Friday, 3 March 2017

Alice

The moon smiles its Cheshire Cat smile tonight
Off-white yellow
Cold-night mellow
It’ll laugh a madman’s laugh tomorrow.

Her skin is warm and pale underneath her white cotton blouse. Yellow-orange-gold streetlight gleams off pearly buttons. Two are on the pavement behind us, some are lost in the grass beneath us, some are holding on by their threads. She liked it rough, she said to me earlier in the pub. Rough, and maybe a little strange. Between half a dozen beers, she asked me if I’m too much of a gentleman to be rough. I shook my head, no.

I can be strange, too.

Follow Mr. Rabbit down a long way, that way—
The deep dark damp way
The delightful dreadful dreamway
Where we all ought to go.

Should I take her somewhere else? But I have the grounds to myself—ourselves—tonight and every night. Gate keys are in my pocket, the park bears my name, the guards shall ask no questions.

I take in the sumptuous sight of her, lying on the grass like this. Her arms spread on either side, like delicate wings. Her chest, her breasts, are exposed to the cold midnight air. I bend lower and bury my nose in her hair. Shampoo, sweat, cigarette smoke. My ear is close to her mouth now, and her whimpering is exciting me. Her face is a mask of fear and tears. She is spread-eagled; her wrists and ankles are red against the roughly-made ropes. The duct tape sealing her lips rises with her every exhalation.


There is a flash that is the light bouncing off a blade. There is a rip that is a skirt coming apart. A hand that is mine caresses a thigh that is straining to be free.


***This is a work in progress.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Keeper. Keep Her.

It started with our song. On Sunday evenings, I’d cook pasta and she’d play As Lovers Go on her phone’s music player. We’d lip-sync to it and dance around the kitchen while waiting for the water to boil. We have that cliché. We have a lot of clichés. We don’t mind.

Then one day I asked her to play our song. She asked, “We have a song?” 

I thought she was joking.

“Right, right.”, she said absently, as she scrolled through the playlist.

Then she started losing her keys more and more often. She’d forget which drawer she kept her socks in (wardrobe, top right), where her gold, loopy earrings were (she was wearing them), where she hid the present she got me for my birthday (in her car’s trunk). So that summer, I installed an expensive bio-metric lock on our front door—all it needed were our thumbprints. I labelled all the cabinets, drawers and boxes in the house and garage. I left note pads and pens in the living room, post its in the kitchen. I even hung up a pretty blackboard with a whitewashed frame in the hallway.

For almost a decade, we’ve attended our annual high school reunions. Never missed a party. We’d mingle as a couple, but sometimes she’d go off on her own and talk to her old chess club buddies. Sometimes, I’d catch a look on her face that meant The Question has been asked again. No, we do not have children. No, we aren’t trying.

At last year’s party, we were chatting with one of our old teachers and my wife was visibly upset. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes focused on Mr. Lee’s wizened face. Enough to bore a hole in it. Enough to see through the back of his skull. I asked her if she was alright, if she needed anything.

She ran away.

No warning, no gradual backing out, no pretext to go to the ladies’ room. In her high heels, in her blue dress, in her made-up hair, she ran away. It took me a full minute to realize what happened. I chased her down the hallway, out the door, into a cold night, and for three more blocks until she stopped in the middle of a Christmas market. I remember thinking how amazing my wife is, if she can run in heels so fast, so far.

Her mascara was running down her cheeks, a big mess. She was panicking, shaking. I could feel her heart and it was racing, racing. Or maybe it was mine.

She didn’t recognize anyone, she said. She was in a room full of strangers hugging her, giving her drinks, expecting her to laugh at their jokes.

The truth was dawning on me, and I said nothing. I kept on kissing the top of her head as she sobbed into my chest. I asked her, do you still know who I am? She looked up at me, genuinely offended. “Of course. You’re my husband.” I kissed her forehead again and held her for a long, long time. I started humming As Lovers Go, she sang along as I wept with her. I rocked her from side to side, our little dance. We danced in the midst of winking Christmas lights, the sweet smell of chestnuts with honey, the sounds of laughter and haggling.

We’ve been to doctors since then, but they can’t really do anything except remark on how young she is to be going through this, and how fast it’s progressing. It’s one for the medical journals, they said. Like we’re the lucky ones. Like we won something.


Our Sunday evenings are still the same—I measure out pasta for two and she plays our song. We sing along to it (yes, she still knows the words), we dance along to it. The water boils, and as the pasta cooks I ask her, do you still know who I am? Every Sunday, she smiles and replies, “Of course. You’re my husband.” Next week, or half a hundred weeks from now, the answer will be different, but I'll still be her husband.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

How Romeo and Juliet Should Have Ended


Image from www.tate.org.uk

The plan worked without a hitch. Every single detail was thought of—the safest route the messenger would take, the sword he would have at his hip, and the fresh horses at every stop and station. Highwaymen and robbers: they should never be left out of a plan if it relies heavily on an important letter getting from somewhere to somewhere else. That’s just common sense—which the friar had in abundance.

I waited outside her family crypt, just as the friar instructed. I waited until every last family member, friend and admirer was gone. Even that poor Count Paris, who loved her too. I did not hate him, for I knew no other logic than to see her, and to love her.

The crypt was cold, and the marble likenesses of her ancestors were dressed in ivy as I approached her seemingly lifeless body on its stone bed. Like a grotesque wedding march with our roles reversed, I walked up to my bride and kissed her and I waited for a good half hour. She started to stir, and she searched for me, “Where is my Romeo?” I answered her, then. Her name like honey in my mouth, I answered her. She smiled and we embraced.

We were free.


---by H.Taotjo, September 2015 
After watching Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and reflecting on the original version... I wondered how less of a tragedy this would have been if the friar was some sort of super project manager. Ugh...  I think about work too much. 

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Eros

For Mycah, belated Happy Valentines. I hope Cupid does wake you up tomorrow.


“Wake up, now.”

I could be the February chill that blew in through her bedroom window. I could be the rustle of the stacks of report papers, falling from her study table. I could be the whisper of her silken hair, drawn across the newly-starched pillow. I could be all of these things, or none at all.

                She moves in her bed, a fraction to the left, closer to the patch of sunlight that dyes the white sheets with its own kind of white. Her leg is warmed by the sun now, and gently, gently, she wakes.

                Gently, gently, she starts the day that I have orchestrated for her.

                “Good morning, sweetest.” I say. “Wait till you see what you’re getting.” I could be the creaking springs of her mattress as she sits up and stands from her bed; I could be the silent scuffling of the ant army, on its way to conquer the half-eaten sandwich on her dresser; I could be either these things, or none at all.

                This young lady is a clock, a calendar, a schedule. I do not need to be a seer to know what comes after her morning stretch (a prayer, a quick shower), or after her heavy breakfast (the brushing of teeth, the selecting of clothes).

She checks the time now, and she is not earlier nor later than she was at this exact minute yesterday. Her heart dreams of an upheaval. I can taste that longing in her heart, for am I not a connoisseur of the vintages of emotion? It starts off as very sweet, but has a bitter finish. And now it is abruptly gone as if I only imagined it. She has pushed it away, she is moving forward with her day.

The heart is both a cup and a vineyard to me. I have never drank from anything else these past few years. The heart and its cultivation, after all, is the object of my role and my craft. If anyone would ask what that role would be, I’d simply answer—well, I’m a vintner or a sommelier. Of sorts.

In understanding my work, one must always remember two things. One, that the quality of the grapes greatly determine the quality of the wine. And two, that the greatest emotions are reaped from vines planted from the smallest, most obscure things.

Allow me to demonstrate.

This young lady is putting on her shoes—leather doll shoes that are held tight by a garter or band below the ankle. They are neither new, nor old. They are products of mass production, and anyone with five hundred pesos (that’s a little over ten dollars) can purchase them. She is comfortable in them. She has broken them in some four weeks ago.

Her mother is now walking her to the door, saying God-Bless-you-have-a-good-day-love. She watches her daughter go. The bouquet of this wine is heavy with worry, resentment and not surprisingly, with pride.

So, back to the girl. I loosen the garter of her right doll shoe while she is sitting in the car, next to her father. Just a little bit, barely an umpteenth of an inch of the garter. She will never notice this.

“Step one complete.” I say.

I could be the growl of the car engine as it makes its way out of the garage and onto the city traffic; I could be the carefree banter of her father as he regales her with tales of his gardening victories (the war with the merciless noon-time sun has been won and the tomatoes will be safe, ever after); I could be the din of an entire city, muffled by sheets of glass. I could be all these things, or none at all.

They pass the university gates, un-checked by the guards by virtue of the small sticker on the windshield. She kisses her father on the cheek, thanks him for the ride and jumps out of the car. Her father only says “Okay” but I can taste the warm affection, the bright hope, the sincere concern in that word and heartbeat that occupied the same time and space.

                The girl walks from the drop-off point to the biology building. The path is wide and is made of concrete (or is it cement? Is there a difference?) made shiny by years of scuffling shoes. On one side, there are benches and students and smiles and books. On the other, there are patches of dark brown earth, green grass, and grey gravel stones. Workers are emptying sacks of gravel, a project commissioned by the university to widen the path.

                I time this perfectly. I never miss. I used to be an archer, and I never miss.

                I glide ahead of her, to one of the workers on the side of the path. I count two heartbeats, and I nudge his elbow as he is upending one of the gravel sacks. He tilts a little bit to the right, no real damage done as all pieces of gravel land exactly on the spot that was pointed out to him by the uppity foreman. All except one.

                It is very small, perhaps the size of a grain of rice, or a grape seed. And quite sharp. It falls a little further than its brothers, then bounces off the shiny concrete (or cement) path, and into the very-slightly loose doll shoe of our young lady as she walks hurriedly past. Her foot lands heavily.

                “Oh, fuck.” she mutters. Small or not, it pains her and she must remove it at once.

                 She spots a bench that is only half occupied, sits and removes her shoe. She sees the little gravel-shard, snugly embedded on the heel of her foot. She takes it out, it has lodged itself deeper than she thought for a little bead of blood has appeared.

                See? I never miss.

                “Do you need a band aid?” said the boy sitting next to her on the bench. She hesitates, but nods and says, “If it isn’t too much trouble.” He takes out a small box of checkered band-aids from his backpack, and hands it to her. He has a book of human anatomy on his lap, the chapter on muscles found in the shoulder. He does not smile, this kind stranger. I taste absolutely nothing, as if his heart holds nothing but water, nothing but nothing.

                She takes the box and chooses the red-and-white checkered one. She thanks him again, and asks why he is studying anatomy this early in the semester. He does not like explaining himself (something he has to learn to do anyway if he is to become a doctor), but he does so...

                And I hear nothing of what he says.

                I only stay to marvel at the stoicism of it all, and how completely ignorant both of them are of what lies ahead. This moment is as significant and as wonderful as the day they were born, and yet they barely even manage to smile.

                "I'll see you in a year, my dear." I say to her.

                I will return to sample what her heart will hold by then, and I look to that day with great anticipation. A strong, fiery wine—I imagine—a euphoric sensation, a sweet finish. Potent, intoxicating, and I will be drunk.

                I could be the heavy thump of his anatomy book slamming shut, as he takes his box of band aids from her. I could be the final thanks she gives before putting on her shoe and walking off to her class. I could be the glance he takes, at the direction of the pretty girl. I could be all these things, or none at all. After all, I could be wrong about them (but this, my friend, is unlikely. Remember, I never miss).


             

Friday, 3 October 2014

A Game Well-Played

When I tell you
That I'll be all yours,
I warn you, I'm wicked; I'll be lying (of course).
And yet for this fib, there'll be no trace of remorse,
You'd have known the Game's rules
before you walked through my doors.
This is a game you know well
(I think you've played it before)
It's fun (till it's not); it's love (till we're bored)
We'll both put up walls, we'll both keep score
Though you'll feel like you're winning,
you won't know for sure.
By the end of it all (when you think that there's more)
There'll be a buzzer, a handshake, an awarding (of sorts)
We'll each get the medals
that we've been playing hard for.
Yours will say WILLING VICTIM.
Mine will say HEARTLESS WHORE.


H.Taotjo
October 3 | 3:15PM

Friday, 19 September 2014

Things You Can Relate To If You're Dating a Foodie



1
You’re starving and ready to eat anything. Anything. And he’s still taking pictures of the food on your plate. First from your angle, and then from above, and then with macro, with the flash, without the flash...at some point he asks you to tilt the plate a little bit. Around the time he's finished, you've passed out.

2
When you’re traveling, tourist spots and landmarks just won’t do. Your itinerary’s filled with restaurants, food stalls, marketplaces and little specialty shops or delis. Two weeks later, his Facebook album is filled with delectable shots of dumplings, plates of authentic Italian pizzas, heaps of fresh fruits, towers of delicate desserts, and a single boysenberry (yes, even that, whatever it is). If you're lucky, maybe you're in that album...somewhere...maybe holding the bowl of ramen. 

3
Google Maps has the Satellite, Street, and Traffic views. He has Where-The-Good-Things-Are and it works like so: You’re both lost somewhere, it’s been three hours, and all he can say is, “I know where we are. The place with great Hainanese chicken rice is just around here, somewhere.” Strangely enough, he does find his way through any foreign city like this.

4
It’s eleven o'clock at night and he found a new recipe for beef stew. He’s got the meat, he’s got the spices, and he’s got the time. The most logical thing to do now (duh!) is to cook until three o’clock in the morning. And you're a nice girl/guy, you offer to help chop the onions and whatnot (but really you just want to get this over with as SOON. AS. POSSIBLE) Then the slow-cooked stew is done and the only thing holding you back from tearing into it with your bare hands is *ehem* poise and breeding. But he has to take photos for Instragram first (sigh...see #1)

5
You need to go on a diet to get your beach body ready for Boracay. But you just can’t get it started because everytime Spot.ph releases a new “Best [insert food category here] Places” list, you can bet where your next several dates are going to be. 

6
You (by some sorcery, or maybe you asked for some "space") got your abs ready in time for your teeny-weeny polka-dot bikini. Congratulations! When you get there—see #2. And you return to the city with a fabulous tan, and a flabulous tiyan. 

- H.Taotjo, September 2014

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Day of the Dead

For Alvin, happy anniversary dude.
I died yesterday.


I was in my own room, in my own bed. I was alone, it was noon of the third Sunday of the month. I was sick for a long, long time. I was sick for half my life. I remember feeling very hot, not uncommon with our tropical summer. But I was breathing very fast, like I was running and like I was chasing something unseen. I did not think I could breathe any faster. And then, not quite so suddenly, I felt a change come over me, my breathing slowed and I felt better. It slowed and it slowed until I was cured, and I needed no doctor.

The maid came in an hour later to bring chilled water. I watched her approach with boredom at first, then noticing that my chest neither rose nor fell, she was curious. Then aghast. Then she ran out of the room to fetch my father. I did not follow her, but I imagine that my father ran up the stairs, two steps at a time. He sat on the side of my bed and he wept. I have never seen my father weep—except the day the golden-haired foreigners left our country for good, and it had been joyful weeping then. I have never seen my father weep, and then I feared that I would have to watch him weep for a long time to come. But now I know that I feared for naught.

My funeral was no different from anyone else’s in our town. I had a polished coffin, made from wood of the asana tree. It was lined on the inside with clean white silk and cotton. The dress they buried me in was not something I would have chosen myself. There were flowers— a flood of white chrysanthemums, bright red anthuriums, and a shower of baby’s breath.

Wakes are not held in our town.

As soon as the undertaker was finished with me; as soon as I was dressed; as soon as the mourners were ready and my Guard chosen—as soon as all of these were done, they loaded my coffin onto a horse-drawn cart. My father, my friends, some townsfolk and the gravediggers walked behind it. The silent procession went past the town gate. There was no music.

Wakes are not held in our town. The dead are taken to the sacred place, the burial grounds near the old fort. It was where the holy man from the Vatican sprinkled blessed water on a large plot of land. The holy man left with the foreigners—I think he was the only one of their kind that my father missed.

The men of the town dug a hole in the ground, next to my mother’s tombstone. I thought that I’d see her somewhere, but perhaps she has moved on. 

I watched them drive their shovels into the dirt, again and again. It was hard work, and I felt grateful that they would do this for me. When they were finished, they lowered my coffin into the ground. The flowers, they placed around the opening of the hole. Then they said a prayer together—

Merciful Father, grant this child a night of peace.
May You grant her entrance to Your kingdom;
May You grant her the Joy that would never cease;
May You grant her the Eternity of true freedom.

And then they left. First the gravediggers, then the townsfolk I did not know, then the friends of my childhood, and finally my broken-hearted father. I blew them a kiss, and I wished a happy life for them all, and prayed that they not be too afraid of dying when their turn came.

The young man they chose to be my Guard was the only one who remained. He stood next to the open grave and gave a long sigh. A Guard’s duty is to keep the dead company on the first night of their death, a vigil of sorts.

He sat on the ground next to my open grave.

“Are you alright?” he asked me. Or he asked my coffin. Or the girl inside the coffin that has been lifeless for half a day.

“I’m uncertain.” I said.

“I wonder where you are right now.” he said.

“Right next to you.”

“I wonder if you know where to go?”

“I was hoping to stay here for a little while longer. I am uncertain if I am allowed. But I don’t know where to go, so I'll stay here with you.”

Then my Guard was silent, then he started to whistle.

Evening came upon us like a veil of pitch black. A Guard is allowed a small fire, and this he built from dried wood and grass that the townspeople left him. Then he came back to his place beside my open grave. He stretched out and lay on his back.

“Isn't that the most beautiful sky you've seen?” he asked as he stared up at the dome of stars. “That’s a proper summer night sky, that is.”

I took a long deep breath and confessed “It’s the only night sky I've really looked at.” In all my nineteen years, I have never gone outside after sunset, one of the doctor’s many orders. All I had to look up to at night was the bedroom ceiling.

But it really was beautiful. How can something so breathtaking not tire to exist night after night? Why was I not allowed to see this when I was alive to praise it?

I stretched out beside him and stared up, too. He just kept on speaking, naming the constellations out loud while pointing them out. I followed as best as I could, but I couldn't see how anyone could think that a patch of stars looked like a bear cub or a pair of scales or a sheep.

“Do you know that I volunteered to be your Guard?”

“No. I thought lots were drawn.” This confused me. To be a Guard of the Dead is a chore, not an honor that one would proudly step up for.

A Guard has to stay with the dead through the night, in the middle of the burial grounds, and fend off any wild animals. Or grave robbers. Or armed rebels. Or other things that hide in the dark. Members of the family were not allowed to be Guards; they held on too tightly.

“This afternoon, when I heard that you passed on, I ran to your father. When he would not have me, I ran to my father, who went to your father, who changed his mind and said yes.”

“Who are you?” I asked. I did not know him. He looked to be older than me, but not by much. He did not seem to be insane, or dangerous. I was praying that he would not violate my corpse.

“Then when my father told me I was to be your Guard, I dressed in my best suit and went to your house. I entered your room for the first time, and it wasn't what I expected it would be.”

“What did you expect it to be?”

“I thought there would be drawings on the walls, or a piano by the corner. Old dolls. A record player. But there were only books and books and paper littered everywhere. It looked more like a library with a bed.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That was better than I expected.”

“Thank you. Who are you?” I asked again.

“This was—is—my only chance to be with you, and ask you the questions that have piled up in my mind.”

Strange. When you are dead, and you know you are dead, you do not ask questions like "Why" any longer. You just understand, as I understood. I did not know him, but I understood him and all he is.

I lay there next to him, and I turned my head to face his. He volunteered to be with me and I did not even know his name.

“What kind of music did you like?” he asked.

“The kind that I could dance to. One with a fast rhythm and a melody I could hum afterwards, for days and days.”

“I like the music that I make with my guitar,” he said, “the kind with a quick beat that will make you jump from your seat.” He chuckled at his own rhyme. I chuckled with him.

“The pages of scribbles all over your room, what were they? They looked like poetry to me.”

“They were. I was a dreamer. When you are locked up in your room, that’s all you tend to do.”

"Tell me a story." he said.

"There was a king and his jester. The king said to the jester...tell me a story. So the jester said 'There was a king and his jester'"

“How did you get sick? Why did you barely come out of your house? Who was that man who took you to the park last summer? Did you see the fire that started across the street during the riot?”

And so it went, one question after another, all through the night.

The sky started to brighten. 

He knew that the sunrise meant the end of his vigil. I knew that it meant the end of my stay.

“Are you still there?” he asked.

“Right beside you.”

“I once dreamt that you died,” he said.

“This was a long time ago, before I knew you were ill. I dreamt that you died, and that everyone mourned for you. In my dream, I was not your Guard. But I stayed beside your tombstone anyway. I sat next to you and that was where I stayed until the end of time.” He was choking on his words, sobbing them out rather than saying them.

The pink glow of the new sun was behind the walls of the old fort, and I got up to leave. I felt heavy and burdened, and I knew that if I wanted to feel better, I would have to walk towards the sun.

He was still lying on the ground, crying. I wanted to stay, if only to watch him weep. But the heaviness was getting worse. It was almost time to go.

“Have you gone?” he asked.

“Still beside you.”

“I wish you could hear me.” he said.

“I wish the same thing. I feel like I met you when we were children” I said. I bent down and kissed him on the mouth. He did not move.

The grass was still wet with dew as I walked towards the old fort’s gate. I could still feel the damp ground, I could still smell the sweet morning, I could still hear his sobs. Then I could hear a spade slashing through loose dirt, I could hear loose dirt falling on the coffin’s lid. Thu-thud. Thu-thud.

His vigil has ended and he was covering my grave, a Guard’s last act. I was gone before he finished.

I died yesterday, and it was the happiest day of my life.