“Basquiat would approve”
“No. It is pretentious as fuck”
“I am sorry, what?”
“But it is Basquiat’s opinion you want not mine”
“Right! A fan of the great artist then?”
“Do you mind?”
“Yup. But Basquiat would want you to sit”
“Friends call me Hiro”
“What do you call yourself Hiro?”
Hard to imagine that it is one year since you and I sat in this coffee shop, this very corner and had this conversation. It had to be a coffee shop. It had to be Christmas. You had to be an art enthusiast. And of course really fucked up. But you didn’t tell me that then, did you?
One year ago today. I remember the lights. How otherworldly downtown Iași looked from where I sat. I had stumbled on this quaint coffee shop tucked between a pub and a rugged bookstore while walking home one evening. The bookstore next door is one I frequented because the owner, Ana, didn’t mind me staying long after closing hours. It didn’t hurt that she had stories that I could listen to for hours on end. Now that I think about it, Ana must have been waiting for someone just like me. You couldn’t get her to stop once she started talking.
That month, when the wintry weather was just about to hit Iași, I literally lived in the bookstore and the coffee shop. I went to the bookstore early in the morning and read all day. Sometimes I took coffee breaks and listened to Ana. I read some more and when Ana closed for the night I went to the coffee shop next door. I always sat at the corner table by the window where I had a clear view of the street. From this corner, I watched people hurrying to get home and get warm. This people-watching was accompanied by double espressos and Dostoevsky, whose complete works I read that month. I stayed until Mariana, the barista and now a dear friend, closed the coffee shop for the night.
I settled into this routine that quite frankly worried many around me, until the day you came into the coffee shop. I would like to say that day was just like any other day but it wasn’t. It is never just like any other day when your life is about to change.
“Can you hear it?”
“Thoughts. So loud people across the street must know how miserable we are”
“Why are you working tonight anyway, Mariana?
“Too many questions. What are you doing here?”
“Here for the coffee, man!”
“Are you going to pick then?”
“Music for this dreary night”
“If you choose Country I will throw you out”
“What was that?”
I picked an old school Country record and the coffee shop came alive. Mariana was not impressed. I knew because she suddenly became quiet, stifled a curse and went back to grinding coffee beans. Mariana always sang along annoying the people she worked with so when she became quiet I knew she was not digging my country vibes. I smiled to myself and decided to change the record after a couple more songs. Shortly after, the old door rattled scaring the shit out of Mariana and I. You walked in. Or to be precise, you burst in. Months after, Mariana and I would talk about how you came in that night, as if from nowhere. And to try to cheer me up she would make fun of the worn charcoal grey sweater that hung on your frame like a tent. Before we could recover from that startle your voice cut into the air.
“What sad music to be playing on a day like today! Jazz. That’s what you want on Christmas. Nothing but Jazz! Whose shitty taste is this anyway?”
Mariana and I were silent. I could hear Mariana’s curt response on her lips. But she didn’t get to say anything because you were already changing the record. Jazz floated in the entire room like a massive velvet cloud enveloping everything. In that one swift movement it grabbed my heart and…
“Anything but Jazz!” I shouted jolting everyone, including myself, to a jump. You walked to me and in the softest look spoke to me. It must have been a minute, I am not sure. I am, however, sure that is the very moment I knew you hadn’t just walked into the coffee shop but into my life. And I should have known to walk away that very moment.
“Basquiat would approve”
You pulled a chair and instead of sitting across you dragged it and sat next to me on my right. I remember thinking what an odd thing to do but before I could say anything.
“What is wrong with Jazz?”
“What does it mean, your name?”
“It’s not mine actually”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s my brother’s”
“So what is your name?”
I wanted to ask what you were telling me but not telling me. I didn’t ask because you wouldn’t stop looking at me. Mariana walked over with a fresh pot of coffee, poured you a cup, refilled mine and walked away with a slight shrug that I received with a slight shrug. So we sat down, you and I, and in silence had our coffee contemplating people who had peopled Jazz for us. That was Christmas last year.
You didn’t tell me why Jazz made you lose your shit that night. But I knew there would be time for that because that night, as I sat next to you, I finally understood what had brought me to Iași.
You didn’t explain your storied name that night or the many days and nights that followed. But I am not one to let things go so I brought it up often. Well, at least when I sensed a lightness in you. I could always tell when the heavy darkness in you shifted a bit and allowed some sun to visit. Those days that you came home from one of your long walks with a spring and a smile, busied yourself in the kitchen and came up with dishes that I can only describe as pure magic. Those days were far between and I found myself longing for them; for they lifted the darkness that I’d been carrying for months. It is during one such time, after enjoying another one of your delectable meals that I brought your brother up again.
“How many times huh?”
“How many times what?”
“Will I ask you not to call me Tak!”
“C’mon Tak! Then tell me about him”
“Your brother Tak, your brother”
We did everything together, my brother and I. He is older than me but we are more like twins. We were more than just brother and sister; we were friends. He could do the most annoying things when we were kids; he loved to hide and sneak up on me when I least expected and scare the hell out of me. Sometimes he hid my painting gear and I had to do a mad search in the house in a mad rage. But I still thought the world of him.
Of the two of us he was the reader. He read everything. He is the only person I know besides you, who read with such vigor that everyone and everything ceased to exist in his world when he was immersed in a book. He would read five, six books at a go. And he loved to talk about what he was reading. It was quite usual, and I came to expect it, for Takahiro to wake me up at three in the morning to share something he had just read. He would sit on my bed, read out a paragraph and proceed to explain to me, in great detail, why that one particular paragraph anchors the entire book. At first I used to complain insistently; grumbling, I’d ask him to let me sleep. But if you knew my brother you’d know that he was not one to be put off especially when talking about books. So I learnt to sit still and listen hoping he’d finish soon enough and leave me to my sleep. I pretended to hate those nightly readings, but I must admit I grew to immensely like them. Even after so many years, I associate reading with my brother. He tried to get me into reading but I preferred art. We were different that way. He had words; I had images.
I followed him everywhere, and atypical of big brothers, he let me follow him around. His friends became my friends. At first they included me with polite smiles but with time they came to see me as an extension of Takahiro and so they started including me in everything they did. Most of his friends, just like him, were readers and books were a big part of their lives. They spent most of their time in this place in downtown Tokyo known simply as The Café.
The Café was a coffee shop during the day and a pub at night. They literally lived there, spending hours drinking endless coffees and beers, discussing the great writers and listening to Jazz. They were Jazz people, my brother and his friends. I made a habit of bringing my painting to the coffee shop, and while they debated and argued I painted. There was at least one argument at The Café every day. It was a sight to behold. They were loud and opinionated. Somebody would walk into The Café anytime day or night, sit by the bar, pronounce writer X the greatest writer that ever lived then look around the room and in this cocksure voice invite anyone who thought differently to challenge them. You can bet there was always someone ready with a different opinion. They were all well read, a fact you could easily pick from these daily arguments. In fact, the last painting I ever did is a representation of my brother and his friends in one of their heated arguments. I have fond memories of those days at The Café.
Then he left. I can call back that day. I woke up earlier than usual. It must have been six in the morning. As in every other morning the first thing I did was open the big window. I love the crisp air that introduces a new day. I stood by the open window for a few minutes. Just before getting a shower I noticed something different outside my window. The old momiji tree that was in full bloom just the night before was dying. Strange. I made a note to talk to mother about it but I didn’t because by the time I finished getting ready I was running late. I wanted to get a head start on a painting I was working on before The Café stirred to life. So I headed to The Café.
The first thing I noticed when I let myself in was how dark it was. Darkness so heavy I could almost grasp fistfuls of it. It is also the first time I clearly understood what people mean when they talk of a cold chill running through them. Takahiro sat on his favourite couch, his feet propped up. I remember being so confused. What was Takahiro doing here while he was asleep back home? My brother is one of those people who like to sleep in; late nights and late mornings. Then I saw the old book awkwardly sitting on his chest.
“Crime and Punishment keep you from sleep huh?” I asked playfully tagging at the charcoal grey sweater he had loosely tied round his shoulders. Nothing. I prodded him. Nothing. That’s when I lost it. I started shaking him furiously. I begged him to answer me. I even promised to read all those books he kept nagging me to. If only he would wake up. Please wake up Takahiro. They found me hunched over him, heaving in pained sobs. I sat there thinking how can my brother, the happiest person I know, decide to die?
When were you truly happy, Savanna?
The last time I am truly happy, it is Christmas of ‘93. Mami comes home the day before from Nairobi with the news that father is coming home for Christmas. Because homes are places fathers come for Christmas. We wake up with the birds, mami and I, to get ready for the day. We clean, we dust, and we sweep. We sit in silence. Then we start again and clean until not a single speck of dust is left. We think of time. We have to get everything done before he comes. We take tea breaks in between work. I look at mami when she is not looking at me. I see now she has a small dancing smile; so small I almost miss it. That smile, though small, comes to me with such force that I feel it enter into my heart and make a home there. And her eyes? My god her eyes! I can see the days of old through her eyes. I haven’t seen mami this way in years. Not since father left.
My memories of childhood are full of laughter and music. And father. These memories almost always come to me from the kitchen. I didn’t particularly like the old kitchen, what with all the bitter smoke rising stubbornly from the fireplace, but nothing would keep me away from father’s stories. I remember the many stories that accompanied our meals. I understand now that most of those stories were stories that mami and him had lived when the world spoke in the tongue of new love. That is why mami always chuckled when father started telling me those stories. Besides stories, father loved Jazz. The only music he listened to. He had an old record player that he’d been gifted by his great grandfather and a collection of Jazz records that was the subject of envy among Jazz connoisseurs in my village. He was a Jazz man, my father.
After he left, I’d go back to these memories. Wrap myself in their warmth. Will them back. But of course they never did come back because they were just that; memories. Until Christmas of ’93 when mami came home with the news that father would be coming home. It made me so happy to see mami so happy. The last time that I was truly happy.
Did your father come back home that day?
Mami made chapo because they were father’s favourite. She used to joke that if he ever reincarnated, father would come back as either chapo or Jazz. A long time ago chapo was my favorite thing to eat. We set the table. Mami loved to set the table in fine china. She took great pride in it and did it with such ceremony. “Mami, we don’t need to set the table. It is just us.” I chided her often. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. Mami is not one of those mothers who give you endless grief if you accidentally break her fine china. We had no such thing as thani cia ageni. Anybody and anyone could use any plate or cup in mami’s house.
We sat down and waited. With each passing hour, the smile disappeared from mami’s face. Darkness crept into her eyes by the hour. I remember watching her and as she sunk back into herself, I had this fire of anger burning in me. I didn’t want mami to know that I was angry. So I downplayed it, served us both plentiful servings of chapo and stew. Mami wouldn’t touch it. She wanted to wait. Fucking broke my heart. And I made a decision right then; father wouldn’t be coming home ever.
Tonight I sit here in the coffee shop that has housed my soul for the last few years. Same table. Same corner. And think about you. Sometimes I think I imagined the whole thing; that I made you up. A factor of too much coffee and too much Dostoevsky. But I can’t possibly have imagined you because you are all over everything I look at; all over my body. It is now three weeks and two days since you left.
I am here tonight because, like you, I have decided to leave. You can’t ask where I am going because even I haven’t asked myself that question. But I am leaving. A word before I leave.
If you are reading this then it means you came back. It must mean that we meant something, you and I. Is this, us, what has brought you back? It is unlikely that I will be back. I am not known to go back. So in many ways this is it. I am leaving this letter with Mariana with the instruction to burn it when it strikes midnight next Christmas. One year. I have made her swear on her grandma’s grave that she will burn it. As if fire is the answer to everything. Remember when you came home that one evening and found me standing by the kitchen sink in a trance burning all my journals? I remember now how infuriated you were. How you wouldn’t speak to me for days after that. I tried to explain it to you then. That I was finally happy and I didn’t need the journals to remind me of dark days and cold nights. Didn’t want them creeping up on me and stealing away this new happiness that you had brought me. You can’t do that. You kept telling me. I can and I just did. Don’t you see? For the first time in a long time I am happy. I kept telling you. But you wouldn’t have it. You might want to know that I got a new journal three weeks and two days ago. It is still blank. This pain has found no words yet. Anyway, one year. After which Mariana will burn this letter. Why am I writing you? You once told me that I am lucky to have words. That while you need to go for long winding walks at night to call words forth, I have them effortlessly flowing in me. True. Let’s pretend that this is me, seated at a coffee shop, letting words flow from me to you. Just words. But that’s not true. I am writing to let you know that I am fucking pained. This is a pain that I want to live with. You will think this strange because all we have done, you and I, is try to get rid of pain. This is a pain that I welcome and embrace. Because with this pain sits the memories of some of the best days of my life. So then, tell me Tak, why would I want to get rid of this pain? What are you doing with your pain these days Tak? Is there a new pain even? Where has this new pain taken you? Where the fuck are you Tak? Btw, your mother called. That very morning that I woke up to a crisp empty air next to me. The old momiji tree has bloomed. She says to tell you. I hope you don’t read this, if you do come back, and think it is a sad goodbye note. This is a thank you note. Thanks for the pain, Takahiro. And the love.
Mariana and I embrace. It is a quick awkward hug. There are things we both want to say but can’t quite put into words. If she is to have her will, Mariana wants me to cut this bullshit and stay. But she also knows I must leave. I promise her I will be back. Empty words. She snickers and says she will be happy with the occasional letter. With a tight smile I grab my rucksack and head for the door. But just as I am about to open it, Mariana stops me. She comes to me as if she has changed her mind about letting me go and gathers me in another hug. This one tight and lingering as if she needs it more than I do. And in that last gesture I hear everything she hasn’t said. I squeeze her to me. Then she remembers something, tells me to wait and runs to the back room. Muttering, she comes back to me and hands me a tattered copy of Crime and Punishment. Of course I recognize this copy. Takahiro’s brother’s Dostoevsky. Before I can ask Mariana questions she can’t answer, she opens the door and with a look so sad it breaks my breaking heart all over again tells me to please go. I stuff the old book into my rucksack and walk.
The streets are thin; peopled only by the odd soul like me. You and I have walked these streets countless times, especially in the dead of the night because that’s when you need to talk to yourself. Tonight the streets do not quite embrace me. I walk about but I could be anywhere but downtown Iași. Strange that something so meaningful to you and I now seems starkly void; just an empty street on a cold December night. Inexplicably, this annoys me so deeply that I stop dead in my tracks and scream. I stand in the middle of the street for what could have been an entirety and howl until it hurts and I collapse into an uncontrollable sob. The first time that tears have come since I left home that fateful day. And so I weep. I weep for you; for thinking a broken soul could fix another broken soul. I weep for Takahiro; for the way he yanked your soul and left with it in the middle of the night. I weep for home; for a place I will never know again. And I weep for us; two broken souls who could only commune in pain.
When I stand, it is with a lightness so unfamiliar it takes me by surprise. I clutch the tired rucksack that carries my whole life and walk to the train station. Without looking back, I jump into the last train out of town. There are a handful of night travelers in the train. Usually, I strike up random conversations with people on the commute. Not tonight. I sit as far away as possible from everyone and pull my hoodie as low as possible shutting the world out. I retrieve Crime and Punishment from my rucksack. I hold it tight to my heart; so tight I almost can’t breathe. I close my eyes and sit still. And for a moment you are here with me. If this is why you would not remove your brother’s charcoal grey sweater, now I understand. Sadly this doesn’t last. Just as the train is about to pull off a last-minute person boards and scuffles their way into my right shoulder as they rush to the back of the train. Jackass! I hiss without opening my eyes.
A few minutes into the train ride I finally open Crime and Punishment. There is a thin brown envelope wedged in between the pages. The name Savanna scrawled at the top right in a familiar hand. I read it out. In a faint shaky voice first. Then in a voice so loud it reverberates across the entire cabin.
I stop for a second before slowly turning to the sound of that familiar voice.