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The Great Ultimate


Alle C. Hall

Art by David Humphrey


The angle of the sun said early afternoon but I’d been on this island less than 24 hours and half of them drunk so I couldn’t be sure what the sun was saying. My hands automatically sought the comforting bulk of the fanny pack always at my waist. Where’d it—there, on the wobbly nightstand. Money, passport, ticket; just like when I bought the whiskey last night. I needed a drink.

The room. It was much nicer than the rooms I had been staying in—polished wood furniture when those were ratty grey, seemingly made of cardboard. Those had a sense of smallness. This room might not have been much bigger, but the sarong draped around the window and a flower, there, gave it grace. A candle, here, waiting for night.

A rustle from the porch. A lady came through the door, the Asian one of the two we met on the boat to the island, yesterday. Cho, that was her name. Korean-sounding when her last name was Japanese. Yamashita. First traveler I’d met with a last name.

Cho ducked to miss the low frame, saying, “You’re up,” saying it with the same steady expression she’d worn when she found me on the beach I guess after dawn this morning, when she’d said she believed me. She believed me. After a moment, Cho said, “Sorry, I can’t seem to remember your name.”

“Carlie.” Cho had asked my name when she found me, too. Why did I pour out all that stuff to her—doing mushrooms with Nadav on the beach, doing Nadav, doing all the guys from the last six months. Did I tell her that I stole money, that I ran away? I’m sure I told her about Dad. She believed me.

Cho did not sit. I dug into the bed, almost into the wall the bed pressed against. “God, everything hurts. Where’s that other lady? The skinny one.”

“Ava.” The slight displeasure in Cho’s tone made me understand that I’d intended to piss her off. At the same time, I intuited that I was wearing her T-shirt.

Cho said, “Ava went to tai chi practice. I wanted to speak with you alone.”

I squeezed against the wall. Cho perched on the opposite edge of the bed. “Is there anyone we can contact for you?”

Scratchy blanket. The entire world, cat’s tongue wool against my knees.

“A relative who’s not involved, like an aunt? Or a teacher?”

I didn’t want anyone anymore. That’s why the six months of travel.

“How ’bout a friend?” 

There were no friends.

Cho smoothed her loose, onyx-colored hair into a short-lived ponytail. “That guy, the Israeli—”


“He came looking for you this morn—”

“We were together when I freaked out. I mean, first it was great.” I was actually blushing. “Like, I’ve never . . . Never. It makes you see why guys . . . ” There was no end to that thought. “Then I was above . . . ” The room spun just like it had last night when I came. I came. For the first time, I came, too. Then we were pulling our clothes up, and down a tunnel, a trainload of shame. Smash. I would never let anyone make me come again. I ran. Nadav, he tried to calm me, told me it was the mushrooms, he was so much bigger than me one of his arms almost as big as my leg but I was electric with the need to stop men. Down the beach, a dip in the sand was a good reason to throw myself onto my stomach, for how long? Eventually, crouched on the sand next to me, black hair, determined cheekbones, “Hey, are you okay?” “What’s your name, again?” arms draped over her bent knees when she sat, her back curved like a spoon. “I believe you.”

Across the bed, Cho offered me her handkerchief. She carried a handkerchief. “Carlie, I really think you should get some help.”

“Why can’t you help me?”

Cho moved her gaze to the wall as if it were a window. “That’s really more Ava’s purview than it is mine.”

“I don’t want her. She’s weird.”

“Yeah, well, I left social work years ago.”

I said, “So you’re just gonna let me—”

“I’m on vacation."


Out of frustration, Cho found “Just come to tai chi practice.”

Cho’s “Okay?” didn’t wait for my “Okay.” She was out the door. I skulked after her, furious enough that I caught up so I could say, “Can I get a drink first?” 

Cho slid her eyes towards me without moving the rest of her head. Between us was air that felt like a cigarette lighter about to spark, when who should appear at the top of the dirt path Cho and I were climbing but a long-legged form that could only be Ava?

“Hey, ya,” she sang out. “You lot didn’t put in an appearance. Can’t have you missing your first lesson, Carlie. Tai chi will change your life.”

Ava swooped in to link arms, her Scottish r's sticking to me like wet seaweed. I shook her off. In the fifteen-minute walk over the hill and along a cliff, I don’t know why Ava took it upon herself to reveal the entire history of tai chi. “ … started in the wee town of Shao Lin, which is in China.”

I knew that, China. I glared at Cho.

“ … temple monks were a fat, lazy lot … developed a series of exercises based on yoga … ”

Then some babble babble about nine years in a cave. There was something—like all those words were too many to come out of one mouth. I searched through my pockets for my cigarettes. “ … five basic styles … most widely known in the West are Chen and Yang. We do Yang style.”

“Got a smoke?” I asked Cho, who shocked me by handing one over. The sensible girl smoked Camels. Ava was almost dancing along the footpath. “Within Yang you find Chen strength, just as there is lyric beauty in Chen. That is what I find so grounding. The natural polarities pull at ya, leaving space for your true self.”

Sounded like Star Wars to me. We turned off the path and continued down a set of steps cut into the hillside to a large clearing, packed dirt fringed by palm trees. Three rickety bungalows sat at its southern edge. A few feet from a beach licked by kitten waves, about twenty white people in small groups practiced various slow, Chinese-looking moves. The guys had nice muscles and more earrings than the girls, who were either skin-and-smoke or just plump enough to look best in baggy batik shorts. Before I could back up the steep staircase, Cho hugged and then introduced me to a woman whose hair was a cape of brown curls. Lise, the American who ran the school, shook my hand with both of her elegant ones. She was old, forty or something. She lived in the chicken shack buildings, offering morning and afternoon practices. Lise led me between the palm trees at the back of the clearing. Her New Jersey accent was harsh but welcome; I couldn’t bear one more of Ava's woo-woo commentaries. Lise demonstrated how to tuck your pelvis and depress your chest, forming a soft half-circle with the upper body. Next, you pretended to hold a beach ball.

Lise assessed me frankly. “You'll get better.”

Time to move the tai chi ball. “Palms face each other, a foot apart. Right hand above, left below. Rotate the ball so that left hand is above, right hand below. Palms face each other,” she reminded me. “Rotate again. Breathe.”

I rotated, I reversed. When I remembered to breathe, a pleasant rhythm took over. When I forgot, Lise got me back on track. About the time I registered the all-over headache as gone, Lise interrupted with two claps. 

“The form, please.”

The hippies lined up facing the ocean. I crept to a palm tree. Everyone stood quietly, chests depressed, backs rounded, knees slightly bent, arms held with gentle shape at their sides. Lise stood between the group and the sea. She faced the class, her right hand forming a fist about sternum level. She moved her left hand to rest with the palm softly over her fist. The class gestured identically.

May the Force be with you, I thought.

Lise turned so that she too faced the sea. A moment of sterling stillness. They began moving with the unity of a school of fish. Lunged to the ground, turned, punched; spun on one leg, kicked with the other; slowly, all very slowly, dancing more than fighting. After what must have been twenty minutes, they stood as they did to start, facing the water, come full circle. I was holding my breath.

“What d’ya think?”

Ava came out of nowhere. She was so sweet, those skies of eyes with all that hope in them. I said, “Kinda cool.”

“It’s so much more than cool, Carlie.” Her arm came through mine. “Doing tai chi gives you the strength to do anything. You know that, don’t you? That you can tell me anything?”

It happened to her, too.

I ran, not fully aware that I was running until I heard “Carlie,” from behind. I charged the steep steps but my smoker’s lungs caught up with me about half-way up. Two blond guys from the class—they were pretty cute—were passing a water bottle. One winked.

“K’I have a sip?” I barged in with practiced, graceless panache, interrupting the easy patter of either Swedish or Norwegian. Just asking in that flirty way soothed me. One of them would pass the water and the other would have the smokes. Everything would be back to normal.

The guys exchanged a nod, both of their mouths down at the corners in a way I’d seen Northern Europeans do a lot. One handed me the bottle. I peered into his eyes with the right amount of smile. The other said, “Would you like a cigarette?”

Ava dashed up. “Carlie, I need to speak with you. Privately.”

The guys took to the steps. With the cigarette that was supposed to be mine. I said, “No, wait—” but they were gone, leaving me with this creepy woman.

“Butt out!”

Cho arrived. I was still shouting at Ava. “What is your problem? And you!” I swung a damning finger at Cho. “You told her everything!”

Cho all but whispered, “I shouldn’t have. That was really unprofessional—”

“Well, you’re not much of a professional, are you? I was only twelve!”

Ava reached. I pushed her away. “No!” To Cho: “Answer me!”

“That’s why I left social work, Carlie. There are no answers.”

“There are answers,” Ava said, crossing her arms. “Carlie knew about me the way I knew about her. That’s God, Carlie. That’s God. I was wee, as well. Fourteen. But mind you, Carlie. Do tai chi. You build joy.”

“I’d settle for a stiff drink.” 

“I know ya would. You don’t have to.”

The rumble in my ears was a silent rockslide. Into the quiet, Ava said, “Do you know, Carlie? ‘Tai chi’ means ‘The Great Ultimate.’”

I sniffed. “More like the great ultimatum.”

With a rather grumpy look for Ava, Cho assured me that tai chi demanded no ultimatums. When I refused to loosen my spine, she said, “Carlie, would you like to have dinner with us?”

I gave a dragon’s snort. Cho climbed one stair. With a surprisingly impish grin, she climbed another. I sniffed my disapproval before I went with them.

During dinner, they ordered Cokes, not beer, Ava a Diet, Cho a regular. My Diet went in a flash, leaving me with nothing to do but eat my damn food. Cho devoured hers. Ava sorted the vegetables and squid from their rich sauce and ignored her rice altogether. I couldn't resist the comforting soft mounds, the coconut curry like sweet velvet. Impossibly full, I leaned back. Every other table in the place held some chirpy group swilling beer. A blond guy, maybe the guy from the tai chi steps who offered me his water, I let him catch my eye. God, I knew how that would go. Great for the first few. You’re drinking and screwing—okay, now that I knew what coming was like, maybe not coming, but he was there against the empty night—until the squabbles started or his stories got boring, where he went and what he did, how much it cost, and then he’d wanted me to get high with him. Nadav, and Simon before him—where was Nadav, anyway? Why hadn’t he tried to find me? And before Simon, that guy with the red hat.

I heard Ava say “Why ya cryin’, lass?”

I smeared up a few drops from my cheek and gazed at them. “I’ll never make anything work out. K’I bum a smoke?”

 “How old are you, Carlie?” Cho said.

I reached for my empty glass. “Twenty-two.”

“How old are you, Carlie?”

“Just turned eighteen.”

“Eighteen-year-olds buy their own cigarettes. Anyway, Ava’s allergic.”

I looked to Ava. “You two are the weirdest couple.”

“Speaking of which,” Ava’s voice sailed over Cho’s scowl. “Our room has two doubles, if you’d like one tonight.”


They crashed as soon as their heads hit the pillows. I didn’t. The longer I didn’t, the clearer it became that I was about to sneak out of this double bed and find me a drink. I could feel the whiskey, I’d buy Mekong, could feel it glide across my tongue and burn a trail to my stomach. What I couldn’t conjure was what I really wanted, the shady, golden hum, the blurring of painful edges.

There were no ultimatums. I could drink if I wanted to. Just slide out of bed and along the cliff, down to Haad Rin.


A reddish gleam. Ava’s hair. Plenty of passed-out guys in my former bedding situations. Not a one expressed in sleep the restful joy I sensed in the bed next to mine. I wanted what they slept with more than I wanted Mekong. For tonight, anyway, I was willing to live with the twitching legs, the pressure behind my eyes. I breathed it quiet. If I didn’t move, it couldn’t find me.

Voices engulfed me like the hum of bees. His voice. You'd better not tell. Heres voice lightened, became feminine. You are lying. I saw a hickey on your neck. Why do you make him do this? I'll kill you! And his voice again, I'll kill you if you tell.

I jolted from sleep. The cliff, go to the cliff. On the porch, soft dawn. Cho on the wooden deck, back curved like a spoon. Ava in the hammock, a hand in Cho's hair. I lunged, collided with Ava in a way that almost hurt. As thin as she was, she felt solid and real. I maybe pushed her away, maybe told them. That turned stupid. Ava wanted to “process” my “feelings.” I didn’t want feelings. I wanted a goddamn cigarette. Ava looked like I had knifed her in the eye. Cho slipped between us, saying that the best thing for me was to go to tai chi. When did she get to decide what the best thing was?

“And I am not going near those cliffs.”

That was definitely said out loud. In the end, a Camel from Cho—“We do what we can”—and she held my hand as we braved those jeering rock faces and took the steps to the tai chi beach.

A hand on one hip, Lise evaluated my ability to rotate the tai chi ball. “Right on. Now, Wave Hands Like Clouds.”

“Everyone else gets to do the form.”

Lise tied her mass of brown curls into a knot. “Everyone else has already covered the basics.”

“Fuck it, just—show me this thing. What's it called?”

Wave Hands Like Clouds started in the same position I’d practiced ALL DAY yesterday. Hold the tai chi ball. Right hand floats to eye level, crosses the face without touching, then floats down as left hand moved to eye level, crosses the face, and floats down. Unending circles, up, across, down. 

“Like clouds sailing across the sky,” Lise said as I practiced. “Hands blown by the wind. Nope, too tense. Flowing.”

I coasted on a warm pulse that started in my palms and circulated calm through my body. When Lise clapped twice and called out, “The form, please,” I took up residence near the palm tree. A spot of army green against the smooth blue of the sea turned out to be Nadav’s tank top. Jesus Christ, he had gorgeous arms.

Nadav turned, his dark curls lolling like happy puppy ears. We met between the palm trees at the back. Right away, I tucked in my chin. “I ditched you.”

In his guitar-like accent, he said, “I am here to find you,” as if I were a normal girl, just traveling. Two night ago, he made me come. I wanted to make him come. That was normal. I wanted to be normal. Nadav pulled a fold of paper from his pocket, unwrapped a handful of dried mushrooms. “Maybe we try more carefully,” he was saying when you-know-skinny-who popped up to save me, and you-know-buzz-kill-who arrived to say, “Stop it, Ava. She needs to work out for herself if her life means anything to her.”

I slapped my hands against my thighs. “What the fuck?”

Cho folded her arms. “I have had it with your moods, Carlie.”

“Have you, you holier-than-thou dyke?”

“Why don’t you leave?”

 “Maybe I don’t want to!”

“Maybe I don’t want you here anymore.”

“Cho, stop,” said Ava.

“I bet you were a shitty social worker.”

Lise was there. “Dudes. People are practicing.”

Nadav took my hand and the two of us were up those stairs. It hit me that Nadav had a pocket full of drugs and expectations. He led me to the rocks that had secluded us during the best, first, and undoubtedly last act of good sex I would ever have. He kissed me. We found the sand. The last time I sat on this beach was the morning Cho took me into her and Ava’s lives.

Nadav’s mouth felt dry. He must have sensed it too, because he pulled out the mushrooms like a question. “Is Carlie ready?” I’d had men inside me who thought my name was Carrie, but I could not answer Nadav’s simple question. He ran his hands down my sides and asked again, then again. When he cried out, “What do I do wrong?” I couldn’t even say, “Nothing.” And Nadav was gone. I watched his footprints for a long time, the sun sliding into its two then three o’clock positions. This same sun would soon slip like a deserter below the horizon. I didn’t have anywhere to sleep. Didn’t even have my own clothes. 


The breeze was blowing the first hint of sunset when  I bought two packs of Camels. I passed the steep stairs and skirted along the cliffs, the rocks below, dizzying, to Cho and Ava’s bungalow. On their porch, two forms. A conference. The compact one waited while the tall and fair skipped to me.

“Hey, ya.” 

“You’re missing afternoon practice.”

“They'll be plenty of practices, Carlie. There's only one you.”

Ava said, “I’m a survivor too, Carlie. It was my father.”

“No shit.”

Ava’s head jerked back, but it didn’t shut her up. Her string of babble was a tsunami against the shore of me. “Do ya know, he was a postman? Claimed always and again that delivering the post was a position of public trust. Enough to drive you right ‘round the bend.”

“Look, could we just not for once?

After another moment of knife-to-the-eyes, Ava suggested we return to Cho.

“Like she’s ever talking to me again.”

“Don’t fret yourself. Cho’s got a temper on her, but—do ya know, ‘cho’ is an old-fashioned Japanese word for ‘butterfly?’ But not a girly one. A hunting insect that enjoys grabbing at you, sharp!” Her laughed ripped at the word. 

We found Cho poised like an empress in the hammock. Ava disappeared inside their room. My eyes locked on the lip of the cliff, about twenty feet away. Somehow my voice creaked out, “You weren’t a shitty social worker.” I couldn’t force myself to say I’m sorry. But I looked at her. “I bet you were great.”

“I wasn’t great. I’m not particularly nice. Look, I'm not sorry for what I said, Carlie, but I could have said it more gently. For that, I am sorry.”

“Would you like a cigarette?”

Ava’s brogue. “Can I come out now?”

I tossed Cho her pack. With Ava on the porch, conversation was energetic and easy. She washed my shorts and shirt for me. They lived in Tokyo. She taught English, “as is the case with most Caucasians there lacking a demonstrable life plan. Our determined butterfly, however, is an important body at her family’s department store.”

Cho blew smoke. “Not that important.”

“The store’s bloody called Yamashita’s. You’re the heir apparent.”

I said, “We have a Yamashita’s in Seattle. Japanese import store. That’s you? Why are you staring at me?”

Ava flopped next to Cho in the hammock. “My love, we have a self-disclosed fact about Carlie.”

Cho said, “She is from Seattle.”

“Don’t say that. People could hear.”

Cho said, “It’s one of the first things travelers tell each other.”

“It’s demanded of, right there in the guidebooks,” Ava laughed.

Cho joined her. “Rules for a Lonely Planet life.”

“Stop laughing at me, you guys. I ran away. I stole money and I—I had to.”

“You stole money? From your parents?” Ava asked at the same time that Cho wanted to know, “How old were you?”

“I did it over three years, snitching it, and I had Christmas and birthday money and a job. Chose Asia ‘cause it’s cheap. The Lonely Planet said there were places you could get by on a dollar a day.”

Cho dropped back into the hammock. “Fuckin’ A, girlfriend.”

“How else was I supposed to deal with—?” I made a disgusting sound.

The sound Ava made was worse. 

Cho wrapped an arm around her. Guilt flooded me. I asked Ava, “You seem happy, now, though. How do you deal?”

Ava looked utterly lost until she came to, “Wave Hands Like Clouds.”


The days took on the rhythm of Wave Hands Like Clouds, up across down. Up at seven, cross the cliffs to tai chi, down for a nap. Up in the afternoon, evening practice, down for bed. Cho established ground rules: no yelling, swearing, or stomping off. Sometimes I showed up to tai chi not talking to her, but I always showed up. My commitment to twice-daily practices stemmed from my fear of what would happen if I didn't. No one needed to know the number of times, sometimes each hour, I teetered on the brink of a bender. The time I came closest was the afternoon I found my backpack on our porch with a slip of paper tucked into my Lonely Planet, Nadav’s address in Israel. My scalp and brain separated from my head. That part was already drinking. Somehow, the rest of me moved into the hammock, clung to its edges as I swung. I didn’t tell them. I didn’t want to “process.” I was just getting a grip on not running to them when I woke in terror, I’ll kill you if you tell, then my mom, her fingernails gouging my arms. You make them do it. We’ll kill you if you tell.

Up-across-down. I started learning the form. I asked Lise how long it would take.

“To know the form takes a lifetime.”

I decided to grin. “I have two weeks left on my tourist visa.”

That night, I marched myself to the cliff, took a seat far enough from its sheer edge, and focused on the sound of the waves hundreds of feet below. The stars drew me in. I never did this, sat before going to bed and let the stars absorb me. I never even noticed they were there. And I dreamed differently. At our favorite restaurant. I was drunk. They hated me. Nadav was our waiter, but he was a Chinese man glowing with a kung fu movie’s modest magnificence. He led me to the cliff in front of Cho and Ava’s bungalow, where he informed me that it was time to dive.

“I'm scared.”

“We are all scared.” He stepped lightly off the edge and disappeared.

Somehow, I dove, a long, lean fall to the sea. 

On our way to tai chi in the morning, I told Cho and Ava, “I’m gonna get my own room, sleep by myself.” To cover my pleasure at their proud astonishment, I finished, “You two sleep with anyone you want.”

I felt so jealous, the way they took hands.

The time left on my visa crossed the one-week mark, then six days. At dinner, Ava poked around her carefully sorted plate. “We leave in two days’ time.” It killed me, how she could not eat stuff.

Cho asked me, “Any idea where you’re going next?”

“Maybe India. Flights to Delhi are cheap from Bangkok.”

Cho’s eyes glistened like warm oil. “I vote you come with us to Tokyo.”

There was a pause, during which nothing bubbly came from the Scottish corner. Turning to Ava, I asked, “No vote from you?”

“Maybe India, maybe Tokyo. It’s stolen money, Carlie. It makes you a victim, not a survivor.”

“Maybe I’m not as good a person as you, Ava.”

Instantly, I wished I could take it back, because the rest seemed to hover over the table: at least I got out while I was young. 

Taking a tai chi–deep breath, Ava said, “I don’t approve of stealing, Carlie, but I understand why you did it.” 

“Do you think she knew? My mom?”

“They all do.” Ava reached across the table. “Come to Tokyo.”

This time, I didn’t decide. My grin blossomed.

In Bangkok, I had to arrange plane tickets and a Japanese visa. Cho and Ava’s flight departed four hours after we reached the city, giving us just time for tea before they left for the airport. I was so weighed down with the words in my heart, all banging against each other, that I couldn’t find my cigs. Cho slid her pack across the table. Extracting one, I said, “What if I meet some guy, get smashed, and never make it to Tokyo?”

From Ava, “I wager you keep the cigarettes, then.”

Only with a Camel lit, them in a taxi, and the last wave waved was I able to mouth, “I’ll miss you.”


Tan House was a rattly old building painted a smooth mint green located down a quiet street on the Hong Kong side. I tugged a long red rope to the left of the scarlet and gold door, ringing a bell that echoed with an Addams Family quality. The door opened. A plump rooster shot out. A small gentleman with delicate wrists and an old man's belly took my backpack with a bow and a grandfatherly cluck. “Tan,” he said.


“First name?”


“Yes.” Then, “No. First name.”


“Ah! Carlie. First name! First name!” That settled, Tan turned me over to his daughter, Eleanor, who had his apple-like face with half the wrinkles. She led me to a hot nook of a room on the third floor. She apologized for the room all the way upstairs then all the way down, and to the dining room for tea.

“Especially you are friends with Misses Cho and Ava. You practice tai ke?” Cookies in one hand, teacup in the other, Eleanor mimicked a tai chi move. “Please ask Old Tan to practice with. You will make him pleasure.”

I finished my tea with a cigarette instead of cookies. Then Mr. Tan took me to the shaded red-bricked courtyard outside the sliding glass doors of the dining room. With chickens clucking around us, we went through the first third of the form that I learned on the island. I was accustomed to white guys fitting their height into Chinese movements. His Asian body made way more sense. An hour later, the dining room began to fill, couple by couple, group by group, with what looked to be the usual assortment of Europeans, Aussies, and Americans. When I sat, a girl said, “Howzit going,” but not one guy offered to buy me a beer. I couldn’t participate in the what-did-you-do-today? because my day consisted of not drinking and missing the only people on this lonely planet who cared.

All the travelers started making evening plans. I was not asked along. I did my best, asking a British guy for a cigarette even though I smelled Menthol. I sipped tea and tolerated bummed Menthol while the room emptied, traveler by traveler. I would sit there forever, would solidify and compact, becoming a statue. Maybe then I’d understand what the hell she meant by “makes you a victim, not a survivor.”

Eleanor entered. She dusted a row of photos on the corner altar. Then she knelt on a flat pillow and lit a bundle of incense that she placed, burning end up, in a square vase filled with sand. She clapped her hands into prayer position and pressed them to her forehead, remaining there for some moments. In that pause, I expected—what? Relief. Purpose. Something Ava-like. But there was only Eleanor, now fussing with a frame.

“Eleanor, who’s that?”

“Is mother. I miss her. But ancestors take care for us.”

“What if they don’t?”

I didn’t mean to sound so victimy. Eleanor turned, still on her knees, folding hands I’d never seen idle into her lap. Her voice came as if from the bottom of a well.

“Miss Carlie, we don’t need understand ancestors. We trust for our best good.”


“To have hope.”

After a moment, I asked, “How do you pray?”

She patted the flat pillow next to hers. “Face to east. Light comes first in east. Think . . .” She paused. “What does Miss Carlie want God to hear?”

“I don’t believe in God.”

“Of course. Excuse. What does Miss Carlie want Kuan Yin to hear?”

“What’s that?”

“Goddess of Mercy.” Eleanor gestured to a gray-flecked marble statue of a female Buddha with rounded cheeks. “See slim bottle she holds? Is humanity’s tears.”

“Ha. I thought that was a bottle of sake.” I moved toward the statue, moved so close that I could clearly see her beautifully wrought face. This Kuan Yin was no tourist-shop souvenir. She was almost alive. I said, “I am really trying.” Then I breathed myself into her beauty and said, “This new me is starting out weird, and I’m scared. I’m scared I won't ever get to the me that’s in here somewhere, but I keep fucking up.” I whispered, “I’m scared I’ll drink.” Closing my eyes, I went to an untaught place inside. What came out was: “I’m afraid no one will ever love me.”

“Miss Carlie is already loved,” said the voice from the well, and I saw myself walking an urban avenue, cars, neon signs with Chinese letters reaching over me, people getting off busses. A blurry-faced Asian woman in white called, You dropped your wallet. I said, Not mine, but it was mine, I’d just forgotten—creased leather and brown and soft with age, folding open in my hands to disintegrate, leaving me holding a ruby-red object the size of a piece of fruit. Sweet-smelling, pulpy. Precious. I covered my eyes with my hands, grieving.