By Kawika Guillermo
Smoke settled upon her. Every exhale of tobacco residue spewing from her lips embraced her pale shoulders. She blew sometimes forcefully, letting the grey smoke break apart on her elbows. Her skin would reek of it, perhaps for days. She let it seep from her mouth and creep into her eyes, her nostrils, her hair.
She sat alone at an outside table that could fit six, drinking a Guinness Anchor, mulling over her team’s loss against the Redskins, the Dolphins’ first loss of the new season, when one of those young traveling men approached her to talk or ask for something—sweetly, with whatever-you-want-to-hears. She focused on her notebook, then on another cigarette. She watched the bald traveler with his back to her, also smoking, also alone. She felt comfortable near him: she, blonde, twenty-one, from Florida, who sat alone, having never sat alone before, not that she could remember. But now she sat alone at a restaurant, past midnight, in Penang’s Georgetown, watching the Malaysian cover band play a lustful version of “American Girl” while a Malay man sporting a mullet lip-synced the song and mimicked the words with his arms in an interpretive dance. When the Tom Petty look-alike sang “she was an American Girl,” the dancing Malay man pointed to Melanie.
Melanie read from the hand-sized Bible she had picked up in the airport leaving Seoul. She had never read the entire thing from front to back, but for some reason, she skipped the Torah and went straight for the steamy Song of Solomon:
Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is lovely.
Your temples behind your veil
are like the halves of a pomegranate.
“Oh dang,” she whispered.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built with courses of stone
Wasn’t the woman wearing a veil? Melanie wondered. This guy’s making it up.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle
that browse among the lilies.
She looked at her breasts—fawns? That line demanded another cigarette. She wasn’t a smoker, yet she smoked, perhaps because no one bothered a smoker. Perhaps it was the pyre of herbs and ash that she held in her hand, the power of the burning bush, of each joss statue at the colorful Buddhist temples in Penang that gave good luck, food and money to long departed ancestors, that fire lighting the scent of incense wafting through Little India, mixed with clove, frankincense, and sandalwood, that fire of the sun drying Melanie’s shoulders when she lay on the Bato Ferringhi beachfront, that fire of hymns she grew up singing: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey,” the fire at Camp Aurora’s cabin confessionals, where the fire scolded her in jagged coals, dark with heat and steam, while her father sat watching, a silver cross hanging from his tight necklace.
As soon as Melanie’s dessert arrived she focused her camera to capture the diamond-shaped pink and white layered cake. Her photo blog was full of desserts, more desserts than scenery. Her first bite tasted of gelatin and coconut cake. Mmmm…creamy goodness. That’s right, I love you.
The waiter in the white apron sat a new customer at the table directly across from her. She heard the man order a dish that sounded like “me” and when he turned around to smile at her (as they do) she saw a tamed twenty-something black man in a striped blue collared shirt. She held up her Bible to scare him off. That did it, he turned back around, lighting a cigarette of his own. She kept to her Bible, keeping him in her purview as he chatted with a bargirl dressed in black, a polite smile on his face, his V-neck shirt showing a spot of untamed hair. When the waitress left, the man snuck another glance at Melanie, slightly scratching his guy beard. It was inevitable that they would meet. They were too foreign in this land, their bodies too optimal in their own.
She learned his name was Winston. And Winston came complete with a triangle smile, a permanent five o’clock shadow and wavy, pepperish hair. He told her that he had lived all over Asia, and that his father owned sugar and pineapple plantations in the Philippines, which funded his lifetime of travel. Though he looked entirely black, he made it clear that his mother was Japanese.
When it was her turn to give the gist of her life story, she lit another cigarette and focused on the exhale. “I’m taking a break,” she said, blowing smoke. “I teach English in Korea.” Actually, she was fired from her private school for kissing on the bar stools, on the pool tables, on camera, in children’s homes and in the sight of God. The endless clubbing of Busan, the Korean men she picked from the street after teaching fifth grader’s English grammar, all of it was captured and exposed by a Korean journalist. Somehow that God of the infinite pyre had followed her across the sea.
“Let me guess,” he said, pointing his finger at her, waving it up and down like a boggle head, “you’re not too long out of the womb?”
“Excuse me?” she said, blowing smoke at a mosquito.
“Ya know what I mean. The womb.” He folded his dark left leg onto his right knee, as if to challenge her. “Infant-land. Where you were forced to act like the same person all day every day by friends, family and every boozer who said they love you. Where you were kept ignorant, impossible.” He sipped his beer, and slammed it on the tin black table like a gavel.
She remembered the canals near her home in Fort Lauderdale. The harbor of white yachts. “I been away for almost a year now,” she said. “My daddy tells everyone I’m on a mission. For God.”
“That’s hypocritical. Religious people are so dim-witted.”
She shrugged. “Gives me a good excuse to keep using his credit card.”
“Rip off that religious Band-aid early,” he said. “You’re still young.”
“Yesterday was my birthday, actually. I managed to dodge turning older on an airplane in the sky this year. So yeah, still a year younger I reckon!”
“Some aren’t fortunate to see the next day,” Winston said. “Just look around.”
The band began another Tom Petty song. The Malay man pointed to Melanie with the words, “Mary Jane.”
“So—why Malaysia?” Winston asked. “For most travelers, Malaysia seems like the mysterious Muslim space between Thailand and Singapore.”
“I ain’t too particular about where I go,” Melanie said, putting out her cigarette. She felt his gaze stroking her white lace tanga panties. She felt that old drive—clinging to her. “Just headin’ south.”
“The usual route,” Winston said. “I’m heading south too, towards Kuala Lumpur. When are you going?”
Her intuition was spot on. It was inevitable they would travel together.
Outside the bar a pyre of charred white paper spun in small puffs of wind. Four Chinese workers from the nearby karaoke bar crouched beside the fire, each wearing matching black outfits and ruby red lipstick. Melanie stopped a piece of burning paper beneath her twine sandals, and saw Chinese characters followed by a large print of “$1,000,0,” the last two zeros burnt in a slightly yellow tint.
Winston asked a thin and shivering Chinese woman what was happening.
Her gaze seemed to grasp at them with marble-eyes: “Hell money. I believe in ghosts. I have seen them once—when?—when I was little.”
“Don’t believe in ghosts,” Winston said firmly.
“I have seen one.”
“Well, on second thought,” Winston asserted. “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in them or not, what matters is if they’re really there. And they’re not.”
As the fire’s heat died down, the Chinese mistresses lined back into the karaoke bar, where the sounds of a falsetto singer squeezed through the doorway. The fire still burned, and the passing sedans swerved to avoid the growing pile of ash. Piles of fake money burned in front of almost every building, each one encircled by trails of water and small candles.
They smoked together to Love Lane, the old red-light district now filled with hostels and Reggae-themed bars. Winston’s hostel was in an old Peranakan mansion, and his dark bunk-bed dorm room had old Chinese brush marks on the walls, which Melanie could only see through the small rays of light peaking from the opened door. She caressed him on the bottom mattress of a bunk bed, their sex concealed by the shroud of used towels and bed sheets tucked beneath the upper bunk’s mattress. While facing the wall, Mel could make out a pattern of downward brush strokes. A waterfall, covered in light fog. When she turned onto her elbows, she could identify the shape of an old scholar holding a scroll. She was so close to his wise, thick beard, that she saw only a horde of minuscule downward strokes.
Two days later, “whenever” had arrived. They woke up early to catch an eight o’clock train to Kuala Lumpur. Pacing through the fog of Little India, the heavy rolling of Mel’s airport bag made the only sound among the Hindu temples on China Street. They had counted on the Indian buffets for breakfast, or at least the cafes or snack carts, but the only movement was that of a stray dog following closely behind them with its mouth gaped in curious hunger. The only food at the train station was the small triangle-sandwiches made of glossy eggs and ham. The sandwich tasted just like the ones Melanie ate in Korean convenience stores at four in the morning, after two or three bottles of green-tea soju.
When the massive yellow train pulled in, Melanie found her seat sizzling in the leather-reflected heat of the morning sun. The other Malays, Chinese, and Tamils fit snugly into the train and Winston seemed to unconsciously shove her further into the singed seat. Halfway to the next stop her white blouse clung to her skin, and she had to continually re-adjust the neckline to not offend the Malay women in their burqas and their veils. As Mel turned her body against the sun, her thin denim shorts worked up her legs, bunching upon the adhesion of sweat. Her skin shone with the high glaze of the sunshine, and her feet seemed to expand in that tight sandal twine. The sun’s glare was so intense on her eyes that the people on the train looked like fighting shadow puppets.
“There’s no food anywhere on the train!” Winston said, his arms reaching up into his green shoulder-bag, packed onto the upper racks. With his arms stretched up, the Malays could see his waist just below his blue button-up shirt, and spot the black foreigner’s ass-crack and hairy navel.
“No, no food,” said a man in the seat directly behind Melanie. He was a Malay man with dark skin, and a thick mustache. His skin seemed so ideal, that sort of brown tint that Mel used to go for on the beaches in Miami. As she turned to the man his eyes immediately turned upward. Sweat had loosened her tank top, exposing her cleavage. She turned around, covering herself, rubbing the thin material into her sweat to help it cling.
“It is Ramadan,” the man’s wife said, her eyes concealed behind apple-sized sunglasses. “We do not eat until the sun sets,” she said, “unless you are very, very naughty. Then it is ok.”
Mel looked the woman over, triggered by her kind smile, her pink-striped collared shirt, and her floral-designed headdress that, in the slight slice of sunlight, looked purely white. The woman’s exceptionally light skin seemed more Chinese than Malay, though it was difficult to tell with the woman’s headdress.
“Bollocks,” Winston said, finding nothing edible in his bag. He sat down, and said to no one in particular: “and what if you are very, very hungry?”
Even though Winston did not direct the question at the woman, she still answered. “Then,” the woman said. “You hide snacks in your room and hope no one finds out.”
Melanie suppressed a laugh.
“This makes my day,” Winston said. “No water, no food. Sounds downright pleasant in one of the hottest places on earth.” He looked at Mel. “Doing everything in secret, afraid of being seen as an infidel, the morality police arresting you. Real pleasant country.”
Mel could remember fasting twice in her life. The first was religiously, and lasted twenty-four hours. She remembered holding hands with the school counselors, praying and being served massive amounts of water, orange juice and yogurt in the Camp Aurora cabins. Years later, the same month her father bought her first car for her, she realized how many calories juice and yogurt really contained and fasted for five days with only water. She called it a detox. The hunger pains ceased after the second day and the thought of mastication disgusted her. By day four she could not help rubbing her tongue against her front teeth, which began to feel like heavy ivory. Day five she finally gave in when she sat at the dinner table, unable to avoid the cookies and cream cheesecake awaiting her return.
Winston kept talking, perhaps to Melanie, perhaps to himself, perhaps to the couple who had provoked him or, perhaps, to God: “This is all we are, we exist, it’s that simple, isn’t it? If there was no god, the upperclass would still invent him to keep the workers passive. Kings have no power without God. To raise a child like that is immoral. You couldn’t choose to worship God any more than these folks could choose Ramadan.” He was talking directly to her now. She found her fists clenching the train cushion, the water from her eyes mixing with the sweat dripping from her brow. She took the Bible from her shoulder bag, which so far, never failed to shut Winston up.
This time Winton snatched the book from her and read from that part of Isaiah about gutting Babylonians:
Whoever is captured will be thrust through;
all who are caught will fall by the sword.
Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes;
their houses will be looted and their wives violated.
“Need I say more?” and Winston clapped the Bible shut.
Thrust through, Melanie thought, recalling how her friends clung their hands together in prayer circles, each hand squeezing the other, passing the prayer to the next. Her palms would become sweaty as the prayer came closer, closer. One Thanksgiving she deliberately stood next to her blonde-haired cousin whose name was Jack but who they called Frenchie on account of his hats. His hand was that of a workman’s, a carpenter’s, a welder’s. The hand rubbed hers only slightly. When the prayer came to him, he said, “Lord, thank you for this day. Thank you for the trees and the amazing, loving, caring family you have given me.”
Just squeeze, Melanie thought.
“Thank you for planning to give me that used F-150, with the dark blue exterior.”
“But seriously, thank you for providing us everything we need every day of our lives and for the blessings you have bestowed.”
Just fucking squeeze—
Then she felt it. That hard, full-second tightening that would stop her heart, freeze her breath, and shake her legs. A hard clinging, a cling so tense that her tongue clung to the roof of her mouth and she had to keep herself from biting her lip. She clung to it, clung to him. For his squeeze, it was worth standing in those prayer circles for hours whispering sweet blessings to the ceiling.
She found herself wiping liquid from her cheeks. The sun had finally moved above the train and outside of her space, but the heat of her skin kept her stuck to the seat. She remembered, after the squeeze, how it once took a moment for her friends, her family and church elders, to look at her, expecting her to continue. Even with her eyes closed she felt them.
That night Winston took Melanie to his friend’s shop in the foreign district of Kuala Lumpur, an outside duck restaurant and hookah bar. From the small pillow where she sat, Mel looked past her spicy mee soup to the flood of workers, shoppers and tourists on Bukit Bintang. The women were dressed in long colorful veils, some in patterns mimicking Coach and Louis Vuitton designs, while others were covered from head to toe in thin black burkas, their only exposed flesh in those stunning eyes. What would that be like? Melanie wondered. To have no one know you—to have nothing but a silhouette?
One of the black burqa bodies walked just in front of her, side-by-side with her husband who had a thick goatee and wore a collared polo sporting some British soccer club. Pink nail polish glossed from off the woman’s toes, half concealed in jaded purple sandals. Her eyes were bright in purple mascara, an off-tone complemented by the studded jewels lining the top of her forehead. When the woman’s eyes met hers, Mel felt naked. The woman could be spitting at her—gawking, sneering, or perhaps, smiling.
“Nothing like eating rice, chicken, and duck every day,” Winston said, his fork deep in a marinated thigh. He knew the restaurant owners personally, as he seemed to know many locals who worked near the hostels. One of the owners was a husky Thai man, the other Burmese. The rows of plastic tables seemed to stretch for miles. Tables of older Chinese men with long beards laughed gaily with their hands upon their filled stomachs. Tables of Indians drinking Chai sat near tables of expats who were scattered over every food stand like dimples, making the dark road of intestines and hookah smoke seem cute and campy. Next to Melanie sat a veiled woman with her boyfriend’s hand creeping up her leg, his fingers tracing slowly up the leg-ladder of her long Burka. The woman twitched and beat him away in what seemed like a flirtatious kick.
“You are the first American girl I meet,” the husky Thai man told her, his hands on the sides of her wooden chair. “Don’t you think we are all terrorists in Malaysia?” Winston joined him in explosive laughter. “I have nothing attached to my stomach, look!” The man pulled up his shirt, exposing his large brown stomach.
Melanie smiled dimly.
“She’s been like this all day,” Winston said as if she wasn’t there. “Her club’s been shit this year.”
“She a Manchester girl?”
“Last was a gut-wrenching game,” Melanie said. “All the glory should have been theirs! We’re zero and three right now.”
“Florida got its ass handed by New York,” Winston said. “It’s…apparently a big deal. Two U.S. states, you know, competing.”
The Burmese man nodded, his turn to look stern and unamused. “Wow Winston. This one is really American, isn’t she?” Then it was their turn to laugh.
After dinner, Winston took Mel to the corner ATM inside the Petronas Towers, the world’s second tallest building, where she discovered that her father’s credit accounts were frozen. She had enough money to last her a month in Malaysia, or just enough for a return ticket home. Her father had really done it, cut her from his domain. Was it simply to get her attention? Was it because she had gone to a Muslim country—in a sense, joined the other side? Or had he too seen the pictures of her caressing her fellow Czech English teacher in South Korea? Perhaps she really did need to experience a moment of true desperation and struggle, come out of the womb or go back to him and his religion. It was a process, this loss of faith, only to be born again, as they call it.
As Winston stood behind her, tapping his foot and eyeing the Malay girl at the info booth, Melanie instantly began to imagine how she might repent without feeling like a coward. There were those, she had imagined, who had borne through it, who had sat and smiled and kept the same friends and squeezed hands, just as there were those Muslims who smoked, drank, and ate Chinese food during Ramadan.
“Babe,” she said, holding Winston’s hand. She told him about the accounts, that she needed to borrow money from him.
He wasn’t in the least surprised. “Of course,” he said. “And don’t think of it as borrowing.”
“Thank you,” she said, clinging to him. “I feel so blessed to have you.”
Winston splurged on her immediately. He took her through the malls, sushi bars and crowded night life of Jalan Ramlee, introducing her to night club owners and late night stalls that were, as Winston said, “perfect for the sickly hangover.” One of the Australian club owners dressed her in a studded leather jacket, and a matching striped hat and dark jeans—a significant shift from her backpacker’s apparel of a tank top and khaki shorts. At the Raider’s Hotel Skybar, lit by the alabaster whites of the Petrona Towers, Winston shared a two hundred bottle of whiskey while complaining with an American businessman that internet porno was illegal in Malaysia.
“So I’m all doing my business,” he said, his feet dipped into an indoor hot-tub on the eightieth story. “What if the Malaysian moral police arrest me? Even boning this American”—he pointed to Melanie—“could get us arrested. They asked us for a marriage certificate at the hotel the other day, remember that?”
“I wish I could unlearn some Malay words,” the businessman said, kicking his naked feet in the tub. “Just using the words for sex or porn could put me in prison, perhaps even facing death-row.”
“So goddamn repressed.” Winston sneered. “No sexual progress in a millennia. An entire country still in the womb.”
Even among the caffeinated martinis and the view of those tremendous towers, Melanie found herself retreating into that place again, of American fear, of wanting to crawl into anonymity beneath the frightening Petronas towers.
As they lay on the bed of their motel room on Changkat, Winston’s hand crawled against Melanie’s stomach, as it had every night before, and she could feel those vibrations in her breath, like new blood lassoing from her body around her brain, as his hand moved down her stomach. She clung to his hand there, but she wouldn’t let it move below her waist. Refused, the hand moved upwards, cupping her breast in a grasping massage. She bit her lip but tried to lower the hand.
“Stop,” she said simply.
The hand lay flat against her breast, and she saw herself wishing it wouldn’t. Cling to me she heard herself think. But the hand lay motionless until the silence was broken by the crash of a thrown cell-phone.
“This is my hotel room.” Winston said. He stood up. “This is my stuff,” he said, kicking over her bag, spilling out pieces of clothing and pink elephant souvenirs onto the tiled motel floor, wet from her recent shower. “You’re shit in the sack anyways,” he said. “Still daddy’s little girl, dying from guilt. You Christians with your guilt. Don’t lie—you love every second of it.”
She found herself unable to meet his gaze. Winston was the only person she could rely on, the only friend she had.
“Get out of the womb,” he said, pulling his pants on.
She was silent, her hands gripping the bed stand, as he jammed his thin collared shirts into his backpack.
“You got one more night in this room,” he said, as the door shut itself behind him.
She heard his footsteps down the tiled hallway, then the dripping of the shower in small “poit”s. She saw herself crying into the pillow, the mattress, even the strange shell-patterned blanket that smelled of laundry detergent. Perhaps this was what her father wanted her to experience before he returned her accounts. Struggle, freedom, moment of grace. She clasped her hands in that tight airless embrace. Bits of water ran from her nose, and mascara melted from her face, scarring the winter white pillow. She pulled the Bible from her pack, and continued from where she had left off in Ephesians.
“Seriously?” Melanie shouted. She tossed the book across the room, letting its thin pages tear against the wall. She didn’t expect herself to run to the book, as she did, and caress its torn pages as if she were resuscitating a dying man. The loose binding fell apart in her hands, and the pages collapsed between her fingers like a pile of crunched-up leaves.
“I’m sorry, Bible,” she said. “But you kind of had that comin’.”
Two months after Winston left, Melanie finally started to feel comfortable in the burqa. At first she was afraid of being discovered, that an arm might reach around her neck and she would hear that horrifying scream, so mimicked in American movies, before the curved sacrificial knife plunged into her throat. The headdress now felt like a tight cushion, as comforting as a safety belt, and her dark sunglasses hid her light blue eyes. At first she was afraid that she was making a trespass, or violating a taboo that deserved stoning. She could no longer smile at waiters to let them know she needed a refill. Without her exposed white skin and blonde hair, she had to wait for everything: to be seated at restaurants, to be served, for her turn on the elevators and the taxi line.
Yet somehow, beneath her black tent of solitude, she felt closer to the women who also wore it. There were so many along the street just like her, just shopping, watching the musicians, eating at those small public street stalls. The thin fabric hugged her and her scarf blew behind her like a purple cape, while the black material clung to her skin like eyelids over her eyes. Though the material heated her like foil, in the air-conditioned malls the black cotton felt cool against her skin, shelling her from the male gaze, protecting her from head to toe.
When noon came, she washed her hands at an ablution counter near the women’s prayer room just outside of the upscale sushi bar. She had missed her first two prayers, whatever. Lying prostrate upon the dark red mat, facing west, she bowed to the bookshelf of old, large book covers, whispering to herself in a language she did not know, and then descended to the ground a second time. She had memorized the phrase weeks ago, and already forgot most of its meaning. Whatever it meant, the words seemed to give thanks.
She went just two shops down to the mall’s sixth floor, to the movie Spider Man 3. It was her first visit to a movie theater after paying back the hostel that had supported her before she found a job teaching English to Malay Muslim girls. As she sat in the theater she never once thought that the locals were looking in her direction, or thought it strange for her to be there. On the screen were images of New York, a place she had never been. She had never seen a film about Malaysia—perhaps that made it her home.
As the credits rolled she followed the Malays to the exit, and realized, for the first time since the movie started, that she was not one of them. A Chinese girl passed her, skipping across the serrated steel floor, a jeweled rose pinned to her tight yellow blouse on the exact spot of her nipple. She must not have noticed Melanie’s blue eyes, or perhaps, was too young to find it strange. Melanie smiled at her, but the black material hid the gesture. The girl kept on shopping.
In her shared apartment, Melanie took off her burqa, exposing her nude body beneath it, and hung it next to the smaller burqa of her Malay roommate, who was asleep in front of the television, her hand still clutching the remote control. Melanie tossed a bag of desserts from the nearby street stall into the fridge, drew a bath without soap and clipped her nails waiting for the water to fill.
At first, the water burned her foot, but as she sank deeper into it she felt the steam rising into her mouth, breathing through her skin in drops of salty sweat. She smoked a cigarette and used the flame to light a stick of Sandalwood incense from the Tamil market. With the cigarette between her lips, she took her Quran from the top of the toilet cover, and continued from where she had left off.
So righteous women are…
She coughed and the book fell into the tub, the pages spreading below the water’s surface in the shape of a peacock’s wingspan. “Shit,” she said, realizing that this was a very bad thing for a Muslim to do. She looked around to see if anyone had noticed, thankful she had locked the door in case her roommate walked in to see her offense to God.
Halfway through her cigarette, her body sank deeper into the water, until all was submerged besides her face and cigarette. Her mind drifted to the bagged Peranakan treats in her fridge, the white and pink cookies, cakes and dumplings. She lipped the words aloud, “pudding, biscuits.” Then she thought of the Capitol One Bowl and of that expat sports bar where she would go to watch her Gators play live at three in the morning. “Finnegan’s” she said, naming the venue.
When she woke from her daze, she found the cigarette floating on the water’s surface, and her body wrapped in thin pages from the sunk Quran. She stood up and the pages clung to her like paper machete. She lit another cigarette before peeling off layer after layer after layer after layer.
Kawika Guillermo is a gender-confused libertine, a gasoline-and-fire mixture of Irish, Chinese, and Filipino, and a heathen with just enough faith to keep writing fiction. He lives in Nanjing, China, revising his novel about American expats and editing for the journal decomP. More at kawikaguillermo.com
One response to “Leaving the Womb”
Whenever I can picture the story in my head, it brings me joy. I was able to do so with this fiction. I almost want to start smoking now.