Ning Li, 1974-2017
When you were dying of incurable disease, I cursed your life choices—not those that led to your dying but those that led you farther away. For instance: the choice to abide in time. I think I knew you best and so, now, am amazed how mysterious you were to me. What were you thinking? All those years and hours—what were you thinking? We were friends most of our lives, but, if I live long enough, that will cease to be true. It’s impossible to conceive all those years without your weight in them, like papers without a stone to hold them down. They flutter across the field, scattered, gone, now trash. I remember after your first girlfriend killed herself, a scarring tragedy, you read in a novel about a man who spent all his time melting down gold, molding them into little animals, then melting them down again, an incessant cycle of formation and dissolution. You said you felt the same way. That such a repetitive, pointless task was all you were then capable of. After your death, I recall all the work done trying to accumulate and gather papers, pile them neatly, tamp them square, leave them on the table beneath the paperweight—but I can’t remember why. And when the wind scatters them across the field, I’m not moved to begin collecting them again and, in fact, as that breeze takes them away, scattering and scattering and scattering, I am almost pleased, or, at least a similar feeling passes through me. Hardly a day goes by etcetera etcetera. Why you blah blah blah. Where did you go and so on and so forth. I loved you yadda yadda yadda.
Shannon reminds me that there are scenes of us in the movies: shots of us four, shots of us three, of us two, shots of you. Scenes of a twenty-year-old ghost walking through monochrome apartments in a faded stained-glass city—a personal and secular purgatory, which, as purgatories must, contain deformed DNA of paradise and inferno. Black burnt bits among the color. You were never religious, so scripture and fable for you were just different names for dream, for currents in the subconscious. Heaven, hell, underworld, bardo. Afterlife. I know it is wrong to address you in this way. But wrong and right have become unmoored since. As have ideas of restraint and bathos, reserve and mania, the maudlin and the lucid. Once I wrote a story about a painter whose friend dies and this painter keeps drawing abstractions that are graphic representations of the place the deceased had gone to, trying to answer a question: Where did you go? Is this what Shannon is doing? Is this what we’re doing? Is this what I am doing? (I think of this as a last time for us three to be together.) The other day Shannon said he was happy with a drawing he’d done because it had become more open, less closed. After the funeral, we watched your student film, one you directed but didn’t act in. We put it on in trepidation but were amazed to quote see you again. Not on screen as an actor but in every frame nonetheless there you were. Your eye made manifest. We may only be alive when trying to make art. Only alive in the attempt. Some friends have stopped trying so might have died without knowing it. I may do that soon too, though stubbornness can be a virtue. You never stopped. You just died. Once it was a competition, a cheered race or a dance battle; now, a slow war. Attrition. At the Red Hook swimming pool where we loved to go in what felt like summers of a neverending sequence, the motivational poster in the weight room had this caption: Your opponent is training harder. Shannon saw it and said: Be the last one standing. That was long ago.
While you are directing a short movie, when something happened to make us lose a shot—I forget what, a battery died? someone didn’t show up? we lost the daylight?—you became so angry, so frustrated, that you punched a hole in the drywall. It wasn’t typical. And even in the moment, I thought it was an appropriated gesture, something you copped from another person’s macho cartoonery (maybe Dave’s). Yet also I admired and recognized the energy expended to act out so dramatically, so atypically, an act which, by its contrast, foregrounded your silence, your usual non-speaking of feeling—a natural reticence that I could find infuriating but which over time I came to designate (sometimes) as an aspect of your dignity. Of that which we cannot speak we must pass over in silence. In your act I conflate regressive masculinity and the Tractatus, i.e. when punching the wall you were quoting Wittgenstein. The philosophical punch? You cannot punch through the drywall twice, says Heraclitus’s contractor; not even once, rebutts Cratylus’s (wiggling his Gutei-finger).
The eye has nowhere to rest. Broken-glass sky and a gravity falling to the bottom right—but still no rest for the eye. You and eye. An inversion of focus: maybe the black holes are the resting place. Maybe everything is there to hold the black in place—to hold the holes in place. We can but make a cosmetic scrim over the shapeless ineffable. As example. And that too cheerful square (in hell, the palette will be limited to pastels) is only a veil. But if this is your argument, then I agree: no rest.
A demon or a mockery. Both. Maybe a bird—you know how Shannon gets superstitious about his goddamn birds. All week long I’ve been dealing with sullen teenagers at work and now Shannon gives me the bird. It’s like a harmony korine fuck you, troll-y, adolescent but sharp. In the top right corner you can see a bit of a photo, which is one of you and Shannon and Dave and me. In the photo Shannon hasn’t yet tried to kill himself by jumping off a building and so still has both his legs. Dave hasn’t yet run out of road and hermited himself in bumblefuck nowhere. And you’re still alive. On the phone with him, I said what I’d written, that this was a last time for us to be together. And he said, Yeah, but that’s not true. It can’t be. And I wasn’t sure if he meant it’s not true that we are together again, because you are not alive. Or if he meant it’s not true that it is the last time, because we will always—and in our eventual oblivion too—be together. I didn’t ask for clarification. Such slippages of language when talking to the living, when talking to the dead. How would you feel about this? I think you wouldn’t like it, not your style, too chatty. You’d silently object, but not stop us. Just give us that look. How easy—how quickly it becomes easy—to speak for the dead. (Of course I wish I could ask you directly. That would be best. Start over then. Go back and put in front of each statement, Is it true that…) You would often give me a look, it included a smile and was very particular, that said, You’re so full of shit.
I’ve made a deal with Joanna, a self-improvement pact. For a month, I won’t drink and she won’t ______. I won’t say what she won’t. She says it’s good for me, particularly in this time of grief, to feel it, whatever it is, and let it not be masked, suppressed by alcohol. This idea somehow new to me. Somehow the pleasure of drinking I never equated with the pleasure of forgetting. Lotus eaters. I see it now. And so rather suddenly something is cracking. I feel raw. I decide to just let it come, whatever it is and however powerful, let it come (I almost chant this), and if it takes me away, I think, so be it. (But I’m faking it; I’m not really that brave.) And it does come, the pain comes, the surge, the flood of ______. It’s practically voluptuous. And I have always liked that medical description: exquisite pain … One thing I remember about you: your wingspan, the length of your arms. Why? When we played basketball in high school, not only were you taller, but your arms were so long. You were always blocking my shots! The frustration of those moments are so easy to recall. And—shit—I’m thinking of the morning you died, coming into the room, crying and holding onto your arm, which was still warm and seemed still alive. That was the first moment of the impossible, the initiation into it, holding onto your arm. Always going back to things, losing memories so anchoring in the few. At the city pool in Red Hook, where we used to swim in what felt like summers of a neverending sequence: we’d eat the free bag lunches the city made too many of and so weren’t discerning about who took them and then would walk over the bridge that spanned the BQE, our rumbling river, whose sounds we could hear in the apartment’s kitchen always, in those scenes that now have been echoing and echoing and echoing in Shannon’s and my scenes which just keep asking: where did you go? where did you go? where did you go? Little pulses of light, unknowing, trying to stay in the pure unknowing, but the hard little pebble of fact returns: knowing I can’t talk to you.
At work I see two seventh grade boys cackling over something inane, a cartoon with a barely sardonic cat. Utter fits of laughter, incomprehensible, inexplicable. Garfield isn’t even funny! To stay there, not letting anything else happen.
Transformations. An abstracted Escher. Birds to field or Penrose stairs. With Ellsworth Kelly colormind. No matter how much one wants it, and sometimes I want it very badly, there’s no stopping the flux. Which is why David Byrne sings Heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.
Nothing changes in heaven. Which is why there’s no such thing as heaven.
A kind of story you liked were those that tested the emotional bonds of sympathetic but flawed men. Brothers at odds. Or those torn between duty and desire. Or men married to their jobs and tested for their loyalty: cops and thieves. You liked Michael Mann’s Heat and the Dardenne brothers L’Enfant. And Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu. A humanism was necessary, but you were against those films or books that cheapened these into sentiment. But your primary language was not one of the ones you spoke—English or Shanghainese—but rather the visual. And if there was a depth to the image, you were alert and satisfied even if the story was static or abstract. For instance you loved the murk of Pedro Costa, and his sweet planes of natural light, his perfect frame. Those were often grainy and primitively shot, but in them, with your own, you recognized a profound eye.
I tell Shannon I’ve made the Talking Heads’ “Heaven” my personal grief song and how I vow not to listen to anything else for a year. He tells me I’ll last three months. I only last a couple of weeks.
You’re so full of shit.
Giggling where I lost all sense of time, all sense of self. Boyhood friends.
There is a party. Everyone is there. Everyone will leave
at exactly the same time.
In this city, hauntings outnumber the muggings, litter. (In fact, those are just other names for them: muggings, litter.) Constant flurries of ghosts raining over the streets. This morning, February 3rd, 2018, I’m sitting in the car in the East Village with my son asleep in the back. Joanna’s just gone into a place for a haircut. I pull out a book and realize we’re parked only a few blocks north of the first apartment you and I shared. Summer of 1994. It was a fourth-floor walk-up closet around the corner from the KGB bar. The ground floor had a palm reader storefront. In the apartment below us lived a dominatrix, whose whipsounds and attendant client yelps, whimpers, and sighs we could hear through the walls. We ran into her once on the stairwell, and she asked us for a light. It was a little thrilling: You were able to dig out a match and oblige her.
It was wrong to do this one time let alone seven, but I’m glad I did it. Wrong’s not the right word. Impure maybe.
Late in the game, I admit to thinking it less renga or exquisite corpse than more a chance collaboration by adjacency. Cunningham-and-Cage style. In any case, that’s what I observe of us. Praying in silos.
My brother from another mother. Met your parents this morning for dim sum in Brooklyn. Your wife and daughter also came, the latter asleep in her stroller. Your mother recently back from Shanghai. It’s been three months and two days. Something happened when I asked to help pay for the meal that broke us all for a minute. Then we recovered. That’s all I can bear to write about the present.
Eugene Lim is the author of the novels Fog & Car (Ellipsis Press, 2008), The Strangers (Black Square Editions, 2013) and Dear Cyborgs (FSG, 2017). He works as a high school librarian, runs Ellipsis Press, and lives in Queens, NY.
Shannon Steneck is a painter living in San Francisco.