Pulling a piece of string between my thumb and forefinger I will always search for a knot or snag, somewhere to stop, a blight to measure the rest of the smooth string against. No matter how much string I have to play with – long, uninterrupted lengths – my fingers will always find that knot.
For a while in my mid-teens I was very afraid and spent a lot of time inside, alone. That should be the dictionary definition of agoraphobia, not ‘an abnormal fear of being in crowds, public places, or open areas, sometimes accompanied by anxiety attacks.’ But there you go. Inevitably I’m asked ‘What were you so afraid of?’ but I didn’t know how to answer then and I don’t know how to answer now, half my life later. The only way I can articulate it is actually hopelessly inarticulate: I was afraid of everything that could happen. So I stayed inside where I felt safe.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Or the next day. Or any of the days allocated to me until my time is up. But no one does, right? No one can count on love to last, or their ship to come in, or on their next breath. I may never stand in the icy wind staring up at the Moais on Easter Island, or feel the growl of Tom Waits as he paces across a stage like a caged lion. I may never hear my own baby bellow as it’s forced out into the uncertain world.
There are thousands of moments every day when I miss you. When my alarm goes off in the morning I miss your annoyed groan before I sneak sleepily out of the room. When I’m singing really loudly in the car, beating on the steering wheel and tapping my lazy left driving foot, I miss your pitch-perfect harmonies. When I change lanes in an intersection I miss you carefully explaining that it’s unsafe. Same when I forget to indicate, break suddenly without checking my mirrors or cross double lines to chuck a U-turn. I miss you calling me Fangio.
“Everybody needs a place to rest; everybody wants to have a home. Don’t make no difference what nobody says, ain’t nobody like to be alone. Everybody got a hungry heart.“ We may not have all been born to run, but The Boss eloquently expresses our appetite for love and belonging, with a rousing sing-along chorus. It’s the knots in your stomach, the jolt that wakes you in the night, the sob trapped in your chest. Cud for poets, musicians and writers to chew, and the guts of Maslow’s hierarchy; as unfathomable as existence and inherent as eating.
I remember crying as I watched my dad’s figure grow smaller out the window of the coach that took us from his home back to my mum’s. Even if I hadn’t grasped how long it might be until I saw him again, or exactly how nauseating the coach ride would be, or that my brother would vomit (Fanta and a vegetable pastie) on my feet in the last twenty minutes of the journey – seeing the tears in his eyes was enough to set me off. Years later, at the airport as he moved to the other side of the world with his new children, I had to swallow hard to keep my heart and anger down. I couldn’t bear to see them excited at their new life without me, or the tears in my dad’s eyes. Again. So I tossed a ‘bye’ over my shoulder as I walked away. The first time I fell in love I told him in the dark, so I wouldn’t have to see the look in his eyes. He didn’t say it back to me but I said it again anyway, because I knew that I did and had faith that he would. Months later, at the airport saying bon voyage, I hugged him on tippy toes and said ‘I love you’ again, this time into his neck. He squeezed me tighter and repeated the same three words back, for the first time, then went away for three months. Years later, at Ashfield BBQ Korean Restaurant, over bibimbap (me) and sizzling spicy chicken (him), I can look him square in the eye, like with no other person in the world. The bibimbap is a fine balance of its components – garlicky marinated beef, sesame-scented bean sprouts, gochujang, carrot, shitake mushrooms and zucchini, all with a sunnyside egg hat, over white rice. I feebly attempt to pick up every last grain with my chopsticks before reverting to the strangely oversized, and accordingly efficient, spoon. The spicy chicken is the same he orders every visit; the routine gives me confidence that it is good. We sit and eat, picking over the complimentary kimchi and other fermented sides. I want to remind him of the three words he’s said thousands of times in our years together; freely, happily, sweetly and earnestly. I want to hear them again now, and see them in his eyes. I want to whisper them to him with the same faith I had the first time. I want to visit Ashfield BBQ Korean Restaurant with the same regularity he does, but sharing a meal isn’t regular anymore. K-Pop enthusiastically sings and dances its way across the wall-mounted TV set, songs that seem familiar but are in Korean and never could be. Being forced to say goodbye to someone you love is not fair. But maybe it’s a blessing that the soundtrack to my heart breaking is in a language that I don’t understand and won’t remember.
I ran away to New York City to try and shake a heavy heart. Ran away from all the people who know best, the people I don’t show my busted heart anymore. I ran away from the life I wanted, but was too scared to fight for. I ran away from him and desperately hoped he’d make chase. When I’m running, I like to play it cool – I like to pretend that I’m running toward something. Like when you’re running for a bus, but see the doors close and watch it pull away from the kerb before you catch up, so elect to keep running for a bit. You never call out, ‘hey, bus! Wait!’ Cause you weren’t really ever running for that bus, you don’t care that you missed it, you were just jogging to get your heart rate up a bit. Maybe burn a few cals. So, I ran toward New York City and it’s food. I ran toward bagels and hot dogs and giant salty pretzels, toward meatballs and pastrami and cookies, toward pickles and lox and lobster rolls. The red-eye from LA leaves me tired, sweaty and giddy; my first day in NYC has the same result. A deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, baked eggs and coffee fill the hole, but don’t touch the ache. I want comfort; I want soup. The whole world cries into soup: the Jews and their Matzo ball, the Thais and their Tom Yum Goong, the Vietnamese and their Pho. Ukranians and their Borscht. In NYC, on a heavy-hot night, I choose Momofuku Noodle Bar and Japanese soup, ramen. We’re offered a twenty-minute wait, and are seated in five. It’s busy and it’s loud and it’s somewhere to sit after running so far. We order soy sauce eggs, the murderously good pork buns and ramen named for the restaurant. The broth is balanced, clear, creamy with pork fat. Cabbage, shallots, seaweed, shredded pork shoulder and a perfect poached egg jostle for attention, overshadowed by slabs of soft, fatty pork belly and a messy tangle of pliant noodles. I drain the large bowl – it’s equal parts satisfaction and comfort and sustenance to keep running. But you can’t run forever. And when I stop running, life is time spent between the moments when my heart pounds frantically in my chest, trying to get out, trying to get back to him. So I eat a lot of soup.