I don’t know when I learned fear.
I look at my three-year-old niece, whimpering dramatically as she dangles from a huge plastic gym five feet above me, pretending she’s terrified so that we’ll join her. When I assure her I will, her face brightens and she clambers up the rest of the stairs like a spider monkey.
When I climb, I feel a spark of nausea, sudden. I think this must be vertigo, this prescient knowledge that my foot could slip and I’ll tumble in the air for all of four seconds before landing on my arm, breaking it neatly in two. I can picture the blood clot in my brain which the MRI will reveal. I blink hard, look up resolutely; my niece has an urgent look on her face.
“Hurry,” she says, almost irritated, eyes wide. “I’m scared.” A terrible shudder for good measure before she slips into the plastic tree jungle.
When I reach the top, hard and slippery under my stockinged feet, I whisper a breathless prayer of thanks. The slide down is less precarious; I’m mercifully too heavy to be a dangerous ride, but I clutch my hands together in fear all the same.
The thrill in my niece’s big bright eyes unnerves me, and I don’t forget for weeks.
When I returned to Malaysia from Melbourne, I was fantastic.
I had passed my last two subjects, thus graduating, thus completing another thing I was meant to do. I had spent most of the last semester alone, partly by choice. It’s difficult to find excuses to stay on campus when you only have two subjects and your friends have full loads. I stayed on the periphery of the university grounds, somehow feeling guilty if I was too far from Lygon Street at 11.45 am on a Wednesday. But this was Melbourne city. There was always something to do.
I spent quiet afternoons in the arthouse cinema, weeping softly at celluloid pain and not feeling as ashamed as I would in company; strangers are more sympathetic than friends, at times. I journalled a lot, mostly inspirational quotes and thoughts I leaned on as the rest of my peers moved on to postgraduate courses or other great, adult achievements. I had withdrawn myself from the group of friends I’d stuck to desperately the semester before, realising that I was never quite a member of the gang as much as I was a sore thumb. Chosen solitude made me feel bold, different, courageous. I couldn’t lie to myself. I couldn’t hide from myself. Facing the person I was had made me thick-skinned psychologically – in reality, I couldn’t look myself in the mirror without wincing.
This is it, I’d thought. The final hurdle. Everything else after this should be easier. I had failed academically and overcome; I had had my heart broken and survived; I had made mistakes and lived. Surely I’d had enough.
Nobody warns you enough about the mundane.
They don’t teach this, in all of the years of schooling they make you complete. They don’t tell you about the waking up, the day-to-day. They tell you to go to school to be somebody, to learn things that will add worth to your person, and when you dream of a life beyond the uniform, the I-told-you-so’s, the this-is-how-it’s-done’s, they never grab you by the shoulders and sit you down and tell you, “Kid, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be once you leave”.
Instead, they tell you to reach for the stars, aim really high, and entertain your notions of being an astronaut, a lawyer, a doctor, an architect – a new ambition for every week they ask you – as though lifetimes can be built on whim and grades alone.
And then you grow up, and you search for answers in other people – for guidelines on how to exist, how to survive the little details, the social courtesies everyone seems to have but you. You reach a point where you read excerpts of articles about growing up not being all it’s cracked up to be – words which describe, with haunting precision, those feelings you seldom want to acknowledge: the lost, vacant, meaningless drivel which is now your adult life.
It’s nothing new, this feeling. It appears everyone has it. But if that’s true, then why am I the one who feels so alone, the one who drifts from interaction to interaction and finds nothing, the one who doesn’t know what to do with my limbs and my voice and my heart?
Life could be worse, they say. You could be dying/starving/oppressed/imprisoned/diseased/abused/disabled.
Eventually, the things you leave unsaid form an unmovable mass in your throat. Your dreams shrink in size, and you’d be lying if you said you didn’t notice.
Please, God, just this month. Please, God, just this week. Please, God, just today. Please, God, just this meeting.
It is all I ask.
(That’s not true.)
For a long time, I was never a writer. I just spent a lot of my time drowning in words, in books both filled with and devoid of them. I breathed them out and listened to them hang in the air, single notes which are there, and then gone.
They told me that to be a writer was to be pretentious.
(“And you’re not very good anyway.”
“Who wants to read your words?”
“They don’t sound like you; that’s not the way you speak. You must be putting on airs, pretending.”
“You have to be yourself.”)
But I have so many selves. I put them on like clothes each morning, and I usually forget to remove them before I go to bed. When I wake up the next day, they’ve disappeared with the night, leaving behind a faint aftertaste which lasts only briefly. The rest of the morning it’s like trying to remember an elusive dream. By lunch, all is forgotten.
I’m sure you’ve read all this before, drawn by someone else’s hands, prettier and more painful.
That’s just how it goes.
I only remember Melbourne in fleeting memories and farewell hugs.
I know, I know, this all sounds like a sappy tribute, but it’s true. I was so kickass back then.
Nobody had known me since childhood, so I could just be, you know? I could say what I wanted without it being loaded with 18 years’ worth of bloody meaning. I could be fresh and open and unassuming, because I didn’t know the politics of cliques over there. Those things I learned later, and they were different, and they were new, and so was I.
But everyone’s moved on. Everyone has some career or research they’re proud about. Some even have spouses and kids – like, God, could you imagine? Shackled down to a life with someone else, raising little people into people and all that other shit?
How does a person even want that? Or is it something which comes to you, like instinct, like riding a bike for the first time and pedalling when you’re this close to falling?
I don’t know, you know?
Maybe I only saw Melbourne as a mountain. I went there for a challenge, for enlightenment, for that epiphany which happens when you mix adrenaline and low air pressure together. My friends believed I had found myself, too. They ask me when I’m coming back, and I kind of feel like yelling at them tearfully, “Do you know how much it costs to visit you? Like, financially and emotionally? God.”
Even at my worst there, I had never woken up wondering which person I was going to wear today.
Sometimes that’s all you can ask for, you know?
My niece turns four this year. It seems like it was only yesterday that I met her for the first time, after I came back from Melbourne – six months old and odd-looking, a little squashed face and stubby fingers. Her face has unsquashed itself, her fingers are strong and sure, and she’s a feisty little minx, always prone to getting her way. She’s still learning to enunciate, but we’re getting there.
We’re the worst spoilsports. We’re always telling her what to do, what to say, what not to say. We’re just worried. We don’t want her to break her neck going full speed.
I, in particular, always catch myself warning her not to do something. It’s for her own good, I reason. So I tell her not to run ahead, not to shout too loudly, not to chase people in a desperate need to befriend them, not to dance so frantically, not to climb up things. I tell her an entire lifetime of don’ts. She rarely listens.
She shoots me an incredulous look. She’s got this, she tells me in her pidgin language: “Boleh lah.”
She rolls her eyes. I sigh.
“Tapi kalau jatuh macam mana? You’ll hurt yourself, sayang.”
She shakes her head. “I won’t fall lah.”