal. What remains, then, is a region raped of her strongest men, her most able women, and her very future. What strength this continent must have had and lost. It was only later in the village I discovered the idea, the faith, that is Inch’Allah, “if God agrees.” I had never experienced faith like this where fasting is a pleasure and where sacrifice is a gift.

And every night, I look forward to the break of fast, so with my friends, I can drink potent tea.

Awake doesn’t really describe it. It is the kind of consciousness that comes with the confidence that everything is going to be alright. You can’t legally grow that. It doesn’t brew well.

At dawn, before the fast of day, there is a way in which everyone wakes, smiles, and moves like fluid through the small village. It is Ramadan, and people eat before dawn to sustain them through the day, when through fasting rather than swallowing they seek the grace of Allah, and the pangs of hunger remind them of their pure pursuit of the truth. Then as the sun sits on the horizon, they wait, watching, water and bread at the ready, to break their fast and come to life, culminating before long in Attaya.

But for me it is the space, the unreachable horizon, the vast imagination of Africa spread like distant but promising hope. It is that quick but fleeting moment of clarity that makes me sit up straight and watch the increasing soft glow on the eastern plains. It is the persistence of some primitive way of life that had no chance of surviving but survives anyway which finds me in prayer and at peace, which keeps me awake searching the heavens.

Bob Kunzinger is a writer now living in Virginia who lived in Africa for some time. His work has appeared in World War Two History, The Washington Post, and many newspapers and journals throughout the world. He has published eight collections of essays, and several works have been noted by Best American Essays. Bob is currently at work on a book of essays about crossing Siberia with his son.

The above ATTAYA image is taken from here.

Howie Good

Ashes, Ashes

About 5 in the morning, while most passengers were still asleep, the train barreled across the short border between darkness and light. My carryall bag on the overhead rack contained an entire set of ant-dreams in polished amber. Spies lurked everywhere. “Moose. Indian,” they reported me telling a contact. Actually, I wouldn’t meet my contact, an Orchid of Asia, until some days later. At one point I forgot the word “cremated” and had to ask her, “What’s it called – incinerating the body?” We were standing in a muddy alley by a pomegranate tree whose fruit the children pretended were bombs.

The Wind

Somehow we were always expecting something like this, a strange wind off the Atlantic, moaning and cursing and full of old hurts, tearing shingles from roofs and slamming birds against windows, threatening to fling us, too, into another country, where there are roadblocks and random document checks and coked-up child soldiers with machine guns cradled lovingly in their arms, and still it comes as a shock, so many people given a shove or a thorough beating and warned to move on, a pretty crappy way to die, when we might have just stayed together under a green tent of leaves.

Howie Good is the author of I’m Not a Robot from Tolsun Books and A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel from Analog Submission Press.

72 Hours in Goa

by Mordecai Feldman

Editor’s note:  My cousin, Mordecai “Morty” Feldman, occasionally writes articles for the Travel section of The New York Times. Last winter, I joined him and his wife for a trip to Goa, India. He sent me the following story, which will soon be published in the Sunday magazine supplement, pending a few revisions and editorial streamlining. In exchange for me keeping quiet about a few indiscreet moments of the trip, he agreed to let the readership of Foreign Literary Journal have the first look at his dispatch. You’ll note that I do not appear in his article. This is not because I asked to be left out; it’s because Morty informed me that he just didn’t like me very much.

–Steve K. Feldman

Good old Goa!  Good-as-gold Goa: the golden jewel of the Indian Ocean coast, former Portuguese trading colony, cradle of Full Moon Party hedonism, famed stop on the Hippy Trail from Istanbul to Bangkok in the swinging 60s, and my home for a month the summer after my sophomore year at Dartmouth, where I truly found myself.

Laugh if you want.  Yes, I was strolling along Goa’s fine white-sand beaches, watching the sun, the color of a ripe pomegranate, sink into the placid sea, watching a team of locals drag a fishing scow up onto the sand. When they finally had the boat stowed next to a grove of coconut palms, they collapsed from near-exhaustion, but they smiled and laughed in easy camaraderie, and shared cigarettes; their thin, lithe brown bodies oily with sweat—perfectly at ease and peace, content with their hardscrabble existence.  They had everything they needed in their little world right here—and how lucky I was to share just a sliver of it.  It was at that moment I decided to switch majors from Hebrew literature to finance and management. So I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Goa, and let me tell you, as an options trader at JPMorgan-Chase, I don’t often get accused of having a soft spot for anything, except for making great gobs of money.

Of course the whole Full Moon rave has long since moved on to Koh Phagnan in Thailand, and Goa as a whole seems to have suffered from the “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” Yogi-Berra-ism, with most of my friends these days, when heading out for Asian vacations, opting for eco-tourism in Myanmar, Sumatra, and Borneo instead of the sandy stalwarts of Goa, Phuket, or Bali.  So, with my trading desk closed for a few weeks as SEC agents combed through our hard drives looking for the evidence of insider trading I’d erased months earlier, I found myself with time on my hands. I thought Goa was fresh for a re-visit to see if the tandooris, the masalas, the chais, and of course the fiery vindaloos were as good as I remembered or at least better than Sammy Najapur’s on W. 53rd St., which always catered our casual-Friday lunches until our real estate subsidiary bought their building and tripled the rent, forcing them to move to Hackensack but hey what are ya gonna do?

My first pleasant surprise came when we found out that Goa had its own international airport. (“We” being my latest wife of 10 months Tayghan, who insisted on being mentioned in this article. Okay Tayghan, you got your wish. You got mentioned in the New York Times Travel section!  Congrats! Happy now? Do your friends and family down in Richmond even read the Times?) With its own airport, that meant we could fly straight in from Charles de Gaul without mucking about in Mumbai, which still seemed to be reeling from the latest Pakistani-funded terrorist attacks. It would have been nice to stay at the Taj Hotel again and taste the excellent brioche from their patisserie, but apparently the last of the jihadists had holed up there, and the Indian security forces’ elite Black Squad had to pry them out with tear gas and flamethrowers, and since then, word is the espresso there just doesn’t taste right anymore—residue from the tear gas perhaps?

From the airport, I decided to rough it for the ride to the beach. I was already in the spirit of my old backpacker days, so we hired a private car for $80 instead of a private limo for a still-reasonable $250. Tayghan protested, but I insisted we start out by getting an up-front, up-close-and-personal, boots-on-the-ground taste of Goa, and what better way to start than by sitting only 3 feet away from our private driver, instead of 9 feet away and separated from him by a plexiglass divider?  India is all about the smells, and I wanted to smell our driver—that strange cumin / coriander / fenugreek / turmeric smell that Indians tend to faintly exude even when freshly bathed.

Goa’s accommodations truly run the gamut—there is something there for every taste and every budget—from the flashy 5-star resorts like the Amari Golden Mandala upwards of $1200 a night for an ocean-view suite, all the way down to charming little boutique resorts like the one we opted for, called the Anjuna Beachcomber Inn, at a wallet-friendly $280 a night!

Upon check-in we were greeted by the owner himself, a charming rotund little Bengali gentleman named Naresh who had somehow escaped the “shithole of Kolkatta” (His words! His words!).  He was now living his dream running a little beach hotel, serving spicy curries and cold mai-tais and making friends from all over the world (You just made two more, Naresh!  Good job! You have the cutest little head-wobble!)

After stowing our bags, Tayghan immediately wanted to go shopping. I thought she might have been all shopped-out from the Duty Free in Paris during our layover—but guess again!  So I forked over my credit card and we strolled along the little strip of shops in the lane behind the beach. We bought some silk saris ($70 each), a teak incense holder in the shape of a hooded cobra ($135), and some bronze wind-chime mini-gongs ($325). Make sure you bring your hard-bargaining skills to Goa—you can easily get 30-40% off the first quoted price, if you’re not worried about being seen as a cheap Jew. Tayghan was soon oohing and ahhing over some driftwood sculptures of Shiva and Vishnu that she thought would look great at our cottage in Easthampton, and picked out three or four. Tayghan stayed to work out the shipping details with the owner, and I continued on down the street.

Music was coming from several different shops and beach bars, creating a hypnotically mellow mash-up entwining Bob Marley, sitar-and-bamboo flute melodies, Hindu chanting, and Coldplay.  I passed by an incense and wall-hanging shop with its owner standing in the doorway surveying the passers-by with an easy grin and a twinkle in his eyes.

“What do you need, Boss?” he said.  “Weed? Coke? X? Acid? Anything you want, no hassle, boss!”

Well! Soon I found myself sitting on a coach in the shop’s back room, waiting for the runner to return with my order, the owner and I chatting about the changes to Goa in the last 20 years. “So many Russians now, my friend!” he said. “They are completely exasperating. I must admit to you!” And then the head wobble, followed by, “But they do have lots of money you see!  And so we must be welcoming to them!”

“The men are pigs, but their women are hot!” I remarked.

He gave me another wobble and said, “On that we can agree, my friend!” And then the runner came back with my order: three hits of Israeli ecstasy (Flash! lightning-bolt imprint–$25 dollars each), a gram of coke (Columbia, shade-grown coca leaves, fair-trade certified–$80), two tabs of acid (Amsterdam, Snoopy Sopwith Camel imprint—$15  each), and a half-ounce of cheap Cambodian weed ($30). I added 10 Goa keychains and bottle-openers (50 cents each) for our secretaries and cleaning staff back at the office. Can’t forget the little folk!

With both Tayghan and I worn out but satisfied from our shopping haul, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging by the pool. For dinner, we opted for the restaurant at the Imperial Lisbon Coconut Hideaway where the pistachio-crusted sea bass and curried king-prawns with the truffle glaze were simply to die for! The wine list was surprisingly impressive—as I sipped from an impressive bottle of Argentinian Torrontes Ugni blanc ($280), I thought, wow, am I really in Goa? And as I did a line of coke in the men’s room while Tayghan was chatting with the young Russian couple at the adjoining table, I thought, “oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Whooooooo, FUCK!”

I came back to the table, and found that Taygan’s new friends Dmitri and Sasha had invited us to a rave party on the beach by their resort! Well, I was a little too old for raves, but what the heck! Goa was truly a place for making new friends, and the X and the acid would make the music palatable, I thought.

“So are you guys married?” I asked our new friends while Tayghan was off in the ladies’ room.

“No, not married,” grunted Dmitri. Sasha, a thin, stunning blond rolled her eyes and looked away, an expression on her face of perfect boredom.

“Ah, how long have you been dating?”

“We are not dating. She is Ukrainian whore.”

“Oh, how interesting,” I said. “Um, how much was she?”

He gave me the rundown:  $300 an hour, $2000 for all night, $4000 for 24 hrs, long-term engagements negotiable with her pimp back in Kiev. “Yes, I bring three with me,” he said. “You want one?  I give to you, no problem.  You have threesome with wife.”

“Oh, haha.  Thanks, but I don’t think Tayghan would go for that!” I said.

“You are man. You make the money. You tell her—this is your vacation, you fuck who you want to fuck. You must be hard, and she will understand. You American men, so afraid to hit a woman!”

Tayghan came back and soon we were off to the beach rave, where Teghan and I danced with one of Dmitri’s whores while the other two fellated him as he stood knee-deep in the ocean, hands clasped behind his head, gently swaying as the beat of techno matched perfectly the rhythm of the twin blond pony-tailed heads bobbing at his crotch. It was the perfect ending to our first day in Goa!

Up next for tomorrow: paragliding, an Indian cooking class (yum yum!), and visiting a Hindu temple while tripping BALLS!

Steve K. Feldman currently lives in Cheonan, Korea, where he teaches literature and creative writing at the Bugil Academy Global Leader Program. He has been contributing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, theater performances, and stand-up comedy to a myriad of publications and events across South Korea since 2003.