I touch, slowly and carefully, along the lines of my bones and wonder how this came to be. I look at my hands and they seem no different. Maybe a few more creases, a few more lines; slightly darker than the rest of me. The Khmer women wear elbow length gloves to shield their hands and arms from the sun. I stay covered up but not gloved: it seems an excessive vanity. The sun is wild here, not like at home where it heats up slowly, lazily climbing blue skies and drifting amongst white clouds: it gives fair warning of a hot day in its languid build up. Here it cranks itself up into the bleached out sky and aggressively torches the city, every day the same. My hands ought to look like frazzled bacon the amount of time they are exposed. They don’t. The changes are more subtle than that. I don’t notice until I slip off the gold band on my finger – then I can see the difference. A thin white ring remains; a ghost of a ring. How fitting.
When we married it was too big. We didn’t have time for fixing rings: it seemed so unimportant. We both freelanced so we lit out to wander the world, feral and free. After we married we travelled to Fiji together. Dived the coral seas, trekked through wooded mountains and swam in inky lagoons. I’d rise early, duck my head through the low doorway and perch on the stone step then watch the skies wash with blood as the sun awoke and rubbed its burgeoning warmth across the swell of hills and the dusky mountain peaks; nuzzled into shadowed valleys and kissed animals and people awake. I kept my notebook handy, catalogued our adventures in my varying scrawl, paying our way and feeding my obsession. My obsessions have changed now. I no longer write.
I sit in the bathroom. It is the smallest room in the house: the only one with a lock. I feel secure, contained. At first, I hated the bathroom: the odorous drain that permeated the air, festering and nasty; the always wet floor, slick as oil – deadly; the claustrophobic minuteness of it with its one high window blinding the occupant to the outside world. But worse than that, much worse: the mirror. It’s the only mirror in the house and is attached to the wall, above the sink. It belongs to the landlord. If it didn’t I might have torn it down. I couldn’t avoid its surly eye, glinting fiercely, mocking me every time I walk through that door. Now we are friends. I stare into that rippling cheap glass, trying to see myself. I have to be there, but someone else stares back. I don’t know her but she is in me, inhabiting my body. She looks back at me just as confused. Maybe she wonders who I am too. I keep staring, waiting for that shaky image to slip, warp, morph into something else. Into some whole new set of features. I wonder where I am, where I went. I know that it – she – isn’t me.
We stayed in Bukuya for five months. We were happy at Peni’s, living in our small bure with its woven walls and rush roof. The packed earth floor was cloaked in a pandanus leaf mat. Our thin foam mattress occupied most of the space in that one-room hut. We read swapped novels to each other after dark in the pool of yellowing light from the sputtering kerosene lamp. We lived in each other’s arms and never tired of our own company. I knew who I was then. I knew I was happy. But I remember. I remember I raised my hand to wave happily to Peni as we left, and that ring just flew off my finger. It tinkled delicately off a stone, shooting sparks of light as it flew, then nestled in the mud. An omen. I should have known. My fingers are fat now.
I trace around the flesh beneath my breasts and wonder when I acquired that rim, like the thick plastic lip of a child’s beaker, a solid rim running from side to side, rib to rib, coating the front of me like a buffer against life. It’s hard to feel my ribs now. There’s a dull solidity that gives them away, but no real definition. My hip bones lie sunk beneath an ocean of flesh. I have spent the last few years burying my bones.
My notebooks languish in a corner somewhere, collecting dust and dirty looks. The edges are jaundiced. I know they are sick. I have no use for them, no feelings to annotate, no stories to tell. I do nothing now and my pages are as dusty as the leaves of those books. Those books belong to someone else; they don’t speak to me anymore. The old paperbacks also lie silent; they don’t want me now and I have no use for them. They were part of ‘us’.
For so long I tried to disappear but now that I have finally achieved this most astounding goal I find that I want to reappear. I keep looking at that doughy face and I wonder who it belongs to, who she is. Why is she in my mirror? I tell myself that she must be me but I don’t believe it, not for a minute. I look at her eyes because I know that eyes can’t lie. Everyone tells me so. But then, they’re not my eyes. They look the same… almost. They are startlingly green; the black hole of the pupil expands in the dim light and I see pain pouring out. Those eyes, they can’t be mine. My eyes were happy. My eyes always danced; sang; used to dilate with pleasure. These eyes are dead; no movement, no joy. I want to reappear but I don’t know where I am. I think that to reappear may take as long as disappearing – maybe longer, but time is chasing me and I don’t know how to get back. I’m all gone. What is left is unrecognizable; buried deep within this fat woman that you see before you and I marvel at how I made her, wonder if I made her. It seemed so little effort, so easy, so simple. I simply withdrew and she took over. Maybe she made me. I think she ate me and now she wants my life. I need to make her disappear, this bitch that is suffocating me, holding me prisoner; shutting me out and shutting me in. Trying to shut me down.
We live in Cambodia now. I live in Cambodia now. My ghost ring haunts me; bleaches out my life and makes it fade into insignificance. We lived here: together. Now he’s gone. When it’s between a motorbike and an armoured Land Cruiser there’s no competition. Even he has left me; cast me aside just as the bike did when we hit that shiny black box. I hit the bonnet and rolled down the other side, confused and concussed. Miraculously I got up with barely a mark. Now I wonder if we’re really together. Maybe down at Haad Tien, running on the beach and trekking the jungle. Maybe this is just some glitch in continuity. Maybe the wrong scenes are on the cutting room floor.
I don’t even know who she is, this person who stifles the real me, stopping me from feeling and speaking: gagging me. Yet, she never stops me feeling, just gives fleeting solace in order to get her way then mocks me to those bones she has buried. She swamps my memories. All those happy times are drifting on an ocean floor, submerged, half drowned: lost. She wants to keep me down but I know what she’s doing. The happy times are moved by the currents, drifting upwards but never breaking the surface; constantly threatening to come to the fore but never managing to: too much holding them under, too much flesh to battle against. She took all of these memories and sanitized them, neutralized them, labelled them humdrum generality, tedious reality: no real depth, no real feeling, no intensity. She took away the pain. Now I want the potent and the dangerous back. I want those memories to make me ache and yearn and feel sick with loss instead of living in disgust and shame. If I can find those memories, net them and pull them in to me, then maybe, just maybe I’ll be able to retrieve myself. I need to find what she has spent so long burying.
I pad back to the living room in time to see Nuon pass my door. Nuon is my neighbour’s maid, Srey Roth’s maid. I like Nuon: I always did. She is just the same. She still comes round to visit; to sit in companionable silence. Sometimes we talk, stilted but real. We don’t need common language to understand each other; just a look, a touch or the inclination of a head. An area of common ground, a common physicality that speaks for us. It is Nuon who makes me laugh again; makes me want to cast off this padding, this fat suit that I have so determinedly made and nurtured to protect myself from the nastiness of life. It is only now that I realise I am suffocating.
I don’t understand Srey Roth. Once I thought I did but that was when ‘I’ was ‘we’: so long ago now. It started right after he left. She would come in to help in those early days when I was raw with grief. The days when I walked in pain; body and mind bruised and broken by a big shiny Land Cruiser. I thought she was neighbourly, though her soulless black eyes dared me to challenge that notion. I wondered vaguely why she came; why she didn’t send Nuon, but when things of value started to leave home, I didn’t need to wonder why. Both were orphans, Nuon and Srey Roth. Srey Roth had struck lucky, bagged an Australian husband, but, old habits… Soon after the wedding ceremony Srey Roth changed. Ewell came home from work one day, I remember it well. I don’t know why I should remember those things that aren’t important while the big issues lie dormant somewhere in my brain, dozing through my days. So, Ewell came home. He worked for a new television network. My friend Bunna had helped him get the job. Well, Ewell strode across our shared veranda, stopping to talk at me before entering his wife’s lair. He would rant for a half hour or more in those days. How incompetent ‘these people’ are, how his colleagues act like children, leave everything to him. I would stare at him and wonder if he realised that all of his colleagues were Cambodian and that his wife was too. Did he know how offensive he was; how racist he sounded?
I stand in the living room behind the tinted glass doors, watching Nuon juggle the shopping into the house next door. The thought of Srey Roth sends a chill across my neck and I wrap myself in my arms for comfort. But these arms no longer fit me. After years of fitting just fine they just don’t stretch far enough anymore. My left hand curls protectively across my shoulder and around my neck. My right supports it, soothes it as it soothes me. I stop dead as I feel the thick pad of rubbery fat that coats my shoulders. Where the hell did that come from? How did that bitch put that there without me noticing? She has coated my frame and she just won’t stop. I raise my hand to feel around my neck and shoulders but the flesh feels thin. My legs move without my instruction and I am carried to the bathroom: back to the mirror. At a glance, the mirror shows me her trickery. What has she done? A thick wadding is threatening to provide a hump and as my hands trace down I feel the thick fleshy bingo wings reflected in that wavy grey glass. They are prematurely formed, sturdier than an old lady’s, to be sure.
A few days after the wedding Srey Roth moved in half her family. I was impressed with the size – for someone raised in an orphanage. Ewell started in on his usual ‘chat’ on his way home and I just said ‘You’ve got visitors mate’. It was the first time I’d responded to him in months. His face. It was a picture. Now? He supports them all. He doesn’t even know all their names, says he doesn’t care. First to move in was Srey Roth’s brother Rathana. Three more young men followed and then came aunty, ‘Yay,’ to us, to show respect. A child appeared a few days later: ‘My brother’s daughter’. Then came Thea. She was the last. Her eyes slide warily over me and she watches, slips some brief words from the side of her mouth into Srey Roth’s waiting ear and I know trouble is on the way.
I have buried myself alive, stifling my cries and mourning the loss of myself. There is no part of me that I recognise as myself. Even my most intimate places have changed in ways that make them strangers to me. To Nuon I’m the sad barang lady with the dead husband; in the street I’m Madam; to my students I’m Miss or Teacher. To Srey Roth I’m just the idiot foreigner next door. She can only see the colour of my skin and my ‘white wages’. I’m the rich bitch with too much money and Srey Roth is always there to help me out, a tag team with Thea to lighten the load. I hope she doesn’t see the fifty that I’ve twisted and folded into a ring. I wear it on my little finger so nobody can steal it. The street kids at Angkor showed me how. Smart kids. I don’t let her in my house now.
I lie on the bed and go through the motions. I slowly work my hands along each piece of me, each piece of her. This malleable body that has no structure, no frame to build on; heavy flesh that weighs on me. I love the very bones of you he used to say. Not now. No bones to love now, only a pale doughiness like leavened bread, risen ready for the oven. I feel each part, to make sure that I can feel no part. My ritual before sleep; I don’t look in the mirror. He bought me a mirror once. A beautiful Moroccan mirror in a carved wooden frame with filigreed doors that shut against smooth polished glass. I had no need of a mirror then; I knew who I was and if I peeped in it, I would find myself, smiling back, and his face would be hovering behind mine, focussed on my likeness as his hands left their imprint on my shoulders. I sent it home. Maybe I will follow it; maybe I will find myself there.
© Ammie-oy 2011