It had been two months since Lira had become aware of her skin. Like a keen cinematographer, she had become obsessed with the smallest of details. The birthmark under her left collarbone, which M fondly called a “little rabbit”. The filmy patina above her lip, during the heat. The scar from a cystic breakout on her cheek and the little crinkles on her knuckles. These spots on the map of her body, easy to overlook, like tiny towns that you pass through within the space of a radio pop song, had started begging for her attention. Lira caught herself, on the train, at work, when she went out with M, eyes narrowing and dilating, focused on a different part of herself.
M called her after work.
“Let’s meet at Shiro’s,” he said into the phone.
“Shiro’s? What’s the occasion?” The phone cord twirled around her wrist, leaving a linguine-like print on the skin.
“We don’t need an occasion, Lee. It’s Friday night. I want to see you.”
There was a faint breeze outside as she walked out of the subway station. The light was low, and restaurant signs began to illuminate. The perfume beneath her earlobes mixed with the city air, the noodle smells, the onion-colored clouds hinting at rain, the sidewalk garbage cans, the corner store with fresh watermelon on display. She loved how beautiful and imperfect it was. Like a scene, deliberately designed to make you feel both without and within.
“Beautiful, as always,” M kissed her warmly, stubble grazing her cheek. He smelt like cologne and office cubicle. They sat down at their corner table, the candle lamp casting peach on their faces. There was a large mirror behind Lira. She wondered how she looked. How did the candle spread the light and dark on her face? Did the glow fall on her cheeks or her chin, did the shadow tangle itself in her lashes, did it wax and wane across the better side of her profile, did it highlight her forehead, which she thought was just a bit too big?
M ordered for her, what they always got from Shiro’s: miso soup with mussels, tofu with crab sauce, and old-style udon with chilled saké. M ordered fried onions on the side. While the food arrived, he called her beautiful again and she smiled. He noticed that her red lipstick matched the wallpaper and it made him suddenly feel love towards her, as if a gust of wind had whipped a candle flame violently to one side. The two looked at each other from time to time. John Coltrane played in the back; the music was always good at Shiro’s. M’s frown lines looked somehow less apparent and Lira felt reminded of old Wong War-kei films she would play on her laptop on nights in, before she met M.
A waiter brought the food to the table. Steam curled upward from the plates, loosening gently like tendrils of a woman’s hair. The song playing ended and a brief silence filled the space, quiet enough to hear their breaths. M poured sake into their glasses. Their chopsticks collided gently above the udon and M retreated, picking up his drink. Lira looked down, chewing slowly. She wondered what anyone would think, looking at them. Perhaps one of the customers behind M saw them in the mirror, their backs bent over glistening noodles and a small candle flame. Perhaps they could see the faint sheen of sweat on M’s temple. Lira’s lipstick beginning to bleed from contact with the sake glass rim. The delicate greenish vein that stuck out a bit on the side of her neck. The gloss of product smoothed and scraped through M’s hair. Lira felt herself growing drunk. Her thoughts fluffed up with cotton wool and the music was loud. A soft whirring sound spun somewhere. M picked up a fried onion ring with his chopsticks. It caught the light for a moment. He put it in his mouth and smiled into the mirror screen.
“Beautiful as always, Lee.”
She didn’t know what it was but it had begun to bother her. Was it getting louder, perhaps? More insistent?
She first heard it when she was getting out of the shower. She was rubbing on a few drops of tea tree oil when it started. At first, she thought it was just construction. Something outside. But it sounded closer than that, as if it was perched on her shoulder, funnelling continuous streams of sound into her ear. It was there for her; she was certain. Lira wrapped a towel round herself and sat on the edge of the bathtub, lighting a cigarette. The steam in the bathroom was thick. The sound did not stop. It was almost life-like, as if it moved and responded to every one of Lira’s movements, focusing and amplifying it. The soft friction of her thighs rubbing together, the gentle dripping of her wet hair on her back, the sharp click of her lighter and the fizzling of the paper of the cigarette. Lira sat there for a long time. As the sound, a consistent, soft whirring, continued, she felt less and less present in that little bathroom. Lira touched her skin and it seemed more distant from her, becoming translucent like the papery peel of an onion. Soon, she felt as if she was no longer a person, or human. She ran her fingers across her legs, the shaven planes of her shins, the uneven cushion of her knees. The whirring sound seemed to swoop down with her movements. Lira folded her body over, hugging her head to her legs, and closed her eyes. The sound faded to a stop. Eventually, she got up and left. M had left her a message on the answering machine, confirming his pickup time to take her to the movies. When she replaced the receiver, she thought she glimpsed a small silver circle directly in front of her. It must have been a trick of the light.
Lira first met M at a networking event downtown. She had come because she was bored and there would be free alcohol. The event was on a rooftop overlooking the river. She was taking a picture on her cellphone when a man beside her asked for a lighter. Lira was not the type to make much conversation at these things.
“That’s ironic. The precise point of these events is to talk to people, isn’t it?”
Lira was surprised that she didn’t get annoyed by this statement. He had said it warmly, his mouth curving unevenly. That had stuck with her, the asymmetry of his smile. Both the ease and rarity of it; he gave his smile out only for the worthiest things.
“That would be a good drink, an act of kindness, my mother’s phone calls, and a lovely woman.”
M was a blatant man. M was elegant. His world was deliberate and focused, in a pleasant symmetry like that of a Wes Anderson film. Only his smile strayed from order. It was this that Lira liked best about him, the spontaneous imperfection of his happiness.
“I am not a very emotional man, Lira. I do what needs to be done.”
She secretly looked at M sometimes, lying in bed at night, taking an onion peeler to his emotions, stripping back their skins, paring them down, letting their fumes escape, while his eyes slowly leaked down the sides of his face. She could feel her lungs fill up with love when she thought of this. It was always silent when she thought such things. No whirr in her ear or brain. Just a pleasant apartment-style quiet, punctured by the occasional sounds of the city. M was not there when this happened. Neither was she. She would have his head on his shoulder but both of them would be numbed, floating in separate pools of water, warm in the womb of their own thinking. When morning arrived, each would rise to the surface and slip back into their bodies and skins. Groggily, they would disentangle any stray entwined limbs and prepare for another day. Neither of them hummed over breakfast. They kept their thoughts in glass vitrines, to show off in museums only inside themselves. It was a quiet time in their lives. It was a quiet love, thick like rope.
“M, do you see that? There, there – do you see that?”
Instead of turning around, M looked in the mirror behind her. They were at Shiro’s again.
“I don’t see anything, Lee. It’s the same as always.”
“Turn around. Look! There.”
M picked up a fried onion. The motion of the chopsticks was fluid and precise. Lira thought of a violinist’s bow grazing the string, right on the beat.
“Turn around, please. Tell me you see it.”
He chewed the onion ring slowly and swallowed. He picked up his drink and sipped it.
Was it the liquor or did his eyes look more liquid? As if a silver pool of ripples had fanned themselves across his pupil – was he drunk? Or did he see it too? Was it in her eyes? Was it the reflection?
M turned around.
“I don’t see anything, Lira.”
He was gentle. His voice, soft. His eyes lowered. It was as if he was talking to the little rabbit, a few centimeters above her heart.
“There’s this…big black camera. Don’t you see it? It has this light, this big silver circle. And it keeps whirring and whirring. Loud. Louder every second. How can you not see it, M? Look again. It’s right there. Looking at us.”
M put another onion ring in his mouth.
“You’re just drunk, Lee. You’re seeing things.”
“It’s so loud now, M. I can’t hear the music.”
He looked at her, his eyes scrolling up to the mirror.
“It’s nothing, Lee. You’ve just had too much to drink. Maybe we should go home soon.”
Lira felt her chest tighten itself into a knot. It was a strong knot, made of thick rope. The action was slow and she couldn’t breathe. The whirring was in her ear. The dining booth felt suffocating. They were in a picture frame and there was no way to climb out. She wanted to get up but she just sat there, fixed in place. She watched M lift his chopsticks to his mouth, eating the onions at a consistent tempo. He wasn’t going to do anything.
“Why won’t you believe me, M? If you’d just look harder. Just a little. It’s not going away. I know it. It gets closer and closer. It’s like…it can see right through me. It can zoom in, down below my skin, my organs, right through me. Please. Why don’t you just look and see?”
He put down his chopsticks neatly on the plate. M turned around.
“Do you see it? It’s right there looking at us. It’s been following me. I’ve been hearing it and it won’t go away. It won’t go away.”
M slowly turned to face her. His eyes went up to the mirror, watching her on the wide screen, illuminated by the candle flame, skin like creme brulee, framed in a wallpapered scarlet.
He smiled and picked up his chopsticks, lifting an onion ring from his plate. He placed it in her own plate with tenderness, and then rested his hand on hers. Somewhere, a door clicked shut.
She wondered what was in her eyes, if there was something that betrayed her. Inside, Lira was all rope, wringing her out. M smiled, ever so daintily, as if his lips, his hands, his whole body had turned into careful china – one swipe and it could break into a million irreparable pieces.
“It doesn’t matter, Lee. Whatever it is, give it a smile. Whatever it is…there. There we are…beautiful. Beautiful as always.”
Image from “In the Mood for Love” (2000), dir. Wong War-kei