January 17, 2014

The Story of Absence. ~ Shirley Maya Tan

Realization came, late and still un-welcomed.

I am not present.

Not in my newly renovated apartment, not eating dinner in my parents’ house, not checking my daughter’s homework and finding out how she is coping in her new school. Not involved with my dad’s companies. Not catching up with my close friends in Bangsar. Not madly rushing from the airport to another meeting.

I could walk the streets day and night, country to country, looking for some clues in every corner, in every person, and in every set of open arms. I could knock on every single door, apologetic and inquisitive, and I still wouldn’t find any remnant of a real answer.

I am simply not here.

Here is where I have been avoiding all my life.

I could be found everywhere else but here, because here is where everything will come to light. So, I yearned to be away from everyone and everything that would reflect the starkness of the truth.

I am still stuck in that place, somewhere between awakening and nostalgia, crying my goodbyes, on the balcony of revelations, unable or unwilling to let go of the railings, to see what lies ahead and what had come to pass.

My absence hangs over me like a dreaded gloom. Like the certainty that I lost when I decided to escape. I walk around looking for a ghost. Not anyone’s, but mine. The ghost of a person I used to be before it all started. Or during.

Dozens of people I have made myself into, with unrestrained disguises, creative excuses, innovative facades, utmost indifference. All of them are still evident, here, in Bangsar, in London, and in all the places which I have ever went to.

And the latest version of me, created by my abject absence, is trying to find all of them, the different episodes of the same story, and put them back together.

I’ve met some of them in the last two months.

I found March 1992, sitting in London’s Harvard Court, all dizzy and drenched with euphoria.

She had just turned 21 and lost her veiled innocence to some American bloke. She thought that her feminine shackles have been broken at long last and she could taste freedom in whatever size or colour. No longer would her worth as a woman be measured by what laid between her legs. Or so she thought.

April 1996 was standing outside my old house in Oklahoma, checking out her new toys.

She had just opened her dance club in the city and made some money. So, she bought herself things she did not need but wanted to keep at hand just so they could assert her status in life. She winked at me and showed off her Porsche 968 Convertible, her Harley Davidson Fat Boy and Range Rover. At the corner of her garage was a Jet Ski.

Men of all ages and colours were fawning over August 1996.

Even women were throwing themselves at her. For the lack of a better word, she was spoilt for choice. There was this constant self-indulgent grin on her face. She was the epitome of cool party gal.

January 1998 was quite perplexed. She saw death and life in that one month. Her grandfather had passed away quite suddenly, but a boy had knelt down on one knee in the airport, and proposed to her. While her eyes mourned, her heart leapt for joy.

April 1998 was crying frantically, constantly pressing the redial button.

Her fiance haven’t spoken with her for two days. From what I understood, both of them had a really big fight. She couldn’t understand what was taking him so long to come back from Vancouver, and entertained the thought that perhaps he might have had second thoughts.

I saw July 1999 crouching in a corner.

She whispered, “It’s been four months into our marriage, and I am still learning. Sometimes, I feel quite helpless. I don’t know what goes on in his head sometimes. At nights, we sit in bed, he is reading and I am writing. It seems that we just go about our business quietly, careful not to disturb one another. And I fear that the silence does not equate to any sort of peace”.

I bumped into a frazzled December 1999.

“I miss him,” she said, and then, with a sheepish smile, she confessed: “We are expecting our first child next March.”

May 2000 was prancing up and down with anxiety.

She said that the baby has helped in keeping her really busy. She said that her husband comes home very late from work these days. And that he has to eat dinner alone, and that the both of you hardly talk and share anymore. Physical intimacy has evolved into playing with the baby together, and she putting plasters on his back.

I came across September 2000 lying in bed, all clenched up.

She was mumbling, “I am a terrible mother and wife. No one believes me, but I know, deep down inside, I know the truth. If I were so good, our lives wouldn’t be like this. This is a nightmare!”

I was not surprised to bump into February 2002 standing almost steel-like in front of the Judge at the Divorce Courts. She saw me from the corner of her eyes. I was certain she did see me, but she did not flinch or move a muscle. Her eyes were fixed at the Judge and answered, “Yes.”

October 2003 was a sight of wreckage. She didn’t want to talk at all. She had just buried her beloved grandmother and had not come out of her room for five days.

I suggested a reunion, a meeting to discuss our situation. They all dismissed it as a bad idea, and have avoided me ever since.

I suspect that, each in their own way, they blame me for what has happened. For not holding on to the good times, for letting things get this bad, for not believing in love enough, or believing in it too much. They don’t want to be reunited, because we don’t belong in the same place.

We all exist in different times, different dimensions. We no longer have anything in common with one another.

They consider me a completely alien being. If they are the chapters of our story, I am the epilogue. I am the conclusion, one that they wouldn’t have come to understand themselves. To each of them, I am an abstract term. Impossible to define. So, it’s true what they say about the past being a foreign country. Indeed, we do things so differently there.

Hence, my absence is much stronger than my presence.

There were times when I used to sleep next to a warm body, and I had never felt more alone. But the times when I began sleeping on my own, I started to feel the space and freedom I have been yearning for.

In the strangest way, my absence is with me all the time. It has ways of making itself known—just like the jingling of keys to my new home, the turn of the door knob to an empty place when my daughter goes off to stay with her father, the smell of the hotel room in each country during my business travels, the scent of innocence that once was—they all announced the presence of my absence.

At night, I sleep on the right side of the bed. Though I’ve tried my hardest to move towards the middle, to make most of the unexpected space, I still lie on my allocated side, careful not to disturb my absence, sound asleep next to me.

And in the daytime, I walk around the streets and talk to myself. Together, we try to figure it out. So far, we haven’t been successful. The issues we concern ourselves with, are painful ones.

Could this be, as my absence said, our destiny? And in that case, can destiny be bad for you? Could one choose happiness over fate, or would that be considered blasphemy?

My absence follows me down paths none of us have been before. Every now and then, it smiles a smile that implies superiority that seems to confirm the pointlessness of these walks and talks. Sometimes, when everything goes quiet for a while, I can hear it talking to me.

“What are you doing?” It asks. “Why are you pretending to be looking for answers, when we both know who you are really trying to find?”

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Author’s own.


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