(Iowa City, 1995)
“No universe, nothing. No existence.”
Mr. Fjords, I call him. Down there, strutting, posing in front of the whiteboard. Bald. Those racquetball safety glasses. Beyond posing. Clapping his hands together once, loudly, like sounding a gong.
“People, stay with me. Tuesday morning . . . Much like one of your teenage, dark moments of the soul. All is darkness. Or I should say: ‘In the beginning, there was darkness.’ And then what? Anybody?”
I raise my hand. “Uh, the big bang?”
A show of it, like he can barely see me in the back of the half-empty auditorium. TA with the tight sweater, she leans across, pointing out my name on the clipboard. Quick double-take. He actually chuckles at it. No, I think I like this guy . . . Or kind of.
“An initial state of extreme density and temperature. Yes, Mr. Okoye. From a single point of light. Bang. That’s the secular version. Miss McCarthy, give me another.”
“God created the Universe. That’s what the Bible says. And on the first day he created light.” Blonde girl, chewing on a purple pen.
He smiles at her, tightly. “Let there be light, Miss McCarthy. Good. Now. Can someone give me another?”
Dude with metal frames. Oversized sweater. “In the Chinese myth, isn’t the world created from a gaseous lifeforce? Like a vapor?”
“Another good example. And I’ll help you out.” He steps to the whiteboard. “That Qi, or Lifeforce, spelled Q-I, to originate the universe, undergoes a transformation, separating into dual elements, yin and yang, hard and soft, male, female. Light and dark. Now. These are creation myths. In the case of the Chinese, what is called a cosmogonic myth, in that there’s no deity or divine will. But these stories can all exist under the umbrella of mythology, including the big bang. That’s regardless of what you believe. Using this science, the technology, if you will, of symbols, we’re able to reproduce in our minds the way the people think, in other eras, other cultures . . . Let that idea hold for a moment and we’ll jump back to creation myths. Specifically, the use of symbols. Now. One of the most powerful symbols across all humankind is this initial separation from darkness . . .”
Tuesday morning, Anthropology. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Monday Wednesday and Fridays, 20th century fiction. Statistics, which is a snooze-fest. Rhetoric II, Victorian Lit . . . But none of it so crushingly hard. Lapsing and waning. I am getting by. And not that I feel I am being somehow lied to. Probably not. Thanksgiving has passed. My sophomore year, it is that season again, snow falling in drifts. Lecture halls, in classrooms, dreaming about Inez. But also metaphors, anthropology, all that stuff. About symbols. I sit by the window in Easy House, not staring out at people, but inside, at the poster of tree-covered mountains on the wall of the restaurant. Sitting. Tracing grooves in the table with my finger.
Inez, can we talk about this? From anthropology class, bleacher seats, up there, I’m a 5’10” penis, with a head rush, to Easy House, all afternoon and evening, through to the next day, rolling, no sleep, forget about homework, roam all around the dorm until 3pm . . .
Spray myself down with Right Guard. Breath check. Hotfoot over to B-wing. Run up the stairs, I come in, her hair’s still wet. And for once she’s alone. By talk I mean take those shorts off, ease you down on the bunk bed, my hands all over you. Circling, stepping around grocery bags. Deep kiss—laughing, but she gives back, leans into it. My heart, thumping, and like a thief, I slide, gently glide a hand down beneath the waistband of her shorts, down—until she grabs my wrist. And it’s her roommate. Naturally. With those big orthopedic shoes. Also with grocery bags, standing in the doorway clearing her throat.
From there it’s stacking yogurt cups in her fridge, sitting with my thumbs together and of course everything they’re chatting about now is hysterical, antics of some dude, Coby, or Colby, resting her head on my shoulder, falling back against me, hilarious, and we’re all fake, that’s what I want to say, and she takes a minute to shake out her hair, middle of the kitchen, long, jet-black tangles, and now they’ve got to get down to EPB by four, that means me, and hell-no I can’t go in the bathroom with her, but, wait, she wants to have a moment in the hallway like we’re lost lovers, staring into my eyes, but also, firmly, pushing me out.
“See ya,” she says.
Door clicks shut, locked. Meaning what? A whole lotta nothing. Patting my pockets. Not even a cigarette . . .
“. . . takes you up through maybe a mile. Not even.”
“What? Shops, restaurants?”
“Shops. Restaurants. And malls, yeah. Different shopping malls.” He’s thinking about it. And that’s Dustin. I guess. But I’m reaching.
“Fucking malls,” I say. “Man. But not like a metaphor or something. It’s an actual, actual mile-long escalator?” I’m also only half-listening, scanning the room . . . As it turns out, getting into downtown bars is actually as simple as having the nerve to walk right in. This is after I’ve been bearing down on Abdul for weeks; dropping by, leaving messages. For him to loan me his ID. We are two black dudes in Iowa City. Roughly the same height, with glasses. It’s elementary. Then, as usual, Easy House, corner booth, and out of nowhere, Dustin supposes we don’t even really need IDs, for the Union at least. 19 to get in, 21 to drink. And wait, why hasn’t he mentioned this before now? I’ve never even been inside a bar before, I have no idea. Jumping up. Dumping half-finished noodles, my pot-stickers, into the trash. Forget Abdul. What are we waiting for? Almost dragging Dustin down Dubuque street. Across the Pedmall. Sure enough, bouncer barely glances at us by the door. Now, finally. Into the mix. And what am I expecting? Low lights over the bar. Plastic cups. Two white girls by the stairs, not even dancing, there, nodding, half-smiling at nothing. More so-called freedom, in other words . . .
“That game with the little tiles?”
“You mean Mahjong? It’s gambling,” he says. “Like, old people playing Dominoes.”
“OK. Where do they play that?”
“You could get off the escalator, like, around Central.”
“A district. There’s markets there and all night there’s always lots of stuff going on in the alleyways.” He shrugs. “You want to play Mahjong?”
“I want purple neon. Or the scene in Hard Boiled. Down a hallway, that teahouse with all the birds. What kind of stuff? You tell me. Buddy, gimme something, tell me about a real city . . .”
To be fair I am needling Dustin, interrogating him, as usual. I discovered, months ago, that he is from Hong Kong, has spent most of his life there, and thinking about this always sends my mind reeling. Watching movies, also, various travel-guides I’ve begun to pick up and buy, different far-flung cities, which are just lists of names, street directions, that is, until stumbling across some epic detail such as this: a mile long escalator, in sections, climbing up through one of the most dense clusters of human population in the world. And more like wrestling, when it comes to Dustin. Keep it light, to stay friendly, but it’s like pinning him down, putting an elbow to his neck to get him to utter but the barest description on any subject, much less about Hong Kong! This is my literal first time inside of a bar, which, now, surprisingly, almost seems beside the point. I’d hoped the excitement, the girls and music would loosen him up. Him. Or me. Ten-dollar pitcher of watery beer. One of these half-awake, chubby girls, to slobber all over. Some jolt of something! To get through another bland, pointless Iowa City semester.
We are at one of the tables set off from the bar. No drinks. Dustin, hand in his pocket, and because he seems to have no ideas, no further thoughts, I push off, leaving him there, to roam. A Tuesday, place is barely half-full. I can feel the thump, hear music, but it’s a vacuum of my own thoughts. Circling through tables, to the back, which is the bathroom, or, okay—keep moving. Downstairs to the dancefloor. And it’s zombies, everyone standing, more bobbing heads. No faces. Light-show spots on everything, spinning, over mostly empty floor. If it even makes sense to fantasize about an escalator. What I want is Inez, that’s what I’ve been telling myself. Striding around the dancefloor, cigarette in my mouth. Or maybe, dream bigger. Circling and searching. For what? And who am I looking for? What I want is Inez . . .
For a bio, Uzodinma Okehi figures he’ll just never measure up. He draws comics. Or kind of. A while back he went to Hong Kong. He wrote about that in his book, Over for Rockwell, from Short Flight/Long Drive: