Please tell me I’m not believing in a dream that doesn’t exist.
In my years of growing up, I’ve gotten used to being alone. It’s during these times that I’ve felt most at home, bare of pretence and the need to be civil. It isn’t always pleasant or easy, but I accept it as a need all the same.
My need to be alone is negligible (or so, I’d like to think) but necessary. I indulge in solitary activities; long lunches alone, detours on walks back home, solo trips out of the country (or state), hours spent reading until bad posture jolts me back to reality and force me to move – anything to get in touch with my subconscious, recalibrate and understand myself better, something which seems to get trickier with age. Not many people are okay with this need. For some reason, there exists a certain stigma in being seen without a group, as if it’s capable of stripping away one’s dignity. I’ve received countless weird looks when I mention my preference to go out for solitary meals and how going to gigs by myself isn’t that big a fuss. People shirk away from being seen by themselves as if it’s a valid cause for embarrassment, as if their skins are so thin.
But it takes years and effort to understand things and I think it takes even longer to understand our own motives and desires. Perhaps the reward is in the process. Perhaps others can see that sometimes being alone isn’t really about being lonely at all.
The first time they painted her face, she’d wanted to cry. She didn’t understand how the art of making a person beautiful transformed her instead into a caricature. Her coral mouth looked clownish, her silver-painted eyelids accentuated the purplish tint of her dark circles, the mascara transformed her lashes to look like the many tiny sprawling legs of a spider. She couldn’t afford to cry at the time, not as aunts with pinched smiles watched and told her she looked beautiful. Later at night she would wipe everything off and wonder if the problem was in the makeup artist or in her, the subject.
The first time she appeared wearing a kebaya in her first year as a woman, her mother’s eyes crinkled with pride. Beyond her slender waist and wider hips, she carried the same rare beauty her mother had glimpsed in other women. It was in the easy way her daughter’s laughter would complement her eyes, in the way she bowed slightly for a salam encasing hands older than hers with all the warmth and grace she had to offer, this time no longer as a child but as a burgeoning woman of her own, in the attentive manner she would listen, so attuned, before she spoke to others.
The first time she went to a concert, she saw the magic in which music could augment the beauty of another. Before her eyes was a boy she’d seen many times but was never drawn to in previous days. A seemingly plain boy, a seemingly simple boy. As the music began and enveloped them in its warmth, she noticed the way those boyish limbs moved, the milky white flash of neck under dim lights, the way he closed his eyes to embrace the kinship that filled the room, how he savoured every beat as if it filled him up. All this watching made her shy. As she took in the smell of sweat and alcohol in the room of moving bodies, she realized that what she felt was the ecstasy of attraction.
The first time she knew it wouldn’t work, she wondered if it was anybody’s fault or if it was just people in the 21st century that gave up on people too easily. She needed for things to end, she thought. She needed to ache to understand; not to stop seeing the beauty in past lovers but to stop yearning for that beauty too much. She’d heard stories of arranged marriages with longer lifespans than marriages of people who were crazy in love and wondered how much of love was about perseverance and how much of it was truly organic in nature.
There was nothing Aida feared more than being cheated on.
When it finally happened, it was an affirmation that the reality of their carefully cultivated 15-years together was finally over. Breath straggled in throat and cheeks flushed from anger, she grabbed the keys for the white Honda MPV, now grey and dusty from neglect, and drove off into the night. The last she saw from her dashboard mirror was her husband in his boxers and cotton grey t-shirt, arms flailing in the dark to stop her from leaving as if signaling for a helicopter from the skies to come and organize a rescue. “Aida!” he yelled. “Come back!”
She wondered if he enunciated the other woman’s name with the same fervor. The declaration left his gaping mouth emptily and lazily; she didn’t care for his words no more than she cared for the dinner she’d half-heartedly prepared a few hours earlier. Funny how love, too, has an expiry date. There was something both comic and tragic about his cries as she reversed out of the driveway and pressed on the gas, tires screeching with its ugly, sharp sounds puncturing the otherwise pristine night in the quiet neighborhood of Damansara. Most of her neighbors were old retirees, many of them no doubt nosy about the commotion taking place outside. She could picture Joyce from the corner-lot semi-D peeking from her upper window in her pink nightie, her spectacles dangling on the bridge of her nose, but Aida was too distraught to care about public opinion at this point.
It was the kids she pitied most, the image of their crestfallen faces already making her sick to the stomach. Sorry Abah’s not been behaving. She knew kids can always tell when adults try to deviate them from the cold, hard truth. Both her boys were still peacefully sleeping in their beds, oblivious and untouched in their dino pajamas. She’d come and collect them the next day, she just needed a few hours to get her shit together.
The warbled ads on the radio weaved themselves into her unraveling thoughts. 1-300-88-2525. She would’ve ordered pizza in more often if she didn’t care so much about the lack of nutrition it gave her kids. It was only during a traffic light stop that she realized she was hiccuping from all the crying. She was headed to her childhood home, where Mak and Bapak would be sound asleep. The sight of her would scare and hurt them but she realized with a sinking sensation she had nowhere else to go. At 38, her waist was no longer neat and trim, not after the two pregnancies she labored through.
She’d given her body to build a family with a cheater, what did she lose and gain from this? She thought of the lines and fading scars on her body and how it traced the history of her years. Aida was no longer the wisp of a girl she was, but there were days where she could feel its ghost stirring inside her, staring mutedly into the mirror as she begged for verification of its existence.
What would life be like if she had chosen a different route?
At 26, she had been juggling the roles of housemaid, resident cook, as well as adopted parent, sibling, and friend for six years now. She’d never intended to lose her girlhood the way she did when she crossed land and sea to work in Malaysia. Like all other human beings, she’d often lie awake at night as she skimmed through What Ifs in her head.
Maybe she’d be manning a food stand. Her days would begin at five in the morning with huge silver pots of beef broth simmering away on the stove. The sky outside would shift from the velvety darkness of night to hues of blue, the air containing a crispness she’d never find in any city. She’d then clean a basin full of beansprouts, nimbly removing their roots, her fingertips pruned from being in water too long. With hair neatly tucked underneath a bandana, she’d move to chopping coriander and chilli as condiments for the bowls of steaming beef noodles she’d sell.
Or, alternatively, she’d be toiling away on the fields as a farmer’s wife. The weather would reign over their fortune and sorrows. Day-by-day, she’d be dressed in cotton trousers folded high above her knees as she’d trudge through the fields and tend after the animals. Nights would be perfumed by the smell of the sea cucumber ointment she’d rub all over her aching joints, her back sore and bruised from carrying heavy rattan baskets filled with freshly harvested crops.
Or, what if she had chosen to marry and stay at home instead? Perhaps she’d show off a fuller body and a softer stomach, with stretchmarks across her abdomen and her buttocks — all emblems of successful births she’d relish with pride. Her husband would be her first and last glimpse of each day. While he’d be at work, she would fuss over keeping their house in tiptop condition, making sure their finances were in check and that they’d have enough to go around. Her hands would be rough and they’d have little to make do with, but at least it’d be through the expense of their own home.
Most of Imah’s nights were coloured by the notions of these other lives. All the while, the ceiling fan would whir rhythmically as her mini pink radio blared Hindi songs singing promises of love, warbling occasionally from bad static. Promises, like all the things she was promised in her life.
*This is a snippet of my revised edit of ‘Imah’, a piece I have been revisiting during my MA Fiction Workshop.
I wonder if every couple goes through nervous collapses as they build and rebuild what’s theirs as a unit and what’s theirs as separate people. Who’s to know what’s right and what’s wrong or if the lifespan of this would last? Maybe therein lies the fear — not knowing the expiry date of all things good and bad.
I still remember the first time I listened to Bloc Party’s ‘This Modern Love’. Pain was a different type of suffering at 17 when there wasn’t yet enough of a reference point to things, let alone self-assurance of any kind. At that point in time I was a very moody teenager, prone to bad poetry, frequent bouts of anger and long-drawn nights held up by inexplicable tears. But as I clicked replay again and again, the song gave me hope. Hope that the future would be great, that I’d experience life’s complexities and come out suave, interesting, useful, good enough. Hope alive that romantic love in the modern age wasn’t just a concept made out of cliches and that it could resolve things and fill in the looming gaps.
I have a different sense of romance now. I don’t mean that in a disillusioned manner but I’d say it’s better situated. Having now gone through different varieties of the supposed same subject, it is easier to see through it under a harsher light without the frills of fine dining or fancy speech. It is important to try to love because its failures can awaken us with necessary truths. We all know things aren’t easy. We’re all flawed and people want different things all the time but in the end, it’s how willing we are to compromise with someone to make things work. Most of the time, the willingness runs short. Through romance, I realised what a selfish teenager I was; under the guise of sadness, I’d hoped for things without thinking about what I had to give prior to taking. I confused my loneliness for entitlement. It isn’t fair to rely on a concept to save me without putting in my own effort. I was silly. Maybe all people are when they meddle with big things. Dealing with people can be sticky. People are sticky after all.
Frankly, all relationships are hard work and through some strange turns I’ve peculiarly found myself in a comfortable position where I am nurtured by so much warmth and care by a boy who thinks more of me than I do of myself. Where I’ve slipped up, I’ve instead been treated with gentility and patience. Sometimes I worry if I am deserving of such light, if I am too vile and careless with my actions and my words. But looking at the bouquet of roses over our one year celebration, I can’t help but feel glad and this desire to do better, to do good. There is this certain sense of gratitude that somebody with a heart as big could find it in himself to see something in me. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I want to learn how to nurture back.
Listening to ‘This Modern Love’ now, I realise the song is every bit an anthem as it used to be. It hasn’t lost any of its earlier magic or tenderness; maybe these are all signs pointing to a true classic and Bloc Party can breathe relief at always having claim to its stellar album that is Silent Alarm. Romance still breaks us, though I don’t think it ever wastes us even when we think it does. I’ve never been entirely sure how the song’s message of cynicism is able to ironically fill me up with hope but I suppose you just don’t question some things.
Not some songs, not some loves.
I can’t remember much now of the energy I had before I left for England or what it was I was hoping to find when I traveled all the way here with my maroon luggage bag which equaled me in weight and height. When I think back about how I was, desperate to find some vestige of meaning in an age where it feels elusive, I still feel disbelief at how I managed to forge through in spite of the doubts and challenges.
Some days move by slowly, some weeks fly by much too quickly. In the blink of an eye, I am already halfway done with my program. These recent months have been much more welcoming than the earlier ones and I have been grateful for the longer days, the warmer company amongst friends I’ve made, the skills I’ve developed as a person.
It has been humbling to realise how much I lack in writing, to read other stories and marvel at other voices trying to develop as much as my own. I used to write for myself; because it was cathartic, because it felt good and it was the only way I knew how to things fluidly. Writing feels a lot more weighted these days and sometimes this feels uncomfortable. There is a distance between the reader and the pages at hand I still try to bridge. I may not always be successful, but I’m aware of the responsibility that lies in wanting to convey important messages and the promise of growth keeps me going. Writing is the attempt to approximate what others feel. Isn’t that still a wonderful task to endeavour upon?
And perhaps any worthwhile fight is meant to be uncomfortable at some point.