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Live Your Questions Now

LIFE FOR BEGINNERS

Written by Kenny Mah

The Happy Prince

From time to time, my friends may ask me what my favourite story is. “After all,” they would add, “you do read so much.”

And I’ve been hard-pressed to answer this question, as the answer may change at each turn; indeed I am nothing if not capricious and tiresomely inconsistent. Yet today, as I was walking along a street filled with Christmas trees and fairy lights, as the heart-warming smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted over and beckoned to me, this story came to mind. A story which, in some ways, begins with this particular scene for me:

“Who are you?” he said.

“I am the Happy Prince.”

“Why are you weeping then?” asked the Swallow; “you have quite drenched me.”

“When I was alive and had a human heart,” answered the statue, “I did not know what tears were, for I lived in the Palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. In the daytime I played with my companions in the garden, and in the evening I led the dance in the Great Hall. Round the garden ran a very lofty wall, but I never cared to ask what lay beyond it, everything about me was so beautiful. My courtiers called me the Happy Prince, and happy indeed I was, if pleasure be happiness. So I lived, and so I died. And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot chose but weep.”

Oscar Wilde wrote “The Happy Prince” in the 1880s and no other story has quite captured my heart in my growing years. It’s a fairy tale for children, yet ethereal enough that adults will be moved (or perhaps unnerved). Sacrifice, love, generosity, faith in humankind. It tells us everything we need to know about Life, or rather, everything we need to believe about ourselves.

I know of no other story that demonstrates my belief in the goodness present every day in us, of the kindness of strangers, of the magic of just one perfect friendship than this story.

‘Tis the season of love.

•••

The things you do when you’re alone

You eat. You drink. You wake and try to sleep. You write or not. They call or won’t. The sun will shine or it will rain. You notice this; you may choose to ignore it. There’s work to be done; there always is. You wonder why you’re staring at a wall or at someone who won’t stop talking. Your mind’s not here, and neither is your heart. Soon you will leave, whether you can or should not.

The things you do when you’re alone, they’re not that much different from things when you’re not.

•••

The dancer

When she was younger, before she had earned enough money for her college tuition, she used to dance. She can’t remember the names of the strip clubs now or the faces of the men. Not even the music; it was merely a cue, when to begin and when to stop. The only thing that mattered was the freedom caught within the span of each song, the feeling she was doing exactly what she wanted. For the half hour she was on, she could make the men believe they loved her. Even then, she knew that feeling could not last; it was not her freedom after all.

Now she is working for a law firm. She has been here five years and in love with the youngest partner for four. He is thirty-eight and married. No kids. She has seen them together and they looked happy enough. One day she will go into his office, probably at lunch, just as he’s unwrapping the ham and cheese sandwiches his wife always packed for him, and she will dance for him. Like she used to, when she still believed she could be free. She will make him see her. She knows, when she has finished, she will walk out of there, out of that life forever.

She will never dance again.

•••

“Eternity in an hour”

I read a little William Blake today.

If only we could as he did, he who glimpsed a world, a universe, in a grain of sand, in a wild flower, and he who held infinity in the palm of his hand. Or perhaps only sought to. I certainly have endured “Eternity in an hour” while waiting in line at the post office.

To see everything in an instance, and hold it only for as long as that.

Poetry should always be this romantic, this foolish, I think.

•••

It don’t hurt no more

1.
One day all of this will make sense.

In the meantime, put your best foot forward. Describe yourself as the cheerful, interesting and intelligent personality a large segment of society seeks to be acquainted with. Smile, but not too wide. Don’t forget to use a breath freshener. Brush any dust or dandruff off your shoulders. You too can look neat and proper. Don’t speak too fast; they can’t make out what you’re saying. Stand up straight, my boy.

This is not an introduction to me. This is not who I am.

2.
That’s alright. It don’t hurt no more.

Some days it is intolerable how nice people are, how easy it is to depend on the kindness of strangers. You helped me reach the pier and the ferry to Belfast on time, though your niece barely escaped Bali and the blast and you were wary. Decency won out this time. I only wished it did all the time.

And there will always be that three a.m. and the Spanish girls we picked up in the storm and that wedding on the dance floor and that last cigarette I bummed off you.

3.
“Hi, there. I’m Kenny. What’s your name?”

Translations lose me. Left behind in the quagmire of syntax and conjugations, I can only reply with a maybe. It’s always the safest choice. No promise of yes or no. Neither here nor there. In the confusion, we find our answers. No I love you‘s. No I don’t love you‘s. Just: I. You. Love.

“Hallo. Ich bin Kenny. Wie heißen Sie?”

4.
“You aren’t from around here, are you?”

No longer recognizable. Always stereotypes. Who I am is how you see me. The bohemian nerd or the well-educated derelict? Does it matter? We shall be stars, all of us, bright, shining, happy. (Stars fade, and fall. Goodbye.) Once, I had an idea of who to be; now only traces remain.

I used to be me.

5.
Tender.

These scars we carry, some call them tattoos, beats of ink on our skin that do not smear, frozen pain you can’t wipe away. The tempo, ba-di-da-dum, ba-di-da, ba-di-da, it kisses your mind and you can’t erase these blinding beads of sorrow, strips of black & white film that is not nostalgia, only wretched memory. There is no honesty in recollection, not even when the evidence is stamped on our very own flesh.

Of course, none of this is true.

•••

Drama queen

“How can you go on living when death is always an option?” he cried out, almost in tears. She looked at him grimly for a while, then burst into laughter.

“Oh, if you can only hear half of the things you’re saying. You idiot. Death is not an option; only life is.”

•••

The ninth floor

It has been raining a lot the past few days. I haven’t been coming out and who can blame me? It’s all cold and wet and cold and wet. But mostly cold.

I slip the last key that is not mine off the chain and place it on Blue Mike’s almost bare table.

Thursday night was a small party, suitably so, I think. I did not drink much. I did not drink the abominable arak, though not through the fault of the well-meaning thugs I call my friends. I did drink more than I wanted to, but that was okay. I mostly drew. Weird women with wires coming out of them and dragons and a taste of what does not exist.

Manuel lived in 909. Tonight will be Mike’s last in 922. Tomorrow he flies home.

When I was a kid, my grandma used to terrify me with the tale of this apartment building right in the heart of town. It was popularly known as Kow Low (pronounced “Gau Lau”, Deutsch-style), which was Cantonese for Nine Floors. A woman had jumped off the ninth floor, she told me, the highest floor and in dying, became a ghost to haunt the place. She wore all red when she jumped so she could come back for revenge.

I always meant to ask, but never did, why did she jump in the first place?

Probably a jilted lover. The movies, old Cantonese operas in black and white, assured me so. It was a horrible thing, but people stay there still, undeterred. Just wary. I remembered being scared as a child, listening to Grandma but scared in a delighted manner only a child knew how. Sweet shivers.

Today will be my last day on the ninth floor. A year’s memories. Something I hope to remember like a ghost story for a naughty child. Sweet shivers.

•••