ForgetMe not

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
In the world of "us", it takes all kinds of questions and answers to get through a day.

Submitted: October 29, 2010

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Submitted: October 29, 2010

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Forget-me-not

  

All of us have a question we hate to answer. Even if we have a prepared answer, even if we know that the question is routinely asked, even if we’ve accepted its inevitability, we’re never completely ready to answer it.

 

We hate the eternity stretching ahead of us as words construct a perfectly innocent inquiry. As the sentence is formed the interrogation begins, a cruel inquisition, a wound irritation if you like. We hate our impotence; but everything has been decided. The question travels with us everywhere, as if our own very being doesn’t make any sense without it. We can work hard, outperform the rest, be the top achievers; but the question hangs heavy on us like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross. It is asked over and over again. Usually, the context of the question is totally innocuous. For an interested party it fits perfectly into a script of any conversation. People smile at our restless eyes and wait expectantly for our response. Our heartbeats struggle to keep the natural rhythm; we’re forced to speak. We paraphrase; we think even an anorexic, deprived response is more nutritious than silence. Eventually we squeeze our little drops of pain out. But we cannot satisfy curiosity and thirst. There is a pregnant pause and we begin with an uncomfortable, “Now that you mention it….” and the poor answer reinforces itself through a loop. We are the question’s prisoner. The question without response is our immortal midnight shadow.

 

“That’s the way things came out.” I used to respond whenever people asked me why I had become a painter. For years I did my best to avoid those questions and to keep short any temptations to revive the past. I painted, there were people who liked my work, some enough to buy it. Who knows what motivated their purchase? Perhaps the colours matched their interior design; perhaps they mysteriously related to the composition; perhaps they thought it was a good investment. But the universe didn’t allow me to just paint. It demanded an explanation for my artistic abilities but I couldn’t answer. Prevarication descended into bullshit. But the real question-I-hate-to-answer was the one I had to ask myself. While the media and art gallery owners were concerned with ‘how did it start’, I was horrified with a notion that it wouldn’t stop.

 

I have been painting for eight years. How long is eight years exactly? An eight years span is a highly individual measure. It can be a whole life, a whole love, as well as nothing. If you asked me about these eight years – between not painting and painting; like if I’d change a lot, if I’d lost a lot - I have no idea. Universally our memory is not to be relied upon and my memory in particular has its own shortcomings. I just remember certain events, largely related to the activities of Anill Singh; the rest remains unclear to me. Probably some of my paintings could give me an indication of what I was up to at different moments; what I felt, what I thought, what I saw. But to be completely honest with you, the more I look at them, the more unfamiliar they feel.

 

I’d struggled with my demons many times as I tried to quit. I left the country and lived abroad. I took manual jobs, just to have my hands busy with something. On many occasions I destroyed all my artist’s materials. Nothing helped. As soon as my hands didn’t touch a pencil or a brush for more than two days, withdrawal symptoms seized my body. Sooner or later depression, anxiety and an agonizing craving led me to resume painting. At some point I gave up. Undeniably, of all the evils in the world, being a successful painter wasn’t the worst that could have happened to me.

 

Then one day I set on the entrance stairs to the “Ocean Shopping Mall” eating ”Hainan chicken rice”. It was a lunchtime; office workers came down to the streets searching for fast food. I thought about the office people for while, trying to decide whether or not to paint something related to their daily lives. When I rose to my feet and walked towards the waste bin, disposable plate in my hands; I felt an unimaginable lightness on my shoulders. The next second I knew I wouldn’t draw again.

 

And now we can talk about it.

 

***

 

Most probably, I started painting because Anil Singh died. He died in Singapore, where I was born twenty-one years before his death. On top of that Singapore was an international expatriate city, where human’s joys and sorrows drifted in the open air all day long. Sometimes those sentiments got lost and appeared in the most unexpected places. In my case I encountered them in the museum.

 

But let’s keep the order.

 

Anil Singh had died before his life intersected with mine. Still, mysteriously I can perfectly remember that day. I learned about his death from an obituary in “Globalization Weekly” on the 21st of December 1999. It was a rainy, sickly sweet day in Singapore. Pre-Christmas Tuesday, with the entire population engaged in discussions about Christmas presents, shopping, packing and wrapping. My sister Yu had just received the results of her accounting exam. She had passed all three and was filthily happy about it. What I was doing reading “Globalization Weekly” at the age of twenty-one? A family thing. My sister’s boyfriend had left a copy in our house. He was going to be an investment banker and had to be sure that all countries were recovering after 1997 Asian crisis.

 

“Anil Singh, a collector of humans’ souls died three days before his eightieth birthday”, an ominous title announced. The two photos that accompanied the text pictured him in his later years. He was a slender man with kind eyes and irresistible smile. Born and raised in Fuji islands, his Indian roots eventually floated him to Singapore. He was a self made, capable fellow, who made his fortune through numerous real estate deals across Asia. He actually made it to the “extremely rich”. But simply being extremely rich doesn’t buy you a public farewell in the major business media. Neither was he a serial killer as the article’s title suggested. His legacy was one of the largest private collections of Asian art. There was feverish speculation about the real value of masterpieces he possessed, ranging from dozens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Works included anything from the China Ming Dynasties, to family objects that once belonged to Korean communities in Central Asia or Japanese in Peru. Any art specialist familiar with his possessions considered them a stunning enclypopedia of the modern history of Asia.

 

But to collect the art, Mr. Singh needed reasons. What did make people create, buy or lose a piece of art? He never acquired something that just came from a bankrupt museum at an auction. If he couldn’t smell a story behind, no matter how valuable the showpiece was, he wouldn’t buy it. What he really collected were stories, fables and legends.

 

As years passed by he had built up a strong team of detectives. They searched archives of failed dictatorships, bribed existing ones and interviewed worldwide immigrant communities. Aside from the story the only thing he demanded was that the story had to have taken place in Asia. No one knew why. It seemed to be one of those rich people’s whims. His final will and testament bequeathed all his possessions to the government of Singapore.

 

When I finished reading the article my sister was still jumping around our apartment. She phoned everyone. Overexcited she spoke of her results. Before hanging up, she gave some hints to uncles and cousins on what she’d like as a Christmas gift. I recall her wearing green homely clothes. From everything she wanted in her life, she had been just three exams away. Those things were career, husband and nice apartment. Kids? Probably, but it felt like she was centuries away from any thoughts of kids. Accounting exams were her top priority. For a second she stopped. She sat still on the sofa in the living room holding a Disneyland teacup in her hands beaming.

 

“Why are you staring at me?” She chuckled.

 

“Get lost champion,” I laughed, squeezing “Globalization weekly” in my hand and throwing it at her. She dodged well, the magazine landed on the sofa next to her. She leaned back shaking her head, giggling. That was the instant to remember her. She was young, unattached, and available to any imaginable turbulence of fate. Perhaps, if I asked her that night of her largest fear in life, she’d respond: “To fail the exams”. I didn’t ask her, I just recorded that manifestation of her. My sister, still a young girl; no bad habits, no fixed attitudes, light and determined.

 

During the night, I couldn’t stop thinking of the museum. “It will be huge.” I mused. “There will be hoards of foreigners and locals wandering around staring at countless masterpieces. Asians Americans, Australians and Mainland Chinese will arrive to search for their own little bit of soul. There will be tears, memories and reconciliations. Ultimately a proactive writer or journalist will overhear a story and write a fat sad book. The book will become a bestseller and a Hollywood producer will buy the rights to bring it to a big screen. There will be Oscars and Golden Globes; best screenplay and best actors. The movie will cash out an indecent amount of money. Then videos will take over shelf space. For a while it will be debated and then the movie will move into the classics of world cinema. In the end its fate will be that of all other tiny parts of history– it will be forgotten.

 

***

 

That night and the whole December 1999 had vanished and now exists only in the chronicles of the diarists. 1999 years of our era had past; we celebrated the New Millennium and Chinese New Year. And I didn’t believe or feel anything special; I didn’t have a thing that really grabbed me. I’d already served in the National Service, while my friends were just commencing. I had a semi-girlfriend. She was shorthaired tiny Chinese Singaporean. Both of our grandparents were from Hainan Island. That was the only strong connection we had. She was hundred percent against premarital sex and I was hundred percent against people who were against premarital sex. Disconnected from the obvious youth, I was ahead of my childhood friends; likewise I wasn’t geared up for the New Millennium challenges.

 

My parents made me think of the future. Something they always meant to do. On an ordinary family Sunday my mother cooked my favorite mutton soup. Earlier that morning, I noticed the ingredients that she’d shopped for. Instantly I knew she was up to something. All the meals she cooked were themed. Textures and ingredients were the cables that bonded her with the rest of us. For the duration of Yu’s exams she fed us with braised pig hoofs. When Yu and I had a quarrel, she stuffed our angriness with fish. When my father looked too stressed she’d spent days creating elaborate and exquisite shark fin soups. Yu and I grew up, struggled with adolescence; our father jumped over layers in his office. All the while our mother kept searching for the meaning of her life at wet markets’ counters. Subsequently, we learned to recognize house moods simply by looking in the fridge.

 

On the mutton soup’s Sunday she spent several hours in the kitchen. By noon, she asked us to spread dark red table runners. She liked using them on special days. Halfway through the lunch and just before a spoon with a yummy broth reached my lips for the first sip, she simply said: “There will be a day I’d like to teach a nice young lady to cook your favorite dish. For you.” My hand froze in the air - my sister had already cooked that soup to my mother’s standards. Instead of looking at my mother, I gave my father a slanting glance. He was already into the soup, but he noticed me being taken by surprise. He nodded, keeping his eyes on the bowl. “For a good mutton soup, you need a good cooker, fresh lamb and a cozy kitchen.” My sister’s head also jiggled to a total family unity. I said nothing during the rest of the lunch, just concentrating on my soup. I slurped it insanely to drown whining voices of human emptiness inside me.

 

I still squandered some of my time away, until I picked up a decent school. I enrolled in an Art history pre-university course at University of Singapore. As a child, my grandma’s bedtime stories had given me a hint that history was often associated with pain. Also, I wasn’t any good with numbers, strategic thinking and literature all together; I could only rely on art to enlighten me. For any turmoil or age of prosperity in the past, I would rather examine the point of view of an individual artist. I enjoyed depicting communications of mostly dead individuals. I took it for the ultimate truth, the subjective visions of artists. Deep inside I hoped to find something to help me express myself.

 

My Hainanese girlfriend found my sudden passion for art boring and unsustainable. We met for the last time on the zigzag stairways of Fort Canning Park. She stood holding a blue umbrella, Monsoon cut into hundreds of streams above it; her face resolute and serious. I stood under the open rain, my wet hair glued to my cheeks. I leaned towards her attempting a farewell kiss. She pushed the umbrella to shield herself and my lips landed on a soaking nylon. We remained like that for several minutes, enveloped in silence and rain.

 

“It’s time for us to get back to reality,” she was the first to talk.

 

“I don’t have a real reason to disagree with you,” I said.

 

“Is this true?”

 

“It is true. There is nothing that really holds us together.”

 

Our little romance slipped through me like Monsoon water in my hands. In my head though, I was floating on volumes of Renaissance. Uncertain about the whole life thing, I realized I was slowly arriving at the summer break. I’d applied for internships to all major museums in Singapore: the Raffles Museum, Asian Civilizations Museum, the National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Art Museum and to the recently opened Anil Singh Museum. I got interviews with the Singapore History Museum and the Anil Singh Museum. The Anil Singh Museum definitely seemed the place to be and luckily I was accepted. I wasn’t an exceptional art guru, but the newly opened museum attracted vast crowds and management could hardly cope with visitors’ inflow.

 

In July 2001, once I started the internship, everything changed for me. I moved to the world of art, memories and history. Frequently, at nights, when the museum was closed and the staff were organizing things for the next day, I slipped past and wandered through different halls, my eyes always closed. I sensed the enduring power of the human footprint that held the Museum together. The Museum was a maternal womb for me. I could feel its pulse, its heart. Back in 2001 I was still a crumpled fetus; I needed the Museum’s body to grow. Simultaneously, at night dreams became nightmares; but for me they were research projects that otherwise I’d never had done. Several months after the start, I memorized the whole catalogue by heart. In the evenings I read the accompanying stories over and over again. “You love the Museum more than Anil Singh would,” someone told me.

 

All of a sudden I was a museum guide everyone wanted. For all of the museum staff that was the most glamorous job - to guide visitors. But I liked it for other reasons. I witnessed everything that boring history schoolbooks failed to express. More than once I cried together with families. With an old couple falling on their knees in front of a simple Cambodian stool acquired in Thailand. The husband’s uncle had carved it before being executed by the Khmer Rouge “The soul is never lost.” I looked at visitors through a shield of tears; the reality outside the Museum seemed a wall of blatant lies, a cloud of hypocritical silence.

 

***

 

It was early October when I first saw her. Visitor crowds got thinner. It was easy to spot her as one of the museum’s most loyal visitors. Each day around noon she came to the Korean room. She walked around in a leisurely fashion and then sat on a bench in front of the “Forget-me-not” painting. She sat alone for several hours. She fixed her gaze upon the painting, occasionally looking at some photos she held in her hands. She would usually leave at around four in the afternoon. Her behavior couldn’t be considered unusual. The Museum didn’t have any code of conduct. It was envisioned that the exhibitions would reincarnate human memory in all possible forms.

 

The thing that immediately caught my attention was her look. From the back she looked totally Asian, more precisely, Chinese. She was very slim, with straight black hair and porcelain white arms. When she moved around the Korean room, she did it with the lightness of a thief. When I first saw her face however, I had to do a double take. I saw a European face. I wasn’t a great expert in anthropology, but what I knew was enough to tell all her other features were Asian.

 

On the last hot and humid week of November we spoke for the first time. That day she seemed particularly concentrated on sorting the photos in her hands. She did it fiercely; as if she wanted to erase images she looked at. She looked different; her usual calmness was missing. I waited for a moment when there weren’t many people around; I inhaled deeply, straighten my back, went directly to her and offered a glass of water. Actually I approached her carrying the glass. To my surprise she responded in a friendly way. “Thank you very much”, she said. I had never had such an experience, approaching a woman in a direct way, but I gradually relaxed. She was on her last sip of water when I asked her if she wanted a guided tour around the Museum. Her eyes lit up and again she said “I’ve gotten to know the Korean room pretty well, but I’d like to see other parts as well.”

 

“There are a lot of interesting things, I am sure you will like it,” was all I murmured before she let me into her mysterious world.

 

By then, I worked as an official guide of The Korean room. The Korean room was composed of art objects primarily from the families who lived in the Pre-war North Korea. The majority were acquired over a period of years from missionaries who served in Korea and from some of the South Korean families. There were Goryeo Dynasty paintings, Buddha sculptures, Silla Dynasty Korean ceramics and pottery. There was even a piece of a Goguryeo roof tile allegedly acquired from a war veteran family. By then the soldier had a second family in the South Korea and no knowledge of what had happen to his wife and daughter that stayed behind in the North Korea.

 

“Forget-me-not” was a portrait of a Russian lady, Zoya. There were a fair number of art objects linked to Russian families. The 1917 revolution made many Russians flee the country and settle in Asia. For the majority of them however, Asia was a bridge to cross on the way to USA or Australia.

 

Soon her ceremonial visits entwined with the daily routine in The Korean room. Sitting as still as a sphinx, she grew to form an integral part of the room. It was as if she was one of art objects herself, with no one, except for me coming to look at her. Sometimes I saw her eyes getting wet, tiny streams moistened her face. Her heartbreak sent electric currents through my veins during the day; in the nights uninvited she showed up in my dreams. In many ways she resembled the last human being in the world; her sculptured posture wouldn’t move even if the whole of human kind around her were reduced to Pompeii dust.

 

She set guard over “Forget-Me-Not”; I guided visitors. I used moments when tourists were reading informational booklets to glance at her. Several times our eyes met. But as soon as it happened she looked away indifferently. It was as if I was just another article that she encountered in her dreamy thoughts.

 

On the last day of November, I had to guide only two groups. My second group was at three in the afternoon and by the time I reached the Korean room it was well past four. I found her sitting in the same place. When the tourists had left I invited her for a meal. For about twenty seconds she looked at her nails on the right hand, but then she agreed.

 

We went to a small Indian restaurant. We ate Alu Tikki and Masala Dosa, and washed it down with Mango lassi. The only waiter in that place was very loud. He kept shouting to the kitchen staff across the restaurant. Each time he shouted, we turned our heads in unison to follow the path of his voice’ waves. Then our eyes met and we both smiled. She looked relaxed although she wasn’t very talkative. In between asking me about my work and the Museum she looked through the window at the road. Each time she averted her eyes, I thought she was deciding on something, to be there with me or be somewhere else. I realized she hadn’t even told me her name. I leaned back in my chair after drinking the last sip of Lassi and asked.

 

“Do you work in Singapore?”

 

“Hmm… No, but I moved here due to family reasons.” She turned her head and looked at me. Her mind was definitely floating somewhere unknown to me.

 

“I see.” I called the waiter and ordered another Lassi.

 

“Many women are here for the same reasons as me.” She moved her chair aside and crossed her legs. “So do you think Anil Singh’s museum is a success? Do you think it has achieved what he wanted?” She changed the subject, but kept staring straight at me, straight into my eyes.

 

“I guess so. A lot of people came and found information related to their families and friends. I presume that what it was all about. People to be remembered.”

 

“Do you want to be remembered?” She asked with a slight gesture of judgement in her voice.

 

“Maybe, I do. But I am not sure. My life is too quiet to be remembered. All the guys in Anil Singh’s catalogue went through hell. I don’t know hell. I am not the kind of person to be placed in the museum. I was born in peace and I live in peace. Who needs the story of a guy like me? Only advertisement agencies.”

 

I sipped my Lassi and watch her squeezing her rights thumb and forefinger together tightly.

 

She chuckled. I had an impression she was trying to place herself in the Museum catalogue. We went silent. I sat with a confident posture, but inside I couldn’t believe anything happening. She was a foreigner, so it had made it easier to approach her. Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure, what it was that I wanted. Since I’d noticed her, she became a treasury casket I was dying to open. I wasn’t even sure that I liked her in the way I’d liked girls before. But some irrevocable call made it pretty clear to me, I wasn’t there to just walk away.

 

She finally stopped squeezing her fingers and asked. “Tell me more about the “Forget-me-not” portrait, you know the one in the Korean room, of that lady, who was she?”

 

“Ah, the “Forget-me-not. That’s a long story.”

 

“I’d love to hear it. I have time. Do you?”

 

***

 

The next days she didn’t show up. I felt uncomfortable, as I always did when things lost order. Each time something fell out of routine I felt it represented a fatal omen. I couldn’t concentrate. I asked my colleague to switch with me. I went to work in the research centre. But I couldn’t stop continually returning to the Korean room to check if she had arrived. But the bench remained empty.

 

On the fifth day I saw her as I was leaving the museum. She had her hair up in ponytail. She wore a white cotton short-sleeve dress and beige leather sandals. With a ponytail she looked younger.

 

“I am sorry, I’ve popped up just like this. I thought you might like to have some food after you’ve been working all day long.” She came closer to me and I could sense her perfume. I could hardly describe what it smelled like, but it was a light, uncomplicated fragrance.

 

“Oh, no problem. I’ve just thought of getting some food before I go home.” I replied, looking around and scratching my head. “There is another good place two blocks away. They serve all kinds of food.”

 

She smiled and nodded her head. I felt relieved but worried. I was glad that this woman came back, and I was totally happy with the fact that she wanted to spend time with me. But as I watched her light steps, her swinging her handbag as we walked; she seemed anything in between a schoolgirl and a devil. Such was the contradiction of her very essence. She spoke of unrelated things like the weather and humidity; from time to time she turned her head to me and stared at me with such intensity that I even stumbled a couple of times.

 

In the restaurant we quickly picked up some dishes; she asked for a beer and I ordered a fruit juice.

 

She sat across the table from me with her handbag on her knees. She either kept her hands crossed or pulled her ponytail outwards several times to tighten it.

 

“My husband got a job in Singapore a couple of years ago. So we had to move here from Australia,” she suddenly said as a waiter was putting our drinks on the table.

 

I was a bit surprised, but at the bottom of my heart I had anticipated something similar to come out.

 

“The first year, he largely spent on his own while I was living between Sidney and Singapore. It wasn’t easy but I thought as a stable couple we could afford to live separately for a while. He was a good guy and I trusted him.” She unexpectedly pulled out a cigarette from somewhere and began to smoke.

 

“Eventually about a year ago I moved here permanently. It was difficult for me leave Australia and come here with no job or friends, my husband was here and in many senses he was pretty much all I had anyway. He worked long hours, traveled and had to attend work related dinners. Although we were living together again, I felt that something that used to hold our hands together got broken. We hardly made love and when we did I could sense he was somewhere else…. Oh, I’m sorry. If I embarrass you with all these details, just tell me and I will stop, okay?”

 

“No go ahead, I’ve heard much more delicate stories when I served in the National Service.” I said. I moved closer to the table, leaned my elbow on the table, my chin resting in the palms of my hands.

 

“There were late night calls; each day he came back from work later and later. Even on weekends he tried to avoid staying around me and when he did, he grew angry and irritated with each little detail. It was as if I was keeping him away from somewhere he really belonged.” She finished her cigarette and immediately lit another one. I could sense she was telling this for the first time. She made long breaks between sentences and even words, as if she was trying to comprehend what exactly had happened to her.

 

“There was a corporate party in May. Everybody had to come with spouses. So we went together. My husband introduced me to his colleagues, reluctantly holding his arm around my waist. I could feel the coldness and indifference of his arm through my evening dress. When we first got married, I would take his arm and spent hours energizing from the extreme warmth of his body. But by then, in that party - all he used to have for me was gone. Every bit of love and affection was absent. And you, have you ever been in love?” She wrapped her arms around herself as if an invisible cold chilled her to the bone.

 

“Not really, I used to date several girls, but nothing serious.”

 

For a while she seemed to reflect on what had happened to her. I also remained silent. The couple eating in the table next to us asked for a bill. She watched the waiter to bring the bill. Then she moved on.

 

“And then I saw her. We weren’t introduced. We simply happened to reach a bar corner for a glass of champagne at same time. When she noticed me, she just gazed for a second and gave me a one-second smile. She turned her back and ordered her champagne. But I saw, behind her smile that unique triumphant look of a rival, the rival who just turned you inside out and left you bleeding alone. I didn’t need anyone to point her out as my husband’s lover. She told me everything with that look.” She tightened her ponytail again and fidgeted in the chair. For a while she searched for a waiter with her eyes and when she got his attention she ordered another beer.

 

“The worst was that the woman looked truly spectacular.” She took her time to pour the beer, watching the white foam to water down in the glass.

 

“She was Chinese, with amazing long black hair. She was wearing very expensive cloths, I guess. As she left, all I could do was to watch her self-assured tread, her shiny hair swaying with each step. She killed me. I’d never considered myself a beauty, but neither had I felt inferior to anyone. But the shadow of her magnificence made me feel like a rotten pumpkin. The newly bought evening dress suddenly felt like an old wash out gown, my hair seemed messy and dirty yellow. And I knew there was nothing I could to change the way things were.” She gave a deep sigh and raised her eyebrows.

 

I noticed she looked sadder than before. But I waited silently to let her tell all she had to tell.

 

“After that party, one day, when my husband was at work, I searched though his belongings and found a fat pile of photos. All about the two of them. Just like a movie about my husband that I’d never watched before. Trips to Thailand, Malaysia, Japan. All of what were business trips for me were everlasting holidays for them. She was always in the foreground. On all photos she was like an ancient goddess, posing in her countless mini-bikinis from top designers. My husband behind her, to be there and to make her beam.”

 

I stretched myself and leaned on the chair. The restaurant was half empty by then. She looked at the wall, to her right, hesitated for a while and opened her handbag. She took a yellow envelope out, opened it and shook some photos out.

 

“That’s her.” She stretched her hand to me.

 

I recalled her carrying some photos to the Museum. Uncertain, I took the photos and looked through them. All the pictures were of a girl. She looked young and attractive. Personally I didn’t think she was that attractive. She did look confident and seemed to enjoy posing for a camera. “These kind of people always take seriously every shot, as if it was for a fashion magazine,” I thought. I looked over the photos several time. Only the girl, no trace of the husband.

 

“She looks pretty normal to me. Sometimes foreigners overestimate the beauty of Asian women.” I finally said.

 

She chuckled. Then she took the photos back from me and started shuffling them, as if they were playing cards.

 

“Of course she won. We got divorced. It’s silly to think of a divorce as a theft, but that what I felt. I felt I was robbed and left on a side of the road. The road that even wasn’t on my way.”

 

“I think to avoid too much attention my ex-husband got a transfer to Kuala Lumpur and they both left Singapore. And I stayed. I could have gone back to Australia; tried to rebuild my life. But this girl got into me. Initially I just had nightmares, weird dreams and stuff. But later I realized I couldn’t stop thinking of that woman. The photos I’ve just showed you, I stole them from my husband before I moved out. I stole them so I could look at her. I looked and thought. “What is it that makes you so perfect and me so miserable?” Several months passed and I realized I’d started dressing like her. All I wanted was to look exactly like her. I got my hair straightened; I lost weight. I had numerous beauty treatments to whiten my skin. I used to be a sporty, fit woman with a fluffy blond hair and a suntan.” She kept looking at the photos as she spoke.

 

“Originally I took it for a nervous breakdown; as long as that strange chinification made me fell better I didn’t mind. But then one morning I realized I’d lost my face. I’ve lost mine, I mean it, I’ve lost my face to her. Whenever I look at the mirror - I see her.”

 

“You mean you don’t recognize yourself?”

 

“No I recognize myself, my head, my body, even in a different style of clothing. But the face, the face is gone. In my reflection I only see her face. Overall it’s a silly story. You must think I am crazy. Let’s stop here, no need to go into more details.” She put the photos back to her handbag and asked the waiter for a bill.

 

She folded her hands on the table and sighed. I drank the last bit of my fruit juice, long since unpleasantly warm. The waiter brought the bill and she paid. Who’d ever had thought my first love would turn up like this?

 

Outside I sensed the proximity of rain. We stayed silent for a while and then she said she would take a cab to get back to the hotel. She gave me her phone number before we said goodbye. As I walked, the weather grew more confusing. Highly explosive city lid pressed over me all the way home. As if the skies hadn’t decided whether to open up for a Northeast Monsoon or to wait for a couple of weeks.

 

***

 

We went on a few dates after that. Nothing special, we kept eating out in small private restaurants. We talked or kept silent. There was always a harmony, as if we waited for a personal end of the world together - each anticipating an independent ending. Several weeks had passed before she invited me to her place.

 

She lived in an inexpensive hotel on Balmoral Road. The room was tiny with old furniture and odd red lamps on the ceiling. Her little space always looked clean and orderly. No clothes thrown over the floor, even my jeans and shirt laid carefully on the chair.  All the tourist booklets and guidebooks were neatly organized on the desk. There was a little vase with blue flowers on the two-drawer night table. A small redwood happy Buddha statue was sitting on top of the TV set. A bright wine-colored bed-runner covered a gray hotel bedspread. The same style runner covered the mirror on the wardrobe door.

 

Usually we met in that room to make love. She always initiated it. I liked it, I even felt relieved. Sometimes she didn’t make any move and we just sat in armchairs chatting quietly. I was scared to make any wrong move and destroy our fragile moments. She took the lead very often; our lovemaking was amorous, excited and even somehow violent. For many days and weeks I could never get enough of her. But when I realized she opened up more and seemed more relaxed, I started seeing the other woman’s face. Each time when the passion and lust tied me to her body – her rival, her most hated person stared from her face at me. Incapable to endure sultry looks of that other woman I would hide my own face in the depth of pillows.

 

The strangeness of that situation was almost unbearable. Throughout my life, I believed that I had done my best not to betray anyone. But when I was in that room, I couldn't help seeing the face of that other woman. Again and again I would ask myself, "How is it possible?" I was hesitating between telling her the truth and abandoning our relationship all at once. But I could never reach an answer.

 

She on the contrary, never spoke of her husband again. She didn’t cry, at least not in front of me. When she was reminded of her face, she stayed calm, as if she’d accepted her irrevocable change. She was like a beautiful bamboo forest - peaceful, tranquil and easy to get lost in.

 

One day when I touched her chin and kissed her, she abruptly turned her face away and asked, “When you look at me, what do you see?”

 

“Well, you mean your face, how do I see your face?”

 

“Do you see my face? How is it?”

 

“Hm, I see a pretty woman. With clear green eyes, straight nose; she has a mole on the right above her lip. And she has dimples when she smiles. “

 

“I still see her in the mirror.” Then her whole body would go cadaver pale, and her face would flash, as if she was fighting to get her face back. I knew I had lied to her. Certain emotions made me see the other woman’s face. But whenever I saw her body like that, I knew there was nothing else I could ever say.

 

She tried to smile. She stood up and instantly fell on the bed right next to me. We kept silent. I tried to reach her, but she just stroked my hand for seconds and turned away from me. She turned away a lot; it pained me. Many nights I thought she was the one. I was a part of the Museum; she was a part of the Museum. She was already a part of the hotel she stayed; I was becoming a part of it too. Both of us we were confined. She was a flower bud unable to open up. I was still stacked in the Museum womb. Sometimes I wished a fire would break out in the hotel. The hotel structure wouldn’t last an hour. I wanted to suffocate lying next to her. I wanted to go to hell with her, if it was a better place for her to be. But nothing dramatic ever happened to us. Outside, the December Northeast Monsoon was flooding the city. Christmas was on its way. And only our bodies lay in that forgotten hotel totally unconcerned. We were just a part of nothingness.

 

***

 

I don’t know whether it was a good idea or not to draw a sketch of her. That day, I had finished my work by seven. I phoned her and told I had to work from home that night. She said it was okay and wished me a good night in advance. I stayed in the museum library looking for tutorials on sketch techniques. After an hour of searching I came across a book for children. I wasn’t planning on becoming an artist, so it was enough for me.

 

Before I left the museum, I went to the Korean room to have a last look at “Forget-me-not”. The cleaning personnel were still in other rooms so I wasn’t disturbing anybody. I borrowed a Polaroid camera from the Admin office. I took several pictures and while I waited for images to appear, I sat on a bench that she used to sit on. I looked at the portrait. Again. It was beautifully painted but didn’t create any special energy around me. A blond woman, with her head covered with a scarf, probably a silk scarf. Her hair was curly. Some of the curls showed below her scarf. I couldn’t tell her age, but she looked young. She had blue eyes, more specifically, blue/grey eyes. Her hands held the ends of the scarf, as if she was going to take it off. “Technically”, I thought, the portrait was great. It captured the moment, when she was probably going to say something or even to make a decision. But still as I looked at it didn’t feel anything from the beyond. I checked the Polaroid’s shots and they looked fine. I put them inside the tutorial book.

 

At home, when my parents and my sister had gone to bed, I turned on a bedside lamp, took out a few drawing sheets I’d borrowed in the Museum. I stared at a white sheet. “Blank opportunity”, I thought. I sharpened the pencil. I didn’t know how to draw; I didn’t know how to start; I didn’t even have time. As a beginner I was supposed to shade squares just to get some blending practice. I didn’t care about squares. But the book insisted on shades. I needed to draw a face, to draw the lost face. Exactly the opposite of the tutorial; I wanted the lost face to come out of shades. I needed lightness or enlightenment. The stupid tutorial called for excruciating knowledge of the artist’s model. “Understanding of the face and head were vital to the portrait,” the book insisted. I tried to remember her in all kind of ways; how her face felt under my fingers, how did she look unzipping her dress in the shadow of curtains. These memories brought vivid images, but nothing complete. As if she was an Indian goddess with many faces. Each time, I, an average man, came near her, she changed. I was unable to capture her divine air. But I kept searching for her in the semi-darkness of my room.

 

Suddenly, Zoya’s portrait and her face opened clearly to my eyes as if lightning strokes illumined their omnipresent faces to me. And she came; she appeared - her hair resting on her shoulders, eyes staring at me. I stretched my arm to touch her, but an invisible force brought me back to the drawing paper. My eyes moistened and I touched the unfamiliar white with needle-sharp pencil. And then I couldn’t stop. Although I trashed many drawing sheets, by sunrise, when the first sounds of bus and car horns were building the streets, I was holding a decent amateur sketch in my hands. The goddess suddenly fell on the Land and acquired a human look.

 

On my way to work I stopped by a public phone booth. I called the Admin department and asked for a day off. I was held in high esteem such was my work ethic; the Admin manager approved and even expressed some concern of my health. I promised to take it easy and to relax. I couldn’t bear the temptation to enter the Korean Room and see the “Forget-Me-Not” portrait. I hated Zoya’s portrait. I was jealous; I envied Zoya’s lover for his ability to talk by drawing. That day was excessively grey. It was a kind of day that lost me. Singapore felt like a strangers’ city. I knew I was right in the centre of Orchard road, but I couldn’t really recognize anything. I spent long hours walking up and down the road. People passed in front of me as landscapes outside a train window. For how long I went walking I couldn’t tell. But it was long enough to realize it was getting dark. I rushed to locate where I was. Just next to Balmoral road. The hidden fate brought me right to the hotel.

 

That day we didn’t make love. I couldn’t. I was terrified of fantasies of the other woman. All I wanted was to be a virgin again. I wanted to give us a fresh start.


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