I found it strange to receive a postcard just a few days after having read a short story by Haruki Murakami about a young man who, too, receives a postcard. It carries an invitation to a concert in which a young woman he knew from his student days would play classical piano pieces. Even stranger was the fact that my postcard also included an invitation to a concert in which a woman, a pianist, I had known about a year ago would play solo piano pieces as well. For a moment, I believed I had fallen victim to a hallucination caused by a severe lack of human interaction. The protagonist of the Murakami story, whose title escaped me momentarily, had never felt drawn to the woman when young. In fact, the opposite held true; yet he decides to attend the concert, a venue atop a hilly Kobe neighborhood, which he reaches on foot only to find it unlit, uninhabited by musicians and audience alike, the front iron gate locked. I, on the other hand, sadly, had been infatuated with Amélie Mori.
On the way down, the dejected protagonist encounters a few things: a wandering, evangelical voice; and then later on a man, an apparition plaguing his mind with questions about a circle with more than one center, which pokes him to ponder how the things in life that humans sometimes cannot solve are the only ones of real value, like cream at the top. Try as he may, he cannot figure out why as a young man he found her either unattractive or irritable, but still decided to RSVP her before going to the concert. It bothered me as I finished the story why he never showed up at the address he had RSVP’d his postcard to. Perhaps it came from the address of the small concert hall. Perhaps the gathering was cancelled, and the musician failed to alert all those who had consented to come. The possibility of a prank played by the woman’s boyfriend on all those whom he suspected of being in her romantic memory could not be ruled out. Anyway, right now my mind was focused on Amélie and her upcoming concert. The invitation didn’t have her personal address, just the address of the Church, a regular site for classical performances, date, time, and a short personal note: Hi, I’d love to see you at the concert. Hope you can make it. Love, Amélie.
This was also the first time I had picked up a book of fiction, or any book for that matter, in a very long time. An ex-roommate had loaned it to me long ago. Except for news headlines, I barely read anything. So now the uncanny similarity between the story and my life made me forget that we were living in a pandemic and that going to a concert was the riskiest thing one could do to expose oneself to the crowned droplets. In all the haste and excitement, I reasoned that she wasn’t going to be singing. An attentive usher at the door would make sure that everyone had a mask on while seated at least six feet apart. It was a doable feat if supported by common sense. Eager to end my self-imposed isolation, I decided to forgo the resentment I had retained towards Amélie since our last get-together. I wondered, as I wandered around the apartment, how our feelings towards another person depend so much on our own circumstances. Would I almost feel gratitude towards her invitation had I not been feeling depressed and lonely?
I had received a phone call ten days ago from a person who introduced herself as a contract tracer working for the city, informing me that I had come into contact with someone (by law they had to keep the name anonymous) who tested positive recently. After going through the usual routine in a very sympathetic, professional manner, and determining I had no symptoms, she advised me to quarantine myself. I wanted to crack up and tell her that I had already been doing just that. She also made sure before wrapping up the interview that I understood the nature and importance of the situation. I did and I reassured her. I didn’t tell her that I couldn’t figure out where I might have come into contact with such a person because it had been months since I hung out with anyone. There had barely been anyone left in the city whom I deemed worthy of my emotional energy. I had been a recluse for a while now. Realizing the inappropriate nature of my thought, I didn’t try to layer up our conversation. Flirting over the phone was outdated, inappropriate, and could land you in trouble. She did warn me that I could be asymptomatic. I understood. Our conversation ended with platonic promises. She would check in on me in a few days, she alerted me, to make sure I had lived up to my promise to procure everything I needed to remain within the confines of my aloneness. My inner quarantine, however, predated the one imposed on me now. Gone, too, were the days when I had ended up befriending a woman who helped me with my credit card problem over the phone from an Indian call center. We flirted safely. I wasn’t the first Pakistani she had helped. That much I knew. But she made it sound as if something about my voice or name had made her wet. I too had a hard-on. But when her email arrived in my inbox a few days later, I had to blink a few times. Pretty soon we were having online sex almost every other day. It stopped when I got bored and she realized I wasn’t going to marry her. Times had changed drastically since then.
I had met Amélie during the last local elections. She handed me a flyer urging me to vote for her candidate, who was running for my district supervisor’s seat. Like me, she too had a slight accent. Attracted to her instantly, I prolonged our conversation about the corruption in the city, the tech takeover, and the political machinery set up by the Democratic party to make sure progressives didn’t take over. We both seemed to hit the right notes, and before we parted, she asked me about the book I held in my other hand. I had been reading Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard for the last few weeks. “How strange, I’m reading a novel by the same title but by a Belgian-French woman writer. Here,” she said as she fished out a slim book from her bag. Taken aback, it was at that moment, I believe, we both detected immense loneliness prowling behind our eyes. Spacing out for a moment, pressing the wrong keys, she finally entered my contact info into her phone. After crossing the street, when I turned my head, I saw her looking at me before a crowd of people obscured my view. Ah ooh, I sang joyfully, knowing that’s not the same Emily.
I had put her out of my mind after not hearing from her for over a month. Nothing new, I thought. That sort of thing had happened to me before. Pointless to keep up the hope, I thought, but she surprised me one Sunday morning, wondering if I’d like to meet her at Cafe Macondo on 24th Street for brunch. When I showed up, she seemed downcast. I couldn’t pry out the reason. I tried different tricks and baits to no avail. Although she did say she wasn’t working on the candidate’s campaign anymore, that seemed to have made life better for her, not worse. The source of her despondency, or discontent, lay somewhere else. I could tell she was a private person, not an introvert like me but someone you could trust with your personal feelings and secrets. I met her at a time I had begun to lose friends; not that I had many to begin with, one after another. A few I lost due to political differences, the rest just moved to faraway places like Buffalo, Albuquerque, Orlando, and Tempe. Imagine losing four friends to such pointless places! I detected a hint of — the reason I felt drawn to — Amélie herself going through the process of losing friends. I felt people like us belonged to a tiny minority that refused to accept virtual human connection as a replacement for actual physical contact.
“I’m sorry I am not very good company right now,” she offered by way of an apology.
I offered to do most of the talking even though I wasn’t a very talkative person. I used to be very shy, but I soon realized that it hurt me in my personal life, affected my relationship with lovers, friends, and relatives. I worked on it persistently, not to remain silent when something bothered me, to voice my opinion so others wouldn’t have to decide on my behalf. Now, that had landed me in a state of friendlessness. As we met a few more times, she began to open up, just a little bit, not too personal where it concerned her emotionally but about her habits and hobbies. She liked to cook, both Japanese and American food. And she loved playing the piano. But she told me about her obsession with the piano with a touch of regret and melancholy.
“You say it sorrowfully,” I said.
She sighed, turned her face away. I remained quiet. When she looked back at me, she had tears in her eyes. I could have used words. Instead, I let my eyes do the conversation. I waited for her tears to drop at any moment.
“You won’t understand,” she said.
I was hurt but still didn’t say anything meaningful.
“Do you have a piano at home?” I asked finally.
She nodded. “A beat-up one. It belongs to my ex. He moved back to Japan.”
I nodded this time. I wanted to hold her hand to comfort her but was only able to tap the surface of our table with my fingers as if I were practicing tabla playing.
She looked at my fingers, putting their movement to rest. Then she looked into my smiling eyes.
“I could’ve had class,” she said.
At that moment, I decided to reach for her hand finally. That was a big risk, but it yielded fruit. She didn’t withdraw her hand. I pressed it. She reciprocated the gesture.
“I could’ve been a contender instead of being a bum.”
“You’re no bum. I’m so sorry that you feel that way,” I mumbled. Why she had chosen to speak famous lines from a movie puzzled me even as they melted me. There was an edge to the classic lines lent by her subtle accent. Nevertheless, I assumed a poker face. Because right then a memory flitted before my eyes. My Korean friend Kang-dae, otherwise known as Joe, couldn’t pronounce the word bomb, and one day when he narrated an episode of his skirmishes with the police in Seoul in his student days, he baffled his listeners by saying, “The riots had broken out. We struck and faded dodging police, who were lopping tear gas at us, but then suddenly a bum exploded.” I was the only one who knew he meant bomb, because that’s how Pakistanis pronounced the word when speaking Urdu or Punjabi, and it often carried into their English. One woman at the party asked, “A bum exploded?” but Joe carried on. I didn’t want to embarrass my friend, so I remained quiet. Mr. Quiet, that was me.
Even if Amélie had hoped that I would ask questions, that wasn’t my thing. I waited for her to offer of her own accord. Nothing more came. She had shut herself off after offering a slim peek inside her emotional world. We sat there, with my hand enveloping hers, while using our free hands to nibble on our respective omelets. The fact that she didn’t retrieve her hand from my touch served only to boost my confidence which made me commit, I wondered, an error of judgement. My face moved closer to hers, and though I caught the sudden and brief shock in her eyes, she received my kiss. Fearing I had gone too far — as this was different from a few one night stands I’d had before — I didn’t insist on taking her to my place, though I thought I sensed a gradual yielding in her body language. As if she was in dire need of a refuge. I was confused, later, by her own admission that she had a concert coming up for which she needed to practice without distractions. At that point, Amélie was the very personification of diligence. I thought I was the distraction. Before we kissed one more time and parted ways, she said, “I’d like to send you an invitation to my concert next Sunday. Please do come if you can!”
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world,” I said brimming with excitement.
“We’ll jazz up next time,” she smiled, happy at her attempt at punning on my name.
“We will,” I replied.
When her invitation didn’t arrive, I relived the above moment many times and blamed the missing invitation on my misplaced eagerness. It had scared her away, I was sure. I waited a few more days to see if she’d call or text. Neither came. And when I called her two or three times, swallowing my pride, her number, it seemed, was no longer in service. While I worried about her safety, my focus shifted to feeling angry and betrayed. She signified the downward slide my life had taken to a point where I’d have no friends, only acquaintances and colleagues, disinterested neighbors. From our last kiss to the arrival of the postcard, the world we lived in had changed for the worse. A tectonic shift had occurred.
Her postcard glinted like a ray of hope in a room of lightless quarantine. Even though I had wondered about people who committed suicide, I was not suicidal. My depression had never been acute. Even when I thought of my life as without purpose, I heard a clear voice in my head that reminded me that I had all the right to live. The postcard from Ms. Mori proved that. My quarantine was going to be over in the next four days, and I would attend her concert. I would take flowers for her. I thought of punching her number, which miraculously I still had, but the thought froze me. I wanted to see if it had started working again. I didn’t want to jinx it. It’s also better to meet her face to face first, to break the ice. I decided not to make her feel bad about not getting in touch with me. I knew from experience that there could be millions of reasons, reasons I wouldn’t understand even if I tried. Reasons my brain couldn’t fathom. That’s precisely what a circle with more than one center feels like, the one that doesn’t exist, or the one whose existence could not be explained. Or whose absence could not be accepted. Yet at the same time, a circle did have more than one center, one mathematical, the other emotional. Centers could be off. Not where they’re supposed to be.
On the day my quarantine ended, I allowed myself to entertain the possibility of reviving a few of my faltering friendships here and reaching out to a couple of friends who had reciprocated my lack of interest in staying in touch. New energy seemed to be running through my veins, flicking away the rust from my joints. I would like to test the waters with my cousins as well to see if their anger had thawed by now. In retrospect, I know what I did was none of their business and I was within my rights to make my own decisions. And yet having said all that, my American friends had very little clue as to what it meant to lose family and their emotional support for someone like me, who’d grown up in a very different culture. Thinking of my family, my cousins, and a few remaining aunts and uncles, made my heart ache. It brought tears to my eyes. If there was ever a time to know how my relatives were doing, this was it. As things stood now, I had no idea who’s healthy and who’s not. A silent prayer for their safety left my lips. I must have at some point been taught a formal Arabic prayer when growing up, before I went secular or Americanized or whatever. All silly tags. I felt the urge to dust off and tidy up my apartment.
I made sure the presence of the postcard didn’t drive me crazy, gazing at it again and again. I had put it away in a bedside drawer. Only once did I make sure it was still there, though there was no need for that. I knew the address of the Church by heart. The postcard didn’t list the pieces she was going to play. I still remembered the pieces she had been practicing when we met for brunch. There was Janacek and Hans Eisler for sure. Perhaps a piece by Hannah Lash. Was it November? While waiting for her postcard to arrive, I’d gone to the library to borrow the CDs of those composers. Imagine my sense of dejection when her invitation didn’t materialize! But now it was all water under the bridge.
I hadn’t felt this excited in a long time. My quarantine over, I had ventured out of the apartment several times since then. Today, I had bought a bouquet at a florist stall on Market Street. After contemplating for a while, I finally decided to wear a tie with my suit jacket. Classical and jazz concerts are formal events however small they might be. My appetite had returned. In fact, I had made a call to Johnna Provenzano in Orlando and left a message. She must have gotten a surprise of her life. Hopefully, she’d return the call from an old friend. We had been through a lot together. The concert venue was on Van Ness, a few blocks past Post Street, I vaguely recalled. I would like to walk and arrive a little ahead of time. Maybe, we would catch a glimpse of one another and smile and wave. I was blown away at the thought of what could be suddenly possible when life smiled.
The concert start time was 7 PM. I had planned to leave around 6 PM. Barely a half-hour walk, I hoped to slow it down further. Perhaps I’d recognize a mutual acquaintance or strike up a conversation with a stranger. I lay down on the bed, closed my eyes to give my mind and body much-needed rest, agitated after making another phone call to an old friend from City College, Mary Kindermann, whose motherly breasts still haunted me and who had stopped talking to me after we got into an unnecessary argument over what white feminism meant to us in this day and age. My mind drifted to Amélie’s kisses. The feelings weren’t one-sided, I still believed despite the hindsight of time and distance. There was something, a flicker of hope, a mild erotic spark, yin and yang of the souls. I caught my mind becoming restless again, thinking about the fact that despite all the right signs, a person could behave in an unpredictable way, defying all logic, unconcerned and unburdened by conscience or remorse for what that behavior, in this case going all silent, turning off the channels, would do to the other person. What if I committed suicide? Ah, that’s unfair. I caught myself making selfish leaps. Amélie could not be responsible if I took my life. But still, what kind of a person would go quiet on you? Not even send a note of apology? I suddenly saw the postcard as a form of apology, and even though I resisted the impulse to hold the postcard in my hand, it proved fruitless.
I examined her handwriting as if I was some kind of an expert at deciphering a person’s character based on how they wrote. Knowing it was bullcrap, I couldn’t peel my eyes off of the ink in which she had scribbled her message. She’d used a stamp with an Asian woman’s face on it, the one I’d never seen before. Just then my entire existence went flaccid. Every bit of information on the card blurred her message and the concert information, the picture on the stamp. The date was inscribed within the imprint on the stamp. I had to make sure I was still breathing. The imprint showed the year 2019, not the current year. Was this the card she mailed me last year? What kind of a joke was that?
I sat up straight in bed. I had looked at the date on the stamp at least a dozen times now. Suddenly, it felt, the burden to prove my innocence was on me. I didn’t know how else to find her. She wasn’t on Facebook or other social media outlets; at least not under Amélie Mori. I knew she was involved with an experimental classic music group whose name had vanished from my mind completely. I went into the kitchen. The flowers, which I had put inside a vase, stared back at me, glowing under the intense refracted sunlight. I looked for my phone. I dialed her number. It rang and rang and just when I was about to give up, a female voice answered. Weird, it got disconnected, and then got connected again.
I felt dizzy and thought it all took place inside a dream. I recognized her voice.
“Amélie?” I asked.
“Yes? Who is it?” she asked.
I forced myself to breathe. I worried she’d hang up.
“Ijaz,” I said.
“Who?” she asked brusquely.
“I jazz, you jazz . . . you used to say, remember?” I stuttered.
“I got your postcard . . . a year late,” I exhaled.
“What postcard?” she asked. “You’re not making any sense!” she added, clearly irritated.
“We met almost a year ago,” I pleaded.
There was a pause.
“Hello?” I wanted to make sure she was still there.
“I think you have the wrong number.”
“You’ve got the wrong number, man,” she said frustratedly.
“I got to go. Sorry,” but before she hung up, I heard a male voice saying something in Japanese in the background. I understood the sound of Japanese.
I felt deflated, drained, depressed. I heard the stems of the flowers bend behind my back.
My quarantine prolonged itself. I stepped out only rarely, only to acquire essential items. I stopped shaving again. I could go for days without taking a shower. Old linen and pillow covers didn’t bother me. I lost interest in my music collection and books I had meant to read. I needed a haircut badly but couldn’t bring myself to cut it short myself. A visit to the barber was out of the question. I didn’t return the calls from friends I had reached out to. I had now burnt that bridge forever, I lamented. I would watch the stupidest, the most frivolous TV shows ever made. I had made up my mind to run out of my savings, to get out of my apartment, and become homeless. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew it was easier said than done. I wouldn’t survive on the streets. On the other hand, I knew, from personal interactions, that many of the homeless grew up in normal homes. Sure, I had heard my share of the horrible stories. So I decided to walk out and stroll the city’s streets populated by the homeless and junkies. To see if I could tolerate the aesthetic. To observe how much clothing I’d need not to freeze to death at night. The thought of succumbing to injecting needles into my flesh terrified me, and I wondered if I could get by without falling prey to the junky scene. Nothing was easy in life, I told myself.
For the next month or so, I seemed stuck in purgatory. Finally, I mustered the strength to unstick myself from my apartment. It was after I had walked for over an hour, meandering through the meadow of suffering and madness, blue at the thought of not having a roof over my head soon, no lover to caress me, no friend to lend a helping hand, that I decided to find a place that was still open and sold coffee. A feeling that the life of a homeless person seemed to offer very little privacy left me discouraged. I’d take the coffee home if there wasn’t a place to sit outside. I was glad most people wore a mask save for a few careless and cocky souls. I waited at the red light to cross the main boulevard near my apartment to the cafe on the other side with a bright neon sign that said pen with the missing O.
Just as I started walking, I saw Amélie and recognized her instantly, processing disbelief and mortification at the figure I cut — shabby, unkempt, repulsive. I prayed she wouldn’t recognize me, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. Holding hands, she approached me along with another man, a tall Caucasian man — did I hear him speaking Japanese? — with a light beard and mustache, wearing a Giant’s cap backward. A tech bro, I presumed. I caught the sudden and brief shock in her eyes as we strode past one another before I broke off the stare, my heart pounding wildly. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her head turning towards me till I couldn’t see her anymore. The man beside her strode confidently, unaware of Amélie’s change of focus, looking straight ahead. My sense of self-respect didn’t allow me to look back. She must have thought she had seen my face before. Or did I look funny? I kept walking. The light turned green. I couldn’t suppress the urge to take one last look at my lost Andalusia and sigh. She looked right into my eyes for a long moment before disappearing behind other people taller than her. I was sure she had recognized me. I wanted to shout Amélie!
After unlocking my apartment, I went straight to the sink and began trimming my beard before jumping into the shower. I’d get rid of my beard altogether soon. I had never liked beards, but they would crop up from time to time because of my innate laziness. I was hungry from all that walking. I got the water boiling for pasta. In the meantime, I changed the linen and pillow covers. The apartment needed dusting but would have to wait till tomorrow. I was hungry and I overate. I needed a nap, so I went to bed. I tossed around on a clean bed sheet. Unable to sleep, I reached for a book of poetry I had bought after a reading held at Green Arcade. It took time for my eyes to adjust to the text, its rhythm, its sound becoming clearer as I read on. Still, it didn’t feel like those eyes I was seeing through belonged to me. The poems spoke of anger, loneliness, and other personal emotions, but also of hope. Even the reaction the poems were evoking in me seemed alien to me. Had Amélie loaned me her eyes and emotions temporarily? I wanted to laugh at that absurd thought. It was a slim chapbook and the poet had inscribed my name on the first page. But it was To a fellow poet that gave me a jolt. It was certainly a mistake, but as I flipped back to the next poem, I felt a nascent desire to write. Write what? I wondered. Did writing result from a feeling of loneliness primarily? I didn’t have the answer. I only knew I would at least attempt something, like a poem, or a haiku, or a very short story. Even if to overcome my aloneness. To remember Amélie. My eyes felt heavy from sleep. I remember that I had decided to call my first poem Amélie with a hat! before I drifted off to a deep sleep. How could a name evoke so much sadness as if it were an endless desert! In my dream, I saw Amélie wearing a hat made with a lot of blue, some green, and a bit of brown cloth. She looked very sad. At some point, she said that I should not miss her concert again.
Photo by Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock