Monthly Archives: May 2009


Back when Mike worked with Julia and ran a business together, they always kept a few bottles of cheap champagne in the fridge. These came in handy whenever they landed a new client or finished a big project. They would gather the junior designers — this was before anyone was laid off — and pass the bottle around, topping off the flutes. Champagne was good for morale.

Mike stops at a wine store on Main St. and walks in. The owner is Korean, so Mike says hello in Korean with a quick bow. The owner, friendly and in his fifties, smiles and says hello. The store is small and stocked with only the big name estates. Mike misses the wine store he used to frequent in Brooklyn, only a few blocks from where he and Olivia lived together. It was a hip and bustling store run by knowledgeable staff, stocked with all kinds of funky and interesting wines from independent vineyards. There, you could find quality wines for under ten dollars. Unable to decide, Mike picks up a chilled Yellow Tail Chardonnay. The owner makes small talk and asks where he lives.

I live in that apartment down the street, Mike says, struggling with his Korean. The owner also asks what he does for a living.

I write, Mike says, feeling embarrassed in having to say this. I’m trying to write a novel. Mike isn’t sure if he’s said it correctly. So-sul. The store owner seems to understand. He nods and rings up the wine. No tax is charged. Mike thanks him and walks home.

It’s seven dollars for the bottle. Mike would have flinched just a month ago. But times are better now. Through Sammy and his well-connected mother, Mike has found a small base of students to tutor in writing. At $25 an hour, the pay covers rent and pays the bills. Mike’s also mowed a few lawns, earning $15, $20 here and there. These labors afford him small luxuries like this bottle of wine.

Mike is disappointed to realize that he does not own any wine glasses. He’s relieved to find that he has a corkscrew to open the bottle. He uses his coffee mug and pours generously. Out of habit, he digs his nose into the mug and sniffs before taking a sip. It’ll do.

He tilts the mug towards himself. The straw yellow color of the wine looks darker inside the mug. One could mistake it for green tea. Mike quickly finishes and pours again.


Mike sips coffee and tries to jot down memories that come to mind. It’s an exercise he likes to do from time to time, especially when he isn’t making progress on his story.

As vast and powerful as the human mind may seem, it is not an efficient device for recording and storing memories. Mike knows that the notes that he jots down are, at best, simple snippets describing the most superficial aspects of his past. These snippets, however, have the ability to trigger certain feelings, and Mike, unsure why, values this.

On this sunny morning, Mike recalls the first day he showed up to summer camp in elementary school. He must have been third going on to fourth grade. The camp counselors, mostly high school students, gave out bright red t-shirts with white lettering on the front. He remembers seeing his friends Joe and Tommy, both wearing their new t-shirts, talking about something exciting that will happen later in the day. Amid the sunshine and bustle of activity that floats in his mind, there is an acute sense of feeling left out. Was he not a part of the summer camp?

It’s entirely possible. Mike remembers living only a couple of blocks from his school, where the camp was taking place. He would often wake up early to walk around the neighborhood and to hang out in the playground, where he loved to dangle from the monkey bars and navigate the jungle gym. He could have been out on one of his walks, unaware that there was such a thing as summer camp. He might have been surprised, and even pleased, to see his friends, but this feeling would have dissipated immediately, replaced by the envy of someone excluded. There may have been a feeling of resentment towards his parents for their failure to sign him up. Mike even thinks there may have been an awkward moment, when a counselor, seeing Mike without his red shirt on, approaches him and asks why he hasn’t checked in yet. Mike hears himself, embarrassed and nervous, telling the counselor that he’s not signed up.

The emotions feel real, and it hurts Mike to recollect. But he isn’t sure any of this really happened. Did he come home and complain to his parents? Maybe even shed a tear? He remembers that he was quick to cry and always full of self-pity as a kid. Or he could be wrong about everything. He might have attended camp but the feeling of being excluded may have been something else. The inability to fit in or being placed in a group with mean kids; it may have been as simple as finding out that his friends went to the swimming pool without him.

Human memory is unreliable, Mike thinks. There are many details that come to mind – the yellow and green paint of the playground, the open fields nearby, the red wall behind the school with the fallout shelter sign, the faculty parking lot, the streets lined with dogwood – but he knows they are not all from the same day or even the same year. What he sees in his mind are composites formed from various fragments that have remained with him through the years. Some memories may have come much more recently from an unrelated source. He cannot bet his life on the color of the jungle gym, but he’s somehow sure that it was mostly green.

If this is the nature of the mind, and if so much of what he feels is a result of speculation and uncertainty, how does he go about understanding what really happened between him and Olivia? Some memories are still fresh, but others become dimmer each day, selectively relegated by the brain to make room for new memories. He begins to believe that there is no way to completely understand. The emotions that felt so powerful and raw at the time have subsided and taken on different shades. There are only snippets now. The tear streaks on her cheeks, the lack of eye contact, and the piles of unwashed dishes.

Gum Wrapper

Mike remembers a story about a Korean artist that his mother once told him. This was back when Mike was young and fancied himself an artist, sketching everything and filling up stacks of drawing pads. The artist — the name escapes him now — was someone very poor, barely able to feed himself. Always sick and feeble, this artist would still look for ways to draw things. Lacking money, the artist used cheap charcoal pencils, and for his paper, he often used gum wrappers that he found in garbage cans. Mike’s mother mentioned how the artist obsessed over apples, drawing them over and over again, sometimes smudging away the previous one and redrawing right over the smudge. The artist never made much money and died young and obscure. But after the Japanese occupation, his work became better known and widely praised.

The story had inspired Mike as a little kid. The young Mike admired the resourcefulness and persistence of the poor artist. And he loved the part about the gum wrapper, an object so easily overlooked and thrown away. Mike amazed at the transformation of the gum wrapper into a blank canvas, full of possibilities well after its intended use.

Staring at his laptop, Mike realizes that the story no longer resonates the way it used to. The gum wrapper is no longer as important. He wants to know what went on in the mind of the artist. How did he fight the hunger? How did he not obsess about food or money? Why was drawing so important when his basic needs weren’t being met? And how could he keep on creating art when nobody would notice? Did he ever think of giving up?