//Cross these borders of
man-made faultlines etched in soil//
(May I speak your language)
© Alicia Khoo
NaPoWriMo Day 18
//Cross these borders of
man-made faultlines etched in soil//
(May I speak your language)
© Alicia Khoo
NaPoWriMo Day 18
“No human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”
-Ellie Wiesel, writer, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor.
So I had to haul myself out of bed after crying my eyes out yesterday (us writers are sensitive, we cry a lot), for reasons I shall expound on if and whether the mood strikes.
I weave past and greet the painters in the corridor who stop work to say “Bonjour, allez-y.” I walk to the end of Rue de la Faisanderie with my petit Monoprix shopping sac to get pain tradition, confiture de fraises, coffee, and red wine. Along the way, two military guards with machine guns, in the aftermath of Je Suis Charlie, return my quiet smile and nod solemnly. “Bonjour madame,” they say, as we pass. This district houses a cluster of embassies, diplomats, international law firms, and a liberal university. I now intuitively sense the energy and temperament of different arrondissements of this city. Like how ordering dessert first can disrupt a whole kitchen and serving staff into mild confusion. Etiquette and protocol are extremely prized. And for that, I do love this culture.
Of course I run out of la monnaie (change) because the lady at the Tabac passive-aggressively does not want to let me use my bancaire (debit card). In all my months in Paris, I have yet to experience a Tabac that does not accept a bank card. D’accord, pas de probleme. I’m not a local in the district yet, I cannot expect such privileges. I just have to dig in my purse to find 7 euros in change before going to Franprix next door to buy prosciutto. I am too fatigued to argue or run to an ATM. But I don’t back down, backing down and scuttling away humiliated just means I haven’t lived here long enough. My Parisian friends would probably have argued with her over that point. Mais j’ai la chance! I have the seven euros after sifting through Singaporean and American coins.
At Franprix. Of course the lady made all of us wait in line while she stocked up the fridge…un minute..deux minutes…trois…Customer is not king in Paris. Me and the African guy behind me await patiently, seasoned enough not to be too offended or too accomodating, as he yells something to his mother and little sister who are waiting quietly outside in West African dresses and headbands.
One has to understand that Paris and all its boulevards, metros, boulangeries, and cafés have a rhythm somewhat like a metronome, but at the same time, has its volatile moods, its honored traditions, its unspoken customs and bubbling tension. Like New York City, everyone is tired in Paris. Everyone. As they say, metro boulot dodo (subway, work, sleep). So it’s easy to understand the clipped attitudes, aggression, or passive aggression.
Once at a McDo (one should always try McDonald’s once in every country outside of the USA, most times it is absolutely delightful, I kid you not), a Parisian-Asian friend and I ordered sparkling pamplemousse (grapefruit) just to use the free wifi. The counter person at the McCafé served everyone before us, then on seeing our faces, swiftly turned around and proceeded to stock the shelves. I was unfazed. I was used to it. I don’t think it is truly racism, I think there are many other factors involved, which I will delve into next time. She made us wait 5 minutes, while my friend asked, incredulous, “Excusez-moi madame?” Turning to me, she muttered, ” She’s doing it on purpose!” To which I responded with a shrug, “I know.” Then I proceeded to be polite and kind to the counter lady when she finally gave us attention. No point getting mad. I’ve found that graciousness in the face of hostility can many times bridge people. Note I said many times, not all the time. Not to a demented crazed meth addict trying to grope your crotch on the E train coming from Jamaica (Station).
So I proceed to the boulangerie right next door to my flat. I just want to stuff fresh pain tradition into my mouth and crunch down into soft doughy goodness while eating prosciutto, confiture, and cheese. I am starving. But upon arrival, I realize I have used all my monnaie at the tabac. And it would be ludicrous to use my bancaire at the boulangerie for a mere pain tradition which costs €1.35. The boulangere might bar me from entering again for being an annoying tourist/non-native. I live right next door. I can’t afford to make enemies, not least my local boulangerie in the 16eme arrondissement.
Alors, I go back upstairs to look through all my bags for euros. Nothing. Finally I find two euros somewhere in a purse. It feels like a miracle. I mean, once you have lived in cities where there are 24 hour 7-Elevens, it is a little difficult to adjust to somewhat rustic slower living in Paris. But when you get into the groove of Paris, like Rome, or Istanbul, things get wildly interesting.
I go back downstairs triumphantly and burst through the open boulangerie doors and chirpily say Bonjour! Without too big of a smile, of course. You have to adjust your smiles in Los Angeles, New York City, and Paris, accordingly. Then I quietly wait in line and drool at the various quiches, and a noisette-orange pound cake that is €22 per kilo. I am sure it tastes every bit as good as every cent it is worth.
I take my pain tradition and return home, a small victory! Then I warm up the bread slightly and bite into it.
Je suis deçu. (I am disappointed. But don’t tell them I said that! ) So far the best pain tradition I have had is from this tiny sleepy French North African boulangerie in Bagnolet, or this other bright boulangerie in my old neighborhood of Belleville. I guess tomorrow morning warrants a trip to Belleville (which is really now China, or Flushing in NYC) to get pain tradition for my two guests visiting from London.
There is a centredness, doing one or two things a day which you enjoy are luxurious triumphs, time is prolonged and magnified, a few fruits and herbs in your shopping stroller, crisp summer dresses and going to the park at 8pm since the sun is still burning, and fizzles at 10 or 11pm. A brisk laziness. Such is summer in Paris.
All of this, and more, I just wanted you to know, and I’m sure you know, that when you died, I was just learning how to live.
(In memory of Joanna, sister, friend, saint. 1984-2015)
A concubine’s daughter, yes.
A blackened peach in the palm
of her father’s blistered hands.
Leader of the Gang of Four,
Mao’s widow. Mao’s third wife.
She, the Great Flag-Carrier
of the Proletarian culture,
who at sixteen, too poor for underwear
fled her mother for a Beijing theater group.
Later, a lonesome patient in some
Moscow hospital with throat cancer,
they say–how serious, they don’t.
Her husband refused to visit.
Later, a withered prune woman
haunting a cell, turning up a wrinkled lip.
Batty, old Maoist, muttering:
“This is not the Chairman’s
She, who rode with her cruel
ambition, dressed jewels in
private jets and sex-politics,
hounding death on the fools
that once scorned her. Aggressive,
beautiful and twenty-four, then–
Then, at seventy-seven,
was it really some mute suicide
that stole her– she who
to the ground, refused by
her only daughter.
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If you had told me
I would have written a poem for you
Before you left
Or a short story
About a girl who tried her best
And didn’t know how to be alone
I’m sorry I couldn’t help
But it’s strange now
That I can’t call you`
Or hear your voice
Or sit down and eat with you
Just because we wanted to.
I’m sorry you were in pain
I am in pain too
I can’t hurt for you
But you had a lifeline
And you chose to give up
I hope you are at peace now
I hope you laugh
I hope you dance
I hope you feast at the table with saints
and I will light a candle for you
Every time I think of you.
You were brave, and you were splendid.
For all you readers who have asked about where to get a hardcopy of my poetry, thank you for appreciating my craft. In honor of you, the chapbook is now out on Amazon and clicking on the link below takes you there.
Thank you for reading. Much love and wishing you peace, joy, and comfort this New Year’s 2015.
Bali, Jan 2014
I am not pretty,
But I will love (you)
While you ask me to bid goodbye.
I won’t even write about hope
yours is a granite door painted-shut,
I won’t write about
fireplaces and your lips on my shoulders
deep long talks about birthing dreams
a house with lots of windows
hands curling feet by the lake.
I said hold on, give me a second;
And you didn’t wait
not a second, not for me,
but (quickly) filed me away in that category
full of index cards and manila folders,
misshapen lives and unwanted women.
That’s where I belong now,
in a gray metal cabinet,
while you look on with distaste.
Like I am a lemon while all you want is chocolate
Before I knew it,
we were reduced to a plain waste
of a contract, your cold hard math
and unilateral decisions,
like human relationships don’t matter,
like I never once brought you any joy.
I threw those sheets away.
Your skin was everywhere.
Going to bed was all
threadbare used-to-be blue-grey
It was all especially softness in the center
where we used to be.
I swear there were pores on the pillowcases.
I washed them so many times and still
there was this faint smell of you
the stuff you washed your hair with
and the leftovers of your cologne.
Look at me.
I’m romanticizing bed sheets.
I got new ones
that seem to fit the bed a little too loosely.
Someone else sleeps there sometimes.
They’re a deep brown and I tell myself they
remind me of the way his eyes
look when he tells me he loves me and
not the way your skin
looked when I would open the windows and the
morning light would hit your back,
the rise of your shoulder blades,
the slight sink of your spine.
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So I am holding up her hair while she throws up.
“Need more salt water”, she croaks, and I walk to the kitchen to fill up the glass.
“My diet starts tomorrow, I swear,” she knocks back another gulp of warm brine. I rush to bunch up her curly hair, streaks of Germanic blonde in that dark Kurdish gloriousness I have gently curled up in my fingers. She hates her hair. And her nose. And her skin. I know how she feels. But I love everything about her. I think she’s lovely, çök guzel.
We get drunk and smoke cigarettes while we dance around the house like strippers, in underwear and stilettos, except she always trips when she’s in stilettos, and we laugh our nineteen year old asses off.
It is summer in Western Australia, and the flies are abundant, when our living room is broken into and the dickheads have left the sliding glass door open. No common courtesy. Two laptops, a cellphone and they even took our favourite 50 Cent LP.
“Fuckin’ hell,” we say as the police showed up, two of them. They crack Perth boy smiles, take down our statements and dust the doors for fingerprints.
“Ninth one in a week, bloody wankers hey,” one of them, Alistair, the one writing things down and eyeing my skirt, especially the way Kader and I are stroking each other’s backs. We’re like cats overdosing on endorphins.
“I know hey,” I concur in that distinct West Coast Aussie drawl and light a cigarette, while Kader saunters indoors to chase out more flies. And of course Alistair and Jeremy take my number and say they would love to join us at Metros or the Church this weekend. Jeremy, the one like sunshine, recognizes my car, they say it’s always parked right in front of the Church, aren’t I afraid of the Vietnamese gangs?
Oh no, I tell them, they’re all friends of mine. I’m not Vietnamese but you know one Aussie Viet and they all stick up for you. We laugh when I tell them that it is Australia who has taught me how to drink beer, and then as a touch of patriotism, I bust out singing Advance Australia Fair. They almost piss themselves laughing. I am in love with Perth police officers.
Kader knows the entire Turkish community in Northbridge, the city centre for us young wandering fools. Everyone is from Istanbul. We go to late night doner kebab joints where I entertain everyone with my Turkish swear words and Kader throws everything up the moment we get home. But she isn’t losing weight, in fact, I am. I have simply stopped eating.
I never do drugs but the biggest drug dealer in Perth, Johnny owes me some money and his wife is in love with me, that’s why my car never gets roughed up and no one dares look me in the eye. Johnny is Vietnamese, and he escaped from California for something I never bothered to pry into. Everyone has a history. Angel, his wife, is from mainland China and her visa’s expired. But I don’t ever tell anyone.
They also have full access to my car and house when I am away. It has never occured to me to be careful of them, my mother raised me not to judge anyone or view people with contempt. So all my friends range from ambassadors’ kids with diplomatic immunity to Perth’s hoodrats. Even the homeless aboriginal down the street is my friend.
Kader and I, one rainy night when she tells me of the years of being her father’s plaything, whenever her mother was at the market, she was made to “suck on the candy”, or at least that’s the name of the game he played with her. But she’s still a virgin, she says, because he knew she still needed to get married one day, so the games never got that far. No Turkish guy would marry her if she weren’t a virgin. I tell her a too many men have the Madonna/Whore complex. The woman is either the virgin Mary or a complete utter slut. There’s no gray area. I don’t think we ever knew a day when we didn’t obsess about our hatred for our bodies, heartbroken over some guy, or fantasizing about killing ourselves. There’s nothing more beautiful than two broken girls being honest and angry, united in their suffering, yet desperately wanting to rescue their captors. I have never known a day I didn’t want to die. Americans call it depression, there’s a pill you can take for it. I call it being fucking honest about the state of the human condition. We are at war and no one gives a damn.
I tell Kader about the months I was kept locked up in a cell, humiliated, kicked senseless by my dad, and there was a vacuum cleaner and a couple of knives involved. After two months of being locked up I had resolved there was no God. And here we are, trying to die in a socially accepted way but so much fucking life in our youth.
Like the other night I went drifting at 120 km/hr drunk. Of course my car flew and landed in the roundabout and a foreign minister’s son took the rap for me. Indonesian royalty. While the whole time I was cheating on him. One day Kader touches my nipple out of the blue and I freeze her out. She moves back to Morley while I stay at my house in Karawarra, two more break-ins after that. I see a lot of Alistair and Jeremy, needless to say. They also helped me get my car out of that damn Kent Ridge roundabout.
I was the talk of the neighbours, so to speak.
Then I move to East Perth, partying way too hard, getting my heart broken all the time and fucking up my uni degree. I will never understand statistics. Kader doesn’t finish her molecular genetics research and goes back to Fethiye. We have a tearless goodbye at Perth International. We are used to sorrow and abandonment anyway. Is there anymore to cry about?
Johnny borrows more money from me and I will never end up seeing it back. It isn’t mine anyway, it’s Atonement Money, my aunt makes sure my parents wire me a shitload of money every few weeks for what they did to me. It is also uni money, but my mother makes it clear that I don’t deserve it. It depends on the day. Monday she alternates between crying with remorse and Tuesday she steely says she should have had that abortion back when she was 16, she wouldn’t have had to marry my dad, the neighbours had been gossiping. It was so embarrassing, she said, five months pregnant and showing in her shitty wedding dress, pretending to smile and be merry, when she knew what everyone was thinking and saying about her. Then she tells me methods she has thought of to end her life. I tell her I never asked to be born, if there were a fairy godmother to swap my life with hers, I would give anything. Then she starts crying again and asks me if I would ever forgive her. A few days later she will call me a dirty little whore, and asks me which strip club I am working at. I have learnt to be very tolerant at a young age. I tell her I should kill myself and that would solve the problem, she could be happy again. She says what would the neighbours think of her?
Then she asks me what the meaning of life was, as usual, in hysterics. I say that’s what I’ve been trying to find out. I have stopped eating during these years. One day I devour a whole box of oranges and have to go to the ER. My mother tells people I must have had an abortion. She doesn’t have to worry, I think Dad kicked the ovaries out of me. I am so skinny and so high, “high like a bird in the sky,” as Johnny says in his funny pidgin English, the adrenalin of starvation is making me the envy of my peers. I keep being asked if I have a portfolio, that I should be a catalogue model. I hate modeling, I refuse to watch commercials or read fashion magazines, to me they are the product of a patriarchal society trying to distract women, women who haveno idea they’re being subliminally manipulated into submission. But it is nice being skinny, everybody likes me, they like it when they see bones. Angel is skinny too. She only eats an apple a day and supplements the rest with alcohol. One night at the Church she slips half an ecstasy pill into my mouth and I pretend to down it with beer, but I spit all of it out on the floor when she isn’t looking, then I wash out my mouth in the restroom. I eat slightly more than apples but still no one asks me to eat more. I think my mom hates me even more for being skinny. She says the neighbours say I’m an immoral whore, that in Perth I sleep with a different guy every night, except whores are smarter, at least they get paid.
Every day I hate my skin, my eyes, my shoulders, my feet, nothing is good about me. I don’t deserve to live. I look like a freak in the mirror. I spend every cent of Atonement Money in my account, and charge up all my supplemental cards. The neighbours in East Perth either call me one of them or that spoilt brat princess with the sweet car. Weeks go by on a steady diet of booze and dancing, and going to lectures hungover.
My mother is a romance writer. Or erotica, whatever you wanna call it. Personally, I can’t stand romance, and anyone can write erotica. Anyone. Same goes for children’s books. It’s like if you wanted to make a shitload of money you’d write children’s fiction. Doesn’t make you a writer, just a good nose for the market. I’m way too obstinate though, I refuse to read something I can write. It’s like going to a restaurant and eating something you could have made for yourself at home, only you could have made it better. I have disdain for her romance novels and she thinks my poetry is bourgeois and pretentious.
When I was thirteen Mother bought me my first beer, or three. At some bar. I got so drunk this old man, a friend of hers, put his hand on my left breast and I didn’t know what to do. The whole time he was smiling and laughing, he looked like a weasel. Mother just ushered him away back into his chair and that was the end of it. Then I got home and threw up five times outside the front door. I think she was amused. She said she would rather have me drink with her and build up a resistance than to be naive and sheltered and then get date raped. Well Mum, I did get date raped.
That would probably amuse you too.
© 2012 Alicia Khoo
New York City
**Disclaimer for the real “neighbours”:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.