I am standing on the beach. The sand under my feet feels like soot. An uncanny, organic look emerges from the bowing, rusting skeletons of the sea-view skyscrapers. He is gone, like his father, into the ominous, omnipotent water.
On this beach I caressed his body like caressing the midnight Mediterranean Sea, dark, smooth, lukewarm. We were like the only two people left on the patches of earth scattered in the vast water.
He was black British. His father was black, who died when he was two. His mother was white. I am a Singaporean, an ethnic Chinese who has never been to China.
We both loved literature. My favourite is the Japanese novel Snow Country. His favourite was “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. He thought it was a symbol of Africa, his “home”. In reality these places no longer exist, Britain, Japan, Singapore, most of China and Africa, rotting underwater, and the last snow fell on earth a century ago. But people still like to say they are from a certain country, just as they like to imagine snow.
Some rich people chose to live on former cruise ships. They hired what were called “nostalgia
entertainers” modelled on characters from films to ease their deep rooted instinct for life as it was. His father was a blues singer on such a ship, which is now a sea grave of all its passengers, whose bones have been picked clean and become the ivories tinkled by the currents. He didn’t remember his father. I estranged mine. I find it a liberation, but he liked the idea of having a father. He told me all his dreams about his father. In one dream his father was saved by a band of dolphins, riding on one of them and singing with them. In another his father metamorphosed into a black lighter, swimming by flapping the lid, like a scallop, or a Spanish dancer.
Our mornings often began like this: “I have a dream about my father again …” So many mornings, so many dreams, and most of them were not terribly interesting, so one morning I said to him, “I’m tired of your dream talks.”
“I’m tired of everything,” he said. “I want to go into the ocean. My father is calling me.”
“You keep saying that, as if your father is some sort of siren.”
I walked away to look at the statue of the Dalinian space elephant partially submerged by the sea. The lower half of its crane-like legs were underwater. A year ago we could still see the pedestal.
“Maybe we should get on the space elephant, then we won’t drown. Maybe it will carry us somewhere, like a Thai elephant,” I said.
“Carry us? Where?”
“I don’t know. Space? Some planet where it snows?”
“You are dream-talking, too,” he said.
“At least I’m dreaming about a future, not some histories we’ve never experienced in some land we’ve never been to, or a father, or an identity.”
“My identity is not a dream.”
“Really? Where does your blackness, or my Chineseness lie? In the skin? In the fathers we barely knew? In the books we read? I probably read more Western books than Eastern ones.”
He just stared into the sea, stubborn, forlorn, handsome. I wanted to touch him, slide my hand into his clothes. It was a desire deep as despair, but also an attempt to comfort, connect and discover. His skin, as dazzling as it was, was just a surface and interface. What’s inside was hard to grasp, capricious and slippery like mercury.
When he was losing an argument with me, he would start to sing: “I got the Weary Blues, and I can’t be satisfied. Got the Weary Blues, and can’t be satisfied…”
His voice was something you could stroke, smooth, with momentum, like the twirling satin ribbon of a rhythmic gymnast. I have a small, weak voice. Sometimes when he sang, he would dance. His athletic, agile body made me feel even more awkward. He was singing and dancing to the sea, his back to me, as if this island was his stage, and his audience were in the sea.
He was lonely. Loneliness was more difficult for an extrovert like him than an introvert like me. He longed for a community. By blending biology with imagination he created his identity, his coordinates, but the system was no longer there. On the island there was only a small tribe whose language we couldn’t understand. We felt we were the banished Adam and Eve, stuck with each other, killing time with survival, sex and squabble, weary as the rhythm of the river Styx.
“I want to see the places where my father drowned, and where Kilimanjaro is,” he said.
“And I want you to shut your daily litany.”
He suddenly rose up and ran to the sea and swam to the space elephant. He tried to climb up one of the crane-like legs, and slipped, and tried again, and slipped. He started to hit the leg, and stopped in pain, and hit it again, and stopped. He held the leg and started to sob.
“Come back,” I cried.
That night we sat by the fire and he sang to me one song after another. My head rested on his shoulder.
“Why can’t we always be like this?” he said.
“Because of despair.”
“Do you think we’ll die on this island before it’s submerged?”
“I don’t know. We’ll probably lose our minds before we die,” I said. “Maybe we’ve already lost our minds. There’s no reference.”
“I want to build a boat.”
“You will drown.”
“I have to try.”
When his boat was finished, I told him a story: “I read the Soviet novel The Forty First when I was a kid. During the Russian Civil War, a female sniper of the Reds falls in love with her captive, a male officer of the Whites, when they are stuck on an island. In the end, a boat of the Whites passes by and the officer runs to it, waving excitedly. The sniper warns him, and shoots him.”
He looked at me, confused and alert.
“You are not my captive. I am not yours. We are not Reds and Whites,” I said. “It’s just that I finally understand her despair when she sees him running into the sea.”
“I promise when I find a better place, I’ll come back for you.”
The night he left, I dreamt it was snowing all over the planet, also in the deep sea. The submerged square top of Kilimanjaro was unbelievably white. Even in the dream I knew it was not snowflakes that were falling, it was the shreds of the vocal cords of the dolphins’, and his.
Image – pixabay.com