Fiction / February 2009 (Issue 6)

In the Flesh

by Nicolette Wong

--For EC

The 7-Eleven is empty at 3 am except for the two cashiers. The young lad, shriveling in an orange T-shirt, is sitting on the floor and shelving cup noodles. I nod to Carol, a chubby lady with an 80's perm, her frizzy hair the width of her shoulders. She's counting those cartoon magnets, 7-Eleven's latest gifts to its customers. Carol said she works night shifts for more freedom. I suppose she wants to avoid her husband.

"Marlboro Lights?" Carol asks.

"I'm getting something to eat," I say.

A man comes in when I'm scanning the chocolate bars. His graying crew cut flits past the shelves and stops in front of the fridge. He's about to brush past me when I look up.

"M'goi," he says.

Carol cuts open the microwave dinner box. It has the smell of cooked meat that has been sitting on the table too long. I catch sight of pork ribs and chicken feet on hard rice.

The man stands beside the microwave oven, his earnestness rising from the many pockets of his army green vest. His eyes are a blur through the thick glasses.

Carol takes my money.

"$77.10. Three more bucks and you get another magnet."

"Save them for your daughter."

"That's why I asked."

The beep goes off just as I'm out of the door.


On early morning TV is an old Hong Kong movie set in the 60's. Clad in a sleek dark suit, Tse Yin is looking out of the balcony of a luxurious house, deep in the shadow of his lost love.

The melodrama seems surreal through the mist of things: insomnia, too much nicotine, Zelda. Or from spending too much time alone. Since my best friend Ken went to work in Singapore, I don't hang out much anymore, except with the guys on Peel Street. Every once in a while I hear from an old friend, a fellow photographer, someone I want to see.

There're others, the writers and multi-media artists at the magazines and studios I work freelance for. Beyond their slinky T-shirts and the sweet hash smoke, they're human resumes in clubs, movies and international politics. The other night, on the Fringe rooftop, we listened to Sean's lecture on China's post-Olympic blues.

"Aren't they converting the Bird's Nest into an entertainment complex?" Sean's girlfriend with the gel nails asked.

"You read too much celebrity gossip, honey," Sean said.

It's easy to shrug them off, these guys with perspectives. But they have such energy, such will. When they toast to someone's achievement — a new job, a new woman, or just the right sentiments — I stand back to take pictures. My persona is cigarettes, black shirts and my camera.

"You're so anti-social," Zelda used to say, when I tapped a cigarette out of the pack. Leaning forward, she tugged the cigarette free with her teeth.

In summer we went up to the rooftop. Zelda puffed away like a wild heroine, a lit stick of defiance between her full lips. In twilight her tanned skin glowed; her short hair fluttered, exposing the tattoo beneath her ear. The butt burnt down to her fingers. She looked at the flame, startled, then flicked the cigarette into the drain.

On winter nights I took her to dinners and live music in Central. After I lost my full-time job, we would settle for a cheap restaurant or a dai pai dong, before going for a nightcap at Joyce's or the African bar. Zelda and I started to split the bills.

"I don't mind," she shrugged, half-pouting. It was the gesture she made to assert her personality. I saw it a lot in the early days when she talked about her past. The men who took her to expensive boutiques and asked her to pick what she wanted. "I walked out," she rolled her eyes.

Zelda wore the same look when we walked into 7-Eleven. She shunned most snacks like they were toxic, the way she cringed at the frog congee I ordered at the dai pai dong. I would pick up drinks, chips and cigarettes to watch a DVD at home. Carol wasn't there then.


Now I have take-away dinner and a lot more porn. Almost every night I visit the same restaurants. I can't tell if the food is good anymore, but the places in my hood are cheap for Hong Kong Island. The Thai waitress greets me at the open door, leggy in her yellow shorts.

"Fried vermicelli with chicken?" she asks.

Back home, shaved and flaming flesh smooches on the computer screen. The motions are shaky and steady in a close-up grind. Faces go from wild open to buzzing shut; the splash renders them used, unwanted. From the vibrations comes a familiar voice. The voice throbs into the past. Play; replay. Time stops when you're jerking in your chair, plunging into the gap that opens up within yourself.


Under the force of Shen Mei, Helen and I have been slaving away at photo shoots in her gallery-cum-designer studio. In her late 30's, Helen keeps an elegant poise under the weight of those lavish, quasi-Chinese dresses. Into the night I shoot, prying into her; her hands on her hipbones, her feet bare. Her movement reminds me of this woman I dated two years ago. Bonnie, that's her name; she liked to lie back across the chair half naked. A mock burlesque dance, she said.

Shen Mei emerges with her new haircut, a bob to go with those purple plastic frames. Her assistant trails behind her with a pile of files. There's a color printout on the top.

"Want to take a look?" the assistant asks.

I shake my head. What's the point in checking out the poster for your own show, which says you're under your collaborator's 'creative direction'? When Bonnie was around, she barked at me for not putting everything in black and white. Zelda never cared as much.

It's almost 1 am. Shen Mei grabs her studio keys.

"Shall we wrap up and get a drink?" she asks.

I take a different route to Peel Street on my own. Joyce is playing with a hula-hoop in the middle of the street. The sway of her hair is a copper brown. Her spirits are swinging free through her laugh. A bald gweilo sits smoking next to the soiled Canadian flag outside the cafe. 

"I'm wearing my white bikinis on Sunday!" Joyce calls out to me.

The cafe is empty save for a few gay guys at the table at the back. I get a bottle of beer from the fridge, pick a book from the shelf. Joyce has these books of Hong Kong literature and design on display, a forgotten artists' colony. They gather dust in the eerie blue light, along with the dummy arms sticking out of the walls.

On the projector screen, young Catherine Deneuve leaves her mother's umbrella shop. She's humming a sad song to her unborn child. The music takes awkward turns; the singing sounds half-hearted, as though Deneuve couldn't wait to leave the movie for a more mature, glamorous persona.

I feel a tap on my shoulder. Sarah is towering over me with her carefree grin. We used to be movie buddies before she met her new squeeze. Now she shows me her film reviews.

"How are you holding up?"

"I have relapses from time to time," I say.

"I saw Zelda the other day."


"Outside the Mandarin Oriental. She hopped into a blue Ferrari with an older guy. Indian, I think."

"She's always liked dark meat."

"I'm going to buy you a drink," Sarah gives the waitress a wave.

One day I should drive a voluptuous red sports car; I toy over with the idea on my way home. Maybe I could save a girl from losing her figure, the way Zelda lost her curves during our last days together. Her tits, which used to be very firm, started to collapse into pads and to fall sideways when she was lying on her back. There had been intrusion, wreckage by a stranger that tore her wide open inside.

In the morning she was her hopeful self. She planned to quit her life as a freelance artist, to study part-time and to get a job. "I'm going to work for this art gallery when it opens," she said.

The cab drops me off outside 7-Elevent. Carol is sweeping the floor.

"Haven't seen you in a week," she says.

I'm looking for something to snack on, crackers or packaged cakes, when I hear the buzz of the open fridge. Most of the microwave meals are 7-Eleven productions. They boast Chinese cuisine like chicken and mushroom rice, the kind of stuff you can get in a Hong Kong styled restaurant or a dim sum place. The pork ribs and green beans look gigantic in pictures, pressing in a distant manner. The colors sink, a shade darker than they are in real life. There're others by Maxim's. Each carries a $2 dinner voucher for the fast food outlet.

"I wouldn't recommend these microwave meals," Carol emerges beside me.

"They're handy."

"I'm sick of the smell."

"Do a lot of people buy them?"

"Older guys who get off work late. Or they have nothing better to do at this hour of the night."

I get my stuff and say goodnight to Carol. It was the first time I looked at those microwave meals up close. They sit so neatly together, like an army ready to strike into someone's life. There must be somebody, somewhere, waiting for the microwave beep. In a few minutes the pork chop is restored to its sizzling glory. The anticipation is over; life resumes, even if it tastes tough over the course of that quick answer to hunger.


Shen Mei has been driving me to Sai Kung and Shek O for dinners, to 'freshen up' and to talk about the show. I have no appetite for her freckled tits, but she can wine and dine me as she likes. Her latest whim is a private kitchen in Tsim Sha Tsui.

"I have an assignment tonight," I say.

Shen Mei comes with me to the pool hall. A large crowd gathers at the table near the bar. The inked skin wavers in the heat. At the corner of the hall, a group of tattoo artists are giving press interviews. There's Sarah with her MP3 recorder. She leans towards her interviewee, a red-haired woman, straining to hear against the loud music.

Across the windows hang several life-size canvases of tattoo designs on semi-naked portraits. There's one of a pregnant woman, who sits on the floor with the side of her body to the camera. She puts her hand on her protruding belly. Black silver ink runs across her body; it traces the love of the mother-to-be. In her hair is a painted flower. Her grin is an ode to new beginnings.

Shen Mei gives me a nudge.

"Isn't that Zelda?"

The familiar tattoo sits below her nape. Zelda still looks petite in a loose-fitting black top, but her waistline is somewhat gone. The Indian lover, grey-haired and smug in a tailored suit, has his arm around Zelda. There's a gold band on his ring finger.

Leaning against the pool table, the two chat with Zelda's lesbian friend and this tattooed blonde guy, Zelda's secret lover from a few years ago. All of them are gleaming, laughing, touchy-feely with one another. The conversation blazes. The lesbian grows more and more animated in her gestures. The Indian guy downs a gin tonic. Zelda's old flame pulls up his T-shirt to show off the tattoos on his chest.

Amid the laughter, Zelda turns around. She gazes at me for a second, confused. Then alarm flares in her eyes. Her soft face is distorted with fright, with an anger that I often saw when we were together, when she would erupt over a small failure by others, a missed opportunity that no one but Zelda could see. It's her unhappiness with the world: the disappointment she has been dealt with in life; the people who have let her down when she closed her heart, so she could blame them for not giving her what she wanted, for standing in her way.

Zelda turns away. The hatred vanishes; her face is shut, expressionless.

I watch the couple for a long while. Then I remember my camera.

"Let's get out of here," Shen Mei says.

"I'm here to take pictures of the exhibition. Didn't I tell you?"

I shoot.


Sarah wants to show me these pictures she took of me at the opening: me, standing next to Shen Mei in the crowded pool hall, alone with my camera. "Then I saw what you were looking at," Sarah said. "You should have seen yourself at that moment."

I told her, no, I don't want to see it; I've seen enough. When I finish my last cigarette I'll go to 7-Eleven, where Carol lives out her freedom with a red broom. There're many worlds inside those microwave dinner boxes, colours and texture that come to life from the packages. There's joy in such fillers. But the comfort is beyond me. I won't be the guy who stands there and waits for his food at 7-Eleven'. And I don't have a microwave oven at home.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.