Vibrant colors and bold patterns dazzled. Lights flashed, shimmered and pulsed. The façade of the glass and steel skyscraper was an enormous movie screen. Bright images flickered, emblazoned with lettering proclaiming them commercials. Skinny models vacillating between vapid and haughty paraded down a catwalk in stilettos as Chinese characters cascaded over them. A shiny bottle of a mysterious florescent beverage was twisted open to reveal neon leaves growing out from under the lid. The underbelly of an airplane flew over a flock of impeccable smiling stewardesses standing in v-formation on an airport runway. They all looked up in unison, following the flight path like graceful swans. They paled and grew feathery as they faded into thin air. Then polka dots began filling the screen, black dots that shifted to red, expanding into multicolored spheres, which then became semi-transparent and blinked, reminding me of lights. Traffic lights—
“Hey stupid! Wake-up! Wake-up! Wake-up and cross the damn street! Hurry! Hurry!” The annoyed voice of my coworker, Jake, shattered my reverie. It was at that moment that I realized where I was.
I was standing in the middle of a busy four-lane street!
A slew of speeding vehicles, led by a huge double-decker bus, was heading straight for me. In a matter of seconds, I would be dead. Right there, in the center of bustling downtown Hong Kong.
I had become dangerously distracted while crossing a large intersection. The crosswalk light had long gone red, but I had unwittingly fallen into a trance mid-stride, hypnotized by the glitzy advertising across the street, flickering seductively on the massive skyscraper. I was a moth to a lightbulb. Now I would end up smashed. An insect to a windshield.
Jake snapped me out of my stupor by frantically calling out to me. Before the grave realization could transmute into a scream, I ran as fast as I could. Milliseconds stretched to hours in ultra-slow motion as I bolted to the curb. Horns blared as my heart drummed violently, throbbing into my ears. At the last moment, I leapt, inhaling exhaust fumes as the warm gust of the bus hurtled past me, just a hair behind, a gentle caress against my shivering ribcage. I made it just in the nick of time!
My feet landed safely on the curb, I took a few more steps away from the relentless rushing traffic. Jake yelled my name like an accusation, arms crossed, head shaking in disapproval. My other coworker, Stacy, who had been standing next to him, anxiously watching the whole scene, came up to me and squeezed my arm, “I’m so glad you’re okay!” she exclaimed. I nodded and took a moment to catch my breath as I adjusted my shoulder bag back in place. “Thank you,” I gasped, turning to Jake.
He continued shaking his head, “I just saved your life!” he declared, as if I didn’t already know that. “I know!” I said a bit too loudly, my relief immediately turning into embarrassment. “Thanks for that! I was just so mesmerized by the giant TV screen.” I stammered, grasping for an excuse. Stacy nodded kindly, adding that she too had almost been distracted. But Jake chuckled meanly and just repeated what I had just said like it was a fun new catch phrase, “I was mesmerized!”
For the remainder of our last day in Hong Kong, Jake would continuously remind me that he had saved my life. While we browsed scarves and fake designer handbags in narrow alleyways. As we enjoyed tea and pastel-hued moon cakes in a café. After we boarded the crowded ferry back to the mainland. While we ate dinner in a restaurant with a dazzling view of the light spectacle of a city.
Back in the privacy of our hotel room that evening, Stacy and I laughingly recalled Jake’s annoying reminders of his heroism. “What an asshole!” I exclaimed, “If I knew he was going to give me such a hard time about this, I would have let the bus hit me!” Stacy laughed heartily, Jake had been getting on her nerves too and the two did not get along during our entire business trip. The tension between them was palpable in every meeting. Jake was usually a nice guy, but when he decided someone didn’t deserve his respect, for whatever petty reason, he behaved crudely. He reminded us of a spoiled frat boy, sometimes funny, sometimes cruel.
The three of us had been sent to Hong Kong for work training and to strengthen ties between our US based office and company headquarters. We had spent nearly three weeks together in this exciting city, a foreign and fascinating place for each of us, but the friction between us had been increasing. Stacy’s habit of asking too many questions annoyed Jake and me. My habit of daydreaming and staring at shop windows clearly annoyed Jake and Stacy. He, in turn, annoyed both Stacy and me with his boorishness. “Well if Jake wasn’t such a pain to both of us, we wouldn’t be so tired all the time, and if I hadn’t been so sleepy that day, I wouldn’t have been distracted by that giant blinking screen. So, in a way, he had both caused and prevented my accident!” I concluded triumphantly. I knew it was lie, but it made me feel a whole lot better.
On our flight back to Seattle, Jake continued to remind me that he had saved my life. When we returned to the office, I realized with trepidation that he had regaled the whole team with a detailed account of what had happened on that intersection in Hong Kong. “Yes, I am very grateful to Jake!” I declared stiffly to the crowd of coworkers, I could barely hide my shame and anger. I wondered if anyone had noticed how mechanically I had said it, I hoped they did. Perhaps Jake kept repeating his story because deep down, he wasn’t satisfied with my thank you, my gratitude was not enough. Maybe he didn’t believe I was truly grateful. I began to think of ways I could thank him, maybe a box of chocolates, a gift card. How do you thank someone for saving your life?
But I was also angry. How dare he try to make me feel like I owed him something! I had done something like that too, several times in my life: Pulled the steering wheel in the right direction when a friend swerved. Yelled out a warning or stuck my arm out to stop a fellow pedestrian from crossing when a car sped through a red light. I even pulled a large safety pin out of a toddler’s mouth once when I was shopping, his mom was in the fitting room and didn’t even notice, let alone thank me. I did it without a second thought and I would do it again, had I known the person or not—had I received a thank you or not. And I certainly wouldn’t keep reminding everyone, least of all the person I had saved, of my heroism.
I could never guess the source of Jake’s peculiar cruelty, yet I was determined to be a good friend to him. Perhaps it was because he had saved my life, or that I began to genuinely like him as a friend, or a little of both. As time passed, his rough edges began to soften. He became a much nicer person to spend time with, though he still retold “the Hong Kong incident”, as I called it, sporadically. He and his girlfriend, Ann, often invited me to hang out with them or to events and I grew to love them both. When my relationship at the time showed serious signs of trouble, Jake was there for me. When I decide to leave, he was there to tell me I deserved better, to listen to me, to laugh and sarcastically reminisce with me. When I decided to leave our company and move across the country to New York, he was there to send me off and Ann kindly helped me find my way around her beloved home city.
Yet, during all that time, through all those innumerable acts of friendship and kindness, I kept myself vigilant. I was always looking for a way to return the favor to Jake, the most valuable favor.
Was Jake healthy? Did he need any advice? Was he perhaps near an intersection? If I could have saved Jake’s life in return, I would have done it. If the opportunity had ever presented itself, I would gladly have taken it. Especially if I could get him to shut up—to finally and permanently shut up about saving mine!
Despite my eagerness to save him, Jake seemed invincible.
Several years passed, we lost contact with each other, we were living on different continents. One day, out of the blue, I received an email from Jake, he was coming to Frankfurt, Germany on business. I was living nearby at the time. Did my new boyfriend, V. and I want to meet up with him and catch up? I was ecstatic. “Yes, absolutely!”
It was a beautiful summer night when we all sat down at an outdoor biergarten, gulping foamy mugs of refreshing amber brew. As I anticipated, Jake couldn’t help retelling the infamous Hong Kong incident. But V. already knew the story and he also knew that Jake would tell it again (I had told him in advance), though he kindly pretended he had heard it for the first time. Jake’s eyes twinkled as he reenacted the crosswalk scene with hand motions, he clearly enjoyed telling that story, ending it (as he always did) with my lame excuse, but I was mesmerized! and a hearty chuckle. Even though I hadn’t heard the story in many years, my eyes rolled back as if no time had passed at all. “Yes, I’m very grateful to you Jake,” I responded dully.
I stared intently at Jake in silence, then rather directly and brashly asked him how his life was going. “Not good,” he said with sudden seriousness. Sorrow began to overwhelm his features like a shadow. I noticed there were dark circles under his eyes, he was a lot thinner than I remembered. He and Ann had been fighting more often, even family members had gotten involved—there had been a terrible rift of distrust between them, not necessarily ungrounded, and it was only worsening. I wondered if Jake could see my eyes glinting in the darkness as the shiny opportunity began to surface.
“Jake, you deserve to be happy!” I said vehemently.
During all my time with Jake and Ann, they never seemed a happy couple. There were oddly no PDA’s, no warmth, hardly a kind word between them. But I had always assumed they were just private with their affection, it was none of my business, and I didn’t know the whole picture. Now Jake was confirming to me what I had always suspected: They were unhappy. To me, they seemed deeply unhappy and should have gone their separate ways years ago.
“You know, I love you both.” I continued, “But you can’t change the other person. You should only be together because you want to, not because of what other people say, not because of all the time you invested, not for any other reason than you love each other. Don’t waste your time. You both deserve to be happy.”
Jake stared at me absently, then looked out past me onto the street. The night was quiet and the city lights cast a warm glow on the pavement. A faint breeze stirred the broad leaves of the trees in the promenade. There was relatively little traffic, though passing cars could been seen from a distance. It didn’t register to him what I was trying to do, how much it meant to me.
Don’t waste your life Jake. I thought silently. But he wasn’t ready to hear it.
As we said our goodbyes, I wondered if he would ever think about what I had said or even remember it. Determined to make an impact, I wrote an impassioned email to Ann as soon as I got home that night, telling her the same thing I had told Jake, adding, “I know it’s none of my business, it shouldn’t be anyone’s business but your own, it’s between the two of you. I just want the best for both of you. You both deserve to be happy.”
I never heard from either of them again. I had clearly overstepped.
You deserve to be happy. How hollow those words clanged in my foolish and ardent repetition. What did I know about what anyone deserved? Most likely, they deserved to be unhappy. As long as neither of them were willing to change, they would be unhappy. As long as Jake kept choosing the easy way out, the path of least resistance in every major decision, he would be unhappy. As long as he always prioritized being perceived as an impossibly flawless ideal, over being authentic, kind and loving, he would be unhappy.
No matter how hard I tried, I could never save Jake’s life—not if he was only willing to see himself the perfect hero of mine.
Note: This is a work of memoir by M.P. Baecker © 2018. Names have been altered for privacy.