Camilla Forgets the Mandarin Word for Eggplant

This is a scene excerpt from a new play I’m working on.


Lights up at a table–small and round and made to seat two people at most. Camilla is sitting with a small makeshift menu and a glass of ice water. A Chinese waiter comes up to her dressed formally. It’s a Chinese restaurant.


Waiter: 可以点了吗?

Cam: Uh… 再给我一分钟。

Waiter: Mm.


The waiter walks away. Camilla points at the menu.


Cam: How do you say eggplant?


Ellie comes in from offstage and puts down her bag across the table from Camilla. She pulls the seat out and sits down.


Ellie: Hey, thanks for waiting.

Cam: Hey Ellie.

Ellie: You come here often?

Cam: Not really.

Ellie: Nice change of pace then!

Cam: I guess so.

Ellie: You know what you’re getting?

Cam: Yeah. Sorry, here.


She gives Ellie the menu.


Ellie: Oh…this looks good. I love Chinese food. What’s the difference between knife cut noodles and hand pulled noodles?

Cam: The knife cut ones are thicker.

Ellie: Cashew chicken! Do you know if they have orange broccoli? My parents are trying to convince me to go vegetarian.

Cam: You can ask. I didn’t see it on the menu.

Ellie: What are you getting?

Cam: Um…I can’t remember.

Ellie: Menu?

Cam: No, you go ahead and make up your mind. It’ll come to me.


Ellie continues to look at the menu and mutters quietly to herself. Camilla whispers.


Cam: Eggplant. Eggplant. 你好,我想吃…eggplant. Ahhhh…

Ellie: Everything ok?

Cam: Yeah. Everything’s fine. I’m trying to remember something.

Ellie: What’d you forget? Sorry, bad question. You’re trying to remember it.


She laughs nervously.


Ellie: Alright, I’m all set.


She closes the menu.


Ellie: You see Jason today?

Cam: No. Should I have?

Ellie: That’s weird. He hasn’t been responding to my texts.

Cam: He’s probably busy.

Ellie: Yeah. I came across a cool riddle on my phone today, I thought you’d like it. What word begins and ends with the letter E, but– wait, let me try that again. What word begins and ends with E but only has one letter?

Cam: Only has one letter?

Ellie: Yup.

Cam: Is it a trick question?

Ellie: It’s a riddle.

Cam: Ok…is E a word?

Ellie: I don’t think so.

Cam: But is it the answer.

Ellie: An envelope. Get it? It starts and ends with E but it also only carries one letter!

Cam: That’s clever.

Ellie: I know, right? I have an app that gives me a daily riddle. It’s a good way to stay sharp.

Cam: Maybe I’ll try it.


The waiter comes back in.


Waiter: 可以点了吗?

Ellie: Sorry what?

Waiter: Are you ready to order?
Ellie: Yes, we’re ready.

Waiter: Separate or together?

Ellie: Together. // Cam: Separate.


They look at each other.


Ellie: I’ll pay.

Cam: No, please. I can pay for myself.

Ellie: I don’t eat out often. It’s really my pleasure.


She turns to the waiter.


Ellie: Together.

Waiter: Ok. And what will you be having?

Ellie: I’ll have the cashew chicken with a side of yang zhou fried rice.

Waiter (to Cam): And for you?

Cam: I’ll have the, uh…


She takes a moment.


Cam: Eggplant.

Waiter: I’m sorry?

Cam: I’ll have the eggplant.

Waiter: That’ll be all?

Ellie: I think so.

Waiter: Ok. It’ll be right out.


The waiter leaves. Cam clenches her fist.


Ellie: Eggplant, huh? I never really liked eggplant but it’s been years since I last tried it. What kind did you get?


Cam doesn’t respond.


Ellie: Cam?


Cam doesn’t respond. She is holding back tears.


Ellie: What’s up?

Cam: I have to go to the bathroom. Feel free to start eating without me.


Cam gets up and hurries away before Ellie sees her cry. Ellie stares after her.


Ellie: …Cam?





Don’t fucking touch me
or I’ll rip your throat out.

You and I don’t go together
so stop trying to pretend you

make me happy, don’t step
closer don’t look at me don’t

Don’t nod your head I don’t need
you to agree with me shut the Fuck

I don’t care if you’re not talking
you’re still too loud I want to

eject every memory of you from my
head and flush you down a toilet

but I’d still be stuck with this nasty
sticky you-shaped puddle of bile

in my gut, in my throat choking me
with my own vomit. The hairs

on my arms grow teeth and gnaw
at your fingers and I want you to

bleed out and fucking die just
stop pointing and fucking Die

nasty nasty feeling with eyes fixed
on the ground, on my shoes

keep walking keep silent keep keep
breathing the gray clouds of grout

I’m trapped in the pipes below a sink
grimy and you’re washing your hands

I just want to sleep just want to sleep
just want to sleep want to sleep want to sleep sleep want


Who promised me a colorful world?
I want to give them my eyes
And show them what I see,
A world where every tree is a
Different shade of gray.
There is an aggression in the light
Nipping at my lungs, and
The sound is oceans tugging me
Toward the floor, toward
Below. I thought colorful meant
Alive, but I am certainly dead
Or dying, at the very least I am
Shopping for a coffin, preparing
To disappoint everyone in a bright
Extravaganza, an exhibition of
Failure. I dread the feeling but
I also crave the idea of disappearing,
Of vanishing into a blissful nothing
And taking the pictures with me
So that I will only glow faint
In memories, and become a
Fairytale or legend, reduced to a
Moral but I will be a blank outline
For others to fill with colors
And not just gray pastel-ish
Milky murky drainage plastered
On a wall, waiting to crumble.
I see light, see suns, see the swirl
Of the galaxies and ice cream,
Of fingers and hearts twisting themselves
Around each other, see fire, see
Stone and cymbals, blood of a cuttlefish,
Marriage, happy flowers,
Hair in the sink, the scrambled web
Filled with spider eggs, a yolk,
A dress, a caramel center, a drop
Of teeth in orange juice.
When do they start adding up
To this colorful world
I was promised?

Midnight at the drug store

Bells Jingle in July
At the Walgreens down the Street
Two men walk in
No, one of them is a woman
She is holding onto the left arm
Of the man in the fishing jacket
And her eyes sag like
Flat tires,
They walk down the aisle
Together to the tune
Of Christmas chimes
Clinging to the promise
Of salvation from something sinister
But just out of
Four-fifty, I said,
And hand the aspirin back
To the hunched man
Watch him walk back to his car
Through the branded window.
They are looking at candy now,
Whispering something sweet
In each other’s ears
Covering wet faces with wet kisses
And gripping too tight
Onto each other’s hands,
White knuckles,
Loose sleeves,
A tissue hanging from a back pocket.
There are other men
Who are pretending not to see.
They brush by
And they sweat
And they pretend that
They are just as happy
As jolly old Santa Claus
Clutching to his fur coat
And flying alone
In the dead of winter.

Who you Love // Who you Die for

10.27.2018 – Pittsburgh, PA


Twenty-four hours later
When the sunlight hits your head
As it did the day before,
Will you still Love this place?
Will you tell those you Love
That you Love them
And would you Die to see them
Live and to not see them
Suffer and cover
The holes in their backs
With kisses and fill them with
Clay so they stand like
Mud golems and fall into line
With all of the nobodies
Trying to Love
And Dying because?
Would you cry and
Sleep talk with God,
Plugging the leaks in your faith
With borrowed time and
Someone else’s blood
And would you Die
To see the oppressors
Fall from their pedestals
Landing in circles of shame
In Hell? Or maybe
You let sugar drip from your lips
With blank solemn eyes
And the Love that you preach
Is just Love for yourself
And who Dies does not matter
Unless it hurts something more
Than a headline and a
Disappointed sigh?
Will you Love the remains
Of a body like you Love
The money in its pockets,
Or will you look away
And pretend that it doesn’t
Reek of your ignorance,
And will you Love the world
That lets them Die,
Saying that That is the way
It goes, That is the way
We treat the ones we Love
We forget them
We desert them
We make them exceptions
In war and in peace
We let them go and shrug it off
Like holding an umbrella
In a flood and waiting for the
Water to go away.
Who you Love // Who you Die for
One and the same, you know,
And when tomorrow comes
And you still Love that place
Where those you Loved
Went to Die,
You lose the right
To call yourself a Lover at all.



Those Golden Afternoons

On those golden afternoons, when the leaves on the trees dripped with warmth and the sky was clear enough to see the mountains in the distance, I would grab grandma’s rifle and sit in the grainy, depressed sofa on the veranda, wait for the neighborhood children to saunter by, and pretend to shoot them to death.

Grandma didn’t load her guns. I wasn’t sure if she actually had any bullets because if she did she would have killed Nora long before she died herself. I liked Nora because she made Grandma mad. Grandma said that Nora was the devil incarnate, come to punish her for her sins in a past life. Whenever she said that, I would ask Grandma what she did in her past life, but Grandma would ignore me and go somewhere in the house to clean her dentures.

On the weekends, Nora came out and sat with me, because all the kids stayed in on weekends, and I would be bored because there would be no one to shoot. We sat together and she told me the story of how she met her husband, and about all of the adventures he was having in the war. I liked those days, because I had never seen a war, and I thought it would be really fun to be in one. Nora didn’t like that I liked the war. She would tell me that war is bad and I would laugh and pretend to shoot her, and then she would slap me, and we would sit in silence until she broke into tears and went inside.

Nora came to Grandma’s house against every bit of resistance the old hag could conjure. She was my cousin, but old, and she came when her mama – my auntie – beat her when she fell in love with an army man and left her husband. Grandma found her sleeping on the couch one morning covered in sticky red marks and nearly shot her head off, except the rifle wasn’t loaded. She didn’t speak a word to Nora from that moment all the way to the moment she fell out of her high chair at dinner when I was nine and the sky was still and clear and perfect for a day on the veranda. From then on, it was just me and Nora and the rats that kept us company on those chilly nights.

Nora and I lived alone in Grandma’s house. It was nasty and the dust ate at everything that was good and pure, and neither of us had the basic instinct to sweep the place. When clouds covered the sky with a blanket of night, I stayed indoors and listened to Nora play the piano. She only played two songs. One of them was called “that fucking song”, and she would always mess it up. I liked that one, because it sounded like two fancy men in a fancy house, eating salad with a fork and accidentally stabbing their hands until eventually they both give up and Nora stomped upstairs to take a nap. The other one was slow and somber, and it filled the house with rain. Whenever Nora played this song, I would sit in the dining room and put my head down on the table and close my eyes. The chattering of the rats in the walls would stop for a second, and we would listen together, the rats and I, to Nora’s music.

On Fridays, Nora would bring home canned beans from the market. Beans were her favorite food, and so we would sit together and watch the stars and eat beans and talk about the war. It was colder there, she said. It chilled you to the core not just because of the wind, but also because of the death that hung over the battlefield at night, when it was silent and you felt alone no matter who was beside you. Her husband, James, wasn’t liking it very much, she said. She got letters from him, love letters, and every time she heard the rustling at the door she would cry because it meant that he was still alive.

I didn’t like James. He was taller than I was, and older too, which wasn’t fair. Nora met James when she was marrying another man, who was twenty years older than her and a fair bit richer too. James was at the wedding as a nobody, but Nora saw him and she remembered him, and later on she told him that she loved him, and then she left her husband and they got married, and then he went to the war, and then Nora came to Grandma’s. I memorized the whole story because it was short and she told it so often.

James sounded boring.

I told Nora I thought James sounded boring one time, and she said that he was, but that was part of what she loved about him. That he was nice and normal and plain, and so unlike people like auntie, or Grandma, or me. I laughed and continued to shoot the kids. Like that, she said. It didn’t matter to me, though. I was here and James was not, and so James was not a part of our universe. It was just Nora, and me, and Grandma’s house, and the children who passed us on those golden afternoons.


A month after I turned twelve, Nora told me that she was leaving to go to the war. That was a problem because I loved Nora. Nora was leaving because James missed her and he invited her to come live with him for a while, and she had agreed, but that would mean that I had to find another home. That was a problem too, because I didn’t have another home.

“Go live with your parents.”

Nora left the house and I waved, and I didn’t tell her I loved her, and I didn’t tell her that I had nowhere to go. I didn’t tell her anything. I watched her walk away, down the familiar dirt path, and disappear around the corner.


On those golden afternoons without Nora, I thought about suffocating myself. I perched on the railing of the veranda and held Grandma’s rifle with my right hand, balancing myself with my left, and waited for the kids to pass by. The kids were all coming home from school, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups of three, and always too loud. I would aim the rifle at them when I saw them, but I didn’t shoot because I was lonely and I kept thinking about Nora in the war. Sometimes, they would walk by in pairs, and when I saw that I did not aim my gun at all. There was something very delicate about the kids who walked in pairs, because they often did not talk, or if they did they spoke in whispers. I tried to listen to what they had to say that was so precious, but it just made me sad when the wind cloaked their words, and so I would go back inside to look for a place to hold my breath until my body begged me to live.

I bought canned beans and dry noodles from the market on weekends, using money that Grandma stored under her pillow. She was a paranoid woman, and did not like to keep her money in the bank, which was good because I had no intention to work, and neither did Nora. I took the money and I went and I bought enough canned beans and dry noodles for the whole week, and I would drink water from the tap and ignore the letters that came in the mail that told me I had to pay.

Nora promised she would write me letters, but I knew that she wouldn’t because Nora didn’t love me. She kept me at arm’s length even when we lived in the same room. So that was why, when I was touching myself one afternoon, I was startled to hear a rustle at the door followed by a curt knock. I pulled up my pants and looked across the living room to see what the commotion was, only to find an envelope half-sticking out from under the door and bent awkwardly across the bushy welcome mat. I waddled over and picked up the letter with my clean hand, and I saw that it was from Nora and it was addressed to me.

It smelled disappointingly like paper.

I ripped open this letter and I saw Nora’s writing, scratched out with tiny ink. It was loopy and clean, and long, too. I didn’t read it. I didn’t want to know about James and I didn’t want to know about the war, and I didn’t want to know how happy she was without me. I took it and I went upstairs to the study where I abandoned the letter in the piano bench.


The piano was dark wood and covered in dust, and Nora’s fingerprints on the keys were weeks old. Even so, I could hear her slow song as if she were playing it before my eyes.

Dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…

I closed my eyes and listened for something like that now, something trapped in the chamber, some trace of love that did not belong to me.

I let my finger fall on the calloused ivory key. The sound was full and concussive and rang out through the house with an entitlement that offended my ears. There was a chattering in the walls as rats scrambled away from the source of the noise. I noticed how deflated the instrument was when the notes did not keep each other company.

Nora didn’t touch the piano when Grandma was alive but she would always gaze longingly at it over her books from across the study. She was out of school – she didn’t go much in the first place – but she tried to read books like the kind that educated people read. I didn’t go to school either, but that was because I didn’t care about being educated or reading books. Grandma said it was a waste of time, and all the kids would regret it, so I should stay home and wait until I’m old enough to work for Mr. Hunter, who runs the newspaper and sometimes disappears into Grandma’s room.


The first night without Grandma, Nora sat down at the piano and played that fucking song for eight hours. She walked out of the study with raw fingertips in the morning and fell asleep on the couch. When she woke up, we picked up Grandma and we carried her into the woods behind the house, and we left her in a small clearing where we thought God might be able to see her better and take her to heaven. After that, we went back to the house and didn’t speak about it again. We sat on the veranda and we laughed and laughed, and when it started to rain, we went inside and Nora played her slow song, and that was the first time the walls went silent.

I thought of all this as I listened to the note fade away. I thought about Nora, who was somewhere, and who left me alone with the ghost of her melodies. I felt myself get angry and slapped the keys. The notes bashed their heads against each other and disgraced the room with their incompatibility. I slapped the keys again, harder. Then again. Blast after blast, shot after shot, flew out and killed whatever echoes of Nora’s song lingered in the study. I slammed the piano cover shut and stomped out of the room, down the stairs, to the kitchen. I took a can of beans out of the cabinet and I threw it at the door. It made a thunk and dribbled across the floor before settling back at my feet. I stepped over it, grabbed the rifle by the couch, and walked outside to sit on the veranda.


It was late in the afternoon now, and the sun was dripping off of the leaves the way it always does just before everything goes dark. I stared down the dirt path leading to the road, which was overgrown with bushes and vines, and listened to the familiar voices of children screeching delightfully nearby. The air smelled just as fresh as the day before, and the day before that, and before that too. The sky was clear, and the mountains in the distance stood like barricades between this world and the next.

I didn’t sit down. I didn’t move. I dropped the gun to the ground and fell to my knees, and I rolled over onto my chest, and I sobbed.


Three more letters came from Nora before the first snowfall. I didn’t read any of them, but I left them in the piano bench and didn’t rip them up.

It was too cold to sit outside now, without a jacket at least, and so I watched the kids through the window instead. I couldn’t eat beans anymore because the taste of them was starting to make my mouth ache, and I couldn’t use the water anymore because it stopped coming to our house. In the middle of the night I crept through the bushes to the neighbor’s hose to fill a bucket with water, and I lugged it back to Grandma’s house, which was starting to smell like pee. I bought apples from the market on weekends – all the bad ones that nobody wanted at the end of the fall. I thought about Nora a lot, and I imagined the fun she was having in the war, and I got jealous of James, and I felt myself start to cry, and I would stop thinking about Nora.

Nora joked that Grandma’s house was like a large prison cell. Grandma was the guard and we were the prisoners who couldn’t leave.

“Why would you want to leave?”

Grandma used to say it as if there was something wrong with us, taking offense at the notion that anyone would refuse her hospitality. I didn’t argue, because I had never known another home, but Nora would frequently step outside and walk around the neighborhood. Whenever she did this, Grandma would mutter to me for hours about how Nora was the devil, and how if I ever tried to do what Nora did she would beat me with the iron rod on top of the fireplace.

But now Grandma was gone and Nora was gone and there was no one keeping me from running away.

I had a vision, as I stared out the window one day, of my last snowfall. Instead of stars, the snow was shaped like angels, and it landed in front of me and formed a giant pair of wings on the veranda. I lay down in the wings and they began to lift me up into the sky, so high that I could see the whole town and touch the peaks of the mountains. But they didn’t stop there, and I flew up and up until I could see the entire world beneath me, and then so high that I could cover it with one finger, and then there was nothing at all and I was in heaven. The wings dropped me off in the dark and I crawled around, blind and dumb and on all fours. My legs were stubby, my hands were sharp, and a little piece of flesh was sticking out behind me. I tried to scream, but my voice came out in screeches, and I couldn’t move without bumping into something hard on all sides.

Then, there was a shuffle. Something scraped across the ground. And out of nowhere, I heard a song start to play.

Dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…dm dm…

It was slow and somber, and when I heard it, I knew where I was.
Grandma’s walls were never the most spacious.

I stopped screaming, and I felt the rhythm of her sorrow, and all of a sudden I understood why the rats would stop to listen to Nora’s music. It was the same longing that I had, that same mix of ecstasy and profound aloneness that made shooting children so funny. That same mandate to live that colored the empty barrel of an unloaded gun.

And once I realized that, everything turned the same shade of sadness.


On those golden afternoons when the snow melted and there was pink again, I sat on the veranda alone and let the wind touch my skeleton. I listened to the kids walking by and I imagined I was one of them, and I had somewhere to go. I thought about what I would say to Nora when she came back from the war. How was the war, maybe. Or how come you’re back. Or maybe something so that she wouldn’t talk about James.

I didn’t know if Nora was coming back, and if she did she would probably live with James and I wouldn’t see her anymore. Or maybe James would come and live in Grandma’s house. He would clean the house or burn it down and he would live in Nora’s room and soon enough he would make me leave because he didn’t want to share her with me.

I didn’t have much to eat anymore. Grandma’s money was running low so I started buying cheaper things like oats and cornmeal. I felt dizzy and some days I couldn’t make myself get up in the morning. Other days, I found myself staying up all night and sleeping when the sun came up. I felt more like a pet than a person.

The Spring evenings were better than the Autumn evenings because the breeze tickled and made you laugh even when there was nothing funny. I hadn’t laughed since Nora left, but I couldn’t help it when little tendrils of breath brushed past my chin and left kisses across my neck. The couch was getting really saggy now, and when I sat down in it I could feel my entire body sinking under my sack of skin and bones. The rifle lay across my lap, and I ran my hand across it, feeling the familiar oily cracks and crevices. I still hadn’t found the bullets, which was probably for the better because I would have shot myself. I imagined my body lying on the porch, and how Nora and James would find me and bring me to the woods and dump me in the clearing. I wondered if Nora would play her sad song for me when they got back.


On my half-birthday, I went into the backyard to find out if God was real. I walked out the front door, down the steps of the porch, and crossed behind the house to the patch of forest that Nora and I left Grandma in. The yard was overgrown and thorns pricked at my ankles as I waded into the brush that lined the edge of the thicket. The foreignness of organic matter made my skin itch.

I drifted in a daze until the air chilled. Finally, I came to the spot where I last saw Grandma three years ago. The light oozed off of the trees and dripped onto the yellowing grass, leaving it stained with sun. There were wet leaves of all colors scattered in piles across the dirt, and clumps of soil where the squirrels buried their acorns in the fall. And leaning against the trunk of an old Oak on the far side of the clearing was a browning bag of bones.

It looked like a potato sack that had been ripped open and dunked in tar. Some pieces of the body were missing, probably dragged off by animals or lost in the rain. Other pieces were cracked and broken and ground up, fading cleanly into the ground.

What was left of me took a seat next to what was left of my Grandma. I picked some dirt up from off the ground and sprinkled it on her body. I took some dirt from her body and sprinkled it on myself. I stared into the distance and stopped believing in God.


One afternoon that summer, I opened the door and found Nora sleeping on the couch on the veranda.

She had a pink mark over her eye, and she was wearing a thin shirt and shredded pants. Her hair fell in stitches across her face, and her nails were long and caked with dirt. She shivered lightly as she slept, her brows furrowed, her fingers knit tightly together. She was thinner, and her nose was redder, and her lips had lost their sucrosity. She curled up and made herself small and insignificant.

She was alone.

I went inside and grabbed my rifle.

When I came back to the porch, I looked at Nora and I realized that I no longer loved her. I couldn’t see this woman playing the piano or eating beans, writing letters or telling stories about her husband. I could only see her lie there, silently, as she wasted away.

I raised the gun to her face.


The rifle slipped out of my hand and crashed to the ground. Nora didn’t wake up. I sat down next to her, on the edge of the couch, and watched the children walking by. I didn’t shoot them anymore. Death is only funny until it’s sitting beside you, and we were all sitting beside each other on this particular golden afternoon.

I raised my eyes to the road and stared at the mountains.

Somewhere in the house, a rat perked its ears for the sound of a song.

Another World

Inhaled your smoke on the subway,
Your knees the summits formed
By the mountains of your sloping legs,
Which are slender but cold.
The ash on your fingernails
Dampens pink flesh.
I want to reach over and dust off
Your hands,
Fill them with warmth
That reaches into the core of your marrow
And leaves no vein untouched,
But your eyes are glazed over
The way I remember that clear gel dripping
Over clay before sticking it in a furnace.
Here we stall for time
Between one station and the next,
But in another world
We might be joking about
The advertisements along the top of the car,
How one of them is so striking
And another is so discursive,
Laughing at the faces each other makes
When one points out how
That potted plant looks flaccid
And the other realizes it’s a metaphor.
In another world
We might be living together
As students,
Where the holes in that gray sweater
Hanging loosely around your legs
Are at worst an accident
And at best a memory.
We might have sung together
The joys of being alive
In a tiny apartment far uptown.
I would have played the piano,
And you perhaps a violin
That you love so much to hear,
Curving your lips into a smile
I cannot discern from your face.
I glance at the curls of your dark brown hair,
Imagining how it sways in the wind
As you step off the subway
And disappear around the corner.
All that lingers in the air is the smell of smoke
From the burnt residue
Of another world.

Popping the Bubble

There’s something so visceral about how we turn away from people who are not as well off as we are. We make all kinds of excuses for why we have a superiority complex, citing a lack of work ethic in the other party or worse, inherent intellectual advantage. But if I believed that I wouldn’t be getting intense waves of guilt each time I choose not to look at someone who is asking for change. What’s wrong with people? How come, even when I know that I want to do everything I can to help the world be a better place, I’m still subject to this kind of complicit behavior? Does it make me a hypocrite? I tell myself that I’ll pay it back someday when I’m well off as a sort of reassurance. But what if I’m never well off? Would I keep pushing it off forever?

It’s easy to blame things on a system that keeps the poor in poverty or on personal circumstance, thus pushing someone else’s condition off of my own plate. But ultimately the root causes of this negligence stem mostly from our own psyche. First, altruism is programmed because we expect reciprocity. As social beings, we are kind and generous to each other as an investment in ourselves– surely someone we’ve helped will be able to give back to us in the future. However, if you’re unlikely to ever encounter the person again or have no reason to believe they will have the means to give back to you, instinct tells you to leave them in the dust and let them fend for themselves. I’ve always firmly believed in the benevolence of people and their inherent goodness, so this is a very daunting reality for me to come to terms with.

Second, consider the trolley problem. Would you pull a lever to kill one person while saving five? Or would you let the five die because it’s none of your business? The core question here is one of responsibility: I had nothing to do with it in the first place, and so I will have nothing to do with it now. This is the argument that many people who choose not to interfere give to justify their counterintuitive response. Technically, it’s better to just let the five die due to factors out of your control instead of being responsible for the death of the one, as awful as that sounds. We don’t like to be arbiters of life and death– that’s why we have God to take the blame off our shoulders. Somehow, by helping out this person who is asking me for money or for food, I am now entangling myself in their ultimate success or demise. The thinking goes, “in case of the worst, best not to get involved in the first place.”

People have constructed entire bubbles of privilege to distract themselves from the reality of an economically diverse world. Hospitals, for example, are a place of safety and refuge for those who have the money to afford patient care. They stand as institutions of privilege and, most importantly, privacy. We want to maintain a front that only the best care is being given, and so we pick and choose who we can give care to in order to maintain the best image. Take one of the opening scenes from Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Stephen Strange, world famous neurosurgeon, is driving along and perusing possible cases to take. Instead of focusing primarily on saving lives, he is fixated on what will improve his name, avoiding patients with injuries that are too “risky”. While public hospitals and clinics do not have this kind of privilege due to their nature of being public, often they lack funding or the facilities that private hospitals do. This is even more true when it comes to education. Public schools, private schools, inner city vs. suburban, all provide different levels of schooling. For a hefty price, parents can invest in their children’s futures and immerse them in a world where everyone is as privileged as they are. This isn’t just paying for a private school education– even choosing where to live and settle down has major implications. Why don’t we let kids look at people asking for change? To preserve the bubble. Why do we ignore those around us who don’t behave the way we think “civilized” people do? To preserve the bubble. Everything is about preserving the version of reality that we’ve constructed, where we are the victors and anyone who is not as well off as we are have simply lost the game.

What do we do, then? Particularly with a shrinking world and a growing wealth gap, with hard evidence showing that there is an indisputable link between low socioeconomic status and slower development, how do we commit to breaking a vicious cycle before it’s too late? More pertinently, should we be more open with our money and be giving? That’s a matter of personal belief and values, but regardless of what you choose to do, we can’t continue to believe in a world where we are the “winners” and others are the losers. Investments in societal health are also investments in ourselves and our communities. We need to give each other the chance to become productive, to succeed and contribute in their own ways, and that starts with being able to acknowledge their existence. We can also try to build institutions that break down as opposed to building walls. Just as the Tripod program in the Deaf community seeks to educate both deaf and hearing children together in a bicultural (English and sign) environment, educational and medical facilities that are just as open and diverse should be made available. This isn’t easy­– when people have the means, they will tend to opt for private schools or hospitals because they expect better service. Institutions also have a tendency to become more privileged as they become more selective. A public school that provides a great education with great resources will probably only get more wealthy as space runs out, since at that point name value will incentivize them to pluck the students who are best posed to succeed as opposed to those who stand to gain the most.

I’ve given a lot of thought to how to solve this problem. One solution is to embed the purpose of the school or the service-program in the constitution. That way there is a clear mission statement that compels the administration to adhere to a set of values in patient, subject, or student care and selection. Another possibility is to specifically target areas of low privilege and provide the means necessary to help those people access these facilities. For example, a school for inner city children that provides free transportation or reduced-cost lunches, or psychiatric facilities in rural areas // through online mediums that would allow for anonymity particularly in small towns.  Regardless of the means, the through line is effort and community building. ­If you are acknowledging your privilege and stepping beyond the bubble, you are doing a good thing.

Of course, any of these ideas heavily depend on a financial backer with a large if not unlimited pool of resources at hand and ready to dish out to the cause. The government is unlikely to make such investments, since politicians too live in an even smaller bubble of privilege. But that isn’t to discourage any and all efforts to make the world a better place for more people! We each have a means of communication, and if nothing else, we can spread a message or lend an ear. You can’t give up before the game has even started!

So to recap, I’m going to do my best to be more considerate and immerse myself in the reality of socioeconomic diversity. I might not always have change to give, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can do. Giving back comes in many forms, not the least of which is the pledge to start or maintain institutions that offer services to the underprivileged and give back to a community. I might not expect reciprocity, but on net, it’s a tiny cost in exchange for huge potential gain.

Barbershop Quartet

I refuse to grow old
Yearning for the days of my youth.
Instead, let me sing away the years
In a barbershop quartet
With my closest friends.
We might be worlds away
From one another,
But we will whistle from our hearts
A tune so pristine
It will lull the moon into a
Cornfield slumber.
The songs we choose
Are of our own composition,
Arranged only for us and no one else,
Lamenting the past with doo wops,
Humming the present with hallelujahs,
Welcoming the future with olés.
Our hair will fall out
The way our love never will,
Chins and bellies in rolls of laughter
Through centuries of pacific bliss,
Celebrating our milestones
With the music of our being.
Sing me a song, brother
And let me be your accompaniment.
As long as we have the harmony
Of each other,
I have no need
For the trivialities of youth.

All the Ships

I walked into an AA meeting holding a cup of coffee.

It hit me as I was opening the door to the cozy room that this might have been interpreted as a sort of flippant irony– the fact that I was entering a space reserved for those trying to get over a substance addiction while taking a brain-altering substance myself. All sorts of scenarios played out in my head, including being called out, kicked out, or judged silently, which was almost the worst of them all. Normally this kind of anxiety would have been enough to turn me around and give me ample impetus to get the hell out of there. But, since this was the first time I had ever been to an AA meeting, I recognized it was probably my fear of the unknown, and not the actual act of drinking coffee, that was inducing my paranoia.

I’ve had drinks before but not frequently, and I have never felt like my drinking was out of my control. This much I knew about myself; I was at the meeting solely as a listener. However, I also knew that this didn’t by any means give me the moral high ground. Everyone is dependent on something to get them through dark times, be it religion, sex, video games, etc. It just so happens that some comforts can inflict greater harm than others. Alcohol is one of these comforts.

It was a small meeting, with five people at peak attendance. That set me slightly on edge; I had banked on there being more attendees so as to make my presence inconspicuous.

One member, Eric (name changed for anonymity), took charge as facilitator and gave us a rundown of how things would go. He would give an opening statement, and then we would be given a chance to speak to our own experience with substance abuse. He asked if we had any announcements to make. We didn’t.

Eric’s opening statement was lucid and encouraging. Having been to countless AA meetings since he first stopped drinking over a decade ago, he was a well of resources, adages, and reassurance. Like many who find themselves at the mercy of alcohol, Eric’s drinking began with family. He felt trapped in his home, and it didn’t help that other members of his family had already set an example by being alcoholics themselves. When he finally sought help and rehab, he made AA a cornerstone of his recovery by resolving to go to a meeting a day. By being a part of this community, learning that he wasn’t alone, and picking up technique after technique from peers, Eric built himself back up from the ground. This is not a success story, he stressed. Alcoholism is something you have to fight every day because the moment you give in to it, you lose everything you built up from the ground. “It’s like ships”, he said. “The first day you go to AA, you have a life raft. After a month, you have a canoe. After a year, you have a speedboat. After ten years, you have a yacht. But no matter what you have, remember that one big wave can take everything away.”

Ten years. People quit their jobs if they don’t think they’ll be promoted within a year. People give up on dreams of becoming famous or of starting their own business if they don’t see a glimmer of hope within the first six-months. To work on who you are every second of every day for over a decade takes more effort and resilience than almost anyone can imagine. That’s more than half of my lifetime.

When I walk into a grocery store, I do not need to consciously keep myself from wandering into the alcohol section. When my friends invite me out, I do not need to turn them down because I’m scared that I might cave in to a drink. My lifestyle is a privilege, and it is so easy to forget how lucky I am to not be going through something like what Eric has described.

After the opening statement, we went around the room and offered our own insights and anecdotes. I passed on my turn to speak, since I did not have anything to say. Once everyone had shared in some way or another, we filled out the rest of the hour session with a short, silent meditation, which contrasted with the vocal aspect of the meeting. I used that time to reflect on all the ships I had built myself – my confidence, my empathy, my friendships – all of which require patience, deliberate effort, and persistence to keep intact. I felt a life energy coursing in the air as we sat, drawing us closer with some kind of unconscious magnetism. We were all on a journey, I realized. A rocky odyssey across an ocean filled with high stakes and great rewards, and we were all anxious. But I also felt something else that wasn’t anxiety. I struggled to name that feeling, even as we finished the session with the serenity prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

As I walked out of the room and back into the smoky indifference of New York City, I finally put a name to what it was I was feeling. It was gratitude. Gratitude that I was granted this experience and wisdom despite walking in holding a cup of coffee, but also for something bigger. In a world characterized by stigma and prejudice, it is inspiring that we are able to find communities that encourage us to be better and work for who we are. It can be hard, especially if what it is you want to change was out of your control in the first place. But it doesn’t have to be lonely. I’m grateful to know that, no matter where I am, I can stick my head up above deck on my little sailboat and see that there is an entire fleet sailing beside me.