All original artwork by Camily Tsai (instagram, website — and thanks!)

Have You Ever Read ‘The Outsider’?

The lounge room is dark except for the light coming from the television. Silent except for the sounds of Lost in Translation. Sitting on the sofa is Joe, not actively watching the movie in front of him, but simply letting its message wash over him.

Rebecca, a small mouse, sits on his shoulder. She says, “Porco Rosso. We should watch that.”

Michael, a raccoon, lies near Joe’s feet. He says, “I think there’s a Pride Fighting Championship special on the sports channel. Change it to that, I think they’re replaying clips of Sakuraba.”

Mitchell, a small dog, sits on Joe’s stomach. He says, “Why don’t we watch some more FLCL? We should finish off the last two episodes.”

Joe sighs. He says, “We discussed this already. Before dinner, remember? I feel like watching Lost in Translation, so we’re watching Lost in Translation.”

On the television, Bob Harris, played by Bill Murray says, “The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born.”

The bedroom is calm. Morning light filters in through the windows. Playing in the kitchen, so slightly muffled in the bedroom, is the Reel Big Fish song Cheer Up. Joe is putting on his shoes.

Rebecca, resting in his messy hair, says, “You know if I was going out, and I wanted to look good, I don’t think I’d be wearing those shoes.”

Michael, analyzing the shoes up close, says “Well, at least not with those pants.”

Mitchell, staring blankly out the window, says, “The black shoes would go much better with that shirt, in my opinion.”

Joe smiles, and decides that today is probably a black shoes kind of day anyway. “But the shirt and pants are fine with the black shoes, right?” he says.

The three animals nod their approval. Aaron Barrett, on the CD player, sings, “I’ve got a funny feeling, we’re all born to lose…”

The bookstore is warm and inviting. The stylish interior and welcoming staff make it a place you’d visit again. Joe stands at the register, serving a beautiful brunette. She is buying a copy of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

She says, “I heard from a friend that this was a good book. Do you know anything about it?”

Rebecca says, “Now’s your chance! Tell her you love Murakami, and that it’s a great book, but discussing an author so prolific would require more time. Then ask her if she wants to talk over coffee.”

Michael says “Or, tell her it’s a great book, and impress her with your knowledge of his other books by referencing the connections between them. But leave out certain details so that she’ll want to learn more. Then she’ll be the one asking you to coffee.”

Mitchell asks, “What time is lunch again? Just ask her to lunch, skip on the small talk, and see if you like her. I’m getting hungry.”

Joe returns the woman's smile. He says, “It’s a great book, by a great author, and I’d recommend it to anyone. I hope you enjoy it.”

He does not notice her glancing back at him as she leaves the store.

The café is full. The smooth jazz soundtrack is mostly lost to the drone of conversation. Joe sits at a small table for two, reading Albert Camus’ The Outsider, with an empty cup of coffee. Danielle, a cute blonde waitress, comes up to his table and asks, “Still waiting for your mystery woman, Joe?”

Rebecca says, “You know she likes you, Joe. She asks this every week, and every time you give her an ambiguous answer. She’s a nice enough girl, isn’t she?”

Michael says, “I think you’re doing great, Joe. A few more weeks of ambiguous answers and she won’t be able to help herself. Then she’ll be asking you to do something.”

Mitchell says, “They serve alcohol here, don’t they? Ask her if they sell whiskey. I’m kind of thirsty.”

Joe laughs a little nervously, and runs a hand through his hair. He says, “Oh, yeah. She should be here any minute. If she comes in, will you send her this way?”

They share a small laugh. Danielle walks away, a smile on her face that will last until the same time next week. If you were listening carefully, you would notice Eric Clapton’s Lonely Stranger over the speakers.

Joe finishes the first part of The Outsider, and goes home.

The apartment feels empty. Joe lies in bed, listening to the sounds of the city outside. He is trying to work out where he stands in the world around him. Trying to work out whether he is happy where he is, or whether he should aim for more.

Rebecca says, “Why are you so blind, Joe? The woman you’re searching for probably doesn’t exist. You know that, don’t you?”

Michael says, “You are one of the few people I have met that has the ability to do anything you want, and yet you do nothing. Am I expected to not find this information confusing?”

Mitchell, staring out the window, says, “Is anyone else thirsty? I’m really thirsty. I don’t know what for though.”

Joe stares at the ceiling, and says, “I have three animal friends. It’s not easy to tell people about that. It’s not easy to relate to them.”

He spends another hour listening to the traffic before he falls asleep.

The bookstore is bland and tiresome, but still appears warm and inviting. Joe sorts new books, reading the titles and creating his own stories for them before finding out what the books are actually about. He is so lost in his game he doesn’t notice the person trying to get his attention until she taps him on the arm. It is the beautiful brunette. She says, “I loved The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and I wonder if you know any other good books like it?”

Rebecca says, “She’s back again. And she wants your help. Do you know what that means, Joe? Or do I have to spell it out for you?”

Michael says, “I think you should test her. Recommend a crap book, and see what she says about it. If she’s interested in you, she’ll tell you it was thought provoking, and if she’s not interested, she probably won’t ever ask for your help again.”

Mitchell says, “What time is it? Is it lunch time yet? It’s not that I’m hungry, but a change of scenery would be nice.”

Joe smiles, and says, “Have you ever read The Outsider?”

After getting her the book, they talk for a short time. She tells him her name is May. Joe thinks it is nice. They talk until May realizes she’ll be late for an appointment. She leaves smiling.

Again, Joe does not notice her glancing back at him as she leaves the store.

The apartment is filled with excitement, and a hint of nervousness. Joe looks at his dressed-up reflection in the mirror. Having built a relationship through the bookstore, May recently asked Joe out to dinner (to the cheeky reply of “Well, I don’t have any reason not to go.”)

Rebecca says, “Wow, you look good.”

Michael nods and says, “Yeah, you really do.”

Mitchell shrugs, but upon angry glances, says, “Alright, so you look good. I don’t need to tell you for you to know.”

For a moment happy, Joe suddenly realizes he relies on these friends in a way he can’t entirely explain, and he can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong.

He doesn’t know if this date is a good idea anymore.

The restaurant is intimate. A pianist in the corner begins to play Clair De Lune. May asks, “What are you thinking?”

Rebecca says, “Tell her you’re imagining a place you never thought you would ever be. A situation you never thought could ever happen. Tell her you should do this again.”

Michael says, “Turn the question on her. Ask her what she’s thinking, and then play to those questions as a way of getting to know her better. You can’t go wrong.”

Mitchell says, “That salad looks really good, doesn’t it? Tell her how good that salad looks. It’s beautiful.”

Joe looks at his salad, and smiles. He says, “Nothing, my mind is a blank.”

May returns the smile, and they chat about the books they’ve been reading.

The street is deserted. May’s apartment block looks neat and tidy. Joe stands with her out the front. She says, “Thank you for the great night out, Joe. Can we do it again sometime?”

Rebecca watches Joe carefully, and says, “Don’t you dare say it. Don’t you dare say it.”

Michael says, “Please, Joe, listen to Rebecca. This is just what you need. It’s what you wanted. Don’t let it slip from your grasp.”

Mitchell stares at the moon and says, “Sometimes chances come, and sometimes chances go. What are you going to let this one do?”

Joe sighs, and says, “I’m sorry, but it’s probably not a good idea at the moment. I have a few things I need to work through before I can let myself get to know another person better.”

The two part quietly, the actions between them suddenly artificial and unreal. May watches Joe’s back as it slowly disappears into the distance.

The street is cold and somber. Joe walks home with his hands shoved deep in his pockets. His head is a mess of thoughts he does not want to clean up.

Rebecca says nothing.

Michael says nothing.

Mitchell says nothing.

Joe hums the Beatles song I Will, and it makes him feel a little better.

But only a little.

The apartment feels unwelcoming, but it looks the opposite. May hangs up her coat and wonders what just happened.

Therese, a canary, sits in her hair looking sympathetic. She says, “It’s okay. When he realizes what he wants, maybe we can be there.”

Samuel, a cat, says, “Maybe it’s better this way. If we got ourselves too excited, things might have ended horribly anyway.”

Israel, a small penguin, shrugs his shoulders and says, “Sometimes chances come, and sometimes they go. Another one will pop up soon enough.”

May lets herself fall on the couch. She turns on the CD player, and listens to the Smiths as they play, Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me.

And she stares out the window at a world she doesn’t understand, while Morrissey sings, ‘So tell me how long, before the last one, and tell me how long, before the right one…’

— -


All original artwork by Camily Tsai (instagram, website — and thanks!)

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Thanks for reading!
 — Hengtee