Wednesday, November 2, 2011


It was almost eight and we were running late as usual. But the need for coffee beckons, so we dashed into the corner shop buzzing with caffeine, sounds and people.

I turned to scan the room as the line looked infinitely long. That's when I spotted him sitting on the bench just behind the line, studying.

I couldn't tell his age exactly but lines crawled across his forehead and around his downcast eyes. His pristine gray pinstripe suit stood out against the rain forest backdrops and the techno colors around him. A large textbook highlighted in a multitude of colors spread out on the tiny table. Large green plugs filling his ears and index cards filled with scribbles balanced by the edge of the table.  Highlighters, used tea bags, glasses and a pocket translator managed to find and fill any remaining spaces. 

The world around him rocked on.  Two teenagers were necking in a nearby booth, legs stretched out so far that they kicked his table occasionally.  The Batista knocked portafilters incessantly against the sink, punctuating the caffeine filled air with stainless steel rhythms and drums. The murmuring crowd sang base in low hums, not swayed by the occasional giggle or sharp exclamations. 

The old man however, devoured words and knowledge as if a soldier fighting in the battleground of time.  My friend urged me to prod him for answers. So I did.

"Excuse me, may I ask what are you studying?"

It took me a few tries to get his attention.  But when I did, he pulled out his ear plugs and smiled at us. He turned the book to show us the cover, explaining it is about "property law".

"Oh, so you are studying real estate?"

"hm, oh no. Law, I am studying for the California bar exam." He said definitively, with a nod to cinch the deal.

"What?"  I still couldn't quite believe my own ears.

"Yes, I am studying to be a lawyer." He nodded again, smiling ear to ear.

"Why?"  I asked without thinking.

"Because I like to learn new things.  I already have six degrees, but learning new things, " He pointed to his head, "keep my brain working well."  He rotated his hands to show the workings of a brain (or anything for that matter), required constant movement.

We pondered over these words, unable to come up with any reply other than "wow."

He read through our puzzled and hesitant expressions and announced the next question on our minds.  "Do you know how old I am?"

We shook our heads.

"I am seventy two years old."  He spread out the fingers of his hands and smiled again, while we stood with our jaws dropped.

He dug into a small black wallet laid next to his translator, and took out his business card.  It said, XXX, medical PHD, among other credentials. 

I looked at his face again, speechless.  Minutes ago, we were questioning whether we were too old "to learn new tricks", commiserating the rapid passage of time while never finding enough of it in the present.

We walked out together in silence, losing interest in our coffee, deep in thoughts.

"Inspiring, wasn't he?"  one of us said.

We blinked and let the night air carry away the thoughts that weighted on us, driving into a world without limit, at least for the moment.


It rained this morning. So I blamed the sky for foiling my plan to go swimming.

It was the kind that looked like translucent threads, fallen haphazardly at an angle.

This reminded me of going swimming in the summer of Beijing when it often rained as we bobbed up and down in the pond.

The rain would land warmly on our cheeks, blur our visions by draping over our lashes, and mess up our strokes as we reached out trying to capture each sparkling drops.

Lou and I would always be the first to run out the house as it gets too hot to do anything else.  We'd hardly have anything with us, save for swim wears and sandals.  Even those we'd kick off as soon as we caught sight of the pond, with its murky waters and concrete edges. Our shoes would be flying and so would we.  Into the water we'd dive, among the thousand other kids already bobbing in the water.

It's a pot too full of dumplings, my mom would always say.  But it never stopped us.

The Wang brothers and Lou's best friends Dash would always follow us, along with Dash's younger sister Four.  She was like, six by then, but she was called four for some reason and it somehow fit.  She always looked like a child, even later on when she went to junior high, then high school.  She had the face of an angel.

Once in the water, Lou would carry her on the shoulder, and swim like a hippo carrying his prize.  I tried to get Dash to carry me, but he'd be reluctant at times.  I wasn't heavy but Dash was shy.  So we each swam on our own.  Lou would challenge him occasionally into a fight, which would mean Four and I attack each other sitting on our respective "rides", while they peddle frantically in the water.  Lou thought this was funny, and he would laugh out loud whenever he couldn't take it any more, tossing Four into the water as he did so.  As Dash dove for Four, I would land in the water, fist punching air or pockets of rain as I went down.

The rain usually drove the other kids away, so we could have the pond all to ourselves.  We would finally be able to swim for real, like holding our breathes for more than four or five strokes.  I couldn't swim that much anyway, but I loved watching Dash and Lou race each other, their arms tan and hair shiny black against the dimple gray surface of the water. Whenever the Wang brothers were around, Dash and Lou would team up to either race them or fight them into the water.  They'd usually win, leaving the brothers ready to "raise the white flag", as they'd say.


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