‘Wake up. When is she going to wake up?’
It feels like God is speaking to me. A man’s voice, at once inside and outside me: skull-deep and buzzing from the walls like a PA announcement. But I don’t believe in God, or Allah. I assume I’m dreaming. Until I hear him again.
‘Wake up. Wake up, I said.’
The mosquito net clouds my head dully. Not a single sunbeam; this city is too polluted. I don’t have to peek through, don’t even have to raise my neck. The knowing is just there, like a gutting knife, and then my nightdress is wet.
‘She’s awake,’ the man says, from the end of the bed. ‘I can smell her.’
Who is he talking to? Is there more than one man? The thought is a frying of wires, a clamping of thighs against sharp-damp. I wish I knew how to pray.
I’m sorry. Sosorry.
‘Sorry,’ the man lilts. ‘So sorry.’
He sounds sorry, too.
Please, leave me alone, I’m married –
‘I know your husband,’ the man reads my mind. ‘This is for both of you.’
Matheus? He knows Matheus?
‘What is your name?’ The man’s tone is playful – then harsh. ‘What is her name?’
I know he can read my thoughts, so I think of another name, a name I liked when I was a kid.
‘Celeste,’ he rolls the name around his mouth like candy. ‘Celeste. It’s Wednesday.’
‘Celeste. I’m not going to touch you.’ The way he says it doesn’t make me less afraid. ‘Celeste … Take off the wet dress.’
After, the silence is post-apocalyptic. I picture a world beyond human habitation, black canals, trash floes. I hear the downstairs door unlock, the hum of Ibu’s vacuum. It must be two already. I must be alive, after all, in a place of locks and electricity.
I reach through the clouds for my phone.
Tiny red flags swarm my eyes. A Facebook Memory of Matheus and I, six years ago in London. I close it; open my messages and start typing:
Something happened. A man …
The words hollow me. I put my phone down.
I’m not like the women on TV, don’t scrub myself frantically and weep on the tiles. Did I wash my hair yesterday? I can’t remember, so I do it today. Scent of green apples, gardenias. Mouth closed, nostrils taut against the threat of local water.
I wrap my hair in a soft towel. My body in a soft robe. My skin is bad, like always. I avoid picking it.
I avoid the bed. There’s an ache I notice more, bending to sit on the hard chair. Like someone has been trying to saw my femurs from my pelvis.
I erase the previous message. Start again:
I don’t feel like cooking tonight. Go-Jek?
I open the curtain and wait for Matheus’s reply. Waiting for Matheus is almost a full-time job. I don’t mind. It is so grey today, looking at the slopes of brown roof tiles, I feel like I’m in some Eastern Bloc country. Would I be happier in Bulgaria? My phone makes a noise like folding ice.
Got tix for Spanish dance. Only goes 1hr. Eduardo says well get Manadonese after ☺
He is too old for smiley faces. I don’t write that. Just: OK.
Ibu is my mother’s age. She has jowl-length black hair, lips a shade redder than natural, just a shade. By her mouth is a dark yellow patch I thought was a food stain, when we first met. Now I know it’s just an age spot. I feel bad every time I see her, but especially now, watching her skirmish with an army of empty Bintang bottles.
‘He drinks too much,’ I say.
She nods, clanks the bottles into a garbage bag. No recycling.
I fill my water bottle at the cooler. Organise my words between sips.
‘Ibu … cuci tempat tidur?’ Ibu’s eyes dart to the ceiling; Wednesday isn’t the usual day for fresh sheets. She nods, anyway.
‘Terima kasih,’ I thank her. The garbage bag clanks again. I think of hobos in America and add, ‘Maaf, Ibu.’
She waves her hand and says some things, quick and annoyed. It must be annoying, listening to white people saying thank you and sorry all the time. Then she flashes her beige teeth and jabs in the direction of my camera, or my outfit, or both.
Be careful, she’s saying. I nod yes, though danger has already walked through this house today.
I know I won’t get to the show on time, so I tell the Uber driver to drop me off at the restaurant. I’m too early for dinner. There’s a book in my bag, but I don’t read. I order a Diet Coke, vow sobriety. Three times, I get up to use the bathroom, convinced I must be bleeding, and each time eyes follow me like I’m a deranged celebrity who might flash a nipple or steal some cutlery or something. It’s ninety minutes before Matheus arrives. He has two bottles of wine and another white woman with him, as well as some embassy people, spouses.
‘Mmm … I missed you, dear.’ He kisses me. In my ear, ‘It was very, very boring!’
The woman is a flamenco dancer. Madrid. Her shoulders are bare so I shed my kimono, toss my hair. I compliment her purse. It’s from Kiev.
‘Did you make any art today, dear?’ Matheus asks, and I know this is probably my only chance to make myself sound impressive this evening.
Unimpressively, I shrug. ‘Just took photos.’
‘My wife is a very good photographer.’ Matheus turns to the dancer. ‘She makes these close-ups, how-do-I-say-it …’
Whatever he says, it’s in Spanish. A glass of chilled white wine appears.
I’m not a good photographer. Photography is just what I do when I don’t have a real reason to leave the house, like going to the textiles market or the apotek for anti-diarrhoea pills. I wonder if I’ll get sick tonight. I always eat too much at these things.
Cones of rice. Spiced fish. Papaya buds, swimming in green curry. I control myself by picturing scenes from the Amazon, boas swallowing boars. Crisscross my limbs, still model-slim, as conversations crisscross me.
‘Gad farbid, the Latins are talking about dictators again!’ José, Eduardo’s sweet husband, takes pity. ‘It is very, very boring!’
‘I don’t have much to say about that.’ I smile unobtrusively. ‘My country doesn’t have dictators … just dickheads.’
This gets some laughs, clinks. ‘Australian wine,’ Eduardo tells me approvingly.
I smile again, like a true-blue, though the only wine I ever drank back home was fizzy and passion fruit-flavoured, five dollars a bottle.
A waiter stacks bowls smeared with bright sauce. Eduardo waves his wallet, calls, ‘Mas?’ Matheus pours the last of the wine and swishes his down.
‘Is the wine over?’ He peers around, eyes wild, face flushed. ‘Is it over already?’
I push my glass his way. He doesn’t see it though, for the dancer is slipping off her shoes, massaging herself.
‘Forget this wine.’ She pouts. ‘I want tequila.’
Some Mexicans – not embassy, I don’t know how we know them – meet us at the expat bar. I’m jealous of Gloria, the short girl in the short dress with perfect winged eyeliner. I’m not jealous of her friend, Monica. I don’t want tequila, or the beer Matheus brings.
‘I don’t like mixing wine and beer. You know that.’
‘It isn’t beer, dear. It’s magical golden water to make you happy.’
I drink the foam. Compliment Gloria’s eyeliner, but she’s a bitch, doesn’t compliment me. Monica compliments my lipstick, my accent, my dress, which seems a bit excessive. I say hi to Steve, a gay Nebraskan who’s brought his wife, Watna?
‘Ratna,’ she corrects. She’s local, tiny.
‘Sorry. Ratna.’ I stoop to match her. ‘I didn’t know Steve was … uh …’
‘Hah?’ She cranes. Relieved, I start over:
‘I said, how long have you and Steve been married?’
Matheus drinks my beer. I go to the bathroom, but there’s no blood, just unreality. I go to the bar for a vodka tonic and don’t even try not to stare at a seated grandfather, reverently caressing the ass of a local woman in towering heels and a flesh-brown contour dress. She tolerates it smilingly.
‘Oh I know. This place this very, very gross.’ José nods like a dashboard dog. My vodka-tonic appears, sparklingly beautiful. I look for Matheus, the human equivalent of this sparkling beauty. I regret it. José sees; takes pity again.
‘Dancingtime!’ He twinkles his hands at me. ‘Drinkup … drinkup, baby.’
Twelve hours after Ibu’s vacuum, a hard black Uber crawls to meet us. The dancer gives me a sloppy two-cheek kiss. Over my shoulder, she simpers at Matheus.
‘She’s an angel. Just like you said.’
Angel? My mind bends sorrowfully. Celeste?
‘Ugggg.’ Matheus lurches against me. ‘Spanish from Spain is always a bitchhh.’
His waist is thicker than six years ago; six months, even. We forgo seatbelts.
‘Monica wants to threesome,’ he tells me dreamily.
‘On a weeknight?’ I grimace. ‘You can go.’
‘Tonight I want my bed.’ He hugs me like I’m bed. ‘And I already took my sleeping medicine.’
I think of the dull cloud, fear seeping. What is real and what is unreal is only a matter of testimony. Matheus tucks my hair, draws his hand away in drunken wonder.
‘You’re bleeding, dear.’
I don’t think of these days, most days, as defined days. But my first thought when I hear the voice again is: Wednesday.
‘Good morning, Celeste.’ He pauses, as though embarrassed, and I know in that moment that English isn’t his first language. ‘You didn’t think I’d come again.’
‘It didn’t work last time,’ he explains. ‘We need to go deeper.’
I think of the locked gate, the two-key door, the shining halls and stairs between there and here. Halls lined with my art, the art we’ve collected over our years and cities.
‘No,’ I say aloud, for the first time.
I wait. Maybe I’ve banished him, maybe this is all he needed. But no … he’s waiting for me, the welcoming hollow of my doubt.
‘Take off your dress, Celeste. Take it off, then close your eyes so I can put down the tools.’
They were so cold, last time. I feel cold, again; so cold I can’t breathe. When my urine floods the sheets, its warmth is a relief.
Though I cry in bed after the man leaves, it’s a hopeless sort of crying; a crying without edges. After, I put on my activewear, but the sight of the exercise bike confirms my soreness. I drink a cup of hot water, a cleansing trick I can’t be bothered with every day. When Ibu arrives, I’m too shy to request fresh sheets, yet she sees me seeking the ceiling.
‘ … Sprei lagi?’ she asks, smiling.
‘Ya, lagi.’ I place my mug by the sink, then hobble up to my studio.
Matheus has tickets to a wayang show. I tell him I can’t go and he sends a crying face, says it’ll be very, very boring without me. But there are no signs of him returning when I go downstairs for a midnight icy pole, nor when I brave the cold sheets, hands sore and eyes weak from hours of weaving.
He trips on the mosquito net at three-thirty, falls on me veiled and cursing. We fuck ineffectively. When the alarm goes off later, the whiteness of his thighs seems obscene, the used condom like a glue-gun accident. It’s best that he uses condoms.
There’s a Cinco de Mayo party at Gloria’s, flower crowns and painted skulls. I don’t know how she’s so rich or what she’s doing in this city if she’s not a diplomat, nor do I care to know. I dangle my feet in the pool when the sight of Matheus flirting gets too much. An Italian sits by me, says his name is Luigi.
‘Oh. Do you have a brother called Mario?’
He laughs in a sad way, like the joke is unfunny but he still wants to fuck me.
‘Why don’t you swim?’ He splashes my legs playfully. ‘I’d like to see you swim.’
‘I’m waiting for my husband.’
I end up diving in before Matheus. I know I look good in my wet underwear, better than Gloria. I swim like I don’t know it. I feel rather than see Matheus sliding in.
‘The Australian mermaid,’ he swoons, and kisses my face paint.
Later, the ratio of men to women gets too weird. The men don’t seem to mind. I see Matheus looking elsewhere: a beautiful boy who may be local.
Diplomatically, I shore myself.
They think we smell, an Aussie guy, accent cringe worthy, is telling his mates somewhere between the pool and the toilet. Like bad milk.
Nah, like wet dog.
That’s not it. It’s that we smell like nothing. Like we don’t have souls.
Well, we don’t. Do we?
I open a door. It’s the wrong one. There’s a woman lying on the bed, fully clothed. Her eyes flash apology, and something else: be careful?
I notice the tiny baby lying with her. ‘Sorry,’ I whisper, shutting the door.
The conversation on my way back is one I’ve heard before, too. Weed. Crop tops. Bottle shops. Macca’s runs. Sunday roast. Knives and forks. Tap-water. Recycling. Fresh-mown lawns. The true-blue sky of home.
Last I saw him, Steve the Nebraskan was entangled with a Sri Lankan merman. But his tiny wife doesn’t seem to mind. Head weighed down by a flower crown, she dances in her wet t-shirt around the snack table, picking up corn chips with gracefully extended arms, lotus hands.
‘Is that Javanese dancing?’ I ask earnestly.
‘It’s dancing, only,’ she says, looking at me like I’m stupid. Then she looks at the guacamole. ‘What is this green?’
Ratna tries some and appears to orgasm. ‘Gua-ca-mol-eee.’
She dances toward the baby-room.
‘Don’t go in there.’ I stop her. ‘There’s a … baby.’
‘A baby?!’ Her bloodshot eyes shine like rubies. ‘Your baby?!’
‘Not my baby.’ I squirm. ‘Somebody else’s.’
She reaches out and caresses my flat belly, giggles. ‘You’re so old. Why don’t you have a baby?’
I hate her. But when she takes hold of my wrist and pulls me toward the staircase, I feel a stirring of love, or something like it.
There are more doors upstairs. Ratna opens the first one; behind it are four or five writhing, groaning people. She giggles and one guy turns his head, shouts, ‘Hey! C’minhere!’
Ratna slams the door. I follow her hand-sized feet to the next one.
Behind the second door is a beautiful, fluffy cat; too beautiful for this place. Blue-green eyes. She stares and I think of the planet from space, sad snowdrifts.
‘Yuck!’ Ratna spits. ‘Yuck-yuck! Hsss! Hsss!’
‘Nooo?’ I’m incredulous, though Ratna isn’t the first local I’ve met who hates cats. ‘She’s beautiful.’
‘Yuck.’ Ratna points definitively at some black droppings. I notice the stench. Even so, I’m sorry when the door slams.
Next is a bathroom. Ratna hisses in relief and starts scrubbing her hands. I copy her. After, we pose in our flower crowns. ‘But yours is prettier,’ she pouts.
‘Here, we can swap.’
She takes it, but with suspicion. I follow her gaze.
‘Yuck.’ She points at my red footprints. ‘Dirty bleeding.’
‘Guacamole is not for staring, baby – it’s for eating!’ José branches an arm over me at the snack table, crunches a loaded corn chip.
‘My dear hardly eats,’ Matheus says sadly. He’s wearing a lungi, just a lungi.
‘Eating disorder. My gad, so Western!’ José knocks my hip, then gambols to the dance floor in his Frida Kahlo briefs. Matheus licks my forehead like it’s ice cream.
I snuggle into him, slit my eyes at the wavering blue fluorescence. ‘Did you have fun at the San Francisco bathhouse?’
‘You made friends with Ratna,’ he non-replies. ‘Little, little Ratna!’
‘I don’t like her. She stole my crown.’
Matheus gives the ice cream one last lick, lets it drop to the pavement.
‘Don’t pick your skin, dear. Be happy.’
I don’t know how to prepare for Wednesday, so I decide to just drink a lot Tuesday night.
‘The girl is a model. She has this billboard in Rio now.’ Matheus shows me on his phone. ‘The boy is a model too … not so successful.’
The apartment belongs to the girl-model, or her husband anyway. She talks in ours and wes, but from the lack of specifics, I get the feeling he’s just an old man she doesn’t know well. Also, the fact she keeps a pet homosexual from her hometown. Neither of them are as dressed up as we are.
‘I thought … Go-Jek?’ The boy looks at the girl. ‘But maybe we should just¾’
‘Go-Jek, yes. We should Go-Jek,’ Matheus agrees. ‘We don’t need to go out when we have such nice drinks and couches here.’
While we wait for the Go-Jek guy, Matheus makes vodka-guava screwdrivers. The boy only wants Bintang. He’s scrolling his phone.
‘Can I smoke in here?’ Matheus puts a Lucky Strike between his lips.
I catch the girl’s look. ‘It’s just … my husband hates it. He quit ten years ago.’
‘Ah. Half a lifetime.’ Matheus wistfully admires her twenty-year-old skin. Potlucks his cigarettes. ‘In America, Lucky Strike is the cigarette of lesbians. Smoke as many as you like, dears.’
Once Matheus has gone to the balcony, she asks, ‘So … you used to model?’
‘About five years ago.’ Seven, really.
‘I wouldn’t have thought so long. You still look twenty-three.’
Her eyes are pale against her olive skin. German-Brazilian, same as Matheus. When I first heard his surname, I asked if his grandparents were Nazis in exile.
‘What is your age?’ she brazens. She’s beautiful and foreign, but still.
‘Twenty-nine.’ I give up. ‘… Thirty on August thirty-one.’
She says something to the boy, who I’d forgotten, he’s been scrolling so much. They laugh. ‘I wish I could say I’m a Virgin,’ she explains. ‘But I’m a Taurus.’
‘Big fat bull,’ the boy taunts, not looking up. She kicks him.
Matheus seems cheered when he comes in, so I know he’s been considering other options. He pours more drinks, asks if I’ve talked about my art yet, talks for me.
‘She is amazing! She knows things! She does these tapestries that’s like … what you see when your eyes is closed. Like the inside of your brain and all of your organs!’
The Go-Jek guy arrives: green jacket, pollution scarf. There’s an exchange of plastic bags, rupiah. ‘How did you two meet … ?’ the girl asks.
Together we say, London.
‘It was winter.’ Matheus looks solemn. ‘We both came from sunny places and were so cold all the time until we found each other.’
‘I thought you would like to meet another shy, skinny model-girl, that’s all. To meet, and befriend, and maybe, once you’re comfortable … you may eat each other’s pussies.’
‘I just don’t know with girls.’ I shrug. ‘It’s just easier to talk about star signs than start kissing … you know?’
‘No, I don’t know, dear.’ Matheus watches a fried food vendor weave through the traffic jam. ‘I don’t know that problem.’
‘You’ll get sick if you eat street food,’ I warn.
Martyrised, he lies against the leather. ‘I hate dining with thin people!’
There’s a construction zone the Uber can’t navigate. We walk out to blazing orange, men in dirty vests yelling at our skin. Matheus grabs my hand, grits his teeth.
‘Our entry fee, dear.’
We pose for a group-photo, then pass through.
At the expat bar, Matheus instantly puts his tongue in Monica’s mouth. I order a vodka-tonic. He pulls me in. I kiss him, her, him. Break away to move lovingly to a song I hate. More vodka.
‘Anorexic drink!’ José clinks my glass. Cringingly mops some blood from my neck, then fixes my hair. ‘Pretty again!’
‘ … Minnesota, not Mississippi,’ Steve the Nebraskan is telling a Swede. ‘And he shot two-hundred-and-seventy, not two-twenty.’
Ratna sees me and hisses like a cat. I flee.
I can’t find Matheus. I kiss another girl, the flamenco dancer I think, and things are closed-off for a while, blue glitter behind my eyelids. I throw up, cleanse my mouth with a new drink. I can’t find Matheus.
I can’t find him, and the bar is closing. ‘I can’t find him, I can’t find him,’ I lament to José and Eduardo, though I see their eyelids drooping. They invite me to sleep in their guest room. ‘I can’t. It’s Wednesday.’
I order my own car. The sky is black, my legs bare. But my skin says, touch-me-not, I have embassy protection. Local men only jeer.
I pay the driver extra to wait for first daylight. Matheus appears eating something fried, shirt untucked, looking older than almost thirty-five.
The first call to prayer chastens us in the backseat.
‘Wahhh,’ Matheus mimics. ‘Allahu akbarrr … ’
‘Shh.’ I apologise to the driver’s neck with my eyes. ‘Don’t do that.’
Matheus rolls his head onto my breast. ‘Sim, mamãe.’
The alarm goes off. I tell Matheus and he only says, ‘Today is hangover, not work.’ I wake a second time, in a violent fright, and almost wet the bed. Yet there’s no man at the end of it, so I tiptoe to the bathroom and pee there instead.
I wake a third time, to the shunting hum of Ibu’s vacuum. I look outside the netting, inside again. On Matheus’s cheek, sprinkles of light. He has a cleft chin.
I climb on top and do what my heart wants. After, he yawns and smiles.
‘How nice, to be woken by my dear wife like this on a Wednesday.’
When I go to the apotek the next week, I’m alone, and modestly dressed. A girl with a white headscarf and nice lipstick asks what I want. I say, ‘Tes kehamilan.’
I see lots of rubbish going home, but my bathroom is clean. I sit and listen to the voices hissing from between my legs.
Hati-hati, they’re warning me, as my love and I walk outside in our white skins, and he’s raising a hand to wave and with the other holding mine, promising, I-will-honour-cherish-and-be-faithful. We know the air is bad and the world is burning, but also we are the lucky ones, heads high above rising sea levels.
Celeste, I tell the twin pink lines. Your name is Celeste.
Image: Siete Coyote / Flickr
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