Friday, December 24, 2010

The Voyeur

This is a story I wrote two years ago about an episode from my graduate school days, now published on Asia Writes. It happened during the times of SARS: schools were shut down, people roamed around in masks and panic, some were quarantined at the hospitals or in their homes (including someone who lived in my building), others fled the oppression by going on shopping sprees when the city's economy was going downhill. Of course, it's all relative--even at its worst, Hong Kong's economy has always been fairly solid, despite the horrendous gap between the rich and the poor in this town.

Like everyone else I was sick with worry and frustration during that summer. I came down with the flu and suffered a monstrous migraine that wouldn't go away for a long while. It took over my consciousness until I went blind walking up the stairs; then it invaded my sleep and I woke up in tears, anguished over not graduating on time and getting out of the rut I'd been in for years and years.

One night the story began. I did live in Room 422. 


MY ORANGE DRAPES are thick and they don't breathe, not in the summer heat of Hong Kong. They flutter when the wind blows; they fall and get sucked between the rusted metal frames that have withstood the last thirty, forty years. Run your hand along them. You'll get a tainted taste on your skin.

The hissing cuts through the evening air. The long and insistent sound jumps and lurks from seven o'clock to midnight every night. In the past two weeks I've looked out of the windows many times and strained myself to hear. It's impossible to tell where the hissing comes from. These flats are long, endless rows of cells overlooking one another in this public housing estate. My search points to different directions, mainly to the lower left of the opposite building where my neighbors have old bed sheets for drapes that leave small and careless openings to their lives.

It sounds like a young man and his stubborn expression of misguided strength. Faceless, the figure is a vague shape and intensity in the dark. There're respites of silence when the hissing seems to stop for good. Then it starts again.

The footsteps unnerve me in the same way. The postman comes at lunchtime and delivers my bank statements, alumni newsletters, commercial printed matters, occasional postcards from an old friend on the other side of the world. The housing authority staff comes in the evening with rent payment notices and newsletters, government propaganda in grey and orange prints.

There's a rustle in the slot of my wooden door. I see an odd piece of paper on the floor. Beneath childish handwriting, a panda dances at the bottom of the page.

‘Dear Miss Room 422,
I'm bored. Will you be my friend?
Sometimes I see you smile. I think you're always happy.
Call me. 9746 3804.
Wait for you!
Mike'


TONIGHT I WEAR a ponytail for a change, though my floral pattern shirt has a similar cut to the one I wore yesterday. It makes no difference to my trip. Between the two fast food places downstairs, I've shown up in short-sleeves and long-sleeves, straight hair and curly hair, explored most items on the menus for take-away and quick dine-in over the years. The cheaper, self-serve place has old light bulbs bustling in the high ceiling. Phantom Chinese horses run wild in a painting on the wall. There're two elderly cashiers on different shifts. The dark-skinned one counts the banknotes with a permanent pout; the other, grey-haired and smiley, chain-smokes and sips milk tea.

The more upscale place is dimly-lit and has green floor tiles, which makes the waitresses look rather prominent in their white shirts. At night a sterile air wraps around the restaurant despite the grease on the floor. The owner is a short chubby man with thick eyelids and lips, pale skin a flitting shade of grey as he bounces around the restaurant wearing a round-collar T-shirt and a sly smile, the kind of smile you remember from a bad stage actor. He's always there to open the door.

“Spaghetti Bolognese with cheese?” he asks.

I sit down at a corner and wait. The cheese costs extra. Sometimes they forget about it and the meat sauce tastes like sugar and salt and water.

There's time to go to the Park'n Shop, but I can't bother and there's enough grocery at home for tonight. The Park'n Shop has its charms for me. The cashier with the great 80's perm and bright lipsticks is my favorite. She looks at the customers in the eyes as she speaks, her voice deep and burnt from prolonged smoking; then she takes the cash or inserts a credit card into the reader. I see her at mahjong with three other ladies, a white cigarette between her red lips and a glass of tea on the side table. In life she might be a dominatrix, a woman one remembers and fears; or she might be harsh-voiced and faint-hearted as her husband and children turn a deaf ear to her pleas. The other cashiers look generic to me, just as I'm one of the numerous customers coming in and out. We pass one another by in our invisible private zones.

I can use more of that anonymity now. Beyond the regular characters at the fast food places and grocery stores, it never crossed my mind that anyone in this housing estate would recognize me, leave alone follow my daily routine. My faith in oblivion is clearly mistaken. We live in twelve-storied buildings: anyone can poke their heads out to see who's smoking in the playground, who's marching into the lobby with shopping bags from a day out. My neighbor must have seen me at different times of the day. Early afternoon I'm a tall and thin girl in jeans and sandals, wobbling beside the bushes in the park. Early evening I have take-away dinner and I'm scurrying for cover, eager to get out of the sight of strangers. My moments of grace are late at night when I hop out of a cab, still radiant with make-up and from the evening's company. My shaky, light-hearted gait is proof that I have a life like anyone else that is more regular and grounded than me. I, too, have my happy times.


IT'S UNFAIR THAT my secret friend should know so much about me when I haven't wanted to show myself. I must have been crying at my desk when they saw me and mistook my shivering for laughing. I could be walking in circles to the strum of an electric guitar or the distorted tone of a violin of a post-rock band. I was mustering anger and grief, and some creep thought I was dancing with a smile on my face. What gives this person the right to judge and exploit me?

My only prize is suffocation. I keep my windows shut most of the time now even though I have no air-conditioning at home. My plastic fan sways, buzzing and stirring dust on the floor. The day unfolds a constant turmoil. I try to sit perfectly still at my desk. Sweat runs down my neck and my back, tracing an insane urge to tear down the drapes and scream. When night falls I want to spin around and breathe; then I remember the prying eyes and that I'm protected in my seclusion. There's satisfaction to my surrender. The watcher can stare at my drapes every night. My absence is all they see now, blanks of a presence they can no longer hold onto.

It's a big price to pay to live in this heat. I'm a fragmented soul and I drift behind the thick orange fabrics, living the resemblance of a life: reading, writing essays, eating take-away, wiping the sweat off my face. My mind is blunted; I pass each day as it comes. I remember the hissing too. I wonder if it's grown stronger since I shielded myself from the outside. In my fantasy it's a sly young guy, more pervy-looking than the restaurant owner or anyone I know. He lives in a receding abyss of boredom; hissing by the windows, he seeks unknowing victims to his glare. He sees through anyone he looks at because everything plays out perfectly in his head. I almost feel sorry for this guy, but not at all for my spying neighbor who's causing me so much pain. I don't think they're the same person. The strength of sound and the childish handwriting don't come together.

I can probably find out if I do my own spying. Still, I wouldn't risk exposing myself when nothing is private in public housing in this town. Past midnight I open my windows and clip the drapes to the frames with laundry clips, so I can peep without being seen. These are my only moments of freedom: I seal myself in again before going to bed. The night is a giant metal bed that creaks and conceals the lovers' identities. With every echo the interspace closes in a little more. Just as the throbbing is about to burst, it takes on a slow, monotonous rhythm; one loses track of time and it promises to last forever. When their love is over there's a man seated on the couch by the windows in a different flat. A calendar hovers over the TV set on a wooden cupboard. There's a never-ending soccer match on screen. The players, wet-haired and flushed, are running or pushing or curled up on the ground in pain and glory. The man is a perfect silhouette; he's eluded me for years and he'll remain a mystery.

The mating calls of stray cats are whirling. It sounds like children crying, like the boy who gets beaten up by a screaming mother in the afternoon. It could be him: his moans and cries on rewind, the same fate running through each day and night of his life. In the glow of the streetlamps a young couple emerges on a bench. The girl is drinking from a can of coke when the guy puts his arm around her shoulder. Such peace is a gift. On occasional nights the lovebirds get into drunken fights, crying and pushing each other like sumo wrestlers in a video game. I once saw a young man throw his arms up in the air at his girlfriend, in a dramatically loving or cruel gesture. He shouted: “What have I done wrong?”


BLACK INK TRAILS along the dotted line under an imaginary child's hand. These are neat letters masking a sense of urgency: “Call me. 9746 3804.”

Did my young friend scribble this second note after he finished his homework, under the gaze of adults, full of blame and malice? Or did he just return from a hasty porn voyage in his small bedroom, his cheap and privileged access to autonomy?

What kind of person would my voyeur be: a youngster stripped of privacy at home who seeks to violate space, or a precocious child looking for his counterpart? A thin lad with faint light on his bare chest, envisaging an intimate encounter with a woman twice his age, dreaming her curves and moves until the curtains fall, cutting short the echoes of his loneliness. Or is it be a girl who cries long cries like the child protagonist in the afternoon drama? A girl punished for everything she does and doesn't do, who cries as her mother thrashes her on the back; a girl who leans against the rusted window frames and imagines herself a dancer in the dark to a ferocious song; a girl so bent by anger that she thrives on playing the victim's role to justify her spying and living a lie, to seek the attention she'd never receive so she can grieve over the lost opportunity for friendship, a window to laughter and colorful self-pity.

Did she walk up the stairs to my flat with a pounding heart, or simply a thirst for adventure? Or was it a he: Did he dart down the stairs after he left this note, anxious for contact, for a fantastic opening in life?

The anticipation is the bleeding in my mouth. I open the drapes and the dusty windows to see. There's nobody looking at me.


3 comments:

  1. Ah, I know this story:) Cool to see it finally published!

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  2. Really, really difficult to read in faded font on a black background, but worth the work when I got to the end. Good story, Nicole.

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  3. Hi,

    I read this on Asia Writes, and I think it is simply fantastic! I loved your descriptive, evocative style. Looking forward to reading more!

    Ramya
    India

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