call me by your name

I had watched Tilda Swinton in I am Love, all those years ago, and it had left me with a lasting impression. There was the protagonist, secure and secured, in her mansion, with her perfect family and manicured gardens. There was the lover, a chef charming, her son’s best friend, waking the protagonist with shrimp. There was the beautiful Italian countryside, and all their ancient ruins, and slow, sweeping music to herald it all. I remember it being a vivid movie, full of color and music and feeling.

Call me by your name is the last of the Desire trilogy that started with I am Love. I hadn’t realized this before watching the movie this week. The photography, the music, the languor of the plot all pointed to something familiar. I made the connection much later. I was informed by untrustworthy sources that this was a soft gay porn film, and had gone in to the theater in high spirits. Please don’t make my mistake; there is no soft gay porn. At the same time, it was refreshing to see a homosexual relationship without homosexuality being the main theme of the story. It is a theme, celebrated softly and without ado, and the archeologists work hard in the background on a Venus that was once Hadrian’s lover.

I have long wanted to see one of these films without the angst. LGBT films tend to be about the stigma, about the highs of passion, about gritty sex, about tragedy. Call Me By Your Name is softer, sweeter, and looks more at the unexpected bloom of our first love than at the gender of our first love. It spoke to me because of that, perhaps.

(In several parts, I was reminded very pleasantly of my family in my early teenage. I was especially reminded of my grandmother. The religion-mixing in their family reminded me of my childhood too.)

The young actor who plays the protagonist is talented. He blends the raw boldness of adolescence with the fear of those who think too much. He is both Michelangelo’s David and Tennyson’s Arthur. He strives to impress his amore, through music and wit, through sensuality and charm. For all his sophistication, he is still a teenager though, and he isn’t below stooping to the oldest trick of the book: making his lover jealous by getting it on with someone else. He screws up and learns not to do that. He is clumsy at times, and his introversion doesn’t exactly make him comfortable with the good-humored, American ideal, extroverted, even-tempered, cheerful man he has fallen for. The love, the learning, the loss, and the lull in between – all of it echoed on his expressive features throughout the film. There were so many little moments throughout where flickers of emotion on his face reminded me of the girl I used to be, when I loved all those years ago.

Then he fucked a peach. I hadn’t realized until he did it that this might be the Ancient Greek inspiration behind those male masturbation pockets. Somehow I had always pinned that on the poor Japanese.

It is a beautiful movie. I am glad that I watched it, even if I had the wrong expectations going in.

“Do you know everything?”

“I know nothing about the things that matter.”

a river’s tale

I was by a river this week, among the detritus of a steel town. There is garish gentrification gobbling up the deserted warehouses and boarded-up shops. Amazon might come soon, they say.

I dislike the institution that defines this place, nearly as much as the priced out locals here do. It churns out expensive, mass degrees in various trendy specializations and the result is an utterly random distribution of skills and talent.

The group I came to visit was born of the vestigial remains of the old research center. They are classical folks, leery still of the deep ways we do things now. I had forgotten what it was to work with that bunch.

You leave wonderland behind. Then you go on to a sane, suburban life. Then you fall back right through the looking glass.

I do things that I used to do a lot, there is familiarity and ease, and there is common terminology and shared understanding of the problems. So far, there’s no having to deal with people who’ve never bothered to see how and why these things are usually done and go about reinventing the wheel inefficiently and brokenly because of some god-ordained authority, and try their hand at bullying and harassment when that stops being enough to get a high out of. It’s rather pleasant to have an old and familiar setting which doesn’t have all that, even if it is a hark back to an earlier time, even if it is just in a little bubble in a tumultuous sea of controversy.

There is drinking a lot, something I hadn’t been doing since my days of Japanese revelry. There are late nights and the old discussions about modeling stuff, a far cry from the if-else mindset that was pervasive with my previous job crowd. I met many old characters of my earlier days. I feel a bit protected and safe, comforting myself in the conclusion that there will be people to speak up for me if I am unlucky enough to attract the wrong sort of attention. Things aren’t pristine and sunny, but I hadn’t expected that.

The institution loomed over the city. I skulked about trying to avoid the edifice, until a postdoc came and grabbed me.

“No!” I muttered. “I don’t like stepping inside that factory.”

“It’s an university.”

I still have idealistic notions of what education should be, and I refuse to grace that travesty with my goodwill.

Later, I scowl and let him take me to his nice apartment overlooking the river. He still has the sofa he has been carrying around since our Atlanta days. I remember the exact configuration to make myself comfortable on that.

“I’ll cook,” he promises, and I find that he has done grocery shopping for ingredients to my Malabar Biriyani.

So I find myself cooking, though I glare at him until he starts chopping the lamb, and he complains, and it is like days of old, though we are missing the rest of our old group. We are deep in a discussion about Resnets when I realize that academia still hasn’t let me go, even though I left so long ago. We talk about steel and what it means in that city, and about flyover country, and about the yawning mundaneness this industry is going to collapse into. It isn’t as exciting anymore, but it seems to be still the most exciting job that pays that we are capable of. He is still waiting for that tenure track position he has interviewed for, but he admits that the industry is hard to resist. He is a horrible host, but he makes the best tea.

I meet old coworkers and friends, and we discuss the foibles of our lives over a great deal of alcohol. One of my mapping company friends is there and we discuss the cool stuff a Chinese lab has been doing in a pub that is a deactivated church.

A coworker takes me around, and I see the sights of this strange, new land. There are thin sheets of ice on the river, the trees stand bare, and there is no birdsong. Cars clog up the up-and-down streets, there is snow on the sidewalks, and people look at us suspiciously. There is graffiti everywhere, on gutted buildings, on a stack of broken tires right by the entrance to the office where it declares many determined fonts of Fuck You. It reminds me of San Francisco. This sea of change must be crippling and alarming for many, and a door of opportunities for some.

I arrive early to give a talk, and the polite security fellow thinks that I am cafe management staff. I don’t even bother to correct that sort of thing these days. When he sees the talk and gets what I am there for, he is graciously and endlessly apologetic, and we have a nice chat afterwards.

There isn’t enough sleep. So I am grumpy. I’ve needed to drink espressos, and that has made me grumpier. I like my caffeine weak and diluted.

A local shows me a commute-time shortcut, tells me to keep it secret. I feel like Frodo, and I nod solemnly.

The food is rich. I am fed with omlettes, breadbowls, cheese, potatoes, gnocchi, poutine, fish, and creamy onion soup, in various combinations, every day. I am a finicky eater when drunk, and a finickier one when sober, so I am pleasantly surprised when I really like the onion soup.

It’s not where I like going, I suppose, and the locals have started disliking this stuff more, but it’s something we’ll all have to get used to. The gig economy era is here to be around, for the rest of our days, until our middle class completely vanishes, and until then we have to find our places in it somehow.

shape of water | avalanche

I went to see The Shape of Water today. I had been wanting to see it for a while, ever since I saw the trailer last month. The film was everything I expected and more; I wasn’t disappointed at all. It was a full theater, and we gasped and sighed together as a single entity, as they spoke of longing and love and loss, and everything was beautiful and bleak. It reminded me of Amelie at times. When I was returning to the underground structure where I’d parked, I had been walking at a brisk pace, and a lady walking ahead of me was startled enough by the sound of my footsteps to turn around and look at me frightened. Oh, that this first world we live in still requires us to be as wary as deer come to water at a lake, touting our pepper spray and begging men to accompany us to view rentals and ferry us around after dark, lest we be carried away by evil terrible.

Star Wars managed to do worse than the low expectations I had for it. It had nothing that resembled vaguely a plot. It had moments of choreography that stood out amidst awful dialogues, little to no progression, and extremely poor and wooden acting, perhaps except the villain who did manage to bring a touch of flesh and blood into his performance. I have to say that I see these movies, various sci-fi franchise movies, and the superhero ones only to stay in loop with my colleagues who enjoy them. I feel excluded enough without knowing all this to nod along sagely at lunch conversations. Now that I have seen Star Wars, I have enough membership credit in those groups to manage along for a few months. It isn’t all darkness and misery. Wonderwoman pleasantly surprised me. They talk about white-knights and social justice warrior plots that have plagued the recent years’ movies. The suffragette movement had once been called disruptive and threatening to the fabric of civilization. Critical thinking isn’t our forte now. Whatever plagues Star Wars isn’t social justice warrior pandering, but an utter and complete lack of continuity and coherence in plot. And what worked for Wonder Woman isn’t that it catered to a specific crowd, but that it had a decent story told well and acted out passionately by its cast.

————

Yesterday, I had a call from an old friend. She was one of my first friends when I came to this country, to attend grad-school. She had been three years older than me, and had been doing a Masters in Computer Science. She had been married. It had been an arranged marriage. She had taken me under her wing, taught me to cook a bit, taught me the ways of this new world, and I had delighted in speaking with her in a language other than English when all around me had been changed from all that I had once known. Her brilliance impressed me, when we worked together. She is one of the best programmers I have worked with. I looked up to her then. I had wanted what she had, to be accomplished, to be married to someone who spoke the same language and had been from the same social-economic-educational background. She graduated, went on to work for a large company in Seattle where her husband was based. They had a child, were planning to get a mortgage and everything seemed settled. My life turned away in one of its twists and turns, and we barely spoke in the years after, apart from the customary greetings on birthdays and New Years. So when she called yesterday, I was surprised. I had already wished her for New Year’s.

“I have decided to be a home-maker,” she told me.

I processed that slowly and tried to find the right response. Life and life’s choices rarely have any single right answer, so I just opted to let her speak. The hesitation surprised me. She is one of the boldest people I have met.

Then the story came in pieces and bursts, of a male boss, of attentions covert and overt, and of how she had tried to find inconspicuous ways to deflect the issue without affecting her job. Then it had ended her being called out as an easily offended little princess, and the other person had been promoted nicely with a raise, towards more responsibilities. Perhaps he was more valuable in terms of what he contributed. I don’t see the point in asking about any of that. So I let her talk.

“I don’t need this,” she finished. “My husband earns more than enough. I’ll do consulting later, perhaps. Maybe I’ll become a K12 teacher. I like teaching.”

“You’ll be brilliant at that,” I tell her honestly, because I know her skill set and abilities.

She had tried to teach me, under the red leaves of our school’s canopy, as we coded away in C for our high-performance computing assignment. She had told me to wear a ring on my left hand to keep the men away. She had told me that nothing good happened if I reported weird talk and touch to people whose job it was to listen to concerns like this. She had told me that the best way to deal with it was to learn to be very good at what we did, and to always have the ability to walk out on Friday and find something new on Monday. I learned under her tutelage and I am so very grateful. I hadn’t believed, sheltered as I had been then, that such things happened outside Mad Men. I had seen very little of the world. She taught me other matters too: how to slice onions without crying, how to use GDB effectively, and I’ll never forget the amazing explanation she gave me about how the compiler works. She was generous with what she knew and what she had, of her time and of the lessons she had learned. After my first breakup, I had run to Seattle to her, and she had told me kindly that we hadn’t been right for each other, and it was better for both of us in the long run. I had spent that week in a daze, walking with her by the piers, nodding along absently as she spoke of her life and work. She loves programming.

“You love programming,” I told her yesterday. I was unsure what I meant by that. Was I trying to get her to change her decision? Was I trying to offer a solution that avoided this sort of problem?

“Not enough to deal with this shit,” she told me cheerfully, already immersed in her plans for her future, already determined to leave all this behind her. I have always admired her boldness and strength of conviction.

“I read what you write,” she said then, apropos of nothing, changing the topic away from her news. “I like that you keep going on when such stuff happens at your work. And you’ve always worked in those male only type settings.”

It hasn’t been honestly as difficult as it could have been, as it has been for many. At the beginning of my career, I had strong male colleagues and superiors who were willing to protect me from this sort of stuff, when I needed that protection. And recently, when it happened, though there was no support system in this team setting, I was sufficiently confident in my ability to land on my feet somewhere else.

“I remember telling you to wear a jacket inside always because otherwise what if your nipples poke out through a t-shirt,” she says, laughing. “And you said that you weren’t going to obsess over your nipples when you had to take it in your stride that many of your colleagues wear jeans that just flash their arse-crack whenever they bend and stretch.”

I must have been very young then. I have seen much more than arse-cracks I hadn’t planned on seeing since that time, so long ago. I am rarely phased by that sort of thing, though. Bodies are bodies, and work is work, and I am not so demented that I hold people’s dressing choices against them. I expect that I am returned the favor, so that I don’t have to stress about wearing jackets to shield people from the perils of air-conditioning. Not everyone is the same though. I have had colleagues eye my legs when I skip shaving in the winter and wear skirts.

“Don’t you care?” a Japanese colleague had asked me once.

“Not enough,” I told him frankly. It was only a week after I had to deal with an intern whose clever tactic of dropping his keys whenever I wore a skirt had attracted quite some attention in our little team.

“I remember telling you to put up with things, to not complain, because nobody likes a whiner, because they’ll write you off as just a team downer,” my friend continues.

Yes, she had told me that, many times. Acceptable and unacceptable aren’t binary variables. It was all about the grey in between. And don’t complain. Whatever else you do, don’t complain, she had drilled into me.

“I hope things get better before my daughter becomes an engineer,” my friend continues merrily on the phone.

I hope so. I certainly want all that to happen sooner than later. I have also become less optimistic. There isn’t much of a business case for changing things from how they are. I’ll continue until I transition into something better and nicer for my life, walking out on Fridays to go somewhere new on Mondays as long as necessary and able.

“I wish they get it someday,” she mutters then, falling from her self-forced cheerfulness.

That is a slippery slope, from what I have seen. It is just easier to pick up and leave, and not deal with the ugliness that is past and futile, and not try to explain in vain what professionalism could be. Why swim upstream when you can swim with the current? I rarely get treated with anything less than condescension, as if I was hired as a quota-filling head, and mostly everyone is always surprised whenever I show competence. If I took that as a personal affront everywhere I go, I’ll be a very tired me. Instead, I bet on how long it will take for each new colleague to be convinced that I am capable enough, and I am always so happy if they are convinced faster than I expect them to be.

I don’t think that I should talk about these coping mechanisms of mine. So I change the subject, and tell her about my new job, which has been surprisingly pleasant so far, despite the vagaries of the commute involved. I’d commute to hell if it meant that I was treated like a human being, so that isn’t a deal-breaker.

When we end the call, she has managed to cheer me up, and promises to cheer on, and I promise to do the same for her. I wonder if I want all that she has, after all these days. Perhaps I don’t, not anymore. I have changed so, and on some days it terrifies me.

I end up drinking wine and crying a bit, even though I don’t really have any good reasons. Perhaps I am just sad that she’s leaving me behind, that I’ll have to carry on, lonelier than before, and we weep at night because joy cometh in the morning.

————————

It goes back to you. It goes forward to you. You have to exist, somewhere, and somewhere close. That faith is the crux of my carrying on now. Perhaps that is folly, but I think it is less delusional that waiting for a better dawn in this industry. All that I take in my stride today, I try to think about what waits at the end of this road, of you. I try to label these characters as inconsequential, in the big picture, and on some days I fear if this is to be all that there is. I’ll not last very long in this line of work if there is nothing beyond, if there is no you beyond.

I hope one day, soon, you’ll enter my life, and what you bring will be nothing like the crumbs I have been offered before.

Perhaps I shall tell you of what I have seen in this industry, and we’ll laugh together at the silliness of it all. Perhaps I’ll tell you what I plan to do, about how I plan to get away from this madding crowd.

Perhaps I can tell you of how much I love Lisp, without having to tell you what that brilliant man, who taught me so much about it, suggested as a Saturday past-time.

Perhaps I can tell you of how much I love this business of cars, and that I look forward to my mother being able to click and summon a ride one day on an app, without having to worry about unknown drivers and her safety, and when I tell you about this work of mine, I wonder if any of my words will be tainted by the men who had little qualm or care about trying to sabotage a career over a refusal to give them what they wanted.

Perhaps I’ll tell you of how you became the fulcrum of this simple machine, of how I have painted your flesh in my dreams. I have begun to long for you. I have begun to ask for you. And I’ll choose to believe that somewhere you are doing just the same, equally fiercely and full of longing, waiting for our lives to join and twine.

————————-

trainsongs (The Sibelius Chronicles)

I started my new job on a windy, rainy day. When I arrived in San Francisco, one and a half hours after I’d left home, a cold gust of wind greeted me as I got off the train.

Then there was a brisk walk of half an hour, and I took in the forgotten smells and sounds of the city. There were people carrying briefcases and umbrellas, neck craned to support the wedged in phones that they were yelling into, a papercup of coffee part of their emphatic gesticulations as they tried to make many, many points. There were men carrying backpacks with laptops peeking out, Bose headphones about their necks, their thick fingers swiping away on Iphones. There were Lyfts and Ubers many in the traffic snarls at every junction, ferrying passengers about. There were also those giant, white shuttles, skulking about in corners, waiting to carry serfs down to the South Bay fields. I didn’t see any children. I carefully tuned my sight away from the tens of homeless men and women at bus-stops and under shop awnings, huddled tight in rags. I don’t understand the photographers who find it necessary to go all the way to India or Africa to take pictures of poverty and misery.

I’ve been jet lagged and feverish. So everything, from the shine of steel-grey clouds reflected off skyscraper glass windows, to sight of the trash on the sidewalks, to smell of coffee overbrewed, to the locomotion of the train, all sent me reeling slightly in overstimulation. I scraped it through the day, got back tired and hungry, and sat down to make a spreadsheet: time to look for lodging in the city.

Yesterday, I went to see eight to ten places. At each place there thronged about a dozen interested parties, mostly couples. They came prepared with credit reports, with cheques to cover the first and last month’s rent, as well as an additional month’s safety deposit. The places were expensive, with a minimum of three thousand five hundred for the base rent, without including parking and utilities. One of them charged for bike lockers. Only a few had washers and dryers installed inside the apartment. And when I took my customary walk to scope out the surround, I was greeted by the smell of piss, there were littered needles all around, and homeless souls staring at me bleak. I wish this was a writer’s exaggeration. My home state had a problem with stray dogs loose on the roads, and there were heated debates about what to do with them. Here, we’ve moved up the food chain.

“Remind me again why I wanted to move to the city,” I moaned, utterly desolate and devoid of hope in mankind.

“You wanted to meet non-tech people.”

My friend is always too blunt and rhetorical questions aren’t a concept she understands. Non-tech. Yes. About that, I didn’t meet many of them at the renters’ showings. They were mostly tech people.

“I don’t think this is going to work out,” I mutter, looking at my spreadsheet, looking at the dots on the map of San Francisco, looking at the worryingly red crime contours nearly everywhere.

“Moving to the city?” she asks, being literal about it all as she usually is.

I struggle for words then. Moving to the city is only a logistical issue. It is the rest of it I am referring to. Establishing a home, establishing a partnership, establishing a future. The possibility of meeting someone I like, someone outside tech. I am looking at that big three in two years, and I’d hate to wake up on that birthday alone. I feel I’ve been alone long enough, but I am also resolved not to waste time on people I don’t want enough, or who don’t want me enough. I’ve done all of that before, and felt sordid at the end. I’ve also done it right once, and we had flown from East Coast to West Coast and back every weekend until we ran of money and time, and we had completed each other’s thoughts and sentences, and he had always made a cappuccino for me at the end of our meals together. Everything else had always ended with recriminations and anger, with claims of me not being willing enough to fit into the role they desired me to fit into. Not this. We had eaten tiramisu one last time and we played together with borrowed instruments Mendelssohn’s Opus 81. I’d never cried during the period, always floating on a puffy cloud of happiness and contentment as I had been. There had been no pressure to be more or less. There was no exhortation to have a mind of my own, but to resign my will to his. There was only music and philosophy, tiramisu and wine, gardening and long road trips, brunch in Palo Alto and rowing on the Charles. I willfully stopped thinking about all of that, afterwards, and let my friend pick and choose my dates for weeks that dragged into months and then finally to a year. Not one sparked my interest, and I found most of them self-absorbed, with little in the way of empathy. They were really never sure if they wanted to keep it light, or if they wanted to immediately change their Facebook relationship status. They were all about personal discovery and improvement quests, aspiring disciples of Stoicism, detoxing and on juice cleanses, talking about supplements and crossfit, rock climbing and how they love hiking every weekend before brunch. Some had discovered Buddhism. For others, it was yoga and mindfulness. For yet many others, it was about meal prep and readiness for catastrophes. They were analyzing their previous relationships and looking for red flags. There were a few that were empathetic, but they had been battered by the world, and the ruins were not pleasant to see. Most found me too intense for their tastes. I don’t bother being less me these days. I’d tried that before, when I was younger, and it had only done me harm. So life went on, and I changed jobs once again, and decided to run away in between. It took me running away to the edge of the world, to far off Tasmania, to be alone listening to the waves of that great ocean, to properly grieve all that had been, and I came away resolved to look for it once again, now that I know what to look for, for someone fierce and true.

My friend notices that I’d spaced out of our conversation. I attempt to catch up with her, but she knows me too well by now, and she says, “That is going to be tough to find.”

“Well, I found it once.”

She sighs and says ‘Oh Darling’ in such a kind voice that I have to struggle not to cry. She has been trying hard to help me, but perhaps she doesn’t understand what I am looking for. I tell her about Nabokov’s Vera. It is a cherished childhood dream. Ever since I read of them, I’d wanted that for me too. So I’ll just have to keep looking for my Vera.

There are no women in the new group I am working at, again. It is quite nice though. I think they have cleaned up house after all their scandals last year. Nobody says anything hurtful or condescending, there is no ‘ragging’, as is usually the case on the first day to make you feel excluded and an imposter. I am tentatively hopeful about them continuing to be professional. Here is to that, and to finding an apartment in the city, and to finding my Vera.

masseuse

When I was young, I thought I’d have a torrid affair with a circus artiste. I’d swoop into their life and save them, and we’d live happily ever after. Once I got into a mundane field of work, my chances of meeting circus artistes were next to nil, and I moved my fantasies to masseuses. They too were nomads, and often had escaped difficult regimes and families to make their living here. I also had fond memories of the highly skilled, highly educated Ayurvedic masseuses one finds in my home state.

The masseuse was a step down from the circus artiste, but I thought it had potential. The parlors usually had bordello themed decorations and tacky music. All of that seemed appealing to the hot-headed girl I was. Then I met them, and found that they spoke very little English, that they were mostly scared and meek and did not make eye-contact most of the time. I heard terrifying stories of exploitation. So that snuffed out all my glitzy dreams of saving one. I used to get massages when I was cycling a lot, to get my neck and shoulders back in working condition every other week. I tried whichever places were close enough and cheap enough. They spoke little, had little training or talent to speak of, and were utterly forgettable.

Then I got lucky, and met one in a dingy parlor nearby my internship, back in 2013. She was highly skilled. She spoke little to no English at the time. Her technique reminded me favorably enough of Keralite traditions that I became a regular. The dingy parlor closed, but I asked around and found that she was now working at a more upscale, respectable location, under a different name. That did wonders for her over the years. She got a valid Social Security number, her English slowly improved, her clothes looked better, and she began smiling at her clients. We began to slowly talk, and I learned her real name. She told me a bit about her family back in Thailand. She told me about her kids and how they were learning English faster than she was. After two years, she started refusing my tips. And right when I thought she could surprise me no more, she began asking me questions, in stilted, broken English, about my life.

I’d been raised semi-Catholic, and remember those confessional stands, the curtains and the seclusion, of whispering secrets into another’s ear, of waiting to be judged and forgiven. In the privacy of her parlor, with only the faint sounds of classical music to keep us company, I began telling her of my life. It was a clunky conversation often, as I scrambled to find words she understood, as I tried to explain in many different ways until she exclaimed in comprehension. Some sessions were quieter than the others, as she worked and as I let her work. Twice, she set up dates with other clients of hers. I was quite happily surprised by the men she had selected. If not for my resolution to stay away from dating men who work in the tech industry, I think I might have liked to see how things went.

I went in today after quite a long while. She asked me what had kept me away for so long. I told her about work and resigning from it, about being harassed at work and about how I’d been implicitly signalled to put up with it. Then I felt silly, because she had seen much worse, if that first dingy parlor was anything to go by. She must have sensed what I was thinking of, because she said that sort of stuff hadn’t happened in a long while to her. It happens to the young ones, she said. They tip well, those clients, she said, and she seemed serious enough that I felt very sorry for the world we live in.

When I set out to leave, she gripped my arm and told me in her broken English that I reminded her of the lotuses of Thailand. I asked her why. Eats mud, flowers for Gods, she said. She was smiling and serious, so I nodded, still poorly practiced in accepting compliments gracefully. She did not mind my clumsiness, and surprised me once more as she hugged me for the first time of her own initiative.

I didn’t find a torrid love in the massage parlors, but I found someone important nevertheless.

%d bloggers like this: