Tania:

After the Storm

I.
A thunderstorm occurs when a mass of air grows unstable enough to overturn violently. This happens when the upper layers of air are cooler than the lower layers. There is no fixed time period within which this process occurs.

My lover and I sit on opposite sides of the boat. The water, initially choppy, is leveling to a calm. But not before it throws a few more beads of salt into our hair.

She is looking out into the horizon. Occasionally she looks my way. But she is not thinking of me. I know the shape her face takes when I am on her mind. Today, she is unrecognisable.

This is the face of your lover, as she thinks about someone else.

Memorise it, I tell myself. And each time you think “maybe”, close your eyes and re-call it like an image burned onto the insides of your lids.

We are approaching the Tioman. We have come here to break up. Two water signs parting in the ocean. Five days of limbo for the purpose of closure. Don't leave me, I want to plead. But I don't.

The calm before the storm, she says, as the boatman slows and gestures to
the water. Until now, I have thought that this was just an idiom. She tells me that warm air has accumulated as a prelude to raging sky. The sea-kites prevalent to the area have ceased flying. Animals always know when something is about to hit. I search for them among clouds like charcoal speech bubbles. I wonder what the sky is saying.

My writing mentor is reading this and telling me that I should not hide emotion behind nature. No raging winds nor hearts like fire. Too easy to use elements as metaphor. Too easy to call love the sky sand forest trees clouds desert ocean mountain flood earthquake storm.

But I am not creating metaphors. I am making the storm. I sit in its eye. I grow thick with thunder. I am expanding to two, three, ten times my size. She tells me she has fallen in love with someone else. Compares it to having all her fuses blow. Such a romantic excuse for such bad behaviour. I wish to turn her switches off one by one.

Mention details instead, my mentor says. The mundane things you remember.

The weight of your hand on the small of my back. Endearment crinkling the corners of your eyes. You pulling the covers over my feet early morning as if I were something precious.

Better now than later, a friend of mine says. At least it was only three months.

***

Three weeks after our first date, she gives me the key to her apartment. Keys are scary business. I take it anyway.

I come over earlier than expected one evening and let myself in. I find her on the edge of the bed, naked. She has just come out of a shower that has taken her three times longer than it should have; she fractured her sacrum the fortnight before, falling off her bike. She looks distraught.

What's wrong?
Pause.
I was having a conversation with myself in the shower.
Pause.
I see. What did the two of you talk about?
Pause.
I wanted to cook you dinner . . . but I don't think my back can take it.

She begins to cry.

Stop. Wait. What's wrong? You don't have to cook me dinner!

Pause.

I know. That's the thing. You like me anyway.

The mathematics rarely adds up and at the end of three months, I know too much. The arch of her back and the length of her stride. The dip of her waist and the sound of her voice. How her mouth slackens when she falls fully asleep and the taste of her tongue in the morning. I know her posture as she reads The Economist, electric toothbrush in her mouth. Her eyes as they scan her wardrobe, screen her calls, observe my body. She dances as she cooks, cries when she talks about her grandmother. And when she is about to come, tongue against teeth, she is quiet, lips moving ever so slightly, as if whispering prayers underneath her breath.

It takes two seconds to pull a trigger; one and half to say I do. In a blink, a high impact crash might re-align your vertabrae so that you never walk again. A decade ago, as we whiled away Christmas, nature killed thousands and stranded millions, with the energy of 23,000 atomic bombs, in only a handful of hours.

The first night we went out, it took three hours for her to take my hand and three seconds for me to decide.

Come home with me, she said, kissing my palm.

We asked for the bill, and left.

***

II.
Three things are required for a thunderstorm to take place: Moisture, heat and an unstable air mass.

She is leaving me for someone else. She does not know that I know. Perhaps she does not know it herself. They never expect my premonitions. Me falling upon their thoughts like rain.

Let me tell you how I know: I can smell it on her. Like chemicals bubbling to evaporation. Like moisture condensing on skin. Like uncovered leftovers. Like a memory.

It's been following us for a fortnight. I smell it on the sheets, in her hair, coming off on my own skin. It's in her voice, diminished attention, staccattoed messages that reek of compensation. She is clinging to me in thin threads. I am afraid to move, in case we break.

Reminders to herself become reminders to me. Have you ever spoken too loudly to fill a silence too big? Swaggered into a space full of people, terrified you might trip? Used kindness to make up for your lack of charm, charm to make up for feeling unintelligent, intelligence to make up for not fitting in?

Text message:
Have I told you how much I really, really like you?

Text message:
Did I remember to tell you how beautiful you looked last night?

I am the silence she has to fill. The crowd she needs to impress. But I am detective to our love and I will find her out.

Text message:
I love waking up to you in the morning.

Terms of endearment falling like confetti all around me. She's turning pain into a party; we're supposed to be drunk on this lie. Except I am perfectly sober. Except I have unstitched her words syllable by syllable. Except I am watching everything fall; pieces into place like hearts into love:

She is leaving me, and there is nothing I can do.

***

III.
The average thunderstorm releases the energy equivalent of a 20 kiloton nuclear weapon, or a small nuclear power plant.

Take me out tonight. I am a storm itching to brew. I am a cloud clenching its fists in wait of someone to drench. I am full on want, feeding on your appetite for trouble, growing fat on expired questions desire previously didn't deem fit to guide from gut to mouth.

Take me down tonight. Abuse the fact that I won't fight back. Make all my decisions. Forget I am strong. Let my name slip your mind once it falls out your mouth. Be my arms, my legs, my voice, my longing, the root of my charm, my sense of belonging. Hollow me out and fill me with you; create echoes in all the empty spaces.

Take me back tonight. Let me occupy your body like a ghost without a home. Let me race against time, good sense, your lover; let me outrun all three with the pace of my pulse. Let me steal your heart like a kiss and hold it under my tongue: Let me flutter your arteries with the chattering of my teeth.

Metaphors, the mentor sighs, shaking his head and smiling. Words should reveal, not conceal.

Fine, I say, putting my coffee down. Let me tell you instead, how we fuck.
In the morning, she told me she was in love with someone else. In the evening, I went over in my heels. Trashy, snake-skin party shoes and nothing underneath my skirt. She was in the chair, wearing only a shirt. Buttons undone and legs spread. My shoes squeaked against tiles as I got down on my knees. The sound made us laugh. The laughter was short-lived.

I have gone over like this so many times before. Pantsless, primed, dressed for a fucking. She texts me while I am in the cab. Tells me I'd better be wet on arrival. I gloss my lips when I walk into the lift. I straighten my hair and push up my tits.

My lover has a thing for my zip-up stilettoes. She calls them my fuck-me heels. They arch my calves, propel my chest forward, thrust my hips towards her when I'm up against the wall. They stay on when everything else has come off and in them, I don't have a name. In them, I am four inches closer to where she is. My lover, the tower, the skyscraper. My lover, her head in the thundering clouds.

One particular night, she dressed for me too. Ted Baker lightning white, crisp like clean air. I come out of the lift. She's by the door, lights dimmed, cuffs out. She is so beautiful I could cry. I down the shot she's made me in order to dispel the nervousness. She's human that way, beneath the code names, play things, safe words. Beneath the hard surface soft sheets hard on soft skin hard core soft porn dirty talk.

Wall. Couch. Table. Bed. I want you inside me around me above below me. Do whatever you want to me. I don't even care if I come.

This is the only place in which we are equal. Where I don't have to worry about catching up. With your proper clothes, high-end job, perfect cooking, expansive vocabulary. With the fact that you're older, smarter, sharper, so much better

looking in a suit. Here, being improper is an envied virtue. Here, being imperfect is what you like. Here, me having no words makes up for all the stupid things I usually say: Forgive my love of good bargains, my badly cut hair and chipping nailpolish. Forgive my loathing of children, spiders, public events and social situations. Forget the near-fight we had over money and the fact that my bedroom looks like it belongs to a sixteen-year-old. Forgive it all. Forget it all. I want to watch you touch yourself.

Our first night together, we are soft with one another. I skip into the living room upon seeing all her books. The kissing starts at Gloria Steinem. My hand up her top by Margaret Reynolds. She has trouble with my dress. Does it go up or down? She is more familiar with undoing belts, unbuttoning jeans, not getting lipstick on her neck. By the time we get to the bedroom, we've left clothes like breadcrumbs. By the time she's going down on me, I tell her how I can't wait to fuck her.

The night before we leave, we will end the way we began. Except this time, we are not new to each other. These are maps we have explored before. We'll laugh like children. We'll cry like adults. We'll wrestle in bed and you'll ask why I bother fighting back.

This is the edge of desire from which I fall. I want to take everything that has ever hurt me and place it between your body and mine. I want to disappear into this

creature that is us. The next day, my wrist, the colour of plums where you pinned me down with your knee.

That last night, I wanted you to take me against my will; to do to my body what you'd done to my heart.

Don't tell me this doesn't turn you on.

I can't. It does. Please stop. Please don't.

Sometimes even the best sex, isn't about the sex.

Do to my body what you do to my heart.

Break. Touch. Steal. Play with. Heat up. Let down. Feed on. Drown.

***

IV.
A thunderstorm is fueled by water vapour fed from a lower atmosphere. The air, as it is warmed, is pumped up to twelve miles in the sky, and once used up, changes into rainfall.

Gut the apartment. I wish to slit it open with my stare and disembowel it of me. Toiletries. Pushed with one hand from cupboard to bag. Toothbrush I will leave; isn't mine anyway. I believe she keeps many spare. Had I time, I would burn it.

Give me back my shoes. The fun shoes, aptly named by your ex. In your drawer, next to the pumps you wore the day you wed. Give back my friend's DVDs. Return everything. Tanktop. Underwear. Tupperware. Make-up. Let me cab to work like a department store turned on its head.

But why stop there? I should comb each and every inch of your bed for hair. No DNA of mine to be left for you. No skin shed like inhibitions. Detox the memory of me from your balcony, eating chocolate and watching birds. Grab the resident gecko that spies on us and feed it to the nearest stray. I should extract every tear I have cried into pillow, bolster, shirt and sheet and wear them round my neck like pearls. And from every corner where we have wept together, unbraid your pain from mine.

Make sure I am forgotton. Length of showers. Weight on mattress. Smell of perfume. Manner of speech. You have no right to any of it. Remove all trace of me from walls, objects, furniture, food. I never walked your floor, wore your pajamas, read your books, ate your meals. Tell your mirrors to forget how I look drawing in my eyebrows, pinning up my dress, kissing you. Disentangle my words from our coversations and let them become another lost language. And when you recount all that has been said, know that you were talking to yourself.

But that's not how it happened, did it?

Let me tell you how it happened:

We left for work. I got out of the cab because I'd left my teaching materials upstairs. Abrupt shuffle. You were in a rush and I let you go reluctantly. I had wanted to leave with you so I would not have to be alone in your apartment.

Upstairs, I am a robot. I scan all rooms with with my mechanical eyes. My databases tell me it is easier to remove myself now. I take my things. I leave a note where my clothes were. I look out the window, into the trees. This is a space best left to past tense, I tell myself. Am I being too hasty? The room still smells like sex.

I fold your pajamas and wash the dishes. I re-arrange your cushions. Push in the chair. Check that I have not left anything in the study. Shut the door quietly before I leave for class.

I come home. Dump my bag in the living room. I go to my fridge to get a drink. It has not been stocked for a week. Standing solitary on the second shelf, a carton of milk. I don't touch the stuff and you have it with your muesli. Your muesli mixed with banana, yoghurt and milk. Donkey breakfast, you like to call it. Perhaps this is why you are being an ass.

Women like me get with women like you because we're never good enough.

Women like me get with women like you because you always leave.

I stare at the milk. I reach in to take it out. It is due to expire in two days. The carton is almost full and who is going to drink it, now?

***

V.
In the centre of the hurricane from which the storm rotates, air sinks, clouds erode and all things are calm. This centre is known as the eye of the storm.

You and I in bed. Eating dinners. Taking walks. Watching films. You tell me the last time you were this turned on holding hands in a cinema, was when you were with your first boyfriend.

I am trying on the jacket you wore to your wedding. I am trying not to blush each time you throw me a wink. I am trying the word 'girlfriend' on for size, despite my own resistance.

My lover, she wants to take care of me. She wants me in her space. She tells me I have taken her unexpectedly. That I have curled up next to her heart.

I held you to sleep that very first night. No question, no discomfort, no need to ask. You took my hand, held it close to your chest, locked your fingers in mine, and dozed.

Three hours later, you had to get up. A 6am run to beat the sun. You tell me to sleep in. You'll be back in awhile. But by the time you're out of the kitchen, I am fully-clothed.

Could that really be me, so unflinching, getting dressed in a fluster and ready to flee? Leave nothing behind, I told myself firmly. You might not get it back.

My lover says she wants to protect me. I laugh, saying I can protect myself. How do I let her protect me when she is what I need protection from?

She writes me into her calendar. Places my shoes in her drawer. Sends me snail mail the morning of my exhibition. Turns up for the opening in her best shirt.

She is surprised when I bring her flowers. Says she's usually the half who buys them. She looks at the box of fruit I've brought. Says that no one has peeled mandarins for her since she was a child.

She is not in love with me. And makes sure to remind me. She thinks I might be seduced by romance. I should have told her the night she bought that champagne, that I would have been happy eating crackers on the couch. As long as she was sitting next to me. As long as she was there.

The night I fell in love with you, I was preparing for a show. 3am, the moon was full and I was covered in spraymount. Ruler, penknife, paper, foam. Suddenly these objects made no sense. Suddenly my bedroom made no sense. Suddenly I was in the shower, in a cab, at your door. In your apartment, in you room, in your bed. Keys, as I mentioned, are dangerous business. I whispered your name into your ear.

It was not the weekend you spoiled me stupid. Not the sms-es sent from across the sea. Not the fact that you had read my writing. Or knew all the right things to say.

It was because you like to tell stories. Identified the bulbul that flew into my yard. Because you sleep-talk in different languages. Converse with animals in Dutch.

Because you knew the difference between a hedgehog and a porcupine. Noticed my red ankle socks. Assembled your bookcases single-handedly. Colour-code your files.

Because you hold my hand in public.

A week after we've parted, I will wake to weather so angry it slams doors. Outside, an eagle will dip against the white. And I will remember how we watched sea-kites soar lines into the sky; your bird-books, hand-illustrated, older than I am; your gentle heart that longs to take flight.

I will stand by the window and watch a solitary bird cut through the storm. And that is how I will feel right then: Like my heart keeps taking off in the rain. Keeps taking off and never stops leaving.

***

VI.
Sometimes, as a storm pulls wind into its lungs, a resulting vacuum occurs.

You and I had agreed that this would not be forever...but did it really have to end like this? My distrust has turned you into a stranger. What is this place and who have I come with?

We dock at the pier. A young woman in a green dress greets us. Two men take our luggage to our room. Scorpio and Pisces get out of the boat. Stripped of baggage, we take each other's hands.

To tell you the truth, I have not written this chapter. I am sitting at a café and drinking my coffee. My mentor is reading my first five segments. I tell him I am having trouble with the ending.

Decide how you wish to own this memory. That is how it will end.

Our last night together, we read to each other in bed; she from Douglas Adams, me from Jeanette Winterson. We were supposed to be sharing funny excerpts. But as she drifted into sleep, I flipped to the opening page:

Why is the measure of love loss?

I do this often, you know. Talk to my lovers while they sleep. About the things I can't speak of while they are awake. I know they hear me because the body can't help but listen. I know you hear me because I hear you too. Some mornings, before I am awake. You turning to watch me as I sleep. Sometimes walking to my side of the bed, pondering my shut eyes, morning hair, limp body. Leftover mascara from the night before.

At the airport, we get reception once again. We sit side by side, in silence.

Remember that face, I tell myself, as she texts a woman who is not me. That is the face of your lover, thinking about someone else.

Love is not the fury that shorts the fuses. That particular desire is too loud to be named. I have felt it too, creature ignited by things unseen. It tramples the heart, leaps out from the ruins, runs manic circles around itself, does not take no for an answer.

After lingering above the same area of ocean for too long, a storm tends to dissipate. The surface water, used and re-used, loses heat. And without that heat, no storm survives.

Love is the difference between desire and decision. Will I care for you once the winds have calmed? Lean my head on your shoulder once the noise has died? Desire you still, with the same urgency, initially propelled by thunder and heat?

Love is what happens after the storm. When we are left in silence, wrecked upon shore. The fact that I would have stayed had you asked; kissed you by the broken pieces of what we were.

Better now than later, a friend of mine says. At least it was only three months.

I am sitting on the beach, alone. I am writing about us and I am writing about love. And somewhere in here, I am writing about you: The gust of wind that blew through my heart, leaving behind this vacuum.

She and I. We sit on the boat. We have come here to break up.

This is the face of your lover, as she thinks about someone else.