Advanced Technique for Breathing

When he was growing up, his mother always told him to take a deep breath, hold it for as long as he could, then let it out. Anytime anything upset him, he had to take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out before he did anything else.

Because he was a good kid, he did what his mother said. When he was picked on at school, he took a deep breath and held it, then let it out. He got beaten up, but because he took a deep breath before freaking out or telling on the kids who hurt him, they left him alone after the first time.

He grew older, and when girls didn’t like him, he took a deep breath. He held his breath, then let it out, and he saw things from their point of view: that he was really nothing special. He held his breath a lot as a teenager, but he never spread any mean rumours about the girls who turned him down.

Eventually, while he was at university, he found a girl who liked him back, and they went out for years. Sometimes they fought, but it was OK because instead of hitting her or calling her a bitch or dumping her, he just took a deep breath. Then they went out for some beers and forgave each other quickly.

They were still going out when they graduated and she became a teacher, and he got a job as an accountant for Virgin Media. The boss would sometimes make him work unpaid overtime, but he just took a breath, held it, then let it out again. He never asked for a raise or filed complaints behind his boss’ back.

He took a deep breath when his boss said, “I’m really sorry, but we have to let you go.” He held his breath and put all his stuff in a box instead of punching his asshole boss. He let out his breath on the drive back to the apartment he lived in with his girlfriend.

When his girlfriend said she couldn’t stay with him now that he was unemployed and had no prospects, he took a deep breath. When she moved in with her mother, he took a deep breath. He held his breath and let it out. Then he wrote her an email asking if they could still be friends. She didn’t reply. He took it as a “maybe” and took a deep breath.

Even though he was unemployed and had no prospects, he had enough money put aside to take a break, and he booked a flight to the Gulf coast of Florida to hang out in the sun and go snorkelling.

When his flight was delayed, he took a deep breath, held it, and then let it out. Eventually he made it to Florida. From all his breath-holding, he’d developed an impressive lung capacity, and could be out snorkelling for hours, staring at the fish and diving down to see the way the sunlight danced on the sandy seafloor.

Walking back to his hotel, he saw a barefoot woman sitting on the fence at the edge of the boardwalk. She was writing in a notebook, and kept glancing at him. When she saw him looking, she stopped writing and closed the book with a snap.

“What?” she said.

“I just wondered what you were writing,” he said.

“I’ll tell you later, if you come to my place,” she said.

She gave him her address and smiled and walked off. He thought his mother had been right and maybe all his patience and taking deep breaths was finally going to pay off. He went back to his hotel to shower and change.

He met the woman from the boardwalk at her house, and she told him she was a novelist and was writing about passersby as extras in her new novel.

“But that’s boring,” she said. “Wanna do some laughing gas?”

She had a canister, like a diver’s oxygen tank. It had one bar of laughing gas in it. She said that a bar is the distance between the ground and the ozone layer.

“What kind of measurement is a bar?” He said in a squeaky laughing gas voice.

“I don’t know. A diver’s one. It’s about atmospheric pressure, or something.”

They sat up inhaling laughing gas out of balloons and watching low-budget films on the horror channel. He was having fun. He started to put a move on her. Then she told him she had a boyfriend. He was a diver, which was why she knew about bars and canisters, and he was diving in the Red Sea right now. She was just bored and lonely and had wanted to hang out with him.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, okay. That’s cool too.”

It was really late anyway, so he didn’t have to make an excuse. She said she was sorry if she misled him, and gave him three laughing gas balloons for the road.

He went back to his hotel. He had some beers and some whisky from the mini-bar. The laughing gas balloons bumped off the ceiling and off each other. He watched them floating around his hotel room for a while. Outside, the sun was coming up. He took a deep breath. He could hold his breath for a very long time now.

He breathed in all the balloons without exhaling. His lungs inflated. He felt his ribcage resisting. It hurt, but he was quite drunk and he didn’t care much anyway. His sinews stretched out. Some of them broke under the strain of his expanding lungs. He winced, but he kept his breath held. His skin was getting stretchier.

Already feeling lighter, he bobbed over to the French windows that led to the balcony of his hotel room. He hopped up, then kicked off from the rail.

He floated gently, watching the sun rise over the town for a few moments, then a gust of wind caught him and he was lifted and carried through the morning sky.

The Sausage Class

After sausage link number three (mild Italian), they’d stopped angling for meat action, and now Marisa stood back, allowing other students to huddle around the laminate counter and sausage set-up. Remie, the hunter wearing the blinking blue Jawbone headset, wanted to hold the casing this time. Remie had already cranked the stuffer and poked the holes in the sausage with a toothpick, so the man from Sunnyvale (who apparently had a wife who refused to chew and swallow meat) cranked. The first of the two girls from Whole Foods poked the holes, and the second turned the extruding sausage into tight intestinal coils.

Marisa watched the production while her husband Steve chatted about curing salts to the chef who wore a chef coat with dirty cuffs. The room smelled not only of dead pig (of which there were not one but two in large Tupperware containers in the old fridge), but of something like a dog that had lived exclusively in the room for months without grooming. The windowsill overlooking the sparse winter garden was filled with disregarded tchotchkes and bulbs of sprouting garlic. Dusty porcelain pigs clumped in clanking groups, old cookbooks baked in the sun stacked up in loose, sad piles; pig statuettes and boxes of something—the labels Italian—leaned against the sill.

Hoary clumps of dried sage and rosemary skittled on the counters by the sink. A crock pot Marisa recognized from the 70s—orange and emblazoned with the words “crock pot”—sat next to the tiny toaster oven.

The aluminum sink wasn’t big enough for the old wooden cutting board. The chef chopped everything on it without washing it. After cutting strips of pork butt, he wiped it off with a towel he later dried his hands on. Now, the second Whole Foods girl was coiling the sausage on the smeared, damp board.

Marisa imagined a bottle of Clorox, a bottle of Windex. She wanted to soap down the counters, the fridge handles, the Tupperware tubs.

The chef opened the fridge and then closed it again, a new wet dead smell wafting toward her. Marisa wanted to throw up, but she was having a “marital sharing experience,” and throwing up would ruin the class that Steve had signed them up for months earlier.

“I’m a bow hunter,” Remie said, her right arm yanking back a stiff, imaginary bowstring. “I said to my boyfriend, ‘I need to learn to make a clean kill.’ He got that, let me tell you. And then I told him, ‘I need to know how to prepare and eat all this meat.’”

“What do you hunt?” Marisa asked.

“Everything,” Remie said, but she really said “Ever-thang,” even though this was Oakland, California and not Alabama or Texas or somewhere southern. Her right bow bicep flexed.

“Boar, deer. Elk once, but they are hard to hunt. Find, more like. Skittish. Once I went with my boyfriend to Montana, and these guys they said, ‘You all want some of this bear?’ I was like, ‘No,’ ‘cause what am I going to do by myself with twenty pounds of bear meat in Montana? But it was good, let me tell you.”

“Doesn’t bear have trichinosis?” Marisa asked, remembering this fact from medical shows on television. When she was growing up, her mother was so afraid of trichinosis that she served all cuts of pork brown, almost gray, cooked through and through. Now Steve served Marisa slices of pork tenderloin pink, puddles of bloody red on the serving plate.

“That’s right—slow it down there,” Remie said to the Sunnyvale man who cranked the stuffer with hard yanks. Marisa wished his wife were there, the one who was a great cook—Italian on both sides—but couldn’t chew meat and didn’t like anything spicy. The Sunnyvale man had mentioned these facts when he and Marisa had stuffed the stuffer with the sticky pork mixture.

“She gets a weird feeling first in her teeth and then her throat,” he said. “Like she’s going to choke. So I’m going to learn how to make sausage for her. I think she’ll eat that.”

Now he slowed down on the crank. The antique stuffer was cast iron, the handle hard to turn, but once you got going, hard to slow down.

“Sorry about that,” the Sunnyvale Man—Jim, Marisa thought—said.

“No problem,” Remie said. “We’re all trying to learn, that’s all. Just keep it smooth.”

The two Whole Foods girls stood side by side, working hard, eyes on the coil. Poke, turn. Poke, turn.

“That’s looking good!” the chef boomed, raising his hands to expose his dirty sleeves. “We’re going to be able to eat after we finish this last one.”

Steve moved next to Marisa, putting his arm around her waist. At his touch, Marisa relaxed, pressing into him, realizing how she’d been trying to guard herself from bacteria with her rigid spine and held breath. Her husband was warm, and happy, his eyes on the sausage making.

They both wore burgundy-colored aprons that read “Country Sausage” in gold letters, the aprons well worn and washed, pilling on the front from too many spins in the dryer. The chef had given them each a cloth towel they strung in the tie at their waists, but all they’d used them for was drying their hands.

“So,” Remie said, still holding onto the casing. “Mostly we eat wild boar, though I do like to deep-sea fish, too. I made some fish sausage with mango last week. Got me some great mangos and that sausage was good.”

“Okay, stop now,” the chef said, and Jim stopped cranking. Remie bent down to tie the sausage tail, the twist of intestine left over for just that purpose.

As Remie fumbled with the white slickery strip, the rest of the class looked at the tight coil on the dirty cutting board, and it was impossible, Marisa thought, not to put her hand on her belly, knowing that something familiar but completely opposite spiraled inside her.

The chef’s hands curled like gory shells at his sides.

“Y’all ready to eat?” he said.

The chef’s wife had prepared a meal with the chef’s sausage, presumably made in the same small kitchen in the backyard workshop. Now the deadly hygiene was hidden in meatballs that still crackled hot in the serving dish, smelling of sage and parmesan cheese. A big, festive pile of pasta, strewn with a rich tomato sauce and sprinkled with freshly shaved cheese, was served on a lovely porcelain platter. Green beans, a salad of baby lettuces, three bottles of red wine, and a bell pepper sauce for the meatballs filled the rest of the space in the middle of the large oak table. For a second, Marisa imagined she could forget about the pink rounds of ground meat in the backroom.

“Dig in,” the chef said, and the class leaned forward to grasp serving spoon and fork, the room a clack of cutlery, glass, and dishware. His wife helped pass around serving forks, smiling in a way that either meant she had nothing to say or too much, deciding on silence as the best alternative.

“So, tell me,” Jim asked Remie. “Why don’t people shoot things in the head? Why worry all that good meat on the chest?”

“Do you know how small an animal’s head is?” Steve asked. “Kind of a moving, wobbly target. Think of a deer.”

“Tiny heads,” the dark-haired Whole Foods girl said.

Marisa ate her salad, watching the hunter who nodded and said, “That’s right. Kind of hard to hit. But a bow doesn’t do the damage a bullet does.”

“I used to be vegan,” one of the Whole Foods girls said, the strawberry blonde with the dark serious glasses, the kind nerds used to wear when Marisa was in high school. “I lived with a bunch of people and all we worried about was who would make the beans.”

“What changed you?” Marisa asked.

“I started working at Whole Foods and saw how, like, meat could be raised and butchered in an okay way. They took us to the farms and stuff. I like, met the animals and the farmers.”

The dark-haired Whole Foods girl nodded. “Really cool,” she said, serving herself another meatball. “These are way delicious!”

Marisa never wanted to be vegan, and she never wanted to meet the food she was going to cook and eat. She could buy a whole chicken and prepare it to roast or butcher it into pieces. She could cook a standing rib roast, a turkey, a leg of lamb. She liked meat, but she wanted to meet it halfway, somewhere in between it eating hay in Petaluma and sliced up in tiny Styrofoam packages at Safeway. She didn’t want to be blind, but she didn’t want to see everything, either.

Marisa leaned toward Steve, hoping he’d turn to her and smile as he often did when things were ridiculous, one eyebrow raised. She wanted him to shrug, whisper, “I’m ready when you are,” as he often did at parties with either of their colleagues. They would swoop into the room with all the coats piled on a bed, grab their belongings and slide out the front door, sometimes without even saying goodbye.

Under the table, Steve’s foot hit hers, but he didn’t notice. He was far away from her now, deep into his subject. Besides, like everyone but her, he’d had two glasses of wine, and now he was talking about his lamb sausage experience, the way he didn’t know how to rinse the casings, the terrible time with the stuffer tube, the learning curve in terms of poking holes in the sausage itself.

All this Marisa had observed. In fact, she’d bought him the stuffer for Christmas, one of many gifts to him since they had started dating: sausage stuffer, Kitchen Aid mixer, pasta cutter, food mill, Shun knives, All Clad pots, immersion blender. At night, they watched cooking shows, Steve recording them so he could later review how to prepare hangar steaks, duck confit, homemade lasagna noodles, sole meunière. He shopped on Friday afternoons and came home with ingredients for his weekend experiments, also bringing with him dripping French cheeses, Greek olives and fresh local bread, crusty to the hands and lips, tasting of yeast and salt. He made tomato sauce from the tomatoes Marisa grows in the summer, canning the rest for use all year.

Now they’ve moved on to sausage class, but Marisa knew she didn’t want to go any further. She wanted to cling to this table and not move another inch.

And what’s left to explore? Both of their sets of children were grown and almost launched—though sometimes the launches were aborted, one or the other of them scurrying home to regroup—all of them close to the same age as the Whole Foods girls. In ten years, Marisa would retire from her teaching job, and in less time than that, Steve would be home all day reading cookbooks and probably butchering a lamb or goat on the kitchen counter, making little meat packets to toss in the new freezer he had bought last month. All day, he would bubble stews and make sauces, his goal to perfect the five mother sauces of French cooking: béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, vinaigrette. He wanted a pizza oven, a bread oven, a smoke room, a pickle cellar. He wanted to perfect his pie crust, his soufflé technique, his barbeque sauce.

His Matterhorn, his Everest, his moon was every single thing he’s never tried to make before.

They would eat their way into old age and death, leaving behind a restaurant of equipment.

What is left? she wondered, smiling at Remie politely as the hunter explained how she buys whole sides of beef at Cash and Carry, a restaurant supply store in downtown Oakland. Everyone else at the table had shopping suggestions, too, all of which the chef bested, recommending the exact right place to buy every kind of slab of meat.

Marisa had married Steve in midlife, and now midlife was pulling toward old age. She’d worked longer than she would work. She had no children who were children any more. She didn’t know what was left to be done, what to make, or how to make it. She didn’t want to shoot anything in the head. She didn’t know what her sausage class should be.

Except for the two Whole Foods girls, everyone at the table was middle-aged, trying to learn to eat more and better, moving farther and farther up the food chain when, in fact, the food chain was almost over.

“Dessert?” the chef asked.

Blackberry Picking

Sonia called for Martha on the way to school. As she went into the shop, all she could see of her friend was a shadow on the other side of the rainbow-coloured plastic strips that separated Martha’s private life from the sweets, magazines and cigarettes her family sold. The same shadow she saw every morning. Today, Martha hovered in the doorway, taking her time to step into the light. Sonia thought nothing of it, this delay. She only half-registered Martha’s awkward grin. Afterwards, she wondered whether she’d tried to smudge it out on purpose. Afterwards, it seemed to be the most important thing.

“I did it,” said Martha, once they were out of the shop.

Sonia’s bag had slipped off her shoulder. She stopped to pull the strap back up.

“Did what?” She started to walk on, but when Martha stayed put, she turned back to see why. Now, she couldn’t ignore Martha’s grin.

“Went all the way.”

Sonia had always been certain that she would have sex before Martha. Martha didn’t think about boys. Martha was good at maths and sport. She was the only girl in the school who got her Five Star AAA athletics badge every year. She smiled when she ran. She smiled when she did sums. Martha started her periods late and she never got pains. She wore her cat-green eyes and her freckles as if she didn’t know they were there. When boys looked at her and she tossed her head in return, it was because she didn’t care whether they looked. Sonia had been sure of this.

Their first class of the morning was double maths. Martha breezed through the equations on the board, just like nothing had happened. Sonia sat next to her, near the window, in the sun. She looked outside or doodled round the squares on her paper. When she caught herself drawing a heart, she stopped. She stuck to straight lines. Martha was too busy with her equations to notice that Sonia was doodling so hard she was digging holes in her exercise book.

When the teacher left the room, Sonia bent towards Martha.

“When did you do it?”

She tried to whisper, but her voice was louder than she’d meant it to be. Her breath pushed particles of dust ahead of it, darting like minnows in the bright light.

Sonia pretended to herself she wasn’t angry with Martha for being first. She pretended she wasn’t jealous.

“Where did you do it?” she wanted to know next.

Martha looked embarrassed for the first time that day. She didn’t look at Sonia when she answered.

Sonia rooted through her dad’s toolbox and found the old torch she’d loved so much as a kid. It had been her grandfather’s. The toolbox had been his, too, before he’d died. The pressed metal pattern on the handle of the torch had worn down over the years. Sonia stroked her fingers over the surface. She didn’t turn the torch on, but tucked it into her jacket pocket and left the house by the back door. Her footsteps echoed as she went down the alley. She sounded like two people. The echo normally comforted her, but now it gave her the creeps. She turned out of the alley into the street and at the end of it, she stepped onto waste ground. She forgot about footsteps and echoes as she picked her way through the rubble. There were blackberries forming small buds of flavour along the barbed-wire fence she had to straddle to reach the field that led to the embankment. She couldn’t see them, but she knew they were there. Like everyone who’d grown up here, she knew exactly what was supposed to happen, and when.

The hinges on the railway carriage door were rusted and made a tired noise as Sonia pulled it open. Sonia hadn’t been here for a long time. When they were kids, she and Martha would suck gobstoppers on the steps outside the shop in the mornings during the school holidays, and talk about the adventures they would have “down the bank” in the afternoon. They would fantasize about shimmying under the barbed-wire fence like paratroopers, and ousting the boys who’d probably already claimed the carriage as their territory for the day because Sonia and Martha never did set out as early as they intended.

The boys used the carriage as a climbing frame, or a mountain. To them it represented a challenge to be scaled. Sonia and Martha preferred to play inside. They pretended to be Victorian ladies in India. Sonia “borrowed” her elder sister’s china tea set one day to make the game feel more real. She dropped it on the floor of the carriage, and even though she tried to collect up all the pieces, it was beyond repair. At home, after her mum had sent her to her room, her sister sneaked in and gave her a Chinese burn.

Sonia had never been in the carriage at night before. The seats were of worn, faded velvet. She sat down on the tatty cloth that didn’t even feel like cloth anymore, let alone velvet. She rubbed her fingers over it and when she came to a hard bit, pulled her hand away. She didn’t know what she was touching. It might be where he’d come, where it had dried. Whoever he was. Sonia hadn’t been able to make Martha tell her.

Even if she’d never touched a boy herself, Sonia had heard all about how it worked, listening at the door when her sister was gossiping with her mates. She’d never asked Martha if she wanted to eavesdrop with her; she’d assumed she wouldn’t be interested.

Sonia pulled her jacket tighter round her. She was cold. She swivelled round and lay down on the long seat. Its whole surface was ridged and bumped with age. She let the little lumps press against her; they were uncomfortable, but she wanted to be uncomfortable. She wondered if he had lain on top of Martha. Perhaps not. Martha was the sporty type.

Where exactly they had done it? How they had done it? Sonia couldn’t get it out of her head.

She stood up and pressed her spine against the back of the seat. Maybe they had done it like this. She imagined the push of a boy’s hips against hers; she let her hips move back. The rack where people had, once upon a time, put suitcases and picnic hampers pressed into her neck. No, they couldn’t have done it like that. She didn’t think so. She walked over to the window and pinioned herself up against it with imaginary hands. How did a boy hold you? Well, he didn’t really hold you did he? His hands were busy with other things.

Sonia was still pressed up against the window when the sound of giggles reached her. Martha was by the barbed-wire fence. Sonia could judge the distance perfectly. A boy laughed, too. There were three compartments in the carriage. Sonia was in the middle one. It had been her and Martha’s favourite when they were little. Which would Martha choose?

Sonia sat with her eyes shut, waiting to be discovered. As she listened to the giggles come closer, she decided she would stand her ground if they found her there. She was allowed to come and sit here on her own at night if she felt like it.

They chose the first compartment.

Desperate, thought Sonia. She wondered what it was like to be with a boy and to feel desperate.

She heard them lie down next to her, on the other side of the thin wall. She couldn’t hear them kissing—she was relieved about that—but then she heard a zip, and then another, and something that must be trousers being pulled down.

Martha giggled again.

“Martha.” Sonia’s voice was quiet, but loud enough.

It went still on the other side of the wall.

“Martha, can you please go somewhere else.”

Martha didn’t reply, but Sonia heard movement. One zip. Another. Whispers.

Footsteps walked away towards the door to the carriage, but Sonia knew it was only him who had gone.

She looked up and saw Martha looking at her through the cracked compartment window.

Martha pushed the door open. She came in. She was about to sit down beside Sonia, but Sonia turned sharply.

“I said, go!” she shouted.

Martha flinched backwards and knocked her elbow hard against the door, but she didn’t make a sound.

Her footsteps padded down the corridor. The door groaned. She went down one step, then another. After that, all Sonia could hear was the swish of uncut grass. Then, even that was gone.

Sonia wanted the sound to come back. It was too quiet.

She put her feet up on the seat and wrapped her arms tight around her legs. She tucked her head hard down between her knees and her chest, thinking of what she’d seen birds do when it was cold. She listened to herself breathe. She wished she could decide not to go home, to leave, to never come back, but she knew she wasn’t strong enough.

Sonia unfurled herself, fumbled for the torch and switched it on. The beam of light was narrow, the bulb weak. She pointed it up at the ceiling. It must have all looked very neat and fashionable once, she thought. Maybe she was in first class? Now, strips of torn upholstery dangled towards her, and a porn magazine lay spread-eagled, upside down in the luggage rack, a breast and one ginormous nipple all Sonia could see.

She pointed the beam of light down at the floor. Dust, pebbles, a few bits of grass, then something else. Sonia stopped and moved the beam back. She got up and bent down to look more closely. A small fragment of blue and white china was nestled among the stones and dust. She hesitated before she reached out and picked the shard of china up off the floor. She turned it over in her hand, then as fast as she could, she shoved it in her pocket. She got up and left the compartment, banging her elbow against the door, just as Martha had. The carriage shook as she ran down the corridor.

Outside, Sonia stopped. She stood quite still; then, as quickly as she had come to a halt, she set off again. She started to whistle. Loudly. There was no tune to it. Expelling air served one purpose alone. It prevented the pain in her throat from turning into a sob. As she swished through the uncut grass, she listened to the sound of her step. She knew it probably sounded just like Martha’s.

She stopped by the barbed-wire fence. There was no more whistle left to come out. She reached down to where she knew the blackberries were nestling, just beneath the line of wire. Her fingers were clumsy and the berry she picked was half crushed before she got it into her mouth. She flattened each pocket of sweetness between her tongue and her jaw. She wondered where Martha was, whether she’d gone home, whether she’d cried, or whether she and the boy had just found some other place to fuck.

When Sonia got home herself, she discovered that Martha hadn’t done any of those things. She was sitting on the back step of Sonia’s house, waiting. She moved over to make room for Sonia. When Sonia didn’t sit, Martha picked up a twig and fiddled with it. She looked up at Sonia, then looked away. She dropped the twig and retied a shoelace that didn’t need tying.

Sonia sat.

The step was cold.

She remembered sitting next to Martha in class, that morning, the sunlight falling across them, keeping them warm. She felt the pain start in her throat again. A cat howled further down the alley. After one howl, it stopped, as if it were waiting for an answer. When it didn’t get one, it tried again.

“Why there?” Sonia asked.

Martha didn’t answer. She picked up the twig and started fiddling with it again. Sonia could almost feel her thinking.

When Martha finally turned and looked at her, she said, “It’s where everyone goes. There isn’t anywhere else.”

Martha was right, of course, Sonia knew it straight away. Where did you go when you wanted to have sex with a boy? It wasn’t like you could just take him home.

That wasn’t what she said to Martha, though.

“I didn’t know you were like everyone else,” she sneered, knowing Martha wasn’t, knowing it was a horrid thing to say.

She got up and barged past Martha. She felt her foot kick against Martha’s leg as she opened the back door, squeezed through the gap and went inside.

In the kitchen, she stood quite still. She waited for what seemed like minutes, but was probably only seconds, until Martha got up and walked off, until the quiet, double echo of her footsteps turned to nothing.

Sonia went over to the cooker, took the matches down off the shelf, turned on the gas and lit a flame. She stared at the blue claws of fire until footsteps overhead reminded her where she was.

The next day in class, Martha sat next to Sonia just like she did on a normal day. She even said hello. Sonia didn’t reply.

At break, Sonia went outside, even though it was raining. She watched some boys playing football. She wondered about sex. She went and sat where she could watch another group of boys, behind the gym, smoking cigarettes. But neither the footballers nor the smokers made her want to go where Martha had been. She wondered why she’d always thought she’d be the first.

When she saw a movement at the window of the classroom where she and Martha had their next lesson, she looked up. Was it Martha at the window? Was she watching her? When the bell rang and she got up to go inside, Sonia looked up at the window again. There was no-one there.

Going up the stairs, Sonia took her time. Splattered raindrops clung to the dirty window. A tiny spider crossed a ragged cobweb. When she got to the top of the stairs, she stopped. She hovered outside the classroom door, peered inside.

Martha was standing at the board, drawing on it. Sonia knew, without looking, what it was Martha would be drawing. A cartoon dog. Martha could draw them well, but she couldn’t draw much else.

Sonia wanted to go over to Martha, to stand really close, to reach between Martha’s fingers, to take the piece of chalk. Sometimes when Martha drew her dogs, Sonia would draw speech bubbles coming out of their mouths and, in the bubbles, she would write silly jokes. She imagined reaching out for the chalk, the sound of the chalk on the board. She imagined writing something really funny, something that would make Martha laugh. But when Martha turned and looked at her, all Sonia could do was look away. There was a map of the world pinned to the far wall. Sonia focused on Africa. Concentrating on its shape and central position, she allowed the country to pull her into the room and guide her, away from Martha, towards the back of the class.

The Hollywood

Last year, a new shopping centre opened on the outskirts of London. There’s something for everyone: expensive shit, cheap shit, mid-priced shit, all laid out in a sort of class system—the shitty shops and shitty restaurants in the east wing, the classy ones in the west, and the OK ones in between. You’ll find The Hollywood, a 1950s-style American diner, right in the middle.

“Thousands of new jobs!” cried the centre’s press release. I took one of them at The Hollywood. They have branches all over the city, and they all look the same: red leather booths, hamburgers and chilli dogs served in plastic baskets, cherry pie and pancakes for dessert, waitresses with movie-star hair, pink starchy uniforms. It’s supposed to be a time warp, but they’ve scrimped on things. The music often strays into the late 1960s and beyond, and it’s pumped into the jukebox from a laptop behind the bar. It serves German craft beers, a full English breakfast, and malt vinegar for your chips—sorry, your fries. Our put-on American accents were pretty bad, even for the actors amongst us. (I was art-schooled, unfortunately.) Then there’s Lana Del Rey, that gloomy torch singer with the big lips, whom our manager Anna wants us all to emulate. She definitely wasn’t around in the 1950s.

Anna had brought in a sepia-toned picture of the singer last week and pinned it onto the dressing room wall.

“This is what you should all look like,” she said, smacking Lana in the cheek with a manicured hand. “Shiny big hair, smoky eyes, and pale lips. Sultry. Take a good look at this picture.”

We took a good look at it, and after Anna had left the room, we talked.

“She looks like she’s had a stroke.” That’s Susie, an aspiring writer.

“Does this mean we’ll get free lip jobs?” Nicola—illustrator, class of 2008.

“I hope so.” Emma, an actress who once appeared behind Jude Law’s right shoulder in a film.

“You wanna look like that?” I said.

“Yeah, why not? I might get more tips.” Emma puckered her lips into a trout pout. “How do I look?”

Later that night, Anna told me that my hair was all wrong. Not enough like Lana Del Rey, more like “someone from Friends”. No one in Friends ever had a Brigitte Bardot bouffant, but I listened to her advice and came in early the next day before the breakfast shift to study Lana’s picture. I caught the train east as the sun was coming up, and as it pulled into its final stop, I took my earphones out and looked up at the shopping centre, looming like a big white cruise ship.

At The Hollywood, Susie was already in the dressing room, curling tongs in hand, sitting in front of a mirror with a smaller picture of Lana Del Rey slotted into its corner. The room smelt of burnt hair and make-up. Half of her hair was in curlers, the other half a frizzy mess. She was on the verge of tears.

“Hey.” I sat in the chair beside her. “Are you all right?”

“Oh Beth, I just can’t get my hair right.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

“It’s just a waitressing job,” she said, tears creeping into her voice, making it gurgle. “Why do we have to make such a fucking effort?”

We’re selling dreams, not burgers.” I mimicked the low-pitched voice Anna uses when she gives us pep talks.

“I swear, no one in the other branches has to put up with this.”

“You go to the other branches?”

“A friend had her birthday at one of them. It’s the thing. Get dressed in 1950s clothes, go eat at The Hollywood.” Susie paused, wiped a tear from her cheek, and looked in the mirror at her powdery white face. “All the waitresses were dressed like Shoreditch twats.”

I pulled off my jumper and looked in the mirror. My face was blotchy and grey. Too many hot dogs and long shifts, but nothing that some make-up couldn’t fix. The table in front of us was scattered with foundation, concealer, powder, highlighting cream, eyeshadow, eyeliner, fake eyelashes, mascara, blusher, lipliner, and lipstick, all in different colours. I picked up some foundation, squirted it onto the back of my left hand, and starting dotting it onto my face. I rubbed it in, making the grey spots disappear.

“Much better.”

Susie was dabbing pink cream blusher onto her cheeks. “All this makeup is making my skin a mess.”

“Tell me about it,” I said, moving onto the highlighting cream. “At least we can just cover it up.”

“And I’m so much fatter than when we started.”

“Me too.”

“How long have we been here now?”

We’d started in the same week. I remember being happy to have found a waitressing job that paid slightly better, because then I wouldn’t have to harass my parents for rent money. “We didn’t send you to university to be a waitress, blah blah blah,” they said. They still say it now, four years after graduation, but they say it less.

“A year,” I said. “God, Susie, I was in an all-right mood before you asked.”

“Sorry,” she said, tears filling her eyes again.

“Don’t cry, you’ll ruin your makeup.”

She took a deep breath and held her tears. “It’s just that, I don’t think I’ve even made any attempt to get a real job in months,” she said. “I feel so resigned to this.”

“Have you been writing?”

She shook her head.

“What are we going to do?”

“Be waitresses forever,” she said.

“If we’re going to be waitresses forever, we might as well find jobs somewhere else. Let’s go out during our break and see if there are any vacancies.”

“Tried that last week,” she said. “But they only hire Japanese people at the Japanese restaurants, Indians at the Indian ones, Italians at the Italian ones…”

“And bimbos at the American one?”


We did the rest of our make up and hair in silence, put on our pink uniforms, and clipped our name tags onto our chests: Shelley and Bobby. Anna strolled into the dressing room just in time for the breakfast shift, looking perfect. Her black hair curled softly around her shoulders, her fringe ruler-straight, her skin as smooth and tanned as a doll’s. She even walked with an awkward retro wiggle that she probably imagined was Monroe-esque. As the door closed behind her, the smell of bacon and eggs wafted in, making my stomach rumble.

“Morning, girls,” she said. “Good hair today, Beth—I like it. Now, remember to smile!”

I forced a smile and nodded. Her skin really was preposterously smooth. Susie and I had looked her up online a few weeks ago and found out that she was 33 years old—a bit old for a waitress, even if she is the head girl—but there’s not a single crease on her face. Maybe she’s taking this Hollywood thing seriously. She’s another actress, after all. Or was.

Susie and I slipped our feet into low black heels and strutted out into the restaurant. Everything looked just so: the booths, the black and white tiled floors, the vintage jukebox, humming the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You”. The only obvious sign of the 21st century was the first customer: a slim young man sitting alone in one of the booths, wearing a blue striped shirt, black trousers, and cheap-looking shoes.

“Bet he works in a phone shop,” Susie whispered in my ear.


I strode over, a smile pasted on my face. I said to him, in my best crap American accent, “Good morning, sir. Can I get ya some coffee?”

“Hey,” he said, looking up. “Wow, you guys really do talk in American accents.”

“Well of course,” I said. “You’re in Hollywood now!” I sounded so jaunty, I wanted to punch myself.

“Crazy,” he said. “Yeah, I’d like a flat white, and bacon with waffles and scrambled eggs, please.”

Like they served flat whites in 1950s America.

“No problem,” I said.

The restaurant was filling up with other customers, mostly workers from the shopping centre; you could tell by how depressed they looked, and the cheapness of their clothes. Anna and Susie were running around, smiling manically. When the phone shop guy’s food was ready, I brought it to his booth.

“Here you go, sir,” I said, setting down the plate.

“Have you ever been to America?” he said.

“Is that a trick question?”

“Come on, I can see through that accent a mile away. It’s awful.”

I gritted my teeth, still smiling.

“I’m from The Hollywood,” I said, “born and bred.”

“OK, sure.”

“Enjoy your meal.”

I went behind the bar, poured myself a lemonade and checked my emails on my phone–hidden behind the counter, so that Anna wouldn’t spot me. There was nothing interesting in my inbox: just massage deals from discount companies, an email from my friend Hannah about her birthday party, and a newsletter from a gallery that had once represented me. They were exhibiting some other ingénue’s work. I deleted it after reading the first line: “Gallery Wow is delighted to present the work of newly graduated artist…”


Anna’s voice. I looked up, and there she was–still smiling, always smiling–but with a look of alarm in her blue, smoky eyes.

“No cell phones in the restaurant!” she said.

“It’s a mobile, not a cell. And don’t call me Bobby when there aren’t customers around us. It’s ridiculous.”

“There are customers everywhere,” she whispered. “And they come here to escape from this shit–don’t ruin it for them. Put it away immediately, or you won’t get any shifts next week.”

“Ruining it? Look at them. They’re all on their bloody phones!”

Anna looked back at the restaurant. Fifteen or so customers were sitting at their booths, heads down, fingering their phones. One guy was even watching a film on a tablet computer while eating a doughnut.

“Well they’re the customers,” she said. “They can do what they want. Look, just help me out here. It’s my job to make sure this Hollywood is like all the other Hollywoods.”

“Well I’ve heard it’s not.”

“Well I’ve heard the people who manage the others are all going to get fired, so just appreciate that this is what I have to do. It comes all the way from the top.”

“I have ambitions beyond this,” I said, regretting it instantly.

“Don’t we all,” she said, under her breath. “But that’s life, isn’t it.”

I put my phone back into my pocket. There were some new customers to attend to: three blokes in shiny grey suits. They were looking around at the decor and cackling like teenagers on a bus. I walked over to their booth.

“Good morning, gentlemen. What can I get you?”

“Morning love,” said a burly, bald guy. “How about you on a plate?”

I laughed girlishly. “Oh, ha ha! Now, now. Some coffee, pancakes?”

“Seriously,” he said, smiling at his two feebler-looking cronies. “We want you. We’re setting up something similar to this,” he waved his arms around, “in the shopping centre, and we’ll pay you double.”

“What’s the catch?” I said.

“Look at that, boys,” he said. “Still in character, even when we’re talking business. Well, it depends on whether you think it’s a catch or not. It would involve getting your kit off. Not all of it. It’s a classy joint. Burlesque.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Lots of other girls are lining up to work with us. What are you? An artist, writer? Just like my girls. It’s a real art form, stripping.”

“Would you like any food?” I said.

“Your friend’s already ordered for us,” he said. “And we’ve signed her on too.” He winked at me.

In the dressing room, Susie was powdering her face.

“You’re going to become a stripper?” I said.

“I’m thinking about it,” she said, looking at me in the mirror with guilty eyes.

“Are you really that desperate?”

“What do you think? This place isn’t very far off from being a strip joint, is it? Haven’t you noticed, it’s just men who come in to make stupid comments while we smile at them. What’s the difference if I have my tits out?”

“There’s a big difference!”

I picked up a giant can of hairspray, shook it, and sprayed it over my head, smoothing the stray bits with my fingers. My hair felt solid and crispy, like hay.

“At least your hair looks good,” said Susie.

“Yes, at least that.”

Out in the restaurant, Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” was playing. The strip club group were tucking into their all-American breakfasts, and the phone shop guy was calling me over to pay his bill.

“And there’s a bit extra in there for you,” he said, earnestly.

“Thanks,” I said. “Have a nice day!”

“That, you got right. That’s just how they say it out there.”

My face hurt from so much fake smiling.

“I don’t know how you girls do it, talking like that all day,” he said.

“I don’t know how you sell phones for a living,” I snapped, slipping out of character.

“There you go! Proper north London. How did you guess?”

“Your shirt.”

“We all have to get by somehow, don’t we?” he said. “I’m studying to be a psychologist.”

“You win. I’m a failed artiste.”

“Isn’t everyone? Oh, and Hendrix? Not quite right for the era.”

“Tell that to Bettie Page over there.”

“Ha! Well thanks,” he said, looking at my name tag, “Bobby.”

“It’s Beth.”

“Jesus, fake names too? I’m Alex, and I should probably go sell some phones.” He got up and put on his jacket. “See you around.”

After he left I wiped the table down, took a few more orders and went back to the dressing room to reapply my lipstick. Above the mirror, Lana Del Rey stared down at me, pouty and winsome. My lips were thinner, my nose bigger, and my eyes smaller, but everything else was just the same. Finally, I’d got it right. I dabbed on some pink lipstick, feeling satisfied, and then I remembered what it was all for: six pounds fifty an hour and free hot dogs. This wasn’t the life I had imagined at art school, when we were setting up exhibitions, going to parties and talking about the things we would do. Four years on, we still went to parties, but we had stopped talking about the future.

I brushed the hairspray out until my hair was straight and dull once more and smudged my make-up off with a baby wipe. I tied my hair into a ponytail, slipped out of my uniform and into my jeans, jumper, and trainers. I took a deep breath before walking out to the restaurant, where the jukebox was playing Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”.

Anna couldn’t stay in character for this one. When she saw me in my normal clothes, her mouth hung open, her eyes were wide, and her skin, under all that foundation and Botox, turned purple. Susie watched from the other side of the bar, trying not to laugh.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” screamed Anna. “Get back into your uniform!”

The customers–all men–looked at us; their arms poised in mid-air, forks in hands, scrambled eggs dangling from the forks.

“I’ve come to my senses, that’s all,” I said, “And so should you. Have a nice day!”

I left the restaurant, my mind buzzing with freedom and fear, and walked straight into a woman pushing a pram.

“Watch where you’re going!” she barked.

As she passed, I noticed that there wasn’t a baby in the pram, just a pile of shopping bags. All around me, people were strolling from shop to shop, chatting on mobile phones, and clutching cups of coffee–their arms weighed down by bags. Who are these people? I thought. Don’t they have jobs? And then I remembered, through the adrenaline haze of my resignation: I didn’t either. This was it. This was the future, and there was no golden, redemptive pay-off in sight. More importantly, rent was due in a week and I needed a new job.

I walked through the mid-priced section of the shopping centre, with its pseudo-boutiques and ethnic restaurant franchises, right through to the east wing, which smelled of chip fat and body spray. At the very end I found the phone shop. Slumped behind the counter, wearing his striped shirt and a name tag, was Alex. When he saw me, he raised his head and smiled.

“Are there any jobs going?” I said.


“Yep. I’ve, uh, always wanted to work in a phone shop.”

I laughed. And so did he.

“Well,” he said, “you’re in luck.”

Dream Gun

The kid reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a semi-automatic, cocks it, and points it at me.

“Give me your money credit card and handphone, asshole,” he says through clenched teeth. The vein on his scrawny neck is bulging. He’s trying to sound tough, putting on an American accent, but he’s not fooling anybody with his Thai twang.

Was it a stroke of good fortune or shit bad luck that I’d given Denise my wallet? The phone I don’t care about; I fish it out and hand it to him. I glance around the alley, wondering how I might turn this situation in my favour. There’s got to be a way. Everyone has a soft spot.

The afternoon sun is beating down relentlessly and the buildings on either side of us offer no shade. There is no one here. There is no one in the noodle bar behind me. There is only the smell of rotting fruit, which seems to follow you wherever you go in Bangkok. I’m trying desperately to remember the kid’s name.

“I’m glad we’re doing this,” Denise said on the plane.

I turned to look at her and was startled by how much she resembled my ex-wife. She had arranged her face into a pained half-smile that did nothing to conceal her discomfort. It had never bothered me that there was nothing of me in her. Once, I had even entertained the idea that she wasn’t mine. What a saint that would make me, raising another man’s child.

She leaned over and put her hand on my arm.

“You ok, Dad? Nervous? You’re jiggling your foot.”

“No, sweetheart. I’m fine. Just tired of sitting down.”

I’d been sitting down for twenty-five years.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first came to Bangkok, I didn’t have a backup plan or a return date. After half-heartedly trying—and whole-heartedly failing—at a career in computer sales, I saved up some money and had intended to backpack around Southeast Asia until it ran out. In the end, I stayed in Thailand for two years, and I probably would have found a way to stay longer if it hadn’t been for Thaksin’s opium den.

That place was something else. In Thaksin’s time Bangkok was a wild child, rife with whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it, with few legal restrictions. But opium was hard to come by in the city, and Thaksin was a business man with finesse—very rare in the drug trade. He could have been dealing party drugs to backpackers but he wanted to find a niche. He knew a guy who knew a guy up in Chiang Mai whose family farmed the stuff in a village near the border with Burma. It was damn good stuff.

Later back in Vancouver I made it through the nineties without touching drugs. I was high when I left Bangkok that first time, and spent the next quarter century trying to forget what it felt like. I started a business, and a family—well, sort of—but on the plane to Bangkok with Denise snoring beside me, it all came back to me in a flashback that took over my senses. My hands twitched with the memory of lighting the opium pipe. When I breathed in the recirculated air of the cabin I imagined I was filling my lungs with the coarse white smoke. I felt it spreading its warmth through every millimetre of my body, relaxing every muscle, stimulating every nerve cell. The memory of it—the sweet, hedonic surrender, the hour-long kisses, her perky breasts in my face—made my eyes roll back in my head and nearly gave me an erection. She hardly spoke any English but she laughed at everything I said, which suited me just fine.

“Take Denise with you,” Karen had said. “And talk to her.”

Somehow I had let Karen turn this into a reconciliation trip, an apology gift from me, or whatever you want to call it. I’d had to announce to my ex-family that I was going away—going away to Bangkok for a week without telling anyone was not socially acceptable—even though I no longer had rights where my daughter’s upbringing was concerned, even though I was no longer a legal possession of my ex-wife’s. I still had what she called “moral responsibilities”.

On her eighteenth birthday Denise had shown up at my door, drunk, and told me to fuck myself. She didn’t need a father, she said. “You’re dead to me!”

So dramatic. She’d smashed a beer bottle on my doorstep and I had to send her home in a cab. A few days later, Karen called.

“You need to talk to Denise,” she’d said in a tone that suggested my daughter’s foray into alcoholism was somehow my fault. As if all those years it hadn’t been her and Denise versus me. As a child, Denise had had no interest in me. She’d looked at me like I was a mildly interesting stranger, while her life centred around her mother. Nevertheless, something was broken and I had to fix it.

There was one thing I could be proud of, though, and that was that I didn’t have to lie. Not really. I was going to Bangkok to visit an old friend who was very ill. Karen had never been interested in my life in Thailand when we were married, and she certainly didn’t care now. No one needed to know that the old friend was an ex-lover. No one needed to know the other details either. I thought of Thaksin and what he must look like now: old and frail. I could take him, if I had to. I didn’t like to think about him.

The opium den was in the basement of a noodle bar in a nondescript alley in Bang Phlat district. If you weren’t there for the noodles, you told the waiter you’d left your bag for safekeeping downstairs and that you’d like to go get it. You would be led downstairs and met by Madame Maprong—Maprong in a silk wrap skirt and cropped t-shirt, chopsticks in her hair, wearing pink lipstick the colour of bubblegum. Maprong wasn’t a madame in the accepted sense of the word. She was Thaksin’s girlfriend, or wife; it was never clear. Much younger than him, and just as sharp, she helped him run the place. You’d pay for your opium and Maprong would lead you through two sets of heavy curtains into a darkened room draped with tasteful fabrics and tapestries. There was a row of velvet couches against each wall, separated from each other by wooden screens. I spent many a blissful day reclining on the couch in the far corner, lost in a prolonged, sedated dream. The den’s windows were completely blacked out so there was no way of knowing what time of day it was, or how many days had passed. There was a little pocket watch that hung on a nail just behind the curtain at the top of the stairs, but the only reason you would pass by it was if you were leaving.

“Just put that thing down and let’s talk,” I say, taking a wobbly step toward him. He takes a step back, still pointing the gun.

“Give me your wallet and pin number! You owe me motherfucker!”

God damn persistent little punk. He must have followed me all the way from the hospital where he was lurking and heard me talking to the nurse. He must have followed me to this alley and now he’s accosted me outside the noodle shop before I can go inside. My heart had leapt at the discovery that it was still there. I had left Denise wandering around a shopping centre with my wallet, and had taken just enough cash for the opium, in case I got lucky. I guess I had known that I wouldn’t spend too much time at the hospital. Fate—or advanced pancreatic cancer, to be specific—took care of that for me.

A phone rings in his pocket. It’s a mock-vintage telephone ringtone underscored by loud vibrations. Mine. He ignores it.

“Listen…” I still cannot remember his name. “We need to sit down and talk about this. Let me buy you a beer. You like beer? Or ice coffee?”

Come on,” I plead, masking my mounting panic with calculated hand gestures. If the words of a dying woman are to be believed, then this kid is my son. He might even be serious with this gun thing. I don’t know what she told him. I don’t know what Thaksin knew. Until recently I didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. If I had come sooner, I could have seen her, talked to her, straightened everything out.

She had been pregnant after we broke up but I wouldn’t talk to her. She’d cried outside my door but I convinced myself that the baby was Thaksin’s, even though she’d sworn she wasn’t sleeping with him. Then the police started snooping around the alley after a guy was arrested on suspicion of dealing. I knew the guy, he was a friend of Thaksin’s who sold smack balloons to sex tourists. They let him go but three days later his body washed up on a river bank. I was young and dumb but I knew it was time to get the hell out. Actually, I had decided to get the hell out before the whole dead guy fiasco, but who’s counting.

Twenty-five years later, the letter arrives. She doesn’t want anything, just wants me to know the boy. She includes a photograph of a skinny teenager with a football under his arm. Now this teenager, a little older, a little rougher and more sickly-looking, is pointing a gun at my face.

The noodle bar has a new sign—yellow with green writing—but the interior, from what I can see, is pretty much the same: a counter in the back and a few plastic chairs and tables in front of it. I’m afraid to take my eyes off the barrel pointed at me, but I want desperately to catch a glimpse of the door to the basement. Holding both hands above my head in a gesture of surrender, I slowly sit down on the curb. He lowers the gun, still holding his finger over the trigger. My phone rings again. Denise must be getting worried. I think of her, alone at the mall with my credit card. What if she’s more like Karen than I thought? What if she is, at this very moment, going on a vindictive spending spree? What if she’s calling to tell me not to bother coming back for her? I welcome this possibility.

“She dead,” he says when the phone stops ringing. Dead to me.

“Yes, I know, I’m…” Am I sorry? What does sorry feel like?

“She dead because of you!” he shouts, now with tears in his eyes. The gun is once again pointed at me. Dead because of me? I consider asking for an explanation but there’s no need. He abandons the American gangster front and speaks to me in broken English.

“All her life she worry. She sad, she depress. She love you, you know? But you don’t take her, you don’t take me. Only this…” He pulls something out of his back pocket and waves it in front of me. A tattered photograph. I lean forward, take it from him and squint at it. When I see what it is, I suppress a laugh. I had let my beard grow out. Fuck knows why. Maybe just to prove that I could. I was wearing a cut off denim jacket, unbuttoned, with nothing underneath. She had taken that photograph with the camera we had bought together, which she’d kept. I remember that vest. Whatever happened to that vest?

“That you,” the kid says, and it sounds unsure, like it might be a question.

I shake my head sadly. “No, it’s not. I don’t know who that is.”

He takes the picture back and stares at it for a few seconds. I’m fifty-one and gray-haired now. There is no resemblance.

“Look, I think there has been a big misunderstanding. Perhaps your mother misinformed you. I knew her once, that’s true, but she knew many men.” I hear the words leave my mouth and my brain throws on the emergency brakes. Everything comes to a screeching halt, sparks flying, sweat soaking through my shirt. Too late.

The look in the kid’s eyes changes. All the emotion vanishes in an instant. I have seen that look before, in the eyes of men on the street. Drug dealers who don’t trust you. Homeless men. Men with no hope, who have nothing else to lose.

“Your wallet.” The voice doesn’t seem to come from him.

“Oh come on…”

“Your wallet, asshole, or I put bullet in your head.”

His gun is poised. This kid has seen too many American movies. My phone is ringing again, with the urgency of a third unanswered call. I’m glad we’re doing this.

I stand up slowly. He glares at me and tightens his grip on the gun. My mouth is dry but my mind is clear. Slowly, I turn around and walk into the noodle bar. The door is wide open and a guy in a red t-shirt has appeared behind the counter. He looks at me as I step through the door but then he looks at something behind me and backs up against the wall. Over the smell of stale grease and garlic, I can just about make out the sweet, flowery aroma of opium wafting up from the basement. What a smell. I inhale one last time.