In 2006, Ena had an incident. Yes, I would call it an ‘incident’, wouldn’t I? Simply because Ena was characterized by non-incidental activities, whereby she could fly across oceans and do anything at the drop of a hat if it suited her self-contradicting personality. With every new year of marriage, I discovered a new bearing from which to contemplate the entire art of Ena, a composition made of flesh and little blood, a careful ratio of heart and lack thereof to architect a woman particularly dexterous at pulling all of my strings.
So that day we were on our way home from a KLCC philharmonic concert. It’d been a tedious ninety minutes of Bach, and now I struggled to keep my eyes open while on the road. Then the cold (distinctively cold under the warm street light that filtered into the car), small (distinctively small against my big paw on the steering wheel) hand of Ena bowed itself inside my hand-wheel contact point and steered, ever so slightly, to the left. I shot her a look. What did she think she was doing? There were cars everywhere!
‘There are no cars now.’
I glanced at the side and rear mirrors. ‘WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?’
‘Please, Daya –’
‘Where – what – you just want to stop at the side of the road, is that what you want to do? WE’RE ON THE OVERHEAD HIGHWAY! You think – WHAT ON EARTH –’
I wanted to yell more. It seemed as though I wanted to yell all the time these days, and if it wasn’t for the slight wheeze in her voice – a wheeze as though her oesophagus wall had finally ripped to let in, or out, a slow hiss of air, expressly significant in the way she said my name – ‘Dhyah – yhah – Dhyah – yhah –’ – my name, normally so securing from her lips, now a back-throat gibe – if it wasn’t for the wheeze, I’d have given her a whole litany of exactly what I was thinking.
Instead, I pried my hands loose and let her steer the car to the left – I admit, it was more a gesture of my preparedness to die, albeit to die at her hand, than of any confidence in her side-navigation skills. In less than ten seconds, however, we were off the highway and parked on a yellow line and I’d stopped fisting the car handle.
Why did she say my name like that? I wanted her to stop spooking my name.
‘Yes? Yes, yes, yes?’
Her face was different. Had her dimples now become punctures that leaked out wafts of – what was it – soul? motivation? some eureka footing? Were the perforations in her cheek telltale signs of a regression that, so long as it was full-on and full-length, would no longer preclude pre-Ena as I then knew her, would instead disclose what was primordial and uncivilized – Ena as was intended, Ena as she came. My Ena Zairan. My perfect little subject, to be finally unearthed.
She sniffed. It was a squelchy yet unhurried sound, nearly delicate as she put a finger to her top lip as though that would preempt a runny nose. Then she put a hand on my knee and used her forefinger to circle the kneecap, calming me before whatever squall of internal drama. Her lips parted, closed, parted again, closed again. Squeezing my knee, her next words came out firm: ‘I need books.’
What a declaration! She needed books! Because we didn’t all need books, didn’t walk around with the words and profound little quotes and newly formed dendrite connections that books afforded us! Because of course we frisked about with empty eggs for heads!
My reply turned out as stupid as her grand disclosure. ‘You need books?’
‘Karl Weschke and James Rielly and Erick Heckel. Books on all of them.’
‘Goody. I was wondering what our bookshelf was for.’
‘I’m telling you ’cause they’re expensive.’
‘Some of them are close to a hundred. Dollars.’
I did a quick conversion in my head and shrugged. ‘Money was never meant for hoarding anyway.’
‘You’re not listening to me.’
‘I said, you’re not listening to me.’ She pulled her hand away and recoiled into her seat. ‘You never listen to me.’
A child. In this car, in the stillness of freshly turned-off AC, she looked, acted, and talked like a child. And this here was what I had vowed to dedicate my life to – a lesbian child who had no conviction, no sight, no introspective wisdom for what she needed or wanted, nothing.
‘I always listen to you,’ I said, calculating the tenor of the mood. Could I say what I really wanted to say? Because I’d pin it exactly right. That what she really wanted – needed? – was for me to get angry, properly angry, so that there was at least one person, one measly person of the few she hadn’t yet cut off, who would please just grant her the retribution she deserved for having chosen this lifestyle. Prosecute her, someone, anyone! Because she needed a tangible opposition against which she could defend her lifelong decision, to permissibly relieve a long-repressed screech in defiance of an external world that did not understand her, us, and to assure others – and in doing so, assure herself, to act out an outward affirmation for at least a meagre establishment of, what I at least hoped was, a private truth – that this homosexual life was not a mistake.
‘I love you,’ I said, fox-trotting my side of our non-verbal, non-existent, communication. I could never be her reference point for certitude, for how could she possibly rage at me when any argument she assembled would disintegrate from the sheer fallacy of “opposition”? I was the core of what she would want to defend, and therefore the invalid antagonist – unleashing fury at me would be desultory at best, and self-defamatory at worst.
‘I love you, Ena Zairan.’ These words I remember. She didn’t say it back. Maybe we started taking our love for granted, maybe she took mine so, maybe we fell into that old couple dance where doing chores was verification enough of love – maybe, small maybe, some part of me stopped trying to grasp her within my hold, and maybe that was all I had going for me all along, a metal clasp on a stunted, irrational bit of her heart – and maybe because of that I tried to set her free and never said it again.
‘You’re not listening.’
This time I gave up. What the hell did she think I was – a telepathic? If she thought I wasn’t listening, then she needed to talk, for God’s sake!
‘I mean I can’t paint anymore.’
‘You can’t –?’
‘Wait, sorry, you can’t –’
‘Yes! I mean what I said! I CAN’T paint, OKAY? I can’t paint anymore! It’s GONE! All GONE! Always a next painting that just DOESN’T work, do you KNOW? Don’t you know? No, you DON’T know! And THIS is it! This is IT! I can’t paint ANYMORE! I – just – can’t – and it’s been my – my – it – it’s my –’
‘Okay, shh, it’s okay, it will be okay –’
‘It’s NOT going to be okay, OKAY? You know why? Huh? You know why? Because I CANNOT PAINT!’ She flipped open the glove compartment and rifled through the letters and receipts. ‘Where’s a pen when you need one!’
I scrambled for a pen.
‘SEE? No, you don’t see! I can’t paint, AND I CAN’T DRAW! Look at me, huh, look at me, look at’ – she drew a furious Spongebob, which I thought looked perfectly legit for a two-second piece of work – ‘THIS! Look at THIS! This is ridiculous! I. Can’t. DRAW! I’m an artist and I can’t DRAW!’
2006, I thought to myself. We’d been together eight years and the protective layer was, at long last, in 2006, off. My arm reached towards her to pull her to me – perhaps I’d be able to hug the fear out of her, the cancerous fear that must have agglomerated and sat in waiting for this rupture in that frigid throat – but as my whole body sidled over (not an easy feat, considering the shifter knob), she squirmed to the left. A shiver – of disgust? – emanated from her girl-woman pose, ever so cold. An intense sense of stupidity diffused into my system as half my body hung over the centre console, my arm awkwardly arched over her headrest, the seat bolt pressing into my left hip. How much lower would I sink? Would I keep descending until – where would I stop? When? How much longer would I be pleading for a real piece of her, a piece that was neither conditional nor temperamental?
‘Aku selalu listen.’ My voice was scathing, and I relished it. Now there was a truth straining the silence, and I liked that even better. Aku selalu listen, it announced boldly. Kau lah yang tak demgar. Kau tak dengar langsung.
She pulled up her knees, still in that coiled position. ‘Jom.’
Jom? Really, jom? That was all she had to say? Note this down, Daya (and in permanent ink, please): Your wife isn’t mysterious. She is infuriating.
So we went home. Home, where she retreated into the Hark Room and had her little Hark moments and was Harkfully dark and dismal and drab – which was now, as I saw it, more tenebrous than esoteric – with a Harker lover. But Indifference did not have to be a singles game. I would ignore her, be indifferent, I would practise being indifferent – bring back the swagger! – I would hurt, hurt, hurt her with disinterest and, if I could manage it, actual disdain, and I would flush myself with such icy apathy that she’d suffer frostbite at arm’s length – no, at leg length – and I would make her realize that you just didn’t fuck around with people’s hearts.