Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor part XXII
It never ceases to amaze me, reader, how many options a person has in what kind of life to live.
No, let me rephrase that. Options isn’t a good word. It implies that we have the control to choose what happens in our lives, which as you can clearly see through my experiences, is the least true statement in this entire story.
Anyways, where was I? Options. No, let’s use “variety” instead. It never ceases to amaze me, reader, how much variety exists in the lives people can live.
A human life is incredibly versatile. For example: Tokyo, Japan is one of the largest cities in the world and (unless you happen to live in Japan, reader) is likely thousands of miles from where you are right now. Somewhere right now in Tokyo, at least one person just like you is living a life completely foreign yet eerily familiar to you. They sleep, they wake up, they eat, they dream, they live their life. However, they’re probably speaking an entirely different language than you, they have different interests, different family background, different values, a different lifestyle, and different life goals.
Now, let’s spin the globe just a touch. Move your finger a few inches west on the map until you find a nondescript speck among a small chain of nondescript specks about halfway between India and Myanmar. This speck has a name. North Sentinel Island. At this very moment, at the same time that you’re reading this and at the same time that our unknown friend is living their life in Japan and at the same time I’m doing whatever it is I’m doing right now, there’s another person on this little island, living a life that is completely foreign yet eerily familiar to you. They sleep, they wake up, they eat, they dream, they live their life. However, odds are that they have no idea the place you live even exists. Maybe they’ve never heard your language, let alone considered your values or worldview. Your life goals sound entirely irrational to them. Their lifestyle might call into question a thousand things that you’ve taken for granted about how you live your life. And yet they’re a person, just like you, just like our friend in Tokyo, just like me, just like the last person you talked to. Probably. I don’t know who you talked to last. Was it me? Are you actually responding to the questions I’m asking you here like a crazy person?
Back on track. Now, think about that infinitely granular middle space between the two extremes of Tokyo and North Sentinel Island. Small towns. Big towns. Farmlands. Forests. Coasts. Mountains. Deserts. Rural. Urban. Nomads. Big families. No families. Friends. Hermits. Monks. PEOPLE WHO LIVE ON SPACE STATIONS. Pop stars. Artists. Scientists. Craftspeople. Laborers. Criminals. Civil servants. Naturalists. Socialites. Socialists. Minimalists. Eccentrics. Writers. Readers. English speakers. Mandarin speakers. Japanese speakers. Spanish. French. Esperanto. Deaf. Mute. Blind. Logical. Emotional. Irrational. People who like the color yellow.
Add to that variety the fact that one person could encompass nearly all of that diversity just in their one lifetime. A standard human being just like you and I. In fact, you probably identify with more than a few of those lifestyles I just mentioned whether you chose them or not.
You see what I mean now? Life is so fascinating and diverse, down to every last person. Everybody’s got a story.
That lesson had never fully sunk in for me until I was sitting with Laurents and Elise in a place completely foreign yet eerily familiar.
We were in a roadside dive bar somewhere in Texas, between Sonora and Marathon. I had never heard of either town before. In fact, we had spent most of our time since leaving La Paz passing through dozens of towns I never would’ve known existed. After spending so much time overseas, hopping from one country to the next, I felt like a stranger in rural America. The endless, winding roads crisscrossing vast expanses of fields and farms seemed otherworldly compared to places like Shanghai and Osaka. The three of us could walk down the main street of one of these towns without seeing a single soul; in Manila, the only respite from the pressure of humanity was a church service, but even those were always packed to bursting.
Even stranger, whenever we did happen to come across another person, they smiled at us and said hello. I would’ve been stabbed if I had done that in La Paz. Okay, maybe a traffic zebra would’ve waved back, but anyone other than them would’ve been caught off guard.
Now we were in this dive bar between towns, worlds away from where we’d been. Crinkly, tinny music passed through some speakers overhead.
Three thirty in the morning
Not a soul in sight
The city’s lookin’ like a ghost town
On a moonless summer night
We sat on some stools with our backs to the bar counter, looking out at the rest of the place. In front of us was a wide wooden floor devoid of chairs or tables. There were only two people occupying the space: an elderly man in jeans, tucked-in flannel shirt, and a beltbuckle the size of my head and the woman he was slowly spinning. They went round and round, making their way from one side of the dance floor to the other in a big circle.
“Odd choice for a triple-step,” Laruents said, almost a whisper to himself. Elise and I heard him and we exchanged a quizzical look. “I’ll be right back. Headed to the restroom.”
“Do you want us to get you anything?” I was about to grab the bartender’s attention. It wasn’t busy tonight, and she was at the other end of the bar talking to someone I’d guessed was a regular.
“I’ll take a Shiner,” he tossed the words over his shoulder as he left.
“A what?” Elise cocked her head.
I shrugged. I wasn’t much of a beer person despite working with Moog. It was mostly liquor and cocktails there. Elise confessed to not being much of a drinker either as we looked at the short list of beers. Not knowing what to order, I just asked the bartender for three Shiners.
I sighed, “So, this is it, then.”
“I hope so. We’re out of options,” Elise watched the couple as they danced their endless circle, “When they took you in La Paz,” she shrugged, “I thought that was it. We were done.” She wouldn’t look at me, just kept her gaze on the lonely dancers, “The fact that they let you go just tells me how outnumbered we are. I mean, he didn’t even see you as a threat.”
Now she looked at me, suspicion and confusion took equal residence in her eyes, “Yeah. Alice’s husband.”
The bartender brought three bottles to us with bright yellow labels. Ohh, Shiners.
The music changed and something strange happened. The intro to the new song had just barely started when everyone in the bar started making their way to the dance floor. Even the bartender got out from behind the counter. The place wasn’t very packed, but seeing everyone gathered there made me realize how lively this bar actually was when you saw past its sleepy, dive-y appearance. The vocals to the song started and everyone began shuffling their feet in sync with each other.
Lazy yellow moon comin’ up tonight
Shinin’ through the trees
They all moved in a perfect choreography. Old Beltbuckle man, the bartender, younger patrons, and older regulars. Some of the burliest men I’d ever seen–bigger than those goons who worked for Isaac in La Paz–were spinning and shuffling their feet at a sharp clip. They were like soldiers marching in disciplined, perfect step.
Crickets are singin’ and lightning bugs
Are floatin’ on a breeze
Baby get ready
Was this a line dance?
You and me goin’ fishin’ in the dark
Lying on our backs and countin’ the stars
Where the coooool grass grows
Elise and I sipped our beers and watched the performance. Occasionally, one of the dancers would steal a suspicious glance at us. We were the only ones still at the bar, everyone else was in the formation crossing their feet and spinning as one. At one point, the bartender pointed at Elise and waved her to come up.
“No way. I have no idea how to do that.” she mumbled and politely smiled back.
The song continued and we were alone at the bar. Now was my chance to ask Elise something that had been bothering me, “Elise, you grew up with Alice, right?”
She nodded as she took another sip of her beer. She had already told me that before.
“Did you know her husband?”
She hesitated, put down her drink and sighed before turning her attention back to the dancers and we were quiet for a moment.
I thought about asking her a different question or dropping the subject all together when she finally answered.
“Yes. I know Isaac. I knew him. Or I thought I did.” Her response was almost as flat as Laurents, “What else did he tell you in there?”
He told me a lot of things. That seemed to be how encounters with the bad guy in a story always went, right? Bad guy makes a scene and give his big bad guy speech. It made my head and stomach hurt thinking about his view of the world. Instead, I told her, “He said you were Alice’s sister, that she was always dragging you into trouble.”
She gave a weak, tired smile, “She did. And we are. But what’s your point?”
I didn’t know what my point was, exactly, “You never mentioned you were sisters.”
“It didn’t seem relevant,” she shrugged and turned away.
I laughed in shock, “Didn’t seem relevant? Elise, Alice is the whole reason we’re even in this town about to break ou–“
She gave me a harsh look and shushed me, “Not here,”
After a short silence, she continued, “She’s my sister, that’s why I need to get her back.” She shook her head and took a large pull from her drink, “Alice dragged me into trouble growing up, sure, but she shielded me from a lot of stuff as well. There was this whole other side to her life that I never knew anything about. She would go out at night, I assumed to party. It turned out she was with Isaac.
Eventually I met him, and he creeped me out from the start. He always seemed to be getting involved with odd people. After high school, he said he got a job and would vanish for days or weeks. And he was always busy working at night. I told Alice something was wrong, but she would always just laugh it off and tell me not to worry.”
“But Isaac told me Alice didn’t know anything about the smuggling.”
“She didn’t. Not the whole thing,” she sighed, “I don’t know. Something was wrong. I knew it was. But Alice always kept me away from certain parts of her life so I thought this was another case of her trying to protect me, and that she knew what she was doing. What else was I supposed to do? Eventually, I decided I was being irrational. That maybe I wasn’t thinking straight because she was my sister.”
Silence again. Another song ended, but most of the bar was still on the dance floor. Laurents hadn’t come back yet even though Elise and I were nearly done with our beers.
“Laurents doesn’t know she’s my sister, either. I mean, he’s probably figured it out. He’s been trying to find these people for a lot longer than I have. Probably before Isaac got involved, even.”
A slow waltz started to play.
A few cards and letters and one long distance call
We drifted away like the leaves in the fall
“I just–I don’t know. It hurts to say it. To admit that I’m her sister and failed to help her with whatever was happening. She watched out for me for so long. We stopped talking after they got married. I was too mad at her. Then, out of the blue she suddenly calls me in tears. Telling me she found something and she needed to leave town. I guess she figured out what Isaac was really up to. That was the last time I heard from her.”
The hot July moon saw everything
Her eyes were starting to tear up. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have any close relationships like her and Alice. No one wants to be friends with the weird kid obsessed with a balloon they lost in a park one time. That’s why I left the first chance I got. Traveling and looking for something I lost–passing endlessly through different places–was preferable to being in one place with no connections. Being lonely on the road was better than being lonely at home, I guess.
Elise, though, she cared about Alice enough to leave home and chase her down. Moog and Sondra cared about me enough to help me with my problems. And now they were trapped in this same web and what could I do to save them? Certainly not what Elise had accomplished. And Laurents–
“Oh my God, is that Laurents?” Elise’s oncoming tears were replaced with complete shock. I followed her gaze and nearly choked on the last of my beer.
The waltz had ended and the crowd was doing another line dance. As we looked–right there in the back row–Laurents was moving his feet and shuffling from left to right in perfect beat with the music.
Well the sheriff came around in the middle of the night
Heard mama cryin’, knew something wasn’t right
And, reader, here’s the strangest part, he was smiling. In fact, he looked perfectly at home.
I volunteered for the Army on my birthday
I done two tours of duty in Vietnam
And I came home with a brand new plan
Laurents caught us gaping at him and tried not to notice. Elise looked at me, tried to say something but the words caught in her mouth. I felt the same way. This wasn’t the Laurents we knew at all.
I learned a thing or two from ol’ Charlie don’t you know
You better stay away from Copperhead Road
When the song finished, Laurents made his way over to us, beads of sweat dancing on his head, and reached for his now warm beer. “So,” he said between breaths, “this is it then. Last night before go we through with this pla-“
“Don’t pretend like that didn’t just happen!” Elise hit him, “What on earth was that?”
Laurents took a long drink before responding, settled himself, “Line dance.”
Elise tried to say something, but was too flustered, so I jumped in, “That was, uh, pretty cool. Since when do you ah–?” I guess I was flustered, too. In the entire time I’d known Laurents, he’d been a blank slate. A capable one, almost fearfully so, but I guess I never considered the fact that he was…I don’t know, a person.
Laurents took a seat. “I grew up around here,” he waved his hand in a loose circle, “A town not so far away. Hanging out in places like this was the only thing anyone did on the weekends.” He shrugged, reverting back to his normal self as he talked, like a frothy, foamy beer settling down into a flat amber.
Elise wiped her eyes, pushing our earlier conversation out of her mind, “Laurents, I– you never open up. I guess I never knew anything about–“
He put his hand up to stop her, “No, we’re not doing that.”
“Doing what?” I asked.
“We’re not talking about me. Not everyone needs a heartbreaking backstory.”
Laurents cut Elise off again, “I grew up here. I got a job. Then I started looking for these people to stop them. I found you. We found him,” he tilted his head at me, “thanks to what he found in La Paz and all those emails, we can finally stop them for real. And we’re doing it tomorrow. What else is there to know?”
That, reader, is when I realized how fascinating people can be. Everybody’s got a story, but everyone tells it at their own pace.
“There is something we should talk about, though,” he gave me a weird look, “to make sure we know what we’re dealing with tomorrow.”
The bartender had come back from dancing and Laurents ordered us another round of beers before turning to me, “La Paz. When Isaac had you pinned against his desk and ranted,” his eyes turned serious, “Is there anything else you remember, anything else he said that we can use tomorrow?”
Tomorrow, as you may have gathered by now, reader, was the end. After La Paz, we had everything we needed. Sure, Isaac revealed that all the evidence we’d been collecting from China to Cambodia was useless and staged by him. But the password to his email account was priceless. We had it all. Names, locations, movements, bank accounts. And not just what they’ve been doing, but what they were planning to do.
With all that information as fuel, we’d come here to Texas so Laurents could contact a few “friends” as he’d described them. We wandered from town to town, places you only hear about in those fictional shows that take place in those quiet, countryside, one street farming communities. Small town America.
I thought back to my confrontation with Isaac. I already told Laurents and Elise about his fake messages posing as Alice. How he found Moog and Sondra through me and “had plans for them” but decided the three of us weren’t a threat. And how he threatened to kill us if he saw us again.
I shrugged, there wasn’t anything else to add, but Laurents’ weird look remained, “And he had you pinned to his desk the whole time?”
“Yeah, that creep has anger issues.”
Now Elise was giving me a look.
“He had you pinned to his desk with a gun to your head.” Laurents went on.
“Yeah, but there really wasn’t anything else useful. Do you think we aren’t ready for tomorrow or something?”
“No, I think we have everything we need, but…”
“Are you okay?” Elise jumped in.
I looked at her, then back to Laurents, “Of course I’m okay. What you guys talking about?”
Laurents sighed, “Look, we’ve been though a lot. Everything’s in place now. Let’s use tonight to relax a little bit.” He finished his beer and went back to the dance floor, transforming again right before our eyes from the Laurents we knew to a Laurents we never thought existed. It never ceases to amaze me how much variety exists in the lives people can live.
Elise and I were alone at the bar again, but there was concern on her face now. “Hey,” her musical voice took a minor key, “Remember when we were in China, right after Laurents and I…took…you?”
“Of course I do,” It’s hard to forget being kidnapped, dragged to a basement, and screamed at.
“And the burning building.”
“Yeah,” admittedly, I tried not to think about it for a few days after, but now it seemed so distant. I could replay it like watching snippets of a movie in my head. Disconnected. More fascinating than terrifying.
“I told you how scared I was afterwards,” her voice was careful and soft as she continued, “Remember how I told you none of it was…me? How it was all so overwhelming?”
“But you managed to keep a clear head and pretty much saved us.”
“That’s not the point, though,” she looked at the door and sighed, “Come outside with me.”
We walked down the bar to the heavy oak door and stepped out into the warm night. She sat down crosslegged on the dirt, leaning her back against the building and I followed suit. The only light was from a sign hung up in the bar window, a big highlighter yellow and pink neon moon casting a strange warmth to the scene. The real moon wasn’t out tonight. That part was important for tomorrow. We needed it to be as dark as possible.
We sat together in silence, just long enough for me to ask to her why she brought me out here, but the question was still forming in my chest when she finally spoke.
“You never heard how Laurents and I met.”
I shook my head.
“It was right after I came to China. I had no idea what I was doing. Alice had just vanished and the only thing I had figured out at that point was it had something to do with Isaac and China. So I booked the flight. I wasn’t thinking and I didn’t know what I would do when I got there and I was scared and I wasn’t thinking straight.”
She took a moment to catch her breath. A fly or a moth or something had discovered the neon light above us and must have been entranced. It danced around the light, its shadow played across Elise’s face.
“Isaac and his people found me almost immediately. I hadn’t even left the airport, someone spoke to me in English offering me a taxi ride. I don’t even remember what happened after I got in. I just woke up in that strange border town, the one you came to, and I was so scared.”
Her voice started to shake as she hugged herself, “They put me in some room and I was so dizzy. I don’t know what they did to me. I was screaming then crying then just nauseous and tired and,” she shook her head, “I was so scared. Up to that point, all my life, I had been the sound one. Alice was the rule breaker, I was the common sense. And there I was throwing all sense out the window. I thought I was so stupid and overconfident thinking I could come here and do anything and now I was in this room and no one would ever know what had happened to me.
“I don’t know how long I was in that room, but it couldn’t have been longer than a day or two. I was so dizzy all the time it was hard to figure out what was going on. Eventually, I guessed that there was something in the food they were giving me. Every now and then someone would come with a bowl of fried rice. They must have been putting something in it to keep me sedated or nauseous, whatever to keep my head cloudy. If I just stopped eating the food, though, they’d know something was up or maybe they’d force me to eat it, and the thought of them forcing anything on me was just…
“So I took the soup spoon–they didn’t give me chop sticks to eat, probably because they could be used as weapons, they only gave me a wooden soup spoon–I took the spoon and I pushed it down my throat until I threw up. Then I did it again and a few more times. I threw up all over the room. When I was done I felt so weak but after an hour or so my mind started to clear up. When the man came by again for my next meal, he saw the mess all over the room and I lied to him and said I was deathly allergic to eggs and there was egg in the fried rice they’d been giving me. He was about to leave to find someone to clean up the mess and get something else for me to eat but then I got hysterical, telling him that I was going to die if I didn’t get to a doctor soon and that I’d already eaten too much of the eggs and my throat was closing up and my chest was hurting.
“Then he dragged me out of the room and I pretended to still be sedated. It wasn’t hard since my legs were shaky and weak from all the forced purging. He said he was going to take me to a doctor. I tripped down the stairs to further convince him that I was barely capable of walking in the hopes of letting his guard down a little more. Finally, as soon as we stepped out the front door, I ran.”
At this point in my life, reader, I’d seen and heard a decent amount of crazy things in the world. I’d flown across oceans in a hot air balloon, watched two friends fight off thugs in a Seattle alleyway, escaped a burning building, and more. But Elise, she was a world of wonder in and of herself. Capable of so much. Endlessly clever. The depths of her intelligence and power were matched only by the depth in her eyes (bleh, did I really just say that? It’s true, though). She was scared and vulnerable, in a situation magnitudes more dire than anything I’d ever experience and made it through. She was a symphony of all that is amazing in life.
“I wouldn’t have gotten far at all if Laurents hadn’t been there,” she continued, “He was nearby watching the building. He had a tip that the place was being used by Isaac but hadn’t been able to confirm it yet. So he was parked in a car across the street observing when I came out of the building and tried to make my escape. He immediately realized what was happening, pulled his car around, grabbed me and sped away. I was screaming again in the backseat of his car, trying to claw at him, thinking he worked for Isaac and was taking me back but he fended me off and tried to explain that everything was okay, all while darting around the streets of China trying to lose anyone chasing us.”
“Elise, I had no idea, that’s–“
“I’m telling you this because I want you to know I was terrified,” she cut in, “This, this stuff’s not normal. These bad things. These traumatic things. Up to that point in my life, I had no idea any of this–this darkness–was a real, tangible, thing that happened to people.”
She reached over and squeezed my hand, “Isaac held a gun to your head in La Paz. You nearly died when Alice put you in the Candlewind for the first time. Laurents and I have put you through a lot since we met. We dragged you through a lot of difficult things. And I understand how it feels to be exposed to those things.” She nodded her head towards the door, “What Laurents was trying to say in there is that he’s sorry. And I’m sorry. Sorry that you have to go through this mess of a story. But we’re all a part of it too, so you’ll never have to suffer alone.”
It never ceases to amaze me, reader, how much variety exists in the lives people can live. That variety is both beautiful and chaotic, a mess of colors and ideas and light and shadow and happiness and fear and excitement and trauma and brokenness and tenacity. All that variety makes up a life, for better or for worse. Elise taught me that you don’t have to experience those moments in a vacuum. For every idea, there’s an application. Every thought, a lesson. Every emotion, a connection. Every story, a reader.
Elise was still holding my hand, so I stood and pulled her up with me. I said something to her then, but that’s between her and I, reader. I’ll leave it to your imagination.
Hand in hand, we walked back into the bar. We joined in with Laurents, Elise taught me how to waltz, and we shared one last night of this mess of a story together.
Check back in two more weeks (give or take a week…) for more!