Stationary (Hong Kong)
27 December 2016
I looked out over Hong Kong just like I did from my prison cell. I could see the sea and I could see the wooded mountain where buildings connect like conjoined twins.
And I am doing my yoga the same – but this time with more space and no cell mate to blow magazine cigarette smoke in my face. Philippines didn’t do it on purpose but in a cell made for two people there is not really a lot of room to keep it smoke free.
Even though Lai Chi Kok says it's smoke free and there are signs all over the walls warning you against smoking - even the guards smoked. And cigarettes were the currency.
So Philippines would take his cigarettes and dissemble them across his lap and take the tobacco and roll them into torn rectangle slices of magazines or worn newspapers given to us by visitors or other inmates' visitors - and completely remove the filter. Then when the officers came by to make sure the door was locked, Philippines would throw his arms out of the bars and slowly puff away while I was in the other corner doing my push ups or my 'Downward Facing Dog'.
I was technically a free range human now. I lived outside. But outside also felt like a prison. Maybe the bars inside were more iron and concrete, but the bars outside were social norms, ambition, salary caps, and corporate KPIs that keep you confined to the lane of life you are supposed to travel in.
And now I felt - as I looked out from my balcony - stationary. Unmoving.
"Phillippines?" I asked while sitting on my plastic cot on my second week inside. I did my best to make it comfortable by putting two wool blankets on top of each other - and the icing of it was the blue sheet with the holes in it. The sheets made it smooth, cool in the heat of the early October Hong Kong.
He looked up from drawing flowers for his son - one of his six kids who wrote to him on a regular basis. Philippines had paper and color pencils and was humming a Christmas song already. It was only October. But it was what was keeping him going - to be out before Christmas to see his kids. His family had thought he had abandoned them. He went to Hong Kong for a vacation and possibly to find a job - and ended up being imprisoned with no court date set - now on his fifth month.
"Uh?" He looked at me.
"Do you have any stationary?" I asked.
English was not Philippines best language. He was originally from Cebu so he speaks Visaya, Tagalog and basic Cantonese. So he pushed up on his elbows and looked confused.
"Can I borrow some paper?" And I motioned to the paper he was drawing his flowers on.
Philippines smiled. And opened up his notebook and tore out a couple of sheets.
I took them and pushed my small half pillow to my back and tried to get comfortable. I put my magazines - Fortune, Wired underneath the sheets of paper and took my blue ink pen. I had traded five cigarettes for my pen and it was half empty from all the use.
I thought about all the unfinished things I wanted to do when I got out. Whenever that was. Sentencing was another ten days away.
I wanted to create a top 10 list of things I wanted to accomplish when I was free. I wrote quickly. I had five things immediately. And then I thought and bit at the cap of the pen. I took a big breath, inhaled some of the magazine cigarette that Philippines was now smoking. He had gotten up from drawing and had his hands hanging out of the cell - looking across the empty hall through the bars that showed the night sky.
I took the pen and wrote, "6. Angel."
I was four days away from the verdict being read. I used the money I was supposed to use for my rent and I went to Lan Kwai Fong. I was in MINE. I was nursing my fourth Red Bull and Vodka. But I was moving more than drinking. I was dancing more than being drunk. And the DJ was playing the crowd favorites which I didn't necessarily care. But there was a song I was waiting for. I wouldn't ask the DJ - I knew it would play when the time was right.
I was looking towards the entrance and following the staff with my eyes. I wasn't really interested in dancing with another girl as I didn't want to "hook up" or take someone back to my place. I was a manufacturing floor - I had too many moving parts in my life - and it all required too much work to keep things going. But I wanted to sweat all this out.
As the smoke machine went off and the lights began blinking, exploding in lightning flashes, I turned to the DJ booth.
That's when I saw the circle of guys surrounding a woman. She was busy in her moves and not paying attention to the attention she was getting. But then suddenly we met in the middle of the dance floor. And the song I was waiting for - happened.
I was moving and she was moving. But it was like we weren't happy but we were excited. And two strangers became synergy on the dance floor and the group around us started cheering us on. But we didn't care.
And last night I think I lost my patience
Last night, I got high as your expectations
Last night, I came to a realization
And I hope you can take it
I hope you can take it
Suddenly we laughed at each other trying so hard to act out the song. And when the song began to transition, we leaned in to each other.
"I am Jackson," I said.
"I am Angel," she said. She quickly added, "You are very good."
"It's all Red Bull."
Without thinking I asked her, "Which one of these guys are your boyfriend?"
Her face changed. "None."
"What did you say?" she leaned in to hear me as the music around us grew louder.
"I didn't say anything. I just didn't want some guy coming to kick my ass."
"I can kick their ass. I got your back."
And we continued to dance while we talked. Usually it's awkward when you try to scream at each other on the dance floor but it seemed her voice was attuned correctly to the frequency my ears could hear. She explained she was out tonight because she had just received a text from her boyfriend that he was dating someone else.
"Just like that?" I asked.
"Well I am a flight attendant. I guess I am gone a lot out of the town. I think he found someone while I was working."
"I am sorry."
We continued dancing.
"Fuck him." she said. But then I saw her eyes glisten.
"He didn't deserve you." I said easily. But I knew I had been the same way before. Dated freely and treated relationships like disposable diapers. Put one on and then throw it away. Then throw the next one away. I wonder how many of my past relationships had this very same scenario play out.
An Indian guy came up to Angel and whispered in her ear. She shook her head. He nodded and went away to the bar.
"That's my friend Sandeep. He was just checking on me. We work together."
A couple of moments later, Sandeep returned with shots - whiskey, rum - or something that burned when it went down. We all cheered together, "Fuck him!"
Later that night as most Lan Kwai Fong situations go, the party moved to Wan Chai. Sandeep and Angel asked me to join them. We jumped in a taxi and we ended up inside Rio drinking a bottle of Johnny Walker.
Angel and I were deep in discussion the whole time - even when the music was our favorite song and we danced. But the text break up was just under her skin and several times she was overwhelmed.
Then the management turned the lights on and it was time to move again.
We went outside and the sunrise was waiting for us. That's when I realized I was bone dry of money.
"Come with us," Angel told me as she tugged me to another place.
"I need to go to HSBC."
"But what if I don't see you again?" she said suddenly.
"What's your mobile? Let's add each other on Whatsapp."
And we did. Afterwards, I told her, "But I will be back."
She smiled. But I think we both knew that I was telling a white lie.
I did go to HSBC but after I pulled out enough money for a taxi ride - I went home. I didn't want to spoil the meeting with her with telling her my nuclear catastrophe of a life.
Waking up with a headache the next day mid afternoon - I got a message from Angel. "Where did you go?"
I apologized and asked if she would like to meet for brunch. She explained she could not because she had to catch a flight out that night. It was a long haul and she would be back late tomorrow night. "Maybe we can grab brunch on Wednesday?"
I paused and realized it was the date of my verdict. I swallowed hard. "Sure. Wednesday it is."
That night I had a nightmare I was walking at night wearing a hoodie. And I was approaching my flat on Staunton Street - a Chinese man ran after me - and grabbed me - and wouldn't let me go. I struggled. I fought. But the Chinese man wouldn't let me go. And I woke up panting.
Wednesday, 6th October went in slo-mo. I woke early without trying. I dressed for court - suit and tie. And I walked from Soho to IFC and watched all the people passing past, rushing to there, to here - and I saw my shadow from the sun on the street - and felt that I was only that - a shadow of those living their lives.
I took the MTR from Central to Sai Wan Ho and walked to the Starbucks. The lady manning the cash register, Green, smiled when she handed me my Tall Cafe Mocha.
I was an hour away from my court appearance. That's when my phone vibrated.
It was Angel.
"Sorry, I got in later than I was supposed to. I just woke up. Can we meet for brunch later today?"
I took a deep breath and tried to be optimistic. I typed it with two autocorrections, "No problem."
And I looked outside the window of my Starbucks window and saw this. The van sat there - almost waiting for this moment.
Just like the few moments before they were going to bolt four screws in my skull to start the traction before my second neck surgery when I was fifteen years old, I sat there and tried to relish the freedom. I knew my life after 6 October would never be the same. I breathed deeply. I looked at the people around me.
I smiled at the Chinese woman who took my order at the cash register, Green. She smiled back.
And like when I was fifteen, out in the hall of the hospital, looking out the window of the hospital looking out over Peachtree Road in Atlanta, I slowly turned my neck for the last time. I turned it slowly and cherished the movements as I knew I would never get to turn my neck again.
Here in the chair at Starbucks sipping on my coffee, I knew it might be the last one I might have for a long time.
It was only after the verdict was read and the correctional services officer motioned me for me to follow him inside the cage that hung beside the courtroom, that I new I might never get the chance to have brunch with Angel. And as I was being escorted in the bowels of the court house to the holding cell of East Magistrates Court - I laughed at how petty I was. I was concerned about standing up a woman I didn't know and truly had never met.
When the door to the holding cell slammed shut and I heard the locking mechanism clank together, I realized I was alone. There was no one. I just heard the echo of the footsteps of the correctional services officer walking away to his freedom.
I stood there stunned at the speed of justice after my verdict was read.
I was not completely alone - I was there with silence. And the silence and the cold of cement and iron suddenly became my friends.
There my life was: stationary.