“I took this walk to ease my mind,”
“I forgot about this one,” I mumble as David Bowie’s “Conversation Piece” beats to life on my expensive stereo. Memories of that night ten years ago flash to life behind my closed eyes. That night, back when I was an exuberant seventeen year old, back when I first heard the song playing softly in the background at a Starbucks. It was moments after I had bought the Heathen album at a nearby HMV.
“To find out what's gnawing at me.”
That night was a night of many firsts: the first time I took the Star ferry across the Hong Kong harbour, the first time I had a coffee at Starbucks, and the first time that my new friends Bobby and Sophie asked me what I want to do with my life.
“Join the military,” I said to them almost reflexively.
“It all seems so long ago,”
“I’ve changed so much since then,” I say to my dog dozing quietly on the lush red couch beside me. I grab my iPhone and turn the phone’s camera on. My sad eyes, slight frown, premature grey hairs, and scars stare back at me.
“I have done well, I suppose. I’ve got lots of money. But… being told where to go, being told what to say, what to think, how to dress. The things I’ve seen… the things I’ve done… the things I’ve missed,” I murmur. My dog grumbles and twitches in her sleep. I close my eyes again, listening intently to the song, trying to "ground" myself in the moment like the psychartist taught me. But my mind wanders back to that night.
“I'm a thinker, not a talker,”
Hong Kong is electric tonight. The typhoon is closing in fast. I notice a flash of greenish lightening illuminate the mass of dark clouds creeping up Kowloon harbour.
“We should get back to the hotel before this storm breaks,” Bobby suggests.
We finish our coffees and silently filter out onto the crowded sidewalk. Breathing in the humid jasmine-infused air, we boldly slide into the endless flow of human traffic and start the journey back towards the ferry terminal.
“I can't see the road
For the rain in my eyes.”
The walk to the ferry is long, but the streets are so alive, so full of beauty and wonder. I can’t read any of the signs, I can’t understand anyone, and I barely know where I am going. Yet, I feel at peace with my surroundings. There is an odd sense of belonging in a city so muddled with differences.
We pass a glitzy modern jewelry store. A retired Gurkha soldier is proudly wearing his former unit’s emblem on his green jacket as he stands guard out front. Cathcing his eye, the man smiles at me as I stop to look at the jewels I'll never be able to afford. I smile back.
"Come on," Bobby says. I take a step back from the window and nod at the guard. A brisk wind blasts down the street. I shove my hands into my hoody pocket and we pick up our pace.
A few steps later, we pass a Buddhist temple tightly crammed between office high rises. Inside the temple gate, a man in a business suit bows in prayer. Two orange robed monks walk across the courtyard and kneel beside the prostrate men. I stop for another moment, just to commit the scene to memory.
Sophie nudges me. I look at her and she is offering me a sweet bread she bought from a nearby street vendor. I grab a small piece and shove it in my mouth. The light and fluffy dough melts on my tongue, while the sweet honey and sugar explodes.
“And the world is full of life,”
I open my eyes and peel myself off of the couch. I climb over my slumbering dog and shuffle to a spare room where I store my military gear.
Moving to an old grey trunk resting silently in the corner, I shove aside the pile of uniforms and carefully open the lid. I stare at the mementoes and pictures from my trip to Hong Kong scattered around inside.
One photo catches my eye. In it, I am posing with Bobby and Sophie beside a giant golden lotus statue. My young smiling face beams confidently back at me, my trademark michevious sneer spread across my round-supple face. But in spite of seeming happy and content, there is something behind my eyes. A hesitancy, or maybe a doubt, lingering within the bright green-hazel.
I push the photo aside and dig around in the trunk. I grab an old fogotten zipper-binder and open it. It's full of journals and half-finished stories. Clinging the binder to my chest, I close my eyes.
“And my essays lying scattered on the floor,”
I stop abruptly on the ferry’s gangplank, staring at the metal ramp under my feet. My friends stop beside me. The rising wind blasts across the harbour and roughly tousles my short black hair. The gangplank heaves under my feet. Raising my head, I take one last look at the iconic lights and buildings of the Hong Kong harbour.
I stare at the luminescent city and feel a fleeting moment of bravery. “I’m sorry. I lied before. What do I want to do? Actually… I want to go to university… and I want to become a writer.”
“…my hands shake, my head hurts,
My voice sticks inside my throat.
“Ok, you’ve had your fun. The summer exchange program is almost over. You’ll be home in a couple of days. It’s time you got serious about your future.
“Writing is not a job, it’s a hobby. You’ll never get anywhere with it. You’ll never make money with it.
“You’ll be happier this way… more financially secure. We’ve already completed the military application form for you, and you’ll be meeting with the recruiter next week. You should be proud to carry on the family tradition...”
My parents talk at me through the phone in my hotel room, while the typhoon outside beats ferociously against the window.
“And I can't see the water
Through the tears in my eyes.”
David Bowie. “Conversation Piece (Written 1969 Recorded 1970 Re Recorded 2002).” Heathen (Bonus Disc), Columbia Records, 2002.