It was with a laugh that Jacob asked
if any of us had tried heroin.
At once you could see our breaths lightened
like balloons liberated from children.
Laurie’s freckles showed, Margo tugged
on the hem of her dress, Jane
wore the expression of someone pained
to know she could not shrug “It’s fine,”
and as they turned to me I cleared my throat
against this expectant hush.

It’s an exhilarating sadness, a great
unburdening and climax,
and simultaneously
the journey toward it,
like drinking at the new Topwin bar.

That was a lie. Of course they believed it.
Who cared about truths or highs
since we were all playacting romantics
in the shroud of a Beijing night.
It would have been impolite to admit
the teething burdens that gnawed inside
or reveal what lonely unease kept us
pinned here to secret ambition,
what dignities cheapened, failed consummations
nourished our growth meaningfully

and which led simply to the next
rooftop party. We knew alfresco,
hot yoga, KTV, ayi‘s, vermouth
dens and jazz lounges, which duties to abide
and which to postdate;
we envied past selves, learned helplessness,
left tomorrow to the unthought-of fates,
achieved a different form of weightlessness,
a different class of drug, I suppose,
but all the same: anything to make us forget time.

Laurie, Jane, Margo, Jacob, plus
some others, sufficiently impressed
to move to the next subject, mused
of bar closings and VPNs, who was leaving and who best
made bagels, carried Roquefort, Bleu de Gex,
tacos and beers, when to Temple and how to impress:
talk of visas, dresses, conquests, concepts —
writers who don’t speak, runners who don’t rush —
a simple self-destruction
by not doing.

We tried trap, we tried hashtags,
we donned costumes at Marvel premieres 
and cried when reality imposed such realness
in the form of lost elections;
we glimpsed, from the distance of our terraces, how close
we were to understanding, if only…
— We are the last real Americans, someone said,

composing another newsletter to friends,
subject line I am Cassandra, girdled by bacon
grease thick as insouciance, a feeling, faintly, of accomplishment.

Not that it wasn’t good. It could be beautiful
in that dusty heat
like being in a movement.
“Let’s go to that Topwin bar,” someone suggested.
It was late and awful, the kind of hour
where nothing better, per usual, is to be done.
“Exhilarating sadness,” said Jacob.
“Unburdening,” said Laurie.
“New,” said Margo.
“Drink,” said Jane.

Laurie, Jane, Margo, Jacob, plus
other placeholders in a poem
that will never be published,
boon companions in amusement slums
where responsibilities are relinquished
and no one is good enough:
dreams wait, cars honk, blood stiffens.
We are the they living lives of us.
Maybe someday I’ll tell you
how it really was.

 

© ANTHONY TAO
Published in The Shanghai Literary Review (Issue Four, December 2018)