A short story by Lydia Kwa
This is the story of a man who married a woman twenty years older than him. They had met while she was head librarian at Koerner Library and he, a graduate student in Ethnomusicology at UBC. She was still vivacious at fifty, while he was a serious and thoughtful man at thirty. When she first stumbled across him, he had positioned himself at a small desk in the narrow space between Russian novels and Greek tragedies.
She was struck by his intense focus. She followed his gaze and saw that A House in Bali by Colin McPhee rested in his lap. Made her think of her peranakan grandmother. Her nenek had left her beloved Sumatra against her wishes, and arrived in Singapore as a young girl to be betrothed to a businessman’s son.
The librarian smiled to recall her nenek who had loved gamelan music. Sundays at her grandparents’ house in Siglap, the bright clanging sounds of Balinese gamelan would blare from the gramophone, causing tears to stream down her grandmother’s face. Nenek used to regale her with tales of the magical forests on certain islands in the Indonesian archipelago.
The librarian crept to the shelves behind the young man and spied on him a little longer by peeking through the gaps. What was he doing with McPhee’s autobiography? Was he drawn to strange and exotic locales? His sombre appearance led her to recall how different she had been at that age. She was definitely wilder, thought to resemble her nenek. Which had worried her parents.
With that recollection, the librarian scratched her neck as if a mosquito had just bitten her there. She walked away, back to her office at the other end.
At first, they hardly spoke. She passed him in the stacks, when she was on a mission—in search of a special book or a particular volume of an academic journal. More often than not, the serious student was plugged into his Sony Walkman and humming softly. She would glance discreetly at the current book he was reading. His tastes ranged widely. Not only music or ethnomusicology. Chekhov one day, then he’d keep company with Margaret Laurence another time, then switch to Kazuo Ishiguro. He had that hungry air of devouring books the way other students might decimate a bag of chips.
She liked how his shirt collars were always softly rumpled. She felt the urge to sniff the back of his neck. His red curly beard sometimes retained a caramel trace of Maple iced Tim Horton’s doughnut. This always made her slightly famished. But she craved meat, not some sugary piece of pastry.
Months went by. She was ready for it when it happened. He looked up from his reading, bleary eyed. She smiled, and he smiled back. The sunlight streaming in through the window caused the shadows of leaves to dance whimsically across his flushed cheeks. For a moment, she imagined that the forest owned him.
Silence was no longer a barrier. He began to chat with her as if he’d known her for a long time. He liked the way her eyes seemed to be seeing deeply into him. It made him shudder with a slightly uncomfortable pleasure. Every time she looked into his eyes, he was utterly captivated, a victim of her spell.
He was also a gifted musician, she discovered, when she went to his feverish performances, playing drums in two different bands. Her hands would tingle and a film of sweat form just above her lip, as she watched him lose himself in the music, as if possessed. She recognized that kind of energy, the side of him that kept close company with her cherished secret. She mused—so that what was lurking beneath the serious exterior.
The romance progressed as if they kept meeting in a dream, as if no longer separated by age or physicality.
He went on to finish his graduate studies and became a teacher at a private college in Richmond. They married and moved into a cottage near the dykes. So much they could talk about—books, films, politics. On weekends, they took long drives, to Lynn Valley, Squamish, Deer Lake. Anywhere where there were woods and fallen logs, the soft feel of moss. They had sex behind bushes, excited by the prospect of detection.
This could not go on forever. When she retired at sixty-five and he turned forty-five, he still thought like the thirty-year-old young man he’d been when they first met. For years, she had cheerfully made him coffee and toast in the morning before she left for work; even had the dinner prepped, all ready for the oven when she returned home from the library. Now, such routines of married life became like bars of a cage.
She missed her fulfilling job. Perilously bored, she wished she could prowl around the cottage and claw the sunny wallpaper to shreds.
There was only one other person in her world, and he never tired of yammering away. The soft rumple in his collars now annoyed her. She lost interest in gracing him with her mysterious gaze. She started to mumble to herself, sotto voce complaints about the pointlessness of looking for a soul that didn’t look for its mate any longer. Her mind drifted back to her former life. Those invigorating affairs before being ensnared in marriage. Seemed like she had been far more capable of adventure then. Humans are so problematic, she mused to herself.
She stopped cleaning and cooking, while he, used to being mothered, did not take up the slack. Their once-idyllic cottage now stunk of sweat and food scraps. She spent days looking out the window and sighing. She watched the shadows move across their kitchen. Some nights, she searched for the moon outside.
By this time, he had gained recognition as a music critic who not only wrote for the local papers, but also for some well-known music magazines in the US, Europe and Australia. He had his share of assignments, was sometimes flown off to one big city then another, to attend concerts and performances. He managed to juggle this life as music critic with his day job as a teacher at the private college. The more he ventured out, the more his wife seemed to disappear into the shadowy corner of their cottage. Their sexual adventures in nature were a thing of the past.
2003. One unseasonably warm April evening, in Vancouver, he was at a performance of the opera Salomé. He spied a young woman with an intense pair of dark eyes, three seats to his left. She looked foreign, he thought, and a memory of his wife when he first encountered her in the library flashed through his mind. The young woman looked like a mixed race person, he thought further as he studied her features. What is she?
She was transfixed by the opera. He was transfixed by her, feeling the allure of the bridgeable space between them.
During the intermission, he noticed her studying the program notes. He leaned toward her and, in a calm whisper, began to share his knowledge of the opera. She seemed easily impressed and giggled. He bought her a drink at the bar in the lobby. Studied her breasts intently before looking away.
Of course he couldn’t resist asking her, Where are you from?
She giggled some more. From here, of course. Why would you think otherwise?
Turned out she was a film student at Vancouver Film School. Single. It wasn’t too difficult to convince her. He took her to Patricia Hotel on East Hastings after the opera. But not before he procured some great quality weed down at Cordova. They smoked some. Got quite high. He said he liked Tarkovsky, and she in return, said she admired Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses.
He switched on the clock radio on the bedside table while she was in the washroom. Found Co-op Radio, and was pleased to recognize a song from Broken Social Scene’s album just released the previous Fall. He liked how the song started quietly, with the strings, then the piano coming in. When she emerged naked from the washroom, he was humming the lines from “Lover’s Spit”, and smiled with pleasure at the coincidence. All these people drinking lover’s spit/They sit around and clean their face with it.
He appreciated the waif’s sexual energy. Made him nostalgic. As a young man, he’d seldom met women who had such ability to excite him and to be so unflagging in their stamina. His wife had been like that. Scenes of their early lovemaking days stole into his consciousness.
He fell asleep after he came. When he awoke, the cheap LED clock alarm warned him it was ten minutes past two AM. She was gone, but left him a sweet note on the side table, that she would like to visit him at the cottage, lots of x’s and o’s and her phone number.
His skin burned, as if he was running a fever. He scrambled out of the hotel and raced back to Richmond. When he reached the cottage, his wife was fast asleep.
He locked himself up in the bathroom and jerked off, thinking of his new friend. He was soaked in sweat. His legs trembled. His tongue was red, his throat parched. No matter how many glasses of water he drank, he still felt thirsty.
He looked for You Forget it in People in his CD collection, and played it continuously on his Discman on the way to the college. He felt a pang of nostalgia for his musician self. It’d been a while since he hung out with his buddies and played. His eyes narrowed. Could have become a great musician, could have put out a CD with his friends. Maybe even have outstripped Broken Social Scene.
He had to see his new friend again soon. Maybe next weekend, she could come to the cottage. It wouldn’t be too difficult. The old lady was depressed. She wouldn’t even notice. To all intents and purposes, his wife was lost to him.
He invited her to the cottage. Told his wife it was a work acquaintance and they would be watching lots of movies and staying up late to talk shop about film scores. She said nothing, simply nodded. He felt a moment of pain grip his heart. Why didn’t she care? He was truly lonely, craved a companion.
He spent the next week fantasizing. Could barely hold in his excitement by the time it was Saturday evening.
The wife had gone to bed long before his new friend arrived. He was surprised how she was dressed. Bundled up in Polartec fleece. No sign of the sexy vixen whom he had met the weekend before. But she seemed happy to visit, completely unperturbed by the disarray and the stench in the cottage.
He dimmed the lights and started the DVD player, mentioning that his wife was an incredibly sound sleeper, so they could turn the volume up. He had brought out Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, followed by the infamous Oshima movie.
The blanket that covered their laps became a subterfuge for arousing each other. The neighbour’s cat somehow managed to find its way into their cottage. Boris jumped up on the couch between them and walked on top of the blanket, its claws digging into his balls. He yelped in pain. Put the movie on pause. She laughed and lifted the cat off his lap. Cuddled with Boris for a bit, before taking it out the back door. He was mildly jealous—she took a long time talking to the cat. He tried to make out what she was saying, but all he could hear was her sing-song tone. Curious melodic tone, somewhat familiar yet he couldn’t quite place it.
She finally returned to the couch. Her eyes, for a moment, reflected the light from the moon outside. He held his breath, startled and looked away. They resumed watching the movie. Swept up by the obsessive trajectory of the plot.
She began to visit him every other weekend.
The wife felt restless just before each visit. She made excuses about meeting his guest—not that he ever insisted–and said that she wanted to spend more time with the neighbour, a woman in her nineties who sometimes needed help with household chores. He smiled at his wife and patted her hand. Of course you should go, dearest, she needs you. The wife left him alone in the cottage on those visits, so he was free to entertain his visitor. Maybe she suspects something, but he really didn’t want to think too much about that.
Truth was, he couldn’t believe his good luck.
Throughout summer and into that autumn, he and his lover visited the same spots he and his wife had liked. He had bemoaned that lost thrill in his marriage, and she responded by suggesting that they go.
He liked the thrill of feeling himself inside his lithe friend while she was pushed against a tree or lying on the mossy ground. The risk of being spotted added to his excitement. He began to feel that massive confusion between anxiety and arousal, between guilt and pleasure, so much so that his orgasms became rather exquisite yet painful. It took him quite a while after they were finished, to be able to look into her eyes.
Between visits, it was hard to concentrate. Smoked more weed. Sipped more Jamieson. Jerked off several times a day. Detached from his students, delivering his lectures with far less vigour than usual.
He began to wonder if it was time for him to put his wife into a seniors’ home. After all, she was approaching seventy in a couple of years. He convinced her that it was best, since he couldn’t take care of her. Sooner than later would be better, he said, so that she could have the best care she deserved. She said nothing but angled her head slightly away from him. Looking out the kitchen window, she saw Boris cross over into their backyard, its white paws so lovely a contrast to the rest of its black body. He followed her glance, and seeing the intruder, felt irritated that a mere cat would cause her to smile.
The day he moved her into the care facility, he tried to be tender toward her, showing her how much he cared still. He even left her the original Walkman he had twenty years ago, when they first met in the library. He placed the earphones on her and pressed the PLAY button. It was a recording of Colin McPhee’s music. He studied her face. But he couldn’t decipher what that look on her face meant. Should he ask? Better not, he decided. He nodded, as if he understood that she must have liked it. He touched her shoulder lightly and promised her he would visit her at least twice a week, whenever he wasn’t travelling for work.
He walked out the door and into the parking lot. She stared at his rumpled shirt collar and sneered, her eyes suddenly inflamed with ferocious feeling. She lifted her arm to her mouth, sniffed at it as if she didn’t quite know what to make of it. Then she bit into her arm, and sobbed. How she missed Boris, the only one who had recognized her true self.
Days after he left her at the facility, he went into Vancouver to review another musical concert. He was going to stay overnight, enjoy his newfound freedom. What was work without some pleasure? This time it wasn’t the opera, but a new indie rock band performing at the Railway Club. The young woman met him there. She was wearing a flimsy top, no bra, and purple tights. That pleased him. He took her to The Sylvia. A decent room although small, facing Stanley Park.
He had brought his boombox. Had a surprise up his sleeve. He put on You Forget It In People and poured them shots of whiskey as the music came on. She beamed at him. There was a wild look in her eyes that reminded him of their lovemaking episodes in the forest. She insisted that they switched all the lights off. He thought it was a strange request but agreed.
She soon climbed on top, taking him into her with an urgent forcefulness. He felt himself pulled into the song’s hypnotic textures. Wasn’t that what we all need—he thought to himself—to be soothed? The music crested up through his body, claiming him.
You know it’s time
That we grow old and do some shit
I like it all that way
As the song wound down, the tinkling of the piano in the background gradually assuming more prominence, he imagined himself lying next to his wife, at one of their old haunts in Lynn Valley. He pouted. What a strange thought, so out of place.
Are you so sure that it’s out of place?
The voice was in his head. Followed by sounds of percussion. Gamelan music? He laughed quietly. That shit we smoked must be really good.
He felt her fingers dig a little into his shoulders. She bent close to whisper into his ear, look into my eyes, won’t you? I miss you.
He knitted his brows together, puzzled. But he kept his eyes closed, didn’t want to look at her face. Not yet. A soft, nervous laugh came out of him, what do you mean, you miss me?
I said, look into my eyes.
Her voice was firm, commanding. He reluctantly opened his eyes. She fixed her gaze on him. The eyes. He felt as if they could whisk him to some unfamiliar place, a place that he would not know how to return from.
The gamelan music played on.
You don’t like this? This is the original music, created thousands of years ago, long before humans borrowed from it.
What do you mean? He stammered.
Long ago, we sang this in the jungles.
That was some potent weed we smoked, he murmured.
Tears fell on his chest. She mumbled softly under her breath, repeating syllables unfamiliar to him. The repetitive incantation grew louder and faster, reverberating in her chest, building up to a frenzied gurgle in her throat.
She arched her body backward. The outlines of her body blurred. He could smell something new in the room. A surfeit of rain and rust. Damp earth. Followed by a whiff of raw onion stinging his eyes.
Selfish man. Had no idea, did you? The early conversations in the library, all those years I’d taken care of you. You hadn’t even noticed there was someone else there, apart from the human disguise I assumed.
He didn’t have time to scream. Stunned by the searing tear of her claws. Massive incisors sliced through flesh, until her cavernous mouth claimed his heart. As he lay dying, he felt her riding his cock with a vengeance, growling as she climaxed.
She leapt off the bed and onto the floor. A humming purr of pleasure travelled through her as she stretched out, licking her paws clean.
She sighed, thinking of the young man whose beard had been once tinged with sweetness. She had liked him so much. That was the saddest part, really. Liking a human who couldn’t love her back.
Her gaze should have been the clue. Hadn’t there been enough moments when her true form came to him in dreams? When she whispered her name to him while he slept? But he awakened from his dreams, forgetful, the memories reduced to a faint sensation of adventure. Banished from his knowing, that he had ridden through forests on the back of a harimau jadian, a weretiger who had protected him from harm all these years. Gone, the revelation of her shapeshifting in front of his dreaming eyes.
She raised herself up from the floor and once again assumed the form of the young woman. Pulled a few tissues from the box of Kleenex on the side table and wiped her face clean.
She walked slowly to the windows and drew the curtains aside. There was an almost full moon out, its reflection glistening on the surface of the ocean at English Bay. Now that she had consumed his heart and sucked the life force from his soul, she could return back to the wife’s body, whose shell was waiting for her at the care facility.
Wouldn’t be a problem leaving. Especially after staff members receive news of his death and inform her. They’d understand why she had to leave, to tend to legal matters.
She would go see Boris. Of all her companions in this life, Boris was the only one who had recognized her and discovered her true name.
She turned back and took one last look at the mess on the hotel bed.
No more devotion to humans. It was time for a road trip.
This story first appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, issue 19.4, Winter 2014. Reprinted with permission of the author. Image: The Dream by Henri Rousseau.