LOOKING FOR THE COUNTRY OF LOVE
The jumper pulls on my knees as I sit on the footpath observing the milky
light blocked onto the asphalt. A soldier ant lifts off my big toe and
put feelers in the air. It bit me but I did not move. Most of this year,
I've been unable to sense what keeps me alive. The couple who walked past
earlier reach the entry to the park. They kiss under the banksia trees.
The girl salutes and walks back the way she came. Odd, that salute, a
little fake. Suddenly, I want to touch myself so I get up to return to
the house. When I look up, the curtains twitch in the bedroom above the
garage. The girl comes abreast. She smiles at me. I want to reach out
and stroke her; then the girl and her smile are gone and I think that
I can go my whole life being Jane Thi Doe who has three lovely children
under three, a loving husband, and two cats, but when I say hi it turns
out flaky. I decide that after I've touched myself, I shall make it through
the afternoon baking chocolate brownies. As I walk to the front door,
everything shimmers, as if the life has gone out of my body to animate
the entire world. I try to suck myself back.
Mother's complexion looks odd, as if powdered by brick dust—Asian
skin petrified by the Australian winter. In the kitchen of the main house,
we cut up old Gourmet magazines, looking for exotic recipes. As if we
had not been drowning the kittens only moments before. When I left my
husband to return home, Mother asked that I give my cats away; asked me
bluntly even though I was coming to terms with the kids being gone. The
courts gave my husband custody—he had a strong case because bisexuals
are not supposed to be good mothers. John Howard says so.
On the TV, there is an earthquake
in Japan. My mother says, "Why do people live in areas that are unsafe?"
A stupid thing to say, I am
thinking. A good daughter would engage in meaningful conversation about
her opinions. There is a blur of movement and in the space of a blink
something hits my foot—the scissors that wobbled off the table edge.
Blood wells in the gouged skin over my ankle. "Ma!" I am enraged
as if my mother has deliberately injured me.
Band-Aids are in the cupboard
over the laundry sink but the cut is way too big and requires wadded up
cotton wool. I put on socks and shoes to hold everything down. When I
get back, my mother has stopped with her hands in the air and is looking
at the television. There is a horror movie showing, the kind involving
Satan and foetuses. "If you leave that on," I tell her, "I'm
Mother goes to turn the knob,
flicking through channels, gray static buzz mostly, till she finds a cooking
"Been feeling depressed
lately." I lay on the floor to adjust my back.
Mother turns the telly off then.
"Life isn't meant to be easy." Her statement seems to bring
some hurtful memory to mind. "Remember..." But she stops and
brings the magazine close up to her face, her mouth moving silently. Whenever
there is something important to talk about, Mother leaves sentences unfinished
and I am caught by an internal pause.
We live rent-free in the converted
garages of businessmen, in return for a bit of housework, looking after
children who come on weekends. It has been six months since I left my
The cats come in through small
gaps in the plasterboard to piss on the pillows. There is an especially
ugly Tom that hisses when chased, as if the business of being male needs
defending. Lately, the landlord has been looking at me as if considering
something and now I look at my mother's large hands, feeling a rush of
tiredness. "I'm going to a party tonight." The words come from
A friend, a singer with a moderate voice, owns a beach house on the hundred-mile
beach. On the shore opposite the inlet, is a place where aboriginals used
to be isolated. When she finishes telling me, my friend also informs me
in great detail about assaults by her brother when she was young; how
she used to come here to stare into space.
After the party finishes in
the wee morning hours, we decide to go to the beach, despite stories of
feral cats as big as lions. The husband of the singer comes with us. At
every third step, my breath escapes in a wheeze but I have always been
this way so none of them pay any attention. They adopted me, an Asian
student in their dorm... oh about twenty years ago. They feel like strangers
yet they end their emails with the word Love. I have always been
hellbent on being Australian but I have used the word Love only
with my husband, my ex now, and then only on our wedding night.
The five of us pick our way
over sand that feels like cheesecake. I am the only one clothed. The woman
on my right scratches her hairy legs while talking to the flat-chested
business woman about sucking off some guy who stayed over the previous
Christmas. It sounds like an accomplishment. The flat-chested woman has
large scaly nipples but all other mammaries fall towards the centre of
the earth, emptied. One of the women waves her hands like a bird learning
to fly. Everyone has pubic hair in varying degrees of brown except for
me; I have none at all. When we get to the violently frothing sea, the
women dance in the receding tide as if in a ballroom.
I am afraid of the water but
the idea of being lonely makes me follow their actions. A supper of cold
lasagna keeps rising and the sea tastes like tears. Maybe I will die.
My asthma has already been too bad. Later, we will talk about scary experiences
and drink mulled wine. They will listen to me say the things that are
feared differs in each culture and can be passed on in the DNA. I will
speak of hiding in the forest and watching my parents die and make a chopping
motion in the air.
Everyone jumps in time to the
incoming waves. I can see the singer's husband on the beach scratching
the underside of his balls. In a half-year, he will be my lover, saying
that he is looking for a strong love. But right then, he seems
to be staring without desire into the blue crepe of sea. Look!
says his wife, the original caveman, and laughs at his rude sign.
We disco-rock in the sea while she sings and he begins to look interested
as checking out a harem for the over-forties.
He is a big guy, the CEO at a credit card company, and makes sounds
like a rapidly fermenting object. He stops for a minute. "I got an
idea," he says and heaves off. There is some movement that I cannot
recognize, but then I do. Bitch titties. He wants me to suck on them.
I consider it for a minute, make some body language that says no
and we stop in an awkward position and I do not want to stir in case that
means something; at some point, realize that he is snoozing. I wish to
be good at this sort of thing. The fish tank is loud and my thoughts dim
in comparison and everything becomes fine as if an alarm has switched
off inside me. I go to the bathroom, fill my mouth with Listerine, feel
my way to the toilet because the light globes never get fixed. By mistake,
I lift the toilet seat and sit on the cold rim. My thighs get wet. In
spite of the diet, my belly is out there like a pumpkin. At least, he
says he loves me. You couldn't ask for more.
He drinks the merlot by himself and I wonder if he will turn out like
all those guys that I have been warned about. His face is turned like
a train carriage come to an unauthorized stop. I go into the next room
and cross myself because Mother has predicted that he could be an energy
parasite and I am upset already about having to go out in the heat to
drop his children off and pick mine up. His love for me does not seem
enough in these temperatures. I begin to make up my face in the reflection
of the window because all the mirrors in the house have shattered. No
one can explain why. It is spooky.
The record player gets caught
in a loop but my fingers are stuck in this stupid wisp of wool in the
wardrobe and I don't want to pull too hard and ruin the dress.
I write the word harmony
on a scrap of paper and feel something move in my head and it reminds
me of the time my mother slapped my face for stealing tablespoons of Horlicks
from the cupboard. Why did she then complain so loudly about how skinny
I was? I could never understand. She would run after me with a tree branch,
around the dining table, until I crouched underneath like a dog. When
I was nine I tried to commit suicide by drinking an entire bottle of aspirin.
I write headache tablets
and then turn it into a list of supermarket items. Then I see a book
that I purchased and have not had a chance to read so I curl up against
the window and start, bringing it close to my face because my eyesight
is not what it used to be. When I go to the kitchen, he is asleep over
the spill of drool on the laminated table top. I want to scream but realize
that it will do me no good and since I can feel God watching, I stand
straight and lift my arms till they are tired. Then I take a bowl out
of the cupboard and break six eggs into it for frittata. The repeat of
take me down take me down take me down seems
to fade and turn whiny so I go into the lounge and switch the player off.
I remember an outing with a boy with whom I had fallen in love. We had
gone walking from one bar to the other asking for the Australian who might
help my mother with her English. Mine was pretty good from talking to
soldiers at the bar where I worked. Our interview with the immigration
people was coming up soon. My boy held out his hands as we walked as if
they were bulbs lighting the future. He asked if I was ready to memorize
the code. I think he was kidding. People joke when they are nervous. At
the last minute, I was reluctant. We were going to exchange family secrets—I
did not want to tell him that my so-called mother was not really mine,
that Mother was really the teacher from my school who had been visiting.
I wanted to keep my story straight for the immigration interview. I focused
on his polar jacket, the metal zip ends that flipped from side to side,
and imagined a handheld video. I was walking backwards trying to think
like a socket—his suggestion. There was grit in my eyes. I did not
want anyone to believe I was bad. But there was no one around so I began
to let go, cautiously. As if he could read my thoughts, he said, "Maybe
this is not a good idea." And his hands returned to normal. We went
back, holding onto each other like any other couple wanting to have a
Another guy I used to go out
with, an American who was there for the fighting, used to read from a
self-help book and tell me that all choices were equal. I am always trying
to work out if I had the right decision.
After I said goodbye to my boy,
I saw the guy they called Cosmos. It was one of those nights when I had
to get up early to the bakery. He was obviously on his way home from a
drinking session with friends. I could not imagine him teaching adverbs
to my mother. Sometimes I rehearsed a conversation in front of the mirror.
"Hello," I said.
I was interested in the story of someone
who was living inside themselves as if imprisoned by their life. My parents
travelled a lot between Africa and India when I was young, till I was
about 16, and then we came to Australia. Often, my narrators are seeing
their world as if they landed here in a spacesuit and cannot quite 'feel'
the world around them.