Your skin is your uniform. A beacon and a membrane. Something to hold it all together. A uniform like dirt, but not close enough to earth. Dark, but not dark enough to hide your insides. Skin that betrays difference. Foreignness. Contagion. A pause. Usually a pause. Where are you from? The suspicion always cuts like a knife. Where do you want me to be from? The same question on both sides of the tropic. In smoky bars. In the light of day. I lie under the sun, hoping it will bake the answer into my skin. Bake my belonging. But it’s not me that’s lying back this afternoon, it’s just my skin. There’s comfort in that knowledge. Somewhere. Feel it lie back, flat and wordless, on the manicured lawns of the Botanical Gardens. A rainbow crosses the sky, half obscured from my view by a banyan tree. In the distance, black clouds roll over the channel, but here there is only diaphanous blue drawn across an empty sun. Still, the smell of rain is here, the smell of erratic violence and possibility. Skate-boarders roll down the roads, dodging indignant macaques. White socks pulled high over brown legs. Icarus leaps toward the sun but the labyrinth still contains him.
A sign warns, in Malay, then English: Jangan Beri Makanan Kepada Binatang-Binatang. ALL ANIMALS ARE SAD AFTER FUCKING. WHICH ONE OF THESE HAS AIDS? But the macaques pay no attention, standing in the way of passersby, demanding to be fed. The same sign is posted at the zoo, in front of the orangutan’s cage. There, the cage is empty. The ginger beast is absent. I remember him well, the joy he gave me, watching him as a child. The joy of looking. He would stare back at his captors. Bum cigarettes from them, his spidery arms snaking in and out of the cage. Subverting their demanding eyes by mimicking their behavior. He did everything but speak. He looked back at his audience with even cooler amusement than they could muster. He would sidle up to the front of the cage and look behind him, trying to figure out what fascinated the people outside the bars. I would always feel a weird kinship pass between the two of us.
A macaque chuckles, and I could swear he was looking right at me. Every laugh seems at my expense today. I want the ground to open and swallow the sun. Hide me. My laughable body. Touch the earth. Baked as warm as my skin. As warm as a dream with no beginning and no end.
The death of your father does not alleviate your spirits, as you thought it might. A messy death, his. To match his messy life. Bits and pieces scattered across continents. Penang. Honolulu. Los Angeles. New York. Bangkok. You linger in Honolulu for a few extra nights after the funeral. To put things in order. But there is really nothing to put in order. You sell his belongings easily to his neighbors. Spend your nights under the banyan tree in the park by the beach. Your eyes seem bigger at night. Extra alert. Drinking in every movement. The night becomes your skin. Pushing you along through the grass. A young skateboarder with a wool cap passes by. You catch his eye and hear the flicker of spit and contempt land on the gravel behind you.
Next, a marine rides by on a bicycle. Crew cut, flabby face. You lean back into the shadows of the banyan tree, those recesses where spirits still live. He turns around, slows down. Then, deliberately, jerks his head toward the public toilet in the distance. You inhale. Calm your heart. Play it off like nothing and follow him into the lighter shadows of the toilet. Inside, two urinals stand next to two flush-toilet stalls. Across from that, a mirror and a sink. He is standing at the sink when you arrive. You barely acknowledge him and step to the urinal. Feel his breath cover your neck. Hear the sound of your own water running. You are afraid to look at him. Afraid he will detect the black sea rushing through you. The quality of your skin. The quality of your heart. But your own desire suffocates your fear. You look over your shoulder fast enough to catch him checking you out in the mirror. Fast enough to catch him looking away.
You step around each other, never touching. Doing everything you can not to look in each other’s eyes. You give him a little show. Warm yourself in your fist. Move your arms so there is no mistaking the intention of your gesture. Act like he is no longer watching, but you never forget he is always watching. You turn, without zipping up your pants. Barely look at him, and walk into the stall closer to him. Close the door until only a sliver of light comes through, slashing across your hip. Drop your pants. Peer through the crack of light at him. He turns to watch you, then adjourns to the stall next to you.
There is a small hole in the wall between the two stalls. Only large enough to extend a finger to the knuckle. You press your eye to the hole, transfixed, as he removes his shirt. Unbuckles his pants. His striptease interrupted by the banality of untying his shoelaces. He has a meaty body. Furry ass. A sunburn that has healed into a tan, except the area around his crotch and thighs still shines like a bandage.
Behind this wall you take turns looking at each other. Through the hole. Exhibited. Ownable. You stick your finger in the hole. He rests his penis on top of it. You bring it back out, a drop of moisture soaking into your skin. It is now possible to preserve sperm and eggs from animals in liquid nitrogen, forming a “frozen zoo.” This would preserve the genetic lines of animals long after their death. It is now possible to preserve the image of a man in a file of language that can be transmitted by satellite upon request, forming a “cyber zoo.” It is now possible, now at this hour of night, to possess anything you want.
So you go for it. You put a longer finger through the hole. Feel for something you want. Feel something warm dose around it. Engulf you. You push farther. Until the wall scratches your knuckles. Hear him exhale behind the wall. You hook your finger up. Try to pull him back through the hole with your finger. But only your lonely digit comes sliding through. Bring it to your nose. Inhale deep, his violence into yours. Struggles for the monopoly of the spice trade.
You put your finger in your mouth. Feel it rub your tongue, that place where purity is a tasteless joke that everyone still enjoys. Your mouth shatters his body, dissolving his taste in your own sweet saliva. He sticks his own finger through the hole now. You bend to receive his sacrament. Open your mouth. Tame your oral cavity. Divide and conquer. He recognizes only part of your body. Only the boundaries. Only violence, lips. Teeth. Gums.
There is never an adequate description of your body. It’s illegible. Your body that does not love language. Your body for whom language is only contempt. An obstacle. A digression. You run your teeth around his finger. Secure it behind a dream of barbed wire. Under the Briggs Plan, the British evicted a million people from their homes and placed them behind double barbed-wire fences in “New Villages.” Divide and conquer. Odor. Skin. Fingers. Fragments.
You return your eye to the hole in the wall. Watch the marine’s matte body lost in the sound/noise ratio of your own ecstasy. You lean against the wall.
—Look at me, you whisper urgently—Fuck … .
Arch your back. Tense your legs. Listen. The sound of glaciers eroding. Melting in the heat. You are disappearing. Your illegible body has finally vanished.
Full moon last night. I couldn’t sleep. Every ten minutes I would get up and go to the bathroom in the dark. Try and find the hole in the floor to urinate in. Listen to the water make an arc in the night. Climb back into bed. Pull the pillow over my head and wait for the filaments of stories to run through. I waited to catch a ride on one of them. To wrap a dream around one of them and disappear into the night that surrounded me. Which story was it that carried me over? I can’t remember. But when I woke up, I had a mosquito bite on my eyelid. Martina saw it first thing. She giggled. Called. Auntie came in to look at it. Auntie blushed and looked away, but Martina just kept on laughing.
—Must have been dreaming something sweet.
Another dream. It is 1948. You ride your bicycle up the dirt path to the plantation owner’s office. It is midday in the dry season. The air is hot. You are cool. There is not a sign of life inside, but you know he is there. You walk assuredly into the plantation owner’s office. He does not look surprised to see you. You bow at the waist. Smile. Say Tabek tuan, and then shoot him once in the head.
Someone else’s dream. Graham Greene dreams he is in the bush, fighting the Malayan People’s Liberation Army. It’s the Emergency. They couldn’t call it a war because Lloyd’s of London wouldn’t insure any of their losses. So they call it a little problem of security. A little internal problem that drags on for ten years and then several decades after that. In Greene’s dream, little light bulbs filled with gunpowder explode all around him. But he continues to lead his men to victory. At night Graham Greene comes home to me. Sneaks into your bed while you’re sleeping and slips his pierced tongue in your ear.
I gave Thon some money before I left. I’m guessing, but it’s probably run out by now. He’s probably gone back to Les Beaux to make some more cash. I could call him and ask, but what’s the point? It’s not like I can send him more money now. It’s not like I can ask him to find something else to do with his free time. There are a hundred words to describe what he does. My favorite is dek khai nam: a boy who sells his water. I try to remember what those rivers feel like, pulsing under my fingers when we stay up late into the night, talking and touching each other. But every time the feeling comes to mind, it’s eclipsed by a larger question. How can I love these flows that are rented by other men? How can I run my hands over them without wanting to own them myself?
Not really a dream. Your father’s eyes always hold you in contempt, even in the photograph you have of him on his wedding day. Ma is putting the ring on his finger. Ba is staring straight into the camera lens. Straight at you. And even though you were not born yet, you can tell he is displeased with the outcome. In your dream, the picture is dying.
Your problem. One interpretation: You look for guys like your father. Guys who can offer you the security your father was supposed to. But then, once they prove they can give you that security, you need to fuck them over.
Your problem. Another interpretation: You look for guys like the ones you’re expected to. Guys who can offer you the security capital was supposed to. But then, once they prove they can give you that security, you become disgusted with it and need to fuck them over.
I rise from the grass. The macaques scatter when I stretch my arms upward. Far above my head. Try to touch the sky. Exhale. For not having moved in the last hour, I feel strangely sore. All over. If my muscles ache, maybe it’s from supporting the hardware of a million conflicts that never blossom into war: Israeli missiles, ADI space-based lasers, Nancy Reagan’s face lifts, W-53 thermonuclear warheads, MK 21 advanced ballistic missile reentry vehicles, NYPD bullets. From the drinks vendor, I buy an ice-cold air lichi for 50 sen. I lean against the stand and sip it slowly. A little girl selling peanuts comes up to me. Looks at me quizzically and then points to my gold tooth.
—Hey, mister, that sure is pretty in your mouth.
After I sold Ba’s belongings in Honolulu, I took the money and went to a jeweler on Mauna Kea Street. The only thing I could buy with the tiny sum I had was a gold grill for my tooth. The jeweler knew Ba. Cut me a discount. Engraved a dollar sign on it. No extra charge.Because I know your father. Every time I smile now: a little tombstone in my mouth.