Bend the water


When I was a child in Java, the river from the mountains haemorrhaged through our village. God's wrath, that's what they called it, the purge of the Communist bane. A foul red porridge of limbs and headless bodies bobbing past in the water.

The stench unbearable and the water unusable. Corpses clogged the irrigation and poisoned the paddy fields. The resilient people of my village bent their necks and continued dredging the irrigation canels, clearing the riverbanks of decaying remains. Day in, day out, as if waiting for the season to pass.

"Nrimo," they said. Accept what God gives you.

Bend like the straw on the riverbank.

A balmy, humid Balinese night many years later, and I wonder if this is what I must contend with - the cruelty of your knock on my gate and the vain hope it alights.

You. Sheepish where you stand biting your lip, fidgeting with the strap of your cheap cotton dress. That dress, sanguine red like my futile yearning for you. This fruitless cycle of events, over and over again.

I should say no, but I'm skinless like a peeled clam around you. And nothing can stop the bright yellow happiness from welling forward. A shimmering tidal wave of joy, thrashing into my glum courtyard at the sight of you there. Guilt trailing not far behind like a rancid smell. You're not mine to have. You're borrowed, stolen, embezzled.

You cannot bend water. Water bends you. That's what my mother used to say, but I'll be damned if I know what it means. Man can build dams, canals and reservoirs. You can lead water from the mountains, divert streams and make artificial lakes. Surely you can bend water. Surely I can make you mine.

I try to bend you.

Every time I swear it's the last. Then you appear on my doorstep, like a homeless mutt kicked to the curb and those two words burn my throat like acid, drip like hot oil from my tongue.

Leave him.

Two words repeated a thousand times, in a hundred different ways.

I have roared them at the top of my lungs, yelled them and choked on them. I've etched them inside of my palms with my fists clenched harder than macadamia nuts. I've painted them along your knobbly spine with a whisper of fingertips.

Leave him, leave him.

I have ground them between my teeth like gravel, dabbed them in peroxide on your wounds. I have pleaded them satin soft into your hair and licked them across your belly like a question mark. I have wept them in the sleeve of my shirt, hiding my face in shame. Because only a sucker loves an aberration like you.

"Come on in for devil's sake." I clasp hold around your arm, drawing you inside. How has he hurt you this time? My grip slipping down your fingers, entangling yours between mine.

"I didn't know where else to go," you say.


You know I'm eternally suspended, waiting for you.

That's when I see it, clutched in your other hand. An overnight bag. Hope soaring, drifting upwards, swirling foolishly around the branches of the frangipani trees of the courtyard. Entering my chest like a lungful of smoke, making it hard to breathe.

Are you here to stay?

I want to tug at you, haul you near and stumble through the courtyard embraced like a strange four-legged creature. I want to make rapid headway towards my bedroom, shedding our clothes left and right along the way. But there's that question, the one I can't bring myself to ask.

Is this it?

I usher you up on my porch, my outdoor studio, through the chaos of unfinished paintings. The fragrance of citric turpentine mixing with incense and the burning coconut husk of the street-food vendors.

I take the bag from you and toss it on the floor, pulling you down on the daybed with me. And as I draw the mosquito netting closed around us I hope you don't recognize his face on all those canvases stacked around us.

I can paint nothing else these days.

I paint the respectable business man as the monstrosity he is. I paint his handsome American face in inflamed vermillion, oxblood red and in bruising purples. I paint him as a rotten jackfruit, as a grotesque Rangda, the demon goddess and I sell him to tourists. The vulgar pleasure of knowing that his true face hangs on walls all around the world. My pointless revenge.

I'd rather forget how idiotically flattered I was when he commissioned me to paint those murals for his latest resort.

Had I known then, what I do now – I'd have spat on his perfect pale face. I'd have smeared those walls with chicken excrement. And I'd have turned you away that first time you showed up at my studio, saffron coloured hair and a smile so wide it wrapped around the back of your head.

We lie there on my daybed, face to face. A flutter of bats rustling by in the treetops, swooping in under the roof, chasing some delicacy.

"Thank you. I don't… I didn't mean to barge in on you. Thought you might have company." Hell, I wish I did. I'm so tired of this, of you.

"I did. Hid them in the closet."

Your nostrils flaring as you chew your bottom lip. And that tiny ridge below your nose stretches in a way that makes me falter. Cheap red dress, slipping up over your knees, and I can't lie. I want you, I always do. My love for you, a degrading, infuriating kind, equal measures of dick and heart.

And I would have taken you then. But I don't want to know what humiliations your red dress hides. I don't want to compare battle scars. Yours hand-shaped and mine in the bitter bamboo stripes my mother engraved me with.

"You alright?" I ask, knowing you'll never tell me the truth.

"Why shouldn't I be?" Your snappiness brings an array of horrific possibilities to mind. All the ways a man can hurt a woman. If he pleases.

I'd paint you a blushing pink with tenderness, if only I could.

But the other man prefers a color scheme on you that I can't stomach. All the hues your skin can muster, a palette of degradation so intense, I play blind. I pretend you don't know any men like that. Men who speak with fists and knuckles. Men who enjoy taking what's not offered.

I draw my fingers over your taut muscles, following your spine up between your shoulder blades. Such a strong back. Why do you bend so easily?

I once told you about a group of scholars arguing for the implementation of Sharia laws in my country.

"It's barbaric," you said. You who are more Javanese than I. You who are more submissive than any other woman I've met.

I told you how the person carrying out the caning may only move his lower arm. His elbow shall remain near his torso. You can imagine how this might hamper the force.

"It doesn't make it right. Not in this day and age..."

I remember it irritating me. You of all people. You, a Western woman who allows that man to beat you like a dog.

But then, who am I to talk? I only wanted to sleep with you, that's all. I wanted to relish in the stark contrast of our colors. My burnt sugar against your cream and peaches. I thought you'd trundle on home to your marital bed afterwards and that would be that. A trivial adventure, nothing else.

Instead, you came back, sporting a shiner in deepest plum and amethyst, poorly hidden behind your designer sun-glasses. The first of so many. You fed me some crap about trying to pull the cork out of a wine bottle, we joked about it and I pretended to believe you. The following time too.

My mother told me to endure and abide. Not to fight the current, not to try swimming upstream. The river will flow whether you want it or not. It will swell with the monsoon and wane with the dry season. It will wash away villages in flash floods and drench crops in brown sludge. It will do as it must do.

Don't hunger for more, for better or larger or finer. If Allah the Compassionate wants to give it to you, he will. Sit patiently and wait.

And how I have tried. Five times a day, kneeling, chafing my knees raw, bumping my forehead sore against the floor. I have begged, coaxed and negotiated with God. But I can't accept, can't bend. I don't want to. I want to kvetch and moan, bitch and complain. I want to raise hell, rage against the unfairness of it all. The wretchedness of falling for a woman like you.

"Did he hurt you?"

"It was nothing, I... wasn't thinking. He..." The excuses, always the same. Your fault. You were being silly, he was having a bad day, or you made him angry.

Can't you see how it ought to be? How I'd never allow your skin to be tinted in another color than cream. Ever again. I rub a strand of your hair between the pads of my fingers. How it can be, silky soft after a shower or coarse from the salt of the ocean.

How it can be matted by blood, in the trail of the other man's fury.

The rain falling harder around the porch, picking up speed, splattering on the tin roof above us. The scent of Bali's fertile wet earth, with undertones of you, barely out of reach. The woman you could have been if you've only had the courage.

The fragile intimacy daunting between us. My guise of being strong slipping easily and I'm exposed and tender, bruising easily. Take this. Take me. And I can't hold back no more.

"Stay… with me. Don't go back to him." Repulsive desperation oozing out of every word and I regret them instantly. You blink, paralyzed. I'm not patient, not dispassionate, not content. Bile shooting up my throat as I wait for your reply. Say something.

That's when you harpoon me with a kiss.

And I want to weep for the honey and chili of your mouth, stinging and soothing all at once. Shit. Shit. It's all a sham, the warmth of your soft yielding kiss. The realization slashing through my chest like a razor blade. It's too late for refunds.

This is all there is. You can't be that woman.

"I can't…" Your eyes downcasts as you hoist yourself off the daybed, brushing down your skirt. And I can't see straight, not with you slipping away.

"What the hell... Where are you off to?"

I catch you by the hand, and before I know what I'm doing, I've yanked that ring off your finger and hurled it into the dense bougainvillea bushes by the porch.

"You idiot! He… he'll kill me."

"Then stay here. It's that simple."

Your jaw so tense a nerve twitches. Your eyes shunning mine. No goodbyes, nothing, just the hesitant crunch of your feet crossing the courtyard. The gate gently shut behind you. And I can't close my eyes to it now. You're not a river I can steer my way. You're debris, shards and fragments of a broken human being, swept along faster than I can gather you up. I tell myself, never.

Never again.

Knowing damn well, if I find you outside my gate tonight, I'll pull you inside. I won't sit patiently and wait. I won't yield to the river. My sprawled out fingers will be grasping at the passing current, trying to catch you. Yet another time.