Do You Wanna Hold Me?

         The next time he saw Meena was in Washington, DC. She was in town for the opening of her video art installation and to play a show with her band.

         It was springtime.

They sat outside a Starbucks, downtown in the business district, surrounded by blocks of office buildings, a setting he found threatening in some vague way. Everything about her face was inscrutable. It was sunny and breezy, the time of year just before the humidity sets in, when the sun is still crisp and bright, when the clouds are still fluffy and white and not yet listless and damp-looking. Her giant sunglasses covered an astonishing amount of her face. He could see himself reflected in them, squinting against the glare. She moved with a casual slouch and wore clothes that could have been homemade, bought at a thrift store, or made by a famous designer. He couldn’t tell when she was looking at him so he decided to pretend that she wasn’t ever looking at him at all.

         “I’d forgotten about all the badges,” she said, turning her head from the crowds of men and women passing by in business suits, with ID badges clipped to their pockets or hanging on lanyards from their necks. Some of them were, to Joe, depressingly young, barely out of college, nearly two decades younger than himself and already wearing the dull dark blue, gray and brown suits they would wear until retirement. As a freelance writer, he had the freedom to dress how he wanted, and today he was wearing a Brian Jonestown Massacre concert shirt, no less a uniform than theirs, since he chose it with the intention, at least in the back of his mind, of impressing Meena. When she sat down she mentioned that she thought she might have played with them at a festival in Denmark, or maybe Iceland, a couple of years ago.

         “The problem with Washington,” he said, “is that too many people wear badges, and too many of the ones that don’t wish they did.” He thought he detected a smile as she lifted a cigarette to her lips and lit it. Her skin was glinting light reddish-brown in the sunlight.

         In the past, Meena would have filled the silence with small talk, fast-paced, excited chatter about a movie she just saw, or a book she was reading, or a gig she just played or was getting ready to play in some little club or coffee house, the kind of talk that he eventually began to suspect was a way of blocking him off from saying something that might disturb the balance of their friendship. But now she remained silent behind her enormous dark glasses and was maybe watching him, or the people pass by, or maybe the light reflecting off a building or the shape of a leaf on the street, the kinds of things she always used to notice and that he didn’t. Some say a lack of focus is the mark of genius. But he was beginning to think that the true mark of genius is more likely the ability to concentrate fully and selfishly at the task at hand, with no worries about its potential futility, for hours and days on end and with no thought for the people close to you, an ability he knew he lacked but that Meena had, and this was exactly what used to infuriate him and attract him to her at the same time.

         She’d worn a badge, too, when she lived in Washington, and boring slacks and blouses like all the other young women working in downtown government offices. They had grown up together in a small town in Pennsylvania, and in high school developed a shared interest in the things that small-town kids of their generation who wanted to get away found their way to: REM (at least their first 3-4 albums), Andy Warhol, Woody Allen, Jack Kerouac. But during college and after, they drifted apart, as hometown friends do, and had only seen each other once in the years before she moved to DC, in what turned out to be an embarrassing, drunken encounter in her tiny apartment in the college town where she was living at the time, that ended in mutual confessions (mostly forgotten or retracted), nausea, and finally unconsciousness, during a time when both of them were depressed and drinking too much.

         So a few years after that, when he found himself idly Googling her after his latest break-up, and found that she, too, was living in DC, he almost felt like he had conjured her up with his thoughts. She was working an entry-level job at some obscure government agency then, the details of which took so long to describe, and so bored him, that he never quite got a handle on what exactly she did, and on the side playing her songs in coffee houses and tiny bars, sincere singer-songwriter songs about love and longing, and growing up and not belonging. He, by that time, had begun the job he still held now as the film critic for the local alternative weekly paper, which was now being slowly strangled to death by its inability to adapt to the Internet.

         “You should come out to LA sometime. I think you’d find it inspiring,” she said.

         He doubted it but he knew her feelings about Los Angeles because of an essay she’d written in an art magazine a few years after she moved there. It was a kiss-off to her East Coast life, to the snobbery and close-mindedness that had held her back. As a critic, he knew this kind of thing was necessary sometimes, and the fact that it had been done before didn’t make it any less necessary. He himself had entertained thoughts of writing a blistering screed against Washington’s boring, stuffy cultural climate, which, he felt, stifled artists and other nonconformist types and forced them to move away, leaving a void where there should be a thriving creative community. He even had a couple of titles in mind: “Washington Prefers its Artists Dead,” or “Must Sincerity Come Clothed in Khakis and a Blue Oxford Shirt?” But he never ended up writing it. To some, things come easily but others have to work hard to make things come easily to them, and the hard work is doing the thing that you don’t want to do, or the thing that is necessary to you even though it’s a cliché, or even though someone else has already done it and done it better. Years of being a critic, evaluating other people’s work and seeing their mistakes and dead ends, had thrown up a wall inside him that stopped him from making those necessary mistakes himself, thwarting him from becoming the great novelist and/or filmmaker he still entertained thoughts of becoming. It occurred to him now that he spent more time thinking about the answers he would give during interviews when he finally made it than working on the things that he thought would make him famous. Meena didn’t have those cares and in his mind had been rewarded for not caring.

* * *

         Her band played that night at the Black Cat, which was about half full with a typically listless DC crowd. Joe sometimes thought that people in DC, no matter where they were, would rather be at home watching C-Span. He also imagined that most men in DC cried after sex, and that late at night the city was full of puzzled, unsatisfied women cradling the heads of weeping, balding men in darkened bedrooms.

         Meena and her band, Shifting Sands, took the stage late. They walked on with a casual, unspoken, unsmiling camaraderie. This is what a band looks like when they are working. They command you with nonchalance. It’s easy to make a big noise. The challenge is channeling it. Meena’s band made swirling, thick waves of noise, textured and dense. It enveloped the crowd and moved them forward, towards the stage. The members of the band never looked at each other, each doing their job, confident in their ears to take them to the next place they needed to be. And Meena exuded charisma even by barely moving, soaking up the crowd’s admiration, maybe desire, only occasionally lifting her head or opening her eyes to look at them, but still somehow feeding off of them. Their final number began with another thick wall of noise, which eventually resolved itself into a droning, almost menacing version of Bow Wow Wow’s “Do You Wanna Hold Me?” The sugary, poppy original had been popular when he was in high school, but Shifting Sands’ version, as it gained momentum and the song took form within the swirl of sound, changed its meaning, the title’s question no longer about holding someone intimately, but, maybe, about holding them back.

         On the way home that night he smoked the first cigarette he’d had in a year.

* * *

         The last time he’s seen her, before she moved to Los Angeles, they had gone out drinking with some friends, but spent most of the night talking to each other, intensely and in corners of booths in various DC bars. At first it was about her music career, which she’d been working at with little success, and about a film she was trying to make. At that time he still regarded himself as a kind of mentor to her. She’d been getting some interest in a script she’d written, from people he was convinced (without even seeing them) were sleazy and only interested in her because of her looks and innocent, outgoing charm, and he told her so.

         As the night went on the conversation turned into an argument, with her finally accusing him of trying to hold her back because of his own bitterness as a failed artist, but then immediately apologizing when she realized she’d hit him where it hurt, and sometime later admitting, during a tearful smoke break outside the latest drinking hole, that what was really bothering her was a rough breakup she was still recovering from, which led to a long monologue about how she always hurt those who loved her, that she was basically unlovable, there was something dark inside her that caused her to push people away.

         Later he walked her home and she held his arm and leaned on him in either drunken imbalance or affection, and when they got to the door of her apartment building their goodnight hug turned into a kiss until she pushed him away and literally ran inside.

* * *

         For the next several days, maybe even weeks, he left message after message on her cell phone, saying things like “we should really talk about what happened,” but she didn’t respond to any of them. He seemed to split into two people: one quite clearly an imbalanced stalker who should have realized that when someone fails to reply to a dozen or two messages they probably don’t want to talk to you, and the other, who was terrified that he had blown his one chance with the one woman he’d always loved, who was convinced that if he’d only followed her inside that night, or could explain himself now, she would finally come to him.

         He didn’t hear anything from her until several months later, when she left a message on his home phone, at a time when she must have known he wouldn’t be there, telling him she was moving to LA.

* * *

         Time moved on. He started seeing someone and quit smoking. Then she broke up with him and he started smoking again. He followed Meena’s career from a distance. She sent him her first, self-released CD, of confessional songs he’d heard before, backed up by a mediocre band. She sent him a couple of short films too, homemade on digital video and edited on her laptop, that were also confessional and leaned, a little too hard he felt, on the fairly typical story of her childhood as the daughter of first generation immigrants, a story still apparently appealing in its many iterations to film festival programmers, who gave them a decent run and helped her build something of a name for herself.

         But after a couple of years, and a long silence, Meena emerged, different, as if something had changed in her. Her band, now called Shifting Sands, started getting attention, and the music they made was nothing like what she’d been doing before. Instead of confessional, singer-songwriter songs she now made layered, swirling, melting music with massed guitars, drones, abstract forms that sometimes resolved themselves into almost-pop songs, with cryptic lyrics more suggestive than literal, lyrics that you could almost make to mean whatever you wanted them to mean. They went on a couple of tours but always seemed to skip DC. Their tracks were remixed by hip hop producers. They were taken seriously enough to receive a commission from a modern dance company in New York.

         She also suddenly had a thriving career as a video artist, making installations that alluded to, without being too polemical about, global issues, works that drew more deeply than before on her past, on her family’s roots in the villages of Pakistan, and caught the attention not only of curators and art critics, but economic and social thinkers, who sometimes invited her to speak at conferences on globalization, poverty, the future. It all seemed to happen so suddenly, and despite some early spasms of envy, he began to think of her less as a friend, or former friend, or might-have-been lover, and more as an artist, someone he didn’t really know at all.

* * *

         He did see her one more time in the years before she became a star. Her first feature, filmed with nonprofessional actors during an extended vacation with her family back in Pakistan, was selected for a small Asian-American film festival in DC. Meena had decided to come back for the screening, and the organizers, knowing about their connection, invited Joe to moderate the post-film discussion. He considered turning the invitation down, but in his usual broke state, he was in need of even the very modest honorarium they were offering.

         Things went badly almost from the beginning, at least from his perspective. He didn’t like the film much. It was called something like The Tree of Tales, and was based on a folktale Meena’s grandmother used to tell her when she was little. Joe thought it was all too cute and simple, and aimed too directly at Washington’s bottomless well of earnest, guilty white people. He was even more offended when Meena showed up at the screening wearing a sari, something he’d never seen her wear before, and with a bindi dot on her forehead.

         Joe’s questioning during the post-film discussion soon veered toward the passive-aggressive. Even though the crowd was small, he found himself disgusted with the enthusiastic, nearly rapturous reception the film received, and at how audience members would preface their questions with comments about how beautiful she looked. He even thought he detected a South Asian accent he had never heard from her creeping into her voice. But she was able to deflect even his most hostile questions. When he pointed out that her roots were less in the villages of Pakistan than in the malls of Southeastern Pennsylvania, she graciously laughed it off and made it seem like he was making a clever, friendly joke. When he made a barbed remark about how he’d never seen her dressed up like she was, she twisted it into a compliment. Throughout, she turned what he’d hoped would be a challenging interview that would force her to admit her artistic deficiencies into what appeared to the audience to be a friendly chat between old friends. By the end, he couldn’t be sure if she was aware that he was insulting her, or if she was even better at the game than he was.

* * *

         It was five years after she left DC that they had their reunion at Starbucks. Soon after that he was sent on a press junket to Los Angeles. Meena picked him up at the airport in a vintage convertible, which she had restored herself. The air smelled like tires and the beach and had a soft, smoggy glow, different from the crisp sunlight of the east.

         “You know, I never got to thank you,” she said as they drove.

         “For what?”

         She laughed raucously. “You remember! The q&a. Back in DC, when I showed The Story Tree. When you attacked me. It ended up being very helpful.”

         Not knowing what to say, or even what she meant, he said nothing, and the conversation drifted on to something else.

         Instead of dropping him off at his hotel, she took him straight to a party a friend of hers was having in Silver Lake. It was around 5:00 when they got there, but the party was already in full swing. The house was a small, green bungalow that was surprisingly dark and spacious inside. A naked man walked past them in the living room, on his way out the back door. Everyone seemed to be smoking weed. Someone put a beer in his hand. He almost lost track of Meena, she was greeting so many people, kissing them on both cheeks and exchanging small talk, sometimes remembering to introduce him. He’d never been in such bohemian surroundings. That was even the word that came to mind, the word outsiders use to describe eccentrics and artists, the kind of person he always thought he was. But these people were professionals, he couldn’t imagine any of them holding down a day job, and he immediately felt out of his depth.

         Meena beckoned him through the kitchen and out the back door to a large backyard studded with lawn furniture and a few trees. A long-haired guy who Joe recognized as the bassist from Shifting Sands fell in with them and he and Meena, deep in conversation suddenly, headed toward the hot tub in the far corner of the yard. Still talking, they took off their clothes. When she was naked she looked back at Joe and asked if he wanted to join them. It was a casual and friendly invitation, but he thought he detected a challenge in it as well. He just waved and shook his head, involuntarily looking away in a kind of embarrassment, realizing that his unwillingness to take his clothes off with strangers was probably just one inhibition setting him off from the rest of the people there.

         After wandering around the yard for awhile he found an empty lawn chair and sat by himself, suddenly tired and wanting only to go to his hotel, not sure if it was the jetlag or the discomfort he was feeling. Soon he was surrounded by some other partygoers, who started passing around joints before they even introduced themselves.

         He told them how he knew Meena, by way of explaining what he was doing there, and one of them, a guy with a kind of sneery mouth who looked really fucked up and a little too old to be sporting the floppy, long-banged haircut he was sporting, said, “she killed a man, you know.”

         One of his friends gave him an admonitory shove and they all laughed uncomfortably.

         “Shut up, man,” another one said.

         “She did though. Fucking killed a guy. Made a deal with the devil and killed a guy. It’s a fucked up story.” Everyone seemed to dismiss the whole thing as a joke. By now night had fallen and he was very high, but not in a pleasant way. He lost track of the conversation and sunk instead into himself, feeling himself staring at the abyss of his future and the rubble of his past, a past which he now saw as a series of wrong turns and missed opportunities, a future which he was convinced contained only aging, illness, the deaths of relatives and friends, and, finally, loneliness, death finding him in some hospital bed, the end of his family line, with no one left to even come look in on him, the nurses and hospital staff shaking their heads at his sad state when they thought he wasn’t looking.

         In this state he wandered away from the group, finally lying down on the lawn, looking up at the place where the stars should be, but seeing only the vague, dirty orange glow of streetlights reflecting off the smog. He almost didn’t notice when Meena lay down beside him, now wearing a short red robe decorated with some kind of Japanese-looking design.

         “This is what I love about Los Angeles,” she said, staring up at the dirty orange glow. “At night, it allows you to pause and think about your life. It asks you to. The city itself wants you to, if you listen to it.”

         After a long silence he looked over at her. She was still staring at the dully glowing void. He thought it might be the right time to ask her the questions he’d always wanted to ask.

* * *

         On the plane ride home the flight attendant slipped him a free bottle of white wine, maybe noticing how he was staring out the window with an expression near to tears. He opened his journal, which had lain dormant for the last six months, and fished a pen out of his carry-on bag.

         The saddest phrase in the English language, he wrote, is “maybe some other time.”

Tom Vick is the author of Asian Cinema: A Field Guide, published by HarperCollins. He has written articles on cinema for several magazines and Web sites, including The All Movie Guide and Asian Geographic.

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