By Lee Wei Fen
Once, he made me memorise the names of fishes. We were in the supermarket after Halloween, and there were still cheap plastic ghoulish masks hanging off the ends of aisles and occasionally hidden among ice cream tubs for the benefit of the bored buyer.
"As ugly as a fish," I remember him commenting on the masks. I've always thought fishes were hideous since then. A row of scales decorating a sad, open, gaping smile in the shape of a hole.
Pomfret. No scales, which my mother says is a sign of fish high in cholesterol. A diamond set in the shape of a heart disease. Red snapper. Scales, long, red fins. Sea bass. Scales, long, not red. Garoupa. The fish my sister caught the first time she boarded a boat, but more commonly sighted at Chinese weddings, fourth on the lineup. White bait. Their eyes staring out at us, angry.
We walked the aisles till we got to the shelves of Milo. He kept testing my memory, weighing it on scales to prove its lightness. "If you cannot remember fish names, you cannot remember anything," he said solemnly. "Whatever," I had replied, which is what I said when I didn't know what to say, which was too often. "My life doesn't depend on this."
It was the doctor that said fish oil could perform miracles on memory. He prescribed pills, wrote out specific names of what I should consume (Alaskan salmon, for Norwegian just would not do), and even drew out some sort of chemical bonding diagram to explain to me how everything worked. I refused to ingest power-packed chemicals. "Technology has emasculated men," I declared. The doctor shifted in his seat, then scribbled something on his notepad. The words curved, from my side of the table they looked like hooks.
When we returned to the car he told me the doctor wasn't impressed, or maybe he just wasn't in love with me. I'd told him that I didn't trust modern medicine and the host of tiny violences a pill could induce. "More avocadoes then," the doctor had replied at last.
I can't quite remember how it begun, only that names and faces began to merge even after I'd shaved off avocado after avocado and mixed them with Omega-3 for the most potent results. It probably started in the clinic, when they changed the girl at the front receptionist. "Hi, my name is Nancy," she had said, or attempted to say – I'm still not quite sure – but Nancy sounded like a curvy chick with kind cheeks, and her name, that word, just wrapped itself around her as she wriggled her hand hello. She looked like a giant apron. My thoughts temporarily stopped making sense. I remember I couldn't stop staring. I think I might have been gaping.
It just got progressively worse, the doctor's facial features would swim into view as he spoke to me, but his name – I believe it was John – seemed larger than his body. It would waver. It almost threatened to drown him at one point. Sometimes I could blink and it would all go away and I would be back in his sterile lab room, he'd be wearing white, and I'd just be the girl with the poor memory again. Once I found a puddle of water inside my pockets in the middle of the afternoon, and another time I woke up with my hair wet.
That really messed things up. Back in the apartment he started calling my family and crying in the middle of the day, and then sometimes I couldn't even touch his hair to apologise; I could only gurgle. "Remember when we wanted to dive in the Pacific?" he would ask. Another time, "Remember when you got angry that salmons have to swim upstream?" Most of the time his speech felt like bubbles, bursting lightly on my skin. Maybe he tried to touch me, but by then his fingers felt slimy and very warm, and I had to move away. I tried not to look at the expression on his face.
There was one afternoon things felt clearer, even the haze outside had lifted for a bit. I heard him say the humidity had finally settled. He made lunch, and we'd sat out in the balcony watching the waves below. "Remember when you wanted to go diving in the Philippines?" he said. I remembered, and he was happy I did. It must be wonderful, I had said then, be utterly alone in the murky depths, to be singularly responsible for your own survival. When I told him that he said it was a bad reason to dive, and told me that we wouldn't be jumping in unless I learned about the different species so I could name them underwater. It was when he turned back into the house – to cook lunch, he said, the avocadoes have really been helping – that I looked back and saw his back shimmer. Just like that – and it finally made sense. The glimmer of cloth, his shoulders slipping into scales. Then the humidity settled, and set, and I could feel the wetness on my skin. Maybe the waves grew tired of lapping at our feet, or maybe all our conversations finally burst, a tiny sprinkle and a gurgle. Maybe I had grown tired of gaping.
At eight hundred feet below the sea everything is dim. The fish no longer have faces, or maybe I've gotten used to them. Maybe I've grown one of my own. Here, we're all the same, the size of our mouths the only hierarchy. Original thought can no longer translate into speech. Water turns into dust. There are no names, no poetry, no music. No masks to watch, no finger-dances to tap out. No memory to improve. Dust descends down into darkness.
I've exchanged my lungs for something better.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 1 Jan 2011