Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Palate Cleanser

Nicole bought from a great list that ran two pages, and bought the things in the windows besides. Everything she liked that she couldn't possibly use herself, she bought as a present for a friend. She bought colored beads, folding beach cushions, artificial flowers, honey, a guest bed, bags, scarfs, love birds, miniatures for a doll's house and three yards of some new cloth the color of prawns. She bought a dozen bathing suits, a rubber alligator, a travelling chess set of gold and ivory, big linen handkerchiefs for Abe, two chamois leather jackets of kingfisher blue and burning bush from Hermes - bought all these things not a bit like a high-class courtesan buying underwear and jewels, which were after all professional equipment and insurance - but with an entirely different point of view. Nicole was the product of much ingenuity and toil. For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California; chicle factories fumed and link belts grew link by link in factories; men mixed toothpaste in vats and drew mouthwash out of copper hogsheads; girls canned tomatoes quickly in August or worked rudely at Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve; half-breed Indians toiled on Brazilian coffee plantations and dreamers were muscled out of patent rights in new tractors - these were some of the people who gave a tithe to Nicole, and as the whole system swayed and thundered onward it lent a feverish bloom to such processes of hers as wholesale buying, like the flush of a fireman's face holding his post before a spreading blaze.

- Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

An Unloved Woman

When I was 14, in secondary school, we were taken in school buses to the chapel at Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Secondary on a blinding hot Saturday morning. The air was so mercilessly radiant with heat that we practically ran into the building, jostling for standing space in the lobby with about a hundred other students.

Their chapel was far larger than ours, and the air-conditioning was stronger, too. We were ushered into seats that sloped downwards to face a small stage with a large white canvas screen. Almost without warning, the projector flipped on and a close-up photograph of a smiling white woman's face appeared on the screen. Her hair was long and dark, and she was heavily made-up with lipstick, fake lashes and eyeshadow. The flash seemed to reveal something like begging in her wide open eyes.

Still, it was an attractive face. But then a man in an ill-fitting dress shirt and jacket - poor preacher's clothes - walked up to the podium on stage and said good morning.

His American accent was flat, curiously easy for us to understand. A Midwesterner, perhaps. He moved energetically, but I had the odd feeling that beneath his surface there was another self who could not be tamped down, despite his efforts. It was like catching glimpses of skin sliding underneath layers of clothes - the tender underside of a blue-veined wrist, the pale, slim curve of collarbone, now hidden inside a man's striped shirt. The washed out whiteness of the skin around his eyes.

"Do you see that person?"

He gestured to the screen, without looking at it himself.

"That was me, ten years ago."

Gasps and laughter from his teenage audience. The woman on the screen continued to smile broadly, unaware of being mocked. I understood then that she was dead and gone.

For the next half-hour he recounted his story. He had always felt like a woman inside. By his 20s he was living as one, and saving up for the big operation. The night before he was due to check into hospital, Jesus appeared in a vision and told him not to do it.

"With His blessing and through His strength, I abandoned my sinful lifestyle in the city," said the man on stage. "I found a circle of new brothers and sisters in church and grew stronger in my faith, day by day. Through my pastor and his wise counsel, I was introduced to my wife, with whom I have two lovely daughters." Applause.

"I was lost, but now I am found," he continued, his voice quivering. "The devil almost had me in his clutches, but Jesus saved me and pointed me in the right direction. He lifted me up into His arms and told me that He has loved me all my life. Today, I stand here before you as living proof of His salvation! Hallelujah!"

That was the cue for an altar call. People streamed out of the pews and down the aisles towards the stage where he prayed softly for them, almost drowned out by the music.

The woman on the screen was still there, smiling down on all the souls accepting Jesus into their lives. She looked like she had been caught in a moment of fun, vamping for the camera amidst lights and drinks and music of a very different kind. How easily she had been destroyed, in a kind of death worse than real death, with no grave or urn or ceremony to mark her passing. Jesus did not love her, and she hadn't even loved herself.

The man below was flushed as he prayed, his hands outstretched towards the bent heads of teenagers. His voice was steady and his arms raised high, but still there was the faint shiver of fragility that I saw in the woman's face. It was better to be dead and barely remembered than to be in a living hell, I thought. Better to be her, than him.