Back when I had a penchant for oversharing (maybe I still do?), I dabbled in photo-poetry and posted them on Instagram. Reading old writing is quite something, to say the least. I alternate between feeling embarrassed about sharing my intimate thoughts and being overcome with gratitude for the time capsule.
Here’s a compilation of the prose poetry I wrote in 2018. When I moved to Paris alone in January, I was reeling from a not-so-fresh heartbreak caused by someone whose consequence a label cannot capture. During the six months that I lived there, I was mostly trying to cope with the loneliness that comes with alienation in a foreign city and the aftermath of trauma. Still, being far away from home was a reprieve that I sorely needed. And so, the thought and act of leaving Paris felt like heartbreak in its own way.
I’ve never told you this but the same old caffeine keeps me up at night without once passing my lips. We are sitting side by side on the bus. We pass by Heartbreak Avenue and open our mouths only to point out all the places we’ve been to without each other. The last time I was on this winding route, I was sitting alone and listening to Hopeless. I tried to preserve the beauty in my head but words have expiration dates. Remember when a black stray cat watched as I held still to let you put a star in my hair in the middle of the road? When I tiptoed on the train tracks with the wildflowers you picked for me. When I nearly crashed the shopping cart you were in into the wall of the alley. When we snuck a bottle of red into the cinema. When you laughed after I told you how my heart was in my mouth and nothing like how calm Bob and Charlotte were when a fire alarm sounded in their hotel; we’ve always had an affinity with Lost in Translation. These are all old news; now I know that I should record moments before delay leads to decay.
I will never be fresh out of stories to tell but boy, do I miss how easily ink used to spill. Line by line, I coax them out of my body, out of every heavy limb and brittle bone: I was always drawn to self-reflexivity and eccentricity. With you, I was a novel begging to be read. I’d shivered in my least favorite place to be. You flipped through the pages but you could not bring yourself to borrow it and bring it home. After placing a reservation, you disappeared. Then, you return seven months later to tell me that my gilded alphabet is not enough and you don’t understand the fantasy that I seek. Am I to blame for wanting suspension from the reality that your absence has been leaking into my chest? I made a mistake; you’d never known the words by heart. Your name has since been erased from the page of acknowledgments and it is no longer a shame that I am not waiting for your fingers to graze my spine.
my idle heart was briefly tempted by / forbidden fruit / your version of heaven / so i made way for lightning to reside / in my once hollow veins / you / tell me that lying is a sin / but steal my breath / witness me spilling / lies and wine / all blood red / at least we both agree / that chivalry ought to be dead / you offered me bread and respite / from the caprice of the faithless lover before you / genethliacal astrology did warn us / this love will hurt like the real thing / but for one month / we listened to quiet thunder in church
J asks if I feel uninspired and illiterate after visiting a bookstore like this. I reply that I cannot believe that the writers are ordinary humans like us. Yet they’re not. But they are. Why would I dare create anything? How dare they, when there were others before them? I want to spend all my time in a library. He tells me to lie on a cafeteria sofa and drink full cream milk. I can scarcely measure my growth in teaspoons. I make a list of the ways I would like to change my lifestyle when I am back home. There is potential for growth. Now? I dream about the people from home. About the dead dying. Again and again. The mirror on the wall says “poetry upstairs”. It is true. You will also find a typewriter next to a sink and a sleeping cat. I removed the paper on the typewriter because others before me have left messages and I wanted to type mine on a fresh piece. I failed at my attempt to slot another paper into the machine. So I leave nothing behind, not a single word. Again and again.
Liminality melted like the snow and left the blue sky on the pavement. I still board the wrong train back every now and then. Back at Rue Claude Bernard, I amuse the cashiers who scan my groceries with my mediocre French and fumbling fingers before I head back to my home. Yes, I call this place mine now. The glass door that I pull when I’m supposed to push. All six laborious flights of stairs. The brown mat before the final climb. The golden door handles that sometimes unscrew themselves. I wake up to the acoustic folk music that he plays and secretly note down the song titles. Our home changes every single week. New artwork hanging on the walls— of fruit, of women playing the guitar, of the dead family cat. A new navy checkered table cloth replaced the floral one. A new orange map of Paris, only distinguishable by the veins of the Seine. A dying monstera deliciosa plant moved closer to the light. The speakers are now closer to the neighbors below us and I can only hope the ceiling is not as thin as the walls are. Here, Time is on my side. I cook. I didn’t. “I’ll show you how to cook French cuisine before you leave.” A promise. I’m still waiting to stand on a Parisian balcony. I might climb out from my skylight window and sit on the rooftop one day. A day when I am desperate to live before I leave.
It is May and I am leaving Paris soon. I try to write in a Japanese restaurant run by Chinese. It is May and I’ve spent four months here. It is May and I’ve grown less afraid of the birds and the bees. I must admit that I still flinch when they get too close. They are sweet creatures and their buzzing and chirping fill up the space my landlord rents out at night. But lately, it has been occupied by steady streams of the same terrible laughter. Laughter that exists on strolls to the jardin and accompanies the strumming of the guitar. It is May and I’ve gotten good at ignoring requests that only ask me to pretend. To pretend that familiar hands can’t be unkind. To pretend that white sheets make a fortress. To pretend that euphoria from having raw fish stops the memories from lodging something else in my throat. Something more dead. My trusting heart turned to stone. I almost choke. On it. On tears. I unfold the red napkin at the restaurant and try to leave the grief in the creases. I refold the napkin till it is smaller than I am. Still, I am faring better than I did the third time I realized you were not on my side. J grants me an aphorism— how people always want you to move on because it helps them heal faster. I hope you do. I know you are broken in other places. We are all broken in some places. I was lying when I said it will be better when I get back. I would have said anything to lift the blame from you. You want a world of flight for me. Even if you’re not here with me, or for me, I owe everything to your hands. But what about me? I don’t think I can ever fill this empty. We all take some vacancies to the grave and I am still stained by the filth that this earth cannot bury.
I return to my immovable sky, full of ceiling. To my unlockable doorknob. I swallow the skeleton and the key. Lie and lock my mouth shut at the same time. To my corridor of bright disturbance. Here, the moon that I cannot turn off is a lamp. To light up my wardrobe on the floor. I want it to stay there but what I want does not matter. I want salt, olive oil, and a non-stick pan. A fridge stocked with lousy milk. For excellent earl grey tea. I return to my tile of field. It never was mine but I am no longer a passerby. I only have time for it in the evenings so I cannot deny the sunsets here. I cannot deny the sun sets here. The purple walls burn orange in no time.
I’ve gotten so good at existing. Except when the sight of golden retriever puppies invokes a Pavlovian response in me. Except when I realized the moon was never mine and decided to never revisit it again. Except when everyone but me pretended to be fixed. Except when I thought, “I would take loneliness over this; I would take the earliest flight to anywhere.” Except when I was struck by how wistful I felt at the sight of two sisters with their mother and grandmother on the bus. Except when I am your heart full of wine. That is to say, almost every night for the past five months. Except when sleep escapes me. Except when I forget to lock the door. Except when I unlearned how to write. Except that this December will not be like the last, and absence is not an option anymore.
All images by Sherryl Cheong
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