We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Photo: Gary Jones
Are you still interested in meeting? It’s just that I’m here, in Causeway Bay, at the café by the window with the cracked pane, like you said. I thought we were meeting at eleven, and it’s twenty past now. I find myself thinking of the caged macaws we came across that night in Coloane. Do you remember the rainbow birds behind that rusty wire? They were very still and we photographed them in the dark. It’s strange, I never think about animals. Anyway, I’m here. Where are you?
My mother said before I came to meet you that I shouldn’t. I told her I was going to see a friend in Tai Hang, but she knew that I was lying. She said, be careful, daughter. Our building, the tong lau where we’ve lived since I was young, will be demolished soon; the developers paid us today. They want to construct another high-rise in its place. It’s hard to think of where else we would live because this money won’t last long with all of father’s debts to pay. That drunken bastard is nowhere to be found! We tried to change our phone number, but there’s no point, the loan sharks always find us anyway. I suppose you never have to face such problems, do you? I wonder if you’re coming. Are you lost? I’ve had so much tea I will never sleep now. So I’ll stay until midnight. I think maybe you’ll come.
You said, in your letter, “I’m sorry we have to meet in such a situation,” meaning the back of a fourth-floor café with cracked windows. You said this can’t bode well. You sent the letter to my place of work. You said what you wouldn’t give to be back on the beach in Macau, with the black sand and the moonlight and the cold sea and laughing. . . . It really didn’t matter to me, you know. They’re stacking the chairs now, the lights have come on. I’m afraid I have to go. It’s after midnight. Why did you not come like you said?
• • •
I received a postcard from you today. It tells me you have gone to France for the summer. The front of the postcard is not a photograph, but an image of a painting. My friend, who is studying French at university against her parents’ wishes, said the painting is by Paul Cézanne. He was obsessed with a mountain named Sainte-Victoire, and painted it every day for many years. She says you are probably not in Paris, as I assumed, but in a place called Provence. I wonder what you’re doing there. You didn’t say. You have only written what time you woke up (7:50 a.m.) and that the light on the fields was beautiful.
I have tacked your postcard to the wall above my bed with a piece of lemon-flavored chewing gum. I have watched the road flash yellow through the trees, and the scraps of green floating up to the sky like flakes of burning paper, like the effigies of food we burn for hungry spirits here. I have imagined the lives in the valley there, your life, within the white walls of a house with large windows and a red triangular roof. There is this word, Sainte, as well. Saint Victory, Holy Victory.
On the evening we spent in Macau, you read me a line from a poem titled Unperfectable: “Yellow is the color of sunflowers, sunflowers equal summer and summer equals freedom from troubles.” Not for me. My father came home last night smelling bad and looking tired. His shirt was grimy and stuck to his skin.
A piece by Bach was playing on the stereo, in between scratches. I was conscious of it only then. A lifetime ago, my parents were devoted to the weekly free concerts that took place in public amphitheaters around the city. My mother and father had taken care, despite their modest upbringings, to educate themselves about Western classical music. They dressed up in their smartest clothes, and travelled almost any distance on the MTR to go. They had bought this CD once, after a performance that especially moved my mother: the Goldberg Variations.
Now my father stood swaying in the small living room, taking up too much space. He reminded me of the birds too, the way their color was dulled and wings covered in shit. Once they had been bright and free, but at some point, their luck had run out and life had trapped them. My mother was starting to tip her chin up and move her hands towards her hips, in defiance. I was mouthing “get out” over and over, hoping I could throw my voice and she would catch it and my father would finally leave for good. I love him, but I don’t want him here anymore.
You telephoned my place of work. I still can’t believe it was you. You pretended to be a customer. The connection crackled and spat like an egg frying. You said, Can you hear me now? Yes, I lied. I had caught every other word. I wanted to ask a hundred questions right away but you said, Shh. Don’t talk, just listen.
In France, it was the middle of the night.
You were leaving her in Provence. The reconciliation had proved too difficult. You had reached an agreement, she had offered to stay. You were driving to Nice to catch a plane to Paris, then another flight back to Hong Kong. You would be here in two days. I held my breath. You said, Are you interested in meeting?
At the gambling dens, the nasty ones deep underground in Yau Ma Tei, my father, soaked in cheap rice wine, bets on everything. Including the lives and deaths of other people. There have been three airplane crashes this month, with no survivors. The bookie is heartless. My father takes his chances on a fourth disaster, goes all in. The odds are so low that his winnings might save us. It would be an unholy victory.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.
Our well-being depends on a better understanding of how the logic of labor has twisted our relationship with pleasure.