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ABOUT A GIRL

by

Intan Daniel

 

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CHAPTER ONE

 

          The sun beams down on us today with what I imagine as a great big smile, glaring into our eyes and making us shade our pupils with our small hands as shelter. Clouds make their appearances from moment to moment to give relief to those who prefer not to bask in the heat, and a cold wind blows sporadically to relieve our burning skins.

 

          A particular gust blows its way across Hyde Park and leaves a trail of goose bumps across the naked skins of Londoners who are taking advantage of the harsh rays today, making them scowl. I smile instead.

 

          I love almost every aspect of London, from the gusty autumn season to the biting winter season to the breezy spring season but I have to take pause during the summer. At times stiflingly hot, forcing out sweat from your body, and you'll be thinking ruefully of how much more enjoyable it would be if that sweat was mingled with another's. I'm not a fan of the heat, or the sun, and I don't suppose I will ever enjoy the feeling of sunrays browning my skin as others do. Vanity seems to be too high a price to pay, and I've never been rich.

 

          But the park pleases me during the summer. Armed with a light T-shirt and sunglasses, I make it a point to brave the park every Sunday of every summer, for no particular reason, or maybe the weekly venture from loneliness has become traditional. Still, it musters up a lot of energy on a lazy Sunday, so the times usually vary from morning to late afternoon, a pep rally cheering in my head. Venture out into the heat! Meet people! Get out of that flat!

 

          Mostly, it stops at the venturing part.

 

          Or maybe I might as well admit that this is not a weekly adventure turned traditional, considering I've only started a fortnight ago, and procrastinators are not tradition upholders. Certainly I'll be stopping the habit soon.

 

          I take a seat on a bench, light up a cigarette (procrastinators don't quit bad habits) and inhale deeply, taking some of the summer sun and summer air and evaporated sweat off people's bodies, into my lungs.

 

          The sounds occupy my mind. In the summer, the sounds of Hyde Park are rustling greenery, scattering squirrels, nice conversation and the distant sounds of children having fun (depending on which area you're in). The peace settles me, even the sound of the heel of my sandal scraping against the pavement soothes me.

 

          But today there's a particular energy in this area of the park and the noise that emanates from it has long since scared the squirrels away. I could still scrape my heel for amusement but my eyes are riveted towards the wide field ahead of me.

 

          I'm not particularly sure why I, lover of the peace, am choosing to sit down on this bench to enjoy my cigarette this morning. I have a feeling that there is a reason lodged in there somewhere, a sad and self-pitying reason, but I choose to ignore it.

 

          It gets easier with practice, the choice of ignorance.

 

          Boys and girls in red and blue scurry across the field against each other in the boundless energy kids have in their determination to take possession of a black and white ball. They cheer each other on, loud and appreciatively, pleasant sounds that puncture occasionally by the loud tweeeeet of a silver whistle in between a grown man's lips, who views them with a white T-shirt (does the color indicate that he is neutral?) and a frown playing about his eyebrows.

 

          Football.

 

          Being a fan of the sport and usually trying to be a fan of kids, I watch the match with vague disinterest, half a mind on the play, half a mind on the cigarette in my hand. I pay enough attention to know when the tweeeeets are coming to prevent a heart attack, but disinterested enough to not keep score.

 

          A particularly loud tweeeeet provokes from a nearby skin-browner, "Jesus! Someone stuff that thing down his throat!"

 

          Our eyes meet and we exchange a smile of mutual agreement, although the tweeeeet doesn't bother me at all.

 

          This exchange between the skin-browner woman and myself sparks a small curiosity to see the Man with the Whistle, the Destroyer of Sunday Sounds, the Disrupter of the Skin Browning People, wondering how a man who is shouldering such hostility manages to handle it.

 

          My gaze concentrates on him for the first time, and I instantly label him: The Man Who Does Not Look Like He Gives A Shit.

 

          As a woman who acts the same but does not necessarily feel the same way, I observe him with a kind of wonderment and interest. The kind of spark of interest that goes beyond looks and gets a simple girl a date for the evening. The interest to know about the person and a desire to grasp the complicated mechanics in them.

 

          Because I, sincerely, would like to not give a damn, and anyone who can provide lessons please contact me at the above number.

 

          I find myself staring at his quick yet languid movements, his frown that is there but not quite there and his little smiles and I wonder if I find this man attractive because he is a charismatic figment of my imagination or because he is a real man.

 

          My mind and fancy feels that behind that cool and calm fašade lies a beguiling mystery with passion unbounded once directed at the right female (would he look at me? my mind wonders and I shiver like a little girl with a crush - Reality inches its way from the back of my mind to slap me resoundingly). And who would that right female be? Would she be simple but clever? Beautiful but poor? Charming but bitchy?

 

          The real man stands in agitated action, hair wavy and unkempt in the way men's hair gets when not trimmed often enough, the shadow of the frown seems unwilling to melt, even when he smiles. His smile is a reluctant tilting of the mouth, like a friendly foreigner in an impolite country, unable to get its bearings and get situated.

 

          I wonder again if he is as attractive as my imagination allows him to be. Past mistakes and relationships with mediocre men makes me wary.

 

          A black and white blur flies towards my face and reflex startles me back into the Real World, ducking my head not a moment too soon, heart thumping in agony, more relieved at my prevention of embarrassment than pain.

 

          When the ball is safely rolling ten feet away from me and has managed to force out the reflexes of nearby Londoners on a Sunday afternoon, I breathe again. I (and victims who crossed the football's wrath) make ready to glare the perpetrator of my almost imminent headache down to his/her grave, adolescent or no adolescent.

 

          A boy rushes past me to get the ball and the Man with the Whistle scowls from the sidelines.

 

          Absence of apologies or sheepish smiles or anything that indicates a sorrowful attitude for being responsible for a child with a wayward ball, confirms my absence of mind and I find myself muttering darkly, "I really will shove that whistle down your throat, asshole."

 

          The skin-browning woman laughingly agrees.

 

 

* * * * *

 

          The skin-browning woman's name is Amy and after a few minutes of conversation I find her to be the epitome of all the things I love in London.

 

          After having laughed good-naturedly at my ball-ducking expense, we fell into a casual conversation like allies fighting from the same side of the war. The World vs Coach Whistle and the Kids. All things mutual, and in the beginning, all things equal.

 

          After those few minutes however, Amy would also turn out to be the perfect example as to why I should lock myself up in my flat and never come out. She looks, and, as nature would have it, is probably perfect, from her heavy blonde hair to the whiteness of her even teeth. Her skin is browned and shines with health, her lips are full and sensuous. So we had all the appearance of mutual equality as I sat on the bench and she stretched out on the grass, until she stood up and confirmed that this wasn't the case at all.

 

           She was friendly and unaffected by her looks, despite the fact that it seemed to have an effect on everyone else. Does beauty train you for this? Does natural (not the made-up kind, because even I look good in make-up) beauty have to be instilled in the proper people as selected by God, who will not foil up their beauty by being pretentious? I would never know, as I'm a member of the larger group of unimportant people in the world who could not affect anyone through beauty, wits, charm, intelligence, or any other talent selected people are born with.

 

          Amy didn't seem to find any reason why she should not befriend a stranger, particularly one degrees less pretty than she is (or I might just be bitchy). Despite being here for two years, it is an attitude shared amongst Londoners that I am still unaccustomed to.

 

          After a merry slagging off of the Man with the Whistle, and a cease of conversation that reminded us that bitching only comes handy with ammunition, Amy points at my skin.

 

          "You have lovely skin," she says ruefully.

 

          "So do you," I reply, always obliged to return a compliment.

 

          "I work hard at it." She makes a face and the fullness of her lips protrudes in a pretty pout. Which seems, if anything, to prove my point. Why bother working hard at darkening your skin when you already look like an Amazon Goddess?

 

          The people from where I come from would gasp in shock at the sight of so many fair skins bearing themselves vainly to the sun. Where I'm from, brown skin is not something you have to burn for, it's something you're born with. And since it's in human nature to never appreciate the good things you already have in you, they work as hard to shelter their skin from the sun. Their torture is on a different existential plane of pain, for they don't bask in the sun, they scrub their skin raw with acidic toners and skin-whitening Ponds.

 

          In turn, the men from where I come from always prefer the girls the fairer their skins are.

 

          And look at these people, burning their fair skin to achieve the look we are so eager to hide.

 

          Irony at its best: two different sides of the world, two different planes of existence.

 

          "I was born with this skin color."

 

          She looks delighted at this piece of information, almost proud of me, that I have one thing above her in terms of beauty. "How very lucky!"

 

          No, those legs are lucky.

 

          Although I appreciate compliments, my inexperience in receiving too many at a time leaves me flustered.

 

          A leaf blows past Amy, gets caught in her golden hair, and she releases it with a flick of annoyance.

 

          She bums a cigarette from me and it instantly spoils her image. Like how one would imagine seeing a Pepsi model dragging on a cigarette like it's her life support. A healthy Amazon Goddess smoking a lowly stick of cancer. It makes her human and makes me feel less of an inferior creature.

 

          "Are you American?" she asks me, after a deep and satisfying drag. "Your accent is American."

 

          Which part of America? I wonder. Although I know it's the common American accent one gets when watching too many American movies in Asia.

 

          "No," I reply. "I'm Asian."

 

          "You speak English so fluently!" she exclaims, surprised with more delight.

 

          There is a kind of ignorance amongst the Londoners, and no doubt the rest of Europe. Quite simply, if English is not your mother tongue, you cannot speak it fluently. They don't realize that English as a language is an easier concept to grasp than my mother tongue.

 

          I try not to think of that word. Mother. My heart winces at the sound of it.

 

          Amy stands. Her body speaks volumes, the top of which is held together by a barely practical red bandanna. I don't know how to respond to her comment about my English so I just smile.

 

          "Are you living in London?" she asks.

         

          "Staying here, yes."

 

          She smiles at my correction from 'living' to 'staying', although it's an amendment I had no thought of making. A wind blows and her hair follows its direction, and I almost gape at her splendor.

 

          Absolutely unaware of me, "I guess I understand that," she's saying as she leans over and rolls up the towel she was sweating on, cigarette balanced awkwardly in between her lips, one eye squinting from the smoke that travels upwards to her face. She has made a transition from Amazon Goddess to Amazon Maladroit, because she is ungainly with her height and long length of limbs. In a terribly selfish way it gives me satisfaction, though little.

 

          "I'm from Leeds," she continues. "Born and bred. I moved down to London five years ago. Yet I still can't say I live here. Working here, staying here, hiding here, but not living here."

 

          She hums a tune I recognize but can't remember the name of, while she packs the rest of her things away.

 

          "Do you have any intention of moving back to Leeds?" I ask, half out of curiosity, half in an obligation to keep the conversation ball rolling before she makes her departure from Hyde Park.

 

          "No," she replies, after a thoughtful pause. "How about you?"

 

          "No," I reply immediately, although I have no idea what the answer may be.