It was getting late. Uber’s price had risen to $130, and the wait time was an hour. So I walked toward the Caltrain station to take the 9:45 p.m. train back to campus.
The walk back concerned me. It was dark and barren, and I had only passed by it once with a friend at night, of which we ran through the second half, because someone was following us. Or, at least, that’s what we believed.
I could have taken a bus directly to the station from a stop near downtown. It felt like too much work. So I put away my AirPods and headed toward the station.
The buildings beside me became shorter until the squeaks of car tires and honking faintly reached me through the skyscrapers. Rusty tents mushroomed from the dark horizon under which a pack of empty Marlboros crumbled next to some broken glass shards. Concrete buckets rose against the wall. Next to the buckets, a sign screamed: “Missing: Black Cat named ‘Luck,’” amid dark stains infecting the air with the smell of urine.
The smokers popped up here and there. They sat under the trees in serene solitude, at the stairs, or by the cars. They equipped themselves with the privilege of stillness — as I passed, I became guilty of intruding on their privacy. As I crossed an empty street, a voice exploded beside me: “Ay yo! Watch out, you idiot!”
The back of my neck tingled. With hands tensed into fists in my pockets, I traced the sound back to a corner under a lamp pole. Ten steps away, the pole looked like a giant Q-tip stabbed into the pavement, with its end dimly lit like a thrown-away cigarette butt, pointing at the murky sky. The lamp light wrapped everything in a sad, orange zip-lock bag. At the end of the Q-tip sat a man. A chalky VR headset grabbed onto his head.
I stopped pacing and observed the man at a curious distance.
He turned his head to me and yelled: “Whatchu lookin’ at?”
I looked behind me. I was the only one there.
I stepped down from the pavement and walked toward the middle of the street while my eyes locked on the VR man. The man did not turn this time. Instead, toward where I had been, the man’s hands started illustrating in the air some violent symbols, like an ancient curse.
“AHHHHHH!” The man shouted as if in pain. His beard spiked up like that of a scared cat.
“What the fuck,” I murmured and quickly paced back toward the pavement.
“Hsssssh,” something responded.
A black cat emerged from its shadow. One of its eyes was blind, and the other fixed on me. A scar crossed its right face. Several spots of fur on its body were missing. I have seen that pattern before. Somebody burnt it with cigarettes. Half of its tail was missing, exposing the scar tissue.
“Hsssssssh,” it hissed again.
Its fur stood up on its back like the man’s beard. Even then, its body looked malnourished and frail. I matched the white dot the cat had with the missing poster earlier. I wondered what its life would be, had it not gone missing.
Behind it, pink-neon light rolled out of the window. Inside it, a sign read GOOD TIME. Next to the text, the pink-neon tube outlined a martini glass half full, with a cherry submerged in the drink. The room inside was plain: white walls reflecting the grainy, almost dusty light, an empty cubic space, a hallway leading into the dark. I wondered if it was a drug-dealing place — what kind of bar didn’t have any seats? I walked closer to the window. The surface was stained with dark brown spots, making it hard to peek further into the space. I gave up and moved on.
I reached a highway bridge I had to cross to reach the other side. The bridge formed a tunnel with metal wires barbed around the middle part, leaving only two sides for pedestrians to traverse. It was lit by dim, green-colored LED lights. Maybe it was the wall that was green. I couldn’t tell. It reminded me of an abandoned apartment in a Japanese horror movie where a ghost with black, long hair would crawl out of a television and kill an innocent person like me.
I stood and waited for the light to turn green. I was in America, after all. The most I could encounter would be some vampires or a werewolf. There was no place for Asian ghosts here.
I crossed the street. Somebody followed.
I turned around. A man in a black suit strolled behind me, holding a business bag.
Bang bang! Something smacked against the ground from the barbed middle part.
I figured that it was a construction site. The distinct smell of weed crept into my nose. The man behind me seemed startled by the commotion as he too nervously looked around. He saw me looking at him. Our eyes touched for a brief instant. Until then, I knew that he was me, equally disturbed by my presence. I enjoyed that thought. It made me feel empowered.
I quickened my pace. Soon, the man dissolved in the dark, either due to our different destinations or out of empathy. Somehow, I was halfway out of the tunnel: in front of me was a black hole, and behind me was another one. I was in the middle.
The tunnel ceiling began to collapse. The two ends tightened like a sun-dried worm. The concrete pavement softened like a chunk of beeswax. I lifted my feet; the ground was sticky. Besides me, some deformed orange cones stuck out like fangs. The tunnel-python opened its mouth. Steam erupted out of the cones like venom, making the “Hsssssssh” sounds. I wondered what the cat was doing.
Two rows of fluorescent lights twirled like giant koi fish. Contoured by the green walls, the worm-tunnel turned into a water tank. I was suddenly in the lost city of Atlantis. The graffiti morphed into indiscernible murals of forgotten gods. There was a fish-looking horse and a tree that turned out to be an ice cream truck. An eye looked like the eye of Horus I saw in the Egyptian section of a museum. Dangerous. It has long, orange eyelashes, a green pupil, a bright yellow sclera and around it some purple freckles.
I blinked at it, and it blinked at me.
It then turned into an almond. I thought of the advertisement I saw on Instagram from a company called Almond Cow, which is a nut-milk maker. I thought it was a scam, but I still clicked on it. It turned out to be a scam. I remember I was annoyed.
On the opposite side of the wall, the construction site howled like a monster. I saw inside it several workers pounding the ground with drills. The ground trembled in pain. I stopped and looked up; the moon was full. Any of those workers would suddenly burst out with fur and deform into a werewolf.
Bang! Bang! Bang! The metallic bangs of the drills and CAT machines boomeranged in the muffled, sticky air. It hurt my ears, but I enjoyed it. It made me feel something.
Suddenly I was out of the tunnel.
Above me, cars roared, speeding to and from the city. The highway, like a breathing thread of light, extended afar. The city illuminated the night — it was a monster of yellow dots crouched on the horizon. The city was living, fueled by the vitalities of the beings living in it. In each of the little yellow dots sat a person, perhaps two, perhaps more — all as lost as one another, all as bizarre.
The dark streets, in contrast, became unfamiliarly cozy. They encompassed me, bringing a kind of peculiar anonymity that transformed into strange security. Beneath the seemingly dangerous shades and silence, there was non-judgemental hospitality. My feet kept walking.
Whole Foods squeezed itself out of the dark, and only then did I realize that I was hungry. In the sushi aisle, boxes of food lay there, waiting to be thrown away at the end of the day. I picked up a salmon combo. Through the lid, I could see the wet, orange flesh of the dead fish laying on top of a clump of soggy rice. I wondered whether the rice was dead, too. The piece of salmon next to the wasabi paste was tinted green, like Hulk from Marvel. And then I saw my face cast by the reflection of plastic.
It made me mildly uncomfortable. I put the box back.
As I walked past the cashier, I could feel that they were looking at me. So I stared back and their eyes dodged mine. The automatic glass door opened as I passed. Outside of Whole Foods, two men stood under a lamp pole, smoking and laughing. Their laughter stopped and then resumed as I passed.
A fit of strange anger rose inside of me. I quickened my pace.
It was getting late. Ten minutes before departure.
I still couldn’t see the station. Bad sign.
I looked at the map: 13 minutes walking. I began to run.
Inside the metal box flying across the railroad tracks, I was panting profusely. The mask jabbed in and out of my mouth like an oversized hot balloon. I looked out the window: nothing but my reflection.
Without any particular reason, I felt my nose getting clogged up. Tears rolled down my eyes. I still didn’t feel anything. My vision blurred as if I was wearing a VR headset.
A kid sitting next to me pointed at me to his friend and laughed.
I turned to him, and yelled: “Whachu lookin’ at?”
My hair was shaggy; later I noticed.
And the next morning, I woke up and went on with my day.