by Tom Calistan
A love story. Or is it?
|It's been so long, I don't even remember when it was. Days? Months? Years? It sure feels that way. I remember everything else, though. Like the time I first met her. The time I went with her to the halfway house. And of course, I couldn't forget the last time I saw her, the night when I brought the truth to her face that she just couldn't stomach.
The look on her face that night, I just can't forget, no matter how hard I tried. That's why I'm waiting here, in this place, alternating between coffee to keep me awake and plain water, to remind myself of everything she's said to me. Maybe I'm here for myself, trying to find absolution in her half-shut eyes when she finally walks through that door. I don't know. I try not to think about that. Instead I look into my glass of water, rewinding everything that happened in my head.
The first time I saw her was at a volunteers' symposium. I forget the title or the purpose or the NGO that hosted it. Mercy? WHO? I forget a lot of things. What I do remember though, is how I first saw her, and what I thought and felt at the time. It's a bit unsavory now, to think about it, but I can't change the past anymore than I can change the fact that what I'm drinking right now is water.
Just plain water.
When she stood up, to ask a question or introduce herself, I think, all I thought about was how fine she looked. That first time I saw her, she was wearing a red baju kurung which did a terrible job of covering up her ass, or her rack. I remember staring at her ass as she stood up. I remember thinking what a great set of tits she had, while she was asking her question or introducing herself. As she sat back down on that beautiful ass I noticed she had great hair too, shoulder length short and (as I'd learn later) naturally brown, not dyed or tinted. Her eyes were always halfway shut in an eternal sleepy state. Pure wet dream material.
Me being who I was (if you haven't figured that out yet here it is), I immediately decided this chick was worth the trouble. So I got up and walked over to her, and sat down behind her in the only seat available near to her. I introduced myself, told her my name, and she only had time to say 'Hi' when the girl next to her (one of her friends, I think, though I never saw her again) interrupted. She said she knew me, or thought she did. Mentally, I rolled my eyes in annoyance. Here we go again.
The world is tiny. There's a study going on about this theory, called the 'Small World Effect', which has almost nothing to do with tiny animatronic dolls singing an annoyingly cheerful song ad nauseum. It says that all the people in the world is separated only by a six degree gap, and rumors that spread through one circle of friends will invariably spread to the whole world. With things like Facebook and Friendster closing the gap, my reputation always preceded me.
Yes, I know your sister's friend.
Yes, we had sex.
Yes, I am that kind of guy.
Be yourself, they say. So I did. I never understood what the hell that meant, but its way easier to be honest than deny what everybody else knows for a fact.
And that fact was this: I see girls as nothing more than dolls. Factory made off the line, they're all the same. The same Chanel ink and Lancôme paint cover their faces. The same 100% leather Gucci handbags carry the same two thousand dollar Armani purses and the same latest model Sony-Ericsson hand phones. The same plastic feet wear Manolo Blahnik shoes over the same Guess jeans under the same DKNY tops. Inside, the same artificial stuffing, rayon or argon or some fucking gon.
I treat women like objects. 40 kilogram condoms. The ultimate in blow-up rubber dolls. Find 'em, fuck 'em, forget 'em. Yes, that's how I am.
Playboy. Womaniser. Lecher. Lady-killer. Call me what you will. I see no point in denying it.
This doll I saw at the Whatever Seminar, the one with eyes halfway open, she listens intently at me while I explained who I was to her friend. Her friend, the one who rudely interrupted me trying to get freaky with this beautiful doll, calls me all of the above titles, and as I accept them without a fight, turns away in triumph. I remember thinking my shot was ruined, but just after that particular forum ended, the doll with eyes halfway open turned to talk to me, and I learned that there was a label on that package.
Little Miss Snarky. Sister Sarcasm. Irena Ironic. Call her what you will. She never bothered to deny it.
We had lunch together, after the seminar. This doll, this Sister Sarcasm, she comments on how well I took her friends' tongue lashing. I tell her my theory again, which is simple: Be Yourself. This is who I am, and I accept it. I'm not going to say otherwise just to be nice.
Irena Ironic snorts, a not uncute sound, and says, "You're not being who you are. That identity you have, that's what they call you. They. Everyone else. They call us things like slut or whore, or player or womanizer, to use the Britney Spears term."
Little Miss Snarky, she says, "Nobody ever tells us who we really are. They tell us what they want us to be. What they don't know is, they want us to be more like them, instead of trying to be more like us. Easier to accuse than to admit. Easier to stick a label than to crack open the bottle."
Those people out there, pulling labels out of their mouths, they don't realize the labels are printed based on their own viewpoints. Putting labels on things, trying to make the world conform to how they think it should be.
Sister Sarcasm, she looked at me dead in the eye with those half shut eyes of hers and said, "We're all defined by how others define us."
I remember thinking, maybe I should get the fuck out of here. All those ideas of hers. Sticks of dynamite waiting to explode. Nietzsche once said that. Philosophers were a bunch of dynamite waiting to blow. If that's true Irena Ironic was a fucking nuclear warhead, and intercontinental ballistic missile ready to rain nuclear fire on everything I knew. I remember thinking, I should get the fuck out of this.
I also remember thinking, paradoxically, that this meant that maybe she was different inside. In the past whenever I ripped apart the dolls I always found the same rayon stuffing inside. Always, without fail. But Little Miss Snarky, now, maybe she's different. Maybe there's plutonium inside. Or uranium. Or Trinitrotoluene. Maybe she's who I've been searching for, all this time, like a conquistador trying to find aurum inside dolls.
So I agree to meet her again.
For our first date, we met at the halfway house where she volunteered. There she helps mental patients get back into society. She helps prepare food, gives out Risperidone and Arthane tablets and Haloperidol injections, and wheels around the patients who broke their legs trying to prove they could fly.
She points with one dainty finger to a guy standing on a table giving a speech to a few other patients and some of the volunteers. "That's Michael Jackson-Brooke, the King of Pop and White Rajah of Borneo. Don't put on Billy Jean or talk to him about Sarawak, 'cause he will Moonwalk all over your savage headhunter ass." As she spoke Michael did a little jig on the table, and everyone cheered him on.
She points to another patient, a woman this time, singing 'Papa Don't Preach' to a microwave. "And that is Madonna, the Material Girl. Move along, she's got a helluva libido. She may not look it, but there it is."
She comes to a patient in a wheelchair trying to sneak away in a wheelchair. She smiles at him and puts her hands on the handles, wheeling him outside for some fresh air. "And this is Harvey Birdman, superhero attorney at law. Say Hi to my boyfriend, Harvey."
Harvey squawks like a chicken by way of greeting. I ignore what sounds like a hint of jealousy in that squawk, which must've been my imagination.
She smiles and wheels Harvey around the parking lot. "Sorry about that. Apparently, Harvey is my ex-boyfriend, who was also my lawyer. The reasons we broke up changes every day, so I'm not totally sure what happened between us. He's a superhero who got bitten by a radioactive falcon and is the best damn lawyer in the world. Apparently, he also puts the law down in bed."
I can feel bile rising up my throat. I ask if all that's true.
She laughs at my nervousness. "Don't worry yourself. None of it's true. Whoever's wheeling him around becomes his ex, even if it's a guy. Harvey has schizophrenia. He thinks he's Harvey Birdman, but that's all that's wrong with him as far as we know."
As Little Miss Snarky wheels Harvey Birdman around, she says, "There's this term: stigma. When we say it, we mean all the ideas and preconceptions people have about mental patients. Say schizophrenia and the labels come."
Psycho. Nutjob. Insane in the Membrane.
"These people, all that's wrong with them is that they refuse to accept others' views. Refuse the labels. Refuse to conform to what others think they should be. They are who they want to be, and society calls it crazy. But they call themselves what they want to be, and it empowers them. So much so that we call them by their self-assigned labels instead of who they are."
They're paranoid schizophrenics. Manic patients. Total nutjobs. But they believe they're gods, kings and celebrities. And we call them Your Moonwalking Holiness Lord Michael Jackson-Brooke instead of MRN 662531. Man Kidal instead of That Manic Patient. Harvey Birdman instead of Salleh bin Puteh.
Irena Ironic, lighting a cigarette, says, "What are we but what we make of ourselves?"
The idea that leveled two cities.
At that point in the relationship, me listening to all these ideas of hers, something began to change in me. I wasn't looking at her body anymore, attractive though it may be. I didn't want to just kiss her mouth anymore; I wanted to hear more of what it had to say. I didn't want to rip her apart anymore. I knew exactly what was inside.
It's a strange feeling that was completely alien to me. It didn't feel like I thought it would feel, all sappy and gooey and smelling faintly like rainbows and butterflies. It felt…warm, comfortable, like you had just achieved something though that wasn't exactly it. I don't know how to describe it. If I were a musician I'd be writing a song right about now. If I were a poet I'd have a sonnet full of imagery and hyperbole. In other words, if I knew how to put what I felt in words, I wouldn't have wasted a whole paragraph trying to describe it.
I wanted to see more of her and learn more about her. Sex, the driving factor behind all my actions towards her, was now the farthest thing from my mind. I didn't want her body. I wanted her. So I saw her again.
We were at a park that night, her sitting on a bench while I lay down to ease the bad pasta I had jammed down my throat. Miss Sarcasm, looking at the stars, drops another nuke on me.
She says, "This may be fake. Pseudoscience. But a group of scientists in Japan taped different sentences to jars of purified water."
Stuff like 'You are an asshole'.
'I hate you.'
'You are so beautiful'.
'I love you.'
Different labels for the same damn thing.
My head in her lap, she's saying, "This may be fake, but those scientists, they noticed a change in the structure of the water. The ones labeled with negative sentences, they had erratic, ugly structures. The positive ones, they had beautiful, symmetrical structures. From the naked eye, just a jar of water. Deep down, there's a world of difference."
What if they pasted 'Be Yourself' on the jars? That'd be a scream.
Irena picks at a zit on my face. "What if they pasted 'Penicillin' on the jars? Or 'Battery Acid'? Or 'Viagra'? What would happen, you think?"
I tell her to stop picking at my face.
"Maybe that's what's behind the placebo effect. Labels pasted on bottles of nothing for so long, they believe the label and act accordingly. Hefty price tags on a piece of junk for so long, it's turned into a quality product. Call a person by a different name and they change." She looks at me in the eyes, and smiles, her eyes half-open.
"Isn't that right, Perfect Angel?"
I sit up, grab her by the collar and pull her doll face to mine and ask her what the fuck did she just call me.
Her eyes halfway shut, she smiles. "You like it? Perfect Angel?"
I let her go. I tell her I hate it.
She just repeats it over and over again, as if talking to an addict, hoping something will stick.
"Perfect Angel," she'd say, picking up the phone.
"Perfect Angel," she'd text me, when I stopped picking up.
"Perfect Angel," she'd yell as she saw me, just when I'd thought I'd slipped past. "Perfect Angel, Perfect Angel, Perfect Angel," she'd say after she caught me and gripped me in a bear-hug body-lock. Like some kind of ritual of an Obsessive-Compulsive patient. Every day, all day long.
When I die please don't let her carve 'Perfect Angel' into the tombstone.
I couldn't tell why I hated the name so. Why I hated it so much that feeling I couldn't say for sure how it felt started to dissipate, leaving me cold and empty. Also, something didn't seem right. Something just didn't click. Like there was something wrong here somewhere, and now I can't look at her without thinking that. Now I dread the thought of seeing her, where I once bounded to her side with glee. And as soon as I thought that, I made up my mind. I was going to take this to her and make her stop.
I went to the halfway-house one day and pulled her away from the Birdman lawyer, dragging her along without an explanation. I pushed her against the wall of an empty hallway and snarl at her to stop calling me that.
"No way, Perfect Angel," is all she says in reply.
I nearly lose it. I stammered, gnashed and threw my hands in the air. In the end after so much venting, I finally ask what I wanted to ask. Why did she call me that?
"Japanese water experiment. 75% of the human body is water. I'm just pasting a label on the jar." She looks me dead in the eye and asks, "What do you want to be?"
I wanted to be myself. Or at least, that was what I would say if it didn't hit me. The sudden realisation of what had bothered me about that name dawn upon me like the light of dawn slowly blanketing the earth. What felt wrong, what didn't click about her calling me that, suddenly fell into place like a Tetris block. I looked at her and that feeling, that warmth I felt is there again, but tainted, somehow. Like there was something else there.
Something like pity. Or worry.
I sighed and lifted my hands in defeat. I told her I was sorry for doing that, and after a few deeps breaths, asked her out that night. There was something I wanted to say to her.
She shrugged and said, "Okay. But this isn't over, Perfect Angel."
I hoped it wasn't. As I saw her go back to wheeling Harvey Birdman around, I wondered if what I wanted to do was wise, if I wanted to keep our relationship.
Now, of course, I know that it wasn't. But it made sense at the time, or so I think.
I remember that last night, we came here, in this very restaurant. We both ordered just plain water, nothing else. We didn't talk for a while, just sat there smoking and watching the sports on TV. Myself, of course, I was as far away from there as you could get. How do I say it?
I remember thinking, Here goes nothing, and opening my mouth.
Yeah, big mistake.
"Why do you label me?" I asked. This I remember to the letter. How the streetlights poured in through the window, illuminating the dust motes circulating about us. How her face turned into a mask of puzzled confusion, like she thought we were done with this topic. How I lifted my hand to silence her, so I could keep making my big mistake.
"All this while, all this time, you've told me your little 'Label' theory. And I've always listened. And I've always thought about what you said. And I've agreed with you on almost everything...but then you stuck a label on me that I didn't want: Perfect Angel. Why do you do that? When you started calling me that, something didn't seem right. I couldn't figure out what, but now I know."
Throughout all this, she just stares at me, as plastic and expressionless as a doll.
"Do you know me? Do you really know me? Have you ripped me apart like I have with all those girls, so long ago? Have you seen what's inside the jar before you stuck that label on me? You thought you did, and maybe you did, and so you stuck a label on me to change what's in the jar. But on what assumption did you stick that label on me? The label others gave me, which I took for myself."
Playboy. Womaniser. Lecher. Lady-killer.
"Is that really who I am? I used to think so. But now, after all you've taught me, I don't know. I just don't know anymore."
I take a sip of water. I wasn't used to making long speeches like these, impromptu.
"We're...in a relationship. We don't know if we, well, love each other yet. Or even if we know each other. That's what...that's what all this is about. Trying to get to know the other person. Ripping them apart to find out what's inside."
Plutonium, uranmium, trinitrotoluene, rayon, argon, paracetamol, lipstick-red Tylenols.
"But after so much of this...you still don't know who I am. And I still don't know who you are."
I tell her I call her Irena Ironic. Little Miss Snarky. Sister Sarcasm. All of these names, a label in my head.
"Who are you? Irena Ironic? Little Miss Snarky? Sister Sarcasm? Any of these stupid names I mentally assign to your face, in my head?"
A bus flies by, too fast, blowing leaves and garbage all over the street. If a traffic cop was around he'd book not the bus, but my mouth for running too fast.
Her face remains expressionless, as lifeless as a doll's, but I detect a change coming over her. She was breathing faster. Her hands were underneath the table now but I could tell she was shivering. My guess was, her heart was pounding against her chest.
I lean in closer. "It's okay. After all that I've said, it's still okay. I don't know who you are. You don't know who I am. But it's okay. I don't know who I am, and you don't know who you are, either. We've still got each other. We can find out together."
I was so focused on what I was saying, I didn't notice her grabbing her glass. As soon as I stopped talking, she splashed the icy cold water in my face, the shock stunning me like dynamite, the cold burning me like acid, the wetness covering my body like oil, even though she just splashed me with water.
Just plain water.
She stormed out, not saying a word. In my shock I remember thinking, "That didn't go well," but as I saw her step out of the door, and starting to cross the street, I panicked. I didn't want to lose her. I got up, ignored the shopkeeper's protests for me to settle the bill before leaving, and tried to go after her, but something held me back. I wanted to chase after her and catch her hand before she got away, but somehow I stood rooted to this side of the street. The dark black asphalt, unmistakably black even illuminated by the yellow street lights, was between us like a deep, black, uncrossable pit.
I did the only thing I could think of. I yelled her name across the street, stretching a long bridge made of labels across the pit. She turned, and I saw she was crying. I had broken her.
"Get some rest," I yelled. "Think about it. I'll be here every night until midnight, waiting for you. If you make it, all it means is we're ready to find out who we are. Okay?"
She just stared at me, and turned to walk away, without a single word. That was the last time I ever saw her.
Since then, I've been here, every night. I stay until midnight, and if she doesn't show, I leave. It's been so long, I don't even remember when it was. Days? Months? Years? It sure feels that way. And I still don't know who she was, or who I am. I guess I'm waiting for her to tell me.
The night's still young. Maybe she'll show up today. Maybe she won't. Who knows? I'll keep waiting, to the end of the world if I have to. Until then, I think I'll have me another glass of water, lest I forget why I'm here.