Excerpt #4 from Novella: The Inimitable Livers

Image © Isabelle Barciulli

Image © Isabelle Barciulli

Paris II

D never asks to have sex with me, he says whenever I am comfortable and ready, besides, that’s not what he cares about. He gives me cold beer when I have a fever, his own remedy, since wine purified people’s stomachs and beer built civilizations.

His best friend Phoenix says D is buying my love; the only thing he is good at is being rich. Phoenix is into boxing. We call him Fin. He lives in the 19th, and the only reason Dion is friends with Fin is because they smoke up together. Mary-Jane, hash, speed, you name it. They smoked opium together in Chiang Mai. They say they smoked so much that even the mosquitoes got a buzz from their blood.

D leaves for two weeks, his father is running for election in Medan, and I find Fin’s fingers and mine entwined under tables, sneaking kisses at D’s apartment. We have his keys. When another girl sits on his lap at Crystal Lounge, I down too much whisky, run away and throw up along the Champs-Elysees. That’s when we realize we are in love. I tell Adam, D’s godbrother. He looks petrified and says we must have a death wish.

I am frightened. D gets back from a horrible car accident in Jakarta and his penis is in stitches. He comes back with gifts from the edges of the earth. How can I tell him at a time like this? So I drag it for a while, spending time at both apartments, feeling like the worst scum on earth, getting tattoos so for a brief moment, the physical pain dulls all the rest of my existence, the closest I can get to peace.

Fin will not forgive me for the betrayal.

After I leave D for Fin, we go into hiding. I quit school and move into his new apartment. We are both now on unemployment, and I am in mortal fear for him.

This makes it all the more wildly romantic. I am madly in love. We kiss everywhere, knowing we can be seen by anyone at anytime. We take the metro to dinner and get off at République. He takes me to a little bistro Rue du Temple where there are No. 13 Claire oysters, I get half a dozen with le pain tradition because that is all he can afford. After, we kick cans on the streets of Colonel Fabien and the headlights dilate our eyes into pins of needles. Back at his apartment, Fin makes me come like no other. Most nights, when he isn’t boxing and I’m not bartending, we make love six times a night with snow falling outside the windows. He calls me his franoishe and he is my pied noir. Blackfoot. He is like one-eighth blackfoot, French Algerian, he is proud of it.

We watch Full Metal Jacket, South Park, the American and talk about the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, Halliburton and George Clooney who falls in love with a prostitute. We watch Monica Bellucci in How Much Do You Love Me? It is probably the cleverest movie I have ever seen. “Mais je suis une pute!” I walk around the apartment spontaneously proclaiming that I am a prostitute for days.

His friend Vivian works at a bar in Menilmontant, and we are there every night. It’s always some sort of transaction outside the bar and Vivian comes back and makes us strong drinks. He says his loyalties are torn between Dion and Fin. He says D will never hurt me, but Fin should go to Spain for a while. Fin sputters when he hears this, he has that way of jerking his head like a rooster when he gets mad or when he’s trying to describe something. “Putain. Why the fuck should I go to Spain? Just because of this? He can’t do anything to me in my fucking district.”

I grip his hand tighter. He takes a breath, calms down and stares at Viv.

“I’m Parisian,” Fin continues, “And who does he think he is? Does he know who I am? Putain.

I can see the lines around Viv’s eyes these days. I don’t know anyone who loves Fin more than a brother. He always shoves Fin truth on a stick, not cotton candy. “No, you idiot. Do you know who he is? That’s the problem with you. You think you understand the world but you don’t understand grace when it hits you in the fucking balls.” Viv pours us more whisky. “The fact that you are still standing here, you donkey, and talking shit, means you have no idea how much the gods have been shining on you.”

It’s the perfect ending to a bad night when we get home. Fin gets drunk and asks me for hours, in various ways, if D is any better than him. I tell him it’s not a competition, it’s different, it’s him I love and not D. Eventually he passes out on the pullout couch we use as a bed and all is forgotten the next afternoon.

D calls me all the time, he is still paying my phone bills and now he wants to pay for my tuition fees, if I want to go back to school. He wants me back; I can have anything I want. I quote a Chinese proverb—when love comes, no one can stop it, when it leaves, no one can make it stay.

No one steals their best friend’s girl, he spits over the phone, it’s dishonorable. He’s in pain, he will take me back and forget it all happened. I tell him to stop paying off my bills and I take the metro with all the pearls, diamonds, and dresses to leave at his doorstep.

My breasts swell and my nipples turn dark. I can’t stop sleeping. I turn Fin’s bedroom into my lair, like a black spider, where I eat bread, cheese and saucisson and sleep. Every day at 4pm he leaves for training, and every night at 9pm he rarely comes home. He says he is bartending but I know he is avoiding me. When he is home he smokes hash and fiddles with music. I tell him dubstep gives me a headache but he plays it all the more and tells me it’s an acquired taste, and it’s intelligent. I piss him off further by playing Muse. He calls it American pop crap; merde.

Adam comes by Fin’s apartment and tells me to go see D. I am annoyed. He lives in Odeon, a hour away on the metro, but Adam says he will drive me there. So we go and I find D and the boys smoking crystal meth. It’s a full house, I can barely breathe, it’s like an opium den or one of the underground casinos Aziz used to take me. They make way for me as I pass.

I kiss him on both cheeks and sit next to him on the carpet. The brown textile has the prerequisite burn holes, red wine stains and espresso spots. His head jerks up and he stares at me, all I can see is the white of his eyes and crystallized irises. He twiddles with the jet lighter, moves the test tube around. His tight curly black hair has grown rampant and crept down his neck .

Feliciations,” he murmurs, “Does he know?”

“Yes,” I wonder what crystal meth feels like. “He doesn’t want it.”

D blows out smoke. “Mais oui. I wouldn’t have expected less.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Why are you apologizing V?” He keeps his gaze on the test tube., moving the flame under the bulb. “It’s not your fault you are the worst judge of character. Aziz always said you never felt you were worthy of love. Donc, what are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know.”

He puts down the apparatus and looks at his feet. “You know, if the kid had been mine, I would never run away.”

Adam drives me home. I can’t stop crying. I have an appointment at the family planning center the next day. He says he will take me. The nurse says it’s a girl. Her fingers are now the size of rainbow sprinkles.

I take a week to figure out my options, I call Justine, Aunt Joan, Eva, but shame makes me hang up. Aziz wires more money into my account, like clockwork.  Dion is concerned and asks me to move back into his apartment while he is away in London and Fin is nowhere to be found. I hear he’s on vacation in Spain. I will never know.

At the clinic, my feet in stirrups, I whisper to her all the things I have wanted for her, to experience the world, to be loved, to be comforted, to live on a vineyard in Provence, a thatched villa in Seminyak, dancing at a Full Moon party in Koh Phang Gan. I ask her to come back.

“Come back again, promise me you will come back again to me.”

I name her Alethia, ancient Greek for truth, after a tattoo I have on my wrist.

And with that, I return her to the stars.

© Alicia Khoo

The Inimitable Livers

(Dedicated to every woman who has gone down this path before…and women who are facing it right now: you don’t have to be alone, you don’t have to fear, you could actually raise this child. You could choose life, life in full. There is no shame. Ask, seek and help will come your way. Love, AK)

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Excerpt #3 from Novella: The Inimitable Livers

Image © Alicia Khoo

Image © Alicia Khoo

Paris I

I arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport and do exactly as Aziz has told me to do. Take the metro to Gambetta, and an apartment will be waiting for me. I buy the little blue book with all the arrondissements of Paris on it. I get lost for three hours at Châtelet, but finally find my way. He registers me at a private French school which I hate, at Notre Dame des Champs. It is nothing like LaGuardia, here I am surrounded by ambassadors’ children, navy brats, and casino tycoons’ sons. I set up my bank account and put my euros in it. I find a way to get the French government to give me paychecks too, nothing like being under 25 and unemployed.

At school, Dion and I share classes together. It’s not his real name, and nobody ever gets to see his ID. I’ve seen it but I don’t say anything. Later I will find out that everyone knows he is royalty except for me. Everyone he knows in Paris calls him D. I overlook him for two years. One day he declares that he wishes he could swap his life with the homeless guy living under the bridge, throws his Rolex into the Seine, and we’ve been together ever since. I tell D what happened in New York, and show him my mother’s notepad. He says his dad knew my mom. He will send word out to find out who my father is. I know he always finds what he wants. He says I must have my father’s hair, but my mother’s eyes. I hate my eyes.

Let everyday be filled with joy, he believes. With him, I am in Mesopotamia, putting on masks and terrorizing people. The Prince and the Orphan. He gives me permission to be, without judgment. We stuff free Mairie de Paris condoms under doors and mailboxes. Every day is Mardi Gras and we are the inimitable livers. We feast as prayers of celebration. Goat cheese, wheels of brie, grapes, dried mangoes, roasted pistachios. Tome de Savoie. We stay at Verve Clicquot in Reims for weeks. He hates Paris. When I want a dress he hands me his wallet.

I don’t think there is a single speakeasy and club in Paris we haven’t been to—Queen, Crystal Lounge, Madame Butterfly. I think when the music gets loud enough I actually might stop thinking, this constant hell in my little head.

At one of the high profiled speakeasies that actually has a name, Boeuf de Ballroom in the 1st, we pile on jugs of Cosmo is Dead and The Godmother Was Here.  Hom, whom I can only describe as an impeccably dressed Chinese dandy, always sends drinks our way, whisky and absinthe as a joke, he says we’ll see the Green Dragon.

He’s a friend of Aziz’s. His accent is what I call the seizieme accent. Nouveau riche. He owns 80% of the Tabac stores in Belleville and says he’s the reason the Jews and Afrikaans are angry at the Chinese. Belleville used to be mainly Jewish. I say we’re all immigrants, that the history of mankind has been a migration of peoples, and that the Chinese are now the new Jews. D tells me I am too serious for nights like this but one night I insist on discussing the problem of Mainland Chinese prostitutes in Paris with Hom, if he knew who was trafficking these women. He never ever answers my questions but merely smiles, kisses me on the forehead and says he agrees with Aziz, that I’m just like my mother, always trying to change the world, the little socialist, they call me.

I want to scream, laugh, then punch someone. If I am constantly compared with my mother, how will she ever die for me? Do I live in her or does she still live in me? The last thing I want to be is to be like her.

Some nights Aziz joins us for a cigar or two, but he never touches a glass. He says it’s not for religious reasons but that it’s bad for business. Aziz owns private currency exchange booths that are tied to gold. I love him for the man he is, what him and my mother had I will never know, but I know she saved his life once and now he’s saving mine.

D’s father wants him to be just like him, like father like son, in politics, but he wants to quit school, become a chef and own his own restaurant in New York. He hardly goes to classes anymore, since getting the job at Le Bastringue. Before this he was in California, an apprentice at the French Laundry, but when the scandal erupted all over the international papers, his family pulled him out and planted him in the banlieues of Paris, before he moved into one of the apartments they owned.

D mocks them constantly in a high voice, laying on a thick Bahasa Indonesian accent. Don’t you understand the magnitude of what has happened? You have to go to Paris now! Sekarang sekarang!  

There had been a car accident in Manhattan, and one of the heiresses of an Asian conglomerate had been reported killed. Mom said that was just media bullshit, anyone connected knew it had been a suicide. Her godfather who has Chinese grocery stores in Flushing confirmed it. Why the heiress had killed herself will always be a mystery to me, she had everything, but maybe at the end of the day, she really had nothing. She was D’s ex-girlfriend, reason enough for his family to freak out with public relations and damage control. Maybe she’s like me, hell in a belljar. Maybe she wanted to be a diving butterfly, and the only way she could do it was to jump off that building in Midtown.

© Alicia Khoo

The Inimitable Livers

 

Excerpt #2 from Novella: The Inimitable Livers

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Image © Isabelle Barciulli

Justine’s father tells me why Koreans use metal chopsticks. He says during the war, all you had was scrap metal and grains of rice, so Koreans made their chopsticks in such a way that you could pick up a single grain of rice. The Korean War, what really lies behind the slogan Freedom is not Free. He says they are descendants of Genghis Khan, because they were born with a bruise-like birthmark that fades after birth. Warriors, nomads, fearless, irreverent.

“We could legally adopt her,” Justine says over breakfast. She’s a close friend of my mother’s and visited us once during Christmas. We’re having waffles, Grandpa is having homemade kimchee with rice and instant miso soup. Her husband peers over the paper, eyebrows raised. He smiles at me, that big wide smile like sunshine and pearls.

“Violet, could you give us some privacy?” He winks at me through black-rimmed glasses.

As they argue, I walk to the bedroom they had prepared for me. “We already have three, Justine,” I hear him say. I feel bad, like an intruder—Megan and Sarah have to share a room now that I am here. I have been washing my own underwear and I throw them into a Ralph’s plastic bag. My things are still in the backpack and I haul it on.

I’m not sure why New Yorkers hate Los Angeles. When Justine takes me down the coast, all I see are mountains and the Pacific Ocean, to the west is Asia, to the east is New York, London. Once, a guy on Venice Beach told me to smile and I tried, but it made me too vulnerable, naked. A bible thumper came up to me and told me I was going to hell. He was convinced of his belief and desperately wanted to help me. I spent half an hour listening to his personal experience of rebirth and how it is his mission now to spread the good news. I told him this is hell, and if he would leave me alone I might be an inch closer to Paradise.

I remember standing on the top of the Rockefeller Center with Mom, and she pointed out Los Angeles to me, saying it would always be home.

Now that I am here, all I want is to bottle that blue.

Solstice Canyon. 7pm. Jazz in the trees bouncing off the cliff walls.

I step back into the kitchen with my backpack, and Justine glares at her husband.

“Put that away,” she says to me. “We’re going out. Eat your waffles first.”

I tell them I have to go to Paris.

“But you’re only 16!”  She folds her arms. “All alone in Paris?”

Khari puts down his cell phone, sits forward, hands clenched together. “Just, she has a French passport. She’s French. She’ll be alright. It’s what her mother would have wanted.”

She erupts into a monologue about five year plans, did I not want to go to school, there was plenty of room at their house, did they upset me in any way, they could get me a scholarship with my credits at LaGuardia, music lessons, Ivy League, and all they could offer, the whole time waving that wooden spatula.

Finally she sits down, exhausted.

“We’ll get you your ticket to Paris,” she takes my hands in hers. “But V, always remember this. You want to be just like your mother, I know that, except she was very strategic. She may have seemed spontaneous and adventurous, but the majority of her life was planned.”

I adjust my backpack. “And look where she ended up.”

Justine looks like she just got slapped, and Khari bursts out laughing.

“Damn girl, you got spunk.” He gets up and puts a hand on my shoulder. “She’ll be fine. She’s coping too. Let her go.” Then he realizes his wife looks like she’s about to pour iced tea down his shirt. He clears his throat and scatches his head, “Ahem, sorry I laughed.”

I look in my notepad, it says under “Paris”:

Euros, go to the Indian restaurant on Pico and Westwood, look for Aziz.

Aziz runs an overpriced Indian restaurant on Pico and Westwood called The White Elephant. It must be euphemistic considering the operations behind the restaurant. I show up and everyone in there seems to be blonde. I know I will never eat there. My mother always told me that Americans, referring to WASPS, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, had their tastebuds scrubbed off by Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes the moment they were born. She only went into restaurants where there were Asians.

The male maître d’ greets us quizzingly, we don’t look like we are here for food. I look too solemn, like I’m in mourning or a brooding philosopher.

The smells, spices. It all rushes back to me. I remember New Delhi, water from copper pans, eating with our hands, the slums of Mumbai, my laughter streaming from trains as I ran from carriage to carriage with kids from Norway, Australia, England, their parents snoring in cabins after curries, seared salmon with Hollandaise, chips and afternoon tea. My mother was usually deep in discussion with locals discussing why Sikhs wear turbans or why Indian people sold gold in Singapore and mosquito nets in Cambodia; the impact of British colonization and the effects of imperialism on religion, the caste system, poverty, politics.

I ask Khari if we can eat here. We are ushered in and seated by Guarav, his gold-plated name tag says. A server looms over me in his white starchy colonial uniform, gold lacing his sleeves as he pours water into glasses. I ask Guarav for Aziz as he is about to walk away. He stops in his tracks, a smile frozen on his face.

He comes back and stands next to me, crouching lower and still smiling. I hear easy flutters of conversation and champagne flutes tinkling, silverware hitting porcelain. The light is stark white in here, too white.

He lowers his voice. “And may I ask why you are looking for Aziz, Miss?”

“Is he here?” I insist, I hate it when people answer questions with a question. Khari speaks up, “Sorry, she’s from New York. Do you happen to know Adela Lee?”

“Let me make a phone call.” He gestures for a server to take our order and briskly escapes into the kitchen.

We get lamb korma and butter chicken to share, with steamed basmati rice and two glasses of mango lassi. Guarav comes back and says Aziz is in Dubai, on his way to Paris. He has heard the heartbreaking news about my mother, and he will send for me at Charles de Gaulle. Guarav hands me the necessary details on an envelope filled with euros and I thank him. Then he gives me a rose for his condolences, tells me I am pretty and to be careful in Paris. For the first time, Khari looks like he doesn’t know what to say. I blush a little and tuck the receipt into my journal. As we eat, we start discussing plans for Paris.

Right now, all I know to do is run. If I stand still, I’m not sure I won’t start drowning.

© Alicia Khoo

The Inimitable Livers

Written in Bangkok, Thailand

August 2012

Excerpt #1 from Novella: The Inimitable Livers

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The studio is small, a shoebox in St Mark’s. On one wall lines an exposed hanging wardrobe, our clothes hanging in no particular order. Aunt Joanna’s on the phone and her purse zipper keeps getting caught as she paces up and down from the bed to bathroom that is clogged with shoes and underwear. I get her some water from the fridge and she mutters thanks and asks how we ever lived here for ten years. I reply that we used to live in a bigger apartment in Queens but Manhattan was just closer to work for Mom and most of my friends lived here or in Brooklyn. I didn’t have that many friends in Queens even though I went to LaGuardia. While she is standing in the apartment still on the phone, I look at the notepad again. It has names and cities and addresses, in sequence. The first one says Justine Kim-Scott, Los Angeles. That’s whom Aunt J has been on the phone with. The next one below says Paris, and another bunch of names. There’s Rome, Holland, Turkey, Greece, Macau, and a list of names next to the cities, mostly people I have never met.

At the bottom it says in her sharp handwriting,

Violet, you are bigger than the world.

The world could not contain me.

Do not be wherever you don’t want to be.

This is war and you must fight.

If you do not know why you are here,

Seek out people who can teach you.

And if you must die, do not apologize.

You will be returned to the stars.

I had found her face up on the bed next to me, I am guessing she had hoped to leave with some sort of dignity, like the photos of Khmer prisoners we saw at the high school museum in Phnom Penh, stoicism in the face of impending doom.

I am told to pack just the essentials, but I want to pack her long vintage pea coats that we bought in Brooklyn, the old Canon A1 camera without the lens cap that she barely used but I took everywhere. I want to rub my face against her satin dresses and wear the heels I will soon fully fit into. I want to pack her bottles of perfume, carry all her books of poetry, my photography she hung in frames.

Aunt J promises me that all will be in storage;  that I will come back to New York soon to collect the things, and she finally relents and lets me pick some stuff to bring with. I take a photo she took of a homeless guy sleeping on empty cans of beer, someone had sprayed graffiti all over him. I take a red satin dress she wore for someone else’s wedding, and the old camera. I agonize over my vinyl player and which book to put in my purse, but eventually pick a collection of her poems— on the cover is a crude painting of Plath she had got me to paint with fingers when I was ten, at the 92nd Street Y, with a crown of words that state: “You Are Ungovernable.”

I leave the vinyl player behind.

© Alicia Khoo

The Inimitable Livers

Written in Bangkok, Thailand

August 2012