Venice, June 2013
There was a coffee house not too far from the university library (but far enough to deter most students from taking a pilgrimage). I spent quite a few afternoons there, armed with a book or two. Thinking back, I was good at prolonging the life of a latte. I seldom paid attention to other people, and I enjoyed my anonymity. Still, I stole glances at others: some walked in wearing long black gowns that almost touched the floor; some wore masks like those on display in a Venetian souvenir shop; some carried such big sacks that I wondered if there were murdered bodies inside. I was minding my own business one afternoon, possibly reading a book about medicinal cannibalism, a man who smelt exactly like another man I'd met in Krakow (a distinctive mixture of cooked pork fat, expensive hair mousse and old leather) sat next to me and immediately drew his bulky armchair closer to mine. Despite myself, I became quite shy. He was not handsome, but he was dressed smartly, although I thought the shade of grey of his suit was perhaps too bright for a middle-aged man. There was a red dot—one of those dots you see mushrooming on older people—on one of his cheeks. We sat there, next to one another, for a long while. Then he stood up, patted my head two times and left as abruptly as he sat down.
She was a tall, short-haired girl and she wore jeans that were a little too short for her long legs. Her socks—their colour I cannot now recall—were exposed with her every step. There was another girl with us, too, but I remember nothing about her except that she brought our number to three. That afternoon, unchaperoned, we found ourselves first in a playground, then, in a kind of grassland. All of a sudden, someone (not me) took out a small cooking pot, and we started to make soup out of handfuls of unwashed grass. The tall girl also sprinkled some crushed purple and poppy-red petals in the pot, as well as parts of other plants I did not recognise. She did this expertly, in a theatrical fashion, as though mimicking a TV chef. I don't remember how the soup tasted, but, afterwards, when I recounted the incident to an aunt, she said that we had been silly and that we could have been poisoned and that our organs might rot. Before we departed, the tall girl, under a barren tree in a courtyard, said to me in a tone that was neither indifferent nor insincere: “We never know how quickly a plant sprouts.” I realised much later that she was trying to sympathise with me about my height.
To whom do you fascinatingly belong? he asked, referencing Henry James without naming him. To the highest bidder? he asked again, and I remained silent. A young man whose sideburns were artificially curled, he could have been a bartender or a university student or a writer plotting his third “experimental” novel.
My mother, a woman of virtue, is not someone you would proverbially call “fun-loving.” I thank her dearly for that. For example, when my sisters and I were young, an uncle wanted to give us an old video game before buying a new one. My mother quickly and assertively declined the offer, believing that nothing that didn't get us to read or write or sleep could come to any good. I was only given a fake Barbie when I was hospitalised, aged six or seven, for mouth surgery—my lower lip had become infected after my paternal grandmother had accidentally kicked me from the other end of the sofa while talking on the phone. The lip grew to such a size that speaking became difficult; I now believe that that imposed bout of silence might have been the impetus for my generally quiet disposition.
The fake Barbie made me understand at least two things: 1) that dolls are truly boring and 2) that as Barbie didn’t have nipples (I didn't know the word then), mine must be unnatural. On the day of my discharge, I was also given a new red dress, with a flourish of lace around the collar. But my initial elation at the gift was dampened quickly enough: it became obvious that I was only getting my Chinese New Year dress a couple of months early. On the short walk from the hospital to the bus stop, an old and seemingly kind woman was giving out balloons with smiley faces on them to sick children to cheer them up. I had been taught never to accept anything from strangers, and so when the old lady handed me a big blue balloon, I swatted it so hard with my Barbie doll, it burst. The popping sound was loud, and the woman's shocked and injured face—I was ashamed to understand, even then—suggested she thought I was rejecting her, not the balloon, not even the idea of a balloon.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
28 March, 2014