Rooms by the Sea
By Choo Yi Feng
She stood in front of the large glass in a dark one-piece. The sheer curtains cast wet shadows upon the carpeted floor of the room, pulled apart slightly so that she could drink in the view outside. It was late afternoon and there were sounds of families playing down on the street, ice cream carts and bicycles. It was hot – even from up here, she could feel the warmth of the afternoon radiating off the steel window frames, yet the day was humid, even foggy. The sea beyond the resort compound seemed to extend in a gradient towards the sky, with only the blurred phantoms of ships lining up in the distance to suggest a horizon.
It was going to rain. She knew it, she could feel it on her skin, the heavy touch of a moist breeze against her bare shoulders, her chest, the ripple of chill out of nowhere from the blistering air, a sighing relief. There were clouds on the horizon, clouds up in the sky away from view, concealed in open daylight. She went to the bathroom and squeezed out some sunblock lotion. The frame sat on the writing desk with its back against the wall, facing her with an expression of impassiveness as she prepared to leave for the beach downstairs. She paused with her hand on the door knob and turned towards it slowly.
She hadn't given it much thought ever since it was delivered to her room. Then two nights ago, just before going to sleep she unboxed it on a whim while waiting to remove her mask. It was perfectly to-scale, in a simple and elegant wooden frame and as she removed the thin film and lifted the painting from the box, its colours seemed to erupt and thrill even in the weak glow of the night light. Now it sat contemplating her presence while it drew her in with the its own vast emptiness.
She had seen so many paintings, installations, sculptures, really the picture itself was nothing new. What mattered was that this was hers, it belonged to her and it was hers to keep and locate and display. She touched a corner of the picture, felt the texture of the strokes like the ridges of a thumbprint, then quickly lifted her finger, for fear of smudging it. Standing before it now with her assortment of beach supplies, she felt vulnerable and vulgar. The oil painting offered a view of a bright room with an open door leading to the sea, and shafts of light from the outside splayed across the walls and the floor. The door was ajar, and as she stepped outside she grabbed the knob and pulled it shut.
The day had ripened into a rich, golden lustre that threw stretching shadows across the sand, blinking and merging with as many footsteps. While she lay on her mat, the sky gradually darkened and then without warning it rained. The beach was drenched in a torrent of cold water that was truly wet, and not the facsimile of cool moisture that was the torpid ocean. Amidst shrieks of delight and surprise the man saw her first, a solitary woman seeming to appear out of nowhere.
She appeared to have seen him as well. Her skin was crusted with sand and runnels of water ended at her elbows and fingertips in drips. She huddled under the hasty shelter of a parasol. Nothing more than a glance passed between them, he continued jogging past her, head shielded against the downpour and the beachgoers swelled around them, submerging both. She hadn't even noticed his face, only the chef's uniform that he wore. A gale blew harshly and the rain dissipated to leave a gloomy sky, signalling the ouster of that evanescent domain of tropical sunshine. That feeling, that ripple of chill against her ribs from her room, had now spread all over her, quenching the heat right out of the air from her lungs.
The clouds lingered up in the sky while the sun began to set. All that could be seen against the horizon was a thin band like a burning flare in the gloom. Far across the ocean mummy was somewhere, having her TV dinner and watching primetime talk shows on the TV set she'd bought for her two years ago, on her birthday. She would be in a loose dress and fluffy bedroom slippers. Eating light, perhaps a salad or a whole grain pasta, which, out of all the options that they had carefully worked through and sampled, she seemed to dislike the least. And the clinking of the metal utensils against ceramic plates travelled through the air, sonorant and cheerful, as the customers in the beachfront restaurant eagerly worked their way through their evening courses.
The red night sky was a dull, fuzzy reflection of the meadow of burning lights along the coast below. The damp, cool wood of the boardwalk creaked softly under her feet. At first she thought she was alone on the pier, until she passed the shuttered tackle shop and saw a young couple, one leaning against the railing and the other seated on a bench. A muffled honk whispered over from out at sea. Further offshore, a triplet of incinerator chimneys twinkled against the dusk like extinguished birthday candles. She stood closer to the very end of the pier, but could still hear the two young men conversing with husky voices. It's getting late. The other one replied with a list of cuisine options to console the first.
When she was 14, Tracy, her closest friend of the time, and she, were suddenly, forcefully separated by such a bitter fight as would end a friendship between 14-year-olds. The premise, a tube of overpriced facial wash, was so innocuous that its very metamorphosis into a sore reminder of that fight was absurd, laughable, even then. And the words they exchanged, out of the haze of all things passed out of the mind from a past so trivial, felt like they would be unforgettable. But she did forget them, and every time she remembered and re-remembered she put the words back together based solely upon the hurt and anger that pulsed abstractedly in the space of her mind.
And she knew that she had forgotten the words, and she knew that each time she was shaping the memory like a mass of gum, piecing passable fictions into the annals of personal history. All that remained at the core was annoyance, then rage, and obsession and remorse all mixed and stewed together into a rich, deep flavour of feelings she never knew she was capable of. The insults and the name-calling, the strip mall they were in, whether there was merely a push or a slap, she could fabricate every detail without apprehension of losing the tangibility of that memory. On days that she felt particularly harsh she could make herself the instigator, the bully.
She could make herself a terrible personality – it had been a consistent pattern from childhood and she felt as if she really needed to sit down and work through it, all the reproachable and disgusting things she had done. She couldn't take her memory at face value, she had to probe the corners of her moral life, the natural explanation for why everybody she met seemed to approve of her. It was not natural but enforced, she had been and still was disturbingly neurotic deep inside and it was always the people that she loved the most that suffered from all her dysfunctions.
Returning to the promenade she was momentarily jarred by the glare of pink-and-purple neon lights, and for a moment she stood basking in their lurid hues. Then she noticed the waiters greeting her and she kept walking. He appeared again, stood by the bin smoking a cigarette, and all she could think of was a smile, more to herself than anything, and she sat on the bench next to him. They made small talk for a bit, and he told her that his shift at the restaurant was ending soon and then they could go to her room together.
Well, he didn't bring a condom and she suggested that they should improvise. She went out on a limb and shared what she wanted to try, and waited for him to laugh or balk, but he didn't do any of those things and simply agreed.
Afterwards as she came out of the bathroom he was looking up at the ceiling with his arms behind his head. He had noticed the painting and asked what it was and she told him. It wasn't an original, just a professional reproduction and it was something that she wanted to do for fun, as a keepsake. He sat up and stared at it deeply and remarked that it was beautiful, which it was, with its attenuated wash of light, its rich blue waves, its sliver of a space beyond.
She quietly studied his posture as he was absorbed in the painting. The tensed masses of muscle in his shoulders, his chest, the almost childlike manner in which his legs were folded, the hunch of his back. She imagined that he was lying in bed unconscious, and she was slowly tracing her hands over him, holding his body, feeling the texture of his dark skin, hugging it. She could stare into the topography of his face, the closed lids, the brow arch and the nose bridge, the soft flow of heavy air from his nostrils, the odour of fryer grease that clung to his hair.
The scene in the painting was perfectly flat and shallow in the centre, where it depicted a white wall separating two rooms, and then suddenly impossibly deep at the edges as it opened up into the sea on the right side and the apartment beyond on the left. The narrow view of the apartment, confined between the obscuring divider wall and the edge of the painting, revealed a fraction of sofa, the side of a shelf and the cut-of frame of a portrait.
He wanted to step inside, walk past the divider wall, to look at the room concealed behind, to poke his head out of the door and immerse himself in the view of the endless sea, but it was just a painting. It drew his gaze in only to stop him short at its tightly cropped edges. The view of the dividing wall suggested everything while the sea and the living room showed nothing except what they incompletely were.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 2 Apr 2019