Like any old man, I was young once. Each morning I attacked the day. Down the stairs to the subway platform, slipping through the doors like a bandit, I rode the rails and got my fill. Then one day I realized I could no longer move fast enough. Like any old fool, I waited. But the train passed me by, one car after the other, until I found myself alone and used up. I had collected many years, and eventually that was the only part of myself that made sense anymore; I had always been a collector.
In my youth, before I collected all these years, I collected flags; flags from the women I slept with. This is not a euphemism. Let me explain.
I was a handsome young man, strong-jawed, stout, standing nearly six foot with wavy brown hair. I had an easy-going smile and nice teeth. More importantly perhaps, I possessed a quiet confidence. I didn’t speak often, but never gave off the scent that I had nothing to say. I found out early enough that this package was appealing to most women, and as long as I didn’t find myself saddled by too much commitment I could move freely from one sexual encounter to the next. I never believed that this made me a bad person.
I was eighteen when I slept with Miyu, and for the first time, I fell in love. She was from Japan, and had black hair and porcelain skin, not unlike many other Japanese girls. She was petite and not altogether handsome, but I loved her smile, and the love of a smile can go a long way for an eighteen year old. My favorite part of her was her hip bones, which jutted out like cliffs from her thin body, and I found myself enamored, clutching on to them as if I could somehow fall off those cliffs.
And then one day, out of the blue, she decided it was over. I was heartbroken. It was like she had burrowed herself into me, into my deepest recesses, and planted a bomb. Pulling herself out of me on a day in the summer, she triggered the remote and watched as I imploded from the inside out. In retrospect, though I believe she did this intentionally; I do not think she understood the magnitude of her actions. She had destroyed a part of me, an innocence, and the repercussions would be felt for years to come like clouds of ash following a volcanic eruption.
There was a convenience store down the street from where I lived, and upon first entering it, I was taken aback by the collection of flags available for purchase. They were folded tightly and packaged in plastic, hanging alphabetically. Why the store sold flags I’ll never know. I never saw another soul purchase one. There were never any empty racks, they were never sold out of a flag, and I never thought to ask the clerk.
The first one I bought was astronaut white with a single, blood red dot in the middle. I used clothespins to clip it to a hangar in my closet, and my collection began.
After that they came in rapid succession. There was Cosita from Panama, whom I met while sitting on a bus. She was a few years older than me with brown hair, and dark skin that she constantly moisturized with an azul container of lotion, the name of which I cannot recall. She had a large birthmark in the shape of Florida on her left thigh. After two weeks, I made my way to the convenience store and purchased the Panamanian flag, hanging it next to Japan.
Through the years there were many of them, and now I only remember snapshots of our time together, like I’m flipping through polaroids with the names and dates scribbled on the back. There was Rosalita from Cuba, who liked to make love while listening to Bruce Springsteen. Katja was from Germany, quiet as a mouse until in the bedroom, who between her two front teeth had an endearing gap. Camille was one half of a Filipino twin-set, the other half going by Christian. He followed me after I left his sister crying on the steps of some university academic hall and gave me a black eye as I walked out of the convenience store holding the Philippines flag. I remember shouting at him that he wasn’t very Christian at all.
Su-Jin was from Korea, studying abroad, and loved Elvis Presley so much that she cried when I told her he had died on the toilet. She reminded me of Miyu and the affair was short-lived. There was America, from Mexico, who aside from the irony of her name also had a particular affinity for French fries and anal sex. Even now it’s sad that this is all I remember of her. Klara from Russia spelled her name with a “K” and would introduce herself as such, “Klara with a K,” in stunted Russian wherever she went. She too loved Elvis Presley.
Finally, there was Mariella from Cuba, with Cuban hips and Cuban lips, Cuban thighs that could wrap themselves around you like a boa constrictor. She sang lullabies in her native tongue while doing the dishes and was the most passionate woman I have ever known. She was the last of my conquests, if you want to put it that way. All of these women bookended by my two true loves, and still their flags hang in each end of my closet.
When they put me in this place - with it’s awful shag carpeting, it’s water-stained walls festooned with mawkish, gold-plated picture frames, it’s frozen lake home to ducks in the wintertime, it’s patios home to little concrete statutes of children in overalls and artificial plants, all imprisoned by steel bars and a locked gate - they told me I could bring one suitcase full of clothes. But clothes can be purchased, and the convenience store of flags closed down years ago, so my closet is home to my collection, my life-long pursuit, and perhaps one or two Hawaiian patterned shirts that they sometimes make me wear during the mandatory Friday socials.
“What are you writing?” asks the nurse. She is a big, black woman named Susan, who is kind and sometimes lets me sleep through bathtime.
“My history,” I reply.
“Our history?” she says, “Well, that’s nice.”
No, I think, not ours, but mine.
“I’m confused,” I mutter. “I don’t remember.”
I look at this page in front of me, at all these scribbles, and I don’t understand. I don’t know what they mean. I don’t remember writing them.
“Don’t fret,” she says, “Sometimes, it’s not so bad to forget the past. It lets you focus better on the future.”