You can hardly see me. I blend quite easily with the crowd. At least we’d like to believe we blend well but most of the time we stick out like sore thumbs. But suffice it to say that through years of learning to stay in the background, disguised like a chameleon so as not to be noticed, I now move among you easily. I’m an illusionist. The Great Svengali. Now you see me, now you don’t. Puff! I am one with the landscape. Subterfuge and disguise, the crowning achievements of my folks. Hard-earned achievements, mind you, through years of playing hide and seek and staying out of trouble. Stay out of trouble, you hear, Ah Fung! Pa used to yell at us boys who tried to attract attention by making noise on the pavement outside Pa’s Chinese apothecary. Go back to your books, boys. Learn them books. Be somebody one day. Stay out of trouble, you hear. If we were good boys that day, he would give us a slice of guava that had been treated with Chinese herbs and our piss. Eat, eat, Pa would insist. Good for your blood circulation. It smelled of stinky mercury but tasted not bad at all. A bit like dried juhi, dried squid, only juicier.
But you see, we were not so easily tempted by Pa’s offer. Instead of learning Chinese onomatopoeia—Ma Mah Maah Maaaa—we preferred to roam out of the study room upstairs and skip up the rusty cast-iron ladder to the flat rooftop where the whole neighborhood’s underwear was on parade. Next door, Uncle Chien’s wife loved to wear lingerie. See-through lacy stuff we used to “borrow” and put them on for size. Mantau, that’s my younger brother. We call him that on account of his head looking like a mantau, the plump and doughy oval bread. Now to be honest, he was the more churlish of us two. He would play with the bras, now putting them on his chest and sashaying like Mrs Chien, mimicking her adeptly. “Lau Lu,” that’s her husband’s nickname, “come and give mama a little pet kiss. Oh, kom. Kom.” Then Mantau whirled around and moments later whirled back round to reveal himself a fighter pilot, the bras pushed up his forehead to look like a fighter pilot’s goggles.
We loved playing in the rooftop, because here we could be whoever we wanted to be without having to be cautious or afraid to attract too much attention. We ruled the rooftop like a couple of despots reigning over a kingdom with the flapping undies and dusters bearing our insignias. Long live the kings! We heralded our supreme domination of the world from the vantage height on the low cinderblock barrier, with the neighbors’ smocks and blouses tied round our necks as capes. Vanquish the enemies. Charge!
Those were the carefree days when our world knew no boundaries and freedom was a word synonymous with breathing. Then that afternoon we chanced upon something that completely changed our world.
Mantau was hurdling through the barriers like cowboys in western flicks jumping over horses. He hurdled over the farthest barrier and did not surface. Oiy! I called out. No response. Mantau! I became seriously concerned after a while and started to scale over the barriers.
I reached the barrier where he had last hurdled over and found the son of a bitch squatting by the rafters, peering intently into a maid’s bathroom. When he saw me jump down from the barrier, he made a signal for me to keep quiet. I crept near him and peered down the direction of his gaze.
That was our first glimpse of a female body. I must tell you it was the most extraordinary sight. Like a bolt of lightning, a catharsis that germinated life, we both came alive. Our pricks, that is. They became ramrod hard. Our bodies burnt like we had been thrown into a cauldron of fire. We knew we would burn in hell, but heck we loved every moment of it.
It was Sansan’s maid. We found out later she had just come from a village in Solo. She was the most beautiful woman we had ever seen in our well-ordered miserable lives. She had a smooth chestnut skin. Her eyes were like the crown jewels we read about in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Her eyes. Oh, how they sparkled so brightly! Her long jet-black hair flowed down her shapely figure like the softest angora fur that made your hand itchy because you wanted to touch it so badly. Every time she turned–her body glowing moistly in the afternoon light–our hearts beat like drums in a marching band.
I couldn’t recollect who started it first. Mantau wouldn’t admit he was the one who started it but what happened was we both started to stroke our little peckers. Now let’s pause here for a second. We were a couple of well-behaving kids, raised in a family with strict codes of conduct. This sort of behavior, should we have been caught red-handed by Ma, would have caused us to be sent to a temple to be reeducated by a monk for a whole month, counting beads, eating plenty of legumes and practicing to utter OOOM a million times. But the movement came so naturally. In fact it was so natural it scared us how pleasurable it was. We stroked to the rhythm of her movement. Each time we saw the suds sluicing from her hair down the gullet between her breasts, we caught our breaths. Our hands became heated and we stroked and stroked in spite of ourselves, as if only by continuously stroking we would at last free ourselves from the accursed desire, liberating us from the bruises and rough edges of daily existence to enjoin with the ultimate good of the universe.
Something in us stirred, prodding and agitating. We became restless. Mantau coped with this change by adopting a devil-may-care attitude. Whenever Pa hollered for us to come down and help him move some boxes or store away the herbs, Mantau would pretend not to hear. He snuggled in his blanket, his body turned toward the wall, stroking away.
As for me I started to wander off from our neighborhood. I started to visit the waroeng on the street corners, where I knew the maids visited in their spare time. I loitered there for hours, pretending not to see Ma when she came out to look for me. My hope was Sansan’s maid would show up one day. Maybe I would ask her name or if I were lucky enough she would maybe go see a movie with me.
That year marked our fall from grace. From better than average students we became a disgrace. Our parents had high expectations from us. They had never anticipated something like this would happen to their children. Throughout the eight years we had been at school, we had always been the paragon students pointed out by other parents for their children to emulate.
Going to school became a drag. We got easily distracted. Concentration was hell. We soon fell in with the worst pack at school, cutting classes and going to the bus terminal to play dice. It was around that time that Pa became suspicious because the tiller was always empty. When we were loaded with a rare win from one of these gambling bouts, we would all go to a whorehouse on the outskirt of the city. Mantau and I were usually the nervous wrecks. We chipped in for the other boys to do it. We squatted outside the tent, peeking inside at what they were doing.
The boys took turns charging into the stifling tent, in the middle of which lay a big woman with drooping breasts and folds of loose skin gathering on her shanks, legs turned wide open on a bed propped up by stacks of cardboards. While the boys unbuckled their belts and dove in, the whore was unbothered. She was completely absorbed in counting the banknotes in her hands. The boys flopped on top of her and slid off as swiftly as the fruit flies she flicked off her head.
It’s all been quite a while back now but I remember how repelled I was at the sight of these boys climbing over the grossly overweight whore. I noticed that none of them lasted more than five minutes. I knew because I kept the time. But each would saunter out of the tent, stretching their limbs and grabbing their nuts as if they had just conquered a lioness.
I couldn’t stand looking at the spectacle. I edged away from the tent and leaning on a lamppost I started to throw up. From where I was I saw Mantau still squatting outside the tent like a totem pole. I tried to get him to leave with me, but he wouldn’t budge. He said for me to go first. He would catch up with me later. I sat on a plastic chair at a roadside cigarette stand near the terminal, sucking chilled sarsaparilla with a straw. I waited for hours for Mantau to show up, but he never did. I waited a while longer and then started back home.
I’ve never returned to that place ever since. On that dusty afternoon, I left behind more than just a brother to the pack. I left a whole kingdom behind. I realized then without my brother the world was too wayward to be reigned over as a kingdom.
When trudging toward home, I passed by the waroeng. To my surprise I saw Sansan’s maid. She was clad in a floral calico dress, which flapped and swirled in the afternoon breeze. I could have sworn she turned and smiled at me! I straightened, pumped my chest and started to strut like a man. Just about this time, I think, I picked up my bag of tricks in blending with the rest of the world. Now I am moving among you. You see me sometimes, but then again you don’t. Judging from my performance so far, I think I’ve grown pretty good at doing this.
by Richard Oh (in China Moon Anthology 2003)