"The Story of August 15th"
William H. Chang
It was dark and cloudy when he woke up, only minutes before the alarm clock would have gone off had he decided not to reach over and turn it off for the morning. He was still tired - he was always tired these days, despite the fact that he had started sleeping earlier and earlier until he found that by the time he was in bed he wasn't even tired yet - but he forced himself to sit up, to throw off the covers and swing his legs over the side of the bed and plant them firmly on the stony grey carpet of his bedroom.
Instinctively, without thinking or noticing, he reached over and picked up the remote sitting on the desk next to his bed. There was an old movie on television when he turned it on, which he quickly changed after seeing something better was on: "Lost in Translation" was showing, just starting as the channel was changed.
He had a celebrity crush on Scarlett Johansson, ever since he had seen her in an older film called "Ghost World". She was quite possibly one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen.
Minutes later, after the covers had been folded and placed in the other room, and the bed was transformed into a couch once again (it was a futon, actually), he grabbed his t-shirt from one of the chairs that sat next the bed (or couch, rather) and walked down the hall to the bathroom to take a bath - he had to take baths because the thin, metal shower poles that once stood above the off-white porceline tub had fallen off and broke into a number of pieces, which still sat behind the tub on the floor.
The bath was relaxing.
Half an hour passed. Normally by that time the sunlight would have been pouring in through the gap in the dusty old curtains, but today was a dismel exception. The room was incredibly dark when he returned, and he had the slightest feeling that it had been lighter in the room half an hour ago.
A lamp was switched on, illuminating the room in a dull yellow light. He sat down at the dining table, glancing over at the television. Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray, one of his favorite actors) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johanson's character) were sitting at a bar, and Bob was repeating the slogan of the whiskey he was paid to advertise: "For relaxing times, make it Santori times."
As much as he wanted to sit there and watch the rest of the movie, there was a lot to get done that morning. After a light breakfast that consisted of a single bagel with a moderate amount of cream cheese - that still managed to fill him up, as he hadn't had much of an appetite for the last few days - he returned to the bathroom, which was still hot and damp from the steaming bath water that had long since gone down the drain, and did a number of things: shave what remained of a day-old five-o'clock shadow, with the exception of a small tuft of hair on his chin; wash and apply skin moisturizer to his face, to cover the dry skin that he had developed in the last year; brush his teeth; and gel back his newly-cut hair.
By the time he had completed all of these tasks the film was nearly over.
He turned on his computer and in a few minutes was online, checking the usual websites that he checked everytime he came online. Not much had changed since the night before, as usual. No one was online either, although it wasn't as if he talked to many people anymore, even online. It made him lonely sometimes, thinking about times long passed, when there was always someone to talk to, always someone to listen. Now there were few, oh so few.
However, he was not thinking of this at the moment. Instead, he was checking showtimes for a movie that he had wanted to see for two weeks now, "Broken Flowers" - coincidentally another film starring Bill Murray. Only two theaters in San Francisco were actually showing the Jim Jarmusch-directed film, which seemed somewhat odd, but he was thankful that it was playing at all.
After confirming a time, he gathered together a few items in his backpack, because, for some odd reason unknown even to him, he could never go anywhere on his own without bringing a backpack with a few items in it. Today those items were a torn-up binder containing notes on stories he was writing, a thin notebook containing stories he was writing, and a Stephen King novel that had been the influence for a story he had yet to start writing - and probably never would write, given that he never finished what he started and never started what he knew he would never finish.
He left, an hour and fifteen minutes before the movie was scheduled to start.
It was still cloudy outside, and there was a light mist that forced him to wonder if it was going to rain or not, an odd occurence during a Bay Area summer that had, up until this last week, been extremely bright and sunny.
He wore a set of headphones which were connected to a three-year-old CD player. All the sounds of the city were - for the most part - drowned out by the rhythmic melodies of electric guitars and gentle rumble of a bass. The music reflected the mood that he felt as he walked down the hill towards the subway station: the slightest touch of sadness and ennui. He imagined he felt much like how Bob Harris must have felt during his first few hours in Tokyo, tired of the life that went on around him, a yearning to get away.
On the pavement of the next block there was a broken glass bottle on the ground. Someone had probably chucked it after drinking the contents the night before. Without thinking about it, he stepped on a shard of broken glass, hearing and feeling it crunch underneath his shoe.
As he passed by the glass doors of an apartment building he glanced at his reflection. He was a tall young man, nineteen years of age, dressed in clothes that he felt made him look much how a typical urban kid would look. Dark sunglasses hid his eyes; he never liked to make eye contact with strangers, and almost always wore something that covered his eyes when in public. There was just something about making eye contact with a strange person that made him feel so vulnerable, as if he were naked and exposed to their judging gaze.
The subway station was no more than a few blocks from his apartment building, and it took less than ten minutes to walk there at his pace. He kept his eyes positioned downwards, not wanting to look at anyone. It was as if he was pretending to be invisible, as if by not looking at anyone he would simply not be there when he looked up at him.
A few yards from the entrance to the station there was a small flower shop owned by a middle-aged woman who he had bought flowers from on several occasions. He hadn't bought any flowers in the past year, though he had thought about it a number of times, especially in the last few weeks. In the end though he had always decided against it. Flowers wouldn't solve anything. They sat there, smelled nice, and eventually died. That was all they did; it was their purpose in life, as written by mankind.
He didn't even glance at the shop as he quickly made his way down the stairs into the station, wondering if he had enough cash in his wallet to pay for movie - he remembered shortly after that he didn't, and would have to stop at the ATM before buying a ticket.
The downtown platform was quite crowded with people, which he found odd. Most were returning to work after a short and early lunch (by this time it was a little past noon). A train came shortly, crowded with similar people as well as others who were heading downtown to do some afternoon shopping. A small number of passengers disembarked at the station. As everyone around him was scrambling to board the train, he stood back to wait for the next one. There was just something about crowded busses and trains.
He looked up, and through his dark sunglasses he could see people glancing out at him through the windows of the train, some perhaps wondering why he was the only person not boarding - all the trains were, after all, heading in the same direction, so it was apparent that he was not going anywhere else but downtown, or at least in that general direction.
Still, he stood back, not caring about the fact that he was standing alone on the platform as the train's doors closed and it pulled away from the underground station.
A minute later a second train pulled into the station. It was fairly crowded, though not as bad as the previous. He boarded this train, after a number of other people had gotten off.
There were no available seats on the train, though there were unpopulated seats which he had no desire to sit in. So he stood, holding on to the overhead rail that was most likely covered with germs from the hundreds of hands that held onto the very same rail every single day. In the back of his mind he wished that he had decided to wear a pair of gloves that day.
By the time the train reached the second station (since he had gotten on) there were seats available, and fewer unpopulated seats which he had no desire to sit in. He sat down next to the window, facing the direction the train had come from instead of sitting in the direction the train was going.
Across the aisle and two rows down were a trio of girls, each of them no older than seventeen. Their obviously girlish talk was audible even over the roar of the train zooming through the subway tunnels - which, consequentally, drowned out the music of his CD player. He watched them through the corner of his eye, and somewhere before the final stop he imagined that they were talking about him, as one of the girls was occasionally turning her head in his general direction, but he was unable to make out whether or not she was actually looking at him or just looking at something in his general direction.
He got off in somewhat of a hurry once the train arrived at the last station, even though he had somewhere around forty-five minutes until the movie was to start.
The sadness that had been such a small and near-insignificant feeling had grown during his time below ground. He didn't know how or why this feeling was suddenly starting to emerge. All he knew was that as he stood there on the escalator heading back into the dull grey light of a cloudy afternoon, there was a sadness in his heart.
This particular part of the financial district - the end of it, to be exact - was crowded during this time. Many of the people walking around were the business type: professional looking clothes that could have been purchased at Macy's or Mervyn's, ties that may or may not have been clip-ons, high heels that went click-clack against the pavement, you name it. He guessed that they were on their lunchbreaks. Restaurants and fast-food places all contained long lines filled with the aforementioned people, waiting to grab a bite to eat before returning to the office to finish off what remained of their day.
There was a small Starbucks a block away from the subway station, and he walked in, seeing yet another line, though instead of business folk there were tourists - another type of folk that roamed the streets of San Francisco, particularly during the summertime. Two groups of them were crowded in front of the counter, ordering a variety of drinks from frappaccinos to hot coffee to iced tea. The first group consisted of an older woman and a younger woman (probably the older woman's granddaughter); while the second group consisted of a middle-aged couple and their four children, a teenage boy with a green hoodie and a skateboard, and three younger girls who were yapping away about what they wanted to order.
He stood in line for a good five or ten minutes that was spent looking around and squinting - for he had terrible vision without his glasses; the sunglasses that he wore weren't prescription sunglasses - at a manner of items around the shop. Finally, one of the workers came around to taking his order - he ordered a small chai latte - and was nice enough to give him a discount because of the wait. He smiled slightly and thanked the woman as he paid only $1.50 instead of the usual $2.40. He put a quarter in the tips box, later wishing he had just told the woman to keep the change.
As he exited the Starbucks holding his small cup of chai, something seemed to change around him. He walked past more groups of business folks that he felt were staring at him, as if he had suddenly crossed over to the wrong side of the railroad tracks. He would not look up at the faces of those who walked past him, but restricted his gaze to every other possible sight.
He felt as if he was in a movie, similar to the one he had been watching earlier before leaving his apartment. He felt as if he was walking in another world, an alien city where he did not belong, with an invisible camera following him wherever he went, capturing this moment on invisible film. He felt as if he were moving twenty-four frames per second.
One track was playing on his CD player during this entire episode. He would not change the track, nor allow it to be changed. Just when the song was beginning to end he would press the button to rewind it, to start it over. It was fitting for the imaginary film that he was the star of, the perfect background music.
He walked towards the theater, taking a sip of chai every few steps as if he would look more important by drinking it. Surely they would all see that he was drinking Starbucks, the drink of the rich, and that he was enjoying it no less.
But no one cared that he was drinking Starbucks. He didn't care that he was drinking it, and soon he tossed the empty cup into the garbage can.
It wasn't until he actually reached the theater that he realized that he needed to get some cash to actually pay for the ticket. In his mind he kicked himself, hard, before turning around and walking back the way he came. Three blocks away there was an ATM, and when he returned to the front of the theater he was $20 richer.
Although he was still thirty minutes early, he went in a bought a ticket - though you couldn't really call it a ticket, because actually it was just a very detailed receipt that contained all the information an actual ticket would have contained, and was probably a lot cheaper to produce. He was a bit disappointed that what he was holding in his hand wasn't an actual ticket, for he collected the stubs of tickets from movies that he had watched, with the oldest one being from an animated film he had seen back in 2001. In some strange way it gave him a small sense of pleasure to look in the small plastic box he called his "memory box" and see a large stack of movie ticket stubs from a variety of theaters.
He stopped at the bathroom first, to relieve himself of the chai that he had finished only minutes before. To him the three most annoying things about watching a movie in a theater were: one, forgetting your glasses and not being able to see the screen clearly; two, sitting anywhere near someone who made annoying noises during the movie; and three, having to go to the bathroom right in the middle of a particularly good movie - of which he was sure "Broken Flowers" was going to be, therefore he did not want to succumb to this third annoyance.
As he washed his hands, he looked up at his reflection in the mirror. He was incredibly pale, almost matching his white long-sleeved shirt. The brown eyes that he had known so well for the last nineteen years looked back at him with a small melancholy twinkle. He said nothing to this mirror person. Instead, he left.
The theater was empty when he went in, which was quite unexpected. It was a large theater for such a relatively unknown film (it was a limited release, after all), yet he was standing alone in the dim light as music was playing from the front speakers - which, as he came to realize at a later time, was the soundtrack for the same movie he was about to see. He slowly walked past the empty aisles until he picked out a seat somewhere near the middle of the theater and directly in the center from the screen.
The movie didn't start for twenty minutes, during which time he sat there listening to the rather good music playing. A number of other people filed into the theater, though the total number of people in the audience couldn't have been higher than thirty people. It was a disappointing turnout.
A little over two hours later the movie was over, and he found himself exiting the theater with another movie to add to his favorites list.
The sadness that he had felt earlier had not diminished, but somehow it felt different. It was not he who was sad, no, but his character, the one he was playing in the invisible movie that he was still acting in. The lights were still upon him, the cameras still rolling. He couldn't, nor wouldn't, disappoint them all.
He walked back the way he had come from hours ago, stopping at a nearby Walgreens for an energy drink - it was his thought that one reason he had been feeling so incredibly tired recently was because he had not consumed any real caffienated beverage for at least a week or so. He walked with the air of one who had a secret to hide, of one with a heavy heart that had seen its share of sorrows, of one who had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
And yet the world was oblivious. Only the cameras could see, only they would pay attention to him.
It was a lonely walk to the bus stop, and it was a lonely bus ride that did not last longer than a few stops.
He got off the bus and retreated into the Virgin Megastore that was across the street. He didn't know why he had gotten off, nor why he was in the store. The amount of money in his checking account had been decreasing rapidly all summer, and he did not wish for it to slip any lower than it already was, yet he still browsed the music section.
Though he stood in line clutching a couple of CDs in his hand, he turned around and walked out of the store without buying anything - though he did return the two CDs to their seperate places on the display racks. It felt embarassing to simply leave without buying anything, but later he gave himself a mental pat on the back for opting not to spend anymore precious money on items he did not need (in fact, he was unsure if he even wanted the items he picked out in the first place).
He took the subway home, though the subway station in this part of the city was crowded with shoppers and people needing to get home.
As he walked back to his apartment, he thought about the events of the day (or lack thereof). It would have made a decent film, he thought, only no one else would understand.
The cameras were still there, watching his every move as he walked back up the hill, as he walked past his reflection in the glass doors of an apartment building, as he stepped on a piece of broken glass that had been shattered on the pavement, and as he removed his keys from the metal clip on his belt.
As he marched up the steps to the front door of his apartment building the imaginary credits began to roll, and the music changed. The movie was over, his job was done. Once the door began to close the screen would fade to black and the audience would get up to leave.
And for that one brief moment before the picture faded altogether he hoped - no, prayed - that he would always remember this feeling.