Days stretched into weeks. The weeks into months. Zen found himself eating alone every meal.
The young pretty waitresses at the Little Tree Korean restaurant thought he was single since he always ate alone. And he wore no gold wedding band as foreigners were wont to do. He cut such a pathetic figure, older but still handsome, well-dressed, educated, coming in alone at all hours of the day and night, and staying longer than most customers usually did. He was so polite and spoke such elegant Chinese, which was so unusual for a foreigner. Most foreigners could not even say hello properly much less carry on a conversation and make jokes. He was good at making people laugh. The owner always stopped by his table and chatted with him. He put the owner in a good mood, who laughed loudly and clapped his hand on the foreigner’s shoulder. And when the foreigner thought no one was looking, always a wistful, slightly forlorn smile on his lips. The waitresses felt he was pitiable and in need of succor and comfort.
Zen was not in need of either. He just couldn’t stand being in the same apartment with Hobbit. She was driving him nuts.
Hobbit was busy-beside-herself: preparing to go abroad for the Visiting Scholar program and helping her son study for the rigorous high school entrance exam at the end of June. She had no time to spend with Zen. When they were together, bitter arguments invariably broke out. Zen felt shoved to one side and left out of all the family decisions.
His stepson was acting quite the fool in his opinion. He was constantly disrespectful with his mother and grandparents since the boy saw that his mother and grandmother would coddle him. The women would not let Zen institute a behavior modification program—whatever the hell that was—in order to curtail the stepson’s rebellious behavior. Zen promised them that the boy would get much worse before he got better and that they would “rue the day they let this little emperor run roughshod over the family!” Whenever Zen waxed grandiloquent, Hobbit and her mother thought he was speaking Russian, so they ignored him. On the other hand, Hobbit’s father agreed with Zen, and the two older men bowed their heads together and commiserated with each other over how “the women” spoiled children and how “the women” should let “the men” handle discipline, especially the discipline of a male child, something which “the women” knew nothing of. “The women” shoved the two men into the spare bedroom and closed the door.
Although macho and paternalistic and though this was a blow to feminism everywhere, Zen was sadly correct, even if he wasn’t right. The soft approach had no positive result in the short term. The stepson was a prototypical teenage rebel and only time and life would smooth out his rough edges, but by then it would be almost too late to repair his relationship with his mother; too late to have any kind of meaningful relationship beyond hello-goodbye with his stepfather; and far too late to make up with his grandparents who would both pass away with withered moribund hopes for reconciliation in their hearts while their grandson whiled away precious years singing bad rap songs in New York City subway stations. So much for mollycoddling children.
Hobbit bought her son new clothes and new shoes and patted his head and told him he was a good boy and that Mama loved him, and then the boy would find new ways to lie and cheat and break his mother’s heart. It was an endless bathetic family trauma. Zen would try to console Hobbit, but of course he could not contain himself and he would speak frankly about her son (“I don’t wanna say I toldja so, but I did!”), and then they would fight.
Hobbit accused Zen of hating her son. Zen defending himself that there was indeed not much to love (an inappropriate if honest comment he realized with regret afterward). Consequently, Hobbit was always in a bad mood and Zen was a convenient but unwilling scapegoat. He was not accustomed to not being the center of attention in a relationship, something most men struggle with in “instant family” situations. Zen knew this from a previous relationship. Accordingly, he chose to absent himself rather than constantly being drawn into battle. It was not a recipe for building an intimate healthy matrimony.
So, Zen ate alone. Peaceful solitude was preferable to bellicose companionship.
He thought with irony that in a country of one point five billion, in a country where he was constantly jostled in the street, bumped as he got into cabs, pushed as he tried to find a table, he was always alone. He laughed to himself: he traveled over 6000 miles to finally find solitude amidst an ocean of humanity, in a fog of Chinese language. His status as a foreigner afforded him an excellent shield.
He began to feel disconnected from humanity, isolated and estranged. He had more contact with the complete strangers he had met online scattered across the globe. But those people didn’t know him. They could not be expected to care about him. If he were hit by a bus (a distinct possibility in this crazy ass town), they could not help. They might notice he had not shown up in the chat rooms.
Zen asked himself: What am I looking for? Then he thought reluctantly, not what. Whom. Whom am I looking for?
A woman. Women. Women things. The better looking aliens on this backwards planet. He hungered for soft sweet female companionship. How was that possible when he was married? Shouldn’t marriage cause a sea change in a man? Some kind of mental **klik** that freed him from petty desire and lust. He did feel love for Hobbit though; he had felt this inexpressible union with the sweet Hobbit. Ephemeral, tragically ephemeral. Sweet-pretty-gentle Hobbit had metamorphosed into bitter-ugly-acerbic Hobbit, as surely and as grotesquely as Doc Banner transforming into the raging Hulk. That feeling of oceanic communion evaporated like dew under a searing sun. Ephemeral.
Bruce Banner transforms into the Rampaging Hulk! Bill and Lou are still classic.
Zen spent many nights awake. Heartsick form hearing Hobbit sobbing in her bedroom after another bitter fight and impotent to put an end to it, Zen jacked in his earphones and lost himself online. He watched hockey highlight reels on YouTube, read comics on Comixology, listened to podcasts about Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy on iTunes, and lost himself in a marathon viewing of Dexter on Netflix.
That show was a revelation. The protagonist really struck a chord in Zen. At first he was repulsed at how alike he and Dexter seemed to be. How could he and a serial killer be so alike in their personality? Zen saw in himself the same wounded loner trying to fit in, the same aggrieved outcast struggling to create a family, and the same misunderstood anti-hero forced to act like a violent villain that he saw in Dexter. In addition, and not insignificantly, Zen saw they shared the same penchant for rationalizations. Zen was not obsessed with murder however. He considered serial killers and films about them disgusting (while he admitted that the film Se7en was well done, the murders were repugnant); despite that, he marveled at the brilliant idea of creating an anti-hero serial killer. It was genius. A murderer who murdered other murderers. It was an ethical slight of hand. This wasn’t bubblegum popcorn Manichean tragedy like Frank Castle seeking commonplace revenge and reliving it on a nightly basis. This was a deeper darkness in the dark. The creators of the show had had a stroke of genius! Sadly, the show would not come through on its premises and after the fourth season, the show suffered a steady marked decline in quality. When it finally ended, Zen felt cheated. The show had turned into absolute garbage and wasted the talents of the group of gifted actors and actresses. In the finale, Zen expected retribution. Dexter should have received his just deserts not just for all of the gruesome killings, but for the ruination and misery he brought his innocent friends and family members.
In his heart he expected it for himself as well.
Wasn’t he killing his own family? Dragging them through the muck and misery of perpetual bickering? No, Zen was not a serial killer, but he thought himself something unclean. Or as if sometimes an unclean spirit inhabited his body and took it out for a joyride now and then.
For example, whenever he saw a pretty girl walk by, he felt like a vampire in a blood bank. Zen tried to articulate the ache: it was as painful as if his skin had been peeled off, leaving the nerve endings raw and exposed for any random chick to walk by and jab ‘em with a red-hot poker. He knew he was exaggerating. But, by God, it felt like that! Maybe just a little. In summation, this internecine war between Hobbit and him had got to come to an end.
He was sick of sleeping in the damn dog-bed. His back was killing him. Every morning he had trouble standing up straight, bent over like a fucking Quasimodo. “Do you find me repulsive?” Or was that the Elephant Man? The pain dulled his memory.
The immortal Charles Laughton as The Hunchback
And then the stench. Jeez. The mattress (if you could call it a mattress) was fetid; he had to scrub his flesh red to rid himself of the stink.
This is not what families are supposed to be like.
Once upon a time Hobbit and I were in love.
Zen thought they had been at any rate.
He came to the honest realization that he might not know what love really was. In fact, he was almost sure that he didn’t know. Whatever pictures and concepts he had bouncing around in his head did not jibe with what Hobbit had in her head. Maybe with any woman on the planet.
Maybe I need a woman not from this planet. An extraterrestrial. An alien woman for an alien man.
How did things get so bad so fast? He had no idea.
I’m a FREAK. A misfit? A missed fit? Misanthrope? Miserable Misanthrope?
He felt totally alienated from her, from her son, her parents, from everyone. Every time they fought he felt the entire weight of the community pressing down on him, judging him, reviling him because he didn’t live up to their expectations. As if he had been exposed as a fraud. Instead of some nice cultured English professor, he was really a misanthropic violent monster. It didn’t help that the father took his side when there was a blowout. After all, Hobbit told him how abusive he had been to her all her life. Now Hobbit had Zen. He heard somewhere that men and women unconsciously seek out archetypes derived from their parents in their spouses in order to heal past traumas. Was there any truth to that? No. No! Psychobabble! He felt he had gotten sucked into Hobbit’s family drama, a vicious cycle, a vicious pattern. But it wasn’t his destiny. It couldn’t be. He had never been this horrible. Fist fights. Yes. But with rednecks. Skinheads. Anarchists. Frat boys. Not. Not…not small weak. Frail. Hobbitses.
He had to think of something else and divert his attention or the guilt, the shame, the pain threatened to overwhelm him. Wasn’t he at an age where he could manage all of these raw feelings? Hadn’t he had enough life experiences whereby he could control and administer and delegate the psychical forces into appropriate and fruitful channels? Wasn’t this angst what teenagers felt?
He needed help. He scoured the Internet for free—his middle-aged angst had cash flow limitations after all—couples therapy and online counseling for anger management and depression. Free apparently had a different meaning since the advent of the World Wide Web. Some kind of administrative fee was always requested. That, or they refused to help him because he didn’t live in the USA. There were websites dedicated to counseling international couples, but these obviously catered to extremely wealthy couples whose main problems stemmed from an inability to coordinate their hectic schedules, one or both spouses absent from home since they were jetting around the globe in rabid defense of capitalism against socialism, the unwashed masses, and scum like Zen. No free lunch. His family was no help either.
His family back in the States pretty much ignored him. Red-haired stepchild slash black sheep, that’s what I am. Alive or dead, they could care less. Not that he had given them much reason to care. Leaving for China, son? GOOD RIDDANCE. His father and he had an especially contentious relationship.
Zen thought of comical rivals like Seinfeld and Newman, but the truth was that he and his father’s relationship was much more toxic. Stalin and Trotsky came to mind, but it was psychologically more warped than that. Karamazov? Nothing so sordid or dramatic, but it wasn’t pretty. Zen assumed his father hated him because he saw all his worst traits incarnated in his son. Zen, for his part, blamed his father for imbuing him with “slave morality”—a concept he picked up from his university days studying Nietzsche and misapprehended horribly. Zen could never clarify his perceptions concerning master-slave morality. He should have just simply let it go. He felt chained to Christianity and blamed his father for it. As if originally Zen were this wild thing that had been domesticated and had to pretend to be domesticated when all he wanted was to run and howl. Now he couldn’t get the taint of brother-love out of his system. In fact Zen was a gross sentimentalist. A characteristic he thought for sure had something to do with the breakdown of his bicameral mind. Possibly. Today he wasn’t so sure.
Trotsky and Stalin
Zen’s brother, “the first son,” was the perfect son since he and the father saw eye to eye on most everything, which was the usual: politics and religion. Zen, on the other hand, was an ideological and spiritual thorn in his father’s side. Sadly, Zen would never witness how his older brother stood up for him, 6,000 miles away, at every holiday dinner, at every birthday party, at every occasion happy or sad where Zen was absent. Even when Zen found out that his brother had signed his name on every Christmas card and put gifts under the tree in his name for all the members of the family, Zen mistook this generosity as a subtle comment on Zen’s penury rather than the obvious simple explanation: his older brother was incontrovertibly fond of his younger sibling. Zen’s foolish pride blinded him to his older brother’s love and concern. All Zen could see was his father and older brother forming a solid impenetrable Republican conservative block, absorbing his once-Democrat mother and sister-in-law, leaving him always arguing alone on one side of the proverbial dinner table and the rest of the family members on the other side.
His family on two continents had failed him.
No. He had failed them.
Depression rolled over him like gloomy clouds on early summer mornings.
Beware of angry chihuahua!
Worst of all, back at Christmas, he had had a fight, a real physical fight with Hobbit, a shameful and disgraceful ordeal. The two of them face-slapping, stomach-punching, cat-hissing, testicle-kicking, hair-pulling, eye-scratching, cobra-spitting, banshee-screaming, and even speaking in tongues, although neither of them realized nor would ever realize that their passionate altercation catapulted them onto a new level of reality, a different phase of the time-space continuum where the Elder Gods went for a nice cigar and grappa. Needless to say the Elder Gods were not keen on Hobbit and Zen intruding on their august personal space-time. Nor were the neighbors who realized that glossolalia was potentially apocalyptic and were frightened by it as badly as by any natural disaster. They called the police and the police came to rap politely on the door; Zen was mortified, but Hobbit yelled at the police, “dogs catching rats instead of minding their own business!” and told the neighbors they were “fifty steps laughing at one hundred steps,” essentially the pot calling the kettle black. The ensuing shouting match between the women on floors two three and four made all the men terrified. Heads turned white and one geezer even pissed himself. Zen had to use all his might to keep Hobbit from pulling out the remaining hairs of their neighbor’s head while the neighbor’s little Chihuahua nipped at Zen’s ankle. The police tried to break it up, smiling nervously because a foreigner was involved and that meant extra paperwork and can’t you just go back to bed? The husband of the neighbor was drunk and unconcerned. He belched, farted, sneezed (on Zen which freaked Zen out as he had a severe phobia of being sneezed on), scratched his ass, and went back to sleep.
Zen scrambled to contain this horror, apologizing, bowing to everyone, scraping the floor with his nose, begging forgiveness, seeing himself in prison and everyone pointing their collective finger, a huge finger as big as an oil tanker, neon lights framing his face with a sign under his black and blue face: Wife Beater! Bastard! Liar! Foreign Devil! Monster!
Desperate, Zen turned to his father for advice. What to do? What to do? But Zen’s father could only feel profound disappointment and since that incident he had grown cold as ice, well colder, since he had usually been cold as ice in any event. The father’s only comment when Zen said he didn’t know what to do was one word: divorce. That was it. Zen imagined him sitting in his gorgeous mahogany-paneled office, surrounded by lavish antiques, and crystal glass, and polished steel, and buffed leather, glittering riches, mute opulence, sucking his teeth like some kind of egg-sucking cold-blooded serpent, paring his nails with a file as cool as a cucumber and concluding very succinctly: divorce.
And he was a Roman Catholic.
Anyway, Zen thought, I don’t have a soul to save, right? No harm no foul.
Between the stress at work, living like a recluse, and Hobbit flitting around him like a hungry ghost (but never engaging with him), Zen literally felt that he was cracking up, losing his mind. Outside of two colleagues (K being one of them, which was not good for him at all) and his poor overworked students, Zen had no one to turn to.
“I know I know. Whining like a bitch. I hate loathe myself. All this faggoty-ass angst! Grow a pair man! I have food, a roof over my head, clothes on my back, health, and money in my pocket (not a lot of money, but money nonetheless). Why, dear Lord, am I complaining? Why am I so antsy? I feel like…. What? Like something bad is gonna happen. Things are coming to a crisis point.”
Zen berated himself thusly to no benefit since he was, as usual, correct but not right. Things were coming to a crisis point, but in ways far beyond his dwarfish imagination.