The Elephantine Apple
By Grace Chia Krakovic
Grandma would love a family of elephants, Wilhelm said, pointing to a teak statue the size of his palm. The curved wood was polished till it shone when light fell on its spine. Next to it was a pig with wings, its snout pointing upwards, smelling the sky for rain.
"Come in and take a look," the shop assistant's lilting Northern Chinese-styled Mandarin welcomed us. I smiled perfunctorily and waited for Wilhelm to step in before I did. He was the tourist. I was just following.
I curved my spine, cocked my head this way and that, trying to peek at the price. $120 for the elephant. $100 for the flying pig. Four legs good; but two wings better.
"It's a steal," I winked at Wilhelm. "You should get it. Skip two dinners. Miss the Night Safari. Window shopping at Orchard Road is free."
"Steal?" Wilhelm raised his voice. "I don't want to steal anything!"
I don't know if he's mocking me or he doesn't know the expression. But I've communicated long enough with him to know that his Swiss German-English, as I call it, has its limitations. Some sentences spring whole from him perfected. Some are mimicked from television, the movies or popular culture jargon. Much of it is translated semantics. Sentences structured with different word order. Gendered articles. Nominative, dative, accusative, genitive endings. Am Freitag kannst du ihm das Buch geben: In Friday can you him the Book give. Properly translated in English. You can give him the book on Friday.
"No," I said. "It's an expression. Not to steal but it's a steal. Meaning, something's so cheap it's like stealing it. But I meant it ironically."
"I have a bigger one, double its size, from Krabi," Wilhelm looked at me smugly. "Half of the price."
"So if you buy this, your grandmother will have two. Mommy and Baby Elephant. Sweet."
"Best things come in threes. I'll need to buy a third," Wilhelm groaned. "But my luggage allowance will be over the limit. Coffee from Vietnam. Peppercorns from Cambodia. Tea from Myanmar. Two kilos each. And now elephants."
My eyes searched the display shelf. "How about this? A bronze thimble. Old little ladies like to sew, don't they?" The price tag read $50.
"She's 86. I don't know if she can see the hole through a needle."
"Besides, she doesn't want anything too foreign," Wilhelm said, then corrected himself. "What I mean is "
We were standing in a kitschy shop in Chinatown and I was more local than the shop assistant, a foreign import like the souvenirs she sells.
"I know," I interjected. "My father, the proud Chinese who considers the sandwich an unthinkable substitute for his rice meal, thinks all food should be eaten cooked. Sashimi and salads too."
Wilhelm smiled wryly, then shrugged. "Last thing I want to do is carry this thousands of miles across the ocean, give it to her, and she'll keep it in the storage for years and years. I'll remember it but it will be exotic junk to her."
I understood what he was trying to insinuate. His grandmother, in his 80s, and my dad, who had just turned 80, were from a generation whose childhood were touched by the last, major epochal war World War Two: one in Europe; another in Asia. She who knew the slogans to a fascist regime even through a crackling radio; he, through the food rationing and rampant fear of being Chinese in Japanese-occupied Singapore. Their burdens were different from ours. History tainted by the colonisation of weapons and blood. For our generation, our problems were capitalist materialism and not travelling enough. Fear of being killed and fear of not upgrading to the latest technological gadgets were two vastly, different concerns.
"Besides," Wilhelm continued, "got to spend the remaining Singapore dollars on something special."
"Like what? Drink more, get wasted?" Wilhelm had been in Singapore for slightly over a week and was, according to him, out in the clubs most nights. I refused to join him until today, when we had decided to finally meet over late lunch. His Southeast Asian escapades were coming to a close, and he had left Singapore as the cherry on top; the last pit stop to savour while he devoured the rest of the Far East first.
"Maybe get someone a present."
"Not for Grandma?"
"Do you sew?" Wilhelm leaned in to me.
His T-shirt grazed my arm. I knew his eyes were locked on mine but I couldn't lift my head up. I looked at the grey silver thimble. There were in fact two elephants on it one carved into the body of the metal like fresco; another perched on top of it.
Twinned creatures with the same fate of serving the thumb of the owner who liked to sew, a seamstress or tailor who could turn a piece of useless fabric into a fully functional garment to keep a person warm, make that person fashionable. The purpose is clear. The intent is valid, though not uttered. Thimble plus needle and thread plus fabric equals dress or suit or pants or shirt.
We were standing really close now, almost touching but not quite. Our flesh never makes contact; one giant swaying to and fro in a dancing parody with a dumpy tree. Families do. Lovers do. Friends do. Even strangers rub skins by accident. I reckon it was considered strange in his culture to be so standoffish; as if one of us is diseased by a dermatological anomaly. I tried hard to play the role of the Asian prude, if he actually believed it as much as I definitely didn't.
But we just won't allow ourselves to touch. Our skins were an inch apart, polarised by static.
I lifted my head and looked at him. His eyes fell on the thimble immediately. Then he gazed at me through the corner of his eyes, nervously.
"No, I don't," I answered him.
I had a question of my own but it wouldn't come out of my mouth. Once, I had tried it with another man, asked the obvious, pushed for an answer, and the unstable threads of our non-existing relationship unspooled, ribbons curling out of control. We never spoke again. It was beautiful when the mystery was in the box, covered with secrets; the moment it was opened, I peered into a gust of furious locusts. We still saw each other, but at a distance, each two-second stare a monologue, an accusation.
Now, with Wilhelm, I find myself at the exact moment, tension so thick I could feel the air within the four walls of the store stiffen to a ganache. Maybe I'm thinking of chocolate because I'm hungry. Or maybe because he had just given me a box of Swiss pralines.
Whatever it was, we would not see or touch or talk about the elephant in the room, the ginormous invisible we-both-know-it-but-lets-ignore-it fact that we somehow, subconsciously acknowledge any reference to it through words would make it concrete, make this thing between us dirty.
We were both engaged to someone else. We shouldn't even be here at all. Aber wir wollten.
The night he left, I didn't manage to say goodbye to him. I wouldn't call him. He didn't call me either. What was there to add? Or subtract?
We were modern-day pen pals. We communicated. Then something grew out of language. But electronics was a poor substitute for the corporeal. What appeared like friendship from the closeness of technology was nothing more than cells multiplying into billions of whorls and zones and black holes that echoed and absorbed memories and fantasies both real and unreal.
Many times I was lost. Sometimes he was lost too. Communication cut up by buffering broadband connection, unspeakable thoughts, cultural chasms. Who really knew? Who kept count? Everyone was on the blue wire trying to find someone who spoke the same language, who could translate lostness. Everyone was looking for a world beyond their own, plucking out of the air, a feather of an unusual colour, something to marvel at, because it was fresh, different.
I had breathed in his presence while he was here. Then he was gone, on two wings and a tail, jet setting off. Like the flying pig. Air pork. Bak kua. I should have insisted on him smuggling a sealed packet in his luggage. No way he would be able to find it in Bern. Each time someone I know fairly well is on a flight somewhere, I'd like to visualise what they are doing that very moment. Imagine I'm being teleported to them; or them to me. Airspace: liminal zone, borderless continent, country-less, passport-less; for the winged fugitives of dreamers. Have they fallen asleep? Neck at right angles to their shoulders, lolling around? Are their legs feeling cramped and restless? Are they in the toilet? Hoarding toothbrushes? Are they refilling on free alcohol? Watching the third movie in a row, with bleary eyes and jetlagged brains, each storyline bleeding into the other, narratives criss-crossing?
I couldn't really say he was a friend. I couldn't say he wasn't either. He was more to me than someone in the same city. People you can visit in half an hour but wouldn't. That is the trouble with the Internet. False relationships turn real. Real relationships evaporate; concrete fade to abstract.
I'd met him at a conference. We were on different fields. He was an unemployed 20-something trilingual architect who really dug Rihanna and hated wine. I was a confused 30-year old historian with interests in Sanskrit and Soviet paraphernalia; and a Star Wars fanatic who occasionally crocheted to relax. He came with friends. I came with colleagues. A banter over the tea break turned into an hour-long discussion of meaningless jokes over funny memes and viral videos.
Towards the end, metaphors of the sexual seeped in, and we continued our bawdry language. We analysed 'Wrecking Ball', 'Blurred Lines' and 'Pour It Up', reminding both of us of naked flesh and breasts and gyrating groins. Our chosen celebrities were our proxies, rubbing one song against the other salaciously while our tongues engaged in intercourse, using language as striptease. Two strangers holding cold cups of black coffee drinking words oozing out of each other's mouths. This is how seduction happens. Even if it is never admitted, never spoken of again; this is how two strangers know they have cast the web to ensnare each other in a moment of need and someone heard and listened, and held out an open hand. Fingers intertwined between the gaps of the web, behind the shadows of conscience, of decorum.
Then sex happens. Between the flesh or as atoms hovering in the air. The elephant in the room we wouldn't talk about, growing larger the more it's ignored.
What is it we are doing? That was the question I wanted to ask him.
Wilhelm didn't buy the elephant thimble at Chinatown. We were famished, and the detour at the souvenir shop had delayed our lunch. I had the plan to take him to a quaint cosy place I had found on hungrygowhere.com, but frankly, Chinatown's signage is a mess of garish colours and contrived exotica; one shop looked the same as another.
"Are we lost?" Wilhelm had asked when we tried to make our way out of the souvenir shop. A drizzle had turned into a downpour. The view in sight now a blur, I couldn't see the sign for my street, let alone the next; or navigate.
I stood next to Wilhelm. We were like two figurines hard and cool as china, fragile with a single drop, paralysed, immovable. The rain, a hypnosis; he and I, each in our reverie. In mine, I imagine this.
There is the exit.
There is signage.
If you take this route, you end up in one path, meandering through rocky terrain, maybe a river or two, fight a bear, kill it, skin it, wear it as trophy coat to tide the winter through.
'If you take another, you end up in the steppes of nowhere land, swathes of grassland forever growing and disappearing, no habitat in sight.
Then there's the urban jungle, concrete heights of grey stretching to the clouds, cars flying into highways, humanoid automatons on conveyor belt, mouths mumbling binary code.
I'm always lost. I wanted to say to him but swallowed the words. The Google Map on my iPhone was the size of a chicken nugget squirming around the weak 3G signal.
"I think we're close," he said, pointing to his map on his Galaxy. I leaned in to look and held my breath. I didn't want to smell him, didn't want a tactile part of his bodily senses to infuse me, confuse me further. It was enough for me to see and hear him. Touch was out of the question. Taste was illicit; another dimension. If you smell something and you liked it, it may be the start of a craving, like food.
We walked down Temple Street briskly, getting partially drenched, my vision blurred by raindrops. I couldn't see the sign. I couldn't see the road. I didn't know which way to go.
Wilhelm was about to bump into me when I saw it and yelled, "There!"
The sign hung from the second floor of a shop house, right above the screaming neon lights of a karaoke bar on the lower floor. Lucky Paradise Restaurant.
"Guess we're lucky after all," Wilhelm joked. "To find paradise."
"Hell," I muttered, "I wish paradise wasn't so full of contradictions."
He heard me. "Why? What do you mean?"
I was still walking in the rain that had petered down. A flash storm to slap me wet in the face. Soon the clouds will part, the sky sunny, and all will be forgiven.
"Eve and the apple? Snake? Paradise is a place for dark souls to corrupt the good. The playing field is not even. Never was. And Eve got the short end of the stick for doing what's natural. Eat when she's hungry. Giving in to her craving."
"And who do you sympathise with?"
"Eve of course! Her instinct got her into trouble. Why should it? Should she have skinned the snake? Grilled it and eaten it instead?"
"Ah yes. Anything grilled is good," Wilhelm smiled with relish. "I agree."
"We have to cross the road," I said, pointing to the direction of the sign. "It's over there."
The cars kept coming one after another. I took my time, waited for them to pass. A minute became five. There were no traffic lights. It was a short street. Wilhelm walked ahead of me then took my hand, pulling me to the road. A moped flew past, swishing my skirt. I jumped; my reflex reacting.
"What is it you are doing?" I sputtered, eyes on our entangled hands while words spilled out like beads tumbling out of a broken rosary.
"Following the sign," he said, pulling my arm as we dodged the front of a car, wormed through the back of a taxi, and avoided a motorbike that had appeared out of nowhere. "And being the snake."
We had crossed the road. The gaudy purple and green lights of the bar on the ground floor screamed into my eyes. My mind was screaming too. But nothing came out of my lips.
I stared at him. He looked serious, then laughed.
"Just joking!" He said. "Come on. Ladies first."
And then I knew he had answered the question I had been wanting to ask him all along. I walked up the shadowed, dingy stairs while he followed behind, and as the smell of something grilled wafted down, all I could think of was whether he was checking me out from behind. My skin, wet from the rain, opened its pores to the heat of the enclosed space as my bare legs kept moving and I no longer knew whether what awaited us in Lucky Paradise was an apple to be devoured or the elephant we could pretend was still invisible.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014