Underneath the Ruins
She couldn’t see the whole picture. Either the heads would disappear or the feet would be cropped out from the frame. The lens of the camera phone could only fit the group in with parts of their bodies and parts of the ruins. Aisha knew she would have to go down the steps much, much more, so everyone in the group could squeeze into the photo, in order for the Ruins of St. Paul to appear in the backdrop. There was no way she could, in a single frame, fit the faces of the people and Macau’s famous landmark.
So Aisha tried her best, taking a series of shots while she was half-way down the steps of the ruins. As she returned the iPhone to the lady who had approached her for the photo op, the group of young adults chorused loudly, “daw jeh leng lui!” Aisha smiled blankly. She didn’t know what they had said to her, presuming some form of thanks in their language. Between themselves, they chattered garrulously in rapid-fire Cantonese and tried to engage Aisha. When she couldn’t respond, they realised she wasn’t Chinese, though she looked like she could be, and they switched to their best stuttering English instead. They were, obviously, tourists in Macau. As was Aisha.
This time round, that is.
Someone waved at her enthusiastically not far from where she stood. It was an attractive young girl, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. She had jet black hair, waist-length, that sprung out of her head like curly, untameable wires. Her face had a racial ambiguity that was hard to pin-point. She was Asian, for sure; Chinese, maybe, maybe not—for she had light brown eyes like Aisha’s colored lenses.
“Hi! Can you help us take a picture?” the teenager spoke to Aisha in English.
The girl’s arm was clasped around an older man who could be Chinese. He seemed visibly embarrassed about having a stranger take the photo.
Aisha agreed. She lifted the girl’s camera phone and framed the picture. The man looked old enough to be the girl’s father. When she was done, she gave a thumbs up, signalling she had finished, returning the phone to the girl. As the usual effusive thanks was given and the trio departed separately, Aisha observed the couple from a distance. The young girl stood on her toes on the steps and kissed the man on the lips. He hesitated, partly due to the lack of privacy, partly aware of their age difference in public view. But he couldn’t resist her girlish fervour and returned the gesture. Their kiss lingered longer than it should, while tourists, residents and lovers flitted around them like butterflies up and down the aged stone steps. Aisha framed the romantic scene in her head and sighed, despite herself.
The Kazakh walked through Senado Square, reminiscing over how she used to do this many, many years ago in the company of a man not unlike the one she had just met. Meng. That was what Aisha called him, shortened from Nam Meng. Like the man earlier, he was in his thirties, and she was about the same age as the teenage girl. Seventeen and straight out of Almaty, she had won a string of awards as a gymnast in acro-sports. She came to Macau for the money. There was to be a new resident circus-entertainment show and Aisha had been handpicked to join them. It wasn’t the right time, for she could go on to win awards in her sport, being still young, but her father’s worsening spinal problems and increasing medical expenses meant she had no choice. So she signed a two-year contract with the show, though Meng’s appearance in the first six months of her stay in Macau complicated an otherwise practical situation that wasn’t part of her plan.
Aisha recognised the Starbucks sign and popped in the café. She was about to sit down when she saw, from the corner of her eyes, someone waving at her. It was the same girl from earlier. Aisha smiled. The girl gestured towards her. Aisha was hesitant. What does she want from me?
“Do you want to join us?” the girl beamed as Aisha approached her table.
This was unusual for Aisha. She felt perplexed. Besides, she didn’t want to intrude.
The male companion nodded to Aisha. He was giving consent to the invite.
“Join us,” he insisted.
Aisha obeyed and sat down. She was confused and curious, flattered that she was their chosen one again.
“What do you want to drink? Let me get it for you,” the man said, standing up.
“Cappuccino, please,” Aisha replied. “No sugar.”
As the man left, the young girl turned to her.
“You’re so pretty! Where are you from? You’re not Chinese, are you? Are you here on holiday? Have you been to Macau before? Are you hungry? We can get you some food too. We can take you to a restaurant if you like. Do you want to try Macanese food? Portuguese food? Have you tried them before?”
“No, not Chinese. I’m Kazakh,” Aisha said, trying to remember the sequence of questions. “No, not yet hungry. Ate a lot during breakfast. And yes, I’ve been to Macau before. I was here for eighteen months.”
Aisha paused. That part of her history was something she was not yet willing to reveal. She hardly knew this person. Or this couple. They were tourists in the long and complicated life of Aisha. No simple snapshot of her Macau experience could justify how she had felt then, or what she had been. She fell silent all of a sudden, caught in a forgotten memory that was slowly emerging from the dark ruins of her mind.
“What is your name?” Aisha asked the girl, turning the tables of the inquiry.
“Emily. What about you?” She picked up her glass of coke and took a swipe at it with her lips.
“Aisha,” she said, and seeing the perplexed look on Emily’s face, she continued. “I’m Muslim.”
It was a singular word dense with meaning, in which Aisha detected surprise, trepidation and cultivated indifference. It was the appropriate response, usually from people who were meeting her for the first time. Aisha’s face and religion seemed at odds to people who didn’t know anything about her region culturally or historically.
“I’m not religious,” Aisha explained, trying to ease her companion’s discomfort. “Not very, anyway.”
Emily’s male companion reappeared. He sat down as he passed Aisha her cappuccino then slipped his arm around the arm rest of Emily’s chair. Aisha sipped at her beverage.
“Aisha here is from Kazakh,” Emily turned to him and blurted.
Aisha waited for the part where she would say “and Muslim” but it never came. She interjected.
“I’m not from Kazakh. I am Kazakh. My country is Kazakhstan.”
“Nice country,” the man said.
“Oh,” Aisha was taken aback. “You’ve been there?”
“No, I want to. Your economy is booming. Lots of business opportunities, oil, gas, construction. Lots of new hotels coming up.”
Aisha was pleasantly surprised. The man knew his current affairs. His female companion was young, impressionable, inexperienced. He was a man of the world. Cosmopolitan, cultured. Definitely educated. In that instant, he reminded her of someone from a long time ago. Sitting across from her in a café just like this.
“You should visit then. It’s a beautiful country. Plenty to see.”
“If the women are as beautiful as you, maybe I will,” he said with a barely containable laugh.
Emily didn’t look amused, but didn’t look particularly jealous either. She was hungry for more information. She continued questioning.
“Are you travelling alone?”
“How cool! But why?”
How was Aisha supposed to answer a question as that? She was single without a companion, hence, she travelled alone.
“I like it. Besides,” she added, trying not to paint herself as odd, “I’ve lived here before. I know this place well enough.”
“What do you do?” Emily pressed on.
“I’m an acrobat.”
“What?” the two of them said at the same time.
“I used to work for Cirque du Soleil. I was a gold medallist. I can walk with my hands. Do you want me to show you?”
Emily nodded her head vigorously. The man was sceptical. Aisha looked around her. It was after lunchtime and the crowd had petered out. She stood up, removed her shoes, pushed a few tables and chairs away to clear the space while the waitresses and diners looked on in puzzlement as she flipped her body to do a perfectly straight handstand. Emily grinned proudly. Aisha lifted one palm and placed it forward and then the next until she had covered a fair distance. The crowd applauded and cheered. Someone whistled. Aisha wasn’t done yet. She bent her body slowly like a clam closing its shell and went as low as she could go without touching the floor, then opened her legs wide and straight like chopsticks going in different directions, swivelled her buttocks and swung her legs back on the opposite side and balanced her body and legs using the strength of one hand. Her biceps strained without effort. She focused on the present moment, blood rushing to her brain, veins visible on her forehead, pulsing and pink. The crowd relished the free show. She decided to show off a hand-balancing trick, placing both palms firmly on the floor, curving her body like a prawn slowly being cooked then brought her feet towards her face where she waved her toes to the delight of the audience.
When she was finally done, she resumed to a handstand position and flipped herself back to her feet. Her heart pulsated with adrenaline. She looked at Emily’s male companion. He had the same expression as the man who had courted her in Macau long ago. There was a thin smile on his lips, despite himself. She recognised desire no matter if she was thirty-five or seventeen. Her throat was dry, after the demonstration.
Emily’s companion passed Aisha bottled water. “Here,” he said, “You’re good.”
“Thank you.” Aisha blushed.
“Wow, you really are an acrobat!” Emily gushed. “I’ve never met an acrobat before. You are amazing!”
“I’ve been doing gymnastics since I was four,” Aisha said, sitting down. Her companions and the wait staff had reshuffled the furniture back in place. Everything was back to normal.
“Tell me more. I’m only a student. I can’t do what you do. I can only jog and swim. I am nothing like you. Isn’t she incredible?” Emily asked her companion. He nodded vigorously and leaned forward to kiss Emily’s neck. Aisha turned her head away from the sudden intimacy between the couple. Perhaps what she had done had created arousal in the two of them. She heard giggling and smooching. She had to talk, to drown the sounds.
“When I was seventeen, I came to Macau for work. I had just won a gold medal from a competition in Poland. Then Cirque du Soleil talent-spotted me. They wanted me to perform in a new show opening at one of the casino hotels. I thought, why not? I’ve never been to Asia, but I’ve always been mistaken for one. I’ll fit in. Right?”
Aisha’s companions were huddled in an embrace, rapt and attentive to her words. They had stopped cuddling to listen to her.
“For the first six months, I had so much trouble fitting in. It was terrible. I was young, like you now, desperate to fit in, to be liked. The acrobats were fine. It was the world outside the show that I felt loneliest at. Pretty soon, the older acrobats would couple up. I was the only one left that didn’t have a companion.”
“Then what happened?” Emily’s male companion interrupted.
“Then I started walking around the city alone, exploring places, looking for something I didn’t know what it could be. For a few months, I was fine with that. I ate alone, walked alone, shopped alone, enjoyed my own company. I was seventeen. I was growing up, learning to enjoy my own company. Looking back, I think I was quite brave.
“One day, I was in a café such as this, minding my own business, having a coffee like now, but alone. And then I met this guy,” Aisha said, trailing off, tripping down memory lane. A part of her that had been suppressed was surfacing without effort. She was conscious of the two strangers in front of her. But they were strangers, weren’t they? They wouldn’t know anyone she knew, would they? Would she dare tell them her past?
“He was like you,” Aisha continued, signalling to Emily’s companion. “Chinese, in his thirties, good-looking and very smart. He came to talk to me. He was the son of someone very rich, very powerful. I couldn’t resist him. So knowledgeable, so widely travelled. Went to Harvard. Spoke French and Portuguese and English. Cantonese and Mandarin. Always with nice shoes and suits. I guess for a seventeen-year-old, it was a crush between us that we mistook for love. If you thought my acrobatic skills are good now, you should have seen me at seventeen.”
A waiter came and took the empty cups away. Emily had removed herself from her companion’s arms and leaned forward, eating up everything Aisha had to say. Both of them kept quiet, waiting for the punchline, if any. Aisha felt a sense of her former self unburdening. A taut feeling in her heart was loosening as she told her story for the first time, having kept it to herself for years. At her age, she didn’t mind if anyone knew. That was in the past. It made her what she was now. She needed to navigate through a forgotten history in order to find new ways towards her future. Out with the old; in with the new. She wanted to speak, and words rolled off her tongue with ease.
“Anyway, we hooked up. This guy and I. We lasted six months. Or five or seven, depending on when we started dating and when we stopped. It was the best time of my life. I think it was the same for him. He was so alive, so happy with me. We were like best friends who couldn’t keep our hands off each other. There was so much passion and connection between us. I can still remember him when I close my eyes.”
“What happened to him? You two broke up?” Emily asked, impatient to know the full story.
“In a way, I guess. He left. He stopped contacting me. I never heard from him.”
“But why?” Emily furrowed her brows. She was too young to be dumped so heartlessly, but she knew it was a process that was unavoidable in life. Like acne or wrinkles.
Aisha looked at Emily and her male companion. His eyes were sympathetic, waiting for her to finish her story. Life’s like that, his expression seemed to say. The two thirty-something had crossed enough hurdles in their separate life journeys to know it didn’t matter who had rejected whom in a relationship. Heartbreak was a solitary and painful outcome that was always difficult no matter who had initiated it first. There was no healing that could be done in companionship, no matter how much support one had. The body was a singular entity belonging to a single human being. Suffering of the heart and mind was to be endured. Time was the only true antidote. The only difference was how long one needed to heal completely. For Aisha, she never did. She simply pushed the pain deeper into herself until she couldn’t remember it anymore. The problem was, she had never truly forgotten. The memory bubbled forth like a latent volcano that had decided to awake the minute she walked the streets of Macau where the events had occurred.
“Because,” Aisha hesitated, calculating the risks of revealing something so private. She decided to let it go, let it out in the open. She wanted to move on, grow up from the teenaged self she had hidden behind the closet. “He made me pregnant.”
Emily gasped. Her companion cleared his throat, and sighed in a way that made itself known he had half-expected it.
“Then what happened?” Emily pressed on.
“I was petite. I kept on working while my belly grew. Then in my final trimester, I got off the show on an ankle injury. I wasn’t sure if the company would allow. I think he must have helped me, talked to somebody at the top. I never knew. And then I gave birth. At the ripe old age of eighteen. I never told anyone. Not even to my parents.”
“Was it a boy or a girl?”
“A girl. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Aisha sighed, and let out the bad air she had trapped inside her for seventeen years. Her body was expelling a ghost inside her; she was being released from the secret that had been eating her up, that had haunted her in her quiet moments of despair.
“Where’s the baby now?”
“I gave her up for adoption. I had to. I was eighteen. My parents would kill me. My lover didn’t want me, or her.”
“Did you give her a name?”
“Yes,” Aisha said, longingly. “Aliyah. My daughter. Wherever she is in the world.”
“What happened to the man? Is he still in Macau?”
“I have no idea. I don’t want to know, to be honest.”
“You’re not curious at all?”
“Yes, I am. But curiosity kills the cat. And I was burnt badly the first time. It took me a long time to forget him then. I don’t want to repeat the same mistake.”
“What’s his name?” Emily’s companion asked.
Aisha looked at him without blinking. She wondered, in this small city, whether everyone knew everyone. Even if it did, it didn’t matter. She couldn’t be shamed. But he could.
“Nam Meng. I called him Meng.”
Emily let out a strangled cry and dropped the glass of coke she had been holding onto the carpeted floor, its impact cushioned by the soft velvet. The glass didn’t break but the beverage seeped into the maroon carpet, turning it a dirty shade of brown-purple. Her face was aghast and white. She stared at Aisha with a tortured look.
“What?” Aisha asked, concerned, picking up the glass that had fallen. “What’s the matter?”
“That’s her biological father,” Emily’s companion said, sitting up suddenly, putting his arms around his teenaged lover with the support she needed. “Emily is adopted. She knew who her biological father was from her adopted parents.”
Aisha dug her fingers into the sofa and tried to breathe. My Aliyah? Emily glared at the mother who had given her up. They both teared up. Emily tried to control herself but her sobs came out faster than she could speak. Aisha looked at the daughter she never knew. She felt herself drowning and surfacing at the same time, breathless, heart in her throat, water gushing out from everywhere around her.