The alarm rings. The voices start. Everyone with their own opinion. Everyone with their own end. And Christopher's heart. Beating. Pumping that diseased blood. It's a deadly curse. Pessimism.
Today seems the same as yesterday. The wanted section is open on the computer screen. Breakfast is on the table.
“Not many job openings lately,” his dad says.
“I'll find something.” Christopher says immediately.
“Mr. Chen called.” His mother says. “He says they really need you, even if you want to work from home. You should take him up on it.”
“It's a great job to have and you can work part-time,” his dad adds.
“I'll never translate anything ever again. That was the worst job and I was a fool to waste so much time in that dirty country just to help that man earn money.”
“He seemed nice on the phone,” his sister says.
“Thanks. I'm going out to look for jobs.” Christopher eats breakfast and listens to the silence return to his morning. He gets ready and grabs the car keys. He sees one of his dad's friends working in his yard. He must be planning a new project. He's a forty-year old Hispanic man with a special talent for woodwork. He works in some big company that comes with bonuses, but he seems more like a carpenter because he can make anything from scratch: chairs, tables, porches, patios, gazebos, hot tubs, and even houses. Everything he makes is carved with designs. It's art. His art.
“Hey Christopher. How are you?” Hugo says in Spanish.
“Fine, thanks. How about you?” Christopher answers back in Spanish. He doesn't think he's particularly good with languages, but he knows how important they are to people. He can get by with Spanish, but eventually they will have to speak English. It's usually after the two minute mark.
“Fine. I haven't seen you in so many years.”
“I know.” Christopher says. “Things are a little hard now. Let me ask you. Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be a movie star?”
“What, like Mary?”
“Why does it always go back to Mary?”
“What?” Mary finally answers the phone that wouldn't stop ringing. It's six am.
“I need to talk to you, you know, girlfriend stuff.” Jessica's heart accelerates, pumping an overdose of adrenaline through her life. “Let's hang out. Call your movie stars and I'll bring my dog. I'm on my way. Send your address.”
Mary screams through the air, sending her phone into her wall, which crashes into pieces.
A flash. A flash. A camera flash. Mary walks to the window and peaks between the curtains. There's a reporter.
“I'm calling the police.” She says in frustration as she looks for her phone, only to find it still in pieces on the floor.
It rings. It's ringing. Mary picks up the screen and sees Jessica's name on it.
The reporter's picture is in perfect timing. The phone crashes through the window, shattering glass outside along with the ringing technology.
That's going to be the picture on tomorrow's front page.
“I hate you Hollywood!”
“She has the perfect life, doesn't she?” Hugo says in English, not sure how Christopher's Spanish is holding up.
“I don't understand why everyone loves her so much! She's just an actor.”
“Is that jealousy Christopher?”
“I'm an important person. Mr. Chen is begging to get me back.”
“You wouldn't know because...” Christopher sighs and realizes his anger is following him, clinging to him like a sweaty shirt after a long workout.
“I wouldn't finish that sentence. You'll regret it later.”
Christopher sinks down. It's not as easy as he thought to let go of twelve years. And how could he let his anger out on Hugo of all people. He had nothing to do with the situation.
“Hugo. I'd like to learn some woodworking. Do you have time to show me some things?” Christopher asks.
“It looked like you were heading out.”
“Okay. What do you want to build?”
“How about a bird cage?” Christopher suggests.
“You want to buy a bird?”
“Actually I want to smash it to pieces after it's done. I always wanted to do that.”
“Then get your own wood.”
Christopher quickly recants his last statement and promises he won't smash it, not on purpose anyway. They spend the afternoon building it. Christopher takes in as much information as his brain will allow and he learns a lot about Hugo as well. It seems their stories aren't that different. Hugo grew up in Mexico, but moved to California with his family. He worked hard until he finally landed a decent job and then balanced his time between work and home, building new projects for the house.
“You see Christopher, you can't let your job define who you are because it will always demand more of you. You have to know it yourself. Who are you? What are you living for? Then you can do your best at your job without sacrificing who you are.”
About half-way through, Christopher is already too tired to finish, but Hugo insists the project is small enough to finish all at once. He encourages Christopher to keep going and before the afternoon is finished, the bird cage is ready for staining and painting.
Mary gets lunch, movies, and new clothes delivered to her house. She decides it's better not to leave. When she has to go to the restroom, she takes a look at herself in the mirror. 'I've changed. I'm changing. I'm different. I'm starting to go mad.' Mary lets out a crazed laugh that grows into hysteria. 'I'm okay. Everything is fine.' Perspective. It's seeing yourself from different angles. In different lights. We are different in endless ways even to ourselves. A picture can never capture who we are. Maybe that's why the media must continue coming back over and over until people lose interest in the person. We will never be truly captured. Even if we remain the same, we can never be contained by four corners of a picture.
If I'm going crazy, it won't matter if I look it. It's time to go out! Big sunglasses. Tangled hair. Pajamas and a long bathrobe with a long coat over it. And make-up. Lots of make-up. A beauty queen gone mad. This is Mary. Can you recognize me now?
Mary's drive takes her to the bowling alley. She has two lanes all to herself. Suddenly she has the urge to call Jessica. She takes out the new phone with the new number, as she instructed her driver to get for her, and makes the number private. As soon as she hears Jessica's hello, she hangs up the phone, not because of regret or coming to her senses. That would be reasonable. This is unreasonable. Unthinkable. Crazy.
This is Domitian. “Looks like you have lots of space over here. Can I treat you to a game?” He's a good-looking man, more because he takes care of himself than his natural appearance. He's strong, clean, and fashionable.
'Maybe he doesn't recognize me.' Mary thinks to herself, but the truth is obvious. She's being stalked. This must be the creepiest fan of all. How can he possible be interested in her now when she looks like a drama queen after being shot out of an elephant's trunk?
“Sorry. I'm expecting friends,” Mary answers, finally.
Domitian looks up to see four 'Mary's on her bowling screen.”Are your friends all named Mary?”
Mary lets out an embarrassing laugh. “Maybe another time.”
“Give me one game or the whole bowling alley knows that Mary is bowling right alongside them.”
“One game,” Mary says, staring him down.
“Unless I win. Then you have to give me two.”
“I'm not a professional. Just try me. It will be fun.”
Mary can see a beam of hope in his eyes. She has to crush it soon or this stalker may be following her for her whole career. “Okay. But if I win, you can never follow me, look at me, or talk to me ever again.”
Domitian considers it. “Okay, but if I win, I stay the whole night with you.”
“You're on.” Mary agrees. She grabs her own custom-made bowling ball from the rack and walks up to her lane. With perfect form, she spins the ball towards the gutter, but as if it's following her command, it spins right back to the center, hitting the pins at an angle and knocking all of them down. Strike. She walks back to her seat and sits down without saying a word.
Domitian's eyes turn into saucers, but he keeps his cool. He didn't know this about Mary. What else doesn't he know? It's his turn. He takes a normal bowling ball from the alley and steps up to the lane. He mimics Mary's form, which in his head looks graceful, but to Mary looks like a weightlifter without a hint of balance. He releases the ball, curving it just like Mary did. It doesn't curve back, though. Gutter ball. One more try.
He changes techniques. If something isn't working, he's always learned to change techniques. He keeps his arm straight. His fingers straight. His head straight. Release. Gutter ball.
Mary's turn. 'Maybe she just had a lucky throw the first time.' Domitian thinks. Mary releases the ball. Strike. 'Or not.' “So you played before?” He asks, but gets no answer back.
It's not until the fifth round that Domitian hits a pin down, but by the eighth he's already developed his form. Meanwhile, Mary keeps hitting strikes and spares, ignoring any attempt at conversation from Domitian.
The last round. Mary's first. She releases. Only nine pins go down. Mary's face gets a little pink. She wanted the strike. A spare will do. She walks to the lane. Throws the ball. It goes wide. She only knocks down nine pins. It won't change the outcome, but it still makes her a little frustrated.
Domitian's last turn. He's calm. Not nervous. He throws the ball. It curves around with speed and slams into the pins that explode all over the lane. Strike. Two more throws. He gives a smile to Mary. She pretends not to see it. Same form. Same curve. Same speed. Strike again. He got his form now. He knows his strength and he's using it just the way he wants to. One more throw. It's like a song on repeat. He steps up, throws the ball, and explodes the pins. Strike. Now this is fun.
“I'm not that bad, am I?” Domitian asks, knowing she has to be impressed.
“You lost. Don't bother me again.” Mary turns away and waits for him to leave. A tear falls from her eye. 'That was too much Mary.'
Domitian accepts his loss, not frustrated, but rather sad. 'How can the Mary with such a booming personality be so cold?'
“It makes you feel so warm, doesn't it?” Hugo says, looking at the finished bird cage.
“It's just right. It's beautiful.”
“I think this makes you happy.” Hugo says in Spanish.
“It's a lot of work and there are so many details. But, looking at the finished product is something special. It seems worth it, even with all the frustration in between.”
“Well, you seem really positive all of a sudden.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“Don't get mad at me. You know you don't exactly see sunshine in every situation.”
Christopher is offended. “I'm not going to exaggerate the truth. Sometimes, things are just not going well.”
“Are you sure you have the whole story? The whole truth?”
“Okay, okay. Thanks for helping me learn some woodworking skills. What do I owe you for the materials?”
“Hear me out and it's free.”
Hugo starts before he can run away. “Let's use your old job as an example. It's just an example.” Hugo quickly says when Christopher looks like he's going to object. “You think you're just wasting your time in a big company that only cares about profit, but have you ever wondered what the dream of that company's founder was?”
“I'm sure it was something like retire early on a nice beach away from civilization.”
“It would be interesting to find out. How about your manager. What's his name?”
“Mr. Chen.” Christopher says, losing patience.
“Do you think he puts in all that effort and overtime simply for the money? Or is there a vision statement he likes to quote from?”
“I don't know.”
“So he does quote from it?” Hugo asks, sure he already knows the answer.
“It really drives me crazy.”
Hugo laughs. “What's it say?”
“I'm not saying it. There's a reason I left.”
“I can help you build a bird cage all day and you can't quote your company's vision statesmen for me?” Hugo says, looking Christopher square in his eyes.
Christopher sighs. Pauses. “Making the world smaller and bringing us closer through language, translation, and understanding.”
“Sounds like world peace.”
Christopher rolls his eyes back in disbelief.
Hugo laughs. “It's not so bad. And I know you don't believe it, but what if Mr. Chen does? What if he's exhausting his life for a vision for world peace? What if he believes his everyday job is making a tangible difference in the world? If, if it's true, would that change your perspective on your company?”
“It's not my company. I know where you're going with all of this. Thanks Hugo. I mean it. I'm just finished with that place. I have to move on.”
“Okay, at least you heard what I had to say. Can you handle this?” Hugo motions to the bird cage.
Christopher affirms and takes the cage back to his garage. It's already evening and he hasn't started looking for jobs yet.
And then the phone rings.
“Hello?” Christopher answers on the the second ring.
“So it's true. I heard you were back in town. It's been so long. Are you really still alive?”
“Hey Petey, yea it's true.”
“Well are you free tonight? We have to catch up.”
Christopher looks at the computer with the job listings website still up, but somehow he can't say no to an old friend. Or maybe he can't say yes to his job search.
Christopher and Petey were friends from school, but not best friends. They could only spend a few hours together before their arrogance flattened any life their relationship had. It's like two people always trying to pull down the flag. Once it's down, the conversation goes silent.
They agree to meet at a burger place, the one where they skate out to your car and take your order. Somehow the food really does taste better there.
Mary doesn't even finish her last game. She leaves early and gets in the car.
“Just drive,” she says and picks up her phone. Jessica's name is stuck in her head. She believes things really can go back the way they were. She can reason with her. Being the next big up and coming actress isn't a big deal. Not really.
She stares at the number pad on her phone. 'It's possible, but not like this.' She throws down her phone and tells the driver the address. She has to meet Jessica in person. It's the only safe way.
There's hope building inside of her as the driver makes the familiar turns to her old friend's house. On the other side, there's a sense that she really is going mad, spending her time so recklessly and obsessing over trivial matters. 'I'm a movie star. I should start acting like one.'
As her regrets and doubts start converging, the driver informs her they've arrived. The tall apartment building looks the same as it always has. This place is filled with memories, all having been crushed by her rise to fame.
'It's not worth it, actually, but I have to do it. I have to prove my worth, my skill, myself.'
She gets ready to step out of the car and then takes a look in the mirror. Big bug-eyed glasses. Overdone make-up. Hair frizzy, knotted, and moving out in all directions.
'I'm not that Mary anymore. So who am I?'
Christopher gets to the restaurant first. He parks off to the side. Even though it's not possible, he can still smell the food and hear the sizzling inside. Memories. A lot of good times. Christopher closes his eyes, letting his mind wander through stories. It's a past he thought he'd forgotten. Now it's creeping back.
Petey pulls in towards the front. He has a different car. He's bigger than he was before, too. He gets out and walks up to the front doors. It's like everything has changed about him. His gait. His style. His clothes. His hair. Does he still know this person?
Christopher takes a look at himself in the mirror and he has a nostalgic feeling mixed with a reality check. The who was and the who is aren't aligning. His past and his present have drifted apart. It's then he realizes that he's been remade. Taiwan has reshaped all of who he is, just like L.A. continued to shape Petey over the years.
He stares into the mirror and the question stays glued to his mind. “Just who am I?”