In late November, I flew to Stockholm for a weekend to attend a literary event. My friend H, who had known me for ten years, was the organiser. H had convinced himself, after a long phone call in September, that I was suffering from postnatal depression. You need to take some time off from the baby, he had said. How about coming here in a couple of months’ time and joining a panel to discuss women writers in diaspora? It’ll cheer you up.
The event took place the day after my arrival in an old bookstore in Södermalm. I sat beside a spiral staircase and chatted with my co-panellists for about an hour. There were roughly twenty people in the audience, mostly senior citizens, all thoughtfully dressed, observing our conversation in a calm and benevolent manner.
Among them was a pale young man sitting in the back row, who smiled at me whenever I looked in his direction. After the event had finished, as I was gathering my coat and scarf, he approached me and wondered if he could ask a question.
Certainly, I said. Under his eyes were the worst dark circles I’d ever seen.
What is your favourite Chinese word?
His question was not at all what I had expected. It depends on the context, I said, and saw from the corner of my eye that H was miming drinking from a glass.
My favourite word is lanshan, he said.
I immediately recognised which word it was. You don’t mean blue mountains, do you? I said.
After a brief delay, the stranger laughed. No, I don’t.
It’s a very beautiful word, lanshan, I said. Oblique and melancholic.
He looked satisfied.
I saw H was tapping his watch at me before tilting another imaginary drink into his mouth. I really need to go now, I said.
Wait a second. The young man took out a pen from his satchel bag, gripped my wrist and scribbled on the back of my hand.
I hope to see you again. He gave me back my hand and left.
Later, in a local pub, I ordered a double whisky and showed H what the young man had written. That weird guy didn’t give me his number but left his name, I said, as if this will help me see him again.
Delar, H said, reading from my hand. It’s not a name, just a word. It means pieces: like fragments.
The five of us sat around a long table, an unusual distance between each other, and sipped our respective drinks. Anna, one of my co-panellists, was narrating her typical day. H conversed with Jacob – a novelist and his friend – about their trip to Israel next spring. The other panellist Olivia, who also happened to be H’s girlfriend, sat in silence, slowly rotating her martini glass. As the pale liquid undulated, the olive swirled inside.
You must go to the library, Anna said. It’s the most extraordinary place in Stockholm, in my opinion.
I nodded, trying to ignore the pain thrusting across my left breast.
I often tell my readers, Anna said, I am Swedish in the sense that the city library is my birthplace in this country. It was in the library I learnt the language and later where I wrote my first novel.
The book was a huge success. H swivelled around in his chair to comment. It was shortlisted for the August Prize. Then he returned to his conversation with Jacob.
I’m very lucky, Anna said. Although I will never be able to write Swedish as finely as some of the great writers here, and occasionally some newspaper will refer to me as an Armenian writer. But I’m truly grateful.
I smiled at Anna and quickly touched the top of my left breast. The damp patch was expanding. Sorry, I need to go to the bathroom, I said, standing and picking up my tote bag.
Oh good, you brought your pump today, H said. Olivia had to send her back early last night, he announced to the table in general, so she didn’t end up flooding Madeleine’s poetry salon.
Nobody told me that Madeleine’s still running her little parties, Jacob said. How is she?
I retreated to the bathroom and shut the door. It was cramped, all the walls painted red. Sitting on the toilet, I realised that if I pressed my hands against the walls and feet on the door, I could easily elevate myself from the seat. Instead, I assembled the pump and latched the flange onto my breast. In the low and soothing electric beats, I thought of a perpetual motion machine and then imagined a post-apocalyptic world where the earth was struck by countless asteroids, and all the creatures were annihilated, all the lands scorched. The last human alive was a woman, who woke up in a deserted cottage without any sustenance at her disposal. Fortunately, this woman was still in her postnatal period. So, she found a jar, and began to hand-express from her engorged breasts. And just like Kevin Costner drinking his filtered urine in Waterworld, this woman pulled through with her rich-with-protein-enzyme-and-antibody breast milk.
I returned to the table and people had swapped seats. Olivia and Anna were sitting next to each other, whispering. Come sit with Jacob, H said, waving at me. You must talk to Jacob now that you are in Stockholm.
As I slid down onto the designated chair, H stood up to get another round. I tossed my bag on the floor and asked Jacob how he had found the evening so far.
Jacob smiled, his moustache impeccably trimmed. Is it correct that you were expressing your milk in the bathroom?
You’d hope so, I said. Otherwise I must have been critically constipated
I want to ask you a question if you don’t mind.
Certainly, I said. H beamed at me from beside the bar and gave me a thumbs up.
I’m curious to know what you did with your milk there, Jacob said. Did you dump it, or, did you drink it?
I had informed H and Olivia, when I had arrived at the airport, that I was going to drink carelessly for the next two days.
Bless you. H spread his arms wide and squeezed me, which had really hurt my breasts.
Actually, just one day. I need twenty-four hours to detox before I go back to feed the baby.
So how is the baby? Olivia asked. She looked fresh, as if having just stepped out of a shower, her straight black hair glowing.
I had not met Olivia before but had read a great deal about her. Her name is Olivia Tanaka. She’s doing a PhD in comparative literature. She speaks four languages, writes fiction in Swedish, poetry in Japanese and owns the most exquisite pair of tits. It would have been a crime not to sleep with such a woman when the opportunity had presented itself. The email had arrived a couple of days before the baby had been born.
H had been writing me these emails for about eight years, in which he would delineate every woman he’d encountered and then fostered a dalliance with. These emails were meant as preparation for his novel, a book he was planning to write when he turned fifty, about a man who corresponded with an elderly female friend, reminiscing about all the romances he’d had in his youth. I had noted that I was not much older than him. He had responded that it was just fiction.
In the taxi to Madeleine’s poetry salon, Olivia and I sat in the back seats. She asked me what kind of fiction I wrote.
Mainly about small towns in China, I said. The unspeakable natures of their residents. Gossiping, bickering, pilfering and fornication. Basically, a bunch of faithless people indulging in petty crimes.
Olivia thought for a few seconds. Petty crimes, she repeated. Would you see the lack of faith in China as a regrettable consequence of the Cultural Revolution?
H was texting intensely in the passenger seat. Outside the window, the rain drizzled, the city soaked in darkness.
I tend not to politicise my writing, I said.
Olivia raised her eyebrows slightly. All writing is political, she said. To narrate is to make choices, to cut out the insubstantial and to inaugurate order. Essentially, those who are written onto the page and therefore dominate the narrative hold the power. Wouldn’t you agree?
Hey! H turned back from the front. Do you fancy meeting someone while you’re here?
I stared at him.
I have a friend who’s an illustrious novelist, H said. I was telling him about your event tomorrow and he said he’d come over. Jacob. Jacob is nice, isn’t he?
Olivia chuckled, as if hearing a joke. Yes, Jacob’s terrific.
Madeleine’s apartment was palatial, filled with guests in monochrome clothing. Two blond waiters cruised from room to room, carrying trays of drinks. H had been caught in a conversation as soon as we entered the sitting room. Olivia and I stood in front of a wooden mask and drank our gin and tonic. The mask was erected on a plinth and bore no distinctive gender or racial traits. It seemed expensive.
How do you feel about H’s proposal? Une aventure?
Olivia asked, studying the mask.
I could sense a hard lump distending insidiously in my left breast and regretted leaving the pump at the hotel.
I suppose he was not entirely presumptuous, by trying to set me up with someone who’s not my husband, I said. The other day I was pushing the baby in the park at about 7 a.m. He wouldn’t stop crying so I had to take him out of the house even though it was freezing. I saw a piece of rusted bolt by the road, abandoned in the grass. Then I was seized, just in that moment, by this savage craving to get laid.
Olivia looked at me. Wow, she said.
A young woman in a slick bob approached us, holding a notepad and a pen. Hello, ladies, I hope you’re enjoying the evening, she said.
Thank you, I said. Can I get a sandwich, please? The woman seemed baffled.
I think Cara’s here to ask us what we’re going to read, Olivia said. Hi, Cara, how’s it going?
What? I said.
I’m well, thank you. What poems would you like to read later? The young woman gripped the pen, its nib suspended precariously above the pad.
Shall we read together? Olivia said, saving me from the predicament. How about . . . Maybe we could read an Audre Lorde, ‘Who Said It Was Simple’.
Excellent choice. Cara nodded and wrote on the pad.
And any preference for the background music?
Jacob laughed so hard he began to cough. He asked me what music we ended up picking.
I can’t tell you. It’s just embarrassing, I said.
We walked to my hotel, the searing wind blowing in my face. Jacob had suggested a taxi but I had said, Well, if it’s only ten minutes away.
Now time was being slackened by the frosty air. We passed a brightly lit subway entrance and strolled along the wide, foreboding street. On both sides, the concrete buildings stood in the wind, like petrified giants.
So, you’re going to Israel?
I am, Jacob said. My second time already. Then I’ll be in Buenos Aires in May for a three-week residency. Early June, going from there to Bogotá for a literary festival and then to New York City to visit a few friends. August in Budapest and Warsaw.
I’m in a phased exile, said Jacob. I’m not particularly liked here, just in case you hadn’t noticed. The liberal minds of the literary circle aren’t open to having a conservative man among them. It’s pure ostracism. Anyway, what can an old bachelor do besides drift from one hotel to another? Fine lines, like thistledown, emerged around his eyes when he smiled.
At least sometimes they put you up in good hotels.
That’s true, Jacob agreed. Earlier this year, when I went to Macau, I was installed in the most extravagant hotel and taken to Michelin star restaurants. They even gave me free tokens for the casino.
I was there too, I said, checking his profile and his long black coat. Two years ago. Do you know Susie Tse?
Of course I know Susie. She is the sweetest. Jacob gently placed his hand on my shoulder, guiding me to make a turn.
We walked along a small road lined with tall and bare-branched trees, exchanging fond memories of our mutual friend. We realised we’d both been at a festival in Sydney but three years apart. Klara, who had taken care of me in Budapest in 2016, was inviting Jacob to go this year. And in 2015, we were both in Frankfurt. A few times Jacob repeated: What a small world.
He then asked me why I had lived such a life, to be a writer for foreigners instead of for my own countrymen and now dwelling in England. Are you also in some kind of exile? What problems did you have in your country? Did you write censored books? Were you persecuted by your government?
I laughed. Not everything is political. I had some personal issues and made certain choices.
Nothing is personal after modernity. Jacob held my shoulder again. We’re all fractions lost in the public machine.
I checked my phone. The hotel was two minutes’ walk away from the blue dot that was my projected being. It was nearly midnight. Well, in thirty minutes, I need to pump my milk. Is that personal or public?
Jacob smiled innocuously. The travail of women, he said. But there’s lots of hardship in being a man too.
The novelist sighed, halting. For instance, our doomed compulsion to penetrate.
I had not slept since arriving in Stockholm, while the city itself never seemed to be fully awake. The sky would remain hazy for a few brief hours before returning to darkness, in which our exhausted bodies would be hidden, without leaving a trace. Fortunately, since childbirth, I had been used to long, insomniac nights.
After closing the door and kicking off my shoes, I stood alone in my immaculate hotel room, strangely free of the infant’s crying, and a formidable fear crushed me like the arrival of a god. Immediately, I regretted my decision not to invite Jacob in and checked my phone for messages.
H had emailed, notifying me about an interview I would be doing tomorrow. He admitted that it was rather a last-minute request. But he thought I could use some company at lunch since he wouldn’t be available until 3 p.m. – at which point, he and Olivia would meet me in the hotel lobby and accompany me to the airport. He also congratulated me on the success of the event. It was an absolute delight, he wrote, to see three beautiful and talented women participating in an inspiring and scintillating conversation.
It was hard for me to read H’s comment without hearing a note of sarcasm. I could not recall what I had muttered during the event. I had read the opening paragraph of an old story of mine while engaging my core to prevent myself from falling off the murderous stool. I’d also watched my fellow panellists talking, mainly Olivia, since she and I were sitting in symmetrical positions while Anna was two steps back in the middle. Olivia had been wearing bright scarlet lipstick, the contour of her lips beguiling and sensuous as she spoke.
I took care of my breasts, showered and walked downstairs to the guest lounge to make myself a double espresso. The lounge was empty, saturated with a sharp smell of bleach. I sat down on a sofa with my coffee and texted my husband.
In spite of the late hour, he called me back right away. He said he had just given the baby a bottle and rocked him back to sleep and he was now wide awake.
Me too, I said. I haven’t slept since I got here.
You’ll be home tomorrow. Then you can rest, he said.
I laughed. How’s the baby?
He’s good. He only woke up twice last night.
I miss him so much, I said. And I miss you.
We miss you too, he said. How did the event go?
Disastrously. I totally bombed, exhibiting no intelligence whatsoever. I have truly lost it, you know, the ability to write or to even perform like a writer. I’m simply disgusting. All I think about is feeding cues, clogged ducts, latch, nappies, pee, poop, solid poop, loose poop, and more poop.
It’ll get better, my husband said.
You don’t know that. I bottoms-upped my coffee. I do, he insisted.
There is a curious phenomenon that the more ignorant a man is, the more confident he feels, Olivia commented after the male poet finally finished his lengthy lecture on poetry and the screen reading era during which Olivia and I each downed two gin and tonics.
Doesn’t it also apply to women, I said. After all, ignorance is an indiscriminate human condition.
You’re right. But women are rarely confident, don’t you think? We are more critical of ourselves because we’re taught to be considerate of others.
I hailed the waiter who was passing by and asked for two more drinks. I need to sit down, I said.
Madeleine’s sitting room was fully occupied. H and a few other guests had formed a tight circle, blocking the doorway to the balcony. Olivia and I went to the dining room, settled in the upholstered leather chairs and sipped our third or fourth G&T. I told her I would rather not gaze through the lens of gender but see the world as an autonomous individual. Imagine that this cocktail is my fiction, and I, as the writer, am just the thing that contains it. I tapped my glass. All I hope to be is transparent and clean so that the liquid inside will not be obscured or contaminated. In this way, it can be delivered to its drinker as originally devised by its maker. I lifted and finished my gin and tonic.
Olivia winced. I hope you’re not talking about God.
Ah no, I said. Remember I’m Chinese hence an atheist. But I do believe, in order to write, one needs to be humble and even fearful of a certain higher power.
I agree with you, Olivia said, on the idea of higher power. The branches shatter before they bear. We are all deeply manipulated, in each culture, language and society. The more marginalised we are from the centre, the less we are allowed to talk, write and think as ourselves. Even you would like to consider yourself an unbiased individual but you are perpetually negotiating with the coercions of collective identities. You’re always seen, by others and by yourself, as a woman, a foreigner, an outsider, therefore the subordinate, the inferior and the inauthentic . . . She stopped, frowning, and pointed at my chest. What’s going on with your top?
I had completely forgotten about my breasts and now they had erupted. The milk had soaked through my bra and was permeating my blouse with vigorous force. Oh shit, I said, grabbing a napkin from the table.
Olivia laughed and swiftly downed her drink. Let’s get you back to the hotel.
She held my arm and ushered me to the hallway. From the sitting room, the chorus of chattering and debating resounded. We dug out our coats from myriad carcasses of outer garments.
Shall we tell your boyfriend we’re going? I asked.
What for? she said. We’re all autonomous individuals.
H walked into the lobby in a black parka jacket. He glanced around before meeting my eyes. His face, despite being veiled by a thin smog of fatigue, was irrefutably handsome. He smiled at me, walked over and sat down in the armchair opposite the coffee table.
How was the interview? he said.
I didn’t need to ask him to know that Olivia was not coming.
I ended up receiving a tour, I said.
H examined me. You look somewhat different.
I’m just wiped out, I said. Having talked about myself at length.
H disagreed. He said as far as he was concerned, I always seemed enchantingly inexhaustible, more of a river rather than a pond. After all, he had recognised, since the first time we had met, that I was one of those lucky writers who would be reinvigorated by speaking in front of an audience. He asked if he could be candid with me. After receiving my consent, he disclosed that for a long time, he had considered me as someone who was better at performing being a writer than actually writing.
He paused, replying to a message on his phone, and continued to say that I had inspired him so much, in the early days of our friendship, with both my public talks and our private exchanges on literature and writing. He then admitted that he had gone through a lot of trouble to order one of my books online, hoping to gain a deeper insight into the world of literature. However, he had been disappointed.
I was profoundly traumatised, H said. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t like your book because, honestly, at that point, I thought I had fallen in love with you. He stopped, clasping his hands, and looked at me like a petitioner in a courtroom, waiting for a verdict.
I considered his words. Then the receptionist called to me from the desk. Ms Zhou, your taxi to the airport is here.
I stood up and thanked them. H took my suitcase and walked out with me. To get to the street, we needed to cross a cobblestone courtyard in which an old laurel tree stood. Its branches spread exuberantly against the taupe walls of the hotel and the flake-white sky. How does it feel to be an evergreen tree in the deep winter? I said, watching my exhalations condensing into murky clouds.
What a blessing to be impervious, said H.
I’m drowning, with the amount of coffee I’ve taken, I told him. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
He took one and gave it an affirming squeeze. You’ll survive, he said.
Later, sitting in the back seat of the taxi beside H, who was immersed in his phone, I was reminded, by our brief bodily contact, of a perfunctory kiss between us in the summer of 2008 and, while my nose had been pressed tightly against his face, a tenuous yet distinct scent that emanated from him. The smell was neither pleasant nor repellent, and I had never detected it since.
It was completely dark outside. The taxi shot along the gloomy highway, lit up occasionally by the oncoming vehicles returning to the city. In the sky above us, small red lights glinted as planes passed like albatrosses. I asked H if he planned to send me more emails.
He looked up from his phone. I don’t know, he said. Things are going well between me and Olivia. But to say I’ll never love another woman or that she’ll never love another man seems obtuse, even hubristic. Who am I to assert, at this point, that our sexuality should be fully taken custody of by a contract of confinement and potentially to be absorbed in the solemn function of reproduction? He glanced at me the way a professor might take notice of his pupil during a lecture and, as if just remembering him, he said: Oh, speaking of which, how’s Liam?
Without waiting for my response, H carried on expressing, enthusiastically, his admiration for my husband’s work. He said the first time he had truly enjoyed my novel was when reading my husband’s translation of it. Although he was not certain whether it was because Liam had triumphed in domesticating my impetuous style, or because, in English – his adopted language – his own perception had become untrustworthy. Nonetheless, H said, I often regard your relationship with Liam as a model one, a perfect union that will extend both your genes and fame.
I folded my hands together to stop them from shivering and thought of my husband and the baby. I thought I’d better pump my breasts before boarding the aeroplane. I thought I’d better find a clean and quiet bathroom cubicle and extract my milk with the machine. Then I would pour it down the toilet and flush it away. Yet, by the time I reached Heathrow, my once-emptied breasts would be replenished with milk, like a forever-flowing river.
When the interview had finished, the young man from the website had asked me if I wanted to go see the lake. He brought it up rather casually, while turning off the recording device and putting his notebook and pen back into his satchel, but the question felt momentous.
I knocked back my second coffee before asking him whether the lake was another inexplicable signifier, like the Swedish word he had left on the back of my hand.
He looked up from his bag. No. He smiled. I meant literally hu, as in we are on an island and surrounded by lakes.
I didn’t know this.
You have to see it to believe it, the young man said, standing up from the sofa. His face was gaunt and pale, no different from when I last saw him at the bookstore, except the dark circles under his eyes had grown even more dire.
We walked out of the café together and descended the sloping, narrow street. The buildings on both sides were tall, creating a sense of oppression. It was midday and there were a number of pedestrians on the street. When I looked at them looking at us, I wondered what speculations they were making about the relationship between me and my companion. The young man had been quiet for a while. In fact, everybody passed by in incredible silence. A man carried groceries, a woman held her phone against her ear and a young couple pushed a black buggy. There was no sound of chatting or whispering nor the slightest shuffling of soles, as if we were all actors in a mime show. I could not be certain if there was an infant in the pushchair.
The young man gestured to turn into a small alleyway between two large buildings and we walked on in single file until the edifices vanished. I stood facing an opening of wild land. Tall, shrivelled grass swarmed up around us, and a muddy path wound towards the rugged rising mound in the distance.
Is this the right way to go? I asked, breaking the long-sustained silence, my lips stinging in the cold air.
It’s a shortcut, he said.
I glanced at my interviewer who was much taller than me. His jawline was sharp and bony, reminding me of a crowbar. I thought of my husband, holding and cooing the baby, as he read online the news that a Chinese woman writer had been murdered in Stockholm, her body bagged and buried in the weeds.
We carried on walking along the path. The clouds thickened. The sun dimmed to a smudged circle. Do you miss speaking Mandarin? he asked me.
I try not to, I said.
I have to admit I was a little bit disappointed at the event, he said, smiling apologetically. You didn’t talk in Chinese. And you only read the English translation of your story.
My chest was swelling up again hopelessly. I did speak Chinese at the event, I told him. Thanks to you I said lanshan.
He chuckled. Right, the blue mountains.
We began to walk up the hill along the stone steps. Grey-lilac flowers pushed their way through the cracks in the stones. Blotches of dry dwarf shrubs were scattered across the mound. A few seagulls hovered above us, drawing invisible lines in the sky. When we finally reached the top, a massive body of water filled the panorama before us, like a cosmos of blue ashes.
On the other side of the water floated a string of elongated islands, on which varicoloured buildings stood next to one another. Rising above them were the copper domes of cathedrals, their bright patinas gleaming through the mist.
We stood watching a white ferry move slowly across the lake. Beneath the overcast sky, the whiteness of the ferry seemed otherworldly, making me think of Charon. In Chinese mythology, the one who would help the deceased cross the river to the afterlife was a woman. She would take you to a raised terrace from which you could look back to the world of the living one last time, before you drained the soup of forgetting and travelled to the underworld.
Can I tell you something?
The abrupt utterance startled me. Of course, I said.
He told me that during his last year in China as an exchange student, he had lived in my home city, C_. Through an online forum popular among the homosexual community, he had met a local man who was about ten years older than him. Soon, he began to see this man regularly. They would meet in a pub, have a few drinks, go to a cheap hotel and have sex. One night, in the middle of intercourse, the man, who’d had too much drink, started to shudder. Realising his lover might be having a seizure, the young man tried to call an ambulance, but the older man gripped the phone and assured him he would be better soon. However, it didn’t happen like that. Shortly afterwards, the Chinese man died in the hotel room while my interviewer fled, leaving the country on a red-eye flight.
After returning to Stockholm, the young man told me, he had searched on the internet and read in the C_ City Evening News that his lover’s body was found in the hotel room the next day and sent to the hospital. His pregnant wife had come to identify the corpse and had wailed in devastation until she passed out.
In the taxi back to the hotel, Olivia and I had laughed so irrepressibly the driver checked on us in the rear-view mirror. Oh my god. She wheezed, her body shaking like an aeroplane about to crash. This is the funniest story I’ve ever heard.
I know, I cackled, pressing the milk-soaked napkin on my chest as if I’d been shot.
The taxi arrived. Olivia tapped her card and climbed out of the sedan with me. The world swirled as I stood up straight while Olivia clutched onto my arm to steady herself. I think I’m getting sick, she said. Urgh, too much fun and alcohol.
Do you want to come in and use my bathroom? I asked her.
Is it okay? If you don’t mind. She crunched her face. Her black hair was mussed and stuck to her cheek.
We stumbled across the courtyard, passing the laurel tree and down the corridor into my room. Olivia went straight to the bathroom and shut the door while I unhooked my bra and dug out the breast pump from my suitcase.
Shortly after I had switched to my left breast, Olivia re-emerged from the bathroom. She looked renewed, her face luminous, her long, slick hair draping down her shoulders.
Did you just vomit in there, or were you taking a beauty nap? I said, sitting in the armchair and holding the flange in one hand and the motor in the other like a woman warrior with her sword and shield.
Olivia ignored my joke. Instead, she stared at my breast, which was being repeatedly tugged into the plastic tunnel of the flange, the motor beating. A stream of pale liquid plunged into the half-full bottle, spattering before more ensued.
Holy shit, Olivia said, walking to the armchair and sitting down cross-legged right in front of me. She held her chin with both hands and looked up at me like a child. This is amazing, she said. So powerful and poetic.
It’s more like clogged ducts and mastitis, I said.
She didn’t respond, but watched my milk amassing in the cylindrical container. I don’t think I’ll ever have a child, she said. But this is something else. You should write about it.
What? I said. No. How can I write about this?
Olivia frowned. Of course you can, she said. In fact, you must. You must write about this – she raised her hands towards my chest – the only reason you feel you can’t write about it is because you don’t think it’s worth being written about. And the only reason you think lactation is not literature is because it has been cut out, for centuries, from the literary narrative. And who has ordained for us, the distinctions between the canon and the censored, the classic and the vulgar, the speech and the noise? – she let out a burp – So I say now. You must write your boobs into literature. Make them heard. The need to redistribute the perceptible is pressing and we must take action now.
God, you’re wasted, I said, shaking my head.
She laughed. We giggled intermittently until my milk filled the bottle and I turned off the motor. Gazing at the light-white liquid, Olivia sprang up, fetched a pair of glasses and divided the milk into two portions which we each drained in one long haul.
Afterwards, we sat on the floor, leaning against each other and began to talk. She told me about her childhood in Nagasaki, her short-lived career as a Japanese teen model in Sweden and the time when she was an undergraduate in the States, a professor asked her to touch his penis. I told her that, speaking of penises, I remembered when I had been about five years old and was taking a nap with my grandfather one day, he had drawn my hand onto his erection. Although I could not be one hundred per cent sure if it had actually happened. Nonetheless, my counsellor had concluded that this incident was the root of my low self-esteem, which had then deteriorated into body dysmorphia after the birth of my child. I was disgusted by the smell of my armpits, the fat on my abdomen, my cracked and blistered nipples and most sickeningly of all my cut-and-sewn-back vagina.
When I had confessed this to the counsellor, I said to Olivia, she asked me to take a look at my vagina when I got home. She said I needed to embrace the changes in my body as the first step towards healing. Then I told her these days I only had time to embrace the baby.
So, did you look at it?
Of course not, I said. Why would I do that?
After pausing for a few seconds, Olivia asked me if she could check it for me. It might help, she said, if I received, instead of the visual image in the mirror, a description in words. After all, I had been intimate with words for years.
I thought about her proposal. It does make sense, I replied.
Then I pulled myself up from the floor, climbed onto the bed, removed my pants and parted my legs before Olivia. She smiled at me, craned her head, and, after a long and careful gaze, kissed my labia.
Image © Romana Klee