Away

distance 1

Home is not always where the heart is, and sometimes staying together means being apart

Thomas parts with Jane

Jane feels move in love with Thomas when he is away. She’ll getmoody and tell him not to go, but once he’s gone, she’s relieved. There is pleasure in the solitude. Sometimes she drinks half a bottle of wine and smokes cigarettes in their small studio apartment while listening to Bjork, daydreaming that she has been abandoned by her lover, though she has not been. This is something she can feel grateful for – she has her man and he will return, but for now there is no agitation, just pure peace. She knows his leave is temporary and he will soon be back again to fill up the vacant space on the sofa, at the table, in the bed. There will be excitement anticipating his return. When Thomas is away, he becomes Jane’s ideal lover – attentive in his daily phone calls and emails, and free from those flaws that after too long become – just Tom, typical Tom, always the same with Tom, what else do you expect from Tom. When he is away, she sees only the things that first drew her to him, and this is nice, because when they are together, he so quickly becomes just that difficult man whom she is tethered to and constrained by.

Thomas must travel, though there is no legitimate reason for it. His late aunt left him an inheritance, so he has coin to play with. He must get on planes and rest his feet on new soil every couple of months. Before his departure, he imagines what the new city will look like, how its natives will sound, how the air will smell and feel, how the food will taste. He imagines the colour of the earth in that faraway place. It always looks more invigorating than home. He likes less developed cities, places where people are poor and crime is high. A little civil unrest adds some extra spice. He says such places make him feel alive. When Jane asks him why he chooses Liberia over London, he says, “If you go to the amusement park, would you go on the corkscrew or the carousel?” The moment he arrives at his destination, he feels lonely, uncomfortable and a little anxious. Nothing too scandalous happens, the dangerous looking natives gawk at his middle-class whiteness, but they do not harangue or harass him. His adventures are never what he imagined they would be. He returns disappointed, off kilter, with less money in the bank, but plenty of impressive Facebook photos of exotic looking people and places. After a month at home with Jane, he yearns to see someplace new. He tells himself this will be the last of it. Soon, he will travel less. Perhaps he should save the money for a ring. Maybe, just maybe he’ll consider that baby the she always tries to talk to him about. But that never happens.

*****

Lorraine

The house in Singapore that Lorraine’s parents own is big. Big enough that each member of the Kwan family – grandma, mother, father, Mia and Lorraine can go a whole day without seeing each other. They have two maids, Indonesian domestic helpers who are slow and meek, and two dogs who are ready for the grave, a half blind black Labrador that needs to be carried around by the maids because of arthritic legs, and a Shetland Sheepdog with a weak bladder who leaves driblets of pee everywhere she goes. Both the dogs are no longer allowed in the house, so they live in a little doggy pen at the back of the kitchen, where under Mia’s instructions, the maids have to spend a great deal of time fussing over them and making sure they are at ease in their old age.

When the phone rings, it rings for a long time before anyone picks it up. Because everyone assumes that another member of the household will answer it. It seems one must travel a great distance, down corridors and up spiral staircases before one reaches one of the five phones in the Kwan residence. Sometimes, no one picks up the phone at all. Even though there are seven people living here, the house feels like it is empty, or more accurately, as if it is getting ready to soon be.

Despite rent-free living in this well-furnished, capaciousness house, thirty-nine year old Lorraine, the older of the two single, adult Kwan girls, goes to Bangkok once a month to stay at the Hyatt Grand Sukhumvit hotel for a week. Her mother complains that this is a waste of money. “What do you mean, need your space? Is there not enough space here for you? We go out in the day and we don’t disturb you. Do you know how many people live in shoebox apartments? You should count yourself lucky.”

When Lorraine is in Bangkok, she doesn’t venture too far from the hotel. She likes to wake up early for a long swim in the pool before the other guests swarm the premises. She’ll be at the breakfast buffet exactly one hour before it closes. After breakfast, she’ll take a walk a few blocks down to the main shopping street. She won’t buy anything, but she likes to look. If she sees a massage place that looks nice, she might go in for a foot massage. In the late afternoon, she’ll return to the hotel, find a quiet nook at the lounge and read a book or write some poetry till dinnertime. The hotel staff always greet her with, “Hello Miss Kwan”, “How was your day Miss Kwan?”, “Can I get you anything Miss Kwan?”, “How are you enjoying your stay Miss Kwan?”. Most of the time she likes this, but sometimes, if she’s nursing some beautiful fantasy, the niceties irritate her, because then she’ll have to force a smile and engage when all she wants to do is remain in the still depths of her own thoughts.

When her sojourn is over, she flies back to Singapore and takes a taxi from the airport back to her parent’s house. It begins to rain. She stands in front of the main gate and rings the doorbell. No one opens the gate. She rings the doorbell again, and then again. She stands there watching the droplets of rain make little dark spots on her suitcase. No one is coming to open the door, and she is getting wet. Her heart beats faster, her face heats up, and she lets rip a silent scream. She slams the side of her fist on the doorbell repeatedly. Faster and harder each time. Finally the gate opens. She stomps through the front door, yelling, “Why does no one open the gate!” Mia who is two years younger than Lorraine, stomps towards the front door in her pajamas. “Can you stop acting like a crazy bitch. Everyone is out in the backyard with the dogs, they can’t hear you. It’s just a drizzle, it’s not like you’re going to melt…” Mia lashes out at Lorraine, and Lorraine yells back at Mia.

Lorraine walks into the kitchen to unload her dirty laundry. She glowered at the maids who have rushed in from the dog pen with guilty looks on their faces. “Sorry mam, we did not hear the doorbell.” Lorraine does not believe them. She does not believe any of them in this house. Most of the time, she doesn’t like any of them either. She’s thought about moving out many times, but then she worries that after too long, it might get unbearably lonesome. This is her family, her only family. She knows it is too late now for her to start her own. This is the only place she can call home. As she goes up to her room, the levity and luxury of the Grand Sukhumvit dissipates, and as she unpacks her things, something like oppression joins her.

*****

Nila and Sam

Nila’s husband Sam is a pilot. Every other week, he is off for three or four days on flights to Houston or New York, Tokyo or Dubai. Immediately after he kisses Nila goodbye and steps out the door with his suitcase, Nila starts cleaning the apartment. She removes the bed sheets, she does a big load of laundry, she takes a rag and polishes all the silverware, she mops the floor and scrubs the bathtub and the lavatory. She gets rid of all traces of Sam, so for the next few days, her home will be a sanitary and streamlined sanctuary of female orderliness, and she can live a life that is her very own. Once she’s eradicated his scent and removed his things from sight, she lets herself become a husbandless woman who lives alone in a man-free world. She breathes deeper and with less effort. She can sleep and wake-up whenever she wishes, she can watch Victorian period dramas on television till two in the morning, while eating sponge cake decorated with lilac coloured butter cream frosting, the type that Sam thinks is silly and overpriced. She can stop worrying about whether or not she looks nice. She won’t have to shave her legs or brush her teeth or brew fresh coffee in the morning. She can go shopping for silk scarves or spend a whole hour, maybe two getting lost in a part of the city she has never been to before. If she’s in the mood for it, she might even smile at some attractive man she’ll never see again.

Sam does not like being a pilot, but he can’t think of anything else he’d like to do. At least as a pilot, he gets to wear a smart looking uniform and be in the company of pretty, approachable air stewardesses. He is not all that interested in these stewardesses, but he knows that other men like looking at them, and this makes him feel privileged to be in their company. He believes he has a life that many men dream of – regular travel, good pay, decent benefits, a loving wife, the responsibility of handling sophisticated machinery, the lives of hundreds of people in his hands, and easy access to young, impressionable females. After being a pilot for twelve years, “I have an enviable job” is the only think that gets him into the cockpit. He’s not learning anything new, and he’s bored of being in the air so much. Flying a plane is tedious and jetlag is a bitch, but when quitting comes to mind, he tells himself that he’s doing what the other boys would like to be doing. And so he keeps at it.

*****

Caleb and Diane

When Caleb was twenty-three, he realised he hated being in Glasgow, so he left to see the world. He did not want to work in an office, so he built himself a boat – a big wooden sailboat with seven cabins, which sailed around a remote corner of the Indonesian archipelago. This place is difficult to get to – at least three plane journeys and two boat rides, but a paradise for the senses. The boat moves freely from one deserted island to the next. These islands are without people, cars, shopping malls and all things modern. There are no high-rise buildings, supermarkets, tourist shops or Internet cafes. The sand on the beaches is like flour. And when the palm fronds and coconut trees dance in the breeze, the sunlight streaming through their leaves accompany them in a samba. The waters are turquoise, crystal clear and warm on the skin. There are universes of vibrant coral beneath the glassy turquoise veneer, and all types of fish, manta rays, turtles, dolphins and whales live in these waters. On the land, deep in the rainforests, are birds of paradise, tarsiers, monkeys and butterflies, and the sky is a blue that takes you out of this world. At night the moon reveals herself more intimately here than anywhere else, and the stars have no shame as they parade their brilliance like beauty queens.

Caleb uses his boat to take scuba divers on holidays, usually golden anniversaries or honeymoons, out to some of the most marvelous dive sites in the world. They come from England, Finland, Singapore, Sweden but mostly Japan or Germany. They come to see this paradise on earth, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Caleb does not like having to talk with the tourists or worry about how to keep them fed and awed, but he needs to, for the money, or the boat will sink. The wood will dry up and become brittle and the crew will flee, and he might have to return to Glasgow, watch rain coming down from the window of a cold, austere apartment, and work at a Starbucks because now he is almost fourty-two, and seafaring is his only skill.

Diane was studying psychology in Dresden, but learning about “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “relative deprivation” made her pretty blonde head spin. So she took a year off and went to Bali to learn to be a dive master. During that time, Caleb was in Bali purchasing a generator and some belt sanders for the boat. They met and coupled in a hostel with wafer thin walls. Diane went to live with Caleb on the boat. She helped him to take the tourists on dives, and developed a penchant for underwater photography. She smiled at these guests, asked them questions about themselves and listened to their answers, which she wasn’t at all interested in. Caleb paid her a small sum of money for her congeniality, but he thought that living with him, and being in paradise was payment enough. It was not.

Diane was young and beautiful and she wanted to be seen by other beautiful people. Most of the guests on the boat were older couples, or in love and about to get married. People her own age could not afford such an expensive vacation. She felt like her youth and charms were under appreciated. She took short trips to Bali without Caleb. “I need to use the Internet,” was her very valid excuse. She met a yoga instructor while she was there, so she left the boat, and Caleb. Caleb does not blame her. He would leave too if he could. He says that now the boat has become his coffin. A coffin in the most beautiful place on earth.

*****

Alison and Pete

When Alison gets through all the items on her to-do list for the day, she feels like she’s accomplished something, she feels like a useful human being. She thinks of something that she needs to get at the mall, and adds this to her list. It will probably be something unnecessary like tea towels or new placemats, or fresh cakes of soap. She likes going to the mall because she gets to see the familiar faces of shopkeepers and waitresses, nod and wave, and pretend that they are her friends, though she doesn’t know their names and they do not know hers. Her head quietens when she sits among strangers at the bakery café drinking her cappuccino before getting into the car and driving back home. As she nibbles on a biscotti and looks at the other women doing the same around her, she feels like maybe things are as they should be. She tries not to think about where he might be and what he might be doing. How many he might have killed, or whether or not he’ll be killed. The last thing on her list is her nightly Skype video chat with her husband Pete who is on his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. She used to rush to hear and see him through the screen, but now he is just another chore on her list, and she faces this man, who now seems like a stranger, with the same feigned enthusiasm that she uses to accomplish every other task in the day.

When Pete returns on home leave with all his limbs and appendages intact, he feels like he’s accomplished something, he feels like a useful human being. But this feeling does not last for long, before the confusion sets in. He knows the wife is not happy with his decisions, but soldiering makes the most sense for him. And if he dies, there’s some consolation there too. At least Alison will never have to find out that he doesn’t love her anymore, not the way a man should love his woman anyway. At least the kids will never know that he never wanted them, and still doesn’t. If he gets blown up by an IED, at least the tiring pretense of responsible family man can end. He wishes he didn’t feel this way about Alison and the kids, but he does. The only time he feels something close to the type of tenderness he thinks a man ought to have for his family is when he’s out in the dessert with his squad and his M4. He feels like a coward when he’s with the wife and kids, but having death stalk him in the dessert gives him a sense of nobility that makes up for how yellow he feels back home. Without the battles abroad, he wouldn’t have the guts to face that world that the other guys seem to think is the best one – the one with the women, the children, the in-laws, the mortgage, the taxes, the lawnmower, the disgusting public pools, cable television, the barbeques, the chitchat, the “for love of country” talk and the endless expectations. When he returns to the family, he feels like he is sinking, disappearing into nothingness. This thought rises above all others: “I made a huge mistake. It’s too late to correct things now. It’s no one’s fault but mine.” He had told her he loved her. He had asked her to marry him. She quit her final year of med school. He said let’s have children, even though they didn’t have the money or patience for it. Now, he hates it all, and for this he feels ashamed. He feels like he’s failed at the one thing that it is most important for him not to fail at. He tries so hard, but he just can’t love them, not how he knows they deserve to be loved. So he goes away. This way, he can put off breaking their hearts.

*****

Thomas and Jane Reunite

When Thomas and Jane are apart, they email, Skype or WhatsApp each other every day. Thomas tells Jane how he wishes she were with him (though this is a lie, he quite likes not having to think about things to say to her just so there is banter), and how much he loves her (which is the truth). Jane tells Thomas to be safe and to remember to drink lots of water and use sunscreen. She tells him she misses him and she loves him very much too. Two days before he returns, Jane eats only salad, so her stomach will be nice and flat when Thomas returns and sees her naked. She gets her hair trimmed and a full Brazilian wax. They are so happy to see each other and they spend all of the next day in bed.

Three days later, Thomas can’t stop changing the channels on the television with the remote. Jane sits next to him snacking on potato chips even though she doesn’t want to and isn’t hungry at all. Thomas peels the dead skin off the soles of his heels and leaves the epidermal crumbs on the sofa. Jane is annoyed that he does this. She takes out the vacuum cleaner and lets the machine suck up the mound of dead skin that he’s left in the space between the two of them. Thomas tells her to turn the damn thing off; he can’t hear the television, which he isn’t really watching. “Are we going to sit in front of the TV all night? Let’s go out,” Jane says. “Where can we go?” says Thomas. “There’s no where to go in this town.”

Copyright® Michele Koh Morollo 2015

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