Concrete Heart, or Portrait of a Woman at Moments of Departure
My love affair was always with the city.
I took him with me to enact it, even though he had never been, had no interest before meeting me. He wanted Bali for beaches. I said, ‘Hong Kong has beaches.’
I fell twice in the wrong order: first for him, on a tram in Amsterdam, where the light made it easy to confuse newness with beauty. Then, I fell for many people, their hands busy with blueprints, growing a city out of waves. The electricity coursing through homes and offices and family dinners made me glad to be alive, if only because I was man-made too. If sex could build like that, I would not be so afraid.
On the night we left, I was at Heathrow Airport, sitting in front of a vending machine. It contained bottled water and Coca Cola, which spoke to me of my choices. I bought water because I could never bear Coca Cola for more than a sip. It was a strange place to draw the line—perhaps if Coca Cola could talk or reason or buy me flowers, I would have chosen differently.
In the departure lounge, he told me that he had switched my allergy tablets for painkillers, so it was no wonder my eyes were red. I watched a plane land and tried to understand his thought process, which rationalised my sadness at leaving home as an impossibility. I reached for the tablets and held one between my fingers, turned it over, wondered how I hadn’t noticed. Stillness fell between us, and I used it to mourn my new life, miss my old one, though they were already becoming the same. I had said so many goodbyes when the only important one was sitting beside me.
Hong Kong was bricks and mortar, and I was always flesh. I blamed my body for binding me to him when what I really wanted was to be a building, or a boat, or a wave circling the harbour. As it stood, my skin had space for his, and no amount of concrete would fill it.
He caught me touching things: red walls in the Mong Kok underground, doorframes in local restaurants. I would trail my hand against shopfronts, drunk on the miracle of feeling them, on the very fact they were there.
In our new home, which was narrower than the span of my arms, he removed my clothes to remind me that I was incompatible with concrete. ‘It can’t touch your skin,’ he said. I watched the wall until he punched it, hand falling through, plaster covering my breasts. The hanging light danced for me, throwing shadows across the ceiling.
I can pinpoint the moment I left: sitting in my office in Sheung Wan, hand supporting my head as I gazed out the window at a skyscraper, admiring its strong body. I had a momentary rush as I imagined the clock striking seven, standing up, leaving the room and walking into the corridor where the lifts were waiting, stepping through open doors and seeing my own face when they closed, my face as part of the building, disappearing as the doors opened again, and then…
I never made it to the street because he was waiting by the door, turning towards me without looking. Suddenly, Hong Kong was a backdrop, a badly painted set. My chest swelled and slumped, and then I was gone, even though I had just arrived.
When I returned to my body, still sitting at the desk, I noticed the skyscraper was empty.
I wonder, looking back, if the buildings were hungrier than him.
We were in a café on the fourteenth floor. There were cats everywhere. A typhoon was building outside, so they were agitated, jumping from table to table in panicked bursts. I stirred a mountain of apple-flavoured slush and wondered how we got there, the cats and I—why our postures were so strange.
‘I’m going for lunch with her,’ he said.
‘Don’t look at me like that. It’s normal because she’s human.’
I reached out to stroke a white cat, but my hand landed on bone, sharp and wet. When I looked up, the building was looming over me, baring its teeth. It opened wide and bit down, swallowed my fist like a gobstopper. I cried out, spilling my drink. A girl taking selfies with a Maine Coon looked at me with disdain. He would have her for lunch, I thought, he would, he would!
The white cat, now sitting on my lap, looked up at me and purred. Its mouth was red. My fingers were red too, but my hand was all there, which was good because I would need it for the storm. Hong Kong had been rabies-free for thirty years, and I was in a controlled environment. Still, I felt like I was dying. The room swayed as I moved the cat and collected the broken glass.
There is a series of images of me standing by the harbour soon after this day. In the first, I’m gazing out across the water, which is frozen into sharp, neon peaks. I remember wanting to drink it—every last drop, even the fish. In the second photo, I am turning, wind catching my hair, which looks more red than brown, like it is slowly burning. In the third, I am smiling at the camera with something haunted between my teeth.
When we sat down for dinner, he said, ‘You’re in love with it, aren’t you?’
‘Who?’ I said, not realising that personification was a mistake.
I got up to go to the toilet, but instead I went to the roof. The lift carried me in stops and starts until I had grown to the height of the building. I stepped outside, walked to the edge. Concrete cracks when it falls, but I towered into the sky.
Wait for Me on Platform Two
You are here to fill paper with fire, marvel when it doesn’t burn.
The train tracks you are standing on stretch into a tiny station, where a young woman waits. The fact that she is waiting makes you aware of the danger you are in—because there is something to wait for, because there is nothing.
There are two men in front of you, one holding your hand and the other holding a deflated lantern. You say to them, ‘What now?’ but you are still looking at the woman.
The man holding your hand says, ‘It’s a beautiful lantern,’ and you realise it is the first time you have heard him use that word. The objects around your house have been called all kinds of names. Last night, you apologised to the fucking oven. And now, here, beautiful.
The other man, who sold you the lantern, tells you to be careful. He says, ‘Light can burn when it’s an open flame.’
You say, ‘I thought it was effortless,’ and he looks confused because you haven’t lit anything yet. He hands you a permanent marker, tells you the sky is listening.
The other man drops your hand and prises the marker from your fingers. He wants to lean on you, so you turn around and bend slightly. The lantern covers your back, and you feel the pressure of the pen moving across your skin.
The woman at the station is holding a stick of taro balls, or perhaps they are squid. Her eyes fix on something in the distance, and for a moment you think it might be you, but then she drops the stick and steps towards the tracks.
You think she looks lovely like that, alone and close to the edge.
‘A beautiful couple,’ the lantern seller says, and there it is, that word again. You think about walking to the woman and eating her food off the floor, but then the pressure on your back lifts, and you feel like you are floating.
The man has written, MANY LIVES TOGETHER, and drawn your names in a heart—his capitalised, yours lowercase. You look for a break in the lines, but they are joined at the seams.
He hands you the marker, and you crouch down to write against the tracks. You have also been waiting for a train, this one or another, but you see now that it will make no difference. The woman closes her eyes. Around you, lanterns rise into the sky.
When the tracks begin to rumble, the lantern seller pulls you up and says, ‘It’s time.’ The three of you open the lantern, and he lights it with an electric flame. It trembles in your hands as you lift it up, let go.
The tracks clear, and your lantern drifts towards the station. You see her notice it. It is spinning gently in the breeze, so you can’t tell if she’s seen his message or yours. She steps closer.
If you could have one life together, just one, you think you could be happy.
The train arrives, and you wait.