I: Morning Dreams
Many tall buildings, I stand on the summit of their heights and look through glass windows at the fly-shaped people below. A terrible vertigo boils in my stomach. Buildings are connected by bridges, called so only in concept – in truth, they are narrow planks of wood. I walk on one of these like a graceless trapeze artist. I trip and fall on my back, supported only by the wood which has the exact width of my body. Arms and legs pressed together. Overcome by fear, I realize the impossibility of standing up or inching my way to the other side. I wonder if I must lay there for all eternity. Below, a terrifying chasm. Above – wooden banisters which look like the elaborate and decomposed buttresses of a Gothic church. My fear grows into a colossal beast. Something pulls my weight with the force of a supernatural magnet that has found a small metal nugget lodged somewhere in my body. Every second I fight the temptation to free-fall. An old lover shows up and sits at the end of the plank. He comforts me. More appear but they eventually leave; their last words are ‘Hang in there’.
When I woke up I still had the tingly feeling of suspension in my body, in my shoulders. I made a cup of instant coffee.
An unnaturally silent morning. Outside – no hammering of construction, no noisy neighbours vacuuming their homes. Even the Chinese woman who occasionally screams at her kids is silent; perhaps they have come to a temporary truce. Outside the sky pregnant with gray clouds threatens to spill leftovers from yesterday’s drizzle which started at four in the afternoon – the sun suddenly blanketed by some mysterious force – and carried on through the day into the early hours of morning. The clouds were red when I reached home; it was frightening and beautiful, and I thought about that ashen shade of red while taking a shower.
The weather is unforgiving. The days, continuous and timeless, melt like silken butter into each other until they become an indistinguishable entity, to be thought of as a unit and never singularly. The merciless sun beats our backs red and blue. Calls come from students to reschedule a canceled lesson. I spend mornings reading and eating cucumber and cheese sandwiches. When Elan comes home we have a shot of whiskey each and watch the flickering images on television. Cucumber and cheese for dinner. During commercial breaks I fill up our glasses. By the end of the night we swim through the hall to the safety net of our bed.
No dreams – or none that I can remember anyway.
II: The Diary
When I was a child of ten or twelve, I converted a lined notebook into a religious chronicle of my friends, habits, childish obsessions and rivalries. One day I stopped, or maybe the process was less abrupt, maybe I wrote less and less and eventually forgot about the whole affair, but either way the diary was left undisturbed in a drawer. Some time passed; I grew older, discovered new friends and new obsessions. One day I found the old diary in the drawer and read it. I thought it would be an amusing way to pass the time. My appellation grew with every word. The sheer stupidity of my thoughts, the base observations and uninspired documentations, my ugly scrawling handwriting that looked like a family of dancing centipedes, the confessions I remembered writing in the afternoons, at night, which changed colour and tone by the next day, the smallness of my aspirations and ideas. I was horrified. It was like looking in the mirror and seeing someone else but someone who is not entirely a stranger nor familiar, someone unknowable who had a hand in making the person I was; like a malignant but invisible disease that showed its ugly monstrous face to only me. As though it were a profound secret and as its singular audience, I ought to have been honoured by this revelation. Disgusted and afraid, I threw the book into my mother’s frying wok along with a lit match.
Sometimes I wonder why I had not tore it up; it would have made less of a mess.
III: The Party
The sun was making its way to the horizon, about to tip over and spill, molten and orange, onto the land. Alex called in the afternoon while I was still in bed, reluctant to face the day. If it had been anyone else, perhaps I would not have agreed but Alex has a technique of persuasion that is all the more effective because his voice never betrays his desperation. To hear Alex is to know that this is a man who you could drop from a plane into any country and would still survive by some miraculous force of nature. To this king of men I said to fuck off, but he knows my affection for him.
By the time I got off the bus, the sky was dark. It had just rained a light shower that did nothing to assuage the heat. The roads looked out of focus, misplaced. Swarms of possessed flies danced under the streetlamps. Light footfalls echoed my own but when I turned around there were only the blinking yellow light of streetlamps that flickered on and off with a metallic zzzzt like the buzzing of bees. I walked faster, keeping both hands on my purse, half-running from the ghost behind me. Blue Dragon was lit with noise and hot halogen bulbs; from a corner, someone shouted my name. The night band drowned out the voice. My name, which sounds like a strange language to my ears, is a word I do not understand. But others do and the glaring discrepancy between their knowledge and mine is disturbing. I recognized Alex in the crowd, sitting with Lilian, both their heads drooping over seas of tequila. His hand shot up into the air. There was another man sitting with them, dressed in a plain white shirt and jeans. A stranger touched my back and shouted a loud greeting. His eyes were a sickly yellow. I observed with delight that this twenty-something was already an intermittent alcoholic. When we kissed cheeks I smelled on him the reek of despair. He pressed a flyer into my hand and flashed a desperate, jaundiced smile. The man with Alex and Lilian pulled up a chair for me. Lilian, whose hair fell about her face in a golden tangle, gazed into her glass as though trying to catch a wobbly reflection of the ceiling. Alex shouted an invitation to a party at Lilian’s later in the night. I asked him how much later. Soon, he said, and when I smiled disbelievingly, he introduced me, by way of compensation, to his friend who had read some of my poetry from years ago. As if it was possible, the noise level in Blue grew dangerously like an air-pumped balloon reaching its maximum stretch-limit. Alex’s friend was drinking water from a plastic bottle with the help of a straw. It could have been vodka or gin or any clear spirit but from his manner, the way he moved his soft shoulders, the way his eyes flitted, suspicious, from one table to another, it didn’t seem as if he belonged there or anywhere else. He was a spirit. A pale-skinned, delicate-lipped and translucent spirit. I looked around for Alex who was lost in the jungle of people. The cello and drums droned on. It was jazz night. Lilian had long since disappeared although her half-empty glass still occupied her seat. At the next table, a girl with red ears and black hair had climbed into her companion’s laps and was clawing his back with long, mean strokes of her nails. She had slipped off her shoes; there were angry red corns at the tip of her toes. Drifting smells of fried potatoes and oil, chilli sauce and fish tikka. Awful, said the water-drinker, and left. What’s awful, I wanted to ask him, my poems or this place or the way we have to gather in little groups in order to conduct meaningful conversations and then have tiny epiphanies before sleeping which we forget the next morning?
To get to Lilians’ I had to catch a ride but Alex and his friends were nowhere to be found. As I stood outside Blue Dragon and lit a cigarette I caught sight of a moving shadow near the parked motorbikes. My hand gripped my purse. The shadow moved into the light, and I saw that it was only a waitress. A man grabbed her from behind and pulled her back into the dark. After a while Lilian walked out with another girl or a woman, and behind them more of the same, girls vacillating like pendulum balls between womanhood and child-likeness. Then it occurred to me that the whole pub was invited to Lilian’s private party. Some of us walked, others balanced precariously on their bikes and rode off.
It was a chilly night and the streets wound and coiled round neighbourhoods like tangled intestines. I woke up in a hammock next to the pool. The place was empty and I don’t remember if the pale-skinned water-drinker was part of the previous night’s crowd and if he was, whether we spoke, or if we did, whether he said, “You remind me of crumbling fruit cake,” and if he did, then how did he know, for I did feel like crumbling cake, chunks of my memory falling off into the blue pool and sinking to the bottom.
IV: The Siege
For three days I was attacked by that awful revolt of the body: constipation. For half an hour each day I sat on the WC with a book – the first day, it was Proust; when that failed, I tried something more lucid, like Roberto Bolano; on the third day, it was Ulysses – but nothing worked. I teased the exit with my finger, it felt tight and puckered, like a whore’s lips, still nothing happened. So there I was with three days worth of shit clogging up my bowels. My insides felt rotten and swollen.
I limped to class. There was a gray haze about everything; traffic sounds were dull and muted; people and things sped past with alarming alacrity. My student, a boy of ten, asked me during our lesson whether it is possible to grow up to be an astronaut, scientist and a painter. We were working on sentence construction which always made him restless. A yellow packet of Smarties rested on his skinny laps. I wanted to smack him, his slimy saliva-coated fingers were touching everything. I pointed my finger to the words on the page and said, “Concentrate.” He repeated his question, thinking that I did not hear him. Was his mother home? Could I pinch him and get away with it? Would he bleed easily? He was a sickly little thing. I answered: “Yes, sure. But I don’t think you can do it.” He was dismayed but flashed an affectionate toothy grin as if to say, it’s okay; I forgive you. I was disappointed that he did not despise me.
When Elan got home in the evening, I was pretending to be asleep on the couch, so he trod softly to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator and poured a glass of water. Then he walked to the bathroom in the same quiet, considerate way. His sincerity disgusted me; how could someone love another that much? I considered calling up an old flame, just to spite him. Then the splash of shower, sounds of a ritual. I arose; washed my face at the kitchen sink, stacked the plates, cups and glasses in the cupboards and drawers, making more noise than usual. When Elan came out wet-haired and smelling like an advertisement he apologized for waking me. I did not correct him. He hung about me like a besotted puppy while I prepared dinner. A little later I asked him purely out of curiosity what his ideas were about children. He looked up from the limp sausage dangling from his fork and gave me a smile so broad that I almost choked on my noodles. He spent hours that night talking about Plans for the Future. The more he talked the more I drank. Elan said he had enough money to get a bigger apartment, that for a long time he’d been telling me I don’t have to work, he makes enough for the two of us – we could get married and start a family. He whispered that last bit. There was such hope in his voice.
V: An Unexpected Visit
A week after the party at Blue Dragon, Alex called me late in the afternoon. Elan had stuck a note on the refrigerator before leaving for work. Turkey sandwich in the fridge. Please be home this evening. The day was almost over, just about to surrender to twilight and then another eternal night. My body felt older. In the mirror sallow and sunken eyes stared back at my own. So when Alex called and asked to meet, I declined. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Do be a dear and say yes.” I poured myself a glass of milk and attacked the sandwich. The doorbell rang right on time.
Alex had not come alone. With him was a woman who was not Lilian, and I knew better than to ask questions. The woman’s name was Stella, or so she called herself, although she looked more like a Maria. Stella had slim eyes and a small chin but her aquiline nose betrayed mixed ancestry. Her long black hair was coiled into a loose bun. Her deep red lipstick smeared an impression on the glass of juice I poured for her. Alex looked disappointed that I was in slacks and t-shirt. He flopped down on the couch next to the door and began pulling the threads out of the cushion covers, twisting them around his index finger.
“What do you think of my friend?” I asked if he was talking about the water-drinker. For people like Alex, it is necessary to be vague, to gesture towards an idea and never the idea itself, to allow them the opportunity to connect the dots. “It was too noisy, I didn’t get a chance to hear him clearly,” I said. Maria asked where the toilet was and walked away. I watched her dress as it swished, the sun behind her legs lighting her body with a celestial glow. She walked like a queen.
“Do you know what I’ve been doing? Do you have any idea?”
No, I had no idea.
“The truth is,” he said, “The truth is that as impossible as it may seem, I’ve been living in a fool’s paradise or a prison.” I asked him what he meant by that. “I’ve been hiding in my cave of excuses. I guard it with armour, with a fellow who is paid not to let in dissenters. Do you understand what I mean? I pay him to keep out what I do not want to hear. Which is another way of saying I drink so people around me are forced not to take me seriously. It’s like a vaccination, isn’t it, cruelty like this? Cruelty is a strong term to use in this case, maybe, but it really does seem that people are getting increasingly cruel, their words are getting sharper, as though everybody has some kind of point to prove, as though wit has become a badge of honour to be worn on the shoulder with pride. Look at me – I hurt people and everyone fears and respects me for it.”
I asked Alex if he had been drinking. He sighed deeply. His brows furrowed together to form a hairy caterpillar that crawled the length of his forehead and disappeared into wrinkles. Outside the white walls of our conversation the world which contained my apartment and toilets and rooms and Elan moved on an axis, unstoppable. An aircraft bellowed across the sky.
“I met a man in my youth. He called me infrequently, always at night, and one of the things he asked me to do was masturbate for him so he could hear me breathe. I used to say I’ll think about it, just to torture him.” He paused and rested his head on an index finger. For a moment, he looked like Rodin’s sculpture. “Later I find out he’s a married man with two kids who makes clandestine phone calls when his wife is out of town. Now this cheating man was also like Charles. You remember Charles don’t you, it’s hard to forget a heartless beast, and Charles is also like Sham. All stalkers with knives, like actors in a medieval play or fantasy. And I was too silly, so easily charmed, and all three played with me the games people play for love and sport. And I never learnt, my dear, I continued to profess love for the worst of men and after that the most foolish of women. Why do I always end up clutching the remains of something ragged? I wonder, if I’d spent those years avoiding danger and trouble how I might have turned out.”
To this heartfelt outpouring I said, “Maybe fatter.”
Alex sighed again, he sighed a lot that evening, expelling breath like an overfull balloon expels air, his words flying over the room and under the carpet without getting to the point, dragging me along on a pointless journey. All his charm and subtlety was lost. A king of men reduced to a cliché. He continued in the same vein, yes he might be fatter or thinner, possibly a virgin, he might not have met Lilian or Stella or me, because life is connected in the same way Venn diagrams are connected, the overlaps are mysterious but certain. He would still be an unemployed waiter at a restaurant clearing tables, taking orders, cleaning up at the end of the night, sleeping at four in the morning, alone or with some poor fool as confused about men and women as he was. In other words, a wasted life.
I agreed and he left with Stella for another party.
Preet Kaur is a writer from Singapore. Interests include maps and cartography, chai and Indian desserts, travel, the Mughals and South Asian literature. Preet is currently earning a living as a full-time freelance writer and hobbyist photographer.