Flash Fiction by Eileen Tabios
Aesthetics in the Dictator’s Aftermath
Once upon a time, I thought Poetry is a fairy tale. From that delusion, I came to stand in front of a building. Inside, a stranger waited for me. What I mostly knew about him is that he was as curious as I am.
I raised my finger to push at the dirty-white button by his apartment number: 3J. Before my flesh touched the button’s chill, I heard faint music. I turned my face towards the sound and saw children playing at a park across the street. They gleefully chased each other in circles while a nanny’s nearby boombox sent forth innocent tunes fitting for innocent creatures.
But is anyone really innocent? I thought as I returned my attention to the grey building.
Once upon a time, a young poet and an experienced artist looked at each other across an abyss.
The abyss, too, can be a page. The empty page longs perpetually for its lover: the writer who would, upon it, write.
A young poet wanted to learn. The experienced artist began with no preconceptions, just curiosity. In the beginning, curiosity sufficed.
Curiosity is a form of desire.
Once upon a time, I willingly went into a stranger’s arms. Such testifies to the reach of a dictator’s cruel reign—how a dictatorship can continue long past its demise through the tight clench of Aftermath.
Human history reveals patterns. Unfortunately, one repetition is this tragedy: the fall of a tyrant does not guarantee the rise of a better society.
When I stood in front of the stranger’s building, the sunlight that had began that day felt like a dream. It was sunny, then suddenly it was not. Years later I understand the phenomena to be a metaphor: one must be in darkness to redefine light.
No new world is possible without a new vocabulary.
But, years later, I understand that those who want to create a new world never arrive in that world. A new world is not for staying in but holds borders one must always expand. It’s exhausting. Yet that exhaustion is the least of its tolls.
Once upon a time, I looked at my reflection on the steel plate of an intercom to a building I was visiting for the first time. My hair was fluttering in the slight breeze. Once, a lock stumbled over my right eye, blocking its view. Within that instant, my left eye grasped something I did not discern with both eyes: an eyelash dangling from another lash, a gust away from falling. When a narrowed focus reveals a previously-unknown fragility, one’s nature is revealed by whether one aborts vision or not.
I did not close my eyes. I brushed aside errant hair for both eyes to watch as the lash lost its grip and began to fall.
As well, I watched myself watching the sunder, the flailing, the fall.
Once upon a time, I left the dimness of a subway system to break out into daylight. In the five-block walk required to reach the building for an appointment with a stranger, the sunlight evaporated. By the time I was standing in front of an intercom panel, searching for the apartment number “3J,” it might as well have been a wintry day in London.
Once, he took me to London. But we traveled on separate planes so that, he explained, we both could more fully relish the anticipation of our “London adventure.”
Through him, I learned to anticipate tears.
Once upon a time, I heard the intercom buzzing that signaled the unlatching of the front door into a grey building. Inside, a stranger waited for me. I pushed open the door and walked into a hallway awash in light. I moved forward: I walked through light.
I had been so focused on the stranger I would have chosen the metaphor of walking through a dim tunnel where he waited as the light of destination. Instead, I seemingly walked through light and to reach him was to reach the onset of darkness.
Darkness. And what a contrast he was against the suns inhabiting his paintings. There is so much light in his paintings. Large paintings. To stand in front of one could be to stand on a sun-drenched white granite balcony overlooking the sapphire Aegean Sea. A few days after our first meeting, I confessed this previously-private metaphor. The next night, we were sipping d’Yquem in Rhodes. The following morning, we would wake to my metaphor-turned-reality.
So quickly did the Grecian sun turn hot, turn blinding-bright. He gave me Greece—an experience whose pull lingers after decades, past even the changing of centuries. It lingers so that, once, I even lived with huge dogs named Achilles, Athena, Ajax…
He gave me a multi-storied, complex mythology to play with. By the time I matured under his tutelage, I had acquired the skills to create a new mythology—a tale that began with him as Adam, the first human in Christian belief. And I? To his ecstasy, I brought him down.
Once upon a time, I opened the door into a grey building where a stranger waited for me. He later shared that as he’d looked at his bathroom mirror that morning, he asked his reflection whether my visit was a good idea. The problem, he said with a laugh, is that he never turned away from anything that made him uncertain.
“Occupational hazard,” he explained.
His paintings are dense abstractions, often vivid with color except when they aren’t. Much of their surfaces are covered by white, grays and pale blues. But the paintings pulsate despite the cool palette of the surfaces that covered layers of more vivid colors. The hidden colors seemingly struggle to break through the surface to contaminate its cool tones that presume control is possible. My favorite paintings actually display slight cracks through which can be discerned colors so intense they seem radioactive.
Occupational hazard—it seems he always must leave himself to the possibility of being overcome by elements not under his control. But his goal, nonetheless, is to retain control.
Control, until that, too, became predictable. I met him as he began looking for a different art practice, which is to say, a different way of life.
He didn’t know that day as I stood in front of his building what my role in his search would become, or if I had any role. He was just doing his job, he said.
He said, “I was open …”
“Once upon a time, I approached a building in a neighborhood I had never before visited.”
I look at that sentence and realize much of my focus has been on the “building” when, perhaps, it also should be on “neighborhood.” For, does not neighborhood denote context and environment? How can anybody understand anything in a vacuum?
We tried to be—to engage with each other—in a vacuum, though we euphemized the goal as creating a new world. I recognize the silliness now. Vacuums don’t exist except as the dirt-inhaling machines. But its interior is not the suspension we once thought was possible. Somebody is manipulating the machine.
Someone is pushing at the “On” button. Someone is pushing at the “Off.”
The notion of being carried away by, say, passion is an attempt to avoid responsibility for lust.
Once upon a time, I approached a building in which a stranger waited for me. It was an appointment dictated by art, curiosity, and many other euphemisms for lust. Like, revolution.
Eileen R. Tabios has released over 50 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku poetic form as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry. Translated into nine languages, she also has edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays. Her writing and editing works have received recognition through awards, grants and residencies. More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com