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Incandescent

2 minute read

Reposting stuff from the past. This one from 2005.

There she is, your ex-lover, across the bar and incandescent. Gleaming as she always does, though perhaps now from that diamond ring perched so effortlessly off her slender fingers, which grip the cigarette tightly in other places. You steal a glance. You steal two. You kick yourself for it. When the words “ex” and “lover” come together, you think, they form such a funny word. The prefix usually suffices, “ex” has an air of such finality, such legitimacy, all these things we never were. “Lover”, while being the closest word you can dredge up, comes together with the first with layers upon layers of an intensity now forsaken, a sordid mystery to be recounted, a tinge of regret in some places and the embrace of the new in others.

Beer, whisky, Marlboro Lights. The usual. I used to find the way she held her cigarette, the way she flicked it every so often, incredibly alluring. Now that I’m years past legal I find myself unconsciously recreating her style. I stopped requesting for Exit Music, she admits, mostly because I was afraid Shirlyn might realize.. I keep asking for it. I stopped coming here for the same reason. When, to torture myself, I’d ask for it, and revel in how it was rendered so perfectly, so strangled: we hope.. that you choke.. so perfectly mirroring us. It’s so easy to fall into old habits, you say. A temporary wave of nostalgia. Do you remember how we snogged at the ATM in front of your house/ at the playground/ in the lift, what we were thinking then? We weren’t thinking then. It’s so easy to fall into old habits, I know.

Old lovers, I used to say, are like old wine. (In addition to getting better every year,) You store them away, achingly at first, always knowing it’s the best move. Out of sight but not as much out of mind as desired. At some indeterminate point in the future you take them out, admiringly. Whether or not you partake again… would merely be a matter of choice. And circumstance.

Side-stepping, arm to arm, swaying together across that grass patch. Being this drunk would have been a good excuse a few light years ago. You ask: how many girlfriends have you had? I count with my hands and feet.. yet somehow manage to truthfully say, well, two. I’m drunk and of unsound mind but sober up at the words, ring, flat, wedding. Like a hostage who loves her captor I begin to feel, for the first time, pleased you are the friend I’ve never had, the friend you should have always been. Even if ring and flat and man are everything I could never be.

Roundtable

4 minute read

Where I post stuff from the archives, the stuff I like. This is from 2005.

Do you remember how when we first met, I thought you were Adrienne? You were in blue jeans, and a black, backless top. I was in what I used to wear years ago, and still do. Haha I guess things change, years pass, we move on, but not our dressing. Well I’m a bit drunk now so pardon my bluntness. I think about you sometimes. I often wonder if you do. I mean, of course, fondly — you know. We used to be close. I still don’t know what to call it, but I miss that. The uncertainty. The testing of boundaries. That streets had no name. The desperate feeling of wanting what you can’t have, the intense guilt. God the guilt. How intimacy was so innocent, how we were young. Adrienne. You thought I was someone else, who had the same name, but different hair. On my rare night out tonight I was with people I hadn’t seen in years. Classmates. People I knew back when I still bothered to dress up, before this jungle and this inanity became my home. People I knew back when there was you. Us going out in school uniforms. Disappearing. Years ago. When longing was young, and we were even younger. When longing was never wrong.

***

Let it go, pal, let it go. It hurts like fuck, sure. We can’t ever see beyond our pain or our loss. [glaring sideways for a second, then corrects himself] I’ve been there before. Recently. When you love someone so much and want nothing more than her happiness, yet she thinks you can’t give her that anymore. How can you go on, knowing you can’t make her happy, and she won’t let you try — knowing every moment you hold her, she’s thinking of that goddamn woman — [tense, tearful] It used to be simple, you know. Boy, girl, happy photos and expensive dinners. Birthday surprises and Christmas presents. It was simpler when we were younger. But at twenty five I suppose we know by now this is transient, that things run their own course. At least they’re — she’s — happy now. [wistful, sideway glance] And that should make us happy too. She was the first woman I loved. Only, perhaps. I suppose I should be happy to be the only man she’s ever managed to love. It’ll be our turn to be happy. [Inshallah.]

***

Semi-imaginary dialogue involving several people who have never met each other, all speaking to me in a bad dream: I had a part dream, part nightmare; we were kissing in my room and our parents caught us. I need to know it didn’t mean nothing to you. I had a luscious dream which ended too early. We were kissing in my room and our boyfriends walked in. Did it? We lit types — so obsessed. With symbolism, coincidence, signs, literary devices. Pregnant pauses. So obsessed with tragedy, and obsessed with obsession. You’re in love with the idea of being in love with me. And I’m in love with the idea of you being in love with me. Another lifetime perhaps, another place. Am I just a friend to you? It stopped being simple, the moment we kissed. You don’t know what it means to be loyal. She was my friend, you know, God, the guilt. She even hugged me. Come to London. Come see me in San Francisco. (Don’t come to my wedding.) You’re loyal, and well, loyal. You’ve been different things to different people, in different dimensions and places. In another time and place when this longing is never wrong. See me there, won’t you? I’ll dream about it, and hope it doesn’t end earlier than it should. /dream Did I mean anything to you? becomes a cry in the dark, though it’s no longer clear now from whom.

***

Down Monivong on a motorbike with you we went around in circles, lost. Moving onto Sihanouk Blvd it was the same, everything here was the same, looked the same, in this strange place. In the Trasak Pham of memories we were happily washing away the day’s thoughts — of Tuol Sleng, of genocide, of despots who died untried, of the white trash along Sisowath and starving children they literally kick away over chianti and foie gras — the lights went off. The whole street of Trasak Pham liked stealing electricity from this house, as our host had so graciously warned. The water stopped too. At least the soap suds were off, and there was always the prospect of sleep. With the air conditioning gone too, between stale air and mosquitoes, we chose the former. You tossed about, sleepless, bothered, while I fell flat and slept. I remember sleepless nights with you well by now. That night you stayed up to wait for Guy’s bike to pull into the porch. Many months, nights, later (we have no luck with electricity) we braved mosquitoes, escaping to the veranda at four a.m., telling each other jokes to stay awake until sunrise. We set out thus far without a purpose, returning with some. From Changi to Klong Prao, Arab Street to Trasak Pham, riverside to Thansadet, they say the woman in whose sides you seek refuge and who makes you laugh at four in the morning, is the one to want. In the right time and place when longing is never wrong, and we’re not getting any younger. Where the streets are never nameless, even if a little obscured. (I keep wishing I could write a little better about you, but as you know by now, happiness does not lend itself well to engaging literature.)

Excavation

5 minute read

Where I dig into my archives and repost stuff I like. This one’s from April 2005.

1.

Wherever I go, I am not allowed to forget – how perfectly crisp and displaced my unaccented English is. If there is an accent it is not one you can pin down. To my countrymen it betrays my independent school upbringing, a way of life, perhaps even my inclination towards the ways of the “West”. To all others it is a curious melting pot of diverse manners of speaking, testament to the absorption of diffuse cultures, if we are even able to say clearly what “culture” is, if we even had any control over these points of contact.

In a backpacker’s lodge in Australia one year, the football-mad nationalities gathered around the TV to watch the emotional Manchester United-Liverpool showdown, while the Americans sat in a corner unsure of what to watch out for on the telly. I realized, but not without some shock, that in the event I would ever watch my national team play (and so they did – at the Tiger Cup the next year, to surprise victory), the jersey I would be wearing would be the one on-screen. Red, too.

I said to a visitor once: the best thing about living in this place is the First World living at Second World prices. Everything else is a sort of win some, lose much situation. Our methodology in learning and teaching the Chinese language perhaps betrays far more than we are willing to let it – those characters, if we ever learn them at all, have become meaningless, we learn the broad strokes but not the fine print, we repeat to perfection the art of imitating a model essay under duress by our tuition teachers; those words are hieroglyphics at best, and the best that many of us can do is to attempt to create meaning from these hieroglyphs.

I am never allowed to forget my accent. In English, it is an accent which points not to precise geographic locations, but to imprecise states of mind and imagined affiliations. In the mother tongue, it is the lack of a passable accent that is grating to even my ears. Both have to do with displacement and unsettlement, and neither of them are exactly pleasant.

2.

The district does not sleep tonight. Sonagachi is just waking up, but the streets are already lined with last night’s vomit, uncleared, and the air still reeks of the liquor from every night before for the past years, uncleared. Today’s girls have taken the place of yesterday’s, though, who have either moved on to be the mummy (the lucky ones), or given way to one venereal disease and unwanted childbirth too many.

It is easy to rage when reading about it miles away from the scene – the exploitation! The misery! The violence against women and children! The illegality of human trafficking!

Being here changes all that. The rage is still present but tempered with resignation; even understanding. Some of the girls look as young as 12 – mostly, they are; if not, then they are malnourished and hence look many years younger than their actual age. Most of them are not here by choice. The only people who get to choose are those who had “choice” taken from them in the first place: the ones who, now hundreds of miles away from their homes (in Bangladesh, Nepal, rural parts of India whose village names they never knew, cannot remember, or can never return to again from shame) – these people can choose to stay in, or ship out into the big cities of West Bengal and beyond, where they have no one, whose language they do not even natively speak.

Sonagachi is Kolkata’s red light district – it also happens to be Asia’s largest. Conservative estimates put the number of sex workers in this district alone to be at least 40 000. This number means nothing until you take a walk through it: girls as far as your eyes can see. Some of them reek of alcohol and substances; all of them look resigned.

It wasn’t the fist-clenching, heart-pumping moment I had expected.

Instead, I felt the – what shall I call it – sadness – permeate my body and grip my soul, as my eyes fell to meet their vacuous ones, woman to woman.

3.

It was the moment I had been waiting for all my life, to invoke that trite turn of phrase.

I’d felt her inch closer to me, her arms against mine, as we tried to pretend to be interested in watching the movie, my palm against hers. We lasted about eight minutes. By the ninth, we were kissing breathlessly, bodies against each others’. She was my first as I was hers – it felt nothing like kissing the many boys we’d each had. I remember with precision all which I was thinking as I stepped into her darkened flat: how is it possible that I have only known this person’s last name for a week, and yet feel this.. impossibly close? After. I was lying stomach down, fiddling with my mobile to pretend to have something to do other than swoon.

“When you grow up,” she said. “You’re going to be really scary – impossibly brilliant and sexy. And I’m going to have to try so hard not to want you.”

I was grasping at straws vacillating between my rising enchantment and the crushing despair: that in two hours she had accomplished what it took my men months to, if ever at all – wrap me around like that. And she knew it.

I sat at the edge of the bed, as I would continue to for weeks after, watching her as the orange light fell upon her face, as I would for months after. Her hand in mine for never more than an hour each time. I remember thinking, my God, she’s so goddamn beautiful.

It has been a number of years, but I’m not sure I’m done growing up, or if I’ve even begun to.

Release

2 minute read

Where I dig into my archives and repost stuff I like. This one’s from 2005.

like the foreign worker who, having spent six days of every week, fifty one weeks of every year, building for a country that is not his, listening to languages that are not his, but whose greatest pleasure comes from talking every Sunday in his native tongue for hours to any relative and friend in Dhaka who will listen, to release his repressed Bengali at a dollar a minute, no matter the cost, who,

like the repressed lesbian kissing her first girl after a string of boyfriends, and is perfunctorily surprised to find she likes it much more, because girls don’t merely stick it in and slop around but take their time with her, and she knows now, from a kiss alone, that irrevocably, and uncontrollably, she has to be, the mystery ends here, no matter the cost, who,

like the seven year old in his first week of school, is afraid of teachers, people he calls monsters, as they are very big and scary and always demand to know if his shoes are white, if his nails are clean, if he’s brought his consent form, like it matters at all, and he finally manages the courage to raise his hand, to ask in a meek voice, if he can go to the toilet, there where he swears to never again take Ryan on in the challenge of drinking three cans of Coke at a go, no matter the cost, who,

like the wage slave on her night out after years in the office, is relieved to find the bar to be the same as when she last left it, in 2001, only that the prices of the drinks have risen proportionately to her income, so has the number of suitors (men and women) taken on an inverse relationship to it, and she realizes she is now 28, though last she checked it was 2001, and once in 2003, so after a few rounds of whisky she gets groovy, at the time of the night where whisky is now called ‘happy juice’, determined to have fun for a change, no matter the cost, who,

like me, is relieved to find release, release from the spell of old, from the bright lights and other excesses, from the daisy chain of ex lovers of ex lovers who are now each other’s new lovers, from the endless chain that swears they love you, truly, really, but not really at all, but now finds greatest pleasure in holding the hand of the one I said I loved yesterday, though I already meant it everyday before yesterday, in sitting here writing, as she sits here sketching, admiring her with the silliness of the first flush of love on my face, knowing that I am, in far too many ways, as a woman reborn, in a motion picture where I provide the words and she the pictures, set to the soundtrack that is ours, and ours alone, and I leave this dangling without a full stop because that’s just the way it is, no matter the cost

The Eight Ages of a Woman

5 minute read

Blast from the past: digging into my archives and republishing the stuff I like. This was originally from 2004, and reposted again in 2005. And again now.

  1. It is the universal truth — before any woman, man, boy, or girl, is able to walk, first she must spend time crawling. And so it is here, as well as others, that first she learns the root and the nature of her passion and desire, isolates it, tames it well, calls it by its rightful name. But first, an awakening: coldness gripping her palm, fear and joy overcoming her heart, when she, after strings of boys (and strings of boys’ broken hearts), realizes with a rude shock, everything she had dreamt of for years, thought about in secret, put aside from shame, was here and now and right here, in the cubicle in the cinema in the fluorescent light, and there was nothing shameful about it.

  2. First the prelude before the climax. Six boys and counting, there is no lack of suitors, there never was and still isn’t, but it just wasn’t the same, it wasn’t quite it, there was something missing. To be sure, they were all excellent specimens of their kind, and yet — to hold a man around his waist and wish his well-toned body softer and more tender, to kiss him and to imagine what it’s like to kiss a woman, feeling increasingly like an imposter the more we make out and the further this spirals: this is not the life I could be content with, this is not the life I could pretend to want.

  3. I’m decidedly not gay, she says, before announcing this is why we cannot see each other anymore. Well — I’m not either! I chime in, badly wanting to keep her. Or am I? I couldn’t possibly, I thought, having had more men in my short years than some women ever will in their lifetimes. I, too, was prey to the misconception that sexual behaviour and orientation were necessarily one and the same, ignorant of the nuances of human interaction. All I knew then was that I wanted this woman more than anything else I had ever known, and that “gay” was the name other people had for us.

  4. Going from whispered secrets in darkened stairwells to holding hands with women in the light of day, felt like one very long draw of breath, and even further leap of faith. It was to stare the unnamed persecutor in the eye and to say, I am not ashamed, it is to look gleefully at these men who want us both, and to say, you’re not invited, it was to leave a taxi stand in anger and resolve one night when the white men in front of us want to know where we’re headed (her place) and had the gall to ask if they could come along, it was to claim that very simple act people who don’t know take for granted, that is to hold the hands of a woman is not at all an easy task, no matter if she is the one you love, simply because you look like a woman.

  5. Settling into the motions of the “R” (Relationship), another set of questions and conflicts arises. Please do not squeeze the toothpaste topdown, can you please lift up the toilet seat? Why? Whom among us pees standing up? Birthdays and anniversaries, breakups of friends and weddings of family; what CDs to leave by the hifi, which CDs to leave in the car. I’m not very much wiser off from when I started, but at least I know now to leave the toilet seat up even if nobody pees standing up, or, failing which, to turn over and go to sleep and to make breakfast in the morning.

  6. And when it ends, girls cannot, unlike boys and girls, simply cease to be, mostly since close friends and lovers so often overlap in our world. Who takes what, which places you can never visit again, which CDs of yours and household appliances to leave behind in her possession, which to demand back. Yet why do they always remain the first people to run to when another affair fails, and why do they still care as much, all without illusion or pretense? If there was a word for “between friend and lover but never again but more than a friend nonetheless”, I would invent it here. I would be much poorer off without knowing this one group of people known as the gay girl ex. They’re the sweetest people in the world, but only when they’re not busy being malicious to each other, or dating each other.

  7. Many nights I have stood here by this window in my kitchen, phone in hand, sobbing. Gazing into the distance, not quite sure what the person on the other line is saying anymore, but inserting appropriate “ums” and “yes, buts” at the right points. Last week, I found myself at the same spot, doing the same thing. But this time I was pretty sure, unlike other times, I would hate myself for doing what I tried to if you hadn’t stopped me, and this time I don’t know very much about the future, mine or yours, or ours, and don’t pretend to. But I do know I can’t bear the thought of not having you in my life, as difficult as it is, with or without.

  8. (this is a story i do not have the means to write because i have not lived it yet, have no clue what it will be, don’t even dare to start on it. this is the part where i say it may be a blank canvas, yes, but at least i know from all these vignettes i’ve had the luck to witness and be part of, these snippets i’ve glimpsed into, it isn’t something to fear. drawing all these vignettes together, weaving them whole, not phenomenally different from what everyone else is doing: just putting the pieces of a puzzle together, finding the pieces which fit, except that in my world — it takes much more effort to hold the hands of the one you love, much more masochism to just keep swimmin’, much more courage to even begin to try to love.)