The Artist

A week after my twenty-fourth birthday, a friend and I decided to take a trip to Lijiang. Many people went there just to fall in love. Having an affair in Lijiang was not like having an affair in the city. It was blameless, pure and otherworldly to sleep with someone in Lijiang. No dust, no grime, could touch that place.

Before I visited Lijiang, I read a book about an artist and his wife who owned the Yao Wang hotel. The girl was from a wealthy business family in Shanghai. She had met the struggling artist when they were teenagers. Now they had a one year old baby. I decided that we would stay at the Yao Wang, where each room was unique and carefully designed, just like a piece of art. When we arrived I felt I was a different girl. In the past I had done things that I was ashamed of, like the time I had threatened to kill myself if my parents didn’t let me see the boy I was dating at the time. Purple wisteria bloomed everywhere. When we arrived I stood on a bridge in the city centre and looked down at the broken reflection of lights in the water. I imagined that someone might propose to me on that bridge, while fireworks exploded behind us.

The friend I was travelling with had recently broken up with her boyfriend. In the evening while we tried to rest her keening kept me awake. I rubbed her back and told her that she would find someone else. Finally I managed to get her out of the hotel room. In the dining room we saw the artist and his wife, both beautifully dressed.

“Can we join you?” the artist asked.

My girlfriend was surprised but I knew this was part of their hospitality. They spent time with all the guests that stayed at their hotel – I had read this in the book. We drank a lot of wine and my girlfriend flirted with the artist, who was handsomer and younger than I had thought. His wife noticed, and laughed along. But at the same time she placed her elegant white hand on the artist’s thigh. Afterwards I helped my girlfriend back to our room. She kicked off her shoes and I pulled the sheets over her. I sat on the edge of the bed and took off my own shoes. I rubbed the arch of my foot and thought about the artist and his wife. For some reason I thought about them in bed together, the smooth marble of their tangled bodies, the baby sleeping nearby. I walked up a wooden staircase that led to a bathtub right under the glass ceiling of the room. I ran the hot water and added some dried lavender. I lay there until the water grew lukewarm, staring at the blanket of stars above me. I ran my thumb over my wet lips and tried to imagine what it would be like to be the artist’s wife, to be loved.

The next morning my girlfriend was listless over breakfast. I ate mango and drank endless cups of green tea. We spent the day walking around the city, tiring ourselves out. Later that evening my girlfriend perked up and suggested we go to the bar. She wanted to meet some boys we’d spoken to at the hotel.  We both put on dresses and high heels. At the bar, I began to chat to a boy who had also grown up in Chengdu. He had serious brown eyes and a way of twisting his beer bottle round and round with his slim fingers. He made me laugh. My girlfriend was a few steps ahead of me, another boy’s arm draped around her waist. She was leaning in to him and when our eyes met, she winked at me. I smiled and closed my eyes for just a moment, listening to the smooth voice of the boy. Without quite knowing how, he had begun to hold my hand.

I was in the middle of this warm cosy glow when the artist appeared at the piano in the corner of the bar. He sang about lost love and a boat that had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. But then the ocean was really a bathtub and the fish were not fish but his own lifeless toes. It was nonsense. And he sang badly. I realised that he was drunk. He sang a few songs, picking at the piano keys with practiced clumsiness while the whole bar ignored him. Only the bar staff politely clapped after he was done. A few drunken people cried out in English, “Bravo! Bravo! Encore! Encore!” Suddenly I was not interested in the boy from Chengdu. I walked over to the bar instead. I looked at a painting on the wall. It was a portrait of two poor children in a field. There was something sincere and ghostly in their expressions. It was like they were asking for help. Who knew where those children were now? They could have died from malnutrition or drinking dirty water. Or they could be adults by now, with city jobs. I wanted to cry. I felt I had wasted my life, although I was only twenty-four.

Rooftop of Lijiang © Wenjie Qiao, Creative Commons License (2)
Rooftop of Lijiang © Wenjie Qiao, Creative Commons License

The artist came to me and said, “What do you think?”

“It’s yours?” I asked.

He leaned forward so that his shoulder was nearly touching mine and told me how he had visited a village in the mountains of Daocheng and come across those two children. They were brother and sister, the children of a barley farmer.

“Do you like it?”

I touched the rim of the wine glass to my teeth and said, “It’s very beautiful. But it also makes me sad.”

“Many things can make us sad. But that doesn’t mean they are any less beautiful.”

While he spoke his fingers trailed across my forearm. In that moment I felt no longer drunk. I felt full of purpose.

“I want to see all your paintings,” I said.

This time I was the one who put my fingers on his wrist. He held his hand out to me and I took it. Before we walked out, I saw the looks my table was giving me. My friend waved at me while the boy from Chengdu was pretending very hard not to notice me.

Upstairs in his studio he showed me his other paintings: huge canvases, many of them unfinished, with thick brushstrokes of colours over them in no particular pattern. Some of them looked as though they had been painted by a child.

“Lately I’ve been doing a lot of abstracts,” he told me.

He lit a cigarette with shaky fingers. He put his hand on the canvas, telling me how the brushstrokes were careless on purpose. He called it a careful carelessness. I kept walking around and came across a painting that was propped up against a wall. It was a portrait of the artist’s wife, but much younger, a teenager. Strands of hair had come loose from her ponytail and her hands and mouth were wet, as though she had just been washing her face. In her expression there was something off-hand: she knew she was being captured but did not care. She seemed bored with the whole idea of painting.

The artist slipped his arms around me. I felt his breath stirring the hair at the nape of my neck. I pulled away from him and turned around to see his anger. Rich and powerful men like him did not take rejection well. A shudder ran through him and he dropped to his knees. His arms were around my waist and he was crying. “Please,” he was saying. “You are so young. You don’t know what it’s like to be unhappy, to feel stuck. Please, let me kiss you so I can forget for a while.”

I felt a mixture of wine and disgust in the back of my throat. I couldn’t breathe with his hands on me so I pushed him, hard. He careened back and lost his balance, splaying out on the floor. He looked up at me in total shock and I laughed.

He got to his feet and said, “Stop laughing.” He lurched towards me and I felt a far-away fear, almost separate to myself. I ran towards the door and in the second before the doorknob was in my hand, I was afraid that it would not turn. But it did. And a few minutes later I was in the brightly-lit hotel lobby.

Later in our room, my girlfriend was drunk but solicitous.

“What happened?” she said. “We were worried about you. Why did you go with him?”

“I…I don’t know,” I lied.

“That wasn’t like you,” she scolded. “Oh,” she said. “I miss Wei.” And she began to cry in wet gulps.

Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang © Andrew and Annemarie, Creative Commons License
Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang © Andrew and Annemarie, Creative Commons License

The next day we took our cases down to breakfast after checking out. We wore twin expressions of penitence. My girlfriend forced herself to eat some eggs. I could not face the thought of anything heavier than fruit and buttered bread.

I noticed that the artist’s wife was having breakfast a few tables away from us. Her son was in a high chair, and she was feeding him porridge. When she saw us she came over to our table.

“The staff told me you are leaving us today. I do hope you enjoyed your stay,” she said.

“Yes, thank you,” I said. “Everything here was so wonderful.”

“It’s a special place, Lijiang,” she said. My girlfriend and I both agreed.

“Lijiang is special. But you are not,” she said, looking at my girlfriend. “Whatever he told you, whatever he promised you, he has said so many times before it’s become like a script. You are exactly like every other worthless girl he has ever slept with.”

With that she walked away to greet guests at another table.

______________________________________________________________

Years later, after I had put the baby to sleep, I saw a picture of the artist’s wife in the newspaper. She was standing next to her son, now a teenager who was nearly her height. Behind them was the lush green of the hotel gardens. I put down the cup of tea I had just made and began to read about her success. Artists from across the world came to Lijiang to stay at that hotel and hold exhibitions. In the very last line, it said that the woman’s ex-husband, whom she had started the hotel with, had faded into obscurity. According to one source, he was now a homeless drunk. I heard the baby fussing and was glad for the distraction. I smoothed down his dark, fine hair and thought again about the artist’s wife. I thought about her in the painting, her wet hands and mouth. I saw the barley farmer’s children, pleading with their small, dirty faces. I rocked the baby back to sleep and thought no more about it.

 

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The Big D

In January she left her fiance. The only person this shocked was her mother, who wrung her hands.

“Who will have you now?” her mother said.

Who, indeed. But she knew, it was right. They should never have been engaged.

Winter tightened its grip on the hard earth. Leila stood one day in a green triangle of a park and cried until her vision blurred over. She looked up through the tops of the trees and saw the yellow magic of light from a window. She hung onto that image with a stubborn hope. She felt her soul lifting and smiled through her tears. I’m part of a gentle miracle, she thought. Life would go on – the same way it went on for those people that had lost their entire families in a plane crash or had their home and memories and everything they had ever owned swept away in a flood. This, the breakdown of a romantic relationship, was in the grander scheme of things, against the backdrop of wars, famine and disease, a minor tragedy. She would find someone else. Or they would find her. When the time was right, it would happen. She began to take walks in the afternoon at work, fingers frozen to icicles in the deep pockets of her coat. She developed a healthy cough. She joined a yoga class in the evenings, and the cough went away.

One day she was shaving the pale skin of her winter legs in the bathtub when she had a thought. It was a small thought, a very tiny thought, that she could shoo out of her mind like brushing lint off an old sweater. The next day while taking a train to visit a friend in another city she stood near the tracks, hearing the thundering of the rails, feeling the vibrations beneath her boots and thought how easy it would be to fall into the path of the hurtling train. She felt suddenly that the walls of the booth she was waiting in would close in on her. She loosened the scarf about her neck and ran. She called her friend, apologised, told a lie that she had suddenly become unwell.

At home that evening she made a cup of tea and tried to read a book, but the words seemed to blur together. What in the world could they mean, these black scratchings on paper. She thought again of the train tracks, the razor and tried to tease it all apart until it was powerless and revealed for what it really was, meek and fleeting. But at home, the thought did not go away. Instead she felt the tug of something she knew well, something she had not dared to ever say out loud to anyone in relation to herself, something that she and her fiance had sometimes obliquely called the big D. Even worse, on closer inspection, under rapid and unforgiving cross-examination, the thought held up.

She didn’t want to call her ex-fiance, even though she knew that if she did, he would comfort her. Would he even pick up? He was hurt and proud. She knew how easy he found it to cut people out of his life, the way he had cut out an ex girlfriend who had left him while they were on a cycling trip in Cambodia. Hearing that story, Leila’s sympathies had lay with the ex girlfriend. It must have taken courage to leave while they were in the middle of nowhere, staying at a fishing village six hours drive from the nearest town. But the ex girlfriend had taken her cycle at dawn and rode off, with a promise from a local who said he would pick her up in his van a few hours down the road. That had taken the kind of spine that Leila was not sure she had.

So she called her mother. Leila did not cry, only asked her normal questions, feeling as though her own voice now sounded strange, as though it was coming from deep inside a well. Her mother did not notice, only pattered on until she had reached the end of the thread of conversation, hanging up the phone because she was going to eat dinner now. Leila had prepared no dinner, so she went to bed without any.

For a few months she stretched herself thinner and thinner over the weeks, eating less, needing little, barely skimming the surface of life. Everything was a chore, the days blurring together. If she tried to remember what she had done yesterday, the day before, a week ago, it made her head ache. She spent entire weekends under the duvet, too tired to do anything. On Monday mornings she rose again, showered, dressed, marched off smartly to work.

Finally one cold and early spring afternoon her mood took a dip into a subterranean land, deeper even than the bottomless depths of the ocean, a place where no living thing wanted to go. To be down there was a kind of death itself. She found she didn’t want to go back up anymore and this filled her with a new, fresh resolve. Strength returned to her useless limbs. One day in the middle of her month-long planning period, her fiance (ex-fiance, she reminded herself) rang and asked if she would meet him. Leila was fearful, but said yes. They met at a small coffee shop near his office, where they sat on torn sofas with their coffee cups resting on overturned crates.

“You’ve lost weight,” he said, concerned.

“Have I?” she said. “I hadn’t noticed. I’ve been doing yoga.”

He rubbed his chin. “That’s good. Staying busy?”

“Oh yes,” Leila said. She smiled.

“Look, I know this is weird, and I know I said I didn’t want to see you again, but I needed to see someone in this city who might understand.” He swallowed, hard. She saw his adam’s apple, the hollow in his throat where she might have put her face before. It was odd to look at now, both familiar and also totally alien to her.

“Ammi’s not well. She’s having heart trouble. She may have to have a bypass. The doctors…they said she’s already had a heart attack.”

Leila felt funny. She watched his lips, the shapes it made around his words. At one time the very sight of those lips would have filled her with desire. Now they were just another body part.

“I’m sorry,” she said dully. In that same dull way, she noticed that he was crying.

“Leila,” he was saying to her now. “Please will you come and sit next to me.”

So she did, and he slipped his arm around her waist and she put her head on his shoulder in an embrace so old she felt she was touching her own self. She heard the steady dhun dhun of her still-beating heart. He moved his fingers in the spaces between hers, a nervous habit of his. They sat like this until the coffee grew cold, until the cafe began to empty. Still they sat, and no one, not even the baristas who now began to place the stools on the tables so they could sweep and mop, asked them to move.

Noon

At noon ate first solid food in two days. Slept. Woke to moonlight streaming through window blinds I’d been too tired to close. Walked to closet to get dressed. Found her last dress crumpled on the floor of closet. Froze. Finally moved. Picked it up. Should’ve thrown it out. But didn’t. Sat with dress in my clenched fist. Fought urge to sniff it. Took pain pills again at 8 AM. Went out for breakfast. Saw pretty waitress. Felt my guts wrenching. Hated the waitress, her smile, her happiness. Hated her. Could have murdered her there and then. Sipped black coffee. Felt the feeling returning to my arms and legs. Ate sausage. Never eat sausage. Don’t like sausage. But ate sausage.

Went home. Felt good. Thought of hitting the gym, but ended up hitting mirror instead. Fucked up my knuckles real good. Tore them up. Panicked. Found towel. Wrapped it around my hand. Applied pressure. Lifted the towel gently. Saw blood. Felt ill. Poured cologne over hand. Considered going to hospital. Considered cleaning up glass. Didn’t. Just sat. Chewed two more pain pills up. Sat until shadows grew longer on the floors. Swore I’d sit until she came back.

Writing

I haven’t written anything original in months. Even now, starting this, my mind only comes up with empty expressions, tired old sentences that feel like they have very little to do with my idea of myself as a writer. Lately, I have been thinking, I’m not a writer, because I don’t write, and maybe there is nothing wrong with that. It’s easier to tell myself that writing is not for me than it is to sit down and actually write something.

Before, when I used to enjoy spending time by myself, scenes and sentences used to come to me, I didn’t have to chase after them. All the empty time I had, walking, eating, going to class, lying in my bedroom, was filled with a rich inner world. I never felt like I was alone. Time passed like a filament of silk through the eye of a needle, slowly, and then all at once.

The last year of my life has been about a creative deadening. I hadn’t even noticed it until just this month, how my mind struggles with any kind of empty time. If I can’t sleep at night my hand itches for my phone, where I can listen to the empty clanging of others, all sorts of information pouring in, without much of my own input. I used to pride myself on not watching television until I realised that even though I don’t have a TV subscription, I am plugged in to images and voices that create background noise and don’t leave any space for thought.

Today I read an old story I had started in 2015. Back then that story felt like the center of my world, it kept me afloat at a time that felt uncertain and dangerous. For two months I wrote every day, no matter how tired I was, I wrote, even if it was to deliriously scribble a paragraph in bed just before falling into a dreamless sleep. But somewhere along the way that story became boring and directionless. Now when I read it, I see it was always directionless. It was always too confined, too much of my own self-conscious attempt at writing about Pakistan. It was always too much of myself, without enough of the fun of fiction in it, of inventions of new worlds and people. When I was younger I used to write to escape into fiction. Now fiction does not come because the world of adulthood is far more difficult to escape. It holds me here with half a dozen worries, so the work of imagining becomes ten times harder. And as of now, I’m not really fighting back.