Pack (from And The Walls Come Crumbling Down)
by Tania De Rozario
It’s rainy season by the time I’ve booked my flight and the weather is seeping into every aspect of my life. Above and around the house, it pours. Plastic groundsheets line the floor and plastic buckets catch drips from my leaky ceiling. Nothing seems to hold water these days and I feel as though I too, am leaking. This is the fourth house since leaving my mother’s flat. Occupied for less than a month and already it is purging me out.
We thought this had been the one. But then again, for eight hundred dollars, any house would have been the one. You and I shared two rooms – one to sleep in and one to work in. We sublet the rest of the house to other artists who used the third room and the kitchen as workspaces. It was the ideal home. A place everybody could afford, in which beautiful things were created everyday.
The space had not been occupied for years, and sat along a small lane in the Upper Thomson area. Prior to us, a construction company had stored its materials behind the bolted doors. Rumours of sex work still drew foreign workers to our doors, looking for leisure. By the time we were done with the place, it probably drew more attention to itself than it had before. One housemate painted the exterior façade red while the wall that separated us from the household on our left, was covered in blackboard paint. The chalk drawings that changed depending on whatever was happening that day, both amused and scared our neighbours. Our drawings of cartoon termites drinking champagne disturbed the exterminator, in particular.
Making the house livable had been a task that was almost surgical; opening up the very belly of its being in order to carve out a space that we could inhabit. Scrubbing out grime from between the tiles, evening out the walls so that they could be repainted, squeezing filler into gaps in the floor. There were some stains that could not be removed and we had no idea what had left them. We left those questions unasked as we employed every tool known (and unknown) to housekeeping to scrub, sterilise, unearth, re-fill and fix. Hiring industrial experts to chemical clean the entire exterior cropped up in discussion and was forgotten after we found out how much that would cost.
There were some things, of course, that we could not resolve: the way the ceiling boards in the kitchen sloped downward a little too far, as though the shoulders of the house were permanently slumped; the fact that the kitchen was bereft of oven, stovetop, cabinets, food, anything; the fact that while the charm of this house was rooted in retro tiles which had not been changed for years and fittings that had not seen modification since the 60s, from this same charm snaked the open drain that still ran through the kitchen, dividing it from the living room. But then again, the drain had an upside: Unable to afford a washing machine, we hand-washed all our clothes, and it allowed us the convenience of squeeze-drying them above the metal gratings.
What we soon came to realise was that, despite the lack of furnishing and fittings, the house was not altogether unoccupied. Located near the reservoir and in close proximity with unprecedented amounts of greenery, the space had provided sanctuary to all sorts of creatures who would have otherwise remained wild; a Singapore I had never known, buried under the weight of time and concrete. A snail lived permanently on the wall of our bathroom, and centipedes came spasming out from between the tiles every time one of us showered. Bloated, black, furry caterpillars inched their way across the ceiling and fat roaches came in search of food that was never there. Spiders straight out of nightmares and as large as dinner plates, slunk their ways into the kitchen to take shelter from storms.
Rainy days were the worst, with all of us seeking refuge under the same shelter.
Today, the plants are pleased about the downpour. They push themselves out of the soil in the backyard and insist their way up towards the sun that they know will reemerge. Out front, the downpour pockmarks chalk-drawn caricatures of us, soon to be washed away completely.
I’m sitting in my boxershorts and a singlet that has not been washed in days. My hair is in some sort of similar crisis, matted enough to be concerning, but not oily enough to warrant panic. There is no one else here. There has not been anyone else here for days. You are gone. Our housemates have not come in since the termite episode the week before. I seem to be the only person with nowhere to run to.
In the corner of the room, lizards click their tongues and come out of hiding. They know that the rain is driving termites out from the ground and into the roof, through the tunnels they created in the vertical beams. It’s a feast for them tonight. I, on the other hand, am down to the last apple I stole from a petrol kiosk, where slanted mirrors were kind enough to let me slip out of the store like light.
I have a few friends who could lend me money but I’ve just paid off all debts, and I don’t want more. I’ve friends who would cook me a meal. But, I have irrational fears of asking for help.
Besides, I have a cheque clearing the next day and am not particularly hungry. Tomorrow I will be wealthy woman, until the next person rich enough to commission words or images decides to pay me late.
The termites though, are having their fill. From the clicking sounds barely audible under the rain, the lizards are doing the same. I shudder, thinking about the spiders that might, in turn, be eyeing the lizards hungrily. I consider calling up the cable company and asking how I ended up living in one of their nature channels when I don’t even have a television set.
I wish had a cigarette.
This processing of payment is a waiting game that eats at your insides, makes you antsy. I try to remain as still as possible. Less energy expended means less hunger to feed. I cannot be bothered to unpack anything just to give myself something to do, so I resign myself to staring at the wall. My eyes end up moving to a black-and-white drawing; one of the things you left behind. Me, without clothes, arms above my head, staring straight back at myself, a charcoal mirror. Evidence that remaining still is no mean feat for me. That is, after all, how we met.
Taking my clothes off for money had not been the natural career choice. But it paid for art materials and was less cringeworthy than ghostwriting ghost stories for local publishing houses. I had done the latter for a year while I was in school. It was easy work. But at two cents per word, there is only so much one person can say about long-haired women in white dresses lurking in wait of cabbies; or about army boys waking to the sight of headless ghouls.
The drawing instructor had said to do something with a twist. What artists call opposing curves. A figure throwing its weight to one side in a visual demonstration of gravity. I was told that I could look in any direction I wanted.
I turned to look at you.
It was, of course, pre-meditated. I had posed for your class the week before and could not get you out of my head, even though we had not spoken a word to each other. I was restless and infatuated, and you looked like a treat. I blabbed about you to my best friend every day for seven days. I had a lot to say about someone whose name I did not even know.
After the class was over, we exchanged smiles and I went to the toilet to scrub charcoal dust off the soles of my feet. I found them doing some sort of funny dance when I moved to leave. I shook it off and headed towards to the exit, trying to scratch the itch out from under my eyelids. The image you had left behind was making the view of anything else intolerable. The plants lining the corridors annoyed me. The gate at the exit looked ridiculous. I was clearly walking in the wrong direction. I turned around and walked back to the drawing room.
I asked your name. You told me. My life hovered on the edge of a syllable. My mouth had found its purpose.
You came over to my work-studio the week after. I’d asked you to model for some photographs. It was the perfect, if not overused, ploy. I shot fifteen rolls of film over three months; a slow and expensive courtship for a fresh graduate. But there could have been no other way. You had a girlfriend. And I did not want a messy situation. Honesty was important. And so long as the camera stood between us, we were honest.
Three months later, we slept together. You had told me that the two of you had broken up. You had lied.
I lit a cigarette once we were done. I could not find my matches and used a kitchen gun instead. You would tell me later that it was at that moment that you fell in love.
The rest happened like lightning: There you were in black-and-white, sitting and smiling in front of my lens. There you were, t-shirt and jeans, beside me in the wood workshop. There you were with a box of cereal, bringing breakfast to my studio. There you were asleep beside me, staying over because you’d missed your bus.
There you were, 3am, me waking to find your eyes on me. There you were, in the morning, shirt riding up the flat of your stomach. There you were, hand in mine, lips on mine, skin against mine, limbs knotted with mine. And there you were, the next morning, and the next, and the next, and the next.
And there you were, in our kitchen, bringing the udon to a boil. There you were, curled into yourself, hair askew, covered in blanket and sleep. There you were, in my paintings, in my words, in my bed, in my arms, under my skin, inside my head, tripping accidentally into parts of myself I had no idea existed.
And now here you are, leaving me at the airport. There you are in another country. There you are in a place I cannot find you, in a room I have no access to, on streets I do not recognise, whose names I cannot pronounce. I feel as though I am screaming while you take your leave in de-crescendo.
What made us think it would last? What else could possibly happen to lovers apart for too long? All those gaps in between that could not be filled because neither of us had money for the constant commute. We saw each other for a month, twice a year. The body cannot deal with such extreme joy and despair; the inevitability of brokenness.
“I need to find someone else while I am here.” “I didn’t need to hear that.” “I’m sorry.” “Don’t be. I’ll be happy for you.”
“Yeah, right.” “Well, the better half of me will be happy for you.” “ And the other half?” “The other half wants you to miss me always.” “The better half of me will.”
Platitudes are poor substitutes for emotions, this negative space hollowed out and without words. I know the shape of you and it has no name. I know the sound of you and the smell of you and the touch and sight and taste of you. But language departed the same day you did, leaving my mouth empty.
The articulation of you is the articulation of me. I am the hole you left behind.
Reprinted by permissions of the author and publisher, “Pack” is a chapter from And The Walls Come Crumbling Down by Tania De Rozario (Math Paper Press, Singapore, 2016).