A Box of Madeleines

Mar 28th, 2018
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  1. A Box of Madeleines
  3. I step into the classroom and it seems like no time has passed at all. The smell of old, slightly plasticized textbooks hangs in the air. The desks, chairs, and shelves are casually battered but still stand the test of time.
  5. Even though he isn’t here now, I expect to see Mutou in the corner of my eye - slumped at his desk, reading the newspaper for the day.
  7. I have come up to visit Yamaku on short notice - to see a friend who isn’t actually here. She isn’t dead; not quite yet, but she is quickly on her way to being so. Maybe 1-3 good years left.
  9. I have a theory that when we leave a phase or period in our lives: moving from elementary school to middle school, from baccalaureate to university, from university to employment - we die and are reborn again from the ashes.
  11. Yes - we’re not truly reborn - we still retain all the memories and friends that shape us as a person. But, we lose all the systems and linkages that define us, and so we are forced to start anew.
  13. Saki and I have been on and off through the years. While I have the rest of my life to live (provided this old heart of mine doesn’t let me down), she only has a few years to go, and wants to spend them exploring the world. I can’t fault her for not wanting a traditional career with long hours, or cubicle with a tear-calendar on the wall counting down the days.
  15. So, when she’s around, we court and eventually date. But she’s always pulled off to some far corner of the world, to find a temporary job teaching or waitressing or whatever will pay the bills for the next adventure.
  17. She’s vowed to me that she’ll die with every single credit card maxed out. This secretly pleases me, although I hope she hasn’t covertly cosigned my name on a few of those cards.
  19. Instead, it makes me jealous of Saki, and uncertain of myself. She is so filled with purpose because there is a looming deadline in her future - this will be the last time she see the Louvre in Paris, or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
  21. For me, I can’t seem to find purpose in anything. I have so many years ahead of me to see it all - to hike mountains in Peru, or stare at the glimmering sea of the Aegean. And so I ignore all of it - because I believe I can do it in the future.
  23. More importantly, I don’t travel with Saki on these journeys because I rationalize them as expenses to my career. I can’t take off a few days much less months as PhD student, and I wouldn’t be able to afford the travel anyways. But every day I don’t spend with her is another off the ticking clock, and the clock will eventually run out.
  25. So I don’t spend time with the girl I love because I believe she’s going to die soon and I’m not yet; which confuses the hell out of me. So I thought I’d ask an old friend; or at last an older version of one.
  27. Like Proust’s Madeleine, we can revisit the past anytime we choose.
  29. ———————
  31. I take a seat at my old desk and wait patiently. It’s the summer holidays, so no-one’s around except for a few students who didn’t go home. And I doubt they’d fuss about an old alum reliving his halcyon days.
  33. Sure enough, my eyes defocus slightly and she appears. The same short beautiful chestnut hair, pressed white shirt, and cane.
  35. “Hi Hisao! Long time no see!”
  37. I can’t help but smile; even if she is just a figment of my imagination.
  39. “Hi Saki. Still haunting the students around here?”
  41. She winks maliciously at me and slides her finger on my chest, lingering tenderly on a scars.
  43. “You know me - always stuck in the past. And I can’t help it when there are so many cute guys around.”
  45. A wealth of bygone pleasures crosses my mind - a easy walk into town for tea at the Shanghai, or smoking illicit cigarettes on the roof of the school. Maybe sneaking into the secret steam tunnels, or swiping alcohol from the Nurse’s secret stash.
  47. As much as I’d like to relive these now, they aren’t the reason why I came.
  49. “Saki, I had a question for you”.
  51. She pulls back and smiles at me, with golden eyes sparkling in the afternoon sun.
  53. “Shoot, Hisao. I know you didn’t come all this way to ask me about what new flavors of bread they serve in the cafeteria.”
  55. A deep breath.
  57. “Imagine it’s a few years from now, and you and I are somewhere between friends and partners. You keep traveling on faraway trips to the corners of the world, and I’m not sure I can follow because I’m trying to build a path for myself and career. I want to spend as much time with you as possible, but I’m scared of what the future holds for me.”
  59. She cocks her head to the side, and twists one side of her mouth into a curl. A cute curl, of course.
  61. “Well, Hisao, that’s a tough one. As you know, I’m quite a catch, but very hard to hold on to. I’m on a limited clock here, and there’s a lot of world out there to see.”
  63. She pauses, and reconsiders for a moment.
  65. “Look, nothing in this life ever works out perfectly. I could tell you a sob story about how my dad cared for me but no-one gave a shit about him, or my bitch mom, or anything like that, but let me tell you a different one.”
  67. “When I was a kid, I used to check out books about Versailles and Marie Antoinette. More than anything in the world, I wanted to go there and see what it was like to be a true French Queen. Have I been there yet?”
  69. “Yes”, I answer.
  71. She smiles.
  73. “Good. Now I’ll continue.”
  75. “I read that when Versailles was being re-designed, Marie Antoinette wanted the rose garden to have every single variety of rose in the world, so that every single time she visited there would be a new fragrance in the air. Yes, she cared about the palaces and the halls, but the roses were her favorite”.
  77. “Of course, you know how the story ends. Beheaded, revolution, disgrace. But the roses, Hisao, can you imagine? On one year, she had over 2,000 new roses delivered to the gardens at Versailles. The air must have been the sweetest in all of Europe.”
  79. “I can imagine her and the gardeners darting from section to section, marveling at each bloom and cross-breed that sprouted from the ground. Impossible to appreciate each and every rose for what it is; a genetic marvel of time and evolution, appearing just at that time and pleasure. But somehow worth the effort, and time, and as a whole.”
  81. She sighs.
  83. “I suppose what I’m getting at Hisao, is that life is a mixed bag. Everything you say makes sense - I probably am darting around the world on boneheaded adventures; and you probably can’t follow since you’re pursuing some sensible research job in some sensible lab somewhere. The first thing I found attractive about you was your levelheadedness - you were the exact opposite of what I saw in myself.”
  85. “So take it easy. Appreciate the roses for what they are - not the shriveled petals they will be a few months, or the pale-green bulbs they were months before. Yes, I’ll only be in your life for a few weeks or months at a time, if you’ll let me. You don’t have to; but it’s just part of my blessing and curse. I was always destined to go earlier than others, and for this, I try and live every minute like the diamond that it is.”
  87. I open my mouth to respond; but she continues.
  89. “I know it’s not easy, Hisao. It’s not the answer you want to hear. But I promise you the Saki in Stockholm or Cape Town is thinking of you every day, even if she only calls or texts every few days. She wouldn’t be happy cooped up in an apartment in Tokyo. If you really love her, you’ll set her free, and let her come back when she needs to. It’s just the cruel way of this world - a beautiful garden of roses that blossoms and fades away before we can appreciate, much less understand it all.”
  91. I lean back in my chair, pausing to take it all in. Straddling the back of her chair, she leans forward, smiling warmly into my eyes. A deep, rich, golden brown.
  93. “So, Hisao, did you get the answers you needed?”
  95. “Yes” - I say, not finding the need to say anymore.
  97. She turns and skips to the window, looking into a blue, clear-skyed day.
  99. “Ok then. Come back to visit anytime - you know I’m always here.”
  101. She turns to face me, and with a deep embrace as we say goodbye. I can still smell the rose-petaled perfume off her shoulder.
  103. —————
  105. I have a few more errands to run before I head back into the city.
  107. I’ve heard that a tall, willowy blonde still frequents the teahouse on a slow Sunday afternoon.
  109. An infinite number of lives to end, and an infinite number of lives to start.
  111. —————
  113. "Ave Maria", sung by Jerzy Knetig and the Warsaw National Philharmonic
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